28 JULY | Though John won a rare short day it is nearly nine o’clock by the time we get to the pool and it is a selfish trip, only for me, him with his books. He unpacks the evening’s work across the corner lounge, the same one he told me about eight minutes into our first date so many summers ago (What did you do today? Helped my mom choose patio furniture. (Who does that?) That’s funny; I’d forgotten.), and I run leaping into the deep end.
In New Zealand, in Nelson, there was a woman who every morning swam from Rock Road to Haulashore Island. She must have ducked under the guardrail, I guess; maybe there was a ladder down to the rocks — at high tide maybe it might not have mattered. She’d wear the same one-piece, bright red, her hair bright white, and she would swim stroke, stroke to Fifeshire and then to the Island; every morning, every season.
The spa is octagonal and just past exactly eight feet in every direction so that if at five foot five inches you lie floating with toes en pointe and arms in ballet fifth — or a stretching second — you fill the space rather neatly, a natatory Vitruvian Man. Chin to your chest and you hear water on stone, wind against a leaf, a branch; sometimes, the yawn of the earth. Tip your ears under and you hear water only, Kingdom Undine, the world murgled and magnified. I spend long minutes nodding between the two, an interminable affirmative. I am trying to remember something.
When we drove one day out to Balekambang, Oma Irawadi (88 years old) sat with the rest of us in the bed of an army truck and was the first to leap from the tailgate when we parked amidst the palms. I jumped after her and had to sprint to keep pace, catching up just as she dove headfirst fully clothed into the swell. She resurfaced floating, arms spread and eyes closed, saying again and again: Aku anak lautan! I am a sea-child, a child of the sea.
It comes to me suddenly. “Sonnet 34!” I say this to the sky. “I think?” I fold my knees under me, pushing my shoulders up out of the water. “Could you look it up? Sonnet 34?” I lean cross-armed now along the spa’s edge, waiting as he types. “You are the daughter of the sea,” I begin, “first cousin of oreg—” He stops me, one shake of the head. “Oregano’s first cousin.” Oh! I correct myself. “Oregano’s first cousin. Swimmer, your body is pure as the water; cook . . . there’s a cook, right?” A nod.
I run leaping into the deep end, stroke, stroke, one line for each lap. Between styles I ask for new couplets — and he is so patient; he complies — breaststroke (Your eyes go out to the water), free (You know the deep essence of water and the earth), back (Naiad: cut your body into turquoise pieces). I have forgotten how to swim butterfly—or rather, I have forgotten how to swim butterfly well—and for a turn of treading water I wonder about that, and I can hear faintly the chaos of an indoor meet, the aquatic center’s orchestra and each of its parts: crowd, whistle, coach, water.
In my pantheon of poetry gods Pablo Neruda is second only to Whitman, Poseidon to Zeus, and when John finally joins me in the water (actually done with studying, or just fed up with me interrupting said studying? I don’t know, I don’t want to ask) I try to explain why XXXIV guts and gobsmacks me so specifically. For one thing, it’s a poem I wish had been written about me, or more exactly: a poem I wish could be written about me, someday. It is something to live up to, a selfish sonnet in my heart.
But honestly the real deal, the absolute nub of the thing is that it’s true. Or: it’s truth. Right there in stanza three, gospel, and it knocks me out every. single. time. Naiad: cut your body into turquoise pieces, they will bloom resurrected on the kitchen floor. This is how you become everything that lives. Lose yourself to find yourself, sacrifices return to you perfected, all give to all inherit. This, This is how you become everything that lives. It is something to live up to.