In person, Turks and Caicos looks the same as it does in pictures — cloudless sky, sparkling sand, perfectly turquoise water — except that, of course, the water actually moves. Before I left New York, several people assured me that its ocean was “practically like bathwater,” promising me that, in saltwater, almost anyone could float; I would barely even have to try.

From my lounge chair, I watched the waves — what looked, to me, like a thrashing, unknowable sea — move with the same force as water being lapped from a dog’s bowl. If I stood at the edge, the ocean licking my ankles, I could see straight to the bottom, a generous layer of glassy light blue spread over sand. Still, I was trying not to succumb to dread. I told myself I would get in.

I drank two complimentary mimosas — I couldn’t possibly swim now, I had been drinking — and eavesdropped instead. My beach neighbors were older: a couple perhaps in their 70s, pale and mostly unmoving over the course of the morning. The husband snored the hours away. At one point, he awoke as his wife returned from the water, announcing, “I think it’s good for you.” He seemed satisfied. I assumed she was talking about the weather. He stood up, grabbing first onto her arm and then onto his cane.

The two dawdled to the water’s lip while I peered at them over my book. The husband took a few steps, turned and handed his cane to his wife, then dove in. His head reappeared after a few moments, and he threw his legs up and began floating on his back. The wife deposited the cane back at their lounge chairs, then rejoined him in the water.

I knew the water wasn’t that deep. Earlier that morning, two not particularly tall French tourists swam out to show me exactly how far you could go and still have your feet on the ground. “C’est si bon!” The couple was in only up to their shoulders, treading and talking. I admired their ease in the ocean in the same wide-eyed way I admire anyone who can do something I cannot: whistling, snapping fingers, driving a car.

The husband lay happily on his back and shut his eyes in the bliss of relaxation, spreading his arms out wide, barely moving; the wife splashed around him. My skin burned with envy under S.P.F. 30: They were having the time of their lives, and I was hiding under an umbrella. I decided I would get in. Later.

Most people I know who swim learned before they could ever consider being afraid. At 28, I didn’t have that luxury. When I asked my mother why I never took swim lessons growing up, she reminded me that I already had a serious childhood extracurricular: competitive tap dancing. (I have a vague memory of getting into a pool during the national championships in Las Vegas and slipping under the surface when I tried to cast onto a floaty and inhaling through my mouth. When I emerged, coughing and sputtering, I angrily, dramatically announced that I had just drowned.) I spent my summers indoors, either at dance camp or vacation Bible school, where I lied about my age in order to be in the same Bible study as my friends, who then ratted me out for sinning. Later, in high school, I stared down the swimming requirement to graduate but then switched schools; in college, and beyond, no one ever asked why I never got into the water.

Three of my four younger sisters at some point took a summer swim class, but none of them ever really learned anything. I was worried that we were reinforcing an ugly stereotype: that black people, because of racism or urban flight or an inherited avoidance, don’t know how to swim. Desperate, I asked my mother if anyone in our family knew how. “Girl,” she said indignantly. “I know how to swim.”

According to her, everyone who grew up in the 1970s knew how to swim. “We didn’t have all these distractions,” she said. “If there was water, you just went into it.” She learned when she was 7, at the Y.W.C.A. in New Haven, Conn., where I grew up. She described herself as “fearless” in the water — “city kids weren’t scared of nothin.” — but not enough to open her eyes when she was submerged. She pulled her mouth away from the phone and asked her husband, who grew up in the South, where he learned how to swim, to further her point. He learned around the same age, also at his local Y. Later, she texted me my great-great-grandfather’s 1917 military census, where he self-identifies as a good swimmer. “I just don’t know where you went wrong,” she said.

Yet she hadn’t been in a pool in 15 years. She and her husband had recently traveled to Hawaii on vacation, where she got her feet wet, but she otherwise stayed on the beach, relaxing and making sure her husband didn’t drown. She wasn’t scared, she insisted; she just didn’t want to go in, listing her reasons for avoiding the water in order: hair (she didn’t want to get it wet), weather (she prefers to swim only when it’s extremely hot), tan (she wanted one!) and sharks (they’re closer to shore these days, you know).

A year and a half ago, I was in Hawaii, not swimming, too. I was run-down and exhausted, my brain the consistency of a chewed-up eraser. A friend had told me that the water in Hawaii would be healing. Every morning in Honolulu, I woke up at 4 a.m., bought a coffee and sat on the beach, watching the sunrise and the surfers, listening to the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” One afternoon, I let the water wash over my ankles and burst into tears of sudden relief. But I never considered actually swimming — I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.

