Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing


"Swimming with Oliver," Nonfiction, by Peter Selgin

Posted by Peter Selgin on 21 Mar 2016

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Featured in Colorado Review, Center for Literary Publishing
Published Spring 2016

After a swim, that’s when I miss him most. In November, when the water temperature is in the sixties, when I’ve toweled off and put on my bathrobe and started up the leaf-strewn lawn from the dock to my house, that’s when I think: I have to phone Oliver and tell him what a glorious swim I just had. I’d often call him on weekday mornings after a swim.

Then I remember. I can’t phone Oliver. Oliver’s dead.

We met in the winter of 1986, at Simon & Schuster, his publisher, soon after The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat came out. I was still living in New York back then and had been assigned to interview him for a magazine. The office was at Rockefeller Center. On the street corner, a vendor was selling hot chocolate from a cart. Having somehow intuited my subject’s love of hot chocolate, I bought two cups and rode the elevator with them in a paper bag.

They’d set us up in a conference room. I found him there, a big shy Santa in a white physician’s coat with a lush salt-and-pepper beard. He sat there with his knees spread apart, gripping them with his big hands, leaning forward into my questions.

“Would you say all people exist on a continuum of pathologies?”

“Ahm . . . yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“When you talk to people, are you constantly aware of their tics?”

“If you’re wondering if you’re being diagnosed, the answer is no.”

Having drained the liquid part of his hot chocolate, twirling a finger over the sediment at the bottom of his cup, with his characteristic stutter, he said, “I’m—I’m—I’m . . . tempted to—to—to . . .”

“Go for it!” I urged.

In tandem we licked hot chocolate sediment from our fingers.

Ten years later, I read “Water Babies,” his essay in The New Yorker about his passion for swimming. A swimmer myself, I thought: how fun it would be to swim with Dr. Sacks. I dashed off a letter—third item down on my bucket list of things to do before I died: “Swim with Oliver Sacks.”

His reply came a few days later, handwritten in green Flair on cream stationery with a cephalopod logo. The writing was barely legible. He’d be delighted to swim with me.

In the gloom of morning, he calls from his car phone. “Olivah heah. Meet me on the Kappock Street ramp in five minutes?” With my gym bag holding my Speedo, goggles, cap, and towel, I hurry out of my Bronx apartment building, up the steep hill, and under the highway overpass slathered with graffiti. The sun has just broken over building tops.
He stands smiling next to his pulled-over Lexus.

“I’m pathologically early,” he says.

Mozart on the car stereo. Oliver sipping from a water bottle, discussing his book-in-progress, about his childhood embrace of metals, chemicals, and minerals. We take the Saw Mill River Parkway toward Connecticut.

Does this man know, has he any idea, what it means for me to sit with him in his car like this, guiding him toward my favorite lake for a swim? I remember those daydreams I had when I was a kid of the Beatles coming over for dinner.

The lake is on the former summer estate of a robber baron, now a state park. At its center: a small island with the remains of a decorative stone lighthouse. Swimming is prohibited. We have to scramble up some rocks and bushwhack our way to the swimming hole. If the ranger comes by in his truck, we’ll be hidden from view.

We undress and put on our Speedos. Since our first meeting, Oliver’s trimmed down. A swimmer’s body: top-heavy, barrel-chested, and covered with gray fur, like a bear.

We swim twice to the stone lighthouse and back. Afterward we lie on a smooth rock, sunning ourselves. Bird songs. The wind whispering through tree branches.

“A beautiful day,” I remark.

“We live on a very nice planet,” says Oliver. “It will be a pity if we destroy it.”

To read the entire essay go to the Colorado Review.


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