Swimming Lessons

A portrait of the Virgin Mary nearly nude lives in Papa’s wallet between a coupon for free cheesy pull bread at the Westwood Diner happy hour and a receipt from Mrs. Lane for a pair of trousers that sits unclaimed ever since Ommah tugged her belt loop and the whole pant sagged (pooled, melted) into a puddle around her twigs-ankles-toes. I never learn how or when he took Mary captive, but I don’t yet care on the day she reveals herself to me. Early in the year, late in the afternoon, back when Ommah struggles to form her mouth around English syllables but before she concedes to silence. The sun slants through the hazy windows at an angle so acute that it catches on the rim of the can Ommah sits out for Papa’s snuff. I clasp my hands to collect the sparkle that refracts on the wall. No luck. Unlapping my fingertips I see her, coquettish as she gasps in the delight—or was it relief?—of being seen.

The leather is splayed open on the kitchen table beside a wrinkled matchbox, three nickels, and the untethered cap of a ballpoint pen. Objects collect themselves without order these days. Arranged not by use but by being forgotten together. Atop the mantle sits a deflated bottle of rootbeer, a map from our drive through the panhandle, and a single photograph of their wedding, Papa donning his uniform and Ommah a forced smile. I already know to ignore the mess. Mary calls to me from within the crowd and I answer, my step light. The carpet is heavy and the walls are dark. Her halo beckons.

I glance at the entryway. Papa just left for work—the season hardly started but he can squeak out a few jobs when the sunlight shows promise—and Ommah is in the bathroom, suds in her hair. I can hear her humming through the thinly drawn walls, Oppaneun punggakjaengi lilting through the steam. Still I am unconcerned. By then I know the shower is her only indulgence. The rest of her day is dissected into routine tasks so slight I can’t detect their movement. Sewing, mending, sometimes soaping. She disappears for hours to the back of Mrs. Lane’s shop to clean and mend garments she never dreams of wearing. She describes the textures while we prepare dinner: itchy and heavyset, fibers that brush with new colors at the touch.

But in the water she languishes. It reminds her, she explains when asked, of the baths. Many times she combs my hair back and describes pools bubbling over with conversation. A fleet of women dedicated to the impossible task of scrubbing visitors clean. I recoil at the thought. Are they not ashamed to be naked before each other? How do they keep themselves from looking? Tamper the intensity of their gaze? Ommah shakes her head. The king emerged from an egg in a well. Besides, this is all prelude to the hanjeungmak. Burlap heat unlike anything I’d ever know. A blaze that could and would cook an egg.

My mind is crowded with her half-scenes and partial admissions. A path of sweaty footprints leading to a deck of go-stop cards on low slung tables. Shaved ice that melts on the tongue, proving it is possible to be both gentle and cold. Her gaze goes soft and the hairs on her arms perk up when she tells me this but I am not alarmed. I know by now that her body is called to attention by the past. Nothing is more powerful than the nakedness and its resulting command of her senses.

Of course, it is her own nudity which draws Papa to her, like the limp goldfish in its tank I tap in the pet store on Ives. It draws the same concentric circles around a stack of stones below the filter and I only want to hear my nail rattle against the glass, not interrupt its flow. One day we pass in the same hushed tones and I see it’s gone belly up, and Papa is relieved because I no longer beg to take it with us. I imagine he found Ommah something like that, bathing in what he mistakes as a storefront, tap tapping on the glass. It does not shatter. He takes her home.

All this is lost to her now, so Ommah stands beneath the showerhead to momentarily recall it. Beyond the door, the tendrils of steam lick the cool air and dissipate on contact. Out here everything is punishingly open. For a moment, I watch the clouds dissolve against the afternoon. The air swallows itself so I turn to Mary for answers. My approach is hesitant at first. I do not want to shock her, as if my presence could draw her from the frame. Toe after toe I make my way towards her until I am hovering above her like my dentist over the pain in the back of my mouth that Dr. Peter calls a cavity and Ommah calls an affliction of sugar and Papa calls a Sign. My head is so large over her print I feel like the sun falling from the sky and wonder if my eyes are the last thing she will ever see. There she is, caught in some relentless nowness of a photograph, and I am incoming. A comet plunging asymptotically near the earth.

I lift the wallet from the table and cradle Mary in my palms, somewhere left of hymnal. Immediately I notice how vulnerable she is. Her body peeks out from the folds of her scarf; wrapped in blue, she is swimming in herself. Mary’s are the first breasts I ever see, nothing like Ommah’s (all concavities) or mine on good days (perfectly taut and pink at the heart, not yet wrinkled by time or water or unrealistic expectations). I can only describe them in negation. Not budding or bashful but rather, astoundingly themselves.

