Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Seventh Rule of Swimming: A Tai & Trey Short Story

The first rule of swimming: do not practice struggle.
He remembered this when his arms and legs fell out of rhythm, when his stroke grew choppy and the kicks came too hard and too fast. Churn and splash instead of propel and power. He would hold his breath too long, try to coax one more stroke out of the lap, one less pause to turn to the surface. That was when the timing was most likely to fall apart. His high school football coach had told him as much that day two decades ago, a sudden presence. Looming. Unexpected.
Jesus Christ, Seaver, if you didn't have to breathe, you might actually be okay at this. Not that it's going to help you on the field.
But he had to breathe. No getting around that.
The pool held few swimmers this morning, all of them athletes. Several wore tri-suits, with paddles and flippers and polarized goggles that reminded him of night-vision glasses. He added up the prices of the items into a sum total for each swimmer. Seventy-five dollars plus thirty dollars plus two hundred and fifty dollars equaled three hundred and fifty-five dollars. Divide that by thirty seconds per lap for a cost of approximately twelve cents per second, rounded up, amortized over twenty laps times five sessions per week for the life of the garment. Or the goggles. Or the swimmer. Or the…
His coach's voice again: Seaver, get your head in the game. The football field ain't no swimming pool. The football field doesn't have a shallow end. You hear me, Seaver?
And then his former physical therapist's voice: Mind before matter, Mr. Seaver. Not over. Before.
His lungs burned and he gave up, rolled to the air. Thinking never helped in the water. Afterward came the calculations. During, there was only the stroke, the breath, the kick. His mind and his body moving in synchronistic circuits.
Synchronicity. That was a good word. A useful word. Specific.
The sun wasn't out this morning. He saw only gray clouds through the curved skylight, and the water rippled gray underneath. Warm. Too warm to suit the taste of serious swimmers, but that was summer in Atlanta. Too warm.
He wondered briefly where they all were, the swimmers. Then remembered that he knew. It was the Fourth of July. They were swimming somewhere else, with their families. Lakes and pools, backyards and parks. Places where they could splash. Only people like him were at the pool today. Only the lap swimmers, silent and focused in their separate lanes.
He rolled all the way to his back, kicked lightly, breathed deeply. The clouds moved overhead now, like…something. It started with a B. Something long and thin that moved in the breeze. Not flags. Flags were a different kind of rectangular. Clouds were not rectangular at all. He could see the word in twelve-point Times New Roman on a white background in a black box. And there was a B at the beginning, even if he couldn't say the word that he saw. The shape of how it sounded eluded him.
People saw things in clouds. Tai was continually pointing out islands and Volkswagons and animals that were half this and half that. Last night, on the terrace, she'd seen a half hippopotamus/ half alligator. With a top hat. She'd taken her bottle of Maker's Mark and a highball glass out there with her, a circumstance with a definite positive correlation to the variety of unusual shapes she saw in the sky.
Still on his back, he stretched his right arm overhead so that he wouldn't hit the wall. He'd passed the finish line, which meant he was close to the end of the lane. He counted down three seconds, two, one. And then exactly at that moment, exactly when he expected it, his fingertips grazed the wall. He stopped kicking and touched bottom.
Banners, he said to himself. Clouds like banners.
He checked the time clock. Warm-up completed. Time to move into the second interval. He took the measure of the lane, the water barely stirred. Arms into position, deep breath in, hold it, then kick off.
This was his favorite part, the horizontal push blading through the water, clean. No kick, no breath, arms in front, pure forward motion. Then the lift, right arm first, an easy stroke leading with the elbow, fingertips slicing ahead to pierce the water. He could see it as if watching himself from the side, the length of his body bisected by a straight line from the crown of the head through the torso, continuing down his legs and balancing the cavitating scissor of the thighs and calves and toes.
Not mind over matter. Mind before matter.
His therapist's name wouldn't come up. It remained below. In the depths. He knew the harder he tried to remember, the deeper the memory would sink. It was directional that way. Spatial. And yet he couldn't not try, he couldn't keep his mind from going back to those days in the Shepherd Center, the young PT, curly hair cropped close, black eyes, a broad chest and strong brown arms and a quick smile. Cheerful. Competent. Professionally polite.
Hence the Mr. Seaver, which he had not argued with, not at first. He hadn't argued with anyone at first. He hadn't cooperated either, those beginning days. When the word he knew best was no. No to the walker, no to the stretches, no to the aquatic therapy, no to whatever anyone had suggested.
