By Kate Fussner
In the summer, when I was growing up, there was only one test that ever mattered. I’d wait all year for it, suit up on the first day of summer, and arrive at the community pool ready to prove that I was capable of the deep end. Every summer, from the time that I learned to swim, I earned the bright red elastic on the first try and sported it everywhere, as if to declare, This is what I can do. During the school year, I was always keenly aware that I was heavier than the other kids. But in the summers, in the pool, I was powerful and weightless. I dove for plastic rings. I swam laps for fun. I imagined I was a mermaid, a dolphin, a glimmer of light. I was meant to be in the water.
When I started overnight summer camp on a lake in Maine, the stakes were raised. I earned my deep end privileges instantly but there was a greater prize: forty lengths of the dock earned campers the right to swim with an adult to the uninhabited islands in the middle of China Lake. Although the test intimidated most campers, to me it was a welcome challenge. I passed it, with ease, and waited eagerly for the days when the counselors called us few to swim beyond the worn ropes that enclosed us.
There were so few of us who could swim to the islands, and so few that even wanted to once we passed, as those on shore knew it meant leaving behind precious moments to play cards or make friendship bracelets with the friends we only saw during summer. For me, I craved that solitary time in the lake. These moments in the water were almost meditative. I thought of the strokes. I thought of my breathing. I thought of the quiet, untouched shore I’d reach. I thought about what a gift it was that this was what my body could do.
When I reached the shore, tired but energized, I hesitated to rest. I loved that I could see right through the bottom, because the water there was undisturbed by the playful raucous of the eighty-five campers back by the camp’s shore. I didn’t fear stepping on rocks or worry that if I stopped moving, I’d be too tired to return. I tread water in those moments because I didn’t want the time there to end. I worried, somehow, that if I got too comfortable with the subtle silences between birds and the power of an unmanned island all to ourselves, I’d break the spell and a counselor would say that we needed to return. Treading by the shore, floating on my back, I held the moment and the sky, and thought, This is what I can do. Swimming back, I slowed myself to linger in the open waters. I wanted to hold onto this inexplicable feeling of belonging in my body.
That fall, after my first summer of island swims, I begged my parents to let me return. Five hundred miles had been a far drive, yes, and there were definitely closer summer camps, but I missed my island. The community pool had nothing on those unrestricted moments to myself. When a sudden diagnosis of undetected, severe scoliosis meant I had to spend my winter having corrective surgery and wearing a suffocating plastic brace, I became depressed. My parents agreed to let me go back to camp, because they wanted me to feel normal again. I bartered to leave the brace at home and promised I’d be careful.
On that first return to the waterfront, I thoughtlessly removed my shirt and prepared to go swim the island test. I wanted desperately to feel the weightlessness that I had missed in the months when I couldn’t hold myself up without the brace. But kids, in their curiosity, can be cruel and shuddered at the thick pink scar running down the length of my spine.
“What happened to you?” one kid asked.
“That looks disgusting,” another continued.
As an adult now, I know that what must have scared them most was the frightening sense that this too could have happened to them. But as a kid, I cried. I took the test because I was too proud not to, but I barely swam after that. On the few days that I did swim, I kept my t-shirt on. It felt too heavy to drag through the water to the island, so I stayed on shore.
In the many summers that followed, I brought my shirt to the water’s edge and slipped it off at the last second. I felt different in the water: less strong, less free. Even when I joined the high school swim team, I bought suits that covered as much as possible and wore my warm-up jacket until just before I climbed the starting block, sweating my way to the race’s start in the humid indoor air. Races never felt like freedom, but they did help me build back my stamina. The very few times that I won my races, I felt wild jolts of surprise. How could I have won when my body still felt so heavy? I could not, it seemed, shake the weight of the wet t-shirt, the back brace, and the summers I spent on shore.
This summer, I started swimming laps regularly. I bought a new suit, joined a new pool, and decided to start most mornings with a swim. Perhaps it’s because my new suit covers my scar, perhaps it’s because it’s been seventeen years, but for the first time, in a long time, I’ve had brief moments of feeling weightless. Thinking only of strokes, only of breaths, only of the number lap I’m on, I start my days with this little affirmation: this is what my body can do.
Kate Fussner is an English teacher and writer in Boston, MA where she lives with her wife. Kate’s writing has been published on WBUR’s Cognoscenti, XOJane.com, and The Manifest-Station.