Good things happening: I am remembering that there are things I love. Water is one of those things. I've always felt at home in the water. A kid at the beach, I played an imaginary game with the waves. We could speak to each other. They tried to batter me, a pudgy ten year old, down to the ground, and I'd batter at them with my fists to make it clear I was their equal. It felt like they knew.
I don't look like a swimmer. Those girls, they are short like me, but they are flat-chested. They've got shoulders that would serve them well bumping rudely past tourists here in New York. They are visibly strong. They always have boyfriends. They always have Adidas flip flops.
I was on the swim team in middle school. I conquered my car sickness reading books like Karleen Koen's Through a Glass Darkly on the half hour drive from the east side of Providence, where I lived, to practice in Barrington. That was about all I accomplished.
People in Barrington were rich. The kids I knew who lived there were all sexually advanced. They had cool parents and CK1 perfume. They drove drunk. To me it was a dark place. I went to cotillion there too. I hid in a bathroom when a male proctor in his 60s kept trying to make me disco dance with him since no boys would partner up with me. Barrington. I shudder still. Christopher Hightower killed an entire family there just before my own moved to the ocean state. A wife, a husband, and a daughter. He strangled her, shot him with arrows, and buried the daughter alive. He used to counsel troubled teens and teach Sunday School. Barrington.
I tried not to stare at the girls on my swim team. They had nipples like the tops of those rubber wine stoppers you find at Bed, Bath & Beyond. But they had no breasts to speak of. They moved fast like eels. I couldn't hide the twitch of my fat hips even then. Our coach's eyes followed me everywhere I went. Luckily, because of my crippling low self-esteem I figured it was just because my fat ass was so utterly out of place.
Really he was using his eyes to f--k me raw. I'd be a different person altogether if I ever once suspected that someone wanted me. To me it's still the big impossible. A stranger trying to get his fingers down my pants in an empty vestibule. He’s reaching for something in me. I don’t let him. Because nothing’s there. I don't remember his name, just his clammy insistence. Knock, knock, knock. Get out here and disco!
I never made it to the swim meets. My times were good. I liked to swim and tuck and curl and push off, heading back again. Without my glasses and in goggles I was close to blind. I forgot it was a race. The others described how good the water made them feel. They were sharks. They were dolphins. I was a mermaid. No, I was a selkie. This isn't something I revealed. What if I told them and they found my skin, making me their prisoner?
I wish I could have stayed in the ocean and battled the waves, making up more stories about my aquatic gifts. I wish I could have walked to the ruins of the old farmhouse on the furthest end of Scarborough beach. I would have done it every day. I loved being alone then. It didn't frighten me. There was no one to let down.
But my mother worried about me. I don't know what worried her the most. At the time it felt like my fatness. She'd see me and go into a full-fledged fat panic. We'd jog. We'd see a nutritionist. It's funny because I was fine. I looked fine. There are photos. I don't think I ever thought I was fat until my mom and my pediatrician started worrying about it out loud. My first memory of my mom dieting coincides with the Challenger disaster. She'd finished a Slim Fast diet. We went out to dinner to celebrate.
I don't think it was the fatness that really scared her. I think it was all the other stuff -- the stuff with me that was actually ‘wrong’. The lying, and the night terrors, and the radiating surety I had that I was not a creature who deserved love.
So she made me swim. Daily practice during the week, and if I made it until Friday I got my choice of Now N’ Laters or a delicious, flaky, buttery elephant’s ear from the Viennese bakery we passed on our way home. I swam for the candy and pastry and for my mom. I let my hair turn to green goo in the chlorine. I scratched the terrible patches the water encouraged and I did it gladly.
For the candy. For the way the pastry melted on my tongue, after giving way, chewily. For the look on my mother's face when we weighed me in and I'd lost. She was happy. Because she was raised to believe that each lost pound was a step closer to the magic cure. She has always wanted me to be happy. She has always loved me without condition.
I just never believed I deserved that from anyone. I was happy when I lost weight, but only because she was happy, and the world at large seemed happy. But clearly that wasn't the magic cure. You can lose The Weight (it deserves caps) and be left with something even worse in it's place: the fear, the self-loathing, and no place to hide it. My cheeks bled on the inside, I licked my lips until they looked like a dried out sphincter.
I quit swim team before they could kick me out. I never showed up for meets. I could think of nothing worse than racing anyone. In a race, you are actively trying to beat other people. I just wanted them to like me.
I got in the water again for the first in years. My best friend wanted to try water aerobics. I said I’d go. The stakes could not have been lower. In my mind if I ever wanted to reclaim anything resembling happiness or confidence, I had to actually try things.
There’s a very real reason I’m still single. It ain’t because I’m not a babe, because I am (I am). It’s because the voice that says “I am” isn’t as loud as the voice that keeps me at home by myself. She’s scared to go into a bar alone. She walks home from the grocery store the exact same way every day. She’s so scared that she lives her life in sixty second, well-managed chunks. She’s miserable. I can help her.
I went to the class. This wasn’t your granny’s water aerobics. Our totally hot-if-lazy-eyed instructor barked instructions at us fast and furious. To keep myself going during the more vigorous intervals I imagine what his long hair would feel like grazing my nipples because I am shameless horny pervert.
I forgot that I can feel strong. I can kick hard and fast. I can hold my breath until it burns. I don’t think about the stray pubic hairs escaping from my suit like sea anemones, I don’t worry that I look like an alien in my swim cap, I don’t fret that my thighs are too gelatinous, I don’t suck in my stomach. I just swim. I just move. At the end of the session our instructor bellows: “Give yourself a big hug and a kiss,” we do it, all sheepishly smacking our wet arms with our lips. “Now say, ‘I LOVE MYSELF!” I whisper the words, it’s a timorous declaration. Right now, I believe it.