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It's Nelly's World

Swimming to Reality

alec vanderboom

When I first get in, it's a shock. It's cold, and I think, What am I doing? And then I begin to swim.

A hundred yards of freestyle. A hundred yards of breaststroke (aka reststroke). Fifty yards of freestyle kick. Then another round of all. At the end, fifty yards of freestyle, as fast as I can go. It erases everything in my brain, except for the thought: You can do it. You can do anything, as long as you know there is an end, eventually. Then I see it, under the moving blue, the line that tells me there are just two more revolutions of the arms. Finally, I touch the wall.

Actually, I hit the wall before I in fact hit the wall. At some point, there will be the place where swimming and thought merge. Where skin and outside temperature have no boundary. Then, there is realization.

Last week at the Y, I realized something that had been there all along, something that had underlay my entire life up to that point. There are things we think that are as the concrete foundation under the house, unseen but holding it up nonetheless. As usual, the sudden realization hit me in a fully formed sentence, words to an assumption that had never been spoken, all these years. If only I had been born with a perfect body, I would find someone to love.

I almost laughed underwater (not a good idea in a public pool) at the absurd idea. A perfect example of magical thinking. But yet it is what I believed. All my troubles, all my life, in fearing that I might never find the perfect union, had been about my imperfect genetics. If only I had been one of those women with lithe and shapely legs, there never would have been any of that heartache. There never would have been those years of dearth, those thousands of nights alone in city apartments, wondering if there was anyone, ever, who would lie beside me, take my hand, say the simple words I thought would mean the end of loneliness.

Now I know that wasn't the problem. Or perhaps it just complicated the problem for me. Because, according to the cover story in this month's The Atlantic, the problem is men. Or rather, economics, imbalanced numbers, and the freefall that ensues.

The author of the piece is pictured on the cover, as if to prove a point: She's very attractive. And she's obviously smart. She just didn't quite know what she was dealing with. So she's alone now, on the sharp edge of forty.

She was attracted to the same sort that I was at her age: the dark artist. The poet, or the painter. The kind who goes out with you for six months, then announces: Uh, not yet. I'm not ready.

Turns out they're never ready, until they're fifty-five or so, at which point they're ready . . . for a thirty-five-year-old. So they get it all--decades of banging scores of beautiful women (see, here's where my realization really hit: many of them do have perfect bodies, and see where it gets them?), and then, just under the wire, "commitment." And a family. Their old girlfriends, all the six-month wonders? They get to spend their fifties coming to terms with what it means to be well and truly alone, to know that they will never experience the touch of another again, and to feel the empty pride of knowing they are capable enough to be able to go out in the middle of the night while a freezing windstorm rages and get the generator in the garage started and hook it up so the basement doesn't flood. Quite a feeling of accomplishment.

There are not enough men, and always enough women twenty years younger. So there's always a lost generation of women who put their fine educations to use in constructing justifications: Hey, I've got my friends. My work. My hobbies. That's so much!

And indeed it is. Gratitude abounds. But what of the creeping bitterness? The little nagging hatefulness that comes on at nine on a Friday night, just you and the newspaper and a glass of wine? What to do with the wish, just once, for someone with whom to talk over the wisdom of this car over that, saying this to your child instead of that, staying in for dinner or going out? Well, you shouldn't feel it.

Usually, the people who tell you this with such conviction are those who are paired. (And the notion of pairing: It just feels so natural, so like the summer rain; all of those millions of us in our separate households, with our separate bills, might be excused for a primitive wail into the silence: Isn't this stupid?) They usually tell you, a little too quickly, how sick they are of their husbands' neediness, their selfishness, their bursts of critical unhappiness. At least you don't have to deal with that. But I tried to explain it to one of them once like this. If you get a flat tire, who's the first person you call? And if you find a fifty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, who's the first person you call? It's the same person, isn't it? Well, some of us have no one to call. We share it with no one. The frustration and the happiness both. A closed system of one.

The author of the piece, after explaining the causes for this state of affairs, ends at the same place as the apologists of the single lifestyle. Isn't it wonderful to be in the company of other lonely women?

She never contends with the simple, central issue--what to do about the primate, its inborn needs and its skin? You can't talk that away. Flowers, a ring. Another. You can't think that away. You can only swim.