The Swimmer

Vera Ivanovna had serious doubts about this new plan of her daughter’s. A gym they called them here in America. She had seen what they were like, these gyms. She had seen them on television—in advertisements and on various apparently humorous programs whose dialogue she couldn’t exactly understand, but whose stories, such as they were, were easy enough to follow. Gyms were bright rooms full of rock and roll music, electronic machines with columns of blipping red lights, and flirtatious young men and women in tight shiny clothing. They were nothing like the sport halls she remembered from her youth—cavernous echoing under-lit spaces infused with decades of sweat and desperate ambition.

Vera Ivanovna had been in America for eight months when her daughter came home with the idea about the gym. She still wasn’t sure that she should have come over, or why, exactly, she had. Her daughter had asked. Had telephoned her in Moscow and told her to come live with her and her husband and their little girl in their new apartment.

“It’s much bigger,” she had explained on the phone, “you’ll have your own bathroom. I’ll send the paperwork, and a plane ticket when you’re ready. Alison is six now and she’ll be going to a new school and Alex and I can’t pick her up in the middle of the day—I told you about my last promotion, right? and of course Alex works ungodly hours at the hospital—the school isn’t far, you can walk down and meet Alison and make her lunch—did I tell you we had a Viking stove installed, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator? I know you don’t know what that means, it means they’re very high quality.” Even in Russian, her daughter sounded completely American. “Anyway. How long do you need to make arrangements, do whatever you need to do, take care of . . . whatever you have to take care of?” As if it were a foregone conclusion that Vera Ivanovna wanted to move to America.

She was happy for her daughter, who had left years earlier, gone to university, gotten a business degree, gotten married, gotten a car, an apartment, a job, a promotion and then another and another. She had enjoyed her daughter’s rare visits back to Moscow. She appreciated the telephone she had paid to have installed in her apartment. But Vera Ivanovna had never dreamt of leaving Russia.

She had been unsurprised not to have been invited to her daughter’s wedding, to have learned of it only after the fact. Alexander had been born in America to parents recently arrived from Leningrad. He had grown up in his grandparents’ house in Brooklyn surrounded by people more familiar with bread lines, poetry, and ice hockey than Macy’s or the Rolling Stones, but had never set foot in Russia. His Russian was nuanced and expressive, but oddly incongruous with everything else about him: the language of pre-Revolutionary intellectuals in the mouth of a beer-drinking baseball fan.

So he was American, but he was Russian too. He was Russian, but he was American too. That was what her daughter had said. “At the hospital they call him Alex, at his grandparents’ they call him Sasha. So you see, the best of both worlds.” Vera Ivanovna didn’t see. She didn’t know what her daughter’s statement was supposed to mean, whether such a thing was possible, or desirable, or why, exactly, her daughter was trying to reassure her. Vera Ivanovna had not felt any need to be reassured. When it came to practical decisions, her daughter, her only child, never seemed to take a false step.

As for her son-in-law, Vera Ivanovna would call him Alexander.

Vera Ivanovna could not picture herself among the slim, sweating, smiling people who populated these gyms. She could not imagine herself doing calisthenics alongside twenty-two-year-old blonde actresses in time to popular tunes chanted by young black men who, according to what she could gather from the television, hung out on city stoops in baggy jeans and would presumably never be caught dead in bright blue spandex. Vera Ivanovna had climbed enough stairs to last her a lifetime, flights of worn cement steps sandwiched between the dank, unpainted walls that led to the thick metal door of her Soviet apartment. She couldn’t see climbing those Sisyphean mechanical stairs to nowhere, let alone running on a treadmill. “You don’t have to run,” her daughter had laughed dismissively, “lots of older people just walk on the treadmill. It’s still good for you.”

Vera Ivanovna enjoyed a nice walk. In the park. Where you could see the sky and breathe the air and in the spring smell the flowers and in the summer watch the Dominican families unfurl their picnics and fire up their barbecues, where you could buy an ice cream from the ice cream truck that played its little recorded jingle to let you know it was there.

