He Swims in Beauty

I began my day, as I try to do every day, with a swim. In my final laps this morning, a young man (early 20s) began swimming in the lane next to me. I’ve seen him before. He looks like Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympic swimming champion. I always swim a little faster, a little longer, when he is there. I feel younger, slimmer, stronger when this strapping, speedo-clad 20-something is in the lane next to me. Yes, obviously, it’s kind of a crush. But it’s also something else.

Swimmers, we rotate our arms and kick our feet, lap after lap, but really what we do is think about ourselves the whole time. We think about our problems, our joys, our victories, failures. Perhaps because we swim in lanes and there are only 5 lanes, I am always aware of the speed and the age and the attractiveness of my fellow swimmers. I am always comparing. I am always either winning or losing. Don’t compare yourself to others, you tell me. I know, I know.

I just finished Joan Didion’s Blue Nights this afternoon. Because I am not working right now, I drive around Los Angeles listening to audiobooks. It’s indulgent to listen to Joan Didion’s stories about Los Angeles as I drive around Joan Didion’s Los Angeles. Blue Nights is about the death of her Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, and also about her own medical frailties. She writes about how at 75, things happen to your body that when you were young, you never could have imagined. But here I am, halfway between 25 and 75. And I imagine it ALL, what I’ve lost, what I never had, what I will lose, what I wonder if I will lose.

My friend from the pool, after his swim, he leapt across the deck to the outdoor shower. He stood under the nozzle, luxuriating in not only the warm water on a cool day, but also, the energy he no doubt absorbed from his fellow swimmers. It was not only I who was cognizant of our young Ian Thorpe. We all, male and female, gay and straight, kept tabs on him on while he sudded and rinsed. He remained in our periphery as he pulled on his green tie-dyed sweatpants and beat up Nikes. There goes youth, we thought as he lidded his long brown locks with a turned around ball cap and sauntered out of the club.

Mostly unrelated, this morning I was telling my friend Parker about a fancy Malibu cast party I had to leave full swing 25 years ago because I had been appointed to cart home a drunk, gay South African who had become so inebriated that he was sitting in the hot tub, champagne in hand, crying in his Speedo. At 27, it did not occur to me that some version of this would be my fate. But I can see now. We are not twins, but we are kin. I am always aging-gay-crying-in-a-Speedo-adjacent. (It’s not as bad as it sounds if you can make a little peace with the humor of it.)

In some ways, my self-absorption is a gift. Filling my days with leisurely swims and then drives, studying great Southern California architecture, homes where people lived dramatic lives. It’s not a life exactly but it’s close enough for me to reach a hand through my sunroof and graze the Jacaranda trees. Life-adjacent.

If young Ian Thorpe and ailing but venerated Joan Didion are the bookends of my day, what is at the center? It is this flux that we are all weighted by, day after day. We wait for symptoms to appear or disappear, we wait for news about the health and jobs and safety of people we love. We wait to go back to work. We wait for a vaccine. We tamp down jealousy of our friends who deservedly have already received the vaccine, both doses. Always comparing.

Will I be a person who enjoys being around people when I am allowed to be around people again? What happened to the flamboyant young man who loved to host parties and drink margaritas and smoke cigarettes and drink so much he always turned somewhere between a little and very nasty before the evening was over? That guy had so much fun. He had so many friends. Now my evenings end with setting the timer on my audiobook and sprawling on the couch, cuddling with Ricky, the dog who loves me the most. I hope each time that I will fall asleep before the timer ends. Later, when I wake up, I can crawl into our bed with Eric and Veronica. And I whisper to Veronica not to snarl (or snap!) at Ricky, because sometimes his proximity is triggering for her. Am I still the guy who broke into fancy West Hollywood hotels and apartment buildings to swim in my Speedo and make new friends? I mean, my guess would be no.

But, actually, he is still there, at least a bit of him. Slivers of young Ian Thorpe, slivers of Joan Didion, slivers of Quintana Roo, who died too young, slivers of the gay South African actor, slivers of my friends I haven’t seen for a year, slivers of the friends I text and FB message every day, slivers of my dad, gone 3 years on Sunday, slivers of my mom, who loves me more than anyone, even more than Ricky, the dog who loves me the most.

When I started this blog, I titled it, He Swims in Beauty. Lord Byron would surely grimace at my sophomoric allusion to his beloved poem. But as young Ian swam next to me this morning, that is was came to me. It felt a privilege to swim next to a person that beautiful. Of course, my day continued post swim, I did laundry, went for my drive, came home to two surprises from Eric: our favorite sandwiches from Larchmont Wine & Cheese and a freshly groomed Ricky, looking like a puppy again.

And then I sat down to string a few words together. Writing is another theme Joan Didion addressed in Blue Nights, how writing came easier when she was younger. We writers don’t always know what to say, but also, sometimes, don’t know HOW to say what we want to say. But today, for the most part, I have written what I wanted. I think it makes sense. I think you might relate to at least one thing I’ve shared. Maybe two things.

So really, maybe I was referring to myself, when I chose “He Swims in Beauty”. Beauty is not what I am, merely the womb that nurtures me, prepares me. In the grand as well as in the minuscule. It is present and as I swim from wall to wall, over and over, the salty water buoying, propelling, cleansing me to my completion, I soak in everything that is beauty which surrounds me.