The necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia
Ask me about my competitive swimming career, and I’ll tell you a history of what I don’t remember. I don’t mean just the daily grind of training, the blocked-out monotony of laps. I’ve forgotten dozens of local meets, regionals, and states. More alarmingly, there are three Junior Nationals, three Senior Nationals, and two US Opens I’ve nearly erased, that survive today as fragments, and even those I’m not certain about, subsequent dreams further smudging the originals.
For the record, then, here is some of what I don’t remember, and the little I think I do.
Junior Nationals, Grand Forks, North Dakota: mother driving me, Susan, and Wes down unplowed streets to Subway. The universal smell of Subway: sourdough bread and soggy lettuce. Watching from the hotel window snow falling slow and steady over the fields on the other side of the highway. Shuffling through snow in our Uggs, Southern California kids badly dressed for the winter, zipped into our green team parkas. No memory of what I swam or how I did. When I dream about this meet, we’re never at the pool. I’m with my mother, in the passenger seat of our rented minivan, as she tries to navigate in the blizzard. The windshield wipers can’t keep up and the snow seals us in. Sometimes it’s my coach Jeff who’s driving, and he won’t speak to me or look at me.
On our way home, just after takeoff from Minneapolis, mother says the pilot announced northern lights, and we all piled over to one side of the plane to see it. She says she remembers a series of pale green flashes. I don’t remember any of it.
Junior Nationals, Midland, Texas, where I win the 500 free. I can recall fragments of the race (hard, nervous all the way, and the end decided by a touch), and then the medal ceremony: climbing on top of the podium, dipping my head down for the medal just like they do on TV, feeling my face ache with a smile I don’t feel. Shaking hands with the second- and third-place girls, just keep smiling. Going back to rejoin my team in the bleachers. Relieved to take the medal off. The next day, coming in a disappointing fifth in the 1650, but also relieved. Like out of the medals was my rightful place.
Junior Nationals, Tempe, Arizona: swimming my second 400 free of the day in lane 2 of consolation finals. The sun close to setting and the herby smell of desert scrub beyond the pool. Something in me shifts, some felt blanket lifts from the morning. My body is aligned and skimming the surface of the water. I come in first by a stretch, my best time by three seconds, and scrape into the top ten national rankings for the year so far, but out of the medals, having failed to make finals. Jeff gives me a brisk hug, still mad about my poor morning swim. The announcer doesn’t bother to conceal his surprise when he calls out my time. By the time I finish warm-down, the desert night has descended. Shivering after in the shower, happy about the time, angry at my body for its inconsistency. How could I swim six seconds slower that morning, still trying as hard? I want to reach into my body and merge with it, my will at one with my muscles and nerves. But it resists, this mass of flesh that is me, and even when obeying, it baffles me. I’m not my own.
Senior Nationals, Orlando, Florida: inhaling the jungle humidity at the hotel curb, and that suffocating feeling paired in memory with watching other swimmers pile into vans headed for the pool. The girls are big and blond and wear motivational swimming t-shirts that threaten world domination. The only other fragment: standing under a trickle of water in the shower after some race not worth mentioning (probably 800 free prelims, judging by how few people are still around), waiting for the others to leave so I can cry. Don’t remember the crying. Do remember pressing the shaving razor into the bone above my ankle. The thin trickle of watered down blood, like the swim, weak and not worth remembering.
Senior Nationals, Buffalo, New York: fighting to open the double doors of the natatorium as a gust of wind slams them shut. Snow relentlessly streaking down into our headlights and smothering our windshield, as we drive through empty weekend streets to morning warm-ups. That’s it. Maybe also the smell of the pool. Learning to associate the smell of indoor Olympic pools with failure. That bitter cyanide smell of chlorine: plastic and oxidizing apple core in the back of the nose. What tears smell like if you inhale sharply mid-sob.
US Open, Auburn, Alabama: beautiful new Olympic natatorium, the college team’s NCAA championship pendants hanging off the steel rafters. Sitting in the bleachers down on deck, waiting for my heat of the 800 free, finishing last in my heat, Jeff walking off deck in mid-swim. Seeing him there, then not seeing him on deck above me. The grief of that absence. (Years later we’ll joke about it: “The break-room swim,” Jeff says, “I named it after you.” We both pretend to laugh about it). Seriously considering faking an asthma attack so I can stop. I touch the wall and don’t bother to look back at the time board. Tim folds up the wings of the dripping lap counter, careful not to make eye contact with me across the pool. The next day he’ll win silver in the 400 IM and make the national team. When not at the pool, I spend the four days in a hotel room by myself, copying out quotes from Starhawk’s guide to Wicca. In the margins of the journal there’s a brown bloodstain, but I don’t remember where or how I cut.
And lastly: all the college dual meets in the fall of freshman year, long bus rides to Urbana-Champaign and Bloomington and Columbus, fighting sleep and nerves to read The Bell Jar for Intro to American Lit. Home meets at the pool where for five hours every day I fight with my body and lose. The team captain is nice to me despite my times, the 200 butterflyer with a name out of a Verdi opera hugging me after a swim not worth remembering. Crying into the red synthetic fur of her parka hood. Her telling me, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Was she the first to say those words to me? Or was it the first time I was ready to hear them?
In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart writes that we don’t crave souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather, we seek souvenirs of events that are only reportable, “events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative.” I’m longing for the perfect narrative to recreate what swimming meant to me, but no matter how accurate the story of what I do or don’t remember, the event that was my swimming will remain forever only reportable, never repeatable. These days when I swim, I can match my times at the age of twelve at best.
Barring the possibility of repeatability, I crave the perfect swimming souvenir—photos from my races, newspaper articles with my place and time recorded, entries in my mother’s journal that record my meet times. This longing for souvenirs, Stewart points out, is bottomless, and the “necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia” will not be met by producing more souvenirs or better souvenirs. The more you marshal the evidence, telling the story of the past with a language of longing, the more that language, those necessarily inadequate souvenirs, will only serve to whet your nostalgia. The more you invent, the harder the nostalgia hits you, like an incoming eight-foot wave. There’s no winning with nostalgia. Succumb to it, and you dwell in an intensity of longing and perpetual disappoint. Deny it, and you leave unexamined a mythology of the past, vilified or idealized, but either way, disavowed.
So I’d rather marshal the evidence, amass souvenirs to add to my museum of insatiable nostalgia, examine what it is I once had, then quit, and now unaccountably long for. Like the athlete grown old in Charles Bukowski’s poem “Betting on the Muse,” I’m pulling down the albums off the shelf to counter the disbelief that the swimmer girl and I are the same person:
to almost not believe it
to check the scrapbook
with the yellowing
there you are,
there you are,
victorious; there you are,
Bukowski’s point is that writing is the answer to counter the loss—the muse won’t let you down the way your body has. So I keep inventing narrative to take the place of swimming, even though I know that language can never replace what the body has lost.
Asya Graf’s poetry and essays have appeared in Aethlon, Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sport Literate, Underwater New York, and Vestal Review, among other journals. She is currently working on a book about swimming and completing a water-based arts residency on Governors Island in New York City. Her blog, 'Home by Water ,' explores New York City by swimming in its waters.