I tried being a pool rat only once in my adult life. It lasted five days at the end of a summer season. Every day, when I drove my rig past the city pool, I stared at the sun bouncing off that water. Looked like it could just strip a guy clean of everything. I started bringing my suit with me in the truck, and when I drove through one morning I parked the truck in an abandoned parking lot across the way and went in. And then the next and the next until it was suddenly the end of the season. That fall they built a wall around the pool to replace the chain-link fence there before, and, I never went again.
There was this girl there every day, swimming laps. She must’ve been fourteen or fifteen. In great swimming shape. I’d seen her just flipping at every turn, her arms gliding across the water. I could see her all the way from the road, slipping on her goggles and doing those arm swings swimmers do before they jump in. Man, that water looked so refreshing.
For a few days, I paid my two dollars and sat in a lawn chair under an awning, watching that girl flip, flip, flip. I’d always wanted to belong to a pool. Something with tennis courts and a club house attached to it, maybe. Someplace with lots of kids running around and hot mothers in bikinis. But that was for people with desk jobs, weekends off, kids who ran up a tab at the snack counter. Not me and Jenny. I was on the road for days and weeks at a time, back only for four or five days during the week when Jenny was in and out of her hospital shifts. And who wanted to spend all that time at a pool, lounging around, anyway? I’d grow sick of it, I told myself, wanting to get out and do something. Jenny and I spent most of the summer inside watching dumb movies, like Fast and Furious or Goonies, and ordering in pizza, sometimes fooling around on the couch, just because we could, sometimes just because our neighbor Big Ed complained that their children had disrupted just about every sex-capade he and his wife started in the privacy of their own bedroom.
I’m not sure why Jenny and I had never come to have kids. Since we were twenty-two we hadn’t tried not to have them. Maybe it was my erratic schedule, or hers, or maybe one of us couldn’t. We didn’t know, and we hadn’t bothered to find out, just going about the days as though we still had all the time in the world. Seventeen years later, and we were still treating every day like the one before.
* * *
I couldn’t get in the pool right away, those first few days. Just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I sat under the canopy in my swim trunks, letting the chemical breeze from the water waft over me. In the lap lane the girl slid her fingers across the water’s surface, and with each arm stroke she glided ahead another few feet. So strong, controlled. I bet that girl had her life figured out. I bet she did everything like she swam: with one fluid motion, leaving nothing to chance, leaving no drop of life to slip from the cup of her hand. I bet she hurried to class, her books tucked up on her hip, the boys trying to stall her for a bit, to get her alone. I was sure she didn’t have time for such boys.
On the far side of the pool, past the lap-flipping, mothers dipped their toddlers into the shallow water and said, “Wee!” and it reminded me that I’d caught Jenny staring at a child at the mall the other day, one playing on one of those small, cast-iron statues of some make-believe character, like a frog prince or the like, set against a backdrop of high-end stores, like Gucci and Hermes. I said to her, “Jen. Hey, Jen,” but she’d lost herself in that little boy, her eyes glazed over, her lips slightly upturned, just staring as he jumped off and back onto that figure, shoppers passing him as though he were a ghost of a boy, their heels clicking on the tiled floor, their full shopping bags swaying as they walked. Finally, I nudged her knee and asked her if she was okay, and she blinked and nodded and said she was tired from her night shift, and so I didn’t say what I was thinking. I didn’t ask the question.
* * *
When I got home from my local deliveries that third evening after pool-chair lounging, Jenny was asleep on the couch, a late-night program casting a blue glow across the room. She’d tucked her hands under a pillow and wrapped her knees up tight against her chest so that she looked like she’d posed there for someone. It was strange, I thought, to see her looking like someone else.
I’d stood there so long watching her that I finally noticed the crumpled brochure tucked under Jenny’s knees, its “University” lettering printed over a smiling picture of an Indian woman wearing a lab coat. I bent over her and tugged at that corner, sliding it gently, careful not to jostle her perfectly-tucked legs. I read, by the glow of the TV, that go-to-med-school-while-you’re-practicing-nursing brochure, wondering whether she’d asked for this information, or whether some doctor had slipped it into her hand after having watched her eyes dart from him to a patient in the ER. Had he said, “You’re too bright, Jenny, to be wiping a patient’s backside”? Had he told her, through his dimpled cheek, to come to him for a recommendation, giving her his personal email with a slimy, little wink? Probably, the creep.
* * *
On the fourth pool visit, I waded over to the shallow end with those moms and babies, hearing them giggle and sometimes cry, the look on their faces when their moms dipped them in too far—sheer terror and betrayal—and I counted how many laps the girl did for each of my half-width walking one. (Three.) The water barely covered my navel, and I became aware of all the moms still wearing bikinis, their stretchmark scars visible even through the water, their saddle bags hanging over the edge of their suits, and I wondered what those women had been like before the world had found them.
