Walking into the lake, I wince as the water rises to the tops of my thighs. It inches up over my stomach, over my ribs, and when it reaches my chest, I’m cold enough that I dive under, just to be done with it. Early Spring in New England is cold.
When I surface, my pulse has already quickened. I can hear my heart beating as though it’s someone else’s, the way I imagine my children heard mine when they were still inside me. Maybe my twins, and Gus after them, turned their ears up toward it in the dark of the soft fluid they swam in. Maybe I’ll ask them about this when they come back from their father’s house on Sunday. They might remember, who knows? The lake begins to darken around me as I gain distance from the shore with a handful of strokes. Soon, I can’t see the bottom, so I begin to close my eyes when my face is in the water. That way, I can’t see the evergreen fog stretching down beneath me. I’m on my way.
I came to this lake a lot as a child. In the early eighties, no ropes cordoned off a swimming area. Lifeguards worked some days—though not all—slinging faded orange lifesaving floats over the arms of towering wooden chairs they lazed in under the noon heat. Back then, I was afraid of every aspect of the lake: the muddy depths, the dark water, the slinking fish. The fun I had swimming only just outweighed the anxiety I felt each time we went. My mother would loop a pink blow-up tube around her forearm and walk down to the water, tossing it just far enough out for me to wade to successfully while she unpacked towels and lunch from her bag. I disliked cold water then, as I do now, and I would pick my way between the rocks and patchy sand, my eyes darting back and forth on the lookout for hungry fish. The same things about the lake scare me now. But today, this fear is diminished by a larger one I live with: the fear that something may happen to my kids when they visit with their father. So, for ninety minutes today, I will deal with one fear by facing another.
When Andrew got back from his first stay in rehab, we tried a few times to “do things as a family.” We took the boys to the lake one day after their preschool let out, set down our bags on a quiet stretch of the beach, and followed the twins as they toddled into the water. Ronan splashed in with abandon; Elijah stood in place and shivered, looking up at me where I stood next to him holding Gus in my arms. I was cold, too, but I hugged Gus closer and didn’t let on in front of them.
Andrew and I didn’t talk. We hadn’t talked for months, in fact, through court dates and settlement meetings. And we addressed each other that day at the lake only indirectly, by speaking to the boys. “Gus, you go hold onto Papa,” I said. “I’ll bring you a snack.” Once, just once, we laughed short, quiet laughs at the same time when Ronan toppled over and dunked briefly underwater. He righted himself quickly and popped up wide-eyed and smiling as he staggered back toward us.
I keep swimming, falling into a rhythm that feels sustainable, and doing my best to think only of the solid line of trees I see each time I open my eyes. They look like a mountain range, peaking here and there where a higher pine juts up above the others. On the strokes that I get just right, the lake water feels like it’s holding me up, not pulling me down, and my body rolls gently to one side and back, as though turning on a fixed axis. Lake water has an earthy smell I love, like an essence of clean soil, and it’s smooth against my legs and body as I swim. Once or twice, I feel brave enough to try keeping my face in the water for a few strokes. But without the regular sight of the trees, without their grounding, I take my next breath too early and choke on a mouthful of water. I have to stop and tread in place, coughing and wiping my eyes while my feet drop down into the colder layer of water waiting below.
There is another swimmer here today, visible ahead of me each time I lift my head to breathe. I can tell she’s there only by a small splashing and the steady push of a green swim cap across the dark surface, but I feel comforted knowing we’re making our way across the lake together. I speed up sometimes, though my chest aches with the effort, to stay close to her. I imagine our two swim caps moving in time, staggered in relay form, connected by an invisible thread that will pull me across the deepest, emptiest part of the lake.
In the aftermath of another relapse, more court dates, and more attorneys’ fees, Andrew and I settled our case again, and finalized how often he would be tested for alcohol use when the kids were with him. I felt the kids should never be with him. I thought a judge, or the lawyers, or God, someone, would give me full custody, forever, as punishment for all the times he had failed to care for them, neglected them, driven drunk with them. But that is not what happened. We share custody now, and I come to the lake when the boys are gone and swim across it just to be afraid of something different for a little while.
Suddenly, my foot brushes against something under the water. I panic, and surge forward with a few adrenaline-powered strokes before lifting my head out of the water and stopping to catch my breath. But the shore is much closer to me now; I must have touched the sandbar that breaks up the final third of the lake. As I tread water, the other swimmer passes me some yards away, going in the other direction. She is headed back across the lake with slow, steady strokes.
A few more meters and I’ll be there. The water has become, if not comfortable, more familiar at least, as I’ve crossed. I keep swimming and am even brave enough now to open my eyes under water, so I can pick a large flat rock to touch down on. Relief overwhelms me as my foot connects with the slick stone. I leave the water and stand on the rocky beach to look back at the shore I started from. The air is cold against my skin. Hugging my elbows, I feel my heart beating against my forearms the way I feel my kids’ hearts when they press themselves against me each morning after the long night. And it occurs to me then, on the far shore of the lake, that I will never give birth again.