I have never thought of you as much of a swimmer, and this makes me love you better. The way you move your arms whenever you’re in water — the way you tend to flop rather than advance with any smoothness — has made me more conscious of your vulnerability as a mysterious life force trapped inside a human body, not simply as my husband. Were your movements only more fluid, were you any stronger, I might feel you would fare better without me.
To be fair, once you emerge from the water, you appear taut and well-coordinated. Your arms, though spindly, can summon more strength than my own, which are softer. With your longer legs, you can also walk much faster than I can, though usually, you slow your pace when we’re together. I have also seldom seen you move as much in a given day as I have, and for the most part, I have been a sedentary person. The main difference between us in this regard is, for all my love of sitting, I also feel the need to stretch my legs along with the rest of my body, if only to calm my mind and bring my life more into balance. Whereas you tend to expend no more effort than needed. You move only when you have to, either from pure exigency or spontaneous desire, rarely a combination.
Even if you were to join a gym — even if you were someone who liked a morning jog every now and again — you would probably still struggle with swimming. Though you are naturally much more athletic, for eight years of my life I was on a swim team, though now they are eight years receded far into the distance. I would now hardly be able to swim many laps without growing exhausted, and even during high school, I was one of the slowest. All that acknowledged, I’m still skeptical of your ability to withstand too tiring of waters for as long as I could stand them. I’m skeptical in part because your parents never gave you swimming lessons, so you were never taught to slice through the water with your head halfway beneath the surface. You were never shown how to turn your face and breathe in a certain rhythm as your arms continued to rotate, as your legs kept kicking. I have tried a couple of times to teach you how to swim freestyle, but this has only visibly diminished your joy in the water and so has not been worth it.
Either one of us trying to teach the other anything has never been good for our marriage.
Though our apartment is only three blocks away from Lake Michigan, the only time we spend on any beach normally takes place in another country, meaning maybe every other year on average. Unlike in our normal lives, we live more for and through our senses once we’re somewhere else, once we feel we’ve escaped something, crossed an ocean. Whenever we find ourselves near an unfamiliar body of water, we feel the need to take advantage in a way we neglect at home, on most summer weekends. Yet even in places we have flown long distances to spend a week or two — I’m thinking of last year on a blissful Greek island — you still tend to keep our time lying on our beach towels limited. Once you’ve had your swim, you want to head back inside sooner than I care to follow. You also sunburn easily, even while wearing sunscreen.
The all too infrequent times when I watch you swim, you are also not wearing your glasses, and I know you can hardly see without them. Lack of sight alone almost seems to free you, opening something else inside, something expansive. What your reduced vision frees you from, if I had to guess, is likely the tension that comes with your mind’s need to analyze and interpret all you see. Splashing yourself in some sea or lake or tributary — and splashing is what your swimming resembles — you take on the look of a blind puppy, squinting to see better while seeing next to nothing. Your face reveals an innocence and fragility without the dark rims of your glasses, as you wade there among the waves, speckled with sunlight. These qualities — and these are only words, nothing that matches reality— also seem related to an agelessness that is part of who you are. What I feel comfortable calling a lightness.
While my love for you might color my perception to some degree, love cannot explain all of what I’m seeing when I catch you in these moments. I honestly believe my heart would feel squeezed just the same, with almost all the juice being wrung out of it, were I only walking along a beach somewhere and observed you as a stranger in passing — if we had both ended up with other partners but were traveling to the same place with our travels coinciding by happenstance. While you would be walking out of the water without wearing your glasses, I would stay invisible in your eyes as you stepped onto the sand, squinting toward the blur of an unfamiliar woman.
Five years younger than your twin brothers, you still display all the earmarks of being the youngest. You are easily jarred by loud or sudden noises, which your brothers used to taunt you with as you were walking down the hallway, as they jumped out of a bedroom or closet. Owing to their influence — to whatever trauma they inflicted — as much you love the water, and even during our travels to the most ravishing of places, you rarely wade in much higher than your chest. You have told me more than once over the years you know what drowning feels like, and you have never been eager to repeat the experience. You have said your brothers used to make a game at the public pool of tempting you out into the deep end. Inevitably and after promising not to hold your head underwater, they would still try to drown you or make you feel as if this was what they were doing once you found yourself in their clutches.
No matter how far they might have taken things, they would laugh even harder once they kept you even longer from breathing, and they did this time and again as you remember until, eventually, you learned to stay away, to keep to the shallow end. Your brother Tom has often boasted in my hearing about how much he and Tim got away with. One time in particular when you were five or six years old, you have said you would have died if your mom wasn’t watching. There are other stories of their sadism, told by Tom, still gleeful decades later with the injuries that resulted. Though I have always found him funny — hilarious even — these stories chill me. Part of the reason for your own extremes must be because you came from an extreme family.
