Sunday, June 16, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 358: Biomythography - Note 96: Swim Lessons

Swim Lessons 

On a warm day in June of 1969, I got into the passenger seat of my father's car. My father drove a Morris Oxford, a British car, green on the outside, grey on the inside. I remember it didn't smell of cigars as much as usual. My father had cleaned out his ashtray. Or maybe it was just a beautiful, spring day and he opened the vent windows. 

Up front for once, I clutched my towel. 

"You're not going to get sick, are you?" he asked. 

There was no good answer. I rolled down the passenger-side window and leaned my head as close as I could to the gap above me. Sometimes a fresh wind helped.

"Why are you driving?" I asked after we had ridden for a few miles. 

"Your camp is on the way to my school." 

I didn't nod. Sometimes moving my head during the drive made me sick. Anyway, I had to contain myself. I was starting to tremble as I thought about summer camp. It was my first day. I was going to learn how to swim. 

I had been begging for swim lessons for years, it seemed. Every day in every summer, I yearned to launch myself into the community pool on my own power. I ached to live my life like one of the big kids and to go wherever I pleased. To be respected like a big kid, not a baby. To walk to the pool without my mother. To cool off when my body wanted it, not when grown ups decided they could spare the time. Want, want, want. I had not wanted something so much since I'd kissed the girl across the street. I wanted to break free and swim like a fish, like a shark, like an otter, like a dolphin. Like I was free.

At the camp, the swim instructor came late. Or actually, she was there on time but she wasn't in a hurry. She wasn't already waiting for us in the pool. She wasn't rushing like I wanted, so we seemed behind schedule. She said she had to talk. 

"Today, the water is pretty cold," she explained as she got in. She held her arms up so they didn't get wet. 

A little girl dabbed her foot in the water and winced. I followed. The chill sank into my toe like it was a piranha biting me. At one end, the camp was still piping the water in. Everything was fresh and new. That also meant it hurt. 

"See?" the instructor laughed. "You won't have to get in today, if ..."

As I looked at her hesitant, overly polite smile, I jumped. 

A moment later, she was pulling me out. I was gasping but it was because of the change in temperature. I was fine. 

"I want to swim," I demanded. 

"Well, sit on the side first." She plunked me down on my bottom. "You're not the only student."

"It's cold!" I complained. I held myself and shivered. But I kept my icy legs in the water.

"I didn't tell you to get in."

"I'll be warmer if I move around," I suggested. My father told me that all the time. My swim instructor, though, took a deep breath. She considered it. 

"I might let advanced students hold onto the wall and kick," she said. "If they behave."

"Great!" I started to position myself.

"But only if they behave!" She raised her voice and one of her eyebrows at me. "We have ten students today, not one. Ten."

I grunted and shuffled where I was, on my bottom. I felt the rough concrete grab my swimsuit and start to rip at it. If I wiggled, I could feel the serrated surface scratching the fabric. I tried to hold still. But when I got bored, I wiggled. The instructor talked. She talked and talked. I wiggled and wiggled.

Some of the other students told her they didn't want to swim. What were they even doing here, then? I folded my arms and sulked at them.

After a while, I found myself dry and wrapped in a towel. I was standing at the edge of the Town and Country Day School building lot where they were holding the camp. Some of the other day campers were leaving. My father had been waiting for me. He'd done whatever mysterious chores there were for him at Northwood High School and, afterward, he had parked in the line of cars with the other parents.

"How was he?" my father asked a camp counselor.

"Very good," she said. "Very advanced, I'd say. He was the best student."

"Oh," he gave me a nod. "That's nice to hear."

But in the car, I sat and sulked some more. I was a champion at brooding, moping, glowering, and all the other non-verbal ways of expressing despair in a manner that was not quite deserving of a parental ding on the ear - although sometimes the adults seemed tempted by the idea. My father regarded me for a moment. He asked how the lesson had been. Then he turned the ignition. The car roared. As I tried to respond to his question, I burst into tears.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"I didn't learn how to swim!" I shouted. 

"But ..." He thought for a moment, letting the car idle, trying to square this outburst with the assessment he'd heard from the counselor. "Weren't you good? Why didn't you learn?"

"I don't know."

"Huh." He rubbed his bearded chin. "It was your first lesson. Did anyone else learn how to swim in the first lesson?"

"No," I complained. I folded my arms. "She wouldn’t let us."

"You’ll learn," my father said.

"She has to let me!" I wailed.

"She will, she will." He sighed and put the car into first gear. "Geez, you have all week."

#

The swim lessons went on, an hour a day, every day until Friday. Our last lesson got cut short by a ceremony, certificates, and juice. By day three, though, I was allowed to swim. 

With some hints from the instructor, I could manage to stay afloat and move forward. On day four, I swam doggy paddle for the width of the pool. On day five, I swam the length of the pool, starting from the deep, cold end. I didn't just doggy paddle, either. I got my arms above the water to pull. Plus the swim instructor indulged me by teaching me to take breaths on my side. Like a big kid. 

