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January 5, 2016


When I swim breaststroke, my right knee drags behind, some malformation that corrective shoes couldn’t correct disqualifying me. I used to swim on a team, Saturday meets I never thought of as races because I wasn’t going to win anything, just making my cool way from one wall to the other and back again. 

I was working up heat under my swim cap, the rhythm of my breath and the strokes taking me forward toward that final touch on the wall that wouldn’t be followed by turning and pushing off with my feet. That was the one where I could strip off the blue rubber cap I’d dipped below the surface to add a bit of water to then stretched over my chlorine-bleached hair. 

I wasn’t a good swimmer; I wasn’t fast. I suppose I was steady. I showed up, won Most Improved one season, Most Dedicated the next. Every winter day after school and all summer, I dove off the starting block, the muffled echoes of splashes and voices to my left and my right, then just me for an hour, mostly underwater. 

Swimming breaststroke, my body glided or sometimes lurched up, and my hands, drawn together like the blessing before a meal, reached into the water ahead. My legs kicked apart from each other, syncopated. When I let go into the stroke, it was a feeling like a wave, fluid, and I was both riding it and making it, creating wake behind me, unaware of everything – the suction of plastic goggles pressed to my eyes, the drag of the second cement-picked suit the coach told me to wear during practice so I could to feel faster on meet days, other swimmers, sound, time. There was only forward, following the black line at the bottom of the pool, only touching, turning, doing it again. 

My body could move more quickly through the water if I pushed it, if I looked up at the clock every other leg to check the second hand. My right knee could do what it was supposed to — kick out like a frog, like my left knee keeping me in contention for something —  if I spent all my attention on sending it the proper instructions: up-out-together, up-out-together, up-out-together. 

I didn’t, though. I was racing against no one. I wasn’t even racing. I was washing my mind clean, purging myself of thought, feeling, past, present, future. I was earning the cool rush of water over my head at the end of practice when I removed my cap and leaned back slowly, baptized again by my own hands. 

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