Every day Nora went to the pool where the young pretty mothers dipped their little girls into the water. Because Nora liked to feel her skin bristling with heat before she got wet, she always spent a few minutes walking up and down the concrete, surveying the scene. There were some big splashers today by the diving board, fat kids who jumped splay-limbed into the deep end and came up gasping, paddling furiously for the edge. Nora’s nose twitched. If Sam were here he would have told her she was making that smushy face, and she would say to him, “That’s not swimming. That’s the absence of drowning.” Often when the teenaged lifeguards were inattentive, she expected to look down and find a lifeless heap at the bottom of the pool.
“Oh well,” she said to herself for no reason at all. She went to a lawn chair and took off the bright pink housedress she wore over her bathing suit. Today the blue of the sky perfectly matched the blue of the pool. In the vast empty sky there swam a few high wispy clouds, and in the pool, lowering herself into one of the lap lanes, there was Nora, old and slightly wrinkled. She did knee lifts in the water to warm up her joints, startled for a moment at the sight of her thin white thighs. She’d had this same twiggy body since she was sixteen, but it still surprised her.
The morning sun was low in the sky. She floated on her back toward it, taking in the scenery as if she were floating in a rowboat. She saw the tops of the trees quivering, the flickering light of a tall lamp, the vested lifeguard in her highchair, an iridescent dragonfly hovering like a helicopter. Even with the boisterous activity at the diving board, all she could hear was the hush of the water. When she reached the wall she stretched and walked back to the starting end, her body parting the water, forging a path through it. At the foot of her lane, next to her visor and her plastic orange water slippers, she had placed a pair of oversize goggles as big as a snorkeling mask. She put them on and glided back out on her stomach. She kicked without splashing and did two laps like this, floating and kicking, still warming up.
When she was younger her strongest stroke was the free-style, but her shoulder joints no longer allowed it. Instead she did a slow, modified breaststroke, making small arcs with her bent arms, drawing hearts in the water with her palms, hearts with bottoms pointing to her chest. She did ten laps of the breaststroke. In the afternoons she could see her shadow at the bottom of the pool, the goggles turning her into a long, bulb-eyed amphibian, but this morning there was no shadow, only swirls of light writhing at the bottom of the pool.
A loud whistle blew. This meant the young children had to get out of the pool for a ten-minute water break. How cute they looked in their bathing suits, with their little arms and their little faces and their little bottoms and little feet. Their mothers dried them and fed them and watered them. Wrapped in their towels they wobbled to the restrooms to empty their bladders. Certainly some of them had already peed in the pool. One couldn’t be squeamish about such things. She did more knee-lifts as she watched the children. She’d never had any children of her own and she used to wonder what kind of mother she might have been. Sam had always said he didn’t want children, but after he got another woman pregnant she was forced to re-evaluate his meaning. Did he dislike children, or did he love them all, the born and unborn, too much to have one with her?
He was the first to go, her husband Sam, in her mind the first of her generation to die of old age. That was already a long time ago, when his daughter called Nora to his deathbed. It was an awkward phone call, this grieving woman having to fulfill an unthinkable wish. It sounded as though she had only just learned that her father had been previously married, that she was in fact the product of an adulterous transgression. The woman stumbled for so long through her introduction it was a wonder Nora didn’t hang up the phone. “My father is…was…your husband. He asks for you.” But Nora had gone through two husbands - Sam, and another one she drove away quickly. This had to be Sam’s child, the girl, the daughter, who must have been around thirty because Nora and Sam had been married fifteen years when he knocked up the nurse, and his daughter called her forty-five years and a bit past their wedding day in 1958. Sometimes Nora remembered that day. She remembered the celebration, the public declaration that she was loved, and she had liked that very much.
Nora had agreed to go to Sam’s deathbed out of curiosity mostly, to hear what he had to say, and to see him in a state that might allow her finally to forget the stature he once had. He did appear to be terribly decayed, with tubes up his nose and age spots all over his shriveled skin. He looked up at her with tears in his eyes, his blue irises covered with a gray, oily sheen, fogged over from cholesterol or cataracts or whatever happens to old people’s eyes, but she was surprised when he began to talk. His voice was still firm, still substantial, and she could not see how he managed it. “You look wonderful,” he said.
“I wish I could say the same for you,” she said. The ends of his lips curled. “What have you gone and done to yourself?”
“I just am.”
“But why am I here?”
“I loved you, you know.” It was possible he had no idea who she was. He never said her name. In his old age dementia, he could have thought he was talking to his second wife, the nurse. Where was she?
But then he said it again, more wistfully. “I did love you,” he said.
She put her hand on his forehead, not knowing anything of these lines, these markings, this temperature of skin. “Not enough to overcome my deficiencies,” she said.
