Joyland

Canada |

Swimming Lesson

by Jessica Westhead

edited by Kathryn Mockler

The fit begins in the mall, where so many fits begin. The mall is where the worst fits are basically guaranteed. Sometimes the mother even gets two there. BOGO half-price fits.

She will not call her daughter’s behaviour a “tantrum” because her daughter is too old for tantrums. Her daughter is five.

Old enough to put her mother and father into hysterics when she gives her French fries elaborate names like Lady Bertha Pickle Pie and Glory Rose Suitcase Head and engages them in long, emotional conversations with each other before she bites down and makes them scream. 

But she is still young enough to have a fit.

It’s because she doesn’t want to go to her swimming lesson. That’s why she started whining inside the mall, and why she escalated to shrieking as soon as they got outside. (This is the essential difference between a tantrum and a fit, the mother has realized: the displays are less public because the child can now be embarrassed by herself.)

Now her daughter is kicking the back of the driver’s seat while the mother tries to focus on the road and navigate through traffic that is far busier and more ruthless than she had expected. A red sedan cuts her off, and she blasts the horn and says, as calmly as possible, “Please don’t do that. I don’t like that.”

Her daughter has not offered a reason for her opposition to the swimming lesson. She will only yell, “I don’t want to go to swimming!” over and over again.

The mother is trying to get an explanation.

Because normally, under every other circumstance, her daughter loves swimming. It’s one of her favourite things to do, and she’s good at it. Not good enough yet to stay alive in a body of water, but pretty damn good for a five-year-old.

So why doesn’t she want to go to the swimming lesson? Because she’s still angry at her mother for not buying her that freakishly hideous headband from The Children’s Place with the leopard-print tulle flower scrunched onto it? My God, that thing was ugly. Her daughter has a different fashion sense than she does, though. Arguably a much better one. But still. That headband. 

This is her daughter’s first time taking swimming lessons with no parents in the pool—just the students and the instructor—and this is the third lesson of the term.

The mother and the father went together to the first class and cheered and clapped from the wooden bleachers as their daughter did everything she was supposed to, and the whole time she seemed to be lit up with barely uncontrollable glee.

The mother had thought to herself, perched next to the father as he made goofy faces at their daughter, I don’t like that the instructor has to touch her all the time.

The instructor is a young guy, maybe in his early twenties. He smiles constantly. And he wasn’t touching the students in a suspicious way. Just in a normal, I-will-teach-you-how-to-swim way. Because he has to. And he seems great. Sweet with the kids—all three of them are girls—and very encouraging.

The father and their daughter went without the mother to the second lesson because the mother had work to do and the father said, “It’s okay, it’s fine! You stay home and do your work and we’ll go by ourselves and we’ll miss you a lot but don’t worry, we’ll survive.” So she wasn’t there to observe that one. 

The traffic slows, and the mother presses the brake and reaches for her phone.

She texts the father, even though she knows she should not be texting in the car. Texting while driving is idiotic and dangerous. But she texts him now, “Hi! She had fun at swimming last week, right?”

He texts right back to say yes, she did. “She had a blast!” He uses that word, “blast,” and puts an exclamation mark after it. She shouldn’t be surprised, either, because the father told her all about it last week. He was bursting to tell the mother about how much fun their daughter had and how she did a bob for the first time ever and didn’t even complain about getting her hair wet, and then they had leaned their heads together and murmured about her amazingness.

His enthusiastic reply is reassuring. Everything must be fine with the swimming lessons, then.

She puts her phone face-down on the passenger seat and focuses on the line of cars in front of her and behind her and asks her daughter again, “Why don’t you want to go to swimming?” 

“Because I don’t want to!” Another outraged kick to the back of the mother’s seat, more vicious this time.

The mother swerves to avoid a silver minivan that is trying to merge into her lane. She thinks of the rainbow-striped metal water bottle in her daughter’s cup holder and wonders if her daughter might throw it at her and cause an accident. No, she wouldn’t do that. She has never done anything like that. 

But the potential for this violence shimmers between them, and the mother feels her daughter’s rage entering her bloodstream, the heat of it spreading everywhere and making her grind her teeth.

She needs to say something now.

So she proceeds to tell her daughter in a low, serious voice that she needs to learn to be more grateful for everything she has. Because some children have nothing. They don’t even get food. 

“No food?” says her daughter. 

And the mother thrills that she is getting through to her, and that her wisdom is being digested. 

Then her daughter snarls and kicks the driver’s seat again and the mother pounds the steering wheel and shouts, “That’s it!”

She is hot all over, and she flicks on the air conditioning as the words boil up and out, her jaw stiff with fury and barely moving as she enunciates to her daughter that she will go to her swimming lesson, and if she misbehaves when she is there, the mother will not take her out to the restaurant after for a treat. Instead they will go straight home and the child will go straight to bed with no dinner and no stories. Period.

“No I won’t!” her daughter screeches. 

“Yes, you will.”

“It’s too cold in here!”

