The Swimmer

I read about half a John Updike book once then grew enraged at the chronicling of the ennui of the well-to-do and flung the book across the room.

Somewhere in my mind, I lumped John Cheever in with John Updike, though I  had never actually read a single sentence of Cheever’s. I made one of those categorizations I was prone to in my late teens and early twenties.  Because I knew EVERYTHING in those days.

Now, fortunately, I know very little.

A little later in life, I came to be friendly with John Cheever’s daughter, Susan, who I liked, both as a person and as a writer.  I felt a vague stab of guilt for not having read the work of her late father.  But I still didn’t read it.

Through the years,  on hearing of my love of swimming and, in particular, my love of swimming in the pools of hotels where I wasn’t staying or of people I didn’t know,  friends kept asking if I’d ever read Cheever’s The Swimmer or seen the movie. I would just say “No,” and leave it at that.

Six months ago, while on vacation in Mexico with my boyfriend, I went swimming at a particularly spectacular beach.

My boyfriend stayed on the beach, reading and slathering himself in SPF 2000 sunscreen as I went into the water, cavorting, doing handstands and backflips. Glad to be alive.

I have since read Cheever’s The Swimmer.  It is an astonishingly good story.   And what I was feeling in that moment, in that beautiful sea, is very well expressed by this:  “…he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.”

I was feeling all that.    My head was under water, inside the sea, hearing the woosh of the Caribbean. And then, I heard a dog barking.  I  could probably hear a dog-in-need bark from 200 miles away.  I immediately swam toward the shore and peered at the beach, where I saw a scrappy tan pup barking at my boyfriend.

There were other people on the beach, but this dog had singled him out, the guy with the giant straw hat and the SPF 2000 sunscreen, to ask for help.  Because this dog needed help.  He had a hideous, very infected bite wound on his front leg and his ribs were sticking out. 

As it happened, I had a can of dog food in the basket of the bike I’d ridden to the beach.  I was planning to  feed a very sad-looking stray poodle-type who hung around the bakery in town.

We found a discarded flip flop, put the dog food on it, and fed it to the pup.  He devoured the food and started on the flip flop. Then, he drank the contents of my water bottle, and then my boyfriend’s water bottle too.

I sat, looking at the pup, marveling at how he was not in good shape but was able to be happy in that moment, smiling at me, squinting his surprising bright green eyes.

As I wondered how we would help him (we had no car, no cell phone service,  and were miles from where we were staying) he dug a big hole in the sand, right under my bent legs,  burrowed in, and took a nap.

This was the beginning of a very wild 48 hours.  Through the help of about a dozen local people, including the folks at Alma Libre Books, two animal rescue women, and a bunch of veterinarians who routinely donate their time at a clinic for low cost veterinary care, we got the pup medical attention.  And all our new Mexican friends URGED us to get the pup out of Mexico where it was thought he had fallen off the back of a truck of a man transporting pit bulls and, generally, men transporting pick-up trucks full of pit bulls do not have good intentions.

Later, I wrote a short, highly fictionalized account of this event.  It’s up on Akashic Books’ site, here: The Killing Type.

So we ended up adopting an injured 6-month-old Mexican beach dog and flying him home with us to New York.  We called him Esteban, “Stevie”, after the child of the hot brunette and the Mexican Drug Lord on the show WEEDS.

Mickey, my dog of the exceptional ears, immediately liked Stevie.  And Stevie liked him. 

Stevie has his issues, he doesn’t know how to meet other dogs on leash and he hunts the innocent garter snakes in our yard. But we love him deeply.  When he is not being an insane adolescent dog, he is extremely loving, funny and handsome.

Also, he got me to read John Cheever.

Even though we’d found Stevie on a beach, we didn’t know if he could actually swim.  I have a friend with two  greyhounds and they periodically fall in the swimming pool and immediately sink and have to be rescued.  They can’t swim AT ALL.

As it happens though, Stevie can not only swim, but he’s an avid swimmer.  He has already jumped into one swimming pool, three smelly ponds, several creeks, and the Hudson River.

I made this movie of him swimming in a pond.  I called it The Swimmer, nodding to the John Cheever story.

Then, I decided, it was probably time to read John Cheever.

I discovered I greatly admire the writing of John Cheever.

The moral of this post is,  If you adopt a Mexican beach dog, you will find out you love something you had once categorically dismissed.

8 thoughts on “The Swimmer

  1. Loved this story, Maggie. See the movie with Burt Lancaster. It’s a bit …awkward… as I recall, but it should fill things out nicely for you!

  2. I’m mad for Cheever. I am glad you found him swimming. My battered copy of the “Collected Stories…” moved around with me for 15 years. I also love this story about Stevie. Thank you. As always.

  3. What a wonderful story! I love happy endings. So happy you & Stevie found each othe!

  4. Oh oh, I had to watch the Stevie Swimming movie again. So much fun. Yes, I remember Maggie when she thought she knew a lot. And yes, she knows a lot less now, and is so much smarter. Me too I hope.
    And yes, John Cheever is wonderful. And I too had lumped him in with other white guy writers. His words are so ‘highly charged with meaning,’ to paraphrase Ezra Pound on his definition of what good writing is.
    Goodbye everyone.