Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
When I was growing up, my family bought a white-and-red lake cottage with flaking paint and moss-covered shingles. It was filled with the previous owner’s curios and bric-a-brac, and the mantel of the fieldstone fireplace had silver dollars pressed into the concrete.
Mud Lake was aptly named. Our feet sank into the sludgy bottom, and weeds grew underwater. A metal dock served as a launch point for a pontoon boat we’d bought at a garage sale for fifty dollars and refurbished with plywood and paint. My cousins, siblings, and I would paddle out into the middle of the lake, past the tall weeds, where we could swim freely. We’d stay on the water all day, then come back in to eat hamburgers and play board games until bedtime.
In our teen years, after the adults were asleep, we would take the pontoon boat out again, when we had the lake to ourselves. One night, while diving into the starlit water, we practiced our clumsy but creative swearing, shouting forbidden words as we did flips into the dark lake.
The next morning, over breakfast, my mother said, “You know, voices really fucking carry over the water at night.”
I was not a strong swimmer as a child. At the age of seven I would barely put my face in the water. To help me overcome my fear, in the summer of 1957 my father started taking me to the large outdoor pool at Detroit Metropolitan Park. Nearly every Monday, his day off, we could be found in the shallow end of that pool, where he taught me how to tread water and float on my back.
I noticed two differences between the other kids at the pool and me: First, they were more comfortable in the water. Second, they weren’t white.
Five years later, while visiting my grandparents in North Carolina, my brother and I went swimming on a river in Pisgah National Forest. Many families, all of them white, had gathered at a swimming hole where the river widened. They were cooling off in the water and having picnics on the bank when a couple of African American teenage boys came floating down the river. Everyone except my brother and me scurried out of the water. Even as the boys continued downstream, the adults kept their children away from the river, where my brother and I remained, confused.
I still cringe at the swimming lesson those parents gave their children.
As a skinny high-school freshman girl I joined a regional swim club. I carpooled to practices with two strong, muscular boys, sitting shoulder to shoulder with them while they argued and traded jabs. I marveled at my good luck and developed a crush on the older of the two, whose light-brown hair was faded from chlorine.
At practice the other girls and I giggled about the mysterious trails of hair that disappeared into the boys’ minuscule Speedos, and the boys put their arms around us and joked that we had shoulders as broad as their brothers’. But in the water our tight suits kept curves firmly under wraps, and rubber swim caps concealed our hair. During a hard workout we focused only on the feet of the swimmer in front of us. If you were good, gender didn’t matter.
I took pride in my newfound strength and the improvements I made. When I qualified for the Junior National competition at sixteen, I was ecstatic. My boyfriend had just missed qualifying in his category. The next day he asked me to skip the Junior National meet and go on vacation with his family instead. I said no.
I’d thought I loved him, but it turned out my real love was the sense of accomplishment swimming had given me.
I was at the beach in Guatemala on my first real date with Jorge. Like most Guatemalans I had met, he couldn’t swim, but it was so hot and muggy that I left him sitting in the sand while I jumped into the frothing, coffee-colored surf. The water turned an inviting blue just past the breakers, so I headed out there, ducking my head under the muddy waves as I went.
When I came back up beyond the breakers, the water around me was a crystalline blue, but the shore was so far away it appeared as a faint line in the distance. (I later learned that brown surf is a sign of dangerous riptides.) I willed myself not to panic and decided to head in immediately. Whenever I got closer to shore, however, the angry ocean tossed me back like a rag doll, and I gulped seawater. Worried that I wouldn’t make it, I thought about who would miss me.
My relationship with my parents was strained. I tried to remember if they even knew I was in Guatemala. If I were to die on this remote beach, they might not find out for weeks, maybe longer. I felt tremendous guilt for how much pain my death would cause them. I was always taking risks, being cavalier about my safety.
