The Swimming Lesson

Leonard Conversi is presently engaged in graduate work at Harvard University. Tins is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

The swimming school was one flight of stairs below street level. In the false-ceilinged, fake-pine-paneled waiting room were two always unoccupied white metal patio chairs with cushions patterned in blue leaves on a lime ground, and a white metal coffee table that held always the same three copies of a ski magazine. After this, the office, where a girl with a bouffant hairdo punched your card, was a shock, for it was high-ceilinged, with time-darkened yellow-wood-paneled walls covered with huge sepia photographs of men in tank tops, trunks, and wide buckled belts who, in spite of all this clothing, were fatalistically swimming in all directions. My first thought whenever I saw them was that they were Civil War survivors who, after their ranks had broken under a final charge, had dived into the river behind them and begun swimming for their lives.

One changed into a pair of 100 percent nylon briefs in one of four curtained stalls, each equipped with a stool, a mirror, and an ashtray. Who on earth would want to smoke before or after so much lung exertion? But I was shocked on my first visit when I emerged from my stall full of golden age idealism, gave a final tightening tug to the waist cord of my shiny black briefs as I hummed along with the music system, which at that moment was piping in the tap-dance section of Fred Astaire’s record of “Flying Down to Rio,” and saw, in the opposite stall, a naked man leveling at me unseeing chlorine-bloodied eyes overhung with dripping hair, breathing as after a struggle, and holding, in a hand cradled in one of his stomach’s folds, a cigar.

With as little reason and as great courage as the hero of a Victorian novel, I stifled my misgivings and proceeded to the encounter. The pool was in a room like the inside of a petrified gourd, lit by a single naked bulb and rocking, as on a stem, with the lights that flecked its ceiling and walls with reflections of the purified green water, stirred by the cascade from a rust-encircled main hollowly roaring, like an old river god, beneath the soggy diving board. Would I ever, poised and rigid as a willing sacrifice, stand above it, ready for the leap into the authentic?

On one of the long sides of the pool, in front of a narrow closet that served as his dressing room, the instructor was toweling off’ lustily, refreshed by the half hour of sadism with the victim whose remains I had just passed. He turned to the wall while doing his back, and as he did so, I ran to a little marble stairway that I saw descending into the wading area. I skipped down its steps into the clement. “ ‘O God,’ ” I quoted aloud, as I stumbled ecstatically toward the deep end, “ ‘give me the strength and the courage to contemplate my heart and my body without disgust!’ ”

“Mr. Conversi, please! Not till the bell rings!” There was a cooking timer on the floor near the entrance, and you weren’t supposed to leave your stall until it rang. The system was designed to ensure customer privacy, as in the offices of dermatologists and psychotherapists.

I commenced to go under at the quarter lap, and saved myself by grabbing hold of the end of a bamboo pole that materialized above my head. The instructor hadn’t had time to change into something dry, and probably hadn’t wanted to jump in with nothing on. Everything has its necessary decorum, except perhaps one’s family relationships.

He hauled me, like a barge, back to the wading area and made me promise to stay there while he got into fresh briefs. These turned out to be a wonderfully campy pair of faded blue, with a slight fraying around the bottom hem, I felt terribly Detroit in my rich-woofed new ones. He had a face to match, with the old-young look of the middle-aged athlete, crew-cut and drawn.

“The first thing we learn,” he said, “is how to float with our faces in the water.”

“Immersion of self! Marvelous!”

“Yes, well, let’s try it. First, I want you to . . .” but I was already bobbing around, carefree as a dead whale.

“You’re very relaxed for a beginner,” my instructor said when I pulled up to the side of the pool at his feet.

“Ah, my friend,” I said, patting him meditatively on the ankle, “what could I not tell you about beginnings?” He took a step back and almost tripped, for, lost in my autobiographical musing, I had absentmindedly taken hold of his right ankle.

“Yes, well, now we learn how to swim on our backs.”

