by Tamara Miller
I come to the pool because it is all that is left for me.
This fictitious salvation is delicately perched at the intersection of Chinatown and Little Italy. A city pool anchoring both communities, but not truly belonging to either. It amuses me that I can either traverse the Royal Gateway Arch, a gift from a Chinese sister city, with broad red pillars, supporting intricate blue and gold carvings, and twin lions smirking in greeting. Or, if I prefer, I can skip by towering two-story bocce ball pins, with smiling faces dipped in primary colours, grinning mischievously down at passersby.
In the early morning, the women’s change room at the pool is a hodgepodge of ethnicities, shapes, ages. It’s quiet, and a comfortable awkwardness soothes us, as we slip into colourful swimsuits, revealing for a few seconds all our flab and flaws.
I have come to the pool, because I have no other choice. Not old, but no longer young, my bones and joints are starting to reject the pounding of pavement to which I have subjected them all these years. Like many aging runners, the injuries are pilling up, and recoveries are long. Words like sciatica and bursitis have become personal, and I cringe at the sound of them on my lips. The pool feels like my last hope. A chance to stave off spreading middle age, but not subject myself to the nubile size fours that skip around gyms or twist through yoga studios. If I ever was, I am no longer one of them.
I live in a balance of time. Past my youth, but not facing the dying of the light. My rage is at my maturing body, involuntarily betraying the promises it made to me and, in the process, stealing away the lightness of youth. My limbs are heavy these days, and the stiches of veins and wrinkles are unrecognizable to my eyes. And yet, they are mine alone.
Standing in the locker room, I glimpse my nakedness before the swimsuit covers it up. Who is this woman? I think. How did she get here? At a loss for an answer, I step out into the harsh, bright lights of the pool deck, and slip beneath welcoming waves of water.
Colours bob across the surface, heads coated in rubber, faces down just before the rhythmic life sustaining tilt to draw in air. I join the flow, and instantly become weightless, and faceless and ageless. With one draw of my arm and kick of my legs, none of the earth-bound nomenclatures apply. Under the water, my size, my weight, my flaws are lost in the glide. Bodies coast past on either side, homogenized by the shifting light beneath the water’s surface. We shed our personalized coats, indistinguishable from one another as our bodies balance precariously on the weight of water.
My arms move in time with my breath. One, two, three… breathe. The water, initially cold, quickly swallows me up in a self-propelled warmth. One, two, three… breathe. My legs kick away from the wall, pushing free from the pull of gravity. One, two, three… breathe. My mind carries nothing beneath the splashes, instead focused uniquely on staying buoyant. One, two, three… breathe. Bodies pass on either side in blurs of colour, formless beings floating on surface tension. The pool has become a roiling mass of humanity, ripples crashing against each other, and reverberating in new directions.
Eventually, I emerge from the water as if waking from a dreamscape. Lost for a time in the rhythm of breath and movement, I come to consciousness stepping back onto solid ground. Gravity reigns once more, the immoveable plain of the pool deck pressing hard into my feet.
In the shower room, the bodies become clear and present once again, and my eyes skirt across them in snippets, catching snapshots of aging. Most are older, age marking their skin. Across from me, stands a woman with short greying hair. Her shoulders carry the slight stoop of age, though haven’t yet shaped her into a question. She is older than me, but I recognize the trail of veins on her skin and admire the depth of their colour and contours. They tell the story of a life lived, equally weighed with adventures and sorrows. I follow her constellation of bruises, evidence that the skin is thinning, as the years of life have stretched and kneaded it. Looking down at my leg where a purple welt had mysteriously emerged, I contemplate the passage of time on my own skin. She is where I am headed, but I am not her. Not yet.
Beside me, a younger woman. Her breasts are proud and firm, not resting with the weight of children. Her skin carries no map of years, no stories of battles won or lost. Her eyes, still blind to the passage of time, seek adventures yet to come. Her hair, smooth and even in colour and tone, has not yet been nourished by life’s rich pageant. She is where I was, but not where I am anymore.
I am poised at the fulcrum. Not old, but no longer young. I sit between two worlds, anchored where I am, but still able to see both.
Leaving the pool, I stop at the corner of Chinatown and Little Italy. With a turn of my head, I can immerse myself in two cultures. As I ponder over which path to take home, a gentle rain raps against the sidewalk and brings with it a tangy smell of wet grass and cooling pavement.
Looking towards Chinatown, I see an ancient woman come out of a doorway. Her knotted hand rests heavily on a deep wood cane. Her short hair, long ago having given up its dark colour, rests comfortably against her head. The original warm beige of her skin is giving way to small almond coloured stains that stretch across her face. Deep line creases form oddly elegant jowls beside her mouth, while her eyes recess beneath a frame of wrinkles.
She moves deliberately across the sidewalk, a slow rhythm as she carefully roots her cane with each step. When she passes behind me, I can smell a concoction of herbs, a perfume that clings to her from the Chinese apothecary shop she’s just left. She offers me a warm smile, which reaches the depths of her eyes.
I return her smile, and step back slightly, offering deference to age and experience.
“Xiexie. Thank you,” she says softly, with a slight nod.
The rain picks up slightly, and we both fish for our umbrellas.
I catch another passing glimpse of the woman just before my rising umbrella obscures the field of vision. The light changes and we both step off the curb into the halted traffic. Her gait is slow, and within a few paces, she has fallen behind me.
As I reach the curb, I turn, intending to extend my hand to help her step up; but instantly, my hand falls to my side.
Coming towards me, with a light step and smooth grace, is a much younger woman beneath a yellow umbrella. Her long dark hair curls lightly around her face and sways elegantly as she steps onto the curb. She carries a prominent nose and deep, dark eyes. Her olive skin shines with the glow only possible in youth, and a fresh citrusy scent surrounds her.
I scan the horizon, confusedly watching for the old Chinese woman, but she is nowhere in sight. My eyes return involuntarily to the young woman now stepping confidently past me. My unabashed stare catches her attention, and her eyebrows raise slightly, offering a suspicious question and guarded smile.
“Good morning,” she offers, eyeing me cautiously.
“Good morning,” I reply as if in a trance. Though I know I am being rude, I can’t help but stare at the woman as she turns away from me. I watch until she disappears into a crowd of people, and the rain begins to soak through my clothing.
About the Author
Tamara Miller holds a PhD in Canadian history from the University of Manitoba. She has published academic and non-fiction work and started publishing fiction. Her most recent work can be found in the Ottawa Independent Writers 2019 Anthology and on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation site. She lives in Ottawa, Canada with her husband, children, and two long-suffering cats.