How can you not fall in love with the surface of a pool? The bright blue ripples on an infinite loop, the sunlight that sears the surface and disappears into the cloudiness of the deep end, that mythical place where your childhood mind could turn the shadow of a pool float into a lurking menace.
A line of tile serves as a demarcation of the shift from shallow to deep end in the pool you swam in most frequently as a child. The drop-off isn’t steep, but the navy tiles stretching across the bottom of the pool symbolize the divide between the known and the unknown. It doesn’t help that a cabana casts a shadow over the right hand corner of the deep end, creating a darker patch of water that provides the perfect hiding place for a shark, biding its time in the darkness. On the shallow side of the navy tiles, you’re safe. But kick a foot over the line, and it’s possible that you’ve just surrendered yourself to the creatures of the deep.
By the side of the pool is a white-fenced enclosure where families leave their pool toys: a pile of rafts and noodles and inner tubes—a sandy neon paradise to pick through. Seven years old, all bones, knock-kneed, you manage to get yourself stuck inside an inner tube meant for a baby. You have to lie down on a beach chair as your mom wrestles you out of it. The summer before, you did the same thing, only that time you fit, and you made everyone laugh as you jumped feet first into the pool, bouncing up with a comical splat as you hit the surface.
“You’re too big for that now,” your mom says.
Even as a child, you were always aware that your body was changing, that you were trying to fit into something you’d outgrown.
There is this one summer when you choose the beach. You stumble over the dunes onto the bleached sand that sears the bottoms of your feet until you reach the shoreline; the sweet relief of the water that pools around your ankles drags back out gently, returns.
This summer is the first time you tread water in the open ocean and cannot touch your feet to the bottom without submerging your head. It’s the first time you see a fin, far in the distance, or is it a fin? And is it really that far?
It’s the first time something brushes against your leg and you kick furiously all the way back to shore until you are swimming horizontally in inches of water, scraping your body against the sand and shells, breathing heavily from the exhilaration of experiencing the ultimate unknown. And then the falling action, the denouement of the day—your reddened shoulders, your salty hair crusted into waves, shaking out towels in the parking lot, a dusting of sand on the floor of the car, your sweaty cheek pressed to the backseat window as your parents drive home in the fading daylight.
The summer you turn twelve is the summer you start wearing bikinis. You’re embarrassed by every inch of your body—your pale skin, your freckles, your gangly limbs, your flat chest, but somehow you know you’d feel even worse in a one-piece. A bikini makes you feel like an adult, at least until you catch a glimpse of your reflection in the full-length mirror by the door.
You make friends with another girl on the beach who has probably been wearing bikinis for years. She’s tan and blonde and wears a C cup, even though you are both only seventh graders. At school, you probably wouldn’t be friends—she probably wouldn’t even acknowledge your existence, but it’s different at the beach, when you’re a teenaged girl stuck with your parents and your much younger sister and you spot another girl who’s also sitting on a separate towel from her parents’ beach blanket. Your own parents are glad to be rid of your company—you sense they’re just as annoyed by you as you are embarrassed by them, as your mother rubs sunscreen into your father’s back and your father looks at your mother in her own bikini, these unabashed demonstrations of love that sicken you for a reason you cannot name.
You walk down the beach to the Holiday Inn with this girl, at her suggestion. Let’s play pool, the girl says. It’s free to hang out in the lobby. You agree, even though you’ve never played before, and when two men in tank tops yellowed with sweat at the armpits ask to play against you two, ask if you two want beers, suddenly it feels as if the carpeted lobby of the Holiday Inn is dropping out from underneath your feet, similar to how it feels when your toes can’t touch the ocean floor.
Everywhere, you are out of your depth.
When you turn sixteen and get an after-school job at a pizza restaurant, you seem to always be driving to work when the sky opens up and sheets of rain fall without warning. It is only after you revisit the beach for the first time that summer that you notice how a shadow passes over your face, how the sky shifts from green to purple to black, how the wind chops up the surface of the ocean and kicks up the sand in whirls. The closer you are to the water, the more of a warning you get.
That was the summer you began to swim in the dark, climbing over the metal fence at an all-girl’s private school to get to their pool. The prepared wore swimsuits; the unprepared wore their tank tops and cutoffs. The bold or the drunk wore only their underwear.
