SWIMMING LESSONS
by Marci Stillerman


At twelve, I know who my husband will be. I've always known I'm promised to marry Aaron Silver, though I never think about it. Our parents, according to the custom of some Orthodox Jews to arrange their children's marriages, decided this when we were born. We, both the children of rabbis, live in a small Florida town, Breezy Point, on the Atlantic Ocean.

Breezy Point is a town of small houses, with some large, fine homes above the beach. Some of the owners of these homes are permanent residents, and some come during the season for Florida sunshine and ocean-bathing.

In Breezy Point are two synagogues, my father's and Rabbi Silver's. My family lives on Ivy Street, a short bike ride from the Silver's house. There are two other children in our family besides my twin David and myself, Leah, and the baby, Jacob.

Although David and I are twins, we do not look alike. He is shorter, more intense and practical. His hair curls softly and he has Mother's blue eyes. I, like Father, have dark eyes. I make a tight braid of my hair to prevent frizzing. David does not look Jewish and I envy him for this.

Aaron, born the same year as David and I, is the only child of Rabbi Silver, and is our best friend. We spend our free time together, and Leah, eleven, a year younger, usually trails along. After school, we ride our bikes up and down the streets stopping to buy a slice of salami and a pickle at the Kosher butcher's, a bottle of soda at the deli, or to look at the magazines, the ones that interest twelve year olds, displayed at the newspaper stand. The boys thumb through the sports magazines or Car and Driver, and Leah and I gape at the models in the fashion magazines, especially the ones showing lingerie, until Mr. Perkins walks over to us, hands on his wide hips, and asks the usual question, "You kids buying or just looking?"

Or we park our bikes in front of the supermarket and wander up and down the aisles, looking longingly at all the things we can't eat because they're trafe, not kosher—bins of candy, cans of pineapple, whole bar-b-cued chickens, roasting on spits, brown and crisp and smelling delicious. Aaron and David are not above lifting the cover in the display case, rubbing a finger over the crackling skin of a chicken and licking it when they're sure no one is looking. We get back on our bikes, and before we ride away, one of the boys reaches into his pocket and out comes a handful of hard-candies from one of the bins, a treat all of us relish guiltily.

We ride our bikes along the sidewalk above the public beach, about a mile from our homes, forbidden to girls because of mixed bathing and to all of us because of naked bathers. Our parents consider all bathing suits the same as naked. I stare, as I pedal slowly by, at the gleaming torsos of the young men, in tiny, bright-colored bathing shorts, and the bikini-clad, fashion-magazine-thin bodies of girls not much older than I am. The men and girls play together like Aaron, David, Leah and I do, chasing each other, throwing balls, but it's different because they wear bathing suits. And they grab each other, by the arms, around waists, hold hands. With us there is no touching among boys and girls. And they lie in the sand, bodies close, heads together. Kissing? I would like to stay and look, but I hurry to catch up with Aaron and David.

I long to enter this forbidden world, to breathe deeply the scents which I whiff only faintly on the walk above the beach, of sun-tan oils, salt water drying on naked flesh, hair spray. The food wrapped in foil they take out of coolers smells forbidden and delicious. I want to run across the perfect sand into the surf which looks more inviting here than anywhere else along the coast, to sit in the shade of a bright beach umbrella and lick a chocolate ice cream cone. But I'm dressed wrong for it. In dark tights, pleated navy blue skirt to my ankles, long-sleeved blouse, I would be a crow in a cage of finches. Even if I dared to risk being seen by someone who would report to my father, I would be too embarrassed to walk on the public beach, dressed as I am, a klutz.

I am afraid of Father. Leah is, too. He has never hit us, never would, but when we make him angry because we talk when we should listen, or are late coming to the table, when we fail to observe one of the many rules that govern the life of an Orthodox Jewish girl, a rabbi's daughter, his eyes grow ice-cold, his lips thin, and he looks at us as if we are dirt. This hurts me so much I would rather he hit me. Leah doesn't mind as much as I do. When father is angry, she shrugs her shoulders, looks him straight in the eye, and doesn't answer, whereas I feel the need to apologize.

