Every Wednesday morning around six a.m. I find myself slowly circling an Olympic-sized swimming pool, holding coffee in one hand and persistently rubbing the tired out of my eyes with the other. I’m life-guarding and there are only two kinds of people up and swimming at this hour: the dedicated athletes in tight speed-o’s and swim caps, and the Q-tips. The Q-tips are the old men and women with shocks of white fluffy hair. They waddle across the deck, grab foam weights and slowly make their way into the water. Imagine wrinkly little lima beans stuffed in colorful one-pieces wearing rouge and lipstick, with names like Eleanor, Alice and Betsy, getting ready for their Water Aerobics class. They gossip among themselves, swapping stories about their children and grandchildren while the young and energetic instructor yells “Flutter kicks! 30 more seconds!” in a shrill voice. I hug my red safety tube to my chest, fixing the strap, and watch them, occasionally dip my foot into the 86 degree water that they complain is “too cold”, and start to think. Each one of these eighty to ninety year old men and women have a story. A history. Their ratio of life lived and life left to live is completely opposite from my own. I find myself wondering if the woman they call Tiny was a knockout in her day. I wonder what wars Bob served in and where Agatha lived during the Civil Rights Movement. I wonder about the stories they have to tell, and if anyone is around to listen.
Everyone has a vision right? You set goals and you plan for the future with imagination and wisdom. But so many times that vision doesn’t meet reality.
— Reverend Matt Farabow
On Sundays I walk down to the Christ United Methodist church for the eleven o’clock service. I’m not Methodist but the pastor is young and earnest and I find him sweet. His sermon is more like listening to a friend than a holy authority preaching at me. I grab the mini pencils in the pew and write down his words on the back of the donation envelopes. Recently he told us that set plans crash and fall or completely veer off to the left but that we must believe God has a vision. He will protect and provide. I considered this as the rows of bowed heads and wooden rafters slowly faded from view and in my mind I go back to South Africa. It’s four months into the study abroad program and I find myself kneeling on the floor tripping on mushrooms in some guy’s kitchen. My hair is frizzy and lays tangled around my shoulders. My jeans are covered in earth and everything in the room is in sharp focus. Two girls who had become my utmost closest friends sit beside me and I think about how much I love them. I squeeze my eyes shut and a montage of images begins to flash before me, like slides on a dark screen that is the inside of my eyelids. It’s my life divided up into moments, big and small. Moment after moment after moment, like stepping stones, each one connecting and leading to the next. A rush of forward momentum that was perpetually shaping a winding path that was leading all the way up to that exact moment, in that exact spot. And I started to cry. I cried for all the what-ifs, for all the possible things that could have happened that would have ended with me standing somewhere else. I cried for the plans broken and for the new ones formed. I cried because I never trusted God more fully than in that moment.
Take me away
See I’ve got to explain
Things, they have changed
In such a permanent way
Life seems unreal
— The Strokes
Over the summer I spent a lot of time sitting by the fire with my two friends Nick and Matt. We sipped cheap beer and shared cigs late into the nights, talking about anything that came to mind. Matt is a beanpole with messy black hair who is in his own head so much you can always count on him for a socially awkward moment. He’s endearing. And he’s fragile. One evening the cans piled up high by Matt’s lawn chair as we kept the fire burning. The conversation turned serious as he admitted he had an anxiety attack last winter. For five days he couldn’t sleep and his father had to hospitalize him. We kept quiet as he spoke about it, watching the glowing embers left in the fire pit fade to black, with the Strokes playing softly in the background.
I didn’t ask him what it was about. I didn’t have to. College is when you learn about yourself repeatedly, only to turn around and get lost again. Breakdowns are the fissures in our facades of having it all together. And we can only entrust our story to the people who love us and hope they too understand how everything can get so fucked up.
The truth about forever is that it is always changing.
Back at the pool Roberta is telling me about her granddaughter’s new “Juicy” tattoo and Bill keeps cracking jokes about how he wants to date a new “hot young thing”. Laugh lines grace their mouths and sunspot speckled skin. I think about how Matt won’t visit his grandmother because her aged face scares him. I think about my own grandmother and the stories she tells. I think about how stories define us; become the pieces of the puzzle that is identity. I imagine them running through our bodies like the web of veins beneath the surface of our skin, pumping new life and blood within us, circling through wrists and fingertips, finding the way to our hearts, just waiting to be told, to help us understand.
The aerobics class ends and the Q-tips mill about the water. The instructor shouts over the chatter, announcing birthdays and new class schedules and who’ll be getting out of the hospital soon to rejoin class. My head hurts and I fleetingly imagine walking to the edge of the deep end, diving into the clear water and letting the liquid fill up my eyes and ears and nose and mouth, effectively lulling me into a deep sleep where there are no more stories to be considered, spoken of, or lived.
What I do instead is shift my weight to my right foot, re-adjust my strap and take another sip of coffee.