Then I remembered hearing that if caught in a riptide, you should swim parallel to the coastline. I followed this advice and made some progress, which inspired me to battle on through my exhaustion. Finally I reached the shore and knelt on the sand, coughing and shaking.
Jorge was nearsighted and had no glasses, so he hadn’t seen my ordeal, and I didn’t tell him of the danger I’d been in. That night, after a few kisses, we slept chastely in separate twin beds in a rented straw hut. Though we weren’t yet lovers, I dreamed we would someday have a son. The boy in my dream wore glasses and rode a bike. I kept the dream to myself, but in the morning Jorge looked at me intently and asked me what I would want to name our baby.
The relationship didn’t last. A year later, back in the States, I gave birth to a boy: mine and Jorge’s. Alone and a single parent, I knew I had to take care of myself so I’d always be there for my son. I have never taken my safety for granted again.
Newton Center, Massachusetts
On the farm where I grew up, we had a few ducks that were housed with our laying hens, but I never had a real affinity for them. After I left the farm, ducks receded from my consciousness until Danni flew into my backyard one Fourth of July weekend.
I was watering flowers when I heard a splash and turned to see a young mallard paddling around the pool. I assumed he would have a brief dip and then fly away, but he stayed for the rest of the day, leaving only in the evening. Nothing could frighten him off: not me, nor the dogs, nor the cats. In fact, he was quite curious about us all, following the dogs around the pool, touching noses with the cats, and swimming with me.
I initially named the duck Danny with a y; then a friend pointed out that my mallard was a female (which shows you how far removed from the farm I was). So I swapped the y for an i.
At some point each morning Danni would splash down in the pool, and she’d stay for most of the day, sometimes bedding down in one of the flowerpots overnight. When I’d put on my suit and jump in the water, she would swim around my head or between my legs. If I tired and sat on the edge of the pool, she’d nibble my shins as if prompting me to get back in and play some more. My usual lap swimming gave way to frolicking with a young wild duck.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, after a long day of swimming with me and some friends I had over, Danni tried to follow me into the house. My response was ungracious. “No, Danni,” I said, and I shut the glass door to the patio. She looked in at me, cocking her head as if to say, Really? For a moment I wanted to fling the door open and invite her in, but a voice in my head said, Don’t be ridiculous. She’s a duck. I turned and walked away.
The next morning I went out early, hoping to find Danni asleep in her pot, but she wasn’t there. I went for a swim, thinking the splashing might alert her to my presence, but she didn’t come back — not that day, not any day.
Now, even when the pool is full of people and dogs, it still feels a little empty.
When I was eight, my family moved to a secluded log cabin in rural Maryland. We set up an aboveground pool in the yard and swam in it almost every day that summer.
A few years later, as I was reaching adolescence, we built a larger house up the hill and used the pool by the cabin less often. Sometimes, to get away from everyone else, I’d go down to the cabin and play my guitar or write in my journal. I also began to swim naked in the pool late at night. I loved the feeling of being outdoors without clothes.
One night I was lying in an inner tube and rocking gently, letting the water wash over my body, when I got an erection. I continued rocking until I felt an orgasm coming on. Afraid that someone would discover the evidence the next day in the water, I jumped out of the pool.
I was in the air as I came.
Every Saturday morning I drove to St. Petersburg Beach and swam out to a buoy a quarter mile from shore. A better swimmer would have reached it in minutes, but I was over fifty and out of shape, so it was a long time before I rounded the buoy and began the journey back. Still, I never saw anyone else out that far, and I felt proud that I could handle the distance, braving the deep water even though I worried vaguely about what lived in those depths. I’d grown up watching movies about shark attacks. How deep was the ocean at the buoy? There must have been some sharks down there.
One day, swimming back to shore, I rolled onto my back and just kicked my legs. I was gazing over my belly at the distant buoy when I heard movement to my left. A large gray creature came up beside me, almost close enough to touch, its dorsal fin glistening in the morning sun. It released a puff of air, then sank beneath the surface and was gone.
