Michelle Johnson

Featured Image by Bash Fish on Unsplash

I am five years old when I discover the quietest place in the universe. A secret hideaway, where time stands still and a glaze washes over my brain; all residual thoughts slip quietly under the surface. The entire world muffled out. Even the static ringing in my ears ceases. There is no danger here. Later on, I am told that true silence exists only in outer space, where all of the floating molecules have been vacuumed up and there’s nothing for sound to find its way through.

No one will hear you scream.

It was when I was five that I finally gathered up every molecule of my courage and tucked it into my purple bathing suit, the one with orange butterflies across the stomach. I stood dripping at the base of the high dive, trembling from nerves and cold, and staring up the ladder that stretched all the way to the sun. The metal rungs glinted harshly and burned my palms as I climbed. Soon enough, the diving board was the only barrier between the vast blue expanses above and below me.

I peeked over the side into the dance of sunlight across the chlorinated water. It seemed to wink at me. I turned and spotted my father, a tall lanky figure by the edge of the pool with a silver digital camera and a dorky sun hat. He waved frantically, and it was all the reassurance I needed. I walked the plank, pretending I was a pirate and that I must live out my pirate fate. The Kraken awaited. It was the second day of summer and the community pool was crowded with families having picnics, loud with music and announcements for lost children, but all of that melted away when I jumped. On the way down, everyone except myself could hear my scream.

The water was cool and silky. I knew I should go back up but I didn’t make any effort to propel myself. In fact, I let out all the air in my lungs. The pressure hurt my ears as I sink, but it was comforting. Sinking feels a lot like floating.

But you don’t want to hear the rest, this is a story about the plunge, not about the bottom of a swimming pool.

Before I learned to read, my father used to take me to the local library and let me pick out books he would read out loud to me. He always did the voices and liked to invent his own endings. Sometimes he would twist the plot into hilarious absurdity, and often, he found himself in alien worlds. One time, he spun a tale about how a little stream cut clean through a mighty mountain. It wasn’t necessarily original, and he was overly technical about the geological aspects, but I was captured by this idea that water could be harder than rock. Later on, I learned that it is not the hardness of water that erodes rock, but rather basic friction and chemical dissolution. Nonetheless, stone will always succumb to the siren call of a babbling brook. The river erodes the mountain. The paper beats the rock. The wave breaks the bone.

I was nine years old when I felt the hardness of water. We were in Hawaii to celebrate Christmas even though we were devout atheists. Something about the holiday season drove us to create an outlandish costume in festive colors to drape over our normal, inadequate lives. These facades were often painfully obvious. I noted several throughout the course of just one day:

  1. People mistake me for being Hawaiian and I never correct them.
  2. My parents complain about the sweltering heat and marked-up prices to bury their regret for moving away.
  3. My mother swims in the ocean every morning and my father goes to work in floral shirts.
  4. After they decide that they want their child to grow up in the most mundane suburb in the entire universe, we only go back to Hawaii every other year.
  5. There’s a mall that plays echoey Christmas music October through February and rains sparkly fluff while it’s ninety degrees outside. Must be a bitch to clean up.

We picked up cinnamon buns at the phony mall on our way to the beach. A rugged boulder stood regally in a tangle of murky waves and sweet Hawaiian sunlight, and I saw a group of local kids gathered at its peak. I made a beeline for it while my parents were still setting up their beach chairs. Every crevice I grasped was slippery and sharp and the jagged rock scraped my feet as I clambered up. A girl offered me her hand to make the final stretch. There were big kids smoking weed up there but I didn’t know what weed smelled like because I was from the most mundane suburb in the entire universe and I was also nine.

