portion of the artwork for Tiff Holland's fiction

Temporary Membership
Tiff Holland

I’m not surprised to find mostly older women in the aquatics class. I took aqua aerobics a few times years ago, and it was the same. They just stood around gossiping. It was as about as “low impact” as you could get. I want to start moving, get my balance back. The packaging of my new medication: says “experience energy like you never have before!” It promises better focus and asks, “What will you do on Vivanta? Take a class? Learn a new language?”

Stupid. I’m taking it just to catch up.

I’d expected the class to be in the inside pool, but instead find it at the Olympic-size pool outside, surrounded by plastic lounges, and small round tables whose umbrellas are still tied at their bases, like tulips waiting to open.

The women gather in groups, bobbing and talking. A few are near the water slide, closed off by a plastic link chain, where the water is shallow and the children later in the day can stand after their drop. One group gathers by the ladder, making it difficult for others to get in, but they’re ready, just in case they might need to make a speedy exit. Others form a line by the buoyed rope. One, at least sixty-five, slowly lowers herself into the water exhaling loudly.

“My Lord!” she exclaims, and the rest laugh and agree.

Her skin is undershirt white. She wears a straw hat. The water is at least twenty degrees colder than the air. I jump in and start a slow water jog, looking around at the others. They remind me of the beauty shop ladies. They wear a variety of mostly flowery suits, petunias and azaleas, plumeria. A large woman with her hair dyed a honey color drops in and immediately starts taking little hops like a baby bunny. She keeps her hands out of the water, moving them in tiny circles, then bigger and bigger hops, smiling with an open mouth, then laughing. I find myself catapulting higher and higher out of the water, circling to get a better view. Another woman comes up beside Honey, tries to start a conversation. Honey gives a polite “hi” then waves her off, her hands now in the water, separating it, hopping into the space she reveals.

She reminds me of one of Mom’s customers, Muriel, who offered to pay for me to take a year off before college and go to Europe if I just wouldn’t get married at seventeen. The others remind me of the heads under the dryers reading Enquirers, nibbling donuts, hiding out from their husbands. I always imagined Mom would end up with them, on the other side of the styling chair. I imagined her wild after retirement, the way she went crazy after the divorce, drinking wine at night on the balcony, listening to Sade. Every week or sometimes every day, a new glass vase of a dozen roses would show up, from the dentist next door, or Bill Young who owned Mom’s favorite restaurant down the street. Harvey Pendleton, my father’s best friend from high school, who’d always had a crush on Mom, sent red-tipped pink roses after the divorce. There were too many to keep track of for a while. Mom told the customers to take a rose with them; sometimes, when the bouquets backed up, she’d give away whole dozens.

Thinking of the shop reminds me of Linda, who was the age I am now back then, who, like me, had a stroke at forty-two. Her husband helped her into the shop with her four-pronged cane every Saturday. In the beginning, she drooled and her left side was mostly paralyzed, but she got better. She always seemed happy. The only thing she could say after the stroke was, “Twenty-three skidoo, by George.” Which she repeated over and over. I said something to Mom once about how happy Linda was and Mom told me how angry she had been before. As for the phrase, Linda’s husband was named George. Mom said she didn’t think Linda was happy, said that sometimes Linda stiffened in her chair, struggling to talk, her teeth tight, tiny streams of spit escaping the spaces between them, forming bubbles that lingered on the enamel.

After a few minutes a skinny woman comes out pushing a cart full of Styrofoam noodles and barbells. The women head toward the edge of the pool that faces the highway, away from the mirrored windows of the building which are already catching wicked reflections of the sun. The instructor, who says her name is Crystal, just in case there’s anyone new, gives a “howdy” and lowers herself into the water. She wears a two-piece Speedo and water tennis shoes, a gold chain, and one of those exercise watches that measure heart rate. A nylon band stretches around her chest. She gets us moving right away, jogging the length of the pool while the women still chat. Crystal tells us to hold in our bellies and the women laugh.