Memory was directional and spatial. Deep and back. He pulled his mind forward and up again, into the present. Centered in the singular moment. Here and now.
Kick. Curl into the turn. Push off harder this time.
The second rule of swimming: seek the path of least resistance.
It was simple physics. Water was seven hundred and eighty-four times as dense as air. Swimming required streamlining. Swimming required becoming slippery. That was the word the therapist had used. Slippery. See it before you take the first stroke, he'd said, see the smoothest, simplest, easiest way to slip through the water with the least drag. See it in your mind, and the body will naturally follow. Like a needle through fabric.
The image had stuck. And it had proved effective. Piercing and slippery. Like a needle.
In the water, resistance described the forces acting opposite to the relative motion of any object through its surrounding fluid, a co-efficient of drag. Hydrodynamics. In the physical therapy unit, resistance had been the refusal, a wall of it. He remembered how saying no over and over was the only control he'd felt he had. No to Gabriella. No to Garrity. No to visitors, especially his fellow police officers. No to condolence calls and cards and the priest with the calloused hands and soft voice. No to PT, OT, rehab. No to eating. No to talking. No to trying. No no no. Gabriella crying, Garrity cursing, one by one everyone else giving up. Almost everyone else.
Kingston. That had been his name. It surfaced easily now, on its own, without any struggle, and the relief was instantaneous. No, he hadn't forgotten Kingston's name. Hadn't forgotten how the young man had brought him back to swimming, only not like in high school, not like the whistle-blow striving with never enough air. A different kind of swimming.
Stroke. Kick. Breathe.
He grabbed the side and found his feet again. Four laps in two minutes and twenty seconds. Thirty-five seconds per lap. Not a bad time considering he'd managed only one swim session during the entirety of the previous week, had managed only one weight training session and barely twenty miles on the treadmill. Seven minutes and twenty-seven seconds per mile. Tai had had other plans for his week off, as usual. And there was no arguing with her. Which wasn't exactly true. He'd argued, purely for the form of it. There was something in her eyes when she argued that reminded him of the sudden flare of the sun from behind clouds. Flash and heat, quick. Not that the sun was ever absent. Just hidden. The sun was always present, of course. Even during an argument he hadn't minded losing.
Get over here and kiss me, she'd said. Don't make me come after you, boyfriend.
He'd done exactly as she'd told him.
Flash and heat, but not quick. Quickening.
He paused before the next interval, remembering, waiting for his heartbeat to slow, his breathing to return to normal. He pulled his arm into a deltoid stretch, feeling the warmed muscle elongate now, the scar tissue not giving way easily, ever, but loosening and untightening, eventually. On either side of him, the swimmers pierced the water. Like watching a pod of dolphins, Tai had said. Hardly a splash at all.
The third rule of swimming: find the path of most resistance.
He pulled his other arm forward into the stretch. This was the key to swimming, using the resistance. Paradoxical, he knew, that the same resistance you fought by becoming streamlined and slippery was the same resistance you relied on to actually create the forward motion. The same quality that held you up was the same quality that tried to pull you down. It had felt momentous, this understanding. He'd tried explaining it to Kingston, getting frustrated when he couldn't, but the young man had nodded. If there's anything I've learned, it's that the water isn't your enemy, and it isn't your friend. And then he'd clapped him on the shoulder. It just is, man. It just is.
Kingston had stopped calling him Mr. Seaver once their sessions in the rehab unit had been completed. After he'd helped him take every single no and push against it. Push forward. Every day a little stronger, every day a greater range of motion. And then, when his life had started moving forward again, they had come here, to this pool at the Y, to continue swimming. Not as therapist and patient. As friends. Until the new job at a veteran's center in Los Angeles. Two thousand one hundred and seventy-four miles to the west.
He finished stretching and placed his foot against the wall. Lowered his goggles into place. Plunged forward, and the motion held the shape of a needle in his brain. Or perhaps a dolphin.
The fourth rule of swimming: to become effortless requires great effort.
This one he'd known, even if he hadn't fully understood it when he'd started PT. His football coach had always wanted him to go faster and hit harder and move quicker. If you're not giving me one hundred and ten percent, you're not giving me your all, and you'd better be giving me your all, Seaver, all or nothing. And he'd tried, he had, but that approach had made no sense on the field then and it made no sense in the water now. Because it made no sense mathematically, which meant it made no sense period. Yes, he knew that now. Then, however. Then.
