Graphic by Ruth Mountaingrove
"No impact. No gravity, " Craig said, "You could try it for a couple of days." Craig was the physical therapist. With one hand flat against the sole of Ellie's bare foot, he rhythmically and gently flexed and extended her ankle.
"What about riding a stationary bike," Ellie asked him, "or some kind of aerobics class?"
"Uh uh." Craig pulled Ellie's leg out straight and bent it back, then started pulling and pushing her foot again. He looked at her over her bent knee. "No pressure on the ankle. Oh, a little walk won't hurt it."
"I'm not a very good swimmer," Ellie said."You're not competing in the Olympics. Just conditioning and endorphins. Okay, that's all for today." Craig dropped Ellie's leg, no longer a topic of interest, on the table. "Ice every night and don't forget the exercises. The more repetitions you do, the sooner you can ride a bike."
"No more jogging?"
"Never say never."
"Aging, too, I guess..."Craig held out his hands, palms up, in the universal but ambiguous gesture of partial disagreement. In this case, Ellie knew, it meant: "In some people aging plays a part, in others not." Craig was slim and neat, smaller than Ellie who was by no means a large woman, and he had a look of wiry endurance. Ellie was older than Craig and had gray hair, but in this situation he had the authority.
"Try swimming," Craig ordered, "it's a good workout."
"Swimming, Mom," said Rose. "Swimming will strengthen your entire upper body."
"I don't know how to do the breathing," Ellie said, "I don't want to change my clothes. I don't like to get wet."
"I'll teach you the breathing," said Rose, who was presently teaching 6- and 7-year old day campers how to swim.
"The chlorine will ruin my hair."
"I've got this great Australian shampoo that washes out chlorine, it has little bits of fresh fruit in it."
"Indoor pools give me the creeps."
"The pool is outdoors."
"I don't look like a swimmer."
"What does a swimmer look like?"
"Swimmers have long arms. Their faces look smooth and big under those caps. They have great haircuts, like Janet Evans. I look like a jogger."
"You know. Solid. I look good on the track. I look awful in a bathing suit."
"Mom. Everyone looks awful in a bathing suit."
"I don't like to be cold."
"The pool is heated."Oh, god, there was nothing for it. Craig could equivocate, but jogging was out forever. Rose was leaving for college at the end of the summer. Ellie had two months to learn breathing from her daughter.***
On her first day she threw a sweatshirt over her bathing suit, which was actually an old unfashionable leotard, the kind that came up to the collarbone and covered the hips. She carried her towel and her money in her hand. The dressing room looked scuzzy; there was a cement floor, benches around the walls, and tacky green net bags for swimmers' belongings. Barefoot she walked outdoors to the pool. She did not look at anyone. She walked down the steps into the pool quickly, as though she knew what she was doing. The water was not cold, but neither was it warm. She struggled and floundered, gasped, choked, gulped and coughed, thrashing her arms and legs from her imperfect kinetic memory of childhood swim lessons, 40 years ago. Panting, she grabbed the other edge of the pool to get her breath. A long wait. Then she groped her way back and stumbled up the stairs out of the pool. At least I got wet, she thought. Back in the dressing room, she realized that if she took off her wet suit, she had nothing else to wear. It's all right, she comforted herself, how was I supposed to know? This is my first time. She drove home shivering, sitting on her towel.
"I swam one lap," she told Rose, "and swallowed half the pool."
"Everyone swallows half the pool, Mom. Even lifeguards swallow half the pool."
The next day Ellie bought goggles. She swam two clumsy laps and swallowed half the pool. The third day she swam three laps.
"If I can swim ten laps I'll die happy," she said to Rose.
Rose went with her, and gave her instructions. "See, Mom, tilt your chin up. You don't have to turn your head all the way, just enough to get some air. You don't have to sort of lunge out of the water. Just turn your head." Ellie watched her, then tried it. She swallowed half the pool.
"Oh oh oh," she sputtered and moaned.
"Try it again, Mom. Watch me." Ellie practiced breathing that day and every day for the next two weeks. She bought another leotard.***
Every day after work she went to the pool at the hour of afternoon adult lap swim. There was a terrible cold ten-minute interval between the warm dressing room and the first few laps. During that period Ellie was miserable, self conscious and uncomfortable. When she walked into the pool her skin was surprised. She always expected the water to be slightly warmer than it was, more welcoming. She stood waist deep at the shallow end of the slow section. The water positively glowed, an unearthly turquoise color. When she lay down in the water and began moving off slowly, she saw through her goggles magical fractal patterns made by the sun falling through solid wetness and skimming over the floor of the pool. Patterns like woven ropes glittered and flashed.
Her routine was to dress in jeans and a t-shirt over her suit before she drove to the pool. There she took them off again and put them together with her towel in the green net bag. After swiming and showering, she rolled up her wet suit in her damp towel, and over her bare skin slipped on her pants and shirt. The first few times she put on her trousers without panties underneath, she felt strange, almost wanton. She stubbornly felt it was important to carry back and forth only the essentials, just as she had always refused to buy any special gear for running except shoes.
When she learned to breathe, swimming was easier. Not fun, not trance-like, not energizing, not like jogging. But easier. She practiced every motion she had learned from Rose. Back and forth she swam. She grew to recognize in herself a fondness for the pool. Every day when she arrived the pool shimmered aquamarine in the late afternoon sun. She began to look forward to this radiant color which appeared nowhere else in her life.
