Ennui at the Public Pool

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

The day is a collision.

The day is a collision of the body with itself, of the body with the space in which it finds itself, of the body against the sunlight which only ever heralds bad news in a mind like mine. Restlessness seizes all four limbs (an inconsistent phenomenon, brought on today by antipsychotics and an iced coffee), and anxiety churns in the stomach, in the empty spaces of the chest. The eyes look but don’t see; the eyes rush around, from this corner of the room to that corner of the room. The floor is mopped, the bathroom scrubbed. But there is the kitchen to do and a pile of laundry on the bedroom floor. These are little matters. These should not bother so much, I tell myself: “You should breathe. You should listen to your father and refuse to sweat the small stuff.” But, the day is a collision. There is no past to this day, nor is there any future in it. There is only the day, its imbalance, its summertime mad feeling, its ennui. I try sleeping in late to run the clock down, but I don’t sleep. I try to watch a movie to block out the brightness outside, but my toes just tap-tap the floor. I walk the dog, and I feed the cat. I lie down again. But, the body collides with the body, twists and folds and tenses. This is summertime. 

You have had days of collision, I’m sure. They’re silly, really, on the other side of them. There is nothing silly about them as they happen however, and there is nothing silly about having the kind of brain which experiences collision less as a matter of the day as it does a matter of the season. I decide finally that what I’ll do is hit the daylight head on, that when it reaches late afternoon, and the day is at its hottest, I’ll go to the pool, Thomas Jefferson Pool on E 112th, in the park. My husband says he would rather nap, and secretly this is good: his day is not a collision; it has the normal dose of future and past in it, the normal dribblings of good cheer. “Why not go by yourself and get it out of your system?” he asks. When he says this, I know he means: get the desire to swim out of your system. I take it differently though. Out of the system, yes; something begs to be expurgated from the system. As I walk to the gas station to buy my summer padlock (you’ve got to have a padlock for the pool, and I lose mine every fall), in my husband’s Nike slides and cute trunks, a Dragonball Z t-shirt and bright pink knock-off Ray Bans, I recognize a kind of pilgrim feeling inside myself, the gentle hush that comes over those who march somewhere sacred. How funny to feel like the public pool is a shrine. I told you: days of collision are silly. 

I decide to walk through the park to the pool, which lies at the park’s westernmost edge, stretched across two blocks on First Avenue. I tell myself, “You will walk through the park. You will walk through the park, and you will see the people. The people will be doing people things; they will be grilling and laughing and smoking blunts. The people will cheer you.” But, I hardly see the people. The people are far away from me now. The leaves rustle in a light wind, but I don’t hear them. Basketballs dribble, and meat tosses up smoke, and families eat fruit. It’s all so very outside of the collision that has made of the day a pilgrimage to somewhere distinctly profane and unserious. I walk as if compelled forward, as if there is something in this late afternoon which will save the day from itself, as if pulled along by some promise that lies in swimming. 

I lock away my things, all unceremoniously thrown into my little pink pilgrim’s backpack, and I kick off my husband’s shoes. I step out of the locker room into the sunlight, and I head to the edge of the pool, which is packed with children whooping and hollering and doing handstands, with families teaching little ones the ways of chlorine and sunblock, with sexy lifeguards who look unutterably bored. I jump in. 

The moment the water hits my face, the body begins to unspool, the way a boatman’s knot finds its way to dangling with a single tug. I grew up in Seattle, which means I grew up swimming, swimming in everything: scummy lakes and clear mountain ones, glacial rivers, the ocean. If you grew up swimming, this unspooling is a secret you know intimately. The body becomes a cast-off rope in the water, stretches long, grows buoyant. My psychiatrist tells me that there is some little-understood physiological basis to this. He is always reminding me to dunk my face in cold water while manic. Cool water on the face signals something to the brain that makes it, well, unspool, that hampers its collision with the rest of the body. No doubt this has something to do with our species’s long history of oceangoing, with the danger of swimming. One must be present in the water should one encounter an undertow or a great wave, a shark perhaps if one is severely unlucky. I have no chance of encountering these things in a public pool in East Harlem, but the brain snaps into the present anyway. 

See, the thing about days of collision that really bothers one, or really bothers me anyway, is that there is no present to them. They are a buzz, with no past and no future, and so no strong sense of the now. That’s why the dishes can’t get done or the laundry folded: there is no time in which to do them, no present moment. One lingers on the side of time on days like these, colliding again and again into the body until these collisions are the only clock by which to count the hours. But, then the water does what the water does, and suddenly there is a present, and a moment after that there is the cacophonous laughter of children erupting from every direction like snatches of music. I drink in this laughter; it fills up the spaces that the unspooling left vacant and serene inside me. The sun is not yet setting, but it is falling toward the Hudson and golden already. There is a sliver of moon. 

I spend an hour or two in the pool, milling about, flipping, almost losing my sunglasses—but most importantly, stopping on this wall and that one to watch the sweet life of others unfurling before me, a salve which begins to rub clear that bitter half of life that I’m carrying about today. I notice that there are few lone swimmers such as myself, and while I’m scouting them out, I notice a young woman who stands not far from me with her eyes closed and her arms spread out like Christ, hands just beneath the surface of the water. This young woman holds my gaze a long time because she, too, looks like a person in collision, trying desperately to unspool. I almost compliment her bathing suit, but I don’t because her eyes are shut so tightly. I recognize her for what she is: a fellow pilgrim to this shrine of fun, another body trying to get back to the now in the day. When I leave the pool finally, she stands in the same position a little further out from the wall, her eyes still closed. But, they are not closed so tightly now. Her mouth has lost its twist. She is getting there, I think to myself. She will get there. In a tender corner of my heart, I wish her the best of luck. 

Outside of the park, I buy an ice cream cone, cherry dipped. At a bodega on my walk home, I get a couple cigarettes and a Diet Coke. I can see and hear everyone as I walk home: a mother singing loudly and badly to her baby in his stroller, groups of friends on beach chairs sitting outside the liquor stores, the music that trickles out into everyone. I stand outside my apartment building, smoking, drinking my soda, wondering who on earth will ever care for an essay about the psychological benefits of swimming on one’s own in the late afternoon of a July Thursday at Thomas Jefferson Pool in East Harlem. I decide that there probably isn’t anyone who will, but this thought does not daunt me. I owe something to the pool and the neighborhood, owe something to the children and their water tricks, to the parents and their patience, to the sexy bored lifeguards and the rustle of wind in the leaves, to the sliver of moon and the goldenness of the sunlight. You cannot heal yourself with these things, but you can heal your day with them, mend its rupture of mind and body, make do just fine in yourself for the rest of the night, put a stop to the endless colliding of the body with itself. In short, you can make a pilgrimage out of anything. It isn’t so hard to find something sacred in this profane world and, venturing out to get it, feel the soul come roaring forth from its little, blue cage of ennui. A bit of pilgrimage is necessary to survive the day, or the season, or the life. 

I must cut myself off here. I have chlorine in my hair and dried ice cream in my beard, and the sun has gone out. A day of collision is over. An evening and a tomorrow, at last, beckon.