The Swimmer

New York, July 1 2016. We’d arranged to meet in the lobby of her hotel, a newfangled glass & steel construction with river views and sports facilities. Seated with chin propped on fist, almost in a Rodin Le Penseur pose, wearing a plaid shirt and cargo shorts, she is there when I arrive, natch, on time.

“Extraordinary,” she says, taking off from the straight-back chair like a rocket to reach her full height. “Finally. You made it.” Because her invitation to swim is long-standing.

Once, when we played truant from the Left Forum for a snap lunch at a nearby Greek diner; I’d been mindful of her no nonsense quick humor.

Today, we’re on a less cerebral mission. In a few swift strides, we bridge the short distance to the desk to claim plump, folded towels–two each, on the house.

the swimmer

Before issuing a guest pass the attendant demands picture ID.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she says knitting her hands together, suddenly contrite.

I smile inwardly bc of course I’d come prepared.

The guest pass is a large white board with the word Guest and a number which I hand over to another attendant a few feet away.

Not used to the privacy of an elevator, in the descent to the pool we fall silent, skipping the customary exchange of pleasantries. The lounge area adjoining the pool, tempting through large glass partitions, is decorated in shades of vaporous blue or sea thistle green and, unexpectedly for such a design-y establishment, flooded with dreary neon lighting.

Yet as she orients me to the abundant exercise machines, the sauna, steam room, showers, and explains the protocol, I compose a happy face to maintain a sense of occasion. After all, I’m a guest.

“You can do anything you want,” she tells me excitedly. “There are lanes for people who want to swim laps. But if laps aren’t your thing, go to the first lane. You’re on your own. Is that okay?”

I assure her it is, and start to peel off items of clothing and hang them on the hooks inside one of the narrow lockers. I note the locker number, 4, and put a stool in front of the padlocked door so it will be easier to find later. I attach the key with a safety pin to my one-piece swimsuit, a vintage French affair adorned with matching brown velour-covered buttons. I’d hoped to show it off.

But by then she’d vanished into the maze of homogeneous beige lockers. The last time I’d worn this outfit, on the island, the wet straps fell off the shoulder, so today I tie them securely behind my neck with a strip of fabric to avoid sudden exposure.

I make my way circumspectly across the slippery wet tiles to the pool edge and pause at the head of the ladder, the surface ripples blurring then dissolving into another image….

I’m eleven in the Upper Third at my new school, the age I have a crush on a sixth form prefect, and am on my high school swimming team. Brighton’s North Road indoor pool has clear fresh water that’s emerald green and chlorinated. Far preferable is the briny sea water of the English Channel. I throw my towel and shoes on the pebbly beach, barnacle and seaweed-covered, between the Palace and the West Piers and lunge for the coast of Normandy. After a mile or so of breast stroke I make a U-turn back to the shore.

Three words, even a political slogan like Fuck the NRA, or End the Occupation, can forge a bond, but as swimmers, she and I are in different worlds.

In the fast lane, her arms cleave the water with long powerful even strokes, head and body rocking gently from side to side while legs beat a strong up down rhythm that propels her forward and sends up a thin fountain of spray like a whale blowing.

A former Olympic swimmer, 100-meter freestyle and butterfly, lap after lap, she still keeps up an impressive pace.

I ease myself into the cold and lose track of her. The shores of Normandy don’t beckon in the same way now and in the middle of my lane, an indecisive swimmer doggy paddles. After abortive attempts to skirt him I manage a few half-laps before hoisting myself out of the pool and heading for the steaming hot high pressure showers.

It’s not until I’ve wrung the water from my bathing costume, twisting it into a knot, dried myself off and am half-dressed that she re-appears, holding her two-piece, goggles and cap. Without glasses the small delicate features of her face contrast with the muscular torso and limbs entirely concealed by the towel.

“Where were you?” she asks.

Hadn’t she seen me swim?

And, as I recount my experience, she’s constructive: “You should have switched lanes if the first one was full of fuddie duddies.”

The tips of my fingers are still white from being in the water.

“Let me see,” she says, and holds them lightly.

Then, in a different tone, she confides: “I need your help.”

“Oh”, I say, but what was I thinking?

When we are standing in front of an identical locker a few rows away, her voice drops to make an admission, “The numbers on the combination—-I can’t see them.”

Turning the wheel and aligning it exactly with the numbers proves quite a challenge. Luckily, after several tries the lock springs open. The hour is saved.

–Liza Béar