Browsing Tag

swimming

Guest Posts, travel

The Gravity of Human Life

August 4, 2021
sour

by Alexandra Steffgen

“Take me somewhere beautiful.” I requested of Sour, my dear friend and favorite tuk-tuk driver, one September evening. I was desperate to shirk my responsibilities for the next few hours in search of a different perspective. Earlier that day I’d walked through the school doors, and braced myself in the air-conditioned teachers’ lounge. I’d stood in classrooms with boarded up windows (the school director thought views of the busy street provided too much distraction), I’d fought to raise my voice above the ricocheting whispers, and assuaged the restlessness of the second graders with a word search puzzle. After four hours, I’d set out toward my second job, onto the uneven sidewalk where bits of jungle reached through the cracks, past pop-up restaurants and tuk-tuks hung with hammocks. I’d walked into the choking, melting heat, alongside the swerving, droning traffic until I’d reached the Greek restaurant. There, I’d changed out of my sweat-stained shirt and skirt, straightened the tables, and joined the kitchen ladies in the attic for salty kor stew. I’d watched as tourists passed under our electric blue awning, served them when they came in. When the boss, a tall Turkish man twice my age, stopped by, I’d swallowed as he told me, “You look like a sexy secretary in those glasses.”

When I finished my shift, I fought the urge to return home, knowing my boyfriend was probably sitting in our garden, getting stoned and drinking beer. I knew that the tension between us was drawn so tight that any wrong move would cause it to snap. Life was weighing me down, and I needed to be reminded of why I had forsaken a college education, a life in the US, to be an expat in Cambodia. I needed to be relieved from having to be strong six days a week, while I worked two miserable jobs that barely paid enough for me to afford rent and a frozen margarita on my day off. I needed to forget that my relationship was precariously balanced, that the thought of breaking up and having to make a new home by myself in a foreign country as a 20-year-old made my stomach hurt. I needed to be coaxed out of the confines of my mind.

Dust lifted at the sides of the tuk-tuk as Sour swung onto a red dirt road. The concrete of the city gave way to unruly foliage, splayed out palm trees, plots of land where kids played soccer. Trenches by the sides of the road revealed lounging water buffalo. A sinewy cow passed by so closely that I had to jerk my hand back from the armrest. The road came to an end where the flooded rice paddies began, and a row of wooden huts formed a barrier between land and water. Locals sat on overturned boats and reclined in hammocks, snacking on rice and crunchy shrimp cakes. They turned to look as we pulled up, and I could imagine them thinking, “Is that a barang, a white person?” Half-naked kids raced into the flooded rice paddy, seeking relief from the sticky warmth of the day. To our left, dark clouds gathered and spit out rain on the fields below. To our right, the sun shone. Two rainbows ran down the middle.

“This ok, Sister?” Sour turned around on his bike. “Perfect, Bong.” I answered, using the respectful word in Khmer for an older friend or relative. The languid locals, the double rainbow, the greens and blues and reds around me, they provided just the right dose of awe to pluck me from my inner pains and plant me right down in the presence of the evening. Sour stuck a thin cigarette in his mouth and approached a family sitting nearby. The woman threw her head back to laugh at something he’d said, her kids prodded each other toward a stand that displayed sugary snacks. I took a deep breath, craving the sense of abandon I’d felt on many of my travels. “Should we swim?” I asked Sour. Without waiting for an answer, I kicked off my flip-flops and waded in.

The mud was slimy under my feet, so I dove under, letting my own momentum carry me through the lukewarm water until my lungs begged me to resurface. Swimming had always brought me peace. As a kid, I’d spent my summer days splashing around in lake near to my house, emerging shivering and prune-y, hair plastered to my head. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d imagine I was plunging into a clear blue lagoon, letting the water relieve me of gravity’s pull, relieve me of the pull of human life. Sour took off his shirt and joined me. We got up the courage to plant our feet in the slippery mud, then watched the rainbows shimmer and taunt us with their ephemeral beauty. Sour took a photo of us, smiling with the joy of unplanned fun, a reminder that we were very much alive.

When I finally trudged to shore, the white and black striped skirt I’d worn to school showed no signs that it had once been white, my shirt dripped water the color of coffee with cream. I wrung out my clothes and enjoyed the breeze through their dampness on the ride back. At that point the sun had eked out its last rays, and the first stars appeared through the smog. Calm spread from my heart out toward my fingers and toes. As we rode, my clear mind began to sneak back to its darkest corners. I imagined the conversation my boyfriend and I might have that night, the look in his eyes when I told him about this outing. Suddenly, an image appeared, as if it had been dropped into my head. I was swimming in a river with my boyfriend, looking up at looming mountain peaks, letting the current sweep us along. Maybe it will all be ok.

That night, seated at our picnic table in the garden, watching the geckos shimmy up the doorframe, I told my boyfriend about the vision. “Usually when I see things like this it’s showing me the future. We will be together somewhere like that, I believe it. And I hope for it.” He scoffed and looked over my shoulder. “So we’re supposed to stay together just because you dreamed it?” Lying in bed a few minutes later, in the thin stream of air coming from the AC, I imagined I was diving back into the muddy water, shedding the gravity of the day, the gravity of the conversation.

Often the biggest moments in our life are disguised. They enter, seemingly innocuous, then prove to be earth-shaking. At least that’s what I would come to believe a few months later, lying in a hospital bed with an IV leaking into my arm. The words of my doctor in the US echoed in my head. For someone with Cystic Fibrosis, staying in Cambodia is, frankly, crazy. You picked up an E. Coli sinus infection from a flooded rice paddy, and you will only come down with worse. My boyfriend and I had broken up the night after the swim, in one of those fights that seems to escalate in slow motion, then suddenly explode, sending us careening towards the end of the world, then fizzling out in stony silence. With the help of friends, I’d moved into my own apartment, where I could shut the door on my adult burdens and dance with my solitude. Those same friends offered me temporary jobs, gigs that would pay the bills and allow me to escape from the misery of teaching and being underpaid by a creepy restaurant boss. With some distance from my former pains, I sought to make the most of what I’d soon find out would be my last months in Cambodia.

