For no particular reason other than the romance of the idea, the writer and T’s deputy editor Hanya Yanagihara traversed the entire island’s mostly polite — and at times, dark — waters.
IT RAINED ON my first day of swimming across Martha’s Vineyard. This wasn’t a surprise: It was the end of September, when the weather can shift in an hour from Icelandic to Malibuan, and for days before, my best friend, J., who was accompanying me on my journey, had been emailing me projected forecasts, followed each time by the same hopeful message: ‘‘Maybe we should cancel?’’
The pond in which I would begin my swim is called Menemsha, and is the second-westernmost body of water along the island’s southern shore. J.’s family has a house up the hill from it, and it was while I was staying there, six summers before, that I had decided that one day I would reenact a version of John Cheever’s short story ‘‘The Swimmer’’ by swimming across the entire length of the island, a 20-mile-long necklace of skinny fingers of land linking dozens of saltwater lakes and ponds, so many of them that when you look at a map, the coastline resembles something that’s been nibbled on by a family of mice.
In Cheever’s story, Neddy Merrill, a golden man who ‘‘seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth,’’ decides to swim home from his friends’ house one midsummer afternoon, working his way through the chlorinated pools of East Coast suburbia, first with permission, and then without — Neddy lives in Bullet Park, Cheever’s fictional Westchester town, a rotten utopia — only to discover, alongside the reader, that his life as he envisions it no longer exists. It is a WASPy incarnation of magical realism: a Puritan horror story in which a man comes to realize the unbearably fragile fiction of his own life in the span of a day spent dipping into pools and wandering across his neighbors’ lawns.
In my version, there were no pools, or patronizing neighbors, or tinkling of cocktail stirrers; there was only my stubborn and whimsical desire. As with many romantic and quixotic ideas, there was no point to my trip. And yet ever since I had imagined it, there had been the idea: an island full of lakes, and I would swim across it, because when you’re a swimmer and there’s water, you get in. There was, I felt, an inevitability to this swim.
And so here I was, at the lip of Menemsha, the first of the ponds. From here, I would swim through Stonewall (a tiny thing: a hole dug out of the mud and washed with seawater) and then Tisbury Great Pond, then across the narrow tip of Edgartown Great Pond, and, finally, Katama Bay on the eastern end of the island: about 6.5 miles in total. The trip would demand some trespassing — most of the ponds are encircled, or nearly, by private land — but of a relatively mild degree.
The sky was the color of steel. Already the island had a lonely, end-of-the-world feel to it, that almost palpable melancholy that infects East Coast islands every autumn and lingers until the early summer. Two canoes, in weather-faded shades of almost-white and once-aqua, trembled in the wind. The water was blanketed with a yard-deep layer of frilly khaki seaweed so thick that I fancied I could walk across it, and was insultingly, violently cold. I began my swim feeling resentful.
But unlike other forms of physical exertion, the comfort of swimming is that it becomes gentler, kinder, as you keep doing it, because it asks only for the simplest of heroics from your body, and with every minute you remain in the water, in movement, you can almost feel your dumb animal self taking over, warming yourself to the water’s temperature, allowing you to surrender to its offer of weightlessness.
A half an hour later, when I’d almost reached the opposite shore, I looked back and saw J. paddling toward me, a speck of green, ready to tug me to shore if I needed help. But by that time I was already where I was meant to be: the point in the swim in which one forgets that one’s habitat is actually land.
SWIMMING IS the writer’s sport, because it is the sport most like writing. To swim, as to write, is to choose an intense state of socially acceptable aloneness. You can be a serious runner or bicyclist and still have to occasionally nod at a passerby or negotiate traffic. Swimming, however, precludes interaction with the world. When Anne Sexton won a fellowship from Radcliffe in 1961, she used the money to build herself a pool, which has always seemed to me a sensible artistic decision, if those two adjectives can ever be paired.
