I grew up assuming that mostly everyone had a pool in the backyard. A belief system like this is common among the suburban children of Arizona. A pool was no emblem of opulence. In fact, it was the opposite in our household. If you complained about the oppressive temperature in hopes that my mother would turn on the air conditioning, she just pushed you fully-clothed into the pool and locked the glass sliding door behind her. The kids who lived on one side of our house didn’t have a pool, but they had a trampoline, which by comparison seemed much more lavish given it didn’t come with the house and it required assembly. Plus, their parents never came outside to ask if anyone was peeing on it or trying to use it earlier than fifteen minutes after digesting a meal.
It wasn’t until my folks took my brother and me back to their hometown of Staten Island, New York that I learned that most people, in fact, don’t have a pool in the backyard. Shuttled into house after house of distant Irish-Italian relatives, we found they had pools of lasagna or frosty beers, but none was outfitted with a diving board. Our parents, absorbed by their own nostalgia, didn’t seem to notice the August humidity that hung heavy in the air nor care that every breath we drew felt as though it were through wet llamas sitting on our faces.
“The next family we’re visiting has a pool,” my mother said distractedly to Shaun and me. Like normal people, we thought. We entered the house and began the synchronized dance of sidestepping kisses from determined strangers claiming relation to us. We twirled from aunt to uncle to first cousins once removed until we stumbled, dazed and coated with Revlon lipstick, through the back door.
And that’s when we saw it.
“What is that thing?” my brother asked cautiously as though he were staring at one of the towering robots from War of the Worlds. We walked the perimeter of the round drum, tapping gingerly on its walls. We came to a ladder and we began to climb it. Shaun summited the metal rungs quickly, and I, following too closely behind, met the crevice between his ass with the bridge of my nose. We stared past the glassy surface of the water at the sides and bottom of the pool. Maybe it’s their water supply, I posited. Maybe it’s one of those pools that elephants dive into at the circus, said Shaun. I think it’s a Super Big Gulp and we’re sitting on the rim of the cup, I suggested.
Our pondering was interrupted by the sound of supposed cousins stampeding toward the container of water. Each filed into the water without end until the pool looked like the Ganges River on the holy days of Hindu purification. Shaun and I entered the water tentatively, mostly because doing so required using another human’s head as a step. The only way to move through the water was to sway the way an awkward teen does at a school dance. And there was no bowing out of the volleyball match since every available square inch of the pool was in active play.
When our family flew back to Arizona, Shaun and I stared out the window of the plane, gazing down upon the foreign terrain of the East Coast. The thickets of green intermingled with flat swaths of farmland. The roofs of dense subdivisions, some with small rings of turquoise in the yard. “I’ll never live anywhere with those above ground pools,” I announced with all the hubris of a kid who just mastered opening my own bag of in-flight pretzels.
Never did I imagine I’d wind up living in New York City, taking a subway to a public pool in Harlem where I would be gently mocked by the locals for resembling a nightlight. I never counted on living in Maine where pools, above the ground or embedded in it, are as rare as cars without cargo boxes mounted to the roof. How perspective shifts when a once stalwart of in-ground pools arrives at the base of an above-ground pool and feels her pulse quicken at the thought of again being immersed in the warm, clear, chemical-laced waters of her youth. Perched on the lip of the pool, I ready myself to take flight into the vat.
But not too vigorously. I don’t want to break it.