Water Walking at the YMCA
“My husband is a good man,” she was saying, as she cut through the water of the YMCA pool. “We’ve been married 40 years. We have three grown children. Today he drove me here because of the road conditions. I don’t like to drive so soon after a snow storm.
“That’s nice of him,” I said.
“When he picks me up, he’ll take me to lunch,” she added.
“Who could ask for anything more,” I said, shaking my head.
“A-n-d,” she said, moving her arms and legs as if cross country skiing, “he still brings me flowers. After all these years.”
“He sounds ideal. Maybe he could talk to my hubby,” I suggested.
“But you know what?”
“I don’t like him.”
I first noticed her when she came into the pool wearing my bathing suit. Well, it wasn’t really my bathing suit. I was wearing my bathing suit. But it was the same pattern and cut. You know what I’m saying?
And, I hate to admit it, she was a few sizes smaller than me…And she aged real well. To be a woman of about 60 and look real good in a bathing suit.
Her hair was a soft blond, and she wore it short in the back, but with waves in the front, till she put on her bathing cap, of course. And she was real pretty, with a nice smile. And there was something classy the way she carried herself. Straight, with her head up.
I’d been coming to the Y for several months when we met. I was taking this water walking class. It’s good for your arthritis. And it’s good exercise, too. They say that half an hour of exercise in the water is worth two hours of exercise on land. Like walking.
You wear a vest, so you won’t drown, and you go into the deep. Then you do all kinds of exercises, like, you make believe you’re cross country skiing, but in the water, of course.
Or you pedal your bicycle. Your knees go up and down, up and down. Or you jog in the water. But that’s in the shallow.
We were 10 women in the class, in our sixties and seventies and even older. Some could hardly walk. There was a whole row of canes leaning against the wall. Our instructor was a woman of about 50, with a knock-out figure. A couple of real old ladies said she looked the way Esther Williams, a famous swimmer and movie star, probably hoped she was gonna look at that age.
We lined up against one side of the pool, with our vests in all colors. I like blue the best. When Esther Williams gave the signal, we started walking across to the other side. The latest rage was what they called woggles. They were like tubes and you rode them. They came in the wildest colors, even chartreuse and hot pink. But enough of that. Back to my friend.
She came toward me that first day, wearing a big smile, and climbed right into the water next to me.
“You have good taste,” she said, looking at my bathing suit.
“You do, too. The best,” I said.
“I know where you got that suit,” she said. “At Bloomie’s. That’s where I got mine.”
“K-Mart. On special,” I said.
“Never,” she said.
We both cracked up.
By the end of the week we were old friends.
“You look surprised about what I said about my husband. So was I when I began to realize how I feel about him,” my friend said.
“Ride your bikes,” Esther Williams ordered. And 10 pairs of arthritic arms and legs switched over from skiing to biking.
“You think you know a man when you’ve spent 40 years married to him,” my friend continued. “But first we both worked. Then I was home raising children, and he worked. Sometimes he had two jobs. He worked in a garage by day, came home for an early supper, then cut grass afterwards. In the winter he and a couple of other guys shoveled snow.
“Then, when my youngest boy was six, I went back to work. I’m a secretary. Well, you know how it is yourself. You told me. You did the same thing. So he and I were both busy, working, raising our kids. We helped our two boys through college. My daughter got a student loan. They all graduated. Then they all got married.”
It sounded so familiar, I thought. Probably every woman in that pool had gone through it. My hubby and me, too. The early years, kind of carefree. Then the kids, responsibilities. And now, just the two of us.
Water was splashing in my face, and all around me women were laughing, chatting, sometimes looking serious, like us two. I thought, we are one big sisterhood. And this is our life. I felt real close to each and every woman in that pool. You know what I’m saying?
“What went wrong?” I asked my friend and sister.
“Retirement,” she explained.
Ten women in the showers, with no curtains between us. Not like it used to be when I was a girl and we had privacy. Now there was no place to hide. Nothing but the naked truth…ha,ha.
“What do you mean, retirement,” I wanted to know, soaping myself.
“Well, first he retired, but I was still working. He kept busy around the house, but I couldn’t convince him to take some of the household chores off my hands. I still had to do all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, like when he was still working. No matter how he promised to help, I could never rely on him.
“Then I took early retirement, because it was that or getting laid off. Now that I was home, too, we started to get in each other’s way. He started to follow me around, like a puppy, from room to room. Or he watched TV for hours, sitting there like a couch potato, saying nothing, having his beer, sometimes falling asleep and snoring.”
“Well,” I said,” But he also brings you flowers…”
“That’s true,” she said, practically cutting me off. “But he also never reads, not even a paper. And I was thinking, he never did read. And he always watched TV every minute he had time when we were younger. We seldom talked.
“And he’s kinda negative, critical. He doesn’t like the way I keep house, for instance. But he won’t help. So then I thought, he always criticized the way I keep house. He wanted me to be like his mother, Mrs. Neat. Sometimes he says he worries we won’t have enough money to last us till we die, and he starts to pinch pennies. That’s when I get ornery, and I go out and I splurge on something silly. Because I’m still young. I’m only 62. And I want to think about life, not death.”
