I am not, nor have I ever been, athletic. I am quite likely the only woman who avoided the vault and the flexed arm hang for all four years of high school. At the height of my prowess, I once translated a tipped softball into a ripe black eye one week before the prom. I was also born with a paunch that never did reabsorb with the rest of the baby fat; after a year of very adult anxiety, at the age of 10 I pulled my father aside to inform him that, although I couldn’t explain just how it had happened, I was very much pregnant.
Then again, I was never the last to be picked on the blacktop, either, a combination of early training for what would manifest in a Senior Superlative for Class Flirt and uncanny hand-eye coordination that I am convinced only fully developed as a result of years of Connect Four. But I’ve always been mediocre. The one who was better at steering the golf cart than using the driver, the woman at the work picnic who keeps throwing the damn Frisbee into the street.
And so, in this year of taking on new things, those things I’m afraid of, I am taking my athletic avoidance head on: I started swimming lessons this week.
I should clarify something. I have always felt at home in the water. On long road trips I would beg my parents to drive to the next hotel – PRETTY, PRETTY PLEASE – in case it had a pool. I would whine to my poor mother until she would force my poor father to carry a five-year-old me into the ocean.
But my swimming advancement has always been hindered by the presence of one oddly-evolved survival technique. As I don’t know how to breathe properly while in the water, at a very early age I learned to create an airtight seal between my upper lip and nostrils.
(I’ll pause while you try it out.)
I didn’t think anything of it until, at the age of 17, I emerged from a dive to find my lifeguard boyfriend wearing a look that said he sincerely hoped I would be good at having sex, as then it might be worth staying with such a woman.
(This move also proved adaptive during second rounds of sorority rush. During a particularly excruciating bout of small-group “what is special about you?” sharing – when I could no longer take the testimonials about volunteering their summers to save the animals of Equitorial Guinea and oohs and ahs about the ability to play the cello without hands – I broke out my nostril/lip-suction, party-pleasing move. The moment that followed may have been the very genesis of crickets.)
So you can imagine my reticence as I stepped into the cold water this week, unsure as to how I was even supposed to strap those goggles to my head, that after initial instructions and short demos our instructor asked us to show our stuff. Only one quarter of one lap.
I stood freezing in the corner of the shallow end, shaking from what I prefer to think was the crisp water. You go first, their eyes begged. And so I did. I breathed deeply. I began to swim.
I'm actually breathing!
And I kept going.
Look Ma! No water in my lungs!
I eventually heard my classmates and teacher yelling through the splashing that I was well beyond where we were told to stop.
I am quite sure I have not felt that good since the Bicentennial.
And I basked in the smell of chlorine until finally washing it from my skin the next morning.