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There were times when the pool wasn't crowded; occasionally, it was actually deserted. I was ecstatic when I had the pool to myself, and I'd emerge relaxed and comfortably weary. But this didn't happen often enough. When I'd least expect a crowd, there they'd all be—the social butterflies, the dilettantes, the fighters—a pool teeming with trouble. It was impossible to discern a pattern, or to outwit the crowds by arriving early in the morning or in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, conditions were so erratic, I decided attendance must have something to do with people's moods—or maybe even the phases of the moon.
Never knowing what to expect, I psyched myself up during my walk to the club, braced to do battle if I had to. And then one day it occurred to me that I wasn't getting only hydrotherapy when I swam, but psychotherapy as well. Though I'd never been an aggressive type (and found anger hard to express), swimming had uncovered a well of inner rage, which I vented with a surprising lack of inhibition. Whether I had to shout, kick or splash, I'd resort to whatever was necessary to get my laps in. Swimming was teaching me to be assertive.
Cheered by the thought of this extra benefit, I began to regard my swims as a challenge. Once when a glowering woman got in the pool at the opposite end and started swimming straight toward me, I deliberately collided with her, lowering my head like a bull. When we crashed with a loud thwack, she let out an indignant yell. "Hey, watch where you're going, lady!" I shouted. "You're in my lane! I'm trying to swim laps!"
She looked confused, and I realized that to her my "lane" was about as real as the emperor's clothes. But before she could ask, "What lane?" I'd swum to the end and was heading back to where she stood. My ferocity seemed to cow her; she gave me a dirty look and got out of the pool. Did I feel guilty? No, I felt vindicated and triumphant.
Dealing with the fighters demanded more cunning. I eventually discovered that if one got too close, all I had to do was stick out a leg and accidentally on purpose rake him or her with my toenails. Effective, but it meant growing my nails so long that they tore my socks.
It took a while to acquire the various skills that doing laps required. But I was obsessed. I became adept at shouting when I turned my head to breathe and at kicking so violently others hesitated to come near. I learned that looking fierce is as important as actually being ferocious. I acquired bluster and smarts. I became a bully.
But when the time came to renew my annual membership in the club, I decided I'd become assertive enough. I imagined what it would be like to swim in a bigger pool (Olympic-sized, with real lanes!), and I knew it was time to move on. In fact, I realized I'd been kidding myself just to get through the year. If combat training in being aggressive was what I really craved, all I had to do was go to Macy's during a clearance sale. Still, I had become more forceful, and even my friends mentioned they'd noticed the change. I no longer let people push ahead of me in supermarket lines, or stood politely by while others elbowed their way to seats on a crowded subway. When someone was rude to me—a churlish bank teller, say—I didn't cringe, but was rude right back. In short, I began to behave like a big fish in a small pond. Not only had I acquired muscles from swimming, I'd learned how to make waves.