Swimming Lessons

I first took swimming lessons at the pool in Chesterville two years after the summer of love. We lived in a small cow-centered patch in a country with snow pack in the yard until June, and the references in “White Rabbit” and the corduroys of Haight-Asbury would not penetrate into our consciousness until 1969. We wouldn’t grow our hair into David and Susan Patridge shapes or see long-haired high-school graduates with the flat stomachs and serious facial hair until 1974. I was young enough then, not even pre-teen, really, to be mostly unselfconscious about anything but my body, and I was with a lot of other kids of similar temperament who would spend most of the summer and much of the next holding onto the side of a pool whose concrete edges were finished like sandstone so that it was good for traction and for scraping your legs lifting out of the pool. I remember kicking in the water, holding the edge tightly with the flesh of my fingertips. I was as hydrophobic as a cat or a vampire, was more of a sinker than a floater, and much of what constituted swimming lessons for me was, as a result, edged with pain and the anticipation of pain, the bio-hazard feeling of inhaling chlorinated water, and the asylum barrage of other kids cannonballing into the pool just over my head, splashing and screaming and having fun in a way that seemed to threaten my life. Large, older kids slapped past my face, their feet close to my eyes and teeth. Instructors blew whistles at either end of the pool. The narcotic of summer and sun, of burned skin and punching through envelopes, belonged to them. It didn’t, at least not very much, belong to me.

The youngest group, mine, held onto heavily compressed Styrofoam particulate boards that buoyed us aggressively above the water. Some kids laid on them, on their stomachs, and dog-paddled. Other kids, like me, held on, gripping and kicking, fearing that even that climb up on to the board would end in a spill and the inhalation of the teal-colored water. Some kids wore nostril squeezers, eye goggles, ear plugs. Some were fat kids with water all over them even standing and dripping on the deck, holding towels so thin and overwashed as to be rags. Most were chesty and healthy, white kids with brown summer skin. They had moles, freckles, map-like patches, and took some immense, manic pleasure in being distracted by dragon flies. At the deep end older swimmers were learning the Australian crawl, the frog kick, the dolphin kick, the intricacies of the breast stroke, the CPR side-stroke. We held onto our undrownable boards at the shallow end and learned how to a) relax in water cold enough to paralyze and drown us, and b) “float” – as in “and then just float” (which is what the instructors said). “Tip your head back and it’s easier,” they would say, and in the water they would cup the backs of our heads the way John the Baptist did Jesus’ in TV movies about the life of Christ.

When the lessons were over the older kids, the ones who smoked and kissed and chewed gum they bought with their own money and who at 13 were rough and inarticulate and easy with themselves, often took an extra lap or two. They would splash hard in the water behind us, swimming from the end with the diving boards and the heavier bluer water to the end with the lighter, clearer water. They flatly smacked their stomachs against the surface in the flat-skim way Olympic swimmers did starting the distance races. If they struck too hard their stomachs would come up with red patches.

Then, as those of us under 10 stood and shivered in our towels they would tuck theirs around their waists and walk around the pool like minor key adults, casually eating baloney and Miracle Whip sandwiches, lighting up and then either being picked up by their moms to go off to the grocery store and back to the farm for chores or into town for adult-style thinking, comic-book reading circles, the study of bike brakes and late-afternoon street hockey games played with sticks rubbed to splinters or with orthopedic-looking plastic blades screwed onto the butts of old hockey sticks. Or there were pre-supper agitations with groups of kids on mown ball diamonds, or late afternoons on porches playing cards or board games, grandmothers with arm flab and done hair delivering trays of glasses with ice and Freshie.

But at the pool, before that, I could watch them on the other side of the chain link fence. After their lessons and sandwiches they would leave the pool area and sit up on the picnic tables. My mother sat at the next table slowly sipping coffee that she poured out of her thermos. She stared and sipped and worried, watching for water inhalation, flailing, signs of seizure and sudden death. I would look up at her sometimes, by the edge of the pool, in the shade of pines, the older kids, red-haired and dark-haired, sitting up on the table tops nearby, their pool-chilled thighs touching, the cilia on their calves and shoulders lightly touching, wind over grass, their towel opening at their knees like the dark blue canvas tent we set up in the back yard outside our parents’ bedroom. They could hear our cricket-dotted conversations about horses and manure before we drifted off.

We smaller kids clung to the edge of the pool, kicking, squinting into the fence and the sun, making a foamy roar with our kicking. The volume of bounced light competed for our attention with the sharp whistles of the instructors that told us when to speed up or slow down. It was all pell mell and fury, the kicking, a maniac’s notion of self-improvement.

I was one of the few not learning to swim. I paddled and paddled, but I wouldn’t leave the side for more than a couple of seconds. And when I tried, my fear of drowning, or just churning, out of control, while the towel-wrapped kids watched, was so great that I would reach to grab the edge of the pool again.

Christie was a love goddess then. She was calm and watchful and blond and freckled. She was friendly and busy. I was eight or nine and afraid of drowning and she was senior staff at the pool. She was 17 or 18 and she didn’t teach classes much anymore because of the paper-work, the crushing paper-work. I loved her for her remoteness and her clipboard, the Bic Banana attached to it by a string to the bear clip at the top. She wore a red bikini or a yellow bikini or a black one-piece, each of which carried some aesthetic or romantic shock. Sometimes between classes she would mount the higher of the two diving boards and stand for a moment before diving. I could see her queenly in-steps for a moment before she sprung, jackknifing in the sun, her fingers touching her toes then entering the water with the feel of a Hitchcockian afternoon, a train plunging into the hillside. She would kick and wriggle along the floor of the pool, all the way to the other end, and sometimes she would pluck up a coin that a guy, a college suitor, would fling in for her to retrieve. She would emerge at the other end with her arm up, holding it. Then she was back on the deck and returning the trophy to the fellow who I and, I presumed, everyone else thought unworthy of her.

