I am swimming laps, between two women much faster than I. Between their lanes, in our section between two ropes of buoys, I splash slowly along. My breath into the water bubbles and chuffs. Chuff is what the trains do in my son's favorite video, "Thomas the Tank Engine." The faster swimmers pass me, and their wakes toss me like a toy boat, or like a bad special effects sequence in a 1950s movie about a naval battle. What was that movie with the Viking ships with the red-and-white striped sails? They showed it on TBS the other week, I think. It looked like it was shot in a bathtub.
For the first time, I wear goggles in the water. Through this miracle, I can swim in proper position: head down, eyes open. I have not swum this way for years, ever since my eyes grew sensitive to chlorine. Do they put more in the water than they did when I was young? My eyes grow weaker: I need to take my glasses off to read the thermostat. I have not seen an eye doctor since my son was born, nearly two years ago. I need to set an appointment, but first I must find an eye doctor in this area (since it's no longer practical, with my toddler, to travel to my hometown once a year for my appointment). But I lost the list of doctors suggested by my ophthalmologist, and I've been too embarrassed to call her again and ask for new recommendations.
The woman on my left laps me again. I sputter. Focus, I tell myself.
How does that Maxine Kumin poem go? "I take the lake between my legs"? That line invades my psyche every time I swim. And how she hummed a hymn: "Abide with Me." The words abide with me. I should wear my new swimmer's ear plugs next time, to keep the invading water out. Water doesn't hum inside the ear: it hisses. The sounds I hear in the pool: breath, bubbles, hands sweeping through water, splashing feet, echoes of voices. It is a sort of hymn. And, inside my head alone, a number, repeated with each stroke: seven, seven, seven, seven. This is my seventh lap. I have no better way to keep count.
My poetry instructor in grad school used to tell us a story. He said that too many people live in the future or live in the past. They are dead to the present. Eight, eight, eight, eight. Such words conjure quotes: "Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing." Or so Yoda said about Luke (not to be confused with my kitty, Luke, although he was, indeed, named after the "Star Wars" hero, by his foster mom). In the future, there will be a society where people only speak in quotes from other sources. Wasn't there a "Star Trek: Next Generation" episode like that? Eight, eight, eight.
The woman on the left is finally getting out. I exhilarate with the thought of spreading out, perhaps swimming a few laps on my back. But no, the peach-and-black blur at poolside turns out to be a pregnant woman with a splendiferous stomach. She asks if I mind if she swims in our section. I tell her that's fine. Placing what must be a water-proof music device on the tiles, she climbs in. Nine, nine, nine.
We both prefer the breast stroke, which always reminds me of a frog. All the strokes that I prefer involve a variation of the frog kick: breast stroke, side stroke, elementary back stroke. I have always hated the frenzied feel of the crawl, turning my head and gulping air, plunging my arms in the water, one after the other, like paddles that barely keep me aloft. Unlike the graceful palm-prayer movements of the breast stroke, the crawl feels merely a defense against drowning.
Ten, ten, ten. The pregnant woman laps me. I will concentrate on where I am, what I am doing. I am halfway done. My breath chuffs, the hum in my ears abides with me. Ten, ten, ten. Head down, eyes open. I take the pool between my legs and kick like a frog.