Fat Man Swimming
Henry watched the lifeguards run in their red bathing suits kicking up sand. Their brown muscular legs were sinewy and perfect, like stalks of rope. They were friendly and drove their Jeeps up and down the beach waving hello to the sunbathers, using megaphones to tell the surfers to move away from swimmers, or to come in closer to the shore. Even their voices seemed strong and perfect over the ocean surf. He heaved himself up on the beach blanket and tugged at his swim trunks. He thought the lifeguards watched him with concern. They're afraid I'll drown and they'll have to come in after me. They don't know how wrong they are, he chuckled to himself. For even though Henry was a fat man, he loved to swim, and he was an excellent swimmer. He didn't go for open- ocean swimming the way Meg did. She tested herself, plunging headlong into the breakers or slipping under the pounding surf to emerge on the other side, then moved swiftly out to the open ocean. Henry watched her disappear as sunlight and water merged. He trusted that she would always return.
Henry swam for different reasons. He hadn't learned to swim until his late twenties when he met Meg in grad school. While he struggled with construction systems in the Architecture Department, Meg was across campus in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and worked part-time as a lifeguard at the University Pool. She had saved a drowning man and Henry considered himself to be that man. He smiled to himself as he remembered his first encounters with the water. He had learned quickly because he realized how absolutely free, light, and beautiful he felt in the water - how the water succumbed to him and he to it. Henry shook off sand from an end of the blanket and turned his attention to a journal article on the assessment of architectural attributes in luminous environments.
Henry hadn't always been so happy or well-attuned to his physical body. When he was about eleven, his mother, Miriam revealed something disturbing. Henry had come home from his summer science class, he and his mother had finished lunch and were playing gin in the cool and darkened dining room. It was one of those drowsy afternoons in June, and after the long morning class in Mr. Lee’s stifling chemistry lab, the chicken salad whipped together by Tucker, their housekeeper, Henry still felt hungry.
“Could I have some potato chips?” he asked Tucker.
“Oh Henry, I don’t think you need any more for now.” Miriam interrupted. She smiled at him and pointed to his stomach.
He looked down at his stomach which bulged over his belt. The last button on his shirt was undone. His face flushed with shame, and he suddenly felt very tired. Miriam patted his hand and said, “there’s something I want to tell you.”
“I was young and from a respectable family… I went away for a while, I mean, well, I almost didn’t keep you, Henry,” she said. Henry looked startled.
“But I'm so glad I did. You know it was in another era really when women like myself, you know from “good homes” just did not have children if they weren’t married…and every one expected”…she gazed off for a moment…”great things from me…you know…because …well, your grandfather with all his hopes pinned on his only child.” She stopped and smiled, shaking her head at the space between them.
“You weren’t going to keep me?” he asked, incredulous at this announcement. Henry swallowed as quietly as he could, drew a card from the deck, and discarded another. Henry knew very little about his father, except that he had always been considered insignificant in Henry’s life. He knew more about his famous grandfather, the great paleo-botanist, Arthur Penfield.
“But I’m so glad I kept you, so glad, after all.” Miriam intoned. She stared down at her plate. Henry sat at the table listening to his mother’s confession, uncertain why she was telling him this now, and unsure of what to say. His mother had majored in biology in particular, cellular biology, and spent most of her time in a lab rather than following her father into Paleo. Had it been because of him he now wondered.
“Is that why you settled for biology rather than going into paleo-bot?” Miriam was surprised by this question.
“Well, I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but maybe.” Henry went on.
“You always said Paleo is fun and it’s the fossil record and that’s the only natural way to understand change over time, really…”
“Did I say that? Well your grandfather certainly believes that. I see what you’re saying. But my own choice was … well, I don’t see it as “settling.” Miriam stopped, somewhat flustered by the question. Surprised by Henry’s insight.
Henry wasn’t getting the answer he wanted, about sacrificing career options or choosing a less demanding field because somebody had a baby, that baby was him, and maybe she had resentments about that.
His mother was different. He knew this at a very early age. Not really like some of the other moms in the neighborhood who hugged their sons and daughters or greeted them when they arrived home from school. Miriam was in a lab at the University when Henry arrived home. Miriam did not bake cookies. Tucker did. She greeted him when he came home, handed him a plate of freshly-baked cookies, then left him to his own devices.
Miriam was cool and intellectual. As Miriam divulged this information, Henry realized just how little he knew her.
“Gin,” Miriam called out spreading her hand before him. “This is the fourth game in a row I’ve won, dear. You’re not focusing.”
“Excuse me, mother,” he said, standing up, holding his stomach as it did flip flops. “I would like to be excused so I can get an early start on the science project.”
