Learning to Float
Brown stones and steel poles all smelled like hot, freshly poured cement in the summer. Sometimes, I would press my hand against the brick to see how long it would take to burn. My sister and I would have contest like this seeing who could keep their hand on the searing stone the longest. She would always win, a testament to her resilience.
On the hottest of days, my dad would bang on our bedroom doors and yell down the hallways before eleven am,
“Time for the soaker!”
My sister and I would hop out of bed, I would throw on my only pair of red swim trunks, my sister had a cool blue and yellow flower bathing suit. Bologna sandwiches would be packed with Kool Aid poured into water bottles and we would run down our apartment steps, my dad chasing after us, sweat already dripping down our backs as we made our way to the pool.
Dad wanted us to conquer the water. He would often say that too few black boys and girls knew how to swim. At the inner-city pool, most of the boys and girls stayed in the shallow end while their mothers watched from the old, worn out pool chairs, but we were different. As soon as we arrived, my dad picked us up and threw us into the deep water. Mother’s gasped every time without fail.
“Come on now! Make your way up,” I could hear my dad yell, his voice muffled and distorted under the water. I would hear my sister’s little feet kick and splash to the top, but I always struggled, my unusually small frame trying to extend to the surface. Every time without fail my father had to jump in and pull me up.
“You gonna get it one day, Joaquin,” he’d say hopefully as I held on to his back and he paddled out of the water.
Exhausted, my sister and I set at the edge of the pool with our two friends, Kayla and Janelle. We ate our sandwiches furiously, they stuck to the top walls of our mouths and made our voices sound muffled like my dads under the water.
“Why don’t your moms ever come to the pool, we only see your daddy?” Janelle asked between bites of potato chips.
My sister kicked her feet in the water, it splashed up and hit my sandwich, I glared at her.
“Our momma doesn’t come out,” I said taking a bite of my now soggy sandwich, it tasted disgusting, like cereal soaked in milk.
“I know that, but why?” Janelle probed again, relentlessly.
I tried to avoid talking about her, but when your mother hadn’t left the house in two years of course the questions came. She stayed in her room with the door shut most days. We would come in to give her food and her head would be turned facing the window. She never spoke, sometimes I even forgot what it sounded like to hear her say my name. My grandma explained to me that her heart was broken, but I never understood why, dad was right there with her. He still laid with her every night. I would walk by the room and he would be sitting on the bed brushing her hair, but still she never said a word or let out a smile. I was only eleven and the memories of my nine-year-old self, the vibrant mom who would salsa down the halls and sing melodies seemed so distant that I almost forgot she had changed. My sister was only seven, so for her this is how things had always been.
I shrugged and looked over at Janelle, “There’s nothing to explain, she just doesn’t like the water,” I said quickly.
Summer continued, everyday blending into the other, like a watercolor painting creating one dull, uneventful picture. My dad screaming time for the soaker, my sister soaring to the top of the water, my dad helping me out, sitting on the side of the pool eating bologna sandwiches and talking with friends, peeking through the cracked bedroom door at my mother as she stared out the window, her hair covering her eyes.
I was only eleven and the memories of my nine-year-old self, the vibrant mom who would salsa down the halls and sing melodies seemed so distant that I almost forgot she had changed.
I would have called it a boring summer, a typical and predictable summer. Everything from the people to the places even the weather seemed the same, like the painter of my life was only using melodic shades of blue. I would not have remembered my nine year old summer at all if it wasn’t for a one specific day in August, the day the artist picked up his wooden paintbrush and began to paint wild yet deliberate strokes of red.
“You going to have learn someday boy,” my dad said letting me off his shoulders, I hesitantly lifted myself out the water, “I can’t have no son of mine walking around and can’t even swim.”
He tilted his head abruptly, letting some water drain out of his ears. I was beginning to hear the disappointment in his voice and it worried me.
“Go get you and your sisters sandwiches out of the bag, I’m ‘bout run to the corner store, need some smokes.”
“Yes, dad,” I mumbled.
