Making waves is the easy part.
I am the only woman in the water. The rest of the swimmers are men or boys. One of them bobs his head near me, a surprising vision in green goggles, like an undocumented sea creature. I imagine us having sex, briefly, him rocking over me like a wave. Then I go back to planning what I will say if the two men next to me, back on the beach where I’ve left my stuff, ask me anything. Things like, “So when you take your shirt off, is it a cultural thing or is it for personal reasons?” Pretending curiosity. Then, angrier: “Do you ever feel self-conscious about being naked? I mean, in front of kids? I’m just wondering.” But I never use my lines, because nobody ever says anything.
I haven’t always been scared of swimming. The summer it started I was eight. I must have been gangly, all limbs, like kids are at that age, but I don’t remember. My French-Canadian in-laws took me to one of those low-rent Quebec beach resorts. Components: water full of kiddies, sun over everything, yellow sand, murky aqua water. Then me: floating out of the shallow zone on an air mattress, panicking and slipping off, panicking again and letting go, and panicking a third time as the water slid over my head. Thrashing, I surfaced. I could hear the calls of the kiddies, see them tossing brightly coloured toys from each to each. “Help” I tried. It came out a barely audible glub. Nobody noticed. I knew I was doomed.
Then there was the weekend I planned a wholesome outing for my daughter and me, something commensurate with our new suburban status. A stroll down Main Street, ice cream, very Norman Rockwell. Turns out the Hell’s Angels were having a goddamn hoedown on the main drag. Filling up the Dairy Queen with leather. Standing around the parking lot back of the local sports bar while the police ostentatiously recorded licence plate numbers at the nearest intersection. Excuse me? Drugs, gangs, violence? Apparently it’s a free country. “Look at this great sweatshirt I got,” a teenager behind me was telling her friends, so I turned around and told her, “That’s a gang. They kill people.” She goes, “Oh, yeah,” and then, to her friends, “But look how neat it is.” I tried my best to start a fight with someone, I really did. Walking by the table of guys remarking loudly that I was leaving, I didn’t like the smell of the people in here. They said nothing. My daughter trailed after me obediently. She’s too young to know when I’m being an asshole and tell me to shut up, which I know will come. I spat in front of a biker on a motorcycle on my way back home but he just drove by. Guess he didn’t want to mess with the tough mama on the ten-speed with the kiddie trailer hooked to the back.
A couple of years after the resort incident, I started going to the university pool. I’d get onto the lowest diving board, jump off and thrash my way to the edge. The pool was enormously deep, like the killer whale pool at the aquarium. Over the course of the summer I became convinced that a great white shark lived at the bottom of the university pool. When I jumped into the water, I imagined the shark gliding upward to bite me, and terror—partly real and partly assumed—propelled me in my efforts to reach the side. Only when I had heaved myself up, streaming and gasping, and rolled onto solid tile so that no part of me dangled in the water, did I consider myself safe. Yet I never stopped jumping.
My daughter is frightened of the crabs she saw in a Chinese restaurant last week. They were climbing up the wall, she says, and going out the top, and “they bite me.” I remind her in sweet and reasonable tones that the crabs did not actually bite her, that in fact they would only do so if she stuck her hand in the tank. I remind her that crabs, like almost anything else we imprison, are more concerned with getting away than with biting us, that they cannot get out anyhow, that—not incidentally—they are delicious to eat. Next time she tells the story, she repeats that they bit her.
My girlfriend—oops, I guess I should say my fiancée—and I are chalk and cheese. Bread upon the waters. Oil and vinegar. Constant mixing is required. She cannot sit out in the sunshine; even a half-hour of pure light maims her. Me, I’m in this heat at all hours, only a picture hat and an eensy-weensy pair of bikini bottoms to protect what remains of my modesty. Nakedness—and her standards on this are more stringent than most people’s—would be to her a positive horror. For years she’s only swum at night. I have a grand ambition, mostly unfulfilled, to visit nudie beaches all over the world. (So far I’ve done Budapest and Fort Lauderdale.) This morning we got into a fight.
“Why didn’t you tell him to come before six?”
“Because the boat comes at six.”
“But you said the boat would be early.”
“That’s right. So we’re leaving by six.”
“So why didn’t you tell him to come early?”
“Because the boat is supposed to be there by six.”
