Swimming Upstream: A Memoir in Pools


First Person

Because I loved the water and because I moved all the time—in search of what, I wasn’t yet sure—I found that swimming laps was a good way to get somewhere without booking another ticket. Wherever we were, I’d search out an open lane, and sometimes I’d surprise myself, encountering the person who emerged on the other side. You could learn a lot with your eyes closed.

Way back, before we moved to the Middle East, I loved the thrill of swimming at Hamilton Fish, the big outdoor pool on East Houston Street, where the Europeans swam fast in skimpy suits, but where there was always plenty of room for everyone. We lived nearby, in Chinatown, and I rode my bike a few blocks to my first big editor job. We were young and it was hard to imagine anything going wrong.

Then my wife got the fellowship in D.C., which sent her to southern Russia, where she was detained for three days by Russian authorities, who took her passport, laptop, and notes, and then threatened to take her to trial in Chechnya. When she landed in Virginia, her friends and I were relieved and waved little American flags. Later, recuperating at a hotel near Dupont Circle, she and I swam laps at the National Capitol YMCA, on Rhode Island Avenue, but all the other swimmers were super aggressive—with as many as ten to a lane, shouldn’t these august people have known better?—and I found the crush of writhing bodies too exhausting ever to go back.

Later it was Recreation Center 54, in Midtown New York, a few blocks from my new job, and I was already beginning to regret the implications of a move to this part of town, having abandoned the scruples of working downtown, so on a lunch break I thought I might visit the nearby city pool. Diving into the water was a revelation: cool and clear and I could swim for ten minutes, then twenty minutes, and after a while I was gone from my desk for an hour and then two, as if the swimming was the reason to be in the East fifties, not the job. Then one day, an old guy tapped me on the shoulder—it was always old men at the lockers in the morning—and he told me, gently, that the early hours were for seniors. I wasn’t old enough yet.

Growing up in Miami, I swam laps in our backyard pool on One Hundred Fifty-Seventh Street. The pool was kidney-shaped, open to the sun and stars. In junior high, I swam more and more each night, hoping to slim down, perhaps to impress that punk-rock beauty in homeroom, who might one day take off her headphones and talk to me. Then I was thirty years old, I’d known many other pools, and my dad was dead. Having previously found a woman who would not only talk to me but marry me, I had also become a father myself, and we were back in Miami trying to get papers in order and do the cremation, et cetera, and then I tried to swim laps in the same pool I’d loved as a boy. On Facebook, missing my dad and posting photos, I discovered the girl, who still lived in Miami. In time, she had her own kid too. I had to admit my childhood pool was a little small for swimming laps.

My wife, it should be said, probably preferred jail in southern Russia to a few weeks in suburban Miami, yet there was inescapable family stuff we’d yet to take care of, so it was with some desperation that she planned to visit an Olympic-size pool. Losing a parent wasn’t easy, and if my head had been more clear I probably could have helped her find a better pool. Yet it was to Goulds Park, in a rough neighborhood, that she drove, and when she approached the gate, the lady with the key refused her entry, saying something about a coming storm.

We threw my dad’s ashes in the sea and moved to the Middle East. My wife was taking a post in Iraq and I was moving to Istanbul, where I soon found a pool with a sunroof at the Dolapdere Campus of Bilgi, a private university. Among my fellow swimmers, I encountered a preponderance of people arriving angry. They’d find a lane, swim quickly with choppy strokes, then they’d take sharp sips of water, and soon they were done. It was a sprawling city of fifteen million, growing bigger every day, and happiness didn’t seem to come so easily. One day I followed a swimmer to the cafeteria, his hair still wet, and he bought a cup of tea, which he drank in quick gulps, smoking the whole time. It rained for what felt like six months. My wife never found a pool in Iraq.

Last winter we moved to Beirut, which was a relief, because it was warmer than Istanbul and I didn’t have to worry about my wife in Baghdad anymore, but war in Syria loomed, so now instead of worrying about her, I worried about us all. Then I found a great indoor pool at a gym called Lifestyles on our side of the line that had divided the city during the civil war back in the eighties. I was surprised again by people’s curious habits. Most Beirut swimmers seemed content to idle around, holding a wall, bobbing gently up and down, as if they had all time in the world. The power would go out, plunging the facility into darkness, but nobody made a peep. They’d seen it all. The lights came back on and they might swim a lap or two, but for the most part it was a lot of soaking and chatting. Occasionally an old man might do four or five quick strokes, careful not to get his eyes wet. The air, whenever I came up for breath, seemed to smell of cologne.

This summer my wife was in Yemen and Syria, and instead of any pool in the Middle East I was home with our daughter for the summer, staying with my in-laws on Lake Petersburg, in central Illinois, where I cranked out strokes through murky water. In theory, I wanted to remain away from the Middle East forever, never to leave America again, yet it was a hot summer and I was no longer enjoying what had been the second cleanest lake in Illinois. Things change and the water was no longer so inviting and I had a flight to catch and no one could tell me where on the list the lake ranked these days. I toweled off in the sun one day and—just in time—I began to miss my life in Beirut.

Nathan Deuel lives in Beirut and is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Tampa. He has written essays for GQ, Salon, Slate, The Awl, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. On January 15, he is giving a reading with Philip Lopate, as part of KGB Bar’s True Story nonfiction series.