Portrait of Pam Anderson as Drowning Fish

by Matilda Berke
The average American’s surface struggle
lasts 20-60 seconds & goes unnoticed: 
to fatal effect. In lifeguard class,
we watch a little boy drown
two feet from the stand. We count the 
seconds – 20, nothing, 30, nothing, 50.
Nothing. We know how it ends
& keep praying anyway. His body
gets pulled out of the pool around 120.
His parents won their suit
with this security-cam footage,
Coach says. 
But they had to watch it.
I see Pam for the first time
in Borat. She plays herself, but stupid. 
Someone says she got famous
from running down a beach in a red swimsuit,
& someone else laughs,
then Borat pulls a sack over her head.
I can’t help wondering
if she was in on the joke.
I catch a tuna two miles from the Pacific Palisades:
all muscle, undiluted Malibu blue & iron. Strong
as undertow. I watch it thrashing 
riptides through its heartbeat, gasping 
the way drowners do onscreen. I look away
so I don’t see it happen,
not like that will stop it happening,
but like in the movies
when you close your eyes before the jump-scare
& the tape just keeps on rolling.
If you’re here because of Baywatch,
know that lifeguards never dive into anything,
Coach says on the first day of class.
& ladies, no dressing like Pamela. Actually,
that goes for us gents too.
Here we grin. It’s 2017
& high-cut swimsuits are back in fashion
with the advent of the movie
my best friend Sammy goes to see in theaters. 
God-dam, he says, shaking his blond head, those hot white girls –
that came out wrong. He laughs
& I say nothing.
There is nothing so clean as a mounted kill.
You can walk down a corridor of mackerel
& never smell the sea they came from,
place your hand between a tiger’s teeth
without feeling the sweat of its breath.
They always clean the blood off for the hero shot,
blot out the skin’s history of conquest.
In bubblegum-pink, the front of a tabloid blares
Those shifting savannahs of skin
tan enough to fly a biplane over,
pockmarked with rain & hoof-thunder so wild
a wildebeest falls with a bullet in its chest.
When Pam was twelve, her father came home 
with a carcass slung across his back:
the first time she smelled blood,
she swore it off for the rest of her life.
Coach teaches us several different ways 
to break a victim’s grip. 
We practice sneaking up on each other 
in the pool: submersions, chokeholds.
We joke that we’re learning to
preserve life or take it away
& keep scanning the surface. 
Drowning is only half 
as violent as the rescue.
We, bone-weary, soaked in chlorine,
huddle by the pool on the last day of class
like damp stones. Too sore to stand.
Coach looks us in the eyes & says You are here
because you have some hero in you, so remember –
red is just a color you wear;
There are five stages of drowning
just like there are five stages of grief.
Except one ends in acceptance 
& one ends in death.
We study strokes in the second week of class
& Ben’s had three in the last three months,
which makes him an expert on the subject.
He can’t stop correcting the textbook.
When he fails the same rescue a fourth time
& the girl in the next lane swims out to help,
Coach turns to her. Says Red 
is just a color you wear; this means 
there are some people you will never save.
We see Ben for the last time that night.
Sink or swim.
On the cover of People,
Pam Anderson opens a vegan restaurant
in the south of France. She is as blonde
as a champagne cocktail, shimmers like oil
gone to smoke in the Mediterranean sun.
She waves at the paparazzi someone paid 
to hang their Nikons off a balcony
smiles a hundred kilowatts at the bottles of peroxide 
leering from the soundstage –
they’ve all made it to heaven & this 
is what heaven looks like –
but I like to think it’s out in Malibu
running the longest beach 
with all the wind behind.