With David, Father is more lenient, perhaps because David is a boy, but more likely because David adores Father and shows it. He will be Bar Mitzvah this year, and Father is his teacher. He's a good student. Even more important, he knows how to get on Father's good side. When Father looks at David, it's with pride.

At the Jewish beach, about a quarter mile from the public beach, which isn't a beach at all but a cove divided in half by a huge boulder so that women and men bathers can be separate, we drop our bikes on the sand. It is not like the sand at the public beach, glistening white and clean, but rock-strewn, with clumps of weeds all the way down to the water. It's off-limits for children alone because of a long list of dangers including drowning in the sea and being accosted by molesters. It's deserted on weekdays. We, reckless of dangers, stop on the men's side because it's bigger. The boys take off their shoes and socks, roll up their trousers and run into the ocean. We girls wait until they're in the water before removing our shoes and our tights and, holding our skirts above our knees, walk into the wonderful coolness of the sea. If there are waves, we run, screeching, back on the sand, but sometimes the hems of our skirts and even our underpants get wet. We dry out in the sun, the boys peeking at our naked legs, and after brushing the chalky residue of the salt off our skin, get dressed and remount our bikes. Calm and refreshed, I can still feel the tingle of the icy-cold salt water on my sunburned skin as I pedal my bike homeward.

When our family goes to the Jewish beach for a picnic, Father wears a long black coat and hat. I don't know how he can stand it in the heat. We, too, go fully dressed. It's the only way he will permit us to be near the water, in all our clothes. The girls are not permitted to go into the ocean. Father takes Jacob and David to the men's side, carrying Jacob on his back and with his arm around David's shoulders, where he and the boys take off their shoes and socks and walk in the water. Leah, mother and I put out the food in the women's section. I am in a bad mood every time we go to the beach. I'm furious that because we are women, we cannot even take off our shoes.

I love the ocean. Whenever I can, I go by myself, not to one of the beaches, but beyond, to a spot where flat rocks divide the water from a grove of trees. It's called Lines Point. I can stand on the sun washed rocks and let my eyes travel across an eternity of water. I love the colors of the sea, every shade of blue, green, gray, and lavender, and its constant motion. It's alive, a giant being, breathing gently sometimes, and at other times, snarling with anger. How free the ocean is to express its feelings. The rage, frustration, sadness, restlessness, bursts of happiness that churn in me, I can share with the ocean. I have as many moods as the sea.

I dream of water----rivers flowing across the earth, white and bubbly as gallons of frothy milk, lakes, their surfaces heaving and swelling, oceans opening waves like mouths that could swallow the world. In dreams, I move freely in water, unencumbered by heavy, bulky clothes. I could be naked in the ocean and invisible.



The summer I'm fourteen, the YMCA downtown offers swimming lessons.

"I should learn to swim," I tell Father. "We live near the ocean. It's important to know how to swim."

Father doesn't lift his eyes from the book he's reading. The lamp over his deep leather chair drapes him in a curtain of light. The rest of the small office is shadowy. Flecks of white in his dark beard catch the light and shine like silver.

"I want to take swimming lessons at the Y. They're free."

Father raises his head. We lock eyes. His are like cold steel balls. Until he speaks, my heart thuds against my chest.

"Men and women together?"

"No. Just girls. There's a separate class for boys."

"And the girls will swim naked?"

"The girls will wear bathing suits, Father. That is not naked."

"Without a garment is the same as naked."

"You can't learn to swim in a dress, Father."

"A big girl, fourteen years old, a rabbi's daughter, does not swim naked in the YMCA like a shikse. It would be a shande. A shame. You have your reputation to think of, your future husband. A Jew will not marry a woman who acts like a whore." His eyes return to his book. It's finished.

I know better than to argue. It would be like trying to cut down an oak tree with a nail file. I leave the room, furious, slamming the door. I hate him. I wish I could run away. Live by myself in Miami.

I'm in my room, trying to find a place to put my rage when my mother knocks softly and comes in. She draws me over to the bed and we sit side by side. She's overheard me and Father.

