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A Numb Memory
It’s a lazy summer morning, one month before high school begins. Sunlight seeps through the closed shades on another one of those warm days slowly drifting by. I sift nostalgically through my closet, looking for something to wear. The closet seems to be filled with mostly t-shirts, but my eyes are drawn to a swimsuit hanging in a small corner of the closet. I frown. It looks vaguely familiar, like a vision from a dream. The swimsuit is red, warmed by orange and yellow flames running down the back. I pick it up and examine it. It looks like it has been worn before. As the harsh scent of chlorine fills my nose, a flood of almost-forgotten memories rushes into my mind.
I was in fourth grade, and competitive swimming was my passion. My team competed during fall, from September to November. The final meet of the season would be on November 7th. I was extremely nervous about the meet because I had never swum that late in the year and because the team would swim outdoors. Now, some may think that swimming on any day during the fall would be just the same as swimming in the spring. On the contrary, November mornings are as chilly as the winter days, only without snow. I could see my breath freeze and curl upward toward the ceiling of the locker room. Trying to ignore the nervous broodings of “I’m so scared” and “We might freeze to death before we even get in the pool” of the other girls in the locker room, I thought about how much I liked to swim. I imagined myself gliding through the water like I always did, feeling free and relaxed, calmed by the splash of the water, the muted cheering of the crowd.
A sharp honk jerked my thoughts back to the locker room. The referee had blown the air horn, signaling that there were five minutes until the meet officially began. I hastily pulled off my shirt and pants, revealing the tight-fitting swimsuit that all the girls on my team were wearing. I shivered. The sea of spandex enveloped by the warm, bright flames contrasted sharply with the frigid fall air. A warm tingle ran down my back when I looked at the flames. I followed my teammates outside the door of the locker room, to the pool.
I clutched a towel around my shoulders, trying to shield myself from the piercing cold of the outdoors. My teammates also appeared to be startled by the sudden, unexpected burst of cold air. They appeared to be even more nervous than ever, with their teeth chattering and sputtering expressions of fear and anxiety. Another honk made us jump: the meet had begun.
My coach had assigned me to the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter backstroke. The 200-meter freestyle was first on the schedule. I stared at the pool, seeming to notice it for the first time. The water lapping at the concrete sides of the pool no longer looked friendly. Today it looked as if it wanted to pull me to the bottom of the pool and make me freeze into a human ice cube. I shuddered and looked away, throwing my towel on the concrete next to my coach. Coach Jaime was a slim, blonde college-age woman who didn’t care about winning as much as she cared about the team having a high morale. When she saw me with an expression of utter distress on my face, naturally, she was very concerned.
“Are you okay? You look like you’re in a trance,” she said under a layer of sweatpants and sweaters.
“I’m fine, just fine,” I replied mechanically, wishing that I could at least be wearing a t-shirt.
As I walked to my starting block, I wondered how cold the water would be. It would be much colder than the near-freezing air whipping around me. I clambered on top of the block. I numbly heard the megaphoned voice.
“Swimmers, take your mark.”
I bent down and prepared to dive into the freezing waters below. The loud beep of the start signal sounded. My legs acted of their own accord, springing back and propelling me to the water. It took about a second for my head to touch the water. It was excruciating. My nerves screamed silently in protest. As my whole body splashed underwater and streamlined forward, it felt as if I was being stabbed by icicles. The stabbing sensation subsided to a faint prickling. Meanwhile, my brain, just as numb as my body, only thought methodically, “Reach forward, pull, breathe; keep kicking, I can make it; reach forward, pull, breathe …”
I managed to finish all 200 meters of the race and ended up placing second in my heat. Exhausted and still recovering from the shock of swimming in sub-freezing water, I wanted to do anything but swim again. I was numb and barely noticed as my teammates pulled me out of the pool, clapping me on the back and squealing “Good job, little J!” I had no time or energy left to bask in my glory. I had about ten minutes until the backstroke started, and I felt like I was about to die. The cold air slapped and stung my face and legs as I ran jerkily to the other pool where the backstroke was taking place. I stared at my lane, refusing to jump in and grimacing at the sight of the other girls practicing while shaking uncontrollably in the pool.
As my skin grew colder, the other girls climbed out and shivered. I watched as though I was a spectator.
“Swimmers, take your mark.”
I jumped at the robotic voice of the referee. My thoughts were becoming a jumbled mess. In less than two seconds I would have to dive into the freezing water and swim. In less than one second I would be suffocated by the liquid ice. In—
Without thinking, my legs snapped elastically and I was once again in the water. It felt worse than before. My arms refused to function; I was sinking while everyone else was at least five meters ahead of me. I had no choice. I climbed out of the pool and ran.
I ended up in the parking lot, and fortunately, I was alone. I thought of how I must have looked running, barefoot and still dripping. I felt so stupid and angry. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed of myself. How could I be such a wimp? Is this who I was, only a girl who couldn’t even handle swimming in cold water? As I dragged my feet towards the locker room, I continued to jab at my own stupidity and weakness. How could I do this to myself? This was the first time that I had ever failed at anything. I could never live it down.
To my relief, the locker room was empty as well. As I punched my arms and head through my t-shirt and kicked my pants and shoes on, I began to wonder what would happen next. I laughed to myself ruefully when I remembered that this was the last meet of the season. I had ended the season terribly, but I wouldn’t have to face Coach Jaime or my teammates. I had been spared from an eternity of shame. I could forget all about swimming.
The worst part was yet to come. In the car, my parents and my sister refused to speak to me, labeling me a “wimp” and a “chicken.” When I went home, I locked myself in the room and changed clothes. I hung my swimsuit on a hook where it wouldn’t be seen. I wanted to forget about my failure and move on.
Looking at that little swimsuit left forgotten in a dark corner of my closet for almost five years, I realize that I have succeeded in ignoring and overlooking what happened on that terrible day. I didn’t understand back then, but running away from the pool that day changed me. What would have happened if I didn’t lose my nerve during that swim meet? If I had swallowed my fears with the chlorinated pool water, would I be swimming for my school? Everything would be different—I would have had different friends, different goals, a different life. I haven’t swam competitively in five years, and have replaced swimming with tennis as my main sport. When I look at the flames on the swimsuit, I still feel those warm tingles travel down my spine although the colors have somewhat faded.
As soon as I remember where that swimsuit came from, I return it to its hook behind the other clothes, back into obscurity. But not really. The memory of the meet remains in the back of my mind even as I quickly grab a t-shirt and shorts and close the closet door.
A few days later, I’ll decide to swim laps for fun. Somehow I’ll find that swimsuit hanging from that hook in the corner. I’ll have the confidence to put it on and swim. Wearing it, I will feel that everything has changed since that terrible day five years ago. The flames will look dingy in the 90-degree August sun; the air will be hot, not frigid.
This time, I won’t be swimming a race; I will be having fun.