Neptune and Leander
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

To Part in Twain

People who don’t swim often or well usually say they get bored swimming laps. I have no reason to doubt this. If you struggle to get to other wall you can’t really relax enough to let your mind wander or use the time to concentrate on a single aspect of your stroke (which in its own way is another kind of meditation). For me, there was always too much or too little going on in my head to get bored. But I could feel alone. Until Victor showed up.

I never could remember how we wound up swimming side by side, him in one lane, me in the next. I still don’t know whether he slowed down for me to catch up with him on that very first day, or if it was the other way around. It doesn’t matter now, but it would have made things easier if I had remembered how it all started. I’d have known how to proceed.

It had to be intentional, though. As we soon found out, we swam at pretty much exactly the same pace. So one of us clearly had slowed down or sped up so that we could—there’s no better word for it—meet. It is possible, of course, that we both had a part in it. Odd that I never asked Victor how he remembered our first meeting. But that wasn’t the way we talked. In fact, in the beginning, we barely spoke to each other at all.

Sometimes when we swam we’d pick up the pace for a hundred meters and then drop back and swim easy, or we’d build tempo over a longer stretch. It was mostly Victor’s initiative and mostly improvised. There were a few times when Victor was setting the pace that I sensed he was doing something more formal, like negative splits or pyramids. I suppose we could have put together workout routines in advance but as I said, we never talked much.

I enjoyed letting him take the lead. But I liked it even more when we just swam at an even tempo for a long distance. It’s rare enough to find someone who swims at the same pace you do. It’s even rarer when his stroke rate matches yours.

Victor and I were perfectly synchronized. His arm entered the water the same moment mine did and he began his pull just as I began mine. During recovery our arms described a pair of perfectly aligned arcs over the water. It was exhilarating, how well we fit as we thrust and glided in parallel through the water. It was as if we were dancing. Ballroom dancing, lane-to-lane.

Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander is one of the few poems I know that talks about swimming. Of course, it’s about much more—desire, seduction and love, for a start—but a good part of the poem takes place as Leander swims across the Hellespont to woo Hero, a virgin priestess who lives on the other shore. As he makes his way across the channel, Leander, a man “in [whose] lookes were all that men desire”, becomes the object of Neptune’s amorous pursuit. The kingly and lusty sea-god (again to use Marlowe’s words) makes love to Leander as he swims:

He watcht his armes, and as they opend wide,
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steale a kisse, and then run out and daunce,
And as he turnd, cast many a lustfull glaunce,
And throw him gawdie toies to please his eie,
And dive into the water, and there prie
Upon his brest, his thighs, and everie lim,
And up againe, and close beside him swim,
And talke of love

Swimming with Victor was also sexy, though we kept our distance with martial discipline. I would even get aroused. Not all the time, but enough to make me want to get to know Victor a lot better.

But getting to know Victor proved difficult. The first few times when I finished my workout first I stood at the edge of the lane and waited for him. I thought he’d stop, too, but he kept swimming, lap after lap, and after a few awkward minutes I hauled myself out of the pool and headed off to the showers. When he finished first, he’d be out of the water before I swam back.

The more we swam together, the more I dreamt about him. I had a lot of swimming dreams back then. In one I’d be swimming down a stone-clad waterway, in another along a river that wound past abandoned towers. In one I swam into a barge manned by a riverman who looked much like my father. There were dreams of anxiety, too, of course, of swimming in streams that turned muddy or dried up, or of emerging (as Hero did) stark naked out of the water. And then there were dreams about Victor. I remembered them all. I was getting good at recalling my dreams. I was in therapy.

But I never told Spencer about my dreams of Victor. I don’t know if it even occurred to me to talk about him. If it had, I would have dismissed it as too unimportant to bring to my sessions. I wanted Spencer to find me interesting, if not as a person than at least as a case. And I already felt disadvantaged when I thought of Spencer’s rounds on the psychiatric ward of the university hospital or his work with patients with AIDS. Victor was inconsequential, I thought.

Naturally, there was a reason I wanted Spencer to find me interesting. I was in love with him.

