Christopher Merkner ~ White People Swimming

Months after the cel­e­bra­tions of life, my wife invit­ed a man to the house for lunch. I toast­ed four slices of wheat bread and unwrapped two slices of cheese from their plas­tic slips. He and I spoke about the absence of snow. I found his views exhaust­ing. I could not hear my wife any­where in the house.

I dropped tor­tilla chips beside his sand­wich while he explained that he had spent that morn­ing installing four planters for the city, big planters with auto­mat­ic irri­ga­tion sys­tems, in a new­ly cement­ed medi­an. He would fin­ish anoth­er median’s worth of planters once my wife drove him back down­town. Perhaps hear­ing her name, my wife appeared. She asked if he was ready. When he’d fin­ished his lunch, and the two of them had left, I cleaned up his crumbs.

She came home with anoth­er man two days lat­er, a col­lege sta­tis­tics pro­fes­sor. A Lutheran min­is­ter fol­lowed three days after that. Yet anoth­er man, this one with­out a clear pro­fes­sion, arrived for lunch a few days after this, and this guy stayed for din­ner: Mark Spitz, a famous swimmer.

We were hunt­ing for a men­tor. My wife was look­ing for a man who could take me under his wing, set me back on track. We were look­ing for a man who could take my wife out of her life at that time and treat her as she felt she’d long deserved to be treated.

Incorrect, my wife said. She said the men­tor part was accu­rate. She point­ed out that fear had become my clos­est con­fi­dant. She said that I had made a cuck­old of thought. She said that pro­tract­ed obses­sion with pride-preen­ing and K2-scale self-pity and cul­tur­al igno­rance had tak­en the place of our dead son. She said this was not about sav­ing me, and she said this was sure­ly not about sal­vaging our love.

Two days after we’d eat­en two meals with Mark Spitz, it was sud­den­ly Mark Spitz’s birth­day. My wife told me it might be nice if I took him out for a drink. I’d once prid­ed myself on the open mind’s val­ue, she remind­ed me.

I asked her if she real­ly thought Mark Spitz had noth­ing bet­ter to do with his time.

She shrugged.  You nev­er know, she answered.

Alas, very few men have snubbed me with greater kind­ness. My wife rolled her eyes. She brought no one home for lunch for weeks, includ­ing her­self. Closer to April, I com­plet­ed a let­ter to my wife, whom I’d locat­ed in Mexico City, and then I destroyed it. The let­ter was ter­ri­ble. I just want­ed to speak to her.  She had left while I was gar­den­ing. Her note apol­o­gized. You’ll be fine, she wrote.

It takes too many peo­ple a life­time to find them­selves at Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México. Even then, you’re not ready. If you grew up in almost any part of American, you’re not ready for any part of Mexico.  The world I wit­nessed through the rear pas­sen­ger win­dow of the Uber to my wife’s com­pound con­front­ed my every sor­row and sen­su­al dimen­sion of sor­row, past and future, and con­demned all of it.

When I arrived at this com­pound where my wife had alleged­ly holed up with friends, Mark Spitz opened the door. He took my bag, walked me in with his arm around my shoul­der, said he’d been think­ing a lot about the last time we’d met. He said he thought, now that he’s had time to think about it, he would like to be my men­tor. My wife came out of the kitchen and took Mark Spitz’s hand.

It was a har­row­ing few weeks after that, but Mark Spitz held up his promise and met me, per many terse email exchanges, my wife CC’d, in Santa Fe. In my reflec­tion in the swim­ming pool water, on that first morn­ing, before dawn, a wiz­ened mes­sen­ger report­ed that I should not be tak­ing my shirt off in public.

Spitz: undaunt­ed.  In one week under his men­tor­ship, I fleeced four min­utes from my 200 Free. Very few com­pet­i­tive orga­ni­za­tions desire men my age, but the Regional Olympics Organization in Colorado Springs took my dig­its at Mark Spitz’s insis­tence and con­tract­ed me as a pace­set­ter for the Regional Nineteen and Unders.

