Swimming in early summer is a particular pleasure. Sunlight through the high windows lasts past eight in the evening. Not too many people around. I’m going well when I see something drifting along the bottom and it could be a bandaid, yet it is not, and it should be anything else but it’s a finger.
I swim up the lane, come back. I really don’t want to see it again. I’d rather it was a hallucination. I’ve always been curious about what kind of experience that would be. Too practical a mind. Too dominated by logic for such geysers of imagination. I’m already thinking about the bother instead. A finger means I’ll have to stop ten minutes after I started and I need my hour in the pool to have a good night’s sleep. Without a long swim my legs will buzz, my blood will hum.
The lane ropes guide me over and past the finger. Not at the shallow end where it would be within easy reach. Not at the deep end either, where it would be more a thing to nudge away with the foot. I see it’s a thumb. It wobbles left and right as it registers the motion of my arms through the clear, chlorinated water.
I keep swimming. Let me think about it, I tell myself. Panic is often unnecessary. Have I ever experienced panic that merited that response? I don’t think I have. A few moments is all a person usually needs to see that everything falls into the usual patterns of life, into tidy sequences of expected experience. After a few seconds we see we are mistaken. Our perceptions are fallible and our reasoning often faulty.
There’s no foretaste of doom. Our tragedies stun us. A storm slips through a crack in an open sky. The whole world a glass sphere, falling down in shards. A mind will explode as if it were the bullet that broke everything open to begin with. Catastrophes never need a trigger. No warning. No inkling. No panic. And no reason for me to do anything but go on in my unshattered world, enjoying how the sun makes its way through the windows high up above so late into the evening. Sunset stained glass colours remind me of a cathedral. Not tonight. Tonight the air is a clean white—it draws the night in as if it is an inhalation. I imagine myself swimming right through the darkness of the evening on one breath held long … and then released with an exhalation of light when the new day moves across the water.
It doesn’t matter how grandiose I allow my mind to become, every time I pass the spot I see the thumb. I can close my eyes but can’t avert my head. I can take a breath but there it is again when I breathe out a stream of air below me. I don’t want to stop for that thumb. It’s farcical, isn’t it? Keep on going, don’t pull over for the hitchhiker. That gesture of the hand asking for a ride. A few bubbles escape me in a chuckle but I keep myself from laughing.
I had been flowing fish-smooth through the water—flat and calm and blue, unbroken but for a few swimmers in lanes at the other side of the pool. I’ve lost my flow now, though I don’t want to admit it. I’m struggling for breath and all my movements feel mechanical yet I’m sure I can find rhythm again. I should be able to slip back into it with another lap or two. There it is again, the nail nicely clipped back. It had belonged to a well-groomed man.
Flow is rare for a person who wasn’t taught how to swim as a child. I was only taught how not to drown and there’s a big difference. I will always feel as though swimming has come too late to be natural—as natural as it might be if mastered along with dancing and running. It’s never occurred to me before that I’m much better at swimming; I can’t remember the last time I ran or danced. It might have been decades since I did either and I don’t know when I’ll have occasion to dance or run again. Maybe never. All I have now are these imperfect liquid balances of my body stretched out in what is an oddly productive flailing.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t distract myself. There it is, in the same spot, every time. Every thought founders. A thumb on the bottom of the pool. How long has it been there? I hadn’t noticed it the first few laps. I’d enjoyed seeing the edges of the green and white disks flash along and turn red as I drew towards the end of the lane and readied myself for the turn. The red fading away as the ropes indicated smooth sailing again with the interchanging sections of green and white, green and white, each float fitting sharply into the next, reminding me of the discs in a human spine in the way they slotted and jostled, loose enough to move with the skin of the pool’s surface.
The thumb isn’t bloody and now I don’t stop swimming because it occurs to me that it must be fake. No-one sees a thumb, lolling about on the bottom of the pool as though it’s a lost barrette. So, this must be a prank. Or it is a test. I’m not happy with either of those possibilities so I keep swimming, looking to find my flow again, uselessly now, since I’m getting angrier and angrier.
This is what I’ll do (when I finally choose to stop). I will stand up, do my usual stretches, and I will look around, deadpan, glance casually at those who threw a thumb in the pool to play with an old man’s mind. I swim longer than I usually would to keep those bastards waiting. It’s only when I touch the wall to finish that I feel a serrated pain in my own hand.