I was the water’s groupie, shyly hanging on its outskirts, waiting for the gumption — or invitation — to go in. Five years ago, wanting space to think and not finding enough in my three-bedroom, three-roommate apartment to do so, I rented a house for a weekend on Rockaway Beach, in Queens. I had never spent much time on the beach before, but I figured the water might be nice. I bought a deli hero every day and ate it while staring into Jamaica Bay. Two years later, I convinced my old college roommates to book a trip to Puerto Rico, where they swam in the water and I took pictures posing next to it. A friend and I took a trip to Miami last spring, where I — emboldened by a rum punch — entered the hotel pool up to my knees, dancing wildly, while she stood chest deep. That summer, I rented a houseboat in a marina on Rockaway Beach, spending a week stalking the beach every morning, content to watch roller skaters and burger eaters on the boardwalk, never once considering getting in.

In December, when a reporting trip took me to Los Angeles, I spent all my nonwork hours either walking along Venice Beach, listening to “Pet Sounds” again, or at an open-air restaurant halfway between my hotel and the beach, where I was mesmerized by the barefoot surfers ordering chia puddings and avocado toasts, wetsuits dripping onto the menus. I bought a collection of essays by Sandra Cisneros from a bookstore facing the beach, where she recounts stealing away to a Greek island to finish her first novel and finds herself healed by the sea; I started looking up Greek-island apartment rentals that night.

Only recently did I see the pattern: For some indeterminable reason, I felt drawn to the water, calmer when I was near it. Even just a glimpse from a hotel window seemed like enough.

The author (far right) in the early 1990s.
Lorri Reid

“The Reluctant Swimmer” met twice a week, Monday and Friday, from 8 to 8:45 p.m., at a large, modernized Y.M.C.A. near Manhattan’s Union Square. I enrolled in January, temporally resolute, wanting to try something new before my new-year nerve wore off. Because the course is designed for people with a fear of the water, it’s limited to only four students, giving each person ample time with — and a chance to be saved by — the instructor. I arrived on my first day outfitted in an extra-large swim cap and the only swimsuit I had — an ill-fitting bright orange one-piece — to find that I was the only person in the course. I was, officially, the most reluctant swimmer in New York.

Paul Hunt, my instructor, fist-bumped me hello. We spent our first class humming, which forces you to close your mouth and push air out of your nostrils. I could hum just fine with my head above water, but as soon as I went under, I felt as if I were choking. I gurgled violently and unintentionally breathed in, causing trails of snot to web around my already-wet face. Paul, an affable man who taught with the playful firmness of a well-loved camp counselor, suggested that I practice in my bathtub that night when I got home. Next, he convinced me that I could float on my back, and eventually I did — albeit with a pool noodle under my legs, his arm under my back and my hand on the wall. I slowly leaned back as though I were being lowered into a grave and kicked my legs up, unconvinced that the water would support me, prepared to sink and shatter my butt into a million pieces. Instead, I stayed afloat, stunned at the lightness of my body.

A few minutes later, as we scooched our way down the wall over to the deep end, Paul told me that my brain was not used to being in the water and that the reluctance I felt was real and physiological — my brain protecting me from a perceived threat. Somewhere around a depth of seven feet, I switched into a visceral terror, gripping onto the wall tightly; by the time we arrived at the end of the pool, nine feet, I was so convinced that my life was over that I felt compelled to confess all my secrets to him, as if we were seatmates on a nose-diving plane.

“The Reluctant Swimmer” lasted eight weeks, and after each class, I took notes. That first night, dripping water onto the subway as I returned home, I wrote that, in class, “I felt true, tangible fear; not anxiety, not nervousness, not stress, but the high kick your brain does into a true panic with a real reason.”

By the next class, I could do a turtle float (drop into the water and wrap your arms around your knees, bobbing to the surface back first) into a jellyfish float (face down in the water, with all your limbs hanging away from you) into a plank position. After a few classes of kicking while holding onto the wall, I upgraded to different forms of flotation support: a kickboard, then a pool noodle, then just my arms, held straight out as if I were receiving a present. Floating, both on my stomach and on my back, became the resting state it was intended to be. In the very last session, I jumped into the deep end, floated to the surface and kicked across the entire pool on my back — alone. When I was done, Paul told me I was good enough to enroll in a swim course for beginners.

