Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Swimming is Easy - Part II

When I was in high school, I had a dream that my school was underwater, with port holes instead of doors. I swam through the dream school, feeling strangely at home in a nightmare combination of my least favorite things. Upon waking, I felt a sense of loss, like phantom limb syndrome. "How can I get back there?" I asked myself.

this is Silent Hill if it were underwater

Later that day, I was hanging out with friends at someone's house. It was a fine summer day, and the stranger's house had a pool.

This should have set off utter panic - I was going to have to take my shirt off in front of girls and get in water; forget underwater high school, this was a real double nightmare. I'd invariably end up clinging to the edge of the pool while they wrestled and everybody that wasn’t me got to kiss.

Before I could re-enroll at the water school, everyone but my friend Bryan and I ran to get swimsuits from another house. Bryan, it's pertinent to note, wanted to be a Navy SEAL more than anything in the world. He was on the pre-BUD/S training program, and had calf muscles like he stuffed baseballs in his socks. A truck hit him one day while he was mowing grass and he finished the yard.

I had decided I'd swim in basketball shorts, and Bryan was already in the pool. I stood at the edge of the pool. It had been years since I'd almost drown. I had my chip and my sponsor was proud.

...but my dream felt so real! Deep down, some part of me knew how to swim! It's like Walt Disney said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

I backed up about five feet, held my breath, and took a running leap into the deep end.

Walt Disney is a liar.

The water swallowed me like a hungry hungry hippo. Gone was the effortless grace I had in my dream; instead, I flailed my arms and legs like retarded propellers. I managed not to immediately sink, bobbing up and down. I knew what came next, though.

"Bryan!" I desperately shouted. There was no response, even though I could clearly see him swimming ten feet away.

"Bryan!" I shouted again, louder and more insistent.

Water lazily flowed in my mouth as I shouted, in no great hurry; like a spider, the water would wait until I tired myself before striking.

I managed another "Bryan!", and then a "Brarhrhgh", and then only incoherent noises.

As I sank, I stared at the sun. Filtered by several feet of water, it was a beautiful, incoherent brilliance. I thought about how life had been recently - getting along with my parents, going to dances, finally having a girlfriend - and mentally sighed.

"Things were going so well," I thought, feeling my body go numb. (If I die, feel free to put that on my grave.) 

Peacefully reconciled to drowning, I was shocked by the violence of the next few moments. I tumbled through the water, spinning, and was thrown halfway out of the pool. I turned to see Bryan, confusion in his eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked, followed by "Can you breath?" I nodded, vomiting up water as I did so. "What happened? Did you hit your head?"

"I can't swim," I explained, covering up my shame by pretending to wipe water from my eyes. When I didn't hear a response, I turned to look at him.

"But I saw you jump in..." he said; his eyes were those of a Lovecraft protagonist's at the climax of the story. There was a moment when we were both silent, and Bryan fiercely contemplated the middle distance.

yep, this makes as much sense as what I did

"At first I thought you were messing with me,” he finally said. “You know, 'Oh no Bryan, come save me because you want to be a Navy SEAL.' I ignored you, but then the 'Bryans' got fewer and farther between. When I saw you on the bottom I knew you weren't screwing around."

In an alternate universe, poor Bryan Mk. 2 spent his whole life with the guilt of letting me drown because he thought it was a prank. If I have a mutant talent, it's the ability to ruin multiple lives in one go.

When everyone got back they had changed their minds, deciding to see a movie with some other friends. I bowed out, intending to go home and contemplate what exactly was wrong with me.


By now you might be asking, "Why didn't your parents sign you up for real swim lessons? With someone that’s not a lunatic?”

The answer is that when the thought finally occurred to them, I had the same reaction to the words "pool" and "swim" that normal kids do to "dentist" and "rape machine."

rape machine is currently in prototype

Also, my dad had his idea of how you learned to swim, informed by my grandfather's decision to make son stew at the lake. When that didn't work, I was defective, not the process. My mom, already overprotective, listened to my stories of watery woe with wide eyes; she installed a lock on the sink and bought me floaties for the bath tub.

On the other hand, my younger brother got swim lessons. He got them when he was barely five, as my stepmom feared he would happen by a puddle and fall in. It's all part of the great disparity for middle children - we are sandwiched between the progenitor older sibling and the baby of the family, who robs a liquor store and we somehow get blamed for it.

"Didn't any of your friends try to teach you to swim?" you ask, desperately clawing for a piece of the rational universe you were raised to believe in.

Once again, by the time anyone sensible (read: not my family) tried to teach me to swim, it was too late - water had closed over my face like a big, wet hand too many times for me to do anything but spaz out if my feet couldn't touch bottom.

Also, everyone starts with floating. I don't float. Your science words like “density” and “buoyancy” mean nothing to my awkward, awkward body. Once I get in water, I sink like an alcoholic's sobriety at a Catholic wedding. “Floating” just means giving up and letting the water know it's won.

like this


One summer, I went with a friend and his family to Myrtle Beach. After a day spent body surfing in the ocean - close to the shore, mind you - my friend, his family and I were relaxing in the hotel pool.

Scott, my friend's older brother, asked why I never learned to swim. I gave him an abbreviated version of this whole Aeschylean tragedy, and he asked me to try floating again. We went back and forth, discussing why that was a bad idea, but I finally gave in, like I do. Like I always do.

To his credit, he agreed to put his hands under me so I didn't die. After watching me try a few times, he sided with the whole of recorded history. "You don't float," he said; then, he furrowed his massive brow and asked, "Have you tried doggy paddling?"

"Doggy...paddling?" I asked, confused. My head may have instinctively tilted to one side.

Scott knew I would flail my arms like a windmill as soon as water got above my head, so he taught me a constructive way to flail. I learned to use my arms as life saving devices, instead of shovels frantically digging for ruination.

Soon I was swimming all around the pool, looking at Scott like he was a wizard. In the end, all it took was a little out of the box thinking - and possibly the dark arts - to end the nightmare flowchart.

Since that proud day, I've not forgotten the mechanics of how to swim. Once a summer, I get in the pool to prove I've still got it.

I also get in the pool to reassure myself that my entire life is not a dreamlike state I experience while my seven year old self drowns. You might think I'd script a perfect life, but this is exactly the kind of shit I'd put myself through.

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