Madison’s wail, like a loosed rubber ball, bounds through the natatorium’s thick, chlorine smog. From the bleachers above we watch the instructor settle our daughter’s belly on a grid of foam noodles then thrust her, head first, down the lane’s turquoise corridor. She is terrified, alone, aware. Laurel’s stare shifts into the width beyond Madi, the pool, the tears, this small college town. Our little buoy in a polka dot bathing suit drifts and drifts. We sit and sit.
The first few weeks of Madi’s lessons I would try very hard to say things to Laurel—nice things, husbandy things—to pass the time and distract her from the cries of our daughter, the awful gargle of botched bubble-blowing. “We have a birthday party next Saturday?” I’d ask, or offer, “I finally read that Harper’s article you emailed me.” At first she’d respond with her particular hum—mmmmm, that lovely dove sound we used to call her coo. But sound can break and tumble into the rill between a couple. Now Laurel offers no response at all. I should have wrapped my Play-Doh mitts around her taut, Zumba’ed waist. But instead I applied for the lifeguarding gig advertised on a white board at the Y’s front desk.
On the drive home from the pool, Madi had passed out in her car seat. Webs of milk drool wept from her chin. The smash of Goldfish dusted everything.
“A lifeguard. Really, Charlie? You can barely swim.”
It was as if I told Laurel I just ate a turd but I tell you there was a time not so very long ago that we fucked on curdled sheets till we pulsed and fell fused into the darkness of a shared lead dream so deep it pulled us toward the circle of nothing. When we awoke—it could have been a minute, or several hours later—it was only to ease into the mildness of an idle afternoon. Naked french toast devoured straight from the grease-popping skillet. Cigarettes, Skip Bo tournaments, tandem painting in the corner of our one-bedroom I’d transformed into our messy little studio. Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine on repeat to propel our brushes’ dual sashay. Then maybe beers on the stoop and our smokes lifting. And total perfection. And where did that Laurel go.
“This job, it’s not for me, it’s for the family,” I said. Now Madi was a sleep heap transferred from car to couch. I was sorting panties into Hello Kitty and My Little Pony piles as I articulated my rationale. Laurel, annoyed, reached over to fold. I never fold panties because it is pointless, it is the most pointless thing a person can set about to do. But I let Laurel proceed as she must. I have become very big and very soft. There is a type of Pledge dusting spray that also fights allergens. My torso is a bulbous potato. I have really. Come. To like. Bagels. A bit of vinegar and water gets even blueberry smoothie off the hideous yellow couch your wife adores that didn’t sell from your mother-in-law’s estate auction. Put a tear of first-aid cream on the Elsa Band-Aid first and a three-year old will not be the wiser. But never—not ever—screw on the sippy cup top for her; Madi insists on doing it herself and will, with toddler cruelty, neutralize you.
“Daddy’s got a big fat belly,” she might counter. “I hate Daddy’s coffee foody squeeze.”
Evening Guard Wanted, the sign read. I saw the dry-eraser rescue rings drawn in the hollow of each little d. They needed someone for the “witching hours” as Laurel’s mother used to say. I’d miss dinner and bedtime stories with Madi and pretty much seeing Laurel at all. It was perfect. Though, at minimum wage, my lie shines: lifeguarding was in no way for my family. And I’m not a great swimmer, the woman’s right. The truth is, I am drowning.
“Time for my class,” Laurel announced, grabbing a perplexingly large jangle of keys—jailer big—and swooshing out the door, streak of spandex and blue-traced onyx ponytail. Her ass seemed smaller, but tighter, in this new workout apparel she’d been wearing recently. Straps and zigzags and so many confusing open spaces. We had not had sex in weeks. Months? I wondered if I had time to masturbate before Madison woke up then, instead, guilty, criminal, Chips-Ahoyed all over the pillows. So crumb-covered, their vaguely Aboriginal design.