My months of learning how to swim followed a two-year period of learning how to date women, which I was better at. I had spent my early 20s in a domestic partnership with a handsome, broad-shouldered man who made me enormous sandwiches and kissed me on the forehead in the morning. When we broke up, I spent the following year casually dating, going through boys like water. But then I kissed a woman in the hazy hours after a happy new year — and then again a few days later — and I discovered I liked it better than anything else in the world.

So I came out with little fanfare, announcing not an identity but a girlfriend. I never considered that I might have long had feelings for women, but instead happily convinced myself that this was a sudden turn that righted the course. Recently, though, evidence of an earlier, latent queerness kept emerging, like apples floating to the surface of a barrel.

As a child, I learned about an omnipresent and homophobic God, so I trained myself not so much to suppress my impure thoughts as to let them just float away, unexplored. But the truth still told on itself. In middle school, for example, I watched the cheerleading film “Bring It On,” more or less a movie about girls in short skirts, every Friday night, without fail, for a year, “for no reason.” One year for Christmas I asked for a vest. Since college, my favorite song has been Charles Mingus’s “Girl of My Dreams,” and when my roommates and I would pile together on the couch, planning our future weddings over rosé and brownie batter, I would anguish over trying to figure out how to integrate the song into my future ceremony. I couldn’t demand my future husband dub me the girl of his dreams, I knew, but it didn’t occur to me that I could go out and find my own.

Once, about halfway through my long relationship, I went to Paris on my own. After dinner one night, I downloaded a dating app for the first time just to see and edited the settings to include women, safely swiping thousands of miles away from my home. I matched with some people, and a woman sent me an invitation for a meet-up of queer women later that night. I deleted the app before I could respond or remember the address. I flew back home to my boyfriend, who met me at the airport; it was the longest we had been apart in years, and we fell into each other’s arms with relief. I was lucky: I had a supportive partner whom I loved, and strong land legs. Who was I to want more?

All those years, I sat on all those shores, in Honolulu, in Queens, in Miami, in Los Angeles, watching people in the water, letting my admiration mask my envy. In truth, I was wickedly jealous: not of their skill but of their willingness to go out and learn, to get what they wanted and then to have it every day. I didn’t realize what I was really feeling until I recently read an old diary, curious to know more about the last time I was flailing. So many entries detail that same longing. One night, for instance, I was at a bar, content to share a drink with a male friend, when two queer women showed up on a date, and suddenly, I wasn’t. A bunch of their friends arrived, and I stopped listening to mine, fully entranced by the scene in front of me, studying the ways they looked at and touched one another, wanting to be part of it all.

Most of these latent memories — the movie, the Paris trip — had evaded me for years, boomerangs that returned after a long period of absence. Eventually, I worked up the courage to tell that old boyfriend about my new girlfriend. He wasn’t surprised by my admission: I had mentioned something like this a handful of times in the relationship, he said. Did I really not remember?

There’s a difference, I learned, between knowing something about yourself and accepting it. A few weeks into class, my swim diary became a regular diary, and I would intersperse the recordings of swim lessons with notes about my day-to-day life. I had two dates the week of my fourth swim class. My entry ended with, “I can’t believe I get to do this!” I don’t remember which one I meant.

The author in Turks and Caicos in February.
Seth Casteel for The New York Times

From the plane, the sight of the water of Turks and Caicos made me sweaty and excited, as if I were preparing to go on a date. It was the end of February, and on this vacation I would finally swim in the ocean. But once I arrived, I kept finding ways to avoid getting into it. One afternoon, I sat in a restaurant near the beach, killing time, when two people peacefully paddled by me in a kayak. Suddenly competitive with these strangers, I decided that kayaking, for the first time and alone, might be fun.

If I could get into a kayak in the water, I thought, at some point I would swim. In a life jacket, I paddled around, pleased for even trying. If I can make it to that dock over there, I can get out. Accomplished, with ease. If I can make it from the dock to the reefs, I can finally leave the beach. Done!

I was turning back to shore when a father and a daughter came around the reefs’ bend. “There’s a shipwreck over there!” the child screeched. I told them I would try to make it over, but it was my first time kayaking. The dad told me I had nothing to worry about. “You can swim, right?”

“Not really!” I said in response, already paddling away.