“The facing outward! At last! Wouldn’t it be better for the filter system if I used no briefs?” (All lessons were private.)

I am repeatedly amazed at the modesty conservatism, really —* of athletes. Yes, I know, the theory of unsublimation: having got rid of their aggressive daring in sport, they are ready to settle for the status quo in life. But one grows so dissatisfied with these transparent paradoxes. As I said recently to an artist friend who is trying to bring the backs of objects around to the front, “Then what?” I think the massive reserve of athletes is professional pretense, no different from the hermetism of physicists, poets, and magicians, for whom half the fun is not letting you in on it.

My implied request was explicitly refused (“Nylon doesn’t shed”), and I felt almost certain that the lesson was terminated before the time was up. I made no complaint because with my ears in the water I could not have heard the cooking timer,

I had worn no watch, and I was so caught up with the frog kick that my unengaged senses may very well have become deranged. Even so, after only a momentary difficulty in keeping my head on the same level as the lower half of my body,

I was able to swim a complete lap!

Remarkable as that may seem, I had my greatest success on the third lesson. Whenever I had attempted the American crawl in the past (“Ripeness is all!”), I had always tried to breathe by turning my head out of the water to the left. My instructor now told me to turn my head to the right. I was about to demur on the ground that this would conflict with whatever good habit I may already have formed and would complicate the learning process. I checked myself, however, with the reminder that I was now bending a completely fresh eye on experience. Off I pushed, into the new.

We are too preoccupied with the shocks we have had from unanticipated trouble. How much more flabbergasting is unanticipated ease, when the world seems to divide before us like a perforation and the body feels itself inebriate, or falling. This was my reaction as I found myself not gagging and thrashing but moving smoothly down the length of the pooh The reason for my success came to me in a flash, and I was so excited that I cried aloud, “My heart!” (stroke, stroke), “my heart!” Making his own inference, the instructor threw aside his bamboo pole and jumped in.

All I meant was that when in the past I had tried to turn my head to the left, I had either swallowed water or had not had time to breathe, but that the weight of my leftish heart now worked for my body when this latter lowered its left side into the element and rolled to face toward the right, a movement to which the heart’s inertia was no longer the drag it had been when my direction was mistaken, but the bob end of a pendulum, swinging me into air. His whole life, they say, passes before the eyes of a drowning man. How much truer this must be at birth, when, screaming, we first catch sight of what we’re in for. How else could our subsequent behavior concur so competently with whatever destiny brings us—even with its catastrophes — the first time around?

When I arrived for my fourth lesson, the receptionist’s chair was occupied by the director, f recognized him because he was sitting beneath the portrait of the founder (the only man on the wall not swimming), and the resemblance was dynastic. My instructor was nowhere in sight.

“As you know, Mr. Conversi,” the heir said, not punching my card but putting it in the top drawer, “our school is primarily for the timid, those members of society who are too hung up to take the leap on their own. You, on the other hand, have an almost preternatural predilection for the physical. One might almost say that you are too athletic for us” (I was beaming), “and you are certainly too demonstrative” (when my instructor had jumped in to “save” me, I had raced him to the deep end, climbed out, run to the tip of the diving board, and danced a little jig of triumph, sort of a combination of the one Chaplin used to do and the one Hitler did at Compiegne), “and I’m afraid we shall have to ask you to leave the school. Perhaps you will find, somewhere else in the city, an organization more suited to your needs and temperament. Good luck. Here’s your money” (I had signed on for ten lessons).

I didn’t care. I had broken through. To have learned to breathe while moving in an alien element is to have begun to master the secret of animal life. I accepted my refunded balance and asked the director to deliver to my instructor my gift of gratitude for the third lesson, a dozen carnations, dyed green to match the water. Resting among the flowers inside the box was a copy of The Lives of the Caesars, with a bookmark at the passage in the life of Caligula where Suetonius writes, “And yet, varied as were his accomplishments, the man could not swim.” The director’s mandible was dropped open as I exiled.