"Why don't they fix the window?"
I almost asked when I first started coming to this pool, a part of Princeton
University. It was 6:30 A.M., right after New Year's Day, and the place
was packed with the before-work crowd. The window, fifteen feet above
my head, was open and snow was falling on the locker-room floor (no
berber carpet like at the YMCA, no sauna or built-in hair dryers either).
But the two young, slim coeds who were changing clothes on either side
of me seemed unconcerned, so I kept my mouth shut and changed quickly.
If that's what it takes to get into midlife shape, so be it.
Ten years later the window
is still open and it's still freezing, but today, at midmorning, no
one is here. I hurry to get my suit on before someone from the lunchtime
crowd comes. That's silly, the poet Audre Lorde would say, there's noting
to hide. She wouldn't wear a prosthesis after her mastectomy, she says
in Cancer Journals, even when the nurse in her doctor's office complained
that it set a bad example.
Lanes four and five, which
usually share a dozen Speedo suits moving like torpedoes, have two sprinters;
lane three, my old lane, has no one. I stay away, still remembering
that guy - Was it two years ago? - who passed me and snarled: "Why don't
you swim lane two, lady?" He was doing the breaststroke and I was doing
the crawl, my fastest stroke. True, a few people had already passed
me, but after him everyone went by, and a week later someone kicked
me in the head. So I switched to lane two, crushed. Wasn't I the fastest
swimmer in bunk ten at Camp Inawood, with trophies somewhere in the
basement to prove it? Now I'll overtake everyone, I thought, swimming
leisurely - until an old guy who didn't look like much, stroke-wise,
overtook me in lane two. An old heavyset woman almost did, too, but
I sped up.
This morning I am swimming
in lane one - just temporarily, until I get my left arm fully back in
shape. Dr. Grummond said this would take three weeks at most once I
start swimming regularly. And the oncologist said no chemo is needed,
just a pill, tamoxifen, once a day; so that's no problem.
I sit on the rim for a while,
dangling my feet. The water is cold. My towel is around my neck to cover
the slight cave-in where my normal bathing suit begins. I have to remember
to sit up straight now. A slouch reveals everything, but the alternative
is wearing one of those floral, skirted, mastectomy monsters that make
you feel 105.
Before me, a huge, baldheaded
old man (he must weigh over three hundred pounds) is moving like a dead
whale in the water. How can he be so relaxed, butt rising every few
strokes like Moby Dick? In front of him a thin-haired woman in giant
goggles is doing the dog paddle. She is working so hard trying to keep
her head above water. A young woman at the far end is floating on her
back. I wonder why she's here at this hour. She must be my daughter's
No one in this lane seems
to care about the clock. How can they go back and forth so aimlessly?
Annoyed, I slip in to join them. I start slow, concentrating on my arm
as it stretches five, ten, twenty times across the pool. I forget about
gliding gracefully like Esther Williams on AMC and try to find a comfortable
position. One, two, one, two. My scar doesn't throb.
My friend Rhona told me that
she is getting fat and so what. She is tired of eating diet salad dressing
and ice milk and wants the real thing from now on. And my cousin Anna
has announced that she is letting her hair turn gray. One, two, one,
two. She doesn't care whether she finds anyone new. "Don't be dumb!"
I told them both with the optimism they expect from me, "You're young
if you keep in shape. It's letting go that makes you old."
Letting go might be nice.
I picture myself sinking to the chipped tile floor twenty feet below,
but I float upward, surprising myself. One, two, one, two... My shoulders
relax, and I ease into a rhythm of forgetting that will carry me forward
into new possibilities. I do now yet know about the pleasures of a big
warm lake in summer, where you can swim into the early morning mists,
the rising sun on your back, the loons calling from somewhere. All I
know is to follow the solid black line painted on the pool floor, assuring
myself - I'm fine, one, two, one, two, just fine - until someone touches
my foot. I look up, lose track of my count, and speed into an open stretch
without looking back to see who it is. Damn, even in lane one!