Vera Ivanovna was inordinately fond of this ice cream truck and of the ice cream man inside it. Had she known the story of Helen Keller, she would have thought of the ice cream truck as her American water spigot, its jingle the gush of water spilling over her hand, containing the keys to language, cracking open the new world around her. She remembered the first time she had heard it, while she and Alison were admiring a particularly large yellow rose alongside the path.

Alison didn’t necessarily enjoy these walks with her grandmother, but she seemed willing not to complain about them. So several times a week, after meeting at the school gate, Vera Ivanovna and Alison headed not down the street to the apartment, but in the opposite direction, up the hill to the park.

When Vera Ivanovna had imagined these little afternoon excursions, she had pictured herself holding her granddaughter’s hand. But the first time she had gone alone to the school (her daughter had come with her for several days, to make sure she knew the way, to make sure she and Alison both knew exactly where to wait for each other, to make sure the teacher whose job it was to verify that every child left with a familiar adult recognized Vera Ivanovna and understood that she didn’t speak English) and had held out her hand, Alison had smiled up at her and with a perfectly polite “thank you” had swung her bright pink backpack off her shoulder and dropped the strap into her grandmother’s open palm.

Vera Ivanovna never offered her hand with the same intent again, although she did generally shift the backpack to whichever side was farthest from Alison, just in case the little girl should one day be impelled, for whatever reason, to reach out to her.

Alison had been gently stroking the petals of the big yellow rose with a pudgy index finger when they both heard the jingle. “Ice cream!” Alison looked up at her grandmother. “Can I have an ice cream? Please?”

“A nice kreem?” Vera Ivanovna had repeated.

“An ice cream,” Alison enunciated firmly, pointing towards the far end of the park. “Ice cream. Listen. That’s the ice cream man.” She furrowed her brow and pinched her eyes almost shut and squeezed her lips into a tiny circle and then found the word: “Мороженое! Chocolate мороженое!”

Often the walk Vera Ivanovna took with Alison was her second walk of the day. Having finished whatever dishes or vacuuming or laundry seemed to need doing after her daughter and Alexander had left the apartment in the morning, dropping Alison off at school on their way to work, she would take a book and walk up to the park.

Vera Ivanovna had arrived in America with two large suitcases, each exactly as heavy as the airline allowed. She had packed clothes and family photographs, but mostly she had packed books. Not the brightly covered, sexually explicit detective trash that had recently taken over the sidewalk kiosks, but the many-volumed complete works of the great Russian authors that she had inherited from her grandparents. In Moscow she had cared for these books. She had kept them in the tall glass-windowed cabinet in her living room and had only rarely lent one to a friend. But she had had a husband, a job, a child, shopping and cooking and cleaning to take care of. Now, sitting on a park bench surrounded by strangers whose language she did not understand, she had begun to read her grandparents’ books.

She liked reading about Pierre dueling in the snow while American kids in shorts zoomed past her on fat-tired bicycles. She liked reading Pushkin—I remember that magical moment/When suddenly you were there —while caramel-skinned teenagers embraced on the bench next to hers. She liked strolling through the heather gardens and sounding out the Latin names that were engraved on little metal plaques near each bush. Walking on a treadmill under fluorescent lights sounded contrived and stifling, like mandatory attendance at a parade.

But Vera Ivanovna did what her daughter told her to do. Suggested that she do. Invited her to do. She had come to America. She would go to the gym.

So one autumn morning when the park benches would have been slick with dew, Vera Ivanovna took the shiny red membership card and rode the subway downtown and presented herself to the young black woman behind the counter. Rows of televisions hung from the ceiling. Bicycles and treadmills and mechanical stairs were lined up beneath them like seats in a surreal cinema.

“Your first visit?” the young woman smiled up at her.

“First visit, yes,” Vera Ivanovna replied.

