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The Incontinents
Andrew Holleran

It had taken him years to be able to wear a Speedo -- although the same thing could be said of the entire country, he thought as he entered the shower room of the gym on his way to the pool. In the fifties, when he was growing up, Americans considered red wine and skimpy bathing suits not only European but decadent -- now, at the dawn of the millennium, wine was sold in supermarkets and Americans wore thongs. He wasn't sure how this had happened. Once, in the mid-seventies, a friend of his, temporary-typing in Manhattan, spent a summer at an advertising agency compiling a report on strategies to get Americans to drink wine. Well -- as with almost everything the advertising agencies had turned their attention to -- that had been accomplished, and with that, somehow, came all sorts of other things -- including that product of Australia heretofore confined to Olympic swim meets and beaches abroad: the Speedo.

He thought men almost looked better in a Speedo than they did naked -- some men, that is. It wasn't just that the Speedo revealed the heft and content of the genitals, though surely that was one of the reasons men had started wearing it on Fire Island; it was something else. The previous year a friend had sent him from Sydney, where he'd retired, a stack of postcards with photographs of lifeguards in Speedos on the beach; he kept them on the table by his bed, and occasionally leafed through them before he fell asleep. That's how wonderful Speedos were -- though he had always been too modest to wear one himself.

The summer he was sixteen his family spent a month in Maine at a resort with a community pool. Their neighbor, a deeply sun-tanned man with a fleshy, dissolute face, would come over at five for cocktails in a black bikini with two Doberman Pinschers, and he could tell it was not the dogs that bothered his mother, it was the bathing suit -- even if she never said so. That same summer, however, a boy his age came to the pool in the same black tank suit accompanied by a voluptuous blond in a bikini who would sun bathe with him. One afternoon, while showering in the little men's room beneath the pool, he noticed the boy's black swimsuit hanging on the handle of the shower, and one day when there was no one about, he put it on. It was the first time he had ever felt the erotic charge an article of clothing can provide. It was as if he could -- by slipping this swimsuit on -- become the muscular young man; or touch him by wearing a garment that had rested on his skin too. That black swimsuit -- so striking on the muscular youth his age with the thick brown crewcut; so embarrassing on the fat middle-aged bachelor who came over with his two Dobermans for vodka every day -- had been the emblem of everything he wanted to possess but was too shy to even consider owning, the unapologetic masculinity of that sullen young man.

Since then he had possessed such people, but now, forty years later, his possession had proved frustratingly impermanent, and he was come full circle -- sharing the pool, the shower room, with young men he dared not look at directly, much less approach, and men his own age who wore bathing suits that only made their bellies look bigger.

In fact, in the middle of the day, when he went to the gym, there were only two kinds of people there: students from the University of Florida and the elderly. Nobody else could go at two in the afternoon. When he entered the poolroom after his work-out he always found the elderly doing exercises in a roped-off portion of the pool on one side, the students swimming laps in the lanes on the other. Who else did not have to be at work? The elderly had retired and did not have to show up at an office -- the college students, like lambs before slaughter, were still being fattened to take their place on the assembly line -- not quite adults, though at nineteen and twenty they already had the bodies of adults. And their beauty.

This seemed to bring them little pleasure, however. "Adolescents are often prudish about their bodies," a friend had told him when he commented on the downcast eyes, the grim expressions, of the students when they came into the pool room. Whatever the reason, these college men hardly ever wore Speedos, unless they had been on a swim team -- a link that was confirmed when they sliced through the water at twice the speed and half the effort of the boys in baggy shorts. He liked to think it was the latters' just-dawning awareness of how powerful their bodies were that accounted for their voluminous bathing suits; but he suspected it was probably the opposite -- some painful self-consciousness, some prudery, some disapproval of their own appearance. At nineteen, he remembered, one is supremely conscious of one's shortcomings and by no means always ready to plunge into erotic life. Only the old could realize the beauty of youth; youth couldn't see it, even if they knew, intellectually, that old people kept telling them these were the best years of their lives. These Greek gods in baggy shorts came to the pool with morose expressions, papers overdue, loans unpaid, exams looming, while the shapeless older men sprouting hair from every orifice, with most of their life struggle behind them, wore the Speedos. (And not just Speedos -- black Speedos, it had been wordlessly established, was the appropriate swimsuit for a mature man who swam laps.)

