Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
One of the great ironies in my life is how much I love water, and, yet, how very afraid I am of it. I can’t swim, you see. I can float on my back, if I concentrate very, very hard. I can also do a very flailing doggy paddle that sort of gets me from one place to another. I can also do the survival float, which is something you learn in case you are ever dropped out a boat and are unable to swim yourself to safety. I put everything I had into that task because I can’t swim, and I knew, I just knew, that someday this would happen to me and the difference between me pulling an Ophelia and lasting long enough to be pulled from the water would be my ability to survival float until help came.
(Slightly off-topic, but that movie Open Water? KILLED ME. Not so much for the sharks. I mean, yeah, the sharks were bad. But the water! All that water! And having to stay afloat in it for all of that time! I started hyperventilating about half an hour in and didn’t stop until it was over. And it wasn’t a happy ending, either. THANKS, MOVIE.)
They say the average adult human female is 55% water. That’s more than half. So a person, you’d think, would float, on their own, wouldn’t they? I mean, that’s just science, right?
In third grade, we started swimming classes. Our school was one of the lucky ones with a pool, and they started us early. Once a week, instead of gym class, you had swimming class. Now, this is not a problem, when you are in third grade. However, once puberty hits (and is kinder to some than others), imagine having to be in your swimming gear in front of your peers. You have no baggy clothes to hide behind. Your perfectly poufed 80’s Aqua-Net helmet of hair is ruined for the day. You stink of chlorine (and your eyes burn, because the levels of chlorine were off-the-charts in that goddamn thing.) And, if you’re me, you can’t see anything, because you have the vision, without your glasses, of a 90-year-old, pre-cataract surgery.
It didn’t take the gym teacher long to realize I was not going to be a star student. She gave us all swimming aptitude tests, and, based on how well you did, you were sorted into groups – Beginners, Advanced Beginners, Intermediates, and Advanced. I could not make it across the pool, short-ways, with a kickboard. I was put in the Beginners group. The Beginners group was, at first, a decent-sized one. We stayed in the shallow end, and, basically, our tasks involved learning to swim without the kickboard.
This wasn’t really an option for me, because I refused to take my hands off the edge of the pool. It was only four feet deep, but I knew about riptides. I just knew if I took one single step away from the edge, I would get sucked into the deep end, and that would be the end for me. I also refused to get my face wet, because every time I did, I ended up inhaling water and coughing like a patient in the lung cancer ward.
Now, as an adult, I can look back on this in two ways: one, I was being a gigantic baby, and two, I think I was having a panic attack. The baby thing – yeah, I was. I totally was. I was scared, I refused to try anything new, even when the teacher promised me I’d be safe, and I just stood there and dug my feet in at the edge and wouldn’t move. The other kids just hated me. I held up lessons with my tantrums. So yeah, I was a little douche. But two – I was genuinely petrified. To the point of vomiting before swimming class, it scared me so badly. I would shake the minute I walked into the pool hallway. My stomach still clenches up now when I smell chlorine in an enclosed space. So I’m going to say it was about 60/40 – 60% genuine, balls-to-the-wall panic-induced stress disorder of some sort, and 40% general childhood douchery.
(Also, it bears noting that I am stubborn. Insanely so. If I don’t want to do something, and I can find a way to NOT do the something, I will not do it. I just grit my teeth and refuse. I am a two-year-old having a hissy fit, even now, when I am not wanting to do something. So getting me to let go of the tiled edge of that pool of death was not happening.)
The gym teacher – it was a small school, and she was our teacher from elementary school to senior year – never 100% gave up on me, although she did, after a while, realize I wasn’t ever going to win any swimming competitions. There was a day when we all had to jump in the deep end. Just jump in. We didn’t have to swim anywhere. I don’t know what this was supposed to teach us, or prove. But when it got to my turn, I just stood there, frozen, until she finally told me, gently, I could sit this one out. I gave her a bit of a hard time, back in the day, but all in all, she wasn’t a bad person. And, as mentioned, I was guilty of douchery. I can’t deny that.
By freshman year of high school, the Beginners class was down to me, a transfer student who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet (no pun intended) and was also as blind as I was without his glasses, and one of the special-needs students who came to class with us. No one else even used the shallow end. They were my brethren, those two. We would grip the wall and hold on for dear life and watch the clock tick off the minutes until we could get out of the water and have another six days until we had to do it all over again. I don’t think we talked much. Once and a while, one of us would halfheartedly try something with the kickboard, then look sadly at one another, sigh, and go back to gripping the wall.
One day, the gym teacher was absent, and we had a substitute. She was robust. She was young, energetic, and she took no guff. She told us, immediately upon entering the pool, that we’d be diving off the diving board that day. My two comrades-at-arms and I went to the shallow end to hang out while everyone did this and she screamed, “Where are YOU THREE GOING?”
