Birmingham, Alabama did not suit me. One magnolia tree became my favorite place in the entire city, and it was surrounded by concrete, firmly on UAB’s campus, behind the library where I worked. It reminded me of myself, so desperately trying to bloom when the season occurred to it, but the thick cream petals would fall a day later. It would try and try again, and I along with it, and neither of us figured it out.
Later, standing on a cold, windy beach and facing the Pacific Ocean, I would understand that my happiness has always been proportionate to the amount of water I lived near. In Pennsylvania, Lake Erie sufficed; Lake Michigan buoyed me through the Chicago years, and then mid-state Alabama, landlocked and humid, the heaviness of the air that nearly dripped when inhaled, always teased me into thinking the big water was somehow near.
Near it was, the Gulf, but not near enough, so that I never saw it. I heard of its white beaches, jellyfish you could cup and tickle in your palms, the gentle descent of blue to the horizon. Stories of it could not satiate me, however, and I sank in my own pool of self-loathing.
But I let love be an anchor instead of a sail; that was all my doing. I did not know how to float. As a child, numerous friends and swimming instructors showed me: this is the way you can do it, arms out, let go, let the water carry your weight. Deep breath and trust it. You will not sink.
I would always spasm and bend, limbs hard and futile against liquid, and so I was pronounced “unteachable” so far as swimming went. That was it. My mother came to terms with it, even though she was an expert swimmer and could not understand. I had been in dance classes for years, and was coordinated, even graceful. Nothing, no amount of explanation or cajoling would bring me the trust I needed, and so it was left as something I could not do.
Lovers have held me and been more patient, guiding my hands as fluted cups through chlorinated water, shown me how to kick and how to breathe. One time, last summer, I did it. I let go, inhaled, fashioned a lopsided doggy-paddle and made it across the width of the pool in the shallow end. Exhilaration infused my body at once; I became obsessed with the slow, awkward trek back and forth, back and forth. I understood how to let go enough to float, and how to gently recover from sinking. Water was no longer confusion I was drawn to, but clarity, even purpose.
But it can be too late for some things. I will never see that pool again, its edges concrete and hard, quick to roughen elbows and heels. The ocean is before me, my biggest water yet, and now I trust it just to hold me. I trust myself for the rest.