Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Battleships of Benicia

I've decided to attempt a triathlon in July since I'm cross-training so much these days anyway (though back to running 50-mile weeks.) This requires me, however, to return to swimming. I can't say I'm afraid of water, exactly, but swimming makes me, well, uneasy. The following essay was my attempt to discover the reason why I feel this way. 


The Battleships of Benicia




To say I’m afraid of water would be an easy way to wiggle my way into completing this essay. All of a sudden, you think: “Oh, poor baby, you’re missing out on days at the beach or that once in a lifetime tour of the battleships of Bencia” whose eery presence calls to mind the heartless force of aquatic nature. 
In fact, the first time I saw them, the battleships, I sat up in my seat like an alarmed prairie rat, legs extended, pushing my head into the car ceiling. They sat immobile like cement buildings surrounded by water; relics of another time, transported to a spot beside a California highway, suggesting, perhaps, the past lives among us and not beneath the surface of memory and subconscious.  
Their frames haunt the blue-chlorine tinted environment I have recently felt uneasy within. One lap, a flip turn, and then there they are: those corroded metal sides stories taller than I, preventing my progress. And that is what I mean when I say I’m afraid of water, as of late. For whatever reason, it makes me think.
Yet, I was the cherry-brown skinned girl, darkened from days in the sun-- and in the pool-- each summer I spent with my grandmother in a place she lived called “Leisure World” in Orange County, California. To me: a young person usually forced by parents to complete daily chores such as pulling weeds and making the bed, this place seemed like paradise: stucco mini-condos, townhouses and duplexes laced into a manicured landscape of orange groves and super-green lawns with perpetually blossoming fushia bouganvilla and intoxicating white gardenia blooms. There were shuffleboard courts nestled into tree groves and weeping willows that seemed to cascade their fronded branches just for the sake of Loveliness, the concept. And of course, the pools, all seven of them, sheltered from the rabble outside Leisure world (the world of work, of chores, the world I got to leave every summer for two weeks or more). It wasn’t until I was much older (or not much, but the conversation aged me when a schoolmate, a girl I’ll call Miranda, shattered the fantastical view of the place when she said: “Oh yeah, my grandparents live in Seisure-World, too.”)  
But before all of that, Leisure World was the place I went to swim, everyday from one in the afternoon to four, until I was so exhausted, my grandmother would drive me home in her petite red Subaru with tan leather seats and persuade me to wait for dinner despite the fact, each day, I could have eaten an elephant or more for dinner. 
She taught me to swim, my grandmother, and with the perspective that comes from semi-adulthood, I admire what must have been her patience with me. As a child, I was unbounded energy: I was the girl who played soccer with the boys in black patent leather Mary Janes, the girl who changed clothes five times each day so I could climb trees, ride my bike and construct a fort of brittle sage branches in the expansive desert behind my house and expect to do more come dusk, but find my appetite, and common customs involving dinner and bedtime prevented me. But in the summertime, when the Southern California air smelled like myriad blooming flowers, well, my days revolved around swimming. 
The pools, of course, were not constructed with children in mind. Leisure World, being a retired community, wanted to promote an active, healthy lifestyle in which their mature tenants lived. Social groups were the norm: where in normal life, it’s not uncommon to go an entire day saying a mere ten words to other people (or, at least for me) in Leisure World it was almost not an option. There were the walkers who woke early and strode up and down the rolling avenues to watch the dawn; the sewing club who had their own room and horde of buttons my grandmother showed me once, prompting me to form a button collection of my own which I housed in a mini-bureau with five drawers. I grouped the buttons according to kinds-- like families-- and constructed histories for all of them. The ones which glittered with rhinestones came from wealthy European royalty; the ones that looked like pieces of fruit were mid-westerners struggling to appear middle-class and resided in the second drawer below the glittering buttons above. 
But of course, there were the Shuffle-board players in white pants and white brimmed hats and then, yes, the swimmers. 
