(After Cheever’s “The Swimmer”)
“I’m going to swim home,” Joan announced. She had dragged Mira down to the beach to escape the gritty heat and the city, but the pair could still see its reign everywhere they looked: the beachfront condos sprouting in the sand, the elevated subway track that snaked and rattled behind them, the latticework arc and curve of the rollercoaster down at the far end of the shore, the chip of glass poking out of the sand in the spot you would have expected to find a shell, the stink of hot garbage that slunk down from the boardwalk. This wasn’t the kind of beach Joan had known growing up, pristine, untouched.
“My jock girlfriend!” Mira jumped into a wave and clamped her arms and legs around Joan like a koala. “Think you have it in you, Joan of Arc?”
“It’s just two miles down to Sea Gate,” Joan said, as if it were just a matter of distance. “The current will pull me out into the harbor, and then it’s just another two or three up to Sunset Park.”
Mira took in the expanse of her. She had looked at Joan for three years, two of dating and overnight stays, plus one of living together, waking up, side-by-side day after day, but something about her always looked different at the beach. There were the broad shoulders that always looked masculine, even in a sundress or a string bikini, the unruly hair that sat on her head like a storm cloud just beginning to brew. Knee-deep in the waves, Joan looked almost feral, alien and yet somehow more beautiful, as if the sea had claimed her and only offered her up to land on loan.
“Well, I’m going to get home on the train, like a normal person. Enjoy the AC. Maybe watch some TV in bed when I get there. I’ll be waiting.” The sun hated Mira. All she could do was tuck herself up under the cheap umbrella, a cricket seeking shelter beneath the bulb of a mushroom, and paint her face white with zinc. Three years in, and still they couldn’t agree on anything.
Joan leaned in, to kiss Mira square on the mouth. “It’s too hot, boo.” Mira pushed her away. Joan dove into the water and began to paddle out perpendicular to the shore, past the children with their floaties and the parents with their sunglasses, past the old man aqua jogging who waved as she stroked by, and past the boogie boarders bobbing against the unbroken waves. When she couldn’t see Mira anymore, she took a sharp right, put her face into the water, and began to swim in earnest. She had been away for more than a month. It came back to her like riding a bike. Her arms windmilled, spinning around the rotator cuff, and her legs beat on furiously behind. Her exhales, face in the water, bubbles out the mouth and nose, grew longer, and she remembered what she liked about the whole endeavor. It was silent, for once. The water hushed against her ear.
She hadn’t swum since the authorities had found a body, dismembered and littered across a jetty, like a gull had cast down shells against the rocks to break them open and get at the meat inside. It was first spotted at neap tide. Sections of rock sat submerged under high water, little sirens singing dangerous songs. The conditions were too rough to recover it, so it was left to the sea, which rubbed salt against the severed wounds, bloated the body from the inside and wore away at the skin and the webbed network of veins and flesh underneath. Joan and her friends had swum through while the parts were still in the water, a helicopter ticking overhead. The swimmers hadn’t known it was searching for someone who was already dead. In the days that followed, no one had come down with an illness or an infection. Still, Joan’s friends refused to swim there anymore.
What do you think happens to the rest of the stuff that dies in the sea?? Joan had texted the swimming thread. The fish. The whales. She resurrected them with a few choice emojis. It’s a self-cleaning oven in there, like a vagina.
All her years of ocean swimming, and she had only ever fixated on the potential for dangerous encounters with sea life. There! The shadow that moved just below the line where the fingers of the sun reached down like a sieve, exposing everything except the finest grains. It could be a shark fin or the whip of an eel tail, whistling at a frequency she couldn’t hear. A puffer fish, spooked into a defensive pose by her passing, or a seal, which she had heard where actually quite mean. Now she could add body parts to the list.
The truth was, Joan had read on a blog from the early aughts, the sea life hardly comes here anymore. It was too polluted. We are like children, she thought, who refuse to pick up our toys. They hadn’t just stopped because of the body. It had been a season of too many sunburns, three mysterious rashes, and one poorly timed swim through sewage runoff after a heavy rainstorm.
