December 21, 2014


Swimming at the Y
Diana Arterian

Probably the most surprising thing at the pool is the bodies. This is not because they are remarkable so much so as they are the bodies we rarely see. The media gives them little attention, except, possibly, to shame them. Our eyes rarely come upon them, unless one is a healer of some kind. While we are in close proximity to them, they are hidden. Under clothes that make us uncertain of what, exactly, is underneath.[1]

“The young lady is here!” an East Asian man says as I approach a lane. I introduce myself. Now, when I arrive early in the morning, he cups his hands to his mouth and calls out “Di-yah-nah!”

The women’s forms interest me, yet they offer few revelations. The old to the elderly – it is generally what one would expect. I have been in enough Korean spas and gym bathrooms to no longer be surprised.

I am undoubtedly the youngest person here. There is one thirty-ish Anglo man who wears fancy tight trunks and a cap, but I know he doesn’t know much about swimming, keeping his fingers spread as he plunges through the water.[2]

The tiles surrounding the pool are the ugly near-cream and brown that hide scum. It is indoors. The chlorine smell is intense, and hard to scrub off. I thought the water clean and blue, until one day they replaced it and I could see through the full 25 meters clearly. It looked crystal, the murk from bodies absent.

I always take the locker on the second tier, right above one with a sign that reads, “This locker is for Bittersweet Wojtyla. Please DO NOT remove lock.” I love that name. I try saying it in my head, with the “j” and without. I whisper it.[3]

The surprise is really with the older male body – specifically the male gut. It protrudes, pulls the skin quite taut. It looks as if it were filled with air. Nearly like a pregnant body. The men of course leave them uncovered, swim a few feet away from me. This is what makes the experience different from swimming at the beach. It is their proximity and their baring their bodies to the world (our eyes) that makes them remarkable to me.

The lock is the common round lock, with a pink dial, nipple-like.

I catch glances while underwater, my curiosity getting the best of me. I am trying to acclimate, to normalize, the normally covered parts of male bodies.

I am at the locker removing some things when a woman calls to me in a friendly gruff voice, “Oh no we’re right on top of each other!” I turn to an elderly white woman with no towel, and immediately see she has had a total double mastectomy.[4] Two scars from long ago. I smile and tell her I don’t mind waiting, grab my comb, and move to a nearby bench.

She begins small talk, tells me she’s eighty-three, has had knee surgery recently.[5] I ask her how she hurt her knee. “Skiing. And the worst of it was, I wasn’t even moving! Someone crashed into me!” She’s having her other knee is replaced this summer. I ask what happened with that one. “Basketball,” she says. “Sounds like you like to get into trouble,” I say. She smiles. She tells me she used to be a P.E. teacher and, really, a dancer[6].

She works on an adult diaper, carefully, her back to me, continuing to chat about the next surgery – then no more pain in the knee that is still whole.

I comb my hair. She takes her time to dress.

“I told my doctor I just want to be able to walk, swim, and drive.”
“Seems pretty reasonable.”

She slides into her shoes, and carefully stands up, arms out at her sides just in case.

I think about her getting diagnosed with cancer and then her surgery while teaching middle schoolers forty years ago. How now mastectomies often involve implants and tattooed nipples.[7] She has two deep scars.[8]

“I live in an assisted living place. When I get back I’ll have breakfast waiting for me!”

I think about how when I dip slowly into the water I clench my teeth when it hits my nipples and that she must feel nothing. Or, something else.

[1] I think of this as a similar practice to razzle dazzle camouflage – when WWI ships were painted with different colors and stripes so enemies had a hard time figuring out where, exactly, they ended and began.
[2] “What does a better job of catching soup, a fork or a spoon?” my swim coach would ask.
[3] The Internet tells me it is Polish: “voy-tih-wah.” I wasn’t even close. The Internet also tells me it is the same surname as Pope John Paul II.
[4] μαστός + ἐκτομή (“breast” + “cutting out”)


[6] “Those days are gone.”

[8] I have heard one woman say, “they used to really gouge you.” After her friend’s breast was cut from her, artist Lee Miller smuggled it out of the hospital on a plate, under a napkin. She set the plate on a table and put a knife and fork next to it, and photographed it: “Untitled [Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy]” (1930).

Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She holds an MFA in poetry from CalArts, where she was a Beutner Fellow. Diana is a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, and a Managing Editor and founding member of Ricochet. She has recently been honored with residencies and scholarships from Caldera Arts Center and Vermont Studio Center. Her chapbook, Death Centos, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and her writing and translation have appeared in Aufgabe, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Eleven Eleven, Salt Hill, Two Serious Ladies, and The Volta, among others.

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