I Am the Swimmer — Ross McWaters

October 7, 2021

Volume 2, Issue 2

From the banks of Lake Mary in Mammoth Lakes, California, the wife and I have a pretty good westward view of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In June, there is still snow on them, snow that filled this lake and inevitably would continue to do so. It’s lapping around our legs at our knees. It is cold; but we’ve been in the van all day driving around, and sitting in hot laundromats, and buying groceries… all the things that might drive one to swim in a high-altitude-snow-fed lake with a sense due recklessness. Behind us the van is pulled haphazardly to the shoulder of a road that perimeters the lake.

I understood “Mammoth” to suggest that the lakes were large by some incredible proportions, but that is not the case. In fact, despite the immense beauty of towering mountains and deep, unsullied blue water, the lake is underwhelming. Where is the size? Why mammoth? Was there no one who considered the implications of a moniker such as mammoth? Regardless, the wife and I are standing there, and I am sizing this lake up as though we are of the same species, and that I could very well conquer it. The wife is holding her camera. She’s firing off shots and throwing around the phrases “Mrs. McWaters Lions, Mrs. McWaters Mountaineers, no no no… are you ready? Mrs. McWaters Mountain Lions! That’s it!” She’s just accepted a position teaching a gaggle of second graders, and she is all excited about it. Every click of the camera is followed with “they’re going to love that shot.” She’s got plans to frame every photo she captures.

I am stepping ever so steadily into the water. It feels refreshing as I walk in, like it’s washing away all the filth I’ve accumulated on the road, all the dust that fought into my pores in West Texas, equalizing the bizarre spiritual energy that sprung on us is Tucson; it is atoning for the responsibilities we’ve shirked… the water really does feel good, like all the hair on my body is disappearing and I’m being lathered in petroleum jelly. Swimming in natural bodies of water gives a sense of belonging, like I am among those who neither bathe in nor imbibe purified water, that it is preferred as it is in nature, without any interference, never having passed through the plumbing of any grave architectural feat of man.

What it is exactly that prompts my action, I don’t know. Perhaps I am bolstered by the relatively small lake opposed to what I originally imagined. Maybe it is that my bones are still weary from shopping, washing, driving, thinking ahead. I need something to shock me out of the domestic duties we’ve tried our best to avoid. I start to swim; the water is moving around me. I am like a windmill, propelled by a strange unseen force, thrashing through the elements. My legs paddle my feet and churn the surface and tear a seam for my path. I am going across, steadily, slapping my way there, dragging breath into my lungs, the energy of the breath spreading to my fraying digits. Nothing is temporal, it all lasts forever; nothing fades and atrophies and submits to other forces; no momentum is lost… here I go above the depths, and the chill reaches from them, born in the mammoth darkness with other prehistoric beasts. I am compelled only to swim and no other notion tangles the folds of my brain or stretches along the cords of my muscle; I was conceived and born and nurtured to swim.

Halfway, I pause, and have a look around. There, manically treading water with my every appendage, waving my arms and legs, tremoring as though I were oscillating on a metal pole during a blizzard, it occurs to me that I will more than likely drown. My wife is sitting on a rock far far away, a mere speck to my listless eyes, carried by the slight eastward tide. The chill is severe, and drowning my flesh would be refrigerated to survive months before putrification. She is looking at me. I can’t see this because of the distance, but she is, I can tell, and I know that she recognizes the reality of the situation and is sad. Shit. The other bank, my original destination, is a similar distance, and this is troubling. All the while my limbs shimmer in the lake, treading so furiously that I should expect to be airborne, but no. I am most likely to sink and nourish the devilish gar and microbes living beneath the sun’s reach.

Off to the side is a small outlet of land. Though still quite far, it is the closest, and a father and his son stand on the banks, their arms crossed over their chests. I begin to swim, and this does nothing for my hopes of living, for the muscles of my arms and legs feel like hot taffy, stretching effortlessly but too lethargic to return to their original state. My arms flap like a crow flying through rain. Or like the sail of a boat falling into the water. I am trying with all the force of my body, all that remains after the tax altitude and chill. The father and son stand impassively and watch me flounder toward them as though I were a dead seal fastened to a towrope. My vision is dotting, and the splashing water sounds far away. Before I succumb to complete delirium, before I am muted by throat-lodged water, I yell.

“HELP!”

This falls on deaf ears. Though I can discern little, I see no action on behalf of the father. His son, at least, has unfolded his arms.

