Summer is my least favorite season. I hate the heat and the shimmering air that accompanies it. I hate the bugs (I currently have 10 mosquito bites and an earwig pinch on one leg; yes, a fucking earwig pinch). I hate the schvitzing (for a relatively small person, I sweat like a motherfucker). And for the first 29 years of my life, one of the few saving graces of summer—swimming—was one I couldn’t enjoy.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever been that kid, the only one who can’t swim in a gaggle of kids who can, so if you haven’t, let me assure you it sucks. A lot. And it’s maybe even worse when two of those kids are your brothers, both younger than you, one by three years and one by 11. You’re relegated to a shallow end human stopwatch, timing all the other kids as they perform underwater handstands, as they hold their breath while they dive to the bottom, as they race back and forth across the pool.
Now, pile on a healthy fear of drowning driven by water-related traumas that stretch across your childhood. Age four, being thrown in the pool at Little Beaver (yes, my first preschool was called Little Beaver—I know, so gay): they wanted us to jump off the diving board into someone’s arms and I didn’t trust that someone—or any someone—to catch me, so I ran up and around and away and one of the teachers caught me and tossed me off the diving board instead. Age seven, slipping and falling into an apartment complex pool when I noticed my stepmother had forgotten her glasses: just before my head hit bottom, she pulled me out and I choked and choked. Age 16, being pulled under the waterfall at Reems Creek: my friends thought I was joking—because that sounds like me—and left me floundering until my lungs were full. All of which is to say, I was a super fun poolside companion.
By the time I was an adult, I’d accepted I’d never swim. Even if I could learn, which I felt sure I couldn’t, the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis I was diagnosed with when I was two had fused so many of my small bones and my cervical spine that I was sure it wasn’t possible for me to swim, that my body wouldn’t bend in the ways a body needs to bend to swim. It turned out I was wrong.
My partner at the time (semi-technically my wife at the time, but that’s a story for another day)—I’ll call her Dutch, which makes her sound much cooler and more fun than she is—was sure she could teach me. Since moving to New York City from Buffalo, we’d discovered Ogunquit, Maine, where we spent a week every June in a sweet little one-bedroom vacation cabin on the outskirts of town. It was early in the season, so we were often the only ones on site, which meant we were also usually the only ones occupying the pool. In June 2006, it was an unusually warm June day for Maine, and we spent the whole day paddling around; as dusk fell, Dutch said something like, “How about I teach you how to swim?” She’d said this before, and I’d always declined, but something about that day—maybe it was the way the sun was falling on the water that late afternoon, maybe it was the confidence she had that she could teach me, maybe it was that the deepest water was only five feet, maybe I was just feeling unusually adventurous—whatever it was, I said yes.
Like parents do with their little kids, Dutch laid her arms under my belly and coached me through a very messy, splish-splashy doggy paddle from one side of the pool to the other, one side to the other, one side to the other, one side to the other. Over and over, back and forth, until I said I wanted to try on my own, and I did. At 29, I was doing it: I was dog paddling. But we didn’t stop there.
Back in the pool the next day, Dutch had me show her all the ways my bones could and couldn’t move in the water and decided my best next step was the breaststroke, and we did it all over again. Dutch’s arms supporting my belly while I practiced pulling my arms and legs through the water. Dutch holding my hands and walking backwards while I practiced frog kicking from one end of the pool to the other. Dutch letting go when I said I was ready to try on my own, And I did. At 29, I was doing it: I was swimming. It was a wonder. It still is.
I love swimming. I love pools. I love how it feels not be so afraid. I love that my body, in spite of its limitations, has the power to muscle its way through and across the water. I’m slow as fuck and get winded more easily than I’d like, but I was never going to be an Olympian. Don’t get me wrong—I’m still terrified of drowning, especially in the ocean. I haven’t yet learned how to dive under the waves (or is it through?), never mind feel confident among them. And I had a scare about 10 years ago in Hawaii. The powerful North Shore undertow sucked me out to sea and flipped me onto my head on the ocean floor. My scalp was full of sand, my chest was full of panic, and my asshole brother-in-law laughed as my stepfather pulled me to shore. Back at my sister’s house, I scrubbed and scrubbed and still I was pulling granules from my hair on my flight back to New York. Nevertheless, every time I approach a body of water now, I’m blown away by the idea that I can swim, that I could have been swimming all along. And I hate summer a little bit less because of it, at least for as long as I’m in the water.
Just Keep Swimming,
Jessica the Westchesbian
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.