Swimming

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

It is the summer of 1977. Our nation has finally recovered from all of the hullabaloo surrounding The Bicentennial. Disco Fever will soon take to the dance floor as everyone tries to imitate John Travolta‘s finger pointing. And WiFi 92 FM still can’t get enough of Paul McCartney and The Wings singing about “Silly Love Songs“: You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…But I look around me and I see it isn’t so…

 I find this song rather fitting because, you see, I am in love. Yes, I am eight years old, and I have fallen in love. Her name is Lynn. She is sweet, pretty and kind. Her brown, shoulder-length curls are sun-kissed with streaks of blonde; her long limbs are the color of caramel; her smile, electric. Lynn is probably around twenty, but age does not matter. I love her, and that’s all there is to it.

swim-19918_640I met Lynn at our swim club, Sunny Willow. She is a lifeguard there. I watch her sit atop the chair, ready to risk her life to save another’s. Occasionally, I get up the nerve to smile at her when I walk by her as she switches from guarding the shallow end to the deep end. I may even say “Hi” to her when I am coming back from the snack bar with two fistfuls of Swedish Fish–a penny each, and I buy a dollars worth. Her smile back gives me hope–she looks like the kind of woman who would wait–if the right man boy comes along.

********************

“Michael, you have to take swim lessons this summer.” My mother announces this as we are driving to the pool in our purple station wagon.

“No way! I can swim.”

“Well, you need to get better.  I’m signing you up,” she insists.

I feel a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach. I still associate swim lessons with my horrible incident at the local high school–the one where I went to the bathroom in the pool. (Read about that here). I’ve all but put it out of my memory. I try to relax. After all, I am older and wiser–and in love. Then, I have an epiphany: maybe I will have Lynn as my instructor!

“Okay, sign me up!”

***************************

The list is posted on the bulletin board by the showers. The gods look upon me favorably–Poseidon…Neptune…they’ve felt the pangs of love that I now feel. They know what it’s like to be under a siren’s spell. I see my name on the list, and above it my instructor’s: L-Y-N-N.

For two weeks, I float on air. I jump from my trundle bed and eat my Alpha-Bits with my bathing suit on, anxiously awaiting to be driven to the pool. I spend every weekday morning with Lynn. For forty-five minutes she and I (okay, and about 6 other kids) swim together in the cool morning breeze.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

I hum the tune and repeat the lyrics in my mind, as I wait at the water’s edge for Lynn to take my arms and bring me out to examine my technique. I lay on my back in the water and feel Lynn’s hands supporting my head. “Kick,” she commands. And I obey. I kick with all my might. I look up at the blue sky, and feel as if I am already in heaven. I wish this moment could last forever. “Good job,” she says, releasing my head, and I swim back to the others, beaming with pride.

I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you…and I do. I’m not sure what it all means, but I feel the fire in my stomach; I feel my heart beat faster when she is near. And as a result, I want so badly to impress her. To awe her. Maybe it’s foolish to think she can love a scrawny eight year-old, but perhaps she will fall in love with my form. So I swim with all the bravado that my chicken legs can muster, I splash my tiny arms with the might of ten Olympians. Lynn praises me–well, all of us. She smiles, and nods, and says how well we are all doing. And after lessons, I get to hang around the pool all day. I practice the movements as she explained them, and I do so in earnest, hoping she will notice me as she tends to her other life-gaurding duties.

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see?
Ah, she gave me more, she gave it all to me
Now can’t you see,

The weeks go by too quickly, and before I know it, our last lesson has arrived. It is bittersweet. My time with Lynn will be less, but I feel I have greatly improved as a swimmer, and no one can take away this bond we have formed. As I enter the gate for our final class, I run immediately into her: my instructor, my muse.

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

“I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something before our last lesson.”

“Sure,” I say. An award, I think. I’m getting an award!  I have impressed Lynn so much that she wants to reward my efforts. This is the beginning of our future together. We will open a swimming school and spend our summers training kids–underprivileged kids– to be as skilled as we are.

