Dead Man’s Float
I couldn’t bear to lose the race, but I couldn’t bear to win.
I was 10. Summer at sleepaway camp, I stood by the pool. My toes curled tight against the lip, the concrete hot on my feet, the flesh on my thighs glued together. There was no diamond-shaped space between them, the space thinner girls wore like a gem. I stood, knees bent, leaning slightly forward, waiting for the lifeguard’s whistle.
We were in the middle of Color War. The whole camp split into two for a week of fierce competition. It wasn’t called War for nothing.
I went to battle armed with Color War songs, screaming out cheers until my throat turned raw; I held my paintbrush proudly, a sword flashing, bold and royal across the banners for Team Blue. But the sports. I didn’t want to compete in a sport, begged not to compete in a sport, would do anything not to compete in a sport.
“You must,” said my counselors, my team leaders, my unit heads.
“Just one event,” they said.
“You can choose.”
I knew I was sunk, so I picked swimming, the only sport where my weight would not slow me down.
I felt light in the water. Alive, almost free. And I could swim—fast! But I didn’t want to race, eyes following me in my navy one-piece, my body pouring past the seams in endless waves of flesh. Fat kept me invisible, just how I liked it. But not in a race. In a race, I’d be seen.
I never liked war, and I still prefer peace, but at the time had no idea where to find it. My home was a minefield. No one knew when Mom would blow. We all tiptoed around her, and I swallowed my fear. Washed it down with O.J. and chocolate and ice-cream and chips. Now far removed from the chaos in Queens, I believed peace lived at camp. Nights, through screens that passed as windows, I’d listen. Rustling woods were good company while my bunkmates dreamed pleasant dreams. Mornings, I’d sit, my back against the giant oak whose roots reached out above the soil. I’d breathe in the bark, the dark, rich earth. They held me. That summer, I felt held.
The whistle blew. I dove into the pool and swam my very hardest and then stopped. I couldn’t bear to lose the race. Couldn’t bear to win. So, I did what any 10-year-old would do in my position. I pretended to drown.
My face in the water, arms stretched out to the side, my body was the shape of a cross. My heart beat in my ears, a rhythm soft and slow. It didn’t matter that the others swam past me to the finish. I found peace, as the world around me disappeared.
Ah, but peace never lasts. I had to come up for air. Soon there sounded another sharp whistle, and the lifeguard dove into the pool. He pulled me to the side. Helped me climb the three wide steps, up and out of the water. He knew, must have known, but kindly did not let on. When he wrapped me in a towel, he walked me to the grass and left me to dry off in the sun, silent and alone.
Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in About Place Journal, The Manifest-Station, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, The Hedgehog Review Blog, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her bi-weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com.