Though not officially banished from our bedroom—no words had formed to make our rank real—I’d taken to spending nights on the yellow couch. There, I’d become completely absorbed by a new Netflix series. Next episode? It kept proposing so I kept clicking, rapt by the anti-hero’s criminal assent, his vein-popping, toothsome, consummation. His family, yes, they suffered. They did, no joke, and then some. Was it wrong, the way this man kept choosing business over poor little Kenny’s baseball game? Of course. And his wife—nobody could claim her not hot—but her countenance was sad, sterilizing. This man’s predicaments engaged me later and later into the night. Sometimes, I’d hear the sound of Laurel’s fitful sleeping coming from our bedroom; once or twice she even cried out, “Mommy!” But I stayed right where I was, a stone. There’d been so many nights in our marriage, especially early on, that’d she’d lay her wild sea plant hair on my lap and I’d shush her as if she was my baby, assure her she’d only been dreaming. I did not know why I couldn’t go to her now. I just turned the box’s volume up. Sometimes it was only when the filaments of orange-pink dawnlight issued through the windows, and the eager sound of Madi paraded down the hall, that I clicked the bodiless TV aquarium off and pretended to sleep. I’d feel my daughter standing before me, nose to nose, her flower breath filling each inhale. Still, I’d will my eyes shut.
“Let your father sleep,” I’d hear. But the coffee-grinding screech that followed seemed to suggest the true limits of my wife’s tolerance.
Laurel is the chair of the art department at the local university. We followed her career, as they say. A decade and a half ago, when we met in college, I was in fact the prodigy getting all the attention, scoring A’s and accolades for my floor-to-ceiling mixed media acrylics of zoo-type animals on fire. Wax, tar, mulch, wire, petals of the most thinly shaven steel. My thesis, titled, “Burnt” was supposed to facilitate my pick of MFA programs. The project was political, environmental, radical, sensational, apocryphal. In fact, I attribute our one and only dorm room three-way—wine-weed-drunk, a time lapse smear of firefly tea lights and skin—to that aimless, if stirring, ambition. Meanwhile, Laurel’s series—her tiny, intricate, oil paintings of insects—each deeply glistening bug on its own 3” by 3” canvas—had been assessed by our peers as too careful and analytic. Accomplished as they were, these portraits of Brazilian Treehopper, Devils Flower Mantis, Puss Moth Caterpillar, Scorpion Fly, Cicada, were misread as too straight forward for the wanna-be avant-garde who inhabited our program. Our professors, mummified by bracelets and scarves—some of them got it. But I loved Laurel’s work, her creatures bizarre as any alien you could dream up. I loved the anatomical scrutiny—the celebration—of strangeness. Each distinct bug on each solitary square seemed to inhabit the same shifting limbo as us all: despite shared physiology we are totally alone.
Laurel’s vision remained singular: she did not adhere to a single critique. Before long, her limited sequence evolved into a grid of one-hundred insects fixed to the school studio’s white-washed wall. One hundred and ten. One hundred and twenty. It was as if at night, in the dark—while the students wished inside their Bob Marley, Starry Night, and Belushi-ed facades clouded with the disappearance of incense pyramid heads—the creatures had been secretly reproducing. Imagine infinitesimal hair-thin leglets tickling off each square toward the thrumming, shimmering, greening bug orgy.
At open studio one night, a parent who happened to be pals with Fredrick Schulz, of the famed Fredrick Schulz Gallery in Chelsea, happened to peer over Laurel’s shoulder as she completed her Sphecodes Cuckoo Bee. It’s abdomen, she’d painted as richly orange-red as a Chili Pepper. “Exquisite,” the gentleman dressed in various tan shades breathed into her neck. In response, Laurel said nothing. She knew well, even then, the power nothing has to magnetize.