He wore a Speedo himself because he didn't want to expend any more effort swimming laps than he had to, and believed the baggy shorts were literally a drag; but in part it was because his own life, he felt, was drawing to a close, and he might as well use this excuse to do something he had been too shy to do till now. Yet clearly the system was backwards -- it was the young who should have been wearing the tank suits, which they refused either because they were indeed prudish, or because -- he preferred to think -- they knew exactly how beautiful they were, and were not about to waste it on this audience.

This audience could not possibly count in their eyes: this audience consisted of a row of gray heads lined up along the west wall of the pool in an aqua aerobics class, doing what the instructor standing above them told them to. To him the silvery figures looked like rows of the newly dead -- waist deep in the river Styx, receiving an orientation lecture to Hell. Though it was not Charon welcoming them to Hades, it was a young big-breasted woman in yellow Lycra tossing her curly head of black hair in rhythm as she told them to roll their heads to the left, then back, then to the right. Only one woman was perfectly still, her attention caught by the golden light falling through the trees outside the big plate glass windows -- unless she was demented, he thought, or had been distracted by a memory, or her head was stuck in that position. Whatever the reason, there was something wistful about her vacant stare; the only head in the whole row not turned to the instructor, while the students swam their oblivious laps in the adjacent lanes.

They were three this afternoon. The smallest swam his laps and then paused at the far end, where the sunlight coming through the tall windows illumined a corner of the pool and threw reflected light up his half-immersed, still form. He was the most beautiful, though the other two swimmers were bigger and more chiseled. His small head, his shoulders, the glowing collarbone, the smooth white chest, were illumined from below, like a statue lighted in a niche. Outside a bright white light fell on the terrace where people were sun-bathing. But the light inside the pool room was indirect, save for the corner in which the student stood as still and beautiful as a stone kouros, bathed in light.

Swimming with the gods was thrilling, or rather between the gods and the recently dead; a place one could only be in the mid-afternoon at this gym, suspended between these two poles of existence, these two manifestations of Time: those just about to begin their lives, and those about to end them.

His father had died in a hospital in this town -- university towns are always hospital towns, too -- and during that awful time, when he took breaks from the bedside, he would go swimming, not in this pool but another he belonged to at the time, on the east side of town; a pool owned by the Knights of Columbus, an outdoor pool, deep and clean and crystal blue. The swimming had been a bright spot in what seemed to be a tale with no possible happy ending, the laps an orderly activity in a world of horrible change. His sister had gone shopping on her breaks; he swam up and down the pool in comforting straight lines. He went around three, when usually the only other swimmer was a crew-cut young blond who wore a blue Speedo, and on this blue Speedo he would see, after making his flip turn underwater, thousands of tiny silver bubbles, clinging to the young blond's butt. The blue bathing suit, the silver bubbles, the muscular butt seen underwater in the lane next to his in that split second were a vision of strength and happiness -- contrasted with the sight of his own father trying to pull the catheter out, tossing his head, delirious, as he decomposed and struggled with death. It was awful -- dying -- there was no way around it, only through, he thought, and when you came out the other side you'd vanished.

That pool had been crystal blue; this one was murky green. A man from Chicago had been flown down to improve the clarity of the water but so far there was no improvement. Some days, when few people were there, the pool was lucent. Most days it was not. A friend of his attributed this to the Incontinents -- his nickname for the people who used the pool for aqua-aerobics. "I'm writing a musical," he'd said. "I'm going to call it The Incontinents. Big aqua-aerobics numbers. Lots of pee. We'll bring Esther Williams out of retirement!" In truth the murk annoyed him as he swam up and down the pool, trying to make sure his head was underwater when the big, well-built student in the baggy red trunks passed him in the adjacent lane; even in baggy shorts, even in cloudy water, the sight of those flashing legs, the arched back, was exciting.

