At the Natatorium

by Sarah Decker

                         after Elizabeth Bishop



Bracing from the violent wind outside, 
we make our way, bubbles of coats and hats, 
into the cellar, down, down into the
cavernous base of the building, down a
long hall, and the closer we get,
the more chemical smell reaches 
out to greet us.
Our locker room, hidden inside
a labyrinth of halls, bathrooms,
and offices, is so warm and humid
that I sweat as I rush to take off
my fleece layers, my platform shoes, 
my hat, and my ears burn red and damp
for a few seconds. There is a warm silence 
as we change and collect ourselves and 
down a long hall, we emerge into the 
pool, where the gutters gurgle and 
frantically suck in water. 
The smell of chlorine singes our nostrils.
My dry, empty skin is enveloped 
by the humid, hot air and the bellowing
of the gutters passes over my ears easily.
The pock-marked ground is beige
grey brown and the walls are aged
with water damage and unplaceable 
grime. We stand like statues of
resistance, still de-thawing,
still waking up.
The marker squeaks behind me, 
insistent mouse, fortune teller,
and I read the blue scratch letters.
We have gathered, gaggle above
the gurgling gutters, getting ready
for what is below.

Standing on the block, platform of
scratchy sandpaper squares, my feet
burning from the hot and cold colliding,
I turn back to check the brightest light,
red numbers counting to 00:00, and suddenly,
without thinking, I am in the water.

Ice water surrounding, pulling in and 
pushing out, my skin is taught
and brittle for a few moments. 
The first strokes are labored, mechanical.
My lips, already chapped from the wind
outside, up and above, burn as 
the chlorine covers them.
Bright lines of bubbles pass below us
underwater, tickling me down nose legs and toes.
Ice water surrounding, pulling in and 
pushing out, the shock of it strikes me
every time. My mind goes empty
and numb, and all that I am is water,
and the force pulling and pushing the
water. The water rushes against my
ears and everything is loud and quiet
and there is nothing to hear anymore. 
It pulls in and pushes out all that is 
outside, above, other than this: 
cold wet chemical sweat burning
skin and muscles and the fuzz on 
skin. Brushing against the lane rope,
you would feel the jagged marks of 
sandpaper buoys on your legs. 
The chemical water might, 
every once in a while, make its way
into your nose and make you cough.
The only sound when you arrive at
the wall, mid-set, would be the
heaving, gasping breaths of us all,
looking up at that bright, red light
waiting to be engulfed in the water
once again. This is peace: clear,
cold, moving, perfectly simple, 
the singular objective of the water
and you.


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