The girl called to a coworker to cover the desk, then popped around the counter. “Come on,” she said with a big wave of her arm, “I’ll give you the tour.”

Vera Ivanovna didn’t understand most of what the girl—the tag on her form-fitting grey turtleneck said her name was Makesha—explained, but she followed her closely and nodded as she pointed at the various machines. More bicycles, rowboats, even skis, all going nowhere. They walked past racks full of barbells, some so big they looked cartoonish, some so small they looked pointless. Together they peered through a window labeled “spinning” and watched ten women and one man pedal furiously while an instructor-cyclist yelled at them over the music. Down a narrow hallway Vera Ivanovna saw a single woman lying among scattered spongy mats and huge rubber balls, the toes of her left foot touching the floor behind her head. Eventually, Makesha led the way into the locker room.

Her daughter had given her a small padlock and shown her how to use it—three times to the right, twice to the left, once back to the right—and told her to be sure not to forget the combination. The combination, printed on a sticker that her daughter had warned her repeatedly to peel off and throw away, was 17-7-52. If Vera Ivanovna had been superstitious, she would have taken this as a portent of some sort. In retrospect, she almost did. July 17, 1952. She wouldn’t have any trouble remembering.

Along with the lock, her daughter had provided a zippered blue nylon bag with the logo of a shoe manufacturer emblazoned on both sides. Inside the bag she had put several old T-shirts of Alexander’s, a pair of what she called sweatpants, a pair of running shoes whose logo did not match the logo on the bag, and a small mesh sack of toiletries.

Makesha showed her where to get a towel, where to toss it when she was done, and where the showers were. Past the showers, Makesha pushed open a door, and the smell of the next room hit Vera Ivanovna with the full force of memory. Makesha’s voice disappeared; the sweaty men and women with yellow earphones tucked inside their ears disappeared; her daughter, her granddaughter, America disappeared.

Vera Ivanovna stepped through the door and breathed in, as deeply as she could, through her nose, filling her lungs with the acrid chemical smell, holding it inside her chest, sending it deep into her belly, into the small of her back. As she followed Makesha across the slippery tile floor she could feel in her shoulders, in her thighs, in the tips of her toes, the rhythms of that young man in the lane marked “fast.” She could feel herself pulling, kicking, pulling, slicing through the liquid, could see its surface sliding past as she turned to breathe. She felt the smooth controlled sustained rhythmic power flowing through her legs, felt the palms of her hands against the water, the water her element, her enemy, felt her body straining to overcome its resistance with perfection of form, perfection of power, perfection of will.

“Ma’am, ma’am, are you okay?” Makesha’s hand was on Vera Ivanovna’s forearm. She had never been touched by a black person before.

“Yes. Yes, I am fine. I can—? I can—?” How could she not know these words, these words of all words, when she now knew not only ice cream, but summer school and Chinese take-out and extra shift, how could she not have the words for pool, for swim? This struck her as impossibly absurd, and, somehow, profoundly unfair. “Here—I can come? All times?”

“Any time, yes ma’am, the pool is open every day til a half hour before we close. And look,” Makesha pointed, “don’t worry about those guys in the middle. On the outside there’s the slow lane, and the loafer lane, if you just want to walk in the water or do water exercises. We have a water exercise class. And you can use the ladder there to get in, you don’t have to dive or anything.”

Vera Ivanovna felt her fingertips slicing into the glassy surface of the water, felt her body following like an arrow into the vacuum, sliding like a needle into flesh, making barely a ripple. It could be a puddle and she wouldn’t touch bottom, her coach used to tell the others. Perfect. The best starting dive on the national swim team of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Vera Ivanovna hadn’t liked having to ask her daughter to take her shopping. It wasn’t that her daughter begrudged the money, or even the time—although she had said they would have to wait until Saturday, a full four days after Vera Ivanovna discovered the pool—but after eight months in America, Vera Ivanovna was still saddened by each new instance of her own dependency. She had no idea where to go to buy a bathing suit, or what was a reasonable American price to pay for one.