After that, things started to change for her, for us both. Two years later, there she was, my girlfriend, in an emerald dress exactly the shade of Technicolor Oz, holding her champagne flute like dirty laundry, with practiced hoity-toity. A circle of thick-rimmed glasses formed around. I saw it: she had metamorphosed to queen. The title of her show was “One Thousand Vermin and Counting,” and, indeed, with close to one million known insect species I wasn’t sure she’d ever stop. One morning, in a voice as casual as I could manage, I asked when she thought she might move on to the next thing. She was slowly brushing her hair in the glass of an antique mirror. Strands like secrets fell to the floor. She was as happy as I’d ever seen her. “Charles, dah-ling,” she mocked, “20,000 new species are discovered each year.” It was her Marilyn Monroe Happy Birthday Mr. President voice. “Wheel Bug,” she whispered, kissing my neck, “Bluebottle Fly,” she moved to my shoulder, “Titian Beetle,” she continued. How could I not be happy, too? As her lips moved across my body, I surveyed our one-bedroom: every free surface had become a pillar of Laurel—it was hard to locate even a single spot not stacked with her canvases or supplies. Even the insides of things were full of her: the oven we never used, the closets, cupboards, and cabinets. The foulest bean smells wriggled through the vents of our apartment and sirens like warnings pressed through the hours. I didn’t care. I was content to stand, stage whatever, and play the hum-drum boyfriend, my padded width crammed into the deodorant skunked navy blue blazer I’d been forcing myself into since high school. The rows of brass buttons along each sleeve had been slowly disengaging.
I smoked pot, watched movies, walked around the city most days while Laurel painted. Occasionally, her parents came to town and took over our good futon; we slept on an egg-crate palate beneath the ceiling fan turned on full blast to drown out the sound of her father’s voracious snoring. Bill, her dad, was nice enough—jolly, even—a former patrol officer who’d been gone a lot when Laurel was growing up. We talked sports and it was fine. Her mother was more difficult; she was a psychologist, cerebral and reserved—graceful in flowy, silken fabrics—and I could not help feeling appraised as she asked me about my plans. Laurel was very protective of her mother, called her “just on the quiet side, silly.” But I knew better. Doris saw what I saw: I wasn’t good enough for her daughter. Still, I tried: “My résumé has been widely dispersed among the boroughs,” I told her.
“And he’s heard back from the Daily about a promising position,” Laurel interjected. She was stirring mushrooms to make a vegetable ragout, as her mother “could no longer tolerate” meat.
“Ah,” Doris said, picking up a withered mushroom from the pan and popping it, steaming, into her mouth. Of course, her parents would not know the Daily was the local tabloid that routinely covered alien abduction, among other phenomena. Bat Child Found in Cave! Elvis Alive, Running for President! It seemed the circulation department wanted to put me on their route. I could not know the words to mean this: if I gave in and followed Laurel my lousy choices could be moot.
In a decision that did not get made with voices, I started taking Madison to her swim lesson Saturday mornings on my own. Without the curl of Laurel’s nerves, I found Madi’s cries so much easier to bear. Instead of counting flails I gleamed into the sedative stream of my phone. Both Amy and Sherrie from high school I found with quick Google searches, and they accepted my Friend Requests instantly. Greedily, I squint through the most recent Politico articles, became informed, justified in my opinions. In no time, my avatar army doubled its size, won eight battles, constructed five towers, and hoarded enough surplus for the winter. If successful in my attempt to take a kingdom, a queen would be my automatic prize.
During our marriage ceremony Laurel walked down the aisle alone, her parents trailing behind her like star-struck groupies. She didn’t want one man passing her along to the next “like some sort of chiffon-ed baton.” At the reception everyone gorged on a whole pig that her river guide brother, Chase, somehow managed to roast in the earth. When they lifted it out of the pit and unwrapped the cheese cloth, burnt barks of flesh peeled away. The image clamored for metaphorical significance, but I was already pretty drunk.
