The summer before my 11th birthday is when I decided that life would be best lived underwater.
Our neighborhood housed many of the popular kids, but I didn’t look or act like they did. All tan skin, tight short shorts, perfectly feathered hair, every flavor of Bonnie Bell lip smackers. I only had the root beer lip smacker, my hair was flat by the time I hit the front door, and I had a better shot at blending all of my Irish freckles together than actually achieving a tan. And my mom thought short shorts looked slutty.
My parents both worked at the University, so they left the house at around 7am, even during the summer, to go to their important offices, get ready for their important meetings, and do their important research. My older sister Erin and I were left to fend for ourselves.
The ride between our house in the fancy neighborhood and the not-so-fancy neighborhood pool was about two miles. Rather than drive all the way home to cart us there, my parents told us to ride our bikes. They never encouraged us to wear helmets, call them when we got there, or to be careful. Instead they assumed if something went wrong, they’d hear about it.
My sister and I rode our Schwinn 10-speeds past manicured yard after manicured yard, our big striped terry cloth towels wrapped around our necks, the ends flapping from under our armpits. Erin always went first and I drafted along behind her. Sometimes we’d stop to eat the fresh, wild red raspberries along the side of the road, staining our fingers and lips a bright, deep pink. But most of the time we just wanted to get to the pool.
The way there was mainly coasting, hills so steep that pedaling was just for show. The wind from our speed blew hard in our faces and our hair, the ends bleached and ragged, flew behind us as we rounded one corner and then another. We had made this trip so many times we knew how to make as little work for ourselves as possible. Erin and I crouched low, our chins brushing the handlebars, trying to build up speed to make a dent in the only uphill stretch. The last piece of road was scary. It was busy and, like most of the roads in my central Pennsylvania farm town, had no sidewalk or bike path, so we hugged the side of the road and shouted to each other if we heard a car coming behind us. Erin peeked over her shoulder to check on me, while I stuck close to her rear wheel as we began to pedal the last quarter mile to the pool. This was the only real uphill stretch, but I could see the chain link fence that separated the pool from the surrounding farmland in the distance and pedaled as hard as I could, my sweat smelling of chlorine and puberty.
Erin and I always challenged ourselves to make it the entire way without having to get off and walk the bikes, even if it meant going slower that way, and we grinned at each other with pride as we pulled into the parking lot, crunching the gravel with our tires. We just leaned the bikes against the fence; locks were as pointless as sidewalks here.
Our legs were tired, but we still ran to the entrance. I looked up at the clock and scribbled 1799 and 12:02 onto the blank sheet of spiraled notebook paper on the front desk. Erin and I were usually the first ones there, but even if we were early we didn’t wait to go in. We knew the guards wouldn’t care. Sometimes we wouldn’t even sign in at all. Our parents loved how much time we spent at the pool. It freed them to focus more on themselves. So the pool became our summer home, the lifeguards and coaches our family.
After I signed us in, Erin led the way through the women’s locker room, our flip-flops making happy, rhythmic slaps on the concrete floor. We wore our suits under our clothes, so we began peeling off our t-shirts and shorts as we walked. Both of us hot from the ride, we dropped our clothes and towels, kicked off our flip-flops and felt the grass under our feet as we ran toward the pool. We launched our bodies off the side and splashed into the cool water, sun shining through the ripples we made.
Within the hour the lawn would begin filling with the colors of summer: bright towels, beach chairs and toys. But for now the pool was ours.
We dipped our heads under the water and swirled around like otters, then practiced our weightless handstands, handsprings, and backflips, careful to keep our toes pointed, feeling like Olympic gymnasts. We tried to decipher what we screamed to each other under the water, and sculpted each other’s wet hair into silly shapes, giggling the way only sisters do.
It was only under the water I felt free. The friends I struggled to make, the parents I struggled to understand, none of it mattered there. On land I was average. But in the water I could power my little body across the pool beating swimmers twice my age and size. I was accomplished. I was cool. I was home.