Swimming Women

by

03/09/2003

Metropolitan Ave. & Bedford Avenue, brooklyn, ny 11211

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

I first came to Williamsburg in 1992 , to visit a painter friend’s studio. He would travel there every day from the Upper West Side, a long but worthwhile trip because the studio space was so cheap. Back then, the crowd of people that got off with us at the Bedford Avenue L stop disappeared quickly and mysteriously, and we walked down empty street after empty street with nothing but shreds of paper blowing around. The industrial buildings and strings of attached houses we passed all seemed oblivious to the Manhattan skyline across the river, as if it were a foreign place not even worth visiting, which is exactly what most people thought about Williamsburg back then.

In 1998, I found myself emerging from the same subway stop to sidewalks thronged with twenty-somethings wearing clothes my hip Aunt Jackie from Ireland wore in 1975. Some even wore long pigtails, like hers, and there was lots of suede everywhere. I was only thirty-three, but in that scene I suddenly felt old and matronly, especially since I’d only recently cut my long, straight hair into something too neat and tidy. The haircut had been one of those preliminary, obvious-to-everyone-but-you signs of a much larger transition: My marriage was breaking up, had broken up, really, though I wasn’t ready to face it. I was simply looking for a sublet to spend some time away, on my own.

I took a sublet in Williamsburg. Before long, I had set up a little life for myself, with a new routine that included a morning swim at the Metropolitan pool – just across the street from the loft I was sharing with a roommate on North Third (the same street I’d first walked down in 1992, though it was no longer deserted). Swimming was a way to stave off the sadness that would eventually envelope me every day, as the reminders of my married life accumulated, springing up from mundane things, moving me to tears.

On a day off from work, a Tuesday, I went to swim a bit later than usual. At first the pool was as crowded as ever, but near 10:00 a.m. all the thrashing, ready-to-race-you men suddenly cleared out. It seemed too good to be true, so I asked the lifeguard if I needed to get out, too. He was hanging up some thick, living-room drapes on a long rod to obscure the front windows looking out onto the lobby.

“No, you’re a girl,” he said. “You can stay.”

I was a little startled when the Hasidic women started coming in, their shaved heads in puffy old-fashioned shower caps, their bodies draped in flowered housedresses with long sleeves, the kind that snap or button down the front, with two patch pockets at the thigh. Their only traditional pool accessory that I could see were flip-flops, which they lined up carefully along the tiled wall.

As they came into the pool, one by one, using the ladders at either side of the shallow end, their swimming dresses ballooned up to the surface and floated there for several seconds before the water soaked the fabric and dragged it back down. I couldn’t help but think of women drowning themselves in their housecoats, too depressed that day to even get dressed. But soon it was clear how happy these women were to be together, laughing and gossiping as if they’d saved up their stories all week.

More and more women kept coming, and I realized that there was going to be very little swimming going on. I imagined that this was their hour away from duties and children and prayers, when they could all sit in a huge bath together and talk freely. Even their bodies were as free as they could be: No wigs, no stockings. Now I understood the curtains. Men were not allowed to see them this way.

I don’t know if it was their hairlessness or their playfulness together, but they exuded innocence, which was probably the desired effect of the shaving and the covering up. They didn’t look anything like the contained, competent Hasidic women I would see on the subway, pushing their well-behaved toddlers in strollers and wearing shiny, chestnut-colored wigs, mid-calf skirts, and well-made shoes.

I swam slowly toward the shallow end, keeping my head up because the pool was now thick with bodies, and I didn’t want to run into anyone. The women made room for me to pass. That was as much acknowledgement as they gave me. I didn’t take offense at being ignored but I felt an excitement about the potential to bridge that distance. It would only take a smile, even a look. But there were none.

In the shower, I took off my suit to soap up as usual. Because they moved much more slowly, only the older women were left in the locker room. Their energy was different from the younger women, more natural and relaxed. A heavy woman in a terrycloth turban fastened with a brooch yelled “Ooooo, Kalt!” when her bare feet hit the cold shower floor, then she looked around and giggled good-naturedly at herself, her eyes including mine as they traveled from face to face.

I couldn’t help but watch these older women as I shampooed my hair, then realized that I was being watched, too, by a small and wizened old woman who dressed like the others but wore a more modern rubber swim cap, the snap strap undone and dangling to her shoulder. She had bright eyes, sharp like a professor’s, and when I smiled at her, her gaze wandered over my body and she let out a delighted grunt before turning away. I couldn’t tell whether her look had been mildly sexual, or if it was merely her own brief celebration of a woman’s body, unconfined. It didn’t matter what it was, because it had left me happy. I dried off and got dressed, feeling for the first time that I wasn’t a foreigner in Williamsburg anymore. I lived there.

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