I’m a writer and a computer programmer by profession, and my only hobbies are reading and bicycling, so I spend a lot of time alone. I can’t say whether all those solitary pursuits are the cause of my solitary nature, or just a consequence.
All of those activities are not truly solitary, of course. They are typically done by one person, but they logically entail others. Every writer hopes for readers; the act of reading necessarily requires a writer. Even programming involves understanding not only your own machinery, but the work of many other programmers.
Bicycling, at least bicycling in an urban environment, is a social activity. Unless I’m climbing one of San Francisco’s notorious hills, my major concern is the actions of other people. Is he turning? Is she going to run that yellow? Only a few of these people are are walking or biking. Most are cocooned in the metal of their cars and trucks, but they’re still people.
Only when I swim am I truly alone. Swimming is surprisingly technical. The complicated task of controlling my body makes it something like dancing — which is why I am not a good swimmer — and there is the constant necessity of breathing. I have the split-second my face is above water to draw a breath in, then as my face goes back in the water I blow through my nostrils to keep them clear, and then I dump the rest of the air out my mouth to make space in my lungs for the next inhalation. Meanwhile, I have to keep my legs fluttering smoothly, drive my back arm sharply forward, pull my front arm down along the length of my torso, over and over.
I swim alone but usually in a crowd. The pool has five lanes, and there are often two swimmers in each lane. Next to me will usually be an elderly Russian immigrant, or sometimes a serious swimmer or triathlete, or just another middle-aged paddler like myself.
I’ll occasionally glimpse at the strong swimmers as they churn by to pick up pointers for my stroke or my kick, but other than that, I might as well be alone in the middle of the ocean.
Once in a while there’s the woman…
It’s not always the same woman. To my knowledge, it’s never been the same woman twice, but it’s difficult to think of her except as “the woman.”
There are plenty of women in the pool, of course. Mothers of toddlers; teenagers; chubby, plum shaped babushkas. Even ordinary women, of course, look at home in the water. Compared to the lumpy pilose men who thrash their way across the pool, almost any woman looks sleeker, more elegant, more aquatic.
And every week or two, I’ll be swimming next to the woman who transcends ordinary feminine grace to become almost a marine creature.
Swimming next to a woman is a poor way to see her.
Because the conflicting needs of stroking with my arms and of breathing, I have to swivel my head constantly, and I see her only in flashes, almost individual frames, as my path crosses hers. I see pieces: a forearm, or a length of leg and then she’s gone for a pool’s-length.
The water and the swimming gear strip away everything I think of as identifiable about a woman’s physical form: her eyes are behind goggles, her hair is under a cap, her face obscured by a stream of bubbles from her mouth and nose. She doesn’t speak, of course, I don’t hear her voice, and her motion is not anything I am used to interpreting, like the way she would walk or the way she would eat. She swims, and nothing else.
Somehow, despite lacking detail, she isn’t generic in the pool: she’s an abstraction of herself, an archetype, like a pen-and-ink illustration in a biology book, some species of which she’s the only living member. The water lends her appearance both a soft focus and an odd clarity.
I begin to look forward to each intersection, that point when she and I are swimming past each other, and I can look upon her for that brief second. One time I might see her legs or an outstretched arm; a lap later, I might see her torso, neatly wrapped in lycra.
Eventually it ends. The usual ending is, a half-dozen such intersections, a dozen, and I finish my exercise or she does, and I just don’t see her any more. Even if another swimmer takes her place, I feel alone.
The best ending is when I actually see her get out. It doesn’t happen often, since she has to be getting out just as I am reaching that edge of the pool myself. Aphrodite rising from the sea, a living Botticelli tableau, a wet apotheosis. The water sheets off her body, and I feel I am witnessing something important, a transformation.
The worst ending is even rarer: we get out of the pool together. It only happened to me once, she got out a few steps ahead of me and we walked single-file towards the locker rooms.
I wonder if evolving sea-creatures might have felt this way when they first walked on land. We’re heavier away from the buoyancy of the water, clumsier, uglier. We waddle and our feet make awkward slap-slap-slap noises on the ground.
I was glad when she went to the locker-room for women, for ordinary ground-women like the one she’d evolved into.
I won’t let it happen again. When she gets out of the pool, I will swim a few more laps. Let her turn back into a land animal. I will stay in the water alone.