“You Want to Swim” By: Kay Holten


You want to swim. Earlier in the day, you forced your legs to carry you five miles into the woods. Your poor feet throb and ache, and the blister that started on your ankle three miles ago now grumbles at you. The lake water won’t clean the wound, and you know you will emerge from the water needing to extract tree debris from the ever-more irritated site, but you don’t care. The sun encourages you from high in the sky, begging you to go to the water, to be the water. Sweat trickles down your spine and settles on your forehead and your armpits and the small of your back.

You want to swim.

Maybe it’s all in your head, but little whispers seem to urge you from all around. The trees limit your shade allowance and say, “This world is your natural water park. Go swim.” The bugs dance around your head to surfer guitar music and say, “We’ll leave you alone if you just jump in. Go swim.” The pink swimsuit hugs your waist and says, “You brought me for a reason. Go swim.” A louder voice chants in the back of your head: You can’t swim. You can’t swim. You. Can’t. Swim.

Those three words lie to some extent, because you can swim. When you’re dumped in water, you morph into a brand new type of creature. Swimming does that to people: some are dolphins and some are salmon (in your dreams, you are goddamn Ariel). But you are none of the above. Doggy-paddle the arms and frog kick the legs, and your creature emerges. The doggy-frog thrashes, highly inefficient and equally terrified. It forgets to breathe. It fails to trust. If it needed, it could save itself. If it wanted, it could manage from Point A to Point B.

So you, the doggy-frog, stand by the lake. You look stupid when you swim. Your friends will judge you. How stupid you are, thinking you can swim at all. You can’t really swim.

You test the water, wading along the bank until the water laps at your sides and your toes sink into mud that captures your feet whole. You don’t want to be a drag on your friends. One of them treads water nearby and uses a soothing tone, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but you’ll be okay. I can’t swim that well either.”

Maybe you aren’t as bad as you think. Courage builds in your chest. Your feet shove off the bank. Your arms gather water and push it back to push you forward. The water’s holding you. All that space is there, maybe billions of miles of water deep. If you stop moving, you’ll fall. Lake water will drag you, sliding to its depths where you’ll drown beside whatever sea monster is making those creepy shadows you see down there?

With a few loud splashes, you’re back to shore. Many miles deep and solid, the ground holds you safe. Your friend laughs. “You were fine!”

You wait. With each passing moment, the water rises off your shoulders and swimsuit and becomes vapor. The vapor rises and becomes the sky. An unknown amount of time later, the vapor will freeze into clouds and, someday, cascade down back to the lake from whence it came. So you, too, are a cycle, and you fear the water, you brave the water, you join the water. You fear the water, you fight the water, and you leave the water. The cycle urges you. Your muscles ready themselves. You jump.

Panic wells in your chest again. Nothing supports you. You support you. Are you nothing? No. You are buoyant strength. With tentative willpower pulsing in your muscles, you calm yourself and swim. Head above water, a conversation begins between you and your friend. Sentences flow gracefully from mouth to ear, as your limbs drag clumsily from side to side. Your eyes are just above water level, and the water looms below, still a threatening abyss. Upon closer examination, drifters appear. Bugs and algae held up by their own weight, just like you. You all glide through the water. Relaxation flows through you. You aren’t terrible.

Then, you collide with something rough. You flail and shout, and water, dirty and fungal, welcomes itself into your mouth. “Fuff!” The botched fuck pushes itself past the lake water. You sink, and your hand reaches for something stable, something, anything, whatever you ran into—nope that looks like a pipe crap!
Your breath races in and out your throat. Your friend screams at you. Your legs are kicking and arms are grabbing. Your hand falls on the maybe-pipe and you expect it to be rough and solid and filled with tetanus-inducing rust, but it smears like into the spaces between your fingers. Your grip falls. You imagine death by drowning.

You don’t remember swimming toward the bank, but your continued existence proves you didn’t drown either. You are now perched on another something in the water, except you see now that these somethings are logs jutting haphazardly in unpredictable directions. Their bark was chipped away long ago by the light wind-caused current. A yellow color remains below, and you wonder if the inside of the tree grows yellow or if the algae dyed it. Whatever the source of the color, your hands grip the yellow slime, and you gulp air.

You create your own water. “They’re going to hear me crying,” you spout to your friend. “They’re going to tease me, because I’m crying over something so stupid. They’re going to think I’m dumb. They’re going to tease me.”

In the distance, two of your other friends splash one another. Voices ricocheting from hill to hill and back again, they climb on a log jutting out the center of the lake. One friend balances himself and bounces the log up and down. You could never be so brave. Their arms pierce the water as they transform into their swimming creatures—dolphins or salmon indeed. They glide. They dance. They swim.

You climb up your log to solid ground. You’ll spend the rest of the trip reading on the lakeshore. The trees reflect so precisely on the water top. It’s an invitation for you, but you only watch it for a few minutes before turning your back.

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