During my second year of living in the city I almost drowned in despair. I refused to admit it to myself – and especially not to my nagging parents who regularly suggested I move home to California –but New York was crushing me.
The city had delivered a series of blows, starting with a broken heart. My Greek borough-bred boyfriend, whom I’d clung to like a life-raft for 8 months, had coldly broken off our relationship. I hated my mindless job at a stuffy and perpetually silent publishing house. The bathroom of my new apartment smelled like the overcooked vegetables my neighbor inexplicably prepared every morning. And although I thought there were probably one or two people in a city of 8 million who I might befriend, I hadn’t yet met any of them.
Every day, I contemplated going back to California. It would be so easy to move home. But I’d dreamed of New York since as long as I could remember. It was where people came to be better, brighter versions of themselves. I wanted to live out loud. I wanted to shine. Although I was miserable, the idea of NEW YORK CITY still held me.
One summer day, I walked past Scuba Network, which back then was in the Flatiron Building on Fifth Ave. and 22nd Street. I was struck by the amazingly out of place, festive and carefree beach scene in their window display. When did New Yorkers ever go to the beach? When did they play with plastic blow-up rafts? It was lunacy, as far as I was concerned.
Inside, a charming man who no doubt identified me as a wide-eyed New York transplant who was utterly beaten down by all the concrete, crowds, the subway and the noise, talked me into signing up for lessons. I made only $22,000 a year. I was up to my eyeballs in student loans. I couldn’t foresee affording a tropical vacation for another decade. But I plucked down $300 to fulfill a dream that despite having lived near the ocean in California my whole life, I’d never managed to achieve – to take scuba lessons.
Everyone who wants to get certified in scuba diving must first prove that they can actually swim by doing 10 nonstop laps in a pool. Obviously people who had chosen to learn scuba diving, a sport often done in 100 feet of water, would have no trouble with a few laps. Or would they? On the scheduled day of the swimming test, hoards of former students who’d failed in the past, showed up to give it another go. It was a motley group – they were pasty, unshaven, out of shape New Yorkers who were visibly uncomfortable in swimwear. Their flesh fought against the elastic confines of their suits. Men pulled at their trunks, revealing angry red marks on their skin under the waistbands. The women hid behind cheery beach towels. They all peered dubiously at the heavily chlorinated water in front of us.
Personally, I was thrilled. First, the swimming pool was an “only in New York” experience — it was in the basement of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church across from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue and 50th Street. I loved that, in addition to worship services, St. Bart’s provided a sanctuary for a secret society of scuba enthusiasts two floors underground. Plus, I was an excellent swimmer. Growing up out west, everyone could swim, but I always went out farther into the ocean than my friends, and even had a box full of ribbons I’d won at various swimming competitions stashed in my parents’ garage back home.
Our scuba instructor, Bart, explained that we would swim in groups of ten and have 20 minutes to do the laps. Those who went over the allotted time would be required to come back another day and try again.
“First group, get ready, set, go!” Bart shouted and blew a whistle.
The first ten people dropped into the shallow end gracelessly. They blinked as if surprised by the water dripping in their eyes. The group collectively splashed like toddlers in a kiddie pool. They dog-paddled, clung to the edges in the deep end and stopped to gasp for air once their feet could touch the bottom. I’d never seen people so visibly ill at ease in the water.
Later, when Bart blew the whistle to start my group, I dove in shallow and threw myself into a freestyle sprint, my arms twirling like a windmill. I zipped beyond the pack, kicking hard. At the end of the first lap, I somersaulted into a flipturn underwater, pushed off the wall and sailed by everyone else still struggling midway through their first lap. My strokes were sloppy and unpracticed – I hadn’t swum laps since high school — but I left the other students in my wake.
When I got to the other end of the pool, I was exhausted from the exertion and needed a deep breath, but I didn’t want to lose face now that I’d flaunted my experience. I lifted my head clumsily to take a breath before another flipturn and saw Bart leaning out over the water waving me down.
“Wha…” I gulped, coming to a stop. I thought I’d broken an unwritten rule that even the dog-paddlers managed to abide.
“OK, that’s enough,” Bart laughed, shaking his head. “You can swim. Get out.”
“I’m done?” I asked confused.
“A flipturn! I can’t believe you. You’re such a show-off,” he laughed again.
The entire group of wannabe scuba divers stared at me in silent awe. My moment had arrived. I proudly hoisted myself up onto the edge of the pool, squeezed water from my hair and let people stare. My left ass cheek sprang free from my bathing suit, my mascara ran down my face and my side ached from the laps, yet I felt like an Olympian who had just scored a gold medal.
“Eh, how’d you learn that?” asked a burly guy with a Brooklyn accent, who had failed the test a few minutes earlier.
“I’m from California,” I shrugged.
“That was cool,” he smiled.
“Thanks,” I beamed.
Maybe I could handle New York after all.