And yet both activities also cultivate a sort of mental busyness: If, say, yoga encourages the absence of thought, swimming encourages its presence. There is no better place to unkink a complicated piece of invented logic than in the water — there is little else to do, in fact, but confront your problems. If you are an open-water swimmer, the sport also demands a particular kind of mental discipline, one in which you must simultaneously indulge your imagination while also asserting control over it. The fear and exhaustion of swimming in the ocean is not struggling against the currents or tide, but the effort it takes to not notice how dark the water beneath you has become, and then, failing that, to assure yourself that it’s only the shadow of a cloud scudding above you. Nowhere but in the sea are you so ceaselessly reminded that something you love so much doesn’t care about you at all.
Swimming in a pond, though, is different: safer, more predictable, less exciting, but also less tiring. Swimming in the ocean is writing a novel; swimming in a pond is writing in a diary. All swimming is performative, in its way, but swimming in a pool is most performative of all. It certainly is in ‘‘The Swimmer’’: a performance that Neddy mounts for himself; a performance he mounts for his neighbors. And yet every time a swimmer puts her head under water, there is a moment in which she can believe that the world as it is has disappeared, because in a very real sense, it has: She is in another universe, one where even breath and gravity are different. The hallucinatory quality, the elasticity of time in Cheever’s story, always made sense to me because it captures what every swimmer both anticipates and dreads — that someday, you will lift your head from the water, and this time, after all the thousands of times before it, the world that reappears before you will not be the one you left.
AFTER MENEMSHA, after Stonewall, there was Tisbury Great Pond. And so early on the second day, we drove to the pond, which abuts a nature reserve.
The weather had changed overnight, the sky was merry and bright. We were the only ones in sight. On either side of the dirt path we walked on toward the pond were fields of yarrow, bright as buttercups and, above them, swooping flocks of blackbirds, smudges of ominous black upsetting the blue. ‘‘Let’s pretend we’re the last people on earth,’’ I told J. ‘‘Let’s pretend we’re in ‘The Road’ and we’re searching for shelter. Let’s pretend we’re in ‘Oryx and Crake’ and on the run from the pigoons.’’
‘‘No, that’s O.K.,’’ J. said.
In order to access the pond, which is mostly surrounded by marshes, we had to walk around it, alongside the sea, and then cut across the dunes. Martha’s Vineyard’s ponds are chimeric; not quite the sea, not quite not the sea. When the day is windy, their surfaces pleat with convincing waves, and when the day is still, they are disconcertingly flat and quiet. They have seaweed, like the ocean, and ducks, like lakes. They are surrounded by real sand, and yet their bottoms are mucky, sucking silt. The sand around Tisbury Great Pond was coarse, like brown sugar, and scattered with freshly dead squid, presumably dropped by birds but not yet eaten and not yet festering, and the water — once I kicked past the skeins of seaweed — was brown and sweet and vaguely vegetal-tasting, like cool barley tea. It was easy water to swim in, placid and yielding and vaguely furry. When you are swimming in chlorine, you can feel the water tracing its presence on your skin, reminding you with each movement that you are disrupting its equilibrium, that you are foreign to it. But this water was polite; it grazed you but then let you move on. It was accommodating in a way that was definitely un-sealike.
The ancient people of Hawaii, where I grew up, feared fire, the wrath of the goddess Pele, who expressed her displeasure by sending gallons of lava glugging across the land. But they didn’t fear the sea in the same way, perhaps because to live on an isolated island in the Pacific is to never forget one’s own insignificance, the utter temporality of life. That is why, to me, swimming will always mean swimming in the Pacific, in water that can only be described in extremes: the bluest, the saltiest, the wildest, the least predictable. There, water is a metaphor for life itself: something that should be approached with confidence, but with the knowledge that, finally, it is unconquerable and uncontrollable.
Everyone who grows up in Hawaii knows this, and that knowledge was, I now think, one of the reasons that many of my high school classmates found ‘‘The Swimmer,’’ and Neddy’s dislocation within his own life, so perplexing. (There was also the matter of the story’s anthropological curiosities: a community in which people always seemed to be drinking, a place dominated by pools, poor simulacra of the ocean. To us, the most upsetting aspect of Neddy’s life was that he had to live in Westchester at all.)
‘‘What is this story about?’’’ asked our teacher, who had been raised in Providence and who had found himself, all these years later, on an island far from home, teaching teenagers who couldn’t imagine that water could be gray or cold.
