The Girl Who Couldn’t Swim

Photo by Stephen Shore
Photo by Stephen Shore

The teenaged girl had been overheard saying she couldn’t really swim–or shouldn’t–but frankly, no one cared. The other girls were there for their tans, not getting wet in the aqua water. They’d dip in and out, take a few minutes to submerge, rinse oily sweat off their skin. They didn’t even appear drawn to the ocean yet. They lay about on chaise lounges like lazy, soft-limbed devotees of the sun god. It was vacation, after all. If they could call Florida with the parents such a thing. Being sixteen and getting that urgent feeling every time they stepped on hotel balconies, smelling the rich tropical atmosphere even before it engulfed you. Couldn’t the adults just disappear? But this one hesitated at the pool’s edge. Advancing and pulling back. Ignoring the others for two days.

From the second story walkway, Sharise remembered that heady feeling; it winked at her from two decades past. She’d arrived In Florida at eighteen and here she remained. She’d been working at Twenty Palms Hotel for three years, which was a record. It got old, the cleaning up after strangers, staff haranguing each other, the exhaustion that dogged her all the way home after a long shift. She didn’t like housekeeping but she was efficient, got good tips. Sharise had tried to go back to college after her son left home three years ago but gave up after the second week of classes. She was in her mid-thirties then, looked younger. It wasn’t the fresh faces that got to her, it was the reading. She read cheap paperbacks from Goodwill, or library volumes protected with plastic. She read fast but she did not read things like math or science or culture. It gave her a headache. She worked alot of overtime and that left little energy. She’d fail, that was clear. It gave her a pang to withdraw from classes. Her chest burned the rest of the day; she felt ashamed of her cowardice.

“Oh, you should see those kids, they have all the time in the world and not a tired bone in those perky bodies.”

Turk looked at her sideways as he cleaned the pool. “I know you want to get out of here, Shar. Maybe you could get it done online?”

“What do you know about it?” She smacked his back with her disposable latex gloves. “It’s all good. I get an education here every day, how to get the job done well, how to work with all kinds of nuts, how to let your mind wander when a customer is trying to call you out on something idiotic. Next year maybe I can buy a little shack near the beach at last.”

Turk took off his t-shirt and wiped his face with it. He was colored bronze from being outdoors and fairly glistened all the time. On the stocky side, he had a way with the ladies nonetheless. But not her. She was ten years older and so much smarter she half-intimidated him. Not that he’d say so. She treated him like a kid brother. But he liked her company.

“You’d make a good business woman, so I hope you try again. You could open up a used book store, the way you go through those things. Add a juice bar and you’re all set for the touristas.”


She looked up at the boss, then waved to Turk as she trudged up the stairs. No doubt someone found a bit of lint in the sink. Instead, it was the sheets not being tight enough to toss a dime and see it jump to the ceiling and back. Well, maybe not exactly that, but a woman had complained they had come completely undone during the night and the maid had failed to re-make it correctly. Sharise knew it wasn’t her room but smiled at the guests as she anchored the wandering sheets.

The girl who had said she couldn’t swim was there with, likely, her mother. Sharise noted the older female’s glossy black hair, shell-pink toenails and beautiful coral, one piece suit. Ivory skin, dangerous in sun. She was putting on white hoop earrings. The younger girl was looking out the open sliding door that led to the balcony, a striped bathing suit cover-up pulled close to her slim frame.

She said without turning, “I’m thinking of going swimming later. Might even dive by the time we leave.”

The mother dropped an earring. “You’re to stay away from that diving board. We’ve had this discussion and I’m not repeating it now.” She glanced at Sharise and then at her daughter’s back. “Of course you like the water–who doesn’t? Enjoy poolside, stroll the beach, Kit. Make friends. Your father will be here tomorrow.”

Kit stepped onto the balcony and bent over it, looking at the scene below.

“Sweetie? I’m taking a nap before drinks and dinner. Take your key if you go.”

Sharise slipped out the door before the guests could test the bed and find it wanting.

It was at the end of her shift, not long after correcting the bed problem, that Sharise saw Kit enter the pool. The other teen-agers waved at her half-heartedly; they were likely drugged with heat and boredom. Two families were gathering their gear, calling to their kids. A lanky middle-aged man dove confidently off the high board, then hit the surface with a loud belly smack. He swam to a corner and rubbed his chest, chagrined.

