Diving down to the rough cement bottom of the pool, I sense the water pressure against my ears as though it were sound. A smooth roll punctuated by the staccato of bubbles, then a steady rocking whoosh as I begin to take underwater breast strokes like I’m tracing hearts ahead of me in the water.
I remember sitting in the dunes where my brother’s friends had built a bonfire. I spun slowly on my butt, tracing concentric circles with my toes in the layer of sand still trapping some heat from the summer sun. At first, the circles were a barrier between me and the others, then I pictured them radiating outward like ripples around a shark’s fin. Based on the pantomimed sword fights and spy glasses scanning the night sky, I guessed they were trading stories of pirate-ghosts again. I stood and walked over the dunes towards where we left our bikes at the end of Dixon lane, imagining the stories they might have been telling as I entered the sparse forest. Every hint of mica, diaphanous flakes glinting in moonlight through the trees, became a bit of gold that would lead me to some pirate’s long-buried booty.
At the end of the pool I flip and push off the wall. In the moment of disorientation, I could be kicking into another dimension. But then I feel my body floating towards the sunlight, and the beat of my stroke is more real than the world outside the pool. Or do I feel the water’s rhythm because I can’t hear in the air? Am I not distracted by its audible noise, the way I can experience drumming more deeply because I hear it with my heart not my ears?
In seventh grade, Jackson teased the way I talked; I told him I had to pinch my nose because he smelled so foul. The three other boys in his posse laughed, but the triumphant moment was fleeting. By next period, he’d begun telling our classmates lies about me. They were all a little scared of him so nodded, taking his side. Knowing that he bullied everyone didn’t make me feel less isolated as the object of mockery. When he was finally called to the principal’s office after repeatedly slamming his desk into my chair until my back bruised, Jackson’s mother justified the behavior because “he’s a kinetic learner.”
I climb out of the pool, untwist the straps of my one-piece swimsuit, and dive in again. Nearing the bottom, I level out and glide, becoming a manta ray; the water shimmers like a cymbal riding out the momentum.
For sophomore social studies, Mrs. Walker invited a West African drummer to visit our class. That was the best day at school ever. I thought about him all through the weekend, and rode down to the library by the pier to ask whether they had anything on West African drumming, but the librarian just shook her head and contorted her face. Watching me pounding my palms and slapping my fingers nonstop on my desk Monday morning, Mrs. Walker suggested I sign up for band. But the band director didn’t want the trouble. I told him I’d checked out books on reading music and beginning percussion, plus I could see his baton just as well as any of the hearing students, but he flared his nostrils and grabbed back the drumsticks. Jackson stage-whispered at the volume of a shout, close up against my face, that everyone thought I was ridiculous for thinking I could be in band.
Four strong strokes propel me up like bass drum beats, and then I surface, and there’s a long rest. Floating at the surface of the pool is like reaching just the right reading spot in the fork of a live oak, behind tattered curtains of Spanish moss. The water of the pool or the boughs of the tree will hold me suspended above the plane of home and school where I’m boxed off from the world, forced to think or sit just so, controlled, judged, and hated.
Mrs. Walker landed on Mom’s shit list at the last parent-teacher meeting, when she suggested that I might do better in school if I were fitted for some hearing aids. I didn’t understand the words her lips were shaping, but she slid a finger behind her ear as though pushing back hair, and smiled at me, so I knew what she was suggesting. My stomach clenched with excited anticipation, though that could be because I guessed what was coming. My mother stood up from the wide wooden chair beside Mrs. Walker’s desk. Even had they both been standing, Mom would’ve towered over my teacher. She placed a French-manicured hand on the desk and hissed: “There’s nothing wrong with my babies, you lezzie.”
That word hurt more than Mom’s smack to the back of my head when I turned to say, “I’m sorry ma’am” as Mom pulled me out of the classroom. As though it were any excuse, Mom looked me in the eye and declared, “on this island, she’s surely been called worse.”
Swimming streamlines the chaos of the world. Submerged, you are like one of the bubbles of trapped air, enclosed by the water, away from the world. Your body finds new ways to move through the space. The calmer you are and the less you move, the longer you can be in the water, safe. Well, at least in the pool, where there are no sharks.