Out of the water, Victor didn’t look much like a swimmer. He didn’t have the buffed and lanky, broad-shouldered body that people usually associate with swimmers, though, judging from my experience, except for competitive swimmers few of us in the pool actually do. Victor was a little overweight, but the additional fat didn’t seem to accumulate anywhere in particular. It didn’t ball up over his belly or droop around his hips. He was padded, with the kind of fat that toddlers have, flesh on its way to becoming something else. There was something almost pubescent in his “plumpe cheekes” (as Marlowe might have said), an impression heightened by the near absence of body hair. But he had the most engaging smile and if his shyness was frustrating, it was at the same time oddly endearing. And in the water, he was all grace and elegance.

I’d see him in the locker room after the workout on those rare occasions when our workouts more or less ended at the same time. But it felt a little brazen going up to talk to him naked. Or maybe it was because I sensed I need to take this one slow. I didn’t want to scare Victor off. I could meet guys to fuck. But Victor was the only one who could make love to me in this way.

It’s not that I was shy. I had picked up guys in pools before. Ironically enough, at the time I was seeing a guy I had met at the same pool Victor and I swam at. Well, seeing probably overstates the case, which was why Daniel, unlike Victor, was an issue in therapy. Daniel was sex without breakfast, a perfect symbol of the separation I made of the erotic from the domestic.

This wasn’t the reason I began therapy, of course. I didn’t think it was even an issue at the start. Youth is lived in a peculiar distortion of existential space, one which inverts the funnel of future lives, so you see ever broadening paths of opportunities opening up before you instead of the inexorable narrowing of possibilities to the single point of exit through which we must all depart. You feel you are bound to run into the “right” guy at some point ahead—and have all the time to do so. You don’t wonder where boyfriends come from. They keep appearing, effortlessly—like swimming.

When I had called University Health Services to book an appointment with a therapist, I asked for someone who was comfortable working with gay men. Or maybe I said, gay issues. Or issues of sexuality, or something lame like that, as if sex weren’t the carbon of psychoanalytic chemistry and I needed some kind of specialist. In any event they assigned me to Spencer. A random choice, he said. It could have been anybody on staff.

But few on the staff were gay. Spenser, as he confided to me a few sessions later, was.

I followed his lead and made as if this revelation didn’t matter. I was eager to please him, the man who was becoming my mentor, confessor, friend and father. But the fact that it was at least conceivable that we could have sex remained a deep and silent, ever coursing current that guided our therapeutic passage as I fell ever more deeply in love with him.

Sex was at least theoretically possible. Leander had countered Neptune’s advances with an asseveration of his heterosexuality; Spencer could not do the same. But he did something else.

Many months later, in one of those particularly charged and teary breakthrough sessions so often portrayed in films and novels alike, I finally confessed to Spencer that I was in love with him. I had seen him over the weekend in a gay bar in Boston, a husky hairy guy in a tight t-shirt dancing to abandon amid a pack of other men on a cramped and smoky dance floor. I had run out of the bar before he could see me, but the image of him remained. His sexuality had suddenly become piercingly real.

Spencer asked me what I wanted to do with it. The desire, he meant.

I told him I wanted to sleep with him.

He said to me. “That could happen.”

“Do you want it to happen, too?” I asked.

He told me he couldn’t answer as long as I was still in therapy.

“In real life I’d at least know if a guy liked me beforehand,” I protested.

“Because he says he does?”

“No, of course not.” I said. “You know from the way he treats you, the way he looks at you. It’s not all that hard to tell if a guy wants you.”

“And how do I treat you?” he asked.

I thought: thoughtfully, attentively, lovingly. I said, “It’s not fair. Can’t you even tell me if you like me?”

“I like you,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed?”

During the year or so I swam with Victor I never ran into him on campus. I thought maybe he was a student at the Dental School, which was deep into Boston on the other side of the river. But in late midsummer, a year or so after we first met, I found myself next to Victor on a beach getting ready to swim across the Boston Harbor. If we’d been talking I’d have known he had signed up to race and we could’ve arranged to come together. We could have talked about race strategy and rubbed each other with Vaseline. And who knows, I thought, what could have happened then.

But we exchanged nothing more than hellos and wished each other good luck as we donned our numbered orange caps. One of the race organizers pointed out our destination, a speck of beach in South Boston a mile across the cold grayish waters of the harbor. He also drew our attention to the scruffily painted old barge that’d be following us if we needed to stop. The garbage detail, we called it.

