There’s this elderly couple—late 60s or early 70s would be my guess—that has been swimming at my gym for about as long as I can remember. When I first saw them, about a decade ago now, I thought they were brother and sister. But it turns out they’re one of those long-married couples that starts to look like each other after a certain number of years. Strange, the rewards that nature bestows upon loyal monogamists, right? Does this mean if I ever enter a long-term relationship with one of the models Carl’s Jr. tries to make us think eats Carl’s Jr., I’ll end up with 48-inch legs and a doll’s vacant expression? Sweet.
(By the way, shouldn’t it be “Carl Jr.’s”? Carl’s Jr. makes no sense. Unless they’re saying this Carl dude has franchised his son, in which case those greasy square patties might be more than just visually off-putting.)
Anyway, back to the couple: The wife is a discombobulated splasher who always manages to chop a chlorinated wave into my throat. It’s uncanny. This is probably why her husband hasn’t shared a lane with her once the past five years. The hubby, meanwhile, is a broad-skulled know-it-all in faded lycra Speedos, who thinks nothing of giving unsolicited swimming advice. Worse still, he’s usually right.
I do what I can to avoid swimming at the same time as them. Over the years, I’ve learned their schedule favors Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and between 8 and 10 a.m. on Sundays. So I avoid those times as best I can.
But today I was out of luck. I arrived at the pool just before 7 this morning to see the wife contorting herself through the natorium solo. No husband. She finished up and eased into the jacuzzi, where she explained to another regular that her husband recently underwent emergency cancer surgery and that’s why he was absent. The other regular—a muscled Filipino man who once told me my skin looked yellow and that I might have jaundice—contended that fattening the husband up would help him withstand his radiation treatments. Apparently it’s good to feed a cold—and cancer.
“He’s already pretty fat,” the wife replied.
I personally don’t consider the husband fat. Portly, maybe, but come on, he’s got to be at least 68. Can we spot the guy a few courtesy pounds?
Since I’ve seen this couple at the pool so often—and since the husband has kindly waved me over to steal his lane when the pool is otherwise crowded with terrible swimmers—these people have become stranger-acquaintances: I don’t know their names, but I’ve soaked up bits of their lives through a kind of proximity-based osmosis. I know the husband got a kidney from his twin brother about five years back. He showed me the scar six weeks after the surgery. Again, unsolicited. I’ve even seen his ancient mother swim laps at this very pool on occasion. Sometimes mother and son’s schedules overlap, and all three ease into the jacuzzi together afterward and rest in comfortable silence. And I know husband and wife share a kind of unspoken, unceremonious love. It’s there when, after the husband has finished swimming, he ducks into his wife’s lane and gently shoves her heels with the palm of his hand to help her go a little faster.
I know things about these people that I’ve never spoken more than six words to.
And so, before dunking into a lane and shoving off, I told the wife I wished her husband well and hoped to see him in the lane beside me soon enough. That last part was a lie, but a white one.
She started to say something about how that’s how we’d all know he was better—when he was back swimming—but her voice slid like rainwater down a car windshield. Her grief was inaudible over the jacuzzi gets, frothing a white geography of suds around her neck, but it was clear in her eyes, wet and pale like a shelter animal’s.
I issued a rote “there, there” and smiled queerly, feeling a little less like a stranger and reminding myself to avoid swimming on Fridays.