He felt the burning in his lungs. Pushed it down. Something in him pushed back, and the next stroke faltered, the kick badly timed, choppy and inefficient. The need to breathe rising, expanding. He lunged for the side and grabbed it and hauled himself up, but not before he sucked in water and had to stand up and cough. He pulled off his goggles, coughed harder, annoyed now.
No. One hundred and ten percent made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
He coughed and put his back against the side of the pool. The sunlight moved across the water, brief and sudden. Sunlight, not the sun. The sun was the opposite of sudden. It was… something. Also beginning with an S.
He pulled his goggles down again. Eight laps in the next interval.
He pushed off the wall and through the water, this time with the proper form in mind, the proper shapes. Also an arrow, he'd decided. Tai had a flaming arrow tattooed on her bicep, nocked and ready in its flaming bow. Heat and brightness and a finger on the string. A steady fire, consuming and consumed. A small precise sun.
Steady. That was the other word.
He cupped his hands on the S-stroke, fingers close but not tight. Only the water and himself within it, only the muscle and the movement together, form and function.
The fifth rule of swimming: swim with an empty hand.
It was proper technique, this rule, but it was something else too. Something about emptiness. He closed his eyes, shutting out the blue light and the shimmer from above, and he remembered. Sunyata, Gabriella called it. The endless further. Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form. Which made no sense and yet…did. At the same time.
Blue-black and flashes like the sunlight. Those were the only things he remembered from his five days in the coma. Walking on the dark side of moon, Garrity had called it. That felt right too, even if he couldn't explain why. Something about airlessness and cold and orbits, temperature and return. Memory and trajectory and horizon. One minute he'd been driving his car and arguing with his mother — he couldn't remember about what — and the next minute he'd been blinking into the fluorescent lights over his hospital bed. The accident wasn't his fault, they'd told him. We are so sorry for your loss, they'd said.
It had taken a long time for the grief to fully coalesce. It had been literally incomprehensible at first, her death unremembered and therefore unreal. As for the other losses, they at least had come with data and charts, prognosis probabilities and standard deviations. He had seen those losses in black and white in front of him. He had assigned measurable values to them even if he hadn't been able to remember the shapes of what had once occupied their particular emptiness.
It was easier now, to perceive the boundaries of what wasn't there anymore. Impossible still to put his hand to it, his mind to it, for more than a few seconds. Except that he had to keep his hand open. That much he knew.
The sixth rule of swimming: extend.
He hadn't wanted to. Contraction was safer. The black and white apartment, the black and white wardrobe, the black and white office. Dichotomy as severe but steady comfort. His own company as well. Alone within four walls, alone within walled silence, alone within the silence in his head. The reassuring hum of solitary silence. He could breathe within it. There had been Garrity, of course. And Gabriella. There had been his presence and her touch. They had kept him…what was the word? It started with a T.
To life. And then she'd come along, with her capital T, unboxed in red looping script. Bold. The opposite of steady, at first anyway. He tried sometimes to pin her down, her concrete pieces and how they made an intangible whole larger than the sum of her tangible parts. But he couldn't. And that was a good thing. He liked her particular impossibility.
He flipped at the wall, surfaced, stroked hard for the middle. The home stretch, Kingston had called it, the last intensive lap, full speed, giving it everything. There was no room for past or future, present only, time linked to movement, the mind barely ahead of its matter, body and brain entrained in the cadence. Kingston had spread his arms. You gotta get long for this part, he'd said. Like a gazelle. You ever watched a gazelle, Trey, I mean really studied one?
He'd confessed that he had not, but he'd understood. Long was a line both qualitative and quantitative, from point to point, a linear equation. The body was a line as well. Many intersecting lines actually, a lifespan as time and distance. He could see it like a graph, see the human body superimposed on top of the X and Y axes. Like a crucifix, like the diagrams in Gabriella's physiology textbook. Like compass points.
He felt the growing need to breathe, and he didn't resist this time, turned his face to the surface and then face down in the water again, the stroke barely interrupted. Syncopated. Another useful word. Take little bites of air, Kingston had said. Just turn your face to it. It will always be there, the air, right above you. Have faith, my man.
The seventh rule of swimming: never give up.
And so he breathed. And kicked. And stroked. And he trusted the air to be there and the water to support him. And he didn't fight the resistance, he used it. And he didn't pause, he moved through the pattern, kicking harder now, pure propulsion. Moving forward. Moving toward something. Not the end of the pool. Something else. And he could hear his breathing, the solid roar of water, the breaking splash as he lifted and extended, stretched, faster now.
