For us, the old, the injured, the freshly coiffed, the free-swim zone in the municipal pool is our turf. On any given day, five minutes before noon we can be seen waiting to enter the Olympic-sized, chlorinated echo chamber. It is a war-zone of sorts. Some of us are armed with goggles and bathing caps; others, like me will make their way like battle-weary soldiers with gritted teeth into the cold water slowly, down the steps, mediated only by a one-piece bathing suit and a layer of dimpled adipose.
None of us regulars are on a first-name basis but are acquainted with each other’s pool habits. One matronly woman, I call her “Water-Wings,” strolls aimlessly in the shallow end with a Styrofoam noodle stuck through the crook of her arms. She bobs around, a buxom buoy, smiling at everyone in her sight. There is a hulking air mattress of a man covered from the elbows up with a colorful array of U.S. Marine tattoos—“Dead Cong=Good Cong,” a bulldog with the initials “USMC” and “I’m Awesome” in Gothic letters, to name the few I could make out. He is nursing some kind of injury and sticks to the side of the pool where a nozzle releases warm water under high pressure. He too seeks eye contact and scans the pool like radar for hot female swimmers who might by chance come to swim in this senior citizen happy hour.
And then there is the primary obstacle to our swimming pleasure, the double-troubles—“The Twins:” two small, unsmiling old men with rodent eyes, balding heads, and scrappy, balding moustaches. This enigmatic duo comes in together wearing identical striped robes and snarling rubber slippers. The very first time I crossed lanes with them it was clear, without a word exchanged, that they welcomed neither interlopers nor obstacles.
The Twins’ swimming routine is always the same: When one is doing the backstroke, feebly rotating his lower arms in a shallow rowing motion, the other has his head buried in the water doing a slow crab-like crawl. They make no eye contact with any of us fellow swimmers; I can assure you neither of them is equipped with a sonar system to warn others of their impending approach.
Relentlessly and very, very slowly, they plow from one end of the pool to the other. But unlike a plow, they weave unpredictably off a straight course, threatening a major collision with swimmer traffic going in either direction. Before setting out on my first lap, I determine if the backstroke brother has set off in my direction and the crab crawler is far ahead of me. At lap’s end, I lift my head like a periscope to check the coordinates of the Brothers Swimm.
One fine day (the sun is shining through the windows in rectangles on the water), the Twins are uncharacteristically absent. I enter the pool with no trepidation. The water is frigid in that initial second of full body immersion, as it always is. And as always, I take on a military air and sternly admonish myself: “If you can’t do this, you can’t do anything.” Two fan-like breaststrokes and the cold is forgotten. I push the water and my self-doubt away and propel myself forward at a decent pace. My stamina has increased these past weeks and I listen to the sound of my own rhythmic breathing as I flip over to my back and begin counting the rafters as they move away from me with every backward stroke of my arms.
At fifteen laps I can no longer be distracted from the burning in my lungs and the heaviness of my limbs. I come to a slow stop, panting. Water-Wings and Vietnam Vet nod to me as if to acknowledge my athletic prowess. I smile and pinch my nose clean. As if in explanation for my amazing athletic performance I say: “No Twins!”
“You didn’t hear?” she asks, bobbing on her pink noodle.
Vietnam Vet moves in closer to join the conversation.
“Oh boy. Quite a commotion. Police, ambulance, you name it.”
An image flashes through my mind—of one of the little rodent brothers wrestling with someone in the pool who is shouting: “You LITTLE piece of s—t! You frigging nearly KILLED me! Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re GOING?” The scenario brings a smile to my face. He continues:
“Oh. It was bad and I mean BAAAD.”
I am calibrating my response to whatever comes next.
“One of the little guys was coming along here on his back. The other one was going the other way. Next thing I know, CRUNCH, the two of them collide in the deep end of the pool and start swinging at each other. One has blood pouring from his head and his nose and the other is whacking him, saying ‘idiot’ again and again. In some other language, but it still sounded like ‘idiot.’”
“Who broke it up?” I ask him.
“The life guard was some slick young kid who was shouting at them from his chair. Lotta good that did.”
Water-Wings is laughing at the recollection of one of the more memorable days at the pool.
“They near killed each other. Man oh man—I tried splitting them up,” he said. “I can’t tell you how strong those little guys were. Slippery. A couple of other men had to help me restrain them until the cops got here.”
I pictured them with their arms behind their backs being loaded, dripping wet, into two separate police cars in their striped robes and rubber slippers.
With a sprinkling of unspoken guilt, we all share a hearty conspiratorial laugh and continue on our usual way, bobbing, stretching and plodding through the bright blue water. Peace has been restored to the free-swim zone.