After a lifetime of decade-long waiting lists for an apartment, a car, a vacation permit, four days was a laughable wait for anything, but it had felt interminable. For four days Vera Ivanovna had felt like a little girl, like an impatient little American girl accustomed to what her daughter said they called “instant gratification.”

Not that anyone would have noticed. She looked as staid and deliberate as ever—she did the laundry, she walked Alison home from school, she had dinner ready when her daughter and Alexander came home—but when she was alone she couldn’t sit still. When she walked up to the park in the mornings she couldn’t concentrate on the pages of her book. She found herself constantly looking at her watch, waiting for the day to be over, counting the hours, thrilling with anticipation.

On Saturday morning they drove across the bridge to New Jersey. Effortlessly competent behind the wheel, her daughter concentrated on the financial news program on the car radio and glanced only occasionally at the slip of paper on which she had written directions. She had called ahead, to make sure she knew exactly where to go. Vera Ivanovna thought she had also heard her asking about sizes.

In spite of the precipitous influx of goods into Russia over the last decade, Vera Ivanovna still instinctively expected the difficulties of shopping to be about finding what you were looking for. And she still found herself flummoxed by the multitude of choices in America.

After a lifetime of buying toothpaste not because you needed toothpaste but because today there was toothpaste to buy, to be confronted with five (literally, five) shelves of toothpaste—each box along the shelf different from the box next to it, each box twenty deep on the shelf, with more, you knew, stored in a back room or a nearby warehouse available for delivery at a moment’s notice—was utterly overwhelming to Vera Ivanovna. Paste, gel, liquid gel; pump, tube, stand-up tube; cavity care, enamel care, sensitive tooth care, tartar control, whitening, extra whitening; mint, peppermint, spearmint; cool mint, clean mint, lavender mint, sparkling mint, refreshing mint, invigorating mint, white vanilla mint, extreme herbal mint, morning mega mint, moonlight mint, bubblemint, empowermint: the first time her daughter had asked her to pick up some toothpaste at the pharmacy, Vera Ivanovna had stared at the shelves for half an hour, then left empty-handed.

In the beginning, she had had the same problem with the ice cream man. Did he really have all those ice creams on the picture beside his window? Every day? There were cups and cones and sticks. There were squares and circles and rectangles. There were rainbows and firecrackers and cartoon characters with bubble-gum eyeballs. There were ice cream sandwiches and ice cream tacos; there was a baseball glove and there was a great white shark. That first spring afternoon, when the distant jingle had pulled them away from the yellow rose to the street at the edge of the park, Vera Ivanovna had instinctively pointed to the simplest-looking vanilla, while Alison carried on an animated debate with herself over which of her many favorites was her really truly favorite that day.

Well into the summer, Vera Ivanovna had continued to order the same vanilla in a cone, while Alison seemed to choose something different every time. Then suddenly one day, with the cries from a nearby soccer game wafting through the air—aqui, aqui!—and the afternoon sun sparkling on the river at the bottom of the hill, it had struck Vera Ivanovna that routine was un-American, that if she was going to be here in America, she ought to partake of the abundance, that this would not be an unreasonable indulgence. Feeling adventurous, and just a little bit wicked, she ordered something called a “Chipwich.” The day after that she tried a “Cherry Garcia Peace Pop.” Before the leaves on the elm trees had turned crimson and begun to fall, Vera Ivanovna had worked her way through the bars and sandwiches and was well into the cartoon characters.

The swimsuits were at the back of the store, past the shoes and the basketballs and the scores of jerseys declaring their fervent team loyalties. There were three circular racks. Two of them displayed bikinis. On the third hung the one-piece suits, separated into a half dozen size ranges. Her daughter spun the rack, swept one entire size range off the bar, handed those six suits to Vera Ivanovna, and demanded of the overweight clerk, “Where can she try these on?”

