Forward Crawl


Forward Crawl


            They tell you to never go swimming alone, and I know better than to go swimming alone. Swimming itself is a reckless act for those of us without gills and fins. One random cramp or mistimed breath and you’ll be slapping and splashing in useless frenzy until the lake pulls you down into its muddy, murky depths.

            But then there's the choice between the lesser of two evils. I could either stay one more minute at that horrible party with him or risk drowning. I chose the latter.

            It's only natural that I was attracted to him at that point in my life a few months ago. Everything seemed to be crumbling; my workplace wasn't busy and there was talk of layoffs, my parents who were the only stable thing in my life moved to a podunk town ten hours away, my friends were scattering with marriages and job offers in other states.

            We met when I was out at a bar with a friend after helping her pack up her apartment. He was handsome, charismatic. He bought us a drink, which made me think he had financial stability. He asked more about me, which made me think he cared. He laughed at my attempts at witty comments, which made me think he had a sense of humor. I thought fate was giving me an out; how could this amazing man show up in my life right when I needed someone like him?

            Fate is funny, though. Fate doesn't have our best interests at heart. And I often think fate is something we have invented to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our poor choices.

            I had to leave this party. He had been turning everything people said into sexual innuendo, even when it didn't make sense. His friends laughed as he kept slapping me on the ass and calling me "woman". Not a single one of his friends or friends' wives came to my defense or even met my eyes. I think they all thought I was arrogant and difficult, especially when I shrieked at them for chasing a loon with the boat, and later when I used my body as a shield to stop them from letting the air out of the elderly neighbor's tires after he came over and asked them if they could keep it down.

            No one noticed when I walked away from the group gathered around the bonfire, their loud conversation, the word "fuck" dancing in the night air with the sparks. I walked down the beach until I was well out of the glow of the fire, beyond where I cast a shadow. I knew I was drunk from the cheap, sticky beers, but I needed to get away and this was the most sensible option. I would swim away. My need to escape was stronger than my consideration that this might not end well.

            As I felt the wet sand under my feet, my thoughts went briefly to the weird things in lakes; leeches and snapping turtles and water bugs, plants that unfurl spookily just beneath the surface. But my apprehension dissolved as I looked out over the glossy surface spread out before me. I saw the water as black, inky comfort, a wet embrace by all that is good. And with this trust and optimism, I waded in further until the depth forced me to float and my feet raised up to meet the rest of me on the surface.

            At first I floated, joining my belly with the moonlight, my ears filled with water, deafening the revelry behind me. And at first this was good enough. I could stay here until he came looking for me, which he would. Then he would scold me for being unsociable and I would sit on a towel in the car and he would continue to berate me all the way home for being rude and aloof toward his friends. The pattern would continue as he would proclaim I was no fun anymore, his voice getting louder and louder as he found more things imperfect in me. And I would try to break up with him and he would switch tactics and cry and tell me how alone he felt in the world until he met me. That I was his everything; the only one who had ever meant anything to him.  And I would be both flattered and concerned about him and would turn to him and take him into my arms and into my bed. This was some sick shit.

            I asked the three-quarter moon for help in all of this and she looked at me blankly but lovingly. And then I decided it was time to get on with it. I would swim away and become some mythical creature, joining myself with the velvety dark water. Maybe I would grow a tail or feathery fins and become a legend on this lake, saving people from drowning, returning lost children to their caregivers, having boat engines explode if the drivers were chasing loons.

            Because we'd all been swimming and boating at this party, I had a vague idea of the layout of this lake. I knew it was riddled with sand bars and dotted with cabins.  With this confidence, I breaststroked silently to the swimming raft, but I didn't hoist myself onto it out of caution of being seen. Instead I clung to the side, searching out my next destination. Out to my left I saw a buoy that marked a sand bar that was within my ability to reach. With a sense of glee, I slid away from the raft and did a drunken forward crawl stroke, paying extra attention to turn my head all the way to get a dry breath. I immersed myself in the pattern, flutter kick, raise head with right arm, breathe, immerse face when right arm hits water, all these details remembered from swimming lessons long ago. Back when life's biggest concerns were getting home in time for supper and hoping supper was something I liked.

            When I neared the buoy, my feet struck sand and I judged the water to be about waist deep. I sat cross-legged in the water, wearing the water as a massive cape as I surveyed my physical condition. My muscles weren't tired, in fact, they were energized; my breathing had returned to normal. I was ready to scope out my next destination.

            I chose a dock that was jutting out not too far in the distance. Although heading inland ruined my fantasy of being a water creature, I felt comfort in my judgment. I pushed off from the sandy bottom and did a backstroke in the direction of the dock. I breathed easily as I floated, then felt the water rush as my body propelled me headward, pause, surge, pause, surge. The moon followed me like a beacon, reminding the earth that I was here, reminding me that I had value.