"Now I can go to the pool by myself," I announced.

"Well." The instructor put one hand on her hip. "I don't know about that. Just remember to tell your lifeguard that you want to take your test."

"Today," I said. 

"If your mother lets you go to the pool today," advised the instructor.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 357: Biomythography - Note 95: Strange Bedfellows, Part VII

Strange Bedfellows, Part VII

We started dating. She was cute and witty. That was the good side of the relationship. When she relaxed, I enjoyed my time with her. A lot. A whole lot. After all, she was my crush. Thin, beautiful face, entrancing wit, enticing, wry smile. Whenever she breathed close to me, I inhaled and shivered. She made me giddy.

I had dated women who identified as lesbians before. But I had never dealt with one who was in the closet. I'd grown accustomed to the activist-minded sexual politics in western Massachusetts. It was an open, expressive environment even when it was disapproving of who I was dating. I'd never given thought to how the politics in a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, a handful of miles from Appalachia, might be different. 

We were sitting in The Old Town Tavern, a bar a few blocks from work. That evening, we held hands across one of the low tables. She smiled at me as we touched. Every now and then, people walked by. Suddenly, she removed her hand from mine. She turned away from me. 

A pair of women strolled by us along on their way to the dance club part of the bar. 

"We need to leave, now." My date glanced at the backs of two women. She rose from her chair. 

"What's wrong?" Like her, I rose. I wasn't alarmed, though, only bewildered. 

"We can't be seen," she hissed. "This was the wrong choice. Some of my friends drink here."

The encounter seemed to ruin the evening. She spent the next hour shuffling her feet, looking around, trying to make sure she wasn't being seen with me. 

Our next date, we met at a more remote bar, one with pool tables where we could play and talk. She felt good enough about it that only a night later she invited me to another bar, where she didn't quite relax but she did feel able to talk.

"No, you'll never meet my parents," she told me. She sipped her beer. "I don't want to give them hope."

"What does that mean?" I protested. "You said they don't know you're gay. So what's the difference?"

"They would ask about you forever." She rolled her eyes. 

"So I can't meet your friends," I finally realised, "but I also can't meet your family."

"I know it's difficult." She pulled away from me for a moment but she leaned forward again to touch my arm. "But you only have to do it sometimes. I have to live this way all the time."

She arranged our next date at a restaurant she despised because it suited her privacy needs. I was starting to understand I wouldn't be allowed to suggest places. Any location in which we were to meet, she had to ensure the public part of our encounter would be secluded or else so open and busy, none of her friends would suspect she was dating a man. 

Finally, she put us on hold. She let a few days go by and hardly talked with me, even at work. We sat side by side at our cubicles, isolated from most of the other writers except for our third roommate, the younger woman, who was furious with both of us.

Eventually, my crush set up another date. Even to talk about it, we had to walk out of the building on smoke breaks at roughly the same time. She brought a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. I strolled over to bum a cigarette. 

"Let's meet at the mall," she suggested as she watched me light up.

"Where will we go from there?" I asked.

"We'll figure it out. I want the meeting to look like an accident." She flicked the ash off her cigarette. "Just in case."

The rendezvous at the mall involved shopping near the fountain for twenty minutes and keeping an eye out for her in the meanwhile. She did the same. In time, she noticed that I'd seen her. She took her place on a bench near the fountain. I waited about a minute, as per her instructions, and took my place on a different bench. By apparent accident, we sat close. I glanced at her but apparently it made her uncomfortable. I let my gaze drift back to the fountain and listened. 

"This isn't working out," she said. 

"Um, yeah." Probably, I shouldn't have nodded in agreement. But I did. 

"I thought I could make it work." She picked up a pebble, small enough that someone had bought it into the mall in their shoe. She tossed it into the water in front of us. "But I think I'm just taking advantage of you."

I wished she were taking advantage of me more and also more often, but I understood the point. She had re-thought the date, tonight. This was goodbye. 

"No way to make it work?" I asked. My crush on her made no sense. I guess it never had. Making sense is not the way crushes work.

"No."

"Okay." My heart slowed. My muscles collapsed a bit but I was sitting and I tried not to let it show. A moment later, I felt a wave of shame and hopelessness sweep over me. It warmed my skin.

"You should walk away first," she said. 

I nodded, as if to myself. After a half minute, I got up and walked to the fountain. I paused to have an almost-thought, more of an instinct, and turned toward one of the bookstores. Books were my friends. I could read a little, maybe laugh at someone's humor, maybe speed-read through a few chapters of science fiction. Maybe I could buy something if I found a way to justify the money to myself. And so I began my stroll. 

Behind me, I heard her rise. She picked up her plastic shopping bag. Even over the sounds of the other people in the mall, my ears were tuned to her. She picked her direction opposite mine. She started walking. 