Kit stood very still, as if the water’s radiance was too dazzling, as if she was waiting to be led forward. Or go back. Turk was putting equipment away and stopped to watch her, too, then shook his head as she dog-paddled from the steps, turned around and went back. He was Twenty Palms’ life saver in a pinch but he cleaned and maintained the pool; he had never had to save someone. The young girls at the far end were laughing, eyes closed as a boy came up and threw a glass of water on them, making them screech.

But Kit was going into the water again, this time floating, legs not even sinking, hair spread out. She was at ease, floated on. Upon arriving at the diving boards, she pulled herself up and sat with feet dangling, studying the boards.

Sharise walked over to Turk. “See that kid? I think she knows how to swim nicely. I just don’t think her mother wants her to. I heard a conversation in their room. Seems mom is scared the girl will get in trouble. No diving allowed.”

“Yeah, she acts worried but this time she went right in. She has the body type of a swimmer so I keep waiting to see what she’ll do.”

“Me, too.”

Kit walked over to the group. They got her a soda from a cooler. Sharise looked up at the balcony of Kit’s room and saw her mother there, hand shading her eyes, searching for her daughter. When she spotted her, she disappeared into the darkened room.

But Kit was just getting started. She dove into the deep end and started a breaststroke, gained steam and at the end turned around for another lap. One of the boys whistled at her.

“Hey, faker, we thought you didn’t swim! If you sink, don’t call us!”

“Stupid kids!” Turk wrapped his sweaty head with a towel, then sat in the shade. “But look at her.”

The girl’s strong arms shimmered in the amber light as her strokes developed strong rhythm. She was rusty but had skills and finished four laps when she finally floated to the end of the pool. The obnoxious younger boy threw a beach ball at her. Her hand shot up and batted it back at him.

“Great reflexes,” Sharise said. She gathered her purse and book. “Gotta go.”

“Just when it’s getting interesting,” Turk said. “It’s like a movie around here sometimes.”

When Sharise reported to work at nine the next morning, Kit was already in the water, doing laps. Sharise pushed the cleaning cart down a walkway, dawdled a moment. The girl was looking good. Kit’s mother was not far away, reading a magazine. A man in a wheelchair was beside her, maybe mid-forties, sandy-haired, already reddening on chest and shoulders. Kit’s father, then?

Kit kept swimming, back and forth, back and forth. Families moved aside as she swam between them with bold grace. One child started to swim beside her but gave up.

Sharise opened up the next room and fluffed the bedspread, changed sheets, disinfected the bathroom. Six more to go. At noon she slipped by to see what Turk was up to on a break.

“What’s the deal?” Sharise gestured toward Kit and her parents.

Turk was sweeping dirt away from a walkway. “Oh, guess her ole man is paralyzed waist-down. Friendly enough, nicer than his wife. Helped him with a bag when he got off the elevator.”

They watched the trio a few seconds more, then Sharise went to buy a tall iced tea with a sprig of mint. She took it out a side door and sat on a shadowed bench, positioning herself so she could see the pool area.

A cry of alarm burst into the soft air, then a small splash. Turk and Sharise arrived poolside and searched for a poor thrashing child.

“Get out of the water!” Kit’s mother was racing alongside Kit as her daughter swam past. Her jewelled flip flops glittered in the blaze of high noon and her floppy straw hat fell into the water. “How dare you, Kit? Get out this instant!”

“No! Leave me alone! I’m doing this!”

The father had rolled closer to the pool. He removed reflective sunglasses, peered at his daughter and called out, “What did you just do, Kit? What was that?”

Kit bobbed at pool’s edge. “You know what I did, Dad!” Then she got out of the water, walked rapidly to the high dive and climbed the ladder.

“Kit! Stop… Kyle, make her get down now!”

The mother was desperate now, face flushed, hands at her chest. But her father was wheeling himself even closer to water’s edge. Kit walked to the end of the board and stood very still, arms close to her sides. Then they glided outward and her body lengthened, all sinew and sleekness. She bounced once, twice; arms rose higher and she jumped, her navy tank a blur. Kit’s mother let out a chilling wail.

Kit executed a perfect flip that morphed into a swift swan dive, back arched, arms reaching for sky, toes pointed. Her body snapped back into form. People were silenced and stood up, even the teenagers. Sharise’s hand went to her mouth, and Turk crossed himself. Kit streamlined her body more, slipped into the water with barely a splash. After a few taut seconds, hands, then head broke through, face ecstatic.