The sight triggered a primal response in me, and I started kicking my legs frantically and windmilling my arms, making better time back to shore than ever before. Weak and praying I wouldn’t have a heart attack, I staggered out of the surf and fell onto the sand.
As I lay there, I realized: That was no shark. Sharks don’t have blowholes. I’d been frightened of a dolphin.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Some of my most painful childhood memories are of swimming lessons. I was terrified of the water and resisted going to classes. When my father and I arrived at the Jewish Community Center, I would hide, shivering in the locker room until he came down from the bleachers to threaten and embarrass me.
Those lessons became a tug of war between us, and my father and I were evenly matched in our stubbornness. I knew he meant well and only wanted me to be adept at swimming, but he never really acknowledged my fear or inquired about how deep it ran.
We enacted this painful ritual one night a week for perhaps five years, during which time a distance grew between us that came to define our relationship.
When I was twenty-five, my mother and I were discussing those swimming lessons, and she mentioned that my father had nearly drowned when he was sixteen.
I was shocked to hear this.
“That’s why he was so intent on getting you to learn,” she said. She pointed out that I had never seen my father go in the water, much less swim.
This casual revelation left me both angry and sad. I never did speak to my father about it. I felt like it was his secret, something he did not want me to know.
I eventually overcame my fear and learned to swim, even working weekends as a lifeguard.
What if my father had told me about his fear of the water? Would it have made our struggle less painful? Would I have been less afraid?
New York, New York
I grew up a mixed-race girl in a suburb segregated by race and class. I was often the only child of color in my schools, day camps, and dance classes.
The first time I became conscious of my skin color was when I took swimming lessons at the age of six. These were private lessons in a backyard pool, and our instructor was a young college student home on summer break. A half dozen of us were hanging on to the pool’s edge when I stared at our fingers lined up on the concrete, and it struck me that the other girls’ hands all looked the same. If I hadn’t already known who was to my right and my left, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which hands belonged to Katie or Colleen or Brit.
My hands, of course, could only have belonged to me.
When my mom picked me up that day, I told her of my revelation, and she asked me how it felt, being the only girl in my class with brown skin.
I thought of the Esther Williams musicals I watched with my grandmother. The movies always featured synchronized-swimming routines, and in my mind’s eye, I envisioned the other girls in the class swimming around me in a circle like the petals of a daisy, with me as the brown center of the flower. So I told my mom that being the only brown girl was like being the center of a flower, where it smells the best. I could tell she liked my answer.
What I didn’t tell her was how, when our hands had all been lined up on the edge, the other girls had noticed that the skin around my nails turned white in the water, in sharp contrast to my brown fingers. That’s when they’d told me I had “zombie hands.”
Santa Cruz, California
I was working at a boarding school in Maine as a young English teacher. He was an older and wiser instructor in a different department. I lived in an apartment in a girls’ dormitory, and he lived in a boys’ dorm. He said he was married, but he sat with me at every meal in the dining hall. We played pranks on each other: I hid his textbook, and he rearranged the chairs in my classroom before I arrived.
In early April, when the ice had just receded off a local pond, I dared him to go swimming with me. After classes we drove his car down a country road, parked next to the pond, and peeled off our sweaters and bluejeans. He had on trunks beneath his, and I was in a bikini. The late-afternoon sun slanted between the bare branches.
“You first,” I said.
“No, you,” he answered.
I reached for his hand, and we walked into the water together.
The pain was like a million silver needles piercing my skin. I sucked in my breath in shock. He released my hand and dove under, coming to the surface with a primal yell that echoed off the hills. I pressed forward, teeth chattering, until finally I was swimming. As the pain subsided into numbness, I swam out farther and farther.
“Hey, come back!” he called. He was standing on the shore now, wrapped in a towel. “You win!”
I could swim forever, I thought dreamily. I couldn’t feel anything at all. I rolled onto my back to gaze at the azure sky.
