III. NIGHT KITCHEN
February 1987. At the 4:25 alarm my routine is this: From the bed, reach for the two damp swimsuits drying on the bedroom doorknob, take off my pajamas, and pull the suits on halfway. Under the covers, pull on track pants, three T-shirts, a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks, which have been piled at the foot of my bed the night before. Once dressed, switch on my bedside lamp.
The hour between 4 and 5 AM is dreadful, especially in the dead of Canadian winter. Knowing I have to get into a chilly, overchlorinated pool and endure two hours of unrelenting muscle pain makes it worse. The hour is redeemed by the quiet, the bluish-blackness out the window, less menacing than midnight dark. I ride, next to my mother, through our suburban streets, bundled into a team parka, listening to the tires squeak over the packed snow.
Sometimes on those mornings, waiting for my mother to come downstairs, I make something I call a “muffin-in-a-mug”: Quaker instant bran muffin mix, half a cup of milk, stirred, nuked for two minutes, and then eaten with a spoon. It will be half bready, half raw, but sweet and warm. I bring it along in the car if we are running late, spooning the stuff into my mouth with mittens on, as I watch the icy streetscapes swoosh past.
This was my ritual: I put the batter-filled mug in the microwave and set the time to 1:11:00, the time I want to swim the SC 100m breaststroke in 1987. Then I cover my eyes with one hand, finger on the start panel, imagining my starting block and the pool: a vast table of water, still and clear. I see the dirty grout between the small white tiles. The lane ropes pulled taut along the surface. I can hear teammates in the stand and families in the gallery. A long, sharp whistle calls us onto the blocks. The quiet is sudden. My hands reach to touch the front of the sandpapery block, between my toes.
I push Start on the microwave. Breathe, dive. In the kitchen, in my track pants, there are eight or nine strokes the first length, a two-handed touch, and silence again at the turn. I hear a faucet upstairs turn on, then off. In my mind I am ahead, no one in my periphery. My legs start to tire. I lay a hand on the countertop at 50 meters, knees and chest hurting. When I breathe I see the officials dressed in white at the end of the lanes, legs apart and hands behind their backs, looking grimly down to the pool. Halfway down the pool on my final length I hear sharp beeping and open my eyes—the microwave is flashing 00:00:00. Too slow by about five seconds.
Other times I prepare my mug, set the microwave to 1:11:00, and sit at the kitchen table with a glass of milk. I don’t look at the timer. I look outside at the dark wooden deck and icy trees. I look at my knees in my gray track pants, I pick some lint off, I think about how I like my track pants to be either gray or, gun-to-head, navy blue. My mind wanders but maintains a loose grip on the seconds. When I sense the time is close I shut my eyes and imagine the last five or six strokes to the wall. I finish—imagine slamming my arms dramatically into the yellow touchpads—and look up at the microwave. Sometimes this works, but most of the time I’m too early. I watch the last numbers count down to 00:00:00, the light inside the oven clicks off, and the long beep indicates the time is up.
February 1991. I take my mountain bike out into the snow for a ride and, halfway down a steep hill, resolve to bicycle to my best friend Chris’s house 25 kilometers away. The winter afternoon quickly blackens, and I am about three kilometers south when it starts to blizzard. I’m afraid of strangers who might stop to help me, so when I hear a car approach I hide behind a bank of plowed snow on the shoulder. I’ve been gone two hours. One car slows as I am ducking behind a frozen drift. I poke my head over the top. It is my father. I roll my bike out and over the bank, and he puts it in the back of his Suzuki Sidekick. I get in. We drive back silently. A few weeks later he asks if I think I might like to see a psychiatrist.
I haven’t been swimming for two years, and am due at McGill University in the fall. During these years, I ping-pong between my age and my swimming age—the number that coaches, teammates, competitors, and I unconsciously and automatically consider in relation to Olympic years, to puberty, to age-group rankings, to height, weight, strength, and development. After quitting in 1989, I voraciously try to catch up on the rituals of being suburban 16, 17, filling my head with steep French literature and new music, notebooks with bad poetry, gut with crushes, sketchbooks with agonies of dragons, raccoons, and smudgy Gothic calligraphy. Chris and I write out an urgent vow—something about making the best comics and stories in the world—that we place in a peanut butter jar and bury on a slope beneath a boulder.
But after the long bus rides home from high school, I retreat to the basement in my shorts, loop a pair of surgical tubes around an iron pillar, set my stopwatch, and do an hour of resistance-band training. I listen to the thrum and squeak of the rubber and iron in the windowless room, sweating into the mustard-swirl carpet. I continue dry-land workouts like an automaton, simulating swimming in a basement on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. I yank on the tubes hoping they might give me a clue—tell me what I’m doing—willing my swimming age to remember what it is capable of.
When I graduate from high school in May, my step-aunt Pamela, a glamorous, single career woman with no children, invites me and my friend Jane to stay with her for the summer, in a town outside Leeds, England.
From Pam’s house, Jane and I take trains to the beach at Southampton; the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford; the Brontë house in Haworth. We punt in Cambridge, stay in youth hostels. I start to long for larger experiences I have no idea how to acquire. At one hostel, in Brighton, I hear a young woman’s voice beneath my window singing “Off to Dublin in the Green,” heartbreakingly, drunkenly, and I have a feeling that things will be—as the song sounds—complicated, mostly sad, and mostly beautiful.
When the singing stops, I keep listening at the window from my bunk bed:
“Oy, Tracy, get me top off, it’s all I got to wear tomorrow!”
“Surely you’re joking.”
“Nuh, I mean it, git it off! Do us a favor.”
We stay with Jane’s cousins in Birmingham, and she transforms: her Brummie accent emerges, her neckline scoops, her posture becomes defiant. She borrows their tight jeans, jerseys, and hair spray. I watch her, wearing a wool fisherman’s sweater and vintage pajama bottoms, then go back to underlining my rancid paperbacks. At a campground in Ayr we part ways, planning to meet at Pam’s in a week. I go to Edinburgh and Glasgow, eat spoonfuls of peanut butter on park benches. Jane returns to Birmingham, goes to clubs, and does a lot of drugs. Later, back on Pam’s high, flowery-sheeted bed, Jane whispers that she slept with her cousin’s friend. We shriek for a while; then I lie beside her in the dark as she snores softly.
Jane flies back to Canada the next day, and I stay on another few weeks with Pam. While she works, I sketch in her garden or take the bus into Leeds to walk around. It’s different without Jane. We rifled through the charity shops, drank barley water in pubs, giddily went to see a band called the Pooh Sticks. I walk to the university pool and watch the City of Leeds swim team practice. The coach, Terry Denison, coached breaststrokers Adrian Moorehouse and Suki Brownsdon—names I know from the international rankings. I lean over the railing from the stands and listen to Denison give his swimmers sets.
From the window of the bus back to Pam’s, I see a dark-haired man exit a door and turn a corner. He is wearing Adidas track pants, clean white sneakers, and a battered leather motorcycle jacket zipped snugly up to his chin. I decide I want to swim again, and I want to know where to get clothes like that.
Over fish fingers, Pam and I talk about my taking up swimming again. I decide to defer McGill, train for next year, and live with my brother in downtown Toronto.