I know all the pools Iâ€™ve ever been to. The first one I remember is West Virginia Wesleyan College in the mountains of my hometown, Buckhannon. The private Methodist school had an Olympic-size pool that the public could swim in for a small admission fee. I learned how to swim there with my father.
Dad splashed in, lowering himself further down, then strummed chords on an invisible acoustic guitar and sung the folk song Iâ€™m being swallowed by a boa constrictor…. The snake ate him throughout the verses: â€œOh no, oh no. Heâ€™s swallowed my toe / Oh gee, heâ€™s up to my knee / Oh my, heâ€™s up to my thigh / Uh-oh, uh-oh. Heâ€™s at my torso.â€ Deeper and deeper the water climbed up. Then â€œOh heck, heâ€™s up to his neckâ€”Gulp!â€ Dad went under and the water ate him whole.
After surfacing, Dad coaxed me into the pool: Jump in, Iâ€™ll catch you. He held onto me with one hand on my stomach and let me practice the front crawl: Stroke, breathe, stroke. Dad let me go: Just keep your head up. I dog paddled in place, slapping the water frantically. I started to sink, gulping more water than air. Dad caught me right before I went under: Good try.
All at once came my moment of success: I paddled in the shallow end without needing Dad to save me and swam into the deep end where I couldnâ€™t put my feet down on the poolâ€™s floor.
After Dad taught me to swim, my mother wanted to teach me to float. Mom and her younger sister, my aunt, would lie on their backs and skim half in, half out of a pool for hours in perfect symmetry. I expected them to puff out a snort like whales.
Mom initially tried to explain the concept of floating as a perfect harmony of my diaphragm and lungsâ€”the opposite of hiccupping. In the college pool, Mom had one arm under my neck and the other at the base of my spine at my butt, in equilibrium. The balancing was easy, with her help. Mom said, Inflate your stomach, but breathe out. Good. Now alternate. O.K. Iâ€™m going to let you go.
I buoyed in place, then like hitting an iceberg, sprung a leak, and went down, man overboard, S.O.S. My nose filled with water. I thrashed for Mom. I found her neck and scrambled up her crowâ€™s nest of permed hair. Sunk and raised. Repeat. I sputtered out of the depths.
One more try lead to another. Mom held me again. I was close enough to feel her body warmth wash off like an aura seeping over me. This time Mom told me to shut my eyes. I clinched them tight. But she said, Relax. My eyelids barely closed. A slight beam of light peaked through my interlocked eyelashes.
We practiced a few breaths. I breathed one, two, three. Then I breathed out three, two, one. Mom counted off as she let me bobble at the surface. Mom told me sheâ€™d have her hands under me the whole time. My ears filled in. The numbers muffled in semi-deaf, water-clogged mumbles. The waterline touched the space in-between my ears and eyes. My face was left above the surface, with the edges of my mouth bailing water.
Then my belly rose, breaking the surface. I rocked and drifted like a lifeboat. My arms filled with oxygen coursing with my red blood cell submariners making a speedy trip from my heartâ€™s arteries to my fingersâ€™ capillaries. Like wood my legs bobbed. I was Pinocchio, except without the lying.
After our floating lesson, Mom demanded we go to the womenâ€™s locker room together. I told her I could float and I could change by myself. She tried to scare me, saying someone would steal me in the menâ€™s room. Mom dragged me along with her and said, Youâ€™re not ready, yet.
When my family moved to Florida we first lived in a condo. The only openness of the tucked-together complex was the large pool. Dad, my brother, and I went to the pool every day after school. The three of us walked over to the gate with our sunscreen drying oily streaks on our backs.
In between our games of sharks and minnows and Marco Polo, my brother and I explored our Atlantis world. We filled our oxygen-tank lungs and snorkeled to the poolâ€™s floor. We went all eight feet deep down to the center, where the bottom filter was and we werenâ€™t even allowed to dare each other to stick our hands near it. Our ears popped in the depths, as if it were Mom snapping her fingers, reminding us to not even be near the drain. We broke her dumb rule and lay on our backs, opening our eyes to the impressionist canvas above us.
My brother and I had contests to see who could hold their breath the longest. We both went under with one hand holding onto the edge of the pool. We kicked our own survival instincts away and forced our brains to plead for anything other than air, as we waited the last second before the other one chickened out.
