Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Drinking Martinis While Swimming the Hellespont


It is a principle well known from Philosophy that the only truly interesting positions are the totally untenable ones, and the reasonable and well-tempered are the worst company.

So, it was with much amusement and sense of sport that I allowed my interlocutor to hold that Byron was the superior poet to Shelley. Yet this was far into our evening's entertainments, long enough for me to become truculent with my arms full of stars. So feeling girded in my evening suit, hanging somewhat damp and heavy in the pre-dawn air, I felt I was to brook no contumely, real or imagined, and no false opinion, valid or no, and so rose to the erstaz occasion of honor and blandly stated that Shelley was a true poet and Byron simply a haemophiliac of prosody. I was not to hear of Byron’s spurious superiority any longer.

And my contention was not with Vereker, Elliot Vereker, whose smirking craft I knew too well, but it was Vereker, in retrospect, who made the wedge. My cozened interlocutor began to speak of Byron’s athletic achievements: he had swum the Hellespont. A decent crawl, I countered, was exactly the impression he gave me from his verses. I do not think it was I, who am above such things, who noted that I am a fairly decent swimmer myself. Nor do I think it was I who contributed the fact that the Hellespont is only a little under a mile at points, geography not being a cultivated interest of mine. Yet these facts came out, and, in the presence of so many noted fair women of letters whose hair had come down somewhat after the cigars came out and seemed so shiny at this hour, I will admit that somehow the challenge was mine: I could swim the Hellespont, or its equivalent, easily, I declaimed, or someone declaimed for me and I assented, all in the manner of a Russian novel.

And it was not that sly Vereker who put the pitcher in my hand, but his hand, surely that guided the words, as easy as olives: I could even do it drinking martinis.

Having said these words, bets were made, hands shaken and my fate sealed. My only caveat came late, getting into my coat:

“I’m not doing it in a big shirt”

I was also not required to hold a candle or versify while doing it, which I attribute to my quick exit and not falling down the stairs.


The arrangements, it is incontrovertible, are Vereker’s machinations. I never knew such a man so totally indolent and unproductive, except in finding pleasures at others expense, by purse or person, criticizing (everything) and organizing pointless spectacles of society. This last was probably his true genius, for he was quite happy with his art, even if it was sometimes only to his own private amusement. Not that Vereker was charismatic -far from it, but he was a perfect opportunist: Vereker had his choice of characterless friend whose purposeless boat needed showing. And Vereker had friends, or something like it, and they had friends and wouldn’t it be swell to all get together again, have turn on the water and see if I could really do it. Vereker was a great one for charity, if by charity one means seeing that your choicest wine or boat just had to be shared. He told people it might be a bit nippy out on the water.

It was, after all, an excursion and a party. The formalities were attended to with all the due solemnity that could be conducted in boat shoes. It is agreed that I can have anything I want from the boat, but will remain in the water at all times. A suitably narrow channel is selected; I will swim alongside the boat. In keeping with the prevailing opinion, I chose to forgo any wet suit, and certainly any floatation device. Due respect was paid to my safety and I gently shrugged it off with my best collegiate winning smile, the championship smile that had got me through my schools and irresponsibility, real cowardice and bad behavior, the one they try and teach you in books along with the firm handshake, but comes out of sheer advantage, a few words muttered over your crib and a whole lot of money.


I am in my comfortable robe a bit before I have to be, so I can enjoy it, and the display of my athleticism: a cheer goes up when I come out. I have a few more tonics to warm up. I am funny. My hair is icily styled: I look good, and this is not lost on those I think should appreciate it. I learned a bit of showmanship on the team: be warm, a good sport , people will want to be near you. I make a good dive.


The water is quite cold, so the first batch, while refreshing, tends to leave me a little chilled. I cannot give Vereker the pleasure, surely not this early and so easily. “How’s it going down?” he asks gaily leaning off the boat. “A little less Cointreau, next time.” I say, splashing casually, like I was pool side. Vereker smirks inscrutably and taps a darkly wrapped cigarette against a rather nice mother of pearl case. I still need to acclimatize to the water. I can still feel it cutting into me. I’ve been in colder, I say to myself, in a little over a thousand strokes I’ll be there. There are more cheers, but I’d best get on with it. “Those better not be my Nat Shermans.” I say, and with a flip turn I continue on my way.


