Issue Eighteen - Summer 2011

Water Music

By Gretchen Stahlman

The water is warm, I lie. Will feel warm. In a minute. Another step in. Skin stutters to adjust. Counting. One, two, three, four. Another step. Water to my chest. Arms out of the water. Ridiculous. Water temp is 84. Not cold. Hands in the water. Adjusting. Water to arm pits. Get it over with. One, two, three, four. Dunk.

In the shallow end, I pull the goggles over my eyes. Fasten on the nose clip. Spot the far wall. Deep end. Blurry, darker blue. Deep breath. Do it. One, two, three, four, push off, cool on my face. Let out a stream of air, bubbles dash to the surface. Stroke, kick, count, on four: gasp. Repeat. Legs droop, stomp the water. Gasp. Arms fall through the water. One, two, three, damn four. Reach the wall, hold on. Sight the shallow end wall. The voyage back. Arms circle like a warped record.

One lap done. Seventeen to go.


It is March and I’ve been working at the swim since January. In June, I will swim 300 yards in my first triathlon, six laps. In August, I will swim 1.25 miles across a lake in New Hampshire for the half-Ironman. Twenty-two hundred yards, 44 laps. Despite lessons, regardless of twice-weekly practices, I still cannot complete even the six laps without becoming breathless and panicky.

The Aqua Beat arrives in the mail, its shocking pink case bright in the bubble-wrap, the waterproof headphones coiled like a lifebuoy. Back when I struggled through a quarter-mile run, I used my iPod to help me pass the miles. I worked up to a mile, two miles, five in rhythm, then with the distraction of the music, ten, twenty, a marathon. Now I load the Aqua Beat up with Jim Brickman and Lyle Lovett and Alison Krauss to help me pass the laps.

At the edge of the pool, I squish the buds into my ears, then pull my swim cap down to secure them in place. I connect the wires to the AquaBeat which is threaded onto the goggle strap on the back of my head. Press and hold to turn it on, and the delicate piano of Jim Brickman floats out, Rocket to the Moon. I turn up the volume until there is nothing but Jim Brickman, no sounds of water churned up by other swimmers, no chatter of children, no effervescence from the hot tub where an old man soaks. Only the calm fluttering of the keys and beckoning blue of the lane ahead of me.

In the warm embrace of the water, I push off from the wall and glide. I open my eyes and watch the blue pass by me. My exhale bounces down my body, turning and dancing to the surface. I reach up for air, my arm rises over me, an arch in which to inhale, a bright and shining opening welcoming my inhale. Brickman trickles over the keys, the piano music settling me, lulling me through the clearing. The melody rises and so do I. The bass line kicks against the tune, and so do I. I pull through the water to the piano’s arpeggios, the bass line bringing the beat: one, two, three, four, breathe. My body can’t help but fall into the rhythm. I am glissando in the water.

I begged my mother to let me take piano lessons. My sister was already taking them once a week, being told to practice daily, my mother correcting her mistakes. I was too young, Mom said. I puzzled over why I always had to wait until I was Stefani’s age, why I couldn’t do the things she did too. Too young: lacking in age. Too small: lacking in size. Not enough in some unnamed way, always lacking, falling short, and so I learned to wait, to pass time, to endure the passage of time while I grew to the starting point, to wait. In that space, that elongated time that must pass, sweet anticipation grew. I became a master of delayed gratification, even to the point where it no longer mattered if gratification ever came: the waiting, the enduring was satisfying enough.

I finish six laps and rest against the wall in the shallow end. Swimmers in other lanes splash soundlessly as Jim plays his sweet interlude for me. I move my hands below the surface of the water, high above the glistening white floor and shining black tiles marking the way. I take a deep, easy breath, ready to begin again, a capella in my lane.

When enough years passed, I started piano lessons. By then, Stefani played simple songs, melody flowing from her right hand, counterpoint floating from her left. I was presented with a primer that taught me to play three notes with my right hand. I already knew these notes, had already completed my sister’s primer on my own, and her next book too. I positioned my thumb over Middle C; I knew that Middle C sat just below the staff on the music paper, that each black line, each open lane, represented a note sounded by a key. I could tap a white key for a brisk sound, or hold it down to let it linger. If I stood up, I could stretch my toe to the pedal that blurred the note, that made the sound glide through the air until it faded to nothing.

I played Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All in the right hand, one set of fingers traversing the keys. The teacher gave me an assignment for the next lesson: practice these pages, these tunes. Play a C scale. Play the scale 10 times a day. Over and over.