“But he loves you, so you told me,” I reminded her, toweling myself.
“Yes,” she said slowly, as if thinking it over, while we were getting dressed. “But all those years I was too busy to think about those other things. And now I know.”
“What do you know?”
“That my husband is boring. And I say to myself, you know, like that song that Peggy Lee used to sing. Remember her? I ask myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ ”
I looked at my friend and I saw her warm, blue eyes shining with tears. I reached out and touched her hand. I could only think about my hubby and me, and how lucky I was that he was never boring. And I hoped that I never bored him. No matter what happens.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And then we hugged.
She switched classes as the cold winter ended and spring came. She explained that she wanted to try something new. Aerobics. And so we no longer saw each other at the pool. We talked on the phone a few times, but, I don’t know why, we started to lose touch. I guess the pool at the Y had been our connection. And once she left the pool, it broke.
Next thing I knew, the shops were filled with holiday decorations, green and red and gold. I was busy buying Christmas presents. And a familiar looking figure was waving to me, calling my name across the mall.
She looked radiant.
“Guess what,” she asked after we hugged and sat down on a bench right near a Christmas tree.
“I’m in love. He’s a plumbing contractor. He owns his own business, and his sons work for him. He says he’ll work till he drops. He loves to go out, to travel, to read, to talk. He’s got plenty of money. And he loves me.”
“Does he have a wife?”
“She died a couple of years ago.”
“What about your husband?”
“I told him. He’s very upset. But I can’t help it. Nobody lives forever. And I want to really live while I can.”
She was leaving after the holidays, moving in with her boyfriend, getting a divorce. They’ll marry when she’s free, she said.
“I’m glad for you,” I said. “You look wonderful. You got what you were looking for.” I couldn’t tell her that I was sad for her husband. But somehow, I was.
“I’ll call you when I’m settled,” she said, hurrying off, struggling with her packages. “Merry Christmas. Say hi to the gang at the pool!”
She called me a few times. Her plate was full, she said. Something like that. They were getting married in June.
“A June bride. At my age. Did you ever?” She laughed her wonderful, warm laugh. I guess they call it a throaty laugh, you know what I’m saying?
But once again we started to lose touch. Missing each other’s phone calls. She had a phone answering machine. I didn’t. I guess we were living different lives. She lived in a large house with a circular driveway and a woman who came once a week to clean. They took a trip to Paris one year. To Rome another. Like that. Nothing like my life.
It must have been five years later.
My husband had retired. We were both at home now. No responsibilities. Lots of time for ourselves and each other. Less money. Maybe more TV watching. But it was warm and wonderful.
And there she was one day, at the pool.
She still looked good. Her figure. Her hair. But there was something else about the way she walked. She didn’t carry herself like she used to. She was walking and looking down, at the floor.
“I see you’re still here,” she said, settling right alongside me in the water, like she used to do. “You always said swimming is good exercise.”
“I’m so happy to see you,” I said, and I really was, but surprised. “We kinda lost track of each other again.”
“Yes, we did,” she agreed. “But it’s all my fault. I kept being so busy.” She was quiet for a while. Then she said, “I see Esther Williams isn’t here anymore. Remember how we used to call her?”
I nodded. “Retired,” I said. “Replaced.” Soon the new coach came. We did the usual drills. Then we showered and got dressed, hardly speaking.
“How about lunch?” she asked all of a sudden, and a bit shy, like.
I said sure, and soon we were sitting at Friendly’s, having coffee, waiting for our orders.
“You won’t believe this,” my friend said, “but after Paris and Rome, guess what?”
“One day he came home, husband mine, and announced he’s giving his business to his sons. It’s time to make room for the young generation, he said. He’ll make a contract with them, and they’ll pay him so much each month from the business. He said he loves me so much and loves being with me, he’s retiring.”
The waitress brought our orders, salads for both of us, eating healthy. She refilled our coffees.
“Well, at first it was great,” my friend said. “We did a lot of fun things. But then, after a while, I realized we were slowing down. I mean, he was slowing down, and dragging me with him. Now it was more him watching TV. And then he started worrying about money, because his sons were saying business wasn’t so good, and they couldn’t pay him as much as they said they would.
“So now he started to watch expenses. And then the trips stopped. And then he told me to get rid of the cleaning woman. And then he didn’t want to go out as much. After all, he said, he’s already 75. He doesn’t have the energy.
“So now he hardly reads anymore, because, he says, he’s tired a lot. It’s like he got old all of a sudden, soon after he retired. Shriveled up. I guess our lives together weren’t enough…I guess…I wasn’t enough to keep him from getting old.”
She looked at me, and those eyes that were so happy at the mall were filled with tears.
“The worst is,” she said almost in a whisper, “The worst is, he’s becoming boring. And I, I still want to live.”
Gunter David and his parents fled Germany, their native country, as soon as Adolph Hitler rose to power. They settled in Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, where Gunter grew up. He subsequently moved to the U.S., where he worked on major newspapers for 25 years. The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize. He has returned to Israel numerous times, as a newsman and to visit family and friends, and covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His second career was as a family therapist and addiction counselor. Dalia, his wife of 60 years, is also from Israel.