Essay selection from the 2012 issue
Reflections on Water
by Traci Moore
Swim practice arrived every August at Sunnyslope High School when sheets of desert heat shimmered off the deck. Palm trees along Dunlap Avenue blew like messy hair. A few yards from rolling traffic, our long swimming pool sparkled.
On so many afternoons I dreamt of never touching the water. I longed to spend those two hours reading books or just standing, dry and invisible, near the edge of that pool; admiring the way the surface looked flat as glass, or how the wind wiggled the water into waves. But my parents must’ve thought swimming would teach me something. Reflection would come later. I needed to swim through this length of my life first.
Coach Brian Metheny demanded commitment, but also he joked with us when we talked too much, or forgot to count our strokes. He joked with us when we got too serious. He gave us extra goggles or Dairy Queen money, and a sense of importance at an age when we rarely felt important.
In the middle of a tiring workout, he sometimes called us from the pool. On a shady spot on the deck, we huddled close and hugged our knees. In a low voice, he spoke slowly of athletes he coached who overcame kidney stones, abusive fathers and mental handicaps. In his stories we believed we could achieve. We quit moaning about the pain in our muscles, the hours in the pool, and the feeling of air against our wet skin. After hearing him speak, we always cut through the water with conviction.
It was about the water and it wasn’t.
It was about the people: the girls who gave me nicknames; the Brian who helped me make friends with walls, turbulence and finishing my algebra problems later.
It was about the boys who dripped from the pool as they hopped in the wind— the ones who were smart and witty, who for student council fundraisers, sent me carnations and construction paper turkeys during English, their offerings signed with anonymous messages.
It was in the clamp of their hugs and the grip of their handshakes, the sheen off their teeth, the way their hair looked when flapped with water. I navigated through them without maps while they stood on deck like trees.
Across the lanes, we challenged and chided each other. Gently, we whipped towels against ankles. Girls straightened girls’ suit straps without being asked. On bus rides to far away schools, we shared headphones and Corn Nuts and secrets. When practice finished, we dressed and left the pool, waving goodbye to each other in the auburn light of autumn afternoons.
There’s a shave down party at someone’s house the night before divisionals. Brian buys us cheap cans of Barbasol. Fifty of us squish onto the back patio, and while a radio blares, we lather up and dip razors into Tupperware bowls of water. Euphoric about the upcoming swim meet and the day excused from school, we shear hair from arms, legs, heads and backs. This custom guarantees success. We ignore the naysayers; something inside us knows we’ll swim faster without the hair.
The next day, when I shoot off the blocks and hit the water, I feel like I’ve shed my skin.
Everything disappears: fear, time, memory. I become the water and the water becomes me.
Under water there isn’t panic, just eagerness to move, and sunlight searing and circling through layers. Through thick liquid I force my arms and legs. Then breath, then breath, then breath. My strokes feel clean. I see the black ‘T’ on the wall. Teammates roar from the deck at the end of my lane, but I can’t hear them. In glimpses, I see their mouths open wide, their fists and towels shaking in the air. Brian always jokes, She can touch the wall and jump out for a milkshake before the others finish.
I tap the touch pad at the end of the last lap. Breathing hard, I glance at the clock, then down at my toes. I yank off my cap and dunk my head underwater so my hair flails warm and free. Swimmers roll in. Over the lane lines I reach out, smile, shake their hands.
My friends run up and hug me. Brian says my turns looked fine. My parents grin for five minutes.
I feel giddy enough to fly.
Riding the bus home from that final state swim meet, we wore sweatshirts and scarves. Brian talked with a couple guys in the front seat. Shoulder to shoulder, we joked around, whispered, or stared through windows as copper light from streetlamps flicked across our faces. Behind smiles we hid the words we couldn’t speak.
The school parking lot looked dim on a Saturday night. Few cars whooshed past Dunlap Avenue. After the driver turned off the headlights, we quietly lugged our wet gear from the bus. As some shook hands or yelled goodbyes, a few of us rambled on to stall the inevitable. A block away, crumpled leaves scraped the bottom of our empty swimming pool.
Newly exposed to elements of the dry world, we could no longer squeal about daily workouts or victories. In subtle ways, our conversations thinned during the final months of school. I rarely ran into Margaret or Tiffany and Kim, the girls with whom I’d squeezed onto the winner’s podium in November. Brian moved on to coach the wrestlers. I would only see him in flashes during P.E., where he’d say something clever, grip my shoulder kindly and stride away.
I spent my junior year of college in Bristol, England. For a while being liberated from the daily rigor of college workouts made me feel euphoric. But as the months passed, the grey weather slowly eroded my optimism to a point where water seemed like the only antidote. Built in the 1890’s, the local indoor pool was wedged between a pub and a boarded-up shop. With hope, I carried my towel and long-dried swim suit. Opening the heavy door, the humid, chlorine-filled air encroached through my coat.
I jumped in the pool and moved my arms through a few laps of freestyle. The water felt denser than I remembered. My muscles wouldn’t work. Children veered in and out of my lane. Through my goggles, I searched the tiles below for something I could grasp: some memory of the others, some words Brian said years before that would motivate me to move. After twenty minutes, I climbed from the pool.
I wanted the wind to send me into shivers, the sun to burn through my hair. I missed the sky that bound me together. Absent from the Bristol pool was my community. I felt certain that no one there would understand my reverence for water.
In those moments, when I dressed in layers and leather shoes, and wandered back to my grungy house with wet hair, I felt the loneliness of being left behind, of being betrayed by silly expectations. Foolishly I thought all swimming pools would comfort me.
Making peace with the water would require decades of work. I’d have to plow up steep switchbacks and stall at dead ends. There would be emotional pain. Worse yet would be the awkward struggles I’d face without a team, without a clock, and unthinkably, by not swimming at all.