The Swimmer

by Haniya Khalid

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Last night I went swimming after a very long time– a decade maybe (not counting trips to Wild Wadi with tourist cousins). It was night time, and I swam alone.

First of all, I should start this post by stating that there are two types of people in this world: those who wear underwear underneath their swimsuits, and those who view this to be a great redundancy. For the sake of maintaining a very necessary aura of mystery for any amateur writer, I will refrain from expressing which category I fall under.

As I sat at the edge of the pool, dipping my feet in the unheated water, I was amazed by just how long it has been since I have been underwater. I felt nervous and uncomfortable, and the water was cold, so I was hesitant to dive right in. Instead I sat there, slowly inching my way under, toe to ankle, calf to knee, watching my skin grow alien-like and pale under the brightly lit, chlorinated water. I sat there for a long time, half in and half out, unsure of why I was there to begin with.

And then I thought of all of the times I had been uncertain of outcomes but jumped right in anyway. I remembered three little girls playing on a tire swing, as my mom led me by my hand to “be their friend”. I remembered approaching a young hijab-clad student clutching a heavy Organic Chemistry textbook, alone and in desperate need of company and familiarity. I remember walking through the woods in the American suburbs, the moonlight illuminating a confused, narrow, and dark path. I remembered opening an old mailbox to find a battered copy of Leaves of Grass, and the opening words:

Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

and how closely I kept these words with me, for so many years, even when the air and land changed, even when new faces replaced old.

I thought of all of those times I jumped in, thinking but not thinking, anxious but somewhat prepared. It was then I realized that I could either sit there forever (as Joe Newman would say, staring at my youth pressed into one glass/body of water), or I could just go. So I did.

It was cold, but it was not unbearable. I am starting to see that few things ever are.

So I swam, and it was very, very quiet. No music to distract me or drown out my thoughts, no people to strike up random conversations with, no long roads or complicated highways to carefully map my journey across. Just a blue rectangle, and me, and repeated turns around it. I thought of The Swimmer by John Cheever and how much I enjoyed reading it, how fascinatingly important Cheever made swimming pools for me. I thought of Trouble Will Find Me by The National, an album inspired by Cheever’s work, and my favorite album this year. I specifically thought of “Tunnel Vision” , a song to me that strikes up images of still blue water and southern Californian house parties (whatever those are?!) and starry skies. I thought of Piscine Patel and his Uncle and the Parisian art deco pools, the filthy water viscous with body excretions.

I thought about everything I was worried about, and how they could be simultaneously terrifying and meaningless. I thought of all the years of my childhood I spent swimming, never technically proficient but small and brave and agile. Throwing coins into the deep end and looking for them. Pretending to be a mermaid and laughing at the irony that Ariel wanted to have legs so if we wanted to be Ariel, we would want to become human again so the whole fantasy made no sense. I thought of swimming until my lungs burned and I was too tired to lift myself onto the concrete sides of the pool and had to be dragged out. And then for a few minutes– I thought of nothing at all. And it was great.

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