Shut up, the mother wants to say, but she doesn’t. She has never said anything like that.

Her daughter starts to cry. 

Sweat prickles across the mother’s hairline. She tilts the vent and cranks the fan up all the way.

It’s chilly outside, but it’s not winter yet. Two months ago, her daughter started senior kindergarten. Just breezed right in this time, like it was nothing. For the entire first half of junior kindergarten, she wailed every single morning and the mother had to rush over and give her one last hug before saying goodbye.

She angles the rearview mirror so she can see her daughter, who is slumped in her car seat, staring out the window with tears on her cheeks.

“Because you don’t make the big decisions,” the mother says, mostly to herself. “Mommy and Daddy make the big decisions. Not you.” 

They sit in silence for a while and the traffic keeps crawling, and the mother thinks how sad it is that nobody wiggles their fingers in the rearview mirror anymore at their fellow drivers who let them in. She still does it, but the windows are tinted so they probably can’t see her anyway. 

There are a few pitiful sniffles from the backseat, and she listens for what will come next.

“Mama?”

“Yes?”

“How about no swimming and no restaurant. Just home.” Then an achingly hopeful pause. “Deal?” 

The mother switches off the air conditioning. The fury ebbs away and leaves her limp and disoriented, like it always does. “Please tell me why you don’t want to go to swimming.”

“Because I don’t want to!”

She takes a deep breath. “Do you like your teacher?”

No answer.

“Honey? Do you like your swimming teacher?” 

“One thumb up and one thumb down.” 

This is not a satisfactory response. “Why is one thumb down?”

No answer. 

The mother keeps driving. Up ahead, there’s an exit she could take that would turn them around and point them in the direction of their house, but she drives past it.

Because it would be silly not to go to the swimming lesson. It would mean she was giving in.

Her daughter is very quiet. There is only the whoosh of cars going by—faster now—and the occasional clink of the water bottle when her daughter picks it up for a sip and then puts it back.

The mother hasn’t told the father that she doesn’t like that the swimming instructor touches their daughter because he would say she worries too much. He would say of course the guy has to touch her, because it’s his job. And she would have to agree. 

They are almost at the recreation centre. It’s almost time for the mother to park and get out of the car and unbuckle her daughter from her car seat and put on her sweater and lead her into the building and down the dim hallway to the changeroom, where she will help her daughter take off her clothes and put on her bathing suit even though her daughter is perfectly capable of changing herself, and then they will walk together to the pool, and the mother will feel a small amount of shame for not taking off her street shoes on the pool deck but screw it. If she was wearing flats that she could easily slip off and then be in bare feet, maybe then she would obey. But she is wearing sneakers with socks. So screw it. 

The mother is lucky because nothing bad has ever happened to her.

Well, things have happened. But not like that. Not compared to some people.

Well, some bad things. But not really. They are things she can look back on and say, “That wasn’t so bad.”

There was the time when her dad’s friend sat beside her on her parents’ bed when she had a fever and she was watching The Dukes of Hazzard on their little black-and-white TV and the adults were all supposed to be in the living room drinking wine. 

The friend sat down very close to her and the mattress sunk under his weight, and he put his hand on her forehead and said, “Oh dear, you’re burning up.” 

She waited for him to call her mom into the room to take her temperature and give her some medicine, but he didn’t.

He left his big hand on her small face, and then slid it down to her right cheek, and then he dragged his palm across her lips, which were very dry. She always remembers how dry her lips were because his skin was damp and she didn’t like that.

And then her mom was standing in the doorway and asking her if she was feeling any better and if the episode was a good one, and did the sheriff do something stupid again? 

And her dad’s friend stood up and walked out and didn’t say anything, but her mom said to him, “Karen says it’s getting late. I think she’s ready to go,” and the friend nodded. And her mom just looked at her, not smiling but not anything else either. She was just there, and then both of the adults were gone, and that friend of her dad’s never came over again, not for wine or anything else, and she went back to watching the show, and yes, of course the sheriff was doing something stupid again. Of course he was, because that was what always happened. 

The mother thinks that she was probably around eight years old then, since that was the age when she liked to eat a giant bowl of green olives with the pimentos removed and watch The Dukes of Hazzard. She didn’t eat any olives that night, though, because of the fever. 

The mother is sitting in the stands now, and her daughter is in the pool. The parking and unbuckling and walking and changing part has happened already, and her daughter cooperated through all of it. She seems happy and relaxed in the water with the instructor and the other kids, so the mother relaxes a little too. 

She chose this recreation centre specifically for these lessons because the parents are allowed to watch. In other locations, there’s not enough room.

Other parents have told her that they don’t mind waiting where they can’t see the pool. They can get a lot done in that half hour. “We can all use the break, right?” they say, and the mother has to agree.

Other parents have also started dropping off their kids at playdates and birthday parties and leaving them there. Her daughter has reached that age already. The alternative for the adults is standing around and making awkward conversation, which no one wants to do. The parents who stay, like the mother does, are a burden.

