Susan Duke: The Distance
Loretta shook her head, amazed. Twice weekly for the last two months, she had asked herself, What am I, of all people, doing here?
Penny hadn’t approved. She’d argued, “Mom, why did you let Millie talk you into this hair-brained scheme? You know you have a full life here with us and the kids.”
This morning sitting on the edge of the YMCA pool felt as natural as eating corn flakes. Just when did that happen?
She blinked and leaned back on stiff arms. As she began her flutter kick, Loretta glanced left and right at the row of men and women who had joined her in the swim class.
Poor old Elmer Johnson down there on the end. With his shriveled right arm, he didn’t like to stray too far from the edge. Funny how nonchalant he was about it. “Farming’s a dangerous occupation,” he’d simply said on the first day.
Loretta tried not to stare, but twelve senior citizens in swimming garb left little to the imagination. She chuckled. Here I am, letting it all hang out, too.
Her cheeks burned slightly. Jack had loved her modesty. In over forty years, full or partial nudity had popped up only in their bedroom. Loretta even hated to wear shorts in August.
“Two more minutes, people.”
She smiled at Rosa Gonzales as twenty-four feet obediently raised noisy splashes in the clear water. Chlorine vapors filled the air.
Rosa was a robust woman. Two-fifty if she was a pound. Yet, her vibrant personality and skill in the water made everyone feel comfortable with her. Since day one, she had kept an eye on old Elmer.
The quiet woman between Loretta and her best friend was a mystery. Millie had posed the theory that Mrs. Silverman had lied about her age to get into the class.
“Oh, Millie, that’s plain silly,” Loretta had whispered.
“No one with an AARP card has natural chestnut hair. Sixty-two, my foot. She’s forty-five if she’s a day.”
Still, something about the petite woman irked Loretta. Fumbling with towels in the locker room should have broken down any societal barriers. In eight weeks, they’d barely exchanged five words.
Plastic surgery, maybe. It must have been an extreme make-over, though, because Mrs. Silverman’s arms and legs were as firm as Nerf balls.
“Okay, that’s enough warm-up folks. Please slide into the pool.”
Loretta smiled as the cool water enveloped her body. She bent her knees slightly, just keeping her head above the surface. Her aching joints eased as she swished her arms to and fro like the agitator in her Maytag.
“That’s right, people. Go ahead with your rinse cycle and bunny hop exercises. We’ll take five minutes and then move on. You all know today’s the big day.”
Loretta slipped under and bobbed up quickly. Yup. The big day. She still hadn’t decided to attempt the impossible dream or not.
She hopped on alternating feet, letting the water do most of the work. Ronald, the big show-off, would probably go all the way. He thought he was still a teenager. What a case of arrested development.
“Why does he spend half the class time underwater?” Loretta had asked the ladies as they had all bunched together during free swim last Tuesday.
“He’s checking out our butts,” Millie had said.
“Ugh! That’s disgusting.”
Loretta kicked up and drifted on her back. Her arms moved slowly as she breathed evenly. She gazed at the ceiling.
Look at me, Jack, she mused. Can you believe your little pumpkin is floating?
Can you believe I’m out here in this big pool doing this?
Her husband had been a powerful swimmer. When the kids had sent them to Hawaii for their twenty-fifth anniversary, Loretta had loved watching his muscled arms plow through the waves. Talk about exciting. He should have lived to be a hundred.
“Hey, watch it, kiddo.”
Loretta gasped and sank. She sputtered to the surface to see Millie laughing.
“What’s a little bump between friends?” Millie finished her aqua leg stretches and pointed to their young instructor. The girl paced the pool deck, offering pointers to grayed heads bobbing in the clear water.
“Do you think we should tell her?”
Millie sighed. “She’s so perky. Cellulite will find her eventually. Her tight little body will go south on her someday, just like the rest of us.”
Rosa and her friend bounced closer. “Si. We all age, don’t we?”
Millie shook water from her face. “Yes, and I hate it. Every time I look in the mirror, it’s devastating. That’s why I signed up for this class. Thought maybe I could firm up something.”
Alberto flashed his white teeth. “You are a lovely woman, Mille. And you, Loretta. Why are you here?”
Loretta shrugged and ducked under.
Because Penny and Mike told me not to do this. Told me to sell my house and go live with them and the kids.
Because Millie nagged me to do it.
Because I miss my husband terribly and will go crazy unless I try new things.
Because getting wet seemed like a good idea at the time.
A few minutes later, a dozen senior citizens lined up at the south end of the pool.
“Okay,” the young lifeguard said as she looked down at her wrinkled students. She grinned and clapped her hands. “That is for each of you. Congratulations on completing the eight week swim and exercise program. I’m very proud of you, but one big challenge remains.”
Nervous laughter rippled down the row of swimmers.
“Today is our last day. Turn around and look at the other end of the pool. Fifty meters! Remember, it’s nine feet deep down there. No one is required to attempt it, but you may if you like. It’s your choice. Try to stay in your lanes. If you want to quit or get into trouble at any time, there are plenty of us to help you out. Okay. Do your deep breathing and kick off.”
Rosa, Alberto, Mrs. Silverman, and a few others stretched out and began to swim.
“Let’s head for the showers, kiddo,” Millie said as she edged toward the ladder.
“You go ahead. I. . .I think I’m going to try.”
“Loretta! Are you crazy? You can’t swim fifty meters. A girl has to know when to make a graceful exit.”
Loretta smiled, braced both feet on the wall and shoved off. Water rippled past her as she glided. She raised one arm and then the other to pull herself along the surface. Turning her head and breathing became an effortless rhythm. Her legs and feet fluttered in a driving kick.
She tuned out sounds echoing off the walls. She was weightless and free. Thoughts that had once cluttered her mind were washed away. Her brain focused. Breathe. Kick. Stroke. Breathe. Kick. Stroke.
All too soon her right hand hit the wall. She grasped the slippery rim and her feet sank. Loretta looked around. She made out figures at the other end but without her glasses, she couldn’t tell if Millie was still down there.
“Loretta, you’re breathing pretty hard. Do you want to get out?”
She looked up into the concerned face of the young instructor.
“Ouch!” Something had pinched her.
“Let’s go for it, cupcake,” he laughed.
“Si, let’s do it,” Alberto said on her other side.
Loretta sighed. “I’m a senior citizen. I should be sitting in the park, feeding pigeons or at least be home knitting a sweater or baby-sitting grandkids.”
Suddenly, she heard shouts from the bleachers. She looked up to see Millie and Rosa, bundled in fluffy, white towels. Elmer Johnson waved his good arm.
“You go, girl. Do it for us,” Millie shouted.
Loretta took a deep breath. “It’s a little intimidating to start over again when your feet aren’t touching bottom.”
“Hey,” Ronald said. “It’s a new day everyday. And don’t forget. You’re among friends.”
Loretta smiled and they pushed off. DSS
Susan Duke, of East Peoria, IL., is a retired teacher who operates a mini-storage business with her husband. "We meet all kinds of people," she wrote. She's had many stories published in literary magazines.
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