Learning to swim

At age four, you sit behind a toy drum kit, back straight, arms posed with an intriguing and improbable cross-stick technique that not even Buddy Rich could emulate. You stare directly at the camera, full of moxie and talent—open, honest, proud to be a boy, not yet old enough for school. You get up and hold the drumstick like a microphone—pretending to be Mike Douglas, opening the TV show with a cover of “Fly Me to the Moon”. Your sister, whose bangs are cut straight across her forehead, joins you at the mic, hamming it for the camera, to the delight of your doting parents. You bust some moves, strike the pose. You slide forward, about to do a split, in your white socks on the slippery hardwood floor. You have seen Sammy Davis and Chuck Berry and Sammy Kaye moving effortlessly on the Philco TV screen, and no one has told you yet that you can’t tap, duck walk, or soft shoe it to stardom.

At five, you’re in kindergarten, sitting cross-legged on a brown rug, surrounded by five year old cretins and string bean punks who delight in slapping your head and jumping you from behind. You learn how it feels to be held down, the burn of rug fibers. You are a quick understudy. You learn to keep distant and sip your milk carton at the round table, alone, near the girls. The poetry of five is discovered in the force and tumble of little tykes, and it feels nothing like poetry.

In second grade, it is your jaw being held in Mrs. Handley’s rigid, narrow fingers. You feel her wedding ring cold againt your cheek. You had giggled over something Dean Hickman had whispered about the teacher’s butt. You had watched Dean’s pencil lightly tap the teacher’s ass. You wonder why it is your face being rattled, not his, your gumption beaten like  dust from a door mat. You resolve to keep quiet the rest of the school year.

That night, you bang the toy drums and beat a hole in the snare drum head. Your mother screams she is tired of this, can’t you keep the racket down. You go to other things: examining polished stones, applying strips of modeling glue to plastic car parts, watching a basement spider build a web.

That same night you dream about learning to swim. You and a line of children at the high school pool, good and bad, fat and skinny, white and brown and yellow. The instructor treads water and shows you how to do dead man’s float, elementary backstroke, freestyle, his words scattering like salt from a shaker, rarely landing on you. The teacher only pretends to swim. He is standing on his toes where the shallow angles down to the deep end. His biceps are powerful, and the water beads on his skin like little pearls. You know you will never look as sculpted as this, and you know that you will always be better at the dead man’s float than freestyle.

Years later, you will have become a master of an even subtler art: pretending to float, when really you were sinking discretely, trimming your intake of oxygen, not letting on, lest someone notice or get uncomfortable.