My heart pounded. She was so beautiful, so known in Chesterville as a beauty that after swimming lessons when we visited my grandmother, Hazel, even she asked if we’d seen her, if we’d seen Crissy Fullerton, the Fullerton’s girl. Yes, I would have said if I weren’t in the buzzing hive of love, fuzzed and mute from the stings. Yes. Her hair was loose today.

Crissy was the wrong word. It sounded cheap and made me think of the sound of scissors and frizzy hair. Christie, on the other hand, which is what her name was, was azure and remote, like Helen in the ramparts looking at the warriors. Her dive brought silence into your mind the way midnight snow, insulating the chimney as it fell, did. Visiting my grandmother for lunch, after classes, my mother would make instant coffee and keep drinking that while my grandmother boiled water to make Red Rose tea. They would talk and talk, and we would play with some plastic and porcelain horses on the oval rug at the other end of the living room. It was a farmhouse and it had the odor of a working one – something sweet in the wood like barn straw. The horses were usually at war, somehow, and I would try to find some emotional equivalent for the war that resembled the Remington-esque rearing horse that formed a lamp base in the bedroom upstairs. I would get my horses to rear with the same iconic, twisting force that the lamp base had.

The incident that got Christy expelled from the pool, from her cushy summer job, involved beer. Beer and recklessness. One day Christie wasn’t at the pool and the whole woodsy area around it felt disturbed. The day was hot and open, dilating in some slow way, curtains billowing in a Chinese movie. Christie wasn’t there to catch me floating successfully on my own for the first time. I’d even tricked myself into a doggie paddle. My mother and one instructor saw it, but without Christie there it was, as far as I was concerned, unwitnessed. I’d gone over to her side -- I was a swimmer now and I wouldn’t look back. Afterwards, lolling at Grandma’s, the pugilist at rest, I overheard my grandmother saying something intent to my mother. She kept repeating herself. It’s what my grandmother did, using the phrase, an’ , as in “an’ she came to the church supper holding only the jar a jam an’ that,” using many of the elements of repetition we know from Provencal poetry. But she was talking about Christie in a shadowed, blight-on-the-roses tone. She was using phrases like “no one knows, of course” and “Crissy was one of ‘em” and “I guess they spent half the night” and “I suppose they did have beer with them, that’s what everyone says.” So after awhile the case was made: a few kids had climbed over the chain-link fence the night before and they had spent a few hours drinking beer and swimming before the police or a vigilante committee of distressed mothers came by and turned hot lights on them and pushed them out. Christie hadn’t seen me learn to swim because she was handcuffed and in prison. Or, worse, recovering on the couch at home after hours of police grilling her about the whys are wherefores: why were the boys’ pockets full of shiny coins? She must know! I imagine the squad cars showing up, the cherry tops launching her off the high board into the black and mirror-like water.


I didn’t see Christie after her expulsion from the Chesterville pool. I didn’t see her again, ever. My mother kept driving us up to the pool in her red Volkswagon Beetle and every morning, rounding the curve and seeing the chainlink fence that surrounded the pool and the pine trees around it, I looked for her, even there, in the car, even I was 8 and 9 and 10. I learned how to swim more boldly, and I even, briefly, learned how to do the butterfly stroke with the flutter kick. I learned CPR on the deck one day when it was raining and the instructors were concerned lightning might strike us. I learned how to save a drowning man when one day the instructors asked a muscle-y 15-year old kid with grappling hooks for hands to pretend to be one; our role was to tell him sternly that we wouldn’t touch him if he pulled at us. We were supposed to kick him in the chest and wind him before we told him to settle down and be saved. All along what was most clear was that he was trying to impress the other, non-Christie instructors, yanking us, or trying to, into the water whose chlorine burned our breathing passages. Once I successfully saved him, too, with Christie, in my mind’s eye, watching my scissor kick and heroic side-stroke approvingly.

My grandmother didn’t mention her again, so far as I remember, except for the one time at her second-to-last place, a condo she’d moved into when I was in my mid-twenties. My grandparents had sold the farm a few years before and moved “in town” as they said (Chesterville had a population of about 2,000). After my grandfather died she moved to a condo where, for company, she sometimes left her place and knocked on the door down the hallway. She would ask the young mother in there if she wanted a cup of Red Rose. (She often said that she could only drink Red Rose tea, and she made it perfectly, perfect and drinkable, even in her 80s.) Her last move before she died was into a luxurious nursing home, and then it was short-lived and full of loneliness and worry and painkillers. But while she was still at the condo I visited her once around Christmas and she made tea, pouring the water with two hands. A book on the after life was laid on the dryer over on one side, a pharmakon about the next move. And then – I forget the transition – she was talking about the apples she and grandpa used to buy from Fullerton’s Market. I’d forgotten. Yes. That was Christie’s dad, and he was a big-time grocer in the area. Right. I forgot. My grandmother remembered how Dave Fullerton only wanted the best raspberries and strawberries from local farmers, and she talked about how he would hold an apple from a bushel basket before he would offer a price for it. “His daughter Crissy taught you swimming,” she said, then. “Do you remember her?” I tried to be amused at the memory. “Yes,” I said. I didn’t believe in memory or nostalgia when I was 25 but my heart was, weirdly, pounding. I remembered how she held her hand up after the dive and the pool-length swim even as my grandmother showed me how he would hold an apple before buying a few bushels.

“I don’t know why Christie would have been at a beer party,” my grandmother said about then, as if her diving and her bikini were supposed to insulate her from other desires.