“Of course, dear; go ahead. I have got to get back to the lab anyway.”
Henry went to his room, but he could hear his mother telling Tucker not to give him any snacks that afternoon.
He had no intention of working on his science fair project. He locked his bedroom door. He lay down on his bed staring up at the posters on his ceiling – one was an artist’s rendering of a Jurassic butterfly. The other a large chart that showed extinction rates for different species. His famous grandfather had given both of these to him for his 9th birthday. He fell asleep quickly and began to dream. In his dream, he was trying to swim ashore in darkness. He did every stroke he could think of - backstroke, flutter kick, dog paddle, he thrashed and churned. The water whizzed past - the heavy fluid weighed him down and buoyed him up. There was a surging and holding back, and then a letting go, and the faint voices as he came up for air. And then the water crashed in on him again and down he went to the sandy bottom. And when he surfaced, he remembered where he was and his conversation with his mother. He would have this dream for years until he met Meg.
Miriam had started to say things, about his chubbiness. I hope you lose your baby fat soon, dear. And sometimes she seemed overly concerned about Henry's preoccupations, not with his science projects or voracious reading habits, but with his artistic endeavors. He kept a chest in his closet that contained some of his sketches…He loved to draw pictures of the strange prehistoric creatures he found in his grandfather’s books. The Smilodon, the tiny bear dogs, the Triceratops which was lovely to draw with all its horns and crags. However, his favorite subject for illustration was sea shells. The delicate beauty of each form. He was currently working on illustrating ammonite. He had made the mistake of showing his sketches once to his grandfather and mother. Although they thought his skill was excellent, his grandfather made it very clear as he jammed his finger into Henry’s chest, “You are a scientist, not an illustrator.” There was something mystical about them that compelled him to keep drawing. He had recently taken up origami. After each sketch he began to make a paper model and this allowed him to expand the work into a palpable form that could be opened and closed. The White Spiral, and the Nautilus with its fanning accordion body, thrilled him. But the Ammonite with its gold and blushing surfaces almost made him believe in mermaids.
His mother often came to his door and asked, Wouldn't you like to be out there with the other boys playing? He sometimes felt he should be out there too. But he didn't want to be. These two sides of Henry collided with one another. The inner graceful artistic Henry whom his mother and grandfather viewed suspiciously, and the outer fat boy who his mother disapproved of and Henry wished to abandon or at least to hide.
During his junior year in high school, just before he'd slimmed down, Henry had felt at his lowest point. It was all those lonely afternoons reading, calculating equations, and devouring the cupcakes, cookies, and pies that Tucker baked for her church bazaars, but occasionally slipped to him when his mother wasn’t around.
Some evenings after dinner he'd pretend he was on his way to the library to study, but instead he’d detour down 10th Ave. and head straight to Astro Burger. What propelled him was a deep emptiness that he had no name for. He might order six burgers with extra cheese and fries, joking with the fry cook about an all night study session with friends. But he had no friends to speak of and he didn’t need to study more than he already did. He took the burgers into the schoolyard a few blocks away and ate them from their greasy paper wrappings. He ate them all without pause. Then he felt sick afterward. He hated himself. His vulnerability and lack of will. Will? What did that, mean? People spoke about it as if it was the easiest thing in the world to manipulate and control. He tried to picture his will. It suggested a strength that could tear rocks away from a cave, a physical power that could turn back a tidal wave. That is what his hunger felt like, a sunami. He sat in the dark against the backstop, listening to kids laughing, shooting baskets on the court not far away. He waited till he knew the library closed and the lights went out on the basketball court. Then he hurried home.
Now that he was a teenager and there was no sign of him losing his baby fat, his mother sent him to the doctor for diet pills. She was a practical woman and believed with all her mind that pharmaceuticals were the answer. He had to stand in long lines at the clinic to get his amphetamines. By this time, his self-loathing coupled with his mother's promise to buy him a car if he'd lose weight, propelled him to keep taking the diet pills. He wanted to please her after all, and so he tried.
He got his Volkswagen Beetle for dropping fifty pounds and then he started stashing cheesecakes in the trunk and driving out to the desert to eat them. Now that he had a car, it was no more skulking around at the greasy drive-ins, no more slouching behind backstops in the schoolyard. He developed some upscale appetites as well. It wasn't just fat and carb; now it was sugar, rich and chocolaty, and Just Desserts had recently opened a café near his home. So despite hearing Phil, his OA sponsor’s voice in his head, “Just gimme a call if you feel like plunging your face into the ice cream carton, and we’ll talk,” he would purchase a cake, drive out to the desert, take out the cake and devour it. He'd eat the whole cake leaning against his car. He felt safe standing out in the dark desert, listening to the coyotes howl, and the soft evening breeze blowing the crumbs off his cheeks. It gave him such joy, such unmitigated glee to be getting away with something, he felt he could almost sing.