“Why don’t we sit over here?” she asks.

We approach a picnic table and sit across from one another. Her eyes look especially green against the painted tabletop. Her white teeth dazzle me. An award! In my mind, I try to think of the title for my award: Most Improved…no…Fastest Swimmer…no… Most Likely to make the Olympics…I have a dazed smile on my face, but Lynn’s face does not mirror mine. She is not smiling. In fact, she seems to be frowning. I begin to tune in to her words: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to repeat the lessons. I cannot pass you this time. You’re just not ready.” I say nothing, just nod slowly. “Okay?” she says, tilting her head. “Um-hmm,” I lie. I am not okay. A minute ago I was captain of the swim team, standing on my diving block waiting to take the gold. Now, I am a dejected loser.

Lynn and I get up from the table and make our way to the pool. She puts her arm on my shoulder, but inside I recoil. It’s too late. I cannot bear her touch now. I am nothing but a disappointment to her. I spend our final class togetherswimming-97509_640 sulking. My movements are sluggish, slow. Every splash of water laughs at me mockingly. My heart is too heavy to swim, to float. The woman I love does not love me back–cannot love me back. She cannot even find it in her heart to pass me in swim class.

Love doesn’t come in a minute,
sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, no, it isn’t silly, 
love isn’t silly at all.

Swim Lessons, Take Two

High DiveI spent the afternoon at the YMCA with my sons, watching them take swimming lessons. We’ve been at this since they were babies–every winter they take lessons, and I do see the results. But, God, sitting in that steamy hot chlorine sauna known as the indoor pool, I secretly pray that neither boy wants to join a swim team. As I watched them swim, I was once again made aware of how quickly they are growing, yet still wanting me close by. Hayden, my six-year-old, even insisted I sit on the benches at the deep end, so I could watch their dives up close. I find I am one of those parents who likes to sit farther away. This prevents me from hovering–wanting to reprimand their every misstep and also alleviate the perennial fear that they will get hurt. For instance, sitting near the deep end today, I was concerned with these pole-type things that hang down from the diving blocks. How are more kids not getting stitches from those, I wondered? Plus, the farther away I sit, the easier it is to check my cell phone.

Like many parents, I have the talk in my head when at an event like swim lessons. It goes something like this: “Now make sure you actually watch them when they are in the water. They really like to know you are paying attention. Do NOT check your phone or sit there texting like a teenager.” My other voice replies, “Jesus, give him a break, he’s sitting in this steam bath getting high on chlorine. He can look at his damn phone once in a while.” “Well, you know what I mean–don’t sit there the whole time and ignore your kids.” “He’s right,” a third voice chimes in.

I really want to be present in the moment. I want to capture all of these small snapshots in my memory, so I can happily sift through the slide show in my mind for decades to come. But swim lessons are boring as hell. I make an effort, though. Like an obedient dad, I do sit on the bench Hayden summoned me to. As instruction begins, I feel my phone buzz– a text from my wife about tacos for dinner. Hayden calls from the pool, “Dad, I was first to finish the lap.” I look up from my phone–caught, “Awesome, buddy.” “Pay attention, Michael”  Voice One reprimands. “Okay,” I say–right after I check Facebook. “Dad, watch this.” Now it’s Owen, conveniently in the lane next to Hayden, beckoning me to watch him bob from the poles hanging from the diving block. “Cool,” I say, looking up from my cell. “Dad!” It’s Hayden again, confidently waving to me from the other end of the pool. I hear his voice 50 meters away, yet there I am buried in my damn phone still.

