SWIMMING POOL

Translated from Chinese (Taiwan) by Jeremy Tiang


A bulging moon rises high over the craggy city. The rush of cars gradually thins, and some of the neon lights quietly wink out. The apartment buildings, a jagged mix of tall and short, hush and grow still, at stalemate. Some chess pieces, too weary to continue, shut their eyes and slump a little, drifting off as their faces slacken.

As usual, after working overtime, you get here via a twenty-minute motorcycle ride through busy streets. In shirt and tie, briefcase in hand, leather shoes sounding crisply on the flagstones, you step into the indoor heated swimming pool complex.
In the changing room, you remove your respectable clothes. Your briefcase contains a silvery zippered bag for your swimming gear, from which you now pull a tight, low-waisted indigo speedo and slip it on. Your folded clothes stack into a neat pyramid, which goes into the metal cube of the locker together with your briefcase. You have a coin ready for the slot, and turn the key to lock it. The key is attached to a bracelet that slides onto your wrist. As you turn, you catch a glimpse of your athletic outline in the segmented mirror. Dark-skinned, firm-fleshed, long-limbed, the faint contours of your muscles like another garment. You stare at yourself, until the reflection decides it’s time to go and exits the frame.
The pool is large, with dazzling mercury vapor lamps hanging from the arched ceiling. Not many swimmers now, most of them preparing to leave—you deliberately choose to arrive as late as possible, preferring to be here just before closing.
A couple of people are still doing laps in the fast lane. You stand by the side and stretch a little, then pull on your black swim cap and gleaming goggles, lower yourself into a sitting position, and—like a long, slippery eel, your curved spine too smooth to catch on the edge—slide easily into the water. To one side, the therapeutic water jet gurgles noisily; your movements, by contrast, are a silent performance.
You submerge yourself, warmth instantly wrapping itself around every inch of your skin; it’s like shedding a layer, emerging clear and bright. Holding your breath, you strike out with your arms, kicking against the wall, a thunderbolt shooting through azure water. The silent count begins: your first lap of the day.
You’ve set yourself a target of twenty laps per visit, a total of one thousand meters, with no breaks in between; if you have the energy, you push yourself to do a few more after your mandatory twenty. There’s a theory that it’s best not to interrupt cardiovascular exercise—that affects the limits of your stamina, and prevents your muscles getting a full workout. Your body craves the same thing, lap after lap, constantly in motion. It’s hard to explain how there are times when you feel too exhausted to move, but if you keep pressing ahead, your body fills with euphoria.
Nonetheless, it’s not up to you when to stop. The fast lane is divided—going out on the right, coming back on the left—and when it gets crowded, there can be seven or eight swimmers jostling for room. If one of them is slower, you have to either try to overtake, or slow down to match them; if they’re faster, then you become an obstacle yourself. Your speed is medium, so there’s often someone tailgating you or trying to pass. You find it uncomfortable having someone glare at you from behind on your laps, and you don’t like being right behind someone so each time you lift your head, all you see are their legs kicking like a frog’s, or a stream of froth like the wake of a motorboat. When the pool is busy, you prefer to stop at either end to let the fast swimmers pass you, and the slow ones get farther ahead—a safe distance.
Not everyone is as thoughtful as you. There’s a group of regulars who only swim a couple of laps before they take over one end of the lane, standing around chatting for quite a while before they set off again. You end up with no space left, but not wanting to change lanes, swimming directly towards them, as if they’re in a different world. Like a merman staring at the gaggles of humanity on the beach, underwater legs and torsos. There’s no connection, like the notices on the board at the pool entrance: messages for members of the “Swim Club” or “Learners’ Group”, singing, gatherings, swim meets—nothing to do with you, but you nonetheless have to pass by them.
As you expected, the other swimmers in your lane depart one by one, and your swim for the day quickly gets underway. You understand what role each stroke plays in the sculpting of your muscles. Breaststroke for legs, front crawl for arms and shoulders. Your body is lithe and supple. What a shame you can’t watch yourself—if only you could stand by the side of the pool, gazing at the neat movements of your body.

