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“Let’s go swimming!”
“Yeah, the pool cover’s off. It’s just in the backyard.”
And then my voice cuts through. “How… how deep is it?”
My friends pause, looking at me in bewilderment. It never occurred to them to worry about how deep the water is. They learned to swim when they were six and seven, maybe even five, if they were lucky.
I start to feel embarrassed, but my best friend saves me. “Um…about four and a half feet…I think,” Lauren says. She’s the only one that knows I can’t swim.
“Well, let’s go!” Liz says, impatient. She races out the door, not giving me a second thought. She’s actually younger than the rest of us because she skipped a grade. She should be in second grade, not third.
Jenine follows Liz, and Sarah rushes after them. “I…don’t feel much like swimming,” I say haltingly, imploringly staring at Lauren. She smiles, forced.
“That’s okay. I’ll play with you on the trampoline.”
Oh, Lauren. I feel guilty – she should be swimming in the pool with our friends, having a great time instead of babysitting her pathetic best friend that can’t even swim. “Well…if you want. You can play in the pool; I won’t mind,” I suggest quietly, staring at my toes that are hidden in the thick carpet.
“No, I want to play with you.” Lauren suddenly sprints out the door. “Race you!”
“Hey, no fair!” I shout, taking off after her.
As we leap around on the trampoline, I watch Sarah, Jenine and Liz splashing around in the pool, shrieking with laughter. I wonder what it feels like to have no fear of water.
All of this memory comes back to me in a rush of two seconds, and the nostalgic voices and sounds melt away as reality snatches me back again.
The pool is deep.
I breathe deeply, but shakily. The diving board is hard against my feet, and my toes slide to the very edge of the white plank that pushes its length precariously over the edge of the pool. The water is waving deeply, the surface wriggling with movement from the wind.
“Take a deep breath, I’m right here, and you’ve got your kickboard, nothing’s going to happen, just slide into the water. I’m right here, nothing’s going to happen,” my teacher coaches me with a simper. Yeah, right. I seriously doubt that she would save me if I started to drown.
The chlorine floats up from the pool and swims down my throat. I hate that smell. It reminds me of pools, because pools are deep, and deep is bad.
The other kids are darting around on their kickboards. They’ve already done it. It was so easy for them to just jump off the diving board into twelve feet of water so dark you can’t see the bottom.
I gulp. My stomach shakes with nervousness, and fear pinches at my lungs. I can’t breathe. No way am I jumping in that water. No. Way.
Suddenly my other teacher, the younger, meaner one comes up behind me. “Go!” she screeches, flapping her arms ridiculously. Loosey Goosey, her voice chants in my mind. She always tells us that when we’re floating on our backs. Loosey Goosey. She looks like a goose.
I’m pondering my fate, unable to tear my eyes from the water that is sure to drown me, when two hands clasp my back. In that moment, even though I am only six, I know what is going to happen. Sure enough, I fly through the air and I swear that I can hear the pool cackling happily at its catch. I claw at the air, trying to go anywhere but down as panic forces tears to my eyes.
I vow never to get on a diving board again as my teacher snickers behind me just before the water swallows me up in its dark blue fear.
That memory, as well, haunts me as I stand on the diving board. Come on, I tell myself. That was eight years ago. Get over it. But I never had gotten over it. For eight years, I had kept my promise, and today, I broke it.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I’m not quite as scared of deep water anymore. I did learn to swim when I was twelve, but I’d been telling my friends I could swim since I was ten. I quit telling them the truth when they made fun of me in front of my entire class. Only Lauren, Jenine and Sarah didn’t laugh when I told them. They offered to teach me, but I said no.
I could swim now. Oh, I could swim. I can backstroke beautifully, but the breaststroke gives me a little trouble. Freestyle I can do, as long as my head is above the water. My teacher, Jason, was excellent. My fear of water is almost gone.
Daddy treads water below me, calling out instructions. I point my hands together above my head. “Arch your back!” he calls. I arch. “Bend your knees,” I bend them, “and keep your head tucked in,” I tuck my chin towards my chest. “Good! Now jump.”
Jump. Just jump. So simple.
What am I so afraid of? If I start to drown, Daddy will save me. He’s a good, strong swimmer.
And yet, I remain terrified, unable to bring myself to jump from the diving board that I promised never to touch and fall headfirst into ten feet of water.
Anxiousness that isn’t quite fear gropes at my stomach, and I want to cry. But I haven’t cried in front of Daddy since I was seven, and that’s not about to change. Just do it, you spineless idiot!
I can’t. Someone has drawn a rope around my knees, pulling me back every time I tilt forward, prepared to jump. An invisible wall of unidentifiable fear is blocking me every time I lurch.
“I’m right here,” my dad calls. Yeah, I’ve heard those words before.
“Okay,” I answer in a very small voice that seems to stay in my mouth. I close my eyes as nervous spasms clutch my mind.
My knees flex, and my leg muscles tighten.
I jump, leaving the diving board flapping in the open air. The diving board, where I should be, with two feet on its solid surface, walking off of it, away from the white plank.
