In the neighboring lanes, retirees walk the slow churn. Sinew writhes under mottled hips, hearts chug in their loose cages of hollowing bone. We turn the creaking millstones of our musculature and send low ripples along the surface.
Mid-afternoon is a world apart from evening here. During the late rush, fierce middle-aged racers tear a wake between ropes. Teen divers knife skyward before the plunge.
Now, the most animated bodies in the water are a half-dozen preschoolers gripping swim bars and kicking with all their might. The rest of us sway. We are seaweed, we are prey.
I stir the lapping shallows. My feet somewhere down there take the long strides of a sleepwalker. A faceless predator closes the distance of its asymptotic approach, forever almost crossing over into awakening. The water is a tar that grips. Also, it buoys. These competing forces are reminders of its latent power. So too are the lifeguards with red floats who pace the edges and peer into our unsteady depths. Even as we come to it to carry us over our pain, we all know that this pool could lay any of us down for good.
Rinsed and combed, up from the locker room and out through the lobby I limp. Lopsided steps favor the right leg and give the left a breather. Even with easy breaststroke, the busted hinge in my left knee pops and yelps. But I’ve moved, I’ve worked up an almost-sweat. This is energy, back for a throbbing moment, a reminder of what it felt like before. What it may feel like again after the surgeon fiddles with the clockworks and seals me up.
But even if the repair is unsuccessful or — as is inevitable — temporary, here is water. This is reason enough to be grateful.
As I plod out the sliding doors, a man enters. Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk, towards the welcome desk. Another ancient one here for the healing waters. He leans on a cane. Thin layers of marbled skin drape from thighs and elbows. Around his left knee, a black brace. The red flesh trapped inside grates at its confinement. He moves with such care. Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk. His eyes are fixed on that low place on the floor one meter ahead, a place all too familiar to me now that avoiding a fall is more appealing than the vanity of vigor.
As I hobble past, I point to his knee and say, “I’m getting over one of those too. Thank goodness for the pool.”
He looks up at me. His face cracks like the lid of a chafing dish. Something in there simmers and pops, steam and all. A slow grin. “I bet you didn’t get yours hitting a deer while riding on a motorcycle.” He chuckles. His wink, an invitation. He holds his gaze a second, another. Then he turns and limps on.
A buzz shivers through me, potent and odd and all the more startling from its unlikely source. Out the sliding doors and into the parking lot. Sun licks my shoulders. A breeze cuts through the damp hollow where my hair lays across my neck.
There are no old folks here. Not broken bodies, no lost days. We long for what we are, even now. We are all younger than we imagine, as raw as we have ever been.
We are all being born.
We face the open water. We surrender. We surge.
Photo credit: Uncertain origin; possibly from Triathlon Scotland