“Bellies, bellies, bellies,” they say.

One proposes we count how many times Crystal will say it today, and I guess she must say it a lot, but it’s my first time. I don’t know what to expect. We pretend to cross-country ski the way back, arms reaching, holding imaginary poles. I have trouble coordinating this at first, but then the alternation seems to fuel me. Off in the far corner of the pool, a man drops in. He wears sunglasses and a ball cap and chews gum. He immediately starts the cross-country ski. No one is cold now. Only two stand off by the slide at the edge of the deep end, and they just talk the entire hour.

From time to time, Crystal hops up on the edge of the pool and turns from one side to the other demonstrating each exercise, adjusting her chest strap before sliding back into the water and performing each exercise with us, telling us to reverse, change legs, stretch higher. We float on our backs and try, like she does, to keep flat on the water while raising one leg straight up and out. We sink, some of us sputtering, wondering how does she do that?

“Crystal has core. Her core is strong,” the man says.

I’m surprised how well the others do. They keep up, move quickly. Almost half of them wear swimming tennis shoes like Crystal. They follow instructions, making only minor modifications for bad hips and knees. They stop talking and breathe the way Crystal tells us, exhaling as each action is performed, inhaling in between.

Crystal tells us to grab noodles and bicycle, demonstrates by straddling one, moving her legs in circles on imaginary pedals. She reminds us to keep our backs straight as we move the length of the pool, then return. I look around again. Only one, wearing a light/dark blue suit with a Y-back, is under fifty. They all wear hats and sunglasses and I realize the bigger the hat, the larger and rounder the glasses, the older the woman.

The time goes quickly. My toes get sore from trying to gain purchase on the bottom. If I return, I’ll want some of those water shoes. As we stand facing the highway, I concentrate on the crepe myrtles, a blackbird watching us from a branch while we count off the jumping jacks. I try to remember what we called them in ROTC, side-straddle-hop, and mentally I count mine the military way: one-two-three, ONE; one-two-three, TWO. I never let my eyes waiver from the crepe, and soon my mind is completely empty and I remember why I loved ROTC.

The last ten minutes we find ourselves our own circles of space large enough for karate kicks that send water flying over our heads. Then we work an invisible punching bag in the water, our hands beating, closed fists moving in tight downward circles, forward then backward, our wrists twisting, as if we’re working a speed bag like a boxer. Finally, we punch hard, down into the water.

“Pretend someone is attacking,” Crystal says. “Hurt them, keep yourself safe.”

I pretend each punch is a carton of cigarettes, and I pound them. I pound the spray that rises like smoke. Each punch is directed at the tar and nicotine that fills my mother’s lungs, that keeps her from being in the pool with us, because she is the same age as these women, younger than several, and while they suck in air before each punch, she is tethered to her oxygen compressor. I kick through the atmosphere of Planet Beauty Shop, a thick cloud of CO2, aerosol, bleach, and other assorted fumes. I punch boxes of perms and cans of hair spray. I punch myself, too, for not knowing, for not keeping her away from the cigarettes, for believing her when she lied to me, saying she’d quit.

I’m still punching when Crystal tells us to start stretching our arms up over our heads. Honey comes up to me, nudges me, tells me that’s enough, shows me how to lift each arm up and bend my body to the side, like a ballerina, to curve one arm at a time and push that elbow down with the opposite hand.

“Feel that release?”

I nod. Crystal tells us to stretch our arms around ourselves, to give ourselves a hug because we love ourselves.

Tiff Holland’s Comments

“Temporary Membership” is a scene from a novel in process which continues to follow two of the characters from my short story chapbook, Betty Superman. I wrote the piece using five prompt words, but more importantly as an expression of my surprise at the differences in the group of women taking a local aquatics class as opposed to the women I had known in my mother’s beauty shop as I was growing up. The piece really helped me to understand my own feelings about the choices we make in how we live and, ultimately, if we live.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 39 | Winter 2013