Learning to Swim

©....by Larry Lynch

The first time she came to Warren's apartment she didn't noticed his disorganized desk--there was no time; it was straight into the bedroom, wet bathing suits and all. Since that first time she has become more interested in the chaos which not only is his desk but is his whole apartment. Warren imagines she believes it holds in its disarray the answers to who he is and what he really wants.

Is this what you do? she says to him, standing at his desk. On it is a smorgasbord of worthless office materials, a coffee cup full of pencils and pens, and scraps of paper with phone numbers on them. The shape and crumpledness of the scraps are clues to whom the numbers belong. The bulletin board on the wall above the desk is home to hanging article ideas, notes from interviews, and things that Warren periodically jots down in hopes that someday something will come of it all and deliver him from obscurity into the pseudo-obscurity of literary journal fame.

Yes, he tells her. This is it. From that answer she scans Warren's apartment and sees all that it has brought him. Patio furniture. Nintendo. Stacks of paperbacks climbing in the corners and overflowing from cardboard boxes.

This isn't all just newspaper stuff, she says. She pulls some pages from the bulletin board. Tacks scatter--Warren's callused feet will find them some night in the dark. She holds some notes about a female firefighter. She drops them on the desk and pulls down something else. Paragraphs, scenes, and characteristics in point form about a writer Warren envisions. She places it on the desk. Go get your shower, she says, you smell like chlorine. She begins to tidy his desk, sort the scraps, stack the mail, and disrupt the chaos. Go on, she urges. She has to be back at the pool in an hour. Aquaerobics. Warren knows that she's afraid if she is late somehow the priest will find out she is not catholic and fire her for lying on her application. Warren soaps his flabby body. She snoops and reads.

She finds:

For June 14th issue. Run photo. J. Fark 555-1444. Joan Fark hopes to be Middleton's first female firefighter. She is the 35-year-old unwed daughter of John and Missy Fark of Middle Ave. She has been training hard for the physical and is confident she can pass. In a phone interview, Captain McMahan stated he looks forward to seeing her on the crew. The Middleton Fire Department only responded to twelve calls last year.

And this:

When you hear his voice on the radio as you search in the glove compartment for enough change for a coffee, suddenly he is real. Never have you seen a picture of him on any jackets. You have even gone to the bookstore to buy new copies of his work, to see if any of them has his picture. You have even wondered if he may be a she. When you hear his voice it is like finding your birth mother, like finding money in a dirty pair of pants, like the first time your hand felt its way into a bra or had a hand fell its way into yours (if indeed that was a good thing at the time). Chapters and characters come flooding back to you, and you attach his voice, dulcet and reluctant, to one or more of his characters as they argue, complain, whisper, want or fuck. And he is even more real than you had ever hoped, as if reality has levels of completeness or validity. You hear him avoid answering stupid questions from the radio interviewer who clearly hasn't read his latest book about which he/she now questions him. He changes the subject, and speaks about his boat (he has a boat, you knew it!) and pulls the inept announcer away from embarrassment. But he/she persists. After a long silence he clears his throat and tells him/her, that people who have read his books, read any books, don't fight or fear or question or see as quintessential or heavy-handed every mention of water and the sea; they accept it, embrace it, draw it into their lungs, drink it, breathe it, fuck in it, give birth in it, die in it, make it their own. And he says that it is time he should go. You can hear him pushing away from the microphone, and leaving the control booth. The announcer goes to commercial, but can be heard calling him an asshole before the microphone is silenced.

You have enough money for a small coffee (though you feel like a large) and you have a permanent record of his voice in your head. His voice. His disdain. His illusion. A woman with a lazy eye and nine fingers disperses of the queue for coffee in a steady manner, more speedy perhaps than a person might with all their digits. Large? she says to you. Small you say, trying to sound frugal rather than poor. As you leave she asks again to the next in line. Large? Large, he says. Large and black. Dulcet and aggravated. A graying head, moderately tall, walking away from you, out the other door to his car. You stare as others queue around you. You can see the back of his head, his gate, his first sip of the hot drink. Like a fool you follow him. Without hesitation he pops in behind the steering wheel, drives a way and puts a phone to his ear. Still his face is nothing to you.

