Swimming Lessons

Samantha Cohen

We were in awe of her. She sat in class, perfectly wrapped and folded, each of her parts a clean extension of each of her others. Her body had no excess—her ankles met neatly beneath bowed legs and her elbows never ventured wider than her hips. And though her black sea hair extended past the tabletop, it was contained, draped on her, cloaking. Her face was sullen, her chest sunken. In a room full of late-night sweatpants and Reeboks, she wore pantyhose and brooches.

She spoke, too, only as much as necessary. Always one comment per class, a luminous comment arrived at after plumbing the depths of her head, surely, after mining her cerebral passageways, finding the exact right thing, rubbing it lustrous, carrying it to class between cupped palms, delivering it to us.

Our class was Introduction to Poetry, a continuing education course at Los Angeles Community College. We were all there for different reasons. Some people were filling English requirements toward delayed college degrees. Some women with five- and seven-year-olds smiling from little flippy books in their purses, women in monochrome velour, said they were Finally Doing Something For Themselves. I was there on order from my therapist, a way to work through my grief, part of my prescription for exercise and self-expression. My boyfriend died of leukemia. I wrote only that sentence over and over for the first two weeks, sometimes in different ways. My boyfriend died. Leukemia. Or, He had leukemia. My boyfriend did. He died. I didn't share these sentences with the class. The Girl Whose Boyfriend Died had become my identity everywhere already and, though I didn't have much else to rest an identity on, I wanted to try for something new. After a silent two weeks, I brought in traditional form poems about hideous animals: a villanelle about earwigs, a sestina about rats.

She was the only real writer among us, the one whose adjective choices and line breaks we never questioned, who inspired us to talk about the Deeper Themes. We imagined her photo on the back of a cream-colored hardcover, staring with the same milky sadness as always.

She wrote about dying. About bodies smashing against the ground, limbs disassociating from torsos, consciousnesses floating. Amber and Deb whispered over cigarettes during the class break that she was suicidal, but I knew she wasn't. She just wanted to be separate from her body—she lived in her head, and she was a minimalist.

I didn't say anything. I stood against the brick wall blowing smoke and looking at my Converse. She just didn't seem to know that to break free from her body, she'd have to die.

Rob got close sometimes. He'd leave his body, but then come back, a little less each time maybe, and eventually, I guess, he chose to stay in the other place, to be pure consciousness, or soul, or whatever. I thought about it in these terms—a change of locale, a choice. Our relationship ended because we wanted to live in different places, because we had incompatible ideas of what we wanted to become.

Me, I wanted my head and body to integrate completely—to be unthinking, all body, robotic and perfect.

Once, years after Rob's calf amputation, when he was partly legless but in remission and I was naked under him, he wrapped his fingers tight around my throat until everything was empty, or not even empty, there was nothing to be filled, everything was blank. And this, the blankness, was the closest I got to feeling like I was somewhere just above my body, like I was where Rob went sometimes, where he wanted to be. Everything was blank and breath was no longer something I could gather or hold, just something he held, and held until he released me, gasping and new. But the gasping, the colors rushing toward me, the reentry into my body, it was so much better than the blank, than the being held. I knew then that if given the choice between blank and severed and colors and breathing, I'd choose colors and breathing every time.

She seemed to want what he wanted, to be severed completely, but to be able, always, to return. She wanted to report back.

I told my therapist about her. Not about her writing or her possible interest in blankness. Just the stuff about her brooches and her composed, folded sitting, etcetera. I wanted to use her as evidence: I was living in the present, interested in my surroundings, looking toward the future. “I think she lives in a castle,” I said.

“As in, a mansion? As in, she’s rich?” My therapist was a literalist.

“No. As in, a castle in another realm. Made of ice or clouds. As in she descends on a floating settee of pink dust that vanishes when she lands on the campus of LACC. Or something."

My therapist laughed like I'd tickled her. Her glasses slid off the bridge of her nose a little.

I shrugged. "You'd understand if you met her.”

Her skin appeared to be made of fresh clay. Or clay almost drying but with a fresh sheen, giving me the sense that she could reconfigure only slightly and wouldn’t take to other substances. She spoke precisely and evenly, failing to adopt the turns of phrase of friends or blogs—films were lovely, but never awesome, and in lieu of totally, she used I agree. Whole berry tarts and bowls of basilly gnocchi passed right through her or simply vanished as they fell down the rabbit’s hole of her throat.

Rob's parents had taken care of the funeral. His sister came to my apartment an hour before it started with a black wool jumper in a Banana Republic bag, still with its tags on and already too big for me. She zipped me into the jumper and gathered me into the car. After it was all over she dropped me off, changing me into cotton pajamas with ducks on them and folding down the sheets. Her eyes were puffed and bloodshot, too, but she left a pot of tea on my nightstand, stroked my hair until I closed my eyes. I hated her.

