Splendid, blue L! Preternatural inland sea of child’s limbs! Dappled chasm of fun, you fit my awkward body like a wedding sleeve —
— is what I would have tried to say, but did not have these words.
I only had “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller Band, “Only Time Will Tell” by Asia, and “I was working as a waitress in a COCK-tail bar” floating from the lifeguard’s Panasonic perched on the footrung of his chair, out over the water, getting quieter until it was only heatstroked crickets you could hear in the grass by the fence. I only had how the music meeting the aqua water meeting the smell of sun-roasted concrete and chlorine and Coppertone felt. The anticipation of up and down over rollercoasterlike Landsdowne Drive in my aunt’s red MG convertible, eyes dried out behind my pink glasses, the taking-too-long that only someone who is twelve can feel. The stirrings of romance, not the Gahhhh, I’m-in-LOVE-with-you kind but what Keats felt when he shot out of bed or stood stock-still in a forest and his heart cried, “Beauty...is truth!”
The summer before that summer had been Barbies on Eva’s back patio and re-enacting Xanadu on skates in the driveway—her’s, not mine, which was on a sharp hill—air flowing through my hair that was too short and heavy to actually flow and was held back by two braided-ribbon pink and purple barrettes that I’d made at a slumber party, exactly like all the other girls’ ribboned barrettes. And the summer before that (or maybe the summer before that summer) was an overstructured swim day camp at the YWCA that my practical grandmother signed me and my cousin up for, the culmination of which was a swim test wherein we had to wear jeans in middle of the pool and remove them, (or at least my cousin swears so. I have blocked this memory.)
This summer. This summer. It is late May, a few weeks before I turn twelve, when my aunt tells me over Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house that she and my uncle have joined the Landsdowne Club, family membership—and I was the family. I am their child—and not their child. They don’t have any children. I am the closest thing. I spend the night at their house—a whole weekend while my parents are away—and lay under the flowered quilt she made and listen to crickets and the snuffling of the two Westie dogs and the big exhaust fan in the ceiling of the house. They don’t have air conditioning.
At the end of that long weekend I am so sad. I keep the pillowcase that was on my pillow during that stay because it still smells like her house.
From where I am looking, through pink glasses, I want to be just like them when I am adult. Laughing all the time. Having fun. They have people over for chili nights when there are football games in the fall, and for hoppin’ john on New Year’s day. In the summer, Carol cans fruits and vegetables, lays out with no suntan lotion, wears classy white and taupe clothes with espadrilles, works at the liquor store they own, and takes me to the Landsdowne Club pool.
We arrive. Parking lot, baking. Dank locker room, humid. And emerge. And there it is, so bright under the sun you’ll get a headache. Ringed by white chairs and lounges, high and low dives waiting to fling the frightened and the brave into 15 feet of water.
We have our pick of seats. We go in the morning and leave at 4, or 5. I have to rub suntan lotion all over, repeatedly, when the lifeguard whistles for a break, but before I do that I consume a paper basket of the best French fries I will ever eat in my life. Straight-cut, thicker than McDonald's but not thick as Wendy's—the golden curls of Heaven’s angels must smell like these fries, prepared by an oil-spattered teenager next to the clubhouse, across a great big lawn from the pool where—I can’t remember what happened on that lawn except waddling in a towel to reach those French fries.
The fries are uncommonly buoyant. I stay in the water all day. I turn front somersaults, back somersaults, I edge along the bottom like a stingray, I try to dive into the 10-foot corner, I wait in line for the high dive and step into the void, hoping a leg or arm won’t smack the surface, and scramble from the deep, on the edge of panic. I see my body closely, all day, the skin, the legs fitting into hips...feeling it work for me, not denying me.
I play Marco Polo with my four third cousins, when they come to the pool, too. I am glad because we don’t talk that much at school. We’re all in the same hot, fun soup here. We take over the tall stem of the L in an epic contest of ankle grabbing, launching and lunging, swallowing too much water. Our voices get ragged, the game reaches its apex, puffy white clouds sail above us, the water feels like my own skin, my aunt flips on her chaise in her taupe suit and thinks of making fried corn and tomatoes for dinner for us, and the lifeguard’s radio suddenly bleats a refrain clearly over the joyful chaos:
I wanna reach out and grab ya!
Here, where you aren’t clinging to the the edge of the continent, like at the beach. Safe, entry allowed only with tattered paper membership card, a striped chemical launchpad into—something new, something-I’m-not at school, August through May, stuck in a green plaid skirt and in the long, long memories of kids you went through school from kindergarten on. I didn’t pee on the floor outside of the bathroom like Betsy Leavey did in first grade, but my name was transmogrified in the way only children can into “Megan Paddleboat,” which had me rolling home in oceans of tears throughout third grade.
Here, under the sparkling water and the tinny Top-40 floating over it, I am timeless. Fleeting. I know that I can’t hold onto time. That, even though my aunt promised to give me the red MG convertible when I turned 18, she probably won’t, that there probably won’t be a boy who like-liked me until I was in high school. That it would be a long time before I could wear espadrilles and taupe clothes and feel good about it.
Can I take a big breath now and hold how this feels inside my lungs and inner ear and draw it within me when I need it later, during the aggrievements of 7th grade, singing off-key in the try-outs for Guys and Dolls, more pairs of unattractive glasses, in the throes of homesickness in the college library those first eight weeks, or when I am 33 and waking up alone at 2 am in an apartment in a big city and wondering who will ever love me?
I do, I feel it now, sitting at a desk, hearing Elton John croon down a scale, “Blue eyes laughing in the sun, laughing in the rain.”
Oh, here, here, floating on my back, on you, in you, an astronaut gazing at Earth’s atmosphere in reverse, looking out, not in, for once, not looking in.
The sun is angled lower, shadows on the grass of the big lawn, the fryer is shut down for the day, lifeguards are clocking out. We’ve stayed longer than ever this time.
“Did you have fun, shug?” My aunt’s toes inch on her sandals. I turn my sun-warmed towel into a sheath around me.
We leave. Feet squeaking through the dank locker room, even more humid. Towels on the convertible seats. The leather-wrapped stickshift baked in the sun all day, the smell of car oil and suntan oil and my sweat that didn’t quite smell, yet. Tree leaves waving goodbye, luxuriously, without a care.
About the artist...
Megan Powell is a writer, performer, and proud native of Lexington, Kentucky who has performed / written / read / improvised around Chicago everywhere from that one place at the top of the stairs and the backroom at that one bar where we had to change into costumes in the surrounded by cases of MGD in the storeroom, to Navy Pier and the Double Door, The Second City Training Center, io Chicago, the Playground, Chicago Sketchfest, Chicago Improv Festival, Time Out Chicago, Wing & Groove Theatre Company, TenX9, Paper Machete, and Mortified. Learn more at meganepowell.com or fill up on photos of birds and trees on Instagram at @mego610.