She leaves her daughter at school all day, but that’s different. Because she has to. And her daughter’s teachers have all been women anyway, so far. 

The swimming instructor dribbles water onto the girls’ heads, one by one, and the girls laugh. He’s getting them used to how it feels. 

It’s uncomfortable at first, the mother imagines him saying, but then it’s okay. She can’t hear him from where she’s sitting, though, so she doesn’t know for sure.

She knows so many good men. They are all so good. Loving and devoted and protective and always disgusted by any news story involving bad things being done to a child, or a woman. 

She can look at each one of them and know that they are not the problem. They are actually the opposite of the problem.

Although there are really only five of them, including the father and her own dad, that she would leave her daughter alone with, ever.

This makes her feel mean. Out of all of these good men, there are only five? 

Of course she could probably leave her daughter alone with seventy-five percent of them and nothing would ever happen. Ninety percent, even. Or eighty.

The mother feels like an asshole when she thinks these things, but she can’t help it.

It’s the strangers, though, that she has no barometer for. 

All she can do is sit in the stands with her nose full of chlorine and her glasses fogging up from the humidity, and she has to keep taking them off and wiping them so she can see everything. So she can scrutinize the swimming instructor, who is handsome and has lots of muscles all over his body so it’s not as if he’d have any trouble getting girls his own age. And so she can keep watch over her daughter’s small, round bum sticking up out of the water as she kicks her legs—she is learning to kick so well!—and then she shifts her gaze to the instructor’s hands and where they locate themselves on her daughter, because of course he has to hold the children he’s in charge of, that’s ridiculous, of course he does. It’s his job to teach them how to swim and to prevent them from drowning.

She is not one of those mothers who puts her child in a billion activities. She does not hyperschedule. She and the father are not those parents. They prefer to spend time with their daughter and enjoy her company. They would rather encourage unstructured play for all of the reasons that unstructured play is crucial for developing brains. Plus they’re lazy. They mostly can’t be bothered signing her up for things and taking her to things.

But swimming is important. It’s a life skill. Knowing how to swim will increase their daughter’s chances of staying alive.

So here they are.

The instructor places his large palms on her daughter’s tiny waist again, to help ease her off the edge of the pool and back into the water. Then he positions her hands on the bright yellow railing of the platform that the littlest kids have to stand on so they won’t go under. 

The mother doesn’t think that any of his touches are gratuitous. They really do appear to be just part of him doing his job. He isn’t touching her daughter in any of the places that would sound an alarm. 

Besides all that, her daughter looks completely elated. She is jumping up and down, being sweetly careful not to splash the other girls. Every few minutes she waves exuberantly at her mother, and sometimes she blows kisses too.

The mother waves back and smiles. She can tell that her daughter is proud of herself. She can tell that she’s having a blast. 

Her daughter is wearing her pink one-piece bathing suit with the cartoon pony on the front. She has only ever worn one-piece bathing suits. Bikinis for children are absurd. So are the one-pieces that have peekaboo holes cut out of them, like the kind fully grown swimsuit models wear.

The mother makes a show of catching her daughter’s kiss as it rockets toward her. 

The fit from earlier was just a fit. Just another power play. It’s obvious now. The mother wouldn’t let her daughter have the headband and her daughter got mad.

She needs to figure out a way to teach her daughter to be more grateful, because gratitude is everything. 

The instructor blows a whistle and lifts each of the girls out of the pool. He grasps them gently under their arms and hoists them onto the smooth blue tile, and all three students scramble to their feet and grimace at their caregivers with chattering teeth. 

The mother stands up and shuffles sideways off the bench, carrying all of their stuff.

Her daughter is walking toward her—not running because running isn’t allowed—and she’s beaming and shivering, and the mother rushes over with the hooded duck towel and kneels down and wraps her up in it. 

For a moment, only her daughter’s impossibly luminous face is visible from within her terrycloth cocoon, and the mother remembers the days of swaddling, and is mostly glad that those days are over. She is not one of those mothers who misses the baby stage, because there is so much more to her child now. 

There is the widening of her clear, green eyes and the broadening of her wild, uneven grin and the opening of her delicate arms that the mother likes to encircle with her thumb and forefinger and marvel at how soft they are, with their poky chicken-bone elbows.

“Come here,” says the mother. “Come here, come here, you did such a good job.” They hold onto each other, and the mother is wet now too but of course that doesn’t matter. “We’ll go and have French fries and a milkshake, would you like that? Let’s call Daddy and tell him how well you did. Let’s call him on our way to the car.”

Her daughter burrows closer, pressing her cheek against her mother’s. The moist air glues them together and the mother closes her eyes.

After what feels like a long time, her daughter’s muffled voice reaches for her from far away. “Mama?” 

“Yes?” 

“Can I get the toy with it?” 

The mother blinks under the fluorescent light, and nods as she pulls away. She takes her daughter’s hand and they walk back to the changeroom together. 

The lesson is over for today, and everything is fine. 

Everything is definitely fine.