Published on January 11th, 2022 | by Sumitra Mattai0
I learned how to swim when my son, Miles, was a toddler, as a way back into my body and out of the hole, as I called it, the dark, sunken place that was becoming my emotional baseline. Everyone promised “it would get better” when the baby turned one. Patiently, I waited to feel like my old self. I waited for the anxiety to subside and the heaviness to lift. Months became years, and Miles was walking and talking, a curious and energetic child. He was thriving, but I was stuck.
When I found out the new intern at work had been a swimmer in high school and college, I asked her to teach me. Perhaps learning this life skill would help me feel less like I was flailing. To her credit, she was unphased by this unlikely proposition from her new manager.
Once a week for eight weeks, we met early at the Chelsea Recreation Center on West 25th Street in Manhattan. Membership was $75 for six months—a steal considering the cost of private gyms. The twenty-five foot, six-lane pool was impressive, but I quickly understood the catch. The locker room wore a patina of grunge on every surface. The shower stalls were furry with mildew, and hair clumped on the damp floor.
On our first day, I was so disgusted I almost left. But the intern was a veteran of local pools several states over. “It could be worse,” she assured me with signature nonchalance. I fixed the ruched fabric of my swimsuit over my paunch, took a deep breath, and followed her into the slow lane.
In the pool, I gasped and sputtered, chlorine burning my nostrils and the back of my throat. I felt like a child all over again, the six-year-old who never made it past the “guppy” level at the YMCA. I wondered if I would ever be able to approach the deep end without panicking. But the intern was a good teacher; she understood how to explain the mechanics of the movements. The rhythm of the breath, the arc of the arms, the extension of the legs—the stroke manifested when the body worked together in flow.
I understood this in theory from my days as an Indian classical dancer. But since Miles’s birth—an emergency c-section that I couldn’t talk about without crying—I struggled to connect with my body. When she pointed out that my core was weak, I wished she had seen me a decade ago when I was performing regularly and training for a half marathon. Humbled, I sucked in harder and kept swimming.
We weren’t technically allowed to hold private lessons at the recreation center, but the lifeguards got to know us. We were a distinctive pair; the intern was long, lithe and pale while I was short, brown, and chubby. They tried to flirt with her while I practiced. When I was finally able to swim laps on my own, they offered words of encouragement in their thick New York accents, “Ya gettin betta!”
In the locker room, I began to notice the regulars, a group of older Asian women in floral swimsuits who chatted expressively. I couldn’t understand their language, but I imagined they were gossiping and venting, unpacking the week’s drama. Between work and childcare, I rarely saw my own friends any more. Many were mothers of young children themselves, living in nearby states and other boroughs of the city that might as well have been different planets.
After each session, the intern and I emerged onto the street with wet, curling hair. We chatted as we bought coffee and walked the three avenues and four blocks to work. As we neared the office, the conversation shifted from swimming and summer plans to the day ahead as we transformed from teacher and student to intern and boss.
I wonder now if she could tell I was struggling mentally, or if she knew that the lessons I learned went far beyond the pool. What we accomplished in those eight weeks reminded me that, like my son, I still had more to grow. Swimming didn’t save me, but it renewed my faith in my body. In therapy, I mourned for the woman I was before I became a mother. In the water, I rediscovered the strength I thought I lost.
We only saw each other once or twice after the internship was over. But recently I texted her a picture of Miles at his own swimming lesson, his joy palpable through the screen. Unlike the recreation center where I learned, the facility I took him to in the Upper West Side was pristine, not a fleck of dirt on the white subway tiles. Every Saturday, I sat on a bench in a gallery overlooking the pool with the other parents, taking videos and waving brightly when he glanced up to find me. Some of the children in the class cried, but my son was at home in the water.
On our first family trip since the pandemic, six-year-old Miles and I played in the pool of our Airbnb rental, racing from one side to the other. “Look at me, Mama!” he called, his kicks sending sprays of water into my eyes. After a while, we took a break, floating on our backs. We held hands, watching clouds drift in the soft blue sky, and palm fronds wave in the breeze. The world felt still, and for the first time in a long time, I felt light.