Whenever we now find ourselves in a body of water together, after you have finished flopping and splashing for however many minutes, you prefer to float, to close your eyes to the sun while saltwater leaves you buoyant, all but weightless. For however long you stay in this position, you appear so peaceful you might as well be taking a nap upon the water. For a couple of timeless minutes, you hold your arms wide at your sides, assuming the shape of a crucifix as you mimic the water’s own stillness. This being held by the water, this feeling of safety, for both of us feels healing. At these times, I have taken to floating for longer lengths of time myself because you enjoy doing the same. It’s almost a crime we don’t take more advantage closer to home, in Lake Michigan.
Sometimes I think the feeling of safety I must seem to offer is really why you love me. For all my emotional fluxes, I am faithful and constant. Though I may house buried layers of anger and resentment, you call me a gentle soul, something you have said since the beginning. Though I have heard others say the same throughout my lifetime, I don’t know how true this is. All I know for certain is that I’m watching. I would never allow you to drown or struggle among the waves, and you must feel this. Sometimes I wonder whether, for all my lack of maternal feelings, for all my never wanting children, you perceive me as a source of protection, someone whose strength arises only in your fragile places. Even if this is part of my attraction, I know this is not the only reason why you are with me. For a relationship as long and complicated as a marriage, there is never only one reason. There are many. Each one makes a difference.
Circling the Englischer Garten on the bikes we’d rented, we came upon the Eisbach, a manmade extension of a Bavarian river flowing from the Alps’ melting glaciers. I stopped my bike once I saw the surfers, men wearing wetsuits, many with hair grown to their shoulders. Carrying boards at their sides, they were walking barefoot in the park toward the river. After watching some for a few moments glide over the white caps, I glanced behind me and saw you with your mouth hanging open.
It wasn’t long before you turned your head the other direction, toward a group of younger women wearing bikinis and walking along the bank. As my eyes followed your own, I looked farther back, closer toward what appeared to be the river’s origin, and noticed a steady stream of bodies, all immersed in and flowing down the river. All were being conveyed gently by its current before they somehow wrested themselves out of the water, back onto the parkland. They swam less than floated before avoiding meeting the rapids where all the surfers were soaring then falling then soaring again. Sitting back on my bike, I followed your path as you wheeled beside the river and studied the many smiling faces it carried.
Beneath a bridge with signs of skulls and crossbones tacked to its side, you unbuttoned your shirt without offering an explanation. Leaving the shirt to dangle from your handlebars, you tossed off your sandals and announced you were going in. You said you’d read about this, about being enveloped and ferried by this particular river’s current. Resting my bike on its kickstand, I walked toward the river’s edge and waved my hand beneath its cool, clear blanket. The current felt strong and restless. When you asked if I would join you, I shook my head, saying the water was too chilly. I was also wearing a lavender dress without a swimsuit beneath. In response to this, you told me I could get away with wearing my bra and panties. I said my underwear was too skimpy, and you sighed, disappointed.
As you jumped into the river wearing your khaki shorts half a mile away from where both our bikes now were leaning against a linden tree, I waited on a bridge stretching the width of the river to watch you pass. When you floated beneath me, I took several pictures of you smiling blindly and waving. Not far from where the surfers were chopping the river into pieces, you caught hold of a skein of surfacing tree roots. Even without your glasses, you were able to see when you needed to climb out without a problem. Mud streaked your abdomen as you rolled onto the bank, and when I was there to hand you your glasses, you exerted how invigorating you found the water. You told me I had to do it, when I only pointed to my dress again. It was one of my favorites, and I had no desire to stain or get it dirty. I had hoped to wear it in those other places we had still to visit over the course of the next few weeks in Germany and Alsace-Lorraine. Then seeing your face fall — knowing you were making this a test of our relationship — I sighed and relented.
Asking you to hold my purse, I loosened the straps of my sandals. I thought about slipping out of my dress and then decided against it. Walking barefoot to the place where you pointed to jump in, I hoped no broken glass was scattered among the grass growing even in the shadow spaces here in the largest park in all of Munich. Two men smoking cigarettes looked over and laughed when they saw me poised to jump in wearing all my clothing. I could not stop myself from screaming once immersed in water so frigid that I wondered for several sustained moments whether my heart had stopped, whether the pause permanently altered its rhythm.
The water ushered me forward without registering my weight, without seeming to notice I was there at all. For the space of a few minutes, I allowed myself to be carried by what seemed to be a living presence. I was carried too at a speed that felt much faster than it looked while conveying other bodies than my own. My body stayed almost vertical, almost standing, while my feet must have been only inches from touching bottom. For the time this freedom lasted, as I kept flowing closer toward where our bikes were resting, the world and I assumed a oneness. I looked up into a sky of interrupted blue. I let a stream of urine empty from my bladder as I waved to Germans of all ages lounging on the bank, drinking wine and spreading picnic blankets. I wanted this to keep happening, wanted never to leave this place, never to have another experience, which could never match this one’s purity and smoothness. After passing beneath the bridge where you were pointing our camera down toward me, I caught sight of the surfers and their rapids.
