At 10, I was a strong swimmer. I'd been swimming since I was seven, when my complicated, hot-tempered father had taught me to swim at Orchard Beach, a huge, crowded public beach in the Bronx. We couldn't afford a "swim club," like many of the families we knew, who spent their summers lounging at the saltwater pool at Shorehaven Beach Club (now closed) and admiring the teenaged girls who competed at the end of the summer to become "Miss Shorehaven."
Shorehaven sounded like a magical place to me, but my parents told me repeatedly and with annoyance that we couldn't possibly afford it, and to stop whining about wanting to join.
I was a quick study when it came to swimming, with a powerful and streamlined freestyle stroke, so that it was a time of great bonding between my father and me. Usually, when he tried to teach me something, he grew angry, and I ended up in tears, especially when he tried to help me with math, which I hated and was failing, and which usually ended with him smacking me around and screaming at me. But I loved to swim, and he loved teaching me, so swimming was a precious bond between us.
I was sent to an inexpensive day camp in the Bronx that summer because we couldn't afford sleepaway camp, despite how much I begged to go, wanting desperately to get out of the Bronx (which would become my raison d'etre until I finally left home for good as a young woman), even if for just two weeks.
During the first week of day camp, all campers were given a swim test to see where they stood as swimmers, to see if they could go into the pool's deep end, for instance. I knew I would ace the test. However, I was wearing an ugly, ill-fitting bathing suit, a hand-me-down sent to me by a distant California cousin I'd never met. She (or her mother, most likely) had sent us her hand-me-downs before, and they were poorly made and never fit me quite right, and yet, because we were always short on cash, my mother insisted I wear them. That summer, she was relieved not to have to buy me a new bathing suit.
When it was my turn to take the test, I felt uncharacteristically proud as I climbed down the ladder into the cold water. Unlike math, swimming was something I was actually good at. My stroke, as I began to swim, was just as my father had taught me — smooth and graceful. But then, abruptly, my bathing suit fell down, completely exposing my budding breasts. I couldn't hold the suit up and also swim. Kids and counselors were gathered along the sides of the pool, and all eyes were on me. I had a choice. I could swim half-nude or fail the test.
Too embarrassed to have my breasts seen, I let myself go under. I refused to swim, using both hands to hold up my bathing suit instead. I appeared to be drowning (maybe I was drowning), and the next thing I knew, the handsome, teenaged, male lifeguard — he with the slight mustache and bronzed chest — upon whom I'd had a crush since the first day of camp, jumped in to save me. He swooped me up and carried me dramatically out of the pool as I clutched my suit to my chest in such a way that it wasn't obvious it had fallen off.
I was mortified, not only that I was half naked, but also that we were the kind of family that had to accept crappy hand-me-downs, and I failed the test. At the end of the day, when I got home from the hot, tiring bus ride that made me carsick, I asked to speak privately to my mother. Tearfully, I told her what had happened, blaming her for making me wear the bathing suit. To my mind, she showed little to no remorse. She did promise not to tell my father, because I was too embarrassed for him to know how close I'd come to having my developing breasts exposed to the other campers and counselors. I was certain that knowing would bring out his cruel side, and that he would mock me.
I had to wait three weeks to take the swimming test again, when it was finally offered a second time, and that time, wearing a suit that fit (which my mother had found on sale in the bargain rack at the Bronx's most famous department store, Alexander's, now defunct, like Shorehaven), I passed with flying colors. But I could never explain to anyone how I had mysteriously become such a strong swimmer over just three weeks, since I refused to ever tell anyone what had happened.