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The Shipwreck Rose: Swimming to Oblivion

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 11:17

Do you remember “The Swimmer,” the short story by John Cheever about a man who decides to make his way by water from a friend’s backyard to his home eight miles away, traversing an affluent suburban county via a chain of swimming pools, wearing nothing but a pair of dripping trunks and stopping only to throw back tumblers of whiskey at the pool houses and barbecue bars of increasingly unwelcoming acquaintances? It was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster in 1968.

“He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original, and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” Cheever writes of the story’s antihero, Neddy Merrill. “The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.”

The lush setting of midcentury dirty-martini America isn’t exactly the setting I grew up in, myself, but I visited there when I went to certain friends’ houses. I loved that mood and atmosphere: thick grass underfoot, sun-warmed lounge chairs — do you remember those loungers? Ames Aire or Tropitone, with stretchy vinyl strapping — and bedrooms with cheerful wallpaper, red, green, and yellow abstract poppies on a white ground. Barmen in waiters’ jackets on the patio, sapphire-colored pools winking and twinkling, kitchen drawers filled with fondue forks and grapefruit spoons, parents’ private bathrooms where eyelash curlers were set out dangerously on a double vanity. White and gold picture frames, flocked velvet, sleeveless floor-length shifts, Holly Hobbie sheets, and black iron railings on the front steps.

I think back on it with a nostalgia both warm and vaguely painful.

At one point, Cheever’s swimmer has to cross a multilane highway. “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day, you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulder of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, or had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool? Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway beer cans, rags, and blowout patches, exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.”

I had a bit of a Neddy Merrill moment on Friday of last week at Main Beach when — despite the presence of other beachgoers fully dressed, eating sushi lunches inside their cars and walking Airedales on leashes with sweaters thrown around their shoulders — I was tempted by the unusual tranquillity and tropical turquoise of the October water to strip down to my teal maillot and run alone into the surf.

The tide was down, the water nearly as warm as August, and the waves rolling in gently as the sun made white sparkles on the water’s surface. You could see the “bar” — the hidden sandbar that is always there, shifting with the season and the weather — in a paler strip of aquamarine a hundred yards or so out. After paddling and diving for a few minutes I just stood there a while, being lifted off my feet every 10 seconds by the rollers, thinking of the first time I was ever praised for my “creative writing” (in Mr. McFarland’s class at Concord Academy in 1983, when we’d been asked to write a haiku and I produced something corny about the sunset’s reflection on water looking like scattered coins).

“Being embraced and sustained by the light-green water seemed not as much a pleasure as the resumption of a natural condition,” Cheever wrote. 

As I unfailingly do when I jump into the ocean, I floated and felt like I should commune with the whales out there somewhere. (“Greetings, right whales!” I say, sometimes silently to myself and sometimes actually out loud, to the shame of my children. “Send me a message. Impart some wisdom.”) Such cringey human hubris. There are only 95 female right whales of breeding age left in the Atlantic. We’ve become accustomed to seeing humpbacks and dolphins cavorting and feeding off the beaches here in summer, and we all wave and point and get excited. But if the humpbacks and dolphins are here to convey any message, I’m fairly certain it isn’t “Things are terrific! Wish you were here.”

Twitter says that sharks have been filmed deep underwater biting the cables that connect Facebook to the world.

My son, Teddy, and I agree that the summer of 2021 wasn’t as good as we’d wanted it to be. It was, slightly, a letdown. Probably our hopes had been too high.

Friday was my last swim of summer, taken in the second week of autumn. I got in a couple dozen good, balmy ocean swims this year, true, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that we all crossed some invisible boundary this summer from which we cannot retreat. There was an undercurrent, an undertow, of awfulness in June, July, and August that dragged at our legs and feet. Not just the drawing out of the pandemic, but the — oh, you know — crushing, crisis-level overcrowding that decimates our sense of community and the, you know . . . like . . . catastrophe for the Earth unfolding in slow motion fires and floods all around us, from which, uh, um, humankind will likely perish?

How pleasant it must have been to be an inhabitant of that now-distant Cheever America of General Electric affluence, Buicks and Panasonics and 10,000 swimming pools. Somehow, magically, in 50 years we’ve made the middle class disappear . . . poof! And how weird — I thought as I bobbed there in my bathing suit as a man in workout sweats, accompanied by another man in workout clothes who was probably his trainer, talked to someone else about closing costs on a headset behind me — to live in a town where the tiny proportion of international ultrarich feel normal and at home, purring down Montauk Highway in beautiful, chestnut-colored Porsche S.U.V.s (their country car), while the rest of us feel squeezed, harried, and shown the door. (Certain recent zoning and code decisions here in the village seem designed to force out the few remaining non-ultra-elites. Well, we won’t go. Will we go?)

When I got home, after stopping by the I.G.A. to buy chicken thighs with awkward wet-bathing-suit stains spreading on my pants and T-shirt, I went into my bedroom and found five large hornets crawling around the lamp on my bedside table, which I’d forgotten to turn off. What do you do with five angry hornets? Hornets get aggressive in autumn, Google says; they are cold, hungry, and protective of their queen as they prepare her for her winter slumbers. I threw my beach towel over the lamp, twisting it around and bundling the hornets inside so they couldn’t escape.

Goodbye, summer. So long, John Cheever.


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