"When I was a girl," she says, "I undressed and bathed wearing a garment. It was how my mother taught me. A Jewish girl was never naked, even when she came to her husband. The Bible says immodesty is a sin against God. I did not practice this rule with you and Leah, when I bathed you. I wanted to be modern for your sake. I broke the law."

Knowing it was not easy for Mother to go against the Torah, I put my arms around her in gratitude. My mother is a tall, slim woman, but her shape is concealed under loose clothing. I have never seen my mother undressed and I can only imagine that her body is pure and lovely, delicately formed like her face, with its calm blue eyes. Under her wig, my mother's hair is spiky, cropped close. I do not know if she wears her sheitl in bed.

I look often at my naked body. There is no mirror in our bathroom, but on Mother's dresser stands a large framed mirror. I have brought it to my room when she was out and looked myself over many times. Recently, I see changes in my body. I am getting breasts and some hairs are growing under my arms and between my legs. I want to buy a razor and shave the hair on my legs and under my arms. The girls on the beach and in the fashion magazines do not have hair in these places.

I have found places on my body that I like to touch. There must be a law against something so pleasant, but I don't want to know it. I wonder if my mother has found on her body such places. From reading the Song of Songs in the Bible, I believe these feelings are enjoyed between husband and wife.

"I want to learn to swim," I tell Mother, but I know it's no use pleading for her intervention. She never opposes my father. She can't stand up to him. I despise this in her. I want my mother to be for me.

"You are blessed to be a rabbi's daughter," my mother says. "You must make sure to deserve it. You must never shame him." She chooses to ignore what I've said about swimming. She knows how I feel about him and it's the opposite of blessed.

I know my mother has more to say because she continues to sit on my bed.

Finally, I start to get to my feet, and she pulls me down.

"Hannela, your father wants me to talk to you about playing with Aaron and David. You are nearly a woman. He does not want you running on your bike with the boys. It is not fitting for a big girl who will marry in a few years."

"Mother," I say, trying to keep my voice calm, "I am not going to marry in a few years. I am going to finish high school and go to college. No one is going to stop me."

Mother sighs. "There is so much to learn about being a wife," she says, disregarding what I say. "I must start teaching you. I was much younger when my mother showed me what a Jewish wife must know." She strokes my cheek.

"Don't stay up too late." She leaves the room.

I will never be able to take swimming lessons. I am furious with both my parents and wish I had been born into another family. A goyische family.

I find a book in the library of my school on swimming. It uses stick figures to demonstrate the strokes. I study it carefully and practice the strokes before Mother's mirror. I think I could swim if I went into the water. The book says anyone can float because the body is naturally buoyant. You merely stretch out on your back and lie on the water. I ache to try. I plan to go to Lines Point some day and walk into the water. The sand bottom is visible so I know it's not deep just off the rocks. I will practice swimming wearing my underwear. No one will see me.



At fourteen, the boys go to Miami to Y'shivuh. I'm jealous of them. Why can't I live in this large city with shops and movie theaters and traffic in the streets and where there are plenty of things to do at night. Sometimes we spend overnight in Miami, visiting Father's old parents in the Jewish Convalescent Home. Father and his partners own the home and there are rooms reserved for the families to stay. I hate staying there. It smells of old people and deodorant and medicine. Why should we go to a hotel for so much money when we have nice rooms here? he says, but I would love to be in a hotel. Still, it's almost worth having to stay there because the Home is in downtown Miami and Leah and I can walk on the streets, look in windows, even go into shops. We have saved our allowance and Mother gives us additional money so we can buy things. A few times, we have gone to a movie. Father doesn't know, of-course, and my stomach aches the full two hours in the dark theater, fearing he will find out. G-d forbid! But so far, so good. It's lucky for us no one knows us here. I wish we could go more often.

I spend time after school with Mother in the kitchen learning to bake and boil and steam and prepare traditional dishes. I'm fourteen and Mother insists. I don't mind learning to cook. I like the feel and taste and smell of food. I must also learn to sew. This comes hard to me. I do not have skillful hands and haven't the patience for small stitches. Cutting a pattern is something I cannot get right. Mother sews well, and makes all of Father's, David's and Jacob's shirts, our dresses, and even made a coat for herself. Mother is pleased with me because she can see how hard I try. I know she tells Father what a good girl I am because he calls me into his study some evenings and teaches me to read Hebrew.

