When I was little, I loved the movie “The Last Unicorn.” While I was never much of a unicorn kind of girl, the dark story of a lonely and unique creature on a quest to discover the fate of her kind in a dangerous and magical land full of deceitful creatures that sought to destroy her innocence and rob her of her freedom drew me in instantly. It was probably the whole underlying subtext of rape threat or at least the forcible (or not, as will be explained momentarily) loss-of-virginity allegory that subconsciously fascinated the curious pre-adolescent me (the unicorn is immortal, you see, so she tempted a worse fate than death in her quest). But, I digress. That’s a blog post for another time.
In the story, The Unicorn finally finds her brethren — they have been driven into the sea by the enchanted Red Bull of King Haggard who desires to have them to himself. The unicorns live in the surf, you see. The Unicorn is magically turned into the mortal and human Lady Almathea in order to survive her initial confrontation with the Red Bull, because humans are of no consequence to the bull. Upon her rescuing transformation, she and her traveling companions move into Haggard’s castle, where she falls in love with his son and settles into a human life. It’s not long before she forgets about the bull, forgets about her quest and eventually even forgets she’s a unicorn. She’s happy to trade in being unique for being human — safe and loved. It’s easier.
Even when confronted by Haggard, who suspects her true identity, she not only denies herself but has no clue who she is anymore. Haggard knows her better than she knows herself. The very essence of her true self has been obliterated, partly through conscious choice driven by love and self-preservation but partly by the comfort of her current situation. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, even when it means abandoning the very essence of who you are, even when the unicorns are right there in the sea below your castle staring you right in the fucking face on a daily basis.
And so, I find myself in The Unicorn’s dilemma, because I have forgotten who I am. Or at least how to do something very salient to the essence of who I am. I am denying myself.
I have stopped swimming.
Ok, so I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal. Most people don’t even own a bathing suit. Hobbies fall in and out of favor. But swimming isn’t a hobby for me. It’s part of my DNA. It’s hard wired. Those who know me — or at least those who knew me when — know what a big deal this is. I can’t live without the water. I grew up in the Atlantic Ocean and swam before I walked. My mother threw me into the pool hook, line, and sinker during lessons at the Y when I was six months old, and I bobbed back up to surface and kept paddling (that’s how they did it back in the 70s). In fact, I can barely function on land at all. I’m a complete failure on two legs. I don’t have a swimmer’s build, but believe me, I was made for the water. It is my element. My blood is chlorinated. I transform the moment I hit its surface. I suppose the fire sign in me needs some temperament. The fact that I’m no longer doing it means that I am no longer me.
See this? This is sex for me. Nothing is more zen than the moment when I stand on the pool deck at the head of a lane, particularly an empty one like this. I feel tall, which takes a lot at 5’2″. I feel powerful. Invincible. My muscles twitch and ache. My skin flushes. My mouth waters, and I swear to God I can feel my pupils dilate. I feel connected to the water just looking at it. Together, we are absolutely pregnant with potential. I want to slice into it and rip it apart for miles and miles and miles while it wraps around my body. I curl my toes around the edge of the wall and grip it tight — a final grounded moment where I connect myself to the earth in a farewell before I spring and snap myself through the air and into the blue, clear invitation beckoning below me. Time stops. Gravity falls impotent. I am weightless and defiant. It is my lover, mother, twin, and adversary all together all at once. I get in, and I never want to get out. Never want to stop feeling my limbs pull through the water as I propel forward. Exhaust myself to the point of soreness. Push myself to the limit, and just when I think I’ve reached it, push myself some more. Plan ahead to make it worse on the next lap. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Feel the rush of the flip at the wall as I use my core to fling my legs over my head and into the wall with perfect coordination and shove myself into a glide toward the opposing wall. It’s fluid and powerful and balletic. I’m graceful. I’m animal. And there’s nothing but my breath. My constant, heaving, steady breaths. I’m deaf. I’m dumb. The world falls away. No voices in my head. Just air. There is no greater clarity.