At the pier, she stopped for a breath. She looked down at her watch. Thirty-five minutes. Not bad an out of practice amateur. A breeze pulled the caps off the waves and brought her signs of life. The scent of flat beer and hot dogs broiling under the sun, popcorn salted with damp, children gasping as their lungs hit the frigid water, the shout and shriek of play, an airplane whirring along with a banner that read “Barry’s Diamonds in the Rough.” Straining her eyes toward shore, she could see the brightly painted cars of quickly built amusement park rides, the tent spikes and gum ball lights of the arcade games and food stands that fought for a spot on the boardwalk.
The next landmark, Sea Gate, that little corner of their island, was still a mile away, and her body hummed with the impulse to start moving again. Joan ducked under the pier, leaving a wide berth for the fishing lines, and began to swim again. The water was warmer over here, but maybe, she suspected, that was just her body heating up. Her suit, built for leisure, began to chafe. Under her arms, at the shaved spot where her legs joined her torso. The stinging felt good somehow, a reminder that she was a body, too. She settled into her pace and listened to the birds cry out as they settled on the jetties.
Soon, a light ache set into her upper back and quads. She focused on the shore to take her mind off of it. Just beyond the sand, across the road, she could see a row of apartment buildings. Some had little balconies and others, no doubt, were home to retirement communities. Who would want to buy them when everyone was predicting that the sea would just lap them up in a few years, bury them in water? She wondered how much the units went for. The ones with an ocean view had to be more expensive. And there was always someone willing to pay, even for the apartments pressed right up against the subway tracks. If you closed your eyes, you could pretend that whoosh and chug of the train cars was really just the sound of the ocean.
She and Mira had been talking about buying their own apartment, one with central AC installed, a dishwasher, maybe laundry in the basement, pet-friendly so they could bring their orange tabby Dill. They browsed listings sometimes when they got home from work, to put off the moment when they had to cook dinner or wash dishes or actually do their living in the one bedroom they overpaid for. Just last month, they had sat down with their finances and their grid paper to plot out just how long it would take them to afford a modest place in a less than trendy neighborhood. Four years, maybe, if they had good luck and modest raises and no serious accidents, sooner if they unexpectedly inherited some family money, on Joan’s side, at least. If they just plodded along, heading to the office to churn out emails and endure meetings and cross items off on their to do lists that never seemed to amount to anything tangible they could hold in their hands, except, maybe, a home. That kind of determined routine made sense to Joan. It was like training.
“I want a double sink!” Mira said. They were sitting in bed, lit blue by the glow of the laptop. “That way you won’t almost spit toothpaste on my hands in the sink.”
“Hey!” Joan swatted at Mira’s thigh. “I would never do something like that!”
Joan’s hand snagged mid-stroke. It had caught against something jelly and ripe. She yanked it back, hard, but whatever she had touched clung fast. She sputtered up, head above water, and pulled her hand out. A newspaper had wrapped itself around her hand. Joan shucked it off. It bobbed a for a moment. The New York Times. Cape Town Continues into Third Week Without Water. The photo had blurred into impressionistic daubs of blue and purple.
Water, water, everywhere. The line bubbled up, unbidden. But not a drop to drink.
The waves pulled the newspaper toward shore. Joan could almost make out the date. July 25. The year looked wrong, the decade marker unfamiliar and big, though they still had another six months left in the old one. A trick of the light. She snapped her goggles on and plowed forward. The paper was only the beginning. There was a plastic soda bottle (to be expected), a child’s jelly sandal, a baby doll arm in whose hollow some seaweed had found a home, a tube half-filled with toothpaste (or maybe that was just salt water sloshing around), a lipstick cap, purple Mardi Gras beads, and a few little nubbins of plastic that perhaps had been meant to cover up the prongs of a plug or keep the couch from scuffing the wooden floor. The further she got from people, the more she had to contend with their castaways. Joan reared up in disgust. She wanted to go somewhere where the floating debris couldn’t touch her, but the only way was forward. Even on their worst days of swimming, it hadn’t been like this. Now she could add trash to her growing list of worries, right alongside severed hands.
