We come here to look at girls the way a horse in the desert goes to water to drink, hot sun scalding our faces as we march up to Main Street from the bus stop on Lakeview, hearing the pools advertising mantra in our heads: “the short without the travel, this same pool called “Rentschler’s Pool” when my uncles came here in the Great Depression, clutching nickels for the ticket to let them in, before the war that sent Dave’s dad to Europe, my uncles hiking the whole way up Crooks Avenue from Gordon and the house my grandfather had to live in because he’d built it and couldn’t sell, my uncles walking because in those days, they didn’t have money for bus fair and the pool the way Dave and I do today, that pool the same pool as this pool is now, only the girls are different, with Dave wanting one girl in particular he knows will be here, too, though she won’t be glad to see him or me, she never is, both of us trying not to think too much about that other girl who drowned here in a graduation after party last June.
That last dance haunts everybody from school even fools like us, the comic duo, the Abbot and Costello, Batman and Robin most of the cool kids hate and most jocks can’t catch to beat up.
Dave stands high over the crowd, his six foot something making him look older than he is, left back twice, yet not old enough even for high school, looking for that girl in the crowd he hopes he won’t see, desperate for her to see him, while I shuffle my feet beside him, wondering why I came, thinking of no girl here I want to see when I want to see them all, half naked in broad daylight, exposed as I am exposed.
The crowd moves so slowly I think we’ll never get in, the sounds rising and falling from the rabble just beyond the cyclone fence, people and tables and umbrellas like ghosts behind the privacy slats, so all we hear are the voices of the cool people drinking cold drinks and slowly getting drunk – and rowdy.
Kids screech in front of us in the line, anxious, bored, complaining at their parents about how long it takes to get through the gate, we all in the same sad boat, clutching our dollar bills the way my uncles did their nickels, clutching deck chairs, bottles of sun tan lotion, blankets, towels, things neither me nor Dave thought to bring: we wear our bathing suits under our jeans and if we brave the water will let the blistering sun dry us, and try not to get embarrassed when Dave sticks to shallow water, a legitimate landlubber despite his size.
When we get to the window the woman behind the glass takes our money and hands us wrists bands with the number of our lockers on it, blue for boys, pink for girls, she doesn’t even look us in the eye, too many of us, sometimes thousands on a Saturday, piling in shoulder to shoulder the unlucky masses who could not take the trip to the shore.
Then inside, we pass through the space where the big shots sit, round metal tables with perforated tops and ringed benches around them and multi-colored umbrellas sticking up from out of their middle, a rare reprieve the constant assault of sunlight on this mostly concrete existence, this a social club filled with people that look to dip, but never dip, whose life is sip and chat, sitting the way the cool kids sit in the cafeteria, there to show the rest of us how hip they are, sipping but never dipping until they are so snockered they can’t do either.
Above and beyond the fence to the right as we come in, jealous kids stare down from the second floor of the brick apartment building, kids younger than we are, kids who watch the waves of people flow through the gate and into the pool complex the way waves at the beach flow over sand, the scent of grilling food from the snack bar and wet bar flowing over this whole section, sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs, we can’t afford, but long for, just as we long for something else here neither of us can have.
She won’t be in this part, I tell Dave, meaning the girl who lives next door to be, sweet Sue Dave is so sweet on it hurts.
People bump into him because he stops just inside the gate to stare at the red faces around the round tables, or clustered under the awning to our left, the name of the club stretched across its front along the narrow edge of the roof.
I nudge him in that direction, to the doors leading to ramps that take us into the building where the men’s and women’s locker rooms are, dark and dank with the flicker of florescent lights overhead, casting an unnatural glow over this danker concrete landscape, painted blue and white, just as the pool and the concrete around it is painted blue and white. But outside in the sunlight, the colors seem sterile and clean; here the air smells of mildew, sweat and chorine, air so thick I can barely breathe, and so crowed nobody has privacy, taking off and putting on clothing along low benches that run between rows of lockers in front of everybody else.
We take off our pants and shirts and stuff them into the locker assigned to us with our entry tickets, the key dangling from the wrist band as we make our way up yet another ramp outside to the pool.
We are young, and we ache to be noticed by the near naked girls around the pool, Dave aching more for one than the others, though none of the girls we see see us, girls clustered around the elevated seats where the lifeguards sit, clucking at them like chickens, nearly fainting when one takes notice of them.
So we climb down into the water, playing odd games that splash the people seated on the bend along the long end on one side of the pool. The lifeguards, stirred from their celebrity by the complaints, growl at us to behave, girls giggling. We splash each other and move and get more stern warnings and eventually the ultimatum to quit the antics or get put out.
We stay near the shallow side -- not the kiddie’s corner, near where the stairs come down into the pool near the snack bar where the drunken people can keep a close eye on the kids so they don’t accidentally drown – we come down the other stairs nearer the ramps to the locker rooms.
I tell Dave she will be near the deep end if she’s hear at all – the far side just shy of the fence and the trees that grow beyond it, near where the two diving boards are, and slick kids do tricks and dive deep into the water.
Dave won’t let me go there, more scared of her than of the deep water which really, really scares him, yet he can’t stop staring in that direction, studying each face along that side of the pool, those in the water and out, trying to make out her shape against the backdrop of mostly near naked people, the cool kids she likes to hang around, who she wants to think well of her, who always laugh at people like even and laugh now at us, even though we don’t know exactly what they are saying.