I am glad of his approval but I do not forgive him that he won't let me learn to swim. There are other things, too. I can't get a library card. He does not want me reading books for the goyim. Such books lead to assimilation, he says. A Jew must keep separate. He will buy me any Jewish books I want, but I cannot read library books. It's not, he says, for a rabbi's daughter. I have not yet found something enjoyable that is for a rabbi's daughter. I do read non-Jewish books at night by flashlight. I borrow them from girls at school. My favorite is "Gone with the Wind."

I want to go to the mall and buy a dress. I long to have a bought dress. Father says no. He doesn't want me associating with the shiksas in the mall, trying on clothes made by who knows what filthy hands. Still another thing a rabbi's daughter does not get to do!



Father knocks on my bedroom door one night just as I am about to go to sleep. Although the door is not locked, he will not come in until I get up and open it to him. This is to give me a chance to get decent, not to appear underdressed before my father. I turn on my lamp, belt my high-necked robe, and admit Father.

He invites me to sit down on my bed. He draws up my desk chair and sits in front of me. We look at each other for awhile before he starts to talk. I notice that his beard and thick hair are liberally streaked with silver, more than I'd realized. His forehead is lined and there are frown ridges above his nose. His gray eyes look large behind his rimless glasses and they are bloodshot. He works too hard on his studies. He needs more exercise than the pacing he does with hands behind his back, up and down the street in front of our house and back and forth to the synagogue. He looks frail and weary.

"I am pleased with your behavior," he says, favoring me with a rare smile. "You have become a virtuous Jewish woman." Not yet fifteen, I do not consider myself a woman.

"I have a surprise for you," he says and waits for me to ask what it is. I am silent.

"Tomorrow, to Shabat dinner, comes Rabbi Silver with his family. We will arrange to announce your engagement to marry Aaron."

I know that I do not want to marry Aaron. I want to marry a man I've never met, a man with a gleaming brown torso like the men on the public beach, strong and romantic. A man who knows how to make love with words and touches like the poet of the Song of Songs. But how will I ever meet such a man, a rabbi's daughter like me who goes to a girl's school and sits with the women on the balcony in synagogue? A girl who will lose her reputation if she so much as walks with a boy?

"I'm still too young, Father," I say. "I am not ready to get married."

"You will be engaged first," Father says. "In time, you will be ready."

I want to tell Father that I feel to Aaron like a sister. How can we be husband and wife if I feel this way? But Father gets up from the chair and I know the matter is finished. The pity I felt for him when he came into my room turns cold. How I hate him.

"I haven't met any boys," I complain to my mother. "Aaron is the only one I know."

"How many do you have to know? Aaron is a good boy. He is studying to be a rabbi. You should be proud. What would we know about other boys, strangers?"

But I am not satisfied with Mother's reasoning, although it's what I expected. I do not want to marry Aaron and I most certainly will not marry a rabbi. I want to be faint with love, like the maiden in the Song of Songs. I want to go into the vineyard with my beloved whose belly is a tablet of ivory and whose legs are like marble pillars. Aaron doesn't fit the picture.



We, with Aaron and his parents, the Silvers, sit at the table after the Sabbath meal is over and the dishes are cleared. The candles flicker, nearly finished. My father and Aaron's father, the two rabbis, quietly discuss synagogue matters. My mother has excused David, Leah and Jacob from the table. Aaron and I are not excused. She and Mrs. Silver trade recipes for cold fish. Aaron and I are expected to have conversation, but we have nothing to say.

Aaron traces a pattern on the tablecloth with his finger. He's shy and hasn't looked at me all evening. He's been away at the Y'sheva for several months and I haven't seen him. He's grown taller, finally as tall as I am. There are a few pimples on his pale face which is completely hairless, unlike David's who will soon have to powder his downy whiskers. His hair doesn't curl like David's (all us Cohen children have curly hair), and his ear-locks hang limp. Like his hair, Aaron is as limp as a boiled noodle and seems lost in his black suit. I cannot imagine him as a lover who would inspire me with a love as fierce as death. I cannot imagine being married to Aaron. I am suddenly depressed. I feel locked in, my life settled before it starts. I am allowed nothing to say about my future.