 My grandmother was one of these. Though she walked, her primary (and preferred) form of activity came from swimming. I don’t know in her younger life if she’d ever been a swimmer, but in the years of my youth, she swam everyday, doing her solitary laps in the pool, looking not happy exactly, but fulfilled. And this is what the pools were for: some Leisure World residents walked in them when they could no longer walk on land, while others did a form of the breast-stroke while keeping their coiffed heads above the water. They churned there, day in and day out. That’s what the pools were for in Leisure World. 
I can’t imagine when it happened, but it was very early in my life when the directors (or owners? I can’t begin to deconstruct the political backdrop upon which a large retirement community is based on) decided that most retired folk have children who in turn have children, and so, goshdarnit, those children should swim. In the pools. But only from one to four in the afternoon, and only after the regular swimmers finished their daily laps. 
One to four: my happy “hour.” My grandmother, in one of those swimsuits made to look like a small dress (of which, she’d ask me before we left the condo, “Do I really look all right in this?” to which I’d say, impatiently, “of course. It’s just a POOL”) held me up beneath my stomach as I circled my arms in the crawl-- or freestyle--stroke. “Kick more,” she’d say and I would, catching glimpses of her squinting from the profuse spray that rose and fell behind us. Or, she taught me the backstroke. On my back, staring into the blue sky, she reassured me, “You’ll float, trust me.”  
“No, I won’t, I won’t.”
And when she let go, I did until I realized she wasn’t holding me and sank and swam to the relative safety of the pool’s edge.  Yet, even then, I wasn’t afraid, or not exactly. I listened to her lessons but then was left to my own vices after an hour. And then, in my freedom, I’d walk the length of the diving board and dive in, attempting not to make a splash (the sign of a good dive, my grandmother said) and after moving to the concrete side, she’d race her hands and give me a mark, anywhere between one and ten. They were usually sevens or eights. Rarely tens. Bellyflops received no fingers. 
Or I would become fascinated with the deep end, the inexplicable way the bottom of the pool was nine and a half feet below my own feet, dangling free in the water. It was a fascination I shared with the other visiting grandchildren who came and went throughout the summers. We would huddle, like some ancient human tribe, and stare down into the wavering and distant black lane lines and murmur, “Do you think I can make it down?”
It wasn’t long before I said, “I think I can,” and dove beneath the chlorine depths, kicking my legs so hard that they burned but my arms by my sides until I thought I could see, through squinted eyes, the bottom near. And then I’d reach one arm tentatively forward, fingers outstretched, to graze that distance which would make me a legend, if only for a day, with the other kids at the pool. I didn’t make it the first time-- coming up for air, inexplicably exhausted and slightly shaken-- but I had tried again and again, and I remember the gritty feel of the pool’s bottom across my fingertips. Perhaps, that time, I’d lingered there and felt the contrast between rough cement and smooth, black tile and looked, briefly, to the surface where the sun made mosaics of light and shade and for once it felt as though I had been born into a new existence.
*
Every summer, I swam, even when I got old enough to look less like a kid and more like an adult. My first summer as a college student, I came to visit my grandmother like always, but with the baggage of self-awareness, like Eve, after eating the fruit of knowledge to discover she’s naked. 
I read profusely that summer, mimicking a character in a short story written my David Guterson in a collection I’d heard about through a summer literature course I’d taken at the University. In the story, the protagonist visits Las Vegas and begins to spend his days swimming, transforming his body into an object of desire for another character. Though not my primary motive, the story I’d read replayed itself in my head as my grandmother-- now a decade older-- still took me to the pool from one to four where I convinced myself I’d spend some time reading, but most of my time in the pool. 
I recall reading Hemingway’s The Man and the Sea because I felt it was a thing I should do, but after finishing the last page, I stood and felt the cement burning beneath the naked soles of my feet. I walked to the pool, adjusted my googles and lowered myself in. Then, I began to swim. And swim. And swim. 
I watched the bottom go by, my shadow at times in front of me, other times, invisible behind me. I kept my distance from the black line to my left (or right) and the cement wall on the opposite side. I swam not for speed, but for distance. It was not exercise, per se, but a rhythm I created, a stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke stroke, stroke, breathe that pushed my mind into another world and made it difficult to count the laps I’d covered. Was it ten or twelve? There is no sense of time in a pool, no sense of much if the mind lifts itself beyond the body, influenced by those rapidly passing blue-tinted depths. I felt no pain, no discomfort: just a need to swim, like Guterson’s character. 