Warren's son's feet couldn't touch bottom, so he clung to the side, or to the ladder, or to Warren's neck. When Warren pried him away, the little boy swam furiously toward his father with his head tipped back and the white Styrofoam floatation bubble on his back bobbing at the surface. All around them children flung themselves into the water. Warren wanted to swim, if he had been able, under the buoys that marked the boundary of the shallow end and take his son where the water was deep and where there were fewer swimmers. With goggles strapped to his chubby face he could see things floating: hair, snot, Band-Aids. If the water had been clearer he could have seen all the way to the deep end, watched swimmers come crashing through the surface from the diving board, then arch upward, expelling trails of bubbles as they neared the air. But he only lay on his back, on the bottom, and watched his son kick wildly and smile at him with cheeks filled with air.

On a day when there were not too many kids in the pool, a threat of rain perhaps, she spoke to him - she told him that he had to get down in the water with his shoulders submerged when he was instructing his son; something about being less intimidating. Warren had watched her before--watched her instruct, watched the instructions more than the instructor, watched people learning to swim rather than watching the swimmers, watched their strokes, their progress, the process. His son tried to push off the wall and glide on his front with his face in the water, but couldn't seem to get it right. Show him, she said. Warren waited for the a few kids to move before he pushed himself off the wall. It was not graceful. He didn't go far. You don't swim, she said. No. You should take lessons.

You have assumed most successful authors have houses here and there, in one city or another, on lakes and rivers, looking out at the sea, with boats moored, bobbing, tethered, waiting for guidance. When he drives to an average neighborhood, with average lawns and hedges, you are surprised. Surprised that you have made him something he is not, surprised that you are following the man whose name lives on more covers in that pile of books in your apartment than any other author. Should he stop and walk back to your car, and ask what the hell you are doing following him, you will swallow your tongue, and be the second imbecile that he has had the misfortune of encountering in less than an hour. He parks on the street, locks his car, walks down the sidewalk with a large case under his arm then plunges into a hedge then scoots across a lawn into a house. A woman closes the door behind him.

-- writer [name? appearance?] -- novel, masterpiece. "Same Beach. New Waves" ?? -- reclusive, refuses to do interviews, promote book -- young writer pursues author, finds him -- alternating POV recluse/young writer -- magic realism?, the bottles/jars

The woman's house has two stories. The windows are large and many, every one illuminated. It reminds you of the bank of televisions at the electronics store, each on a different channel. You see them going from room to room. His back is always to you or there is some obstruction so you can not see him. The woman looks young. Younger at least than the back of his head. Every time you come back, and you come back to crouch in the hedge every night when you see his car parked across the street, you watch them struggle, see the case sitting there on the kitchen table.

When the water in the shower hits Warren's head, the bathroom fills with the smell of the swimming pool. He has often thought about getting more organized. Sometimes he begins to straighten things, but an idea or a story usually sidetracks him. But she is organized, and the consummate instructor. And after his shower he knows he will be the recipient of more instruction. She's like that--there are two ways of doing things: her way, and the wrong way.

She says she can't orgasm unless everything is just so. She has to be on top. All the blankets must be off the bed; even if the sheet is resting on her feet she gets distracted. Once she reaches a certain point there should be no more talking--she gets this extreme look of concentration on her face like she is trying to hear and smell and taste and feel and imagine some far away sensation, one that she has yet to understand or describe but knows it exists and that this way, her way, is the only the way to experience it. But she hasn't yet, and Warren feels that it must be something he is doing wrong so he tries to be invisible; invisible like the wind is until it blows newspapers across the street, picks up a trailer park and turns it upside-down, or suspends the hem of a dress. (This is something he thought of once, and is on a scrap somewhere in his apartment.) If there is rhythm, he tries to sustain it. He watches her face, her closed eyes, trying to draw some instruction from them. He has even tried holding his breath like he is trying to float.

Soon after he arrives you see him follow her from the foyer, down the hall to her bedroom. While she gets undressed and puts on a robe, he follows her about reading to her. A manuscript! You wish you could hear them, him. But you watch. The woman brushes her hair. He holds the vital pages in his hands, fluttering them in an emphatic matter when he reaches an important part. You are dying in the bushes and the woman is brushing her hair. Brushing her hair! Finally she stands and she takes the pages. She reads for a minute then shrugs, asking him a question. He throws his arms in the air, takes back the pages and turns to leave the room but she whirls him around by his arm and detains him, throws her arms around his neck and kisses him.

