The Fear of Drowning in the Eno River Rock Quarry

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By Anole Home

On lucky summer days, I swim in the old quarry. 

They say it is easy to die here. Someone seems to every few years, usually by jumping from the outcropping above the trees, their body dredged up days later from the rocks deep down below. On weekends, I watch the teens cajole each other off the ledge, holding my breath until they come up for air.

I like it here because it is beautiful, forest all around me. And because I like to pretend I could tread my lazy limbs through the beauty of death itself: murky, jagged, bottomless. 

I read somewhere that people die in water because, when they realize they are going under, they panic and try to swim for shore. Working too hard too soon, they inhale water and choke. I like to think I am good at swimming to subsist, expending exactly enough energy to stay afloat. I have little muscle, but I surrender to the surface, laying on my back, weaving my hands awkwardly through the water’s furrowed little songs.

For most of my life, I thought I learned to swim at four. I remember that I was sure and unafraid when, before they could put my floaties on, I lunged through the adults yelling “Stop! Wait!” and made it to the bottom of the pool and up again. But when I still talked to my father, in the pandemic’s long calls, he told me I swam as a newborn. In a class at the YMCA, the teacher cooed to panicked parents as their babies dove from their cradled arms into the depths. My father often fabricates memories, and at first, I wondered if this one was real, or if, in the pools of his dreams, I was always swimming down, away from him. But after he told me this story, I watched videos of baby swimming classes on YouTube. Alone and calm, infants kick their feet like fickle fins and float. Like all animals, they are born with the reflex to dive and swim, the video explained, so they have to learn to like the air, the light. 

Struggling to balance on the clay-streaked rocks, I step into the lake. Among the fish, turtles, and dragonflies, I am just another animal, my head bobbing just above the sun-warmed water. 

This is my first time alone at the quarry in two weeks. That’s how long ago my date sent me ominous texts when I told them I didn’t want to take things any further and I became scared to be alone. 

We’d started chatting in response to my post on a queer dating app. “Fuck me in a semi-public private place,” it said, “Life is short, so fingerbang me in a parking garage.” When we talked for an hour on the phone that night, they were funny, high, and disarming. They said their cat peed in the toilet. It was more than enough. 

At the quarry, people straddle drifting logs to stay afloat, twisting them with their feet. Like sex, this is an ancient kind of play, of holding on. I swim out to a log and climb onto it, grabbing its branches, careful not to scrape my skin. 

My date and I met at the river, but we ended up hopping the fence to a baseball field as teens bicycling by shouted “ooooh they’re breaking in!” The grassy shadow was a velvet pocket in the loud downtown night. Both nonbinary, we had fallen into playing butch/ femme and I let them tease me meanly, unsure if it was play. They told me they were ex-military and getting a master’s in surveillance, but using it for the powers of good or something. When they said they didn’t ever feel anxiety, I said I felt it all the time. “What’s that like?” they asked. “Like a constant humming in my head. Like tinnitus of the mind,” I said, glad I’d found the metaphor. Because I liked the lilting weight of their body, I overlooked the way their tongue kept pinning mine down, twisting into my throat. Under the hum, louder than usual, that something was wrong, I held their hand and returned their enthusiastic compliments, but wouldn’t let them fuck me or walk me to my car. 

Early the next morning, when they called me three times in a row, I texted a warm rejection. They responded with a long poem about me: “I never give up on a quest… I need you twice.” The next day, they sent some lyrics: “I’m the one for you/ cause I know all the dirty things you want to do/ I’m the fear in your eyes/ I’m the fire in your thighs/ I’m the sound that’s buzzing around your head.” Googling, I learned they had selected a misogynistic Third Eye Blind song for creepy relevance, the refrain of which was “I slit the throat of her confidence.”

Re-reading their messages, I felt awe at how my fear of them entangled us. They had worked to link my anxiety and lust. And because I knew it was what they wanted from me, feeling fear in itself was a kind of giving in to them, a kind of shared surrender to desire. 

When I’ve thought about why people get and stay with abusers like my father, I hadn’t considered— or perhaps hadn’t remembered— that fear, especially when it is incited, has a pull of its own. Fear, like infatuation or even love, also twists in on itself, calls back to itself, enamored with its own sound. Second-guessing, I felt caught in rounds of questioning myself, disoriented, breathless.

I texted my date to stop contacting me, choosing safety over the draw of my strange desires. Like minerals under pressure, formed in the smallness of fear, my fantasies showed me how spacious my life had become, unbound by terror.

I wondered, worrying, if, in my need for safety, I would lose this expansive way I had chosen to tread the waters of mental illness and trauma. Before the date, I’d liked to give away money; leave my door unlocked; meet strangers from the internet for tender, silly, well-negotiated sex. These gestures, these awkward offerings to hope and connection have helped me float on life’s sunlit surface, my body stretched open. Mostly, though not always, I stay above the sharpened caves. 

“Isn’t it funny,” I joked to friends, “I used to think I would kill myself, but now I think I might be killed by someone else. Life is just so magical and unpredictable! You never know at whose hands you might perish!”

While sleeping at friends’ houses, disturbed by the murmuring of mice in their walls, I assembled pepper spray, a safety plan, and a go-bag to get back home.

Now that I haven’t heard from my date in a while, my fear is settling into story. As dusk softens the songs of cicadas into crickets, I climb out of the water, dripping with solitude. 

When I’m the last one at the quarry, I skinny dip. Death is always here, always close enough to long for, so let me make it mine, funny and beautiful. 

If I slip and, choking, sink to the bottom of the old pit mine, dredge up my body naked, stark as stone, honest as a joke for dark times.

Anole Home lives in a converted log cabin in North Carolina with errant insects. When not writing, they work with young people and their families or obsess about interior design.

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