|Ground Swell, Edward Hopper 1939. Until I get my skipper, I’m a swimmer||.|
I went swimming today a little past five thirty in the afternoon, not the optimal time for me, as the pool’s already half-covered by the shadow of our house. I prefer a fully sunlit pool, considering it an ideal form of multi-tasking: swimming and tanning at the same time.
Before, I would have passed on swimming in a half-sun pool. I swam more for the color it brought my skin rather than for any health benefits (and I’m more likely, I realize, to contract skin cancer than build stamina, gain strength and all that other good stuff. Swimming honestly just wipes me out afterward). But recently I’ve started to swim for a half hour or so every other day – it’s nothing so cheesy as “oh the water calls to me” – it’s just a small, backyard pool for crying out loud, not the Caribbean – but I’m learning to appreciate the quiet calm that comes from being alone underwater.
My cousins came over on the fourth of July to swim, though now that we are all older, there is much less swimming and more sitting up to our chests on the steps, talking about this and that. My cousin Daniel, now married and two months away from becoming a father, asked me if I’d ever let myself sink to the bottom like a corpse.
“Of course,” I said, “when you spend as much time alone in a backyard pool as I have, you’ve done the whole “I’m gonna pretend I’m dead,” sort of thing.”
“Yeah but did you do it right?”
“Like did I pretend to be dead in the right way?”
“Yeah. You have to exhale all the air out and just let your body sink to the bottom.”
I tried to recall my past “deaths” and realized that I had held my breath, puffing my cheeks out so that technically, I wasn’t being a very good dead person. My head floated, my toes always just lightly dragged against the pool bottom. No, I hadn’t been accurately portraying death.
Naturally a demonstration ensued and my cousin Daniel and I took turns sinking to the bottom of the pool, a la a man and woman who might have just been shot dead or perhaps strangled and then pushed into some warm, extremely clean and sterile pond. It amused me to see the sides of the pool rise up around me as I slid to the bottom, and despite the thoughts running through my head and the sensation of water enveloping my body, lifting the roots of my hair, I wondered if this heaviness was what made up the initial sensation of dying in water. Without the pain of drowning, of course. I attempted to stay down for as long as possible, until the burning sensation in my lungs, which radiated out through my eyes, reminded me that I was still a long long way from death, and I grappled at the walls of the pool to bring myself up. But I went down a twice more each time looking up to see the sun glinting across the ripples which in turn distorted the sky, the stalks of bamboo that leaned over the glass railing, and my cousin Kathryn’s figure, seated at the edge of the pool, a single leg swaying in the water. If I could, I’d ask Seurat and Hopper to “die” with me and have them collaborate on a painting.
|Bathers Georges Seurat 1884|
It could, I suppose, all be a grave and beautiful metaphor for something…though at this point, I’m not sure what. When Daniel and I tired of playing dead, we alternated between sitting on the ledge in the water and treading, talking about various people we read in the news who had died by drowning. There was a woman who had gone on vacation with her friends and died suddenly while in the pool. Correctly, she had sunk straight to the bottom. I’m guessing the pool was either not very clean, or of the black-bottomed variety with lots of foliage surrounding it, because her friends, failing to find her, surmised that she had gone home without them and left two days later, when her body was discovered by the people who looked after the pool.
I shuddered to think of all the poor souls who swam in that water with a dead woman. Our pool is much too small and open-faced for something like that to happen. Still, it has its dark areas, also known as the filter. My fondest memories of childhood involve summer afternoons, when school is just about to be let out and homework assignments are petering out. I’d go home, snack, fly through my homework (though in truth, I don’t remember doing much homework in elementary school, when my grades were at their worst of my entire academic career), labor through piano practice, and, when all that hodgepodge was done change like lightning into my flowery bathing suit and jump into the water, sometimes with my brother, who seemed to materialize at fun moments like this. This routine was much more rewarding on the weekends when my cousins would come over and we’d swim until the sun went down, but on weekdays, it was just me and my brother. One afternoon, I remember feeling lighter than usual – the burden of school and piano seemed so far away. Maybe school had already let out. Maybe I was leaving for Taiwan the next day. I don’t know. But the sky had never been bluer, the air never warmer, and the pool water never so perfect in its cool crispness – it’s a delicate balance between too cold and lukewarm bathwater.
Because it is hard to play water games with just two people, we swam laps, each starting from an opposite end and crossing in the middle. On the deep end however, my strokes caused me to turn my head to the right, where the small rectangular opening of the filter was. It was not a very high tech filter back then (not that it’s high-tech now, just less primitive), just a small, plastic flapping door that was designed to catch leaves and bugs, which would end up in a sieve that the pool man removed once a week. The flap opened just as I swam by and I could see something floating beyond it – a small white sack of some sort.
I doggy paddled to the flap and pushed it open. A thin, sliver of a tail came gliding out and then back in. I gasped, let go of the flap and jumped out of the water.
I called to my brother and stood at the small opening atop the filter, wondering if I wanted to see what lay beneath it. My brother came dripping to my side and after studying the lid of the filter, figured out how to open it. He removed it slowly, as though opening a gift from an relative with terrible taste. There it was – the dead rat, bloated to twice or three times its normal size floating atop the basket.
“Gross,” my brother said.
How long it had been there we didn’t know – not more than a week as the pool man came every Friday, but perhaps longer than four or five days, as all its fur was gone. But to where? I blanched, imagining dead rat hair clinging onto my skin and eyebrows and wondered if I ought to burn my suit and shave my head. It’s skin was now milky translucent and in death, had rounded into a fetal position, most likely how it had begun its life, and now exposed to the strong afternoon sun, rocked peacefully to and fro with the calm waves caused by the filter’s flap.
We weren’t brave enough to go back into the water, despite having already spent the better part of an hour swimming, nor did we have the stomach to remove the rat. Later that evening my father reached in with a plastic bag wrapped around his hand and tossed the rat into the garbage. He assured us that we had already swam in the water and were fine, so that by tomorrow, the water would be even cleaner, the contaminate thus removed.
“The filter will do its work,” he said, referring not to the plastic sieve but to the mysterious pipes that lay beneath the pool and were connected to the humming monstrosities in the side yard. Years later I would see a dialysis machine in the hospital and think about our pool filters.
I don’t remember if I went swimming the next day, or the day after, but for a long time afterward I wouldn’t get into the water until I’d checked the filter and made sure there were only leaves or nothing inside. I wasn’t morbid enough then to think that I had spent an afternoon swimming with death – though small, a dead rat was death nonetheless (though this excludes bees and june bugs, which died in the water by the dozens) – but I was certain that I had no desire to be so close to it, in any incarnation.