You can see her robe fall to the floor, see the outline of her breasts against the lamp in her room. Her belly has a gentle plumpness. She always undoes his tie, sits him on the bed and removes his shoes. She takes the pages and sets them aside, then climbs on top of him, pushing him onto his back.

On Tuesday evenings there are adult swimming classes. Kids from the previous lessons hang about outside the fence and watch the adults wade cautiously into the shallow end. With the exception of Warren, it looks like a senior's class. They seem to come in pairs and threes--pre-wrinkled men and women who talk and don't listen, who can already swim in some sort of easy but inefficient fashion, and seem to be there for recreation not instruction. That first night they lined up on the deck. The instructors said they must evaluate each pupil so the class can be separated into groups. The first woman swam across the pool. Her hair didn't even get wet, and she was directed to the side of the pool where the diving board is. Warren was the last to go. About half the width of the pool in the shallow end was how far he got before reaching for the bottom, first with his hands, then his feet, swallowing some water as he finally found his footing and stood up. Two instructors went with the others. She stepped into the shallow end with Warren.

Can you float on your front? she said. Like a dead man? Spread your legs and arms like a star and take deep breath and relax. He did, and expected if he followed instructions that he would float right to the top and feel the sun on his back, feel the surface of the water slapping in his ears. The first time, he went down almost to the bottom. His body jack-knifed and he lurched to his feet. Relax, she said. Take a deep breath, look at the bottom, spread out and you will float. Again he sunk, but held his position and found that he rose and floated about a foot under the surface. Did you take a deep breath? Yes. You're a sinker. Some people just aren't floaters.

Try it on your back. He did. Water filled his nose and he beat his arms and legs like he was falling from a plane. She was giving instructions as he submerged. When he came up, coughing, she was folding her arms across her chest warming herself, then she stretched out and demonstrated how it was done. She floated like suds on water. The tops of her thighs, the round of her face, her breasts, nipples, and the plump part of her belly where her bathing suit stretched flat over the hollow of her belly button all were above water. Look at the clouds, she said, not at your feet. She said this, looking straight at Warren, not at the sky, and still she floated like a cork.

Again he tried. This time she stood behind him and cradled the back of his head in her hands. A deep breath, she said. He took a deep breath. He felt his chest rising to the surface, but his heels still touched the bottom. Stretch out and look up. He did. Now move your legs a bit. When he did he found himself on top of the water, concentrating like hell on the sky. There you go. She smiled and let go of his head. He sunk and swallowed more water, a strand of hair.

From his stillness you derive uncertainty. Her pulses and writhing transferred to his rigid frame accounts for his only movement. Her hair falls into his face when she leans over him to instruct him. She leads his hands to where she wants them. You can see him grope when he should caress, pinch when he should tickle. And when it all should be arriving at some sort of crescendo, she gets out of bed and lights a cigarette. You watch her console him with a light touch on the cheek. You watch him sit on the edge of the bed, his head low. She kneels in front of him, smoke curling to the ceiling from her free hand whiles she attempts to validate him with her other hand. She does this until the ember burns too close to her fingers and she stops and butts it out in the ashtray on the nightstand.

Warren dried myself with his last clean towel. Tonight he must go to the Laundromat because tomorrow is his Saturday. Every second Saturday Warren and his son walk up the hill to the pool that Bingo money built. (He wrote the article about how it took three years of Bingo in the church basement to raise the money to build it. Every summer he writes another blurb about the government grant the church receives to hire lifeguards or construct changing rooms and showers. The articles are short. Verbs and nouns. Like everything in the newspaper, every hint of originality is edited out; every adjective and adverb meant to give some color and to faintly expose, or conceal, Warren's contempt for the bland are chopped in the name of brevity. Coupon-cutters don't give a damn about your decorous prose, his editor tells him. He is paid by the inch. Brevity equals economics--Warren's contribution to a strong global economy is brevity. Strunk would be proud.) Warren carries their lunch, the folding chairs, and the bag with his towel and sunscreen. His son carries his towel and must be reminded constantly not to drag it on the ground. The swim starts at one and goes until five. All morning Warren's son asks him what time it is, and how long before they go swimming. He wants to go into the parking lot of Warren's apartment building and throw the Frisbee around, but it is too close to the street and there are too many cars in the parking lot whose scratches Warren could not pay to get unscratched. Every second Sunday the little boy goes back to his mother.

