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Changing Lanes

Excerpt from Thoughts From a Queen-Sized Bed by Mimi Schwartz




"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 age.

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!



©2002 University of Nebraska Press

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