The Second Person Study, Part 9: Miranda July, “The Swim Team” from No One Belongs Here More Than You

Hello, You are Swimming Zin!

This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend. You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific. Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year? The reality began to seem barren. And in time I realized that if the truth felt empty, then I probably would not be your girlfriend much longer.

I have to admit, this story has really very little to do with second person! The first (above) and last paragraphs do address a “you,” in that same person-and-a-half voice. The “you” is an ex-boyfriend the narrator is talking to. She does not interact with him in the story, and she merely recalls having seen him, so I am not sure, perhaps he is actually a heterodiegetic character (the more you use new vocabulary, the easier it gets! I did not even have to look it up to spell it this time! Though I will check it just to be sure… It is right!). But those two paragraphs are still very much “I” paragraphs, as are all the paragraphs in between. Not that there are many paragraphs in between; it is a very short short story.

Still, it is a wonderful story, and I do love to spread the gospel of wonderful stories! I will confess, I did find a message board posting that contains the entire text of the story (it is that short…1676 words, not quite a flash but very close to it). It is a four-year-old collection, and the story was in Harper’s in 2007, and a movie has been made of the story. In any case, I bought the collection, instead of checking it out of the library, because it was reserved for the next 300 years (she has a movie coming out, The Future, so she is “hot” right now). That assuages my guilt a little bit. I am glad I did, it is wonderful!

This story is something you just have to accept without doing a lot of detailed questioning. It starts with the “you” paragraph quoted above. Then we move into the story itself, the one she would not tell. Oh, it is so much better than a year spent naked or as a prostitute! She taught three old people how to swim – in her house! No water! There was no pool, no lake, no ocean, so she put bowls of salt water out to teach them to breathe correctly (face down, exhale, turn head to side, inhale) then showed them all the strokes. She was on her high school swim team so she knows them all. She was particularly impressed by their butterfly: “I thought the kitchen floor would give in and turn liquid and away they would go…”

This started because she was living in an incredibly small town (we never find out why she was there, but she was stuck there, alone, afraid to ask her parents for the money to get out; she writes her parents regularly to tell them she is working with a made-up agency called R.E.A.D., teaching at-risk youth to read). And she overheard one of the old ladies at the store talking about how you have to breathe underwater to swim. And she yelled out, “That’s not true!” And she offered to teach them to swim in her apartment!

She looked forward to these lessons, twice a week. For two hours a week, she was Coach. They thought her name was Maria, though it was not; she does not know why they thought this, and we never learn her real name. They left her casseroles in exchange for the lessons, so she did not need another job. This was how she spent the year. This is what she was afraid to tell her boyfriend, because it seemed to boring compared to prostitution or nudity. I think I would be completely enchanted by learning this! I think she is much better off without a boyfriend who would think this was “barren” – or without a boyfriend she was worried might find it so.

Then the story ends with another person-and-a-half paragraph that sheds some light on why this is coming up for her now. Loneliness triggers past loneliness; all new losses feel like all the losses that have gone before.

The sort-of switch in person is very effective because it starts and ends the piece, and emphasizes the reminiscent quality of the recollection. And the pain of the present. It is really quite special. It is a piece I wish I had written, a piece I could have written!

But I might have gotten all bogged down in details, just like swimmers in real water! I would have drowned in explaining why she was in Belvedere in the first place and how she managed to live, to buy toilet paper and pay rent when her only income was a casserole twice a week. I have to remember this! Sometimes those things do not matter! A lot of people probably think they do and they will dismiss this story as drivel, but this collection won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was one of Time magazine’s top ten books of 2007, so emotional truth can take you places logic and facts do not begin to reach!

8 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 9: Miranda July, “The Swim Team” from No One Belongs Here More Than You

  1. Pingback: Miranda July: No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 1: “Boys” by Rick Moody | A Just Recompense

  3. Hello, I am in a dilemma. Do you think she (Maria) was a prostitute before, at some point in her life?

    • Hello Elena I am Zin! I found the story and I thought I had lost the book but there it was under another book! I wanted to be sure I was remembering the story correctly!

      Will you tell me why you are asking? What is your dilemma?

