My best friend, Winston, almost drowned when we were twelve years old. We had taken my dad’s skiff out on Big Lake in good sailing weather, a stiff northerly breeze whipping up foaming waves. We would have to tack to get away from the dock, so I took the tiller, Winston on the boom. I was the better sailor because I had been sailing all my life whereas Winston had just moved into the house next to ours. A landlubber. He had never been on a boat before that summer but was a fast learner. By fall, he was getting the hang of it.

We tacked into the middle of Big Lake, the sail close hauled, and turned with the wind on our starboard beam. The skiff heeled over, waves pounding the hull. Winston sat on the leeward rail holding onto the shroud, grinning.

The wind was becoming unsteady, making me wish we had put on life vests. I shouted to Winston to get down in the boat. He scoffed and waved his free hand, dismissing my concern. Suddenly, the wind changed direction 180 degrees, the boom swung around, hitting him in the chest. He plummeted backwards into the waves. Not thinking, I leapt from the stern and released the halyard, tossed the anchor over the side.

I was in the water before the buffeting sail had collapsed onto the boom.

Now, at sixty-five, recently retired, Winston is drowning again.

“You just need to focus on whatever you like to do, and do it, but now you can do it right. You have plenty of time. There’s no hurry anymore.”

His sunken eyes, shadowed by bushy eyebrows, rolled slightly in denial. “Those weren’t real interests. Just passing fancies. I don’t really have any hobbies like you, with your travel and reading history books. We can’t all be intellectuals.”

He always said that when we talked about what he was going to do besides cut the grass and visit his children with his wife. The family wasn’t his hobby. He didn’t talk about them all the time, show me pictures, tell stories about the things they did together. I’d had to prompt him to show me a photo of his grandson.

I’m trying to come up with a new idea. I’ve already tried the impulsive approach, but this isn’t like jumping out of a sailboat in Big Lake. This is harder. In the six months since he’d retired, I’d gone down the list of every hobby or interest he’d ever even mentioned but hadn’t gotten a response.

“That’s bullshit and you know it. Most hobbies are about doing things, like woodcarving, sewing, rebuilding an old car, shit like that.”

A brief, pained look flashed across his face. I’d been getting more aggressive in our conversations because I was beginning to not enjoy visiting him. Before his retirement from an electrical engineering company, he’d always talked about electrical circuits, computers, generators, how things worked. It was interesting. He never talked about that anymore. Didn’t want to, except to recall stories of particularly difficult projects, but I’d heard those too many times already. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair. That doesn’t come until you have difficulty walking. I don’t like the idea of visiting my best friend, and just sitting on the porch, rocking back and forth. It was like visiting my grandmother in the nursing home when I was young. He’s waiting for the grim reaper.

“What does Sally like to do?” I ask.

“We have completely different interests. The only things we have in common are the children and this house. And we eat our meals together.”

“What about getting involved with cooking?” I ask desperately.

“I hate cooking. She can do it for all I care because I’m sure as hell not going to. I’d be happy to eat TV dinners and canned food.” He shakes his head and adds, “I worked all my life and now I just want to sit take it easy. I like watching TV. Just drop it.”

I can’t do that. What Winston doesn’t realize is that his actions affect others, like me. We’ve been friends since junior high. We went to college together, were each other’s best man at our weddings, lived less than a half-hour apart for forty years. All that binds us. It’s a two-way street. The idea of drifting apart in our retirement, all because he can’t find something to fill the forty-hour vacuum in the life he’d become accustomed to after so many years, is as traumatic as learning that he has cancer.

I can’t save him this time, but I’ll keep trying.

One response to “Drowning”

  1. Patricia F Diaz says :

    This story deeply touches the heart, as the author may be facing the inevitable loss of his best friend, his brother in life, Winston. Rather than tossing a lifesaver to his friend, who may be unable to grab it, perhaps he needs to get in the water with him and simply be there, on Winston’s terms.

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