The Cocoon: "Burned"

Can you remember a time that you nearly killed yourself? Or are you like me, and can remember a handful of times?

I’m not talking about surviving cancer or getting t-boned at an intersection through no fault of your own. I’m talking straight-up, cold-blooded murder. Of yourself. By yourself. With the weapon of stupidity.

I’m personally surprised by how many times I’ve come kinda close to death, mostly because I don’t consider myself a terribly impulsive person. I’m like… medium reckless. Maybe medium rare. I am standing up here after all.

There was this notion between my group of friends in high school which no doubt contributed to more than a few grey hairs on my mother’s head...

We called it: “FUCK IT FACTOR.”

Fuck it Factor is your ability to override your better judgement and go along with a crazy and usually dangerous idea. Something you deep down probably don’t even want to do.

Fuck it, let’s play catch with kitchen knives and film it.

Fuck it, let’s go water skiing, but with cars instead of boats, and concrete instead of water.

Now, Fuck It Factor has an arch nemesis, and that’s “Fuck That Factor.” Fuck That Factor, or as some people call it “being reasonable,” is your ability to turn down ideas.

Fuck That, let’s keep playing Goldeneye and not chop our own hands off by catching kitchen knives. That sorta thing.

Naturally, you’d want to avoid saying “fuck that” as much as possible.

So, one night, after many hours of drinking at a friend’s house, my friend Greg introduces the idea of going to the rope swing out over the Potomac River. It’s about 3am, we’re drunk, and Fuck It Factor kicks in and away we go.

Now, I’d never been to the rope swing, but I’d heard about it a few times. I was very much an indoor kid, and not quite ingratiated into this particular group of people — I was the new kid in school and had just moved to DC. Couldn’t rock the boat with common sense.

So, I first get nervous as we undress by the side of the road and starting plunging into the thicket of bushes and wilderness that is the path towards the river. This is suburban Maryland, but it might as well have been the Amazon. Every barefoot step on a twig was a rattlesnake bite, every branch that whips your arm, a brown recluse spider. Oh, and it was absolute pitch black since we didn’t bring any flashlights because fuck it.

We finally reach the rope swing and it’s not at all what I imagined. It’s far grander, actually. It’s this old, big, majestic tree that’s been around for who knows how many decades — centuries even! And it leans out over the flowing river, like an old man stooping to fish.

Even though there are more experienced rope swingers around, I volunteer to go first. Fuck it. My heart is pounding as I feel my way up the tree like a drunken molerat.

I finally reach the top and tip toe out onto the overhanging bough. I take the rope swing in my hand. It’s a thick old rope, like something you’d anchor ships with. There’s a wooden cross piece at the bottom.

Now, what this was was a handle. Clear as day. A handle. For your hands. But I’m not sure what tripped me up here, maybe it was the word “swing,” but I assumed that that tiny wooden stick was actually a seat. For your butt.

So what I do is straddle the rope and position either side of this handle on my butt cheeks… like the worst seat in the world. I firmly grasp onto the rope with both hands… and jump! Out into the cold, dark nothingness of a Maryland night.

I immediately slide down the rope — the handle cuts both sides of my ass, and my hands run down the entire length of this nasty old rope, totally burning both my palms right off. As I start to gasp from the pain that’s just shot up into my brain, I hit the freezing cold water.

As soon as I surface, there’s only one thing on my mind: I have to do this again.

So we all take turns on the rope swing a few more times — the correct way, mind you. Once we tire of it, another friend suggests that we swim down the river back to our cars, since we’d hiked quite a bit upstream.

Now as background, I’m not the best of swimmers. I learned pretty late, like 13 or 14. I’m comfortable in water, I really enjoy being in it, but I’m just a pretty shitty swimmer. Like I said: indoor kid.

Fuck it.

So this river isn’t like a fun little babbling brook. It’s the Potomac River — one of the major rivers in the United States. It’s home to The Great Falls. There’s whitewater rafting and stuff like that. It gets pretty serious.

So I’m kind of doggy-paddling and keeping up as the current picks up and starts to pull faster and faster. It’s hard to keep track of my friends as the water splashes and my head bobs in and out of the water. I switch to a backstroke, then dead man’s float… just trying to keep my head more out of the water than the opposite of that.

I’m trying to stay calm, but internally, there’s this thought that sort of opens a crack in the facade: this isn’t going well. Maybe this isn’t going to be ok? And it’s like a balloon popping and panic starts to seep in.

And just then, right at that moment that I started to have that “oh shit” sinking feeling, there’s this line that is suspended across this part of the river — I imagine exactly for that purpose. I grab a hold of the rope and just sorta catch my breath and see my friends dangling on too. We pull ourselves out of the water with this rope and walk back the rest of the way in silence.

So I actually find out the next day that my dad’s coworker’s daughter rowed crew, and had actually just drowned in the Potomac recently, kinda near to where we were. Honest to goodness. It floored me when I found out.

Of course my bandaged and bloodied hands didn’t pass by unnoticed. My mom asked me what happened, how did I injure myself? So… how do I even begin to tell her about this little misadventure? Well, let’s see… we could start with the truth...

Fuck that. I burned my hands at a friend’s BBQ.

William Tran