Soon after my thirty-second birthday, I felt it was time I learned to swim. I swear, I possessed no aquatic abilities whatsoever. I couldn’t even float. People at the beach might comment, “but you know the dog-paddle, right?” or “you can tread water, of course”, and I’d answer ”No”. When it came to fear of water, I also had absolutely none.
While single, I loved to romp in the ocean at Jones or Riis Beach, wading out until the water came just over my shoulders–till only my scrawny neck and head were above the surface. One time I was horsing around in the waves with a group of hot looking men, and this one guy swam beneath my legs and dolphin style, started carrying me out further. He stopped only after I grabbed onto a huge handful of his hair for dear life, shoving his head deep into the water, nearly drowning the both of us. Bobbing up to the surface, as I went down for my second or third time he shouted “Why the f—- did you do that?” and I gulped/gasped/burped back: “Can’t. Swim”. He dragged me, swimming to shore to rescue me. Great way to meet a boy, huh?
At the time of my decision to become amphibious, I was partnered with Alejandro, living in NYC. We visited his family in the Caribbean a lot. If we weren’t at the beach, then we were around a swimming pool somewhere. One certainly might find it difficult avoiding water when both living and playing on islands. Our friend Giuseppe had just completed an adult swim course at a local YMCA with great results, so it only seemed right that I enroll in that same learn to swim program.
It was a very small class for such a very big pool. There weren’t a dozen of us. I don’t remember anybody’s name. Those poolmates still lodged in my memory bank are the scared little lady, the woman in the black one-piece with huge pink polka dots, and the older guy with the gold Italian twisted-horn charm dangling from a thick chain, most of which was buried in a pelt of silver chest hair. This sweet man was the only male in class who’d speak to me. In my skimpy navy blue Speedo with the white stripes at each narrow hip, seems it was obvious I was the only gay one in our group. The two or three other dudes in their ballooning, over-sized K-Mart specials never came anywhere near. They obviously feared that by sharing the same pool water, no amount of chlorine could safeguard them from becoming fags themselves.
Our instructor was this guy probably not yet thirty, with a name like Chris or Sandy. He was average height with dark brown hair, and stocky–just bordering on chubby. He was attractive enough to get my interest, but not so much as to be a distraction. More importantly Chris was an incredible teacher. You’d have to be to take on the issues that come with people well over thirty who still can’t swim. We spent the first class sitting on the green tiled floor surrounding the pool talking. Each of us spoke about (1) why we’d never learned to swim before and (2) what brought us, at this point in life, to finally learn. Once we’d finished our confessions he got us to sit on the edge of the pool kicking our feet in the water. Before class was over we’d all entered the pool standing together in the low-end. All of us except the scared little lady.
She wasn’t scared of the water–the poor woman was terrorized by it. She’d avoided it for so long she had demonized it. Scared Lady and her husband had been going to Boca Raton for several weeks every winter for many years. They were retiring and they’d bought a condo down there. She explained how much of people’s social life in Florida centered around the pool, and she felt compelled to swim to not feel so out-of-it in their new home. The zaftig woman in the black one piece with pink polka dots had a similar spiel. My aging Guido friend would horse around at the beach, but like me, never learned even the basics. Sandy assured us, we would all leave the class with our fears conquered and at least some basic water survival skills.
The next class we learned dead man’s float and the back float. Even though water didn’t frighten me, the name dead man’s float was not particularly appealing enough to hold my interest, but the back float amazed me. Our chunky little instructor supported me as I leaned into his fuzzy chest the first few times. The sensation of lying back into the water and bobbing up like a buoy was so freeing–the warm pool water relaxingly womb-like.
Chris added some breathing and kicking exercises and in the following classes we advanced to practicing strokes in place. I was having a great time in the class–proud for each of my mini-milestones. We all celebrated every accomplishment of our classmates, and broke out into spontaneous applause when finally Scared Lady joined us in the water. She became partnered with Pink Polka Dots. Guido and I had been paired from day one. We both were thriving like fish, and Sandy used us as models to demonstrate.
He was teaching us to swim Free Style and believe me, most of us were perfecting the free part much more than the style part. We were all over the place, though everybody seemed able to move forward with our heads above the water. Chris continued to remind us to “breathe”, or “keep kicking”, or “bring those arms up”. Never having been the most coordinated person on land, it was an awful lot to remember while at the same time being immersed in water. Progress was being made and we all managed to swim across the pool to the deep end a few times before the last class.