He wrapped himself in his towel, grabbed his wallet and walked toward the gate exiting the pool. I set on the old plastic red and white chair, my face resting in the palm of my hand, the plastic sticking to my wet skin causing it to itch. My sister was flapping around in the water with Janelle, laughing and carefree. I wished I was her in more ways than I can explain.
“I can teach you if you want,” I heard a soft, yet assertive voice say from over my shoulder.
I turned around, quickly looking up. A boy around my age was standing behind me. He had the darkest skin I had ever seen and gray colored eyes. The pool water had curled up his hair into a tight afro, he let out a bright smile when I looked at him.
“Teach me what?” I asked him turning back around, disinterested.
“How to swim,” he sat down beside me. “I saw you earlier, your daddy had to come get you.”
I felt my skin start to flush.
“Hey, don’t feel bad. I had to take classes over at the Y, it’s hard to learn sometimes, but they taught me all the techniques,” he said kind of puffing out his chest.
“You’d really teach me?” I sat up little taller.
“Yeah but it’s going to cost you though,” he let out a mischievous grin.
“Cost me what?”
“I see those bologna sandwiches you eat every day, you think you can bring me one here tomorrow? My mom works nights. When I go to the pool she be sleep and can’t pack me nothing.”
I shrugged and reached out my hand, “If you can teach me how to swim, I got you with a sandwich.”
He smiled, extending his hand too, “My name is Lucas by the way.”
We shook on it and ran to the water.
We started in the shallow end, it was weird not being flung into the deepest water, but Lucas told me it was best to start shallow.
“You gotta be comfortable using your sea legs before you put them to real work,” he told me.
We both walked from one end of the pool to the other, getting our sea legs adjusted.
“Now come over here and lay on your back,” he said extending his arms in front of me.
“You want me to lay on your arms?”
“Yeah, I’m going to teach you to float. It’s the first thing I learned over at the Y.”
I was hesitant, but I glided over to him, he lifted me up and suddenly I was lying flat on my back, his hands coolly resting underneath me.
“Now close your eyes and try not to think about nothing, not even the water beneath you, not my hands, nothing else.”
I squeezed my eyes shut trying to clear my thoughts, but my mind immediately started racing, thoughts of my dad's disappointment, of my mom shut up in her room.
“You’re thinking too much,” Lucas said slowly, “your body is tightening up. You gotta breathe and let it go...forget about everything even the water.”
I let out a deep breath and closed my eyes again. Lucas began to hum, I did not know what song it was, but it vibrated through the water as if little fish were quickly swimming past me in the sea. I slowly felt my body release; the water was hitting my legs and I all I could hear was his humming and the swish of the pool.
“You’re doing it!” Lucas screamed.
My eyes burst open and my body flipped over into the water. I stood up, a smile, wide as the ocean, spread across my face.
“How did I? How did I do that?!”
“You let go,” he smiled. “Now you owe me a sandwich.”
Lucas began to hum, I did not know what song it was, but it vibrated through the water as if little fish were quickly swimming past me in the sea. I slowly felt my body release; the water was hitting my legs and I all I could hear was his humming and the swish of the pool.
My dad didn’t understand why I was so adamant about making the sandwiches that next day. I ducked over the bread and bologna, so he couldn’t see me making one extra. I knew he would complain if he noticed, saying how we didn’t have enough money to be making no extra sandwiches, how my sister and I were expensive enough as it is. He was always complaining that we didn’t have enough money for this or enough money for that. My mom would blurt out in between one of his rants,
“Well we got love and that don’t cost no money!”
I missed that mom, I missed her so much. Once the sandwiches were done, I threw them into my backpack and ran outside to catch up with my dad and sister.
Lucas wasn’t there when I first arrived, and my dad tossed us into the pool, and I immediately heard Lucas’ humming vibrating through the water, I struggled to rise to the top and then I allowed myself to float to the end of the pool with a new-found effortlessness. My dad yelled from the sidelines.
“That’s my boy!”
He jumped in and guided me to the ladder with a smile on his face. I felt an extreme sense of pride, but when I looked around and didn’t see Lucas, my heart sank a little, I realized my dad wasn’t the only person I wanted to impress. All three of us set together on one extended pool chair. My dad reached out, his head upright, and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Look, didn’t I tell you son? You’d learn soon enough. Floating is halfway to swimming.”