Assessing me back, she defies evaluation. Her gaze is drawn past me, both down and beyond. I follow her eyes to the stain on the carpet and wonder why she will not meet me, what I have done to deserve her disdain. This is the age at which everything is personal, every feeling a revelation, every rejection one of the spirit or at least of the soul. By the time I am old enough to understand, I know to close my eyes when I stand as she does and that I don’t have to trade my life for this, whatever it is. Now I know to grip onto those few moments when you exist in your skin rather than wear it, and that it is a gift—not a burden—to live for someone else.

One day I investigate. I stand before the mirror and curve my hand around my stomach. My palm follows the contours of a cotton tank top that has been stretched sideways and back by the body beneath. In my reflection I can picture Ommah’s shadow, shrinking-violet, shrinking-shrinking. It is grotesque but I am still under the illusion that the point of life is to disappear from it so I ignore the susurrations. Sometimes I braid the hem of conversation that falls a skirt around her wherever we go. The echoes: the other wives whisper about her skin-and-bones, murmur that she is mostly skin-and-bones, proselytize with a dash of wonder. The Lord tells us that life’s meaning lies beyond this body, that we must not succumb to our flesh, but if she looks like that, has she really reached transcendance? Just as Adam abhors the woman of rib, from bones and dust we emerge. The problem is, Ommah reminds us all that to stretch skin across alabaster is not to make a woman.

I am told I will unfurl as a flower to the right touch, but I wonder how someone could be more right for me than me. In the water I practice blossoming. Slowly. Methodically. I do not know tenderness and certainly am unfamiliar with soft. I run my fingertips across my forearm, my eyes across my bloated belly. The first is pallor mortis so I imagine myself almost ice, whispering away. If I close my eyes then I am a pool of condensation underneath a crystal glass. The ring left behind by someone cheery, who casually sips without counting, unalloyed by her own consternation or fear thereof. I lay wait for hours, somewhere between curling and flattened. The sun swings low and the door swings open, Papa returns. Bundled by shadows, I listen to the echoes of Papa’s arguments with the referees on screen while the game blares in the other room. This is how he dismembers his time—sloppily, with abandon. For a moment I am certain it will end like this, my arms wrapped around my knees pulling my body closer a black hole that eats itself and spews back matter as information, waves of what I know. Then light peers in from beneath the door. Cautious, with remorse. She retreats, not sounds but shadows, until the light is one continuous wave, dancing particle, dancing dancing in itself.

I digress. I have a theory of depth I’m waiting to test out, and I worry I may wait my whole life just because I am willing to. An impetus to seize: my bottom inches forward and my knees drive up and with a gaze turned to the ceiling my head plunges below the surface. From this I learn that distance is more of a feeling. Sinking is something like absolution, but no one has told me that two minutes will seal your lungs in the bathtub even if you had no intention to drown. Even if, big if, you are only trying to feel clean, you will still emerge gasping for air until Papa slams into the door you have shut with a chair you have stolen from the kitchen. And you will wonder why his love necessitates breaking, why you must cross your arms over yourself, why the surface tension does not yield to your knees knobbed together, breasts floating just below your eyeline and right above his. This is when I wonder if Ommah is right to unburden herself of this body. This is when I stew in the water until my skin is shriveled and I am Teresa not Mary, I am asking what can I do for you instead of please forgive me.

But for now this is another mark on the list of things I am not allowed to know yet. At this age, the seams of life itch. Papa has constructed a world too tight at the waist.

Mary bears her son and thus lives for me; her body is swollen with mistakes she has yet to commit. I am struck by the impossibility that Ommah and I ever belonged to each other so simply. There is no world in which I put her figure on such ignominious display. No accommodation her frame could make for life, more life than this.

Tracing one line across my palm, I am the first born of a foreign body. Papa’s family considers itself here and now, always. Hailing from Pennsylvania and Scotland before, there is nothing but wood and grain and roots stretching down. Nearly asphyxiating from the corset of tradition, he is deployed from the mill to the 38th parallel. He returns with a wife and newfound fanaticism, both of which his parents disavow. I never meet them; I never ask why. Where the wrinkles meet below my index finger, Ommah is yanked across the world. She is born nestled in the mountainside and sleeps best with her back a plank against the wooden floor. At twelve, her family sends her off to school near Seoul, to protect her from the war ever encroaching. In this move they relinquish her to the men from abroad. Papa catches her eye on the way to the market and she delights in the roundness of her harsh syllables in his mouth. The deliberate misunderstanding sits better in her stomach than the otherwise incidental. She follows him back to Pennsylvania in a wave of wives from across the Pacific. Already I am threatening to be born.