Vera Ivanovna was dumbfounded. She knew they let you try on dresses and pants and shoes, but swimsuits? She was fairly certain she could make the choice just by looking. But she tried not to act surprised in front of her daughter, and dutifully followed the bored teenager to the dressing room.

“Don’t hurry,” her daughter called after her. “Try them all, make sure you get the best one. The one you like best. That fits best.”

One suit had silver spangles sewn onto it; another was bright pink with garish yellow and orange flowers. Vera Ivanovna wouldn’t be caught dead in a pink swimsuit, but she obediently tried them all, avoiding the mirrors as she pulled them on and off. The suit with the spangles had a skirt that was even more absurd than the spangles themselves. How much time would that skirt cost you over a hundred meters? Vera Ivanovna shook her head at the sheer idiocy of it, until as she pulled on the blue suit with the red stripes she accidentally caught sight of her thighs in the mirror. Suddenly the skirt seemed less ridiculous. Besides, she reminded herself wryly, hundredths of a second would never matter to her again.

And then, to her amazement, she found herself debating between the blue and a black, even pulling each one on and off two times apiece. Her daughter tapped on the door. “Everything okay? Take your time, take your time.” But Vera Ivanovna could hear in her voice that she had other, better things to be doing. She chose the blue.

July 17, 1952. They had been so excited for so long, none of them could believe it was actually here—the night before the day. Tomorrow morning, in the tepid grey of a midsummer Moscow dawn, they would be driven to the airport, where they would board an airplane that would carry them abroad. Зa грaницeй. They said it as often as they could, giving an extra lift to the “ah,” an extra roll to the “r,” holding the sound in their mouths, savoring it on their tongues, drawing out the “ee” to make the delicacy last.

For the first time in its history, the Soviet Union was competing in the Olympic Games, and they, the nine girls gathered in Alla and Olga’s room slicing black bread and cucumbers, opening tins of sardines and a small bottle of vodka—one toast, on this night, could surely do no harm—they had been chosen to represent their country. They had worked hard—hours, days, weeks, months, years of their young lives spent in the swimming pool. They had made sacrifices—leaving behind families and hometowns to train in the capital. But this, this was more reward than they had ever dared imagine.

They would compete beneath the flag of the Soviet Union. They would swim for the glory of the greatest nation on earth. Their country believed in them. Their country trusted them. They were going abroad. To Finland. Helsinki. It sounded so unbelievably romantic.

Alla, Olga, Masha, two Irinas, Sveta, Galya, Luda and Vera.

Luda and one of the Irinas were from Leningrad. Vera was from the Moscow suburbs. The others had been collected from the farthest corners of the nation. Galya was indisputably the strongest swimmer and was entered in four of the five events. She would swim the backstroke, the two individual freestyle events, and would anchor the relay. Vera was the alternate, prepared to swim any race, including the breaststroke, if one of the other girls got sick or was for whatever reason suddenly unable to compete.

When the loaf of bread had been reduced to crumbs and the empty oily sardine cans were in the trash, Galya reached for the vodka bottle. “One more, for the road. And then bed.” She poured a round and Masha handed everyone a thick slice of the last cucumber.

“To us.” Galya raised her glass. “To our country. To the races we will win to honor our country. To our leaders, and to the future our leaders are building. To Communism, which is already on the horizon.”

“What’s the horizon? An imaginary line that moves away every time you get close.”

The room seemed to wobble slightly as the silence crashed down on them. They all stared at Luda. She sat frozen, her hand clapped, too late, over her mouth. Her uncle told those jokes and her father smiled at them, but her mother covered her ears and left the room and Luda knew better than to repeat them.

Vera looked quickly away from the panic in Luda’s eyes. She glanced furtively towards the others, trying to gauge their reactions, searching for confirmation that she could ignore this, fearing to catch anyone’s eye directly, dreading any hint of complicity.