"Goodnight," I say and get up without asking permission to leave the table. Before I escape from the room, Rabbi Silver arises.

"It's late. Time we should leave. Thank you for a wonderful Shabat." He bows to my mother. Mrs. Silver and Aaron say their "Good Shabats" and follow the rabbi out of the room. Aaron's whole body slumps with relief to have this over with. I think he feels like I do about getting married.

Father scowls his displeasure at me.

"It was not up to you to cut the evening short," he says after he has taken them to the door. He stalks into his study.

"I'm going for a walk," I say. My mood has turned dark. I am churning with rage. Tears clog my throat.

Mother removes the burned-out candles from the silver holders.

"Don't go far. It's late."

I know she is disappointed in me, too. I have not acted like a newly betrothed Jewish daughter, talkative and bubbly. Nothing has even been said about an engagement, but it's taken for granted. No way of getting out of this without a major revolt. I feel nauseous, depressed, very, very tired. I want to cry. I want to scream so loud it will penetrate Father's closed study door.



It's dark on Ivy Street. Breezy Point has no modern street lights and the gas light from the glass-topped lamps is partially obscured by the fronds of the palm trees. It's November, the dreariest month of the year. There's no light from windows because the drapes are drawn at this late hour. Tears are streaming down my face and my nose is running. I wipe my face with the hem of my blouse. I don't care that it's my best blouse and silk. I am filled with restlessness. I want to run to the edge of the world. I run down the street, down the next street and the next. I am not breathless and my heart does not pound. I can run forever.

I'm on the walk above the public beach. It's deserted this cold, clear night. The windows of the houses above the beach are dark except for a few that show pinpoints of light, the owners who stay all year. I stop in my tracks, astounded by the beauty of the harvest moon that hangs, a huge golden balloon, above the sea throwing a rippling triangle of light on the water, almost to the shore. Beyond the guard rope where the deep water begins, white-crested waves crash over the rope. But along the shore, the sea breathes quietly, its broad chest heaving gently.

I walk down the hill of clean white sand and for the first time, I stand where I've longed to be all my life, on the public beach. It's not the beach of the daytime, of the summer, brilliant with color and alive with beautiful young people, men and girls, their bodies bathed in sunshine, or dripping with cool seawater. It's dark, lonely, mysterious and still, except for the soft sound of the surf kissing the shore with wet lips. It smells salty and foreign.

I unbutton my blouse, slide it off my shoulders. I have not thought of doing this. It just happens. I slide the straps of my slip down my arms, unclasp my bra and it falls to the sand. A wonderful coldness flows over me, the coldness of sin. I slide my tights and panties down my hips in one motion and pull them off my legs, kicking off my shoes. And the forbidden air covers my body. I walk naked into the sea.

I'm in my dream. I've been here often. In the cold water, my legs tingle and grow slightly numb. I walk into the sea waist deep and sink down into the black water. It welcomes me, covering my nakedness. I have only to move slightly to my left to be in the moon-path. In my mind are the stick figures in the swimming book and I imitate the strokes I've practiced so often, kicking my legs and pulling with my arms, splashing. I'm elated. I can swim. I turn on my back and float onto the golden path. I feel that my heart will burst with happiness—its beating fills my entire body with an almost painful throbbing…I am in the arms of the sea, my lover...all of him is delightful and I am his beloved. The Talmud says that all water flows out of and into Eden. I will float on the moon path to Eden.

Suddenly, I see the guard rope. I am on the far side of it. An enormous wave rolls toward me like a huge curved cave lined with silver. Time, full of freedom and sorrow, stands still. Thoughts, unformed, like vapor, flow in and out of my mind. I can't harness them. The wave crashes over me and I hang in the water for a moment until the awful pressure pulls me under, downward, blinding my eyes, tearing at my lungs. I am no longer in my dream and terror fetters my body. My arms and legs are chained. Water pours into my scream. The sea has turned cruel. I am filled with fear for what I've loved so long.

