by Sarah Dohrmann
I'm not sure, but Darlene Jones might have had webbed feet. Her shoulders spanned the width of a pool lane and she was a good foot taller than me, and though it seemed her knuckles dragged along the pool deck as she ambled with a cool confidence to the blocks before workout, they did not. Like me, Darlene Jones was only 12 years old, and like me, Darlene Jones swam the butterfly and the individual medley and sometimes the 100 free and sometimes the 200 free and sometimes the 500 free, depending on how creatively our coach was trying to win a meet.
Together we swam for the Des Moines Swimming Federation, an age-group team that worked out year round, twice a day on weekdays from 5:30 to 7:30 in the morning and again from 5:30 to 7 at night, and for three hours each Saturday, at Des Moines Technical High School in downtown Des Moines, where tiles were missing from the pool wall and most of the ceiling lights had long since burned out. And if you didn't already have asthma before breathing in the chlorinated fumes at Des Moines Tech day after day, then you would certainly have developed a string of nasty ear infections by standing outside in the deep Iowa freeze that punctured bone as you waited with a wet head for your pick up at night, tiny icicles hardening the tips of what couldn't really be called hair, so damaged it was by chlorine that it was more a cross between fuzz and straw. I swam for DMSF for two years before heading to high school and joining another year-round team that swam in a cleaner pool, and then later in college for a Division I team. But my entrée into real swimming was the pool at Des Moines Tech where the same hairballs lived for two years running on the deep end's floor. I remember feeling sincerely freaked out by the hairballs, as if they had a power on par with a talking doll that could infect me and make me insane if I swam too slow when I passed them overhead. And it occurs to me now that swimming was always like that for me in some way, a desperate attempt to evade the powers of insanity by moving as fast as I could through a medium where one could so easily drown.
I learned to swim when I was just two months shy of my sixth birthday, the summer after I finished kindergarten, six months after my mother had committed suicide. My father needed to find something for my two older sisters and me to do that summer, so he joined a country club on the outskirts of town that was surrounded by ragweed and cornfields. He'd hired a live-in nanny named Mary who was old and a devout Catholic and who smoked cigarettes butt-to-butt and danced to disco music as she made us tater tot casserole at night, and who once whacked my oldest sister with a wire hanger right out on our front lawn.
At the country club, Mary shoved specially-moulded earplugs into my ears and then dumped baby powder into a rubber cap that she crammed onto my head as half of my neckline hairs ripped out. Mary was not a graceful caretaker but she was solid and she paid attention; she was the one to notice that I couldn't hear well, which resulted in a doctor visit, which resulted in a tubes/tonsils/adenoids surgery that necessitated the earplugs in the first place. I loved Mary and have memories of her that are more articulated than those that I have of my own mother, perhaps because Mary's caretaking was put into relief by the loss of my mother, who was a depressed and withered woman weighing only 100 pounds at the end.
But I want this to be about Darlene Jones. Darlene Jones who used two gigantic thumbs to clean out the fog from the inside of her goggles—sometimes she licked them clean—and then dove into the water needing only to swim four or five strokes of freestyle before she was already at the other end, flipping with splashless grace before turning back to swim another effortless length. Darlene Jones had a gap in the middle of her two front teeth and pimples on her cheeks, the kind that cluster and never do anything—don't swell, don't puss—just kind of hang out in angry constellation for years until one day they take a quiet exit. When I joined the age-group team, I didn't know what it meant to swim a 25 or a 50 or a 75 or a 100 (one lap, two laps, three laps, four). Naturally, I was teased for my ignorance by the kids who were wizened and aged after having already suffered years of twice-a-day workouts. I had been a strong competitor at the country-club meets during the six previous summers, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into with DMSF, where the coach was a former Olympian who didn't seem to like kids much and who, it turned out, was fucking someone's mom.
I wasn't built to be a swimmer. I am 5'3” now, but I was only 4'11” when I graduated from high school, which means at 12 years old I can't even say how tall I was—4'5”? I have the build of a gymnast; I am compact. At about 8 years old, I used to beg my dad to let me do gymnastics. I'd already taught myself the hands-free cartwheel, the front handspring and the back handspring. But to my father's mind—a mind that prized determination and tough love—swimming was what I was good at; I had proven this fact with blue ribbons and trophies at the country-club meets. Quitting swimming wasn't an option for me, only training harder and winning were.
