I was seven years old, and it was late August. Each summer my family spent July and August in northwest Connecticut, a place dense with foliage and riddled with mosquitoes. I had the bites to prove it. They'd taken over my arms and legs, these fresh swollen pink mounds interspersed with still-healing bites scabbed over, and new skin seeking just the tiniest bit of purchase against my furious scratching.
For weeks I'd watched the tawny, golden-haired older boys race around the
clubhouse, their unconcerned footfalls shaking the floors of the rickety wooden
building where we got dressed and undressed in narrow, dank stalls, and where
above us the non-swimmers played rowdy and hotly contested games of ping-pong.
But I was a swimmer, even though the lake was so cold that it hurt down to the
bone each day when I'd finally waded in enough to dunk my head in the water,
even though the lake was choked with moss and alarmingly spongy underfoot. Even
though. I was a little fish, had been swimming for at least a few years, but
the rules at the club were that kids seven and under had to stay, roped in by
buoys, in a shallow area shaped like a crescent and far too skinny in the
middle. I hated it there. Every now and then my legs, when not brushing against
slimy tendrils of lakeweed, would hit a warm patch. I'd sigh, and out of the
corner of my eye I'd catch Mrs. Willoughby's youngest boy behind me in the act
of peeing underwater, his face turned to the sun and made beatific by release.
As early July became late July, and finally August, I gazed with increasing
hostility and envy at the impossibly long-limbed boys and girls who were
allowed to swim to first raft, a glorious place sanctified by my fierce desire
for it. A robin's egg blue slide sat at
the far end of the raft, and, it being a different era from today's
safety-conscious one, there were no restrictions on how a kid might make his
way down it. Head first, feet first, on belly or back, it was all fair game.
The only rule, if it could be called a rule, was that the bigger the splash the
slider made on hitting the water, the worthier the trip.
I don't think I've ever since felt so acutely the pain of being a younger
sibling, as my brother was among the happy crowd of first-raft kids
good-naturedly jockeying for position in line, so eager to take a ride down the
slide kept brilliantly shiny by near constant contact with dripping wet
swimsuits. I made a decision that was entirely out of character for me: I was
going to swim to first raft, rules be damned. I was not yet an elegant swimmer
(that would come later, reinforced by my gymnastics training), but I was
strong, stronger than the adults guessed. They were always taken aback by how
tiny I was. I'd been born premature, and I hadn't yet caught up to my peers in
height or weight (that, too, would come later).
I looked around to make sure the teen lifeguard, his hair white blonde and so
long it met his shoulders, wasn't watching. He never was watching. He
was busy socializing with the long-haired girls in their halter-top string
bikinis, and who could blame him? So I began to swim. Vigorously, steadily,
intently. I'd made it three-quarters of the way before I was spotted by my
mother. I hesitated, looked back at the shore, and found her hands waving about
crazily in the air. Her mouth gaped open, frighteningly wide, but I couldn't
hear her words. No matter. She looked mad, and mad. Both senses of mad fit her equally
that afternoon. Understand this: My mother was not especially concerned for my
well-being. Instead she was furious because my “indiscretion” had interrupted
her ongoing flirtation with a genial, balding fellow named John, one of the
only eligible men at the club that summer.
My mother’s indignant squawks served to rouse the lifeguard from his
blissed-out stupor. In a flash this lanky, sun-kissed teen was in the water and
at my side. He lifted me out of the lake and carted me like a football to shallower
water. In his clutches I was rigid with fury -- and humiliation, too, as nearly
every pair of eyes at the club was now focused on this scene. Never one for
scenes, I kept thinking, If you had let me finish what I started, we'd all
just be going about our business right now.
I would have made it to first raft. And had I slid gleefully off the slide and
back into the familiar dark green stew we called a lake, I would have been able
to preserve the truth of my own strength and confidence, a smooth stone in my
pocket that I could have caressed at will as I encountered the unforgiving
social terrain of the upcoming years.