Linda Smith is a University of Dallas senior, and the following is an excerpt of a short story originally written for a Creative Nonfiction class with Dr. Gregory Roper.
A & E Editor
It was May 20, 2014 and I was on the DART on my way to meet up with a friend at White Rock Lake. During the ride, I began to read “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, a marvelous short story in which he reveres the axolotl, a strange, pink, fleshy fish, in an aquarium and begins to realize — in his Cortázian way — that not only has he “become” an axolotl, but that they are more human than even humans are. I put the book away as I came near the stop for White Rock station.
After a couple of phone calls, Kelly and I found each other on a path. After a hug and a bit of banter to catch up, she tells me what happened. According to a reporter, “They said that this kid and his friend jumped off that bridge. He drowned. Two people jumped in to try to help him. But the kid still drowned.”
Our walk was a quiet one. The occasional bicyclist passed, either saying “TO YOUR LEFT” with too little time for us to do anything but jump frantically to the right, or honking horns, which too few of them had. When we did talk, it was about how tragic the news of the drowning was. The bridge came into sight, but only after we saw the pandemonium just ahead of it. Cars were all along a path that branched off to the left of the bridge, a couple fire trucks and police cars were along the edge of the lake and the caution tape marked that side of the bridge. There were a few people on the bridge; a line of unmoving, police officers in black uniforms and about six civilians, presumably the family and friends, and one in particular who had a bright red shirt. Three small boats were anchored not too far from the underbelly of the bridge, and every once in a while, we would see a scuba diver emerge from the water.
When we had sufficiently determined that the bridge was indeed still closed off, we doubled back and went on an incline to a road above the lake. Just as a few others along the road did, we looked below.
My eyes rested on the line of black, and fleeted to the red shirt every few seconds. The officers all looked below. Someone had buried their head in the shoulder of the red-shirted person. I was looking so intently that I barely noticed the scuba diver reemerging, empty-handed.
You can only say “It’s just tragic,” or “How sad,” or “I hope they find him” so many times until you finally realize how empty those words are. Casually, cautiously, we began to turn the conversation back towards our own daily lives.
At one point, I pulled my phone out and typed “white rock lake drowning” in the search bar. I first saw that they had actually suspended the search until the morning as night fell on the lake. Also, since they had not identified the person at that point, a story said that a woman claimed that the drowning victim was her 24-year old grandson.
What was he doing jumping in the lake? It was only 8 feet deep just under the bridge. The tragedy was still there, but I could hardly believe that he was older than Kelly and I. We sat in silence for a while, and then turned to pondering on how late it was and how far we had walked.
The biggest thing that baffled us was that we still stayed at the lake that day. Why? Why did we enjoy our time there (for the most part)?
It was not until I re-read “Axolotl” two weeks later that I finally understood.
“No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awakening to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible.”
Here was Cortázar, saying not only that he was like everyone else and they like him, but that the only thing that could be understood was that nothing was understandable.
Confusing and depressing though it may seem, it put my mind at ease to know that all of us at White Rock Lake that day were all the same, and that was all we would ever truly understand about each other.