It’s late on a Saturday morning, so the pool is full. I sit on the deck and fidget with my swimming cap and goggles, hesitating several minutes before I get into my half lane and begin swimming. I rapidly breast stroke to the end of the pool. My flip turn is fast and I push off hard. I swim two laps in quick succession, noting the speed and position of the men on either side of me. I notice the impulse to swim faster and match pace with each of them, irritably. I take a break at the end of the lane to pull at my goggles and roll my eyes. Not even five minutes.
“Fuck,” I mutter under my breath and push off again, violently. Breast stroke, four more laps, I insist to myself. At the end of the lane, a surge of water from the guy next to me pushes me slightly off course. I feel the muscles of my arms tense. Flip turn. I push off a little too late and drive myself toward the bottom of the pool. When I surface, I gasp hard for breath but keep swimming. At the end of the lap, I stand up, panting. My eyes go out of focus and I grab hard for the lane marker, startling the woman next to me. Where did she come from? I glare at the clock; I’ve been in the pool ten minutes.
I hiss and push off again, too close to my lane mate; I brush his arm underwater. I switch to freestyle; a narrower stroke. Halfway down the lane I don’t turn my head enough and get a mouthful of salt water. I reach the end of the lane, stand up and exhale sharply a few times. My vision blurs again. I shake my head and push my toes into the pool floor. I’m getting disoriented. My breathing is shallow. I can feel my eyes wide and my lips trembling. My chest feels tight. When I look up at the pool, five swimmers are all headed toward me. I know this is totally benign but my hands fly to my face and my heart thuds as I press my back into the wall. Someone flip turns. I’m going to scream.
I push off and scream under waster, surface, gasp for air. Go under, scream again into the water. I do this five times and then, weakly I finish the lap. I stop short of the wall, stand, push myself onto the pool deck and crawl to the wall where I squat between two benches, hold hard to their edges and shake. “Are you ok?” the lifeguard calls. I nod rapidly, my shoulders flexing. She thinks I’m hurt. Frightened of nothing in particular, I sit down on the floor in the puddle of pool water beneath me and see other swimmers eyeing me with concern. The lifeguard has closed the distance between us and stands at my side. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I don’t know. I tell her I don’t think so. I hear myself apologizing and admitting I’m having a panic attack. She asks if I need space. No; she’s the only thing in the room I can connect to. The other lifeguard, a man, hands me a towel which I cover my legs with. He drapes a second towel over my shoulders, hands me a bottle of water and sits on my other side. The towels feel warm, the water feels cold, and I calm down as I talk to them.
I meant to do an hour in the pool then meet friends at an open barn. At the goat farm where I married my abuser. Which I will damn well still be doing because if there’s one thing I hate about PTSD, it’s feeling defeated by it (and also because I love goat babies). I walk slowly from the pool, shower, and make the drive to Siler City. It’s crowded, so I wait in my car until my first friend arrives.
We go to the barn and a volunteer places a five day old baby goat in my arms. She wriggles a little, looks around, then calms down and falls asleep in my arms. I sit on an overturned bucket. The goat sprawls in my lap, lips curling in her sleep. Noisy children and charmed adults cycle through, taking pictures with the other babies, holding them until they cry and are returned to their enclosure. It’s chaos outside my corner of the barn. I do what you do with a sleeping infant in your arms–I rest quietly for the two hours she naps. It is not lost on me that this sleeping baby has ensured I recover from the panic attack; I stroke her back softly.
Before leaving, I stop and stand beneath the tree where I married my abuser. It’s just short of a year since I left, and I am changed–living takes everything I’ve got. My friend takes a picture of me standing there, unsmiling, defiant. I keep going.