The Y

Kevin McIlvoy

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

hands out

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.

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