Swimming Lessons

Swimming pool behind house with bamboo fence

Photo by Chris A. Tweten on Unsplash

In the old Jakarta house, everyone had their place. My mother had the dining room for entertaining. The tv room was staked out by my father for football and the evening news. The kitchen belonged to Nur, the cook, and Yanto, the driver, presided over the garage. Elis, when she arrived, was relegated to the laundry and cleaning area. Budi had the yard to care for, including the pool, which was mine.

I used to swim in it every day, tearing off my sweaty school clothes and jumping in with just my underwear on.  It was deceptively deep. Even full grown, my toes wouldn’t touch the bottom.  

One of my cousins nearly drowned in that pool. He toppled backwards into the water during a vicious game of neighbourhood tag. Tagged, of course, by me. He could not swim and sank to the bottom like a stone.

I was the only child to afford actual swimming lessons. So, I dove in and hooked his waist with my arm. I struggled to bring him to the surface. He flailed his arms and legs, working against me. 

When my hand broke through the water, I felt someone yank and hoist my body out.

I blinked away the chlorine. Budi was grinning at me. A white toothy smile. 

“You saved him!” He said.

“You saved me,” I told him, annoyed to be rescued. 

 Budi pulled my cousin to a grassy spot under the guava tree. The boy was crying and hiccuping, vomiting water like a frog. How was so much possible in a single plunge? 

A circle of children crowded around us, gawping with fish mouths. 

“Move back!” I shouted at them. This was my house, my back yard, my pool.

Elis came running out in a panic. She was just a few months fresh from the village but already savvy to the politics of the household.  Her hair was flying, black strands broken loose from her pins. 

“What happened?”  She draped a towel over my cousin’s shoulders.

“It’s nothing,” Budi said soothingly. He sat the boy up and patted his back. “Now, you are learning how to swim!”

Elis knew immediately who to blame. She swatted me with a soapy bra she had not yet finished washing.

“Aduh! Bandelnya!” 

This was her favourite word for me: Bandel. Naughty, disobedient, but also hard-headed, which was true. I was the only child of her wealthy employers, spoiled and stubborn, always finding ways to make her life more difficult.  

“You can’t tell Mama!” I said. It was an order.

“Why not?” She said, “If you were my child, I would hit you!”

We squared off. Me, thrusting out my skinny chest and she, glowering down at me, hands on her hips. 

“Biarin,” Budi said in his usual calm. Leave it be.  If bandel was Elis’ favorite word, biarin was Budi’s.  

Elis threw him a warning look. Budi stood up and peered into the leaves of the guava tree. He reached up and plucked a single fruit. For days, he’d been watching it, waiting for the bright green skin to yellow, telling me it was not quite ripe enough.  Now, he snapped the stem off and, with a wincing effort, cracked the fruit open. The flesh glistened a lurid pink studded with tiny yellow seeds.  He handed it to my cousin.

“What is that going to do?” Elis demanded and I wanted to know too because, by rights, the fruit was mine. 

Budi shrugged his sloping shoulders. 

“Just giving him something sweet to eat,” he said. 

“Nobody can tell Mama or Papi,” I said it again as if stating the words would make it true. Budi said nothing and I turned to Elis, nodding my head to make her say yes. She shook her head slowly. Realizing she was still holding my mother’s wet brassiere in her hand, she marched back to the laundry room.

I swore my cousin to secrecy. With a sewing needle, I punctured our index fingers and forced a drop of blood to well up. Then I mashed them together. A binding blood oath. 

It didn’t work. The other kids told their cousins and friends who told their parents about this near-death experience.  The tale grew in danger and drama until it wound its way around the neighbourhood back to my livid mother and father.

My parents rounded up the household. Budi and Elis but also Nur, who’d been at the market when it happened and Yanto who had been chauffeuring my parents. I peeked around the jamb of my bedroom door to watch. 

Nur and Yanto looked bored. Older and more experienced, they assumed their roles as disinterested bystanders. Budi gazed at the tiled floor, shiny from mopping. Elis had her chin up but she looked like she might cry. 

“What were you thinking?!” My mother’s voice jangled like the gold bracelets on her wrists. “You can’t be daydreaming,” she continued to berate Elis.  “You have to pay attention. This isn’t the village where kids can play just anywhere!” 

I was the one who invited all the kids over, shoving them past Eli’s protestations at the door, knowing full well that she couldn’t say no. Elis could have told my mother all this and she would be right. She said nothing. 