In the water, the music reaches a crescendo, and I stretch to reach it. I breathe as the piano breathes, float as the harmony floats, glide across and through and under the melody of the blue water. I reach the end of the lane and turn, push off again, not wanting to miss a beat, to stay in the etude of the pool.

At home after my piano lesson, happy that I now had homework because my sister always had homework, I played through the assigned piece, slightly harder than what I was capable of. I couldn’t play it the first time, frustrated, the mistakes slipped under my skin as seeds of failure. I played it again, still riddled with mistakes. I felt like pounding the keys, hurling the primer across the room, crying. I wanted to quit. Not because the piece was hard, but because I didn’t want others to see my incompetence, to learn what I already knew about myself: I was lacking.

The next day, I was drawn back to the piano. I played the pieces I already knew and then, when I felt brave enough, I tried the lesson again. My fingers stumbled over the notes, but I hit a few more right this time, the melody starting to emerge. I played a C scale, running through the first three notes, C, D, E, slipping my thumb under my other fingers for F, then dashing off the rest of the scale with each remaining finger. Then I reversed and moved down the scale: at F, I lifted my middle finger over my index and thumb, then plunked it on the E key; and finished out the scale. Ridiculous. I could play the scale faster by using just one finger, or by using both hands, but the teacher insisted I do it this way and so I did as I was told.

I labored through the scale over and over, thinking about every finger, every note, trying to make it smooth and even but the first and last notes came faster while the ones in the middle stammered along. Then the scale was smoother, just barely, then my fingers stammered less, so slightly less, but just enough to encourage me to try it again. And again.

Jim Brickman plays me through the laps, his fingers rippling over the keys: quiet, calm, unrushed. The piano is a metronome counting my strokes, my breath keeping me in a rhythm and away from chaos. I swim scales in the pool, not liking it but knowing that this is the way to consistency, to ease, to improvement. My body is making the motions, staggering over the tune of the water as I swim the monotony of my lane. I am patient; I am impatient: each stroke brings me closer to rote but I long for the discomfort to dissipate, for ease to come, for skill to combine with endurance that I need in the recital of the triathlon.


Another day, another practice, three sets of six laps to complete. I am swimming with Lyle Lovett, his dry voice taking me from the cool of upstate New York to the parched plains of West Texas. The opening strain of the Townes Van Zandt song he sings about days full of rain and flying shoes is the greeting of an old friend in a new place.

I count my strokes: one, two, three, four, breathe, smooth as rain. His words mull in my head and I fold into the lyrics, carried along. He sings that spring only sighed, that the time had come for flying shoes, to tie on his flying shoes. The refrain rises here in the laces, drifts away there in the bow, one, two, three, four, breathe.

This is what I remember: my sister and I at the neighborhood pool early in the morning. I was 4 or 5, Stefani was 7 or 8. The pool was not yet opened to other swimmers, just us and Freddie the lifeguard who taught us to swim. It was summer in Georgia but the heat wouldn’t rise until later so we were chilled. Freddie told us to put our faces in the water and blow bubbles. We did this but I didn’t like the feel of the cool water or the tiny splashes from the bubbles that Stefani made. The water drizzled in my ear, tickled, and because I didn’t know how to get it out, it was there until bedtime when it leaked out onto my pillowcase. We held on to the side of the pool and kicked frothy waves. I squeezed my eyes close and tried to ignore the water that crawled on my face. He gave us kickboards and we floated and kicked across the pool. When he took the boards away and had us swim the length of the pool, I was afraid as I passed over deep water. I didn’t know why we couldn’t always swim with the foam boards, or the inner tubes my mother blew up for us, or why we needed to learn to swim so early in the morning chill. Couldn’t we just stay home until it’s time to play, not swim, in the water?

My mother sent us to swim lessons so we would learn and not be afraid of the water like she was, but it all backfired and we hated to swim precisely because of the lessons.

I finish my first set of six laps; I take a break as Lyle ties on his flying shoes in the repeating refrain. Another swimmer has entered my lane and looks for my acceptance of his presence, my willingness to share. He shuffles his hands back and forth to indicate that we will swim on our own sides of the lane rather than in a circle. Yes, I nod. I’m glad he hasn’t spoken to me. I don’t want conversation, only my own examination of the past that urges me, 40 years later, to swim longer and farther than I believe possible. I want only the music that plays over and under and through the water, through time, through laps.

I remember this too: swimming underwater in the shallow end, eyes open, looking for Stefani. I was good at holding my breath, so was she, and the light was brightest in the shallow water. We played a game: underwater shoe store. I’d be the shopper, she’d be the salesgirl, and we’d both submerge to carry out a pantomime of being fitted for shoes, my foot in a make-believe metal measurer that determined how much my foot had grown since we last played, first right, then left. Then she’d swim away and bring back imaginary boxes of shoes for me to try. I slipped them on, then pranced on the pool bottom trying them out. We burst the surface for air in a gale of laughter.