I could hear the waves roughhousing below me, cracking over the rocks like thunderclaps. They said that it was the sound of all the broken bones being jerked around by the surf. I thought they were just trying to scare me. I wasn’t even supposed to be up there and the swells seemed to grow more menacing by the second, white foam and black whirlpools, it looked like anyone caught down there would be pulled down, down, down. But I just needed to jump now and I had to be careful, had to make sure I didn’t hit the rocks, oh god I had to jump now and I needed to impress them and I just ran myself over the edge. I prayed even though I didn’t even believe in a god that could hear me. The plunge felt bottomless. The water felt like concrete.


The air of the plunge is thicker than anything. Slicing through solid nothingness until you are plunged back down to Earth. Freezing. The voices fade back in, layers upon layers of shrieks and small talk, and it bothers you. Maybe it’s because it’s just so noisy. Lips turn blue. Maybe it’s that they’re having fun doing what you’re not doing. Shivering shoulders dotted with droplets and freckles. Maybe you feel for the water. The sun shines brightly on you but it’s not warm. You’re a bit older now, you just turned eleven and things upset you even though you don’t know why, and your parents are upset that you don’t seem as happy as you used to. This upsets you too.

Blood is thicker than water.

I used to think my mother made this saying up to get me to love her unconditionally. I learned that due to the chemical properties of plasma, blood is, in fact, considerably denser (and thus thicker) than water. And also that I should be nicer to my mother.

Water cleanses while blood can only stain. When my teeth began falling out, I would stand on my tiptoes with my head under the sink; watching blood pour out of my mouth into bubbling tap water. I wondered how this crimson goop meant weekend classes to appease her in place of my friends’ birthday parties. My father was not entirely correct. Blood may be thicker than pure water, but not saltwater. Seawater.

I was twelve years old when I heard what it’s like to drown. I was standing on the bow of a cruise ship, letting the wind whip straight through me, tender howls and churning sloshes melting into white noise. Comfortably numb. My frail little grandmother complained about the food and my giant sluggish grandfather was coughing up his lungs, while I was a solitary sailor engulfed by the sea. I guess this was supposed to be a family vacation, the kind where we pretended that no one was missing, but I was twelve and everything was whatever.

Salt stung my face and I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose. My rigid fingers slipped off the railing. I was supposed to be watching my grandfather but I couldn’t break away from the waves. Deep blue, cut with trails of white frill, and I understood why cheap poets compare the sea to a gemstone. The coughs got fainter. The air was brisk and humid all at once, cold on my lips, warm in my lungs. It held me tight and bit my skin. I could almost make out whispers in the static. The sloshing of the metal hull cutting through waves drew me up onto my toes. These were sounds I can stand. Drowning out my thoughts. A large splash and the coughing ceased abruptly.

Sounds I can’t stand include, but are not limited to:

  1. Low buzzing. Like a motor engine or some kind of humming that’s hot and sticky and finds its way through my pores. It’s the one thing I hate about boats. I imagine a tiny construction worker drilling inside my skull, delicately performing a lobotomy.
  2. Giant people who make giant splashes. Disturbing the melodic lull of my being alone. Have they no respect for serenity? It’s probably nothing.
  3. My mother’s screams.

There’s an end to everything just like there’s a bottom to every pool. The spaces between robin’s egg blue tiles lie in wait like rusty oysters growing on the side of a ship; it taught me scraped knuckles and feet. I learned to leap before I learned to read the signs and now shallow water makes me uneasy. But you must remember, this is a story about the plunge, not the bottom of a swimming pool.

I was eight years old when I realized that I had outgrown my childhood. I, like most children at that age, suffered from elementary school growing pains, crushing daisies under Converse sneakers, scraping knees on rough tree bark, and trying to convince boys that I am one of them.

