I was four when I had my first and only swim lesson. I was eight when a man in rubber gloves told me to breathe enough to make a candle light flicker, but never enough to blow one out. My father spread his arms in anticipation, I couldn’t let go of the wall. You could have convinced me my brother was part trout or salmon back then. By the way the water seemed to move him and not the other way around, you probably still could.
He leaned against a leftover chair my to right, by then at least eleven. I caught glimpses of him trying not to stare at my new IV in between clenching my tiny eyelids shut, trying only to see just enough. I was the daughter that gripped onto pool walls to keep the tips of my toes from becoming too buoyant and he was an aquatic son. A proper diver my father would call him. He called me peanut. Wash your hands after every meal, cough into your elbow and never visit the Mc Donald’s down the road’s playroom because a boy you read about in the local paper got rotavirus there once and it may never be enough. The sickness was like looking both ways when crossing the street, only to be split in two by a fallen branch.
Pool water is even darker under the surface. Or maybe it just feels that way with chlorine sticking to your pupils. Inhaling the flame’s cheap christmas scent, exhaling hospital air. He told me to start with practicing bobbing up and down like one of those wackamoles at Dave n Busters. Under and back, under and back again. Almost every morning, I opened gifts from relatives so distant they wouldn’t even head to Chicago with us for Thanksgiving.
I assume we would have started with the simplicities of breast and back strokes. Maybe we would have eventually used uncle Gram’s waterfront membership at the lake. I might have actually seen our grandparents' beach house and used the embroidered towels dad made sarcastic comments about under his breath. Their living room is going to get more of the will than I am. They didn’t visit me either. They didn’t contribute to the sea of wrapping paper that covered cords keeping my blood from pooling in my veins for too long, keeping me alive.
I never pushed off the wall. Even under the water I never let my palms curl away from the surface. I’m not sure if I ever would have, definity not then but I didn’t have a choice. They didn’t release me for weeks that felt that decades. They came up with a new calculation for when I could start living instead of surviving again every Thursday, taking into account how many times I was able to stand on my own, how many saltine crackers I was able to digest, how many rental disney movies I was able to sit there without my plugs to keep me awake.
My classmates sent me cards and the government sent us bills, and my dad sent me a stuffed Dory from Finding Nemo with slightly crooked eyes. His arms swallowed me, whole tearing me away from comfort and shoving me into the middle of the open water. I couldn’t feel my arms floundering like they told me they did long after I resurfaced. Instead I felt raw panic pulsing through what felt like mental bones and thoughts spiralling into nothing but a burning concern in my lungs.
I remember my mom cautiously handing me the package anything but delicately wrapped in silver duck-tape. Receiving the cartoon fish felt like finally understanding something I never asked to. Maybe that’s what he wanted or maybe that’s just what happened to be available in the get well soon isle in CVS that day. Life imitates story peanut not the other way around.
When I went back to school everything was harder. Gripping a pencil became an olympic sport, trying to widdle my way into sealed-shut friend circles was like climbing a tree with no branches. When life is harder to you than everyone else you BE harder than life. Life isn’t fair, peanut.
When he finally wrapped his bear palms for hands around my shaking torso, launching me out of the water face first I could no longer tell what part of the moisture on my face was tears and what was pool particles. He looked me in my eyes for the first time that I can remember. He spoke assertively but somehow softly. It’s a sink or swim world, Laney.