It was one of those sweltering summer days, and I was relishing the pool in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey park, one of New York’s best kept secrets: four feet of shimmering Olympic-sized glory, elevated, and never too crowded. This oasis is a world away from the cacophony in the park below, a mishmash of worlds that orbit, but never quite touch.
At the top of the year, shortly after I had moved out of the home I shared with my husband and son, I did a vision board with my bestie of 30 years. I included exercise, uninterrupted me-time, and getting out of the house (before it all shut down again) on my checklist. The pool ticked off all three boxes. Plus, it’s free — just a lock, a proper swimsuit, and you’re in.
It felt good to concentrate on my body, and get out of my whirling, swirling mind. Moving out of my home of many years and living by myself again could bring a lot of what-ifs and worse case scenarios, so I had to tread lightly with my mind — therapy, meds, and yin yoga were definitely on the menu, too.
For the early session it was mostly white parents and children, those who lived in and owned brownstones around the park, all catacombed in a corner like they said all of the Black kids in college did. The afternoon session got more melanated; teens slyly touching body parts as they dunked one another, curvy women with baby hair and gold chains profiling, baldheaded lappers cutting through traffic with precision. But unlike most other New York spaces, the pool was like casinos, the airport and court — a place where New Yorkers of all races and places congregate.
On this day, I wiggled into the cool water, and psyched myself up to take my first lap. I looked up and saw an older Puerto Rican man with rings of white hair on his chest. He appeared to be with a group of Latina women who had formed a wide circle, talking. They got to sun signs and my ears perked up. Peter put two horns up on his head to indicate that he was Taurus, “the bull,” he said. Ah, an earth sign, I thought! I wanted to jump in and say I was a Virgo, another earth sign, but didn’t.
In my new life, and after surviving a pandemic, I noticed that I had become more open, softer, more understanding. This included talking to strangers. He soon told me his name — Peter. We got to chatting, first about mundane things, the weather, the virus. In his thick accent, he told me he appreciated my sun-kissed color, my brown skin, and rubbed the top of his arm to indicate this. He then shared that his brown disappears after two weeks out of the sun, and proceeded to pull his waistband to show me the white contrast. Okay. I finally started across the pool, and noticed that Peter followed, a bit slower, but not much.
I made it to the other side. Heaving. But happy to take that first step. Now at the bottom (or top, depending on your perspective), Peter said that his wife was sick and had been so for 20 years. He repeated that — “20 years”— and nodded his head. He said that now, sometimes she does “number one y number two” and he cleans her up afterwards.
Peter then gnarled his hands up, and touched his elbows, and I said, “arthritis” (maybe rheumatoid arthritis), and he nodded. He said that she won’t take “the shot” from the nurse — only him, and that he’s at the pool now because the aide comes in the morning. “She’s 86,” he said.
We talked about children, and how his kids were my age or older, living in North Carolina, Florida, and somewhere else. I told him I had two. “A boy and a girl?” he queried. “Yes, but the girl is first, she’s 25,” I responded (technically my first born is nonbinary, and takes “they” pronouns, but how do you even begin to get into that with an 80-year-old?).
Peter said he hadn’t been on vacation in 14 years, and the last one was to “Italia.” His wife’s obvious neediness had him stuck, and I could relate.
I told him that in the last five years, my husband had two heart attacks, one cardiac arrest (where he was dead for 7 minutes), a bleeding ulcer, and open heart surgery during the height of COVID. He was also on dialysis three days a week. Concurrent to my husband’s sickness, another family member’s mental health deteriorated to the point that they couldn’t be cared for at home. I was also their caregiver during the consistent bouts of crying, paranoia, anxiety and paralysis.
I don’t usually share like this, but Peter, I see you.
We continued to rest before going for our last lap. He told me he was from Ponce, Puerto Rico, and I told him I’d been to San Juan a few years back. Peter lived in the projects a few blocks down, and I shared that I lived a few up, and even named my block.
When the conversation got too heavy, I tried to be generous: “But we have this glorious pool for our much needed breaks, right?” because what do you say to an octogenarian who shares with a total stranger that his demanding wife goes to the bathroom on herself and you have to wipe her clean?
I turned for a moment to speak to a very foine chocolate lifeguard above me about goggles, or something, and when I turned back, Peter was closer to me. Like kinda in my personal space, leaning back, and resting his arm behind me, like at the movies. Hmmmm. He looked good for his age. He said he comes to the pool every day and rides his bike through Central Park every morning at 6…but surely, he couldn’t be getting at me?
I swam across again, barely making it a few feet before having to rest, and Peter followed again. “And your husband?” Peter queried. He laughed loudly when I answered, “I visit him on weekends.” I added that I had two boyfriends. More laughter. That chlorine must’ve gotten into Peter’s brain because he then asked me if I wanted to go to Puerto Rico with him and that he would pay. This handsome-for-his-age, physically fit, and brown-loving man WAS trying to holler.
I had to laugh because Peter cemented something I had been complaining about to my friends all summer — that in the last few years, older men have been trying to talk to me. Like, why would a 60 or 70-year-old think they have a chance with all of this?, I ask incredulously. We guffaw at the fact that young boys just look through us, as if we were ghosts of their mothers past. This new development was something else. Sweating behind your knees, and brain fog, fine. But this? Total ego blow.
After my final lap, two women, probably in their 60s, called out, “Peter!!!! We saved you a seat!!!” Peter was a player at the pool! and had the nerve to ask me to go away with him. I was done with my hard won laps, and told him, no, but thanks — and that I was going to sit in my favorite spot on the steps. I told him that I hoped to talk to him again.
I never did see Peter again that summer. In the weeks after, when I thought of him, I laughed. A good thing in times like this; the fact that this old handsome man thought he could pull me. Ha!