For the last few years, as you know, Dear Reader, I start most mornings swimming laps at a nearby pool. There are those that drop in from time to time, but for the most part, the people I see each day are the people I see every day. I’ve developed a relationship with all of the regulars, even if our communication is mostly non-verbal. I know who swims for an hour, who swims for 15 minutes, who doesn’t mind sharing a lane, who splashes unnecessarily so they don’t have to share a lane, who does flip-turns, who swims fast, who swims slow, who likes to swim in the sunny lanes, who likes to swim in the lanes nearest the wall. And generally, all of the regulars have one thing in common, myself included. We all look like swimmers. Maybe it’s the chlorine damaged hair or the winter tanned skin or something else, but all of us, including us portlier ones, look like we swim regularly. The one exception is a woman I call Helen the Mouse. I call her that because she looks like a Helen and she looks like a mouse.
I’ve swam next to Helen for the last four years. She is probably around 55. She looks like she’s a librarian or a secretary, but I doubt that’s the case, because, like me, she sometimes swims in the afternoon. For a while I thought she might be a mystery novelist. I even went so far as to Google search images of Mary Higgins Clark. (not a match) She is unmarried, or at least she wears no wedding band. Because she is fair-skinned, she always sprays herself with an ample amount of Neutrogena aerosol sunblock and wears a black long-sleeved rash guard. Like me, she is not slim, but let me tell you something: she is a very good swimmer. Once in the water, she swims her laps, at least a mile’s worth every day, with elegant form and respectable speed until she is finished. I always wonder if she was a high school or college swimmer. She really is that good.
If you are a distance swimmer, you know you can get a little bored in that water. It’s amazing the journeys one’s imagination can take one on during a mile or two swim. One day, in my head, I wrote an entire short story about Helen, that embarrassingly was a subconsciously plagiarized reworking of William Inge’s Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, the point of both stories being that beneath the veneer of primness, there always lurks a beast aching to be set free, usually by sex. In my sophomoric imagination, Helen swims every day, even still because it reminds her of high school when she was the secret hookup of the breathtakingly handsome captain of the swim team, probably named something ridiculous like Blake Devereaux.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I love Helen the Mouse. I love that even though she looks like a Helen and looks like a mouse, she still manages to be one of the best swimmers at my pool. And while I can conjecture about what drives Helen into the pool every day, I think I know she’s there for the same reasons I am there. It makes her feel young. It makes her feel accomplished. And more than anything, it makes her feel alive.