Adult Swim Class and the Salvation of Community Waters
The first thought I had before my car slammed upside down into the ditch’s embankment going 60 miles per hour was I am upside down—a moment of adrenaline bought clarity from the near-death tragedy unfolding around me. I noticed too the blue half-full bic pen hovering over my right eye and the two pennies in stasis millimeters from my nose. One minted in 1969. The other 2013. Time stopped (or did it stretch?) and everything was still and quiet for what seemed the length of a favorite song. The second thought I had as the roof crumpled was I’m going to be late to swim class. I was and only by five minutes.
I slide into the shallow end of the pool and shuffle over to the gathered students.
“Welcome. And you are? We are just introducing ourselves—giving our names and why we’re taking this class.”
“My name’s Andy. Sorry I was late, I couldn’t get my car started. I guess because I don’t know how to swim? I was homeschooled so I never went to the lessons when everyone else was in elementary school.”
That’s not true, my car is totalled now but I don’t want to share that with anyone yet. The real reason I crashed my car is too embarrassing. I’ve driven in countless blizzards, can easily drive in life-threatening whiteout conditions. I crashed because I was putting Burt’s Bees chapstick under my eyes to try to make my eyes water. I was driving back from Parker’s funeral, my close friend, and I hadn’t cried since I first got the news two weeks ago. I wanted the autonomic response of tears. I wanted to be wet.
“No worries. We’re glad you made it. My name’s Dave and I’m here because I’m the instructor.” A blurble of laughter comes from the group. Dave is sitting on the edge of the pool with his ankles submerged. He has the look of a lifelong swimmer, muscles on his shoulders and back deeply layered. Dave then nods to the man on his right which starts a circle of introductions. It is the first day of adult swim class put on by the local YMCA. There are seven of us including Dave, all men, and I am everyone’s junior by at least 30 years. The reasons everyone else are taking this class are as many as the years between us. Adam is here because he has been a sailor for 40 years and never once learned to swim. After a near-drowning last year his wife forced him into the pool. Mike is here because his shoulders are slowly ossifying in their sockets. The water lets him move them slowly, therapeutically. Elliot is a lifelong runner whose knees on the other side of 65 years won’t carry him anymore. Corey because his insurance is giving him a large discount for staying active. Ryan wants just “to get out of the house.” I can’t blame him. It’s February in northern Minnesota and all of us are pale and scrawnier than our more public summer bodies will be. Leaving the house is such a hassle. Most of the winter is spent bundled up in our own climate-controlled boxes. Any foray out of the house has special importance in these dark months.
“Thanks for sharing everybody. That’s about it for the day. We’ll get started more on next week but feel free to hang out in the hot tub if you want. Today was about just being in the water. Getting wet.”
Dave’s fingers waggle in front of me, meaning it’s time to come up. Six heads surface from the pool and take a simultaneous gasp of air. It’s our second meeting as a class and Dave is having us blow bubbles in the water for ten second intervals.
“Ok. Center your breathing and….Again!” Dave shouts. We all plunk our heads back in the water.
The problem most people
have with extended periods of swimming
is not getting enough air inhaled
but making sure enough air is exhaled
to empty the lungs for the next
breath. We’re practicing now fighting
the panic response of having our primate
faces in water. Fighting the urge to surface.
A body under extreme stress can circumvent
its natural survival instincts if trained thoroughly.
When my car started sliding sideways in the snow-strewn
highway I was strangely calm. I just let go
of the steering wheel and gas pedal I remember
the illustration in the textbook eight
years ago from driver’s ed. Shit where is Dave?
It’s been longer than 10 seconds I can’t
keep blowing bubbles. I can’t keep doing this
That’s it I’m go - oh finally: fingers
The six of us take another collective gasp of air but this time a little sharper. “Anyone have a guess how many seconds you were under that time?” Dave asks.
“5?” Mike offers
“26?” Ryan says.
“12” Dave says with a big grin.
“Egg beaters! Egg beaters! Egg beaters!” Dave shouts as we all bob furiously in the deep end of the pool. This week’s lesson is all about treading water. To help us memorize the movement of our legs Dave relies on one of many food-based metaphors, that of the whisks of the hand-turned egg beater.
Right now our goal is to keep our elbows above water for five minutes only using our legs kicking to stay afloat. It feels like 40 minutes.