“ENOUGH!” I think all the voices in my head say this at the same time. I place my phone in my back pocket, and swear  I won’t look at it again until we are in the car.  “Enjoy this time. Watch them swim. They want you here. Be present.” And so I watch their various drills, up and back the pool length. I admire how cute their new haircuts look now slick against their skin. I watch their little heads submerge in the water and come up to the surface with new life and excitement. I marvel at how their feet kick like tiny motors. I am in the moment. Until…Until, I begin to recall my own days of swim lessons. As I watch my own six-year-old in the water, he reminds me so much of what I think I was like as a child, bad bangs and all, and my mind flashes back 37 years…

I am in Abington Senior High School. It is the weekend. I am here with my five-year-old neighbor, Greg. His brother, Jeff, is my age (6) and we are friends, but Jeff is a capable swimmer, and I am not. Even Greg seems more advanced than I.  So, here I am, one of the oldest kids in the class, which will continue to be a pattern in my remedial athletic experiences as a kid (I think I was the only boy playing T-ball who had a learner’s permit).

Greg’s mother has driven us here. She drops us off outside the school, and we make our way into the labyrinth alone. It is our first lesson, so I am quite nervous.  I think this is my first time in the public high school, and since I go to Catholic school, I am immediately fearful of what I will find inside: kids hanging out doing drugs, gang members sharpening their knives, pregnant girls searching for the fathers of their unborn children…I was quite neurotic as a child (note the past tense).

Not surprisingly, Greg and I get lost. This confusion does nothing to calm my nerves. Finally, we find our way through the maze-like hallways to the boys’ locker room. We change, and then try to find the pool. I am overcome with anxiety, which means I have to go to the bathroom….number two….pronto. I tell Greg, and he kindly tries to find one with me. With each passing second, my nervousness increases, until finally, I can take it no more. The urge overtakes me, and I go to the bathroom in my bathing suit. Number Two. Number Freakin’ Two.

I am too embarrassed to tell Greg, so like any good Christian, I lie. “I don’t have to go anymore.” (Technically not a lie, I realize as I write this.) He is none the wiser, so we make our way out to the pool. Any bathroom still eludes us, so getting rid of the evidence is not an option. Once on the pool deck, we find our instructor, who checks our names off the list. My panic comes back, as I am now confronted with what the hell I am to do with this load that is sitting in my bathing suit. I contemplate telling the instructor. Or Greg. Or anyone. But then, I look around at all of the people, and I imagine all of them laughing at me. I peer into the future, and see my nickname years down the road: Poopy Pants Trainer, Poop for short. No effing way am I saying a word.

We are told to line up at the side of the pool. We are to jump in and swim to the other side. Now, I am nervous about the fact that I stink at swimming. Thankfully, this replaces my anxiousness about what lies beneath my bathing suit. “Okay, everybody, on the count of three.” I realize I must jump in and swim with the pack. Swim close to everyone else. If the poop does fly out and surfaces to the top of the water, I want a crowd around me so I will be able to deny, deny, deny. If I am in a pool surrounded by a dozen other kids, there’s no way they can pin it on me! As the instructor commands “three” I jump in wildly. I swim to the other side with reckless abandon, making sure that other kids are within arm’s length.

We get to the other side, and so far, no sign of my package being delivered. The instructor tells us to swim back and forth so he can assess us as a group. On about the fifth lap, I finally have the courage to feel the back of my suit. Gone! GONE I tell you. There is nothing but netting. In hindsight, I may have opened up the lining so it could slip out, but I honestly don’t remember. All I know is that the evidence disappeared from my suit, and did not resurface the entire time I was there. I was so relieved. After the lesson, I say nothing to Greg. When I get home, I do not breathe a word of this to anyone. The story alone could give me a nickname for life. My brothers would have had a field day with this one. Yes, I would be keeping this to myself. I consider it the day I swam and swam, and I never looked back.

“Hey, Dad.” It’s Hayden again. Waving to me for the umpteenth time. His voice brings me back to the present moment, and this pool a few lifetimes away from the one I was just revisiting.  I smile at the recollection of my swimming lesson. The smile turns into a chuckle. I laugh at it all. The craziness of my youth. The fact that now I am the adult in charge, and these two boys want very much for me to be there on that bench watching their every move.  I love that they care so much that I am watching. I love that they feel a sense of calm and security knowing that I will be with them each step of the way, so they won’t get lost; that I am just outside the pool if they need me, for example, to take them back to the locker room so they can go number two.