The farther I got out from shore — the closer to the shipwreck — the choppier the waves became. There was nothing shielding me from the wind. The pulling became harder. I made it around the bend and saw the shipwreck from afar, a rusty humpback whale, then stopped kayaking long enough to catch my breath. A wave crashed me into a reef, then another. The wind had suddenly increased: I kept trying to pivot, but I couldn’t pull hard enough. My kayak got stuck between the reefs as though I had parallel-parked there, trapped lengthwise inside a little enclosure that kept me hidden from the shore.

I tried to keep calm. When I’m nervous, I sing. I started with the first song that popped into my head. “Anything … you can do … I can do better,” I sang through gritted teeth, fists clenched, trying to back myself out amid the rolling waves. “I can do … anything … better than you,” I sang to my ultimate nemesis: one of the calmest beaches in the world on a mildly windy day.

Eventually, the kayaking father returned with another child and guided me while I backed myself out. He led the way to the shipwreck, occasionally whooping with joy. Up close, it was unremarkable, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know if I was looking at a scene of death or survival. Still, now that I had done this, I was pulsing with adrenaline, dizzy with the new knowledge that I could do practically anything.

I returned to shore, dropped the kayak off, then waded back into the water. A woman waist deep was taking a selfie; another woman was still wearing her shorts. Before I could persuade myself to turn back, I was tasting saltwater, pulling my arms and kicking my legs froggy style. It was an overcast day, and the water put everything just out of focus. After two pulls, I remembered that I had to breathe; after two breaths, I got anxious. I was panicking, taking in shallow, quick breaths that were more for show than for air. I am relaxing on my beach vacation, I thought, hyperventilating.

I pushed my goggles off my face and tried floating on my back instead, holding my breath, afraid to let any air out of my lungs. The water encircled my face and splashed into my eyes, which I kept shut, confident that the saltwater would dry up my contacts and I’d have to swim back to shore a blind woman. I opened my eyes — not blind — and realized, to my horror, that I had been swimming away from the shore instead of toward it. I took a breath. I could panic, I thought to myself, or I could save myself.

I stood up.

The two experiences — coming out, learning to swim — kept braiding together, a second adolescence, and then a third. I would arrive to swim class awkward and jittery, nervously cracking jokes as soon as I got in sight of the water, babbling as if I were in front of a crush; I’d leave feeling on top of the world or six feet deep in it, my moods shifty and sudden. I cried random tears of happiness, disorientation, relief. Water would get into my nose, and I’d feel like a failure; I’d survive a jump into the deep end and feel ecstasy. At times, I dreaded going to class with the same angst as having to ask a girl on a date. I felt gawky and unsure and annoyed and insecure and thrilled and elated and confused and strong and brilliant and wondrous all at once. I was performing miracles every day.

There were a bevy of metaphors I employed to explain why, after a lifetime of happily dating men, I had suddenly switched gears: I had upgraded from coach to first class; I was in tryouts for the other team. But the metaphor that felt most right involved my eyesight. In fifth grade, from the second row of my classroom, I could see the whiteboard decently, but I was sure things could be better. I asked to get an eye exam. As I rode home from the optometrist a month later with my parents, a pair of round frames on my face, I looked at the edges of all the leaves with wonder and relief. Everything had come into focus.

The day after the kayak incident, I woke determined to swim. I went to a family resort with a water trampoline a few yards from shore. For a while, it was crawling with children, so I stayed in my seat, an impatient and surly teenager not wanting to play with the babies. When they got out, I got in. Immediately, I started to panic. I wondered if anyone on the shore — dads in hats and reflective glasses, an older woman reading a Danielle Steel novel, children munching on mahi-mahi tacos — would notice if I didn’t come back up. I brought my head above water and took a shallow, audible breath. Fatigue crept in. The trampoline was still so far. I gave up on inhaling and just held my breath, puffing my cheeks out to keep all the air in. Five or six pulls of the arms later, I grabbed the bottom rung like a life raft, thrilled to be safe.

But I still had to swim back to shore. I considered jumping off, as I had seen the kids do, but quickly humbled myself, sliding in off the side. Even with goggles, the water was murky, and I couldn’t tell how deep it was. My pulling got more frantic, my breaths shallower. I swam into infinity, unsure of where I was going and in which direction. My energy had been zapped. I gave up and scrambled back to shore.

