“Don’t be silly,” he said. “Never be scared of water. We were all fish before we became people. Water was mankind’s first home.”
This surprised me. I thought it was the Garden of Eden.
He got to his knees on the rim of the pool. “Now watch,” he said. “Here is how you swim.” He moved his arms in wide, long pulls, first one, then the other, turning his head from side to side. “You stroke your arms, and with each stroke, you bring your head out of the water and take a breath. With your feet, you kick, like this.” He chopped his hands up and down. “See how easy?”
“Do I have to go in the water again?” I asked.
“Of-course you do, but this time will be different. I’ll hold you and you move your arms and legs like I showed you. When you catch on, I’ll let you go and you’ll be swimming.”
He took the towel from my shoulders, dropped it on the cement, picked me up in his arms and climbed with me down the ladder into the water. He must have felt my heart beat against the hand he put under me. With the other hand, he held the straps of my suit. My stomach felt crampy. I was terrified of the water. It wanted to drink me.
“Now do what I told you,” he said. “Put your head in the water, stroke with your arms, kick with your legs, and turn your head to breathe.”
I lay on the surface of the pool, supported by his hand. I didn’t trust him not to remove it and drop me into the water. I stroked and kicked and moved my head, but in no way did I feel I was swimming.
“Good,” Father said. “If you do it right, the water will hold you up.”
I didn’t think so.
“Don’t let go,” I sputtered. “I’m not ready.”
“I’ll know when you’re ready,” he said. We crossed the width of the pool to the other side and started back. My arms and legs were so tired they ached. My neck was sore from the turning. I stopped moving to rest, floating along on Father’s hand. “Get going,” he said.
And suddenly, my support was gone. I thrashed wildly. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep afloat. The water did not hold me up as Father promised but sucked me down its cold dark throat. Down I went, too exhausted to fight my way up. This time, Father didn’t rescue me by putting me under his arm. He grabbed the straps of my swimsuit, yanked me up and deposited me on the rim of the pool. I dropped to my knees, coughing and retching to get rid of the water I’d swallowed. He threw a towel to me and I buried my face in it.
I’d disappointed him. I felt hot tears behind my eyes.
“I’m going for a swim,” Father said. “Watch how I move.”
There were several people in the pool now. I sat on the rim at the deep end, my feet dangling in the cold water. Men and women dived in, swam the length, returned and did it again, or came out and sprawled on the grass alongside the pool. In the shallow end, children played, their mothers sitting on benches nearby watching and calling out warnings. I wanted to be one of those children, safe in the shallow water. I tightened the towel around my shoulders. I pulled my feet out of the water and sat on them, warming them under my bottom.
I located Father and watched him swim fast and smooth from end to end of the pool, hardly bringing his head out of the water to breathe. I finally stopped shivering, warmed by the sun. I wanted to go home. The glitter of the sun on the water made my eyes ache, the laughter and splashing of the swimmers confused me and I felt terribly tired and sad. I knew Father was disgusted with me, a girl who couldn’t swim even after he taught her.
When he finished, Father pulled himself out of the pool without even climbing on the ladder. He stood dripping above me, drying his hair with one of our towels.
“You’ll learn,” he said. He tied the towel around his waist, picked up the towel bag and pulled me to my feet. I didn’t know why he thought I’d learn. Puppies and babies knew how to swim without even being taught. I’d fallen to the bottom of the pool like a stone even after Father had shown me how to swim. I was ashamed to look at him.
He took my rolled-up dress and shoes out of his bag and handed them to me. “Go in and get dressed,” he said, leaving me at the Ladies’. “Wait outside the door for me.”
Inside, a few naked ladies stood under the showers. I didn’t look at them. I draped my towel over my shoulders and tried to peel off my suit. I had it down to my hips when I noticed my belly and chest were bright red. The towel with which I modestly tried to hide my nakedness was also stained red. I was having a hard time holding onto the towel and trying to get my legs out of the tight suit when the lady who was mopping the floor came to my side. Putting her mop on top of her bucket, she stooped down beside me.
“Here,” she said, “I’ll help you. Look how your suit has faded all over you.” She got my suit off, wrung red drops out of it, and took the towel out of my hands.
“Where’s your mama?” she asked, patting my body dry with the damp towel.
“I’m here with my father,” I said. “He’s in the Men’s.”
“Let’s get you dressed. Look how wrinkled your dress is.”
She slipped it over my head and tried to pat it smooth. I slid my feet into my sandals.
“Did you lose your panties?” the woman asked. I nodded, ashamed to admit I’d come without any.
“So you’ll have to go bare-bottomed,” she said. She took a comb out of her pocket and tried to pull it through my snarls. “Oh, well, your hair will dry in the air. Your mama must have a time combing it.” She was right about that. She handed me my hat. “Hold it till your hair dries,” she said. “All right, now. Go and find Papa.”
She wrapped my bleeding suit in the stained towel and piled the bundle onto my red-stained arms.
There were a lot of people outside the dressing rooms. I didn’t see Father. He’s gone home and left me, I thought. He’s so ashamed of me. He’ll tell Mother he lost me. I knew I could never find my way home. I would be found someday like the Raggedy Ann I saw in a neighbor’s garbage can, filthy and torn. My face itched with tears and the water leaking from my wet hair, but I needed both hands to hold my things.
“There you are!”
It was Father, looking fresh and young, dressed in clean white
trousers and smooth shirt, his wet hair combed sleek. “What’s happened to you?”
I felt his disgust at my wrinkled dress and red hands. He took the stained towel from me and the bathing suit fell to the ground.
“So much for French bathing suits,” he said. “They don’t know enough to make them color fast.”
“You should see my belly,” I said, and suddenly, my grief and embarrassment were forgotten when I heard my father laugh.