On Saturday afternoons, fifteen minutes before the swim is over, the priest crosses the lawn of the rectory in his white swim trunks with his towel over his shoulder. He waits on the sidewalk until the traffic stops. He crosses the road, nodding at the drivers, usually calling them by name and making some lame joke about holy water. The hair on his chest is far darker than on his head. It furrows down in a narrow line from his breastbone to his navel, and across his chest from one nipple to the other forming a cross over his fat gut. It's true, a black, hairy cross! He walks past the girl who collects the money and then on deck as kids and parents gather their stuff. He asks the lifeguard if anyone has drowned today. When the lifeguard says No, the priest pats him/her on the back, says Good boy/girl. He knows Warren's son. He walks over to them and says, So, your dad is teaching you to swim. Yeah, he says, but we can't go under the rope 'cause my dad can't swim in the deep end. Warren wishes there were one of those small sliding doors between his face and the priest's so he wouldn't have to look at his neat face. I confess to God I can't swim. This is my first confession since my first confession. Can you talk a little louder? they always say. Can't swim? Really? Say ten Hail Marys then dive right in. Sign up for some lessons, he tells Warren, patting him on the back. Warren grins at him, wondering why he never sees any nuns swimming.

Warren's son tells him that his mother takes him to church; that is how he knows God. He's not God, Warren tells him. He just works for him. In any event, Warren doesn't know the man. He's not the priest that married him, or made his son bawl when he dunked his head into a basin of water when he was an infant. Maybe he is. Maybe he just doesn't recognize him with his clothes off. Once the pool is empty, but while everyone is still there to see him, he dives into the deep end. He glides under water to the shallow end where he does a flip turn and glides almost all the way back before he comes up for a breath. God is a good swimmer, Warren's son says. God is going to take a heart attack, he tells him.

You can see the ember of her cigarettes trace orange in the blue light of her room. Each channel she turns to emits a slightly different hue of blue, and as she flicks without discrimination, and drags from her cigarette, you are drawn into the kaleidoscope. Two windows to the left, his hunched back faces you. You can see him chewing on a pencil and rolling fresh sheets of paper into his typewriter.

With fresh paragraphs he walks into her kaleidoscope. He reads to her as she smokes and turns the room, and him, from blue to not-so-blue to blue-gray to blue-green. Orange tracers. You wonder if she is even listening. You would listen. Bluish-yellow. Deep purplish-blue, almost black-blue.

He looks frustrated. You hate her. He leaves the room, walks past the room where he writes, down the hall, past the bathroom, into the kitchen. He grabs up the case under his arm and goes back to his typewriter.

While Warren is drying myself she walks in and holds out what she has been reading. What's this all about? she says.

What is it?

She begins to read: You can see her robe fall to the floor, see the outline of her breasts against the lamp. Who is You? You or me? Or is this smut supposed to be us? She is not smiling. Warren is naked.

It could be both, he says, and neither.

And you don't even use my name. Not once. Are you ashamed or something?

As true as it is, Warren knows his explanation is not going to fly as he hears himself speak the words. It's nothing like that, he tells her. Leaving the reader, the character, you, or not you, nameless enhances the illusion of reality. Don't you think?

Her expression doesn't change, and he knows she is trying to decide if he is lying or crazy. You're not fooling anyone, she says.

She studies the pages. He wraps the towel around his waist.

Is my belly really plump?

Not at all, he says, I make some of it up. It's fiction.

She finally smiles, then she hugs him, the wet towel between his belly and hers.

The light by which he types silhouettes him. By this time you can see that his hands combing through his hair has left it standing in places. His shirt is untucked, wrinkled. He reefs paper from the machine and crumples it. Glorious scraps. He writes in short bursts, reads what he has written, writes more, then discards it. You can see him pacing around the room, but with the light to his back it is his shadow you would be able to recognize anywhere, not his face.

Two, then three circuits around the room he makes. The woman continues to bathe in blue. He peeks into the hallway, then ducks back into his room and closes the door. Looking over his shoulder, listening for her you imagine, he carefully opens the case, withdrawing jars and holding them up to the light and inspecting their labels. From selected jars he removes the lids, reaches in with his fingers and plucks out some of the contents and releases them into the air over his head. He puts the jars back in their place, closes the case and returns it stealthily to the kitchen. After stretching his scalp with his hands and inserting a clean page, he writes.