Swimming the Hellespont takes a long time. The hardest part is counting strokes, especially after that last pitcher. I suppose they’ll let me know. It’s cold and lonely in the water, which I normally love. I can hear the music from the boat and the lights rotate with my stroke and it is like I am swimming away from the party. I bet those are my Nat Shermans.


“How about a cigar, big guy?” “Sure, sure.” I demur, but I just want the cognac. I know well that it makes you colder, I just can’t imagine how much colder I could be. I think Vererker is wearing my sweater. With my swimming letter on it. I should have brained Vereker when I had my chance on that roof. “Emily here is writing her first paper on Kierkeggard.” says Vereker conversationally. I know what Vereker is up to. He hopes to tire me out wading while I chat with this charming young scholar. “I don’t think any of us can truly say what Abraham is doing.” she beams. She has remarkable eyes, and so I do my best to keep my answer general, my tone smooth and my teeth from chattering. We don’t really go into Either/Or. “Let’s talk while I swim.” I finally say, and back stroke a bit talking about something I know more about, Camus. My legs are cramping up, though, my left shoulder hurts, and my left hand resultingly seems to crash the water like a flat paddle, rather than slide into it. I keep losing count, but I think I’m only about 800 strokes out. I stall by asking the sophomore for a cigarette, which she neatly obliges. Vereker insists I have some cake. Some ice cream cake. “Well, I say”, and there is no concealing that I am cold and cramped “I think I’ll freshen up” I say turning in the water. “How far out did I go that last bit?” I cannot help but, let ask. “Uh, well, we’ve kind of been anchored for a bit, now, see, so -how long is this boat exactly?”

I am going to get Vereker an expired globe for his birthday.


The next two dozen strokes go nowhere. The numbness, I know, is bad, and I cannot seem to make my body move the way I want. My breathing is quite labored and my clenching my teeth does not keep them from chattering. I know what this is. Survival impels me to hop aboard the boat, even for a little bit. I consider the many advantages of female sympathy, my comfortable robe and a hot toddy. It takes all my resources of vanity not to give in.

Stafford, who’d also done swimming and track, is willing to give it to me. But I have to refuse. I suppose his concern is real enough, but it also looks good on him, and is no doubt the substance of his narration to the sweet concerned trio by the railing. This batch has a horseradish vodka in it, which is my favorite, but I’ve also been worrying about throwing up, which I mean to do out in the water. More than anything else, this goal lets me turn back to the water. My breath fogs in the light of the boat. I am like a racehorse. I can die, really, but I can’t look bad. It would be wrong. It would let everyone down. It is also bad if it looks too hard. “Gracie here is on your side.” says Vereker, “She’s totally willing to row the dingy and tow you.”

This Christmas, Vereker is getting a scummy terrarium with a dead turtle in it.


Quite pale, they say and their concern is not feigned, and so to put the flush to my cheeks I ask for the bottle (I haul myself up a little). Their faces swim before me and they are reaching to haul me in, “old sport” I hear, but I am cold and clammy and slip out of their caring grasp with a bad splash, that’s a bit much, but I laugh and a female voice cries “No!” I am a swimmer, though, and the uncertain look on Vereker’s face is delicious. I did not know he cared.

I am swimmer and swimming is always a lonely business. I’ve always been something of a lonely person and so I well suited to company, which I pass through like water, elegantly, swiftly, where I belong, into these cold black punches. I can swing too, and I do, with my belly full of Nemiroff, I am strong and hearty and know I will finish, I will finish first, the other lanes falling behind me. I will beat the clock itself. I’ve been pacing myself: it is time to pull ahead and finish it. I can see the lights of the shore I pull toward, unless I got turned around again, and that’s the boat, but I can hear distant cheers and I am no longer cold. And when I reach the shore I will stand again, I will have to wait for them to pull in and greet me with a towel. I can sleep all day tomorrow, next week if I wish and a little late supper. What a stupid, silly world where I man has to do such things and how well I am suited for it!


I died of course, but now I’ve swum the river that nobody knows, the Styx, and its hot black shores hold no fear for me, for I’ve swum it many times. And Vereker comes here, as he surely will, I will take him to a party (for we have real parties here) and I’ll collect on my bet then. Oh, he'll pay up big. And then I’ll get my neckties back as well.