By Monica Welty
Strong currents of chlorinated, blue silk push against my body and I push right back. I also pull. We work with and against each other: me pushing forward, the water sliding back along my body. Spiraling and bubbling in my wake and then calming until I flip and come back again, heading in the opposite direction. I cup my hand to grab a swirling ball, like a wizard’s spell in his open palm. On land, water cupped in my hand drips down between the crevices of my fingers but in the water, I grab hold of it and use it to my advantage.
I love the muffled world under here. Even though I can’t breathe, it feels as if my chest is heaving like a track and field sprinter. Even though I can’t feel the sweat pouring off me, the salinated beadlets are instantly dissolving into this chemical-laden universe. Even though I feel as sleek and strong as any sea mammal, my skin, my temples, my thighs are pulsing and burning from the hot blood flow of my movement. Until I turn my head to put my ear to the bottom of the pool, all I hear is a tamped down world and the heavy breathing I am not doing. Then, I hear my quick gasp for air, my lifeline, the moment that both fuels me and slows me down. Back into muffled bliss, I feel more keenly the splashing water on my forearm and elbow as they leave the water momentarily in my flurry.
I’m here but not here. Everything has a greater softness. I can take things in more easily. Sensations are muted. Words are gentler. I can process them slower and more efficiently when I have to listen harder and decipher longer. In this water, in this silk, in my other world, I get a little break from all that shit on land that makes no fucking sense.
My legs are the strongest and I kick hard and small and fast and hardly notice their effort. My arms, I have to think about. I have to feel how hard they work to keep up with my speed. I have to know the exact moment to grab that swirling ball before I throw back into the nothing it came from. I have to look down. Watching the black line underneath me. Measuring my strokes to the wall after that line ends in a long ’T’ with a short top. And then flip. I hate flipping. Coach is always on me about not taking a breath right before I flip but it’s terrifying if I don’t. I feel I will drown in the breath-stroke-stroke-flip-pushoff-glide-stroke-breath rhythm of it. I can’t be under that long but I don’t want to hear his unmuffled yelling in my ear as I turn to breathe right before I flip. I don’t want to disappoint him. So I don’t breathe and I panic and I feel I will drown. But I swim fast and he loves that. And so do I. I love to feel my body as a machine. A living, breathing machine. Integrated and working together. Using technique and strength, both of which I’ve acquired with measure and practice and order.
I am 13 years old. I am already so damaged. Already so ready to die. Soon, I will go to the mental hospital because even not breathing in the quiet fierceness of my strokes won’t save me. But not today. Today, I cried and cried and cried and I just can’t anymore. Today, I have had enough. Enough of the boyfriend I am too young to be having sex with who has broken up with me. Enough of the creeping suspicion that he and my best friend have an eye on each other. Enough of the girls at school who once were my friends before the invisible lines of who’s cool and not cool were drawn and I found myself staunchly on the wrong side. Enough of the silent rage between my mother and brother. Enough of never feeling safe. Enough of never feeling seen or heard or believed. Enough of doubt and confusion and shame.
I showed up for the meet because that’s what we do. My parents and grandparents have taught me in a million different ways that we show up, we keep our word, we take serious our commitments. I am numb and cold and defeated as I pull my racing suit onto my no-longer-child/not-yet-woman body. It is purposely too small and incredibly tight, a second skin, creating as little drag as possible in the water. My bare feet splash droplets of cold water from puddles on the pokey, gray floor until my toes curl around the smooth tile of the pool’s edge. I dunk my latex cap into the cool, chemical ocean, filling it like a heavy, black balloon, and dump it back out. I wrench it over my thick, brown hair. I tuck the ends into the back of it so there is a hard, tight bun on the the nape of my neck and the cap snaps tight around my skull. I dunk my goggles, lick the inside of the lenses to prevent fogging and squish them around my eyes, suctioned to the ocular bones. I swing my arms in huge circles and pull them, one at a time across my chest. Routine and ritual, even when done dully and at the worst of times, still provide me something. Something to rely on. Something unchanging and sure. If not everything else, then this: pull, snap, squish, go. I walk to the block and climb up. It is rough, white stucco under my bare feet. I stand there cold in my small suit, wrapping my arms tightly around my own waist, shifting my weight to one side, looking down into the deep, blue water.
“Who the fuck cares?”, I think as I reach down to grab the edge of the block between my feet, sharp edged plastic with cold water drips. I look out onto the calm, clear water, lane markers bobbing and the shot rings out through the dank air in the cement room of the school pool. I push off hard from the balls of my feet, I snap my body in the air in a sharp undulation like Coach taught me. “Fuck it”, I whisper. As I tuck my chin and just before my prayer hands break the surface, upper arms tight against my ears.
Cold and clear and smooth, the water opens for me and I glide forever until I swim. I don’t think about anything, really, for the time in the pool except how much I just don’t give a shit anymore. I push/pull myself through the water. Don’t dare to breathe before the turn, “Who the fuck cares?”, push off and head back the other way.
I have had enough. I already know that I don’t belong in this world. I am an alien in a strange land. I might someday come to know it, its customs and mores, but I will never feel at home here. I breathe as little as possible, think about my arms, let my legs do their work, heave and toss the invisible ball. I smash both hands into the end of the pool and come up for air, panting, pulsing, hot, and sweaty. I fold my arms on the cold cement edge of the pool and rest my forehead there. Bowed head, breaking the surface back into this world. I wait.
The announcer calls times and I look up. I watch, as if in slow motion, as Coach leans back in his plastic chair, balancing his full weight only on two legs, throws both of his fists into the air like Rocky Balboa and exclaims “YES!”. I won the race and beat my best previous time by two seconds, a lifetime in swimming.
I never forget that exclamation of triumph and pride from the man who yells into my right ear every practice, following me up and down the far lane, the fast lane. I never forget the first time that I was doing something awesome, something impressive, something record-breaking and had no idea I was doing it. Just swimming for my life. Just taking the energy it took to wave the white flag, to get to “enough”, and turning it into a force.
When Monica Welty’s son died, she started to write. Six months later, when she learned of her subsequent infertility, she kept on writing. Six months after that, when her marriage ended, she fell off a cliff, at the bottom of which she kept on writing. After clawing her way back to the surface, she co-wrote a performance piece called “Beloved: A Story of Loss and Love” and is currently working on a memoir. You can read more at her blog at harveythehero.com, learn about Beloved at belovedpdx.net. and hear her storytelling on the Risk! Podcast, Best of Risk! #9 episode. Monica works as a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon. She is crazy in love with an amazing lady and is mother and step-mother to two living daughters, two tiny dogs, and one fat cat.