Like Swimming Through Night and Day

The pool where we swam belonged to Camille Durney, an older woman who lived with her ex-husband. The story was that they had once been married, he had left and years later, long after the divorce, he had asked to come back. And she had acquiesced. He was a sour sort and people often wondered why she had let him back in.

The house was tucked in under the trees, an Italianate villa of weathered pink stucco meant to look like stone and covered in ivy. Like our house, it had been built in the 1920s and set amid redwood trees. It had been the guest house for the mansion next door where she had been born.

I admired her for the gracious way she lived in that house of hers, forever volunteering at the hospital, dressing for evenings at the opera, driving her Jaguar XJ6 in erect fashion down the curving streets of Piedmont. But probably I admired her more for letting that surly old husband of hers back for the last years of his life, swiping away with that slender, braceleted hand whatever had come between them once.

Since she no longer used the pool, she allowed those neighbors she liked to swim there. The first times, we called before going over, but she dismissed such formalities with that gracious hand and prevailed on us to come without calling.

In summer, we went often. By late-afternoon, the sun ducked behind the redwood trees, cutting short the frolicking and sending everyone shivering into their clothes. Parts of the water, because of those trees, never felt the sun. Sunlight and shadow drew broad swaths on the water’s surface.

I was lying in the sun on the stone, enjoying the heat after the cold water. Bands of sun and shadow played on the water. Cameron, a whip-smart young boy from the neighborhood was playing in the pool. After swimming some laps he stopped beside me. Hanging on the pool edge, a puddle of water forming on the stone under his chin, he said, “It’s like swimming through night and day.”

One day, Mrs. Durney asked me to look after her cat when she went away to an opera festival for two weeks in Austria. I accepted gladly and made the nightly duty of feeding the cat into an excuse to try out the graciousness of her life on my own slim shoulders. I would walk over after dinner. I carried my backpack of school books but did precious little studying. Instead, I would put on a tape of arias from Carmen that I knew from my time with my school teacher Bill Bartley. I would sit on the couch and look out the windows into the garden.

I loved being there alone, imagining that it was my house and that my own life consisted of such moments — instead of the inane routine of high school with all those kids who understood nothing of such pleasures. When I mentioned those evenings to one of the neighbors who was close friends with Mrs. Durney, she suggested that I might be abusing the situation. I said no more to anyone after that. I knew Mrs. Durney would understand even if the others wouldn’t. Mrs. Durney became my secret ally against all those who chased material things too obviously and didn’t listen to opera in the night.

Lost in my reverie, I paid little attention to the cat. Yes, I set out fresh food and milk each night. Maybe I noticed that the cat often left the food in its bowl but I simply dumped the old food and opened a new can then went on listening to the music and gazing out the window into the garden.

The day Mrs. Durney returned, I received an anxious call asking what had happened to the cat. Nothing, I replied, shocked that my first communication with Mrs. Durney had taken this turn. It wasn’t what I had imagined. “Didn’t you notice him swelling up?” she asked.

“He’s sick,” she said, “I’m taking him to the vet.”

Later, I learned from the same neighbor who had wondered whether it was right that I enjoy the house so much that the cat had suffered from an impacted bowel. While it was not exactly my fault, I hadn’t bothered to look at the cat enough to notice that it was puffing up like a balloon. Mrs. Durney never again asked me to look after the house or the cat. I felt as if I had been cast out and tossed to the philistines, without right of appeal – and all because of a damn cat.

Sometimes life could change like that, like swimming through night and day.

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