“What the–? That was great!”

Turk ran to the pool to offer Kit a hand but she declined. Sharise went to the parents to make sure they were okay. To Kit, she  just nodded a deep bow with her head.

At the end of her shift, Sharise checked the pool deck and water. It was empty, a simple rectangle that hours earlier had seemed like a theater, an enchanted one. It was still luminous in the unrelenting sunshine. She wondered about Kyle and Helena, Kit’s parents, and if they were relaxing at last. Kit was likely off with new friends, or so Sharise hoped. Kyle had been so proud of her he had bought a round of drinks for all, alcoholic for adults, sodas for kids. He invited Turk and Sharise but they’d declined.

“I was a once competitive swimmer,” Kyle had explained when all calmed down. “A very good diver, as well. And then I dove the wrong way in the wrong place off the side of a boat in the Caribbean. That was four years ago. Kit always wanted to follow in my footsteps, was learning fast, but her mother…well, you can imagine how that went. Kit stopped her efforts. But now, a new beginning!” He raised his glass to the sun, or the future he imagined for her.

Helena smiled a wobbly smile at her husband. He seemed happy, not saddened by memories. She was calmer, a tall Tom Collins in hand. Kit had apologized profusely for nearly giving her a heart attack, then turned back to the diving boards.

Now Turk came up behind Sharise and flipped her ponytail. “Off now?”

“Yep, enough excitement.” She slapped him on the shoulder with her purse strap. “Know something? I just decided to try one college class this summer. See how it goes.”

“Good plan,” Turk agreed. He saw a fallen blossom that was marring the café’s water feature and knew it should be fished out but he liked it there. He whistled a little of an old Disney song, then danced a few beats for Sharise. She laughed and took off. There was a new, used book waiting at home and thank goodness. She had to return tomorrow with mind and body fully intact, ready to work.


Weather and View from Here:Variable but Fair

I am not a seasoned traveller, the sort that easily navigates  the barbaric mazes of airports. Neither do I speak fluently many languages of exotic locales. For me, “foreign” means our cousin Canada. I have sung praises of the beauty there–boating through the San Juan Islands, sampling the delights of Victoria and Vancouver, coming face-to-face with bears in Banff National Park. But other than Canada, my explorations have thus far remained within my own country. The primary modes of travel have been car and feet. The last time I flew anywhere was in 2007 when a daughter graduated from Union Theological Seminary, and it took love and will to get on that plane even though as a young adult I loved to fly.

In September when Marc and I planned a trip to Virginia and Florida to visit family, my excitement and anxiety were contained by the distractions of daily living. I had been the one to bring up the trip despite a mild dislike, perhaps more accurately a moderate loathing, of flying ever since events in 2001. I kept focused on the final destination and the experiences we would enjoy. By the first of January I was checking weather reports and planning what to pack. My goal was to be ready for anything but not embarrass my husband with a surfeit of bags. And to be calm upon arrival. I considered the leftover Valium Marc still had after dental extractions. Or the natural kava kava, which I had used when I flew to and from my mother’s funeral May 2001. In the end Dramamine was secreted away in my cloth bag beneath books and magazines, just in case.

But the moment I get on the  plane I know it will be a good trip. We haven’t visited my in-laws in a long while and we’ll see two daughters, as well. I am leaving behind wind-driven, chill rain in favor of delicious sunhine. More crucial, we are abandoning work and humdrum routine.

So it happens: I peer out a small window. My breath catches in my throat as the plane rises smoothly into the sky: I am on a small adventure and anything wondrous and fine can happen. In an instant I fall under a spell.

The world looks kinder from above, as if all the earthly things have come to order. It is as though the fine raiment of the land is meant to complement the colors washed along the horizon. As we near Chicago and the sun descends,  amber beacons pulse across the rolling earth, while the sky gives forth a display of piercing white lights.

From where I sit the Big Dipper appears to be in conversation not only with a perfect moon–which trumpets light all the way to other galaxies–but also with the criss-crossed lines of city and town, the slip and slide of pale country lanes against shining rivers.  I wonder what magic things spill upon the land from the mammoth ladle above.

I rest my eyes on the fullness of the scene–how much there is to love when venturing far, how great the mysteries as we leap in the face of reason and then lilt within the far-flung dark. The city’s lights flare out like a giantess’ necklace on an indulgent bosom.