I began racing at the same time that I learned to swim that summer after my mother's death, a death that no one spoke of (not even Mary), a death that my family hardly speaks of still, since it has crippled us of the ability to speak and the patience required to allow another to have feelings that cannot be controlled. As a 6-year-old, I had only to swim the crawl 10 yards to a teenager who stood behind a rope. Once, at Wakonda Country Club where the parents gathered at tables under umbrellas holding highballs and cigarettes as they watched the swimming meet, I felt the warmth of summer in a way that only a child who's lost her mother and her hearing like a one-two punch in a six-month span can feel the warmth of summer: my father was alive, laughing with some parents, wearing a suit with the knot of his tie pulled loose; everything was in bloom and when he held me close to dry off my small body cacooned in a towel, I could smell him, the cigarette smoke and the cologne of him. When it was time for me to race, the start gun went off, but I stayed standing on the edge of the pool after the other girls had belly-flopped in. I was crying for my father, searching the pool deck for my father. I can't say if I was afraid of the water or not, because I have long ago lost feeling of the water. I can only remember the desperate want I had for my father. But my father had disappeared behind a tree that my country-club coach had told him to hide behind, saying that if my father didn't hide, I would never swim the race.
I stood at the edge of the pool and cried and searched the crowd until my coach walked behind me and shoved me in. I gulped and spat and coughed and gasped and splashed my way to the boy who was big enough to reach bottom on the other side of the rope. Of course I lost the race. And now it's a story my father sometimes tells, though I'm not really sure what the story is about. I feel like he's laughing at me when he tells the story, laughing at how small and weak I was, though in truth I've never asked my father what he thinks the story means because asking him would require the courage to ask and the courage to expand my heart, to develop a kind of love for him than I'm not sure I'm capable of, a love deep enough to listen to his version of the story without pitting my feelings against it. I suppose this is a different way of saying that if I were ready for my father to be his own man and something other than the man who wouldn't let me grieve my mother and who hid from me when I cried for him, then I might know how to ask him what this story means.
But this story is about Darlene Jones. Darlene Jones was a kid from the south side of Des Moines where girls like Darlene Jones wanted nothing more than to kick the asses of petite girls from West Des Moines like me. Her father had abandoned the family and her mother was working two jobs to raise Darlene Jones and her sister in a clapboard house in a bad part of town. I know this because I once spent an afternoon with Darlene Jones at her house where we microwaved frozen meat pies and ate them sitting on a backyard swing set, kicking around old dirt, talking about boys on the swim team who we thought were cute. Darlene Jones asked if I'd ever given a boy a hand job and I said of course I had.
I don't know who Darlene Jones swam for, if she swam so hard for so many miles in the blackness of early morning into the darkness of night for the man who'd abandoned her, or if she, like me, swam to keep the parent who'd stuck around afloat. I swam to forget my mother, for my father. I swam to be successful in my father's eyes, though in truth I often felt worn down in the water despite the energy I displayed in muscling my way through it. I swam for the new life my father had built with another woman who became my stepmother and who, though I loved her, would never replace my mother, no matter how much my father insisted with silent implication that she should. I swam to appear normal, I swam to excel: I won the district championships in the butterfly and was one of the top butterfliers in the state, and later I joined a Division I college swimming team as a walk-on and then earned a full ride—all for my father.
When in high school as the alarm clock sounded at 5 a.m., and my father came into my room only seconds afterward to shout at me that it was time to get up, it was the only time I could talk back—“Shove it!” was my favorite—the only daughter who could say such a thing without serious repercussions. And it became a kind of bonding for us—his shouting, my barking back—a space we made together before daybreak, a space for feelings to exist outside the pretense that everything was OK. Because everything was not OK. Mom had killed herself on a cold winter's night at a time when she and my father were in the throes of an ugly divorce, and my father never spoke of her, and he didn't let his daughters speak of her, and then he remarried quickly as if nothing had happened.
And so I swam. I slept in my swimming suit so I could have a few more minutes of shuteye before I dragged myself out of bed and went down to the kitchen where my father stood in his business suit, already dressed for his own day of drudgery. I ate a banana as he drank coffee, and though I cannot remember a word we'd actually said to each other then, it was a ritual we clung to then and later during my college years when he'd call me in my dorm room at 8:30 in the morning to say “hi” after I'd already swam 5000 yards before my first class of the day. And this dedication began, really, during those years of swimming for the age-group team in that cold and broken-down pool with its hairballs that I felt had the power to pull me under if I didn't swim fast; where the class divide was too wide for Darlene Jones and me to cross; where Darlene Jones did everything in her considerable power to make me feel smaller than I already was, including daring me to give a hand job to the boy I'd said was cute in front of the whole team on a bus we'd boarded for a meet in Marshalltown, because I'd been stupid enough to say that I'd given a hand job when I had no clue what a hand job was, and so there I was: in the last seat of a Blue Bird sitting next to a kid named Chad who unzipped his fly for me in front of everyone until I cried—I survived it all for my father.
