My father and I were in the shallow end, and I wasn’t wearing arm floaties. He instructed me to swim to him, and I paddled like a hatched turtle into his arms.
“Faster. Faster,” he said. “Lift your arms higher. Keep your mouth closed. Don’t drink the water goddammit!”
And I paddled faster and lifted my arms higher and didn’t drink the water.
Once, when he wasn’t looking, I decided to swim across the pool, to the water slide where older children were clambering up the stairs and plunging into the deep end. Kicking off the concrete wall, I embarked on what felt like an epic journey, but about midway through I panicked, stretched my toes to touch the bottom and gulped a good cups worth of pool water. For all the big-footed teasing I endured as a child, the big toes on my giant embarrassing feet would not touch the bottom.
For what seemed like years, I flailed my arms, gurgled chlorine and cried hot salty tears, a bold 5-year-old buckling halfway through her shitty plan. I remember clearly the stab of failure. It tasted like phlegm and chemicals.
I don’t recall if I cried for help or if someone else in the pool alerted my father of the blonde child without arm floaties taking in water faster than the Titanic. But when he came to get me, I remember he grabbed me under the arm pits and pulled me to the side of the pool, where I coughed sweet relief that hurt coming up.