Mrs. Abercrombie, a little widow, started her night swimming program in September, right after she returned to Palm Beach from her house in Maine. A friend had joined The Breakers and asked her to swim with her in the evenings so she wouldn’t have to be alone.
Because it was September and her own club was not opened yet for The Season, Mrs. Abercrombie had said yes, and joined The Breakers too. Her friend now had long since stopped swimming, but Mrs. Abercrombie enjoyed it and stayed on, dutifully (and a little bit holier-than-thou), riding her bicycle up to the pool each evening, doing her swim, and riding her bike back home again.
It wasn’t actually swimming, not actually, but rather jogging in the lap pool, back and forth, back and forth, the water not too deep, but instead up to her shoulders with (a good thing) her head and hair dry. She had started with twenty laps, but now, at the end of November, she was up to fifty. It took her fifty-five minutes. She rather enjoyed telling people this. When she got to the fifty-lap part, they were always quite impressed. They got the sort of Wow!-at-your-age-no-wonder-you-seem-so-much-younger look that she enjoyed (she was sixty-five). When she told people, she never actually said that
she was jogging. Even though she knew it was just as hard (almost) as swimming, somehow she thought the word swimming sounded better.
In September, when she started her night swimming (jogging), it was really not night at all. She always went at six o’clock, because for some reason (unknown or, at least, unremembered) that was the time she and her friend had decided on, and she had never changed, because she really had no reason to. She didn’t play bridge so she was always ready to swim (jog) at six, and her daughters (grown, married) lived all over, so her evenings were always free. (She felt that she could only telephone them once a week or so, so they didn’t regard her as a pest.)
Anyway, in mid-September, at six o’clock, the afternoon is still long and gold and gorgeous -- at least, in Florida. It was so amazing to think that when she had left Maine, it was cold and dark at six o’clock. She would swim (jog) back and forth in the pale blue water under a day-light sky filled with fat white clouds. She was rarely alone, and there was always so much to watch.
There was a woman who came out onto her balcony overlooking the lawn and the garden between the lap pool and the hotel. She came out every day and sat on a chair put out there for her, by her maid (?). Sometimes she looked out and stared at the Ocean; sometimes she seemed to watch Mrs. Abercrombie in the lap pool.
There was a hedge between the lap pool and the garden, but of course, The Woman could see right over that. Later, much later, Mrs. Abercrombie realized that she must be The Woman Who Lived At The Breakers. Everybody in Palm Beach knew about her. Supposedly she paid a million dollars a year to live there. (The Breakers must have loved her, especially after 9/ 11, that fall when there were no tourists at all.)
The first week in October, a family of the most beautiful Germans came to the pool each day. There were a lot of them --it was the biggest family!--the mothers (three) in amazing bikinis, so tiny, just strings, actually, sitting with a very youthful grandmother (?) who also wore a bikini though a little larger and also one of those thin print wraps. They must come early in the day each day, because they were so brown, and by the time Mrs. Abercrombie arrived at the pool at six o’clock, they were finished with their swimming and sat in the whirlpool spa bath at the ocean end of the pooldeck and drank cold drinks and spoke German.
Always during Mrs. Abercrombie’s swim (jog), they would be joined by their husbands and their beautiful blond children, coming over from one of the other pools. The husbands always went down and sat with the women, ordering drinks for themselves and the children (quite against the rules posted by the side of the pool deck) started playing in the lap pool, and over and over, dove (also against the rules) into the water, and swam back and forth like otters.
On the Saturday of the Germans’ week, a beautiful hot afternoon, there was a wedding in the garden. There were little white chairs set up in lines on the grass, and a beautiful arch of flowers stood against the backdrop of the sea. Mrs. Abercrombie watched it all, peeping through the hedge, as she swam (jogged) back and forth. There was a string quartet playing , mostly Vivaldi, sections of “The Four Seasons,” and the wedding guests wandered to their seats somewhat in time to the music.
Many of the men wore blue blazers, but some of the women, especially the younger ones, wore black dresses. Mrs. Abercrombie frowned over wearing black to a wedding; she liked to see women wedding guests in linen shifts or print chiffon, but she knew times were changing. She wondered if it was a Jewish wedding. Maybe that arch of flowers was the little tent they had at weddings. But then the minister arrived, marching down the “aisle” as though he were part of the processional, and he had on purple and white robes, although not quite like any she had ever seen, so she didn’t think it was a Jewish wedding after all. Anyway, now the string quartet was playing “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and surely they wouldn’t play that at a Jewish wedding. Maybe it was a Catholic one.
Then everyone stood up, and the bridesmaids came down the aisle. All up on the side of The Breakers, the balconies were filled with people who had come out from their rooms and were watching, leaning on their railings with their arms crossed over at the wrists. Some of them sipped high-balls (from the MiniBars in their rooms, probably). The Woman Who Lived at The Breakers was on her balcony too.
