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Issue 117 |
Spring 2012

Swimming: A Plan B Essay

She swims in open water, the alternate self.

There is no boat. She is alone. There is no predicting the conditions. Some days, the water is flat and still, her strokes pushing through a membrane of surface warmth and into a chill beneath. Some days, the waves are so vast they lift her high on their crests and send her hurtling down, swift as falling, into the trough. Those days, every breath wrested from the spray is a triumph, and she is shaky and grateful to touch dry land again.

The water itself is unpredictable: sweet and fresh and so clear she can see the snakes sleeping in the mud a hundred feet below, or so salty her tongue swells and her skin burns and she can’t see her own diving hands.

Because this is open-water swimming, she is discovering where she’s going as she goes. It has taken a long time to come to terms with the fact that the purpose is not to arrive, only to swim.

This does not mean that there is no urgency. There is always some sort of urgency: she chases down the moon sliding on the tops of the waves, she circles the candy-striped buoy and returns, she follows this school of fish into the hot mouth of a river where the trees lean blowsily, thickening the water into soup with the rot of their leaves. Some days, it is all she can do to kick her way out of the clinging weeds.

There is danger, a great deal of it. There are sharks that circle her. They wait. Their teeth shine in the murk. Their bodies lazily trail her shadow as it darts over the coral reef. There are barracudas and motorboats and freak waterspouts touching down from the sky. She doesn’t like to imagine it, but there is always the possibility of drowning.

Swimmers learn to counteract their fear with tricks. She sings to herself, voice burbling underwater and transforming the lyrics to nonsense. She counts until she loses count. She dreams, wide awake, of food, a whole smorgasbord just for her, banana bread and cheese soufflé and tiny exotic fruits in aspic. In this way, she fools the terror into staying in her wake so that it won’t outswim her.

She can’t worry about the danger, because she would never give up swimming: there is nothing more sensual in the world. The knife of the body through water, cleaving it. The full-body lick, crown to toe, deep into the bitter crevices. A whole impervious world seen in its business from above, the fish swallowing fish, the waggling seaweed, the slow glide of rays across the grooved bottom, sending up little puffs of sand. The smell of water that lingers in the sinuses, the slosh in the ears as she walks. She carries the swim with her into her life outside the water, softening her. She walks dreamily on land, a part of her still swimming.

At the same time, there is a moment in swimming when, after a while, the body’s rhythm grows so comfortable that the swimmer loses awareness of herself. There is a marrow-deep letting go. She isn’t thinking. Her brain is off, her body is on autopilot. She is elevated; happy is not the word for it. To be and not to be, simultaneously: some people call this state ecstasy, others call it zen. They are, perhaps, different names for the same phenomenon. It is difficult to attain, and there are a thousand ways to attain it. Some meditate, others do peyote, others focus so hard on their art that the world itself falls away and they look up, days or hours later, to be staggered by what they have created in the full flare of their own white heat.

Full immersion, of course, is the highest level of anything.

Who, having tasted this immersion, would not chase it every day? Who would not long to live in this state for as long as is possible? It arrives rarely, and the swimmer knows it for the gift it is. She doesn’t know what days she will find it, or what the conditions will be when she does, smooth or rough, windy or calm, the water so cold she shudders merely to look at it or so warm it’s like swimming through peanut oil. And so she suits up every day. Slides on her cap, affixes her goggles. She takes a breath. She dives in.

Perhaps long ago one came to see the alternate life as the same life, only in a different medium. Read: paper for water, sentences for swim. Read: alternate life for the life one is already amazed to be living. What we choose to do in our short span on earth changes us, of course: most of us can’t resist taking on the attributes of our occupations. Yet, no matter what we do, the core of who we are remains the same. The same person who swims also writes, and makes the writing into a kind of swimming. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be an open-water swimmer. They are different modes of pushing toward the same purpose: those singular moments of ecstasy, the gorgeous, the ungraspable, the letting go.

—Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, a novel, and Delicate Edible Birds, a story collection. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and a PEN/O. Henry award, has been anthologized twice in the Best American Short Stories series, and has appeared in the journals, including The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Subtropics, Glimmer Train, and One Story. Her second novel, Arcadia, was published in March 2012.