Swimming Lessons

Written By: Wendy  Peterson

Superman-T-Touch, Superman-T-Touch – eating every wave through the rhythms of swimming lessons – memorized, internalized, executed. Doggie-paddling in the sand, the instructor demonstrating how each hand should windmill not flail. Then to the water.

I despised every scrape of sea-grass along my shin, every light-refracted “jelly-fish,” the tang of accidently swallowed or snuffed salt-water that viciously parched the back of my throat when I went under. Couldn’t and wouldn’t go in unless I could be sure that I could see all the way to the bottom – clear. No snails, no eels, no tentacles probing for feet to tangle to the bed of shells and pinching crabs. No boogie boards.

And when I washed up older, on the backs of many dissolved North Fork summers, the irritation changed: I wanted no people. No need for sunglassed-bystanders watching my nervousness, my will-just-stick-my-feet-in attempt at being casual – like everyone under their umbrellas isn’t watching the bathing-suit shy, toe-dipper receding faster to her car than the wave spit-up back into the Sound, the Bay, the town beach, 67-Steps, community pools – gag me.

It was not for lack of trying. It’s just the temperature…

I’ll blame it on the tourist infestation. Out-of-town lobsters in their shading hats and neurotic smattering of sunscreen every 5 minute 6 second chance, every time the seagull screams, or at least every angle, every degree, the sun ticks down the sky, or until it’s time to rendezvous at Claudio’s.

I was six and clinging to a boogie board inclined to drift its way to Shelter Island – dumbly watching the strap throw itself off of the swimming-kick of my cousin, I watched him sail forward to the shore, as I turned into my own deserted sandbar – a girl with palm-frond pigtails and speckled swimsuit. I was no longer towed along by his sure arm by arm and leg by leg movement, but tugged into a deep-end, a don’t-go-too-far-out cruise, and my palms went clammy while the boogie board grew keen on manslaughter. 3-feet something floating in 50-foot waters – swimming lessons be damned.

Man overboard, abandon ship.

The Bay was so dark.

I was sinking for hours, suspended each foot down – no rock bottom, just endless guzzling of the Bay water, looking for some ground to push off on, but it wasn’t a pool with a cutoff to the amount of falling you could fit into your cannonball, your dive, your drowning. I was hanging without a noose – quietly accepting the painful truth that I was without gills and flippers and didn’t know much about how mermaids survived under water.

Someone helped my hand to a buoy slimy and slick with algae, dense cooked-spinach seaweed, and the rope border was tarred with the same ick that crept up between my fingers, and my arms were wobbling, shivering. I should have just stuck my head back under, nose stinging on the salt, to punish my embarrassment until the lifeguard came to fetch me – too many onlookers in their uniform towel-lounge, sneering at my scene: a child’s stupidity. No one lets go of a boogie board – forgetting how to butterfly and plunging like a worm wriggling at the end of a fishing line.

And here I am, too many years later, shoulder-scrunched and staring down the surge of the beast – the Sound at Kenny’s Beach – my arms tucking down the sail of my t-shirt in the heated-breeze, my toes crossed for good luck and anxiety trying to anchor themselves into the sand. I watched a girl throw plopping rocks at its chest, and it heaved angrily with big waves, and its cyclops’ eye descended hungrily on its prey – human flounders – the sun about to douse its own fire in the far, far waters.

I almost couldn’t breathe.

So I figured, before anyone looked fast, I’d peel my shirt from my sweat and run for it – dive head in without analyzing how much seaweed might web itself through my toes, calculate precisely how many jelly-fish might be breeding, how many boogie boards were abandoned in their sunken wreck, how much bacteria makes it too sick for swimming.

There was no rope.

No safety – do I sense a turn in the weather – but I couldn’t bob through any more excuses so my bare feet dropped heavily deep – each sandy ripple leading me closer to the always charcoal gray-blue intimidation of churning water. Nauseous.  Seasick and no other shore at the end of my cross-Sound squint.

I was ashamed.

Toes splintered back at the chop of water on the damp sand – my heel-toe retreat. My skin blushing to beat the sunburn to its job.

“Come on! Come on!”

The young girl ran into the retching-water calling back to her teeth-happy grandparents, parents or guardians, lounging in their beach chairs, cradling arthritis and back pains, stretching their limbs vicariously through the young serf-treader.

And I didn’t want to live like that – always watching from an idled car from the parking lot at the far end of all the splashing and laughing and swimming. So I left the boogie board behind me – a tier in the sand, protruding like a small-little victory.

Superman-T-Touch, Superman-T-Touch.

I could see straight through the water to the bottom – clear – could pulse with the tide. I let the seaweed twirl around my ankles and rode out each wave like it would be the last to break and ebb away the summer.