If you were to ask me my two most reliable pleasures, I would be able to bark back a certain answer — the way that little children do, when you ask them what they want to eat, or what they dreamt last night. I would tell you that they are reading and swimming, mostly because they have the same rhythm, all disembodied and steady. Both depend on movement, what moves you but also how. Different books have different currents to them — some you might lazily drift through, some might push your head under and yank. There’s a passivity about reading that I welcome. Even if you’re doing the work to move through a text, you are beholden to the direction it wants to take you in. It is no coincidence to me that so many great writers were compulsive swimmers, a fact I learned reading Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. She showed me how John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, and Raymond Carver all lived to get in the water, and the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.” These grizzled men loved to swim but that isn’t the true adhesive that clumps them together. Each one was a rapacious drunk, damned and lonely.
Swimming is good for loneliness. When I’m feeling feral with it, I’ll take the bus to the local Jewish Community Center. There I swim back and forth in the pool, pushing past floating band-aids and abandoned hair things, the detritus that collects at the end of the evening. Nobody is there around eight in the evening, my preferred time, except solemnly bored lifeguards. Even in the bright chlorinated fog the water casts a spell over your body, womb-like and dreamy. To me at least, it’s the easiest way to feel completely changed.
Pools are like that, so evocative they feel like a music video waiting to happen. Everybody jump in with their clothes on! Or just one person, slowly drifting to the bottom, laden with meaning. Something about how self-referential pools are makes them feel itchy and finite. Not so with the ocean.
Nothing compares to swimming in the ocean. I’m learning this slowly as I halfway commit to being an open water swimmer in the waters of the Pacific. I started when I was having an especially lonely year. I looked up and I realized that the friends I watched television in bed with had moved to other cities, and that I had no hobbies or houseplants and instead was full of half-hearted plans. And so it wasn’t so much that I had to start swimming in the ocean to learn about myself. Over the years, I’ve put a lot of effort into thwarting any kind of metaphysical journey that might be personally enlightening. It’s more that being lonely is boring. My favorite description of loneliness comes from my friend Liza. She says that it is the feeling of your soul desperately needing to pee. When you are lonely you are holding too much in. I could sense the grubby neediness of my own loneliness. It became an unchanging sameness that settled on me, like too much sleep. To jolt it from my body, it helped to be very, very cold.
That’s how I ended up showing up at a San Francisco beach near the house I grew up in. Supposedly the cove was used as a camp by Chinese fishermen in the 1800s, who utilized it as resting place for their anchored boats. The beach is flanked by tree-lined cliffs that now give way to several public library-sized mansions and a golf course, where the bodies of forgotten Chinese migrants once were laid to rest. The cove used to be named after San Francisco’s twenty-fifth mayor, James D. Phelan, who loved it dearly. He left a sizable amount of his will so that the land could be bought and protected by the state, and claimed “there was no beach so beautiful.” Phelan eventually wound up a senator. His winning campaign slogan was “Keep California White.” In the seventies the city changed the name of the cove to China Beach, to commemorate in some small way those same fisherman who had travelled across an ocean to find a country that actively sought to make their hard lives harder. Most of these men were bachelors for whom family life was impossible. The Chinese Exclusion Act prevented them from bringing their existing families over, made it so few women could join their ranks. Anti-miscegenation laws were rampant. They were here by themselves, hopefully deriving some stolen pleasure from the same spangled view that James Phelan thought so worthy of preserving.
The handful of men and women who swim at this beach every day, with their speedos and wrinkled tan shoulders, are always telling me the ocean here is dynamic. They mean it as a dire warning. Many live in the neighborhood, and they bring each other snacks and discuss what’s on sale at the nearby Grocery Outlet. They pour each other thimbles of discounted Pinot Noir and nips of whiskey, bust out baguettes and cans of sardines and hard salami. When I’m finished with my swim, spent and groggy, I sit in the corner of an abandoned lifeguard station where I’m shielded from the wind, and listen to their chatter. I learn about car batteries and recommended dentists and gardening tips. I start to learn their particular affects: The man who works in local city government and loves swimming in the hammering rain. The man who likes working out after his swim by carrying big logs from one end of the beach to the other. The man who always wears a safari cap and calls himself “Swim Daddy.” The man who I once saw stand in the surf and beat his body with wound-up fists.
Like the good rule-follower I am, I ask these veteran swimmers a lot of questions. How do you know when the tide is going out so as not to get trapped. How can you tell when you are too cold, when you feel cold all the time. They are patient with me. They show me how to read a tide book, and what exactly maximum ebb and maximum flow means, and how to get in and out of the waves safely without being thrashed. I learn that if you lose consciousness, you’re probably too cold. Same with being unable to speak. I learn that it is a faux pas to discuss the potential presence of sharks, which some of the swimmers obliquely refer to as “finned creatures.” To stomach being in the water day after day, it is necessary to willfully deny the very possibility of their existence. So I never bring them up again.
I think there is something about my earnest anxiety, bleeding through my damp suit with the grime and the salt, that endears me to them. Because I see them, when I’m out swimming, peeping over the rusted edge of the deck to make sure I’m not floundering in the water. One of them, an Italian expat from Venice, invites me to meet him for a swim on his birthday. It is the most unlikely friendship I have entered into, me and this middle aged man, virtually a stranger, matching each other stroke for stroke in the wide open ocean on a Monday afternoon. But there is an ease that settles over us, in the great equalizer of those churlish waters, and I laugh freely when he emerges from the water holding an empty bag of beef jerky. He shrugs and tells me “I saw it in the water. So I put it in my bathing suit.” Lying on our stomachs our faces pressed against the hot pavement, trying to regain some of our lost body heat, he tells me about growing up on the Adriatic sea, diving for mussels and razor clams. He tells me about his mother’s cooking, his favorite being an elaborate dish that he says roughly translates to “belly of the nun.” We discuss sea news — whale sightings, shark die-offs, and the the mad men and women who swim eight hours at a time. Compared to those people, we are very tame.
Northern California beaches are notoriously deadly. Last year, five people drowned at San Francisco beaches. People often have to get rescued from the beach I swim at too. They swim out and realize they can’t get back — the current is too strong. It is a very dangerous pastime, which means as an anxious person I’m ill-suited for it.
The world of risk for me is an alien landscape. Most times swimming in the ocean feels like getting scrambled up in a cosmic washing machine full of creatures and doom. But that’s why I blame reading, that first of two worldly pleasures. Reading indoctrinates you into this ecstatic worship of story, and now this story is mine — the one I tell myself about myself. I swim in the ocean, and this absolves me of all that makes me slightly ashamed: the fact that I am prim and quiet and largely incapable of adventure. The fact that I secretly resent that feeling of loneliness, how closely akin it feels to a private kind of madness.
The last time I went swimming was awhile ago, before the waters got too cold and the waves too big and I abandoned my new friends, who still swim there every day no matter the conditions. I remember that last swim specifically because the water was slack but best of all it was unseasonably warm, the last given moments of an elongated California summer. It was dusk when I slipped in the waves, and the water gave way easily as I inched my way beyond the break and out to the jutting cliff that marks the nearest landmark. The feeling of being out there wiped me clean for days. I still carry it with me, a talisman, it wards off the mealy grip of ordinary loneliness the same way a good book does. Swimming, like reading is fiercely transportive, that murky, twilight feeling of being submerged. The day bends around those handful of minutes. In the water I am someone else—a body bobbing, strange and wordless.