Jessica sat in an unfamiliar boat, shivering despite being wrapped in a large towel. Her mind felt numb. Her vision was blurry from tears and strain. She was considering collapsing—just lying on the bottom of the boat and closing her eyes.
“Hey, Lieutenant, we got something over here,” a strange voice said. As if in a dream, she pulled herself up to her feet and moved to the boat’s gunnels, peering over the edge. She wanted to see him, but the form being hauled from the water was already wrapped in a tarp.
She knew it was Curtis, but there were no more tears. No more anguish. No more words. But that didn’t stop her mind from spinning.
Yesterday, Curtis’s tall frame had filled the doorway of the dressing room in Macy’s department store, arms crossed, admiring her approvingly as she spun around in her new bikini. It was black with pink polka dots. He had jokingly said it made her boobs look bigger.
She wore it now.
The April waters had been reasonably warm, and the skies were clear. It was Saturday. A perfect day for an outing on the lake. She and Curtis had joined her best friends Sylvia and Doug.
A few hours after their day began, Curtis started showing off on his skis, the alcohol making him cocky. Jessica was stationed in the rear of the boat, ready to alert Doug should Curtis wipe out. Sylvia sat beside her. She remembered Curtis urging Doug to speed up so he could go up the side of the wake fast enough to do flips. He had flung his life vest into the boat the last time they came around, saying it was too constricting. Jessica and Doug protested.
She’d heard Curtis’s chiding voice as he bobbed around on the rough lake. “Come on, Jess. Chill. I own these fucking skis today! Doug! Rev it up!”
Doug gave Jessica a quick glance of what she thought was approval. Curtis got up again like a pro and swung from one side of the wake to the other. He was a skilled skier, confidently weaving across the wake. He used the strength of his arms to pull against the boat, making the rope slacken momentarily. He appeared to be floating atop the surface until the boat caught up, snapping the rope taut and yanking him forward.
He was in complete control, so Jessica relaxed. He knew what he was doing. Sylvia flashed him a thumbs-up and a huge smile.
Curtis kept using hand gestures to urge Doug to go faster, then he swung from one side of the wake to the other, testing the speed. He tried this several times, each time urging Doug to go faster and faster still.
On an open stretch of water with no other boats in the way, Doug turned around and yelled at Curtis.
“Okay dude! Hold on to your shorts!”
Doug pushed the throttle handle down as far as it would go. Curtis flashed a thumbs-up, bent his knees deep, and sped up the side of the wake, flying high into the air, twisting twice, and then going a half turn too far.
The memory made Jessica wince. Curtis had wiped out head first, tumbling along the surface of the water before sinking out of sight.
“He’s down, Doug! He’s down hard. Go back! Go back!” she’d cried.
The turnaround seemed to take an hour, and he wasn’t coming up.
“Hurry, hurry! Oh my God, I don’t see him. Where is he? Hurry, go back!” The panic fueled every muscle in her body. Before the boat even came to a stop, she dove off the side where Curtis had gone down. Doug dove in after her.
She swam deep with her eyes open, searching the greenish lake water for a hint of Curtis or his clothing. What color were his swim trunks? Her eyes were burning, her vision blurry. Tears, lake water, panic.
She came up for air, gasping, looking around frantically and screaming his name. She saw Sylvia’s face on the boat. It was distorted with panic and fear. In response to her unvoiced question, Jessica shook her head.
Sylvia began sounding the horn and waving at other boaters. “Help, help us!” she yelled. “Swimmer down! Help! Skier down!”
Go back. Find him.
She dove back down, eyes wide open again, going even deeper this time. Under the water, Sylvia’s cries and the horn were muted. Calm down, Jessica thought. Just find him. This is not happening. You’re gonna find him. He’s still alive. Just look. Find him!
She came up for air then dove back down. She moved a little more each time she went back under. Oh my God, please be okay. Please, God. When she came out of the water again, the noises came crashing back into her ears and brain. It was surreal.
Each time she came up, new boats had arrived, floating nearby with concerned faces looking on. Several strangers had joined in the search. “Do you see anything?” everyone would yell as soon as someone surfaced. “No” was always the response. “No.” Dive again. Muted sounds of boat motors under water. They sounded so small and far away.
She went down as many times as she could. She didn’t remember how many. With each fruitless dive and every passing moment without finding Curtis, the enormity of her loss became apparent. There were so many people now—boats, chaos.
She had no idea how much time had passed, but Jessica remembered floating atop the water on a flotation device someone had thrown to her. It came from an official police boat. Jessica was vaguely aware of the police radios echoing off the water. Her lungs were tight and desperate. She breathed heavily, her head tipped toward the center of the rescue device. She couldn’t raise her head. She was too exhausted. The fabric was wet, and she was keenly aware of the sound of lapping water inside it. Her breath was loud, the sound bouncing off the interior of the device.
She remembered the musty, earthy smell of the lake water and wet orange fabric. She had focused on the words printed inside the buoy. “Taylor Made Life Ring Buoy. U.S. Coast Guard approved. Tested and inspected in accordance with USCG regulations to 250 lbs.” She whispered the words, centering her thoughts again, then dove back under one more time.
Someone pulled her from the water at some point. She didn’t remember who. Her legs were trembling so badly, she couldn’t stand in the strange boat. Her lips were numb, her body chilled, her heart shattered.
Later, when they examined Curtis’s body, they discovered his neck had snapped from his impact with the water. Without a life jacket and his stomach full of beer, he had sunk and drowned.
Jessica and Curtis had been dating for four months.