© 2019 Helen: a literary magazine

Underwater

by Courtney Felle

Swish, plunge under.

 

My body falls to the concrete bottom. Water rushes over my head, the surface I broke the bonds of remeeting, whole. The noise is like that of no noise, ringing emptiness and the skids of my own movement. My arms circle with palms out then in, widdershins, clockwise, all-encompassing, clever. My feet are moving, too, but it’s the hands I watch, the hands I can watch. The surface below me presses into me, and the water stuck between me and it glides off my stomach heavily, fluid friction.
 
I am eleven. My personality has begun pooling into me, and there is too much to know what to do with. I have more sass in my pinky finger than any of my teachers think I’d need in my whole body. If I held a rigid, flexed palm up in anger, water would gush out and devour the Goliath I stood in front of. When I move, the ground rattles. When I stomp, an earthquake. I’m brutal, unadulterated force, stubborn, unapologetically feminine, caught up in the power bitterness brought. I’ll slam down systems that perpetuate inequality like a fist, yelling for fairness, and huff and puff and scream until the whole world flies skyrocket into the air to come crashing back, irrevocably broken.
 
Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to kill himself twice, at least once when he was twelve. I’m still a year off, and I’m passing time with laps in my swim team pool like they taught us in practice the other day. Expand the lungs; breaststroke at the bottom for as far as you can without breathing. I made it the entire 25-yards the other day, second best, and the girl with the record is headed for the Junior Olympic team so she doesn’t even count, really. I can go farther without people watching. I made it all of one length and three-quarters of another, so close. After a while the chlorine burns the eyes and you can’t even tell where you are. I smacked headfirst into the pool sides a couple times that way, but it only hurt for a short bit, matched consequence.
 
The liquid is heavy against my ears, pressure pushing the sides of my head into each other. I’ve taught myself how to swim the farthest distance: hold breath solidly, and whenever it becomes too much to keep holding, let just a small, short string of bubbles emerge. For turns, I expend only as much strength as I need to keep moving. The extra effort needed for an upsurge in energy depletes me sooner. The number one rule: when I think I can’t make my limbs move anymore, I keep going, one stroke farther, then another. I make two complete lengths of the pool this way, a full 50 yards. When I emerge, I’m gasping, and I have to drape myself over the concrete sides because I can’t even tread or float. Better than body. More than body. More than what is there.
 
Every second underwater builds on the last; the ends of lengths feel like ends of lives, breathlessness I don’t get to seamlessly exit, a faded, black passing-out instead of euphoric light as I break through the water to the surface. Maybe I want this. Maybe I don’t. Mostly I don’t want any one goal, just for myself to keep moving. Swish, swish. Rate of change of the movement constant. Girl who doesn’t even know what rate of change is yet. Girl who doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know. Girl who knows more than she should, girl who knows more than she can handle, girl who knows more than she wishes she did. Swish, too much. Swish, not enough. Pool all the tears cried for questions that will never have answers and you could fill this one for all her laps. Swish. The body moves even when the body wants more than anything to not move.
 
Later, when I say I love you every night to the first boy and think I mean it but don’t, when I rack up college denials like a grocery list, when I ace test after test as my insides feel like they’re burning, I’m burning, I feel the pool swaying around me, the ache of water against my limbs as they keep pushing, keep moving. My nerves know the process automatically. I am a failed fish, a wannabe but can’t-be mermaid, beggar for air, beggar for some solace, beggar for the day the beauty and the pain stop being the same—

 

la tristesse ne durera pas toujours;

 

something of this, of me, must be worth saving;
 
maybe I can learn to dance on the land with my
swimmers’ grace and maybe there is an ampersand
beyond the end and maybe the air, after so long, is a
relief, no matter what’s there, no matter what’s
there, there is something there—

Swish, surge upward.

Previously published in Chautauqua Journal in their 2018 Wild and Tame Issue