Excerpt: ‘The Swimmers’

Julie Otsuka is the September 2022 California Book Club author.

julie otsuka, the swimmers

Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up (Massive “Heat Dome” Permanently Stalled over Entire West Coast), but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-one degrees. The humidity is sixty-five percent. The visibility is clear. The lanes are orderly and calm. The hours, though limited, are adequate for our needs. Some of us arrive shortly upon waking, fresh towels draped over our shoulders and rubber goggles in hand, ready for our eight a.m. swim. Others of us come down in the late afternoon, after work, when it is still sunny and bright, and when we reemerge it is night. The traffic has thinned. The backhoes have quieted. The birds have all gone away. And we are grateful to have avoided, once more, the falling of dusk. It’s the one time I can’t bear being alone. Some of us come to the pool religiously, five times a week, and begin to feel guilty if we miss even a day. Some of us come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. One of us comes a half hour before closing and by the time she changes into her suit and gets into the water it’s time to get out. Another of us is dying of Parkinson’s disease and just comes when he can. If I’m here then you know I’m having a good day.

This excerpt appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

The rules at the pool, though unspoken, are adhered to by all (we are our own best enforcers): no running, no shouting, no children allowed. Circle swimming only (direction counterclockwise, always keeping to the right of the painted black line). All Band-Aids must be removed. No one who has not taken the compulsory two-minute shower (hot water, soap) in the locker room may enter the pool. No one who has an unexplained rash or open wound may enter the pool (the menstruating among us, however, are excepted). No one who is not a member of the pool may enter the pool. Guests are permitted (no more than one per member at a time), but for a nominal daily fee. Bikinis are permitted but not encouraged. Bathing caps are required. Cell phones are forbidden. Proper pool etiquette must be observed at all times. If you cannot keep up the pace you must stop at the end of your lane to let the swimmer behind you pass. If you want to pass someone from behind you must tap them once on the foot to warn them. If you accidentally bump into another swimmer you must check to make sure that they are all right. Be nice to Alice. Obey the lifeguard at all times. Turn your head at regular intervals and remember, of course, to breathe.

Julie Otsuka joins the California Book Club on September 15 at 5 p.m. Pacific time.

In our “real lives,” up above, we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters (Just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, “Mom,” a second-rate fashion designer, an undocumented immigrant, a nun, a Dane, a cop, an actor who just plays a cop on TV (“Officer Mahoney”), a winner of the green card lottery, a two-time nominee for Outstanding Professor of the Year, a nationally ranked go player, three guys named George (George the podiatrist, George the nephew of the disgraced financier, George the former welterweight Golden Gloves boxer), two Roses (Rose, and the Other Rose), one Ida, one Alice, one self-described nobody (Don’t mind me), one former member of the SDS, two convicted felons, addicted, enabled, embattled, embittered, out of print, out of luck (I think I just seroconverted), in the twilight of lackluster real estate careers, in the middle of long and protracted divorces (It’s year seven), infertile, in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission, in the third week of chemo, in deep and unrelenting emotional despair (You never get used to it), but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.•

Excerpted from The Swimmers. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, February 22, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Julie Otsuka Inc. All rights reserved.

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California.
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