The History of Swimming
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The History of Swimming

by Kim Powers

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They entered the world just five minutes apart, twins swimming out of the womb together, already arguing about who got to lead the way. They grew up together, best friends with rhyming names. They even went to the same college — where one of them had a nervous breakdown, and the other didn't. Grown-up, one of them became a suicidal drunk, the other a success.


They entered the world just five minutes apart, twins swimming out of the womb together, already arguing about who got to lead the way. They grew up together, best friends with rhyming names. They even went to the same college — where one of them had a nervous breakdown, and the other didn't. Grown-up, one of them became a suicidal drunk, the other a success. Now, one is missing, and the other has just three days to find him. It really happened. The History of Swimming details Kim Powers' frantic search for his twin brother Tim who disappears from Manhattan one weekend while in his late 20s. Kim almost mystically imagines that the clues to Tim's whereabouts have been planted in a series of letters written by Tim over the years. Now, Kim uses the letters as a sort of roadmap that takes him to Texas, the setting of their greatest triumphs and tragedies. At the small Texas college where many of these events occurred, Kim falls in with two eccentric traveling companions who guide him on the last leg of his quest, driving through the night to the one final place where Tim might be.

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The moment Kim Powers's twin brother, Tim, goes missing, he knows that he must find him, and fast. But that doesn't mean that Kim isn't angry. After all, Tim has continued in a downward spiral of unstable behavior and chronic alcoholism for a while now. How long, Kim wonders, must he be his brother's keeper?

The bonds between twins are strong, if elastic, and Kim sets out on a painful odyssey, intent on tracking his brother through the darkness of this latest collapse. He returns to their alma mater, and using old letters and other writings as clues to the twisted logic of Tim's mind, Kim ends up at a place where Tim was once briefly happy. But the mystical connection between the twins fails, and Tim is not there. In fact, he's right where Kim started out, back home in New York, reeling from yet another wicked bender. And Kim is enraged -- but for the moment he can afford to be, because he has no idea how much more difficult things are about to become.

An intensely intelligent and touching memoir, The History of Swimming is as much a journey of personal growth as it is a poignant tribute to a brilliant, anguished, and deeply loved brother. (Holiday 2006 Selection)

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


My twin brother Tim wrote these paragraphs the night he had a nervous breakdown, seven years ago, our senior year at the same college. He had stayed up all night finishing a paper on Richard Henry Dana's novel Two Years Before the Mast, about a boy who goes off to sea, and this was a sort of preface to his paper:
"The History of Swimming"

My older brother taught me to swim when I was five years old. Edwin, who was nicknamed "Porky" by my father, led my twin brother Kim and me to the water one Sunday morning near Easter. He promised we would not drown if we did what he said.

Porky held his arm across the water's edge and told us to fall over it until we felt the water. I stared at the pool until my twin leapt over Porky's arm and into the water. Kimturned back around to me, smiled, and I followed. We shared an adventure in space.

In adolescence, I forgot how to swim but spent a great deal of time yearning for the water. At Boy Scout camp, I panicked when a water safety instructor told me to run to thewater's edge, strip, and save a pretend drowning victim. I am still amazed by the speed at which the water becomes a razor's edge.

With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space. I am surprised that time and memory have taught me to swim again.
I've read and reread those paragraphs countless times over the years, but they've never seemed as foreboding as they do now. Tim writes, "With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space," but which "story" does he mean? The novel he had just finished reading -- Two Years Before the Mast? The anecdote he had just told, about being taught to swim by our older brother Porky? Or the paper itself, the one he had written for his "Literature of the Sea" class?

I keep thinking it's that, the actual paper, that holds the key to his breakdown. I read it once, years ago --b efore I was looking for clues -- but it's disappeared since then. I doubt it even made it out of Tim's dorm room at graduation; I can imagine him leaving it there, hammering it into a wall like an angry edict from Martin Luther, a warning about the dangers of thinking too much about the past to the incoming freshman who would inherit the room and all its secrets.

Maybe Jim Gray, the English professor for whom it was written (a Vietnam vet who once told me the experience of war was like one long, unrelenting rock concert), still has a copy of it. Not filed neatly away, able to be retrieved at a moment's notice, but never completely out of mind, either. Just like me, Jim's always looking for that one clue in it that might unlock the mystery of Tim's breakdown; he's always thinking maybe he could have prevented it, had he only known. But known what? That's the real mystery.