While swimming is the ultimate physical expression for me, just doing it isn’t enough. I live in my head, so the mental process is as orgasmic as the physical one. I play mind games in my head with every stroke, every lap. Place bets. Taunt myself. For some reason, count repeatedly to sixty over and over and over again as a meditation. Challenge my head to isolate and connect to each muscle to snap the rotation of my breaststroke kick tighter, feeling the sharp ache in my inner thighs. Will my hips to slam down toward the pool floor harder and pull my wings over and under me for a strong, smooth fly, my pecs and lats burning. Lay back into 200 yards of backstroke, stare at the lines on the ceiling or the clouds in the sky, and think of England while I wait for the flags at the end of the lane to appear. Will my obliques to lead my body into the wall and duck down the perfect push off in an open turn, knowing they will be sore the next day. Extend my short arms to impossible lengths, grabbing and displacing the water with every inch of their flat surfaces down to my fingertips. Empty myself out completely until I’m left hanging on the wall exhausted, calm, satisfied, and spent. Goofy, dazed grin plastered across my face.
So, why did I stop doing something I clearly love, clearly crave? First, the swim culture where I live now is non-existent. The pools here are subpar, and their lap swim hours are just piss poor. I’m used to short and long course pools at world-class facilities that are open until 10pm. The little rec centers here treat swimming as an afterthought and pools as splash time activities for families and the realm of lazy water aerobics classes for non-swimmers who can’t wade beyond four feet of water. I have no respect for vertical water exercise. Get in a lane or get the fuck out.
The problem really lies with me, though. The past three years have been about taking care of things and people other than myself. They’ve been about dying rather than living. I’ve let my fitness routine slip, let time for myself fall by the way side, and most importantly, denied myself sensual indulgences. I’ve been in crisis mode, enjoying, experiencing, and savoring nothing. Running on fumes and stress and exhaustion and cortisol and adrenaline. Even now, I’m working on this entry at 2:00am, but at least this is cathartic. I’ve disconnected from my body, ignored my physical needs. Let constant motion become my substitute for love as though I no longer deserved to experience the pool as described above. I’ve stopped using my body. Stopped feeding an addiction I loved, and yes, swimming is my crack. It’s not something I can do occasionally. Once I get a fix, I need it all the time. I couldn’t bear to give myself a taste only to have to give it up for work, my dying father, my dying friends, the estate demands, my grief. I just shut myself down completely. Let my gills shrivel into sick and failing lungs. Locked the doors, turned out the lights, and shuttered the windows. When my dad died, I let parts of me die with him. Burned them to ashes and put them on a shelf and forgot about them. Forgot who I was. It seemed easier that way was just too painful to feel, and above all physical sensation had to go, because it was too tangible a reminder that I am still alive. I didn’t want to feel alive anymore. The contrast between how I would feel inside and any stimulation on the outside would be unbearable. Better just to conserve what few shreds of my health and my sanity that were left and just do my best to minimize the collateral damage. Better to deny my senses and my needs. Better to pretend I’m the lady and not the unicorn and let the spark go out of my eyes. Better to just be numb and keep bobbing and weaving and stay in motion without ever moving in order to get through it without feeling the constant blows. Better to ignore the sea full of unicorns staring up at me from below.
Now, I find I’ve changed my mind. I want my religion and my drug back. I want to watch the unicorns tumble back out of the surf. Something clicked over in me with the new year. It’s like someone hit a switch that turned me back on and all my furnaces are stoked. Even though I’m often tired from school and have plenty to do, I walk around with a stupid smile on my face all the time like a lovesick girl. I’m in a state of terminal blush that people remark on constantly. My brain just won’t shut off — I want to do everything all at once. Above all, I want to feel. Want to consume. Want to be bold. Want to taste, laugh, and MOVE. Want to feel things on my bare skin. I’m insatiable with it, like I can’t make up for lost time fast enough. I’m hungry and bottomless and humming with energy. I want to devour. I’m ready to dive back in. I’ve scouted pools. Rented a locker at the university. Bought new suits. I want to swim.
I’ve remembered that I’m The Unicorn again. Remembered what it was I was looking for. I am powerful and ready to go get it even if it means going through the bull to get there. It’s just a matter of time before I dive back in to my wet, warm, silent haven and never surface again.