He called again, trying to coax me in. I paddled absent-mindedly in his direction, wondering in an offhand way whether a person’s brain could freeze.
When I reached land, he wrapped me in a towel and nestled me beside him in the car. I noticed I was shaking violently. He kept one arm around me, firm and steady, as he drove us back to school.
At the dorm I staggered into my apartment, drew a steaming-hot bath, and climbed in. I had to refill the tub once with hot water before the chill finally left me.
I got dressed and walked slowly to the dining hall for dinner. He was waiting, holding a chair for me.
“How are you?” he whispered in my ear. “I was so worried.”
His breath on my neck, though warm, made me shiver.
The air horn wailed, the dining-lodge bell rang, and the public-address system told all campers to report to their assigned benches at the waterfront. Someone was missing.
We had 150 city kids at the camp that summer, some of whom had never seen two trees next to each other. I was the camp director. As I headed to the swimming area, I thought it was likely just a miscount. Then I saw one red beginner’s swim tag left on the board: Johnny’s. Everyone was accounted for except him.
The search was quick and intense. Johnny’s body was discovered in the deep water off the end of the pier. The EMTs arrived. Johnny’s pulse was weak. They worked on him the whole way to the hospital and for an hour after they arrived, but to no avail.
As director, I had to call Johnny’s mother and listen to her scream when she heard the news.
Someone who’d been in a boat out on the water later told us that he’d seen Johnny slip away from the other beginning swimmers, sprint to the end of the pier, and dive in where the lake was more than eight feet deep. No one had heard the splash over the din of the other kids shouting and the counselors calling for them to jump into the shallows: “You can do it. The water won’t hurt you.”
Thirty-five years later I stand waist deep beside the same pier while my three-year-old grandson swims into my arms. His mother plays nearby with her nine-month-old, saying, “Agua, agua,” as he kicks and giggles. (Their daddy is Latino.) She is determined for her children to learn to swim early.
The current camp director still tells Johnny’s story to the staff every year during orientation. Johnny would be forty-five today, but in my mind he will always be a ten-year-old boy who came to camp to get away from the perils of the inner city.
I started ninth grade in a big, new high school where I didn’t know anyone. In gym class I was surprised by how athletic my classmates were. Several of the girls were out for blood on the basketball court, and whereas I had seen the uneven parallel bars only while watching the Olympics, others were well trained in gymnastics, having had private lessons and summer camps. Too tall and lanky for tumbling, I would hide off to the side and try to avoid my turn. Our PE teacher, Miss Coleman, always placed me in the less-skilled group when dividing us by ability, no matter the sport. It was obvious to everyone — especially me — that I was no athlete.
Near the end of the second semester, Miss Coleman announced that we would finish out the year with four weeks of swimming. I perked up. I had been swimming at my grandparents’ lake house since I was a toddler, and my physical awkwardness dissolved in the water. The other girls groaned, however. To them swimming was annoying because it messed up their hair and makeup. They would forge their parents’ signatures on notes requesting to be excused from gym class.
Toward the end of the swimming unit, Miss Coleman taught us to dive. To my surprise, she asked the class to take a seat next to the pool while I demonstrated proper form.
All eyes were on me as I stepped onto the diving board. I focused carefully on each step and tried to do everything just right. As the tips of my fingers touched the water, I heard Miss Coleman’s voice from the sideline: “Beautiful!”
In the late 1990s my family went on vacation to Corpus Christi, Texas. I was playing alone in the surf one day when a trio of kids — two girls and a guy — asked to try out my boogie board. They were about my age, fourteen, and quickly absorbed me into their group. The four of us spent the rest of the week together.
At some point the girls went off and left me and the other guy floating in the hotel pool. A man in a Speedo with blue-streaked, bleached-blond hair and a belly-button ring entered the pool by himself, and my new friend motioned for me to climb out. We sat on the edge, dangling our feet in the water.
“I’m a homophobe,” my friend said quietly but confidently. “I’m not ashamed of it.”