It took me only a few seconds to bypass the place where you had managed to pull yourself out of the water, where you had separated yourself from its hypnotic movement. Trying to grab hold of a similar knot of tree roots, trying to dig my fingernails into wood and mud and heave myself back onto land, I wasn’t strong enough to resist the current. Floating farther down, I tried again but found myself no stronger than seconds before, the current no weaker. Only a matter of feet away now from the surfers, I grabbed onto a miraculous rope spanning the width of the river, a rope that was apparently here to stop me.
For what seemed like several minutes — for what seemed like ages — the current kept building as I kept grasping the rope without being able to move the rest of my body closer toward the land on either side of me. I yelped your name and clutched the rope and waited. After a time, it became too apparent you were not coming to save me. Because your arms had been stronger and your body lighter, because you found your own exit effortless, you never realized that doing the same might not be possible for me. Though I cannot exactly blame you for this, by this point in our life together I also feel you should be aware of how much difficulty I have with transitions.
Eventually while hanging onto the rope I managed to edge myself closer to the bank, when another man, seeing my weakness, helped pull me onto the dirt and grasses. My pretty lavender dress was caked in mud now. Traces of sediment clawed its selvage. When I walked back to meet you, you were resting against a tree with another sign of skull and crossbones tacked to its trunk. You laughed when you saw me, sopping and frightened. When I told you what happened, you said you assumed I was strong enough to pull myself out of the river, the same as everyone else here. Clearly, though, I wasn’t. The weakness in my arms had surprised me. I still cannot explain the difference between my body and everyone else’s. I was also both too tired and too exhilarated to bother becoming upset with you, and we soon rode our bikes back to where we had rented them hours earlier. Ten minutes afterward, we walked to a cafe for sandwiches. Next morning, my hands were blotched with bruises.
In Strasbourg a week later, once you woke you told me you had just dreamt that we were at a party where everyone was naked. There were leather couches draped in animal skins, acrobats contorting across Persian carpets — your dream, as you admitted, was filled with trapping designed to serve as a prelude to an evening of orgies. You had already taken off all your clothes when the dream started, you clarified too for my benefit. You were ready to join the glut of other bodies when you looked over at me and noticed I was still wearing my blouse and jeans, my everyday clothing. When you told me to remove them, you watched me do so only with reluctance. Instead of rubbing myself against any other men, instead of exulting in the sensual liberation this place provided, you said I began to wrap my naked body now in plastic. I was attempting to escape by smothering myself in this way. As you explained this to me inside our hotel bed, your eyes widened. From your voice and your expression, I could tell this image had disturbed you, left you frightened.
Sitting up against the headboard while I still lay on my pillow, you said I eventually wrapped myself so tightly that my body turned blue until I suffocated. Normally, I might add, you do not share your dreams with me. Once in a while when I ask if you’ve remembered any, usually on a lazy Saturday or Sunday morning, you almost always say you have forgotten. This one stayed with you, however, which was why you shared it. In response, I only reached across you for a glass of water and drank until the glass was empty. I mentioned how much you snored last night by way of changing the subject. Ten minutes later or so, as I took a shower, I let shampoo enter my eyes and sting them open.
Because we soon set out for a series of museums, I never got around to telling you how, that night before that Strasbourg morning, I also had my own dream. As we lay beside each other in bed on the border of France and Germany, you and I had gone separate places. While you had been at an orgy, in my own dream I had seen through your body. In mine, no one was naked, maybe because no one needed to be. While you were attending a party with candelabras and velvet curtains and sculpted bodies, in my dream I had watched your windpipe dangling. I had peered inside your chest cavity and seen your lungs flapping behind your sternum. Everything was there as expected except for your heart, which was absent.
Watching you without your awareness — without you seeming to realize how transparent you had become in my eyes — I also noticed you went about your day without a problem. As the watcher in the dream, as a disembodied presence, I seemed to be more ghost than person. I followed you to work and watched as you spoke with your co-workers before you sat down behind your computer screen. It wasn’t long into the dream before I understood this was your life without me, a life that ran smoothly, without much emotional disturbance. The fact you were missing a vital organ may have meant you are more in touch with the truth of things than I am. Or perhaps it also suggests, at least from my perspective, that sometimes you lack compassion. For me to embrace more of my sensuality at this stage of our life together, for me to become more of the woman you are wanting, I suppose I need this. I need to you realize my arms are not as strong as they used to be. •