The girl swam by, the strength of her stroke sending a current through the water, past my groin, getting me hard under my loose trunks. Afraid one of the mothers would see me, I turned away from them and toward the lane ropes, dipping down in the water and leaning on the ropes for support. The young, tanned lifeguard eyed me from his chair and shook his head at me. I considered going under the water and the lane rope and ending up in the lap lane right next to the girl, thinking the cooler water there might temper me a bit, thinking it more appropriate to be in the adult end of the pool. But I weirded myself out imagining it, remembering an old man once doing the same when I was a kid, his comb-over coming undone as he slipped under the lane rope, his long, boney fingers slowly wiping away the chlorine from his eyelashes, those long, thick lashes diminished only by his bushy eyebrows. So I pushed off and turned to wade back to the pool’s edge, where I rushed from the water and back to my chair, wrapping myself in an old, yellowing bath towel not even long enough to fold into itself.
* * *
The next day—my last day at the pool—I stood on the water’s edge, the girl flipping just under my feet, and swung my arms like I’d seen her do. I felt the cars’ eyes on me as they passed, all those necks turning toward the pool, staring at the extra hair around my nipples, weighing the girth that hung in my front. So I stood up taller. Kept one hand across my chest while the other one fell with its weight and then glided back up toward the sky again and again. And I focused not on the cars’ eyes on me, but on the girl, her even strokes across the water—such a slight caress that she seemed hardly to disturb its surface—her hips bobbing one at a time up toward the surface, her lips opening and closing with each breath like a fish’s, forming this perfect circle like a gum bubble you just had to stick your fingernail in to pop.
The first few of the girl’s laps I couldn’t work up the nerve to get into the lane with her swimming there, she was just too fast, too professional. So after a time of arm swinging, I went back to the deck chair and waited for her to finish, the plastic strips digging red stripes into the back of my thighs, my towel hanging over my shoulders. I watched again as mothers dipped their babies’ toes in and said “Wee!” or dipped their torsos in and said “Oh!”–their babies’ lips starting to tremble. But the girl took forever to finish her laps, and I figured I was just wasting time, so I slipped down the edge while she was flipping on the other side.
I felt the cold embrace me, my testicles hugging up to me, that heavy feeling leaving me. I bobbed a few times, getting used to my dimpling skin, my tightened lungs, and had to inch over to the lane rope each time the girl passed, her naked feet coming within inches of my bare arm.
I remembered feeling cold water like this, those unheated pools that shocked memory right back into your heart. Our honeymoon in Niagara, that hotel pool where Jenny and I swam on our first night, that three-day trip bought by our parents, finally, when we’d insisted on marrying despite their wishes. I remembered how Jenny had wrapped her legs around my torso, and her arms around my neck, and stayed there, shivering, though she could’ve gotten out and into her towel, how powerful my arms felt holding up her weightless body. I’d felt myself tighten under her touch, from all the shivering and the hugging, and so I’d slipped her suit over a few inches and ripped open the Velcro in the front of my trunks and we’d gone at it, right there, in the light of day, with anyone watching from the windows.
“Hey, buddy,” I heard a voice say over my shoulder. I looked up to find the young lifeguard from the chair, wearing red swim trunks, new and pristine like they’d been pressed, standing over me, his tanned, bare chest glimmering in the morning light. “Hey, you gonna swim laps, or what? This is a lap lane.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to it,” I said. “Warming up.” The kid turned and walked toward the guard house, and I took a deep breath, ready to plunge under the water and push off the wall. Just then, the lap-flipping girl stopped at my end of the pool and pulled up her goggles to wipe her eyes.
She was breathing hard, her lungs pushing out her chest at me. I could see that she’d polished her nails bright pink as she rubbed the chlorine from her eyes, and when she pulled them away I could see, too, that her eyes had grown bloodshot, making the green of her irises stand out like beacons on a lake boat.
“Oh, hello,” she said, dipping her chest back in the water.
“Hi,” I said, leaning my elbows on the lane rope behind me. I was aware of my chest then, of the hair around my nipples that seemed to catch her eye, at the folds of flab that snuck between the round, plastic disks, and I slid off the rope and deeper into the water, up to my chin.
“Did you plan on swimming?” she said, tucking a loose strand of brown hair into a yellow, dolphin-printed swim cap. “We can share.”
“Yeah, but I’m not good. Not as good as you, by any means.”
