Most of us in the Y Senior Rehab began self-medicating — okay,
call it what it is — we started drinking — in our seventies. The
wrong prescriptions for acceptance got to be too much for us to
accept. And now, since you’re joining, and since I’m the one who’s
been told to give you the big picture, picture this: a bunch of us
brain-compromised, diabetic, brother-less, sister-less, wife- and
husband-less, Viagra-less and nut-less and breast-less, arthritic
and asthmatic, palsied, hemorrhoidal, balding, cancer-carved,
triple-bypassed drunks stagger in every Monday morning at five
on our own wrecked wills to learn how to get our feet into the,
our cold feet into the shallow end again. Sound fun?
Our mothers are not alive and here to drive us at dawn to the
unlit gravel apron around the corrugated steel Quonset hut. No
one holds and then lets go of our clean hands, and nods us sternly
towards the iron gate and the iron door. At the entrance to the
shadowy locker room the Y matron astride a high gray metal stool
towels, thin towels, blue chits and blue pool baskets. Like
children, we men talk about her and lose our place talking about
her as we strip and shower with phlegmy bars of off-brand soap
from our own wet pink plastic snap-close boxes, and believe,
every morning, believe the cold water might turn hot if we turn
the handle to H and hold it.
“She looks at us funny,” we say. “She’s gotta be over ninety.”
“D’you think that’s her ’70 Mustang out there?”
We shrink under the shower’s stinging slivers of ice, and whimper
a little as we put on our drawstring mesh-lined swimming boxers.
Someone asks, “You serve?” Someone answers, “Patton’s army.”
And the guy who always says it, says, “We need some heat in
We say stuff like that. What you’d expect. But there’s rungs of
silence when we can’t track, different rungs of lag for different
men, and rungs where the regret goes because some of us have
enough memory left to feel regret. Our buoys of collapsing
waistline fat and our hairy, fallen balls and fallen butt cheeks were
unfallen once and our prostates soft as sugar packets, and our
shrunken pricks had fresher, innocent faces and necks. We step
into the chilly concrete inch-deep squares of disinfectant
footbath. We walk out of the bunker. We don’t just go past the
Pool Rules. We read.
And we breathe quiet as birthday candles, and recite them to
ourselves as if for the first time.
In the echoing, noxious room the girls our age are already in line
at the edge of the pool. Their suits and ours: red. Red is the rule.
They gaze into the water, their pale mouths closed, slack jaws
clenched, faces faking bravery, and their still, sleeping open hands
swing at their sides. Their toes and goose-bumped feet flatten,
their feet, their painted toes, the old mandogs know it is hard to
love those toes, wrinkled feet flattened against the blue speckled
tiles. In their red one-pieces, which fit their waists but not their
chests, or their chests but not their waists, they are as childlike as
they were at six. Sound fun yet? Maybe it is. We have no
hungering awe of their necks and nipples and breasts and hips or
the cloth-hidden silent mouths of their sex, or, for that matter,
their mouths at all. We feel too something, too — something —
too innocent for that. Chalk it up to the cold, the hour, the moon’s
southing, the Y’s faded red ceiling paint flaking, steadily snowing
banjo-plunking pink flakes that smell like Arbuckle coffee, taste
like the holler, and they nod at us, they straighten up, they wave.
Afterwards, at home and alone, you think, Ancient. Beautiful. But
there at the Y no one flirts or jokes or lets on, anyway, that there
is any romance in it. No one says anything that might dispel the
reverberating wasp-murmuring of the caged overhead lamps and
the water lapping the pool lip and making licking sounds along the
windowless rubbery white walls of cinderblock. No talk. No
glasses in our hands. No golf clubs. No bottles pouring. Some of us
adjust our suits, but that can make your skin a bad fit, so we
readjust. When the Y matron, our coach, enters, she has
showered. Her burr-cut hair is dripping wet. If your hair is dry, she
glares, she sends you back. If your suit is immodest or too poor a
fit, she’ll tell you.
She’ll tell you, “Shave that” and — woman or man — point to your
hairy chest, back, face, thighs, crotch where the offense against
smoothness could make you ineligible for her class. “Straighten
up,” she says if you’re more bent than you have right to be. Her
erupting varicose veins have spread over every wall and awning of
the crumbling ruin of her body. Magnificent blue mansion, older
than the oldest of us, she told us once and only once, “You are all
pathetic puppies. When I was your age I was pathetic, too — don’t
sweat it.” As if she were the mother of our mothers, she lines us
up on either pool side, showing us how our feet go and where our
feet go, and — picture this:
we put our feet that way, every one of us. We obey. We already
know we should be an arm’s-length apart. So.
Wobbling a little, we stretch our arms out to measure the
distance, which is just enough closeness, all the closeness we
desire, and all she will permit. She tells us to bend at the waist
and crouch at the knees. “I said bend, Mister. Don’t take a bow.”
When she commands, “Dry crawl,” we rotate our arms and move
our heads from this side to that and breathe in and blow out.
When she says to stop you’d better. “Who told you it was fair or
that it was fun?” Now that you’ve paid your fee to join, you’ll see
what you’ve done. If you’re out of turn, she turns your head for
you in her cold, clean motherly hands. She clasps your waist and
grabs up and straightens your wrists, unfanning your fingers,
pushing down your lower back, demanding that you move slower,
reach further, roll your shoulders into the stroke and stroke
smoothly and lift and lower your hips. Not a single instinct in us
makes this anything more than what it is — swimming out of
water, imagining river or ocean streaming over our shiny coats
and over our backs, feeling no readiness for and no anticipation of
anything but what we can make flow by flowing ourselves through
it. Like the war.
Like that. The chlorine fumes sting awake our noses, eyes, and
tongues, and make us and the old girls look from the shallow end
into the deep. The looking makes you drunk. You think you see
yourself there in the blue pool where shadows stretch from
trembling red ghosts, where blank bright mantas of flags sail.
Calmly falling to the bottom are ladders drawn in white crayon.
Wavecups lift our reflected faces to us at a tilt.
When it is time, we swim.about the author