HauteLit from HotLanta: “Swimming”

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In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.  

This week’s featured short story is “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and can be read here at Story of the Week

You start with a small pool in midsummer.  You see, the smaller it is, the faster it will heat up under high summer sun.  The surface glitters placid, unrippled by any recent turbulence.  But they all start out that way.  You’ll splash in and rise to the top.  Then you’ll graduate to a larger pool and there the water isn’t as warm.  People have gathered by the ledge, just dipping their legs in and some have the luxury of renting that cabana in the corner, but then there are those who tread in the middle trying to hold their drink and keep their head above water.  They wave a half-extended hand to those listlessly watching the water gather tiny ripples around them, the floating human-like buoey in the middle.    Inexplicably, they can’t seem to come closer to the ledge and you whisper to a friend, “I never want to be that person.”  No one goes out to join them or offers a hand.

Swimming.  Well, that’s what we do at these things isn’t it?  We drop the appropriate number of pounds and don the most flattering suit for our most flattering features.  Then, with toes curled round the concrete ledge of society’s best, we find the most appealing corner in which to dive in.  The water is frigid, but everyone else is wading, keeping their heads above water just so everyone can see they’re smiling.  The lazy susan spins round with drinks and business cards and we take one and show the other as if it might grant us access to what seems so impossible, so fickle.  Yet, it only ever seems to feel difficult for us to get in.  Everyone else’s eyes glitter with mouths open in laughter and you think-there, they’ve got it, they’re in.  From the crisp crystal brim of your glass, your heart stops.  You realize the drink has aglittered your own eyes and your own mouth is open in laughter to a joke you don’t fully understand.  Now you’re in and you’re treading water with the rest of them.  And it seems like only moments ago you were watching the others keep their head above water, wondering how they got there, but now you know it’s so much more difficult to smile when you’re barely able to keep your head above the water ready to take you in at your weakest moment.

We grow up watching our elders take careers they don’t want so they can buy things they won’t have time to use and host parties for people they don’t want to talk to.  There’s some sort of strange glamour in it.  These parents of yours who scold you and tell you what to do are in a moment on a screen, when the neighborhood attendees arrive.  They are all as watchable as a movie, playing their best part.  You watch these alien creatures, these adult-like robots put on costumes for each other and smile when they don’t want to as they pass out drinks and food they can’t afford to give away.  That’s the catch.  You never get to see the outtakes and the backstory is lacking.  They act as if the clock will never reach tomorrow, telling themselves that they’ll teach you better, they’ll make sure you don’t make the same mistakes and but you’re growing each day.   They hack away at themselves, run marathons, starve to death, take better jobs all in an attempt to reach some ideal that doesn’t exist.  They want, but what they think they want will never cover what they need-even if they get it, which they most often don’t.

We see it, but when it’s time to play our part, we act it out as we’ve seen it done before, sometimes with slight improvement.  As we read the script though, we start to understand that we’re playing our parts without the backstory.  We don’t understand why we’re in whatever career we’re in or why the way that one person treats us makes us feel so bad and where is the time going?  It’s moving too fast!  We try to figure it out.  We ask our parents, the original stars, but they don’t want to tell us because they know they should have done it earlier, but they didn’t know how!   But, you just never know what the temperature of the water will be.  Some people can swim back to the edge and others flail around at the center unable to reach the concrete ledge of the suburban shore.  And Suburbia’s all striving to live the same life and thinking if they live the same way as everyone else does then they won’t be the one to drown, but inexplicably some still do.

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It takes less than a paragraph to be drawn into Cheever’s, “The Swimmer,” and hours afterwards to fully take it in.  In the third sentence characters are introduced haphazardly, as characters often are in suburbia, like we already know who they are and if we don’t, then we should.  Thrown into a casual Sunday afternoon gathering of friends, we find the main character with one hand in the pool and one around a drink and it becomes clear that this is the way the whole town operates, claiming on Sundays, “I drank too much last night.”  With that line, the story becomes so real.  Many have been there the morning after with friends breaking down the specifics of their overindulgence, but as the story progresses it takes a fantastical departure from the real and ends up shedding light on the human condition in a way that a realistic depiction might not be able to do as expertly.

Neddy, our tortured hero, takes an epic journey throughout the mere pages that could span the lifetime of many living the suburban American dream.  He embarks across the “quasi-subterranean steam,” not to escape, but because it seems as if a long swim might somehow enhance what’s already so wonderful.  It is here that the reader first sees a comparison to life.  The day is so enjoyable and here our main character has one hand in the pool and one on the drink and yet that’s not enough.  There’s always a wanting for more.

At first Neddy is welcomed with open arms by his peers and they pour him a drink.  He’s glad for the welcome, but only so he can get to the next pool, he can’t stop to have too many conversations along the way.  Isn’t it so true, though?  In the wasteland of suburbia, everyone you meet is just someone else who can get you to the next step.  He chops across the pool with a “serviceable stroke,” one that isn’t ideal for long distances.  It becomes evident that Neddy isn’t connected to the people around him.  Sure, he knows everyone’s name and reputation.  He knows what people say about so-and-so, but he isn’t close to anyone.  It’s serviceable, but won’t sustain him long-term.

All of this comes to a head as he crosses through a neighbor’s yard with a For Sale sign.  He doesn’t recall that they were moving.  There are no signs of life.  The clouds roll in and fall leaves litter the ground in the storm.   He can’t fathom the autumnal constellations and signs, because he hasn’t realized the time is passing.  He has reached what could be compared to a mid-life crisis in his journey.  It doesn’t get easier from here.  More yards are overgrown with signes of suburban despair and he must cross the highway to get to the recreational center.

At this point, Cheever wields his pen and draws the reader in by describing what they may have seen if they had seen Neddy crossing the highway that day.  We see the contrast of how Neddy perceives his epic journey and what the people around him see.  In the recreational pool, he doesn’t carry the proper identification to stay in and this could be another connection to real life.  Neddy, once welcome and invited throughout the neighborhood now encounters the brambly yards of abandoned homes and clubs he no longer fits into.

In the end, Neddy finally faces a party he wasn’t invited to and hears the rumors he doesn’t want to hear.  His yard is one of the overgrown and his door is locked.  He’s lost his mistress, his wife and his kids while he’s been toiling away at his inexplicable journey across the Neighborhood stream.  He even realizes towards the end that he did not sign any contract, he hasn’t shaken on any deal.  He could leave his journey at any point, but he continues on.  He made this deal with himself that he would make the day more pleasurable, that he would want more than he had and paid the price for it.

Cheever is a genius at weaving in the real with the fantastic.  In doing so, he makes the story so applicable and puts it into a perspective.  Yet, as we read it we’re watching Neddy in the center of the pool flailing.  We’ve heard the warning.  Will we still watch our neighbors choppily treading water to stay afloat?  Will we tread water ourselves?

I highly recommend “The Swimmer,” by John Cheever and will soon be reading his novel, “The Wapshot Chronicle.”  I hope you will explore some of his shorts and novels as well.  Let’s start a dialogue about the story and what it brings to mind for you.  Comment below with any thoughts you have. 

“The Swimmer,” was eventually turned into a movie starring Bert Lancaster and it received four stars from Roger Ebert when it came out. Click here to go to  the movie trailer on Turner Broadcasting. 

About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.

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