Dad said, “Swimming will teach you discipline.” He was raised in a dog-food factory town in eastern Iowa by working-class folks who'd fought in World Wars and had survived the Depression. He'd spent more than a year of his youth in a body cast because of some weird bone disorder. He'd worked since he was 10 years old, had been a baseball player growing up and went to college on scholarship to pitch. He was the first of his family to go to college. He married my mother during his senior year with 75 cents in his pocket. He'd become a successful businessman by dint of long hours and dedication. He was not a father who had time for feelings and he did not believe in quitting.
Indeed, he was right that swimming taught me how to manage my time and to perfect the art of the cat nap. But mostly it made me tough. It taught me how to compete, how to be successful by fixing a steady gaze on a desired object or goal like, for example, kicking Darlene Jones's ass. After I left DMSF, and as we made our ways through our high school swimming careers where we swam for rival high schools—she for the parochial high school in West Des Moines and me for the public—Darlene Jones and I went neck and neck in the fly and the IM and the free. She grew even taller and wider and stronger while I grew tougher. In the intervening years my two older sisters had both attempted suicide themselves, and I was afraid I was next if I didn't swim fast past those voices that called from the deep end.
At the state swimming championships during our senior year in high school, Darlene Jones stood on deck and looked down at me as we passed one another on our way to the blocks to race in the final heat of the 100-yard butterfly. I wasn't racing that day to break the state record (a bracing :56.31 set in 1984) or even to win state; I was going into that race to reach a personal best of 1:02 and to beat Darlene Jones. At the time, I believed it was the last race I'd ever swim. I had no intention of swimming in college. I didn't know then that my love affair with tough love and my determination to win my father's affections would continue on in college where I would meet a coach who would change my butterfly stroke entirely, and as a result I would go on to become one of the top-ten butterfliers in the Mid-Atlantic region. As Darlene Jones passed me on deck, she leaned into me, scowled, and said, “I am going to kick your ass.”
This is the kind of thing you see in sports movies. Darlene Jones and I stood behind the blocks as we adjusted our goggles, pressed the air out of our caps, spun our arms in windmill rotation and shook our legs to loosen our quads. I did the thing I have always done before a race: told myself that this will all be over in just one minute and two seconds (or whatever my goal time was for that particular event), knowing that the pain of the butterfly was going to be so great it would make me wish I'd never dove into water in the first place, wish that there wasn't something that drew me to the water no matter how unfit I felt for it, wish that I wasn't my father's daughter and that my mother had never existed so that she never had died.
When our names and our corresponding swimming lanes were announced, we stepped forward to wave for the crowd. Swimmers on the blocks! Take your mark! And the starting signal sounded. I was off the blocks fast, streamline-kicked under water and kept my first 25 smooth and easy like a Sunday swim. I could hear the crowd shouting and clapping on the pool deck, echoes that ballooned in volume each time I lifted my head to breathe. I was quick into the wall, didn't breathe before the flags, and kept my breathing steady every two strokes as I kick kick pulled, kick kick pulled, kick kick pulled through the water, keeping my eye on Darlene Jones's massive body all the while. She was difficult to shake. Just when I thought I'd beaten her at the 50, she was right beside me at the 75. Lactic acid rotted my abdomen and shred my shoulders as I located my coach's whistle through the din, urging me forward, until I couldn't hear it anymore, my head beneath water until I breathed again and heard it again, urging me forward. I lost my concern of Darlene Jones. As I turned into the 100, I prayed the metaphorical piano wouldn't drop onto my back as so often happens when you're tired and the acid coursing through your body has fucked up your nervous system to such a degree that the body you've trained hundreds of God forsaken mornings and nights and weekends suddenly can't carry its own weight in the water. But the piano didn't drop. I finished strong, touched the wall with both hands to finish the 100-yard fly with a personal best time. But what's more, Darlene Jones got her ass served to her on a platter. I beat her by a body length.
Darlene Jones ate my wake because while Darlene Jones was a bully and she was big, these two attributes had made her soft, had made her take for granted the sheer blood and guts it takes to push through a sport you're not built for and that no one, especially you, believes you've got what it takes to win—except, you hope, maybe your father—your father who has told you in no words at all that if you accomplish the impossible feat of conquering the water you were born into, you might be loved.
SARAH DOHRMANN has been a Fulbright fellow (Morocco), a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow of Nonfiction Literature, a two-time Jerome Foundation grantee, and a Workspace writer-in-residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She was co-recipient, with photographer Tiana Markova-Gold, of the 20th Anniversary Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for their joint project on women and prostitution in Morocco; their collaboration, which includes a long-form essay by Dohrmann and images by Markova-Gold, is forthcoming in Harper's Magazine. Sarah is currently at work on a memoir about her mother's suicide called Point of Departure. You can read more about Sarah on her website at sarahdohrmann.com.