“Here’s money for lunch,” my mother said with a crisp click of her purse. I took the coins in my fist and, working to push open the broad door of the Buick, slid off the seat and down onto the grass that bordered the parking lot. There I stood in my yellow bathing suit between two old elms, shucked like an ear of corn, hesitating.
“That way,” my mother said, dropping her head to point through the windshield at a bending gravel path beside the golf course. With the same hand and one motion, she shifted the transmission into park and slid over the seat to yank my door shut. The enormous station wagon wheeled around and lumbered away over the hot asphalt, spitting raspy gravel from its tires.
My mother was not a swimmer and did not enjoy the pool scene at the country club. She preferred bridge and crossword puzzles indoors, and was of an age to keep herself out of the scorching sun.
Still I stood within the quiet elms. A minute later another car arrived in the lot and parked. The rear doors opened in perfect synchrony and two girls popped out, and then from the driver’s seat emerged a woman in bathing attire. The girls, issuing mutual challenges, raced away to the gravel path while the woman hurried behind in her flapping sandals, calling failed admonitions of restraint.
I followed her. The path cut through the deep green lawn, curved right around a stand of trees, and rose to a plateau, where the clubhouse came into view. When I reached the top, I saw that on the other side of the hill the path dipped down to a flat basin, longer and wider than a football field. And there within it were the glittering pools, a square, a rectangle, and a bean, set like sapphires in a tiara with a yoke of profoundest green. My heart lifted, and I stepped quickly down the path toward the churning crowd of people below.
What a riot of color and activity! Fiesta-colored towels and beach baskets were strewn across lounge chairs behind busy mothers and children who swarmed in and about the waters, toddlers splashing in the shallow baby pool, mothers glistening in suntan oil as they perched on the rim, each keeping an eye on her young. The lap pool, the longest and grandest, was set in the middle. At one end, graduates from the baby pool were learning to jump off the edge into mothers’ arms. In the near corner, girls were practicing water acrobatics, turning somersaults and pointing their legs into the air like steeples. At the black one-third line, older women in bathing caps with elaborate flowers blooming near their ears swam on their sides, heads out of water to keep their lipstick dry, crossing the width like slow drifting spars. Teenagers tried to swim laps, navigating around the small cities of commerce that blocked the lanes.
The third pool, the diving pool, cradled by a stand of weeping willows, was the most beautiful. With the greatest depth, its blue was austere, a marine blue.
I didn’t know how to join in. I laid out my towel and eased into the lap pool between the leapers-into-arms and the acrobats, clasping the edge and recasting my eyes to the enormous sun light.
I was dropped off every day, and soon I was soaked up by the combustion of kids screaming “Marco Polo” or absorbing themselves in quieter games. I made friends with some of the children, and their mothers adopted me in their way, wrapping me in a towel when I stood shivering. Still I missed my mother—not so much my mother, as someone to be my guardian, to watch out for me, to worry, as the hours went by, that I was getting sunburned.
There were times when I was alone, when I had been dropped off before the others arrived or was picked up late by my father on his way home from work. In the early morning or evening, the waters were almost military in their bearing, geometric shapes serene in their own right. What I liked to do then was hold my breath underwater in the cold diving pool. I’d sit Buddha-style on the ledge cut into the side of the pool, submerged a few feet below the surface, where no one could easily see me, as if frozen within a cube of ice. I stayed under for as long as possible, still as an idol, until my lungs rebelled. Then I’d push off from the ledge and break the surface into the blue heavens above. This was my ritual, hundreds of incarnations on my infinite path to enlightenment.
“You should learn to swim,” my father said one afternoon when he came to pick me up from the pools. Watching from the clubhouse veranda in his blue seersucker suit, he had seen me splash through the water in a motion of my own design, part doggy paddle, part frog, like a spawn of mis-speciation who could not find a stroke appropriate to her conformation. I was in my ninth year, and that summer I was sent to Mosey Wood, a Girl Scout camp that lay along a lake in the Poconos.
It was my first experience of swimming outside a pool’s tight frame. An instructor in water safety taught me how to extend my frog paddle into the breaststroke, to link all my movements in one fluid, continuous motion, so that I was close to being human in the water. I discovered I had a gift for swimming long distances, born from an ability to withstand cold temperatures. Unlike the other young campers, I wasn’t afraid of being alone in the deepest part of the lake, where my sometimes burdensome solitude became an asset. By the end of the summer I had become the youngest ever to earn the coveted purple cap for swimming the lake’s length. Campers and counselors from my unit met me with cheers when I reached the other side.
Proud of this accomplishment, my father signed me up for the club’s swimming team. A deeply competitive man, he told me stories about his youthful feats in watersport. His preferred event was the crawl, the most propulsive of strokes. He wished his only child to follow in his footsteps and interpreted my success at long distances as evidence of a competitive spark. But in meets I was rarely the best—I came in second or third or farther back among the also-rans. I swam competitively for many years without turning into a top-ranked swimmer. What I loved about swimming was that only then was I peacefully alone.