For months I never found a reason to leave my bed except to answer the door sometimes for the delivery guys. I never looked at their faces. I'd take the box of pizza or plastic bagged container of curry and make a curvy line at the bottom of the credit card slip. I had steady copyediting work I could do from under the comforter, resting my laptop on my thickening middle and propping my neck with pillows. Before long the floor surrounding the bed was covered with half-empty pizza boxes. Midmorning I'd reach down and eat a slice from the previous night's box. Soon my voicemail was full and eventually the phone stopped ringing and I was at peace, laying there, my flesh softening and my skin hardening, puckering and developing rough patches. Outside the rainy month had begun and only grey light came through the window most of the time. I closed my eyes and imagined myself, ripening.

I knew some people tried to communicate with dead loved ones, but I never did. He'd chosen somewhere else. Sometimes, half-heartedly, I'd hold my breath for just a moment, but the second my head felt any lightness, all my openings inhaled.

One day Rob's sister came back and shouted from behind my door until I opened it. She ordered a cleaning service and took me to lunch, read aloud from the web advertisements of various therapists.

And then I started leaving for therapy, and then for my prescribed writing class, and then I started swimming again.

Our teacher announced that we needed to choose a poetry partner. We'd meet with this partner outside of class and edit our poems together, make co-authored and stapled poem booklets. I looked down at my notebook and drew intersecting lines while other people turned to one another. After class she followed me to the parking lot where she asked in a small, exact voice if I wanted to work with her. I'd never heard her use a string of words that so many others had used before her and it sounded strange. Did I want to work with her. Her face was like the moon between hanging panes of hair. The whites of her eyes looked liquid and hopeful and in them I could see that there were holes in the nearly-dry clay of her body, that her center was wholly unkilned and that whatever got all the way in there stuck forever. I said that yes, I did want to, and she wrote my phone number in her slim notebook.

I drove home reeling, wondering what could have drawn her to me. I'd grown doughy, formless. I thought about misapplications of the word chunky, to zaftig ladies with clean, pretty curves, how the word should have been reserved for me, now. My new body appeared to be actually made of sad, sunless chunks bagged in an oversized hoodie. Maybe she was attracted to my grief, figured we could sit candlelit on overstuffed loveseats and talk about death.

We met at a café, a place she suggested, with clean-angled modern furniture. I drank black coffee and waited for her. She arrived apologizing, with a stack of typed poems on white sheets, mine, and ordered a honey latte. She opened her notebook to a page of questions and suggestions for me, about my animal poems, pointing out where I'd chosen imprecise words to fit the meter. I felt naked, but in a kind of good way, like just before first sex, flawed and exposed but also stunned and grateful that someone wanted to look so closely, to be involved in change.

I nodded at her comments, looking down at my typed sheets and making little marks with my pen. I sipped coffee and she flipped through her notes.

"Oh!" she said. "This one is perfect. It's my favorite." She set my mole sonnet on top of the stack of papers. "This poem is probably why I thought we should be poetry partners." The sonnet was about being blind and fur-covered, crawling hideous-handed through a world made of dirt.


"Well, that and I thought our poems might complement each other in interesting ways." She looked me in the eyes.

"Thank you."    I said again, feeling tightness escape my face.

We began choosing which poems to include and which to discard, making decisions about order. She went to the counter for cheesecake to share during this process. She sliced the cheesecake neatly, letting each half fall to opposite sides of the plate. She ate hers quickly. I watched my fork sink into the thick cream. When I looked up at her, she was looking at her hands.

"Do you have any hobbies?" she asked.

"I swim," I said.

"I wouldn't have imagined you as an athlete."

"Swimming isn't actually athletic."

Her face furrowed on the cusp of protest. "What I mean to say," I said, "is swimming's not competitive. It's like, everyone in a vat of blue amniotic fluid, just moving back and forth." I used these words, the amniotic fluid, on a hunch that she was aware of her womb fantasy, that she wouldn’t find them weird.

Her eyes widened marginally and her lips drew forward.

I sucked coffee from the rim of my mug and thought of Rob. It was the thing we understood best about each other, our need to be surrounded by water, to go to 5 a.m. swim practices and will ourselves into being pre-human and synchronic. Our desire to hurl our bodies continuously forward with each of their parts. Our best thing was Swimming Lessons. We'd sneak into the pool at night—first the community one near our high school and then the one at the college athletic facility—and take turns teaching, inventing strokes and miniature feats to be repeated by the other. Two laps of butterfly arms and freestyle legs. Four widths of submerged-head scissor kicks. A row of underwater cartwheels. The lesson would always end with some amount of time we'd both have to stay underwater—an absurd amount of time, a dare. We'd puff our cheeks and let our hair swirl around us and fumble shut-eyed for each other's hands, eventually wrapping our limbs together, being still and one in the thick dark water. It was my goal to endure longer, to have him wrest his body free and rocket first to the surface, just once, but I never succeeded. I yearned for the oxygen rushing back, the warmth of coursing blood. Rob wanted the moment just before: weightlessness, dark.

