My Year Of Held Breath


 

Summer is on its way and with it comes the suggestion of warm air on evenings spent laughing with friends, the smell of coconut sunscreen you borrow from your sister because you always forget to bring your own, and the sound of the neighbours' kids playing under the sprinkler. But this year it is, more so than ever, just a suggestion.


The threat of a pandemic second-wave is in the air where the smell of backyard barbecues used to hang. Right now, the possibility of having a typical summer is a coin-toss. What we once called "party season" is likely going to be replaced with more zooms, coffee catch-ups with a proof-of-negative, and finding out if my iso-adopted hobby of making clay pinch pots fares in the heat.


For me, this doesn't look so different than the summer I would have planned anyway. Once my favourite season (because of Christmas & my birthday), I haven't spent a summer doing typical-summer things since before I started middle school and started growing hair in weird places.

 

As a kid, the thrill of summer was always my transformation into a mermaid. I revelled in long days spent poolside, never letting my hair fully dry. We held competitions to see who could swim the whole length of the pool without coming up for air. As the youngest I would often lose, which only made me more determined. When I got good enough to beat my older brothers they made a rule that we could no longer dive in and instead had to start with both feet and one hand touching the wall of the shallow end. "It's more fair," they said, and back then it felt like they'd changed the game just so they could keep winning.


By the time my brothers aged out of silly competitions and had moved onto finding new ways to scare my mother (jumping from more and more precarious places into the not-deep-enough-for-that deep end) I was left alone in the shallow end to do handstands and swim slowly in twisting arcs, using only my held-together legs as a makeshift tail to propel me.


It's been years, but I used to be the picture of a classic beach-bum kid. Hair bleached blonde by the sun (and chlorine); skin tanned a colour my England-born mum had never dreamed of; eating fresh fruit on the back patio as I dripped dry just in time for dinner.


"Water baby," my nan had said. I resented being called a baby at my very old-and-wise age of 13. I had been double-digits for over three years and I could now hold my breath longer than both my brothers, although they wouldn't agree to any more races for me to prove it.


It didn't matter to me anymore. I knew that the long afternoons imagining myself gliding between kelp with shimmering skin and brightly coloured hair had paid off. If I had wanted, I could've raced dolphins, seals, or baby whales without leaving suburbia.


But after a while, as with most pre-teen fantasies, I grew bored of pretending. Instead, underwater became a place to be away from the busyness of a three teenager household. Where there once was competition, I found refuge. Maybe something in my body knew that I needed to rest, just a little, before the big changes to come.


So, for as long as my body would let me I would just sit. Sinking to the bottom of the deepest part of the pool, slowly letting my breath out to glide in strings of tiny bubbles over my brow bone and up to the surface. The sun would stream into the water, reaching out to me in fingers that my waving hair unfurled to meet.


There in the quiet cool, without any breath left to hold, I felt calm. Alone, but not lonely. Silent, but not unheard. For a short time, I could be enveloped by the water, but not yet overcome by it. No in-and-out required my attention. With no breath, I was still. And with no breath, I was, still.


What is breath but an expectation of what is to come next? I have breathed in, so I must now breathe out. I have breathed out, so I must now breathe in.


I would sink down and give up the 'must'. Instead, I decided when to move, trusting that when I chose to I could find a new rhythm deep inside my chest.


The moment always broke in a flurry of legs. Pushing myself to the surface, heart racing, I would gasp out of the water, shaking my head to find the air; the familiar ebb and flow of breath coming back to me.


I did this for weeks, alone in the backyard long after everyone had gone inside. Some days I stayed in the water as the sun started to dip, hiding my skin from the cool evening breeze that promised only goosebumps as I tried to dry myself enough so that Mum would let me inside. Autumn came and I told myself that next summer I would time myself on my new Baby-G watch to prove I was still part-mermaid.


Then the mid-2000s hit and I became too aware of my body. I hid indoors, ashamed of my uneven lumps. I was terrified I would be made fun of if anyone saw me in a bathing suit, and didn't even swim at my 14th birthday party for fear of getting my period in front of every boy I had a crush on (which was every boy).


For the first time since I was a baby, I spent a summer without a tan.

 

Years later and I can count on one hand the number of times I've swum in my parents' pool since puberty. I moved out, lived with a partner, had a bad breakup, spent months in bed, went on an overseas trip, went back to college, and somehow 15 years went by. Now I'm back in my childhood bedroom staring down months of record-breaking heat. I guess the pool has always been available to me, but this summer the rest of the world isn't.


Will I swim again this year? I hope so. I don't hate my body anymore (most days) and reliving my 13-yeard-old summers is exactly the kind of nostalgia my millennial brain craves. But most importantly, there is promise in the quiet cool of being underwater that I hope to recapture after a year of holding my breath.


It was easy to fall into the thinking that 2020 could be a break. For a while, at the beginning, my friends and I thought a few months without a morning commute would be a manageable change. We'd have time to pick up new hobbies and finally watch that Netflix show everyone raved about in the middle of 2019. Yes, our clubs and classes all moved online, but at least they were still running.


We knew we were the lucky ones, and thought that if we hibernated for winter it might all be over soon.


But then it kept going, and the clenched-teeth saying "we can find a way to get through this," changed to "we need a plan in case this doesn't end before September," with a worried sigh. Zoom-fatigue set in and financial strain meant that online classes, and the socialisation they promised, were the first expense to go.


Slowly, over eight months, I have lost or let go of everything I built for myself over the last few years. I've lost contact with acquaintances, stopped exercising because people at my local park don't know how far 1.5 meters is, and haven't made any steps towards completing even one of my goals for the year.


The uncertainty of it all has been building up in my chest, filling my lungs too full. I feel tightness when I try to make plans because the future looks nothing like it did when I set my New Years resolutions.


I have been holding my breath since March, waiting to see what will happen so that I can start my life again. I am scared I could be waiting so long I might stop breathing before I do.