My neck is gripped in a vise and I'm dragged through water, up, up to air. High above me, waves crash. I gulp air and vomit sea water, bitter and salty. I seem to float in air and below me I see my naked body clamped to a wide, bare chest, an arm under my head, another under my knees, holding me like a baby. I look down from my place in the air and see the naked girl, her body gleaming like ivory, cradled by a giant, the muscles of his arms bulging. He holds her against him, small as a doll.

A few people have gathered on the beach, now light as day in the moonlight. The man, dripping water, his trousers clammed against his legs, carries me out of the sea, up the beach to where someone has spread a white blanket. He stoops and lays me gently on the blanket. I curl into myself but he straightens me and turns me on my back. A towel is brought to cover my legs. Near my head, a fire crackles and I'm conscious of the warmth. He straddles my body and, turning my head to the side, pushing my hair back from my face, presses his hands against my chest. I vomit water, cough, choke, gasp, and vomit again. Someone wipes my face and the man is now on his knees beside me. I breathe deep draughts of air. My throat is raw and my lungs ache.

"Cover her," he says and only when I'm wrapped in wool do I realize that I'm shivering so hard my teeth chatter. Hands rub my body, warming me. When I can speak, I tell him where I live. I cannot bring myself to meet his eyes.

"I was walking on the beach admiring the moonshine," he said. "I thought I saw someone in the water out past the guard rope, but I told myself, impossible. Then I saw clothes in a pile on the sand. I went in."

He points to one of the houses. "My car is up there. I'll drive you home." He's dressed in a sweatshirt now and sweat pants and his long, dark hair is sleeked back from his face. My clothes are brought to me in a neat pile, the bra and panties on top.

"Can you walk?" I nod and am handed my shoes. I manage to pull them on my sandy feet. I refuse his hand and get to my feet, holding the blanket around me with one hand and clasping my clothes to my chest with the other. There's no place I can go to get dressed. I feel shaky, light-headed.

I sit beside him in his small car and realize I haven't thanked him yet for saving my life. I stare out the window into the night.

"What were you trying to do, swim across the ocean?"

I don't know how to answer him.

"Are you in trouble?"

My God! Does he think I was trying to drown myself? How can I tell him that the sea had drawn me like a magnet, that going naked into the water was like walking into the arms of my lover, faint with love, like the Daughter of Jerusalem in the Song of Songs. How can I make him understand the triumph I felt when I found that I could swim, without ever taking swimming lessons. I shudder under the blanket, remembering my terror when the sea turned against me.

"No," I answer him. He says no more. I'm grateful to him for knowing I don't want to talk about it.

In the close darkness of the little car, I am filled with an awareness of his presence, his body warmth. I could love a man like this stranger. He is strong and tender and a fine swimmer. I long for him to put an arm around me and pull me to him. My body remembers his strong hands, where they held me.

The knowledge comes to me as we go silently through the night that I am a different person now.

I plunged into the sea, and was carried out, naked, in the arms of a man, a stranger. This happened and nothing can change it.

I am no longer the girl I was, the girl who was promised to Aaron, who would have become a rabbi's wife. I will have a different life because of this. An unknown future. The knowledge frightens and intoxicates me.



I am filled with dread to face Father.






Marci Stillerman was born in Chicago, IL and graduated with an MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago. She moved to California in 1987 and began writing for publication.

Published in literary journals since 1990, Marci was a second place winner of the Raymond Carver award for short story in 2003 and has received other awards for short fiction.

She is the author of a picture book for ages seven to adult: Nine Spoons: A Hanukkah Story, published by Hachai Publishing of Brooklyn New York, which won the Sydney Taylor Award for best book of year on Jewish theme (Holocaust), 1999, and was chosen First Pick by US News and World Report, 1999; Nine Spoons is in sixth printing and published internationally.

Marci has published stories in all children's magazines and won awards. Currently she is published in LA TIMES Kid's Room. She is completing a novel for young adult readers.