Learning To Swim

Written for the MTV ACT contest on writing about intolerance in honor of the ten year anniversary of 9/11.

Before that day, I had never been afraid for my life.

Davey Jackson had nothing up his sleeve that I had not dealt with before. He just would not give up, no matter what I did. I had learned the hard way that turning to parents only adds fuel to the fire, so it was just my feeble hundred pounds against his menacing farmer build.

Usually, I ignored him. I couldn’t think of any other way to respond, and when I did, I was too shy to do anything about it. Forget standing up to bullies – I wouldn’t even speak up in class.

But somehow, that day was different. I was tired of seeing the hatred in people’s eyes, ready to believe in the good in every heart. So ready, in fact, that I fell for a prank which nearly cost me my life.

For the longest time, I felt like I was living under water. The world seemed to continue without taking notice of me. I heard only distant echoes of voices, saw dark shapes through the blur of waves, the presence of fellow human beings above. They carried on their lives on land, lives which I could not be a part of.

It began with the time I gave Davey Jackson an answer. As I walked down the hall, he called after me. “Hey, Erika! Are you Chinese or Japanese?”

The answer he was looking for, of course, was, “I’m Korean!” Instead, I turned around, brought myself to my full five feet, one inch, stared straight into his ignorant blue eyes, and said “I’m American.”

For a moment, he was speechless. Then, regaining his dominant manner, he burst out laughing, quickly followed by three other boys. I turned my back on them and walked away.

They warned me it would be difficult. They told me that after some time I would feel my head break through the surface and take my first breath. And then, I would start to swim.

I should have seen it coming, right then. Later the same day, Brad Simmers grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me into a locker. “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?!” he shouted, covering me in spit. He waited a moment, grinned, and let me go.

You might be fortunate enough to reach dry land. You pull yourself up out of the water and for the first time, stand on your feet. Before you can fill your lungs with fresh air, someone comes up from behind and pushes you back in.

When Andrea approached me, I was done being tossed around. I took her bait like a starving fish. She asked if I wanted to be friends. She asked me to join her at the Hotel Intercept at five. It sounded like fun; and who was I to refuse an invitation from her?

My heart was pounding in my chest. For the first time in Junior High, I could taste acceptance, smell the scent of freedom on the air…

Tired and weary, you swim back to shore and force yourself out of the water. The harsh, cold air pierces every pore on your body. The land is unwelcoming but if you return to the water, you might be stuck there forever.

I ran, and ran, and ran. I’m quick and difficult to catch, but the Hotel Intercept was unfamiliar to me, and I encountered unexpected walls and locked doors. Desperate, I entered the fire escape and scurried up the stairwell, every breath sharp in my throat.

They were gaining on me. I heard a shout several flights below. I put on an extra burst of speed and ran through the door to the ninth floor.

To my right was an exit to the roof. The door to my left was locked. In front of me was a very old metal door labeled “999.”

I was trapped. I opened the door to the fire escape, thinking I could slip past them, and was instantly grabbed by three sets of hands, pushing, pulling, strangling me. A door opened and I was thrown backward.

The door slammed shut behind me and the lock clicked. A few minutes passed before I recovered the strength to lift myself off of the pile of broken wood I had fallen onto. My arms and legs ached from being forced into awkward angles, and I could see a few bruises swelling up. I sensed splinters in my hands as well. I tried to remove them but the room was too dark for me to see. I cautiously moved toward the door and groped for the light switch. My fingers found it just to the right of the door. I sighed in relief.

I sat on the floor, plucking at my splinters, blinking back tears. A thick layer of dust covered every inch of space; I wondered how often the hotel management checked this storage room.  I sank back against the wall and tried to clear my head.

To calm myself, I began to sing a traditional Korean lullaby my mother used to sing to me. Unafraid of being heard in the isolated closet, I let my voice ring out, loud and clear. While I sang, my eyes fell upon a picture frame buried under the debris littering the floor. I reached for it and dusted it off. It was a black and white picture of an old man. The caption read, “Alex Woldorvsky, 1865-1912. Came to America in 1879.”

The photograph could only have belonged Davey’s father, the owner of the hotel. That meant that Davey and his father, like me, were children of immigrants.

Just as the thought passed through my mind, the door swung open. There stood Davey’s father, gaping at me. He noticed the photograph in my hands and snatched it away. For one painful moment, we stared at each other.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

Unsmiling, he replied, “I’m American.”

© 2011 Liora Sophie
All rights reserved

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