“Looks kinda like you, Chuck” Bill said, pounding me on the shoulder whack-a-mole style. I reduced. Was I the allegory? Alcohol thud my intellect. And I think everyone else’s, too, because as the heaps of pork got passed from guest to guest on sagging paper plates we all seemed to forget our just-dry-cleaned chemical-smell costumes and also the pious charge of the occasion. Lord of the Flies, I thought, Mr. Gordon’s English class, C- in loopy red pen. Glistening cruor smeared our faces. I heard a version of my new wife’s laugh: circling, detached, sloppy, meaty, loose. And through my side-eye, I saw Doris gnawing on what couldn’t have been, but surely was, a pig ear. Bristles of singed hair sprout from the thing’s top like some sort of Seussian character. She was absolutely ripping it apart. Shoat atomized her matronly peach drape. She had just received her diagnosis, of course, but we didn’t know that yet. We didn’t know of the body three years later that could not be hers but was, shrinking beneath a parasol-design bed sheet inside her bedroom covered with family photographs: Six-year-old Laurel, hair whipping in sync with the reeds on a fall-spackled Vermont mountain watched her mother call for her mother. Chase, dumping a bowl of spaghetti on his head observed the nurses hoist Doris to the toilet in time to piss and miss. A side-table of amber Matryoshka pill bottles endlessly multiplied. A circle of stunned adults tried desperately, and failed, not to think about themselves. Urge, mechanical urge, of the morphine machine merging with the animation sounds coming from the living room where Madison had been placed before the television.
Jimmy, the YMCA’s desk attendant, had an eagle tattoo on his forearm and the corrugated skin of a person who’d seen things. He could have been sixty or eighty. In addition to checking in members, stuffing bills into envelopes, and laundering the shit and makeup smears off the gym’s towers of white towels, Jimmy also taught the Lifeguard Certification course, which included both CPR and First Aid training. I had to leave much of my application for the evening guard position blank, as I had absolutely no experience at all. Still, I filled out the spaces that I could, my name and address, and slipped the paper into my back pocket. It felt as full and weighted as my father’s quarter-stuffed wallet. Checking in for Madison’s lesson, I stopped to chat with Jimmy, as I often did. I think we discussed the political season, or the weather. When he said, “storms for days,” I knew what he meant. I handed him my form. Jimmy was also in charge of hiring. Maybe he was in charge of everything.
Except, perhaps, when it comes to a marriage, Laurel will not abandon a project. In the beginning stages of her mother’s illness, she stayed up most nights scanning the WebMD, Mayo Clinic, National Cancer Institute, and National Breast Cancer Foundation websites. She joined the terrified chaos of infinite forums. Looking for some sort of discovery, she called the offices of specialists, then tried to Facebook friend them, followed them all on Twitter #Metastisizethis. But despite the efforts of the exhausted daughter, who with vacant cheeks and punched-in sockets looked more than ever like her mother, Doris resigned to continue with her GP and the oncologist to whom she was referred. Later, as the disease progressed, she would not indulge Laurel’s appeals to try acupuncture, hypnosis, musical therapy, green smoothies, pot. Laurel managed to keep painting but only maggots: Calliphorid larvae; Rhagoletis Pomonella; Eristalis Tenax; Musca Domestica. Madison wondered: “Mommy do worms why?”
Though I could not have told Laurel, this frenzied version of her was the one I recognized from years before when we were trying to get pregnant; it was the same choked meticulousness and reliance on correctives. Clomiphene, gonadotropins, IUI, IVF, ICSI. We both cut out animal protein for the fertilizing promises of lentils, black beans, soy, pinto, kale, quinoa. Our tidy rancher in the suburbs purchased over a weekend trip to the town of Laurel’s new academic position smelled beany, just as our first apartment in the city many years ago. It lacked that easiness, though, and the pretty falling away of secrets. It seemed that to make a baby meant strictness. Every morning, pillow-creased and sprout with a side-sleep ponytail, Laurel scribbled her basal temperature in a college-ruled notebook bound in black-white static. I could almost hear the journal shush me with its cricket sounds, my hesitancies. A few months into the operation, ovulation “O days” went from fun to frantic, the sex to systematic to clean to, sometimes, for me, humiliating. “Towel,” Laurel would demand before disappearing, annoyed, into the bathroom to leave me alone with my damp spot.
