On land I tease Greta about her obvious perfectionist tendencies and she smiles in recognition, knowing she won’t be giving them up soon; they have served her well. She is in her late 60’s and still wears body-hugging shifts that stop mid-thigh, with great effect. One evening I said hello and because she didn’t have her contacts in, didn’t recognize me, and thought that some man was hitting on her. She is used to getting hit on. Out of the pool her short blonde hair is combed back and held with a touch of gel. Her jewelry is meant to be noticed, a fat diamond, a hunk of amber nestled on her tanned chest. Her lipstick is bright red.
In the pool the perfectionism has its counterlife, a fear so strong she was unable to walk across the pool in waist-high water the first day of class. By the end of the fourth class she was putting her face in the water. But she still couldn’t let go of the wall to float in the shallow.
It is easy to see the perfectionism came as compensation for the fear, but where did the fear come from? Greta grew up in Minnesota, surrounded by lakes, and her widowed mother kept her away from water. Bad enough, but not nearly so extreme as the student whose mother used to cut out the headlines about every drowning and show them to her daughter and say, See? That student was jumping into the deep by class six. Greta also had a traumatic voyage across the Atlantic as a six-year old, her family economic refugees from post-war Germany.
At this stage the whys are, if not irrelevant, a distraction.
She says, viewing other students gliding around in the shallow, “If I could only do that I’d be happy.”
“Feel the water,” I tell her, “how it holds you up.” She goes into a front float. Her hands are clenched. Even her elbows look tense.
“What is the voice in your head telling you to be afraid of” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, not here, not now. Absolutely nothing.”
She goes into a front float, then stands, “That was better, wasn’t it?” she asks.
“It was perfect.”