Like a lot of kids back then, I would sometimes say, “That’s so gay,” to mean something was lame, but by fourteen I had made a conscious effort to stop using the offensive phrase. Still, I said nothing about the other boy’s remark. I wanted to be accepted.
A woman climbing out of the pool cast a disapproving glance at the man with blue hair and asked us if we had gotten out for the same reason she was. My friend laughed and said yes. I just nodded, glad to have been admitted into this circle of strangers, all of us bonded by our mutual distaste for a man who merely looked gay.
I currently teach at a conservative Lutheran school where homophobia is the norm. If asked, I would declare that a Christian community should foster love for all, but no one asks, and I need the job. So once again I sit quietly and allow others to assume I think like them.
That sizzling-hot June I longed to spend every evening in our backyard pool, but I was stuck doing overtime at my high-pressure job. One sweltering night I returned home late from work, as usual, and decided to go swimming anyway, despite the hour. Grabbing a towel, I tiptoed outside and slipped naked into the dark water.
I immediately had the feeling I was being watched, and I turned and found myself nose to nose with a bullfrog the size of a grapefruit. I yelped, and we both swam to opposite corners of the pool. I considered getting out, but I was determined to swim, and I did. So did the frog.
The next night after work, I went to take another furtive skinny dip, and the giant frog was sitting on the edge of the pool, as if waiting for me. I eased into the water and paddled about. He followed. Back and forth we went, floating under the summer stars.
The morning after a third late-night rendezvous, I looked in the mirror and saw half my body covered in fiery red welts, and I screamed for my husband. We tried to think what might have triggered such a raging rash: New soap? Unfamiliar food? Then I thought: The frog!
I made a doctor’s appointment and imagined the physician’s disbelief when I showed up with a rare tropical disease he’d seen only in his med-school textbooks: Indonesian amphibiatitis, perhaps. “But it can’t be,” he would say. “The only way you could catch that would be swimming naked with a frog!”
In reality the doctor took one look at me and said, “Shingles.” The stress of my job was to blame, not my amphibian friend.
After I gave up taking speed and went back to eating regularly, I gained enough weight that I had to throw away my skinny jeans. I had never learned to swim, so I started taking lessons, thinking it would help me lose a few pounds. Instead I gained weight — mostly muscle. Though I was healthier, I hated my body.
Twice a week I stood in front of the mirror before class, holding a swimsuit that seemed anything but suited for me. I wondered: What kind of person prefers to be weak and drugged? I struggled to put the suit on, avoiding my reflection.
In class I couldn’t coordinate my arm and leg movements with my breathing and kept lifting my head too soon or else going without a breath until my lungs hurt. I felt lighter in the water, but when I got out at the end of the lesson, gravity pulled at me, reminding me what a heavy burden my body was.
I preferred how thin I’d been when I was barely eating at all and spent my weekends snorting amphetamines and dancing in bars until exhausted. I had lacked muscle mass, but I’d felt great.
My family took summer trips to Nana’s beach house in Manhattan Beach, California, where I’d spent the first few years of my life within earshot of the ocean, waking to the sounds of gulls and falling asleep to the crashing of the surf. I looked forward to going back there each year.
It was lonely being the only normally developing child in a family with five disabled boys. My days were filled with my brothers’ noises and needs. My siblings and I went to different schools, but my classmates still saw them at Sunday Mass, with their unzipped pants and misbuttoned shirts. Though I loved my brothers, it made no sense to me that a sane God would burden a family this way, and I suspect that it made little sense to Dad, too. Mom never revealed her emotions.
In the afternoons at Nana’s house Dad and I would swim out beyond the waves to be rocked in the swells. This was our time for closeness, away from the rest of the family. Sometimes he would tell me a story about how, at this very beach, a guy had been swimming and thought he felt something on his leg. When he swam ashore, he found out he had no leg. A shark had taken it right off!
“Oh, Dad,” I’d say.