Two years later, that same boyfriend and I sat on the banks of the San Miguel river, except this time as husband and wife. The memory of him showing up at my apartment and falling into my arms, the memory of his promise to stick with me through my sickness, of his decision to sell his business, of the discussion on the plane flight back to the Western world with all our belongings in tow—they were all faded now. We had long since shed the gravity of my infection and the infusions in the local clinic, the flights to a hospital in Bangkok, the slow deterioration of my body, for a lighter reality. Outside the courthouse in the small ski town where we made our next home, we had promised to love each other forever. Then we’d sought out a private spot on the river, a place to sit and read our vows. Our silence now meant that we were both thinking of Cambodia, aching for it. We watched the swift current swirl around silvery trout. Rust-colored hillsides, dancing aspens, and craggy mountain peaks blurred on the surface of the water. And all the reds and greens, the blues and silvers, provided just the right dose of awe to pluck me from my inner pains and plant me right down in the presence of the afternoon.

Zanny Steffgen is a young woman who uses writing to explore her transition from life in the US to expat life in Cambodia, then the jarring return to the Western world. Her travel essays have been published on The Mindful Word and Verge Magazine, among other publications.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

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Divorce, Guest Posts

She Cannot Make It Out

September 22, 2020
water

By Stina French

He isn’t grieving but she imagines him grieving. Maybe he’s grieving. She dreams he is talking to others about her as if she is dead, though they are only divorcing. He says she loved the moon. She loved the moon so much she told our daughter her first word was moon. Though it maybe wasn’t. It made for a good story, and she loved a good story. A lot could be spared with one good story. He says she loved to swim. She loved to swim so much everyone said she was a mermaid. She loved the moon and she loved to swim so much that sometimes she would swim in the ocean at night. He says I was never so brave. He says she cried and cried. Sometimes she cried so much I thought the water she swam in was her tears. She knows he is no poet and would not speak this way.  But maybe in her dreams he is a poet. Maybe he would speak this way if she were dead.

In the dream, she is swimming in a vast sea cave. Other women swim with her. Some girls, some grown.  One watches her jealously or with desire. One doesn’t watch her at all, a small girl. Not her daughter but someone else’s daughter. Someone else’s mother, maybe one day. Surely, she will cry waters of her own making. Some breaststroke in straight lines, some backstroke in circles. This is what they know to do–to cut the water with their bodies. To make the water with their bodies.

She cuts the water with her body as if she could swim a story across and wide.  A story she could live inside. He is on the shore saying I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to help her stop crying. And she is shrinking now hearing these things. She would rather hear him talk about her love for the moon again. The way she is cutting the water with her body. He is holding their daughter. Their daughter she made herself with her body.

The daughter is laughing. He has given the daughter this, and she has given the daughter story. Story does not come without cost. Laughter is free and easy, as he is free and easy. She wonders why she wants him so badly to sink. And though he could not keep her afloat, he wants her there on the surface. He would not begrudge her a view of the moon, from any angle. He wants her alive and happy even if it means swimming alone without him under the moon at night. He does not understand the ocean under the moon at night because the things in the water at a certain depth scare him. He is on the shore saying more things about her as if she is dead, but it is so far now and she cannot make it out.

Now, there is only the story of water. It sloshes, dividing and rejoining. When she left him, maybe she was just parting the water. Maybe all these bodies in the water are parts of herself dividing and rejoining. Water fingers her hair, tugging tendrils into rays, a corona wet and waving. A crown for the Queen of the Unconstituted, Beloved Dissolved. Fluid surrender, shapes spells the moon could cipher if it were watching. Her pulse beats blood in ear canals, her red tide internal. She dreams she is not dead, only swimming. Only swimming beyond bereft, beyond the leaving of a life.

Stina French writes mystery, magic-realist memoir, flash fiction, and poetry. She has featured in many venues in Denver and Boulder, Co., and her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Punch Drunk Press, and on the podcast Witchcraftsy. She is scratching at the window of her body, writing poems like passwords to get back in. To get forgived. To get at something like the truth. To get it to go down easy, or at all. She wears welts from the Bible Belt, her mother’s eyes in the red fall. She’s gone, hypergraphic. Writes on mirrors, car windows, shower walls. Buy her a drink or an expo marker. She’s shopping her manuscript, Also Arc, Also Offering, a Southern-queerdo memoir in flash non-fiction and verse.

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Family, Guest Posts

Spinning: A Love Letter About Genetics, Written to My Son While He Played in the Swimming Pool

January 30, 2019
pool

By Amie Reilly

“Watch me, watch me” you yelled and in my head I started singing that pop song that came out a few years ago, the one you learned at summer camp and then taught yourself to play on the saxophone. The song wormed its way into my ears, sloshing around the same way water does after I swim.

You were spinning somersaults in the pool. Holding your nose while you did it, trying to do two in a row. I watched you (watched you, watched you), and counted your flips on one hand, the seconds you were underwater on the other. I still fear for your life the way I did when you were inside me, a fear that loomed larger after you were born and your skin stretched translucent over your skull.

There is a part of me that wishes you would stay above the water, where boy lungs belong. “I’m gonna try for three now,” you said. Your thumb and the knuckle of your pointer finger were still pinching your nose closed, the rest of your curled fingers blocked your smile. I used my hand to shield that old fool sun from my eyes. When you came up for air I clapped. Continue Reading…