Elegy for a Pool

The other week, an old friend texted me a link to a story in one of the local papers. The pool where we’d spent so much of our childhood would be closing, permanently, at the end of the summer. The engineer who’d been called to do the evaluation determined that the structure was, essentially, irredeemable. 

“I wonder if they’ll fix it or let it fester,” my friend wrote. 

“100% fester,” I replied. The other scenarios – that the five towns whose budgets fed into the technical school would come up with the five million needed to bring the pool up to code, or that it would be drained, filled in, turned into something low maintenance, like a rock garden, or a handball court – were not so much unlikely as they were impossible to imagine. 

When it was built, in the early 70’s, the natatorium might have been something of a bragging point for the also brand-new technical school, but by time I swam there, three decades later, the association was nominal. The technical school did not have a swim team; if its student body made use of the pool, it must have been during the school day. In practice, the pool belonged to nearly every aquatic team in the area, to nearly any child who swam, or wanted to, or didn’t want to but was forced to anyhow, by dint of being the third sibling in a swimming family, or the offspring of a swimmer, or the offspring of parents who decided that swimming was cheaper and warmer than ice hockey, less competitive than soccer, gentler than lacrosse.

Swimming is not a popular organized sport in Massachusetts; it is particularly unpopular outside of summer. Most towns do not have Olympic-sized pools, and fewer still have pools that can be used year-round. From five in the morning to nine at night, this one was in almost continuous use. Swimming, in this country, is a white sport, a rich kid sport, but graded on that curve, this public pool in a technical regional high school in what was then the largest town in the state was a democratic place. 

When I speculated that it must, originally, have been something of a bragging point, I didn’t mean because it was nice. Only that it was a rarity, and new, competition-length, six lanes. During the years I swam there, three decades later, it was still competition-length, still six lanes, and decidedly down at its heels, in the way much of the community architecture of that era is, like corrugated cardboard left out overnight. I was a romantic, magpie of a child, prone to gussying up the ordinary – but I did not do this to the pool. The stands were cement slab, with rows of Gatorade-orange benches; the surrounding bulwark was an unrepentant, Thatcherite blue. During meets, we would arrange ourselves, our towels and parkas and walkmen and cards, like so many boulders along the welled ramp that led down to the visiting locker room. This locker room looms large in my memory: a murky, belly of a whale sort of place we avoided entering at all costs yet pressed right up against.

And yet. One wall of the natatorium was entirely glass, looking out onto an undistinguished elbow of building and vague green grass sloping up to a scrim of woods we would run through during dryland.  The sun would rise and set as we swam; it blared through the wall of glass, made eclipses of the coaches and swimmers hurrying back from the bathrooms. You could look at the way it fell in great, lively sheets across the tile and almost forget about the set on the board. 

“The setting of our childhood. So many memories–” my friend began. 

The slap of flip flops against the deck, the rhythmic thwack of our fins during butterfly, the bounce and reverb of all those young voices. Slice of whistle. Neat, nearly noiseless entry of fingers into the water, of feet flipping, pushing off the wall. Swimming was supposed to be as quiet as possible: like running, the better you got, the less energy it took to go from point A to B. During a long set, it was almost like the end of a hymn, or the quiet car on the train. 

What about the wet towel air of meets; the way you’d open the swing doors from the stands into the hall beyond and the quiet and cool would shock. What about the oil slip pasta salads pelleted with carrot and celery and the brownies in twists of saran-wrap and the sheaf of crayola-bright Airheads. Racks of fluorescent, abstractly patterned suits (Uglies, we called them; only meant to last a month) and commemorative tee-shirts in the inevitable vampire font. The growing rows of heat sheets and results. Last name, first name – and when I started thinking of names for my own children, it was in heat-sheet format.

I practiced in a half-dozen pools, but it is only this pool that I think of with any regularity. 

High school, which I remember so keenly (why do I remember it so keenly?), is centered, capitalized in this pool. The pool, the minivan, teal-green, I drove as a junior and senior, the girls’ bathroom in the middle of the landing in the english wing, where my friends and I would congregate during breaks, gossiping, retouching eyeshadow, exchanging various low-calorie snacks: this was the universe as I remember it. The van is long gone, but there are no entanglements, no complexities in my feelings toward it; to the bathroom, I feel only fondness. It is only, solely the pool in which my late adolescence, with all its self-imposed tortures, is bound up. 

“A part of my personal history,” I wrote.

To be a teenage swimmer is to be constantly, intensely aware of the body’s development: your own, those around you, the deltas between one and the other. In the locker room, I would surreptitiously catalog the bodies themselves. How were they inhabited: confidently, anxiously, abashedly? Some of my teammates changed unhurriedly, even languorously; others did so under the cover of towels. There was a correlation, imperfect but unmistakeable, between the adherence of the body to classical and early aughts standards of beauty and the confidence of its owner. The forms that hid in towels were angular; those on display had breasts – the kind that filled out a push-up bra. 