“You don’t have to be. I can stay on my side and you can have that one.” She pointed with her finger to my side and dragged the finger along the water’s surface, replicating the pattern she wanted me to make as I swam.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit wild with my arms and such. I can wait until you’re done. I really should just wait.”
“I can show you,” she said. “Do this,” she said, bending her elbow into a ninety-degree angle, her elbow to the sky, then slipping so gently her middle finger first into the water, pulling back underneath so that I felt the wake of it again below the surface against my groin. Her fingers brushed against the gutter as she began the lifting process again, and I followed the waves into it, all the papers and leaves and bugs that had been trapped there by the current. They bobbed each time a wave lapped against the side and over the rim, and some of the bugs tried to swim in a pathetic, desperate attempt to save themselves, to escape the trash that would become their graves.
And then she pushed off again, this time swimming down her side of the pool, her body hugging the opposite lane rope, and I stared at her, became lost there, at the wake passing over it and her bare back, marveling at how well she could keep afloat in such cold, heavy water.
“Seriously, dude,” a voice said. I looked up at the guard standing over me again, his hands now on his hips, one hand wrapped around a red, foam life preserver, his eyes focused on the girl now flipping at the other end, her rump exposed to the air for a brief moment, and I knew what he was thinking.
“Yeah, I know, I know,” I said. “I’m swimming. I swear. I was getting a lesson is all.”
And then the girl had stopped at my wall again, taken up her goggles, and stared up at the young man, who looked over her and then back at me, eying me warily.
“Hey,” she said to him like a young girl does, with all the light and air of promise. “What’s up?”
“You done?” he said, nodding his head yes and then dipping it slightly to the back and left, behind him, I realized, to the guardhouse.
“Almost.” She slid the rubber cap back and forth over her hair as though it itched.
“I think you’re done,” he said. “Come on, get out.”
The guard looked at me and then back at her and then to me again. “Just get out. Seriously. There are other people trying to swim here, know what I mean?” And he raised his eyebrows at her and leaned his head in ever so slightly, so that I felt strange all the sudden, like I wasn’t supposed to be savvy enough to pick up on teenage body cues.
“Hey, man, no need to talk to her that way. I’ll leave,” I said and looked to the girl. “Let me. Really.”
“No, it’s fine, I swear. Not sure what he’s—”
“You just swim your laps already, buddy. Just get busy swimming your laps,” the lifeguard said and bent to lend the girl his hand.
“My mom’s coming to get me, anyway,” she said to no one in particular. Ignoring the outstretched hand, she planted her palms on the side of the pool, leaned in on them, and popped right up, water falling from her legs like sand from a hillside, her rump clear in the air. I felt my hand floating up and toward her, reaching out to feel the cool, clear water she left behind, but I stopped myself and scratched my nose, her rump now right in front of me, her leg muscles dimpling at the hips. She was so close like this. So intimate. I thought I could’ve known her all my life.
The boy eyed me again as she brushed by him. I leaned back on the lane rope, letting my chest hair shine in the mid-morning sun, letting that hairless boy see what a man looked like up close. He squatted, then, down low, and leaned toward me.
“Listen, asshole,” he said. “I know your deal. You won’t be coming here again, you hear me?” I squinted at him, feeling only anger rise in me. My immediate impulse was to grab his life preserver and pull him into the water, ducking his head under until he felt he might not ever surface, but then I saw his eyes narrow and wondered, suddenly, what he’d meant by this.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I said, but the kid had already straightened his knees.
“Just don’t come back,” he said, turning and sauntering off toward the girl who’d wrapped a large beach towel around her, tucking in a corner like girls do after showers, bouncing on one leg to jar the water from her left ear.
I watched her only a moment longer before she was gone for good, her long, wet hair moving with her, and wished I’d started swimming sooner, way sooner, like in middle school. I wished it had been the most natural thing in the world for me to slip into the water next to her, sharing a lane for a while, seeing, secretly through my goggles, her long, tight body slipping through the water as she passed.
When the lifeguard had finally disappeared into the guard house, I dipped down into the water, covering my head until all went quiet, until only the underwater of the pool existed, and pushed off, the hair on my nipples flapping in the wake, the girth of my belly jiggling.
I know why they built that wall around the pool that following fall. Why the fence hadn’t been good enough. I’d signed the petition myself when it came around, remembering how the cars had slowed on Route 1, just outside the pool gate. I know there are creeps in the world, creeps like that ER doctor of Jenny’s, and that lifeguard with his lusty stare, and the men in their cars. There are plenty of creeps in the world. Really, that wall needed to go up, to keep guys like that out and where they belonged, on Route 1 and not there in that cool, clear water. Not swimming next to that girl, whose perfect arm stroke had probably never smacked a soul, even just once, as she passed.