Water Aerobics: An Essay by Courtenay Hameister
The following is an extract from Courtenay Hameister’s debut book, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things (July 2018). The book chronicles a year in the life of the Portland writer and former Live Wire host, in which she committed to “try things that scared me in order to teach my brain that everything was going to be okay.” Among them, water aerobics.
I was able to walk right into LA Fitness because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I still had a membership there. I hadn’t used it for over seven months, but it was important to me to have it there, waiting for me when I was ready. Also, I was apparently really angry at two hundred dollars and wanted it out of my bank account for no reason whatsoever.
When I got into the locker room, I pulled off my skirt and shirt and put on my towel in a very ungraceful thirty seconds, then walked down the hall toward the pool. As I approached the doorway, the smell of chlorine became stronger, as did my apprehension. I tried to imagine if there was any way for me to enter the room and drop my towel while simultaneously leaping into the pool at such a speed that it would be impossible for anyone to focus on any one part of my body. At the very least, my spider veins would be blurry.
Were those spider veins or a tattoo? a guy in the class would ask.
I don’t know, another guy would respond. She was moving too fast to tell. Our attempt to tread water in silent judgment has been thwarted.
I was still forming my towel-ditching plan when I opened the door to the pool and everything changed.
The class wasn’t filled with mean girls. It was filled with sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and octogenarians, all smiling at me encouragingly.
I felt the tension in my body leave with my exhale.
I walked over to a hook on the wall, hung my towel up like a normal person, and stepped into the pool. I took a quick visual poll, and, yes, I was definitely the youngest person in the class by at least twenty years.
Of course the Aqua Fit class had senior citizens in it. It was for people who had back problems. And knee problems. People who were only marginally ambulatory. People like me. But miraculously, the class wasn’t making me feel old.
Just a few weeks prior to the class, at a club where a friend’s band was playing, the bouncer had laughed a little and waved me through when I tried to show my ID. As I walked through the club, desperately trying to spot my gray-templed friends among the young hipster crowd, I realized it was the first time I’d felt self-conscious about my advancing age in a social situation.
This was the opposite of that.
The Aqua Fit pool was the pool in Cocoon for me. Just stepping in made me magically appear young and vigorous. Appear being the operative term.
Our teacher, Molly, an effervescent woman in her late twenties with a swimmer’s wide, powerful shoulders and tan, dimple-free legs, stood at the edge of the pool and demonstrated the moves. Which frankly look a little silly if you’re not in water.
I moved to a spot in the shallow end. I admit that I was already judging Molly harshly for her Chinese-character tattoo because I was jealous of her leg muscles. I’m sure it says something really great, I thought as I fought my inner judgmental bitch and the urge to find my phone and Google the character for “General Tso’s chicken.”
I should add that when I’m uncomfortable, I tend to get testy and lash out. Usually, the attack is directed at myself, but the people around me can also get some mental shrapnel.
For the first kicking session, I moved to the side of the pool next to an Asian woman with the face of a seventy-five-year-old and the body of a thirty-five-year-old. I wondered how one could still have taut arm skin at that age. She smiled and nodded at me as we both grabbed the edge of the pool. Molly blew her whistle to start the first fifteen-second kicking session. My back twinged a little as I kicked, but eventually the twinge went away and I started scissoring my legs as fast as I could. Which, it turned out, wasn’t very fast.
That has to be fifteen seconds, I thought after five.
I looked to my right, and my neighbor’s legs were running like an Evinrude, water flying everywhere, while her face was serene and relaxed, like she was on a pool float holding a margarita. She turned to me and smiled, then turned back and kept going.
How dare she rub it in like that.
I was doing one-Mississippis and we were definitely past fifteen seconds, but Molly’s whistle didn’t go off. My muscles were starting to hum. Had she lost her whistle? Should I order one for her on Amazon? With Prime Now, it could get here in like twenty minutes.
Finally, she blew her whistle and we stopped to rest.
“That was good,” my neighbor said. “Is this your first class?”
Ah, I get it. I see what you’re doing.
“Yeah, how could you tell?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve been coming to this class for a few years now,” she said. “I just haven’t seen you before.”
Uh-huh. And you’re so good now, is that what you’re saying? What’s next, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”?
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a long time.”
“It’s all relative,” she replied with a smile.
Was she talking about how fifteen seconds was really long for me but was super-short for her? Why was she so cruel?
“Okay! Now we’re gonna go for thirty seconds!” Molly yelled.
Her whistle echoed off the tiles and the whoosh of twenty-four elder-legs kicking into gear immediately followed. I knew the Mississippis wouldn’t help this time so I just braced for this set to feel like an hour. I slowed down my pace when my muscles started to ache and I looked down the line at my classmates, their legs flying in and out of the water at twice, maybe three times, my speed.
I couldn’t believe I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by my ageism.
I was just as shitty in this exercise class as I’d been in every one I’d ever taken, but this one had the added humiliation of my classmates being approximately twenty years older than me and probably injured in some way.
Molly took us all the way up to a minute of kicking, which I horizontally hobbled through, then back down to fifteen seconds.
Exercises like this where I don’t have a mini-TV in front of me are a real test of both my endurance and my attention span. I have trouble paying attention to stuff I like for longer than five minutes. This felt like water torture.
Just when I was grateful to finally be done with the kicking, we started in on jumping jacks, which I thought had fallen out of
favor in the ’80s with the advent of aerobicizing. They hadn’t, apparently, but mine were still as stilted and unwieldy as they’d been in middle school.
Abe, a cranelike bald man with bright green eyes who looked to be about eighty and sounded like he was from Brooklyn, introduced himself to me while grabbing me a couple of floating barbells.