At a yard sale she found a little duffle, once black but subsequently faded to a patchy amorphous watery color, in which to keep her by now numerous swim things. She had shampoo, conditioner, skin oil, soap; ear plugs and goggles; even a cap, which had to be wiped dry and dusted with talcum powder after each use, just like a diaphram. She kept her swim card in a little zip pocket of the bag, and some extra money, just in case. Her bulging swim bag did not contain excessive equipment. On the contrary, it made her feel like a pro.***"My goal is 20 laps." "36 laps is a mile, Mom. That means you're already swimming over a quarter of a mile!"
Hearing Rose, Ellie felt confident. Rose came again and gave her another breathing lesson. Ellie now felt that her movements back and forth across the pool were more like swimming and less like struggling. She bought a waterprooof watch with a lap counter.
"Swimming is so boring," said Lynne, one of the slow section regulars with whom Ellie had quickly made acquaintance, "that it absolutely taxes one's imagination." But Lynne was a more accomplished swimmer than Ellie. Ellie never tired of concentrating on her breathing, or of watching the underwater light show, or of counting laps and lengths and parts of lengths. All summer long, while Rose sorted things and packed things and gave things away and bought new things and took boxes of things over to her daddy's basement to store, all summer long Ellie swam every day.***
Ellie was doing her ankle exercises while watching a rerun of Cheers. She braced herself against the wall with one hand and went up and down on her toes 50 times. Then she pointed her toes in and went up and down another 50 times. The doorbell rang.
"Mom!" Rose yelled through her bedroom door, "Daddy's coming over to pick up boxes."
"Right," muttered Ellie through her teeth, "thanks for letting me know." She opened the door to her ex-husband.
They exchanged kisses. Rose pushed a box into the hall. "Books," she said. Back she came with another box. "More books," she announced.
"The kid is organized," Richard said. "How are you, Ellie? Rose tells me your ankle went out, is that true? Is it true you're not running?"
"I'm swimming," Ellie told him, "swimming is much better for you than jogging. Swimming is one of the best conditioning exercises you can do. It strengthens your upper body as well as your back and legs."
"Mom is getting to be a real jock, Dad. She gets out there every single day and does it." Rose threw her athletic young arm around her mother's shoulder. Ellie pulled her daughter near and gazed upon her marvelous skin. Thank you, Richard, she thought, as close to prayer as Ellie ever got, thank you for this perfect child. She quickly imagined herself knocking wood.
"Look at Rose," Ellie told Richard, "she never catches cold. It's easy on your joints, too. No gravity."
"Hey. I only asked."***
Ellie was soon swimming 20 laps. She now knew she would be able to swim a mile. She bought a real bathing suit and a pair of thick Brazilian zoris that cost $15. At the end of one month she went to see Craig for an evaluation.
"You're still doing your exercises?"
"Yes, three times a week."
"I'm not using the ice any more. I've been swimming."
"Three or four times a week is probably enough. Your ankle looks good, Ellie. I wouldn't jump on it if I were you but there's no reason you can't start using a bike now. Go slow at first."
"Does that mean you're discharging me?"
"Clean bill of health," Craig said.***
Rose, her summer job over and her packing nearly finished, spent most of her time driving around town to say good-bye to all her friends. She didn't come to the pool any more. She was too busy, she said. The night before she left for college, she stayed over at her boyfriend's. The boyfriend was going to an entirely different college, and this was their big good-bye. Teenagers don't need sleep like we do, Ellie thought, they don't feel the cold. Early in the morning, with four cardboard boxes and two immense suitcases, mother and daughter drove to the airport.
"I just hope my roommate has a stereo," Rose said, "Mine is in Daddy's basement." Ellie saw that Rose was tense and raggedy. She bought her daughter a pale waffle, which Rose criticized for its plastic quality and then devoured. She bought her a magazine and some sugarless gum and stuffed two $20 bills in her pocket. "For travelling," she said.
Rose's flight was called. They hugged for a long time. Rose began to cry. "Oh Mom," she said, "I don't want to go." Ellie held her daughter in an embrace she had practiced for 18 years and finally perfected at this very moment.
"You'll do fine, honey." She gave Rose a tissue. "And,if you don't like it there, you can always come right back home and go swimming with me." Rose laughed a croaking little laugh. She kissed Ellie's ear and left. Ellie felt tired and a little gritty, a familiar airport feeling.***
On the way back from the airport, Ellie decided she would not go to work that day. Instead, she stopped at a cafe and drank foamy coffee and read the newspaper. At home, sun streamed in through the windows and she felt sleepy and stupid. It was only 12 noon. Slowly she changed into her bathing suit and put on her jeans. She spent a long time deciding which sweatshirt to wear. She slipped into her $15 zoris and rolled a clean towel into her swim bag. Driving to the pool she felt mechanical and mindless. The sun was too bright. It was hard to think. She had never before been to the pool in the middle of the day. The light was different, the pool was a different color, the contrast between air and water had moved into another range. Dreamily she went through the familiar motions, slipping off her outer clothes, putting her gear in the green net bag. The pool was practically empty at this time of day. It had a new greenish tint she liked very much, like a tiny square ocean. She walked into the water, adjusted her goggles, and swam slowly off. Her arms and legs moved as of themselves. She breathed calmly, turning her face rhythmically to the left as Rose had taught her to do. To and fro she swam. She thought of nothing. She glided through this alien element as though it were native to her body, as though she had been born to it and grown up in it, as though she were composed of its substance. The old land-dwelling self within her, the mammalian self, knew what had changed. From her eyes another kind of water flowed and mingled with the water of the pool.***