Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The other day at the gym, as I rounded the puddled poolside and approached the ladder in, I saw the light beat off the limpid, chlorinated water in such a way that I was instantly reminded of my deepest terrors as a child. I remembered those Wednesday afternoons, 31 years ago, when my class at Mont-Saint-Aignan, the dull suburban French town perched on a hill above Rouen, would exit school and proceed in twin rows down the orange cement sidewalks and past the neatly tailored shrubs and the little plaza with the laundromat and bakery and between the housing projects and their well-tended parks and to the epicenter of my distress: the swimming pool.

The instructor, in Speedos and plastic sandals, would bark at us to sit along the edge and face him. One by one, he'd push us roughly back like some sadistic baptist, shouting commands made immediately abstract and alien underwater. Was he telling us to swim? I didn't know. To somersault? I'd get a dose of acrid water up my nose, splash desperately, try to find my bearings, grasp at the granite edge and breathe again.

I could not swim and in my shame I felt it was absolutely out of the question to say so.

One day he had us line up in the water, on one side of the pool. At the sound of his whistle we were to swim across. I'd never seen a chasm so perilous and vast. But when the whistle sounded I knew I had to move. I lunged away from the edge and at once began thrashing madly, trying vainly to beat down the enveloping deep. I could not imagine how I'd keep from drowning. The other kids were proceeding purposefully, quite comfortably somehow. They'd been blessed, I guess; they possessed some power I not only lacked but could not even conceive.

I was drowning. I was going to die.

About a third of the way across a panic gripped me and I decided to cast aside all restraint and save myself. I grabbed the swimmer to the right of me for life, shamefully judging that dragging her down, too, was worth the risk. She was a black girl with a red two-piece swimsuit and I grabbed at her smooth, brown belly and back which slipped in my grip like some strange creature I'd never touched before. She twisted around and protested with a howl, her face fixed with such a curious mixture of alarm, outrage, fear and derision that I let go of her at once.

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