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Four summers ago my husband, David, and I found ourselves simultaneously unemployed. His was a normal hiatus in his freelance film career; mine was of the more permanent, severance package variety. Though our budget was tight, we kept our membership at a local pool because we actually had time to use it now. And it was probably the closest thing to a sparkling body of turquoise water we could afford for a while.
One day after swimming laps, David came home and said that he'd seen a flyer for a water aerobics class to be held three mornings a week for five weeks. It would be a great low-impact workout, and we both could use the exercise.
My mind immediately flashed to blue-haired women standing in the shallow end, pumping Styrofoam dumbbells. We weren't as young as we used to be, but did we have to act old? He countered that this was actually deep-water running, so it would be harder. "Besides," he added, "I'm good at treading water."
This last point I knew all too well. Marriage is a vast ocean with unpredictable currents; before you know it, one partner can suddenly end up a half mile away, a speck on the horizon. That speck was me. Several years earlier a premature midlife crisis had pulled me out to sea, and I had let it take me away. While the babysitter held down the home front for our two school-age sons, I always had another deadline, another round of drinks with coworkers, another reason for catching a later and later train. After 20 years of marriage I chalked up this behavior to matrimonial fatigue, but it was a sort of temporary insanity. Meanwhile David stayed close to shore, watching me recede in the distance, frustrated and angry and treading water like a madman.
My sudden transition from wage earner to stay-at-home wife and mom -- a role I had long resisted -- had a clarifying effect. Being unemployed with David was an immersion course in togetherness: We walked the dog together, cooked meals together, watched Netflix together. My job was gone, but my family remained, and I clung to them, my life raft, grateful I hadn't lost them too.
As I suspected, David was the only man in the class, which also included some older yet active women and one young mom looking to pass the time while her daughter was taking swimming lessons. Otherwise this was definitely not your grandmother's water aerobics. It was an hour of constant motion in 12 feet of water. Our instructor Lynn, a benevolent drill sergeant in a bright Speedo, shouted orders from the pool deck while consulting her stopwatch. Wearing buoyancy belts, we "ran" from one end of the pool to the other, slowly and then less slowly. We did cross-country ski drills, scissoring our arms and legs through the water; side kicks, in which both legs swept out like a Russian Cossack dancer's; and T-flies, a sort of reverse jumping jack. Sometimes Lynn would tell us to form two circles. The outer circle would run clockwise, the inner, counterclockwise. If you were to watch us from the deck, you would see our heads bobbing above the surface, but below the water, our arms and legs were moving like crazy.
David opted for ankle cuffs or occasionally took off the buoyancy belt to up the challenge. And while I could be distracted by a pretty cloud overhead, David's concentration never wavered. He would paw the water vigorously, eyes fixed, breathing hard. He attacked water aerobics with the same dedication and commitment he gave everything, including and especially our marriage. For too long I'd seen us as two swimmers doing laps in adjacent lanes, catching a glimpse of each other only when we turned our heads to breathe. But he deserved better than that. He deserved a partner.
As the summer went on, I began to act like one. I rubbed sunblock on David's back before every class and gave him a flirty wink or pat when we passed in the pool. I have a feeling our classmates thought we had always been so at ease with each other, but they saw only the smooth surface of our marriage, not the desperate efforts to save it, the messy underwater thrashing. On the longish drive home, we talked about the kids and life and us in a way we hadn't in a long time. "Is it weird to be the only guy in water aerobics?" I asked him once. "I don't care about that," he replied. "What matters is that I'm doing it with you."
David and I have taken the class every summer since. We've both lost weight. He likes how he gains endurance; I like how it tones my arms and chest. But what I really like is how we're in the deep end together, pushing back against currents of our own creation, every stroke bringing me closer to shore.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2012.