It was Galya, of course, who broke the silence, slamming her glass down on the table. “What?” Her voice was husky, a gravelly smoker’s voice even though she didn’t smoke. “I didn’t hear you. What did you say?”

“Nothing,” Luda whispered, her eyes pleading across the table. Luda’s father was a professor of literature. He was a poet. A bookworm in a worn beige jacket. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Nothing? You said nothing?”

Luda shook her head.

Everybody held their breath. The silence was like drowning.

“Then I heard nothing. And I don’t think—” Galya looked slowly around the room. She looked straight at each of her teammates. “I don’t think anyone else heard anything either. Time for bed.”

In an explosion of relief, nine girls scrambled to their feet. Crumbs were swept from the table, glasses rinsed, the vodka stashed on a shelf, and everyone was out the door.

“Vera Ivanovna.” Yuri Platonov stood in the doorway. Sveta, on her way back into the room, caught Vera’s eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

Theirs was the last room at the end of the hall. They had been lying in the dark pretending to sleep when Yuri pounded on the two Irinas’ door across the hall. They heard the door open and close three times as each Irina in turn stepped into the damp cold of the corridor to answer their coach’s questions. Listening to the muffled whispers, Sveta and Vera knew they were next.

Yuri Olegovich Platonov’s body was preternaturally still. His grey eyes were the eyes of the marksman he had been until the day a German mortar shattered every bone in his right leg. Vera stepped into the corridor. She kept her head down, her eyes on Yuri’s worn black running shoes. The only decoration on the walls of his room, beneath a charcoal sketch of Lenin, was the doctor’s report from January of 1943 saying that he would never walk again.

One end of the lace on his right shoe had lost its aglet and frayed down until it was too short to tie into a bow. Why doesn’t he relace it, she wondered. The other end is long enough, he could even it out and tie a perfectly regular bow. She was about to suggest this when Yuri leaned in close, his right hand splayed against the wall over her left shoulder. One swift move, and then, again, that stillness, the coiled stillness of a predatory tiger.

He couldn’t do this to Galya, Vera thought. Galya stood a meter eighty-five. He would have his nose between her breasts and she’d be looking down at the top of his head. But Vera wasn’t taller than Yuri. If she looked up, she’d be looking straight into those unblinking, utterly dispassionate eyes. He had lain in the snow for two days before they found him.

“Did she tell the joke?”

“What joke?” That was what Galya would have said. “What joke?” She would have squared her massive shoulders, crossed her arms, leaned back, stared Yuri right in the eyes and said, “What joke?” Galya’s parents worked on a kolkhoz somewhere beyond the Urals. Two of her brothers had been killed at Sevastopol. Another had disappeared on a submarine out of Archangelsk. Galya believed firmly in the rightness of the Soviet regime. She believed in discipline and self-discipline. But Vera had seen her decide to protect Luda, and she was sure Galya had refused to acknowledge that there had ever been a joke.

“It’s a simple question,” Yuri said.

Vera closed her eyes and wished for the power to will herself back in time. She pictured herself getting up, saying she had to go to the toilet, walking out of the room, closing the door right before it happened. She imagined being able to look up at Yuri and say she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what had been said, or by whom, or who had laughed. Somebody had laughed. She wanted desperately not to know that. It was so much better not to know.

“With a simple answer.”

Vera loved her country. She was proud of her country. She was proud of its wise and brave leaders who had defeated the Germans, and she didn’t think it was right to tell jokes like Luda had told. She knew everything in the Soviet Union wasn’t perfect, but men had suffered. Men like Yuri had suffered. She could feel the heat of him in the dank corridor, his breath warm on her face while her back muscles shivered against the cement wall. He smelled of dill and sacrifice.

“All you have to do is tell the truth.”

All she wanted was to get on an airplane and go to Helsinki and cheer for her teammates. That would be enough. She would have other chances to race. She would work harder. Next time Yuri would choose her to start the relay instead of Luda.

“It won’t hurt the team if she doesn’t come,” Yuri said.

