Fear tastes like chlorine.
It burns my throat and behind my eyes when I expect to take in air but instead inhale pool water. The chlorine burns my throat and behind my eyes, and ignites a deeply embedded, primal fear.
Chlorine = lack of air = death.
The fear was set in childhood. I was four years old. I was in the shallow end of a YMCA pool in Queens for a Saturday morning kiddie swim class. My Wonder Woman swimsuit was super cool but the water was cold and my goggles were too tight. I did not like the little boys on either side of me whose hands I had to hold as all eight of us non-swimming kiddies stood in a circle. The instructor stood in the middle, a doughy teenage girl in a red Speedo. She only ever smiled when she blew the lifeguard whistle nose-to-nose close to one of us tots. She yelled directions from the center of our circle and that particular morning we were to dunk our heads under water to practice bubble blowing.
Everyone at once, on the count of three.
At three, I would not. I was an only child and entitled. I was also scared. The instructor looked at me, the only little head above the bubbling water, and blew her whistle. I looked away and stared at the windowless, white-tiled wall behind her. She told me to stop being a stupid bad girl and get under water. I released my partners’ hands and plugged my ears with my fingers. I still heard that whistle as she approached and stood so close I could see her stomach pull in as she blew. Then she pushed my head under water. I remember seeing the circle of toddlers, holding hands, their heads above water. And I remember the burning in my throat and nose.
After an eternity, I emerged screaming. The instructor yelled at me to be quiet. Only stupid bad girls disrupted swimming class. I had found myself alone both above and below the water that morning because I was a stupid bad girl. As an only child, being alone terrified me as much as water. I quieted and said nothing about the incident, especially not to my parents for fear they would leave me for being a stupid bad girl.
The following Saturday morning on the way to the YMCA with my father, I was hesitant and whiny. When we arrived, someone was being wheeled out on a stretcher to an awaiting ambulance. I was convinced the person had to go to the hospital because he’d been dunked in the pool by the mean instructor. I clung to my father’s neck, screaming, and he carried me back to our green Volkswagen beetle and drove us home. I never went back to those swim lessons.
Forty years later, I am again at a pool on Saturday mornings for swimming lessons. I still remember vividly the circle of toddlers holding hands with their heads above water every time I swallow the chlorinated water of the pool. But after forcing myself to complete hundreds of laps, my death grip on the pool wall has relaxed and I only remember the terror. I don’t re-feel it. I am not a four-year-old in the shallow end. I am the 44-year-old who swallows water when I misjudge my breathing window during my freestyle stroke or when I end up completely upside down and disoriented instead of gracefully flip-turning. The pool water burns but I don’t stop.
I keep swimming.
I don’t wear a Wonder Woman swimsuit anymore either. There’s probably an adult-size suit to be found on Amazon but I would look like a weirdo – on top of already looking like a graceless spaz. I don’t need the suit anymore. Chlorine = death is still embedded in my brain. But every lap I swim, beautiful or not, further embeds a new code:
I = Wonder Woman.