The Swim Team

Door de geweldige Miranda July, met dank aan de jongens van Literatur
Jugend
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En het overtypen van een verhaal is een soort van bedevaart.

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This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend. You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific. Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year? The reality began to seem barren. And in time I realized that if the truth felt empty, then I probably would not be your girlfriend much longer.

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I hadn’t wanted to live in Belvedere, but I couldn’t bear to ask my parents for money to move. Every morning I was shocked to remember I lived alone in this town that wasn’t even a town, it was so small. It was just houses near a gas station, and then about a mile down, there was a store and that was it. I didn’t have car, I didn’t have a phone, I was twenty-two, and I wrote my parents every week and told them stories about working for a program called R.E.A.D. We read to at-risk youth. It was a state-funded, pilot program. I never decided what the letters R.E.A.D. stood for, but every time I wrote “pilot program,” I kind of marveled at my ability to come up with these phrases. “Early intervention” was another good one.

This story won’t be very long, because the amazing thing about that year was that almost nothing happened. The citicens of Belvedere thought my name was Maria, but somehow this got started, and I was overwhelmed by the task of telling all three people my real name. These three people were named Elizabeth, Kelda and Jack Jack. I don;t know why Jack twice, and I am not completely sure about the name Kelda, but that is what it sounded like, and that’s the sound I made when I called her name. I knew these people because I gave them swimming lessons. This is the real meat of my story because of course there are no bodies of water near Belvedere and no pools. They were talking about this in the store one day, and Jack Jack, who must be dead by now because he was really old, said it didn’t matter anyways because he and Kelda couldn’t swim, so they’d be liable to drown themselves. Elizabeth was Kelda’s cousin, I think. And Kelda was Jack Jack’s wife. They were all in their eighties, at least. Elizabeth said that she had swum many times one summer as a girl while visiting a cousin (obviously not cousin Kelda). The only reason I joined the conversation was that Elizabeth claimed you had to breathe underwater to swim.
That’s not true, I yelled. These were the first words I’d spoken out loud in weeks. My heart was pounding like I was asking someone out on a date. You just hold your breath.
Elizabeth looked angry and said she’d been kidding.
Kelda said she’s be too scared to hold her breath because she’d had an uncle who died from holding his breath too long in a Hold-Your-Breath contest.
Jack Jack asked if she actually believed this, and Kelda said, Yes, yes I do, and Jack Jack said, Your uncle died of a stroke, I don’t know where you get these stories from, Kelda.
Then we all stood there a while in silence. I was really enjoying the companionship and hoped it would continue, which it did because Jack Jack said: So you’ve swum.
I told them about how I’d been on a swim team in high school, and even competed at the state level, but had been defeated early on by Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic school. They seemed really, really interested in my story. I hadn’t even thought of it as a story before this, but now I could see that it was actually a very exciting story, full of drama and chlorine and other things that Elizabeth and Kelda and Jack Jack didn’t have firsthand knowledge of. It was Kelda who said she wished there was a pool in Belvedere, because they were obviously very lucky to have a swim coach living in town. I hadn’t said I was a swim coach, but I knew what she meant. It was a shame.

Then a strange thing happened. I was looking down at my shoes on the brown linoleum floor and i was thinking about how I bet this floor hadn’t been washed in a million years and I suddenly felt like I was going to die. But instead of dying, I said: I can teach you how to swim. And we don’t need a pool.
We met twice a week in my apartment. When they arrived, I had three bowls of warm tap water lined up on the floor, and then a forth bowl in front of those, the coach’s bowl. I added salt to the water because it’s supposed to be healthy to snort warm salt water, and I figured they would be snorting accidentally. I showed them how to put their noses and mouths in the water and how to take a breath to the side. Then we added the legs, and then the arms. I admitted these were not perfect conditions for learning to swim, but, I pointed out, this was how Olympic swimmers trained when there wasn’t a pool nearby. Yes yes yes, this was a lie, but we needed it because we were four people lying on the kitchen floor, kicking it loudly as if angry, as if furious , as is disappointed and frustrated and not afraid to show it. The connection to swimming had to be enforced with strong words. It took Kelda several weeks to learn how to put her face in the water. That’s okay! I said. We’ll start you out with a kickboard. I handed her a book. That’s totally normal to resist the bowl, Kelda. It’s the body telling you it doesn’t want to die. It doesn’t, she said.
I taught them all the strokes I knew. The butterfly was just incredible, like nothing you’ve ever seen. I thought the kitchen floor would give in and turn liquid and away they would go, with Jack Jack in the lead. He was precocious, to say the least. He actually moved across the floor, bowl of salt water and all. He’d come punding back into the kitchen from the bedromm lap, covered with sweat and dust, and Kelda would look up at him, holding her book in both hands, and just beam. Swim to me, he’d say, but she was just too scared, and it actually takes a huge amount of upper-body strenght to swim on land.
I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was very busy every moment. If I can say the this without being immodest, I was instead of the water. I kept everything going. I was talking constantly, like an aerobics instructor, and I blew the whistle in exact intervals, marking off the sides of the pool. They would spin around in unision and go the other way. When Elizabeth forgot to use her arms, I’d call out: Elizabeth! Your feet are up, but your head is going down! And she madly start stroking, quickly leveling out With my meticulous, hands-on coaching method, all dives began with perfect form, poised on my desktop, and ended in a belly flop onto the bed. But that was just for safety. It was still diving, it was still letting go of mammalian pride and embracing gravity. Elizabeth added a rule that we all had to make a noise when we fell. This was a little creative for my taste, but I was ope for innovation. I wanted to be the kind of teacher who learned from her students. Kelda would make the sound of a tree falling, if that tree were female. Elizabeth would make “spontaneous noises” that always sounded exactly the same, and Jack Jack would say, Bombs away! At the end of the lesson, we would all towel off and Jack Jack would shake my hand and either Kelda or Elizabeth would leave me with a warm dish, like cassarole or spaghetti. This was the exchange, and it made it so that I didn’t really have to get another job.
It was just two hours a week, but all the other hours were in support of those two. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I’d wake up and think: Swim Practice. On the other mornings I’d wake up and think: No Swim Practice. When I saw one of my students around town, say at the gas station or the store, I’d say something like: Have you been practicing that needle-nose dive? And they would respond: I’m working on it, Coach!
I know it’s hard for you to imagine me as someone called “Coach.” I had a very different identity in Belvedere, that’s why it was so difficult to talk about it with you. I never had a boyfriend there; I didn’t make art, I wasn’t artistic at all. I was kind of a jock – I was the coach of swim team. If I had thought this would be at all interesting to you I would have told you earlier, and maybe we would still be going out. It’s been three hours since I ran into you at the bookstore with the woman in the white coat. What a fabulous white coat. You are obviously completely happy and fulfilled already, even though we only broke up two weeks ago. I wasn’t even totally sure we were broken up until I saw you with her. You seem incredibly faraway to me, like someone on the other side of a lake. A dot so small that it isn’t male of female or young or old; it’s just smiling. Who I miss now tonight? is Elizabeth, Kelda, and Jack Jack. They are dead, of this I can be sure. What a tremendously sad feeling.
I must be the saddest swim coach in all of history.

Uit: No one belongs here more than you, Miranda July, 2007