By “we’ll be diving off the diving board today,” she meant we would ALL be jumping off the diving board today. Not just the Advanced Beginners on up; all of us. Including myself and the other two guys who couldn’t swim.
Kids started diving, having the time of their lives, because we weren’t ALLOWED to use the board. That board was for the SWIM TEAM. This was exciting! And forbidden! I kept moving to the back of the line. Maybe we’d run out of time before it got to my turn. Maybe something would happen. Someone could drown; it happened all the time on the nightly news. Maybe there would be a fire drill. Something could happen. The powers that be intervened, sometimes, right? That happened, right?
Then, my turn. No one left but me. Somehow, the other two kids in the Beginners had already gone (or maybe passed out and been carted off; I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but my own over-loud heartbeat at that point.) The other students, standing around the edge of the pool, all leggy and lovely, started talking amongst themselves in hushed tones. They didn’t like me much, but they were well aware that I DID NOT SWIM. I mean, how could they not be? We’d been in the same swimming classes for almost a decade.
“Well?” Sub said, bright eyed and avid.
“I don’t swim,” I said. I was starting to shake. I couldn’t even get myself to climb the ladder.
“Everyone swims. Get up there.” I didn’t move. “Class, look at this! She’s too scared to climb the ladder! Come on, baby, everyone can swim!”
I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I stood at the base of the ladder, petrified, frozen, my eyes closed, wishing for the earth to open up, for something to happen. The regular gym teacher would not have allowed this. This was – this had to be illegal, right? For an adult to do this? In front of everyone? To not only force me to jump to my death, but to mock me?
One of the popular kids piped up. “Um, she doesn’t? Swim, I mean? She can’t. She can’t even swim without a kickboard. She doesn’t even go in the deep end.”
Sub rolled her eyes. “Fine. Jump in from the edge, then.”
I moved the few steps to the edge, but couldn’t make myself jump. I couldn’t. The water was too deep. I would sink. I would sink and drown. In this stinking, chlorinated, peer-pressure hell.
She walked over, briskly. “You won’t jump in?”
I shook my head no. The other children were, at this point, embarrassed for me. Which is possibly worse than being made fun of.
“This is nonsense. You can swim. Everyone else jumped in. A big girl like you, acting like a baby.”
Sub then, cocking her arms back, planted them in the center of my shoulderblades and shoved me into the deep end of the pool.
I sank. Like a stone. When I finally bobbed to the surface, I could hear screaming, the other kids around the edge of the pool. I gasped for breath and went back under almost immediately. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to fix this. I was flailing and splashing and aware enough to be thinking, rationally, so this, this is what it’s like to drown. I didn’t think it would be so bright. I didn’t think it would be so loud.
The next time I surfaced, something smashed me where my neck meets my shoulder. Bright electric pain shot up into my head and down my arm. I grabbed at whatever it was. They say people who are drowning will pull you down; they will. I can attest to that. Because I pulled Sub, who was attempting to save me with the aluminum pole used for that purpose (and doing a bang-up job of almost knocking me unconscious with it) right into the pool with me. I bear-hugged her. I wrapped myself around her like an anaconda. If I was going down, goddammit, this bitch was going down with me.
She somehow managed to haul me to the edge and get me out, where I sat, dripping, gasping, crying. She shook water off of herself, glaring at me, at her ruined clothing.
“You should have told me you couldn’t swim,” she hissed. “Get up and get changed. You’re done here.”
She didn’t come back. That was the last time she subbed for us. I don’t know if she was fired, or if she quit. I didn’t report her. The grapevine in a school is vicious; I’m sure the word got around what she’d done. Times were different then. Now she’d probably end up in jail on assault charges. Then, teachers were afforded a little more leeway. I just know she didn’t come back, and that our regular teacher never made me go in the deep end again. And that, surprisingly, to their credit, the other students didn’t mock me. I guess my near-death experience had saved me from that.
I think back about this sometimes. I think, this couldn’t have happened like this. I do tend to put a spin on events; maybe I made it up and it didn’t happen at all? Maybe I fell in? Maybe she bumped me by accident? Memory is a funny thing, and I’ll never be accused of being a completely reliable narrator. All I can say is, this is how I remember it went down. This is what I remember happened to me. If it didn’t happen this way, blame my brain; lack of oxygen can play funny tricks, sometimes. If my body is 55% water, is my memory only 55% accurate?
I still don’t swim. I love the water, though. I love the ocean; I love lakes, rivers, mud puddles. I’ll even get into the water, sometimes, but I won’t go over my head. Why court disaster? I walked away from it once. I can’t imagine I’ll be as lucky the second time.