“No, really,” he’d say. “He went to stand up and tipped right over.”
I knew Dad was goofing around, but at the same time the thought lingered in the back of my mind that sharks did live in the ocean and that my eight-year-old legs might look tasty to them.
Dad and I would both start looking into the deep. Was that a shark or just a bit of seaweed? We’d try to tuck our legs up out of reach, but we couldn’t stay afloat that way. Finally we’d swim ashore, back to Mom and my five brothers.
After leaving home for college, I began drinking, smoking weed, and taking a variety of other drugs. The habits I developed lasted about fifteen years before I realized my life needed to change, and I ended up going to my first AA meeting. My dad came with me. It was the fourth anniversary of his sobriety.
In AA Dad and I were able to open up to each other and share our feelings. It reminded me of those days when the two of us had swum alone out in the ocean.
© Chris Heltai
I’d been an avid lap swimmer throughout my adult life. In the early hours of the morning I was often gliding from one end of a pool to the other, falling into a meditative trance. Then, at the age of fifty-two, I lost my left hand in a woodworking accident. As I lay in intensive care, I wondered if I would be able to continue swimming.
My first post-accident swim took place a month later in the hospital’s therapy pool. Suzanne, one of the staff, strapped plastic paddles on both my hand and my stump, and I eased into the water, fearful that I might go under.
I swam laps across the shorter width of the pool with Suzanne jogging by the side, cheering me on, and I quickly picked up speed. For weeks my stump had felt like a tightly clenched, aching fist, but in the water the nerve pain subsided, and my five phantom fingers slowly uncurled.
I met Macon at a rock concert the summer I moved to the Adirondacks. After the show we caught one another’s eyes across the nearly empty concert hall, and minutes later we were making out in the parking lot.
We exchanged phone numbers, and he soon called and asked me out to dinner. I was twenty-two, and he was twenty and reckless. When we ate out, he would sneak whiskey into restaurants in apple-juice bottles. He got pulled over twice driving my car and once backed it into a pole.
Sometimes we went swimming in a secluded Adirondack lake. The first time we stripped off our clothes to get in the water, I noticed that Macon didn’t remove the cross he wore around his neck.
“You don’t want to take off your necklace?” I asked.
“I never take it off,” he said. “A man gave it to me when I was in rehab.” Then he dove into the lake.
Later I heard the rest of the story: In his teenage years Macon had struggled with depression, anxiety, and bulimia. One day his mother found him passed out on his bedroom floor. He’d swallowed too many painkillers for his skinny body to handle. She sent him to rehab in Arizona. After a six-month stay, Macon moved to the Adirondacks to live with his sister, and that was where he’d met me.
The second time we went swimming, Macon picked me up after my waitressing shift, and I could tell right away he’d been drinking. He was slurring his words.
We drove to Lake Placid Beach. It began to rain, but that didn’t stop us. I took off my clothes at the dock and jumped in. I didn’t have a bathing suit or a towel or anything. Macon stood naked on the dock and drunkenly announced that there were things I didn’t know about him, things he needed to tell me.
“So tell me,” I replied.
He just stood there and cried, “I have to tell you all the things you don’t know!”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Come swimming.”
By now it was pouring, and the air had turned cold. Macon’s bare skin was covered with goose bumps. He dove in and came up fast for air, breathing heavily as he swam toward me.
“There is so much you don’t know about me,” he said.
I told him it was OK. We had time. He could tell me everything later. “Right now, let’s just swim.”
We circled each other, our fingers touching. I kissed his forehead several times and told him I loved him. Afterward we went back to his apartment and took a shower. He cried and fell asleep in my arms, never having told me what he’d wanted to say.
A month later we broke up, and Macon boarded a plane for Puerto Rico. I haven’t seen him since. Sometimes I wonder what it was he wanted to tell me.
Lake Placid, New York
After my parents divorced, my eccentric professor father bought a house half a block from the Monterey Bay and swam in the ocean nearly every day. For a while I lived up the street and would join him.
