I never liked water. As a child, I didn’t have the luxury of it. Poor girls only learn the strokes necessary to keep from drowning.
As an adult, I learned to swim enough to take my children to the town pool, where they progressed from dunking faces to picking up pennies from the pool floor. I loved seeing their baby faces squeezed under goggles, pudgy mouths spilling water. Now, older, they snorkel with their father in the ocean, while I watch from the shore.
But now, as I enter the aquatic center, I breathe in the sweaty-sock smell of the building. I swipe my card at the desk and proceed to the locker room where I hang my clothes inside a plastic cubby. An elderly woman across the room struggles to fasten her bra. Her wrinkled rear hangs like tires from her bones. She smiles at me, and I nod.
I pull on my cap and goggles like an astronaut. I struggle against the water. My sloppy strokes move me forward without grace. I flail and gasp, fighting to keep from sinking. I notice the lifeguard rises in her chair, bracing herself, in case I need her. I laugh at myself underwater and choke on the bubbles but keep going.
I watch the clock between laps. I have a modest goal — 30 minutes without stopping, no matter how badly I swim. I try different strokes. Free style. Underwater. Breaststroke. I name my efforts but am not sure that what I do warrants the words. Backstroke. I align myself under the metal beam on the ceiling but swim in a crooked line anyway, scratching my arm against the plastic rope. On my back, I smell chlorine and cleaning products. My eyes lift to the atrium of steel and glass, an American flag, a scoreboard. The space must fill at times with competitors and spectators. But not now.
Only a few swimmers move across the pool in silence. Water gurgles down the slide at the far end of the room, where children must play after school. Red and white triangles mark the lap’s end, but I don’t stop in time and bump my head.
On my belly again, a rhythm settles into my stretching and turning. My elbow cocks for entry. My breath comes at even intervals somehow. Then, for a moment, I am buoyant. I float, glide without struggle. The expanse of blue suspends me. As I look up, a prism of light reflects through my goggles across the open space.
After the swim, I pick up my children from school. They drop their bags in the floor of the car. I hand them chips, oranges, and water.
“How was your day?” I say.
At home, I cut onions and potatoes, slide chicken thighs into the oven. My glass of wine clinks on the counter. The radio murmurs. The children chatter, bicker, ask for television. I drop plates into the dishwasher and follow a trail of bubbles from bathtub to bedroom. My daughter smells of lavender and toothpaste. I pull her blanket under her chin, click off her light and kiss her damp head.
“Thank you for everything good,” we say.
The dogs follow me to the TV room. My husband aims the remote.
“Did the carpenter come today?”
I tell him about the estimate for cabinets. He listens then returns to the game. I cover my legs with a quilt we bought at auction.
“You seem distant,” he says turning to me.
I notice his eyes are blue as pool water.
“What else did you do?” He rubs my foot.
I notice the quilt’s contrasting patterns — flowers, ants, stars, and vines.
“I went swimming.”
My voice fades behind the roar of a three-point play. I feel like I am sitting in the high bleachers, my husband on the sidelines.
“Hmm.” His eyes keep to the screen.
“I’m getting better.”
“Are you sick?” He focuses on me, concerned.
“Better at swimming,” I laugh.
I pick at the stitches, so intricate, so maddening. I think of the woman who must’ve made the quilt and wonder how many hours she struggled with needle and thread, putting the pieces together and making them hold.
In bed, I meet my husband’s lips and shut my eyes, but I am still swimming in thoughts. I think of chores, to-do lists, laundry, schedules — everything that seems to drown me in domesticity and keep me from moving forward. Then, I picture my body underwater, not sinking but free — hair flowing like ribbons on the wind, limbs reaching. It is then I realize that learning to swim has started something for me, a new journey, perhaps, a new way of thinking of myself. I suddenly sense the possibilities, ones I could not see before, as if the pool wall had lifted and released me to an expansive ocean.
Tomorrow, I will return. When I stand on the pool’s edge and look at my reflection, I will see myself, not as I once did before marriage and children, but as I am now, the heroine of my own story.