Once, I'd had my head in the air for a full minute while Rob still sat feet below the surface of the pool. He had both his legs then, and they were crossed under him. I kicked his ribcage, hard, but the water slowed my leg, made the impact nothing. I dove under and tugged at his armpits, but his body just got heavier, more still. I punched no-impact punches and pushed him from the seat. It was hair-tugging that worked, finally, brought him to oxygen breathless and angry and fine.

"Would you like to go to the beach with me sometime?" she asked.

I blinked. "Yes," I said. "I like the beach."

The day of the beach, I woke up early, imagining she’d arrive at sunup with a protective umbrella and fresh figs, sliced. She called just post-noon. Probably she’d already written three poems that day, or else her body, creamed and masked and pillow-entrenched, required twice the requisite hours of sleep to ready itself for its evenings of even-handed annotations and secret castle activities.

Mostly, the drive was silent. I looked out the window at wavy queues of cars, at slices of ocean between pink buildings. This seemed like the sort of thing other people did, people who owned coolers and convertibles. In the protective bubble of her Honda, it seemed clear that we were not much for the outdoors, she and I, that this was something we shared.

She peeled her clothes and folded them into the tote. I started uncovering the bowls of berries she had brought.

When I turned and looked at her in her bikini, my hands stopped. It wasn’t that she was so tiny—I expected her body to be what it was: Skin, neatly fitted to long thin muscle, neatly fitted to bone. It was her bellybutton. This sure sign that she’d grown inside another human, been dependent and attached and then severed, that she hadn’t been collected from sands and stardust or divinely assembled. That possibly she wasn’t as complete and self contained as she seemed because here, in her center, was a hollowed scar that revealed that she too had been removed from warm safety and nourishment, that she too was seeking and alone. I was wearing a one-piece and wished that she could see that I had a little cave in my center, too, thought that maybe this was the whole point of going to the beach, always, and I'd missed it.

We sat on a thin cloth and ate berries from separate bowls. The sand was a narrow strip and foam inched toward us.

She suggested we swim.

She walked directly into the water without hesitating or even changing facial expression and I followed. I dove into a wave and windmilled my arms a few times, frontcrawling out. I wanted her to see my lumpy body as not useless. She followed, shallowly breaststroking after me. We stood on the sand bottom and looked at each other. Her eyes were round question marks and I felt responsible for providing an activity. I pointed to a rocky cove maybe thirty meters away.

"Let's swim there," I suggested.

"Yes," she said. "Let's."

I pulled my fingers back and dove under a whitecap. With my head underwater, I flexed my toes and fingers. I rotated my shoulders and hips, sending little sprays of saltwater behind me. The ocean resisted more than the pool, but my limbs easily grabbed and scooped it from beneath me, shooting me forward. I felt like a graceful bulldozer, encased and clean and moving. When finally I had to breathe, I flipped onto my back and turned my face to the sky. My shoulders bobbed on the little deepwater waves and my legs dangled below. The sky was light blue with cirrus clouds that looked like giant friendly birds and I felt like I could stay right here forever. I rotated my neck, to see her face beside mine, here. Beside me though was only blue.

I called her name and waited. Nothing. I turned my face to the other side and called again. What I heard was a squeak, desperate-sounding and animal. I lifted my back and turned my face to optically retrace where I'd swum. Twenty feet away, there was a wet black head, flailing arms.

I swam until I heard the squeaking right in my ear and righted myself. Her eyes were wide, her face white. She was panting, pathetic little grunts sounding on each exhale. The broken blades of her arms turned in useless circles. Her teeth were chattering. She appeared to be made of teeth. Just pale greening skin covering shards and knobs, chattering.

I treaded lightly and made myself calm. "You'll be okay," I said. "The cove's closer than shore now, though. We'll have to swim there." I tried to make my voice sound like a coach. She was only kind of looking at me—her eyes were black and empty and so big that I could see too much of them, enough to remind me that eyes were spherical, enough to remind me about sockets. I knew the appropriate thing to do would be wrap my arms around her and kick. But I wasn't ready to see her as helpless. I wanted us to keep looking at each other like two people who were strong. I thought about her unkilned center, and how if I got stuck there now, she'd spend forever looking for me, and I wouldn't quite be able to see her back.

"You can do it," I said. Her head shook once, in a way that didn't necessarily mean yes or no. Her eyes were almost rattling. "Okay. What you do is press all your fingers together, on each hand." I showed her my pressed-together fingers. "Now your hands are blades," I said. "Turn your arms and they'll just slice through the water and make you go." Her teeth chattered. She sort of nodded. I could see how much blue lay before the cove, how much blue on all sides, but I kept my voice calm. "If it gets hard, just relax everything. Surrender completely and the waves will carry you there. That's where the waves are going." I gestured, there, to show her how waves were breaking, big white spray cascading up the rock and dribbling onto the lip of the cove. "If we climb into the cove, we can lay inside there." I pointed to the ceilinged rocky bed, to the dry dark hole covered in toughened earth. "We can lay inside there for a really long time."

I looked at her eyes until I was sure she heard me. Then I flipped onto my stomach, dove below the surface of the water, and began to swim.