I almost drowned when I was 13.

My friend Javon had a pool that was attached to the side of his porch, so there were no steps or anything to reach it. All you had to do was walk right in. Over Thanksgiving break, I was taking care of his dog, Trucker, while he and the rest of his family were on vacation. Another job I agreed to do was rake the leaves and clean up their backyard. So, early Friday morning after Thanksgiving, I walked over to his house. I greeted Trucker and we went outside. He ate his breakfast and played around while I raked, and after a few hours, the yard was looking pretty good.

Next up was the porch. A bunch of big, potted plants stood in one corner near the house. A ton of leaves had accumulated around them. I pulled the leaves out and had them piled in the middle of the porch when a big gust of wind blew them right onto the old pool cover. I grumbled and knelt at the edge of the pool and began pulling the leaves back toward the porch with the rake. Luckily, they hadn’t blown too far onto the cover and I was able to reach the majority of them. While I was crouched down and pulling in the last few leaves, I hadn’t noticed the dog come up behind me. He put his nose right against my butt as I was reaching out, and in surprise, I jumped and fell forward.

Aside from Trucker sneaking up, the other thing I hadn’t noticed was the small series of slits and holes in the pool cover that had been hidden by wrinkles and folds. I flailed and kicked uselessly as I went headfirst through it. The first thing I noticed was the hideously cold temperature of the water. It was an inordinately chilly autumn and we’d had a couple inches of snow the week before. The water had to be near freezing. I scrambled and tried to right myself. The pool wasn’t particularly deep – maybe 5 feet at the most – but my right ankle had gotten tangled in the tattered fabric around the hole and my foot rested on top of the cover. I couldn’t reach the bottom with my left foot.

I distinctly remember screaming and seeing the silvery bubbles explode out in front of me. I thrashed and pushed at the pool cover. As the cover moved upward from the force of my push, so did the surface of the water. There was no gap. I panicked and kept pushing and scratching at the cover. Three fingernails tore off as I clawed at the rough material and some part of me passively noticed thin trails of blood rising from the nail beds.

There was no way I was getting out that way, and my chest was already burning from the oxygen I’d wasted with all my flailing. The whole time I’d been underwater, I’d been jerking my right leg back and forth with the goal of freeing it, but the tension around my ankle had increased as the tangle of fabric tightened with my effort. I reached back and tried to grab my trapped ankle. Not even close. I had to curl my body under and try to swim up the other way. That time, I could reach the ankle and even get my hands out of the water. Still, I couldn’t get my left foot to touch the bottom. If my flexibility were any better, I might have been able to reach. But no. I was forced to remain underwater.

My pain in my chest and throat was searing and the pressure was unbearable. Everything in me was screaming to release my breath and inhale. I gripped my ankle, bent my knee, and pulled. My nose broke the surface of the water and I exhaled burning carbon dioxide and gobs of snot before falling back under. I hadn’t gotten a chance to breathe. Again, I pulled myself up and snorted a tiny bit of air into my lungs and what felt like a gallon of water into my nose. My hands fumbled at the fabric wrapped around my ankle as I involuntarily sneezed and sputtered in an attempt to get the water out of my sinuses. I fought upward with every bit of strength I had. Half my face breached the surface. I gasped and coughed chlorinated water out of my throat and chest while trying to breathe. I managed one good breath before going back down.

The sensation of having my lungs filled with fresh air calmed me by an infinitesimal fraction and helped me regain a bit of sense. Disregarding my attempt to extricate my ankle, I grabbed the tattered fabric around it and pulled. I felt it tear a tiny bit. I pulled and pulled, extending the rip toward the tangle until, to my intense relief, I was able to weaken the material enough to pull my foot out. I pushed both feet against the bottom of the pool and exploded upward, finally free. I stood in the frigid water and gasped as heaving, gluttonous breaths gradually re-oxygenated my body.

It was only then did I realize how badly I was shivering. I looked at the sky, and despite the radiance of the noontime sun, I knew I’d be screwed if I didn’t get out of the water immediately. I jumped and tried to haul myself onto the cover toward the porch. I slid off and fell back into the hole. Again, I leapt forward and tried to grasp the inch or two of treated wood that extended from the porch over the pool’s edge. My thumb managed to reach the top of the wood and I dug my ruined fingertips underneath. It was enough. I pulled until I could get my other hand on the surface, and kept moving until I could get my elbows, hips, and, finally, legs onto the porch.

Trucker, who’d apparently been watching the whole ordeal, licked my face. I called him an asshole and we went in the house. I sat in a hot shower for a long time, dried off, and put on Javon’s far-too-big clothes. A few days later, I got $200 for cleaning up the yard. They never mentioned the bigger tear in their pool cover.

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