The Water Goddess


She was only my invention from the beginning. For years, I held out hope of becoming this other woman, this goddess I have long felt stirring inside me. Eventually, I accepted this would never happen. She was nothing more than my personal religion. Still I sense her swimming through my gallbladder, my kidneys when the world becomes liquid, when I spend the evening sitting in the tub until my fingertips turn into pale raisins. Below any body of water’s surface, she again breathes through my lungs, dissolves like an aspirin through my bloodstream. I step out of the bath, taste salt on my lips. I dry myself with a towel, knowing she has vanished.

A couple years after I joined the swim team at the age of ten, I stood before my parents’ bedroom mirror, extending tall from their dresser. I slipped out of my cotton dress and into my mom’s bikini, which was the color of an olive. Outside in our garden, my parents were harvesting green beans and cabbage, both too busy to wonder what I was doing. Lengthening my neck toward the water damage veining the ceiling, I held my breath, stretched my arms out, and pretended I was sculling through air thickening into fluid. I practiced being the goddess.

Exhaling, I tied the bikini top’s straps more tightly around my back. Leaning across the dresser and fogging the mirror with my breath, I folded my stomach over the drawer where my dad kept handkerchiefs. I searched my pupils for the small stars whose light implied vast distance and told me of the goddess’ presence. I looked inside my own body’s blackness with the appetite of a beggar needing money, waiting for the light to reach me. I fell deeply in love with my own becoming.

Within a few more years, I became such a disappointment in comparison to what I had imagined—a woman whose beauty could attract love without limits. My only consolation was pretending the goddess came to life inside of me once I started swimming from one side of the pool and back again, which was as good a reason as any to stay on the team while winning no races, while only half hiding beneath the water’s blanket.

The only problem was that most of my life was lived outside the water. Most of my life, I had more trouble imagining I was someone different than I seemed. In my drier moments, I believed the goddess had abandoned me for the sea gypsies, those who make a home of the ocean, who daily search the water’s bottom for sea slugs, for mollusks.

Those few sea gypsies still in existence inhabit the Andaman Sea’s coastal islands. Known as Moken, they can hold their breath for up to five minutes before breaching the waves without gasping. They catch fish with their hands and kick through the blueness to a beach where a fire illumines a shipwreck’s flotsam. They fall asleep among nests of seaweed as the goddess blows cool air onto their faces before they waken with sea-bloated bellies. Unlike myself, they have tried to keep swimming.

For thousands of years, they have lived as nomads among beaches now metastasizing with high rises, with bleak and silver gas stations. The governments of Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand have coaxed the Moken into their homes, shops, and prisons. They have restricted their hunting grounds to waters surrounding smaller islands. Thousands have been forced onto parklands, made to serve as tourist attractions. Yet however far they are kept from the ocean, some part of me wants to believe not everything can be taken. Even when they can no longer swim to catch the fish that once sustained them, I want to believe they can also sense a goddess flowing through their bloodstream.

All life evolves from the sea into dryness. Life is the progressive loss of moistness from hair, from skin, from the mucus lining our orifices even as the earth’s water level rises. The years pass. Spines bend, muscles weaken. The oils smoothing your skin congeal into something nearly solid as you almost forget how close you once were to becoming a goddess. No one may have glimpsed her beauty, yourself included. Still she swims through your veins, your arteries once you yourself go swimming.

Kicking their legs through turquoise inlets, those few tribes of Moken who remain see underwater as well as dolphins. They constrict their pupils and flex their eyes’ lenses, an ability scientists have demonstrated belongs to all children. It is only the need that is missing. Most children do not need to hunt below the sea. All we see clearly, scientists have determined, is that which keeps us from starving. The goddess for me has then gone largely missing because I have adapted to a life with less beauty than I once imagined. I have lost a certain amount of moistness in my hair and skin.

