I took lessons at the YMCA pool when I was a child, like everyone else, but I did not learn to swim. I had my dog paddle reprimanded. Learned to blow bubbles by ruffling my lips, horse-like, on the water’s surface. But I’d not been taught the necessary rhythm of breath in the water—out through your nose underneath; above, a quick gasp back in. On the last day of lessons, everybody was excited to go off the diving board except for me. The other children marched proudly up the slippery ladder, hopped from the flimsy plank and splooshed invisible. They reemerged laughing. I cried and clung to the cold ladder rungs until a teacher picked me up and dropped me off the edge.
I was convinced to try again in high school. My cross country season had just ended, and the new swim team needed a fourth member. Would I join? I ran. Surely I could swim, too. It would be good for my legs, my lungs.
But breathing was difficult at that first practice, back in the YMCA pool. Twelve feet of water wanted into my lungs, and, still, I did not know how to keep it at bay. Like most things, it took time. I got better. I began to exhale a little tune under the water, along with my stored breath, an auditory companion that bubbled ahead of me, as nasally-sweet as a child’s soprano.
Soon I was singing in the 50- and 500-meter freestyle races. Swim meets started with cold bus rides. We bumped through the early dark between snow-covered fields—corn cut down to stubble, soybeans shaved to soil. In the balmy natatoriums, we stripped down to spandex suits and warmed up. Our cupped hands cut hard through clear water, pushed through to our thighs; elbows emerged like sharks’ sharp fins. Again and again.
I came to expect, each winter, the chlorine scent in my sinuses and my skin to turn powdered-sugar-dry. The daily oddities of swim season: communal baths, raisined toes tickled by a passing teammate, the unpredictable noodle of water emerging hot from an ear canal hours after I’d dried. Yet the kicking, pulling madness of it made me feel strong.
If only anxiety could be contained in an 8-lane lap pool. There, bursting breathlessness is championed. Frenzy of arms and legs and heart powerful, necessary. Deaf vacuum broken easily—a breath tossed over a shoulder. Nauseous, shaky-legged emergences from the pool’s slippery lip met with red ribbons. It’s not so on land, in real life, I’ve learned.
Yes, everyone knows there’s corn in Indiana, soybeans too. Backroads divide one from the other. Farmers rotate their crops on a schedule. In the same field, beans sprout one summer, and the next year ears of corn. Last August, I noticed some stalks had crossed the boundary. These “volunteer” cornstalks develop from kernels left behind after last season’s harvest and grow up among rows of shin-tall soybeans. They grasp at air like yellow fingers. They struggle alone or in small clusters, unaware of one another in the dense green waves. If uncontrolled, the stray tassels can reduce the crop yield by up to 40%.
A person can drown in just an inch of water, you know. So it’s no wonder, dropped in an ocean, that strength and skill won’t always rescue from a riptide. Sometimes only an arm above the surface is possible. Sometimes swimming and drowning don’t look all that different.
When I drive past those fields on the sun-grayed country blacktop, I want to stop for the misplaced stalks, pull them up, and replant them where they belong. Instead, I roll my window down. Listen. The leafy hands rustle a rhythm in the wind, and it sounds like breath, growth. See? It’s hard to tell from the road, but those arms bear something like fruit.
A graduate from Taylor University, Hillary Jo Foreman is currently working toward her MA in Fiction at Ohio University. Her fiction appears in Brilliant Flash Fiction.