So much of desire was looking -- even when young. Now he really was a voyeur. Toward closing, according to his friend, men displayed themselves while toweling off in the little corridor between the shower stalls; but mostly the erotic life of the place lay beneath the surface.

His friend -- an erstwhile Presbyterian minister who had given up preaching to study German, and now spent hours in the gym, and loved to tell him at dinner about the sexual display he witnessed in the showers and locker room -- was often courted, though he never encouraged these exhibitions. The minister was lucky, he thought. No one had ever approached him -- though he still found the place exciting. No matter how depressed he might be on entering the lobby, his exercise, his swim, always made him feel glad to be alive by the time he emerged into the crowded parking lot. The pool really was rejuvenating -- or at least the people he saw in and around it.

Today was different, however, because an old family friend -- a woman he'd known since childhood -- was probably dying at this very moment in a hospital five minutes' drive from the gymnasium, and he had not gone to visit her. He could not go. The thought of it brought back too many memories of his own parents in the same place; though he knew that was no excuse. There was never any excuse, really. Yet he could not make himself go to the hospital and enter her room to see her pale, emaciated form lying there connected to tubes. It was as if the experience of suffering -- the loss of his own parents -- had made him not a better person but a worse one. When he'd mentioned this to the minister, his friend had just laughed, and refused to absolve him. "Everyone has trouble visiting the dying," he'd said, "even -- you might be surprised to know -- their doctors. Because there's nothing you can say. I was good at it, actually -- that's why the parish in Providence liked me. And it was fairly simple. All you have to do is sit there -- and listen," he said with a laugh.

The laugh only chilled him when he heard it -- a laugh filled with a fortitude he did not have, he thought as he swam his laps this afternoon, while she lay dying, or improving; he did not have the courage to learn which.

"Do you think vanity is connected to the fear of death?" he asked his friend another night as they were discussing the psychology of people who go to a gym. "No doubt about it," his friend replied.

Perhaps that was it -- everyone here, the students, even the elderly, were, to some degree, sufficiently vain or narcissistic or afraid of illness to make the effort to keep their bodies supple. They were to some extent aesthetes; they valued their own beauty. So did he; it was all that assuaged his depression some days.

He was depressed -- he knew that: A sweet, still sadness pervaded his life, or a still sad sweetness, he didn't know which. It wasn't unpleasant, though it was depression. It was mostly still and sad -- above all, still. He felt quiet inside. He stayed home a lot by himself now since retiring and went to bed sometimes in the middle of the afternoon and simply lay there, watching the light flicker on the leaves of the garden outside the bedroom window -- till he roused himself and went to the gym, if for no other reason than to look at people.

The people he was looking at now were beginning to come to the end of their exercise class. There were remarks made by the people in the pool to the instructor. Then the elderly women all moved at once, like a flock of blackbirds, to the hot tub; where they settled into the Jacuzzi beneath the presiding outspread legs of an elderly man perched on the side in his black Speedo, a gold coin on a chain buried in his silver chest hair, like an erotic talisman, advertising his own belief that he was still virile. Surely erotic currents were passing between these septuagenarians, he thought. On the other hand, he assumed the young men with chiseled torsos swimming beside him were total snobs. Youth was hard and firm. Old age was wrinkled and soft. Never the twain would meet. He swam back and forth between the two wondering in the middle of the sunny afternoon where he would die, and with whom, and how. Strange, he thought as he made his flip turn, how, in your fifties, one actually began to think about death as a logistical problem, a question of where, and how and when.

With the women all in the hot tub, stilled by the heat or demands of modesty, the pool room was so quiet it reminded him of kindergarten. There was something infantile, pre-school, about the diffused sunlight, the watery glow on the walls. He was back in the womb. But this womb was equipped with three young men. The huskiest student continued to swim with a slow, deliberate stroke, moving faster than the others with what looked like less effort, though the mechanics of a stroke were mostly invisible above the water. The more chiseled student on his opposite side was doing a choppy backstroke.