In movies, the new student always finds a friendly classmate who will help or nudge them. My class doesn’t have any nice kids. No one is going to tap my shoulder when the teacher calls for our attention; they’ll just jeer and mock me while I keep working, eyes on my notebook. No one’s going to jot down instructions: they’re all happy I’ll make them look smart by comparison when it’s my turn at the board with no clue what we’re doing. In elementary school, I had one friend, Tilly. I couldn’t count on her to help with homework, but we’d have lunch together and make fun of the other kids. Then after my brother went to high school across the bridge in Brunswick, Tilly and I would walk home together. When we graduated from St Simons Elementary school, I assumed Tilly would come too, but her parents sent her to a Christian Academy.
In the pool, people bob around in little groups, like the leaves clumping together. I can slice my hand through the leaves, and they wobble apart in new little clumps. If I float near the leaves, they just go along with me, undisturbed. Were I to float up to the groups of people, they would not respond like the leaves.
I know they say I’m deaf because my family are nonbelievers. It seems like everyone else on St Simons island is Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian. They roll their eyes at each other, so imagine what they think of me. I’m not even baptized! That’s what Mom said when Tilly invited me to church: that they wouldn’t let me in the door unbaptized. She was raised Catholic up North, but then her Priest warned her she’d better not leave her husband, even though he beat a pregnancy out of her. She left both men and found my father, though I don’t think he’s much better. Anyway, now she won’t go back to church for anything. She says she doesn’t need friends, and that I don’t either if they’re going to be “self-righteous brats like Tilly.”
Submerging, I open my eyes despite the chlorine that gives me brain-freeze when it flows up my nose, and I swim towards the other bodies. Unlike in the school hallway, they don’t move away as I approach. Their faces are as distorted underwater as they look in the air above. When I try to make out what people’s lips are saying to me, their mouths become enlarged in my mind, pressing the facial expressions I should also pay attention to beyond my field of vision. In the pool, their bodies are much clearer, though wavering through the water. Look at the swoop of her arm, tiny bubbles flowing off her finger tips. The ripple of her belly between strokes. The swell of her breasts as she descends, curly hair rising up towards the sun. I take a breath then let myself sink, cross-legged, to the bottom, watching my own breasts swell upwards, feeling my own long hair resisting my body’s direction. How sharply would I have to drag my toe along the bottom to draw blood? How quickly would the blood dissipate through the water? If the curly-haired girl looked down, would she see a thread of snaking red? Would she come and touch my foot? Perhaps I would hear bubbles rushing towards my face as syncopated patter if she exclaimed over the wound. No, she wouldn’t try to speak to me, even below the surface, where I could hear the bubbles against my cheek. The bubbles giggle over her fingers like bioluminescence.
We live on Peachtree, so I can run down Myrtle to the beach in three minutes flat. Last new moon, my brother raced me to the water after dinner. He’s way faster on the road, but I always catch up on the sand. He ran right through the glowing blue, kicking up fountains of neon shimmers back towards me. He swam out to where the water is calmer, and practiced backstroke. I sat where the last waves were breaking, watching the bioluminescence dance up the beach around me with each wave, then went to collect shark’s teeth in the soft sand. I swirled the shark teeth in the surf. The sparkles imbued them with magic. I didn’t notice my brother returning to shore, and he splashed me with two electric blue waves, one from each arm, mocking “shark teeth are nothing special.” I knew that already. Sharks have rows upon rows like infantry marching out of their mouths, waiting to replace the fallen from the line before. But at home that night, he helped me pierce holes in the largest tooth, and string it on a red embroidery thread. I didn’t tell him it was for the curly-haired girl.
I’m not sure whether I want to cut my toe so that the blood will attract her attention, or the pain will let me feel something. I look at my fingers. I have to remind myself to do such things, to check in with my toes to know whether I am cold and should put on socks, or with my fingers to know whether I've been in the pool too long. The pads of my fingers are wrinkly from the water, but I distrust this information as indicating I should get out. I read it’s a human adaptation allowing us to better grip objects under water. If that’s true, my body is adapting to my aquatic situation. Maybe my body is regressing to an earlier evolutionary stage, when pre-humans lived in the sea. In the same book, I read that some modern humans have little grooves near their ears that biologists believe are proto-gills. I wish I had such grooves, and could readapt to live down here.
