Early in the summer of 1988 I blithely said to a man I’d known for about 20 minutes, “Sure, I’ll join the Central Park Swim Team, that sounds fun.” His name was Tom and he seemed very interesting in a “My-God-You’re-Handsome-And-I-Hope-You’re-Not-A-Dumbass” kind of way. I don’t remember anything he said though, well, except that he was leaving his career in arbitrage to devote his life to the Ford Foundation. That sounded pretty charming. Plus he was an Irish Catholic from Chicago where most of my dad’s relatives were. Perhaps because he was so good looking, or because I was so clueless, or probably both, I neglected to ask for details about the swim team I joined. I just assumed there was a swimming pool in Central Park. Plus I liked the idea of swimming during the week because it was so damn hot that summer.
After dinner on the second date, we went dancing at a club for about 4 hours. A few friends were with us but they fell away during our dance marathon. It was not a perfect evening because I managed to clock an innocent bystander while showcasing one of my many signature dance moves, The Sprinkler. Her head connected with my elbow and the poor woman dropped to the floor like a stone. Sadly, this was not the first time that move hurt people. I apologized but she was pissed and rubbing her temple so we got out of there. It was already 2 a.m. anyway.
It was a week night but swimming after dancing our butts off seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea. At an all night Korean grocery store, we picked up some cut up pineapple and watermelon and icy bottles of water. Sitting on a bench right outside the 91st Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park, we ate the fruit and drank the water like we’d been in the Gobi Desert for a week with no provisions.
Tom said, “We’re going to need some cardboard so look around.” We ended up back at the Korean grocery store where they gave us two boxes. Then I ruined my manicure busting my box to make it flatten out. I still didn’t understand what we needed cardboard for but I was still in that 7 to 10-day window of a burgeoning relationship where I questioned nothing. Also, did I mention how handsome he was? So it was no surprise I followed him when he suddenly sprinted into Central Park. My mini skirt, heels and the cardboard flapping against my bare legs made running awkward but I caught up with him eventually.
We made our way overland to the reservoir. I was puzzled. “We’re going to swim in there?” Tom said, “Of course, we all do it.” I glanced around and there were just the two of us. The “other team members” never had names and never showed up. “How often do you do this?” I asked. Tom said, “All the time in the summer.” “What’s the cardboard for then?” He just said, “Watch me.”
He threw his big, flappy piece of cardboard over the fence that surrounded the reservoir so it was resting on the top. Then he climbed the chain link fence and threw himself over the other side, sliding over the cardboard. “C’mon, it’s not hard and the cardboard keeps you from getting scratched.” I gamely threw my heels over the fence and climbed, barefoot, up to where his cardboard was. I brought mine along and made a double layer. In spite of my efforts, I heard a loud tear as I slid over the other side. My mini skirt, ripped up to the waistband, was now more of a loincloth. I was glad it was dark.
I retrieved my shoes and cardboard and followed Tom, gingerly trying not to step too hard on the dirt and gravel in my bare feet. Tom stripped down and slid into the reservoir, paddling around with a big grin on his face. “This feels great, come on in!” I told him to turn around while I undressed. False modesty was one of my specialties. If I was too naked too fast, the beans were spilled too soon about having grown up with hundreds of constantly naked hippies in Crested Butte. East Coasters, it seemed, found my background to be off-putting. It was to take years for me to slowly learn not to tell my entire life story on the first date, especially the part about the hundreds of constantly naked, drug dealing hippies in my hometown. With Tom I emphasized my Irish Catholic Chicago roots, although he didn’t know I only lived in Chicago for a month when I was a toddler and a month when I was nine. I also neglected to mention I hadn’t been to mass since I was 8. Now, in the darkness next to the Central Park Reservoir I was faking modesty too, but I had my reasons.
Tom dutifully turned around as I removed my ripped miniskirt and everything else. I slid into the water, which was cool and perfect. We started swimming quietly out to the middle of the reservoir. “There’s a jetty out here to sit on,” he whispered, grinning wildly, sort of like a constantly naked hippy, or a serial killer. The jetty was about 2 feet below the water’s surface. He stood on it and jumped off, splashing around. “Shhhhh” I said. I was paranoid we’d get busted and I would end up naked in front of a bunch of policemen and their flashlights. That of course would eventually lead to having to explain my multiple convictions for trespass and public nudity to the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ Character and Fitness Committee. The bare naked truth was that I expected, at any moment, to be discovered, rocketed to instant stardom for something (I wasn’t all that specific). Really I was planning to be Angelina Jolie, minus the vials of blood around the neck, back when Angelina Jolie was a small, unfamous child. In my hazy, grandiose dreams I would settle for becoming a famous, brilliant lawyer if I could not be a famous, brilliant writer but one or the other, or something even more fantastic, would certainly lead me to becoming a famous left-wing philanthropist, beloved by all but the right-wing and the Vatican. Tom yelling and splashing around like a maniac might interfere with my brilliant future as a beloved world citizen. So in that brief moment, while he was ruining my life plan, I wondered if swimming in the city’s water supply with a stranger was such a great idea. But we had a lot of friends in common so I ignored my concerns for the time being, deciding he was just a big goofball, not a serial killer.
We swam for a long time, then floated holding hands while staring at the sky. Finally we rested on the jetty and talked. The lights from the buildings bordering Central Park seemed so far away, as did the city noises. The clouds swirled above us in fast-moving, ever-changing cosmic patterns. It was magical. The sweat from the dance marathon was long gone, and on that hot summer night I was happy for a little while, and not just because of my brilliant future.
But dawn was coming and with it Thursday. I was supposed to be at my paralegal job in a few hours. We paddled slowly over to the edge and climbed out. Our clothes and the cardboard were just where we left them. Dressing wasn’t easy since I was soaking wet. My skills at scaling the chain link fence were once again lacking because I managed to rip my skirt on the other side this time. Now I was sporting a real, spandex loincloth. My underwear was showing no matter how hard I tried to hold the sides of the skirt together. I was already thinking about the walk home, all the way to 92nd and First.
We trudged through the park, shoes squishing and arrived at the entrance only to see 2 cops hanging out. We left the cardboard next to a trash can and strolled by the men in blue, trying to look casual. My long hair was dripping wet. Same with my loincloth. The cops stared and we nodded hello but kept walking fast. No one was supposed to be in the Park at 4:30 a.m. Tom walked me to my apartment and gave me a quick kiss goodnight. After a shower I slept until about 10 a.m. and made it to work just in time to take a long lunch.
We went swimming a few more times and I got the hang of scaling the fence without ripping perfectly good 80’s-style spandex mini skirts. I loved swimming after dancing and looked forward to it. But one day I was jogging around the reservoir at twilight after work. There was a rustling sound ahead of me in the bushes. All at once a rat about the size of a golden retriever ran across the path in front of me, slipped under the chain link fence, and started paddling in the reservoir. My reservoir. I was suddenly grossed out at the thought of the Central Park Swim Team. Swimming around with rats will do that to a person. I really wanted that rat to be a muskrat, or something somehow explainable, like common river life in a riparian zone. But it was just a big, fat rat with a twitchy nose, the kind that are all over New York and in movies that have the name Willard in them.
Later that day I announced over the phone to Tom I was off the Central Park Swim Team. He was losing interest in me anyway, and I heard rumors of a new member of the team, a busty practicing Catholic now taking midnight dips with him. They met at a “folk” mass where young people played guitars but women were still oppressed. No doubt she’d grown up without hundreds of naked hippies milling around. But I was losing interest too, especially in swimming with rats.