I decide after taking an American history class, that I will learn how to swim because my ancestors didn’t know how. I watch my classmates file out of the room. A cacophony of dings erupt from their phones. Everyone is back to their own histories.
I go to the local YMCA looking for a class on swimming and when the pretty white girl at the counter encounters me, she says the class is for beginners. I don’t know how to tell her that I am a beginner. That I am only now learning that I don’t know how to swim. That I have had low to no contact with large bodies of water. That I myself am a body of water. The pretty white girl adjusts her ponytail and tells me the class is mostly kids. I tell her I’m grateful for that.
I go to purchase arm floaties at a sporting goods store, but I can’t find any that fit my adult arms. I scour the aisles looking for anything that will fit me. I am Goldi-Sista-Locs looking for porridge. I ask a passing employee if they make fins for adults. He looks at me funny and I tell him that I haven’t yet figured out how to grow my own.
At home, I fasten myself to the worn-down couch. When I am flipping through the channels on TV, I find a documentary on the Megalodon, another thing—like my ancestors—forgotten under the sea. I learn that it was a prehistoric Great White Shark. That I could stand in its mouth four times and still have room to move my floaty-less arms.
While I watch the woman in the documentary talk about its size, I think back to my American history class. Of how my teacher showed the class a map of Middle Passage trade routes. I realize only then as the woman holds up a replica of the Megalodon’s tooth that it is shaped like the route of the Middle Passage. I realize from this that my lineage has already been inside an ancient white mouth.
I wonder where my ancestral home is. I’ve never thought of it being under the sea. I wonder if my ancestors, the ones that were never found, are having tea in chipped teacups. Lost in centuries of shipwrecks. I imagine that they must have swam back up to the surface after going overboard and realized that they preferred the crushing weight of the sea. They must have known that unlike the folks that put them in chains, the sea harbored no ill will toward them. That they were as inconsequential to the sea as its lowest form of life.
At the first swim class, the kids’ parents bring bags of snacks and one of the mothers asks me if I’d like a cheese stick. I say that my momma told me never to swim after eating. But momma also never learned to swim. She, like our ancestors, would have inhaled the ocean. Drank up the fish, the boats and the dead like some thirsty goddess. She would have seen that she was not buoyant enough to float and not heavy enough to be weighed down by her fear.
The instructor tells us to get in. I go into the water and I wonder if the fear I feel is lesser or greater than the fear of my ancestors. I wiggle my toes. l let the water take me.
My arms flutter above my head. I capsize in chlorine. And there is the crushing weight of the ocean even though I’m in a swimming pool. I crane my neck up hoping to see the sun fracturing through the surface of the water. But I see bodies. Bodies floating down like chunks of coral reef detached from their ecosystems. Then the Megalodon’s mouth opens wide, enclosing me in a ring of teeth. It mills around under the water.
Under my feet I no longer feel the tile. Water surrounds me for miles. I wonder if this was what it was like to be inside my mother’s water. To rest suspended inside her, a harbinger, a parasite in its last life cycle.
The water is full of bodies now. My vision blurs the edges of the world, but I can feel my body fighting. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I say. The water steals my voice. I am a real mermaid now. There is a prickling sting on either side of my head, just behind my ears. I take a breath under the water.
My legs? Might they fuse into a fin? I’ve never really thought of myself as a real mermaid. Never cared much for sirens.
The lifeguard’s voice is muffled on the other side of the water. I think he says, stand up. You’re in the five feet.
I spring up, cresting like it’s a birth. And just there a great white mouth closing around my waist dragging me slowly back into the ocean. Come, my ancestors sing. It’s all love down here.