by Milan Kundera
The woman might have been sixty or sixty-five. I was watching her from a deck-chair by the pool of my health club, on the top floor of a high-rise that provided a panoramic view of all Paris. I was waiting for Professor Avenarius whom I’d occasionally met here for a chat. But Professor Avenarius was late and I kept watching the woman; she was alone in the pool, standing waist-deep in the water, and she kept looking at the young lifeguard in sweatpants who was teaching her to swim. He was giving her orders: she was to hold on to the edge of the pool and breathe deeply in and out. She proceeded to do this earnestly, seriously, and it was as if an old steam engine was wheezing from the depths of the water (that idyllic sound, now long forgotten, which to those who never knew it can be described in no better way than the wheezing of an old woman breathing in and out by the edge of a pool). I watched her in fascination. She captivated me in her touchingly comic manner (which the lifeguard also noticed, for the corner of his mouth twitched slightly). Then an acquaintance started talking to me and diverted my attention. When I was ready to observe her once again, the lesson was over. She walked around the pool towards the exit. She passed the lifeguard, and after she had some three or four steps beyond him she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl! Her arm rose with bewitching ease. I was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover. That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless. In any case, the instant she turned, smiled and waved to the young lifeguard (who couldn’t control himself and burst out laughing), she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strongly moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.