“HELP ME!”

Complete inaction on behalf of my audience. I am quite certain that Aubrey will now become a widow, and that she will have to watch me fished from this lake cold and dead and unnaturally pale, water streaming from my nostrils. Though I am nearing the bank I do not dare pause to attempt standing. If I stop and no ground is beneath me, I will sink to my death. My energy hardly turns a single arm on my body and will not resume my swim if I halt it. So I press on, eyeing the father and his son until my stomach scrapes against the bank like the hull of a boat.

After a moment I roll over and sit up in the water, folded over myself and attempting to breathe and abate the fading of my sight. A voice comes from afar. Not a divine voice, but one of shame and bizarre obligation.

“Did you see any fish out there?”

The father, an average looking man by all accepted standards, wearing sandals and hiking pants, stands just behind me on the peak of a rock rising from the water to avoid wetting his shoes.

“What?”

“Did you see any fish on your swim? My son and I have been fishing and haven’t caught a thing.”

I give him a moment. It sounds like he’s speaking through a long PVC pipe that is held to my ear.

“No.”

He steps back onto the bank and says something, but I disregard it entirely. Him and his son both are eying me like I just pulled gold bars out of my socks. The father is full of observations about my swim.

“Should have kept your head down more while you were going,” he says. “You kept looking up, requires more effort and energy to do that. Slows your momentum.”

I breathe heavily and rub the outsides of my arms.

“Pretty impressive swim there, though.”

“Why didn’t you help me?”

He doesn’t respond immediately. But eventually he squeezes out an excuse.

“I thought you were joking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You looked pretty strong out there…didn’t seem like you needed it.”

“I thought I was going to drown.”

“Well, I was a lifeguard for three years. I could tell you’d be all right.”

I don’t say anything. His son is still wide-eyed. I try to stand and sit again because I am light-headed. The chill is really setting in. The wind is picking up.

“We were watching you from the start over there by that girl and the van. Impressive swim…”

I don’t respond.

“Do you need a ride back over there?”

It is pretty far.

“Sure,” I say.

“Great.”

I follow him back to his campsite. They have a tent and a cooler and all the nice things people take for a pleasant weekend camping trip. I stand barefoot on the gravel and he ducks into his tent. I hear:

“Honey, this guy just swam across the lake. I’m giving him a ride back to his van.”

Out of the tent comes his wide-eyed wife. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me.

“I only made it halfway,” I say.

She just nods her head, still wide-eyed. The man comes from the tent with a towel and keys.

“Let’s go,” he says.

He opens the passenger door and spreads the towel over the cloth seat, and he takes great care doing it. I rip it off and wrap it around myself. He sees this, but doesn’t say anything.

As we drive, he asks me questions and makes brief small talk. When I tell him that I am from Georgia he says he could tell by my accent. Other than that, I don’t understand what he is saying. It feels like I’m riding with my head stuck out of the sun roof. He pulls over behind the van, and as I open the door he reminds me to leave his towel. Then he turns around and drives off.

The wife is bringing up all our things from the bank and loading them into the van. She doesn’t look at me. She just carries our blanket and a book I was reading before the swim and throws them through the open window.

“Hey,” I say.

She glances at me and walks back to the bank.

“Did you get my rings? I left them on a rock down there.”

“They’re in the van.”

There’s a full size bed I installed on a frame behind the front seats. I slide open the door. It isn’t made. All the sheets are still in the laundry bag. I climb in and pull a naked pillow under my head. Aubrey opens the passenger door and sits up front. She doesn’t say anything and just looks ahead. I lay there and shiver. Even in the van, warmed by the sun, I am frigid. My whole being is cold, a chill emanating from my bones.

“I’m cold,” I say.

She climbs back to the bed and dumps the laundry bag out. The clothes and sheets are still warm, and she spreads them on my chest and wraps them around my arms and my legs. Underwear, pants, shirts, pillowcases. It feels great. Then she stops and looks at me with a serious look. I think she is going to ask me something. We’ve been married four months. It seems appropriate to have a question now. But she climbs back up front and gazes out of the windshield. I can see myself in the rearview mirror. My face is pale, my lips blue, my whole countenance defeated and humiliated. I lay like that awhile. Aubrey has continued gazing out of the windshield with that serious, tense look. Finally, she asks:

“Did you think you’d drown?”

“Yes,” I say.

She doesn’t respond.


Ross McWaters is the Editor-in-Chief of McCoy's Monthly.

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