“My deficiencies,” he said kindly.
She leaned down and kissed his thin lips. That was her last kiss. Was it ten years ago? She was eighty-three now, or eighty-four, or eighty-two. They all sounded right to her, one number as good as another.
Ten more laps of the breaststroke. The whistle blew. Children entered the water again.
She was tired and thought of getting out of the pool, though she would have been disappointed with herself. On the other side of a floating divider, she saw that one of the young mothers of a female toddler had brought along an older relative. She must have been the toddler’s grandmother. Mother and grandmother flanked the child, who wore on both arms cube-shaped floaties with vertices that pointed to the sky, making her look like some kind of inflated angel. Usually this mother strolled through the water carrying her daughter, whose death grip around her mother’s neck didn’t offer much opportunity for anything else, but today the floaties prevented the wrapping of arms. They seemed to serve only a decorative purpose since the two women still held onto the child by her hands, taking turns twirling her around the pool, as if this were a ballroom and they were teaching her to waltz, as if the floaties were the puffy sleeves of a princess gown.
Nora took off her goggles and put on her sun visor, and noticed that the waltzing toddler had lost interest in her mother and grandmother and began instead to stare at Nora. Nora stared back for a moment before she realized she ought to do something. She decided to wave as she stretched her lips into an extravagant smile. The grandmother lifted the girl’s hand and waved it for her, rescuing her even from this simple gesture. Was there something wrong with the child? Was she just an overgrown infant, incapable of deliberate, independent action?
Nora yelled across the water, “I was her age when I learned to swim.” The grandmother cupped her ear and came closer, dragging the girl with her. The mother followed. When they were upon her Nora saw how young they all were. The grandmother could have been her own daughter, in her late fifties at the most, and the mother of the child couldn’t have been older than twenty-four. She was indeed pretty, with a long horse face and a broad, toothy grin. None of them had gotten their hair wet.
“What was that?” the grandmother asked.
“I said when I was her age my mother threw me in the pool. That’s how I learned to swim.”
“Is that right?”
It was more or less right, though she wasn’t a toddler but a chubby, somewhat lazy six-year old, and it wasn’t a pool but a frigid lake in the Adirondacks. Other than that it was a true account of how she had learned to swim. She still wondered sometimes what it might feel like to drown. After she was thrown into the lake she thought she knew, but over time she realized her mother was right. What she had experienced was never drowning. It was only a healthy panic, a rush of adrenaline that had saved her life in the moment, and beyond that had turned her into a lifelong swimmer.
The child’s eyes were fixed on Nora’s visor. It must have been the red plastic rim that intrigued her, and perhaps the candy-colored glow it cast upon Nora’s face.
“Move your arms,” Nora said to the girl in a high, encouraging voice. “Make a heart.” She did it herself to demonstrate, moving her arms and letting the water swirl through her fingers. The girl’s eyes had long left Nora’s visor to follow the dance of her hands in the water. She was hypnotized, watching the ripples cascade along the surface of the water in a heart-shaped outline, which Nora traced over and over. The child’s face broke into a smile, revealing two rows of tiny, pebble-like teeth. At last she let go of her grandmother and floated, trying to move her arms in the same little arcs. She was not as controlled of course, but her legs kicked and her chin grazed the water and her arms splashed and she was covering some distance on her own.
“You’re swimming!” the mother said sadly.
The girl swam toward Nora, but a sudden awareness that she was unanchored made her insecure. All at once she squeezed her eyes shut and let out a horrible wailing cry. Both mother and grandmother lost no time in pulling the child to them. In a swarm, and without even a word of gratitude, they carried her away.
Nora watched them, puzzled. Her first instinct was to judge them harshly, and she felt a familiar indignation rising in her throat, but then somehow it left her. She shrugged her shoulders and turned away. This was the nicest thing about being old; she no longer cared much about stupid people breeding stupid children.
At any rate, swimming laps was the best antidote for discomforts of the nervous system. She took off her visor and put her goggles back on. She would do the sidestroke, because the level of concentration it required calmed the mind. She started with her left side, her weaker side, and stretched her arms past the top of her head. Her legs opened wide and closed again, slicing the water like blades of a scissor. It was difficult to get a rhythm going in sidestroke. Take a bale of hay and throw it in the truck, someone told her once. She could still hear that lilting voice from long ago as she moved her arms along the length of her torso, trying to mimic the tossing of hay. As she swam she thought it was her mother’s voice she heard. Take a bale of hay and throw it in the truck. Take a bale of hay and throw it in the truck. She saw her mother in flashes, standing on the dock with her arms crossed, looking past her flailing body into the dark depths of the water. No, it wasn’t her mother’s voice. It could not have been.