“Yeah, thanks dad.” I said still looking around the pool.
My dad let out a sigh of relief, “Now y’all take out ya sandwiches, I’ll be right back.”
My sister dug into the backpack and I watched as my dad made his way across the grass on the other side, he walked up to a tall man with these beady eyes and a baseball cap, they eventually walked off together, talking and laughing. My sister looked up at me.
“Why you pack an extra sandwich?” She asked holding two of them in her hand confused.
“Nothing,” I grabbed the extra sandwich from her, throwing it back in the bag, “it was a mistake.”
Everyday I’d go to the pool, and I would float, I even got to the point where I could backstroke and make my way to ladder without my dad helping me. I had never seen him so proud, so happy to call me his son. He had the most aquatic kids at the pool, sometimes I would hear him bragging to the other parents. It made me smile, but I still couldn’t get the humming out of my head. It was Lucas, he gave me this new ability, it was him I wanted to share it with.
It became routine for my dad to walk off with the beady eye man in the baseball cap at least once a week. I never asked who he was or where they were going, he would always whisper to Janelle’s mom, Miss Sasha, to watch us for thirty minutes and then he’d disappear beyond the trees. He didn’t realize that I noticed him, and something told me he didn’t want me to.
“Good job my two fishes!” he laughed one Saturday, he handed us both sandwiches, and looked over to the grassy trees, the beady eye man had returned, he was sitting at the bench and waved over at my dad, my dad nodded back at him with a straight face.
“I’ll be right back, y'all listen to Miss Sasha while I’m gone.”
My sister was humming to herself, scarfing down her sandwich, but I was silent. I watched as my dad got up and made his way across the pool to the grassy side of the recreation area. I looked over at my sister,
“You stay here,” I said getting up.
She shrugged as I slowly followed behind my dad, he was already walking off with the beady eye man, I trailed them, cautiously making my way across the pool until I was stopped by a familiar voice.
I turned around, startled, walking toward me was Lucas. Immediately my initial mission fled my mind.
“Hey man!” he said jogging over.
“Hey, you’ve been gone for weeks.” I was trying to hide my disappointment, but it was palpable.
Lucas’ face twisted up, almost as if he was in pain.
“My dad came back in town, he hasn’t been letting me come like I use to.”
I could tell he didn’t want to speak on it, the way I didn’t want to speak on my mom.
“I gotta show you what I learned,” I said quickly changing the subject.
He nodded, excitedly, and we ran toward the water, our legs swinging in the summer wind. Soon I was floating and backstroking all while Lucas was clapping and hollering, the validation I had been seeking was finally here.
“Man, you owe me ten sandwiches now!” he laughed.
I stopped moving around the water and smiled at him and then he swam over toward me.
“Hop on my back,” he said gently.
“What?” I was nervous and confused.
“Come on,” he turned around, his back facing me.
It made my stomach turn; my father had a label for me before I had even thought to give one to myself.
I swam up to him and wrapped my arms around his shoulders and my legs around his waist. It was very different from having my dad come in and rescue me, Lucas’ wasn’t trying to pull me up, he wasn’t trying to take me anywhere, he just wanted to show me what could be. I rested my head on his shoulder, he began humming that same tune, the one that I missed so much. I closed my eyes, I wanted to stay like that forever, and I probably would have until my whole body pruned up like an old lady, but a voice, filled with red rage and splattered paint strokes cut through the quite like a knife.
“What the fuck!” Splash, a grown brown body jumped into the water. He quickly yanked me off Lucas, my body falling beneath the pool, my eyes burning from chlorine, my hands reaching for my father, but he just yelled at me from above the water his words muffled beneath the blue. Finally, Lucas grabbed me, pulling me up, my dad slapped his hand away.
“You stay the fuck away from my son you faggot!”
Lucas’ face contorted with pain, the same way it did when I asked why he wasn’t at the pool, the way mine did when I was asked about my mother. My father grabbed my arm and dragged me out the water. He stomped over to my sister and grabbed her up too.
“Pack this shit up!” he yelled.
