The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer

My father taught me how to swim in the shallow waters of Long Island Sound. I tried to relax as he supported my seven-year old frame with two arms. At first, when he slid them away, I crumpled, going under. Eventually though, under his patient tutelage, I learned how to trust the water would buoy me. Indeed, by the end of that summer, I had mastered the breast and backstroke and could manage a rudimentary crawl. Coincidentally, Burt Lancaster was in town filming The Swimmer on location in various, glamorous backyard pools.

My family only lived there during the summer. My parents had purchased a tidy ranch with a postage stamp-sized yard. It was barely big enough for the five of us. They worked in New York City and wanted a place that was an easy commute. Having a summer getaway was truly a luxury for them. They loved the time they spent at that house, and loved that there was access to a public beach. Late in the day, my father would disembark from the Metro North and head over to the dressing stalls, change, then wade across the rock-strewn sand to get out to the deep water.

Once there, he'd swim the length of the horseshoe cove. His crawl was elegant and merciless. I tried to keep up but always fell behind. Eventually I'd wade out and wait for him on the shore.
I was no athlete, and as I grew my decision to avoid strenuous exercise was confirmed by my generation, whose notion of cool was decidedly anti jock. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had made indolence into an art form and would likely have continued to do so, if I hadn't fallen hard for a boy who was my polar opposite. David taught me how to dribble a ball, how to run the length of a court and pass and score. I discovered I enjoyed playing and more than that, winning. This must have been why, when a friend suggested I accompany her to swim laps at the local university pool, I agreed.

At the Columbia gym, there were eight to a lane. And I was an aquatic Goldilocks, too fast in the slow lane where I swam frantically past the swimmer in front of me, yet lagging behind when I switched to the medium. Other swimmers hacked at my feet and gave me dirty looks. Getting out, my heart raced yet I felt oddly exhilarated. That day our gift to ourselves was a highly caloric lunch, burger, fries and a double thick shake at the now defunct Mill Luncheonette. It became a ritual. We made the trek uptown three days a week. From the pool deck I watched as my bearded veterinarian practiced his inward one and a half pike from the high board. And in the tiny sauna, I wangled my oddest writing assignment from a complete stranger, writing a letter for the Penthouse letters to the editor column.

When I got pregnant, we had to move on. In this case, that meant Brooklyn. By then, I was a committed swimmer, so we joined a health club, dazzled by the promise of six months free! In the guppy pool I had to swim literally a hundred laps to get a decent workout. It was a shard of what had once been the largest indoor salt-water pool in the United States. The SRO that housed the club had faded even more, now an SRO when once it had been a fashionable hotel, housing the likes of Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn and yes, Burt Lancaster. I have fond memories of that place, swimming in that pool induced labor, twice, both times when I was late and incredibly miserable. And right next door, on the basketball court, my husband got to play a pick up game versus his hero, Earl the Pearl Monroe.

By the time my second son was born, I was a total convert. I swam every day, and if I didn't, I felt it mentally as much as physically. In summer, I used the closest public city pool in Red Hook. There, swimming laps meant skirting the clumps of teenagers who shot the shit, flirted and beat the heat. Sometimes on the weekend we drove north to Harriman State Park and flouted the posted rules, No Bathing, No Swimming, diving into the cool, crystal clear lake. And always, in August, we managed to scrape together enough for a cheap rental on Cape Cod. There, I found my swimming nirvana. Long Pond in Wellfleet where I'd go, rain or shine to swim the mile across and back. On one of those swims, I had an idea that turned into my first published novel. And on another, years later, I sobbed uncontrollably, after getting off the phone with my father who'd told me his cancer had returned and there was nothing left to do about it.

When our eldest son was eight, we moved again. Before putting down an offer on a house, we visited the elementary schools in town. And made a pit stop at the local YMCA. The pool was surprisingly empty and close to Olympic sized. I am ashamed to say that it's part of what sold me on Montclair. In that pool, I've perfected my crawl, teaching myself to breathe on both sides. It's where I forced myself to somersault underwater until I mastered the art of the flip turn. And I went there a few hours after I watched the towers crumble on September 11th. I needed to reassure myself that one thing would remain the same, in a world I found frankly terrifying.
I know it's peculiar, this compulsion to swim wherever I go. Then again, it's showed me some unusual spots, surely off the beaten path. Like the old Olympics facility in Montreal, where the ten meter board still stands, terrifyingly high at one end of a cavernous room. Or the public pool under Les Halles in Paris that's the size of a football field. There, buff men in skimpy bathing suits with bodies to die for, swim as they drive, aggressively, plowing over, into and around you, and cursing at your ineptitude.

Which leads me to the somewhat less than spectacular now. Here I sit, trying to figure out the next phase. My youngest is in college, my eldest all grown and gone and I am at yet another crossroads. Moving on means leaving behind such precious things. The house my children grew up in. Furniture deeded to me by my parents, trinkets and emblems of all the other lives I've lived. Often, these days, I think of my father. He was the one who taught me how to swim, whether with or against the current. He is the example I look to when thinking of how to take the next step with alacrity and charm. My dad was my first, my best long distance swimmer. If I could have one day back, I would choose August, there, on his favorite beach. We'd wade out into the deep water, and I'd dive in, then match him stroke for stroke. Which is how it goes I guess, now when it's too late, I would finally be able to keep up.

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