In second grade, my bearded teacher told us one afternoon that for the next two weeks, gym class would be at the pool. The other kids cheered. My stomach lurched. I went home, sat at the kitchen counter, and sobbed to my mother while she rolled raw chicken in breadcrumbs for dinner.
I can’t go back to school, I told her, over and over again. I hated swimming. I’d never learned how. And I was terrified.
Of course, I did go. My mother–god bless her–volunteered as some sort of locker room aid for those two weeks. I’d never seen her swim, but I reasoned that were I to sink to the bottom of the pool, she would save me.
At the shallow end, I sat on the watery steps with a styrofoam bubble strapped to my back while my classmates, free of flotation devices, frolicked and yelped–a chorus of chlorinated splashes I couldn’t understand.
Why was everyone having so much fun? I abhorred every minute of it. I got through those two weeks. Eventually, I learned to swim. Not for a moment did I ever like it; despite lessons and plenty of opportunities to become a decent swimmer. Always, in the water, I have felt ten-seconds-to-drowning.
Which is why, when I go to the beach every summer, I have a policy of not swimming in the ocean.
But last June, I was reeling from a terrible break up. At the beach one night, a bunch of my drunk friends decided to go skinny dipping in the ocean. I can’t drink because of my medication, so I wasn’t drunk. Still, didn’t want to be the same girl my boyfriend had broken up with that night. I wanted to be different. And so I went to the beach, took of my bathing suit and walked toward the water.
My feet froze. The waves screamed toward us. “Come on,” my friends shouted as they crawled out into the darkness, “Just swim out a little farther. It’s so much calmer out here.”
“In a minute,” I said, gathering my courage.
My feet were touching the sand. I was in the water. It was the middle of the night. I couldn’t believe I was there. My ex-boyfriend wouldn’t have believed it either.
This will show him, I thought to myself. I’m more adventurous than he ever knew.
Right then, a massive wave knocked into me and pummeled me ten feet forward. I somersaulted a couple of times, the water kicking me head first into the sand.
When I came up for air, I could barely breathe. One of my friends had seen it happen. He walked toward me and said, “You need to dive into the wave. You can’t just let it hit you. Here, I’ll show you.”
I considered it.
And then I shook my head and walked, bare-breasted and freezing, back to my towel.
I didn’t need to dive into the wave. And I didn’t need to go night swimming again. I’d proven to myself that I could do it. Hugging the terry cloth around my body, I walked back to the house, where it was safe and warm.