It took weeks, but with some constant swirling motion with his hands, and a gentle kicking movement from his knees down, he learned to stay on top of the water on his back and move around the shallow end a bit without touching the bottom. Though it was not graceful, he even learned to roll from his front to his back, his eyes and mouth wide when his face turned to the sky hoping he was above water where he could take a breath.

Next came the side glide. If he could learn to master it, she told him, it wouldn't be long before he would be learning strokes and swimming lengths of the pool. She demonstrated. First she grasped the side of the pool with one hand, and put her feet against the wall ready to push off. Now watch, she said. Push off the wall, keep this arm out straight and put your ear against your shoulder. Look back and up a bit, and kick, you have to kick. She glided away from the wall, her legs stirring the water, her head resting on the shoulder of her outstretched arm and her face completely out of the water. Now you try.

Warren tried repeating all the instructions in his mind as he gripped the side with one hand and planted his feet into the wall, ready to push off. There is a part of Warren that keeps all these seemingly simple components from coming together at once to form what even slightly resembles a swimmer, a stroke. Either his ear is not against his shoulder, his body is too tense and not extended enough, his head is turned the wrong way, or he is not kicking hard enough or not at all. The result is a mouth-full of water and an instance of panic as he splashes and gasps to my feet.

Swallow enough water for today? she asked him as she checked her watch.

To you he looks drained. Or, perhaps, from crouching in the hedge it is you who is drained. You would like to see him take his pages, dozens of them since he opened the jars, and leave. Turn out all the lights, pull the plug on her TV and leave. But he takes them to her. He begins to read and she stops doing nothing and listens. The more he reads, the more attentive she becomes; she sits straighter, sets aside the remote, and extinguishes her cigarette. Before he is done, she takes the pages from him and paces about reading the final pages aloud. You can see her lips moving. You think he looks too tired to sit, like a stiff breeze could blow him over, scatter him like leaves. When she is done, she sets it aside and smiles.

He picks up the pages and you can tell he is asking if she liked it. Yes, her mouth moves, and she drops her robe again. Really? his shoulders say. She kneels to undo his pants. He finds a specific page and points out a passage to her, rereads it, like you have reread so many of them so many times (only with no one kneeling before you).

His back is to you and you see the outline of the tail his shirt, the crumpledness of his pants that rest below his knees. In one hand he holds the passage, in the other the smokey blueness of her hair. Only you can't see his face. His sleeping face? His annoyed face? Frustrated? Ecstatic--you doubt it.

For the first time he pictures him, sees his face. It is familiar but puzzling. When he lay still, with his arms extended and his eyes closed, not watching her at all, he saw him sitting over his typewriter. He got up from time to time and went into the kitchen. He selected jars of characterization or maybe symbolism. They were like spices. He reached in and pinched the right amounts of irony, satire, or narrative distance between his fingers and released them into the air like ashes or magic dust. Again and again he tossed his fingers into the air. There was a rhythm that Warren could not understand and did not interrupt. But she did.

I see you felt it too, she whispered into his chest. You finally got it right, she said, you did it. We did it.

His face was not hard or concerned like he had tried to write it before. It was unconventional and smooth. It was clean and shiny and even a bit smug; it was familiar and Warren felt that he should know him, and that if he could remember who he was, then he could create him more real than he was himself.

What are you doing? she said as she shook him by the shoulders. Warren opened his eyes. Wasn't it great? she said and stretched out on top of him.

I could see him, he told her.

Who?

The writer. My character.

That's what you were you thinking of? She wrapped a sheet around her and got out of bed.

What? he said. Did I miss something?

Nothing, she said, I was faking it anyway. She left. End of lessons.

Warren's son is taking lessons. Every second Saturday Warren sits with his feet dangling in the shallow end and watches the line of children at the deep end, his son included. The first in line steps closer to the side. An instructor treads water a few feet from the edge and holds a floatation ring in one of his hands. The children jump into the water, bob to the top and grasp the ring. With a slight nudge, the instructor propels them toward the side of the pool; the kids swim with their heads back and with quick puppy-like strokes to the ladder where they climb out and go to the back of the line. The priest still comes for his dip when the kids are finished. Yesterday Warren watched him as he patted his son on his wet head. He dropped his towel by the diving board and picked some lint from the hairy cross on his chest. With pinched fingers he raised his hand into the air and released the lint into the breeze. Him. It was him.


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