In Two Years Before the Mast, a boy goes to sea to find himself. It's the basic plot of practically everything: somebody goes somewhere -- New York, Louisville, Africa, the moon, fill in the blank -- and discovers, for better or worse, wondrous, strange things about himself. What did Tim discover about himself, reading that book? And did he write about it, leave a map in those words, written seven years ago? "With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space. I am surprised that time and memory have taught me to swim again." I keep reading those sentences, but all I can see are separate words, nouns, no verbs, themselves swimming in my mind and refusing to do anything: night, adventure, space, time, memory, surprise. Little words, big ideas. Scary things. I keep thinking I'm just on the verge of understanding, but then the picture falls apart. The images don't form a logical story, even though I think I remember the separate images he conveys: being taught to swim by our older brother, the humiliation of Boy Scout camp, the sadness of Easter (maybe that's just my memory).

Who knows?

Who knows (and who the fuck cares -- except me, right?) what Tim meant in that goddamn preface. It was written ages ago, long before either of us could have predicted what would happen in the years to come. So why do those few, mysterious paragraphs keep tumbling over and over in my head right now? Because they keep my mind off the thing at hand? Because they're so beautifully written? Because I think there might be hidden clues in them?

All of the above.

My twin brother Tim is missing, really missing this time, and I have no idea where he is. For the first time in my life, I think he might be dead. I don't know if I can live without him, even though I don't think I can live with him anymore, either.

The first call came around noon today. Joyce, the secretary where Tim worked, called to see if I knew where he was, or rather, in her not-wanting-to-scare-me-but-beginning-to-get-pissed-off way, if I had "heard from him" this morning. He hadn't shown up, hadn't called in, couldn't be reached. Joyce sounded like she wanted to say more -- call me paranoid, but I'm an expert at hearing things that aren't there -- but knew this wasn't the time.

I tried to stay calm, and asked if this had happened before.

She said nothing, and in that silence, I knew it had.

I'd been expecting a call like this; I'd known something was going to happen, sooner rather than later. Tim was following a familiar pattern: any time he had to face a major change -- and he was supposed to move to a new apartment tomorrow, or rather, escape his old one, with me helping him--he would disappear, usually on a drinking binge. There would be no apology or explanation when he resurfaced, only anger; usually directed at me, because he refused to direct it at himself.

Things had been too strange lately. Things had been too strange the last seven years. We had lived apart most of that time. I had migrated from college in Texas to New York, moved in with a lover, gone to grad school, gotten a coveted job finding scripts and books for a semifamous TV star to turn into movies. Tim had moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and social service, one of JFK's Volunteers in Service to America. He discovered drinking in Louisville, and long-distance abuse toward me over the phone. Drunken calls late at night, telling me how I had failed him. How I had become a New York snob. How we had been cursed by our childhoods (that part probably true).

But on occasion, there was also long-distance love over the phone and through the mail. We'd blithely make long, rambling phone calls to each other in our lean and hungry post-college years, no clue how we'd pay for them, just certain there'd be some way once the bill came due. It was the kind of enchantment, or luck, or blessing, that had followed us through most of our lives: things always seemed to work out, at the very last possible moment. (It was the same way we'd gotten through life to that point -- no clue, no map, just a vague hope we'd find a way by the time we got there--wherever "there" was. Let it be said the Powers twins coasted through life with a certain charm, but nothing a parent could call "real life skills.") We'd exchange magnificent letters, more from Tim than me; his crafted over long periods of time and written in different inks: this one from work, that one scribbled on a bus, another from home late at night. Letters that treated his drinking as a joke, a punch line. "I'm sitting here in a bar, writing this letter. No, don't worry, it's 8 A.M., but I've only had a few drinks."

But the drinking, or the cursed childhood, or the absence of a map took control, and things in Louisville became more difficult for him, until everything "crashed and burned," his frequent description of things. He moved to New York, where I had already lived for several years, and we didn't have the soften-the-blow cushion of long distance anymore. Things got worse for him. He started losing small things: phone numbers, keys, Citibank cards. Then bigger things: jobs, apartments, boyfriends. Finally, he attempted suicide. I had gotten to the point where I literally stopped breathing whenever the phone rang, afraid of what might be on the other end of the line: Tim, the police, a hospital, the morgue.

End of the line, indeed.

