Summer hangs heavy.
I don’t mean it hangs heavy on our hands, for this summer Elder Girleen has embarked upon that magical, knobby-kneed, tanned, tangled, sunbleached time of her life when summer lasts only a second, is a whirlwind gust of fun perfumed with chlorine and hot asphalt, and some of that magic rubs off on everyone who comes in contact with her, even me.
It’s just…summer has its own weight, like hot ripe fruit weighing down a bough. The city has begun to wear its summer look, frayed around the edges, redolent of garbage.
Driving back this morning from delivering Elder Girleen at circus camp, I spotted a tattoo-clad hipster strolling through the ‘hood, licking at a bright red popsicle. At ten in the morning, no less! Elderly ladies wait beneath black umbrellas at the bus stop. Even the graffiti scrawled across the flanks of buildings seems to have gone limp in the heat.
In such circumstances, what’s a good mom to do but take her children to the pool?
I could write a whole ‘nother essay about the swimming pool as potential crucible for America’s anxieties about race, gender and class, but I suspect it’s been done better here. Besides, years of motherhood have blunted my ability to handle such weighty topics.
All the same, I have to admit that this summer I’ve gotten a probably inordinate amount of pleasure from the fact that we have yet to pay our way into a swimming pool. The City of Atlanta pools offer “free swim” periods daily; generous friends with memberships have cheerfully allowed us to take advantage of them.
Like anywhere else where groups of people who usually don’t rub shoulders find themselves in close proximity with one another, the pool can be a fascinating place: what with its gangs of languid teenage girls who hug the edges of the pool like shimmering schools of fish, all those oiled up bodies littering the concrete (are they dead or are they sleeping?), and the stalking, whistle-bedecked presence of the lifeguards. It was a stroke of genius that made writer Tom Perrotta set so much of his black-comedy of domestic life Little Children at the swimming pool.
Last weekend we attended a birthday party held at a pool and here’s a trick question: how could you tell the mothers from the childless women? Not necessarily by their bodies (some mothers, though I’m not one of them, have regained their pre-baby shapes); not necessarily by their position at the pool (frantically rubbing sunscreen on someone or prone with a paperback).
No, you know the mommies by their swimsuits. I would say that in this, the summer of 2008, in Atlanta, GA, the mommy who does not own a sporty little skirted swimsuit is an anomaly.
Lands End may be to blame, seeing as they’re the company that single-handedly convinced thirty and forty-something women that the sort of suit formerly seen only on women over sixty who come to the pool decked in swim caps clutching kickboards is a flattering and stylish fashion statement.
And often they are. Looking around at all the moms at the pool, I like to tell myself we resemble 1940s starlets confident of their allure despite their swimwear’s conservative cut.
But then I think: would I have been caught dead in a swim suit like this in my twenties?
Last week, I also had the chance to take the Girleens to the pool I haunted as a teenager and college student: the University of Georgia’s outdoor pool. Which is, in fact, now that I think about it, the pool where I learned to swim, the pool where I hung desperately onto the side and then flung myself across the pool’s width in a rudimentary crawl. Later in life, I oiled my legs with Hawaiian Tropic, SPF 4 (ah, we were so young then, and so foolish!) at this pool, keeping my eye out for certain members of the opposite sex I knew would soon show up, who would, with the elaborate, diffident habits of their time and gender, stretch out faded towels next to me and ask as if they had no stake in the answer “you goin’ to so-and-so’s party tonight?”
Oh, the summers spent on some friends’ porch, parsing out such conversations! (The boys never said “wanna go with me?” once it was established that one would be going to the party later, they hedged their bets by saying “maybe I’ll see you there.”) Oh, those summers, when the backyards of the rental houses we all lived in hummed with cicadas and expectations and our hope that something interesting happen, soon!
Back then, I laid out my towel at the far end of the pool, as far away from the faculty families with their splashing children as possible. So it had always been at the university pool, from time immemorial, and so it was when I took my children there last week. Families with children in the shallow end near the entrance, near the concession stand and the shady awning. The middle for the lap swimmers going about their serious business: grad student t.a.s desirous of outracing time and age with a perfect back stroke, retired faculty made bouyant by all that recently-acquired leisure time. The far end for all the indolent sorts who picked each other up, and cast each other off, all while they gossiped idly, stretching out their long long legs.
How lucky I am, I realized as I walked my children to the pool’s edge, to have had the sort of life where I can see this place again. Even though now I’m at the near-end of it, in a skirted suit.
I looked across the long blue expanse of pool from one end to the other, and then I jumped in, becoming, for a moment, weightless.