Another from my Deleted Scenes collection. This one of my friend Togzhan.
With two weeks before classes began, I could fulfill a promise I’d made to Togzhan nearly a year earlier.
- Togzhan with her daughter Assema.
“I want you to teach me to swim,” she’d been telling me since she learned I could swim. I was happy to do it, as a friend. There was a well-equipped indoor swimming pool in town, but we couldn’t swim in the winter since she believed you got sick from swimming when it’s cold outside.
Spring was just too busy, and I’d been away most of the summer. Her vacation on the Black Sea was imminent and she was determined to swim while there. It’d been over a year since I’d been in a pool and nearly a generation since I’d taught swimming. But Togzhan was an eager student. Shortly after my return, we took a week for nightly lessons.
It was nearly 6 p.m. as we walked to the far side of town, and still sunny and hot: perfect weather for an outside swim, but we were walking to the indoor pool. No one in my circle swam in the reservoir.
Conversation was always fun with Togzhan; her English was quite good, and she never hesitated to express her opinions and ideas. That night I heard about the new Akim, the man far too young, Assem had told me in May, to be an Akim. “We like our Akims old,” she’d said.
Togzhan, it turned out, agreed. Not only was he too young, he wanted to fine residents of the various apartments if they didn’t maintain their buildings, and, he’d decreed that there’d be no more lopping off of the treetops.
It all sounded fine to me but, for Togzhan and, it turned out for most of the town, it was all just too much. He’d been appointed by no less than the president himself. And, he’d find himself soon enough unappointed.
At the pool, we bought tickets for the 6:30 swim. Fifty tenge got us a locker, a shower, and forty-five minutes in the pool. (The exchange rate for most of our two years hovered around 135 tenge to one US Dollar) The women’s locker room was an expansive room, with lockers lining three walls. Between the locker room and the shower room was a room with two sinks that didn’t work, the toilet (that did) off that. The shower room had ten showerheads lining two long walls and no curtains between them.
We changed en masse, we showered en masse, and we walked en masse in a line the length of the fifty-meter pool, inching forward. I’ve never seen a public pool anywhere without a posted “shower before entering pool” rule. In Kazakhstan, however, the rule is enforced. Our line ran us past one of the two lifeguards who was running her finger across the inside of an elbow, along an ankle, or down a spine. A few young people were sent back to the showers. She must have liked the inside of our elbows for we passed through, gratefully.
The two female “guards” wore regular street clothes. Their job entailed walking back and forth by the edge of the pool and blowing their whistles. They did this a lot, though I never figured out what anyone was doing wrong. Besides how long we could stay and how clean we had to be, there were no actual rules or life rings. Nor was there the smell of chlorine.
I’d been to the pool during our first winter when Dina’s sister Ella and her fiancé brought Woody and me. But we’d left without swimming when Woody found the number of unsupervised children cavorting in the pool unappealing. He’s a lap swimmer and felt his attempts would be futile. His lack of adventure had annoyed me that night, but now I could see that dealing with the kids at the pool would have been as bad as Woody had imagined.
Whether you had come for laps, or lessons, or play, all activities happened together. The lanes were marked with lane markers, but I never saw anyone swim laps. Instead, kids jumped into the pool from the sides, intent on making the biggest splash possible. Others played ball with what looked like a soccer ball.
Togzhan and I staked out a small area in a corner of the shallow end, and began our lesson. I showed her the jellyfish roll and how to float on her back and she bounced up and down easily and had no trouble putting her head under water. But her attitude abruptly changed when we moved to the kick board.
“It is too difficult.” She told me, standing up.
“It’s important to keep your legs up,” I’d tell her. “You must get used to kicking.”
“It is not fun. I want to swim.” And she rolled under water in a jellyfish float again.
“We are training your body to be a fish.” I explained when she surfaced. “It is not used to being in the water.” I’d met this too-quick-to-give-up attitude often during my first year; here it was again, just in a new setting. “You must give it time,” I told her, wanting to sympathize with the difficulty of doing something so new, yet not wanting her to quit.
She listened politely, smiled briefly, took the board and kicked a few feet down the lane. Then, she tossed it out of the pool and declared defiantly, “I want to swim.” With that she doggie-paddled down the lane, among the loud, happy, cavorting children. Perhaps that was what she meant by swimming: having fun. I’d never thought to ask.