I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy this. But the next day, I made myself get into Grace Bay, where I saw the older couple two days earlier. I wore a snorkel mask to get myself comfortable breathing and swam a few feet out from shore until I relaxed. With the mask on, I swam vigorously, growing overconfident, then nervous about my overconfidence, convinced that I was swimming out toward the horizon, never to be seen again. Then I ran into a pair of knees: a couple asking me to take a picture of them standing in the water. In the midst of our conversation, we saw something move past us. I pulled my goggles down and dove in, spotting my first fish: one blue tang, scuttling away from me.

In the ocean, I wasn’t afraid of what I might find beneath — seeing something new was the most appealing reason to get in. I would finally see what I had been missing all this time. The first time I ever opened my eyes underwater was in the pool with Paul. He had me grip the ledge and hang down by my arms, just to look around and know that I could come back up: I saw an Atlantis of pasty white legs and tiled lines, the light blue and refracted. In various diary entries, I insisted I wasn’t a lesbian, but I still couldn’t stop thinking about them. I started to see them everywhere.


Seth Casteel for The New York Times

My friend Jessica drove me to the airport for my flight to Turks and Caicos. She and I have an inside joke that we repeat to each other whenever we’re together: an astonished, resigned “You’ve changed.” On the drive, we traded accusations — she had a new haircut, I had glasses she hadn’t yet seen — and laughed. “You have changed, though,” she said. I had gone to her apartment the night before my first class, where she lent me goggles and a combination lock. “The last time I saw you, you weren’t a swimmer,” she said.

I still didn’t think I was. To be “a swimmer” implied mastery and decisiveness — I knew how to swim, I could swim, I had swum, I feel good swimming, swimming is part of me — whereas my ability was still inchoate, relegated largely to the shallow end. Afraid to commit, I wanted the word to reflect my process: I am taking a swim class, I am learning how to swim, I am figuring out what to do, I am mildly better than before. To call myself a swimmer felt deceitful. But I could get myself to the far side of the pool now — when would I be good enough to be what I effectively was?

After I started dating women, there was an inner urgency to give the change a name. My relationship seemed to stave off any inquiries about whether I was “going through a phase,” but I wondered myself if I was attracted to all women or just this one, a hypothesis I was happy to test after we broke up. My life had changed — the laws of attraction had morphed and expanded — but I hadn’t: I was always happy, but now I was just happier. Even an identity expansive enough to encompass all potential future destinations — bisexual, pansexual, queer — seemed too committal, and I was reluctant to give myself, as I had long known me, up. I joked, instead, that I was a “part-time lesbian,” worried that any further commitment would be an unmovable flag in the ground.

On the last day of swim class, Paul admonished me for grabbing onto the wall whenever I got scared or tired. “There is no wall on the beach!” he said. This was why we spent so much time at the beginning working on starting from the front plank and flipping onto my back. He wanted to make certain that if I’m ever in danger or too tired or confused, I can flip to float and regain my senses, elementary backstroking to safety. It took me half the course to perfect it, and I savored practicing the move, sloshing my body from left to right as if a pickle in a jar. The point of “The Reluctant Swimmer,” really, was baked into this motion: I didn’t need to know how to excel at swimming. I needed to know I could save myself.

I wanted to try the move on Grace Bay: If I can do this, I wagered to myself, I can get out of the water. On my last day, I lifted my head, took a gulp of air, then descended. I pulled twice and flipped onto my back with relative ease. I elementary backstroked, following the instructions from class — hanging each arm like a chicken wing, stretching my body out like a starfish, pulling my limbs all together like a rocket ship — gliding over the water. When I learned the stroke, I explained to friends who thought this meant I knew how to swim that it was only a safety stroke, something I would do if I were ever pushed off a boat. “It’s not for fun,” I would say. But it was, once I got used to it. I was relaxing on my beach vacation.

Self-definition is a grueling, delicious task. To be a teenager is to be a testing ground for the assembly of your person; to be a young adult is to have free rein to make mistakes. At some point, we make a plan that reflects the self-knowledge we’ve accumulated thus far — I am this, I like that, here are my intentions. But a plan is a limited comfort. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to deviate?

I might still spend this summer on the shore, and even now, “lesbian” feels close but not precise. (My new joke is that I’m a Kinsey 5.) Two months after coming out, I wrote this in my diary: “Some days, I feel like … I can peacefully submit to the new tide; other days, I feel like I’m drowning. I can’t control the movement, but I can control the actions.” That was before I ever submerged myself in water.


Jazmine Hughes is a story editor for the magazine. She is one of the recipients of the 2020 ASME Next Awards, celebrating journalists under 30. She previously wrote a feature about generational consultants.