We are recognizable by our green hair and wandering tan lines, by our distinctive odor nicknamed eau de chlorine. Without our daily fix we are crazed. Our hands shake, our knees jiggle. We are swimming pool junkies waiting for lap hours.
We’ve seen it all—fistfights and shouting matches in crowded lanes where circle swimming is required. Someone in the intermediate area is sent back to the slow lane. Or there’s a thrasher, a guy who hasn’t yet mastered the strokes, and if you pair with him in his lane he’s apt to whack you on the head. Or jab you with his foot. He’s all over the map and that violates the unspoken rules of the natatorium. Swimmers like tidiness, efficiency. That’s why we commit the sporty hours of our lives to the fixed geometry of lap lanes. We immerse ourselves in the rectangular waters of a pool. We follow a fixed line on the pool’s silky bottom. We sandwich ourselves between plastic buoys that keep us in our own world, far from the business of everyone else, and there we finally relax and just swim.
I learned to swim in my grandmother’s pool in New Jersey. Summers in the Garden State were so hot our bodies literally ached for water, and there it was every morning, that beautiful cool blue rectangle of chlorine, awaiting our joyful whoops and cannonballs and ichthyic underwater acrobatics. We were tadpoles one minute and frogs the next. We were whales breaching, flounder flapping along the rough pool bottom. Our hair was green, our sunburned skin turned from red to brown. When we reluctantly stepped out of the pool at the end of the day the water flew off us in scintillating drops. We looked like we were shedding diamonds.
I didn’t swim again, not with the same passion and attention I had as a kid, until I found myself in Arizona in the mid-seventies. Maybe it was the unfamiliar waterlessness of the Southwest that made my body thirst for a pool. Maybe it was my friend Lew’s suggestion that I count the laps, 36 to a mile. Once I got going there was no stopping me. I swam in Prescott and Camp Verde. I swam in Cottonwood in an ancient trapezoidal pool that had the effect of merging traffic in the shallow end. Bodies bumped against one another and jostled for room to do flip turns. It went against all swimming etiquette but was, in fact, a pleasant meeting of underwater skin.
I made a point of visiting places known for their pools. I took to the water in Hemingway’s chilly outdoor pool in Key West; the YWCA’s clothing optional pool in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a pool in an abandoned convent in Santa Barbara, with a pool deck tiled like the Baths of Caracalla. I swam alone in an Olympic-size pool north of Bangkok, and a frog-filled pool in Mandalay. At a Zen monastery in California’s Ventana Wilderness, I swam daily in a pool warmed by hot springs. Later I became the keeper of that pool, the skimmer of leaves, rescuer of bees.
Ocean swims, lake swims, river swims. These are all acceptable to swimming pool junkies but they’re not the glory we live for. Oh, those traversers of the English Channel, the Bering Strait. What strange compulsion drives them to such uncomfortable extremes? The terrible cold, the energy delivered through a feeding tube, the lonely vigil in the dark, the terror of traffic in the shipping lanes, the absence of direction out there in the vast beyond. They move between countries, continents, with the same strokes that deliver me to the far side of the pool. What different destinations! What unimaginable desires!
Only once did I sign on to an ocean swim, an event to raise money during the AIDS epidemic. Our course wasn’t long, a mile-and-a-half, but it was mid-September and the water was chilly. I was one mile in, my core noticeably cooling, when I heard the scream of another swimmer. She was slightly behind me when she yelled, Shark! I turned and there was the unmistakable fin circling her.
It was, I later learned, a harmless species called a nurse shark. Still, that put an end to my ocean distance swimming. In lakes and rivers I’m similarly afraid a fish will brush my leg. But in the pool, antiseptic and chlorinated, chemicalized to an otherworldly hue, the monsters of the deep exist only within me, and that’s what I’m there for. I swim to shake them off.
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