We competed in how far we could swim the poolâ€™s length underwater. On my turn, air bubbles escaped my nostrils. My coordinated swimming had turned to stretching. The spheres of oxygen rose to the surface. Wreathing, those capsules exploded and reunited with the atmosphere. Just below the surface pulling to the other side I reached out and slapped my palm on the opposite sideâ€™s deck.
After all the games, my brother and I would dive to the floor again. We knew how to blow bubble rings. It was all about manipulation of air. Iâ€™ve heard you can only roll your two sides of your tongue to the middle if you have a genetic predisposition for it. My brother and I both did.
I made a circle with my lips and punctuated the middle with my curled tongue. Water filled in my mouth. I breathed out in short puffs as if to warm my hands in winter. Ring after ring rose in thick bloated donuts. The rings raced, sometimes bullâ€™s-eyeing the other.
I switched to being a non-leisure pool user in the valley of Fort Collins, Colorado. Across the campus lawn of Colorado State University I jogged to their rec center next to Moby Gymâ€”as big as Melvilleâ€™s whale. Over the course of the conference my family was attending I discovered if I swam between the floating lines, then I could keep an entire section to myself. My refuge was my lane, one space over from the side of the pool.
I backstroked and looked at the Rockies framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Only jet streams slashed higher up in the blue skies than the mountaintopsâ€™ teeth-like peaks eating the cotton candy clouds.
As I kept swimming back and forth, I remembered the other pools I visited. Back at my hometown in Buckhannon was also an outdoor, L-shaped, county high school pool. I didnâ€™t like its lack of exclusivity. Anyone could go. And there was only one rule that separated the masses: every hour or so, ten minutes were tolled for â€œAdult Swim.â€ Everyone else, meaning us kids, had to sit out.
I sat on the edge of the pool and waited. The air exposure chilled me even with my towel cocooned around my body. My feet werenâ€™t allowed to dangle above the water to tap 600 pitter-pattered seconds until I could hop back in.
When I was older and again at the college pool in Buckhannon, one of the lifeguards dropped their keys in the pool, the metal sunk straight to the bottom. What startled me most was the lifeguardâ€™s inability to dive all the way down. I guessed they only had to save people who were drowning in the shallow end while everyone else was Davy Jonesâ€™.
I was in the deep end at the time. After the keys plunked into the water, I pushed off the side and swam diagonally down, trying to keep up with the anchor. With little hesitation, I still couldnâ€™t reach the keys in time. My breath of air before I dove wasnâ€™t enough. With one lunge I swatted for the metallic blur and missed.
I broke the surface gasping. I heaved in air. I stretched and expanded my lungs open, bigger, fuller. I filled my lungs to capacity and dove again.
The twenty-foot Olympic depth was a lot to handle. Summoning Herculean strength (or meathead mentality) I pushed past my popped ears, weakening arms, and bass-thumbing heart. A foot away, I couldnâ€™t hold my air in anymore. I let it out.
With no additional buoyant weight, I deflated to my knees and to the poolâ€™s bottom. My hand grabbed the keys. From my squatted position I pushed off. I caught up to my seconds-ago released air. My triumphant hand erupted through the placid surface. Cheers greeted my return.
In Florida, my parents bought our houseâ€”a split plan 3/2 with a grapefruit tree and a pool in the backyard. The first time I went into our pool was probably the last time my mother saw me naked. My brother and I didnâ€™t have our trunks with us. The house was officially ours with the SOLD sign staked in our front lawn. My folks had signed, and started, their thirty-year mortgage.
I pulled off my briefs and flung them to the patio. There was a septic tank under the lawn in the backyard. I stood at the top as king of the hill. I ran down the mound. The grass cushioned my feet. I stepped onto the firm deck. My next foot placement was perfectâ€”right on the lip of the pool.
I shoved off and up. My brother said he never saw me jump so high or so far into a pool. My legs sucked into my chest, back to fetal position. I floated in the air like Mom cradling me. Both my arms held my knees tight. I braced for impact. I could hear Dad sing his folksy-tune. The pool gaped open up like a snake. I cannon-balled a jawbreaker. My impact broke its molars and made an exclamation mark splash.