I stand at the edge of the pool looking down at the clear, blue water. Five steps, thatʼs all it takes. Five steps and I will feel better. Aqua therapy pools are rare in Western New York. This one is perhaps rarest of all. It has a treadmill submerged in one corner. My son and I searched for weeks for one I felt safe entering. Stairs and ladders are difficult for me. We decided this one suits me best.
There are handrails on both sides of the steps, a comfortable distance apart. Black anti-slip tape is wrapped at intervals down their length. Gripping both, I carefully lower my left foot down through the water covering the first step. I have lost the ability to sense temperature in my feet. The water barely registers. My right foot follows, and I begin my careful descent into the pool. A descent I have made two times a week for the past six months. The third step is a landing. I make the left turn, the water up to my thighs. On the fourth step, the water begins to accept my weight. I hop off the last step, the heated water welcomes me, enfolds my body. I live for this moment. The moment when my weight lifts off my joints, and suddenly, magically, my friend, my companion pain and I, separate. I stand still, soaking up the welcome sensation. Taking a moment to savor the feeling. No pain.
Usually, there are others in the pool. The loneliness of being disabled leads to a shared comradery. We tell each other about our injuries, our operations. How we have failed to heal or re-injured ourselves. We open up to each other about our grievances, our trials. We share more quickly and openly than strangers usually do because we know our time is limited. We share because the others, the ones who live without pain, donʼt understand.
We are handicapped now, disabled. Our physicians have prescribed this therapy because we are beyond the normal bounds of rehabilitation. Our jagged bones scrape and grind against each other; our backs send searing pain with each shift of our bodies. We try not to cry out, but the pain escapes as moans, sudden inhalations, searing hisses. We make the sounds of the elderly. We move slowly, robotically, carefully. Intently focusing on each step. The shifting weight. The testing before the shift.
I straddle the treadmill. Making certain my feet are off the belt, I press the start button and adjust the speed to its slowest setting. Taking my hands off the railings, I begin my Zombie-like walk. I tilt and stutter, making my jolting, flatfooted way down an imaginary path. A woman shares the pool with me today. She is doing her exercises in the shallow end. We have never met, but I like her spirit. Over my shoulder, I start talking about friendship. A light has recently gone out in my world. One of my oldest, dearest friends has died. We were wild together once. We laughed at our foolishness without shame.
I tell her about another old friend whoʼd recently found me. I tell her about the tenderness I feel for him, for the time we shared. The time when we were finding ourselves. Perhaps it is just sentimentality, but I am looking forward to reconnecting. I am wondering if it is possible to go back to being close. I turn to her and say, "I donʼt know why Iʼm telling you all this."
She replies, "Because you need to."
I think she is right.
She takes a breath, hesitates and says, "Iʼm a loner. I never really made many friends, but now that Iʼm 65 Iʼm wondering if I should have tried harder. Itʼs really difficult to make friends when youʼre older."
I know what she means. I see her thinking. She is on the brink of asking if Iʼd like to go out for coffee, to take a stab at being friends, but we are both in the pool. There is nothing to write on, no way to exchange names and phone numbers. The moment passes. We will share this half hour, then separate.
Later, as I change in the locker room, I think about Maria. Sheʼd known me at my worse. The days when my body reacted like a startled rabbit trying to dart away from everything. Every slowdown and brake, turn and flash making my heart race, my breathing quicken and my calm fight to break away. For over a year weʼd met weekly, and then it was time for her to retire. She knew so much about me, all these intimate details and I knew almost nothing about her. I longed for a more equitable relationship, to stop the relentless focus on me.
I began to talk about the after, the when we could be friends stage. Misinterpreting my eagerness as a preview of the demands I would make on her energy, the panic slammed against her eyes, and the furious backpedaling began. The rushed statement that her time would be limited for the first three months or so after her retirement because of her motherʼs situation. True, but it was an excuse none-the-less. I saw her fear and realized I overstepped an invisible boundary. Her need did not match mine.
I decided to wait three months before contacting her. At the end of three months, I let inertia run and the time without contact extended to six months, seven months. Long enough that thoughts of inviting her out to lunch disappeared, and I let her go.
My bag is packed with my wet swim suit and towel. My dry underwear and summer dress are on. I gently close the metal door of my locker, return the padlock to the front desk and head for my car. My time in the pool is over. I must wait three days before returning.
Nina Fosati has always been a storyteller. At 58, she believed she was too old to be a writer. Then physical and mental limitations struck, and she decided she had to try. Finding she no longer functions well in the world, Nina uses impairment as the inspiration for many of her tales. Her stories are included in two anthologies: “Tales of Our Lives: Reflection Pond,” and “The Spoon Knife Anthology.” You can follow her on Facebook where she is listed as Nina Rochella Fosati.