Helen Mirren tugs her white Lycra swim cap over her sleek silver bob, then pops on her pink swim goggles. She smooths her swim skirt and eases herself into the water.
Santa is already here. Santa is always swimming laps before I arrive and he is always still going strong after I leave. Santa’s belly is not akin to a bowl full of jelly, but he is white-bearded and has a kindly smile. He puts me in mind of a right jolly old elf. Santa favors the breast stroke at a slow but steady pace.
I’m pretty sure Alanis Morissette was at the pool two nights ago too, in an ill-fitting one piece that she’d obviously given up hand washing and run through the spin cycle on high a few too many times. Alanis, of course, gives no fucks about the swim cap, letting her trademark long brown mane trail wildly behind her in the water. You look at her and think, “That is so Alanis.”
These are the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps are done for the day.
For the past week, I have been one of their number.
I like to arrive just as the pool staff is taking in the lane markers after the official adult swim time is over. One lane stays reserved for lap swimmers and that’s where you’ll find Santa. Helen Mirren likes to split the lane with him. They have a system.
I don’t know how to use the lanes. I swim next to the marked lane, though I occasionally have to dodge guests from the resort that shares the pool.
I’m new to pool etiquette. I’m new to belonging to any kind of athletic facility. I’m new to lap swimming. Last night was my fourth trip.
It’s the perfect pool for me. The “laps” are some random length unrelated to any regulation pool. But they are my laps, damn it, and if I want to say I swam six laps – or three, or ten – then I will. My daughter lets me count a lap each time I touch a wall, so when she swims with me I get to double the number.
When she’s not with me, I watch the clock. A half hour, that’s my goal.
I am winded at the end of each length and I have to take breaks. I hang on the edge of the pool as Santa keeps his metronomic pace. Helen Mirren takes breaks too, but mostly to change up her equipment. She likes to use props, which makes me feel more comfortable with my fledgling attempts. Sometimes she’ll breast stroke with a pool noodle tucked under her elbows or clutch a kickboard in lieu of a full on crawl.
Maybe I am supposed to be doing that. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’ve attempted exercise before but nothing ever stuck. Old people kicked my ass at yoga and taekwondo damaged my joints. But from a mental health standpoint, exercise is pretty much a do or die thing for me at this point. I never want to revisit the depths of the past year.
I swim, each stroke a moving meditation. You can’t not focus on your breath because of the whole drowning thing. So I follow my breath. Sometimes it is gasping, sometimes my timing is off and I swallow water, sometimes one breath barely gives me the energy I need to make it to the next.
I breathe and stroke, breathe and stroke, avoiding the kids jumping in the shallow end, wondering if I’ll ever have the guts to split a lane like Helen Mirren and Santa do. When my half hour runs out, I lie prone on the cement pool deck, unable to move.
No one seems to notice, so maybe the post-swim collapse is a common occurrence amongst the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps go home.
I stagger to the locker room. I am so tired it is probably dangerous for me to drive the two miles home.
But I am swimming towards 50, and I think I am going to make it.
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