Grand Prize Winner
Walking on Water
Ann C.K. Nickell
My stomach clenched as I stepped from the locker room onto the blistering pavement surrounding the pool. I didn’t want to be there. Taking swimming lessons was my sister’s idea.
As I stared at the menacing water, the instructor introduced himself as Matt.
Him? I thought to myself. He’s the instructor? He must be half my age…
“I’m not as young as I look,” Matt said, smiling right at me, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “The first step,” he continued, “is to jump in and get used to the feel of the water.”
A couple of teenagers jumped in, but I didn’t follow suit. I walked to the steps and climbed down into the cold water.
Matt appeared behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. “What's your name?”
“Katie,” I answered nervously.
“Walk with me, Katie,” Matt insisted, “and tell me why you’re afraid.”
I followed him across the pool and frowned at the childhood memory. “I was seven,” I began, “and my little sister and I started taking lessons. One day, the instructor pushed her in the deep end. She was screaming and crying, but no one would help her, so I jumped in after her. As we both went under, a lifeguard held out a pole, and I grabbed onto it with one hand and my sister with the other, and he dragged us to safety. We never went back.”
“I’m sorry,” Matt said, genuinely concerned. “You have nothing to fear here. I will never do anything to trick or hurt you.”
I looked up into his honest blue eyes and relaxed. I believed him. Matt’s friendliness and ease in the water were comforting, and by the end of my first lesson, I was floating on my back – and enjoying it.
My spirits soared as I drove home, and I forgot all about my sadness until I walked into my lonely apartment. Five years of memories called out to me from the unopened boxes in the second bedroom. They taunted me, but the pain, anger, and regret were still too immense for me to bear opening them. My heart needed more time to heal. I closed the door to that room, pushed away my dark thoughts, and concentrated on how good I felt in the water earlier.
The weeks passed, and I grew more confident. I started looking forward to and loving those Saturdays at the pool. After four lessons, I was swimming on my back. After six, I was learning to tread water. I also enjoyed the time with Matt. He taught me to trust again, and each lesson strengthened the bond between us.
At the end of my sixth lesson, Matt offered to walk me to my car. “You’re doing great,” he assured me, running a hand through his dark, wet hair. “You’re a fast learner.”
“Thank you,” I smiled, noticing how different he looked in jeans and a polo. He somehow looked older and wiser.
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” he asked. “We can meet at The Crystal Café.”
My heart fluttered, and I froze, unable to speak. Matt noticed and smiled. “I see water is not your only fear.”
I smiled back and found my voice. “No, it isn’t, but coffee gives me courage.”
He grinned and helped me into the car. “I’ll meet you there.”
We sat in a booth in the back and shared stories over coffee and muffins. “Were you born in the water?” I asked him, and he laughed.
“Not quite. My father was a pro surfer, and he gave me my first swimming lesson when I was only two months old. He said my first word was wave.”
I smiled at the image of baby Matt repeatedly saying wave as he played in them. “You’ve never feared the water?”
“Never, and I don’t like that others fear it, so I decided to teach on the weekends.”
“I’m glad you did."
“Why are you taking lessons now, after all these years?”
“There have been some big changes in my life recently,” I admitted. “I needed to take control, to do something that no one could take away from me. When I mentioned that to my sister, she suggested I take swimming lessons. She thought conquering one of my biggest fears would give me back my strength and confidence.”
“Is it working?”
I nodded. “Yes, thanks to you.”
Matt smiled. “I’m glad you trusted me to help you conquer that fear.”
“I am too.”
Brunch became part of our Saturday morning routine, and I suddenly had one more thing to look forward to every week. Matt shared more stories about his life, and as I grew more comfortable around him, I found it easier to open up about my own past. We discovered we had a similar upbringing, even though I grew up in the Midwest and he grew up on the west coast. And we both, for different reasons, ended up on the Texas coast.
“So why does a person who can’t swim move to a beach town?” he asked me.
“I’ve always been drawn to the water,” I told him. “I love walking on the beach, feeling the wind and the salt on my skin and watching the waves crash against the shore. It’s so peaceful.”
