The summer I was 4, prior to taking any formal swim lessons, we found ourselves spending a lot of time at St. Teresa in the old cottage. In the storage room between the scary outhouse showers was a black tire float made of hard plastic. It was not inflatable. It was hard, hollow, lightweight plastic. My mother handed that to me as a method of staying alive in the Gulf of Mexico. I gave it a squint, checked it for parasites, and then propped it against the screen door while I ran in to put on my suit.
When I returned to my tire float, no one else was ready to swim yet. Adults could be so slow sometimes. I had a few minutes to myself so I sat down on the edge of the stairs that led through the sea oats and bramble to the gulf. My short blonde scruff blew in the sea breeze like a dandelion that wouldn’t let go of its stem. The air was a gift. The concrete was warm under my bare toes and I looked down at them to avoid squinting in the afternoon glare.
I was almost asleep against my own knees when I heard the screen door slap behind me. My mother and grandmother were standing behind me, smiling and dressed to swim. I grabbed my plastic tire and took off, skipping steps as I went. I was the first one in the water. I don’t know why that mattered growing up. It was important to be the first one in. Somehow I felt it made me the guardian of the sea. The guardian in the plastic tire.
My memories of swimming are scant because there wasn’t much to it. It usually consisted of dragging my toes along in the sand to find sand dollars and star fish. Sometimes I would plop down on the wet sand at the shoreline as the waves lolled leisurely in and make drip castles. I liked the drip castle because the lack of precision was what made them so beautiful. I could never master a sand castle with corners and lines. But usually these little sessions in the water were just like any other. There was water. There were people. It was pleasant.
This particular day was not like the others.
Not to me.
We got out over my head, which was easy to do because I was 4. It wasn’t deep. But it was deeper than I was tall. My mom and my Mama were comfortably lounging in water that was chest deep to them. The tire was working pretty well until it didn’t. I don’t know how I got moving fast or erratically enough to flip the tire over, but I did. I flipped that sucker on its head. And on my head. And in those moments I was upside down, still holding onto the tire, with my feet flopping like a wind sock outside a Ford dealership.
It wasn’t a great situation to be in, but I was only marginally panicked at first. They would see my flopping legs and flip me back over. Right away. In truth, that’s probably what they did. This life and death situation probably lasted all of 30 seconds. But I was seeing the tunnel with the light at the end. I had time in my mind to write my own obituary and bequeath my Curious George to my brother before anyone grabbed my feet to flip me back upright.
Someone finally did and that tire rotated like a Marriott waffle iron, tossing me back into some air I could breathe. I was soaked and upset, crying in spite of myself. The Guardian of the Sea should not cry, but I had to make the occasional exception. I spit as much salt water from my mouth as I could, wiped my eyes, and then managed to sputter, “Did I drowned?”
And the adults laughed.
I must have looked so cute there using my bad grammar with my almost dead self draped over that malfunctioning flotation device.
And you know what they said in response?
“No, Missy,” ha ha ha. “You didn’t almost drowned.”
They quoted me back to myself.
I didn’t like their tone.
So I kicked my feet back to the drip castle zone and marched myself right out of that water. They would have to do without me for now.
None of that would have happened if I’d had me a pair of floaties. I never did get a pair. What I did get was a mean swim teacher named Rose at the Tallahassee Y. She made me put my face in the water. She didn’t accept tire-shaped floats. I learned to swim.
I never drowned again.