In Chicago, I walk most evenings along Lake Michigan. The world is darkness once I reach my apartment after my workday is finished. Even before daylight fades into nothing, there are too many people moving past me for me to ever remember their faces, to clearly make out more than one in a hundred. Still, twice this week, I have seen the same man who looks at me as if he knows me when he doesn’t. Both times, we have noticed each other from a small distance among hundreds of others riding bikes and jogging. We have each walked slowly as a piece of thread unraveling from a blanket compared to the speeding throng around us. Being strangers, we haven’t stopped or spoken.

Both times I saw him, he was carrying something upon his shoulder, a large package wrapped in paper or plastic. His right arm was folded around it while his eyes danced and made conversation. Among the thousands of other limbs blurring into the skyline behind them, his expression made me aware of the beauty I walk in even while feeling nothing like a beautiful woman. I believe I saw him alone clearly less because he was walking, not biking or jogging, than because he met a need I had almost forgotten. For the first time in too long to remember, I felt I have moved slowly underwater rather than hurried for a reason. His whole face as well as his eyes were open.


When my mom first confessed she had signed me up for the swim team, she said it was only a suggestion. I could quit whenever I wanted. It was only her way, I realized even then, of helping me lose the weight collecting on my waist, my thighs, my buttocks when I stayed sitting. If she hadn’t, a decade of my life, from eight to eighteen, would have been so much drier, my skin smelling only rarely of chlorine. I joined the team then kept swimming even after I grew less rounded. I kicked my legs through liquid, indulged my one true instinct, searching for beauty hidden beneath water’s surface. When practice was finished, I took off my plastic swim cap and let my hair hang ragged, exposed my body.

I was never in any hurry despite my coaches’ insistence on speed, always more even for those who were winning. I was never eager to leave the water’s reassuring silence while all races ended at the beginning. Even the fastest among us swam only from one side of the pool and back again, never arrived anyplace different. I had no hunger for medals, for ribbons. I never minded losing, accepting last as my natural place from the beginning. Over time, my coaches ignored me.

My mom was surprised I stayed on the team for as many years as I did, through more meets than she ever wanted to attend on weekday evenings when she could have been weeding her flower beds or doing laundry. After so many hours spent sitting through the school day, I began to crave the movement. It is the same reason why as an adult, I walk along the lakefront at workday’s end for as long as the weather allows it. I walk as slowly as I once swam from one side of the pool and back again while everyone else is biking or jogging except for the man who carries the package.

Weeks have passed now since I’ve seen him. To have recognized his face and have had his eyes twice make conversation was enough of a gift, one he has likely forgotten. Men may look upon me as a body that suffices every now and then. But judging by this man’s expression, he saw some of what lay below its skin, its surface.

The last time I saw him, the ends of my hair were wet. I was walking home from a party at a friend’s apartment, where I had never met many of the others invited until that evening. Most were artists, and several sell their paintings for a living. The most statuesque of the women often models for the rest, she told me.

After we had talked and drunk a little wine and eaten, we swam in the pool in the building’s basement. At first, I made excuses and tried leaving early. All the other women wore bikinis beneath their dresses. I had brought no swimsuit, but wore my friend’s one-piece when she insisted. I changed in her bedroom then followed the rest to the basement, where they stayed laughing in the shallow end as I dove into the deep end like a dolphin. While they held each other’s bodies grown weightless, carrying each other on their backs like slack papooses, I swam back and forth then back and forth again. I felt at ease as long as I stayed in motion.

Later upstairs, we drank more wine while dripping water onto the floor in the kitchen, while letting our towels hang loose around our waists, our hips. The artists then drifted into the living room, leaving watery footprints. They let their swimsuits fall onto the carpet before hanging them off the balcony to dry. These nine or ten men and women paid little attention to their own nakedness. They walked casually back inside and changed into their clothes, which lay scattered across chairs and couches. I padded inside the bedroom to put my own clothes on again when a man who had introduced himself as an architect opened the door without knocking. He said he was looking for his girlfriend, not seeming to notice I was wearing only panties.

