NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Although the MySpace profile shows me as 100 years old, I am only 64. Only! In 1961, when I was 17 and learned that Ernest Hemingway had killed himself, I remember thinking, Well, he was 61; he lived a good, long life. 61 is not a good, long life. And 64 is what I would call the start of advanced late youth. Of course, we’re all going to die, but I say later, much later – in fact, as the old saying goes, never.
Trying to keep myself fit to fiddle, most mornings I rise at six and drag my butt over to the local fitness center to swim a kilometer. When I say “most mornings,” that is hyperbole. Let’s say two to four times a week. This week I only managed to crawl out of the sack twice – on Monday and on Friday, leaving three days in between where, due to a surfeit of social events which included a good deal of food and drink, emphasis on the latter, I slept in. When, in disgust, I finally threw off the covers and limped out to brew coffee, I felt every single year carrying me toward mortality, and later started to seem not so very much later after all.
So today, Friday, with some sense of urgency – the eternal footman’s chill breath down my neck – I sprang out of bed and hoofed it over to the pool by quarter to eight. I was the only swimmer there. I love it when I am the only swimmer. I get the lane I like, far side of the pool by the high windows and can let my mind roam free without the intrusion of splashers or erratic lane shifters or heedless back strokers who whack you on the snout, can sense the Danish winter gloam opening slowly to light the morning toward spring.
Stretch and scoop water, stretch and scoop and paddle the legs with my self-styled slow-motion crawl, I did my 50 lengths in as many minutes, then breached out of the pool, did some stretching on the wet tiles to keep my leg muscles and back from cramping and, feeling virtuous and good, jogged down the stairs to the men’s locker where I stripped for the shower.
In the shower room were two naked men with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. They were not swimmers – they used the gym, treadmill, stationery cycles, weights, machines, stuff I can’t use because it gets to my back. As I attempted to allocate the customary nod and mumbled greeting, I noticed that both of them were looking strangely at me, eyes large, mouths open, as though they might be seeing a ghost. Odd, to stand there, naked, being stared at by two naked men as though your face was hanging out.
Finally, the younger of the two said, “Good thing it wasn’t you who drowned.”
I asked, “Did someone drown?” flashing weirdly on the fact that the book I am reading at the moment is titled Drown by Junot Diàz.
“Sank like a stone,” the man said. “Bottom of the pool. There was another man swimming with him and he yelled and waved through the windows. Two other men came running from the gym, and one of them – an Egyptian guy, a writer, strong swimmer – dove right in and got him up out of the water. He was dead.”
“He was dead?”
“Yeah,” said the other guy. “But the other man from the gym knew first aid and resuscitated him. Weird. To be dead. And then alive again. We didn’t know who it was, didn’t see him. They carried him out on a stretcher. We figured it must have been you. You usually swim at that time. Good thing he wasn’t alone in the pool. He’d really be dead.”
The other man said, “Figure he must have had a stroke or something when he was swimming. He was an old guy. Seventy.”
“I’m 64,” I said.
“Still. Thought it was you. Good thing it wasn’t.”
I swallowed. I looked from the one naked man to the other, and my voice was hushed as I murmured, “Thanks.” Then I went in to shower, feeling an odd mixture of fear and elation.
Ten minutes later, dressed, headed for the door, I nodded more elaborately than usual to my two locker mates, said, “Have a good weekend.”
“Good weekend,” the one said, knotting his tie. And the other, buckling his belt, echoed, “Good weekend.”
Outside on the street I stopped to gaze in at the big pool, its surface still and glassy, no one in the water. Behind the tall broad window, beneath the high spotlight-speckled ceiling, the tiled floor empty under the dim light, water reflecting the color of the aquamarine pool bottom, the big empty space looked like something from a David Lynch film – menacing in its stillness, lifeless matter that somehow might have absorbed and smothered whatever vitality had been in its proximity, ready to absorb more – like if you looked too long, it might suck you in.
The day was cold and clear. I flung my long grey-striped woolen scarf over my shoulder and strolled off briskly, legs easy, stomach tight, still alive, wondering how I would use the day.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
Copyright Thomas E. Kennedy
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