He thought of tourists allowed to swim with the porpoises at a resort. Their beauty was what got him through an otherwise dull routine, a routine he followed, theoretically, to prolong his own time on earth. All of a sudden the elderly women rose at once from the Jacuzzi and went into their locker room, while the student who had been standing at the far end lost in thought got out and walked the length of the pool toward the men's locker room. His lower body was more pear-shaped than one would have assumed. The pool emptied further of its patrons. He continued to swim, and swim, and then, after the last two students left, he stopped and stood up at the end of the pool to clear his goggles.

It was the first time he'd paused in twenty minutes. A middle-aged woman with dark hair was standing against the north wall of the pool beside an elderly man whose face wore a docile, childlike blankness -- a man who looked as lost and submissive as a small boy.

The woman holding the strange man's arm by the elbow looked at him and said, "Are you his son?"

He stared at her a moment, not understanding, and then said, "No! No!" and, rather than get involved, put his goggles back on and resumed swimming his lap. When he returned to that end of the pool a few moments later, however, he paused an instant while changing direction to hear what the woman was saying to the people gathered on the edge of the pool above her. She was talking about an ambulance; the old man had just had a stroke.

He pushed off from the wall and swam to the opposite end, reconstructing the events. The man had had a stroke, in the pool, the woman had come to his aid, had asked him whom he belonged to, the man had said his son was somewhere in the pool, and now, whether the son was or not, whether he even existed, they could not find him. Are you his son? he thought as he swam through the cloudy water. It sounded like a religious question. Of course I am, he thought, in some sense, in the sense we are all brothers and sisters, children and parents, related if you go back far enough through Time, all of us descended from the same couple. Are you his son? he thought as he switched to the breast stroke. But he had already done that duty -- with his own father; he could not repeat it with this perfect stranger in the pool. Yet to have said "No," so energetically, so firmly, to have rejected the man at such a terrible moment in his life -- when suddenly all was lost, at a single, yes, stroke, when he went from being the captain of his destiny to a helpless child in a public pool in a crowd of strangers, one of whom had just said "No!" (I am not your son) and gone on doing his daily laps -- was not good. Are you his son, are you his son? he thought as he reached the opposite wall. Of course I am, and he is my father, I who have none of my own, neither son nor father.

When he got out of the pool, the old man was still standing waist-deep in the water, the woman still holding his arm, the gym staff in their red polo shirts and web belts huddling above. Twenty minutes later, when he emerged from the men's locker room showered and dressed, the old man was going through the doors in front of him on a stretcher. Outside he was put into the back of an ambulance by two paramedics. Are you his son, are you his son? he thought as he got in his car and drove away. How could I say "No"? I who will die alone?

He drove faster than usual past the hospital where his neighbor lay dying, went home, got in bed, and saw the postcards on the table. The one on top was his favorite: a lean, golden man in a baby blue Speedo jumping into the air, the outline of his cock visible on the surface of the blue nylon. There was not an ounce of fat on his torso; he had no love handles; his pectoral muscles, flattened by his uplifted arms, were flat to begin with, his stomach corrugated, his upper thighs swelling outward from the blue bathing suit's borders, his whole body perfectly proportioned and lean -- and all of it dusted, it seemed, with a golden pollen. There was no face. The photographer had cropped the photo so that his head and lower legs were both cut off -- as if the man in the blue Speedo was already entering heaven, his body left behind.

He turned the card over and looked at the credit on the back. The photo had been taken in 1986 -- so the man in the blue Speedo could still be alive, he thought, somewhere in Australia.

This is my father, he thought, as he stared at the blue nylon pouch, this is my son, this is the man I belong to and love. Then he put the card down and fell into a vacant trance, staring at the light on the hedge beyond the window.

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