This is it, I thought. This is the moment when I die. I was twelve years old, drowning in Tommy Graham’s swimming pool. The bastard pushed me in.
For as long as I could remember, I have feared water. I read in a textbook once that it only takes four ounces of fluid in a grown man’s lungs to kill him. It forever baffled me that such a small quantity of liquid could take your life, and yet otherwise responsible parents willingly let their children cavort about in thousands of gallons of the stuff.
While other children were content to run full throttle into the waves wearing little more than their underwear, I would stand fully clothed at the water’s edge, my heart skipping each time the salty ocean touched my toes. Though other boys I knew used the school locker rooms to shower after gym class, I waited until I got home. There, I could quickly bathe in just a few inches of warm water and be done with it. My aquaphobia kept me on the outskirts of life during a time when a boy my age should have been ecstatic at the idea of going to the water park or waging war with super soakers in the backyard. I became near catatonic at the very notion of getting wet, forever clinging to that idea that even half a cup of this natural resource could kill me.
The only other fear I had that even came close to rivaling my fear of drowning was my fear of Tommy Graham. Tommy was almost a full foot taller than I was, and had about 30 pounds on me. His brut strength and size were enough on their own to intimidate any twelve year old kid, but that wasn’t his only power. Tommy was the boy you had to know if you wanted anyone to like you. He was the one with the biggest house, the best video games, and the pool in his own back yard. If Tommy didn’t like you, nobody did.
Tommy didn’t like me.
I knew this, and yet I accepted the invitation to his birthday party anyway. Every student in our sixth grade class received one of those carefully hand crafted invitations, in the shape of R2D2, courtesy of Mrs. Graham. Tommy’s mother believed that every child should be included, even the poor kids and the weirdos. Being both poor and a certified weirdo, on account of my phobia, my mother was ecstatic that such a popular child had invited me to his party. She delighted in the idea that I had befriended somebody with wealth and social capital. I didn’t have the guts to tell her the truth.
My mom was what some of the other boys my age called a “smother”. While other parents were content to sit aside and let their children live and learn, mine was continually advocating for me at every turn. If my mother knew the true nature of the invitation, and what a terrible beast of a bully Tommy really was, she likely would have marched herself over to the Graham’s house to take up arms for me.
Half of the kids in the class were already calling me "Reecey Cup" because they heard my well-meaning “smother” shout it at the soccer game two months ago. I’d missed the goal, clearly, and the referee called it. My mom proceeded to confront the ref, explaining that my sight had been unfairly blocked by another player. When her presence on the field had become an obvious distraction and I turned my head to mouth my disapproval, she shouted “It’s okay Reecey Cup, you keep on playing! Mama will handle it!” In that single moment, I became the last person anyone wanted to invite to anything ever. While I loved my mother dearly, what little was left of my sixth grade reputation could not handle another outburst of her love.
So, I reluctantly sent an RSVP to the birthday party for Tommy Graham, a little shit with too much money who would much rather I get hit by a bus than come to his party, and my mother was thrilled. She bought me the world’s ugliest pair of neon green swim trunks, took me to get a haircut, and even splurged on the perfect present — a brand new video game that I would have much rather kept for myself. Well aware of my aquaphobia, my mother insisted that I speak with my therapist about how to best counter my fear at the party. Together, they established a challenge for me. I was going to put my feet, and only my feet, into the water. I would leave them in the water long enough to recite “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” under my breath, and then I would get out. If I felt like it, I could do the exercise a few times.
The idea of this exercise was simultaneously ridiculous and petrifying. I was going to willingly sit on the edge of thousands of gallons of the thing I most feared, reciting a children’s rhyme, and then I would get out and have cake like it was no big deal. The closer I got to doing it, the less I wanted to go to Tommy’s party at all. Even as I stood in his doorway, handing my gift to Mrs. Graham as she thanked me for coming, I fought the urge to run screaming down the block and flag down my mother’s car.
I decided right then and there that this little experiment was not going to happen. I was simply going to say I did not swim, which everyone already knew, and observe the swimming festivities while I waited for cake. This all changed though, when I saw Tommy. He stopped when he saw me, taken aback by the realization that I had actually come to a pool party.
“Aww, man!” His disappointment stung me. My presence had just ruined his otherwise enjoyable birthday. Then he shouted over his shoulder to one of his friends. “Benji, I owe you ten! Wittle Weecey decided to conquer the wawa today!” Behind him a mixture of groans, cheers, and laughter erupted as other children collected on their bets. A few people came to greet me, patting me on the back and thanking me for showing up.
I laughed sheepishly along with them, taking a bow to seal the punchline and saying “you’re welcome”. I embraced the self-deprecating moment, enjoying the few seconds of attention it brought. Still, somewhere down deep, I was whole-heartedly offended by the playful wager amongst the attendees of this party. I was a joke to them. I wasn’t Reece to these people. I was “wittle Weecey Cup afraid of the wawa”. Today, I was going to change that. I was going to do exactly what the therapist told me. I was going to show this little asshole that I was not afraid.
I changed into my swim trunks, but it took me a while to work up the courage to leave the bathroom. It was a strange feeling for me, wearing so little. Never once had I felt so naked in front of so many people, both figuratively and literally. Looking in the mirror at my all too pale skin and scrawny figure, a nagging feeling pulled at my stomach that insisted I should be wearing more clothing for this. This did not feel right at all.