I can’t believe I jumped. I’m falling headfirst into ten feet of water. This is a mistake. I’ve just done something that I’ve been terrified of doing since I was six years old in the pool that was twelve feet deep in a building that reeked sourly of chlorine. And I’m still terrified of doing it…but I jumped. Like moron. I am so dead.
A small slap of horror stings my mind as the urge to cry tingles at my eyes in frustration. I want to go back. No! Not the water. Anything but the pool. Go back! Go back! I smack against the water, and stinging pain touches my hips and my legs. More or less, it was a bellyflop.
I come up spluttering, treading water. It took me three years to learn how to tread water, and I’m still not very good at it.
I sidestroke to the ladder. “You bellyflopped. Did it hurt?” My dad says, and I realize that I have no fear of the water that is ten feet deep when I am in it – only when I am staring down into what seems like a bottomless blue tomb.
“A little,” I answer.
“Again!” Daddy says happily, climbing out after me. He has no idea that I’m terrified of pools. I could never bring myself to tell him.
This time, Daddy isn’t in the water to save me if I start to drown. I’m all alone with my fears.
“Go!” I scream at myself. My dad chuckles, but I ignore him. I can’t think. I can’t ponder how deep the water is, how far the floor of the pool is from my feet, how very dark it is at the bottom, buried alive under ten feet of dark blue water. If I stop to confirm my fears and terrors, then I will never jump again.
So I jump blindly without a second thought, leaving no time for regrets.
“You can’t swim!!!??”
“So, are you, like, scared to take a bath?”
“Yeah, aren’t you afraid you’ll drown?”
I want to slap my big mouth. I should have said that I could swim. I shouldn’t have raised my hand when Mrs. Dickens asked if anyone didn’t know how to swim. I should have acted cool, part of the crowd, so this wouldn’t happen.
But I didn’t. And so here I am, with no Lauren or Sarah or Jenine to rescue me because they’re in Mrs. Currier’s room.
“Are you scared to take a bath?” Kenzie laughs, repeating her earlier question. She doesn’t know what it’s like. She’s pretty, smart, hilarious, and loud. Everyone loves her. She can swim, too. I admire her, really. But sometimes she sends me an offhand comment that cuts deeper than she knows.
“No,” I growl, becoming angry at no one in particular. Kenzie doesn’t mean to be cruel to me. She’s just being hilarious, as usual, and unknowingly plowing over me in the process. It’s not her fault. She’s just that way.
A sour feeling swells up inside of me, pushing my tolerance to the end. “I’m not scared,” I say, but no one hears me. No one hears me, because they’re all laughing, because Kenzie is beautiful and hilarious and always so open and funny. It’s been only four years since I vowed never to step on a diving board, and I’ll never break that promise. Never.
“What, do you need, like, a noodle when you wash your hands? Gonna drown in the sink?”
I don’t know who said it, but I’m sure they didn’t mean it. I’m just another thing to entertain them with. They aren’t thinking. Not really. I’m just a new fascination now. It’s nothing personal. They don’t mean to hurt me.
“Of course I can swim, it’s just a joke,” I whisper. This time everyone hears me. Somehow, my lie reaches their ears, but when I speak the truth, it is ignored. Isn’t it always that way?
“Really? You can seriously swim?”They’re holding back laughter, their eyes still sparkling, waiting to giggle and laugh at me again.
Here it comes. “Yes,” I answer, smiling. I force a laugh, but having the maturity of fifth graders, not one notices that I’m faking. “Of course I can swim!” I laugh, snickering at Kenzie. “Did you think I was serious?”
Kenzie looks skeptical, but she gives in. And wherever Kenzie goes, everyone goes. “Okay, good!” she chuckles nervously. Everyone follows her lead.
“Yeah, I seriously thought you couldn’t swim!” someone laughs at their own stupidity.
“Good, because if you couldn’t swim, that’d be so dumb. I mean, who can’t swim when they’re, like, ten? You’d have to be a moron to never have learned by now!”
“Yeah,” I answer softly as chaos recommences. No one hears me. Kenzie’s making some hilarious wise crack, and Emma is staring at me, laughing. Her smile isn’t quite full. She knows that I’m faking. She’s an excellent swimmer. Even made it to State competitions. “A moron.”
I swallow, choke, and stare at my shoes. Somehow I gather up my things and wait by the classroom door for the bell to ring. I’m the first one away when it does.
“Okay, that was a bellyflop again,” my dad repeats as I stare at the water that doesn’t scare me so much anymore. “Try to jump more down and not out. More arc!” he says.
I try to remember all of his instructions. Head in. Hands together. Don’t look up. Bend knees. Jump down, not out. Arc the jump, don’t leap horizontally. Arc. Arc.
Kenzie’s words bounce around in my head. ‘So, are you, like, scared to take a bath?’ Even when I learned to swim, those words never quite left me. I doubt she still remembers.
I’m not scare to take a bath, and I’m not scared to dive.
I run off the end of the diving board into the deep pool that is a warning to my mind. “That’s not…!” I hear Daddy shout as I curl into a tight ball and sail through the air. The water seems to reach up and grab me, pulling me down as I sink lower and lower.
“That was not diving,” Daddy says, but not angrily. “That was a cannonball.” I cough up the tartly sour water and smile.
It was diving. My style.