Intersections – At the poolNicki Salcedo
By Nicki Salcedo
My first memory is of drowning. I was 4 years old. We lived in Connecticut. There was a pool down the street. I remember walking right up to the glistening water. I knew it wasn’t the same as solid ground, but nothing about the reflecting pool suggested danger. Or death.
I remember falling in. I don’t know if I fell in accidently or if I purposely reached toward the water. I remember going under. I remember looking up.
There was light above me, and my proper life was up there.
I was sinking fast. I didn’t know the concept of swimming, but I understood death. I knew I was dying and the water was going to kill me. I don’t remember any emotions except the sunshine through the water.
My neighbor saved me. Her name was Mrs. Henry. I cannot remember what her face looked like or her hands. Don’t remember if she had to jump into the water or if she was able to grab me near the surface. I do remember this: Being drawn to light is what almost drowned me and what certainly saved my life.
When we moved to Georgia, pools were plentiful. Our neighbors had a pool. My best friend had a pool. There was one birthday party where we had to put on as many clothes as we could and jump into the pool. I was 8 years old. We put on layers of t-shirts and sweaters and old men’s suits. It seemed like a terrible idea to me, but the other kids and the parents seemed to think the game was fun.
“You can walk across the shallow end,” someone said. “You don’t have to swim. You’ll be fine.”
I believed them.
I tried to take a step through the water. But the weight of the wet clothes pulled me under. I don’t remember seeing anything. I just remember feeling angry. A mom saved me because I wasn’t brave enough to say no.
I was never susceptible to peer pressure after that. I never snuck out of the house. I didn’t fall prey to the wiles of my boyfriend. I learned from a very young age about people. People are dangerous. The ones who let go of my hand near the water when I was 4 years old. The ones who said jump into the pool even though I wasn’t a strong swimmer.
People were dangerous. Not the water. Not the pool party.
My mother has always been a practical woman. She never allowed me the chance to be afraid of water. That same year she sent me to swimming lessons at SwimAtlanta. I knew to respect the water. I knew to trust the water to lift me up. It’s like a real lesson in faith and life. If you believe you can float you can. That’s it. The science of your body never changes. Sinking is easy. You have to work to stay at the surface and swim.
My mom didn’t learn to swim until she was in her 60s. Many summers ago, she stood next to my husband at the edge of the pool.
“I’ll race you,” she said to him.
My dad and I laughed when they both dove in. We’ve never seen a slower race.
Time moves differently when you are in the water. Time slows down, and our movements are deliberate. When we exit the water, returning to solid ground takes time. Our legs can’t take the weight of gravity.
My kids aren’t old enough for pool time to be fun and relaxing for me. I am sensitive to stories about tragedies at the pool. I remember being the child who wanted to touch the water. I remember being the 8 year old who couldn’t swim. I remember being at the pool where others looked at me like I didn’t belong.
All too often, I remember being the only black girl at the pool party. There were asinine questions.
“Are you afraid of the water?” No. I respect it.
“Can you swim?” Yes.
“What happens to your hair?” It gets wet. Like yours. Then I wash it. Like you.
“What happens to your skin? Do you get tan?” Logically, you can’t go from brown to tan. You go from brown to a darker shade of brown. Most of the time I would say, “Yes, I get tan.”
No place for logical conversations in the summertime.
I spent my summers in the sun with my best friends. I applied lemon juice to my hair. I rubbed baby oil on my legs so they’d get brown faster. I knew when people were watching me like I didn’t belong. I’ve had a lifetime of those stares. The stares started at the pool.
Almost drowning is the thing that has saved me most of my life. I can handle the stares. I can dodge the ridiculous questions. Understand the dangers of this world in the water and out.
I might have been the only black girl at the pool, but I looked down at my legs feeling proud. Like my body was the only one truly ready for summer. Like I was the only one who knew that water was a gift.
These days, I hang out in the shade. I have an umbrella. I wear a sunhat and sunglasses. I rarely go in the water. My kids wonder if I can swim. I wonder the same. I’ve spent a decade sitting next to the pool. A decade of babies and breastfeeding and mommy body issues. The water is a memory. I’m waiting for the right moment to dive in again.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.