Waving, Then Drowning

Growing up in Baton Rouge, summers were all about the pool. With temperatures in the nineties, and humidity to match, being submerged in cool water was the best escape. Playing outside meant being sticky from the heat, bitten by mosquitoes, and the ever-present threat of stinging caterpillars. Yes, that’s right, even the caterpillars sting in the south. They come out when the ligustrom hedges were in bloom, and I always associated the smell of the flowers with the stinging caterpillars, like they were the ones with the scent. They were black, and covered with prickles and spikes, and left a painful welt if you touched them. Not only was there a danger of stepping on them, but they could fall from the trees and land on you. So the local pool, with no overhanging trees and the promise of hours of games of Marco Polo and handstands in the shallow end, was the place we all wanted to be.

I was an only child and grew up on a street without many kids my own age. We joined the local pool for the neighborhood, nothing fancy, no high dive, but the snack bar had good french fries. It was almost close enough to bike to, but not really, not on my own. So my mom would have to drive me and drop me off. She wasn’t a swimmer, didn’t like getting her hair wet. I remember her swimming, her head above water, hair protected by one of those caps with rubber flowers on it. Dad would come on the weekends, but weekdays, I was on my own. I don’t remember what we did, just goofed around I think. Teased the lifeguards. All the things you do when you’re six and seven. I took swimming lessons one summer, but I was never a great swimmer. I didn’t want to perfect my strokes and do laps, join a team. I loved being underwater, not going along at speed on top of it. Given a long enough snorkel, I would happily sit on the bottom of the pool all day, just marveling at the reflection of the light on the surface of the water. I liked doing handstands, turning somersaults, all the things I was clumsy at on land felt graceful in the water. I felt graceful in the water. Freed from gravity, I could almost fly.

They brought in busing in our parish when I was in third grade, so I changed schools, went to one far away from where I lived. I had friends all over town, even fewer in our little neighborhood than I had before. I kept wanting to go to the pool in Kenilworth, where more of my friends lived, and I could, if I was with one of them, they could sign me in as a guest. It was bigger than our pool, with a high dive and a kiddie pool. It was a better, newer neighborhood, they had a better, newer pool. If I wanted to bring Elizabeth or Erica to our pool, my mom would have to drive over and pick them up, bring us back to the pool, pick us up at the end of the day, and bring my friends home after. I think it was just easier for my parents in the end to change what pool we belonged to, even though my dad never liked the Kenilworth pool as much. At our neighborhood pool, he had a key, and would go swimming in the middle of the night when my mom and I were visiting relatives. I don’t think he did that at Kenilworth, it wasn’t that kind of pool. My mom always made a big deal about our joining the Kenilworth Swim Club, that I would have to go a lot to make it worth it. Of course, it was farther away, so she had to drive me, which she never came around to enjoying.

But I got to spend the days with Elizabeth, my best friend. I remember days spent at the pool, laughing, playing Marco Polo, bitter when they made us get out because of thunder and lightening, far off and no danger to us. The sun pouring down on us, we owned that world. Night was even better, under the stars, the air slightly cooler than during the day, fewer people. We would swim up to the lights, feel their heat. Looking back, I don’t know how we ended up best friends, we had nothing in common. Though her mom was a librarian, I was the reader, not Elizabeth. I liked playing with dolls, she liked playing sports. She won awards on the swim team, I couldn’t be bothered to finish a lap. I was always playing catch up being her friend. Trying to be more athletic, more outgoing, less of a weird little girl who wanted to make up stories in her head and more of a normal girl who could play soccer. But I could never play soccer. Or tennis. Or do a cartwheel, even after two years of gymnastics. Whatever they tell you, practice does not make perfect, it just makes you slightly less awkward when you inevitably fall down.

Angie lived down the street from Elizabeth, and she was as athletic, on all the same teams I wasn’t good enough to make. Not that I even wanted to be on them, really. I knew I wasn’t good enough to win at games, so I just wanted to play, enjoy myself. Angie wanted to win, so did Elizabeth. I don’t know why Angie and I didn’t get along. My mom says I came home crying the first day she came to our school, when she finally transferred there, long after the rest of us. I have no memory of what happened that day, I just know that after she came, recess stopped being about playing games and started being about winning them, four square and double dutch instead of pretending the climbing frame was a spaceship. I was good at piloting a spaceship, I was crap at four square, or anything involving a playground ball. I broke Erica’s arm in a freak kickball accident in second grade, I wasn’t just bad at sports, I was unsafe. And Angie’s mother didn’t believe, like mine did, that you invited every girl in class to a birthday party. Angie had sleepovers, and all my friends were invited, while I sat at home with my parents, trying to tell myself it didn’t matter. Angie and Elizabeth lived on one of those streets with a pack of kids growing up together, I was just a visitor, having to get a ride over.