A shout interrupted Joan’s thoughts. It had been so long since she had heard a voice that she dismissed it. A gull lamenting a lost fish. It wasn’t until she breathed, turning her face toward the shore, and that she saw a splotch of green against the sand. There was a person inside the splotch. A woman in a forest green shirt and khaki shorts, a fanny pack tied like a bow around the middle.
“Stop!” the woman shouted. Her hands were cupped around her mouth to make her own megaphone. “Don’t go any further! Come back! The current! It’s too strong!” Joan kept swimming. The woman blew a whistle. She jumped up and down. She shouted into the wind.
Twenty strokes took Joan to the orange warning flag. Twenty more and the woman was nothing more than another bright spot against the sand. Was this someone’s job? Joan wondered. The beach was free. No one owned it. She could go wherever she liked. She took a sharp right to follow the coast up, toward home.
She and Mira had met in a landlocked town, just grazing the Midwest. Mira was studying for her Masters, and Joan was just passing through, a stop on her trip to visit old friends that had scattered around the center of the country. There was a party and a kiss, and the joy that comes from knowing that even if there’s no future in it, at least there are people out there who strike a spark. Somehow, though, Mira kept popping up. She took a train out to the city for a fellowship one blissful summer where she got paid to work hours toward her social work license. She stopped by on her way to the shore where she was joining someone else’s family vacation. When the opportunity to move for work, a full-time job with benefits, Mira took it. Joan went over with a 6-pack to help her unpack.
“You know,” Mira said before they got started on the boxes, “I’ve heard the Midwest is the best place to wait out the apocalypse. I give you two years. Then you’ll be begging to move back with me.”
Now Mira had been on Joan’s turf for two years. “You know, we could buy a house out there for a lot cheaper,” was a common refrain.
Something tore at the soft skin on Joan’s stomach. She lurched. Her head shot up while her hands scrabbled down to brush away whatever had scraped against her, the commotion pulling her body in two different directions. She imagined trash, broken and rotted and covered in bacteria that multiplied by the minute. Her body undulated through a waving dolphin kick that brought her breastbone above the water line. There was nothing there. Sea lice, she suspected. Little jellyfish larva that got trapped in her suit and had no other instinct but to sting. It seemed early in the year for them, but the water did already feel bathtub warm.
Head above water, she noticed for the first time that the air out here smelled like diesel. The surface of the water was slick with it. Had that started just now, or a ways back? Something white and curved bobbed in the water, like a Styrofoam cup gone belly up. The current brought it past her, and she could make out two sharp legs poking out, punctuated by pincers. A spider crab, limp and dead in the water. Joan kicked away, only to bump into something else. A skate, long and gray and round as a dinner plate. There were gulls, too, their feet up in the air like little plastic yellow soda straws. Joan could only wonder at what had happened here and why she hadn’t heard about it on the news. There had to be more than two dozen tiny carcasses out here, vulnerable in their drifting, with no one here to mourn them.
Joan wanted out. The feeling came on suddenly. The dull ache in her muscles sharpened into something she couldn’t ignore. Her bottom lip was fat and fuzzy with salt. What she wouldn’t give for a glass of cold water, maybe followed by a beer. There were too many ways to die out here. Her breath shortened, and the bodies seemed to multiply, their decay speeding up before her eyes. She squeezed them shut and dove down, letting out a long exhale. One. Two. Three. She drifted to the surface again. It was time to call it off. Her eyes focused on the shore, the ribbon of highway that looped around the island, marooned in a sea of grass. Don’t look, she whispered. Don’t look don’t look don’t look. She kicked herself forward, head out of the water, only looking at the land.
At twenty yards out, it came into focus. No shore or rocks or hand holds. Just a sheer face of reinforced stone keep the road from flooding. She could hear the occasional car rip by, but she was too low down in the water to flag one for help. She would have thought there would be more cars.
The only way home was to keep swimming.