Our Madi, when Laurel began to feel the sensation referred to as “quickening,” was the size of an avocado according to the Baby Center email notification. “It feels like fizzing bubbles” Laurel said putting my hand on her belly. Her skin was sunburn warm.
“I feel it,” I said. I didn’t. “I do.”
Madison insisted on wearing flip-flops; the promise of her “clops” was really the only way to lure her to the car for her swim lesson. As I talked with Jimmy at the front desk, Madi paced the hall, loving the hollow echo of her shoes. I noticed a flyer posted to the bulletin board behind Jimmy advertising a new aerobics class called: Core Strength. Another poster promoted Mah-Jong club “All Ages.”
“The position is yours,” Jimmy told me without even unfolding my application. I told him I had no idea what I was doing. “I’ll teach you myself,” he offered in a voice like pebbles rolling though aluminum. He volunteered to train me one-on-one and then I’d be ready to take on the guard position the following week. I did not know why he was being so nice to me. All he needed in exchange, he said, was my help to paint a portrait of his wife. I don’t know how he knew I was an artist, as I don’t believe I would have mentioned it. It was not something I usually just came out and said, especially because the last thing I painted was the shutters: perfect, L.L. Bean Forest Green. When I was a younger man, of course—I am an artist—I said it all the time, practicing. I am an artist, blowing a sphere of smoke, I said. I’m an artist, I smirked to the coy girls in skirts, maybe handing them a sketch I’d drawn of their profile bored in History. Because I am an artist, I told my dad when he berated me for not falling into a more decent profession. For thirty years he worked as in accountant in a windowless building downtown. Above his desk hung an oil of a boat lost at sea. I say lost, though who can know where another thing is going. In fact, it seemed to lunge directly for that span of silver swirling. The boat’s motion was not unlike Laurel’s gaze as she looked beyond Madi’s struggles in the pool, focus pulled toward the faraway churn.
“Never painted a portrait,” Jimmy said, “never made much of anything.” He paused. “Except for this little fella.”
It seemed there was something, after all—a doodle he liked to draw, of a “fat hatted man.” As evidence he produced an envelope covered with maybe fifteen small cartoons of plump men wearing top hats. They were outfit in impressions of tuxedos, pocket watches. Moustache after moustache, broomed and curled. The men were smoking cigars. One seemed to be fanning himself with a rolled-up newspaper. Jimmy had been trying to paint a portrait of his wife, he explained, but everything he drew just merged into this doodle, the only thing he felt confident producing. Even now, as I’d been walking toward the desk, he said he’d been trying to sketch the way his wife’s long braid curled around her shoulder to rest on her collarbone. He seemed to be in pain, almost shriveling, as he handed me the envelope. I wanted to ask Jimmy why he wanted to paint a portrait of his wife anyway, why it was so important. But I did not know this man and I did not want to wreck his gracious mood. Plus, Madi had tired of her flip-flops game and was pulling on my leg, asking for a snack. I handed her a zipped bag of yogurt-covered raisins. She quieted.