“It is,” he agreed. “Even when I travel, I’m drawn to coastal towns.”
“Me too. Most of my bucket list places are on the water.”
“Another thing we have in common,” he smiled. “Maybe we can visit some of those places together.”
My heart fluttered again, but not from fear this time. One of the cracks had healed.
When I returned home that day, I entered the second bedroom and opened the blinds. The rays of light filtered in and shone on one particular box. I opened it and sat down to inspect the contents; a wedding album, first home scrapbook, and other photos from trips and events. I set aside a few photos of beautiful scenery, put the rest back in the box, then carried it outside and tossed it in the trash.
I kept the momentum going, and by the end of the day, that room became what it was intended to be, an office and a guest bedroom. I left the door open this time and walked through the rest of my home, observing every detail, from the comfy furniture and beach décor to the childhood and family photos. Everything was mine, and mine alone. I couldn’t erase the memories of pain and abuse, but I refused to be surrounded by them.
I stopped and looked at myself in the full-length mirror in my bedroom, realizing I not only felt better, but I looked better as well. My skin glowed from days in the sun, and my muscles were toned from swimming. My dark hair fell in waves past shoulders that were sprinkled with new freckles. My grey eyes shined brighter, for the dark circles that used to live below them were gone. I liked this new woman, and I silently vowed to never let her go.
I walked out onto the deck and breathed in the salt air. The roar of the waves enveloped me in a warm embrace, removing what remained of the anxiety and fear. I whispered it first, then screamed it for all the world to hear. “I’m free!”
“You seem different today,” Matt said during brunch the following Saturday. “Your smile is bigger.”
“My world is bigger,” I told him, “now that I know how to swim. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. I’m glad I could help, but your lessons aren’t over,” he insisted.
I laughed, “Okay, coach.”
“I think it’s time for a new challenge. Will you have dinner with me tonight?”
I paused before answering, and he placed his strong hand on mine. "I told you during your first swimming lesson that you don’t need to be afraid of me. You can trust me – in and out of the water.”
I met his gaze and found myself swimming in his deep blue eyes. “I trusted someone else, and he betrayed me.”
“He’s a fool for betraying that trust,” Matt frowned. “I’m not a fool.”
I smiled at him. “I know.”
“We’ll take it slow,” he promised. “We can start with dinner, then maybe a walk on the beach.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Is that a yes?”
I nodded. “Yes. What about the swimming lessons?”
“Those lessons will continue on Saturday mornings. Friday and Saturday nights are for other lessons, like dancing and cartwheels on the beach.”
“Cartwheels?” I asked with a chuckle. “And now it’s Friday and Saturday night?”
“Yep, and we’ll eventually add Sunday. I can teach you how to surf.”
“That’s your way of taking it slow?” I teased.
He grinned. “Is that too much?”
I shook my head. “No. It sounds like fun. But…”
“If I agree to dancing, cartwheels, and surfing, then you have to agree to do some of my favorite things.”
“That’s sounds fair,” he said, “but what am I agreeing to?”
“How about paint night, archery, and Celtic festivals?”
“Festivals?” he asked. “Plural?”
I laughed. “Yes, I love a good Celtic festival.”
“Do I have to wear a kilt?”
I gave his legs a sideways glance, and he blushed.
I grinned at him. “We’ll leave that open for debate.”
He nodded. “It’s a deal.”
We shook on it, and then he held onto my hand. “I have to admit, I really like your newfound confidence.”
“You should, since you helped me find it.”
Matt leaned in closer. “This is only the beginning. In a few more weeks, you’ll feel like you can walk on water.”
I smiled and squeezed his hand. I believed him.
Why I Wrote this Story
I wrote this story to show how a woman’s life can change after leaving an abusive relationship. In the beginning, there is fear, pain, anger, regret, and trepidation. As she explores new things and accomplishes goals, those feelings are replaced with courage, joy, love, and peace, and the realization that she is free to be who she wants and to do what she wants; that there is nothing hindering her from flying as high as her new wings will take her.