The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I turned to a lake with a boy. Billy was three years my senior and had a summer job at our club, teaching tennis to the young. I was apprentice to his tutoring, and I conducted my flirtation on court, hitting with a lot of speed. He was graceful, getting to the ball easily, his strokes effortless and fluid. But I was a fish out of water on the clay, sliding about and kicking up red flecks that always stained my whites.
Late in August Billy invited me to join his family for a weekend at their vacation home on Lake Naomi. I cannot now explain why he did it, but it was my sincere belief then that obscure currents flowing between us would lead to a momentous outcome, just as an oath on a tennis court led to the French Revolution, and that Billy’s summer house was my Bastille. My feelings were better developed than his, I knew, but a pair of orchids doesn’t bloom in unison. Given the chance, I might quicken him.
At Lake Naomi the houses were tucked far back from the road, with long gravel driveways through the woods. The emphasis was on privacy and acreage. Billy’s house was made of Pennsylvania flagstone, with a massive stone fireplace, wood floors, and plenty of guest rooms.
The first night he introduced me to his friends, including a girl improbably named Wellesley. She was tall, dark-eyed, dark-skinned, dark-haired, substantial, self-assured, capable, with a soft laugh and comforting manner. I was thin and angular, jittery, a waif. I had light hair and thin feet—everything about me was light. In fact, Billy had been after me about my lack of weight, as if I lacked enough heft to be taken seriously. Right then Billy and Wellesley were at the broken-up stage of something on-again, off-again, but clearly that wasn’t going to stick. By late Saturday, watching him seek her eyes amid the darkness of every room, I knew my chances were slipping away. Sunday found me desperate. I thought swimming the lake might make him love me.
I broached the subject, and for a lark the group went along to observe my feat. They giggled and straggled down to the lakeshore, while I waited nervously in my yellow suit in the shallow water. Billy took a seat in a canoe to follow me, and at the last minute Wellesley joined him.
The water was marbled currents of warm and cold, and at first I made good progress across the lake. By the time I reached the deeper midpoint, however, I had used up my adrenaline, and the water turned frigid. It occurred to me that I might fail to reach the other side. I was sure Billy was bored or had forgotten me. Yet I was yoked to the canoe, as if I were pulling it across the lake.
I flailed to reach the far shore, staggering out of the water on shaking legs as I tried to gain land. Billy pulled the canoe up into the shore grass and wrapped me in towels, but not in his arms. His girl stood by his side with a look of concern. He marveled at my stamina, and pitied me.
After that summer, swimming faded, like a novel that once meant everything to me but now gathered dust. The waters dried up, as it were. I swam from time to time, but risked nothing and harvested no memories. Yet if someone were to ask, I would have said, “I am a swimmer.”
Last fall I had a one-month residency at an artists’ colony in Virginia. I dreamed about the leave, imagining that on this island of time I might take stock of whom I had become and whom I had lost. So much had come to pass: career, marriage, children born and grown, my mother dead, my father now a shambler in old age. There was a place to swim at the colony, I learned, and in anticipation I bought my first swimming suit in years. In the last days of September I drove south to Virginia and took up my temporary abode in a converted barn. The first morning, I joined a group of three at breakfast who were discussing the nearby lake.
“It has a certain legendary status around here,” said Judith, a veteran colonist and, I learned later, a painter. She suggested a swim that afternoon. “Visitors are often defined by whether they brave the lake,” she said.
“I’ve just had eye surgery, said Allen, the eldest among us, “so I’m afraid I’ll have to wade, not brave.”
I tried to look nonchalant, but noted the competitive edge in Judith’s voice. “What is the difficulty with this lake?” I asked.
“There is the cold thrill of the turbid waters,” she said in a manner both grand and sly, “and at one end there are beavers, snapping turtles, and snakes.” Her eyes were bright, and on the right side her mouth turned awry. I noticed I was not alone in lacking enthusiasm. Imagine the scene: the lake circled by aspens and willows, heavy in dipping green. Myself slipping into the lake and swimming away from the shore, flanked on either side by waving blacksnakes. The image knotted me up instantly.
“I’ll try the end opposite the wildlife,” said Diana, the fourth at the table.
I doubted I had much left of my capacity to withstand cold, and the snakes repelled me. Perhaps, I thought, I have turned into someone who likes to keep dry. But if the lake meant self-definition, better to be game. When the appointed time for the swim came round that afternoon, I emerged from the barn in my bathing suit to meet the others for the short drive to the lake.
We parked at the end of the dirt road that descended from the paved highway. The lake, fronted by a boathouse and a substantial dock, was kidney-shaped and squirming under a brisk wind. Trees overhung the water thickly on all sides, dappled by the sun. It was a pretty spot, but I couldn’t see beneath the soupy surface.
“Swimmers! Swimmers all!” shouted Diana as she loped down the dock.
“We go to the dam and back,” Judith said to me. “It’s about a mile.”
We eased ourselves down the ladder at the end of the dock and shoved off—Diana in her large goggles and snorkel, Judith long and lean and fast away. Allen kept near our starting point.
