By Vee Cipperman
Long, dark strips run up the bottom of every swimming pool. Four of them sit between the floating lane dividers, undulating, darker blue than the tiles around them. They terminate in crosses and move with the water.
As a child, I believe they will eat me. They’ll lift those x-shaped heads the instant my feet break the water. I’ll swim as fast as I can, but I won’t escape.
When the coach blows the whistle, I close my eyes and jump.
Freestyle (Ages 5-10)
Outdoor club pools are never heated. Outdoor club pools give us goosebumps in the summer. Spindly bare arms, bruised bare legs, covered in lumps as they breach the aquamarine.
Race days run sunup to sunset. I sit on a towel in the dirt beside my sister. My mother feeds us bits of soggy concession-stand pretzel while she watches for our events, keeping us on track, pushing us off toward the pool.
The older girls swim more than I do me. I mostly wait. The sun bakes the earth. The periodic shock of water brings forth the goosebumps again, until my mother pulls me forth and wraps me in a towel. I suffer through each event. I win some. I wait some more. I watch the other girls swim, fluid and free as dolphins, splicing and pulling and tossing the water like dough with their long long arms and close-cupped fingers.
On another club team, there are girls in my second grade class. At some races, we take to the kiddie pool for something to do. The water comes halfway to our knees; it’s warm.
“Sun?” I speculate.
“Pee,” says a blonde girl, and laughs with her friend. Ha, ha. Perhaps they’re mocking me. Perhaps—probably—I’m just too sensitive.
The blonde girl gets highlights, but I don’t understand the concept of highlights, and I wonder how her hair grows with marvelous sunny-white streaks. She’s taller than me, and so is her friend. I don’t know them well. They share a few quips from within the kiddie pool while I sit on the edge. My feet are warm and my shoulders have already burned.
In the main pool a few yards away, the water churns with swimmers. Shouts echo. The pavement shimmers. The blonde girl does a cartwheel. Her friend does a cartwheel. I can’t do a cartwheel.
There’s a girl in my second grade class who doesn’t join the others in the kiddie pool. She’s busy with swimming. When she loses, her mother drags her from the water by her wrist and screams until the coach has to tell her to stop.
That girl can do amazing cartwheels.
Why the hell did they name it that?
The other girls laugh—ha, ha—but it isn’t funny, because I have to swim it. I always race breaststroke events to compete, always, along with two other girls. All three of us are strong-legged, round-armed girls, and all three of us win those stupidly-named races. Here’s your medal! Aren’t you proud?
I hate everyone and everything.
After class Tuesdays and Thursdays we slip into polyester second-skins. The girls around me transform into diving fish, graceful and deft, returning to their slick aquatic motherland like so many seals. Their bodies align with the seams of their swimsuits, the curve of their caps—homogenous material, goggles to toes. The swim team spell doesn’t work for me. I am a sea cucumber among selkies. My swimsuit leaves red marks on my back. I’m too old to believe that the lane dividers will eat me, but I can’t help believing they will when the water closes over my ears.
In indoor pools, they heat the water and not the air. I complain about the cold while I sit on the bench. My friends join the chorus. “Anyone have a dry towel?” Of course not; nothing within these walls is dry. Find a dry patch on a bench and you’re blessed. Step in a mere half dozen putrid puddles and you’re lucky.
I am bigger than the freestyle/butterfly girls. My best friend is smaller than the freestyle/butterfly girls. A backstroke girl. When we are 13, oldest on the team, scorning practice, we sit on the sidelines and blast music through the speakers. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is new. We play it over and over and over. We bitch incessantly while Taylor shakes it off. Taylor has a shapely neck and a very nice mouth and no eyes; the album cover cuts them off. She’d be a great butterfly girl.
My stomach stretches my swimsuit. My hair doesn’t fit in my cap. I brush out the curls, wishing for straight hair, wishing for blonde hair, making it frizzy. I have round knees and a round face and I am a breaststroke girl, hunched on the sideline in tight polyester. I want to wrap myself in a tablecloth. I want to smash screaming through the back windows, bursting bare skin. I’m never going to swim again, once I graduate middle school.
Water Polo (15)
Am I an idiot or a creature of chronic habit?
That’s up for debate.
It’s my first semester at a new high school where sports are required, and I can swim, so: water polo. Why not? This will end well, probably. I’ll do fine, probably. I can muddle through.
By week four I have the most impressive calves I’ve ever had in my life and I want my coach dead.
Now is more than Tuesday/Thursday. Now is Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday/so on, so forth, all my life. My curls crackle angry-electric within my plastic caps, snapping them against my face, shearing them in half. My coach threatens to stop giving me new ones.
She plays me twice all season and that’s all right. Water shrinks the swimsuit that is already smaller than my skin. I hope my spine breaks the zipper. I hope my chest splits the seams.
Water polo brings the violence of swimming to the surface. It reveals the animal nature of girls in synthetic skin. The refs force us to cut our nails over huge gray trash cans, but my teammates still ascend from the pool with bleeding fingers, scratched faces, backs streaming crystal and red.
It’s intimidating, but it’s honest. It’s something I can get behind. Cheer for. Me, with hair I wear curly at last, with powerful calves.
I get a varsity letter first semester freshman year. I am one of only nine girls who stuck through that year’s season.
People assume that I like sports.
My sneakers are black with pink swooshes, an inversion of the winter sky. The horizon cracks with bareblack grasping trees. It blushes the color of grapefruit soda. Our breath mists in the air around us, and we sing Christmas carols between laps. These are girls I’ve just met. By junior year, the one with the best voice will be my best friend.
It’s like this: I don’t race anymore. I run a winter track. I run the nearby woods in spring, following a river. I run along sand in the summer, blinded by the glassy sea that magnifies the sun. It’s beautiful and often lonely in the good way that opens your mind to think more about yourself.
It’s like this: I hold the pools inside me now. I think that I’ve swallowed the lane-divider snakes. Sometimes they writhe in my stomach, and burning chlorinated water spills out through my eyes. Sometimes I catch my reflection in water and cringe. Sometimes, I stop trying to see a selkie or a warrior or a butterfly in myself or other girls, and we all become human together.
It’s like this: white rings cut a track loop into lanes. They have no heads- and no mouths- with which to eat us. I’m not afraid of putting on leggings. I’m not afraid of opening the gate, stepping onto springy ground, setting off.
It’s like this now.