That final class brought a challenge. Sandy asked us to swim the length of the pool from shallow end to deep, then across the width and back to the shallow end again. We could stop and rest at each corner for as long as we needed to. There was no time element involved in the task. He hoped we’d all at least try to see how far we could get. Chris assured us it wasn’t a requirement, just a personal goal to work towards. Plus there was no ribbon ceremony at the end to make anyone feel like a loser if he or she didn’t or couldn’t finish.
Even the order in which we would swim was on a volunteer basis. I distinctly remember Pink Polka Dots going first, because she was really driven and swam well for a big, bulky gal. Guido had gone before me too. Once a swimmer made it across the deep end, and was heading into the home stretch, the next person started. An excitement began to build with each new contestant and we got into cheering one another on.
By the time I hit the water, everyone had worked themselves into quite a state of enthusiasm. I think even the dudes in the K-Mart specials had come around to root for me. I remember wishing somebody had a camera, cause I knew I looked just like Mark Spitz, only without all the medals around my neck. I kicked like crazy, my arms were near perfect and I made it to the deep end in a flash. I lifted myself up with my elbows at the first corner and watched the person ahead of me finish, while breathing several times before making my short, but very deep crossing. I wasn’t going to let the thought of all that water beneath me freak me out; I knew it could if I wasn’t careful.
In no time I made it across, since it was maybe only half the distance. I realized when concentrating on swimming, it really made no difference how deep the water was, and proudly I rested again anticipating the final leg of my swim. I don’t know whether it was cockiness on my part because I’d been doing so well, or just being an airhead, (as I so often was when it came to physical challenges), but I did a superbly dumb thing. Before commencing the last lap, I took in a wonderfully huge breath. As I started in to swim, I executed an equally huge exhale just as I hit the surface of the water. The next thing I knew, I was standing at the bottom of the pool, looking up at about five or six feet of water over my head.
I remember silence coming towards me in slow motion waves. I began thinking, okay Matthew, don’t panic. You need to float. You know how to do that. I stood there on the floor of the pool, waiting to miraculously ascend to the surface–like I could simply think myself up to the top where the air was. Nothing was happening. Suddenly I realize the only way I know how to float first requires two lungs-full of air. And even with that air, I likewise need to be ON the water and I was now definitely totally UNDER it and oxygen-less.
Here then is my inner dialogue, standing motionless on the floor of the pool, as one might do at the corner while waiting for a bus:
“So I’m not going to float because I have no air. He never taught us what to do in this sort of situation. If he did, I must not have been paying attention. I can’t believe this is the way I’m going to die. Alone. In twelve feet of chlorinated water that’s quietly gurgling in my ears. If I look up, can I see anything? I hear muffled, echo-y voices. Pink Polka Dots is at the pool’s edge. She’s yelling something. Probably cheering on the person who went right after me. Oh God…are her huge thighs the last thing I’m going to see? I suddenly feel very weak. I can’t believe I’m not panicking. Is this what it’s like to die? Silently just waiting for my life to end? I try closing my eyes to see if that makes things any better. No tunnel of light to enter. I open them again. No life flashing before my eyes either… just those thunder thighs and big pink polka dots.”
There is an explosive splash behind me, stirring the waters nearby. I don’t turn round to look because I’m so dizzy I’m afraid I might keel over and I don’t want to risk drowning while flat on my back. There is a porpoise-like creature at my feet who’s grabbed me and is moving me up to the surface. Finally going up! I feel his hairy chest against my naked back. It’s Chris saving me I realize, as I gulp my first breath and he swims to the pool’s edge with me in tow. Pink Polka Dots pulls me up by my shoulders and onto the green tiled floor. I want to kiss those cellulite thighs of hers, that’s how happy I am to be out of the abyss. The class surrounds me in seconds, shouting, firing questions from every direction. Giddy from no oxygen and with being alive again, I sit up and grab onto my fuzzy life saver’s arms, shaking them both, repeating “thank you so much” ad nauseum.
“You were just standing there when I dove into the water”, Sandy said quietly, as if the others hovering around me couldn’t hear. “What were you doing?”
“Waiting to die”, I answered matter-of-factly.
“But why didn’t you kick…or fight…try to get up to the top somehow?”
I just shrugged my shoulders. “Didn’t think I had any options.” And I really didn’t.
Our teacher was really shaken–maybe even more than me. It took a few minutes before he could break the trance that had fallen over the entire class. “Who’s up next” he asked as he clapped his hands like the cheerleader coach he usually was, yet it was obvious he was still preoccupied.
His question haunted me all the way home on the subway ride and for days after. Me–the life-grabbing enthusiast, hungry optimist, connoisseur who believed in the life is a banquet theory had totally caved. I’d begun the class with absolutely no fear of water. I graduated down on the bottom of the pool floor–never again comfortable in or near water.