The start of an open-water swim is always chaotic—it’s another kind of funnel, in which a broad swathe of swimmers converges to a single point that marks the start of the shortest course to the finish line —and this was no different. I lost Victor almost immediately after the gun went off and we started swimming. I thought he’d been sidetracked by a charge of swimmers wedging themselves between us. But as I lifted my head to check my course, I saw him ahead of me. I picked up my pace to catch up with him. It was harder than I thought. Victor was swimming fast. I wanted to shout, hey, slow down, let me catch up to you. I had to sprint to reach him. When I did, I thought he’d drop back into our usual tempo but he kept driving ahead.

The wind churned the surface of the bay into a fit of small but persistent waves that smacked me as I’d cock my head to the side to take a breath. I could only see Victor when I raised my head. I guessed he was about 10 meters ahead of me, then 15. I swam harder. I was furious. He had turned what we had in the pool, something intimate, something ours, into a competition, and a public one at that. He’d only been using me as a workout partner, I thought. I was just a watch in motion to him. He made shore 50 meters ahead of me.

I was spitting seawater as I trudged ashore. I hoped he had left already, as he did when he jumped out of the pool at the end of his workout. I was angry. But I should have been thankful. It was the fastest mile I had ever swum.

This time Victor was there, waiting for me, as he never had done in the pool. “We did great!” he said, beaming his infectious winning smile. We, I thought. He said, ‘we’. But as we headed over to the organizers’ stand to pick up our t-shirts and temper our chill with donuts and coffee, I realized that this was a ‘we ‘of solidarity and not of communion. But it felt good nonetheless.

For a month or so after my ‘confession’ I tried to wrest some indication from Spencer about what he felt for me. It was an initiative which he naturally and quite deftly rebuffed. He wouldn’t tell me if he wanted to sex with me. But he wouldn’t say that he didn’t want to have sex with me either. Not until I left therapy.

It was a huge decision to make, I said. Shouldn’t I have a little something to go on? To make an informed decision, I said.

“You mean a kind of a guarantee?” he asked.

Maybe it was just the right time to stop or maybe I was tired of negotiating with a partner who wouldn’t negotiate, but I told him I had decided to end therapy. We spent a few sessions on closure and then, during our last session, made a date to have lunch. To talk about where we would move our relationship to, we said. It was late summer, a month after the Harbor Swim, and we decided to brownbag it al fresco.

We met by the boathouse on the river. I had brought something from home, a sandwich with bluefish leftover from the night before. I only remember it because I could smell the fish as we talked.

We talked about the ordinary things in our daily lives, the progress I was making on my thesis, a presentation he was preparing for a conference, his neighborhood in Jamaica Plain. Things two people getting to know each other might talk about. But it felt odd, this starting from the beginning when so much had already been said. It was like putting on a pair of second-hand jeans. The size is right but they have been worn to fit another body.

Now and then we’d fall silent. I had gotten accustomed to these pauses during my time with Spencer. They were rarely comfortable, but they had long ceased being awkward, as I allowed myself to be silent in his presence, to take—or rather, claim—the time to feel or to reflect on what had just transpired, or to gather strength to reach a little farther: the glide before the pull. These moments of silence were one more mark of therapeutic punctuation, at times more important than the questions he posed.

But there was something new to this stillness, something plaintive and commemorative, like the quiet that comes over a theater when the last of the theatergoers leave. As we sat on the bench and quietly watched the rowers sculling on the river, I knew that I wasn’t going to make love to Spencer.

I don’t think we even talked that day about having sex. I’m pretty sure neither of us came out and said no, this isn’t going to work. Spencer wouldn’t have said it. He knew he didn’t have to. He knew that sex was never what I really wanted from him. Funny I can’t remember if we said we’d call each other. We must have. But we never did.

Victor and I entered a few more open-water swims that summer but now we drove together to get to them. And we started swimming the weekends at a pond in the country. We talked more but still didn’t have a workout plan. He told me about his engineering studies—it turned out he was, in fact, a grad student—and his family in Virginia and a girl he had started seeing. Our talk was the ordinary stuff of conversation between friends, comfortable, restorative, pleasurable.

I sometimes missed the feeling I had when swimming next to him in the pool, before the harbor race and the talks that led to our becoming friends. I missed it the same way I sometimes missed my time with Spencer.

They were extraordinary experiences, each brought about by a confluence of random events and sustained, as is all magic, by a fragile suspension of disbelief. Perhaps, as the poet says, there is an element of “follie and false hope” to every romance, if only at the beginning. If we learn to love well and wisely, its place is taken by something more authentic, even when that means saying farewell to the man we fell in love with.

-/-

Image: Engraving of Neptune and Leander

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