My black one-piece is a little tight, but it’s reliable, holding my body firmly but gently in an almost therapeutic embrace. I gained twenty pounds last year, partly because of a chronic foot injury and partly, I think, because I broke my no-diet rule with an allergy diet, triggering my body’s starvation signals with several weeks of brown rice and vegetables. I ruled out any food allergies, though, which I guess was worth it. But now I have some work to do, to convince my hard-pressed body that I won’t try to starve her again. She’s hyper-sensitive to that, since I have starved her in the past. When I count calories now it’s as much to make sure I don’t go below 1800 as above 2000. Either way can trigger weight gain.
But I’m not really thinking about that as I tie my short hair back with two cloth-covered elastics and step quickly into the shower at the gym. I rotate my right arm and smile when there’s no pain. A shoulder injury from more than a year ago had kept me from two of my favorite activities — yoga and swimming — but just this last week it has felt better enough that I’m going to go for a swim. I squeeze the excess water out of my hair and hold my towel at arm’s length as I pad damply through the locker room and to the pool. I hang my towel on a hook, pick up a blue kick board, and look for a free lane. I’m a little awkward lowering myself to a seated position on the cool tile, but once I slip into the water I’m in a different world, and my body is different, too. I position my goggles onto my eyes, make sure they’re watertight, then dive under the floating line to the free lane.
It’s not like I’m a skilled swimmer. But know how to put my head underwater and breathe out, turn it up to the side when the other arm comes forward and breathe in. I do a lap freestyle, (which doesn’t actually mean freestyle but a front crawl, but Hannah and Mark will laugh at you if you call it a crawl) and my arms feel tired, but I know they will loosen up. I give them a break by holding on to the kick board for a lap, letting my legs do the work. I used to think I hated exercise, but I finally figured out that I just needed to let myself warm up enough. For me the first ten or fifteen minutes are the hardest. Then my muscles loosen, my heart rate increases with a pleasant warm rush, and I’m in what must be what they call the zone. I pop the board up onto the tiles and do laps freestyle again, feeling the slight burn in my arm muscles and the almost effortless coordination of my abs, back, and legs. Nothing else is like swimming, when your whole body is in on the action, even down to your fingers and toes. The water streams around me as I surge forward. It’s warm and slightly chemically, but it’s not chlorine, I think.
When I was a teenager I felt self conscious in a bathing suit. We used to wear big t-shirts over our suits, which would get sodden and drag us down. At some point in my twenties I decided I was just going to strip and not worry about it. It helps that the people at the gym are strangers. And it helps to see women older than me, in their fifties, sixties, and even seventies, taking off their clothes without care for what others may think. I like to see other women’s bodies, in bathing suits, and naked in the locker room. It’s such a more pleasant variety than the ones in magazines. When I look around at all the ways it’s possible to be a woman, at all the different types of beauty, it makes me suspect that I might be beautiful, too, even with those twenty extra pounds.
A man stands at the end of my lane, watching me, and despite the wide open space and many people around I’m a little nervous. I come up to the end of the lane and avoid eye contact with him, but he speaks to me and I realize he is asking me if he can share my lane. I say yes, of course. He didn’t have to ask, after all — he could have just jumped in. The lanes are wide enough for two, but there is always a moment of awkwardness when you pass each other, arms long in their stride almost touching, waves disrupting each other’s rhythm. I wonder what it was about me that made him decide to ask me instead of the other three solo-lane swimmers. But then I shake off this intrusion into my world and lose myself again in the water, movement, breath.
After twenty minutes I make myself stop and assess. Six weeks ago I pushed too hard on the elliptical and got the worst migraine I’ve ever had. The neurologist said what I already knew: Go slowly, short workouts, don’t push so hard. I love pushing myself. But I’m trying to be wise. I decide I can do another ten minutes, but not as fast. I had a little bit of a migraine when I started, but it seems to be better. After those ten minutes are over I really want to do more, but I make myself stop and stretch. Stretching in the pool is fun, too — I can lift my legs up to the edge with little effort. My lower back hurts a bit from arching while I swim, so I curl up into a ball to stretch it out, floating on the surface, enjoying the flush of my face, the slowing of my heartbeat. Then I send the kick board ahead of me and dive under the lane-divider again. This time I am more graceful rising out of the water, even though it’s bittersweet regaining full gravity. I return the board and fetch my towel, again holding it at arm’s length till I can get in the shower and rinse off.
My shoulder still feels okay, but I turn the shower to hot and aim it at my neck and shoulders for a few minutes. Outside it has started to rain, but it’s fifty degrees so I don’t have to worry about my hair freezing before I get home and take a real shower. Back at home, though, I’m hungry, so I decide to first make a quick pot of curried black bean and squash soup that I invented a few years ago.
I toss four cups of chicken broth, 1 TBSP curry powder plus a little extra cinnamon and nutmeg, two cans black beans, rinsed, pre-chopped butternut squash, and a can of diced tomatoes into a pot and simmer for 15 minutes. When the squash is almost soft I add a bag of frozen corn and return to a simmer. Then I stir in a bunch of baby spinach and turn off the heat. The flavors will blend together perfectly overnight, but I have two bowls right away. My body needs to know I’ll feed her when she’s hungry. I have to see the swim and the soup as caring for myself and my body, not punishing her. We’re on the same team, this fierce swimmer and I. And we’re getting stronger together, little by little.