In spite of these furtive trips to the desert to binge, Henry lost weight and kept it off for a while and this made his mother happy, although she continued to disapprove of the origami projects. Henry continued to feel a certain emptiness, although the two sides of him seemed to join, to fold into one another.
For a time, Henry was slim and perfect. By the time he was a senior in high school he was invited to parties where he consumed large amounts of alcohol and told jokes that everyone laughed at. He took Mary Houseman, the homecoming queen, for a drive in his car, and he kissed her on her porch steps before they said goodnight. He seemed to fit in. But even though he was now slim, Henry could tell something was not quite right. It was as though the fat was still there, like a phantom limb, a phantom body that followed him around. The phantom was like a derelict relative that kept showing up at every party or gathering uninvited. Henry started talking to his phantom fat because it hovered around him like a shadow he couldn't shake. One day he caught himself scolding his phantom fat. I can't take up the slack for you anymore. I can’t carry your weight anymore. The pull from this derelict self was very strong, like a rip current pulling him into an unfathomable depth where floundered.
He had tried Weight Watchers. He lost weight, forty-five pounds in four months. He had a little white scale for weighing foods. He stood in the kitchen placing slices of cheese, meat, and helpings of fruit on a small tray. He measured out ½ cups of pasta, beans, quinoa. He became obsessive about measuring the food instead of the food itself, and after he lost the weight, he tired of weighing and measuring. What was the difference? He had replaced one obsession for another. What was the point? No that sort of thing wasn't for him. He quit measuring one day and said to hell with it. He had twenty-five pounds back, and then some, in a month. But he felt a release from the absurd ritual of measuring and he vowed never to measure again. That’s when he met Meg.
One day at the university swimming pool, he'd noticed a young pregnant woman swimming in the lane next to him. He kept walking in the water alongside of her, and as he did, he thought of the sea of living things inside her.
Henry also liked the thick black lines in the pool. They gave order to his life. While measuring mouthfuls had given a kind of rigidity to his life – lines in the water (as he hadn’t actually learned to swim yet) provided him with a sense of precision. Henry noticed that the bottom of the pool was covered with storm debris - leaves, pebbles, dead spiders, a band aid floated by. His new goggles, which he had not actually used yet, made it possible to see everything with a clarity he wasn't sure he liked. He put them on and floated around. They were like underwater binoculars. They do take a bit of the mystery away he thought. He eyed a woman swimming next to him. Doughy white feet wriggled by. A scar on the top of her foot. She glided through the water lap after lap. He noticed a man swimming at the far end. He couldn't tell exactly what stroke the man was doing, but there was a compelling and persistent grace in his body as he moved through the blue water. Henry was intrigued. He climbed out of the pool so he could get a better look at the man in the water. Henry stood on the deck and watched as the man sailed through the changing light in the water, green, a swash of yellow, a purple shadow drifting across the surface, and then the whole canvas of water was covered with bright blue. What is that stroke he's doing? Henry wondered. The man did a beautiful arched freestyle and then a powerful scissor kick. Soon he made his way to the ladder and climbed out of the pool. He toweled off, patting a lizard tattoo on his upper arm as if the ink might run. The man's belly hung over his cut-offs. Henry was stunned. The man in the water had looked so poised. This man was big and rough-looking. But more than that, Henry noticed how uncomfortable he seemed on land as he made his way to the lounge chair, flopped down, grabbed his towel and covered up. Henry leaned back on the lounge, surrendering to the last of the sunlight, and began to contemplate the translation of the body from water to air. Soon a swimmer dropped her towel on the lounge next to Henry. She bent over and dripped water on the journal article Henry was reading… A Periodic City: The Politics of Space and the Design of Nothing.
“This is intriguing,” she said. “Are you in architecture, politics or just a nihilist?”
“Trying to be an architect, not a destroyer,” Henry replied dabbing at the spots of water on his papers.
“Cool.” She went to the lifeguard station, climbed the ladder and sat down under the umbrella. She had a scar on her right foot. She waved at Henry.
“Lovely evening isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, perfect.”
“Did you swim already?”
“Uh…I got in. But I have to confess, I’m not much of a lap swimmer.”
“We’ll have to remedy that."
