Continuing in the memoir/stories that create our lives vein . . .
Green lake water flushed into my nose, hit my gag reflex, and my neck automatically convulsed. My mouth opened—rookie mistake. I swallowed water, algae, and the poop of a thousand fishes, gagged, coughed, sputtered, and coughed again. I raised my head out of the water, eyes unseeing with lake water stunning them shut, legs flailing away trying to keep me afloat.
I wiped the water from my eyes, eyes that still, according to the eye doctor who handed me blue cats eye glasses when I was eight, “needed glasses to see the blackboard and play in the outfield.” Never mind I needed a lot more than glasses to ever play in the outfield.
I could vaguely see the two pier posts that marked the swim test lane, and I knew I’d barely made it halfway across.
Refusing to put my face back in the water, I swam the rest of the lane using the unauthorized freestyle rather than the mandated crawl, still hacking up lake water as I climbed ignominiously up the ladder at the final pier.
The Girl Scout drill sergeant judging us all gave a loud sigh—louder than it needed to be I thought, though it was hard to know with water clogging my ears and my pride. She pulled her lower lip sideways in contemplation or scorn, pondered her decision a moment, then threw a literal and verbal “red cap” at me.
A red cap meant humiliation. It meant I could swim, but barely. It was like a no-confidence vote from your camp counselors. A red cap on my dishwater blonde curls signaled to anyone who cared that I had to stay in the boundaries, and preteen girls all cared.
It meant I couldn’t swim out to the raft with all the laughing white and blue capped girls. Of course the caps were patriotic. This was Girl Scouts of America camp. That raft felt a mile away, socially and physically.
A red cap was Girl Scout camp social devastation.
My best friend stood on the pier a few feet away as I emerged from the water. I heard the disdain in her voice when she tossed her wet hair over her shoulder and said, “They almost made you a non-swimmer. You were that bad.” She, of course, had the coveted white cap on her head. She could take off on the lake with one of the sailboats. I couldn’t. My red cap confined me to the canoes—a thing I loved that had now turned into a tool of embarrassment.
I could swim well enough with my face out of the water. I could have done a half dozen laps on my back. But no—the Girl Scouts of America decreed that the only acceptable way to circumnavigate a lake, or at least a pier, was to crawl with your face in the water. So I failed. Or nearly.
I once went postal on a doctor who threw a heavy towel on my face without warning. I one punched my husband when he leaned in to kiss me goodbye one morning, while sleep still fogged my senses. (He never did it again.) Could I not swim with my face in the water because I’m claustrophobic, or do I carry a terror of anything in my face now because of being forced to crawl across a green lake? I’ll never know, I suppose.
These days I love to snorkel, but the panic of covering my face with a confining rubber mask and submerging it in the water reemerges every time, no matter how many times I’ve done it, and I have to wrestle down the fear.
Maybe I’m replaying girl scout camp in my subconscious memory. I can fight that panic now. Then, I could only cough, sputter, and cry, wondering why a simple backstroke wasn’t proof enough that I could stay above water long enough to survive a swim to the coveted raft.
My best friend laughed with all those other girls out on that beautiful socially upward island. She went sailing on her own. Occasionally, she got in a canoe with me, and we struck out for parts unknown, at least, unknown to two girls about to enter junior high, possibly the most unknown territory in human experience.
We fished with cafeteria bread we mushed up into dough balls and scrunched onto hooks we tied onto string. To this day, that was the only time I ever caught a fish. We jumped in the water far from the all-seeing eyes of the leaders who would tell me I bore only a red cap and so was not allowed. My friend reminded me I was not allowed, and she was—a reminder I found unnecessarily consistent.
Sherri could glide through the water like a barracuda, and I didn’t know why until one day later that summer. Her neighbors had an in-ground pool, the kind I thought only rich people put in their backyards. She swam there all summer, and she invited me over that July to play a game they played often, apparently.
The game didn’t have a name, but the rules were simple. Let the girls swim half a lap, then the boys jumped in, and if the boys caught the girls, they got to pull down their swim suit. I couldn’t swim fast. That much had been established. Something inside my stomach flipped over and squirmed at the knowledge that she knew I’d be caught first and still invited me. I didn’t go.
We were ten.
It wasn’t the only time the neighborhood boys free-ranged bad behavior with girls. My friend’s older brother lounged on her woolen green couch with me several times that year, coaxing me to try his joint. She told me later he did it so that I’d get high and he could have sex with me. I didn’t try it.
I was eleven.
At eleven, I climbed aboard the school bus on the first day of seventh grade, confident and ready, scanning the back of the bus for my best friend so we could sit together as we had for the entire previous year. She might have lived a rougher life than I, but we were friends forever, through thick and thin. And we always sat in the back, because that’s where the cool kids aways have sat, since school busses have rolled on four wheels.
I reached her seat, met her eyes, and saw her lazily pull her right leg up on the green faux leather seat. “Can’t sit here. It’s taken.” I laughed. First day joke. I shrugged and began to lower my skinny butt and fresh notebooks into the seat, but she didn’t move. “You can’t sit here anymore. We’re not friends this year.” She side-eyed the other cool kids, and they smirked.
I stared. Seventh-grade me had no courage, nor even the facsimile of it in bravado. That was both the reasons for her rejection and the method that ensured it. She knew I wouldn’t fight. She knew I’d slink away, and I did.
I’ve never done the “walk of shame” they talk about in the TV shows. But it’s got nothing on the eternal walk all the way to the front of the bus when you’ve been humiliated and the whole bus knows it.
When the cool kids reject you, there is no middle ground. You don’t go sit in the middle of the bus. For one thing, the middle is full, with all the average kids who never aspired to cool and just want to survive. For another, they know. They may not have aspirations, but they’re not fool enough to go down with you. There is no welcome until you reach the front where the real rejects sit. They’ll take you. They have to. They know they’re a kind of dumping receptacle for the refuse of the socially upward mobile, and they accept it, and you, with a fatalism that a death row inmate would envy.
I’m swimming laps at the local health club these past couple months. My arms move slowly under the water, my legs waving just enough. No one times me; no one judges my form. Neither do I. I zen on my back, watching the sun reflect through the tall windows, dozens of suns filling each pane. The water ripples in rainbows, and I relax into it, releasing the fear that my face is going to dunk under. I breathe deeply and push off at each end, not remembering wet wooden piers at the end of a green lake water lane. An elderly Asian couple glides next to me, slowly, graceful as a couple of jellyfish in the sea, moving their tentacle arms in a perfect rhythm only they know.
I still don’t put my face in the water. No one cares.