[Creative Writing Contest] Swimming Lessons
I remember being underwater. Or at least I think I do. The memory has a smoothness around the edges that comes from too much handling, and an ethereal gloss, like a refurbished armchair. The year is approximately 1993, and I’m drowning in the pool of a Canadian Marriott.
Every summer, on one of our two yearly vacations, my family travels north to Toronto, the nearest metropolitan area, and a short jump across the lake from our suburban home in upstate New York (the other is an annual pilgrimage to canal-free Venice, Florida to visit my mom’s senescent relatives). Like the rest of my early childhood, all that remains of these trips are a series of flashbulb memories. The earth-brown packets of Sugar In The Raw, a luxury good found only in the hotel’s breakfast area. Nearly choking on a Saf-T-Pop that slipped off its cord and down my throat at EPCOT Center. Joe Carter’s joyous walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series. The feeling of water flooding my sinuses, dripping into my lungs.
Years later in high school, during our yearly unit of swimming in Phys Ed, I stick to the shallow end with my fellow thalassophobics, trying to simultaneously make myself invisible and keep my head well above the bromine-and-urine-infused waterline. Smell is the sense most vividly tied to memory, and decades later, even walking by a fountain, with its atomized disinfectant, is enough to take me back to that (cess)pool.
The hotel in Toronto was my first exposure to the doors between adjoining suites, with deadbolts on either side (forming an impossibly thin room-between-rooms, a volume optimally sized to suffocate a small child). In what may have been a bout of sleep paralysis, I remember dreaming that a hooded figure entered our room through this passage and hovered menacingly at the foot of the bed that I shared with my little sister. To this day I’ve yet to actually see what’s on the other side of these doors.
I remember the view from underwater, staring at my parents’ pale ankles in the shimmering fluorescent glow, framed by the Blue-Jay-blue tile lining the side of the pool. I hang there for a timeless moment, unable to surface in water that is likely no taller than me. No one notices. The whole experience probably lasts no longer than ten seconds.
In 2015 I first read Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Later that same year, I sign up for swimming lessons at my local fitness center, the only man in a class full of septuagenarian Korean women. Despite being decades younger and relatively fit, I’m by far the slowest learner. It’s my first time voluntarily entering a pool in nearly five years.
I remember lying on my back, poolside in the Toronto hotel, spluttering, angry and embarrassed. Did I find my footing and surface on my own, or did my dad pull me out by the scruff of my neck, like a misbehaved kitten? I’m not sure, but I don’t swim again until high school, a decade later.
Through my weekly lessons, I learn how to hold my breath underwater. It turns out that, in a kind of anxiety reflex, I have been unconsciously trying to swallow my saliva the moment my nose touches the surface. This creates a vacuum and sucks water in, precipitating a chain reaction that forces me to the surface, gasping. My instructor, a patient and unusually tall teenage girl, has never encountered this particular problem before.
2015 is also the year that I stop eating animals. It’s the year I attend my first EA meetup, and give my first donation to AMF. It’s the year I learn how to swim. And it’s the year that, finally, I’m ready to save the drowning child.