Thursday, June 16, 2011

Swimming in Circles Under a Wide Open Sky

I first visited the West Hollywood municipal pool - where you pay $3 and bring your own towel to an open-air pool practically in the middle of San Vicente, amidst construction, traffic, and playground children - a couple weeks ago while housesitting for friends nearby, forgetting to bring a towel and sunscreen. Of course it's the opposite of what I'm used to swimming in in New York: neither a hotel pool nor a fitness club pool with amenities like lockers, it's a city pool, in Los Angeles.

In a city where nearly everyone seems to have access to a backyard or rooftop pool, I've been having a hard time finding a place to swim laps, an activity that has always brought me relief and solace, throughout stressful work and unemployment alike. I need to be swimming now, tightrope-walking the line between the two, not worrying so much now, but knowing I'll probably have to start worrying later.

I'm not a fast or a strong swimmer, relegated to the "SLOW" lane in speed-segregated lap sessions, but I've always swum with grace and precision, never splashing my neighbor, never gasping for air or littering the communal bathtub with my spittle, as many swimmers do.

But somehow, in this great expanse of a public pool, under that great big California sky, I appear a histrionic athlete plunged into foreign waters, gesticulating wildly as I attempt to gather my bearings. While facing upwards attempting the backstroke, I cannot swim in a straight line.

A couple weeks ago, I thought perhaps I was being blinded by that California sun, raging above in the noontime hour, searing my retinas through my tinted goggles and burning my unprotected nose. But tonight, I arrived shortly before closing time, when the sun was no longer visible in the sky, but its rays still shone longwise from the west, golden and glimmering, soft and amber, illuminating but fading. I watched as the marker flags flapped and reflected, first the day's final glow, then the evening's first flicker of white bulb set in metal cone on metal rod, a harsh, inelegant, contrasting means of lighting the park at night. They sent no flares my way, no glare to astound or bewilder or disorient. I wasn't squinting. My eyes were wide open.

So why could I not swim even remotely straight?

It occurs to me that I'm used to swimming predominantly indoors, save for a few splashes at the beach or at a Palm Springs swim club. When I'm really seriously swimming (and not leisurely paddling or bobbing or splashing or swirling), I'm used to being in an enclosure, with a ceiling at which to stare, its tiles and lines and marks and scars and lights and beams guiding my path from one end of the pool to the other.

So what do I do, when I look up, and all I see is blue?

Apparently, I flap like an oil-soaked seabird.

I try swimming next to the lane dividers, guiding my hand along it with every turn of a stroke, but my body starts to creep under the line, into the other lane, and thereby into the other swimmers. I veer violently in the other direction, overcorrecting my path and nearly clocking my cranium on the concrete wall instead.

I consider not doing the backstroke at all, but my arms get too tired doing the breaststroke the whole time, so I persist.

In an empty lane, I'm allowed to be as frenetic as I wish, but on a night light tonight, I have to be considerate to share the lane. Despite my ridiculous appearance, I continue to try to swim in a style most would consider unnatural since it is, by nature, backwards. I hold my head up and peer down my body towards my feet, in the opposite direction from where I'm going, towards the curious face of the swimmer behind me waiting to launch off the wall. I try to maintain a straight course. I briefly glance at the sky, and then try to tip my head all the way back to see behind me, in the direction of my approach, but my neck cranes to no avail and my ears flood with muffled waves. I try to swim straight but I know I'm weaving like a drunk driver on the Sunset Strip at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. I anticipate being pulled over, but even the lifeguards aren't policing proper swimming technique in this pool, which is about to shut down for the night and be covered by huge rolls of blue plastic tarps until the morning, when the blinding sun makes its triumphant return, and I have an excuse again for swimming with a total lack of sense of direction.

Evening falls before I can figure it out. The sky's daytime blue has shifted to dusk-ridden gray, a discolored pallor from the city's pervasive light pollution. I pull myself out of the water and into the evening's air with its newfound chill, wrap myself in the dark blue towel I brought myself, and walk a straight path into the locker room, where I can see where I'm going the entire way, down Melrose to my apartment, where I've learned to call home.

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