“You’re doing good,” he said with the same tone one might use when teaching an uncoordinated child how to perform neurosurgery.
“Don’t patronize me, Abe,” I said, only half kidding. Clearly they didn’t get a lot of new students in this class, and they apparently saw me as a project.
“Everything takes time to get used to,” he said.
Abe and I pushed the floating barbells underwater as Molly instructed us to, using the principle of buoyancy to benefit our pecs. Then Molly had us walk and run the width of pool, still in the water, back and forth repeatedly. As we were passing each other, Abe introduced me to his friend Ron, who tipped an invisible hat to me.
I began to actually enjoy strolling in the pool with the cast of Cocoon, but as our speed increased, I noticed that the amount of water I displaced when I ran was far more than anyone else in the class did. This wasn’t due to my youthful vigor; it had more to do with my mass.
I started to move more slowly so that the waves at the side of the pool didn’t splash up as much.
I normally feel the impact of my size in tight spaces like airplane seats or skinny restaurant booths. It was disappointing to feel it in an Olympic-size pool.
As I slowed down my walk to try to take up less pool space, I remembered a conversation I’d had with my friend Lidia, an extraordinary author and teacher who also happened to be an avid swimmer.
I’d told her I’d gained weight after my back injury and that that made me feel vulnerable on dates and even more when I performed the bits I still participated in on Live Wire!; I imagined people who had heard me on the radio would be disappointed to see me in person.
Lidia said that she’d gained weight in the past few years too.
“It bothered me for a while,” she said. “But now I have a new middle-aged-lady mantra with regard to my current body: I’m exactly as big as I need to be to write the kinds of books that I do.”
I loved that sentiment at the time—it sounded so warm and accepting, so. . . evolved.
Was that why I couldn’t stop eating Red Robin’s bottomless fries?1 Was I just trying to make my body big enough for my voice? It didn’t feel that way. It felt like food was a replacement for the romantic love I wasn’t getting because I’d eaten too much food and therefore couldn’t imagine finding romantic love.
Of course, food wasn’t just that. Food was also comfort and pleasure and warmth and fullness and safety and actual sustenance and entertainment and sweetness and a delicious defense against absolutely everything that scared me or filled me with regret. Food was an emotional moat. Filled with gravy.
But what if food wasn’t a defense and my body wasn’t too big?
What if I tried on the idea that my body needed to be this size to hold all the important things I had to say?
Act as if, I thought.
That’s an old line that I first encountered while studying acting in college, but it’s one that’s been repeated by therapists over the years. What if you were brave enough? What if you were a person who could tell someone he hurt you, or ask for a raise, or get on a plane without having a panic attack? Do you know a person who can do that thing you cannot do? Imagine you’re her. Now imagine doing the thing.
What if I just acted as if I were as evolved as Lidia at her best moments?
What would that look like? What would it feel like? Would I be embarrassed by the ripples I was making or proud of them? Or would I not give a shit either way?
That’s when I started to experiment. I started walking faster and punching my arms more vigorously. I started making larger ripples with each pass, pushing my ample body through the water as bigger and bigger waves flowed over the side of the pool.
Turns out it’s way more fun to try to displace water than try to contain it.
And it was also more fun to actually inhabit my body instead of trying to pretend I was in a different one.
I was actually enjoying myself. In a pool.
I make waves, motherfuckers! I thought. I’m a tsunami. Deal with it.
My version of Lidia, it turned out, was very aggro.
It felt amazing to be her for even a few minutes. To let go of my shame and imagine that my size had no other meaning or purpose but to send me more forcefully through the world. I don’t think anyone else in the class was having a water-related epiphany, so when Molly blew her whistle, I had a moment of self-consciousness, worried that the regular attendees were reconsidering their decision to welcome the middle-aged whippersnapper into the fold.
They seemed fine. It’s good that people can’t see your thoughts.
I stood in place as I was told, winded from the exertion but invigorated. I imagined this was what people who actually liked exercise felt. Molly ended the class with us standing tall and running our hands through the water, one after the other, in a sweeping Mr. Miyagi motion. Watching my hands move slowly under the surface and seeing the small waves they made became meditative, like underwater tai chi.
It seems smart to start the day concentrating on clear proof of the force you exert on the world. There’s also something poetic about preparing for the day by running through water. Once you’ve spent an hour pushing through something with eight hundred times the pressure of air, moving through actual air is a cinch.
Bring it, world. I worked out with senior citizens this morning.
After Molly dismissed us, I walked over to the pool steps with my classmates, allowing most of them to get out before me.
“You did good,” said Abe, patting my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I said. “So did you.”
He dismissed me with a wave. “I always do good. I’m a natural athlete,” he said.
Ron rolled his eyes and got out of the pool.
“We gonna see you next week?” he asked.
“You might,” I said, thinking it might actually be true.
As soon as I stepped out of the pool, I became me again, obsessed with who was walking behind me and how much the size of my ass bothered them. Even so, it didn’t erase the glimpse I’d gotten of who I could be.
With a shit-ton of therapy.
After my small win in the pool, I took a quick shower and then, due to my inexperience with gym showering, attempted to put on a sports bra without properly drying myself. I spent two frighteningly squirmy minutes with my arms locked over my head in a stretchy black Lycra prison. At one point, I actually became claustrophobic enough that I almost asked a stranger for help.
When that seemed too humiliating, I spent a few seconds thinking, Okay. I guess this is where I live now.
Eventually, I managed to corral my boobs, but it wasn’t lost on me that after bravely conquering aqua aerobics, I had almost been beaten by a piece of clothing whose whole job was to support me. So I left the gym feeling less victorious than I’d felt in class, but still.
It was enough that I’d finally had a life-affirming moment in a pool.
It was about time.