Even on the hottest days the water was cold, but we never wore wet suits. In fact, my father never wore any suit at all, much to the consternation of the neighbors. He often walked out the front door and down the street with just a towel around his waist. I did wear a suit, plus a bathing cap for warmth.
We would lay our towels on the sand, dive in, and swim out about half a mile, beyond the kelp beds. Then we’d float on our backs and laugh at all the silly people on the shore who didn’t know what they were missing. More than once, Coast Guard helicopters hovered over us just to make sure we were OK. We waved them off, then swam back and returned to our respective houses for a hot shower. I would frequently berate my dad for his “exhibitionist tendencies,” but he would just shake his head and wonder aloud how anyone could swim in clothing, for God’s sake.
One afternoon, when I arrived at his house for our evening swim, he emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist, as usual.
“You’ll be so pleased,” he said. “I have finally purchased a bathing costume.”
I was surprised. Had he suddenly become modest, now that he was almost eighty?
Then he whipped out a bathing cap, pulled it over his thinning silver hair, and strutted down to the beach, his towel slipping just enough to reveal that he wasn’t wearing anything else.
Santa Cruz, California
When my parents dropped me off at the Elks Lodge pool for my class’s eighth-grade graduation party, I was both excited and scared. Though I spent my summers at the beach, I still didn’t know how to swim.
My classmates gathered around the pool while Sister Rose Eileen told us to have fun but not to get too rowdy. Here she cast a gaze at the other boys and me that only a nun can give.
I jumped into the shallow end, hoping I could just stay there, but it didn’t take long for my friends who could swim to call for me to join them. I went and stood beside the deep end. Maybe if I jumped in close enough to the side, I thought, I could get out before anyone noticed I couldn’t swim. I did a cannonball, and it worked, so I did several more. When I came up from the last one, however, the edge of the pool was beyond my reach.
I kicked my legs every which way only to inch farther out. The lifeguard must have seen the terror on my face because she got down on her knees, grabbed my hand, and pulled me from the water. She was a beautiful teenager, and my heart pounded with both relief and embarrassment. I’d never even held a girl’s hand before.
After I’d climbed from the pool, one of the other boys asked how I’d gotten the cute lifeguard to pay attention to me.
“Easy,” I said. “I pretended that I needed help.”
Long Beach, California
My dad was a gifted swimmer. He competed in ten-mile races when he was a child during the Great Depression and also swam in YMCA leagues. No one in our state could beat him in the hundred-yard backstroke.
Once, when we were vacationing at Lake Erie, I noticed him standing at the water’s edge and staring across the lake. I asked what he was looking at.
“You see those two kids out there on inner tubes?” he said. They were several hundred yards offshore. “They can’t swim. I’m waiting in case I have to go get them.” He said this in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. I knew he would have done it.
Another time, at the pool, I was swimming with a group of kids my age — around nine — when a teenager began pushing smaller boys underwater and holding them there. My father swam over and said to the bully, who was muscular and taller than he was, “If you do that again, I will drown you.” I had heard this tone from my dad before: no anger, just a simple statement. The bully left quickly.
Again I thought my father would have done it, but I also knew he would have resuscitated the boy afterward.
After I had completed Red Cross swimming lessons at our municipal pool in the 1950s, my mother announced that, as a reward, she would take my friend Ramon and me to the private pool several miles outside of town. We were eight and excited to be making the rare trip. First she went to Montgomery Ward and purchased us real beach towels, onto which she sewed pockets. Into each pocket she tucked a dollar bill for buying snacks at the pool’s concession stand.
On the big day Mom and I picked up Ramon and listened to him talk about what he would buy with his dollar: Big Hunks, Boston Baked Beans, Creamsicles. When we arrived, my mother went to pay our admission at the counter, but the bare-chested man behind it gazed down at Ramon and me and said, “Sorry, ma’am. Spics can’t swim here.”
