I dive straight and deliberately into the pool and slice the still water into a thousand ripples. The sun streams through the glass gym walls. My body glides through the chilly lane toward the finish of a lap. The pungent smell of chlorine fills into my nostrils. It feels good. My arms feel strong as I slap the water. I feel safe in the water.
On my sixth-grade swim team in Bayside, Queens, I lift my head for air. I wish it was a nice pool, not one in a public high school. I hear my parents calling out.
“Go, hon, go! Two more laps and you’re there.”
“Almost at the end. You can do it!”
I picture my mom, beaming. Their words cheer me up as I struggle to finish my last lap of backstroke, knowing I’m far behind. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy. Mom is well enough to attend. I feel safe in the water.
I tap the wall with my fingers and flip around for another lap. I think of how hard it was to learn to pivot and how it’s like second nature now. My childhood coach Mike, a tall, lean, no-nonsense man, once told me mastery of a sport will keep me out of trouble. In retrospect, I think he was right.
In my early twenties, I swim laps at a Bellerose YMCA. Outside there’s traffic on Hillside Avenue. Living on my own, I have my roommate Dee, a couple years of college under my belt, a job I don’t like, and a questionable boyfriend.
My back kicks make big splashes. To keep straight, I concentrate on the thick black line on the bottom of the pool. Drops fly in the air as I finish five laps. Or is it six? It doesn’t matter if I lose count because I feel so free. My breathing is steady. My heart pumps fiercely.
In my early thirties, I swim laps at a gym in a northern suburb of the city where I live alone. I swim with my friend Ginny, a marathon runner, every Friday after work. Afterwards, we have Bloody Marys and nachos at a diner across the street where a stocky Greek man with a thick mustache tells us corny jokes. Ginny always orders extra spicy drinks. I sometimes order a side of chili.
I swim to help clear my lungs of the damage from a twenty-year smoking habit.
Bubbles form under my mouth as I smile. Those Friday nights were damn good times. Even then, I felt safe in the water.
On Jones Beach on Long Island, I swim feverishly in the ocean, rolling with the tide, sun soaking my back, the taste of salt on my lips. Eyes burning from the salt, my love for the sea never stops me. I relish how the sun makes my skin glow. I feel invincible.
At fifteen laps, I stop for a break, look at the time, and adjust my goggles. Maybe I’ll write a story about an Olympic swimmer who leads a double life. In this health club in a suburb of the city where I now live, I’m happy. Tilting my head, I shake the water from my ears and swim my final lap.
A middle-aged wife and mother, I realize swimming is not so easy. I miss my healthy twenty-five-year-old body. As I turn my head and suck a deep breath into my lungs, I look outside. The sky is bright. I look toward the second half of my life with great anticipation.
I enjoy the peace and clarity I feel in each lap as I forget my troubles for a while. In the pool, there are none. I focus on my breath, on the purity of water, soaking my skin. I still feel safe in the water.