With the conclusion of the Netflix series, I happened to stumble on a show from AMC—a channel I did not trust I’d like. As per the title, I made assumptions, expected the station to show bona fide American Classics—Streetcar Named Desire or My Fair Lady—the movies my mother watched on repeat growing up, a tiny bowl of pistachios and a coffee mug of vodka by her side. But to my surprise, this new AMC version had a reality show about deep sea fishermen. These men were funny and brave and crass; the way they worked together was almost like a family. With strong, graceful pulls they reeled in giant nets full with crabs the size of babies. Clicking limbs poked and reached through the mesh. As the boat plunged through an ocean of roiling, giant hands, these men scrambled to their tasks without a single direction needed, slipping on the deck but getting right back up each time. When they weren’t hauling they were smoking and playing poker in a tiny room that swayed and swayed, yet nobody was ever ill. Or, if they were, that part was edited out. The fishermen’s confidence, hauling in their catch, wrapping ropes around whatever, communicating with each other, it was almost too much. Even the most violent storm did not seem to bother these men. In fact, on this one episode a hurricane—an actual hurricane—approached due to El Nino effects. The men appeared absolutely charged, elated, turned up “Eye of the Tiger” on a 90’s boom box as the musical accompaniment. Bolts and streaks broke upon the water. I kept thinking of Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, crawling through miles of feces until the lightening pummeled his past to smithereens. Now that was a movie.
In fact, I should start to write television and movie reviews. Yes, perfect, and that’s a real thing, a profession, I imagine telling my dead dad. We’d be seated at the kitchen table and, shy, timid, staring at the jellyfish cigarette burn scorched into the Formica the way I always did when speaking to my father, I’d use the words logical, pragmatic, responsible. Would he scratch his head and tip back the Genny Cream can or would he squint into seeing me, finally? If his sternness smeared to pity—a little league coach watching the runt strike out again—I’d simply start to count tentacles.
(Tentacle one: I’d been ignoring, but must be forced to accept, the patina of flatulated fust I’d put on my wife’s dead mother’s couch.
Tentacle two: Lord of the Flies, Mr. Gordon’s red pen in tenth grade English; the way it kept charging, develop, develop.)
Without an evening guard Jimmy has to work the shift, so we head go to the pool for his drawing lesson. Remembering my introductory courses in college, I’ve asked him to bring along a pad of Strathmore paper and a small set of charcoal pencils. I’ve also asked him to bring along a photograph of his wife, which he carries in a silver frame under the crook of his arm. The crisp plastic bag of supplies he totes carefully, with pride—with shining— as we walk down the Y’s hall toward the pool. I feel the air warm and condense. Jimmy’s wife is named Margaret, he tells me. After her stroke he moved her to Crescent Manor to receive full-time care. Kids grown and gone, he says. He says it all fell to him.
“I visit her every day,” he adds, placing his hand on my shoulder and leaving it there for a few glittery beats. We’ve reached the edge of the pool. He touches me as if we share some sort of understanding. I’m not sure we don’t and I’m not sure we do.
The pool is vacant save for a single swimmer who cuts expertly through the even blue. She’s very strong, that’s clear; she turns for air only every fourth or fifth stroke. I ask Jimmy to take out his materials, which he lays on the card table he’s placed beside the lifeguard stand, its red rescue ring harnessed to its side like cartoony punctuation. I notice he is nervous, jittery.
“First, show me a line. Just a single line,” I say, trying to calm him a bit. “I just want to see how you move across space.”
His line immediately folds into an S-shape, and I recognize that it’s the same S that forms the head and belly of his top hat man doodle. He looks at me, troubled, lost.
“Alright,” I say, “and now let’s see what a straight line looks like.” I realize I’m using the same voice I use to teach things to Madi, like how to Velcro closed her rainbow tennis shoes or how to squeeze the Elmo toothpaste on her toothbrush in one swoop.
He puts the pencil to the paper and in his shaky hand draws the S again. It goes on like this. I draw a straight line and he forms still another S. We have a page full of these soon enough, a storm of snakes.
“I drink,” Jimmy says, scrolling yet another S, “My time with her, my children—those years.” I scan the water and don’t see the swimmer break for breath. She’s determined, sure, a powerboat calcitrating white. The sight of her—that confidence—the only word for it: exquisite. “Time,” he repeats, and inhales as if he’ll continue the thought, then loses it. I want very much to comfort this man who has shown me such gentleness, but what is there to say.