The joke hadn’t even been funny, but still, it was only a joke. They would do what Galya had said—they would pretend they hadn’t heard, they would forget, and it would be almost the same as if it had never happened. Luda knew that what she had done was wrong.

“You’re fastest off the blocks anyway.”

All she wanted was to swim. Since she was twelve years old and they had found her playing in the river with her cousins and told her that if she worked really hard she could one day swim for the glory of her country, all she had wanted was to swim, faster and more perfectly than anyone else.

“Don’t you want to race?”

Vera couldn’t stop the nod, even as her stomach threatened to leap out of her throat. But not like this. If Luda got sick, if Yuri changed his mind at the last minute. That could happen. That could still happen. But not like this.

“I already know.”

Vera’s eyes flicked up. Was that true?

“I’m only asking for confirmation.”

After all, someone had to have told, otherwise why would he even be asking—the walls weren’t that thin. Except of course they were. You could hear everything in your neighbors’ room—you could hear them brush their teeth, you could hear them fight, if you were awake you could hear them talking in their sleep. On the other hand, if he already knew, why did he need her to “confirm” it?

“Vera Ivanovna, a person who tells a joke like that cannot be allowed to go abroad.” Зa грaницeй. The words that had tasted so sweet for so long, whose vowels had been the curves of a promise, now hung in the air like a curse, poised to shatter her world. “All I’m asking is the truth. All I’m asking is for you to do your duty.”

Vera looked away from the grey eyes, down the withered, misshapen leg that Yuri had somehow willed to walk again.

“Did she tell the joke?”

Every step, they said, shot pain through his body.

“Vera Ivanovna.”

She stared at the frayed, uneven shoelace. She nodded.

The water bubbled around her knees and Vera Ivanovna almost giggled. It was Sunday afternoon. Alison was at a friend’s house; Alexander was at the hospital; her daughter was in her home office, alternately on the phone and typing away at that computer. The gym was relatively unbusy. Vera Ivanovna was drawing out her anticipation. Making herself wait. She sat on the edge of the whirlpool dangling her legs in the hot water, taking her pleasure bit by bit, imagining what that first stroke was going to feel like, that first moment of fingertips breaking water, of hip muscles, toe muscles finding their perfect rhythm.

Because no matter how many more years she lived, no matter how many more years she kept coming here, as often as she could, to this incredible unexpected oasis in the middle of the overwhelming foreign metropolis, it was only ever going to feel like that once—the sensation of water enveloping flesh for the first time in four decades. It would be a fleeting moment, and she wanted to savor it, now, while it was a longing about to be fulfilled, before it became a memory—recalled, but impossible to recapture.

In the days and months to come she would challenge those young men in the fast lane, sneaking up beside them then skimming past, sensing their underwater double take, the sudden intensification of their effort. They would catch her, nearing the wall; they would plunge and twist and push off with those long legs, sure the odd moment of racing a potato-bodied old European woman was over, when there she’d be, her short square torso six inches ahead of theirs, her flip-turn decades later still a move of fluid Soviet-instilled perfection.

She would stop then, at the end of that length, her hand always the first to the wall. She stopped to catch her breath (he would pass her soon enough, she knew, if the sprint stretched long), to watch his flip-turn, to listen to the receding rhythms of his stroke, to indulge in the wash of memory and a momentary sensation of belonging.

Vera Ivanovna glanced down at the inscription set in the tiles at her feet. “No diving.” She grinned. Disobedience. So little, so late. She rolled forward. Her toes curled, then flexed. There was nothing below her but shimmering aquamarine blue.

About Erika Warmbrunn:

Erika Warmbrunn is the author of Where the Pavement Ends, the award-winning story of her eight-month, five-thousand-mile solo bicycle journey across Mongolia, China, and Vietnam. She has worked with MSF/Doctors Without Borders in Ivory Coast, Niger, Haiti, and Malawi. She makes her living as a Broadway stagehand.