‘‘Some guy who’s getting old and doesn’t know it,’’ said one of my classmates, who surfed every morning and walked to school barefoot. And although I had rolled my eyes at her flippancy then, I have come to realize how right she was: Once you leave the water, you are reminded, as if punched, of the inexorability of your own decline.
YOU CAN BE a good swimmer in two ways: You can either be very fast, or you can be very steady. Much the way you can immediately distinguish a ballet dancer (lithe, elegant) from a modern dancer (blocky, powerful), you can also immediately tell who’s a speed swimmer and who’s a distance swimmer. Speed swimmers look a bit like manta rays translated into bipedal form: long-torsoed, long-armed, short-legged. Distance swimmers are more seal-like: sleek, cobby, meaty. If you were a hungry shark on his daily glide, you’d eat the distance swimmer first.
I have a theory that many distance swimmers have parents who are scared of the water, who vowed that their children would find water something to luxuriate in, not avoid. My parents, who also grew up in Hawaii, are both frightened of the water. My father never learned to swim, not really; my mother learned to swim when her father rowed her and her three brothers out into the middle of the ocean in a small boat and threw them overboard.
Throughout my life, swimming took on different meanings. First, it was something I did because my parents wanted me to: I joined my first team when I was 7, and was on one until I was 17. Then it was something I did because coaches wanted me to: I was broad-shouldered and strong and therefore a reliable butterflier, and swim teams are always in need of butterfliers, which is the most show-offy, the least efficient, of the four strokes. Then it was something I did because it was prescriptive: I had such severe asthma that I began missing months of school, and swimming was thought to strengthen the lungs; I was frequently on oral steroids to help me breathe, too much for a child, and swimming balanced the weight gain and anxiety, the constant hunger and jitteriness. And then, finally, it became something I did because it was pleasurable: because it was the one thing that made me feel physically graceful, because it was a way of both escaping my life and tunneling deeper into it. Now, water is the one place where I feel truly adrift from myself, and yet because there are so few good pools near where I live in New York City, I swim less and less.
After Tisbury Great Pond, we drove to Edgartown Great Pond. Edgartown, on the far eastern side of the island, is what we think of when we think of Martha’s Vineyard: not the island that was settled by the Wampanoag people a few thousand years ago and is still, in parts, woods and fields, crisscrossed with low, beautiful stone walls, each stone piled atop the last and bound with nothing, but the one of white clapboard houses in small yards planted with lilac and hydrangea bushes and bordered by white wooden fences. There is a primness, a cuteness, to the place, a simple if noxious prettiness. If you live on the western side of the island, as J. does, you rarely come to the eastern side, and as we drove through the end-of-summer traffic, looking for somewhere to eat, it was easy to forget we had just been stepping through dark waters, pointing out dead squid to each other.
We ate lunch at an expensive cafe and then continued to Edgartown Great Pond, which is surrounded by depressingly large, unimaginative estates, all of them apparently unoccupied, their windows glinting flatly in the sun, and where I scuttled, in a crouch to avoid detection, through the tall sea grass to slip into the water. I swam to the other shore and then back before walking down the beach to meet J., who drove us to our final body of water, Katama, which is not really a pond at all, but an actual bay, where boats purred by and I could feel, for the first time, the expansiveness, the uncontainable hugeness, of the water I was in, the giddy sensation that if I didn’t concentrate — and even if I did — I might lose my way entirely.
But I knew I wouldn’t. One of the best things about swimming is that you need no companion: The only thing better is knowing you have one anyway. When I was a few hundred yards out, I paused, and turned back toward the shore, where J. had stayed to wait for me. I waved at him, and he waved at me: I see you; do you see me? Later, we’d drive back to his house above Menemsha, and he’d cook and I’d set the table, and then we’d spend the night reading, and go to bed early: two middle-aged friends in a Cheever house who didn’t have to live a Cheever life. It would be the perfect way to end the swim — in a world that remained as I had left it, with the things and people I love where they should be. Because of all the delights of swimming, the sweetest is the person who welcomes you back to land.