Incidents from the Pool
Wittenberg University, 1984 – McKinney, TX, 2015
In your pool, I am 19 years old
plunging in at the edge of Swimming 101.
In your pool, splashing the 8 a.m. morning
upward with my body,
I strain to float. In your pool, I can
see, from the bottom, the other students —
all white, all female — sculling the water
in a world I cannot manage.
In her one-piece, Coach Maurer
began by telling us she has no breasts,
a double mastectomy the semester
before, and like an actor cueing her
line, she snaps the straps of her swimsuit
as she says, “So let’s get that out of the way now.”
At the pool, I do the only thing I know how
to do, I’m the only one taking notes: I write,
“So let’s get that out of the way now.”
I’m afraid of what I hear:
The slosh of water, my gasping and choking
coming from within. In your pool, even the lights
from the ceiling, ribboning into lanes, are part of a world
I cannot manage.
When I try to drop the class, Coach Maurer tells me,
“No you’re not. You’re the only one here
who needs this. Go change.” Then she turns away
and continues with class.
You learn so much about yourself
when you practice something at which
you’re not a natural. Your head falls
a little lower while struggling. When
your ambition is to look common enough
that no one sees you, like you belong here,
facing your limits. Weeks of this pass
like the endless surprise of a torturer’s hand,
and I see myself, by semester’s end, passing
the five-laps-in-five-minutes test.
Even as I recall these details of my awkward life,
telling it to you now feels so unremarkable
in hindsight. I hardly ever think about this any more.
But now, looking at video news footage of
Dajerria Becton’s young body,
younger than I was when
I learned to swim, being slammed to the ground
when a cop tells her to leave a swimming party
and she doesn’t move fast enough, and, allegedly
not without some back talk. At some point,
she must have been that girl in that middle-class
Craig Ranch area of McKinney, TX, learning
to swim, never expecting to drown on land.
Social media opens a debate about
whether the teenagers belonged there
in the first place. Some say the music
from the party was too loud;
some say the police were simply doing
their jobs. Maybe. Power limits one’s point of view.
Becton’s mother asks at the press conference:
“How do you tell your child to behave
when they’re not doing anything wrong?”
The residents just wanted the crowd of black teenagers
to go away, even though they weren’t all black.
The cop with his club and drawn gun
says he’s, “Sorry if anyone was offended”
by his club and drawn gun.
As I watch this girl in a two-piece bikini
on the pavement, with a white cop’s knees
(both of them) in her back,
what I remember of that class in ‘84
was the attempt to think not about my body —
not to remember, devoting myself to
the smell and taste of chlorine,
of 10 laps with flippers, 10 laps
with a kickboard: The balance of the body,
the rotation, the counting of breaths, and the stretch
toward a shore beyond my grasp. What I remember
are the eyes of swimmers,
the performance in my head telling my limbs
to pretend, and the picture of my out-of-place self
and the concrete and the gunite, the fiberglass
and the water, my being in the locker room alone,
sheltering me as I left and preparing
me before I entered. And I remember, my first class,
the cold love in the eyes of my instructor ... how I wish I
could have just walked away, but how thankful I am now
that I didn’t. Shit, I remember things
that didn’t even happen to me,
just things I know, passed down in blood.
There’s my father learning to swim in a lake
in Alabama, nearly drowning but learning.
No Dogs, No Mexicans, No Niggers allowed.
I wish I remembered how comfortable these teens were
in their bathing suits with their friends and, if that cop
hadn’t entered the scene, I’d think about how lucky
they are to swim among friends in familiar dark waters
of laughter. Dajerria Becton. We don’t say her name
because she survived. We don’t say her name because
she’s a girl. She wasn’t wearing a hoodie or carrying
anything, but, even nearly naked, she posed
a threat to a man with a gun. What do I think
when I see someone who looks like me taken out back?
I keep kicking through laps of memory, pulling
myself forward to a world opening and, just as quickly,
closing before me, even now.about the author