“SWIMMING" Copyright 2007 by MICHEL COLLOT
On his birthday, in midsummer, R. arrived early at the swimming pool, intending to leave enough time so he could meet an old friend for dinner. There were few friends left in town to celebrate with. R. was turning fifty-eight, and the enormity of this number made him choke every time he thought of it.
As he walked toward the pool, he saw Curly just stepping out of the ladies' changing room. Curly was a pretty woman he'd once seen with a pubic hair sticking out of her white bathing suit. From that day on, every time he passed by her, his eyes never failed to go to the spot between her legs, but he'd never seen another hair.
Now she was headed for the public phone, crossing his path. R. realized his chance. "Perfect weather for swimming," he said to her with a forced smile, his heart pounding. She stared back at him with a puffy face and surprised, watery eyes—apparently she'd been crying. R. retreated, mumbling an apology, and looked for an empty lane in the pool.
R. swam every day now. He enjoyed the feeling of new muscles in his upper arms. Whenever he walked, there was a firm pressure against the sides of his chest. It was as though there were two new animals in his body that grew restless around six o'clock each afternoon, begging to be taken out. "Be patient," he would tell them, "it'll take me just a minute to get my swimsuit." But it always took much longer because things had a way of disappearing in his apartment.
He cherished the newly found strength in his body, barely two years after the troubles with his heart. "Before you know it, you'll be climbing mountains again," his doctor had said when R. still lay pale-faced in his hospital bed, trying to listen to the new bypassing sounds of his blood. "I never did," he managed to say in reply, with a weak smile on his face. He had taken the doctor's words as mere pep talk, something he thought they learned in medical school to round out their education. But then the miracle happened; through the ban of greasy food and the addition of twenty daily laps, he had a smoothly running engine again.
He had to change lanes, to the left, to get out of the way of the Splasher. The Splasher was an enormous, pot-bellied man who created entire breakers by shifting his weight around. Here he went again, shoveling and beating the water with his flabby arms, paying little regard to his fellow swimmers. Approaching the other end of the pool, R. saw the Grinner, who was just standing in the water with his elbows propped on the edge of the pool. The Grinner beamed his full-moon face at R., as he did with everyone swimming in his direction. R. always saw him standing and grinning at one end of the pool or the other, but had never seen him swim. He'd concluded that the Grinner had his own, grinning, way to get across.
As R. made his first turn, he was hit by a pungent smell, a mixture of garlic and overripe fish. Yes, Garly had joined the early afternoon crowd. He was a self-assured, pale-skinned, bald-headed man who always emitted wafts of that intense odor. The familiar smell drifted across three lanes, causing R. to change to the butterfly that forced his nose into the water for most of the time.
There was monotony in these lonely laps. He knew the shape of every leaf of every tree along the side of the pool. He'd seen everything a thousand times: the showers, long, curved aluminum tubes that had a sad Modigliani look to them; the five red-and-white lifesaving rings along the way; the lifeguard's green, heavy-set podium that reminded him of the Eiffel Tower with its clumsy proportions; the black-bordered sign that advised swimmers not to jump into the second pool that had been emptied early in the season; and the cross on top of the little Catholic church, next to the park, which always made him wonder if it doubled as a lightning rod. As he swam, he'd think of all kinds of mental chores. One day he would go through the list of planets, starting with Mercury, closest to the Sun, and working his way out toward Pluto. He would try to think what life would be like, living and swimming out there. Another day he would go through the names of Hollywood actresses, or follow the movements of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.
This time, after the warm-up was done, he started his long breaststrokes on the theme of his life, one stroke for each season, 232 to go. He straddled through his first two years — summer-fall-winter-spring, summer-fall-winter-spring — and found it fitting, for once, that he felt wet between his legs. He saw his grandmother, a woman with a sour face, feed him big spoonfulls of the farmer's cheese he used to hate. Growing up again as he swam, he learned to speak, cheat, and build towers with wooden blocks. At stroke number thirty-two he joined the Little League, but quit within three seconds because he couldn't stop crying when he was hit by a ball. He didn't count four of his strokes since he had to repeat fourth grade because of his marginal math. His teenage years cost him an entire length of the pool: again he walked through the misty rain in a heavy coat, feeling pimples grow on his chin. Halfway through that length was the first time he'd been with a girl. Involuntarily his hands formed two cups, size A, in commemoration of that event, but the water would not allow the sudden hydrodynamic drain, so he had to flatten them back into that other breaststroke shape.
He got ready, at the end of the lane, to meet his college flame, that sweet brown-eyed girl, in the halls of the State University. Closing his eyes, he felt the water streaming by and caressing him, a memory of Eva's sweet hands, just before she left him for a chain-smoker. Switching to a crawl, R. quickly abandoned Chemistry, Linear Algebra, and the Concept of Bodily Function in King Lear, to find himself in a real estate career. The sun came out, bathing the waves ahead of him in a glistening light. He married rich somehow, hardly believing his luck. A big smile greeted him at the other end: there stood heart-warming Grinner, sticking his face with closed eyes into the sunlight. Children came and went, terrible brats who grew up in front of the TV but managed to keep his love and earn their living in a decent way. There went his wife already, out of his house, out of his life! The lanes were straight and fixed; no wavering was tolerated by the other swimmers.
At stroke number 232 he felt giddy, aware that he'd caught up with himself swimming. He was not ready to quit. He was so used to counting now, he continued to count as before. A powerful whiff of garlic blasted across. Oh, yes, Garly! He had to smile as he swam. The smile spread over his whole body; he felt his belly button smile, his hips, and then his very anus. The feeling of swimming was different now, more ethereal. The water itself had become weightless; he glided through sheer air. He had so much energy left, now going into his eighties. The number 360 he was facing now had a mysterious ring to it: yes, it was the number of closure, of rebirth. The Splasher reappeared, and now he seemed more fierce and threatening than before. R. suddenly realized that by staying under water he would forever escape the broadsides of that hunk. Why had he not thought of this before? He propelled himself into the green depth. He saw the full-moon face of the Grinner approaching from the side. "Yes," R. gulped to himself, "I must have found his secret passage." He looked upwards and saw large black shapes like eyes undulating on the turquoise surface, against the glare of the distant, fast-setting sun. Night approached swiftly as he soared through the depth of the pool. In an unexpected expansion of his vision, upwards, he saw six stars in a familiar constellation. The pain he felt in his chest was sweet and mature.
"Welcome," said the Grinner, who had taken the lane next to him, keeping pace.
"What's this?" R. asked, out of breath. "Where am I? Heaven? Or hell?"
"Neither. We're working on a different paradigm."
"Where's Curly, then?"
"She is still needed somewhere else."
Resigned, R. resumed his strokes, counting backwards this time, but his heart was no longer in it.
Copyright 2007 by Joachim Frank