Night Swimming

She discovered the Zen of doing laps-and some truths about aging.

Photograph: Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

At night, there are only a few intrepid souls in the pool. I always get my own lane. Deep indigo shadows fall from the skylight. Entering is chilly, shudder-inducing. “If only it weren’t so wet,” a friend of mine says about swimming at night.

My mind jumps out of my body. I don’t want to do this. My body takes over, plunges past the first cold shock  and strokes for the far end. I touch the rough wall and push off, kick and stroke back. One length, two. The water’s chill softens into silk.

My shoulders churn in rhythm. Underwater lights make the pool a flickering turquoise womb world. I reach out of myself and feel the stretch as my arms eat up the laps. Eighteen laps make half a mile; 36 laps, a mile. I’m trying for the whole mile, but some nights it’s more difficult than others.  

Night swimming puts me into a trance. I lose track of which direction I’m facing, lose track of everything but the number that I keep repeating to myself: “Nineteen, nineteen, nineteen, turn, twenty, twenty, twenty.”

This habit is hard on my hair, which is curly and dry. Chlorine turns it into frizzy straw. I keep it cut short and massage conditioner into my scalp before I put the bathing cap on, but it still escapes about halfway through the swim, one unruly lock at a time, soaking up all that bad chemical brew. Some days I look like a dandelion.

In the first months after I started training, everyone I knew had to feel my biceps, even my rabbi. When my arms hung at my sides, I could feel the unfamiliar bulge against my ribs, the meaty apples of new musculature. Then friends started insisting I was getting taller.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “People don’t usually grow in their forties.”

“But you have.” They were stubborn and would not back down.

“All right,” I conceded. “I’m taller.”

The real work, as anyone who’s ever trained for an athletic event knows, is mental. The farthest I had ever swum before was half a mile, when I was in my twenties. Two decades later, I’d still stop at precisely 18 laps, feeling finished. But after two friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, I signed up for a mile swim to raise money for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. This meant I needed to reach beyond myself. So I started pushing my mental barrier, at first cautiously, a few extra lengths, then a few more than that.

Swimming at night, I could always go longer and stronger; I could swim myself into a state where everything disappeared except the next stroke. After a few months of training, I finally made it to three quarters of a mile in an outdoor pool at a hot springs resort in the mountains. Naked except for my cap and goggles, I climbed out of the water, all my muscles quivering, and lay flat on my back on the wooden deck, feeling gravity tilt me around and around the sky and stars and all the planets. I was in the next dimension.

The other mental aspect of training is even more personal: What do you think about, all those hours in the pool, churning away, not going anywhere? I mean, transcendent ecstasy aside, swimming can be very boring. But isn’t that, ultimately, the question of our lives? What do you think about when you’re driving, when you’re shopping for groceries, when you’re taking out the garbage? That question determines everything about the quality of our lives, yet who among us can answer it with clarity?

Well, sometimes I think my usual thoughts, such as reiterations of my to do lists. I also hatch new plots for movie scripts I will probably never write, rehash moments of splendor or shame from earlier days, or come up with wild budget-enhancing schemes to supplement my income as a freelance writer and teacher (I could do a subversively feminist porn piece for Penthouse! I could sell my original acrylic paintings on eBay!).

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