Maybe the pilot whales who beached near the lighthouse felt as out of place in the ocean as I do on land. Nobody knew why they came aground. Journalists shouted at the TV cameras that there were over 50 pilot whales stranded, so a bunch of us went down to the beach, trying to help keep them wet and nudge them back. But most of them died on the island; only a few escaped out to sea. Some of the kids swam out with the whales, but I was too afraid of the sharks. And I was afraid of whatever drove the whales ashore.
Above, they’re reaching out to touch bodies, snap swimsuits, pull one another under. I recently described this behavior to Tilly as “a mating ritual of the contemporary North American Homo sapien.” She told me that was gross and weird, that they were just having fun. I guess mating and fun are mutually exclusive. These sorts of exchanges make me think my Mom is right, and I should keep my ideas to myself, so people think I’m normal. Their mating ritual is creating a cacophony of strokes and kicks. They must not hear under the water how unnatural and off cadence their arms and legs sound. I could offer to conduct: you flutter kick the tempo, you tread water for the swelling emotion, you spin pirouettes for the excitement, you punctuate the piece with cannonballs, while the curly-haired girl and I can swim the melody and harmony.
My brother’s hand reaches in to churn the water in front of me. I know it’s his hand from the cuts. His adaptation to survive in our society while deaf has not been to grow gills, but rather to play football. He’s shaking his keys: he’ll wait for me by his motorcycle. One more dive, then I place both hands flat on the edge of the pool and launch myself out. It’s so satisfying to push up out of the pool: with the water’s assist, I feel as strong as my brother, and fully in control of my body. Mom says everyone’s cute at 15, so not to think so highly of myself. But people are constantly telling her she looks like some movie star or another, and she’s old. Under the towel as I’m drying off, I flex my muscles and smile at my strength, wishing I could show off openly like the boys, play fighting or trying to carry the heaviest cooler.
I need to find a new way to make money. Last summer, I borrowed the picnic cooler, then filled it with water bottles and ice from the garage to sell to tourists. I only had to sell four bottles to pay for a day pass to the Neptune Park pool. But when Mom found out, she threw the cooler across the living room, and shouted, “no daughter of mine will go hawking on the beach!”
I’m walking towards the picnic tables between the pool and the road, gesturing to my brother that I just need to grab my backpack from the cubbies when I feel a wet hand on my butt. It’s not the same as how people joke in school, running up to pinch or slap or fondle. Sometimes, it seems that everyone in the hallway is watching, and I turn to see some jock with his mouth open, mid-word as though he were an announcer describing a certain tackle in the football game. This is different. I feel four fingers reaching up violently between my legs. When I turn, I’m not at all surprised.
“Let’s take this underwater where I can hear you,” I yell, and push Jackson into the pool. I didn’t know how sonorous my fists would sound when they punched underwater, how the threads of snaking red would draw so much attention. He coughs, and spits out a tooth surrounded in red spit, then seems to choke on the water. Swimmers are slow running through the water towards us, and the edge of the pool is crowded with other teenagers, and adults staring while pretending to pull their children away. Everyone is watching except the curly-haired girl with effervescent fingers. I’ve no breath left. Jackson has stopped fighting back. My head pounds harder than my knuckles. I launch out of the pool, run through the gate, past my brother, down the wooden steps, jump across a few boulders, and dive into the ocean.
Never mind the sharks; I think they are laughing.
L. Acadia is a lit professor at National Taiwan University, a dog pillow at home, and otherwise searching Taipei for urban hikes and ghosts. L. grew up partly in Georgia, has a PhD from Berkeley and creative work published or forthcoming in, e.g. Autostraddle, The Dodge (Best of the Net nominated), Neon Door, New Orleans Review, Strange Horizons, and Sycamore Review.