The teenage swim instructor bellows from a distance, “Approach the diving board, feet together!”
Step one. Step two. Step three. Step four. Plant feet. Look out. Blue. Blue. Blue.
The toxic smell of chlorine stings the inside of my nose. The sound of dozens of wet feet scuttling along monotonous glossy-blue ceramic radiates through my eardrums. I’m disgusted by this place. Small, crescent-moon fingernail indents decorate my sweaty palms. Frantic, I look left to right, the neon posters making my eyes squint:
Lifeguard on Duty at All Times.
A red rope linked with reflective buoys separates the shallow end from the deep. The thin rope wavers loosely in the water as the other kids zoom around and beneath it. Nobody is going to save them if they begin to sink under the water. They’re just another bobbing buoy in a sea of twenty-odd eight-year-olds. Just keep your head above the water. Hold your nose. Don’t open your eyes. Unlike them, maybe I just never took direction well.
The court clerk commands. “Approach the bench, raise your right hand.”
Step one. Step two. Step three. Step four. Plant feet. Look out. Narrow eyes. Evil smirk.
The truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth.
My small, shaking voice escapes through bitten, chapped lips and at first, I don’t even recognize it as my own. It sounds pathetic. Scared. Nervous. Like that of a little girl trapped at the deep end of the swimming pool. I start to sink into myself, sink down, down, down. I’m being pulled, memories like currents, currents like cinder blocks tied to my ankles.
My weak lungs let out small sighs as the public defender pushes on. Frantic, I lose my voice. He continues to push: “You’re lying. Where’s the proof? You’re a seriously disturbed girl, aren’t you?” I’m a liar, I have no proof, I’m a seriously disturbed girl.
The swim instructor continues to push. “Jump off, Makenzie. Jump.”
I idle, inhale, squeeze shut my eyes, and jump. Immediate panic overtakes my every sense. My legs fail the rest of my body, my arms aren’t fast enough for my brain, the surface is too far away, the water too cold, my floaters too deflated. Help. Help. Help? Nothing.
The public defender pushes on. “Could it be you drank too much that night?”
I watch the condensation run slowly down the glass of water to my left like sap on a tree stump. I run my finger against it. I wipe the moisture from my hand onto my lap. I look up. I look back down. I unclench my fists. The crescent moon fingernail imprints decorate my sweaty palms. I pick up the glass. It almost slips from my grasp. The water inside ripples.
I imagine it consuming me. It’s in my lungs. It’s drowning my organs. I look ahead. I look for help. Help. Help. Help? Nothing.
“You have to test yourself! Get back in the pool.”
Chlorine stings my bloodshot eyes. My throat is dry from deep sobs escaping amid hyperventilation. I’ll never swim again. I look out. Twenty-odd eight-year-olds dance before me like raindrops on hot summer sidewalks. I look down at myself. My shimmering pink one-piece and black-and-purple water shoes mock me. Maybe I will swim again. I drop the towel. I walk to the edge. I look down, past my feet, past the “4 ft” painted in large black strokes on the side of the pool, right into the water. It ripples as the other kid’s splash.
“Listen, girls lie about this stuff all the time.”
Twenty-something strangers sit in the rows of the courtroom staring blankly ahead. They bob like buoys: heads up, heads down, looking left, looking right. A sea of strangers and one shark. He smirks at me. I clench my fists. I stare at my hands. I start to feel a current drag me under. I don’t speak, the water in the glass to my left crowds my lungs. I begin to choke. I cough, I breathe, I look out in front of me, I see my friends, I see my family, I see the surface. I sip the water again. I clear my throat. I smirk back.
The swim instructor tries to reason. “Every little girl gets taught how to swim.”
I sit on the ledge. I let my feet make small tsunamis in the shallow end of the swimming pool and turn my back on the instructor. When I get up, I take one stair at a time until half my body is submerged in the lukewarm, turquoise-tiled shallow end. I see the other kid’s jump, carefree, from the diving board; like pennies dropped off skyscrapers they almost disappear before hitting the surface of the water and magically popping back up through the waves seconds later. I’m not there yet. I’m not like the other twenty-something eight-year-olds. But someday, I will be.
The public defender attempts to rationalize. “My defendant comes from a good family. He’s an A student. He has no priors. He’s a good kid.”
Except for when he did this.
And again when he did that.
And when he left this scar on my right arm.
And called twenty-something times in one day, all sent to voice mail.
I start slowly and find my voice. Then, I dive in headfirst. The words escape fast yet steady like synchronized swimmers pushing off from the back of a swimming pool. Maybe I don’t know any good techniques. Maybe I’m learning as I go. But I swim like they do, and I swim. I don’t stop until there’s no more air left in my lungs and no more words left on my tongue. When I stop, I feel myself floating for a moment. Then, I firmly plant myself. I’m no longer nervous, no longer scared, no longer pathetic. The courtroom is silent. Tears fall down my face like condensation droplets rolling down the glass of water to my left.
The swim instructor applauds me. “I didn’t think you had it in you!”
Fourteen years later, I sit at the edge of the pool. I’ll never be a professional diver, but I’ve conquered this place. That lethal chlorine wafts through the air, everything looks and feels smaller when you’re suddenly much bigger. The diving board, no more than five feet off the ground, no longer holds dominion over my once-anxious mind. As I leave, I watch a crowd of kids rush onto the glossy blue ceramic, like a school of fish ready to leap into the deep end. I smile as I think about eight-year-old me, resisting free swim in her shimmering pink one-piece and purple-and-black water shoes.
My lawyer pats my shoulder as I return to my seat. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
The shark sneers at me through jagged teeth. Eight years and no probation. Case closed. I think back to childhood, then to the pool. Jump, Makenzie, jump. But if I jump when I’m not ready, what’s the point? So I jump when I am. I jump when I realize life isn’t always fair to little girls whose biggest problem is learning how to swim. When I realize sharks are real, and they come in all shapes and sizes. And when I jump now, the waves surround me. They no longer suffocate me. And I swim: for my friends, for my family, for other girls, but mostly, for me.