Then the bride came. She looked so pretty in her dress which was a pinky white. She wore a veil over her face in the old-fashioned way, but it blew back, all by itself, in the warm wind, just as she got to the flower arch. The groom stepped forward to meet her, and reached out and touched her cheek which had been hidden by the veil, and the actual wedding began.
The people drifted back inside from their balconies except The Woman Who Lived at The Breakers. Mrs. Abercrombie swam (jogged) back and forth, although she still watched through the gaps in the hedge. The German children, who had been standing on the pool chairs to see the bridesmaids and the bride come down the aisle, climbed back down from them and slithered back into the pool.
The afternoon light was as yellow as butter, and the air was still hot. The German people (adult) fanned themselves with magazines, and one of the fathers joined the (illicit) children in the pool. The wedding could not have been a Catholic one, Mrs. Abercrombie decided, because it was over in a flash, the bride and the groom going so fast down the aisle to the almost unheard string music, the guests getting up and going out from the garden in groups, talking to each other. A few stayed a bit, to talk to the minister in his strange robes. Protestant, obviously, it was such a fast wedding, but what in the world was the church? The bride and the room were nowhere to be seen. They had probably
gone inside away from the heat, into the air conditioning. When Mrs. Abercrombie finished her swim (jog) and left on her bike, the flowers in the arch had begun to droop.
The German people were gone the next week, and Monday and Tuesday were lonely, but by mid-week, the hotel was filling up, and Mrs. Abercrombie had people to watch again, conventioneers, she decided. She felt quite possessive of all these people, as though she
were somehow a bit responsible for them while they were here. So she always spoke to everyone, politely, never giving her name, of course, or the fact that she lived in Palm Beach (if she could help it, although that was not always possible. The conventioneers always seemed to want to talk to people who lived in Palm Beach.) They came from all-over, and it was amazing how far many of them came. Even when she talked to them, though, she never stopped her swimming (jogging), going back and forth, back and forth as they shared lives.
When the weekends came, most of the times the conventioneers left and the hotel filled up with people taking advantage of the last of the pre-season weekend rates. They were usually younger. They came to the pool dressed (the men/boys) in big trunks and grey, athletic-department-looking tee shirts and rubber flip-flops (of which Mrs. Abercrombie was dubious) and (the girls) the same small bikinis as the German family with oversized shirts used as cover-ups. They seemed a little grubby to Mrs. Abercrombie. Still she talked to them if they seemed interested.
It stayed sunny through the fall with no storms at all until the first of November. The days got shorter, and night came dropping in so fast with a layer of dark navy blue just like a velvet dress Mrs. Abercrombie remembered, one she got when she was thirteen, her first with a vee neck and no white lace collar. This blueness came up, almost like a sunrise, out of the ocean. Mrs. Abercrombie focused on the ocean on the laps she jogged eastwards. She felt that she learned all of its different moods.
Then the weather broke, and the rains started, softly, sometimes right while Mrs. Abercrombie was swimming (jogging). She didn’t really care though; she was wet already, and actually, what did it matter if her hair got wet too. When she got home, she could wrap in up in a towel turban while she ate her supper in front of the TV. So back and forth, back and forth, she continued, watching the drops make little circles of silver on the surface of the pool.
She usually swam (jogged) alone now. People didn’t come to the pool much when it was so dark out. Although the area around the pool was lighted, the water was very dark, even with the pool lights. If you stood on the deck and looked down, the pool was lighted, but when you were down in the water, itself, it seem as though you were swimming in a dark pond. And it was hard to see beyond the pool. Anyway, the guests were upstairs, getting dressed for dinner. As she went stolidly back and forth, she imagined the women, standing in front of the mirrors, leaning into the glass and putting on lipstick and eyeliner, clipping earrings to their earlobes, their husbands coming up behind them to zip up their dresses.
Then one night, when she got to the pool, there was a young man swimming there, a boy really. He was swimming out in the middle lane where it was deep, not in the shallow sides where she swam (jogged). He was really into his swimming. He did not notice her or stop swimming as she slid into her lane. He just cut through the water, his hands in cups as his arms went into the surface, making almost no splash at all, going back and forth, back and forth, just the way she did. His wet head was as sleek as a beaver’s. At first, she watched him as she went, able to focus on him every time she jogged facing him. He swam so smoothly. A line from an old camp song she had sung as a girl, “cleaving the tide,” floated into her mind. That’s what he was doing: cleaving the tide. She straightened her shoulders and put on a little bit of extra speed, looking straight ahead. It was nice having someone swim with her. When she turned the corner at the end of each lap, she would glance over to his lane, looking for his sleek head. Often it took her a second or two to spot him in the dark. He was just so smooth.
She pictured them finishing at about the same time. He would sit on the edge of the pool to catch his breath, and she would tell him what a lovely stroke he had. She should know. Mr. Abercrombie had been a wonderful swimmer. He could have swum in the Olympics if he had ever tried. She might tell the young man that. She might change it, just a little, and tell him that her husband had actually been on the American team, had swum in the Olympics. Who would know, after all this time? He might have been, had he ever tried. That way, the young man would like it that she had noticed the way he correctly cupped his hands.
