Swimming by Naz Knudsen

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I am struggling to get the credit card out of my small coin purse when she says it. I pause blankly before looking up at her behind the counter. The rich maroon wall of the café highlights her bronze cheeks and extends her warm smile. Her eyes hover over my hands as I close the little purse, the quiet click of its metal clasp echoing in my head. When she repeats the compliment, the crowd stills; I feel I can hear my pulse. “Thank you,” I try to say, but my voice isn’t there. I run the card through the machine to steady my shaking hands. I hear the waves; I remind myself that she was only making casual conversation. I feel their ripple; I tighten my grip. The green stitching of the coin purse feels raw, almost granular in my palm. 

I see myself gasping for air. Something presses on my chest. I try taking calming breaths, but with each breath, more water fills my lungs. The weight is unbearable. Soon, I will be under the water. I can’t be. I have been swimming all my life. I can’t lose now, not to these waves. I take a deep breath and blink to get the water out of my eyes. I can see the surface. It’s raining. I hear voices.

Clinking spoons stir fragments of a conversation about skim milk and sugar cookies into the ceramic cups. Behind me in the line, there is a woman in her sixties wearing a red mohair sweater like the one my mom used to have. An over-excited child with a massive mop of hair like my son’s swings the woman’s arm while eyeing the flower-shaped sugar cookie in the display. It is my son’s favorite. I wish that this scene brought back a memory. Instead, it lingers on what could have been—the moment I never lived. My eyes fill, my mouth tastes like salt. The waves surround me. 

“Would you like your receipt?” The young barista asks. 

“Yes. Please.” I manage to say without blinking. I need the welling tears to dry. I stare at a distant spot, a blue dot in a painting on the wall, behind the man typing on his laptop and the woman reading. Where do the waves take them? The hiss of the escaping steam overpowers the crashing waves—tears retreat. I walk out of the line to wait for my drink. I think about blues, the subtle breeze that makes the pool water dance, rolling up and down in calming curves. I almost feel the sensation of water splashing over my sun-kissed skin. 

*

Water doesn’t scare me. I learned to swim when I was barely four. I was so small that Miss Mina would give me a ride on her belly floating around the pool. I would hold on to her body with my legs and giggle as she pretended to be a fish or a boat. A series of heavy blue curtains sheltered the pool from the gaze of the surrounding buildings but not from Tehran’s blazing mid-summer sun. A few rusting lounge chairs from the time before the Islamic Revolution lingered near the overlapping panels. When someone walked through, or a strong breeze blew, I could see the white concrete office building where we stored our bags in lockers with no locks. 

In that all-girls pool, I learned multiple strokes. I dove deep and pushed hard through the water. And at the end of each swim season, I won a couple of races, with my mom’s petite figure tracing a hazy but steady image on the sideline. Occasionally, she would give me five Toman note to get ice cream after swimming. I remember running my fingertips over her coin purse, the stitched green leaves rough to my touch. 

I was a strong swimmer at a young age.

*

I lean on the brick wall, waiting. Outside, the rain has lightened. I hear my name. The young barista has my coffee; I catch her eye. 

“The coin purse that you liked…it belonged to my mom,” I say—the last syllables landing hard with the realization that I spoke of my mother in the past tense for the first time. 

Our hands exchange the cup; a tender knowing moment sifts through the voids of the unsaid. She nods before dragging her look past me, toward a distant spot, perhaps a blue dot in that painting on the wall. She doesn’t blink. 

The waves can break in again any minute; I need to get out of the water fast.



Naz is an Iranian-American writer and filmmaker. She lives in North Carolina and teaches storytelling and film editing at the local universities. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mayday, (mac)ro(mic), and Lost Balloon. Find her on Twitter @nazbk.

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