Someone must have peed in the pool. From the vigor of the lifeguards’ arms waving us out, I figured that someone must have peed a lot. I tried to keep my head above water as I made my way to the end of the lane, thinking about all of the sweat, saliva, and mucus that’s already a part of the liquid-based exercise experience. At any given time, someone is spitting into the gutter, and at all times, lap swimmers exert themselves enough to be soaking wet on dry land. Swimming is funny that way; it can look clean, even though it’s probably the workout that most fully immerses you in other people’s excretions. I tried to look at it philosophically: Nietzsche says whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And The Joker says whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger. I wondered which way this might go for me as I pulled myself forward.
I noticed that my earnest but so-slow-am-I-actually-going-backward breaststroke wasn’t getting me out of the water fast enough, so I decided to walk instead. This was the instructional pool, after all. At 85 degrees and never more than 4.5 feet deep, it invited amateurs like me who relied on temperate, shallow water the way a novice cyclist relies on flat, empty roads. A few months after learning to swim, the adjacent competition pool, at 78 degrees and a depth up to 13.5 feet, still scared the shit out of me.
Finally, I hoisted myself up on deck. As I stood dripping and chilled, waiting for the chlorine blast to neutralize any insurgent bacteria, I overheard other swimmers say that a child had pooped. Well, then. Maybe something scared the shit out of that poor kid. I scanned the recreation area, now more alert to what the lifeguards were doing. But I didn’t see much going on. If there was an incursion, they probably extracted it while I journeyed single-mindedly to the wall. I thought about unwelcome fragments mingling with the less alarming substances that usually passed through my mouth and nostrils. I wondered, if the lifeguards were to find something, where they would put it. The toilet or the trashcan—either way, the process had downsides.
I had heard that the University of Maryland built this natatorium during a failed bid for Washington, D.C. and Baltimore jointly to host the 2012 Olympics. A failure, indeed, if the organizing committee could have witnessed the pool at this particular instant, so far from ambitions of glory on the international stage. The win for me, as a graduate student on the College Park campus, was inexpensive access to world-class swimming facilities I had only recently felt comfortable using. After all, it wasn’t until my early thirties when I had the time, money, and resolve to begin evening lessons off-campus at a YMCA, far enough from school to avoid recognition. I’d show up weekly at the Y, braced against terror and bedecked with blue arm floaties.
The thing is, I actually love water. I love the feeling of soft, teasing ripples lapping against my bare skin. I especially love the beach: the coastline, the ocean’s horizon. I love the intrigue of an expanse that connects continents, wields overwhelming natural power, and harbors untold, unseen mysteries akin to those of unexplored planets. I also fear being at water’s mercy. Even if it’s only a cold indoor pool too deep for my feet to touch the bottom, I fear the loss of control to which gravity has accustomed me. I understand the deep end as the potential to fall rather than to sink. I no longer fear water on my face, but if I still can’t tell the difference between sinking in water and falling in air, then I still have a lot to work out.
In shallow water, though, I could contrive a modified corkscrew, competently spinning from breaststroke to right sidestroke, then to backstroke, then to left sidestroke, then to breaststroke again. Maryland’s Eppley Recreation Center pools had speakers above and below water, tuned to Top 40 during open swim, so as I dipped in and out and around, I never missed a bridge or chorus from late-aught Justin, Britney, or Rihanna. It was a joy. No fear; only delight.
My dad, a strong swimmer, says you never should fear the water, but you must respect it. He also says he learned to swim in a rain-filled bomb crater during his 1940s German childhood, which is an amazing story about a different kind of fear and not at all like mine. At my lessons, I noticed everyone around me the way one does when apprehension heightens the senses. The swim-capped women in aerobic unison pumping their water-weighted arms. The children bapping each other on the head with foam noodles exactly the way they are not supposed to. The man removing his prosthetic leg before starting his laps. The warm practice pool welcomed all, had room for all.
And then there was me: a five-foot, six-inch adult woman, responding hesitantly but affirmatively as the instructor patiently coaxed and encouraged me at every step from basic safety to deep-end plunges. I am even now astonished at the first time I launched, because I crossed a threshold that night and I don’t know why then and not the week before or after, becoming weightless as my feet finally left the floor and I propelled myself forward without pushing off anything, without holding onto anything.
So, am I stronger or stranger for surviving what I feared could kill me? Nietzsche and The Joker both made fair points; the world gets scary and messy and weird and we all have to find a way to live in it. Or a way to swim in it, if we think of the world as a scary, messy, and weird community pool where sometimes people pee and poop, sending the rest of us into a scramble. But I think Machiavelli comes closest to how I view swimming when he asks whether it is better for the powerful to be feared or loved. I both love and fear the water, and perhaps this will always be true. But by will and a certain nonchalance about foreign bodily discharge, I’ve managed to wrest a little more space for love.
Christine Muller is a writer, researcher, and educator based in the Philadelphia area. She is especially interested in stories that explore the blurred boundaries between history and hearsay. Read her flash fiction “Antony and Cleopatra” in Cleaver’s Issue 35.
Cover design by Karen Rile