      Most important though: what is the evidence in the story that makes you think she was a prostitute? And what was the evidence in the story that makes you think maybe she was not?

      I can tell you what I think but later.

  4. Hello Zin. Thank you for the quick response. The evidence is this: “Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year?” It works both ways that she was and she wasn’t. I just can’t understand why are these sentences put in the story. I believe that whenever an author puts something in his work it has to have purpose. Are these lurid questions used only for comparison, how far her ex-boyfriend can go or is it a part of some previous history from Maria’s life. If this is not the case, then she was a prostitute in some story from Nevada that she already has told to her boyfriend. I am writing an essay on Swim team (the short story and the short movie) and I am afraid that I misunderstood something since I am not native English speaker. Your analysis was the best one I found on internet and I thought you can help me. I am looking forward to hear what you have to say.

    • Hello Elena! I should tell you I am not any kind of expert I am just a reader like you so I do not have any qualifications…

      but the good news is I think you are right! It could go either way! But I think it does come down on one side just a little bit more because here is what she says just before:

      “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” – we know the story she means is that she trained the swim team in her living room. But it is the story she would not tell him! And that is the key! Keep that in mind for the next sentence…

      “You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific.” – so she has not told him, and he makes guesses, about what? I think he only knows she was in Belvedere and she would not tell him what she was doing there so he guessed and he figured if she would not tell him it must be because it was something awful so he guessed she was a “kept woman” which is pretty much a prostitute who has only one client. And he seems to have been stuck on that idea and wondered about the rest.

      But we know what she was doing in Belvedere because she tells us and there is nothing even slightly like prostitution in there! It is a bit like a man though a stupid man to think the only reason a woman would not want to talk about a year in her life would be prostitution, yes?

      Then we find out in Belvedere she did not tell anyone her name but they thought her name was Maria which is the pattern, yes? She does not give information and other people make assumptions!

      At first I thought maybe she was a kept woman with him and that is where he got it from especially since his new girlfriend has a beautiful coat and maybe he is the one who bought it but that is really going beyond the text! I like to go beyond the text but I need to remember it is in fact beyond the text so I do not cling to it the way the boyfriend clings to the idea that she was a prostitute because she would not tell her what she was doing.

      I think you are right that everything in a story has a purpose but sometimes fiction is ambiguous and it works both ways and that is pretty cool too because what if she was a prostitute with the boyfriend that shows a different side to her from the swim coach but it is just as cool a story! So it could be two stories in one and I do not think that is a bad thing unless you have to take a test on it for school in which case as long as you present evidence for your opinion you have every bit as much right to your opinion as anyone else! In this case I think it is one way but I also think the way I see it is only a little bit stronger than the other way of seeing it.

      What do you think? Do you have a feeling it is one way or the other?

  5. Thanks Zin, this was very helpful. Now I see my confusion. It is the article “the”. “This is THE story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” This means that he already knew about her year in Belvedere and he wanted to know what exactly she was doing there. I was reading it as “this is A story” for some audiovisual aesthetic in my mind. I will have to change my analysis now and rethink everything once again.
    I was trying to find out why does she broke up with him. My theory was that he is boring and extremely rational so he can’t bring a little sparkle inside ordinary life just by pretending as the old people were able to do so and that the sudden reminiscence of the swim team was reminder to Maria that breaking up with him was a right decision.
    The old people were able to be self-deceptive and he wasn’t. Maria was a liar and she needed someone who can believe her without questioning her statements. Maria’s extraordinary way of looking on the new girlfriend only as a fabulous white coat I justified it with her extraordinary character. I found her extremely introvert. She had difficulties to stand for herself. She didn’t even get herself together to tell the three old people her real name. Not knowing how to confront with her boyfriend she decided to end up the relationship. I never thought of scanning the white coat as a material thing, just as a specific, extraordinary way of Maria’s perception.
    You showed me the view point I was looking for. I am very grateful for that. THANK YOU!
    The deconstruction of this story can unfold in many ways and it can develop in brilliant screenplay for feature length film including this way of going beyond the story, that she was a kept women once again by the man she broke up with.Now I’ll try so save as much as I can from the analysis I already did.

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