My father tried to arbitrate. He pointed out that Budi had, in fact, saved us from drowning. And Elis had been focused on not destroying the delicate hand laundry, as per my mother’s complicated instructions for fine lingerie. 

“Besides,” he said, “I think we know who invited all the kids over.”

I knew what was coming next. 

Two weeks without TV. No friends or cousins allowed over to the house for a month. The punishment wasn’t so bad. I had expected worse. But I slammed the door to my room anyway. 

After that, Budi constructed a small bamboo fence around the pool. He sang along to the radio while he worked. He never seemed unhappy to do a job, no matter how boring. 

Elis cut her hair after the pool incident, though I wasn’t sure if the two were related. One day, she took a rubber band from the kitchen and lassoed it back. Then she sawed at the strands with a scissors until it detached easily, like the tail of a baby gecko. 

“Here,” she said, handing it to me. Her hair was soft. I had never touched her hair before. It surprised me how smooth it was. 

“What do we do with it?” I asked. 

“Sell it,” she said and swiped it back from me. “Also, one more thing.”

“What?” I was suspicious but also excited at the possibility of intrigue and mischief. 

“Teach me how to swim.” I agreed. Immediately.  

Elis’ lopsided haircut made her even prettier. It showed off her elegant neck and long back. My mother worried about this.

“It’s bad luck,” she said to my grandmother. 

We were in the new supermarket near our house. There was no intention to buy. Only to cluck at all the expensive imported food. We ran our fingers over tins of buttery sweets from England and green wine bottles from France. All displayed in spotless aisles, frosty with high velocity air-conditioning to protect these exotic treasures from the tropical heat.

“Do you think-“ My grandmother let the sentence hang for my sake. She knew I was listening. “Sometimes, these village girls-”

My ears swivelled for more details. But I kept my eyes zeroed in on a rainbow box of American breakfast cereal. I shook it vigorously to see how much was inside.

“No, it’s not that.” My mother fluttered her hand in exasperation.

“So, what’s the problem?” My grandmother asked.

“She’s not happy,” my mother said. “She wants things. She’ll run off and I’ll have to find someone else.”

“Ah,” my grandmother said, giving my mother a sidelong glance, “Basically, she’s not like Budi. Happy to do nothing.”

“Exactly,” My mother concluded, “That’s the problem.” 


Elis chose a day when everyone was gone. My mother was at some women’s meeting. Nur had gone home to see her children. Yanto was taking the weekend off to spend time with his second wife. Budi was practicing his skill behind the wheel, driving my father to golf.  We were alone in the house. 

“Get your swimming suit on,” I told her. She laughed at me.

“I don’t have a swimming suit!” 

“What are you going to swim in then?”

She looked behind her at the empty yard then pulled her t-shirt up over her head. She wriggled the black work pants off her hips and laid them at the side of the pool. Her bra was pointy and padded, lacy but cheap, puckering in all the wrong places. A poor imitation of my mother’s fine silk that Elis was at such pains to clean. She took one ginger step into the water. 

“It’s cold!” With each step, she giggled, as though the water had icy, effervescent fingers tickling her toes. 

This was a different Elis from the one that did the laundry, scowling and throttling the clothes in the grey soapy lather.  This Elis smiled with pleasure as she submerged her body into the blue chill of the pool.  

“Now what?” She said and looked up at me. 

Her fingers gripped white at the pool’s edge but her face was flushed with exhilaration. 

“Your legs should be like a frog’s,” I explained in my best imitation of the swimming coach at the sports club. I even had a whistle looped around my neck. “Move your arms up and out in a circle.” 

At first, she bobbed up and down in a convoluted dog paddle. But as she gained confidence, she developed her own stroke — half frog, half dog —that propelled her from one cut corner to the other. She learned to float, the water lapping at her smooth belly. Then, slowly, she started doing short laps the width of the pool, always when the rest of the household was gone. 

I don’t know for how long Budi watched our swimming lessons. I only realized he was there when she had begun to swim the length of the pool.  He was squatting at the far corner of the garden, half hidden by the ginger flowers. All I saw, at first, was the orange ember of his lit cigarette, a twist of smoke trailing up into the air. He was not smiling, only gazing at Elis as she swam smoothly through the water, perfecting her stroke. 

“Budi is watching,” I whispered to her when she had returned to my end of the pool.