Recently, however, I have begun catching glimpses of my magical childhood illusions. Places where time seems to melt into space, warped like fractured Christmas lights:

  1. A dark airplane cabin. Uncomfortably aware of the dry, lifeless body of the plane, of the passenger sleeping beside you. You are alone in a plane that is alone in the cold, cloudless sky. This piece of plastic is the only thing separating you from feeling its thin, shaky breath on your cheek. From plunging down to Earth.
  2. Playgrounds at night. Climbing up to the red plastic roof. A bruised purple sky and air thick with the sound of crickets. Ghosts on the swings. You can almost see the spot where you pushed your best friend off the side of the slide. The memory of stinging palms. You were both eight when you learned of the sharpness of turf.
  3. The middle of the open ocean, where you are floating. This one always gets me.

Floating in the middle of the open ocean, bobbing among the playful pushes of the waves, you accidentally look down into the deep. You slowly become aware of the boundless nothingness that you are dangling over; you turn yourself on to your back only to realize you are staring into the same gorge of blue.

I pull my knees up to my chest, fearful of some monstrous creature shooting out of the darkness to devour me. And yet, I’ve always been more afraid of shallow water than the depths. Stingrays buried in the innocent sand, flames of poisonous coral, dying in four-foot-deep mediocrity.

Down here, it’s only miles and miles of darkness. Sunbeams scatter like squirming ants under a magnifying glass. You are staring into the abyss and nothing is staring back; no one is looking. It’s comforting. Gazing down, down, down, imagining yourself sinking forever. The sharpest point of the plunge is not hitting the bottom, but the moment just before. In physics, we calculate the maximum velocity of a projectile by finding its position just above the ground. Dangling on the edge of zero. The deeper I go, the tighter the water holds me. Swimming is a lot like flying. Forever rising upwards and fading into the abyss. The true plunge is bottomless.

I was forced to swim at a very young age. Not in the cruel way, just in the necessary kind of way. Water can erode what is carved in stone. My father’s father threw him in a lake when he was a young boy to pressure his brittle, bird bones to remember how to fly. He learned three things that day:

  1. How to tread water.
  2. The rattling cold of a dark and unforgiving lake.
  3. How badly he wanted to be a father when he grew up, and how badly he wanted to teach his son how to swim the right way.

I was four years old when I learned to hold my breath. Holding true to his promise to himself, my father used took me to the community pool with arm floaties and kickboards until my fingers wrinkled and gleamed like scales. It didn’t take long to lure me to the deep end. My father threw little painted rockets into the water and I watched them spiral down, down, down. Deep breath in and thrashing my limbs about like a fish out of water. It was almost too easy for me to fight the flames in my chest, boiling up and prickling pain all over, sweating underwater. My skull about to burst, steam trapped in a kettle, it screamed and screamed. I would never fail to bring the rockets back up in just one breath. My father was always so impressed.

I remember how I used to always lose my goggles at the pool, leaving them at the water’s edge, under a lawn chair, at the bottom of the diving end. Purple, pink, blue, I went through so many. My father would help me replace them before my mother noticed. Sunken plastic treasure. My mother tripped and dropped me in a pool when I was ten months old and I learned to love the rich silence of water. But that doesn’t matter, this is a story about the plunge, not the bottom of a swimming pool. Spiraling down, down, down.

I used to think that the sky and the sea reflected each other’s color. Later on, I learned that color is only light refracted and absorbed by the human eye, and that the sky and the sea are blue because of the way they scatter wavelengths. My father tells me many truths about the universe, but I know he’s wrong this time. He claims to be an artist, yet cannot see that they are painted in the exact same shade. The sky and—no. Not the ocean. The tiles of a swimming pool.

Plunge into the unknown.

I brave the high dive again, but it doesn’t feel the same as when I was five years old. My heart doesn’t pound the same way anymore. No one here to impress, nothing here to prove to myself. This is an escape. The sun is glaring too bright and I close my eyes but all I see is red. This is a rite of passage. I already told you what this story is about. The secret of the plunge lies not at the bottom of a swimming pool, but in the final step of a diving board, where foot meets empty space. The space where true silence lies.

Michelle Johnson-Wang is a Chinese American writer originally from Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Ruminate Magazine, West Trestle Review, Weasel Press, and elsewhere.