It was stingingly cold. I swam with my head out of the water, my neck clenched, just lifting slightly to breathe. I followed the tack the other women took toward the dam, trying to stay roughly in the middle of the lake, as if veering to either side would bring me unknown harm. I slapped the water in a chop that my Mosey Wood instructors would never have forgiven, stroke after stroke, rushing forward as fast as I could. Without my glasses, the trees were a blur of greens and reds and yellows like a watercolor held too close. I would have liked to see where I was, how far from the boathouse, dam, and other swimmers. But this was not to be known. There could have been hikers circling the lake, deer in the woods on shore, blue herons stalking the far end. Dragonflies landed close by; I’d catch a glint of light, a slide of illuminated wing, and swim on.
I soon overtook Diana, reached the dam, and turned back. I never caught Judith, who waited for me back at the dock. Hauling myself up the ladder and into the sun, relieved that it was over, I was shamed by my shaking legs. But Judith surprised me, saying that I had a good stroke, a thing of beauty, really.
“Look there!” she said. Beyond the dam, at the far end of the lake, a head rose up out of the water, belonging to a sort of creature we could not identify.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” Judith confessed, “but swimming was banned in August due to fecal matter from the beavers. There was a sign. But the problem cleared up, and the sign was removed.” You’d have to be more confident in signs than I to be reassured by this sequence. When I got back to my barn and took off my bathing suit, I scrubbed away a coat of dirt, and that night a rash appeared.
After a week of using the rash as an excuse, I rejoined the swimmers, determined to retackle this defining lake. This time I proceeded differently. I sat on the dock for a long while, warming in the sun. When I felt at home, less a stranger, I eased down the ladder and sat on the lowest rung, motions taken quietly. I pushed off and began zigzagging towards the dam. I no longer worried where I was in relation to the others, how far I lagged behind. If anyone was watching, I didn’t know about it.
For the remainder of my stay, at the end of each long day, I was grateful to peel off my shoes and socks, run down the dock until I came to the last plank, and dive in head-first. The cold water allowed me to forget, to let go of whatever I had held too tightly. By the time I left Virginia, the lakescape had been stripped to its essence. All its parts dissolved in water, flower and rock, wind and cloud, tree and shore, woman and forgotten girl.
When I returned home from Virginia, I resolved to swim regularly, and found an indoor pool, designed for laps, at a local health club. The lighting is kept low, in a soft, ageless cast of anonymity, and the muted sounds from outside the gleaming glass walls doze on the breathing water.
On my way to the pool I pass through the women’s locker room, its walls and floor tiled in shining white, past shower stalls, a steam room, a cold plunge and adjacent whirlpool. There sit women and girls of all ages side by side, round and soft as the shoulders of ripe plums, or lithe and smooth as daisy stems. Sometimes I join them to let the jets of hot water loosen the clenched muscle stays of my back. I walk deliberately to the painfully cold plunge-pool, step in, and submerge myself. I stay under for as long as I can bear, and resurface in a gush of water, pushing my hair back from my eyes, glad to cast about me yet again.
Swimming in a pool is like a meditation, an act of faith. I like to swim at night when the pool is illuminated with underwater lights. When I stand before it, on the verge of entering, I feel a lump in my throat, a homesickness. I carry no purse, no identification. What I have done or have not done lies behind me, my accomplishments and my mistakes deposited in a locker. In my yellow bathing cap pulled low over my hair and ears, my goggles covering my eyes, no one knows me. There is nothing and no one to lean on. Other swimmers are there, shafts of moving color, but I am alone. We never exchange greetings; we’ve come for the silence. Someone sits in the lifeguard chair, a blotch of red. I see a blurry body of water before me like a blank sheet of paper. The water is cold, always a shudder when I first descend the steps. I push away and begin my breaststroke, in the first laps trying to quiet my mind, musing on my father astride the clubhouse veranda, watching with an opaque gaze, on stopwatches and canoes and far shores. Then I am a ship in a limitless ocean, and I have lost my bearings. I concentrate on laps, lap on lap; swimming is the only word my body says. I throw the spool of myself out and reel it in, over and over. I no longer know I am swimming.
The swimmer I want to be does not require acclimation; trepidation is not in her vocabulary. She wants quick immersion. Stripped of jewelry, not even a thin wedding band, the swimmer makes you believe she is unharnassed from the world, owns no clothes, belongs to no house, and that a heavy purse, with its wallet and identification cards, would drag her down. The swimmer swims for herself and checks her baggage before she enters the water. The swimmer I want to be stands in the middle of a blank canvas facing forward with hands firmly on hips. The bend in her elbows makes a white space like the V of Canada geese in skies of migration. When I see her, I think water. It must be nearby, not far from the path of vision, not even a stone’s throw away, for her stance is one of readiness. The canvas is blank, no pool, no lake, no ocean, no body of water the mind can see, yet everything suggests it is always at hand, that she carries water with her wherever she goes, ready to plunge in. Plunge in, I say.
* * * * *
“I, Swimmer” first appeared in Gulf Stream #25 (2006).
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years and just completed a collection of essays, The Art of Being Born. Her website is marciaaldrich.com