A ray of sunlight pierced the water, flashing laser precise, illuminating something on the bottom. Something shiny. Something that shouldn't have been down there. He almost ignored it. Almost. The pull to finish the lap was almost irresistible. He'd made good time, he knew it, his body burned from the exertion. But the shimmer should not have been there. So he pulled up short, kept his face down. Treaded water until he spotted the metallic flash again. Then he collected himself and jackknifed for the bottom.
It was a woman's ring, a gold circle with a clear cut gemstone. A diamond, he guessed. He plucked it from the bottom, held it tightly between thumb and forefinger, and kicked upward. As he approached the edge of the pool, he saw two bare feet in the water, a female form refracting and blurring. He surfaced next to her, folding his arms on the concrete.
She had her flip-flops off and her jeans rolled up, which didn't help her stay dry at all because she was sitting in a puddle. She'd been at a reenactment all morning and was now returning to pick him up, her hair sun and curl and wild.
She shoved her sunglasses up into her hair. "What did you find down there?"
He pulled off his goggles and held the ring her way. She took it, turned it in the light. Its facets caught, and it reminded him of a tiny fire between her fingertips. He almost said this aloud, but the words didn't make it from inside his head to his tongue, and when he tried, they dissolved and then he couldn't remember what he'd been thinking except that it was…it was…
"A ring," he said.
"Huh. How about that? I suppose there's a Lost and Found here."
"There is."
"Good. You're going to be somebody's hero today."
She grinned down at him, and he remembered the sunlight through the blue water. She didn't care that the seat of her jeans was in a puddle. She cared about the sensation of water on her bare skin. She cared about him too. It had been worth all the stretching to reach her, and still was.
She wrinkled her nose, still smiling. "I almost said 'yes' just to see what you'd do."
"Yes to what?"
"The ring."
He thought about that. There was something trying to connect, but it wasn't happening. She noticed, but instead of explaining, she slipped the ring over her little finger. The smile remained. He propped his chin on his forearms and looked up at her, and he figured it out, suddenly. The connection went live wire, and the understanding rose clear and bright.
"Oh," he said. "I see. I suppose I'd have said yes too. In that case."
"You better have."
She laughed and kicked water at him. He caught her ankle, held it tight. She was slippery and strong and could have pulled free with little effort, but she didn't. So he kept his hand there, on her instep. She reached down and pushed his hair from his forehead, running her fingers through it.
"You were making great time that last lap," she said. "Like lightning, boyfriend." She looked out across the water, shaking her head. "Once upon a time, I could have taken you, you know."
"You could take me now."
The grin widened. "Did I just hear a double entendre fall from your lips?"
He kept his expression blank, but thought very hard. Had it been? He knew that happened sometimes, that sometimes words and thoughts connected in ways he'd rather have kept to himself. There was a protocol for this, and it started with shutting his mouth. That usually prevented further trouble. Usually. Not that she would have considered a double entendre inappropriate. No, not her. Plus she was laughing, and laughing was a good sign that he was not in trouble. Still. Better to play it safe.
He blinked up at her. "What?"
"Oh no, you don't. I am not falling for that sprung-trap look."
"It's not. I'm not."
She laughed again. Her laughter was round, but it connected things in spirals and fractals. It expanded and drew together at the same time.
He tilted his head. "What I mean is, I've seen you swim. You're strong. Fast too."
"I used to be. I think I may have lost it, though. Too much time being a landlubber."
He didn't agree. She swam with power and grace and instinct. He knew the physiology behind her prowess — her broad shoulders, her muscular legs, the swivel of her hips. She was not a person to swim laps, though, back and forth, back and forth. She swam across rivers. Through waves. Down to wrecks. She never seemed to pause to take breaths.
Yes, she could take him now. She didn't think so, but she could. He decided he wouldn't argue, however, not this time. It could be a secret. And it could be a double entendre too. All of it at once.
She returned her eyes to him. Silver-shot green, her eyes, faceted like the diamond. She was the crux and juncture, and he was reasonably sure she knew that even if he couldn't explain it with words. Depths and heights, solid and shifting, curve and angle, she was the shape of everything he knew to be true, and he loved her. That word had always come. That word came even easier than breathing.
She stood, toeing her shoes onto her feet, the little ring locked tight in her fist. "You ready to go?"
He hoisted himself from the water in one smooth motion. "I'm ready."

NOTE: This story is also available on Kindle

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