Ramon and I were confused. “Spics”? My mother snapped her purse shut and ushered us back to the car. Once we were seated in the back seat, swaddled in our still-dry beach towels, she said, “You can’t swim here today because that man is very, very dangerous.”
When I met Sharon in my mid-forties, I felt sure I’d finally found a woman who loved travel and adventure as much as I did. We dated for a while. Marriage seemed to be the next step. One Friday night we made plans to meet some friends at a bar. The place wasn’t far, so I suggested we ride bikes. Sharon agreed but took a long time getting ready. In fact, she seemed to be stalling.
“Can we go slow?” she asked as we rolled the bikes away from the garage.
I said of course, thinking maybe she’d hurt herself on the Stairmaster at the gym the day before. Then she admitted: she didn’t know how to ride a bike.
I owned seven bicycles and sometimes even dreamed about them. My heart sank as I imagined us walking everywhere. Could I really marry this person?
We spent the next thirty minutes going slowly up and down the block while she gained confidence. “I think I can make it,” she said, “but I definitely cannot turn left.”
Six months later, for Sharon’s birthday, I planned a romantic getaway in Bermuda. Soon after we got there, we donned our swimsuits and headed for one of the island’s famous beaches. Looking luminous in her bikini, Sharon waded with me into the clear-blue water until we were waist deep. I pulled her close, kissed her cheek, and said, “Let’s hold hands and dive in together.”
Sharon screwed up her expression and said she didn’t want to get her face wet. I thought her makeup might be the problem, but then I realized she wasn’t wearing any. Something wasn’t right. I asked why she didn’t want to dunk her head in the water.
“Because,” she said, “I don’t really know how to swim.”
My new husband took me to his home country of Albania to meet his many relatives. I didn’t speak their language, so all I could do was shake hands and smile.
One day we took a trip to the coast with a friend of my husband’s who spoke a little English. His wife did, too. They were pleasant, but I didn’t feel like helping them practice their language skills. I did enough teaching at the school where I worked.
When we got to the beautiful white-sand beach, I saw an island in the distance and asked my husband about it.
“That’s Corfu,” he said. It was part of Greece.
I asked how far away it was, and he said at least several miles.
I enjoyed swimming and had never swum in an ocean this bright shade of aquamarine before. I plunged into the surf and began to swim for the island. Exhilarated, I felt as if I could do anything.
My husband yelled for me to stop, but I didn’t. To be in water that blue, far from my unstable job, my estranged family and friends, and all the bad memories of my past — it was a thrill I couldn’t find a word for in any language.
I didn’t make it all the way to Corfu, but I kept going until I had reached a closer island. Later, when I returned to the beach where my husband and his friends were waiting, they shook their heads and asked, “Didn’t you see the sharks?”
I am the youngest of eight children. My gray-haired father was sometimes mistaken for my grandfather. He died when I was fourteen, and my memories of him are vague. He had rough hands from manual labor and dressed in flannel shirts and cardigans. He often scowled, but he cared about his children.
When I was thirteen, I was on my school’s swim team, and my dad volunteered to be a timekeeper at my meets. I was shocked because he was not the volunteer type. Every Sunday afternoon, while the other dads sat on the bleachers listening to football games on portable radios, mine was behind the starting block with a stopwatch in hand.
I was the only team member in my age group who could compete in the butterfly stroke. One Sunday I was flying through the water, making my fastest time to date, when, on my final lap, I sucked in a mouthful of water and lost my rhythm. Coughing and choking, I gave up on the butterfly and finished with a combination dog paddle and sidestroke to keep my head above water and avoid touching the bottom, which would have disqualified me. After the other swimmers finished, the crowd waited in silence for me to complete the race. The lane seemed to go on forever. When I finally touched the side of the pool in last place, my dad pulled me out with such force it was as if three men had taken hold of me. Not caring that I dripped water all over him, he hugged me to his chest.
North Tonawanda, New York