But none of it was worse than this: no phone call at all, his complete disappearance. Even with his suicide attempt a month or so ago, when he tried to hack off his hand, there was something to do, an action to take: sew him back together. After his breakdown in college, he used to say he'd let it happen so he'd have the luxury of being put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty. But now, what if there was nothing left to put back together?

With that one phone call from Joyce in his office, all the panic I'd stored up over the last seven years came flooding over. "Maybe he's just not picking up for me. Why don't you try calling him?" she sneered, then hung up.

Well, fuck you, too.

And my little brother.

My little brother by all of five minutes.

There were a dozen useful things I could have done just then, but my brain had stopped --o ne phone call and bam, it just froze -- and all I could think about was the little orange pumpkin on my desk.

I had brought it back from the country the weekend before, the first bit of decoration in my new office at a new job. I had brought back miniature pumpkins for the whole staff of four. For a while, they were the only bit of color in the plain white rooms we had just moved into, where I worked the phones and did lunches, begging agents to let me see their "female-driven" projects first, before actresses who could actually get the movies made saw them. (Once, when I had to go to my boss three times in as many weeks to say a bigger TV star had beat us at optioning the books we wanted, she said, "If I have to hear that bitch's name one more time, I'm going to scream." So much for camaraderie among female stars of a certain age, and a certain talent.)

I had bought the pumpkins at the last minute, as my boyfriend Jess and I headed back to our apartment in Brooklyn after a weekend trip to Connecticut. The little pumpkins weren't even officially from New England; I got them at a roadside stand just before the New York turnpike, set up for weary travelers who, stuck in Sunday return traffic like ourselves, had put off buying their rustic mementos until it was almost too late. I thought Tim, who had been staying at our apartment that weekend, would like some farm-grown apples or fresh-pressed cider -- he was Mr. Fruit and Vegetables, always had been, since childhood; I was Mr. Cookies and Cakes -- and I got those for him too, as well as a pumpkin to carve for Halloween, never thinking a sharp knife was the last thing I should be putting in his hands.

But by the time we got back to our apartment, our weekend getaway euphoria was gone; we were tired and cranky from the drive, the traffic and exhaust of New York. The same dread I used to get every Sunday night about going back to school on Monday was gripping my gut, but now, it had transformed itself into the dread of the happy face, the high-pitched, happy voice, I'd have to put on for Tim. The walking on eggshells. The discovery of some new calamity. And, like time and tide, he didn't disappoint.

We got home, and the big iron gate that was the entrance to our ground floor apartment was open and unlocked, and I knew Tim had fucked up. The bolt was turned, but hadn't caught in its slot; a sloppy mistake, typical of Tim thinking he'd done what he was supposed to, but hadn't done at all.

My face clenched, I went barreling in, already yelling his name, ready for war, even as Jess tried to pull me back. And even before I saw Tim sprawled out on the coach, I smelled him: beer cans and empty popper bottles, porno tapes stacked high and unwound on the coffee table. He was still asleep, in a drunken blackout, even though it was six or seven in the evening; his consciousness was buried under boozy dreams and too many cum shots. But hearing me, it took him no time at all to come alive and fly off the couch -- fully clothed, fully awake now -- and know why I was so mad. It took us no time at all to start screaming at each other, no time at all for him to grab his things and run out of the apartment, his final "Fuck you" ringing in my ears. That or the clang of slamming the metal gate behind him; it was hard to tell which was louder.

At least this time, he remembered to close it.

I chased after him, begging him to come back, at the same time I wanted him to go away and never return.

When is a pumpkin not just a pumpkin? When you just gave it to your twin brother, who's now running down a dirty New York street with a hangover headache and no shoes. When your twin brother turns around one last time, not to say he's sorry, not to beg the heavens to explain why the twin boys who used to love each other so much now hated each other, but to hurl the pumpkin at you, splattering its rind and seeds all over the sidewalk.

Oh, yes, Mr. Sondheim was right: a weekend in the country.

Meet the Author

Kim Powers is an Emmy and Peabody-winning writer who’s worked at both ABC’s Good Morning America and Primetime with Diane Sawyer. An MFA graduate of the Yale School of Drama, he wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film "Finding North,” which plays frequently on the Sundance Channel. He was also a staff writer for the AMC dramatic series "The Lot.” Prior to writing, he was a development executive for various film and TV companies in New York, and was a producer for PBS’s "Great Performances.” A native Texan, he currently lives in New York City and Asbury Park, New Jersey.

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