By middle school, the pool became less about games and more about real swimming, or laying out by the pool to get a tan. The diving board was for real dives, not just cannonballs and goofing around. Angie took diving lessons, was doing flips. I couldn’t even manage to dive from a walking start, bouncing at the end of the board and cleaving the water with my hands pointed above my head. And Elizabeth was on the swim team, there for practice every day, spending the days playing there lost its appeal to her. I went to summer camp with her one summer, where they tried to teach me tennis. My dad had tried before, giving me a ball and an old racket, moving the car so I could hit the ball off the wall at the front of the house. He even tried tying a ball to a string from a branch on a tree. Nothing could get me to hit that little ball with that damn racket. I was decent at badminton, but no one played badminton in 1980’s Baton Rouge, they played tennis. I did manage to learn how to serve, even if it was just a bounce serve. I rarely hit a ball back over the net, so my serve got lots of practice. Going to the pool, I borrowed my dad’s old snorkel and mask, practicing that while Elizabeth and Angie did laps, working on their butterfly stroke. I couldn’t even figure out what the movements needed for that were. I tried once or twice, and just felt like I was flailing madly. I was a manatee, they were dolphins.

My dad went on a sabbatical when I was in eighth grade, so we moved up to Maryland for the year. I kept in touch with Elizabeth on the phone, this was before the internet, and she came up over Christmas vacation. We made a huge snowman and had snowball fights. I was popular in Maryland, and enjoyed introducing her to all my friends. We moved home during the summer, so we didn’t bother joining a pool up there. I went to the VFW pool with my friend Kelly once or twice before we moved. They made all the kids get out for a time every hour for adult swim. I’d never heard of that before. And we were 14, not kids, it was embarrassing to be grouped with them and not the adults.

I came back to Baton Rouge and started high school, a new school, with even more new kids from all over town. Alliances had changed, solidified, in the year I’d been gone, and I never really caught up. Due to a wonderful genetic quirk, a massive growth spurt had left me with awful knee pains and problems that got me out of PE for the rest of my school career. The physical pain was nothing compared to the freedom from the pain of embarrassing myself at one sport after another. Our school was a magnet school, too focused on academics to have a football or basketball team, but it had a swim team. A very active, very tight one. Elizabeth was on it, so was Angie. They had practice every day, last period and after school. They would get together for group shavings before meets. I took a drama class instead of PE, so I started spending more time with the drama geeks, my fellow non-athletes.

We could get our license in Louisiana at 15, and Angie was the first among our group to do so. She and Elizabeth started carpooling, along with another friend. Even though it would have been easy for my dad to drop me off there on his way to work, so I could ride in with my friends, I wasn’t invited, so my dad took me in the mornings, I rode the bus home. Elizabeth stayed late for swim practice. I had play practice sometimes, Thespian Club conventions. There was no group shaving involved, though. I remember going to the pool a few times the summer between freshman and sophomore year. Kelly came down to visit, so we hung out at the pool to escape the heat, even tried to play tennis once or twice. Mostly we got noticed for the weird old white tennis balls my dad dug up from somewhere. Elizabeth and I still hung out, were still nominally best friends, but what little we had in common was stretched thinner and thinner. Angie had joined a diving team as well, so she taught Elizabeth more flips, complicated combinations. I couldn’t compete with improv games and Red Leather, Yellow Leather voice warm ups.

I don’t know what the breaking point was for me, I think the car pool I was never invited to join was involved. That cut deep, as such things do when you’re 15. I wrote out a long note to Elizabeth, stating all my problems, why I was upset, left it in her locker, like you do when you’re 15. She was shocked, surprised, had no idea why I was so hurt, why it mattered who drove to school with whom. But it did. She didn’t have room for me in her life anymore, and I was left standing on the outskirts of her group before school, and no one noticed if I wandered off. I hated that school, and changed back to the weird little Gifted and Talented program I’d grown up in, set in a terrible inner city school with razor wire along the fence ringing it. And no swim team. We let our membership to the pool lapse that year, I couldn’t convince my mom I would go enough to make the cost worth it. I could drive by then anyway, there were other ways to escape the heat, going from air conditioned car to air conditioned mall to air conditioned movie theater. Melissa’s parents got her a car, an old Duster that had belonged to her grandmother and had low mileage from just being driven to church and back. The pool had lost its allure, we had the whole city open to us.

Sometimes when I visit the pool at my friend’s apartment, I catch myself doing handstands, somersaulting under the water. Remembering when that was enough to fill the days, the freedom to make up your own games and not care who won, just how much fun you had.

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July 26, 2010. Tags: , , . Life, the universe, and whatnot. Leave a comment.