We Can't Run, But We Can Go Swimming
Why is it, after all this time, am I still drawn to you?
I know it’s been so long since I last felt you with my fingertips, but if I lie under my pillow and shut my eyes tight enough, I swear I can still hear the soft drone of your voice lulling me to sleep. You are just a hair’s breadth away from me, but every time I reach out to caress your waves, you shrink back from me — or I, from you.
She doesn’t want me anywhere near you after what you did to me. And yet here I am now, lying on the warm, damp sand, saltwater finally grazing my toes much like a lover would tease with the deft twirls of her tongue.
I remember that night, when you sent me spiraling into your dark abyss. I was terrified of what you were doing to me — I still am terrified of what you can do to me. She doesn’t know this, but I still sneak out to peek at you twice a week, safe underneath the shell of my car. Illuminated by the soft glow of the moon, your body stretches up, your back arched, before your ultimate collapse, until you pick yourself up again, up and down, like the heaving of my lungs.
I haven’t been allowed inside you since you tried to swallow me up, whole, four years and seven months ago. At least, that’s what my mom instructed me to do. No more swimming in the ocean, not now not ever never ever ever. Your legs are jelly and your lungs are putty and you can’t swim anymore.
Now she’s stopped lecturing me, stopped barking keep out of the water keep out of the goddamn water. I guess it’s because she knows that even if I wanted to (and holy christ, did I long to) I wouldn’t be able to hold you in my fingertips for longer than six seconds anyway.
I remember feeling heartbroken, I remember feeling lost, but I guess now the loss of you is as much a part of me as the loss of my left leg. Why don’t you ever listen to me, she’d chirp, keep out of the water when it’s dark, when it’s high tide, when the currents are so strong you feel like a marionette doll being pulled and pushed and pushed and pulled against your will.
After all we’ve been through together, I didn’t think you could ever hurt me the way you did that night, exactly 4 years and 9 months ago. Sometimes, I can still taste saltwater on my tongue and up my nostrils when I jerk awake too early in the morning, with my eyes too blurry to realize I’m not in the hospital anymore, even though I’m safe in my own room, in my own bed. Safe. Safe from you.
You hurt me. You wrenched away my left leg. You nearly killed me. You almost died you could’ve drowned you could’ve gotten washed away somewhere you you you can never ever swim again oh dear lord all that time and money we spent on all those swimsuits those competitions and all the training all that time and now your leg –
You ruined everything.
Your deft fingers choked me until all I could taste was you. I couldn’t feel my legs. You were wringing the life out of my lungs. You forced your way inside me, until my bloodstream was blue with the excess of you. I couldn’t breathe. I was sinking, spiraling deep into an abyss I had thought I understood. I’ve always trusted you, I’ve always thought I knew your ins and outs like the backs of my cupped palms, but I guess I’ve just been pushing you away, one stroke at a time.
You were supposed to be a swimmer, a competitive swimmer, an Olympic swimmer, an Olympic gold medalist, for god’s sake! How could you be so careless, so unthinking, so selfish? How could you have done this to your future, to yourself, to us?!
I think mom didn’t know what to do with me after that. Ever since I could remember she’s always telling me stories of the time when she was the best and fastest and most graceful swimmer in that whole goddamn swim team. She’d sit me down on her lap, my hair tousled and my fingers sticky from my favorite red jelly donuts. I’d lick my fingertips slowly, savoring each crumb, until she swatted my hands and told me to wash them, told me jelly donuts aren’t good for your physique, they’ll slow you down in the water, you have to be fast like a blast of a cannon shooting boom, you know once I was a blast, a boom – I guess she fizzled out.
My dad once came home tipsy, his tequila breath whispering to me that I was the reason mom stopped pursuing her dreams of becoming an Olympic medalist. That it was because she was pregnant with me that she had to get married, get a job at the supermarket and the Italian restaurant down the road, and suppress the tears that threatened to flow when she took me to my first ever swimming competition back when I was exactly seven years old (it was my birthday). I wanted to ask her why she never got an abortion, but the words would never leap out of my tongue. My dad never brought it up again. Neither did my mom. And neither did I. Sometimes I wish I had the courage to ask her about it. Other times I wish she had the courage to get an abortion instead.