I was twelve when I began to take swimming seriously, and thus, to spend far more time in the presence of my own potential corporeal future. At twelve, I could not fathom what it would be like to be in possession of abundance.. By sixteen, I knew such thinking was idle. Any growing my own body had left to do would be up, that if it grew out, it would not be in the place I wanted it to. 

I remember running up and down up and down the carpeted stairs that led to the greater athletic wing and deciding, with all the rapid and black and white logic that comes with sixteen, that I needed to double down on being interesting. My thighs were lean, clam-shell white; I wore black or sky blue or baby-pink Soffe shorts with the waistband triple-rolled; my shoulders stretched the seams of the youth-size tees I favored. The fastest girls my age looked like me but more so; they were balletic or coltish; though long-limbed, their bodies were small enough to easily fit into child-size, childlike suits – suits whose simple V straps and covered backs underlined the supreme speed of their owners. To wear a suit like that as a regular swimmer, or even a good one: ridiculous. But if you were fast enough, it was a mark of confidence. 

I wasn’t fast enough. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t develop my own marks. The key to being interesting, I thought, lay in the embodiment of contrasts, period. To get perfect test scores but play the abstract dreamer, to spend hours on Yoox hunting down the pair of jeans Ashley Simpson wore in her “Pieces of Me” video and then to wear them diffidently, with my mother’s old Chuck Taylors and my little brother’s double-breasted blazer and a worn grey Budweiser tee-shirt that had belonged to an uncle, to show up to Saturday morning practice smelling, fleetingly, of vodka and cigarettes and then nail the long set. To be shambolically glamorous in grimly or blandly institutional settings.

When you swim laps indoors, you spend a lot of time staring down at the same twenty-five yard stretch of tile, or up at the ceiling, which might be ribbed or otherwise vaunted (Brown’s, in my recollection, is like an armadillo skeleton), or else a billowing bubble, drab white. There is nothing to see, apart from a few spidery hairballs, hairbands, bandaids – things you’d rather not see. The only changes are peripheral: the other bodies gaining on yours.  It’s a way of seeing conducive to half-tethered thought.

But what does all that, what does any of this have to do with this particular pool? It could have been —

Not anywhere —

Many places. Qualifying characteristic: intensity. Effort. Discipline, even if I pretended otherwise. Intensity first and foremost. Here I am, pretending swimming was then what it is now: a time for half-dreams and mild cardiovascular effort. No: it was, physically, brutal. I might look forward to the bookends of practice; I did treasure the moments where my body clicked into an otherwise unattainable synchronicity. A set of 400 IMs where I found myself drafting, nearly effortlessly, off the very fastest boys. But mostly, it was a grind.

To add a different brand of intensity to an already intense period: was that it? 

To spend hours a day with one cohort who’d known me geographically all my life, and with another who knew me – and whom I knew – only in this place none of us were from: that was it, too. I could experiment with different selves – with what it would mean to be interesting – more easily in and around the pool. When the experiments worked, I could port them, slowly, over to my other self. 

But what does this have to do with –

It doesn’t. 

It’s imprinting, is all. (Is it all?) 

The pool’s closure, the ensuing volley of rue and uncertain nostalgia – it made me realize how little I’ve considered the true settings for my own childrens’ lives. I think: Farm Pond. Nameless Lake. The walk to the town playground, past the longstanding autobody shop with its spray of old skis and vintage chevrolet pickup, cherry red. The back stairs that lead up to my office – steep, short, thickly carpeted: perfect for small feet and hands to thunder up and thump down. The small, round hole in a kitchen floorboard that begs to have marker caps and quarters and once, a fistful of blueberries dropped through it, into the waiting maws of the basement monster. I don’t think: daycare. I  don’t think: middle row of the car. 

To control for whimsy, for mystery and delight in the imprint: impossible, possibly wrong.

“I wonder how many hours we spent there…”


“Was that all? It felt like more.”

It felt like more. (was probably less.)

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  1. Elena Walterman

    Long live Sac Pac. RIP Keefe Tech, I hope they freely allow Gatorade onto the deck of whatever the pool becomes :’-).

  2. Joyce

    This is so beautiful. The details are so striking. The Soffe shorts, the airheads, Ashlee Simpson — it really takes me back. And competitive sports, too. (Though mine was basketball.) There was a drive-in theater in my hometown recently demolished and I had similar feelings, even though realistically I spent not much time at all there. But still, the place itself felt like it was heavy with my memories. And where will they live now?

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