I don’t know why we found this game so much fun, but we played it endlessly. I sold her Buster Brown loafers and white Keds and P. F. Flyers. I wanted patent leather shoes and shoes with taps. Stefani wanted suede boots like the girls with the long hair parted in the middle wore on Hootenanny. On dry land we were girls who wore matching dresses sewn by our mother, who slept on pink foam curlers plastered with Dippity-doo on Saturday night, who wore white gloves to church on Sunday. Underwater I was a dancer and Stefani was a folk singer, until we came up for air to become our ordinary selves.

Another set of six laps is finished. I stand in the shallow end, breathing but not so hard. I dip my goggles in the pool, then shake out the water. I pull on my earlobe, moving the earphone just enough to let the warm water run out. I plug them back in, pull down my cap, and start the next six laps. I peer through the blue water at my bare feet; at the triathlon, I will wear skintight booties as I fly through the water. But now, I swim in hopes of seeing those two sweet girls who sold shoes to each other, stayed underwater playing all day long in their swimming shoes until their mother calls them to go.


I no longer dread swim practice, no longer consider it just time that must be tolerated, going through the motions. The music is a new way taking me back to an old way so that I can find my way through this time.

I press the ear buds in and pull on my cap, adjust my goggles, slip into the water. I can’t remember what is next on the Aqua Beat. What form will my swim take today?

As I push off from the wall, the voice of Alison Krauss declares she’ll fly away, by and by, she’ll fly away. I slide through the warm water while the strings twang and Alison flies away, oh glory, melody like midsummer.

Our Georgia summer days were hot and languid, not much to do in our half-empty neighborhood where building the community pool had taken precedence over new houses. Stefani and I made a few friends on the street but mostly we had each other, and we had our mother and she had us. Stefani had a record player on which she played our childish 45s. Mom grew tired of us begging to play our father’s album of Alan Sherman’s My Son the Nut on the hi-fi, so she gave it to us to play any time we liked. And we did, taking turns acting out the songs, singing along, sometimes just mouthing the words, making our grand entrances from behind the full-length drapes in the family room. We played the record over and over until it grew too hot in the house and Mom suggested we blow up the wading pool and get in to cool off. Deep breath in, heavy breath out into the thick plastic tube, my breath barely making the plastic rise, spots of light dashing around my head while my sister took a turn. We huffed and we puffed and we blew that pool up.

Then the garden hose, green and lazy across the yard, the first water out of it hotter than bath water, then cooler, then cold gurgling into the pool. We fetched plastic dolls and shovels and pails. Mom rinsed out a dish detergent bottle and that was our favorite toy of all. We wiggled into our bathing suits, mine red, Stefani’s blue, otherwise identical down to the edging. While the hose did its work, we stepped gingerly into the pool, the grass from our feet taking leave and floating in circles on the surface.

I remember this: long afternoons in that pool, the water warming with the day, my mother sitting in her lawn chair watching us, drinking iced tea in a glass that dripped with condensation and left a puddle on the plastic arm of her chair.

I remember this: filling the empty detergent bottle with pool water and spraying it over my sister’s bowed head. Then it was my turn: Stefani filled it again and the water tickled my scalp, my neck, my back, my arms. She smoothed my hair forward with her hands so it hung down over my eyes, slick and sleek, the water singing from my red face in the hot Georgia sun. Then the bottle was empty and it was my turn to pretend to wash her hair, pretend to style it, pretend to be a hairdresser, and I did these things because I wanted my turn again, to feel her hands lightly on my head as the water dripped over me.

I remember this: after we were clean and fed and in our nightgowns that Mom had sewn for us, we put the Hootenanny ’64 record on the hi-fi and we listened and twirled to Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger, Flatt & Scruggs, and the New Christy Minstrels. And Carolyn Hester who sang I’ll Fly Away on that record.

I’d sing, not always getting the words right but these I usually did: in the morning, and most of the time by and by, and always, I’ll fly away. I couldn’t dance, “no jumping near the hi-fi, girls,” so I sang and twirled but not so much that I made myself dizzy and fell to the floor, just enough so that I felt the way I did at the top of the Ferris wheel, airy, airborne. If I twirled just right, I could pretend to fly. To fly away. To fly through the air, through water, through chill and endless strokes, some day across a New Hampshire lake, not lacking any more, endurance gathered over miles and laps and years.

Copyright Stahlman 2011