Back and forth they went in the blue darkness. They swam for a long time, she much more than usual since she had a companion. She leaned her head back, looking up at the thickness of the sky and imagined Mr. Abercrombie standing at the edge of the pool. She saw him bent into the ready position for a dive, young and blonde and strong. “Swimmers, take your mark...” She looked down; she had finished the lap, had reached the ocean end of the lane, and she turned, looking out over the water for the boy’s head. The pool was empty. Mrs. Abercrombie stopped, standing there on her tiptoes, straightening again, rising to her full height as she looked across the empty surface, all the way across to the building behind it. She had not heard him leave the pool. She stared at the dark water. She squinted her eyes, and stared hard across all three lanes, from end to end. Where was he?
She felt her heart swelling inside her chest, and a little feeling of sickness starting right beneath it. She focused harder, staring at the water, willing herself to see. There was no head.
Mrs. Abercrombie tried to make her mind work. Was there a telephone near the pool? In all her months of swimming (jogging), she had never seen one. Anyway, could you call 911 from a hotel pool? And if you could, wouldn’t he be gone, dead, by the time they got there. How many minutes was it that a person could be under the water without drowning? She couldn’t remember.
No, Mrs. Abercrombie knew that she would have to get out of the pool and look back down through the surface and find that boy lying on the bottom. And then she would have to dive into the water which would turn dark when she went in, go down, and pull him up to the top?
But could she? Could she touch his skin, take hold of his arm, pull him up through the darkness? Could she do that? Was she actually strong enough? Or would
somehow his body, his long arms, get entangled with her own and hold her down there? Would he maybe still have just enough life, just enough strength, to pull her to him, hold her there down in the dark, the air floating out of both of them as she looked up and saw the gleam of the deck lights shining on the surface so unreachably away.
Mrs. Abercrombie was frozen. She knew she had to do something, but her body would not obey her. Because what if there was a telephone, and what if she could call for help? She still couldn’t leave him down there. And what if, in some unbelievable-to-her burst of strength and courage, she could get him to the top? She might, might, be able to pull him over to the stairs, but then what? She couldn’t leave him in the water to slowly sink down to the bottom again while she called. She would have to try and pull him out, but he would be so much heavier than she, unconscious, dead weight, and she would have to get out and kneel by the side of the pool and pull and pull, and he would be so heavy it would pull all her stomach muscles, make her wet her pants, and help would come and she would be leaning over by the pool, pulling on this body, surrounded by little puddles of chlorinated water and pee, and the pee still running down her legs as she pulled.
Mrs. Abercrobie knew she didn’t have it in her to do any of this. Suddenly, she saw herself in her daughters’ eyes, in Mr. Abercrombie’s eyes had he bothered to live, a little widow, unfortunately older than she wanted to be, not young at all, even if she swam (jogged) a hundred laps each day! She began to cry. She stood there in the shoulder-high water with tears on her cheeks and her nose running.
She went to the staircase and slowly began pulling herself out of the pool. She had no idea what to do. Although she knew it was craven and cowardly, she felt that all she could do now was leave the pool, go get her bike, go home. She would never come back here again. She wondered if she would ever learn what happened to the young man, if it would be in the paper, if someone would remember her leaving on her bike.
As she stood for an instant on the top step to try and get control of herself, she turned slowly towards the ocean and the comfort of the darkness. The palms swayed in the night wind, shining in the up-lights placed underneath them. The sky was that same navy-blue-velvet-dress colour. The water in the whirlpool spa over by the seawall shone brightly from the lights in its shallow bottom. And there, leaning back against the pool coping, his arms stretched out on either side to hold him steady, was the back of that sleek head on top of its straight up and down young boy’s neck, leaning back a little in comfort, his eyes probably closed, relaxed, but if they had been open, he, like Mrs. Abercrombie used to do, would have been focused on the ocean.
Mrs. Abercrombie stood there. After the initial release of panic, she felt nothing. Really, what was there to feel? She was alone. She couldn’t call any of her children -- it was Friday night and they would be on their way to their various country homes -- and actually, she couldn’t tell them about this anyway. Never. They would think she was losing it. They could never see what that young boy, for such a short hour, had meant to her? Or the German family or any of the other people who came to the pool? She felt terribly down because she knew that she would never again get on her bike and ride up here to The Breakers and do her night swimming (jogging). Never. It was over for her.
She stepped up, off the top step, onto the pool deck and took her towel from off its chair and put it around her shoulders. She did not start drying off. She looked at the blue darkness. She turned towards the north, looked up at the hotel, at the balcony of The Woman Who Lived at The Breakers. Her curtains were closed, but many of the windows showed lights. She thought of all those women on their little vacations away from home and their children, going about their evenings, leaning into the mirrors, putting on their make-up, having their dresses fastened by their husbands.
Slowly she slipped into her Patagonia jacket, pulled on her fleece pants. She would go home and turn on the oven. She would have a baked potato for dinner. With a lot of butter. That would be nice.