A four-year-old’s memory, a 37-year-old’s revenge.
I don’t remember my age, but I remember I could see. So it was most likely between the ages of three and five. At six I got glasses and water activities became a blur, literally, until I was 12 and got contacts from a shopping mall Lens Crafters. Anyway that’s around the time I learned how to swim.
Back when I had religion, I remember learning that it was considered a Mitzvah to teach your kids to swim. I liked that, assuming it meant that Jewish parents were being guilted by God to teach their kids how to have fun. I considered it our reward for being forced to “sit down, and sha!” during two hours of Shabbat services on Friday night and four more hours Saturday morning. Now of course I know this was simply put in place to prevent drowning, because we’re pessimistic in every way one can fear the worst, but still, it’s a nice idea. I do wish it had come with a caveat: make sure whoever’s teaching your kids to swim is not an evil cunt.
I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and have the most, or perhaps just the best, memories at my grandparents’ home, a midcentury ranch style house on a massive residential street of the same. Average summer temperatures fluctuated between 90 and sun’s-surface degrees Fahrenheit. Huge, wise trees covered the property in shade in the summer, and bestowed on me and my cousins endless raking requirements in the fall.
When I was in single digits, my family was close with an older couple named Sandy and Alex, who lived a few houses down from my grandparents. They had a pool, so I have countless memories of holidays and birthdays being celebrated in their back yard, splashing away while adults oiled themselves with SPF-free products while I had to be covered in kindergarden paste three times a day. Alex owned a party supply store where my mother worked before she had me. I think Alex was actually the one who drove her to the hospital when she went into labor. A few years later, Sandy, his wife, was for some reason appointed to be my swim teacher.
I struggle to call these lessons “swim” lessons. We never worked on legitimate strokes, I wasn’t being groomed for competition here. I think what they really were was extra measures taken to ensure I wouldn’t drown in water that was taller than me. It is by this measure and this measure only you can call them a success.
Sandy was short, but still an imposing physical presence. The easiest way to describe her is that she was built like toothpicks coming out of a potato. No part of her body appeared happy to be there. She was definitely athletic in her younger years, but was now simply scary and infinitely stronger than me. Though I suppose at four or five years old even a firm twig could best me in battle. She wasn’t in shape, she was just impossible to avoid. Her face perfectly matched her body. It was a tan scowl akin to “resting corrections facility officer” face.
It’s important to point out that I was a good child. I was obedient, I caused no trouble, I never did anything to upset or even inconvenience the adults around me. It was very important to me to be good, as I thought that’s how you got people to love you. Being bad was the furthest thing from my capability. We would, as it turned out, leave being bad to my brother.
Pools were still built with true deep ends back then. You could real-dive into them free of fear. They’re the reason you can’t ever run near a pool, lest a child slip and plop into one, sinking to the bottom like a wished-upon penny. Sandy’s deep end was deeper than six feet, I remember that. It was deep enough to make the water dark. The darkness was also due to the fact that the deep end was shaded by trees.
I was terrified of this deep end. It wasn’t so much that I was a coward, it was simply that it was scary, and I was fucking four. The deep end was the only place Sandy would permit me to learn how to swim.
She forced me into the deep end, my hand essentially cemented to the pool’s edge. She’d often have to uncurl my fingers from their grip, I remember the concrete rubbing them raw. The ladder was also a safe space, though I’d be verbally reprimanded to seeking its solace. My place was mid-water, legs aflail, obeying commands, or else.
I don’t remember how long the lessons were, I just remember how scary they were. I remember shaking every time I went under water. I was unable to free myself from Sandy’s control, held in place by a need to be good, and Sandy’s looming presence frightening me to the point of pee.
I was so scared of the deep end, and so pushed to exhaustion and terror by Sandy, that I used to vomit in her pool. That never made her end the lesson, it just made her push harder. It was my fault for swallowing water, so I should stop doing that. Never mind that my little legs weren’t able yet to keep my head above water in a deep end for as long as this unqualified drill sergeant thought I needed to swim that day.