I have been treading water this whole year which feels like 10 years. I’m back in my hometown after graduating from college and working at the same restaurant I have since I was 14. I rent a small basement apartment because my parents sold my childhood home and moved to Florida. If I stop treading I will sink. But to where? What is it that I’m even holding onto as the most familiar and fundamental parts of my life are pulling away from me, seemingly in concert? How can you think about the descending trajectory of your life if rock bottom is still the same surface you float on in fairweather?
The six of us nascent adult swimmers arrive to change in the locker room at the precisely same time but inordinately early. I sense swim lessons have become an important way for us to stay in touch with each other in the isolating winter.
The men’s locker room in public pools is a place where the strange strictures of masculinity become oddly relaxed. It’s the one place where men can be vulnerably naked without so much bluster or pretense. Here as we chat and catch each other up on our weeks we stand naked as a bunch of boys that may have just skinny-dipped at Devil’s Kettle in the Cascade River. Or as wrinkly and bare as water-pruned newborns splashing in the sink.
When we step out of the locker room onto the deck of the pool Dave is already modeling the day’s lesson: the doggy paddle. Once we get in the water we talk less, mostly just chirrups to let someone know we’re coming up behind them as we spend the next hour and a half swimming. As we do I notice Mike’s arms movements become more and more pained—all this work is inflaming his shoulders. He doesn’t say a word. I don’t either even though, every 50 meters or so, my neck will give a terrible spasm, a leftover ailment from the car crash a month ago. It threatens to drown me every time but I don’t want to leave.
“Hey Andy!” Elliot shouts from the other side of the pool to me, “You’re cruising! You must got those runners’ legs. Real powerhouses!”
“Pick the orange, put it in the basket. Pick the orange, put it in the basket” Dave tells us, showing us the mechanics of the sidestroke, yet again using a food metaphor. We’re supposed to swim on our left sides and reach forward with our submerged arm. As our left arm “picks” the orange and brings it toward our bellies, the scissors of our legs snap shut and we scoot forward. We reach our hands out again and open our legs. Since all our heads are above water for the sidestroke, Adam starts to tell us a story from his younger years. We all listen and swim in sync under the fluorescent lights far above.
“It was sometime between Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands if I’m remembering right. I was doing it singlehanded, wanted to know really know if I could do this sailing thing alone. Remember I told you that trip was nothing but trouble but I was going to stick with it. I did and did and did. Sailing northwest was a problem,” Adam stops here for a moment and we all swim a sidestroke lap in silence. “It took me a lot longer than I was expecting and I didn’t pack enough food from the last port. Not enough of the right food. Nothing with Vitamin C in it.” He chuckled under his breath. “The thing about scurvy is, it’s real. And it’s worse than any dumb pirate movie makes you think. My gums would bleed. I was so tired. So so tired.” We all nodded as we glided through the water on our sides. “Something I didn’t know about scurvy was that it makes all your old scar tissue open up. Something about the collagen not being held together because no Vitamin C. They just…start to disintegrate. Things you forgot about. Old knicks and scars you can’t even see anymore. It all just starts peeling away.” No one prods him further as we pick our imaginary oranges from our imaginary orange trees.
This week we put together the disparate elements of breath, kick, and stroke that we’ve been practicing to do the front crawl. All of us fall into it easily. Dave doesn’t shout or trick us once. All six of us speed up and down the lanes as Dave walks on the deck in mild appreciation. As if we were like everyone else. As if we’ve been swimming our entire lives.
“Ok.” Dave calls us together after an hour of quiet meditative swimming. “Seems like you all will be pretty prepared for the fundraiser race in three weeks. You’ll get to show everyone what you’ve learned here. And who knows,” Dave looks at me, “maybe kick some ass.”
Today we are learning the breaststroke. To do so we make use of a metaphor. This time: pizza. “Make the pizza, cut the pizza. Make the pizza, cut the pizza” Dave tells us. Cutting the pizza means slicing our hands with our palms pushed together in front of us as we frog-kick our legs. To make the pizza we circumscribe a large circle as we pull our hands to our hips and bring our legs together to get ready for another kick.
Funny, I thought as I made countless imaginary pizzas breaststroking down the pool lanes, the only thing I ate with my friends before, during, and after Parker’s funeral, was pizza. Pizza was the only thing we had the energy or wherewithal to put into our mouths. It was our lowest common gastronomic denominator. If it’s not already half made in a freezer you can order it right to your door. It’s circular, access to it equitable and easy to negotiate. There are no dishes after and it easily fills the daily requirements for salt and fat. Graciously, it's not so terribly sad when it sits out—in fact it can look decorative. What food better captures the mood of a room full of people grieving their lost friend then a stiff spread of light ochre cheese, dark forest green of olives and the impetuous and commanding faded red of pepperoni?
