Noun. Deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it; feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
I first learn how to breathe life back into another by practicing on something that can never be revived. It is 1990, I am 16 years old, and certain this will be the easiest task to complete in my pursuit to become certified in rescuing others who may otherwise drown.
The list of requirements is lengthy. In addition to extensive written tests, I will be asked to tread water while holding a 10-pound brick for a minimum of 60 seconds. Swim 50, or is it 100, yards of front crawl. Plunge headfirst into the deep end and submerge to the bottom that is 15 feet below.
I will also be evaluated on my abilities to listen, scan, observe. Expected to prove I can keep calm but act quickly in an emergency situation. That I have the stamina. Endurance.
I am not a seasoned swimmer, but intent on proving otherwise, for no other reason than to secure what is perceived as the coolest summer job one can have in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Unlike my mostly male counterparts in my training class, I had not spent previous seasons perfecting the art of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. I’d never participated on a swim team, stepped into position on a starting block, attempted a flip turn at the end of a lane, or pushed my fingertips into a touchpad to mark the end of a race. I hadn’t even learn how to dive until just a few years prior, when I had crouched on the lip of a pool at a resort up north in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and begrudgingly accepted coaching from a boy two years my junior.
Now I find myself once again perched and hovering over something I have yet to master or understand. Kneel before a transparent model of a human being created solely for instructional purposes. Sorting through what I have memorized.
First, check for consciousness. Mimic the actors in training videos, grab what’s meant to serve as shoulders on the head-and-torso-only mannequin. Give it a slight shake. Deliver my line.
“Annie, Annie, are you okay?”
She is, of course, not okay. She is never going to be okay.
She is also not real, but has a real name to make it seem otherwise, one that is recognized and used universally. She also has a face intentionally crafted to look lifelike, a face whose origin story blurs the line between fact and fiction. There are claims that it was modeled after L’Inconnue de la Seine, the death mask of an unidentified young woman reported to have drowned in the River Seine in the late 1880s. Some refer to her simply as Inconnue, or the unknown.
Other iterations offer additional layers to this story. Maintain that there were actually two women, sisters and identical twins, one believed to have embarked on a love affair with a rich suitor, eloped to Paris, and never to be seen again. Years later, the other sister, on holiday in Paris, would spy the mask of the drowned Inconnue hanging outside a storefront, shocked by the sight of her long-lost sibling, her own face, but forever preserved at a younger moment in time.
I look for the truth in her plastic contours and eyes that can never reopen. Wonder if this is what one truly looks like when they drown. Think through my next steps. Airway. Breathing. Compression. When I place my mouth on her mouth, I exhale then inhale every secret an unknown woman takes with her when she sinks to the bottom of the river. Like this one: water makes fear, like bodies, seem weightless.