This moved us to Colorado. The Nineteen and Unders fussed over Mark Spitz in embar­rass­ing excess, and he fussed over them in uncom­fort­able, affec­tion­ate expres­sions of sup­port for their work and time and effort. One after­noon, eat­ing gra­nola bars on the bleach­ers, he snatched a young swimmer’s phone and texted anoth­er young swim­mer to express her love to that swim­mer. They both played it cool, feigned a lit­tle dis­may, but their grat­i­tude was elec­tric. Life, Spitz told both young women, though he was look­ing at me, isn’t long.  You must do things like you have rapid­ly expir­ing min­utes to cou­ple. Say less. Do every­thing fast. Everything is ending.

I was end­ing.  Mark Spitz was eras­ing me. I’d lost nine­ty-sev­en pounds. I was in the water twelve hours a day. The most painful and least com­pli­cat­ed sev­en weeks of my life came and went under water. I was lit­er­al­ly and exis­ten­tial­ly swim­ming. I saw every­thing out of water as a sus­pend­ed, mono­chro­mat­ic prune. I ate all of it. I had no time to talk. I had too much time to think. Every thought was unut­ter­able. My body cried out to Athena. My ghost son came and went. I elim­i­nat­ed anoth­er four min­utes from my 200 Free. The faster I swam, the less Mark Spitz talked to me. Absurdly, this made me swim harder.

Sometimes, he would nod from the end of the pool, then he stopped nod­ding entire­ly. Then he stopped show­ing up to prac­tice entirely—

My wife said, Is Mark Spitz a whin­er? Does he call me like this, a self-con­scious Junior High kid? Is he a fret­ter? Why are you talk­ing to me about your men­tor? Is he worth your pre­cious words? Do you think I don’t have enough of him at home?  Do you think I need more Mark Spitz?

Swimming the Pan-American Games in Peru would be tech­ni­cal­ly ille­gal at my age, the Nineteen and Unders coach­es informed me, but our club was no Florida, no California. No one was look­ing at us. Plus, I had Spitz. In a world of turin­abol swish­ing and methas­terone sup­pos­i­to­ries, Mark Spitz said to me one night from the shad­ows of the lock­er­room, star­tling me, What does age even mean any more?

Peru: no one stops my paper­work. I’m on the deck. No one cares, but every­one glances. My com­peti­tors in the qual­i­fiers are half my age and dou­ble my height. Two men from Brazil open­ly point at parts of my body. Mark Spitz is nowhere to be found. Yet, I destroy my pre­vi­ous splits by near­ly five sec­onds. I lap the gen­tle­man rep­re­sent­ing Columbia. Afterward, I slap the water and shake hands with the oth­er swim­mers. I pump my fist to indif­fer­ent bleach­ers and vacant faces.

All of this will seem abun­dant­ly absurd in the future, but I’m not done. I take third in Finals the next day. No one meets me after I change clothes and bag my medal. I will learn that Mark Spitz has already flown back to the states to be with my wife. I have a return flight myself that goes through Denver the next day, but I will miss it. I’m no Odysseus. There’s no Telemachus chas­ing. Nothing was end­ing just as every­thing was end­ing. I rubbed my face.  I remem­ber rub­bing my face, and then I walked out of the arena.

Outside of Lima, I stopped walk­ing and dropped my duf­fle bag.  I looked up to the brushy-beige hills and saw a line of sweat­ing men. They were dig­ging an agri­cul­tur­al aquat­ic sys­tem, spon­sored by Wells Fargo, the fore­man told me in Spanish.   He told me about the hos­tile weath­er, pol­lu­tion and con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, feck­less con­sump­tion pat­terns by the wealthy and poor­ly edu­cat­ed mid­dle class.  I nod­ded.  I grabbed a pick­axe. I looked him in the eye, and I asked him if he thought I’d changed.  He touched my shoul­der.  He laughed, a good one from the gut.  He told me these peo­ple were dying from thirst.


Christopher Merkner is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. His sto­ries have been reprint­ed in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Mystery Stories anthologies.