On your twenty-ninth lap, the overhead lights dim and the gushing water stops. A sudden hush falls over the pool—time to go. Wanting to make it a round number, you turn and kick into a final lap. By the return leg, the pool has cleared out, the final two or three swimmers leaving just ahead of you. A maintenance worker bends over the side, coiling up a plastic hose.
In the changing room, you lift your arm to check your locker number, only to find the key has slipped off your wrist. You roughly remember where you left your things, and just one door in that area—yours—remains securely locked. You stare at the sheet of metal that lies between you and your respectable office clothes. Water droplets fall from your hair, glide down your body, and slowly spread outwards from your feet.
You head back out to the manager’s office on the right side of the hall, with the “do not enter” sign. Through the doorway, you see the woman from the ticket counter packing her stuff, giggling as a lifeguard in white T-shirt and red shorts teases her. A moment later, she is tugging at his shirt and they are both choking with laughter. You stand there for quite a while, hoping one of them will see you waiting out of the corner of their eye, but they are oblivious. A gust of wind comes through the entrance, icy cold against your damp body. You hesitate a while longer, then finally give up.
Back in the changing room, the showers drip as the last few customers, already dressed, fuss with their hair in front of the mirrors. One by one, they leave. You step through the other door to the pool area—there are no staff members around to stop you. The foot-washing trough has run dry, and the maintenance workers have disappeared, leaving a trail of tidying up.
Compared to its usual hubbub, the deserted swimming pool feels peaceful as a still lake in a postcard. You stand at one end, looking down at the ripples of light, the thick black lines dividing one lane from another. It’s hard to make out more detail than that, and impossible to tell which speck of light or shadow is your missing key. Once again, you slide in like an eel; the splash sounds much crisper, amidst such silence. The water is welcoming as ever, wrapping you generously in its warm embrace.
In this half-light, plunging underwater is like descending through layers of mist. You slowly forge ahead, scanning the lane for any sign of your key. You get to the other side: nothing. Back again: still no luck. Maybe it got washed somewhere else? In a crouch, you slip into the next lane. All alone in the blue water of the pool, there is nothing at all in your way. You could cut across the lanes, dart back and forth as you like.
Finally, through the fog, you see a faint glint by the drain up ahead. Without pausing to draw breath, you frog-kick your way over. Before you get there, the sky rains down darkness, and in an instant the pool has turned black. The treasure-hunter’s feet find the bottom of the pool as he breaks the surface. The mercury-vapor lamps have gone out. You are just a short way from the far end of the pool, and go back underwater for the last few strokes.
Thick clouds billow through the pool. There is only a tiny amount of light to guide you. It flickers in and out, an agile little creature evading a predator. You, the hunter, thrust violently, your right hand reaching out to grab at whatever is glimmering. As you hoped, it’s a locker key. Mission accomplished, you pull the elastic band around your wrist, and with your head above water, kick your way back to the other side.
The night is so silent, and all the lamps are off. Moonlight dapples through the ventilation grille. Every movement you make echoes sharply through the space. A lean, nimble leopard moves through a moon-drenched jungle, elegant and languorous, slowly pacing around the darkened pool.
Your royal highness, the pool, the earth sway before you, glistening water droplets braiding themselves into majestic robes flowing down your back. As you pull yourself from the water, they fall to the ground with a thousand sighs. Removing your goggles, you walk along the poolside and the dampness quietens again, a mark remaining in the water like a stone rubbing. The locker room entrance is pitch black, the den of a ravenous beast. The cold moonlight walks no farther, but watches as you depart from it, allowing the shadows to clamber over your body, finally swallowing your slender silhouette.
In the changing room, you stand quietly, staring at the dark. This is the belly of the creature, but you can’t hear its heartbeat. Perhaps it, too, has gone, leaving only this silent husk. This is no eternal darkness. Time continues to flow without a word, and everything around you, like a quick sketch, is just hazy lines. In the gloom, you work out where you are, and find the locker around your usual area, straight ahead and a little toward the top. A sleepwalker, you move through this darkened chamber at the bottom of the sea, arms floating in front of you.