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 356: Biomythography - Note 94: Strange Bedfellows, Part VI

Strange Bedfellows, Part VI

"You split up with your girlfriend?" said my office mate. She stopped typing and turned away from her Macintosh screen to study me. We were sitting in our cubicles, side by side in a narrow, yellow-walled office.

"Yeah." It had been my idea. But I wasn't happy about it. I stopped typing in the middle of a sentence and spent a moment pitying myself, feeling the loneliness of breaking up.

I had put my experience as a human trial participant into an article for a local newspaper. My co-workers knew what I’d done with my vacation time. But they didn't know, until I mentioned it, that I had decided to end my relationship of nearly three years. 

“So now you could go out for drinks.” The woman by my shoulder gave me a teasing smile. “Your girl couldn’t get jealous anymore.”

“Huh.” I had turned down friendly offers to socialize because I had wanted to include my woman but, each time I had asked her, she didn't want to go. My desire to have friends was not hers. And she didn’t want me to go out drinking without her. She wanted me to stay home. Now I was free, sort of. I could hang out with friends.

Realistically, I was only sort of free. I still lived with my old girlfriend. We had signed an apartment lease together. We were both nearly broke. We had to ride out our situation until the end of the lease. That meant we saw each other every day. We shared our food. Her opinion still meant a lot to me and I would be encountering it every day. 

After thinking for a moment, I agreed to go out on Thursday night. That gave me a chance to warn my former- girlfriend current-roommate. 

"Do you like playing pool?" I asked my office roomie. She kept her blonde hair cut short. She always wore a leather jacket, too, so I thought the chance of her liking pool halls seemed decent. 

"Yeah, I kind of love it. I play near my place in Hagerstown." She failed to look up as our third office partner strolled in. A brown-haired girl, just out of college, she arrived later than we did, usually. Today was no exception.

"I've got a place here, in Frederick." Once a week, sometimes alone, I reserved a table and ran through it a few times playing eight ball or nine ball. 

"Sounds great!"

"What are you guys talking about?" asked the third member of our little office. 

There are times in life when you don't know how you got into a situation. When you look back, the clues were there. You simply didn't notice. In the future, in a similar situation, you might not notice, either. Because you've got a steady pattern of catching on late. In retrospect, you should have picked up on the clues. It's hard to see how you couldn't. 

"We're heading out to a pool hall on Thursday," I said. 

"Just for a beer after work," the blonde woman added.

"Oh, you guys have been talking about heading out after work for months." The brunette hung up her purse on a hook next to her cubicle. "I'm glad it's finally a yes."

"His girlfriend broke up with him," said the older office mate. She saw the frown that crossed my face. "Or he broke up with her but he's not happy about it. Either way."

"Oh, great!" She burst into a smile. "I mean, that's too bad but you know what I mean. You can go out. Am I invited?"

My older office mate looked at me. I glanced back. My shoulders rolled as I shrugged. The women were both fun, both cute. I had a bit of a crush on the older one but I didn't have any intentions of following through. Or I hadn't. Until this very moment. But now, I realized, maybe I did. Or at least I could.

"Sure," the older woman said. 

"Sure," I agreed. I shared a nod with her although, quietly, internally, I finally acknowledged the crush I had. The thought of an evening with her made me giddy. Maybe a third person in the pool game would keep things innocent and save me from embarrassment.

I had a couple days to think about it. In retrospect, not a lot of thinking got done. My reverence for my co-worker blossomed. She sat closer to me. She smiled and laughed more. Increasingly, I looked forward to hanging out her. Maybe I could get an idea about the chances of her returning my feelings.

"Wow, you look good," said the older, blonde woman as we met at the pool hall. 

"Yeah," her brunette friend agreed.

I looked down at my jeans and my plain, white t-shirt. All I had done was swap out my office shirt for one without buttons. I wasn't as socially awkward as I had been before college, though. I knew not to deflect complements with too much force.

"Thanks," I said. Showing a little gratitude always worked. 
 
We played for an hour and I heard more comments about how I looked but not much about my pool game. When I got hot with the cue and started running tables, the women shrugged. Mostly, they teased me, usually in fairly witty ways. We exchanged banter like twenty-somethings, which after all is what we were. I wondered if the older woman was letting me win. At times, she seemed like a good, steady-handed player. 

We'd worked side by side for months. We shared similar senses of humor and, often, the same politics. She had started asking me about my girlfriend after our first month together. I wasn't sure about the status of her love life because, she declared, "it's private," but she seemed to enjoy keeping track of mine. 

The brunette touched my biceps a couple of times as she passed by to take her shot. The older one commented on it.

"You should try it," the younger woman teased. 

My crush beckoned me to her, one hand on her pool cue. When I got close enough, she leaned in to give my arm a gentle squeeze.