Round and round it went, making us both enraged and stupid. Finally she said, “Everything was fine until you came.” She is right. I have instilled—I meant to say installed—wooden floors, new-to-us living room furniture, a houselet where the garage used to be, and the hitherto unknown practice of decluttering. There are Saturday cleans. The other side of the picture is that I’m fully outsourced. I write this on the beach, just like in the commercials. Only I don’t have a watch, and somewhere it’s ticking toward five-thirty. Will I, I wonder idly, make it in time?
I try to swim every day when it’s really hot. Laps in the pool in the park. Swan dives off the stiff old board at the community centre tub. A climb up to the top of the scary metal slide in the bay. Desperate, sweaty, I take cool showers while my daughter, a hot-water enthusiast, howls disconsolately between my legs. This year I don’t make it to the nude beach on the other side of town at all before the weather changes—suddenly, like a tripped switch. Above eighty degrees, get me in the water, now. Below seventy, indifference. Same with watermelon and certain kinds of alcohol.
There is a bra in my bag that keeps falling out. I had sex with a man last month and wonder when I will see him again. I really do consider myself the best mother in the world. What time is it, I wonder? Today I thought: I am no longer defined by the man I used to love. Last year he went crazy and did a number of extremely unpleasant things. Police, doctors, government offices with their tone of weary implausibility, the Law, you name it. We’re thinking of starting up a foundation.
I was taught to swim by a woman I once lived with, a lifeguard. She had long, careless limbs and a determination not to be pretty. She gave me some drills to do. Afterwards she said, “You swim the weirdest of any person I’ve ever met.”
I think that’s when she liked me best, those times I was unique. “I’m just doing what you told me to do,” I said.
“That was an exercise. You’re not supposed to actually swim that way.” Yet I couldn’t get out of the habit, the front crawl, trailing my spidered fingers along the surface of the water.
I always think it’s so sad when you live in one of those towers by the beach and you have a so-called garden apartment. I mean, come on. Frontage. It’s what counts, and I should know.
Uh-oh, six-ten by the neon clock on Granville Street. Shit. Time for Plan B. I could take the bus home, ride in comfort instead of leaning against cinder blocks to write this. But I know I won’t.
She taught me to float, making barely perceptible figure eights with my hands below the surface of the water. She taught me just how much weight the water could bear: by happy coincidence, me.
The truth is my girlfriend would be pleased anywhere, with a tobacco patch and a tin of milk for her coffee. She doesn’t need anything fresh and arugula is lost on her. She’s happy alone, maybe even happier. Yet she picked us. It was a choice, like homosexuality. Makes you wonder what it is we’ve got, that she sees.
One time the lifeguard and I, we went to the beach together. She liked to swim, taking up a lot of space. She’d come home and tell me about her adventures. “Do you understand the concept of public pool?” a woman asked her once, in the lap lane. Turns out men don’t like to be passed. Without her I never would have known these things.
I dreamed about her last night. The pool was beautiful, in the middle of the park, an empty diving board, lots of kiddies, warm. No fence, no ticket booth. After I went in she beckoned me over to the back wall by her chair. There was a map of the city divided into different coloured areas, showing who was eligible to swim. “I don’t see your catchment here,” she told me, in sorrow and anger. I was going to argue with her but instead I went to look for my daughter. I found her, finally, floating just below the surface of the water, in front of two little kids who didn’t know enough to pull her out. I knew I would save her, force the breath back into her lungs. I knew this before I woke up.
That one time we waded out into the water and she started to swim. Out to the horizon. I watched her for a little while and turned around and when I looked back again she was gone. Vanished. I wondered if there was anyone I should tell. It makes you feel so stupid, doesn’t it, not knowing. I waited a whole hour for her, on that beach. When she came back she said she had seen something out there, an animal, seal or otter maybe, pop its head up and look at her. What are you doing here.
Water is supposed to be clear; you’re supposed to know what’s underneath. It’s all self-explanatory—just look at the brochure. Here’s the bay with its overarching palm trees, the umbrellas, the chairs. The sun and splash and, at the cheaper resorts, the toys lined up waiting for you. Empty. Always empty. The man churning the bay like it was the fast lane. Maybe it is, for him. I learned to keep myself above the surface that day at the resort, a furious thrashing. “I almost drowned,” I said, when I came back, strange. But I don’t think anybody really believed me.
It was another one of those picturesque days. We were walking in the sand, self-conscious lovers and the tourist faction, the sun over the beach. In California. And there, butting against the shore, a great torn slash of flesh, blubber or the jelly from a squid body rotting its slow way into the shallows. We all felt the same way about it, instinctive— ugh. But when I looked, I thought: the sea is its own thing. And I remembered the shark.