Florence always said that after her mother died, she started going to Coney to make things right and do honor to her mother. I decided not to wait that long. However, not being the fish she always was, I once again for perhaps the fifth time in twenty-five years signed up for beginner swimming lessons in a big old indoor pool with a sauna waiting for me at the end of an hour of breathing water up my nose.
On the Lower East Side being in some body of water was ubiquitous in daily life. Either it was Coney, or Pitt Street Pool or in my aunts' and uncles' days, the East River. Not everybody swam but everybody got wet. I thought I had Pitt Street Pool conquered until one day the four feet of water wasn't just four feet and I found myself flailing and submerged and being pulled out either by my big sister or a life guard or some another kid. Day camp pool lessons taught me to float in case that happened again.
The 14th Street YHM-WA had a pool and a teen program. At the age of 13, in a rare fit of actually acting like a teenager, I badgered Florence for a bikini. Her mother still alive, Florence had not returned to her soul yet, and so she hadn't returned to swimming, let alone wearing a bikini. That would take another decade. So she resented the interruption of her unhappy haze by my insistence... but there was this boy and I was this girl and somehow I understood a bikini was part of something I wanted to have happen.
I got it. At A&S in Brooklyn. I don't remember the color, the style, the stripes, the dots. I just remember rushing to the pool, seeing that boy, jumping in and no one telling me that as I stood in freezing water trying to impress this boy with my hello, the top of my bikini had slipped off my adolescent breasts.
Florence sewed the straps tighter but I never wore it again, and refused to return to the Y for five years. Even then, way too big for anything but overalls and sweatshirts, I shook with humiliation when I walked in.
Soon after, Gramma died and Florence dove and I stayed dry with interruptions here and there at the 100 year old City College pool, or the elite NYU pool, or some tiny hotel pool or the oceans but only up to my knees.
Florence now swims in a haze of NPR and sheets of pee liners on her bed. She says she hurts and she says she's unhappy. When I told her I was learning to swim, delight and passion and determination flooded her face. "Oh. You must."
*a little song we used to sing on the Lower East Side with accompanied hand dance:
Swimming swiming In a swiming pool When it's hot and when it's cold In a swiming pool Right stroke Breast stroke Fancy diving too Wouldn't you like to be in a swimming pool?
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.