Diving into a pool of memories

As a little girl, I had long brown hair that I wore in ratty pigtails. I had pixie-green eyes and a swollen little belly supported by short, stocky legs. Florida summers were dripping with humid heat. As the sun burned away the fresh cool of the morning, the clammy heat would settle in for the day. The mosquitoes would begin to buzz around my ears, and the sweetness of a slow day would envelop my world.

To survive the heat, I'd dash to the neighborhood pool as soon as it opened to plunge into the icy-coldness of the blue water. By 3 o'clock the pool was a vortex of joyous, screaming, laughing kids.

Swim lessons occurred daily. At the allotted hour, five children would assemble in a corner of the pool and huddle together in damp anticipation. The summer I was 7, my swim teacher was named Angie.

She drove a yellow, dinged-up Volkswagen Beetle, and I thought she was the most marvelous person ever to have existed. Minutes before the lesson started, she would leap into the pool in an arched dive and duck under the water, swimming a few breaststrokes, before emerging just in front of the five of us to grab someone's feet. We would squeal with imitation fright before eagerly asking to be the first to take a turn.

That summer I learned freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke. I touched the bottom of the deep end for the first time. I jumped off the high dive.

But the best thing about that summer was the neighborhood swim meets. At 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, the children of Tallahassee would gather for races. Angie was the queen of the evening, presiding over the start and the finish. We 7-year-olds would clamber up onto the starting blocks and gleefully wave at the parents gathered to watch.

Angie would start the race, and we'd fling ourselves into the water, thrashing and kicking all the way to the other side.

Generally, we were all announced winners and helped out of the pool. We'd run to smiling parents, who picked us up and carried us home, satisfied. The sweet smell of chlorine would waft about us as we ate hot dogs before bed.

When I was 16, I wore my hair in a ponytail, and I disdainfully observed the 7-year-olds from a distance while I stretched with my teammates and waited to use the pool. The potbelly had vanished.

As I sat in a straddle, I would force my chest to the ground. I would lay my head against the rough concrete, and watch the trickle of water from a laughing 7-year-old slide under my outstretched legs.

After sunset, when the youngsters left, my synchronized swimming team had the darkened, silent pool to ourselves. Our workout would be posted on the blackboard beside the pool. Wordlessly, my teammates and I would slide into the water and begin the long warmup.

We would do hypoxic sets, pushing our lungs to their limits, trying to swim ever farther, ever harder, underwater. At my coach's "Go!" I would slip under the water and push off the wall. Taking long strokes to conserve energy, I would pull myself through the water. I swam centimeters off the bottom, keeping my nose just above the bottom tiles.

At the 50-yard mark my lungs would start to complain. At the 75-yard mark, I would emerge, blowing bubbles to ensure that the second my mouth was above water I could inhale. I would hang onto the wall, surrounded by my gasping teammates.

In the workout that followed, we pushed ourselves to our limits and tried again and again to break those limits. By 10 p.m. we were exhausted. We would drag ourselves from the pool and stand silently under the hot showers, trying to scrub the stench of chlorine from our skin.

Yesterday I returned to the pool. It was an anonymous pool, strange in its noises and its inhabitants, but also familiar. I closed my eyes as I slid into the water. The smell of chlorine evoked a torrent of recollections. All the many hours I had spent in a pool flooded my memory, one after another, until I bent my knees to escape in the quiet under the water. I stood up in the shallow end and almost turned to look for the blackboard with instructions for a workout.

My hair is still brown, but I now wear it in a knot above my neck. I have neither the body of a 7-year-old nor that of an elite athlete. I am 21 this year; I have the prospects of life splayed out before me.

This summer I was offered jobs in Boston and in New York. I was offered a job at a summer camp in Maine and a scholarship to study democracy in Europe. I turned down all of these opportunities. Instead, I will return to the Meyer's Park neighborhood pool to teach swim lessons. I will return as an Angie, to run swim meets and to preside as queen of the pool.

I have left my childhood somewhere in the years behind me. Is it possible to regain the playfulness of a 7-year-old?

This summer I will teach 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke. I am hoping to be rewarded with more than the minimum wage for a swim instructor. I am hoping the 7-year-olds will teach me to play marco polo. I am hoping to remember what it's like to wage a war with splashes, to enjoy the sounds of underwater bubbles, and to race because it's fun to swim fast.

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