January 23: “The Swim Team” by Miranda July

Truth be told, I never really learned to swim. Not until 2012, anyway, at thirty-eight years old. Oh, I’d gone swimming before, a lot, but I was always faking it. As a kid, one of my aunts had a four-foot above-ground pool in her back yard and I practically lived there during the summers. I wore a life vest when I was little, but once I was tall enough to stand up in the pool and keep my mouth above water, I was unleashed. I did swimming-like maneuvers, threw myself from one side of the pool to the other by kicking off the sides, but really, I wasn’t swimming. I couldn’t sustain a stroke, couldn’t tread water, and if I stepped foot into the deep end of a pool, or a lake, or the ocean, I would have flailed until I sank. This is more or less how I went about swimming for the next thirty years, wading when we went to the beach, avoiding the deep side at hotels, wearing a vest (yet again) during a disastrous attempt at water skiing in high school. It’s shocking how long I got away with not being able to swim without anyone knowing.

The summer of 2012, a few months before leaving Bowling Green for Springfield, Karen decided we should go for a swim—every day. We didn’t spend any time in Chicago that summer—packing, packing, packing—so no Lake Michigan beach, nor did we take any trips to a coast. The rec center at BGSU had an Olympic-size pool for swim meets, but they also had a little pool off to the side, in the next room, about the size a hotel would have for guests. There was a shallow end, where our son ran along in the three-foot side (like his dad as a lad), but there was also a deep end, eight or ten feet deep, more than enough for a land-lubber like me to drown.

The first day there, I dove right in, my feet hitting bottom.

Karen didn’t know I had never swum before, not like that (and won’t until she reads this), and while she was keeping an eye on our son, it was do or die for me. Literally.

As you might guess, I didn’t die. I’d faked swimming enough to know what to do, plus had tried to teach my son in the shallow end. Kick with your feet, scoop with your hands, one after another, turn your head to breathe. At the bottom of the pool, my eyes clenched shut, I let myself float to the surface, where I bobbed up enough to catch my breath and get my bearings. I saw the rope floaties that divided the two ends, reached with one arm, then the other, and swam ten feet to the rope. I was gasping, each stroke a desperation, but I made it. I could swim. Self-taught. Drop mic (but not in the pool).

Reading Miranda July’s story “The Swim Team” from her collection No one belongs here more than you. (that’s how the title reads on the cover) reminds me of that summer, that foolish maneuver that could have led to my death, in front of my family, at the rec center pool, the little one where senior citizens did water aerobics in their bathing caps. Maybe I just wanted to get it off my chest, not being able to swim, but this story is pretty inspiring to me as a writer as well. I’ve read stories by July before—“Making Love in 2013,” also in this collection, is one I’m particularly I’m fond of—and I read several more to find one to write about today. “The Swim Team” not only incited my swim memory, but is my new favorite story by her, one I think best represents the kind of casual absurdity she does so well.

“The Swim Team” starts out with a writer-aware statement: “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” Our narrator has kept something from a former lover, why we don’t know, but whatever’s coming next, it has to be pretty juicy. What follows is pretty juicy, though not in the lurid way you might guess. Still, as hooks go, an opening like this got me curious. More details of the not-told story come out. It has to do with why the narrator stayed in a town called Belevedere for so long, how she supported herself. The narrator, sort of named Maria—people call her that and it’s too bothersome to correct them—assumes her former lover will assume prostitution, which clues us in on their relationship as much as anything.

Instead, we find out that not-Maria makes her way by giving swim lessons—to all three of Belvedere’s citizens. This band, Elizabeth, Kelda, and Jack Jack, are all over eighty, and may not actually be named those names—the narrator isn’t sure. Not-Maria comes across them in the town’s gas station mart, one of them insisting that people who can swim can only do so because they can breathe underwater. Not-Maria shouts out, “That’s not true!” her first words spoken aloud in weeks, and the trio convinces her—so knowledgeable about all things aquatic—to be their coach.

“The Swim Team” is not a long story, and to reveal anything more would be giving too much away. I’ll note that there are no natural bodies of water in or near Belvedere, nor are there any swimming pools. How not-Maria compensates is the story, the secret she kept from her lover, and one of the great scenes I’ve ever come across in fictiondom. I didn’t laugh out loud as much as I was overwhelmed by her creation, and I’m still shaking a bit, in awe of how great an idea can be.

Miranda July is a writer famous for other things, like being a filmmaker and performance artist, though I don’t know any of that work. She was also mentioned in “Flings” by Justin Taylor, which I just read yesterday, prompting me to choose her book out of the pile today. No one belongs here more than you. is another collection I sampled when it came out, and was more than happy to revisit for today, “The Swim Team” and all her other stories are quite tremendous.

Miranda July