Mary, Papa explains, is a mother in a way that I can never be. Rather than sully herself with want, she bears her body as sacrifice. I inspect Mary for a signal of abnegation. What does it look like to unbecome? With rosy cheeks and vacant expression, she is Venus—bashful. Her beauty lies in her innocence and her fearlessness in being seen. She could be a girl on the swim team, self-composed and cut of brighter fabric. They fade into a series of exchanges as I watch them after swimming lessons at Ommah’s behest.

“The girls are so beautiful,” she coos when we glance across the pool deck, never too long. “Don’t you want to be just like them?”

Her gaze blends wistful with contempt and the bristles scratch me when she looks. For a moment I am glad her attention is fixed elsewhere, on a sea of limbs, delicate and manicured smiles. They bare their shoulders rather than teeth when they catch her looking, as if they have accepted their fate to be both wanted and loathed. As a mass they portend gracefulness, as individuals, they will always be now. Everything is a terror when Ommah insists I swim during their practice with a dream that they will see me flounder and take pity on my soul. When they materialize from the pool one by one, glistening and drawn with a watercolor brushstroke, I watch them delicately unpinch their nostrils, plastic clasps in hand rather than face, and for once, this process of contortion is more beautiful in reverse. Everywhere, the threat of excess. When it becomes too difficult to ask for contrition I resort to mimicry and do nothing wrong.

“Why’d’ya keep looking at us look that,” one of them asks me, triangulating between disdain, bewilderment, and indifference. She folds her arms over herself as if to obfuscate the punctum. She is tall but not tallest, thin but not thinnest, and mean but I do not know how, in those terms, she compares to the others. The rest of them crowd around her and I recall minnows and other schools no larger than scales that glimmer only in unison. Ommah’s eyes widen to gulp up what is being said.

“Like what?” I am trying on new terms of relation. I wonder if she believes me.

“Like you’re gonna eat us,” she says and I know then that this is true.

I stop short of devouring but it makes no difference anyways, no one cares if you just want a bite, if you’re just curious for the taste. Ommah refuses to admit it but this is the crux of her human drama, which I only recognize later as tragedy, if only with herself as captive audience. We arrive in Queens with want incidental to the action, and it is only when time is stretched out a great map that Ommah falls victim to her own curiosity, not because she should but because she simply can. First they are small treats, loitering insidiously by the register. Then it escalates. What begins as desire evolves into consumption of the self, until one day she stands before the mirror uncertain of who swallowed her and vows to never again fall victim to what she wants in this life.

“I won’t eat you,” I offer but fail to inspire.

“Obviously she didn’t mean literally,” her friend pipes from behind. Without my knowing, they’ve arranged themselves into a horizontal pyramid. I shrug at the apex.

“Just with your eyes,” the first one says.

I have nothing to protest.

Mary does not ask me what I want from her because I do not know how to verbalize all that I don’t know. There is a fullness to her that borders on self-containment, and I wonder how she becomes so much of herself, an embodiment of attrition. Of course we believe her, she is a conduit not for God himself but his desire, which we can accept even if we cannot comprehend. In the shower Ommah is always in denial and I compare her image to the one before me, confusing the one for every, in her slimness ever diminishing. Mary will not answer the questions I pelt at her frame: how can I measure my worth if not in pounds or digits, what language do they speak in heaven, I want to be good so badly but this lies at odds with my desire to know. She just stares right beyond my shoulder at the clock that ticks away the years right above the kitchen table. The passage is the message. The meaning is in the form.

Ommah tells me that at home she knows she is beautiful because she looks like everyone else. The reference points are clear, letting her map her body onto others with ease. But here the mirrors do not matter. They only abstract her differences—the form of her face, her frame, her being. It is only through reflection that we may understand what we look like, and in this light, everything refracts. Sometimes I see her pulling at the places where her skin hangs loose and exhale, as if she can take one last big breath and empty her lungs forever. I imagine her teasing her body apart in the steam on the other side of the door. Trying to unspool. I watch her age in reverse. Curves are lost first, dwindling down to her hair. I catch her wrist in my thumb and pinky but she barely emanates a sigh. I cannot picture her those first buds after winter but I suppose she, too, once knew what it felt to become before the eyes of another. She is sensitive to the touch so I begin to slip her offerings as the days pile up in the corner of the room. I am stuffing her pockets with trinkets, choco pies and beaded bracelets, to weigh her into place. I am so afraid she will drift away with the wind that I do not notice as she’s drowning, arms flailing at the surface. That every weight pulls her anchors her down further, that she’s sinking and I’ve done it. I am the anchor and the raft and the harbinger and the original sin.

