Excerpt from The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Swimmers

A novel

by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka X
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 192 pages

    Jan 2023, 144 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

The Underground Pool

The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us—­Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia—­comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. "Up there," she says, "I'm just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I'm myself."

MOST DAYS AT THE POOL, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers. Untenured professors slice, shark-­like, through the water, with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR Manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity. The downsized adman floats, otter-­like, on his back, as he stares up at the clouds on the painted pale blue ceiling, thinking, for the first time all day long, of nothing. Let it go. Worriers stop worrying. Bereaved widows cease to grieve. Out-­of-­work actors unable to get traction above ground glide effortlessly down the fast lane, in their element, at last. I've arrived! And for a brief interlude we are at home in the world. Bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim. And when we are finished with our laps we hoist ourselves up out of the pool, dripping and refreshed, our equilibrium restored, ready to face another day on land.

UP ABOVE THERE ARE wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers' strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up (Massive "Heat Dome" Permanently Stalled over Entire West Coast), but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-­one degrees. The humidity is sixty-­five percent. The visibility is clear. The lanes are orderly and calm. The hours, though limited, are adequate for our needs. Some of us arrive shortly upon waking, fresh towels draped over our shoulders and rubber goggles in hand, ready for our eight a.m. swim. Others of us come down in the late afternoon, after work, when it is still sunny and bright, and when we reemerge it is night. The traffic has thinned. The backhoes have quieted. The birds have all gone away. And we are grateful to have avoided, once more, the falling of dusk. It's the one time I can't bear being alone. Some of us come to the pool religiously, five times a week, and begin to feel guilty if we miss even a day. Some of us come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. One of us comes a half hour before closing and by the time she changes into her suit and gets into the water it's time to get out. Another of us is dying of Parkinson's disease and just comes when he can. If I'm here then you know I'm having a good day.

THE RULES AT THE POOL, though unspoken, are adhered to by all (we are our own best enforcers): no running, no shouting, no children allowed. Circle swimming only (direction counterclockwise, always keeping to the right of the painted black line). All Band-­Aids must be removed. No one who has not taken the compulsory two-­minute shower (hot water, soap) in the locker room may enter the pool. No one who has an unexplained rash or open wound may enter the pool (the menstruating among us, however, are excepted). No one who is not a member of the pool may enter the pool. Guests are permitted (no more than one per member at a time), but for a nominal daily fee. Bikinis are permitted but not encouraged. Bathing caps are required. Cell phones are forbidden. Proper pool etiquette must be observed at all times. If you cannot keep up the pace you must stop at the end of your lane to let the swimmer behind you pass. If you want to pass someone from behind you must tap them once on the foot to warn them. If you accidentally bump into another swimmer you must check to make sure that they are all right. Be nice to Alice. Obey the lifeguard at all times. Turn your head at regular intervals and remember, of course, to breathe.

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Excerpted from The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. Copyright © 2022 by Julie Otsuka. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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