Your underwear was childish back then—you mistook the cloying sweetness of lace and pastels for sexiness. A few of your favorite items were all worn at one point in lieu of a bathing suit: a pair of boy shorts with a candy heart pattern, edged in a pale turquoise trim that didn’t even cut into the flesh of your hips because you had none and your stomach still lay flat, concave, even; a peachy pink pair, ruffled at the hem and trimmed with lace at the hips; a lavender bra with a rosette sewn between the cups, size 34A; a balconette bra with blue and white checkered cups, the top half of the cup only covered by a layer of white mesh.
Water carried sound. A whisper was audible from the other side of the pool. You felt the illicit thrill of telling everyone to be quiet; then, silence, save for the splashing, the churning to stay afloat, the plunge from the diving board into the inscrutable depths of the dark water—emboldened, no longer afraid of what lay in the deep, preoccupied with other vagaries to fear.
The water was uniformly dark. There were no lights to guide you. Afloat, giddy, weightless in the liquid blackness. This was as close to freedom as you’d ever felt. Caged in but still jubilantly alive.
By the end of summer, the bathing suit you treasured, the one you always turned to, the one you felt most comfortable exposed in, would be wrecked. No matter how many times you swore to wash it out in cold water when you got home, no matter how careful you were not to snag a thread with an errant hangnail, or how vigilant you were about sitting on your hands to protect the bottom from pilling on the granular concrete of the lip of the pool, your swimsuit bore the traces that your body was already beginning to forget, to shed.
As your skin reddened, tanned, freckled, your swimsuit faded in parallel—bright florals dulled, black bikini bottoms greyed from the relentlessness of sun and chlorine. Sand that even the toughest wash couldn’t dislodge remained inside the lining. Seams came undone, strings of thread better left unpulled that you worried between your fingers anyway, seeing how far you could tug before it began to unravel. This inexorable disintegration was the signal of the end of a season. The heat would remain but the summer was coming to a close.
Your glowing body would soon find itself confined to brick buildings, shifting uncomfortably on the plastic of desk chairs, paling under florescent light and shivering in the overcompensation of public school air conditioning. It felt unnatural to cover your arms with the sleeves of sweatshirts and cardigans, your toes with socks and sneakers, to move through air alone, as if you’d given up another dimension you’d just begun to master.
The last summer before you left Florida you spent your free afternoons at the pool in your grandmother’s apartment complex. It pleased you to create a ritual out of nothing. Down went the towel on the lounge chair so that the vinyl strips wouldn’t dig into your legs and create reddened indents in the back of your thighs. With a t-shirt draped over your face, you exposed the rest of your front half to the searing heat of the sun. Within minutes, sheer layers of oily sunscreen began to slip away as your sweat seeped out of your pores, displacing it on your hairline, trickling down either side of your head, ending up in your ears, pooling in the hollow between your small breasts, beading along the line of your bikini top, a thin, slick layer along the lower half of your spine.
When your body was glossy with sweat and it was hard to breathe through the cloth of the t-shirt, you slid into the deep end of the pool, the water yielding to your body in a way that the humid summer air would not. You sunk down, leaving just your eyes and nose exposed, your hair spooling out around your face, creating a lion’s mane on the surface of the water. You stayed that way for hours, only packing up at the first sight of the purple skies that signaled an afternoon storm, biking home, sun-drunk and unsteady, trying to beat the rain, but welcoming it when it fell.
Shortly after you left Florida, your grandmother would move into a nursing home—when you came home for Thanksgiving and tried to use your key card to swipe in, the door stayed shut.
Now, if there is any scent that can bring you to your knees with longing it is the chemical coconut aroma of sunscreen, thick globs of it, the streaks of white that once remained on your skin unless your application was particularly vigilant. Sometimes it’s the hint of salt on a swimsuit reflexively brought to your nose before tossing it into the washing machine. These scents are like holding a shell up to your ear to hear the ocean: a blunt, inexact reminder of a place and time you used to inhabit.
Now, nothing is ever quite salty enough for you. You have been caught shaking salt onto your bread at fancy restaurants, tonguing the rim of your margarita in order not to waste even a grain. Were it placed in front of you, and were you homesick enough, you might even drink a glass of the ocean.
Oh but how small you were at the foot of the ocean just before sunset—how monumental the place you found yourself, straddling the line between solid ground and the unknown. You recall the paradoxical comfort of staring as far into the distance as possible and still only seeing the infinite.
You remember how you once trusted that somewhere, on the opposite side of the world, there was another shoreline like this one. Maybe even another person standing, hands on hips, feet sinking into the damp, granular sand, quietly mourning the end of another season, just as you were.
Rumpus original art by Jonathan Michael.