WEEKLY FLASH PROSE AND PROSE POETRY: "The Swimmers" by Elizabeth Paul

The Swimmers

By Elizabeth Paul

Since a lot of things didn’t make sense to me as an American living in Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps because so much seemed to reference the past more than the present—the faded signs on crumbling buildings, the silent and vacant factories, the statue of V.I. Lenin—I did not think too much of the fact that there was no swimming pool at the Swimming Pool bus stop. Perhaps there had once been a swimming pool, I thought, or maybe the name referred to the Ak Buura River in a colloquial way; the river ran parallel to Isanova Street, and near the bus stop was a popular swimming spot, where a wood-plank bridge provided access to the grassy left bank.

But in fact, there was a swimming pool near the bus stop. I couldn’t see it from the road because it was set back on the far side of the river and in the ground, with nothing surrounding it to suggest a swimming pool. Perhaps if I’d noticed how the Russian word for swimming pool, bassein, resembles the English word “basin,” I might have had a better idea of what to look for—a simple 100x300 foot concrete pit with grass growing right up to its edges.

I was finally initiated into the secret of the swimming pool through Lyalya, the aunt and second mother of my then-boyfriend and now-husband, Stas. Lyalya, Stas, Stas’s mom, and his sister were one of the few ethnically Russian families still living in their Central Asian town. They’d watched most of their Russian neighbors and friends leave since the end of the Soviet Union, and I wondered what that was like. Did their hometown still feel like home? On what terms did they feel they belonged? 

Lyalya loved to swim on summer evenings, and one late afternoon she invited me to join her at the pool. I knew it would be awkward—I was a beginner in Russian—but it was time to get to know Stas’s family.  

Lyalya’s habit was to do the breast stroke—keeping her head above water—about two-thirds of the length of the pool and back. So she had left her thick, rose-rimmed glasses on and clamped her orange hair up with a black claw clip before leading me down the slimy, slick ramp into the water.

There was no smell of chlorine and no dancing of light over a cerulean blue liner. In this rough container, the water appeared dark and opaque, and when I let my legs drop, weeds dragged across my ankles and brushed my toes. There were no kids with goggles and snorkels. There were no swimmies or noodles. No diving boards, life guards, or lanes. There were no deck chairs or concession stands. No trash cans stuffed with empty soda cups and neon-stained nacho trays. There were just a few people—mostly boys in their underwear bobbing in the water or standing around the perimeter—and a few cows—some grazing nearby, others passing through trailed by a skinny child wielding a long, thin branch.

Our pale legs glowed in the water, and I wondered what kind of spectacle we provided. The kids at the pool had never experienced the multiethnic empire of the Soviet Union. Did our white skin look as unusual to them as it appeared to me in the dark water that had been diverted from the river? Did I look American even in my swim suit? People could always tell I was American. I was never taken for a Russian.    

I don’t remember what Lyalya and I talked about. I did more listening than talking and understood more than I could express, though there was much that eluded me. Still, Lyalya seemed to understand most of my awkward, accented Russian, which took patience and faith. What I remember well is our walk down the slippery ramp before watching eyes, our synchronized shock as the mountain-river cold chomped down on our flesh, our pinning of shoulders to ears and elbows to ribs as we waded in to our waists, our pinch-faced lunges into the first stroke, our parallel wakes, the bob of our torsos and the dip of our chins, the eventual warming up, and the final emerging. I remember the water, the fresh air, and the sunlight surrounding us like amber does an insect, suspending us in a luminescence apart from the inevitable flow of less remarkable moments. 

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Paul’s work has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Briar Cliff Review, Sweet Lit, The Indianapolis Review, and Duende, among other places. Her chapbook Reading Girl is an exploration of the art of Henri Mattise. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan and currently teaches at George Mason University. Her website is elizabethsgpaul.com.

About Weekly Flash Prose and Prose Poetry:

CutBank Online features one work of flash prose or prose poetry every Monday. Submissions are free and open year-round. Send us your best work of 750 words or less at https://cutbank.submittable.com/submit