“Don’t make your pizza too big. Keep those strokes efficient” Dave tells us about our breaststroke pizzas. “You don’t need to feed the whole town.” If only I could draw a pizza and have it appear, make it as big as my arms could go around every time I spread them wide. No one would have to leave back on the planes and cars after the funeral to wherever their budding post-college lives were taking them. We could sit and go on walks and talk about our dead friend. No one would have to work because they wouldn't have to buy food because we had all the pizza we could ever eat here. We could sit and eat until our fingers pruned with grease. When the last slice was eaten, in two weeks, three months, ten years, then and only then, our grief would be done.
“Bless you. Bless you all” Pastor Leon said as he leaned in closer at the end of the eulogy he delivered for Parker’s funeral. “We have gathered here to join our grief to each other, to make it one.” In other words, share a pizza big enough for everyone.
Pastor Leon was also the chaplain for the college Parker and I and all our friends attended. In Leon’s classes I learned about tawhid, ahimsa, and the traditions of baptism. Mostly since graduation he has been marrying my friends. Now he helps bury them too.
Bless you, bless you all—it’s not a cutesy food metaphor but it helps keep my breaststroke intact and true to form as I try it out for the first time in the lane. The bless you coming when my hands are folded together reaching far in front of me extending the centerline of my body past my head. The bless you all coming as my arms outline what was a pizza, now the gathering up of the aggrieved encompassed within my wet arms. Bless you. Palms together. Bless you all. Arms encircled. Bless you, bless you all.
Dave gathers us to give us details about next week’s fundraiser swim meet. There will be teams from all over the region—real swimmers. We’ll compete too to show what we learned during our time in the swim class. We even run a few practice heats to get the feel of it.
Before we leave our last lesson Dave shows us the most difficult and strenuous stroke: the butterfly. It’s a complicated series of dolphin kicks, well-timed breathes, and exhausting lunges. It’s a continuous kinetic dance darning the swimmer below and above water. If done right, it’s also the fastest. Dave does it and looks magnificent. We all try and look like we’re drowning.
The butterfly: what Parker was studying when he died in Panama during a research expedition. He woke up one morning to scout a location to later net migrating butterflies. He accidentally brushed up against something that started an anaphylactic reaction. No one knows what. His throat started to close and his hiking partner gave him water thinking that would calm his breathing. Parker choked on the water. He drowned on dry land.
The butterfly: what ridiculous poses and names we take on in our simulation of stronger, more elegant, and quicker animals. What are we doing pretending to be butterflies? What are we doing with our ape faces in the water?
When I take my first breath I hear the roar of the gathered crowd. I’ve never raced in my life, in water or on land. I get so excited I swim harder than I ever have. Everytime I turn my head to take a breath in my ramshackle front crawl I hear the crowd’s cheers rollicking in the usually quiet pool. I get so excited I beat the others in my heat unexpectedly—the local mailman, my old English high school teacher, a cop from Ontario. My fingertips touch the edge of the pool as I slam to a finish. Still wearing my goggles I spyhop and see everyone jumping up and down, looking at me. Dave sidles up, pats a wet splat on my back, says, “You sure you never swam before?” It’s the first win in a season of loss.
Epilogue: A Witnessing
I lazily pull a breaststroke as I finish my 40th lap of the day. It’s early May and I come to the pool twice a week to swim laps. It’s the most exercise I’ve ever gotten in a Minnesotan winter and I’ve never felt so calm through the bleakness as I have now. Though I don’t think all of that can be attributed to the exercise. Mostly I think it has been the simple act of showing up to the pool. The very basic and foundational motions of being in a well lit room full of human bodies and human voices. Often I don’t talk to anyone but I know they see me. Someone, at least, knows I’m still around. I swim in the community pool along with everyone else in my small nowhere town among everything they and I slough off into the water: skin, hair, sweat, shit, tears, puss, spit, piss. Bless you I say to myself as my prayer-shaped hands move ahead of me, my legs kick, and the community’s water splashes across my face. Bless you all.
Andy Butter grew up in northern Minnesota on the shores of the world's largest lake. He now resides in the high desert, studying poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yes! Magazine, National Geographic Explorers Journal, The Meadow, The Owen Wister Review, and elsewhere