            Why was I still with him? From this perspective on my back on a lake, there was a simple solution. Get this motherfucker out of my life. But when we were together he sucked all sensibility out of me. The relationship worked when I behaved as he expected, in fact, it was good. But I never knew when something I said or did would bring on the sinister side of him, unleashing putdowns and threats, or sadness and disappointment, which triggered something needy and pleading in me. I found the best way to keep the peace was to stay in my narrow lane. My life revolved around trying not to upset him.

            I stopped and floated for a moment, in awe of how gradually he'd usurped my sense of self. But the water was allowing me to find my sense of self again, and I was sopping it up like a sponge. I would be unstoppable, gathering strength like a watery whirlpool, splashing my power about me in an arc. I was nourished by the water, by the moon, by the still night air, by the pair of ducks that swam just a few feet from me, startling the shit out of me, but I stayed still and quieted my breath and watched them paddle silently away.

            The dock had a ladder and a windsock hanging limply from a pole. I stood for a moment on the bottommost rung of the ladder, grasping onto the railing with one hand, and using the other to wipe my hair out of my eyes. I looked around for my next destination and saw a rock sticking out of the water not far from a bend in the shore. I pushed off from the dock and did a clumsy sidestroke, switching sides as I got tired, my stamina slowly wearing off. I would need to bring an end to this folly soon.

            I reached the rock and my senses were jarred when I realized it wasn't a rock at all, but a car submerged in the water, the empty headlights pointed up at the sky. I didn't remember seeing this during the day, but the sliminess of it told me it had been here for a while. I thought of saturated, bloated passengers floating and bumping into each other in the passenger cabin of the car, their hair fanned out and entangled with weeds, their eyeballs wet and white and sightless. With a tight small scream, I pushed off from the car and I swam like I was being chased, waiting in terror for something to grab my feet and pull me under to join them in their eerie underwater dance. My pathetic little appendages clawing and raking at the surface of the water weren't big enough or strong enough to reach the speed I needed; my only thought was to get away get away get away. As I fought and flailed and the distance between the car and me grew, the rhythm of my strokes eventually calmed me and again I relaxed into the action of swimming and breathing, believing I could swim across a sea, swimming and breathing and swimming and breathing with an endless energy. 

            This meditation was interrupted when my head bumped into a float, and I stopped and treaded water. I was at the public swimming beach, now dark and deserted. I ducked under the rope, and dog paddled until my feet touched the ground and I dragged my suddenly tired legs through the shallow water, then collapsed on the shore.

            As my heart and breath joined each other in a slow cadence, I rolled onto my back. The moon was gone and there was a hint of light on the horizon.

            My mind reluctantly released the endlessness of the night and I needed to figure out what to do next. I had emerged from the watery womb into a new existence, and this new existence still required practicality, the first step being finding a way safely home. I didn't have my keys, my phone, or my credit cards; I only had me and my body and I was miles from home.

            I sat up and pulled my wet clothes from my skin, releasing the slight vacuum with a slurp. I fluffed my wet hair with my hands and plopped it all on top of my head and felt the breath of breeze on the back of my neck. Then I froze as I smelled cigarette smoke. I wasn't alone.

            I turned slowly and was relieved when I saw an older woman standing several yards away. Older women are enigmatic to me, but they have always been kind. I called out a greeting.

            "Good morning.”

            She didn't reply right away, but then sauntered over, tapping her ash out over the sand.

            "It appears you have a story," she said as she came near me. "Are you drunk?"

            "I was when I started," I admitted.

            She said she was having trouble sleeping and being by the water calmed her. I didn't answer. Instead, I looked out over the water with her, and I felt gratitude for water’s power to change me and to calm her, even with its mystery and secrecy.

            "I suppose you'll need a ride home," she said.

            I nodded.

            I sat on a towel in her car and arrived at my apartment with the rising sun. As luck would have it, my landlord was outside watering the bushes and she let me in.

            As I showered, I imagined the bonds of his influence running off my skin, pooling at my feet, then disappearing down the drain. I lifted my face to the warm blast, then turned my head to breathe, and returned my face to the blast, continuing the rhythm in an upright crawl stroke, heading again toward an unknown destination, courageous and reclaimed.


Sara Sha

Sara Sha writes from Duluth, Minnesota. Her stories have been published in The Thunderbird ReviewThe Talking Stick,  Lake Superior Writers blog, and Perfect Duluth Day blog. She can also be found on the shores of Lake Superior talking to stones.


Previous Post Next Post