There was a diving board. Jutting out over the deep end not unlike a pirate plank to my brand-new and still developing imagination. I have no idea how many times or how long I spent shivering and crying on that diving board. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like the feeling of falling. I didn’t like it when my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I didn’t like dark water. I was alone and terrified and I had no choice. The lessons were never over until I jumped off.
Remember how, before people knew how to treat kids, when adults would force you to do something you really, really, screaming-crying didn’t want to do, and then once you did it, they were so proud of themselves for proving you, the child, wrong? “See? Now, was that so bad??” I’m 37 and only just now able to write about my swim lessons so yeah, Sandy, it effing was.
I actually remember throwing a tantrum once to try to avoid my swim lessons, which was met with Sandy grabbing my arm and dragging me to the deep end, reassuring my mother the whole time that “she’s fine.” But since my family didn’t want me to accidentally drown and Sandy didn’t charge them any money I was going to learn to swim in her pool, literally come hell or high water. I can’t remember why the lessons stopped. I like to think someone decided to protect me, but really I think it was an unrelated disagreement among our families.
It’s also possible that they really did think I was fine. I’m sure I looked happy after the lessons, not because I’d had fun, but because they were over. After they were over I was always allowed to go inside and play with one of Alex’s handheld video games — the forefront of technology at the time. I remember feeling content, playing a game where a dinosaur tried to protect its egg, still in my wet suit, shivering against the air conditioning that was always up too high.
Sandy died sometime in my early twenties I think. Our families still weren’t speaking so I don’t know for sure. I do know that I don’t care. You’ll forgive me if I’m glad she’s below soil.
She didn’t have to be that way. She didn’t have to be cruel to me during those lessons. She could have been nurturing, or even just kind. Her strategy was instead to scare the shit out of me at every possible opportunity and instill in me the notion that I have to do what I don’t want to do, that I have to do what I’m terrified of, that there is no choice. I have to obey, even when I’m scared.
In reality, I am allowed to feel safe.
As angry as I am about her unnecessary cruelty, I’m also angry that those memories are my very earliest. I try to remember a time before, and I can’t. It’s frustrating to search for early memories of kindness, and find this bitch’s evil instead, but maybe my swim lessons are what made my memory come online. Maybe my mind was acting as an investment account, saving these emotions and developmental moments for later use. Without these clear memories, I’d have the subconscious experiences, without the conscious ability to process them. My inner child would just be super angry and not know why.
There’s still a four year old in me, terrified and shaking, lips blue underneath a giant beach towel. She wants to play in the shallow end all day, but she knows that’s not allowed. She knows when all the grown ups go inside for lunch or to get out of the heat, she’ll be left alone with Sandy, and she knows what that means. She also knows how to swim now, I can tell you that much for damn sure.
Sandy didn’t take my love of the water. That’s impossible. I’m a Cancer Sun and Scorpio Moon there’s no thieving that from me. But she did make me scared. Scared of authority, scared of not doing what other people want me to do, even if what other people want me to do makes me uncomfortable or scared or angry. And that’s not something any child should ever learn.
But bet your ass it’s something an adult can publish. Honestly, heaven help you if you were ever mean to a writer. My pool is bigger, and deeper, and more permanent than Sandy’s kidney shaped vessel that’s probably long since been filled with concrete. Sandy will forever be a villain in my story, because that’s what she chose to be. That’s the route she decided to take when she looked at a skinny wet child with a droopy ponytail and a look of terror in her hazel eyes. She did this.
In my mind, in my inner child’s world, I am in charge, and no one comes near by her without my permission. Sandy does not have permission. She has to live somewhere else, somewhere worse, on my diving board. It juts out into dark, rolling water, crashing at her feet over and over and over again the way it does in my scariest dreams. Her cruelty and imposition and commands balance right on the edge, and the older I get, the stronger I get, the easier it gets to shove her off.