But then I decided not, not like Guterson’s character, because my quest had nothing to do with a world beyond the water, but rather like Hemmingway’s elusive marlin. Yes, I decided, as I reached forward and leaned slightly to one side, propelling myself toward another pool side (which one? I hardly knew) that I was the marlin, swimming freely in the ocean depths, a creature wild and free, born to move, to exist in that motion, destined to be free of humanities fetters of fishing lines and full-time careers. I swam not for any reason, but because it was what I did. I swam. The sun beat down on my back and I imagined my backside a colorful array of blues, my belly (I imagined) white, like a fish. I was grace, I was power. An hour passed.  Then more. When I stood in the shallows, removing my goggles from my eyes, my legs trembled a bit and the world above water appeared strange: a place of sharp angles, of hard noises like my sister’s whine from beneath an umbrella that it was too hot and a cold breeze that pricked my skin, despite it being July.
Goosebumps formed on my arms and shoulders even before I left the pool. My grandmother slept, snoring slightly, on the lounge beside the one I’d left in the shade of a large, evergreen-colored umbrella. She woke with the sound of me pulling my lounge into the sun, a scrape of metal on concrete, and said, still half asleep: “You swam so long. You must be exhausted.”
But I wasn’t. 
“I’m hot, I want to go home.” That would be Amelia, beneath the beach umbrella all of nine or ten years old. 
And like the marlin who glimpsed the man, I returned to my element, where the quiet allowed my imagination to paint futures that came from pasts that never were, that couldn’t be.  I was a creature of the depths, happy to linger between the world I knew and had to return to and all that lay beneath. 
*
And then, I stopped swimming-- or enjoying it, anyway. I can’t recall the reason why. Perhaps it was because the pool at the University was housed within a large space with no windows to the outside world. Perhaps it was the growing angst over a body I perceived imperfect enough to require constant covering. Or perhaps I became more concerned with the present, and the past. I took up cycling, and later, running. Traveling through air upon earth isn’t like swimming at all: it’s immediate, it draws you into natural landscapes, into the here and now. 
There are, after all, rocks to watch out for, hills to climb and vistas to admire. There are miles covered that are measured in real distances, not in identical motion from pool side to pool side.  While I was out in the world, I began to write what I saw and I began to forget about those distant summers when happiness was found in escaping the elements I’d begun throwing myself onto. 
It took a bad case of tendonitis in my left ankle-- a sharp-stabbing feeling-- to draw me back into the environment of the pool, of water. And despite my relatively short absence (a mere five or six years) I was a stranger there, remembering none of the rules of breathing, of proper motion. Re-learning to swim became difficult not because of any physical barrier, but rather because I had to remember the mosaics made by light and shadow I’d seen as a child staring up at the surface from the depths. I had to remember the beauty of silence; and I had to forget my newly acquired fear of drowning.
I think I’ve forgotten it when I’ve successfully joined a master’s swim group and have been doing drills for the first fifteen minutes. I think I’ve also become my aquatic-self again when we begin the “meat” of the day’s workout: 10 x 100 meter efforts on a two-minute interval, treading water (not resting) in between our bouts of laps.  I find myself in the lead of the four swimmers in the lane. The sick-scared feeling rises in my stomach and, during the first 100 meters (four laps) I worry I might just vomit chunks of tea mixed with toast, my breakfast. But I don’t. I make the distance with twenty seconds to spare. I’m not breathing hard. I didn’t drown. I’m alert and aware of the seconds which drip away, dictating my eminent departure. 
And then, I dip my head below water, and push myself away from the cement wall. Stroke, stroke, stroke and then a breath. I think of that rhythm and when my mind begins to wander to those rusted battleships, I bring it back again to the passing numbers. Twenty-five yards, then fifty which means I’m fifty-percent done. The sickness remains, but it muted, muffled beneath my attention to the numerical significance of each motion of my arm, my leg, my mouth. 
