Early morning three times a week we gather at the shallow end, young and old and not-quite-old, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Noreen and Vivian and True Love (yes that’s her true name, you can’t make this stuff up) and the ones I rename in my mind: Little Engine, Beauty, Lioness, Bright. We come sleepy-eyed and frazzle-haired, from babies and jobs, from husbands like mine still warm in bed or from beds emptied of husbands through divorce or death, Alzheimer’s or stroke. Stroke the water, it pushes against you. Resistance is the key, to use the weight of earned years against your forward-moving self. Sometimes we partner up to see if we can resist being pulled back or forward. I’m such a lightweight it’s hard to resist anyone. Once I partnered with True Love and I didn’t stand a chance, so I just gave in and let myself be pulled like a child, my legs floating behind me.
Wednesday is the prayer circle instructor’s class, and the two of us have gone head to heart before—me yelping about separation of church and state, and her reminding me of what C stands for in YMCA, and how do you argue with that? I’m late today, flip-flopping from the dressing room in that awkward amphibious stage between land and water, a towel tied around my waist. I don’t like to be late because I like to leave early, after the singing and before the prayer requests, and though I have many, they will remain unspoken. The women’s eyes search me. The women know my heart. I fear they pray for me.
The teenaged lifeguard eyes the younger women, especially the tattooed redhead whose inked messages he strains to decipher. As for the rest of us, he bears the view with respectful boredom, averting his gaze from our collective cellulite and the tricep flab as we wave hello—that soft, fleshy wave that keeps on giving. It’s OK to laugh, to rename our parts: flabductors, abominables, and the “low skirt” flesh we carry below our belts. And lo, it is with us always.
Beyond our class is a solitary lane where one woman swims alone. Black suit, black cap, dark eyes set beautifully deep. Shark Woman, I have named her in my mind. Eighty if a day, she is my hero, and I once told her so in the dressing room where women disrobe like sisters or spouses who know each other’s bodies so well there’s no need to look. The lifeguard glances over, and I move toward the pool. Attitude, I remind myself, it’s all in the attitude, the towel strategically placed and a magician’s indirection as you smile your broadest grin, and (voila!) snap the towel up and off. Now safely submerged below the neck, I beam at him, wondering if from this distance I could pass for his mother or—wait, I’m doing the math—grandmother?
Propped against the lifeguard chair, a CPR dummy stares vacantly ahead. They come in all shapes—full-bodied, armless torso, decapitated heads, wounded, or smoothly pure. This one is a baby with movable parts, a practice child whose mouth will accept your breath without fighting back. Now a pregnant woman has joined us, and we surround her as if she bears some royal hope—Careful on that step, watch the railing. She is herself and more than herself. She is any of us who have borne a child or buried one, or grieved a grown child lost beyond our reach.
Little Engine is chugging, and I fall into place behind her in the circle, running my heart out until the instructor calls “Reverse” and we turn, Little Engine now riding my wake until we reverse again, pushing against the force our bodies together have made. Beyond the circle, Shark Woman steers soundlessly, one arm lifted for the stroke, her head rotating to catch my gaze as if there’s something she wants to tell me. Her eyes catch the ceiling light’s reflection, the irises like match heads lit. Then the other arm lifts, her head turns away, I’ve missed my chance for her message. All around me now women’s voices are rising in song. Better get out while I can, before the prayer wave breaks over my head, and maybe one day it will. But for now I just grab onto their song, hold on for dear life, and let it float me out of the water and into my solitary day.