When I first came to New York from London, I was running. I spent two years as a teenager living in homeless shelters while I was at school and ended up going to Cambridge University– that was a head trip–but after that, I found it hard to make a life for myself. I worked in a politician’s office, but I got bored. I studied on a scheme to diversify social work, but–surprise, surprise–I couldn’t afford it and dropped out. Then I became a writer. It was exciting, but I was always behind on rent. America felt like an opportunity to make real money, and to leave some of my traumas behind.
The first day I arrived in New York, I felt free. I remember walking through a farmers market and picking out overpriced greens and lamb sausages thinking, wow, I really live here now. I felt like I’d made it. The second day, my life came crashing down: I got a call from home telling me my brother, just a few years older than me, had died in a prison. We still don’t know how. The earth shifted from beneath my feet and underneath it, a vast underbelly of darkness opened up. I felt sure I would fall into it. And I went from running, to drowning.
So it’s probably fitting that this story is about a triathlon. It was the fall of 2020 when I first decided to sign up for one in the Rockaways, New York. Ever since leaving home at a young age, I had been obsessed with ways to fortify my body, to strengthen myself against all the things research tells you happens when you grow up poor: Shortened lifespan, increased chance of autoimmune disease, depression. Here, I thought, was a chance to iron out another of my inadequacies–I’d never learned to swim properly. A competition that required braving the open ocean in front of hundreds of spectators might just be the push I needed, I thought.
I had previously tried to learn how to swim watching people in the lido in London Fields, years before moving to New York. My own swimming education wasn’t the best–it consisted of my parents dropping me in the deep end of the pool and telling me to swim back. At school, I had poor attendance and barely went to swim classes. By the time I was an adult, my friends would laugh at the doggy-paddle-cum-sinking that constituted my swimming. But at the lido, I felt serene watching people gliding along in the open water. They looked like starlings drifting effortlessly in the evening breeze. After a while’s watching, I would get in myself and attempt to repeat their movements. I think I improved, but I still didn’t know how to swim.
It was in winter that I met Mariam, my unrelenting swim teacher. She was a slight, Syrian woman, with hair that was once dark, now bleached so much it ranged in colour from copper to cobalt. Having grown up in Homs, one of the places most affected by the war in Syria, she had little time nor empathy for my protestations: That I was tired; out of breath; that I didn’t want to carry on. “Good!” she would say. “Do ten more!” It didn’t help that I took instruction in a pool where children practised for competitions. The kids would watch me flounder during a basic drill, then jump in besides me and complete it with one arm, or upside down, and point their tongues at me while they did it.
Everyday I wondered whether I would ever find swimming natural; whether my head would stop forcing itself under the water and my butt would stop sticking out behind me like I was in a Beyonce video. I often felt helpless and humiliated in these moments, but I wanted to show myself I could do the things I put my mind to. I wanted to see if that was really a thing that happened for people.
I was also growing fond of Mariam and learning more about her: The way she smoked like a chimney; how she had her coffee too sweet; and the way she missed the silence in Homs that came whenever the electricity shut off. She told me about sex, her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, and the businesses she’d ran in multiple countries before she came to America. She told me about her mother, who had died in Texas a year before, from cancer. Mariam’s family couldn’t pay the medical bills. I asked if she was OK. I didn’t have time to think about it yet, she said.
Three months into our training, Mariam told me she planned to go back to Syria. She found the people in New York pushy and mean, and didn’t want to live in a place that cares more about money than helping sick people. By then, I’d learned the basics of swimming–I could even do the butterfly–but we still had one hurdle to climb: swimming in the ocean.
So we embarked on a trip to the Rockaways–picking up Mariam’s ex-husband and a makeshift picnic from 7/11 along the way: pizza slices, nachos, big sugary drinks and romantic drama to feast on once we were done. The drive was foreboding. Mariam and I argued the whole way. She wanted me to swim 45 minutes out and 45 minutes back; I told her I’d never swam with my face in the ocean and thought it was a bad idea. “Funny,” Mariam said. “When a child’s parent says they can’t do something, I can’t make them. But I thought you were an adult, and I was your teacher. Go home if you don’t want to train.”
The swell was big when we arrived, and every time I approached the break, I felt overwhelmed by my own insignificance. Here was a force of nature, furious and unrelenting, towering over me. What right did I have to push on through?