The body tells each person who sees it only one story. It tells of where beauty lives and where it goes missing. Its contours, its proportions speak of strength and suppleness, of the time remaining until it turns entirely to stone, until it evolves wholly from wetness into dryness. Seeing the man carrying his package along Lake Michigan less than an hour after this, I wondered what my body told him.


At the public pool where I worked as a lifeguard for three consecutive summers, there were never any lives to save, none while I was working. My minimum wage was all I received in exchange for all my years on a swim team. My thousands of hours spent running through water, from one end of the pool and back again, had come to nothing, as I knew they would from the beginning. I only ever left my chair and dove into the pool to reassure those children starting to dogpaddle a little breathlessly. I had only to wrap one soft arm around their waist to comfort them as I scalloped my other through the water with an ease that often surprised me. I climbed out the ladder and, for a few minutes until my skin turned dry again, felt myself bathed in the goddess’ beauty. No one else, I knew, could see this, though being seen had never been her purpose. Otherwise, she would have shown herself to me long before then.

Female lifeguards where no one is ever in danger of drowning do little more by day’s end than uphold a temple built for a goddess they don’t believe in. They wear whistles around their necks they rarely bother blowing. Bronzing their lean legs in the sun, they rest on wooden chairs to see everything below them and are themselves more clearly seen as a consequence. The male lifeguards spent more time in the bathhouse than we did, more hours on the intercom making announcements, sitting in the shade of the awning of the hotdog stand reading magazines. They sat in the small office playing music. They watched us. They made us feel either wanted or unwanted as the children splashed below us.

I was likely the only female lifeguard who was still a virgin. For much of those summers, I sat trying to pretend there are joys available only to the sexless. I tried making my isolation into a religion, tried telling myself something beyond what my body had already written, the only story to which most people will listen. I imagined I saw more than others around me, as if I were a Moken hunting underwater when in truth I was the opposite—I needed prescription sunglasses, had fuzzy underwater vision.

For years, my parents owned a speedboat with another family. On Sundays when I wasn’t working, I usually went waterskiing, spending hours on a cracked leather seat with my legs extended toward the engine and inhaled the leaking gasoline my parents complained was getting more expensive. Though skiing was their only real leisure activity, my parents often avoided the water once they found themselves surrounded by its silence. After my dad slowed the boat to where the lake was deepest, they both grew reluctant to dive in. Neither liked to swim or ever spent much time in water shallow enough not to need a lifejacket. As they got older, they often said they preferred to sit and ride instead, enjoying the boat’s speed while others skied behind it.

They relied on me to go first, and I almost always obliged them, even though I never had any love for being dragged behind our boat while struggling to keep my balance, feeling my arms being torn and lengthened after I finished. My lackluster feelings for doing anything in water except swim slowly disappointed them. Once I was old enough to drive myself to my own swim meets, they mostly stopped going.

One of the last times we went skiing while I was still working as a lifeguard, my mom hadn’t worn a swimsuit. She normally wore hers beneath a summer dress, but today she planned on changing into it at the marina’s rest area, something she announced before leaving. Only she had forgotten it at home, she said when her turn to ski came. She looked only half disenchanted with staying dry instead. This was her way, I suspected, of escaping the fun she had long tired of having.

Two of my dad’s friends, both with sagging mustaches, were with us that day. As they sat drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, they told my mom a bra and underwear were the same as a bikini. They laughed and repeated it. As they took their own turns skiing, she drank a few beers to match them. They goaded her, and she eventually did as they wanted. She had worn silk panties and a fawn lace bra beneath her dress. She had also lived more than four decades inside an attractive body. She had nothing to hide from them except a larger show of beauty.

As she handed my dad her dress, he sat facing the opposite direction. I turned and watched him study a family of ducks trace a shifting island of seaweed as he sank beer cans, one after another, while watching the ducks drift toward the horizon. Before filling each can with water until it bubbled and fell to lake’s bottom, he tore off their tabs and dropped them inside a cup holder.

