by Meegan R. Mulholland
These days, I'm living life flat-out, literally and figuratively.
I say literally since I'm lying face up in a back float right now, and
figuratively since I'm in the final stretch of my coursework for a graduate
degree in literature. I come to the pool, though, even with exam deadlines
looming over my head, or perhaps be-cause of them, since I need to feel
all the gravity fall away, experience even for just a moment the feeling
From my vantage point in the pool, I can see the aerobics class hard
at work in the plate-glass exercise room on the balcony above. The other
side of that room is lined with mirrors, and many of the members watch
themselves step, extend, and jiggle. I can hear the bass line of the
retro disco music pounding down through the foundation, overpowering
the strain of classical music wavering from the radio on the pool deck.
I lay my head back in the water and think about how unhappy they look,
their faces wrought in sweat, determination, and desperate amusement.
It occurs to me that they are engaged in a kind of postmodern aerobics.
No excesses enter that stripped-down room with them; they bring to it
only a sharp perception of their bodies, fragmenting themselves into
pecs, abs, and buns of steel. Constantly assessing themselves in terms
of the minimal, they self-consciously measure the body fat on their
upper arms and thighs with a small device that pinches their flesh between
two levers. Even more painful to watch is the process that follows as
they evaluate the units with stern faces, consulting each other in an
almost robotic fashion. It seems they'll let nothing get in the way
of sculpting the exterior, perfecting the outer package. "The stomach
needs work," I will hear one of them say later in the locker room;
she will not say "my stomach" or "my torso." Each
one proceeds to talk about an element of her body as if it were something
she has managed to separate from herself. And I've never once heard
them mention the soul.
While members of the "Masters" competitive team may possess
some or all of these qualities, "Sunset" swimmers do not think
this way. We come to the pool in search of our souls, that part of ourselves
that loves to be submerged and buoyed and enveloped by water. We surrender
ourselves in stages, sometimes hesitantly, a toe or an ankle at a time,
sometimes wholeheartedly with a leap and a yelp. A source of reju-venation
more than a fountain of youth, the body of water helps us reach back
to something primal inside, the need to be surrounded and gently rocked
by something that is larger and more substantial than we are.
The reconnection of mind and body is especially important to me at
this critical point in my academic ca-reer. I spend a good part of my
day reading, analyzing, and categorizing literary texts, and attempting
to relate them to or differentiate them from others. I create copious
notes on each topic any given passage may explore, and code, organize,
and file my index cards accordingly. It is painstaking, detail-oriented,
and at times tedious work, yet I engage in the same process every morning
in order to attain my end goal.
When the evening comes, I look forward to my swim; I tend to view it
as something of an escape from my desk, a release from pressure and
structure. Certainly, like other swimmers who join me each night, I
swim hard in the pool. We count our laps and keep track of our heart
rates in order to achieve an effective work-out. We immerse ourselves
in the activity, and often emerge exhausted. Yet the telltale bulges
of our swimsuits do not necessarily shrink with our efforts. Still,
there is something extremely satisfying about driving oneself physically
after a day of mental exertion, and about achieving the sense of accomplishment
the cool down brings, this floating.
I sense no such contentment from those who exit the aerobics classes.
Maybe my perception of the way we view our respective workouts is affected
by the wording of the pamphlets the community center distributes. Those
interested in aerobics sign up for sessions that promise "extreme
drills" and "body blasting"; if there happens to be anything
left after the latter class, "body blasting plus" is also
offered. Most swimming courses, however, focus on "orientation,"
"stroke readiness," and "stroke refinement."
Those who lead the swimming classes also double as lifeguards at the
pool. They occasionally ask if the water temperature is okay, or they
might make a comment about the chlorine level. Otherwise, they simply
exist as a protective presence, always there, ever watchful. From the
relative silence of the pool, I've re-peatedly heard the aerobics instructor
commanding his minions in the room above to "push it," "keep
it up," and "kick it." I've often wondered what "it"
is, but from the severe and relentless expressions on their faces tonight,
I think "it" must be the force of gravity itself.
So we seem to be fighting the same force to some extent, though literally
from separate sides. From there, they view the laws of nature as something
that holds us down, and from the pool I am inclined to view na-ture
as something that holds us up. And that's enough. I've promised myself
that swimming would signal an end to critical thinking for the day,
so I close my eyes and exhale. I let myself feel the water's sway, experience
a wash of gratitude that passes over me, and allow the weight of the
world from my shoulders, for the moment, to slip away.
When not engaged in the back float, Megeen R. Mulholland pursues
studies in English at the University at Albany. She has received Honorable
Mention in the Garber Short Fiction Prize, and her poetry has appeared
MSS, The Seattle Review, Earth's Daughters, Blue
Collar Review, and other