Various and Sundry Poetry

splitting the lane

Before she walked toward the shallow end of pool
swathed in her dark bathing cap and fresh muscles,
before she stood at the scrubbed white edge
tucking her last tendrils in, safe from chlorine,
before she bent to do some final stretching,
the limbering up before the full force of laps
pulled her into that deep and pounding purpose,
before she looked up to catch up eye
as I was preparing for another turn back around,
she asked, wordlessly, if she could share my lane,
giving me that lift of her chin and the raise of eyebrows,
an insider's greeting, before all that,
I was swimming beautifully.

I could even say there was a grace there, an art
only otters can truly master but under which
I was a willing student, arrowing through
the lane as straight as my body would allow,
eyes on the prize of the black tiles leading
me toward the finish at each end, then the slap
against the pool's rim, at each turn counting "10," then "11"
and on through the twenties and thirties and forties,
when I knew a certain softening would creep in,
the limbs losing their thrust and torque, the water
slowing behind me, nearly currentless, and yet moving still,
the quieter, closer, more intimate act of swimming
one's last laps, the knowing there, the gratitude
of having stayed buoyant for nearly an hour powered
by the simple coordination of feet and hands.

But now, nodding my okay to the woman already
half immersed by the time I reach her, I know
this afternoon is about to disassemble, the pool
already less bright and possible, my own
efforts marred by the diligence required now
for splitting the lane.

And it's true, as we pass each other mid-way
through the next series of laps, I find myself
straying toward the far edge, erring on the side
of safety, sensing the likelihood that my breast stroke
will collide with her crawl, and I want to be nice,
easy, I want to share like I said I would.

Except swimming this way makes my breathing shallow,
makes me inefficient and nervous, and what began
as the Zen equivalent of aerobic exercise has devolved
into an over-conscious avoidance, into me clinging
to the space allotted and nothing more, and this
has me watching my elbows and narrowing my stroke,
pulling myself in, diminishing the surface area
I had chosen, on this brilliant day, to spread out,
to elongate, to become more than what I manage, most days, on land.

By now, I have stopped counting seconds and laps. I have lost
the number of times I have touched this edge and back again.
I am only watching the near horizon where a dark blue cap
is bobbing toward me, where a goggled set of eyes approaches
every other stroke, where a body is lunging forward,
threatening with its near misses.

It is not swimming anymore, at least not the kind I had begun with,
and there is a part of me that wishes I'd had the stomach to say no,
to have been able to avert the gaze, the question mark,
the look that said, "May I" and "Can you" because there is that part of me
unwilling to share what I had counted on alone.

I want my rhythms back, my aspirant swishing, my lovely aqueous solitude.
I want the room that is this water, this faultless aquamarine,
this generous, silent place that holds whatever I bring to it,
no matter the weight. But the choice has now come down to this:
stay or leave. And more than the unwillingness to share,
leaving would deprive me of all I have come here for.

This is how one begins to unclench, to unfasten from the act
of claiming, of believing that anything in this world
is one's to navigate at the self-made pace of
smooth and spacious privacy. This is how a truce is born.
This is how slowly an alliance begins to form, unnoticed,
unrecorded. This is how two bodies manage to swim alongside.
This is how two bodies manage to swim together.