I’ve recently started swimming and it’s hard. A few times a week I struggle into my little black sport suit with the neon yellow stripes and the thin, white straps. I’m cranky on the way over in the car and I’m essentially a bitter old person the whole time I’m there. It’s hard to believe I once held a Junior LIfe Saving Certificate or was on the swim team. Just about everything jiggles when I walk so I try not to think about what it looks like when I swim. I think of Shelly Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. Inside, I too am a very skinny lady.
I usually do breast. It’s the easiest and that’s why. I cheat and count once across as a lap instead of the regulation once and back is a lap. If I do ten cheater laps, I call it a day. If I do twelve I feel like someone should give me a parade. The lap lanes are surrounded by riot-like kid areas and they are usually populated by only a few grown ups. The whole place is next to a college so there is pretty much always a young person or two barreling up and down the lane, total freestyle all the way. When they go by me, I get my one taste of what it must be like to swim in The Olympics. The water boils around me, making rushing, chopping waves that create drag on my already dragging self. The sound charges at me, helicopters seeking landing pads. I think about Michael Phelps, before the world knew he was a bong smoking pothead, and Mark Spitz, with his tiny suit and gorgeous neck full of medals. I think I can almost imagine how violent the water was when they swam, how the sound of the crowd was drowned out by the sound of swimming. I think about Diana Nyad, the water nymph who can’t stop swimming. I feel like a moron. I can barely make twenty minutes and Nyad swam fifty-three continuous hours just to get to Cuba. She’s not even Cuban and she swam through some of the most hostile water on the planet to be greeted by complete strangers. And she’s sixty. As a paddle along, I realize I have nothing but poor excuses.
The pool used to be free. Today they had a sign up, $3.50 for adults. I was pissed and told the woman that that’s over a hundred a month if I swim every day. I realize, of course, that if I actually did swim every day, I’d be so full of endorphins I probably wouldn’t care that the pool is no longer free and I’d be fit like a Marine. Then again, if the time ever came when I swam every day it’d be a miracle to rival the second coming of Christ so there’s not even a real reason to talk about it. As I try my hand at a lap and back of free, I think about how this is the last straw, I am no longer going to fantasize about swimming every day because it’s close and saline and free. Now my whole un-acted upon plan is ruined. I blame the three fifty.
I come home exhausted. I lie in the hammock under the grape arbor and think about the total train wreck that is my life. I think about the almost entire lack of love I have schlogged through, decade after decade of having it “not work out” with the once endless stream of lousy boyfriends. I think about the eternal poverty, the just keeping my head above water, the periodically getting the shoulders and chest up, too, only to fall back into the inevitable abyss of missing out on most everything cool or creative or social because I can’t afford it. I think about the disastrous family and how almost none of us are really well-adjusted. Or happy. I think about women who get facials and spa treatments, people who go to the doctor whenever they want because they have insurance, how vacations are supposed to increase your health and longevity. I reflect on how my body has been affected by my income. I eat Red Flame grapes off the vine and look at the birds flying into the fountain for their end of day bath. I swim at night because I am too lazy to swim during the 6 – 8 am time slot. If I had a boyfriend, or even a girl friend, I’d swim with them. But my one non-attached female friend in LA is entirely non-athletic. She came with me to the pool once. While I tried hard not to drown out there in the lane, she hung on the side and did a few leg kicks. She is at least fifty pounds overweight. We will never be running partners. Or hikers. But she sews like a garment factory. And embroiders. And quilts. She just doesn’t do sports. Of any kind.
I know I should self-motivate, meditate and stop eating meat all together. I know that doing so will solve all my problems and I will suddenly have the day job of my dreams, leaving my nights free to eat dinner out and go to concerts and plays. I know these changes I fail to make every day will keep me from dying a horrible death. I know they will take away my wrinkles and make my butt a firm two sizes smaller, which it seriously needs to be. I know the result will be infectious happiness and an overabundance of cash. I know all this and yet, I eat carbs before I swim and carbs after I swim. I watch every episode of Nurse Jackie, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, Nashville, True Blood up until mid-way through season six and The Colbert Report. I have my first grade teacher beat me mercilessly at Facebook Scrabble, game after game. I bitterly remember the past so often there doesn’t seem to be much point to my future. It’s exhausting, though, so I do sleep well.
As I lie in the hammock, under the fat, colored light bulbs that some poor slob made for me in China, I realize that middle age truly is inconceivable when you are young. I mean, you see it, you get that it has happened to, say your mom or your aunt or a million other people you know. You can do math and take in the hideous details of a wrecked face or dimpled, saggy body. You know the difference between old, yellow teeth and your shiny white ones. And yet, your brain really can’t make the connection that one day, that will be you. And you will turn fifty only to realize that you are, beyond the shadow of anyone’s doubt, going to die. Your body will work less and less. Even more less than it does now. It is shocking. You think back at how incredibly beautiful you were when you were young and how you took that for granted. You are stunned by how much of your shot you wasted, how you just lagged at the back of the pack: an extraordinary potential that waited for someone to pick you and that that never happened, and that it surely won’t at this age. You realize that you just aren’t going to take any shit. Period. Those that are with you, great. Those that aren’t, sayonara, palsie. You learn to cut bait and not be sad when you throw it over the side of the boat. You give into the bitter reality that you knock things over, kick things inadvertently and drop things because your vision is permanently deteriorated and you don’t always wear your glasses like you know you should. You wonder what life will be like when, after almost four decades, or roughly five hundred months, you stop getting your period. Forever. You wonder what life support is like, what your mind does to deal with it. You look at your flabbed up arms, long guns that used to be toned like a puma’s ass, and wonder how far they could get you in a wheelchair. You think about diapers and all food tasting the same, or not tasting at all. More than any other clock your body may have heard in the past, it hears the ticking of the clock that will one day stop permanently. And it’s scarier than anything I’ve ever encountered.
I think about my mother, now dottering and fat. I wonder what she thinks about death, about her life: wasted? not wasted? I wonder if there are things she would like to say to people, face-to-face or in some letter, things she knows she is not going to say. I wonder if that bothers her. My hair is frizzy and making a big soak spot on the cushion and I don’t care. There is no one here. There is no one to know if I wash out my suit or let it dry with the pool water in it. There is a solitude that has come with my age that I do not mind, but there is a terror that I know, I just know, as sure as I know I do not want to drown in open water, is only going to get worse.
A life not lived is possibly worse than a young death. But this is a luxury only a living person would be arrogant enough to believe. I think about Melinda Mitchell, who went to high school with me and was killed in a car crash when she wasn’t even twenty-five. I wonder if she would be angry at me, for all this wasting. I wonder if she’d want to swap or if my life is so boring and under-involved that she’d rather stay dead. I wonder what my mom thinks about me being so old. It’s not a conversation a lot of people want to have. People want to tell you how young fifty is, but that’s bullshit. Twenty is young. Fifty is death’s walkway. You’re off the sidewalk and on your way to the door. It really is kind of like falling. There just isn’t a way to stop the forward motion. I can’t honestly imagine the final moment, but I don’t think it will be pleasant. I worry that so much has been wasted, lost and squandered that it will actually be awful. So, next week, I’m going to ride my bike to the pool. I promised myself all last month I would. I worry about getting hit by a car.