I saw her getting dressed in front of her mirror once. I was hiding in the back of her nearly closed door. She was examining herself closely, scrutinizing every detail of what used to be the body of a future Olympic swimmer! Her legs firmly planted on the floor no longer had the flexibility to flutter up, down, up, down, on the water. Her belly showed signs of too much mac ‘n cheese and ketchup, and scoops and scoops of rainbow sherbet ice cream. I walked away as she put on a bell-sleeved blue top that hid the flab fleshing out of her arms.
She’s always been hypersensitive with my world of swimming. Which should be, according to her, my entire world. My dad never understood “that whole swimming shtick.” I guess that’s why they’re always upset with each other. “It’s a huge waste of time and money and what if she doesn’t want to become an Olympic swimmer, huh? What then?” That was the first argument I listened in on. Sometimes I heard slaps. Sometimes I heard nothing but dad’s clumsy footsteps as he stumbles in after “a long night at the office”.
You were the only one to bring me solace. Mom had competitive swimming. Dad has his tequila and booze and vodka and dear lord who knows what else. I only had you. You cradled me close in a way my reluctant mother never did. Your face was soft and tender and you kissed me the way my coarse-cheeked father never did. Was I wrong to rely on you the way I did?
I can’t really recall my first swimming lesson. I have this image of splashing around in my purple and green swimsuit and my orange water wings, and my mom exclaiming, my little girl is flying, you’re flying honey, you’re flying! My dad never made it to any of my swimming classes, swim team meets, or even any of my competitions. The first time I won a silver medal my mom hugged me and told me he’s just busy, he has to work a lot to make all of our ends meet, don’t worry honey, he’ll come soon enough, he’ll come next time. When I went back home he was sleeping on the couch, with the television tuned into a football game at halftime.
When I was 13 years old, my mom prepared a picnic basket of tuna salad sandwiches and chips and salsa and strawberries and orange juice, bought a pair of navy blue swimming trunks for my dad, and asked him to drive us all to the beach near our apartment to celebrate my birthday. We spread three big towels on the searing hot sand and laid down, taking turns to lather our backs with sunscreen. In our swimsuits, we clasped our hands together and ran into the ocean.
It was my first time being inside you. You washed over me and wrapped around me with your sweeping arms. My dad came up to me and twirled me around and around and we were smiling and we were laughing. The sun streamed down on us and made everything turn into gold. We were sloshing and swashing around and we were beaming. My mom tried to teach my dad how to swim but they just ended up collapsing in a fit of giggles. I can’t remember the last time they were this happy to be this close to one another. Your broad palms coaxed me to swim towards them, with your waves undulating and urging me to come closer. I hugged my parents and closed my eyelids.
I wanted to remember it forever, to recall it during the days when my mom’s voice is harsh and when my dad’s eyes are dim again. I wanted to take it all in, to inhale your vastness and make it mine.
I came back to see you as much as I could after that day. You were always so inviting, so alluring. I’d visit you after school and on the weekends; sometimes (when things were really bad) I’d even steal away in the middle of the night to feel your embrace. You held me so closely, so tenderly, I yearned to be with you forever.
Then it happened. Then you happened. To my leg. To me.
I didn’t let you touch me for a long time after that. Not until tonight.
It was 3:43 AM when I heard them yelling again. I slipped out of my covers and ran. That’s why I’m here now. To finish what you almost did to me. I stretched up from the sticky sand and started walking to you. You seemed to be crying out to me, softly at first, then more and more forcefully. The sun was starting to rise, its rays peering closely at us, tingeing everything with a dim pinkish glow. I was in a daze.
I swam farther and farther into you until my shoulders started to hurt. Your saltwater mingling with mine made my eyes burn. You bellowed upwards, and lurched inside me. You made your way into all the crevices in my body.
The last thing I heard was the ghost of the laughter streaming out of my mom and dad’s mouths mingling with the sweet rumble of your lullaby.