As my mom rose from out the water and became a smaller person from a distance, only the dark patch of curling hair between her legs looked a different color from the rest of her. The smell of gasoline began receding as she jumped wakes in her panties. Her skin bled into the cloudless sky behind her. I wound my towel more tightly around me as the boat gathered speed and the wind rose higher. My dad’s two friends howled with laughter as my dad stared straight ahead, driving us in a loose ellipse until our boat became a planet lapsed from orbit.

We all begin our lives in water. We spend nine months submerged in a womb’s amniotic liquid only to emerge from our mothers crying, aghast at this world’s desiccation. To exist solely now on land is to live always waiting to reenter the water—to feel soothed even by the sound of it falling. To live a life on land is to feel the loss of our former lives within our very faces.

Before our ancestors crawled out a primordial liquid, a translucent membrane slid across the eye and moistened the lens, allowing them to see better through the blue depths of the ocean. Every human who inhabits this planet retains the remnant of this third eyelid, positioned at the eye’s corner closest to the nose’s bridge. Among fish, reptiles, and amphibians, the membrane still slides horizontally across the entire eye’s surface. Whereas with our own third eyelid receded into near nothing, with my poor underwater vision, its only purpose is to remind us we once spent more time in water than we do at present. It reminds us the last of the sea gypsies have all but vanished.


Some evenings, those of us who worked until pool’s closing carpooled to a smaller town to eat fried chicken. We drove along the highway after we had locked the gates, swam some ourselves, and drank beer around the hotdog stand bought by one of the lifeguard’s older brothers. The ends of our hair were often wet as we ate chicken an hour or so later, though I can no longer remember how many of these evenings we had, how often we planned them, as I can clearly remember only one of them. I rode to eat fried chicken in another lifeguard’s minivan, where I sat by myself in the seat farthest from the driver.

The lifeguard seated in front of me must have been drunk or close to it, while I had likely been drinking nothing but water. As he started talking to me, he leaned back then wrapped his arms around my upper body. Before I could stop him, he heaved himself over the back of his seat and sat too close beside me. For the first time in my life, I felt a hardened penis. I felt him thrusting, trying to dry hump me while everyone else in the minivan was watching, laughing. I felt myself grow warm with all I had been missing, the touch, the strange abrasion women looking closer to goddesses easily attracted. I laughed then pushed him off me. I still don’t know whether he was only making fun of me, half performing the sex I had never experienced, because no one else wanted me. This has always been my assumption.

The next day, a note was taped to my bathhouse locker. Unsigned and scrawled in marker, it read, “I love you always.” I thought the boy who had dry humped me had written it, and I was hurt by the irony of its message. Later in the day, I found out a female lifeguard who was friendly toward me had done this instead. She had seen my face while the other lifeguard was rubbing himself against me. She told me as we cleaned the bathhouse floor together she understood what I was feeling. She had begun to hate this job for all the male lifeguards’ comments. She thought she understood me, but she didn’t. Her body told a different story.

If I were to visit this pool again, I would find the same lifeguards still presiding over the same water’s blanket, still with no lives in need of saving. I cannot imagine anything real has changed. Those sitting in the same chairs at summer’s end perform the same function as those I knew once did, myself included. They sit and act as columns for a temple to a goddess of whom they know nothing. When your world has yet to begin evolving into dryness, when your body tells a story that elicits love without limits, the goddess is unnecessary. For me, she was a source of beauty no one else could judge as they could my face, my body.

However pleasing or unpleasing my appearance, the goddess promised something beyond this—a liquid essence. She continues to allow me to perceive beauty beyond the senses, which I still believe to be more vital than becoming a beautiful object. I have been too long acquainted with life’s disappointments not to need this one illusion. I know the man carrying the package may not have seen me as clearly as I thought he did. I can also never know what he carried on his shoulder, only that he held it close to him. We walked slowly, passed each other as the light fell behind the buildings.


Rumpus original art by Nusha Ashjee.

Melissa Wiley is the author of the essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob's Tea House. She lives in Chicago. More from this author →