When I was a kid we did swim team. I say we and mean my brother and two sisters and me, but also our entire circle of friends. We spent summer mornings in the pool and Saturday mornings at meets. I used to complain about waking up early and plunging into a cold pool that turned our lips blue, but I secretly loved it, once the circulation came back. I loved swimming breaststroke in a line of others and watching the sun kissed bubbles emerge from the swimmer’s kick in front of me (this is why I was not fast. I was too busy watching the pretty bubbles). I loved the feeling of my legs pushing me forward and the slice of my palm as it cut through that blue water. I loved the tingle of fear I had as I swam through the deep end, imagining against all possibility I’d see a shark lurking below. I loved cheering my team on, and the competitive anticipation that comes right before the starting buzzer sounds. I loved stretching my arms and legs like the Olympians, getting ready to dive and push through my pullout (the kicking and stroking you do underwater) and pop back up from that silence to the churning of the race. At my pool we didn’t have diving blocks so if you had to swim backstroke and wanted a better push off from the edge you borrowed a friend’s legs to cling to as she or he stood on the pool’s edge before the race. I loved that. I loved how the crowd’s roar would crescendo at the very end of the meet as the older guys swam their relays. You could tell the end of the meet from two blocks away by that sound. I still love a good relay.
After Saturday meets there was an unspoken agreement that everybody who was anybody would be meeting at the local McDonald’s/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut everyone called McTacoHut. All the other teams would be there, their hair still sticking to their faces, dripping from their ponytails, shirts still damp and bathing suits peeking from underneath. We’d eat fries with our friends and crowd around the older kids as the parents gathered and exchanged stats on races and scores. Our dads would discuss form and who got DQ’d and why, and our moms would brag about how much time we shaved, or explain why we didn’t do as well this week.
Later in the afternoon, or on Sunday, we would be back at the pool. When we gathered with our family friends we’d go to the Olympic sized pool, Lake Newport. We knew all the lifeguards back then. They were our teammates or friends’ older siblings. We didn’t need an ID card for years, because they all knew us. We’d grill out and swim until the hot dogs were ready.
My brother and his best friend shared a birthday, July 27th. Perhaps this is why I’m thinking about it today. I am not close to my brother anymore. His religious beliefs make it hard for my family to feel comfortable around him. My parents divorced and his faith cannot tolerate that so he does not associate with them except for rare moments. Even though he’s as much fun as ever, and still the solid, sweet man he was as a boy, his jokes can quickly turn to serious discussions of a god the rest of us no longer trust. But as his birthday draws nearer, I am reminded of those summers.
Once, in the late afternoon, when the sky has just adopted that hazy purple that mutes the sharp edges of the day, I stood on a diving board and my whole world spread out before me. I could see the bright aquamarine of the pool, the long legs of teenage girls stretched on the lounge chairs, and the green tops of trees beyond the pool’s fence. The sounds of children laughing, the lifeguard’s whistle and the lapping of the pool were muted and my thoughts loud in my head. Our mothers were making dinner, and in a moment I’d swim over and dry off, and eat salty, ridged chips with my siblings and our friends, giggling at inside jokes long forgotten. While standing on that board, the sandpaper grip under my toes, the world open before me, I suddenly realized I was standing in a precious, perfect bubble, and simultaneously observing it all. I must have been fifteen, just starting to explore the shadows in the suburban picture I’d always known, but on this day none existed. It was the late 90s, and I was a pretty teenager in a wealthy suburb, about to dive into a cool pool in the early twilight of a beautiful, carefree day. But even as I stood on that bouncing board I knew this perfect moment couldn’t last forever.
And then I dove.