She spoke to herself with the kind of voice Mira used with her when she was upset, the kind of voice Joan could imagine her using with a child someday. You just have to get to that bridge, she told herself. It’s not going to fall down on you. You’re going to make it to the other side. Joan focused on what she would do when she got home. A kiss on the cheek for Mira, ear scratches for Dill. A long hot shower, with Mira standing by to instruct her on how best to scrub off the sand and grit and germs with a plastic bristle brush before she would even consider allowing Joan into bed. Then she would dry off, eat dinner, curl up on the couch to watch TV to avoid getting ready for the office tomorrow.
It was getting dark now. Apartment buildings towered over Joan on the starboard side, so tall she could hardly see the sky. No one had turned on their lights just yet, and the stacked stories sat dark and sullen. The buildings looked like they were walking out across the water towards her, so close she could almost touch them. Had she drifted too close to shore? It must be a trick of the light, salt mixed with early evening haze.
The dying yellow glow of the sun glinted off something in the water below. Joan stopped swimming and looked down. It was a windowpane. Three entire stories of a brick building were submerged in the sea, and still more continued to rise up out of the water. Through a broken windowpane just above the sea level, she could see a full living room setup with a sectional, flat-screen, and a few inches of brackish water covering the floor. The couple that lived there must have had a gorgeous view of the skyline and paid a fortune for it.
Joan started to shiver. The water was warm, but the air was cool, and the wind against her cheeks and shoulders brought out goose bumps. It was oddly quiet. There wasn’t a boat in sight. The passenger ferries, the barges that carried away the city’s trash, the pleasure boats and the city cruise ships, they were all gone.
Something was wrong. Joan felt it in the pit of her stomach. Fear pinched at her lungs and threatened to close off her throat. Hungry and dehydrated, she couldn’t make sense of what had happened. This wasn’t the landscape she had left when she pushed off from shore what should have been just hours ago. It’s just a trick of the light, she told herself. You should be getting close now. Mira will be there waiting.
Joan dove back under, relieved to feel the warmth against her face. Her arms rushed through the water, but she wasn’t making nearly as much progress as she had at the start. Her eyes strained to pierce the gloom below, and every shadow became the phantom of something she was used to seeing on land. A rubber tire. A fire hydrant. A shopping cart. A car in park with a lock on the steering wheel. A townhouse that had shed its flimsy siding and now had oysters crusted on the beams.
She stopped up short just before crashing into a metal pole blocking the way. Two green signs still stuck straight out from it, flags flying at half-mast. 45th Street. 2nd Avenue. These were the signs pointing home, but they didn’t belong in the ocean. Maybe a storm blew them out to sea, she reasoned, but even she couldn’t believe that. She turned in toward where her home had been; where it still should be. What would be left when she arrived? She was sprinting now.
The water, dotted here and there with debris from the neighborhood, began to taper off between Third and Fourth Avenues. She switched to breaststroke, circling her arms and legs and letting her head bob above the surface. Darkness cloaked the streets. Without the lights from the bodegas or the apartments that lined the flooded street, her eyes had to adjust to the muted glow of the stars that pricked the sky above. Joan set down one foot on solid ground, then the other. Her legs wobbled from the newness of it all. Here she was, standing on firm ground, but the water never really ended. A thin film, no more than a few inches, covered the ground for as far as she could see. If someone had been standing on the street, they might have averted their eyes from the sight of her: a young woman in a bikini with salt-crusted hair sticking out at riotous angles, skin burned pink, and a cracked lower lip. But there was no one at all.
The keypad on the front door of her building had shorted out, and it was propped open by a half brick that let in a trickle of water. Someone had laid out flattened cardboard boxes along the entryway in hopes that it would absorb the puddles. Without the starlight, Joan couldn’t see at all now, and she let memory alone guide her to her apartment. She knocked on the door. Mira appeared, brandishing a kitchen knife and a wary smile. After a moment, checking the hall to the left and right, she opened the door wider, letting some of the candlelight escape.
“Quick, get in,” she said. “I told you not to swim anymore. We need to wash that water off before it burns your skin off.”