Soon after I almost drown myself, I am enrolled in swimming lessons. I am young and everything is still strange but true. Ommah lingers at the edge of the pool rippling condolences in the stale blue water. The color is all refraction, walls on ceiling on floor, but I am certain she is kicking through aquamarine just the same. Her feet in the shallow end as I doggy paddle towards her then away again. For now, I am teaching her too. When I suggest she make the acquaintance of another woman on the shore, she shakes her head so slightly it could only be interpreted as emphatic. The other mothers volley sentences she cannot quite decipher, though they are composed of the same syllables that populate her afternoon programs. I can pinpoint the moment when the tension gives and she decides the whole project of translation can be reduced to a series tight lipped smiles. As Ommah retreats from language, I learn to read her wordlessly even when the music blares.

Beneath the water it's all limbs and gestures. We never go anywhere but around me, my cohort persists. If I let my eyes run bloodshot, my breath escape in bubbles, I can see muscles stretch along femurs, the body carved not of marble but layered on itself as clay. Legs dart out in spires before signing circuitously symbols I cannot interpret. My swimming instructor is never the same but always espouses ideas about swimming and life, as if the two are somehow inextricably intertwined or at the very least, metaphors for the other.

“The first step is to learn how to float. To be comfortable not going anywhere,” the first teacher sighs.

“It’s a real sink or swim world out there kids,” the second one says almost tearfully.

Then we dip our faces in the pool while standing up straight with our necks craned over, which seems to me not like sinking or swimming but some other motion suspended in time. I am in a line with four others, a few inches shy of the 4’8” mark. It is clear this is a competition and to win I must hold my breath the longest and betray the least fear. I am underwater now so I cannot see but after am told that Ommah sprinted across the pool deck determined to save me from myself. She shouts at my instructor, her throat thick with hangul that flies in spittles towards the water so they understand, despite. “All right, get her out from down there,” the instructor concedes. I am not down anywhere, my feet are planted on the ground and crown brushing air, but the effect is all the same. Hands clasp my joints so forcefully that I learn salvation is not always gentle, and I don’t know if I like it.

Next week, there is a new instructor who outfits us with floaties and lies us on our backs in the center of the sea. “Feel how the water wants to support you,” this one murmurs. I do not feel that at all.

Eventually, I like the backstroke best because there is no threat of drowning, just collecting strokes in the stretch between the red wrinkled flags overhead and the wall. At first I drift flotsam towards the outskirts of the basin but within weeks my flap intensifies. My favorite part is when I am alerted by the graze of concrete on fingertips and I know I’ve met the end before I can see it. Time drips viscous before I brush the wall but big bangs in reverse when I arrive, it’s happening all at once again and again and again at infinity. All the while, Papa sits in a basement on a faded metal chair, eight arranged in a circle. On Mondays he goes to unburden his vices and on Tuesdays to discern his call. He is poised for an adult baptism, to join not the house of God but the ranks of men who file from services cigarettes in hand. Ommah too wants me to belong to something and begs me to dance within the water, motions called synchronized swimming. If I join their ranks, she no longer will worry and of this pretense we’ll both be freed.

We’re all wet but no one is naked and the water glistens against our coverage. The distinction between our bodies is most pronounced when they’re on display. None of us will ever be caught in the baths, so self-contained in our nudity. We are always retreating, wrapping a towel a chrysalis around our figures, only one when under water otherwise attune to the distinctions. Ommah shivers when she tries to scrub me in the locker room, her hands wavering under the labor, and want nothing from her but even that feels like too much.

Mary, I want to appease you. I want to learn how to give myself up, how to transform my body into a cause. The door flies open and Papa barrels in, snatching her back from me in a torrent of self-castigation. His footsteps are leaden, replicating falling, and he is stumbling towards me with eyes ablaze. The shower stops and the weight of Ommah eavesdropping presses against the silence.

“What are you doing.” He delivers his question as an indictment, the only way he knows how to ask. I shrug. I am caught in the act of curiosity and although it is he who is mistaken, it is I who bears the blame. As ever, I wait for Ommah to emerge but she never does. The water runs still but she is absent, and I am doomed to watch him fold Mary into his back pocket as shame creeps up his neck clear as red splotches. His body betrays him; all bodies do. “This is not for you,” he says by way of explanation and I nod because there is not much else to say, about this or anything at all. Soon he will leave and I will be left standing—unspoken, unrelenting. Ommah will turn the dial to the right and I will slip into the room and together we will bathe.

Anabelle Johnston is in-between things. 
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