High Diving Act
Timothy William Waters
I don’t have many memories of my brother as an adult—I ended up living far from where we grew up, and if we weren’t actually estranged, that’s probably only because I was away. But I remember him when he was young. I was the youngest—still am—fourth of four, and Ray was the oldest. We shared a room until he went away to college, so I probably spent more time living in close proximity to him than anyone else, except his cat.
Still, it was a long time ago, and a lot of it is a blur—so many different moments I could remember, never just one coming into focus. But back in town not long ago—back home, as I still call it—sitting at my mom’s dining room table putting pictures into an album for Ray’s funeral service, I found one: not a memory, but an image, and maybe that’s the same thing.
It’s 1971—that’s what it says on the back, and from the cars in the parking lot that looks about right—and we’re on vacation in Reno, Nevada. I think it’s the Mark Twain Motel—at least, that’s where I was always told we’d stayed when my parents would talk about our vacations later. I say “we,” but I’m not in the picture—I’m still so young that I’m probably sitting next to my mom, who usually took the photos. But one of my other brothers is in it, sitting on the edge of a pool, stage left, looking up at Ray, who has just stepped off the end of the high diving board.
Whoever took the picture captured an instant. Ray’s just standing there, suspended between the water and the sky, and it looks like he could stay up there forever. But that’s just how photos work, the trick they play—looking like a frozen moment, when in reality everything’s always in motion. And in fact, while that picture was being taken, even as the aperture was snapping open and shut, Ray was already plunging down into the pool, and a few seconds later he burst back up to the surface, clambering out, shimmering water slicking off his limbs, a triumphant smile flashing on his face.
At least, that’s probably what happened. I don’t have that next picture. That’s how things were back then—cameras I mean: you got one shot, and you didn’t get to find out until much later how it turned out.
I didn’t find any other photos from that trip, or too many of Ray from later on for that matter. I don’t know if my mom stopped taking pictures, or maybe people just don’t take as many as their kids get older, but sometime around when he left for college, they start to fade out.
There are photos from later, of course: family gatherings, things like that. Ray’s just not in them as often. I’m not always either—I’d gone off to Boston, then Europe, so it was a long way and I couldn’t make it back for every holiday—but sometimes, maybe I’m the one behind the camera, the one my family’s smiling at, or towards. Maybe it’s Ray.
But at that table, now, what I’ve got, well what I’ve got is the pictures from when he was young, and I was just a kid, still sharing a room—still at home: birthdays in the yard, confirmations, high school graduation, my dad taking him to the airport. And before that, our vacations.
He had that smile in those pictures. There was a glint to it, something metal and hard, but that made it attractive too: shining. Maybe the metal only appeared later, I don’t really know, but the flash, yes, that was always there. So, sure: smiling, when he climbed out of that pool.
Although in fact, in the image I do have, you can’t see his expression—it’s too far away, he’s a bit blurry—so you can’t really tell what he’s feeling. I can’t make it out, at least. And like I say, I don’t actually remember myself—I don’t even know if I was really there.
Still, here’s what I see: Ray’s there, in the middle distance, just a little too far to make out. But right in the center of things: he looks good, his form’s just so, and in that moment—before the school dances and the wrecked cars, before the brilliant dissertation and bouts of drinking, the packed college lectures and skipped family holidays, the multiple marriages and overlapping girlfriends, before the diagnosis—in that beautiful, illusory moment, even though the boy who will become the man is free-falling and dropping fast, I can just picture him, feeling he might make a perfect landing.
Timothy William Waters has written a book and a number of articles on war crimes and similar subjects, and published op-eds in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, and other venues. But this is his first published work of creative writing. He is from southern California and now lives in Indiana. The photo for this essay comes from the estate of Marilyn R. Waters.