I’m five and my swim class group is three levels below “Guppy.” While others are “Swordfish” and “Stingrays,” my day camp doesn’t even give us an aquatic creature name: we are “Basic Beginner – non-swimmers.” I visualize myself in “Pre-Guppy” or maybe one day “Guppy,” and eventually “Starfish.”But my little body won’t float or retain heat long enough to stay in the water for an entire swim lesson.
I cling to pool gutters during swimming lessons and birthday pool parties, watching dead insects and lost highly personal objects float past. After years and years, I learn to tread water a bit away from the side.
I’m in my second year of “Basic Beginner,” and the counselors line the whole camp up along the wall of the indoor pool, lights and chemicals casting an evil green glow. Other campers joke about doing cannonballs and swan dives, while I try to hide my abject terror.
“You jump off the edge and swim to the counselor in the water. That’s it,” says Counselor Dave.
“Wait, we have to swim, too? What if we can’t swim?” I ask in a panic.
“We’ll catch you or get you,” he says. “Don’t worry, we won’t let you drown.” He is laughing.
I am not.
The line dwindles too fast and suddenly I’m on the diving board. A counselor I do not know waits a million feet below in the water. I turn around to escape but another strange counselor stands blocking the way down, shooing me forward toward the water. I walk forward. I am trapped and the only way out is death.
I can’t remember my moment of gumption, decision, release but, once I jump, the panic is gone. I stay under for what feels like forever in never-ending water, surrounded by silence and loneliness as the strange counselor’s arms don’t catch me. I try to swim, move my arms, my body, something…but I sink. I sink. It’s a stupid way to die, but I don’t know how to get myself to the surface. I can’t find the counselor or air, and all I can do is wait, paralyzed, for whatever comes next.
The counselor dives down and grabs me, pulls me up, and swims me to the side. My tiny frame always shakes when I come out of the water, but this time it isn’t from the cold.
I am eight years old and sitting on the ottoman at Amanda Shaker’s house during her birthday party. The rest of the girls are on couches and real chairs, but I don’t notice. I do notice that my best friend Diana and I are the only two here who aren’t part of Amanda’s Cool, Popular, Powerful Clique. Diana used to be Amanda’s best friend before I moved literally in-between the two of them, each half a block away in either direction.
Diana, Amanda and I walk to school together every day, and Amanda tells Diana not to talk to me. For the two blocks between our houses and the school, Diana obeys. At this party, the other girls stick to topics I don’t understand: inside jokes, popular music, and PG-13 movies their parents let them watch. Not one of them talks to me. I know I am trapped here for the next several hours, awkward and alone.
Amanda’s mom, the other outcast of the group, is watching us. Even at eight I’m more comfortable with adult-esque topics, like books and classical music and random ideas in my head. I don’t know how to interact with my supposed peers and I can’t tell if Amanda’s mom is interested in our conversation or simply feels sorry for me, but I talk to her for the rest of the party.
I wish I’d stayed home.
I’m thirteen and it’s my first summer at sleep-away camp. It’s the very first week so the counselors assign our swim lesson levels by dumping us off the doc, into the lake, and telling us to swim two lengths any front stroke, and then two lengths any back stroke. As bassoonists and frumpy musical theater majors alike zip past, I manage to dog paddle a half-length, and smack between the two piers, before I’m too exhausted to go on. I’m stuck, able to keep treading water but unable to propel myself in any direction. I am paralyzed. I realize I’m going to drown without help but am too humiliated to say anything until the waves start to splash over my face.
“Excuse me!” I call out.
“Oh!” is all the lifeguard responds.
“I’m stuck!” I say.
“Oh,” she says again. She stands and frowns, “Do you need me to come and get you?”
“Yes, I think so.” I pause to fight the water, “Yes.”
I tread the best I can, slipping lower and lower as I thrash harder and harder until she’s there. Life preserver in hand, she pulls me back to the pier. I climb out on my own, sufficiently exhausted and humiliated.
I’m eighteen with my friends in the basement of my first off-campus house party at Oberlin College. As a school without a “Greek system,” this is as close as we get to a frat party. We are in the basement because the beer is in the basement. Jenny, a former cheerleader and future rocket scientist, is leading our group in keg stands. I like good beer, but this tastes terrible and I don’t think I can consume enough of it to stop caring how terrible it tastes. I’m humiliated as I watch the boy I’m in love with flirt with other girls. I want to throw up. I go back upstairs.
Every room has a different color of Christmas light, even though it’s months from Christmas. Maybe the theme is a play on light? I don’t want to be here, but this is what my group did tonight and I paid no attention to where we were walking, assuming I’d be with the bunch when we walked home. I find an empty spot on an alley-rescued couch in the living room and sit and watch people come in and out for what seems like hours. A few random upperclassmen talk to me, and one brings me a better beer from the kitchen – maybe he felt sorry for the awkward girl alone on the sofa.
When Jenny, Hannah, and some of the guys are sufficiently drunk and tired, we leave in a group. I feel even more alone.
I’m fourteen and the summer before my freshman year I take Health Ed and Swimming at the high school. My swim teacher recently graduated as a multi-event team star and knows how to teach the extreme basics of stroke form. By the end of the summer my freestyle can get me from one end of the pool to the other. It’s sloppy and inefficient but, technically, I can swim. My backstroke is infinitely stronger than anything I can do with my front. I feel comfortable with the backstroke variations and happily zip around the pool. When my family goes on vacation this summer, I proudly jump in the crowded hotel pool and swim around backwards, running into strangers, for a very long time.
Mara Sigman makes things with words, wallpaper, yarn, googly eyes, and random crap from the dollar store. When possible, she sells vintage home décor in an online shop. She is exceptionally grateful for the dogs in her life. Some humans, too.