And the moon holds steady as the night spreads its vast velvety wings. The sky, bemused, opens to the watchful audience of the universe beyond. Lulled by night, face pressed against the glass, I watch the geometry of roads and tiny cars come closer, the plane tilting and sailing toward a better known world, yet no less extraordinary.

The story could end right here, but disembarking feels like leaving one dream for another. I am a space traveller cruising in for a pit stop.

Then suddenly, in Virginia with daughter Naomi, artist/wandering pilgrim, who has been to Europe, to the Caribbean and Iceland, to places I cannot pronounce. To our surprise, it is rainy and cold just like Oregon the first day, but on the second the sun joins us. We take to the sights and sounds of rustic Jamestown, then Colonial Williamsburg. Encompassing 301 acres, with 88 of the original 18th century shops, houses, outbuildings plus hundreds of others reconstructed on original foundations, this is the past vibrant within the present.  We stroll Duke of Gloucester Street and stop to chat with the Shoemaker, whose supple leather shoes are meticulously hand-made for a man of more or less means in the 1700s. We visit the Weaver and learn about beetles from South America that provide the brilliant red that dye the wool the women spin. Then off to the Magazine and Guardhouse where I come upon not only rifles and muskets but a Hatmaker sitting on a bench. He is proud of his work, and informs us that he also can make shoes and is a blacksmith. At Chownings Tavern I enjoy tasty chicken stew and corn bread, then we’re off to see the Cabinetmaker–would I be interested in a lustrous $20,000 harpsichord? It plays beautifully as I run my fingers over the keys.

And so it continues as the sun illumines all. The Silversmith, the Cooper, the Milliner and Tailor. Every shop and house we enter or wonder over holds the hint of lives lived long ago and well, of trials, aspirations, romance. It is like walking hand-in-hand with those who planned and built the bustling town, had heady political discussions, reared families, fought illness and loss.

I stand before the Governor’s Palace and swear I hear the rustle of silk, the resonant ring of crystal from deep within the rooms. Other women and men have shared lives full of pleasure, burdensome with toil. They watch us from the shadows as the bright wind runs through bare treetops and stirs my hair.

On the last night, we three gather at the hotel suite and partake of a redolent beef stew that  Naomi started in the Crockpot in the morning. It is reminsicent of the recipe I often made for our large family a lifetime ago. But it tastes richer. Better seasoned. More tender.

Then: Florida.

Another place altogether with its shy manatees and ubiquitous palms, alligators common and fierce,  lumbering turtles. It’s flat, subtropical landscape is strange enough to me to be a foreign land and yet the warmth of the breezes and languor of the people are a welcome respite after chilly Virginia. And there is family again to welcome us, daughter Cait, who is a minister, and my in-laws. We mosey through Matlacha’s gaily painted shops, then enjoy lunch and melt-in-your-mouth pies on the shore of Pine Island.

The water is a glittering blue that changes hue from moment to moment, place to place. There are boats to watch and piers to walk, along which the sea ever beckons with it powerful rhythms and brilliant depths. The sun moves over skin like warm honey, then removes itself with grace, an empress, bestower of rainbowed light upon the horizon.

At Beth’s, my elderly mother-in-law’s, there is much talk and music. Marc and his brother pick up guitars and sing old hymns, John Denver and Carol King, other random tunes. Their voices rise and fall as though meant to do just this together. Tonight Beth closes her eyes, taps out the beat on the arm of her chair. She telegraphs her love with smiles and soft comments. When she asks me to sing as well,  I am busy videotaping each moment, but hum along a little, sing a few phrases: “If I had a song, I’d sing it in the morning, I’d sing it in the evening, all over this land.” Cait nods at the hymns; my sister-in-law encourages our men. Laughter is generous as well. We are parts of a whole in that room.

In a few days we leave. I do look back. But the planes are still majestic vehicles that carry me through the atmosphere, over the worn garment of earth’s surface. I think of the millions of lives we are passing over, people working and resting, making love or devising plans, recovering from loss or creating something fascinating.

When we arrive in Portland, it is raining, of course, but it rains on top of rare snow. All this moisture keeps the land lush. Even weary, it feels just like home; we are happy to be here, as well.

The photos I study show me more than expected. Some are better than others, but each one tells such a story. Every familiar face is better known now. One trip took me out of myself, toward many others,  and back again. The views have been excellent, the weather everywhere, just right.

(Thanks for everything, family. My heart to you.)