I prefer to swim alone. I know that is incongruent with every safety rule about swimming. I do not take my safety in the water lightly, I am quite aware of the respect the water demands and that even the most skilled of swimmers can find themselves under it’s weight, unsure how to escape. I just prefer the silence.
When I was child I swam everyday, sometimes twice a day, practicing with a team of children and adolescents whose backs were tanned a few shades darker than our peers, even in winter. The girls bore the straps of their suits even when they weren’t wearing one, and the boys’ hair stood from their heads in the same chemical-bleached mat as the next one. We all wore the impression marks of well-fitting goggles around our eyes even an hour after practice had ended, and could each tell you by the slick feeling of our skin if the pool chemicals were balanced well that day, or if the lifeguard had been sleeping in the break room all afternoon, allowing the pH and chlorine to run a muck.
I dreaded practice most days, always convinced I was too tired to even move let alone swim a 5000 meters. I now know I had no idea what tired even was, and want to take that beautiful, smart-mouthed girl by the shoulders and tell her to smile, thank her mother for driving her and not making her walk and for shelling out the money for tuition and meet fees, and just get in the water. I’d tell her a great deal more, too, but that would be a start.
But maybe I looked forward to the solitude. When I was chasing someone’s toes through bubbles, but no one could see me. Alone without being alone. When I was young, I would wait until we started a long set, preferably one with a distance greater than 200m, and then I would open up. I would talk to the water, whispering thoughts into the whirring waves as I pulled myself through. Sometimes I would sing, or pray. I’d tell stories, letting the characters come to life across my chin and drift up my neck and past my ears. Often times I would cry, allowing all my frustrations to mingle around me. I would take my pain over ill-fitting friendships, failure to measure up to impossible standards, and a family I was desperate to rescue and pour it into a stream of air that would drift to the surface and dissolve into silence.
Today I pull the smooth tautness of a silicone cap over my ears and stretch goggles to a seal around my eyes. I have resolved to complete 10x100s, an anthill of what my body was capable of at fourteen, but now a hulking cliff.
“You’re doing this,” I tell rationalSarah, who begs to be placed behind the desk to finish her work. She’s not used to losing, so she takes it poorly and sulks in the corner of my mind.
Perhaps it’s her sulking, or the rhythm of breath –one, two, three, BREATHE, one, two, three, BREATHE- or the forced coordination of arms with legs that drive me forward and begin to pull other facets of my being into cooperation. It is somewhere around the third 100 that I start to feel a pull in my chest, but I force it away with a strong flip off the wall and exhale deep, watching the pockets of air drift from my nose like parachutes falling up.
I have been avoiding the water as one would avoid eye contact with a sister who can peer directly down into my soul and place her finger on the thing that hurts. But just like a sister, it forces its way inside the door I thought I locked and needles me with thoughts and questions, waiting for me to tell it what’s wrong.
It’s like muscle memory when I finally do.
I convince myself to try a 100 butterfly, despite the fact that people I work with who teach the stroke for a living are near by, and I could very well make a fool out of myself. I begin, pulling my belly button to my spine and pushing it out again as I slide end to end through the still blue and count the tiled stripes along the bottom.
After the first 25m, my shoulders burn. After the second 25m, my abdomen has joined the blaze. After the third 25m, I’m grateful I am submerged in water for fear of combustion.
And then I do. On the turn taking me into the last 25m, I burst wide open and scream, the newly escaped rage traveling along my body and then bursting into foam as it becomes tangled in my feet.
“What are you doing?” rationalSarah asks horrified, searching for the boxes she had organized all these emotions into in hopes of quickly returning them.
But I just keep going, breaking into a calming freestyle and crying myself through each lap. I’m whispering small frustrations, like how I can’t get my son to fall asleep before 10pm and I don’t want that to mean he’s done taking an afternoon nap. I’m whispering fears, like how I wonder if my husband and I will survive raising littles and still recognize each other when we come up for air. I’m whispering grief and loss and pain. And the water is listening, like she always has.
By the time I finish my tenth 100m, I am calm again. I climb out of the pool, my head clear and my limbs shaking like a newborn calf. There is a noticeable dissipation of the tension that normally nestles itself between my shoulder blades, and I grin as the water spits your welcome at me from below.
I force rationalSarah to make a mental note that no one gets anything done if I’m so blocked up with negative emotions that I can’t get through a swim without bawling, and she rolls her eyes in agreement. Because I process out joy every time I pick my son up above my head and give him a toss, or awkwardly force my bones to master dance moves they will never understand with my daughter. I process love with each kiss, freshly cooked meal, story, moment of lingering eye contact throughout the day. I laugh fifty times a day. I can’t remember the last time I cried.
I dry off, resolve to sit with myself and allow that soft, squishy thing inside me to feel whatever it wants to feel, and promise it that I will try to listen and release what it is holding out, desperate for me to acknowledge.
But it is comforting to know that despite my best efforts, I will fail. I will compartmentalize. I will hack off the parts that hurt and bury them like a dog with a bone. But there will always be the water to loosen the soil around them, and send them floating to the surface once again.