Swim, Swam, Swan


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5 min
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Jury

Karen Fayeth was born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller. From her roots in rural New Mexico she is constantly evolving through global experience. Karen has won awards for he ... [+]

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I stand by my front door with car keys in hand, flip-flops on my feet, panic in my heart.
"Let me get this right: I am going to take this gigantic menopausal body," I wave my hand like a Price is Right model to denote ALL of this jelly, "and I am going to strip down to a swimsuit, in front of strangers, and I am going to get into a swimming pool?"
"That does seem to be your plan, yes," says my husband with his signature combination of bemusement and inscrutability.
"I see. Well. Here I go."
I haven't been to a public swimming pool for at least twenty years. Maybe more. On this day, I'm headed to what is called a Fat Swim. I had heard about this on various social media platforms and "fat swim" was the exact search term I used.
My husband refuses to use that term, but I am comfortable with it. It's okay. I am fat. Have been most of my life, save for a few years where a raging eating disorder kept me at a more normal weight. Nothing about it was normal. Quite honestly, at nine years in recovery I am far more normal at this abnormal weight.
So I flip and I flop to the pool and then to the front desk to pay my entry where I am told that Fat Swim was canceled for the day. They weren't sure why, just that it had been canceled. Crestfallen, I say, "Thank you" and walk away, thinking I had worked up all of this courage for nothing.
Halfway to my car, I stop. Wait a minute. I came here to swim. I did half the hard work in just buying a bathing suit and getting out the front door. I didn't want to waste this rare moment of confidence.
I walk back inside to the front desk and I say, "Can I just swim anyway?" and they say "Sure!" and seven dollars later, I'm in the door and I am doing this.
Am I really doing this?

***

To say that swimming and I have a colorful history is an accurate statement. I didn't take to swimming easily. As a dutiful parent, my mom made sure that all three of her children took swimming lessons. My older brother and sister passed the courses with no issues.
For me, something didn't quite click. I loved being in the water, but the rigor of actually swimming was hard. I was intimidated. Enrolled in beginning swim lessons, I failed the course completion. So I took beginning lessons at another pool and failed again.
Frustrated, my mom found a woman who taught small classes in her own backyard, and her kindness and attention were just the thing I needed.
After gaining confidence from the private lessons, my mom took me back to regular lessons. She was intent on my getting a Red Cross certification in swimming. With some coercion and a heavy negotiation for a reward consisting of: 1) a Star Wars T-shirt and 2) a diary with a lock and key, I went back to the big pool, took the lessons, and did in fact pass the final test. I was a swimmer.
I went on to take the intermediate and advanced courses and passed them as well. Turns out I was a strong swimmer and I grew so comfortable in the water that for a short while I was on a swim team and competed against local swimmers from other pools.
I was pretty good at the breaststroke. I excelled at the backstroke. I was not terrible at the butterfly, an event no one wanted to participate in so the competition was light and winning ribbons was easy.
But time moves on and I grew up. Puberty hit and with it came curves and hair and bumps and shame. All of the thoughts and insecurities. I am not good enough. I am not pretty enough. I am not thin enough. I will never be thin enough.
Where once I used to lay out by the pool in a bathing suit with baby oil slathered on my skin, I now began to hide. I used to wear shorts and then I didn't wear shorts for more than twenty years. I used to own swimsuits, but they were all given away with the rest of the clothes that no longer fit as I got bigger and fatter and more ashamed.
I learned to be invisible. To hold back. To not take up space. To dress in a way to hide. To drink water when I was hungry. To worship at the altar of "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!"
With time, and therapy, and the gentle and supportive love of my inscrutable partner, I learned to cage the demons that rage in my brain when I look in a mirror or eat food. My birthright, handed down from mother to child. A disease that can never be cured, only quieted.
And so what I contemplated now, this swimming at a public pool, was akin to dancing to the beat of a klaxon in front of a cage that barely contained a sleeping beast.

***

In the locker room, women in various stages of undress were either heading to or coming out of the pool. I will always admire but never understand the fearless woman who can be fully nude in the locker room while going about their business.
The smell of the chlorine brought memories. I peeled off clothes down to my swimsuit underneath, rinsed off in the shower, and let my mind stay blank as I walked out to the pool. I set my towel and flip-flops off to one side and whispered to myself, "Can I really do this?"
The most shallow lane was empty, and after over twenty years on dry land, I slipped into the water with more confidence than I felt. The liquid embraced me and held me gently. Just standing in the water was already such a victory that even a week ago I could not have conceived it possible.
Once in the water, I was not sure what to do. I felt awkward. I felt nervous. I felt exposed. So I started walking. Just walking. From one end of the lane to the other. My heavy legs moved with ease through the water.
After walking back and forth for several laps, I warmed up and calmed down enough to try to swim a lap. Could I even remember how?
So strange how the body remembers when it wants to. I pushed off from the wall and my arms slotted into the right position for the crawl and my chubby legs kick, kick, kicked and I swam the length of the Olympic sized pool with no trouble.
My self-esteem shot up. I was out of breath and I tried walking again and then swimming again. My body in motion felt light and buoyant. I felt strong. I never feel strong.
Then I tried a breaststroke, once my favorite, and stopped with a "nope." My hips stiffened by both time and excessive pandemic sitting were not ready to frog kick. Something to work on.
Elation is the best word to describe how I felt as I swam. Soon, a woman approached and asked if she could share the lane. "I am not really swimming, mostly water walking," I said, feeling scared that she was some pro lap swimmer who would be distracted by my splashing about.
"Yeah, me too," she said easing her stiff joints into the water while muttering, "Menopause is such a bitch."
I knew then that we would be friends. She had also come for the canceled Fat Swim and then decided to just swim. She said, "Let's walk together," and for the first time since March 2020, I met a new person. I talked to a stranger.

***

Memories of childhood days spent at the public pool are dear to me. We'd go swimming in the afternoon heat of an Albuquerque summer and splash and tan and play. My dad would meet us when he finished work, and we'd have dinner.
So much of that came back to me as I swam. Returning home feeling enormously happy and satisfied, I told my partner that my family used to get burgers and fries after a hard day swimming. To honor that memory, we ordered and I demolished a cheeseburger with zero guilt.
And I savored the rediscovery of my joy. It was living at the bottom of a public swimming pool.
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Image of Mercilee Jenkins
Mercilee Jenkins · ago
I grew up swimming as well. I was a very shy kid and afraid to even put my head in the water. Once I overcame that, my parents could not get me out of the water. I swam in an olympic size pool too in Detroit, joined the swim team and became a decent free styler. I was good enough to compete but I knew I'd never be a champion. It didn't matter. I made friends and found the first thing I actually felt competent doing. Thanks so much for you story. Lee
Image of Karen Fayeth
Karen Fayeth · ago
There is something so magical and so otherworldly about swimming. I just feel so good in the pool. Thank you so much for the memory and your comment!! And thank you for reading my story! - KF

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