After the third time making it to the break only to dart back to shore, Mariam came and grabbed my hand. “There are babies swimming as far as you have got to, do you see that?” she asked. Sure as her word, I saw little toddlers babbling in the water by my quaking knees. Did you really come all the way here just to make it to the break? Mariam asked.
I made it across, but only with Mariam holding my hand and swimming under the waves with me. Whenever I panicked at the sight of no guard rails to hold on to, Mariam would tell me to lie on my back, holding my hand, and we would float like starfish looking at the sun.
The second time we went to the beach, we argued again. I only needed to swim 400m in the race, but Mariam made me swim a kilometre and a half, anyway. I was furious. She thought she was helping me to prepare.
Mariam left for Syria before the competition. The day before the race, I went to the beach in her honour, and laughed a little behind her back. The ocean was tranquil, the waves barely rippled in the water, nothing like the relentless ocean I’d swam in a few weeks before. Nothing will be as hard as Mariam’s training was, I thought–not gratefully.
I was wrong. On race day, I was met with the most cantankerous ocean I’d ever seen: thrashing to and fro like a teenager listening to grunge. The waves were ten feet high, and as I stood with the first set of contestants waiting to run in, hearing the blasting voice on the loudspeaker, I felt like a gladiator running to my own death.
DO NOT BE A HERO. IF YOU ARE OVERCOME BY THE WAVES, DON’T ATTEMPT TO GO BACK IN. YOU CAN FINISH THE RACE FROM THE SHORE The man boomed. Circling in the water were lifeguards on kayaks: I would later learn that they jumped in to rescue several people from drowning during the race.
We ran in, a collective body of flailing limbs and tensing faces. As I attempted my stroke, I felt my arms hitting the bodies of people swimming beneath me. I followed Mariam’s advice: Head straight for the break, as far out as you can. Swim.
I don’t know how long it was before I was eaten up and spat back out by the waves onto shore. Twice I attempted to go back and finish the last stretch of the swim; twice I found myself whirling around in their force, as though I were in a washing machine. I thought of quitting, when I saw my friends running along the beach, GO POPPY GO! sign in hand, urging me on.
It was later that afternoon that I sent a video of myself to Mariam, shooting champagne out of my prize bottle like a ballistic missile. I’d won first place.
It is on reflecting on this story that I realise that even though I came to America to run, it eventually has become the place of my healing. I can stay still here. I can approach a ferocious blue and frothy white monster, hurtling towards me, and manipulate it with the tilt of my head and the twist of my arm, making it my plaything instead of something that will destroy me. I’m no longer drowning. I’m gliding, like a starlet.
I am taken aback to a
detailed moment in Esperanza Rising,
Esperanza lays her ear against the ground
and hears the beat of the earth’s heart
to feel close to her passed-father and abuelo
She is reconnected to her family and mexican
land, which she’s had to abandon
I, too, ache to ground myself, become strong,
and be able to rise on my own accordance
and so I do what Esperanza knows best.
my knees bend and I squat on the summer grass
of the plains, right outside my childhood home
and listen to a sound that unsurprisingly aches
I seep into the pores of the dirt
never losing oxygen, but only my vision
of what I know the above world to be
my body is consumed by
the creatures in the world below which crawl
over me like I’m just another rock ants, worms, termites, even mice
I don’t shout, no muscles of mine constrict the urge
to release myself back into my anxious reality
I stay cozy and snug
only curious as to how long
I can stay uninterrupted before I began to root
back to my dreadful late-twenties
andrea valeria duarte-alonso:
As the responder, I went for what I felt in that moment (in life and after reading the caller’s piece). There were so many emotions during this time of my life that were dark, frustrating, overwhelming and just bubbling to transform on paper. I decided to respond to Poppy’s story in a way that I imagined my independent journey in the hustle and bustle of life as a twenty-something year old at that time. Inspired by my mother’s favorite genre, horror fiction, I decided to delve into it by incorporating growth and renewal with exhaustion and desire – Esperanza Rising came to mind as I craved my childhood too.
Poppy Noor is a senior staff writer for Guardian US, with a focus on abortion.
andrea valeria duarte-alonso is a first-generation, Mexican-American from the great plains of the midwest. Born in Dodge City, Kansas to immigrant parent’s working in the meat-processing industry, she had the opportunity to live in multiple small towns that are largely populated with immigrant families. Her experience as a Latina in small towns is a recurring theme in many of her writings. She’s a poet, freelance writer, and educator based in Worthington, Minnesota.