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Taking The Plunge

Heather Ross42 Comments

When I was very young and too far away from my future to even guess what it would hold, A very wise and well-lived woman gave me excellent advice. She told me that no matter what I did or did not do, there would only be two things that I or any other woman would never, ever regret: "A swim, and a baby". I understood the swim part perfectly. I grew up in a damp swimsuit, and knew that late afternoon sun and finally-dry-again hair could trick you into thinking that you did not need another jump-in, when in fact you always do. I had learned long before that if I jumped in with the faith that once I was underwater, the reason I jumped would be clear, and so there was no point in arguing with myself. 

For almost two decades I have shared that advice within the private confines of every "should-I-or-shouldnt-I"  conversation that has presented itself, with an assuredness that I am sure, at times, was a little annoying to my friends who were facing the important, life-changing decision to have children. My faith in this advice has been unwavering, unbending, and, apart from my commitment to swimming in anything, conveniently untested. I finally must admit that now that its me in the should-i-or-shoudnt-i spot, that faith is a little shaky. Not surprising. It is rare that I have faith in anything (which is too bad, because having faith in something is a very good thing, if only because it provides a rest from over-thinking and indecision). Lately I have been feeling the need for a little more than blind faith to push me past this very comfortable stage of my life, a little more faith that having a baby or two will not leave me in a state of regret...  And this, in a very roundabout way, is why I agreed to jump into the ocean at Coney Island on New Years Day. Because sometimes you have to test faith in order to renew it. 

But wait, lets back up. Regret might be too strong a word. Its really more of an anxiety about the idea that my life will be irreversibly altered and filled with many many new opportunities to make terrible mistakes, just when I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of things. My swimsuit and my hair are dry, so to speak. I have glamorous, confident friends who argue that a baby will ruin them because they will no longer be able to dress up and stay out late and travel on a moments notice to exotic places. In contrast, a baby would actually justify my ideal evening routines, which last night involved eating an entire bag of chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels while watching The Biggest Loser. And it would be nice, for a change, to blame someone else for the food stains on my clothing, especially if it was someone who could not verbalize a defense. But even so, I'm good at my life right now. I'm a pretty good cook, a pretty good friend, I love my husband and my dog and my cat and when I am in my kitchen and my dog is sleeping on his little rug under my feet and music is playing.. things feel pretty complete. Why muss that up?

And then, of course, there is the issue of my devoted husband, to whom I give too little credit.  TC finds himself reminding me, far too often, that I am no longer going it alone. This is taking some getting used to on my part. New Years Day was no exception. When I imagined TC's reaction to my wanting to join the Polar Bear Club at their annual Coney Island swim on New Years Day, I pictured him being supportive and perhaps coming along as a spectator, not being crazy enough to jump in with me. Crazy was my hobby, not his. And besides, I already had definite plans to borrow the extremely warm muppet-like fur lined knee length four inch thick warm-up jacket that he had worn between practice laps as a competitive swimmer in college, and now hung in our closet. I also planned to use his thermos, which is better than mine, and was counting on him, post swim, to order my favorite wonton soup from Grand Sezchuan, and to reward my bravery by giving me the corner of the sofa and the remote control for the day if not the week. But when I saw myself in the water, I saw myself alone. I always see myself alone. So, when he jumped at the chance to join me (and our very adventurous friend Stephen, who had first broached the idea) I was a bit floored. I think my first words were: "OK. but I get to wear the jacket." 

TC not only gave me the jacket, but he let me wear the pair of sheepskin boots that we share when we take turns walking the dog. I had my warmer than warm manitoba mittens, a very good hat, and a huge thermos of hot coffee. Under another layer of fleece tights and a wool undershirt, I wore a bikini. When we stepped out into the bright cold (sunny, but 18 degrees f)  New Years morning, I looked at TC and Stephen. They looked sporty and well layered, almost as though they were headed out for an apres ski fondue. I was taking no chances, making no allowances for fashion, and as a result looked like I had woken up in the coat closet the morning after an ill-fated party at the Notre Dame swim teams squalid off campus house and made a run for it.... but not without stopping for coffee.

The most surprising thing, upon reaching the pre-swim party on the Coney Island boardwalk, was that so many other people were there. I had pictured dozens of people running into and out of the water - not hundreds. There was live music and a wide variety of costumes, a "strong man" demonstration and much beating of bared chests. An adorable troupe of water ballerinas in big flowery bathing caps and goggles fluttered about, giggling to stay warm, while a group of burly bearded men, one of them holding an enormous american flag waving madly in the wind, passed around a teensy flask. This was not at all what I had expected. I guess I had pictured a dozen or so sturdy old men, espousing the health benefits and logic of cold water swims. Isn’t that what I always see on TV on New Years Day? Instead, the costumes and mock-pageantry made it suddenly apparent that everyone agreed that this was a seriously insane thing to do. And yet, we were all giddy. Everyone seemed so different, but everyone seemed to belong. It was so cold that it hurt a little to inhale, and my speech was impaired by a frozen chin. Loud music was being played for people who were dancing to stay warm, I just jumped up and down, and panicked a little inside.

