I don’t know how old I am, but I am preschool age. My mother and my aunt take me to the city pool. I wear white swim trunks that resemble bikini underwear. On the front a silk-screened character declares that “I’m A Little Angel.” On my ass a cartoon demon resembling Hot Stuff says that “I’m A Little Devil.” Both my mother and my aunt find these swim trunks quite funny so I do, too. I splash around in the shallow end of the enormous pool, far from the towering high dive from which the grown-ups and big kids plunge into the water like the cliff divers at Casa Bonita.
My mother tries to teach me to float in the bathtub. “Just relax,” she says, one hand on my back and the other beneath my thighs. “Just relax and the water will hold you up.” She removes her hands from my body and I sink into the water like a casket being lowered into a grave. She pulls me up. I cough water and blow long strings of mucus while she stares at me with a mixture of concern and disappointment.
Family day at the city pool. Joining my mother, aunt, and me are my two sisters, a pair of cousins, my uncle, and my father. Along with their day jobs the two men work nights delivering booze for a local liquor store. One of the perks of the job is free swag, so while other kids float around on K-Mart pool toys my cousins, sisters, and I bob along on giant inflatable liquor bottles: Jim Beam whiskey, Wolfschmidt vodka, Beafeater gin.
The two men are in their late twenties and locked into an unspoken competition, though for all I know they aren’t even consciously aware that they are engaged in this arms race of money, stuff, accomplishments. One is large and loud, an emergency responder loaded with stories and personality. The other is a quiet college student and appliance repairman supporting three kids, one of whom is the only boy among the bottle bobbers. The two brothers-in-law stand poolside in their bikini trunks, keeping watch and one-upping each other one anecdote at a time.
My cousin leaps from the high dive, an Evel Knievel-sized stunt in my shallow end estimation. Neither father nor uncle appears phased by this brave and beautiful feat; in fact, they don’t even seem to notice what just happened. And then a muscular hand grabs me by the “I’m A Little Devil” and carries me like a piece of Samsonite to the deep end of the pool, where I swing in the air a couple of times before I’m launched like a bag of garbage. I break the surface of the water roughly where my cousin vanished upon springing from the high dive.
I tumble and twirl beneath the surface, watch the bubbles and listen to the muted sounds of the terrestrial world that I’ll never see again. I don’t know how much time passes–seconds that feel like minutes, probably–and then I’m grabbed roughly by the arm and pulled back into the land of the breathing. I cough bleachy water and long strings of mucus hang from my tiny nose. “Goddamned pansy,” my father says.
Vacation pool. We’re likely at a campground as our vacations rarely include motels, much less hotels.
A family from Boston sends their kids to the pool while the parents pound tent stakes, either figuratively or literally. The three children correspond roughly in age to my sisters and me. This is the best part of vacation, the 24 hour friendships that crop up around campground pools. The oldest kid talks incessantly about “burns,” by which he means kids at his school who smoke pot. I can’t visualize any of this–a burn victim huffing on a flower pot? I don’t know. His accent fascinates me.
“Let’s race,” the youngest says to me. We are standing waist deep in the water, listening to the big kids’ conversation. “Ready set go,” and he pushes off and moves his arms in great Mark Spitz-like windmills.
I rotate my arms in perfect mimicry of my new Bostonian friend. “You’re walking!” he shouts.
“I am not!”
“Yes you are, I see you!” I was certain that what was hidden beneath the surface remained beneath the surface, but not so. Both his siblings and my siblings stare at me like I just tried to cheat my way to the gold. I am a goddamned pansy.
We move to Texas, which means an extended motel stay courtesy of my father’s new employer while my folks look for a house. Other kids my age are in school, but I’m in the pool–all day, all alone. Over and over I kick my feet and rotate my arms like Mark Spitz, but no progress. Not matter how hard I try I can’t keep my skinny frame atop the surface of the water.
But then I notice something. All of my flailing actual propels me forward, but beneath the surface. I can’t go very far, but I am swimming.
I spend the next several weeks in the motel pool. The Sun blisters my shoulders, so my mother sends me out in the mornings wearing a t-shirt. By the time my parents find a house I can swim along the water’s surface, though my flailing about looks more like a cry for help.
My new neighbor has a pool. He also has a 16 year-old sister. One afternoon the sister and I are alone in the pool. She grabs my crotch while I stand in the shallow end. I run home and never visit their house again.
I watch Johnny O’Donnell, my childhood hero, drown in a recreational lake. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.
We move again, this time to South Carolina. Our neighborhood contains three lakes–ponds, really–stocked with bass and bream. The neighborhood sprawls over vast acres of kudzu-covered red hills. Unlike my other childhood neighborhoods, here the kid down the street might be two miles away, but bodies of water attract kids like flowers attract bees.
And so the script is written for the remainder of my childhood summers. The “I’m A Little Angel” trunks are long gone, replaced by cutoffs, and my sun-damaged shoulders are perpetually tan. Every day we show up at one of the lakes–three of us, six of us, never more than a dozen of us–and piss away the day while the fish nip at our toes. We make up games where “jail” is the space beneath a neighbor’s dock. We try to impress each other with cool dives and epic cannonballs. We have contests to see who can hold his breath underwater the longest. I invite friends underwater with me to watch as I blow bubbles out of my eye socket.
Inevitably someone suggests a race across the lake–shore to shore, winner takes bragging rights. I know I can’t win. I don’t even know whether I can swim that far, but I can’t say no. I can’t be a goddamned pansy. So I set off with the rest of the boys, who quickly leave me in their collective wake. I slap at the algae-green water and kick my feet when I remember to do so. I try turning my head side to side like the celebrities do on Battle of the Network Stars.
The boys are nearly at the opposite shore and I haven’t reached the halfway point yet. I’m exhausted, but turning back means more humiliation, another group of kids mocking my inability to swim, another disappointed parent. I keep paddling slowly forward, uncertain whether this will be the time I disappear beneath the surface like Johnny O’Donnell did. What will my friends do? Will they run home? Will they dive after me? More than likely they will think I’m kidding around and leave me be until I bob back to the surface, gray and bloated.
I keeping slapping at the water’s surface. The boys grow bored waiting for last place to finish up, so they dive back in and slash their way back across the lake. We pass each other at midpoint, but I keep paddling slowly forward.
My chest burns. My limbs feel heavy. My head intermittently dips below the surface, but the opposite shore nears. I remember to kick my feet. And then I’m there, ankle deep in the soft silt and separated once again from my peers by the width of a lake.
So I push off from the silky mud and do it one more time, all alone.
I rarely swim anymore. When I do I like to be alone under the water, tumbling weightlessly, watching the bubbles rise toward the sparkling surface, listening to the muted sounds of the terrestrial world. Down here there are no contests to win, no people to disappoint, no friends to accidentally hurt. For a few quiet moments I can just relax and let the water hold me. That may be the only swimming lesson I really learned.