I looked at Lucas’ he had not moved, he stood still as a statue, the look of pain still plastered on his dark skin, I held back tears, the word faggot rang through my ear drowning out the once serene humming, my father grabbed my arm again and we left.
After that my father stopped speaking to me. Aside from, pick this up or other emotionless commands, he didn’t acknowledge my presence. Sometimes I would purposely leave a dish out or forget to turn off the light just, so he would have to see me, speak to me, act like I was his son again. I would overhear him on the phone sometimes, behind closed bathroom doors, speaking to people I assumed were his basketball buddies, whispering the word fag and my name, saying how disappointed he was and how he knew this would happen. It made my stomach turn; my father had a label for me before I had even thought to give one to myself.
One extremely hot Tuesday, I awoke in a pool of sweat. My heart swelled with excitement, I knew today my dad would break, today he would have to call for the soaker. I jumped up and grabbed my swim trunks, wiped off my sweaty brow and ran for the hallway, but it was empty. I investigated the bathroom, nothing; I ran to my sister’s room; nothing, I ran to my moms and dads room and slowly opened the door, mom laid there staring out the window, looking at something intensely. I followed her eyes and then I could see my dad and sister, walking down the concrete, sandwiches in hand, heading for the pool. I felt like I was drowning, like my father was standing over me just as he did that day, watching me reach for him and doing nothing. I stood there staring as they walked off, tears forming like gathered rain drops in my eyes. I blinked, and they poured down, I began to slowly back out of the room, my hand sweaty reaching for the door knob.
“Come here,” I heard a voice whisper, I thought I was hearing things, I swore I was hallucinating maybe from all the heat, my mother hadn’t spoken in years. I looked up at her.
She lifted her hand and gestured me over, I hesitantly walked to her, she was still staring out the window and I could see that she was crying too. She reached out and grabbed my hand, and her silent cry turned into a guttural sob.
“He’s just like you,” she cried, “he’s angry cause he’s just like you. It ain’t your fault, you need to be who you are.”
She looked up at me, and for the first time in years she smiled at me, rubbing my hand softly, they were so frail and wrinkled. I had forgotten what it felt like to have her hold me, to feel her touch and embrace. I wanted to soak it up like I sponge. Right before I could lean into her for a hug, I heard a creak at the door, I looked over and there my father stood at the doorway, his eyes wide. My mother dropped my hand and silence filled the room, he walked in and grabbed his wallet off the wooden desk in the corner. He slapped the leather wallet on his knee and looked up at me, he didn’t say a word, he just stared and then he slowly walked out. I trailed behind him heading back to my room, the thoughts of what my mom had said were swimming through my head, drowning me with their weight. I stopped at the doorway to my room, my father was still standing at the exit, the door was open, but he hadn’t moved.
“Come on!” I heard my sister scream impatiently.
My father stayed still, staring out the open door, then he hesitantly reached his hand behind him, the way he would to pull me out of the pool when he thought I might finally make it, he extended his palm toward me and I knew this time I was the one pulling him out of the deep end.
That day at the pool there was no soaker, there was no beady eye man, there was no rescuing because there was no need to be saved. I slowly walked into the shallow end, my sister was already swimming in the deep, making dolphin sounds. My dad looked over at her and started to jump in with her, but he hesitated and chose to follow behind me instead. We stood in the water together, still and silent.
“You know,” he finally mumbled, “I never learned to float. Pretty cool you can do that.”
I looked up at him and extended my arms, he glided over to me and laid on his back, his weight was lighter in the water, but he was as stiff as a log, his mind racing.
“You gotta let go.” I said softly, and I began to hum the tune Lucas would hum when I was with him. Eventually my dad's body became light Eventually I was able to completely remove my arms as he floated effortlessly in water with his eyes closed, a look of peace spread across his face. I laid back and floated beside him, our bodies swaying in unison. Not a word was spoken, just my humming in the water and our bodies moving about the pool.
For the first time, I wasn’t looking for my father to save me, I wasn’t looking for his brooding shoulders to carry me to safety, I wasn’t looking to impress him or honor him and I finally wasn’t afraid anymore. For the first time I was the one showing him the way, a new way, what could be. The same way a young boy had once shown me.