When the happy mob finally moved onto the beach and the countdown began to the 1pm call to jump in the water, we made a plan. Genuinely afraid of losing sight of each other and the pile of warm clothing we would be leaving on the beach, we mapped out our route. We were maybe fifty feet away from the water, and directly between the large burly team with their american flag and a very permanent looking wooden lifeguard stand, and decided that it would be those two things that we looked for when coming out of the water.  Confident that we would be able to beeline in and out, we shed our clothes and, when the buzzer rang, ran straight into the ocean. 

TC was in the water first, almost completely submerged.  He was turned around and dashing past me before I was knee deep in the water, and then gone, engulfed by the screaming crowd that was still rushing towards the surf. Stephen and I were in and out almost as quickly. The water, which was about 41 degrees, didn't feel too bad. The air, on the other hand, was bitter. I had no shoes on (it was enough of an effort to have to find a bathing suit in January with a hangover, I gave up on the water shoes) and my feet began to ache immediately. I looked at Stephen. His eyes were very, very wide. And panicked. He had just realized, moments before I would, that the wooden lifeguard stand had been moved. "WHY??" he screamed at me from mere inches away, his eyes wild, "WHY WOULD THEY MOVE THE STAND??" It wasn't a rhetorical question as much as it was a demand for a new plan, ideally set forth by whoever had moved the stand. We were suddenly completely disoriented, standing on a very crowded beach that looked the same for a hundred feet in each direction, packed solid with cold, wet, and equally disoriented people. We ran a few feet in one direction, then a few feet in another, and then back again. We were not calm, nor were we able to think constructively. As many times as I told myself that I needed a new plan, that thought process was interrupted by a part of my body screaming at me to make it warm. Each time Stephen and I collided, which is what happens when you run in tiny circles with a friend and you are both in shock, we would repeat-scream at each-other. WHY?? WHY DID THEY MOVE THE STAND??   or "$%@!". That was it. I believe I had opportunity to repeat these two phrases five, maybe six times before I turned around for just a minute and lost sight of Stephen completely, and found myself alone. With no one to scream at. My entire body was bright red, except for my hands, which were a sickly grey-blue, and my feet, which hurt too much to look at. I could not think what direction, other than towards the water, I should run. I was completely and utterly incapacitated, and knew, based on the expressions of almost every member of the confused and panicked mob I was a part of, that I was not the only one. And here is where I will admit, ashamedly, that I was not thinking about TC at all. In fact, when a small opening between bodies allowed for a split second glimpse of him, it registered as an illusion. 

It was actually the long coat that caught my attention, flapping in the wind high above the crowd. He stood, bright pink and shaking, and wearing only his tiny wet Speedo (his old college racing suits are so miniscule that when we had a housekeeper she would put them away in my fancy underwear drawer) and bright orange water shoes. I knew that he could not see me, his glasses were off and his eyes were closed against the cold. He was stretched tall, with his arms high above him, each of his hands clenched tightly around the the end of a sleeve of the jacket, its gold fur lining bright against the grey sky. It flapped and waved like a huge flag, as he must have known it would, and while I couldn't hear him I could tell by the way his mouth moved that he was shouting my name as loudly as he possibly could. When I reached him he was so cold that he could not manage to put the jacket around me, much less get himself dressed in the warm clothing that lay in piles next to his feet. He had been standing there for many long minutes, which each must have felt like hours, and rather than taking even a moment to put his wool sweater and mittens and long underwear, much less to steal my sheepskin boots, he had turned himself into a bright pink flag bearing human beacon. There's my guy. And there's my faith. 

This years Polar Bear Club swim turned out to be the coldest on record. This winter, in general, has been a harsh one in New York. Everyone is looking forward to summer, a little more than usual. After a very subdued holiday season in a city that is just coming down from a five year fiscal high and has a pretty serious hangover, that plunge on New Years Day at Coney Island felt like the beginning of something great. Terrifying and unpredictable, but truly great. TC and I spent another very cold day outside together last weekend at the inauguration of Barack Obama, standing again with a mob of other cold, giddy, and determined people, this time more than a million. Both events left us with a similar feeling, a remembered sense that none of us are in this alone, and that a dry swimsuit is highly overrated.

from top left, me and the jacket, pre swim, front and back, Coney Island swimmers, and Stephen, me and TC