Your groping hands find the wall, the metal rectangle that belongs to you. The other swimmers have retrieved their bustle and commotion, leaving nothing but empty holes. Your fingers find a keyhole without a key. Your possessions, kept from you by a locked door, hidden from prying eyes. You remove the bracelet and, key in hand, feel for the slot, the way out. A clink of metal, but it won’t go in fully, let alone turn. The key doesn’t fit. It doesn’t belong to you.
Back to silence. The world has fallen asleep, and there is no cause for alarm. You hold the key in your palm and turn around. The mirror reflects the bottom of the ocean, the ancient bank of lockers lodged heavily in the shadowy sands, the time that once belonged to you trapped in that rectangle of space. You stare at yourself, marooned beneath the sea, a fish that’s unknowingly crossed a boundary and became trapped, eyes gleaming faintly, gazing with fear at this visitor from the outside world.
This lone fish keeps moving, back out of the locker room. You look around the hall, dim in the moonlight: a row of plastic chairs down the middle, two electronic basketball machines (now unplugged) to the left, and across from them a counter where swimming equipment is sold (now covered with a tarp), next to a display cabinet of cold drinks (a chain locked through its handles). No one is here, and the inanimate objects are completely silent, not saying a word. You turn right to the office and try the door, but it refuses to open. The lifeguard, the ticket lady, and the cleaners have all gone. Apparently they had pressing matters to attend to, and needed to rush off.
At the far end of the hall, the aluminum gates are open for you to come and go as you please. Beyond them is a long corridor, the notice boards on either side looking ancient, as if displaying news from centuries ago. This leads to a glass door, and beyond that the glittering lights of Taipei.
In nothing but a tight speedo, practically naked, you stand before the entrance. The bright, bulging moon is still there, illuminating the craggy city. There are fewer vehicles on the roads; one by one, neon lights are winking out; the apartment buildings, a jagged mix of high and low, are leaning against each other, slumping into sleep.
If you stepped out, the door would lock behind you. You could leave the pool, grab a taxi, and treat this whole evening as a bad joke, heading back to where you started out. But you do nothing, just stare out at the city, watching where the neon glow is fading, which skyscraper windows light up. This city feels complete, everyone in their place, revolving in sync with the planet, not lacking anything. You look at yourself, reflected in the glass. The city is a colorful tattoo on your bare skin, and your transparent body is a sliver of a soul across this vast metropolis.
Your hands clench, the key digging into your flesh. Your outline in the glass is so sturdy, like a solitary tree in a wide grassland, clearly visible, though not indicating any direction. And suddenly, you think—if the key you found doesn’t belong to you, then it must be someone else’s. So instead of stepping out, you turn around and walk back into the darkness.
Through the long corridor, past the silent hall, back into the changing room that light refuses to enter. You feel your way down the bank of lockers, searching for another empty slot. Some are broken, doors opening without resistance, bare inside. Time slows down at the bottom of the sea. A lost little fish, back where it started, comes upon an ancient ruin, carefully exploring with its limited vision. Finally, you find it in a corner of the center row: a firmly-locked door without a key.
You kneel in the dark and grope for the slot with your fingertips, key at the ready. For some reason, the image of your long body darting back and forth through the empty lanes flashes into your mind, so fast, so elegant. You’re proud of yourself, and ought to feel complete, but you don’t. The key slides into the lock—it fits perfectly.
You’ve found what another person lost. Will there come a day when someone else will find your key, and liberate the things you locked away?
Turning your wrist, you hear the lock click open. In the sealed, silent swimming pool, the sound is piercing. Still kneeling, you slowly lift your head from this dark corner, sensing the noise swirling through the co-ordinates of space and time, unable to find a way out, returning crisply to you again and again. And now you hear it: a body leaping high over the deserted swimming pool, diving into the water at an awkward angle, breaking the surface with an enormous splash, spuming into a froth of waves, a fragmented babble of voices.



In a Very Small Place

To people who believe they’re doing the right thing, to people who never doubt themselves, I know that someone like me, someone who doesn’t even do what she’s supposed to do, must come across as truly heartless.


Bokeh

Sound travels differently in a barrio. Here, there are no quiet hours, no inconvenience; without noise, the air stifles.