Yesterday evening I arrived at the YMCA pool to find it moderately crowded -- three lanes occupied by swim lessons, and three lap lanes each occupied by one swimmer. I picked the swimmer closest to the wall, waited until she came up for air at my end, and asked, "Can I split with you?" She agreed, and moved towards the wall to give me half the lane. I kicked off my flip-flops, sat down with my feet in the water, and fiddled with my goggles to make sure I would get them right side up.
Here's how lap pool etiquette works:
If Nswimmers ≤ Nlanes, each swimmer gets his or her own lane (unless you came with a friend or child and you want to share). As additional swimmers arrive, the swimmers who are already there must allow the new arrivals to share: that's the posted rule. Common courtesy and safety call for the arriving swimmer to get a swimmer's attention and ask to share, as I did; this prevents collisions.
If you're a new arrival and you join a lane with one other swimmer, then the two of you "split" the lane: each goes back and forth in his own half-lane. This works up to Nswimmers ≤ 2 Nlanes .
Once there are two swimmers in every lane, and another person arrives -- getting the attention of both the people who occupy it, of course -- three swimmers can share a lane, not by splitting it, but by "circling." This means you swim along one half of the lane, turn, and come back along the other half of the lane, keeping to your right. With only three in the lane it isn't too hard to pass slower swimmers (on the left). As you get up to four and five in the lane, it still works if everybody swims close to the same speed.
One thing you don't do: get in a lane that has two people already in it when it still holds that Nswimmers ≤ Nlanes. Because it's much more inconvenient to circle-swim than to split a lane, and everybody knows it.
I got my goggles on my head and looked up, and there was a man slowly water-jogging in the lane, next to the wall, about 8 yards away. Where did he come from? He saw my confused look, smiled widely, and beckoned me into the water with both hands.
I pointed to the other lane. "There's room in that lane," I said.
"It's all right!" he beamed at me. "Come on in!" He said something else, but it was garbled by the noise of the pool.
"I can't hear you," I called. I pointed across at the other swimmer, who was just about to turn and head back. "Does she know you're in this lane?"
"It's all right!" He opened his arms widely and beckoned again. "Come on in, it's all right!"
It seemed a little dumb to say "I was here first!" since I could move into the next lane just as easily as he could, but I suspected that the other swimmer didn't know he was in there and wasn't expecting him -- and he was occupying her half of the lane. Occasionally you run into people who aren't aware of the rules. I literally ran into someone, once, who hadn't been aware of the "get the other swimmer's attention before entering an occupied lane" rule. My neck hurt for a week. So I was just about to explain: You have to ask first.
And then he got closer and said, "Hey! It's all right! Come on in! I'm not bothering anybody, I'm just showing off my awesome body! I've been working out, you know? So come on in with me!"
And he flexed.
I don't know how well the subtleties of the expression change from "You are clueless about lane etiquette and I should help you out by explaining it" to "You are, in fact, an asshole" are communicated when one is wearing goggles. Anyway, I very quickly calculated that I was not getting into the lane with this guy, nor was I getting into the lane next to this guy. I grabbed my flip-flops and started to stand up, and before I even reached a standing position (which was the position in which I was going to think about how to get the other swimmer's attention), the lifeguard was at my side and the man was moving away.
"Excuse me," said the lifeguard, a young man whose name I don't know but whom I have seen many times. "What's the issue here?"
I told him how the water-jogging flexer had appeared in the lane without asking, briefly described the exchange in which the water-jogger extolled the awesomeness of his body, and aped the flexing motion.
"I'll take care of it," he said. "You go ahead and swim in this lane."
So I did -- eventually. At the far end of the pool, the lifeguard spent several minutes standing poolside in conversation with Mr. Wonderful who was still in the lane. The other swimmer came up and asked what happened, so I explained. The man in the next lane came up and asked, "Do you need to split with me?" and I confused him, probably, by saying "I don't think so..." But eventually the asshole got out of the pool, so I got in and started swimming my laps along with the first woman.
And then Mr. I'm-so-awesome came back to the end of the lane and stood there and watched us for a good ten minutes. I ignored him. Eventually he walked away... but only as far as the lifeguard's chair. I kept an eye on him as I swam. There were two lifeguards on duty that evening, and the stranger engaged them in conversation for something like twenty more minutes. Which is ridiculous in lifeguard minutes. You can say hi to the lifeguard, you can ask a question about which lane you should choose or how long until open swim ends, but they have a job to do which is not chatting.
I began to wonder whether I was going to have a problem when I got out of the water.
Fortunately, the attention span of this particular asshole was shorter than my workout. He left (through the Family Changing Room) and I didn't see him again.
When I finished my 45 minutes, I went over to the lifeguard and let him know I appreciated him dealing with the asshole so that I did not have to. "No problem," he said. "That guy was behaving really inappropriately even before you got here. The manager dealt with him. Said he smelled something on his breath." I thanked him again and went to change.
+ + +
Over a bottle of wine at dinner I told the story to Mark. "I had a lot of time in the pool to contemplate why the man's behavior, even though objectively it doesn't seem like much, was so threatening," I said.
"It's because he communicated, in several ways, 'I am not going to abide by the normal limits of behavior,'" Mark suggested.
"Yes, I think that's it," I mused. "You're forced to wonder, 'What other rules of appropriate behavior are you going to ignore?'"
"Which made him not actually dangerous, since you weren't going to ignore those signals. Threatening but ultimately not competent enough to be dangerous."
"Yes, I have a pretty well-refined asshole detection algorithm."
+ + +
But I thought to myself: Lots of people are socialized to suppress a reaction to those signals: they have their boundaries damaged or destroyed at a young age, or they are taught to be nice, or ridiculed for objecting to unwanted attention ("Don't flatter yourself!" -- as if there is no such thing as unwanted attention, as if swaggering boundary-pushing had anything to do with real interest in persons as persons instead of as some kind of icon that can be clicked).
(In my case, there in the pool, I was mainly pissed off that the guy was in my way. I only had an hour free for my workout. I was there first, and he should have gotten in the lane with one of the lone swimmers instead of interfering with the only lane that happened to contain two women. Asshole.)
So, no, not dangerous. Not to me, in that place. And the Y staff dealt with him fast enough that my workout was only diminished by about five minutes. Props to them.
But still: a symptom, a reminder, of all the things that make it incrementally just a bit more exhausting to be female. I'm lucky. I go a long time between these events; my lifestyle insulates me a bit. But they're still out there.