Opinion Dear locker room, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
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Joanne Kaufman is a freelance writer and critic.

I’m a dedicated swimmer, so when Connecticut began easing coronavirus restrictions, allowing pools to reopen, I immediately joined the YMCA in Westport, a few exits on the parkway from where my husband and I have perched since temporarily vacating Manhattan last spring as the pandemic worsened.

The charms of this Y include two large, scrupulously maintained pools, clerestory windows — and a lane to myself. Still, I don’t linger. I arrive with my suit on under my clothes and strip down in a secluded corner of the locker room. But recently, before my usual masked mad dash out to the pool, I overheard the only two other occupants, clearly old friends, discussing vacation plans, their children, the water temperature in the big pool (too cold) the current sign-up system (frustrating) and the guy with the flippers in Lane 3 (a jerk!).

I’m embarrassed that this utterly inconsequential exchange almost had me in tears — a measure of just how homesick I am. I miss my New York life. But on the long list of places I want to hang out in New York but shouldn’t, at least not yet, it didn’t occur to me that the locker room would rank so high.

When I moved to Manhattan after college, I chose my apartment for its proximity to the 92nd Street Y. I came for the 25-yard pool and the expansive hours of operation. I stayed (and stayed) at least in part for the pre- and post-aquatic fellowship. The locker room has become a cocoon of sorts, a sweat- and chlorine-infused “third place.”

I cannot think of another spot where I am as likely to mingle with so large a collection of women of such disparate ages and stages and varying attitudes about modesty. (I wouldn’t recognize some of them with their clothes on.) I now know several of them pretty well, though often only by first name. Many I know strictly by voice because their lockers are an aisle or two away from mine, but I have followed their life dramas avidly for years, as perhaps they have followed mine — nondigital podcasts with many, many episodes.

I am thinking particularly of the single woman who was so determined to have a child that she was having sex with three men on a rotating schedule. As I tuned in more regularly, I learned that I had misapprehended, that in fact, the batting order comprised only two men. Ultimately, the arrangement proved successful. Her son is now in college.

When, after some reproductive struggles that I’d discussed with a fellow swimmer, I was pregnant with my own first child, but not even close to showing, I confided the news to an older locker room friend. She smiled beatifically and a bit enigmatically, then said, “Yes, I know.” Of course, she had tuned in, too.

I’ve listened (and rolled my eyes) as women complained about their partners, fretted and bragged about their children and, later, raved about their grandchildren. I’ve overheard stories of tragedy (the sudden death of a member’s spouse) and triumph (the multiple college acceptances of a member’s autistic grandson).

I’ve listened, too, and sometimes weighed in, as my fellow members reviewed movies, books and plays; provided political and social commentary; solicited and offered recommendations for doctors, caregivers, tutors, real estate agents, therapists and hairdressers; sought and provided guidance about the appropriate amount to tip at holiday time and the appropriate curfew for a fill-in-the-age-of-the-offspring-here. There is something wonderful and liberating about this situational intimacy. It’s friendship without obligation.

I could set my watch by the presence of the habitués. When I heard a particular forceful stepping on the scale, followed by an outraged yelp of “This can’t be accurate,” I knew Laura had just arrived for 7:30 yoga. The scent of Fraças meant that Shira was about to put on her coat and head out for work. It turns out that at least one member sets her watch by my presence. “I know I’m early if I see you,” she said.

When, as a kid, I went to sleepaway camp, the conversation on the bus ride up to northern Michigan every June centered on who was coming back, and who, for whatever reason, had other plans for the summer.

I am thinking something similar now. Who will be back in the locker room when the pandemic is over, and who will have made other plans? Or perhaps — and this is what gets me — who will have had other plans made for them?

Until then, I’m trying to remember the combination to my locker. I’m trying to remember the voices.

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