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Sandra Gail Lambert

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Sandra Gail Lambert

Photo by Melanie Peter

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from A Certain Loneliness

My nine-year-old wrinkled fingers gripped over the edge of the pool, and I leaned my head back to gasp with effort and with triumph. I'd swum farther than I ever had. My coach's bare feet stepped between my hands. Through a smear of chlorine rainbows I could see thick calves and then hair that thickened up thighs and curled around the crotch of a grey, utilitarian bathing suit. She leaned over and echoes bounced off the tiled walls as she yelled into my water-muffled ears. I lip read veldig bra and en gang til. It's Norwegian for "very good" and "one more time.” This adult, unlike so many others in my life, never said it was good unless it had been. I hadn't known I had any strength left, but she wanted more so I imagined myself a dolphin leaping as I pushed against the wall and twisted. The muscles that moved my arms though the water sang to me, to my breath, and I stroked until my body rode the surface and momentum was restored.

By the time she decided we were done, I sat on the side of the pool with bent over shoulders and gulped steam-heated air in a thrill of well-earned exhaustion. I'd figured out when to breathe, my hand hardly splashed at all coming down into the water, and I'd swum forever. My coach squatted beside me and allowed that I might be ready to learn the butterfly. I was as happy as a serious little girl ever got.

I shouldn't have been there according to the doctors at the base hospital who said my spine was too curved for exercise and put me in a plastic corset. They agreed with my doctor at the Warm Springs Polio Foundation that as soon as the Air Force reassigned us back to the States, I'd have the surgery to insert steel rods and then be flat in bed for six months. The last set of surgeries had been on my legs when I was five, which was almost half my life ago. Only blurred memories remained, but as the doctors talked, my body contracted and folded in on itself. My arms wrapped around my knees in protection and comfort.

Norway has socialized medicine so my parents thought why not make an appointment. This doctor said I needed to be stronger or things would get worse. Get rid of the corset, he said. How about swimming? he suggested. They had a program. Already in my life I'd learned to worry about patronizing volunteers with their syruped voices, but this woman, who was now telling me that I'd done well, but that next time I'd do better, who lifted me up in her arms and carried me to the showers, she was a retired Olympic swim team coach. And I was one of her athletes.

Norwegians believe that, in the winter, after a warm swim, one must close the body's pores. A quick, naked roll outside in the snow is acceptable, but we were in downtown Oslo so it was the showers instead. My coach reminded me that this was part of the training and shifted me over her hip to reach for the faucet. I closed my eyes. My breath stopped with the first groan of the pipes. They knocked and shook until a spurt and then the flow of cold-thickened water hit my back. She rotated us twice and it was over. Once again, I'd endured. A sense of worthiness lifted my head over the coach's shoulders as she carried me to a bench.

(Reproduced from A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir by Sandra Lambert by permision of the University of Nebraska Press. Forthcoming Fall 2018 at the University of Nebraska Press.)

Sandra Gail Lambert is the author of A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir and a novel, The River's Memory. Her work has been widely anthologized and also published in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, LitHub, and Brevity. She is the co-editor of the anthology Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival. Lambert's writing is often about the body and its relationship to the natural world. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

For me, this NEA Fellowship is a hearty, slap-on-the-back "you're welcome here" to those of us who write about the human body in all its physical variations and complexities of relationships. And it also says so what that you didn't start writing seriously until you were in your forties, that you have no academic background in writing, that your debut novel came out when you were sixty-two and you'll be sixty-six when your memoir is published. It's a joy to now have funding for the next move forward in my work, and it is an honor to be recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts. The work they do enhances all of our lives and is essential to a vibrant and effective democracy.