But after eight repetitions, the pool is churning like an ocean from the myriad legs which kick and arms which slap the water to propel us forward. When I reach the wall this time, I rise to find the other end of the pool is shrouded in what appears to be a low-lying and thick fog, perhaps caused by the rising temperature of the water (by our collective efforts) and the cold air outside. 
I cannot see the other side of the pool and my breath falters. Do those battleships wait for me there? Our rest is over and I must swim again. I attempt to push the fog from my mind, but every time a gasp for breath, I see it there, hovering beside me, over me, around me. I might as well be swimming into an ocean of chlorinated water. I panic. I try to think of something else, anything else, than this fog. 
But my mind returns to those fallen ships and all those things that were once great and now forgotten. About lives lived, and memories faded; and it suddenly seems life is a process of holding back a fog and most of us succeed for a while, but it overcomes us no matter how long we fight and struggle to remain above the water. 
Just then, I turn my head to breathe and fill my lungs with water, risen by another invisible body passing in the opposite direction. I gasp and struggle, finding nothing but pool water inside me, around me and it becomes too much. I panic fiercely and find myself, seconds later, on the pool deck, a cold cement, still covered in fog, breathing hard. That was not the water I remembered, but perhaps it was and I have grown too old to remember what was once so simple.
*
Water, for me, is a non-place, a place that takes me out of the present and places me in the past-- a mixture of constructions and truth-- which unfurl like flowers into futures I might want, if things had turned out differently. The summers in Leisure World were like those worlds I made up; ideal, intangible yet already always lost.
I recall an evening, not unlike many there, before my sister was old enough to visit. My grandmother took me to visit her friend, Viola in another corner of the sprawling retirement community. Viola lived in a flatter section (whereas my grandmother lived in the “hills”)  in a single-level duplex which seemed to my ten-year old eye to be set up backwards. Upon arriving, Viola always waited, her considerable weight leaning upon a cane at a half-open sliding glass door and her hair, completely white, curled loosely on her head. 
Geraniums and gardenias grew in pots on either side of the step which led into a dark space that always took my eyes minutes to adjust to. A piano stood in the corner, but one I wasn’t permitted to touch, and on its top one of many lighthouses in miniature. 
We would always make our way to the table which sat in the kitchen and were treated to iced tea, made just that morning, just for us along with cookies I was all-too-eager to consume after the hours I’d spent in the pool. Funny: my grandmother visited Viola nearly everyday, and I can’t remember a single word of what they said during these conversations. What I do remember are the games of rummy tile and later, cribbage and Kings in the Corner. I was proficient enough to win a game or two a night before the night came with air only slightly cooler than the day, yet suffused with moisture so that snails left the confines of the leafy ground cover and made silvery trails on the concrete walks which led from the condo to the car. 
I can force myself to re-live those days and nights which smelled like chlorine and gardenia blooms if I am in a quiet place without the distractions that abound in my day to day life: a place without blaring music, without the sound of human voices. While swimming, in other words, I’m rushed back to the summers when I lived in Leisure World, when I was one of many quirky characters in a drama that was, I’ve found, nearing its finale. 
Like the Battleships in Benicia, these water memories are relics of a past time that, however hard they cling to our present coattails are nonetheless only empty shells we pass by. There are lighthouses in miniature and in actual size, but they are no longer displayed on an elderly woman’s piano in a duplex now inhabited by someone else. There are still sewing groups and gardenia flowers and swimming pools, but they are littered with scraps of what is not quite the same. There was an afternoon spent staring at the churning ocean surf when my grandmother recounted memories of a life I hadn't known. About life and love; the birth of my mother, the death of her husband and the years which follow. Perhaps that is what water leads us to, all that is beyond but still oddly present. A memory tinted by the encroaching sepia of our aging minds.
Yet, despite those admirable depths, time's constant motion calls to mind the necessity of air and distance between the present moment and those battleships which slip from view as the highway turns away from the bay toward the next town.

1 comment:

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