I see that old woman every now and then at the Y, the one who is not a lunch meat lover. She swims, as I do. She swims in a pair of black shorts and a black shirt. She is ashamed to show her loose, curdled flesh in front of the old men in the hot tub, with their big bellies and skinny legs, red faced, eyeing the teen-age girls splashing each other.
She’s been coming here every day for 17 years. She swims a half-mile, I heard her tell someone. Her swimming is more like walking and treading than swimming, so slow I pass her three times before she reaches the end of the pool. Underwater, blurry and dark, she is like a manatee, slow and graceful, as if her ancestors dwelled in the water, like the water is her voice.
I, on the other hand, am fast. I am faster than any of the other swimmers. My arms are long and they easily pull the water to me. My legs are pure muscle and they push me along. I glide through the water like a slippery fish. The water flows in and out of my mouth, like a filter, separating air from water, like gills, and I feel like a fish. I am a fish.
I do a turn at the end of each length, a neat, tucked somersault, efficient and powerful, propelled by my fins. I submerge and glide, scissor kick and go deeper, rise for air. I swim back and forth, one end to the other like the neon tetras in my tank at home. And each time I pass over a bobby pin at the bottom of the pool, or a Band-Aid, a rubber band. It makes me feel lonely. I stare down at the one-inch-square, dirty blue and white tiles at the bottom of the pool. Some are missing. It reminds me of when I was a child, scared of driving through Callahan Tunnel in Boston because little squares of tiles had fallen out. Water dripped from the ceiling, and I imagined more tiles popping off from the pressure and then water from Boston Harbor bursting through, rushing in, drowning us. Like a tidal wave.
I was never afraid of the ocean until I thought I could swim so well that I owned it, until once in California when I was a fearless teen-ager I swam out to some pelicans and couldn’t get back in. No matter how hard I swam I still was being dragged farther and farther out to sea. I panicked. I put my face in the water and paddled my arms as hard as I could, and finally stepped down and touched soft sand on the ocean floor. I was never the same in the ocean. Never again let myself be seaweed and let the waves tumble me about until my bathing suit is full of sand, and weak and chilled fall onto the warmth of my towel to let the sun bake me.
On top of the water I am fast, like a water bug. But underneath, to myself, swimming, everything is in slow motion, dreamy. Underwater I am honest. I am left with myself. My lungs, my heart, my thoughts. When I swim I fantasize. I invent my life. Scenes are acted out in my mind. I am confident. I am witty. I am sleek and smart, and sophisticated. I am a poet of the sea. I am a painter, an athlete, a walker, a hermit on a mountain. I am dreaming. Fish water water water. I talked in my sleep once, and my friend told me I said that. Fish water water water. It has become my mantra.
After our laps, we sit in the hot tub, I and the old woman and others I don’t know. Once she said to anyone, “We’re blessed, ain’t we?” And no one answered her. They just stared at each other. I stare too. It’s because we are afraid. We are exposed. We come waddling out of the locker room. Fat hangs off our arms and legs and necks. Nipples and penises are outlined in wet bathing suits. Makeup is washed away. Hair is flattened. Baldness shows. People look like they were just born, wet and slick and ugly. They are honest.
There is a man I see often at the Y. He has broad shoulders and takes bold strokes. He has distinguished, graying hair and looks like a corporate executive. I thought he was, until one day I recognized a man in the airport and placed him as the corporate executive swimmer at the Y. His uniform pulled his shoulders down, he seemed too tall for his job, barely fit under’ the electronic metal detector, as he took a woman’s belongings and put them in a Tupperware container, asked her to pass through again. And after that, when I saw him at the Y, I thought he could see right through me, because I can see through him. I know him now, know he is not a corporate executive, but a man who stands in the airport all day, watching people come and go, looking inside their bags and purses. But still he swims fast with strong, powerful arms that make him seem like a giant, like a great white.
There was another man who I only saw in the hot tub once. He struck up a conversation like he was lighting a cigar and puffing until he got it going, asking me if I ever listened to the radio, liked that new jazz station. I said no.
“I’m tired of listening to country, all they ever do is cry about a broken heart. I know enough about that, my wife left me two weeks ago after 18 years. She was 20 years younger than me.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. I am not good at small talk.
“How old do you think I look?” he asked. I thought he looked 60 so I said, “55?”
He said proudly, “61.”
“Nice talking to you,” he said and shook my hand like we were in a business meeting, and he stepped out of the hot tub in his bathing trunks and I felt like I was acting in a movie.
It happens a lot to me, on buses and in supermarkets. Once a woman at the grocery store told me about her life, taking all the time she wanted to ring up my items, hesitating, holding my canned ham in her hand, shaking it at me when she wanted to make a point, throwing my tomatoes into the bag because she was angry about her boyfriend cheating on her and leaving her. I said, “Maybe you could start over,” and she said, “Nah, too many broken promises, too many shattered dreams.” And she gave me my change and picked up the tabloid she was reading with Sarah Ferguson and Lady Diana on the cover.
I take a shower after sitting in the hot tub, and the old woman is there too. Her belly falls below her pubic area so you can’t see her hair there, and her skin is gathered together, stretched out from so much use, years and years of movement. Her legs are like logs, her ankles and knees are lost. She puts her dripping clothes into the new machine in the women’s locker room which dries them out through centrifugal force. She turns to a lady behind her. “Ain’t that wonderful?”
After her shower, she asks someone to rub lotion on her back. Her wide, white, curved back. She asks anyone who happens to be around. I’ve seen her. A kind stranger softens her back with lotion and she talks.
“My son and his wife are coming over today so I am making my special casserole with tomatoes and green peppers and rice and cheese.”
And the other woman said, “I have a wonderful casserole that I make with peas and noodles and deli loaf.”
“Oh, I’m not a lunch meat lover,” the old woman says, it sounded to me like a sad poem. They talk about leftovers, what keeps, what doesn’t, as the stranger kneads the old woman’s back. She closes her eyes and says, “You don’t know how much I appreciate that.”
One day I see the woman who is not a lunch meat lover with a gadget, a towel thing with handles that lets her rub her own back, which she uses when no one is around. Some days I want to see her, with her short cropped hair, that yarn yellow of blondes when they get old, not gray or silver but like the color of her teeth. Other days I don’t want to see her, cheerful and happy because we have a bathing suit dryer or a hot tub.
She looks at me and I glance away. But our eyes touch, enough for her to ask me if I would mind rubbing lotion on her back. Slowly, I put some cold lotion in my hand and touch her soft, ashy skin and she begins to talk. She says she used to be a dancer and worked on Broadway and then taught dance lessons.
“You like to swim,” I said to her.
“Oh, that’s not swimming,” she said. “That’s ballet “
I rub the lotion into her skin, and add more, basting, and coating and moving my hand all over her back without taking it off, like her back was a Ouija board and my hand, moving mysteriously, would reveal something to me. I start to cry, silently, tears streaming down my face, and she reaches around and touches my arm and says, “There, there.”
And I swim. I remember my life and it seems to me, underwater, what has happened was purposeful. I go back to childhood and I remember my birth, hypnotized. I am a fish, swimming from my little stream out into the big ocean, and sometimes, I am scared.