Meg was so insistent and so approving of his graduate projects, his persistent desire to swim, and his affable nature that he felt he couldn’t disappoint. They met four times a week at 7:00 in the evening when Meg’s lifeguarding duties were finished. As she introduced each new stroke, Meg’s extraordinary talent as a swim instructor became more obvious and Henry realized he was in the hands of a master. She taught him to reach, to stretch his body lengthwise, to push and pull. He had trouble with the scissor kick, in spite of Meg’s patience and very clear instructions. As Henry lay on his side awkwardly trying to balance himself, Meg cast aside doubt and decorum and wrapped herself around him. She folded her legs in and through his and they began scissoring the water together.
Henry had never given up the origami projects entirely. He was currently attempting the folding of a city; he had spent weeks creating miniature buildings, some were towers that became birds, then the birds became flying fish. He filled them with lights and set them in corners of his room. But these projects only sustained him for a short period. There was something much larger inside him that demanded expression. A desire to give shape, to render in some permanent way the built environment, but to also capture the fluidity of that environment as origami did. By this time, his grandfather was dead, and his mother was in the Galapagos Islands investigating a company that had been suspected of greenwashing its eco-tours. She was not expected to return for six months. The pressure was off. Henry decided to switch majors in their absence. He knew he could never measure up to his grandfather’s success nor his mother’s expectations. He applied to Architecture School and was accepted. Who better than a fat man - although he was currently slim, and he viewed his slimness as a ruse, and felt that it was only a matter of time before something sabotaged his thin life - but who better than a fat man to understand how the configurations of space affect our lives within and without? How the familiar boundaries of the physical body intersect with the unknown framework of the heart? How the spaces inside and outside are reflections of one another? How one fold leads to another form.
Henry never spoke of his philosophy to the professors at the university, but he understood that he was both architect and artist. Sometimes in the middle of a long sentence about construction systems he might start multiplying images in his head -
the architecture of hunger, the cold kitchen, fountains and cafeterias of weightless clouds, methodical empty rooms, the general axial arrangement of goodbyes from the church steps a voice, a flame of cold glass and he was the kid waving, there was a sound of firecrackers, a sizzle from the interior...... deep within - light storms, bottle glass and steel and then he remembered –
This was Architecture 560. While these images would not find their way into his final paper, he gathered and stored them in his imagination, knowing they would always be the underlying wisdom of his designs. And he'd take the advisement of not only his heart and skill as an artist, but also of this phantom body he was so aware of all the time. Well, phantom, he'd address the fat, what sort of building shall we construct today? He liked open space most of all. When he constructed a living area for clients he always encouraged them to let the space open. And he'd encourage a huge wall of windows so you can see the stars tossing in the sky, or so your imagination can act upon the geometrical dimensions of the house. Henry let his poetic imagination guide all his creations. And he called upon his early love of paleo and origami. Everything that develops and changes is folded. Mountains, blossoms, the brain…life is an unending series of folding and unfolding. He wanted his clients to awaken, unfolding into the golden tidal wave of morning.
Henry became very successful. So successful that he eventually welcomed home his fat. By the time he met and married Meg, he was getting up on the scales again. He wore two sizes larger than in his undergraduate days. But it didn't matter because he had found the space within.
Fat men always swim in the dark. He noticed this when he first started going to The Swim Club at night. The fat men came in after the sun started its slant into the sea. He watched as one gentle giant lifted a foot and placed it in the emerald green water. He looked around the pool deck. They were everywhere - there was a stout one at the east end getting the goggles on, a hefty one crouched between two lounge chairs, a rotund one fluffing his towel and settling in. They were all well-groomed these three. He was close enough to one to notice his manicure and the designer label on his towel. They all seemed delicate in their heavy way as they entered the water and became weightless. He scanned their faces for some sign of weakness, a flicker of discontent. Instead he found tranquility. Suddenly he moved to the edge and dove in, and when he did there was a geyser of water that shot straight up and then came showering down. And this dive into the water was a deep chord that radiated other notes, and he could hear music and feel the music on his skin as he turned, glided and spun. And some nights Henry retrieved himself in that water. Some nights all of the disparate elements of his soul were reclaimed as he descended into the chlorinated depths.
Later that evening, after they had returned from the beach, Meg came into the room.
“Ah, there's nothing better than being naked,” Henry said.
“There's nothing better than swimming naked or perhaps making love in the water.”
Yes, he said, and then Meg came around the side of the bed and lay down, encircling him with one strong arm. In their lovemaking he felt like a water creature out of his element. He sometimes joked that he was too heavy and would crush Meg if he got too carried away - became too passionate. Meg laughed and said, “You're not that heavy.” She hugged Henry tighter and said
let’s tread water together. This lovemaking made him weightless and graceful. In it he dived, surfaced and dived again into the depths, swimming through her and inside her, as she reached for him taking him in.