“Time,” I echo, feeling the swimmer’s quickening strokes pull me through a full and supple substance. Jimmy flips to a new page. This time, I want to try something different. I instruct him to draw his S in the middle of this new page, which he does. “Great,” I say. “And now, let’s see that picture of Margaret.” There is nothing particularly special about the photograph, and I’d be lying if I said she didn’t more or less look like everyone else. She’s seated on a porch swing, with pale and hot pink azaleas bursting in the blurry background. Her smile, though, that compelled me; not because of its particular shape or character, but because it seemed so surely conjured—reflected—by another person. Not now, but in the past; I have made Laurel respond in this way. I have. She has felt something. So have I. I select one of the charcoal pencils. It’s been so long—more than a decade—thus I’m surprised at the ease with which I’m able to give life to the iris I sketch to one side of his S, which we’ll keep as Margaret’s drawn nose. “This,” I say, “is one way to begin.”
I’m dreaming of fish that night, the swish of the couch fabric is fish against my skin, whole scooping schools of them. The sensation is electrifying, like when I was a kid in the summer, wading through the August lake and I’d feel something flicker. Suddenly, the sound of “Mommy!” cuts through the dream. It’s Madison this time, my daughter’s voice instead of Laurel’s. There is a phenomenon on which parents rely—it must be biology—that hypnotic flash of scrambling beyond thinking that propels you toward your child in the night. In a beat, I’m running down the hall, past the framed snapshots of our family alongside Laurel’s insect portraits on the wall. Madison’s ballet recital, her crust of orange make-up and flared rouge set off by the red sequin costume, hangs beside the fuzzy, ant-eating Antlion. Laurel and I biting into our wedding cupcakes is positioned parallel to the North American Wheel Bug, a long-beaked insect filled with venom. Laurel always told me she found beauty in the weird, and that was why she loved me.
“Madi,” I go to our daughter’s outline, her hallucinating forehead, “we’re here.” I can almost make out the shape of us, our family, my wife perched on the other side of the bed. I can almost find our shape.
“It’s done, it wasn’t real,” Laurel says, kissing Madi on her terrified cheek.
At six o’clock, when my shift begins, the Masters swimmers are roughly half-way through their two-hour workout. These are the doctors and lawyers, ropy and shouldered, outfit in technical swimwear decorated by fireworks patterns. With every other breath their dark-goggled stare—think the hungry, vacant gaze of sharks. Mesh bags, filled with tools to improve kicks and pulls, convene at the end of each lane. Waterproofed smartphones beep and gleam. The Masters rush through their workout then rush on past me, with little more than the terse nod one reserves for hired help. They will pick up rotisserie chickens on their way home, or grocery sushi. Kale chips. Raspberry flavored seltzer water. Their children, already home from lacrosse or soccer practice, always finish their homework before dinner. These are the thoughts I will allow.
When Mr. and Mrs. Bauman show up for their evening swim, shuffling past me with talk of the weather or ailments or pleasant inquiries about my daughter, it’s a welcome shift away from the corporate atmosphere of the Masters. Mr. Bauman is much more sure-footed than Mrs., and takes great care to guide her across the slippery tile and then slowly down into the pool. Once they’re settled in it, she does a sort of bob and stretch while her husband performs sleepy crawl laps—with each stroke his heavy, hairy arm slaps the water like a whale tail. “Fifty years and counting!” he called out to me the other day as he helped his wife immerse. Mr. and Mrs. Bauman always save a few minutes at the end of their swim to join back up for a tandem float. Like surfacing starfish, they buoy, close but not touching, swaying slightly from the muted current issued by Aquabot, the robotic cleaner at the bottom of the pool. He always seems a bit dejected and confused, the tube-appendaged dude. When all the people are gone, and the silence is flattest, I’m forced to watch this thingamabob—I want to add my thingamabob—suck back and forth, back and forth. Suck, suck, suck, suck, suck.