Incidents from the Pool

A. Van Jordan

         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.

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