Things Buffalo: My New Skin

Driving along the Outer Harbor, I watch for signs that direct me to the beach, watching for parked vehicles with bike racks, stickers on bumpers that might say 13.1, 26.2, 70.3, 140.6. My Toyota has a 26.2, though I haven’t done a tri yet, an ironman or a half.

I see boats docked along the harbor, a place called Dug’s Dive, which I hear serves strong drinks, thick and tasty ice cream. Lake Erie, to my right, helps me find direction, knowing on the map it’s west of the city. I’m not so good with maps. I know Route 5 is to my left, the road my GPS told me to use to get here. I’m not far from my apartment in the historic district, where I’ve been living since I moved to Buffalo five years before. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was fifteen. I’m forty-four. Lately, I can say that.

After I park and scan the beach, I look for my comrades in their wetsuits. It’s my first open water swim, at least since I’ve been here. As a kid, I swam in a small lake in Pulcifer, where I’d go with my whole family, watching my mom wade, my father dip and dive, my sister and I holding our noses to do somersaults, and I’d come up still feeling the water in my nostrils, which made me feel dizzy and drugged in a way I’d never felt; there was the undercurrent of Lake Michigan, where I swam in Sheboygan with a distant cousin, going so far out that on the return, I thought the underlying pressure was a ghost, or that I would become one. At a pool once at fifteen, after riding my bike there with two other girlfriends, I was assaulted by a bunch of boys who had nothing better to do but try to hold us down and put their fingers inside the depth of our bikinis. We tried to pretend it didn’t happen, riding away, bruised and scraped, on our bikes, telling ourselves we probably deserved it.

Later, as an adult in the Air Force, living in Biloxi, Mississippi, the water was shallow and calm, and I’d sit in it with my baby, who is now an adult of his own, living in another city closer to his father. At the beach back then, I clapped with my baby, in his diaper, while his father tried to hide an affair he’d tell me about later.

Now along the lake, I see people on the shore, dressed in shorts and tees. It’s early July. I have a triathlon in three days and this is my first open water swim, at least with the group, at least doing laps, in this new open lake.

As I look further down, I see my fellows in their wetsuits, swimming caps. Nearing, I see familiar faces. I am in this triathlon club, though I haven’t done much with my teammates. I signed up for a half-ironman last fall only to motivate myself to bike and swim. I have a running injury. Nothing bad, but something so chronic; it’s been with me ever since I lived here.

As I approach my friends, they say, “Hey! You came!”

I smile and put my arms out. I see a group of ten, or twelve, most of them familiar. Folks I met in Checkers, a running group I joined maybe two years before this.

I ask my teammates the best way to prepare. Some of them are experts, Ironmen and women, placing in their age groups.

After signing up for the half-ironman, my aunt died. We were so alike. She OD’ed on pain meds. Six weeks later, when I finally started to feel alive again, I decided I’d go and write about the Boston Marathon. I only went to watch. I was a block from the explosion.

I put my bag on the rocks, take off my shirt and shorts. I don a wetsuit I bought the day before, and I slide myself in.

Kim Chinquee is the author of the collections Oh Baby, Pretty and Pistol. She is an associate professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo State, and an associate editor at New World Writing.

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