February 5: Fight

Fight the urge to hoard meaning.

Today’s prompt, “fight,” felt really stressful for me today. The word itself tightens my gut and sets my teeth to grinding, I don’t know why. When it comes to fight, flight, freeze, or fold, I am a fighter, for sure, but I do not seek out conflict, and I do not enjoy engaging in it. I almost always cry after fighting, to release the negative energy that builds up while I am defending myself (or in some cases, being the aggressor). I did not want to write about fighting.

Instead, I focused on more positive connotations of the word: fighting for your life, having a fighting chance, fighting the power, a fair fight, a fight for your rights. I thought of the people I know who are fighting cancer, and people who are fighting to preserve something like democracy in our country. I thought of “fight night” and “fighting fit” and “living to fight another day.” Finally, I landed on the phrase “fight the urge” and that got me started down another path.

I thought about times when we try to defy our urges, when we resist the signals our body and mind send us in favor of some other goal. Since the Olympics are happening, I thought about elite athletes—they push their meat suits beyond the bounds of reason in order to be the very best at whatever they do. In competition, some people will do anything to win; I suppose you could say that competition is a fight that the participants agree to engage in.

Well, I am not an elite athlete, but I am a pretty strong swimmer, and when I was a kid at summer camp, I always won the “how long can you hold your breath” games that I now know terrify any conscientious lifeguard trying to watch a pool full of children who are quite literally trying to drown each other. I was kind of a chubby kid, bigger and taller than most of my peers, and no one ever believed I could win, but I always did. Kids can’t hold their breath for shit, but I had the lung capacity of an adult (30-90 seconds) by middle school. Whose mom made them go lap swimming in the morning before school? This kid.

Anyway, this intro is probably as long as my story by now (they keep getting longer, this one is around 625 words even though I edited it a couple of times with an eye for brevity) so I should get to it. Please don’t try to hold your breath for the whole read.

Clinging to the aluminum ladder with one elbow, Cora dipped her goggles into the water then pressed them into her eye sockets. This was no time for leaky or foggy goggles.

“No way some girl can stay under longer than me,” scoffed Nick, a brown-haired, blue-eyed meatball truck of a kid and the reigning Camp Willow Lake breath-holding champion. “At least not a first-year.” Now thirteen years old, Nick was spending his fifth and final summer on what he more and more frequently called the “little kids” side of the camp. 

“Don’t listen to him, Cora.” Beth was a fellow first year camper and, as the only other redheaded girl in the whole camp, Cora’s best friend. Cora looked up, doubt written on her face. Beth knelt down on the dock and said gently but firmly, “you can do this.”

“No she can’t.” Nick sat down and feigned disinterest. “Not if she goes all the way down and doesn’t plug her nose.”

Cora peered down into the murky green-brown water below her. She couldn’t see the rung of the ladder she stood on, much less the bottom one she knew was five further down. A bubble snuck out of her water shoe and tickled up her right leg until it met the elastic of her swimsuit. She shivered. Can I really do it? He’s so much bigger than me and he was under for twenty-five seconds. She glanced at Nick, who gave her a smug look. “Well?” he taunted.

She set her jaw and nodded to the kid with the watch who served as referee and timekeeper. They nodded back. Cora took a deep breath and plunged into the lake.

She climbed the ladder in reverse, hooking one foot on a rung then pulling her knee to her chest to descend and reach for the next. Once at the bottom, she pressed her hands against the rung above her head to brace herself and relieve some of the pressure on the tops of her flexed feet. Darkness loomed below and around her. She looked up toward the light at the surface, causing trapped air to escape from her nose and be replaced by water. Panic hit her and she had to fight the urge to let all her air out in a rush. 

You’re fine, she told herself, focusing her eyes on the outline of her left arm in front of her. She allowed a little air to pass through her sinuses and out her nose, clearing it like a snorkel and reducing some of the pressure on her ambitiously inflated lungs.

How long have I been under? Her momentary panic had confused her sense of time passing. Five seconds? One? She started counting in her head.

Around 22, Cora felt like her head might explode. Though she never seen anyone do it before, she worried about passing out. She pointed her toes, releasing her feet from the ladder, and raced her cloud of bubbles to the surface. Grasping the top rung, she heaved until the blood rushing in her ears wasn’t the only thing she could hear. She pulled her goggles off.

“Wow! Oh my gosh! She did it!” The other kids were cheering. Is it true? Did I win? She finally focused on Nick. He sat hunched over his folded arms and legs, his pouting bottom lip revealing just how grown up he was.

“Twenty-eight seconds!” Beth clapped her hands, smiling broadly as she stepped between Cora and her defeated rival. “You are basically a FISH!” She held out a towel, which Cora wrapped around herself. With Beth’s arm around her, she threw one last glance at Nick, who would not return her gaze, then turned to greet her adoring fans.