Still, I edge away into deeper water, egging Dave to follow, and after enough abuse, he does, feeling each inch ahead of him with the tip of his toes, the slick blue-painted bottom slowly slanting down so as to make the increased depth deceptive, like the crabs or lobsters my uncles cook each time we go to my grandfather’s bungalow in Toms River, getting cooked as the temperature gradually rises to a boil, but not aware of how deep the trouble is until over our heads, and me, thinking of the girl from the dance, who came here that night, laughing with the cool kids the way Sue always does, diving from the high board to plunge deeper than either me or Dave will ever go, and the teachers at the funeral later telling everybody how much promise she showed and how great she might have been, when the police report testified to just how drunk she likely was when she hit the water.
And me thinking of how my uncles and aunt and mother came here, clutching their nickels, and how it wasn’t here that my mother nearly got drowned, but off the coast near the bungalow that summer just after the war when she was about the same age as the girl who drowned and how shocked everybody was when they saw her crawling out of the water, her head bloated three times the size it should have been, something the doctors later never could explain and me wondering if that had anything to do with the madness that later sent her to the institution, and if she had collected the voices she hears from something she found in the depths of the water, and now, we edging deeper and deeper into the deep end of the pool, risking a similar fate, drunk of something we carry inside of us, scared me we might catch something from the water we don’t intend to collect, the laughter of the cool kids filling the air, along with the giggles of the girls near the life guards, along with the shrill sheiks of the kids near the kiddy pool where drunk parent pretend they can’t hear or see anything, and listen mostly to themselves talk.
And I keep thinking about the life guards distracted from the attention the giggling girls to hear one drunken girl desperately treading water in the pool, their panicked leaps from their ivory painted towers into the deep water to rescue her, yanking out, pounding on her chest to get the water out, her bubbling breath emitting liquid but no longer air, unable to bring back to life what the water has stolen, she hearing maybe the same angelic voices my mother hears, needing death to accomplish what my mother managed to drag back with her to shore, and Dave aching beside me to reach deep water, to reach the deep end just to show he can, to show her he’s not as scared as he really is, to survive the way the girl after the dance had not, moving inch by desperate inch, water to his waste, then his chest and finally his chin, standing on the tips of his toes to keep his mouth above the surface where I am treading water to stay afloat, sunlight stark and blinding on the surface, so scorching me and Dave will go home as red as boiled lobsters, unable to cure the pain no matter how much ointment we apply, then yet another inch, the blue bottom so clear we can see the divers sink and rise like dolphins immune, more fish than human, then another inch and another inch, Dave staring up at the life guard who does not look at us at all, whose ever utterance brings a flutter of giggles from girls to whom we are utterly invisible, not even important enough to laugh at, or save when we finally reach that point in the pool when we are over our heads, not nearly as pretty as the blonde-haired life guards, and still Dave takes another step, and another, until he is forced to float, a too-scared Jolly Green Giant with a face green not from the reflected bottom and sides of the pool, green from imagining breathing water the way that girl after the dance did, thinking no one will leap in after him if he suddenly starts to sink, aching the whole time for the shallow water, wishing his shrieks are the sheiks of spoiled little kids trying to raise the attention of the drunken parents that are the previous generations cool kids only at the other side of the pool, instead of shrieks that girl did after the dance, needing to get back to a place where he and I can stand on our own two feet, where his six foot something has real meaning even if mocked, where here in the deep water it means nothing, when the water tells us we need to be eight or ten or twelve feet tall to survive, he, clinging to me like he might a life preserver, threatening to make me sink, too, we both bobbing in water we have no business being in, my lungs filling up with deep water even though I do know how to swim, and imagine with each bob the bubbling water coming out of me the way it did that girl that day in June, and me, wondering will I survive, will I like my mother crawl out onto the concrete with my head bloated three times its natural size, dragging imaginary voices behind me like seaweed.
I tell Dave we need to get to the side before we both drown, and he gets scared and say he thought I knew how to swim, and I tell him, I can, just not for two of us, and so as slow as sea turtles might on land, we crawl though the high water to the pool side where the wide concrete is filled with a forest of tables and umbrellas and near naked girls lying flat on large beach towels.
We clutch the slick side of the painted pool with both hands, the surge of the water behind us, lulling us back with the mistaken belief we might survive another bout, the blond-headed, blue-eyed muscle-thick life guards glancing at us the way they might two soggy old fish.
We are fish, gasping not or water but for air.
And then she sees Dave, not the she who drowned in the pool in June, but the she in whom he drowns, over his head in a pool so deep nobody can see its bottom, adoring the girl that abhors him, she looking down at both of us with mockery in her eyes.
If the sun hasn’t made his face fire red, this does, painting him as vivid red as the pool is blue. We sink down into the warm water until only our eyes and finger tips show over the pool lip, spy guys in an alien landscape, peering out a periscope at enemies we despise, surprised at being surprised that they despise us, too.
All I can think of is that girl after the dance who had come here in the dark on the edge of the rest of her life, and how my uncles and my mother, and how the water had consumed her, and how someone had tried to bring her back to life, making her cough up that substance of which we are all made, yet cannot breathe, and I think of us, two clowns keeping low over the illusions of love, and how twisted hopes can be when we ache for what we cannot have, and cause love to cross over into hate, and I keep thinking of how scared we both are, two eyes above the rim of a pool, aching inside and out, from what we don’t know we want and from a sun that exposed just who we are and for anybody to see, and I keep thinking how much Dave must hurt, and how lucky I am, and how like my uncles who clutched nickels in their hands for a chance to be here, and how lucky I am just to be alive.