“I know,” she said, “Biarin aja.” Leave him be.  

She swam one more lap. A prolonged and leisurely round, as if the pull of Budi’s gaze slowed her down.  Then, she drew herself out and towelled off. She didn’t bother putting her clothes back on. I watched as she walked back to her room, back straight, clothes in one hand and the towel wrapped around her hips.


“I knew she was bad luck,” my mother told my father after dinner. Nur had cooked roast chicken with Brussels sprouts, a rare delicacy that my father ate with gusto but that I did not appreciate. I had boycotted the meal entirely and now my stomach grumbled in complaint, despite cradling a mug of consolation Ovaltine. 

We were huddled around the tv set, our private time as a family inside the house. On the street corner outside, I could hear Budi laughing. Out with his friends drinking coffee or squatting down to share a bowl of noodles with Elis. I wanted to be out there slurping down salty broth and chewy noodles, hunkered down between them as they gossiped. But I also wanted to be inside, snuggled into the sofa with my parents.

“Some people think it’s good luck,” my father said mildly.

“What money do they have?” She snapped at him. “How will they raise a child? Can you imagine Budi as a father? Sleepy Budi? And Elis is practically a kid herself!”

“Budi always plays with me,” I offered up and then added, “Also, Elis is not a kid at all. She never plays with me.” 

My mother emitted a brittle laugh.

“There’s more to parenthood than hosting tea parties by the pool.” 

She seemed about to say something else but caught it before it escaped her lips.  

“I’m just worried,” she said finally.

“Well, if Budi gets his license,” my father said gazing at the tv, “He can find work as a driver.”

“And Elis?”

“I think she’ll be fine,” he said.

The answer did not seem to satisfy my mother. She huffed at him and returned to leafing through her glossy magazine. 


The motorcycle was second hand but barely used, a shiny red. 

“Where did you get the money?” I asked Elis. 

“My hair,” she said, “and some money I saved up.” 

I struggled to conceive of how much hair was worth, how much money had exchanged hands for her soft strands.  

Their plans were set. After a driving test and some under the table cash to speed things up, Budi had gotten his driver’s license.  They did not have enough for a car yet. But Elis had a plan.  She knew someone back home who could rent them a car. Budi could drive to earn money until they could afford their own. 

I wanted to give Elis something for the baby, but my mother told me money was the best. A few nights before they left, when her belly was starting to swell, I gave her a box wrapped in pink paper. 

“What is it?” She pulled it out of the box: a swimming suit, as blue as the ceramic pool tiles. She thanked me and kissed me on the forehead. 

“There is a river where the children swim back home at the village,” she said. “You could swim there.”

“You mean, you could swim?” I said, “When you were small like me?” 

“Not like you,” she said and touched my face. 

I wanted to cry and tell her not to go. She didn’t need to have children. She had me! But that wasn’t right, I knew, and saying that would only prove how stubborn and spoiled I really was. Bandel. It’s not my fault, I wanted to tell her, I can’t help it.

They left on the motorcycle. My father shook Budi’s hand and gave him a hefty manila envelope of money. My mother snuck an extra bundle of notes in when she thought no-one was looking. 

Budi gathered me up into one last hug and I cried in his arms. Elis had to pry me away. Then she made me promise to visit. 

“Swear on it,” she said. But I never did visit. 

When I go back home now, the swimming pool looks so much smaller and forlorn.  Dark stripes of dirt drift on the bottom.  My mother wants to sell the house and swap it for a high-rise apartment. 

“Easier to maintain,” she says, “without all the help.”

Yanto went to work for the Japanese embassy and has fathered three more kids with the second wife.  Nur is back home in the village to take care of her many grandkids.

“She was getting old anyway,” she says.

“What about Budi?” I ask, “And Elis?” 

“I hear that Budi’s still driving,” she says. “Apparently, Elis runs a small fleet of trucks. It’s good money.”  

I want to ask if they had a girl or a boy, maybe two or three kids now, like Yanto. I am too afraid, too ashamed, that I have not grown beyond the spoiled child I was.

I prefer to dream of them living in a house by the river.  Their children swimming freely,  bubbling with laughter at the muddy water tickling their toes. 


Atika Shubert

Writer and Journalist. Novelist-in-training. By way of Jakarta, Bangkok, New York, Tokyo, Jerusalem, London, Berlin and now, Valencia.