I finally left the bathroom with my bravest face on. I had decided to embrace the running joke that Tommy already made out of me. I proudly announced that I was going to sit on the edge. I was not just going to confront my fear today, I was going to to own the hell out of it. I loudly declared my intent, raising my hands high in the air with pride.
“I, Reece Chapman, am going to put my feet in this swimming pool!”
I was urged on by a group of three boys who likely had money on me getting in the pool. Some people laughed, others cheered, and some completely ignored me, but I felt like these people were with me on this. They were on my side, even if it was for their own selfish reasons.
I rode the attention I was getting because I knew that without it, I would not be able to do this at all. My heart would pound too hard, my body would get stuck in the moment, petrified by fear. I used that attention, as negative as it was, to stop me from thinking about what I was actually doing.
Before I had time to hesitate, my feet were in the water and I began to sing under my breath, hoping that nobody could hear me. “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…”. I was doing it. I was actually doing it, and it wasn’t half bad. I could see down into the water and for once I was not running away.
Some of the other kids heard me singing and laughed. By the time I reached “up the spout again” several of the children were singing with me, but it didn’t matter. I had done it, and I was proud. I started a second chorus, loud enough to be heard and few of the party guests began to sing along with me. Pride surged through my entire body. I had done something big today. The adrenaline of that moment, that song, all of the laughter and joy surrounding me, made we want to stay in the water, even get in the water further. I had gone into battle with my phobia, and I was emerging victorious.
Ultimately I decided that I would take a break and try going further in the water later. After the second iteration of the rhyme was finished, I stood up and turned to see Tommy behind me. It was then that I remembered my second biggest fear.
“The Eency Weencey Weecey went up the water spout,” he said. His eyes were not kind and playful like the other kids. He was not basking in the humor of my big moment the way they were. I had stolen his spotlight on his birthday, and I had lost him a bet. He wanted blood. As the words slithered from his mouth, I knew what was coming, and yet I just stood there, letting it come.
“Down came the rain…”
Tommy’s hands struck my shoulders, shoving me backwards into the pool. The water slapped and stung at my back and I sunk down into the water. One of the girls screamed, and several boys laughed, but all of that noise was muted by the water rushing into my ears, consuming me like I always feared it could. Liquid flushed up into my nostrils and stung at my eyes. I kicked and flailed, certain of my demise. The textbooks said it took only sixty seconds to drown, and I didn’t know how many seconds I had left.
This is the moment I am going to die.
No, I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I held my breath and fought with every limb until, finally, I found that my head was above the water and I gasped for air. It was then that I noticed the party guests around me were chuckling and it angered me that they cared so very little. I was furious that these people would laugh as something that terrifies me so much.
“I could have died!” I shouted, but my words only made them laugh harder. All of my composure had melted away, and I felt tears forming. I had just fought my way through an overwhelming quantity of the substance I feared most in all the world, and these people, these thoughtless children, were sharing a laugh at my expense.
“It’s three feet, dumb-ass!” Tommy was now hunched down, holding his stomach and slapping the ground in a dramatic display of amusement. Another of his friends began flailing his body about, imitating me. I looked around me, suddenly aware that I was sitting on my bottom in the shallowest part of the pool. I had been struggling to get my head above water, when all I needed do was sit up. The laughing hoard was called in for cake, but I just stayed there, stunned.
In that moment, as the light dance across the rippled surface, I saw the water for what it was and I realized that I wasn’t afraid of it all. I had been afraid of what it could do to me. My true fear was of something being greater than me, stronger than me. There wasn’t anything to fear of water if you kept your head above it. Suddenly, the idea of swimming was no longer frightening, but beautiful. I sat there, even as the other children left the pool, my body covered in the glistening fluid, smelling the chlorine, comforted by the sensation of it engulfing my skin. I slowly lowered my upper body back on to the water and allowed myself to float. I surrendered myself to this thing I had always thought was bigger than me, and in the surrender, I was free of my fear.
I stayed there, captivated by the act of floating, until Mrs. Graham came out to see if I was okay. I didn’t tell her what Tommy did. I was already the best joke at the party, without being a tattle-tale too. I climbed out of the pool and went inside, bringing the plastic bag of my clothes with me.
Tommy made a big show of my return. “Still alive, Reecey? Quite a brush with death you had there.” He chuckled, glancing around at his guests to gauge their response. Some of them found him just as amusing as he did.
It struck me then, as Tommy had another go at me with his friends, that I was always running in fear from things that I had the power to conquer. I was a person who did not know my own strength or give myself credit for what I was capable of. I had lived my life believing that I was weak, and therefore I was afraid. I thought about the water, about my discovery that I was stronger than it was. I wondered if it was possible for me to be stronger than Tommy too. I had been afraid of this boy since the second grade, but it wasn’t actually him that frightened me, only what I thought he could do to me. Now there was nothing he could do that he had not already done.
I pulled my gift from the gift pile and chucked it at him. He caught it, a stunned look of embarrassment on his face. “Happy Birthday, asshole” I said, walking out the front door.
I left Tommy’s party, walked a mile and a half home, and was not invited back. I never told my mother everything that happened that day, only that I conquered my fear. A few months later, I took swimming lessons. I was the oldest beginning swimmer in the class, but it didn’t matter, because I was doing it.
Larger pools and oceans still make me a bit queasy, but I take showers now, and I don’t hesitate to soak in a full bubble bath, because I know now that there is peace in surrendering to something that you know could swallow you. There is strength in knowing that you have the power not to let it win.