Misconnections at the Municipal Pool
By Peter Frick-Wright
The North Clackamas Aquatic Center sits in what used to be the empty field between a mall, Toys R Us and ice cream shop. The only recognizable building from the top of a hill four miles away, the Aquatic Center is designed to look like a cresting wave and is colored in a way that denotes not the ocean, but the sun bleached, swim-team blue of above ground swimming pools and hotel hot tubs. It looks faded and chlorinated, and this is the outside of the building.
You enter at the base of the wave, because that is where you usually pay for admission, and that is where the bus drops off your PE class for the one-day "swimming unit" field trip. The heat and humidity has curled any and all paper inside the building and the blast as you enter causes the same subtle surprise to cross all the faces around you before everyone realizes that you can indeed breathe this waterlogged air.
You're going to have to change in the locker room in full view of the cruel classmates that make fun of your lanky frame. They call you "Giraffe" when you wear baggy sweatshirts, so who knows what you’ll be in your Target swimming suit. Skeletor?
You will change not once but twice. And shower. There will be no eye contact; you will sink into the rows of lockers and chameleon out into the main pool, changing quickly to avoid becoming the focus of nervous seventh grade locker-room humor.
Once outside the changing room, an even more hazardous group awaits you in two pieces and ponytails, giggling in clusters about things you only pretend to understand.
The day is already bad enough, but… your mom. Your…Mom. She's a substitute teacher. And this morning the automated service called her in to Mcgloughlin Middle School. To your class. Your PE class. The one that is going swimming today. She promised it would not be embarrassing, it would still be fun, but she had that smirk in her eyes that she gets when you're backed into a corner and must invite her into your life. It's the "my child is growing up look." The same look she got when you had to ask her to buy you deodorant for the first time, or when she delivered your dad to your room to preview coming attractions on the biological front about birds and bees and metaphors that don't make any sense.
Your mom insists, and you're in a hurry to get away, so you assent to her looking after your clothes when you’re done changing so that you don’t have to keep track of a locker key. They go in the big, worn denim bag that follows you to the beach and holds snacks when you go boating. The bag might as well be your family crest. Putting your clothes in it triggers a sort of Pavlovian response and for the briefest of moments you forget that you're basically smoking your last cigarette in front of the social firing squad and you enjoy the asthma attack inducing air and look forward to jumping into the super-chlorinated water to splash around for a few hours.
You've got several hairs that hang around your right armpit as awkwardly as you hang around the pool. You're still waiting on the left side. Your mom is purposefully promoting your embarrassment keeping you out of the water, that appearance distorting equalizer, for as long as possible. She's giving a water safety disclaimer. Everyone is looking at each other.
There's Kristin, suspiciously developed for 13 years old, and pretty in the way of sporting-goods store newspaper ads. She looks comfortable in her designer bikini, and even more comfortable with, and possibly even happy about the covert attention she's earning. Her beauty pageant smile is eerie but inviting and doesn't rinse off as the water all but parts for her.
There's Sean. Biggie. So fat he can nap while suspended in the water, buoyant by his belly, his only motion following the gentle swell of the wave pool. He laughs a lot and everyone likes him.
You're too skinny to float, an anchor of bones thrown together with skin two sizes too small so that it stretches to cover your shoulders, rib cage, even your knees stick out. Your chest concaves and will hold water if you lie down. No one likes you.
There's Scott. Wild Thing. Everyone is afraid of him. He has a lot of people around him all of the time so he must be cool. You are much taller than him so you are a threat. He wanted to fight with on the first day of school. You gave his shoe a "flat tire" on accident with the front wheel of your bike. It took ten minutes and the arrival of a group of older girls to the walkway by the parking lot to talk him out of fighting.
There's Jeff. A friendly face. He's flipping someone off their inner tube and flexing for the girls. He's got symmetrical armpit hair and might have shaved in the last couple of weeks. There's little doubt that he is thoroughly enjoying his time at the pool. You try to blend in with the group and laugh at the same time they do. You're not fooling anyone. Your mom is watching from the pool deck.
Thank thank God it's time to go. You're hungry and tired from having to keep your broomstick body above water. The chlorine curled your underarm ornaments. You know this because you checked discretely in the mirror pretending to stretch. You've already grabbed your clothes and towel from the denim bag. They're waiting for you, a lump on the bench in the back corner of the locker room.
The Aquatic Center locker room is 40 feet long and 12 feet wide, the walls covered top to bottom in one foot cubed red lockers with orange keys protruding from them. The floor is a conservatively textured concrete painted algae green, just rough enough on your bare feet that you do not want to run around.
Everyone is running around. You are dodging towels and watching a game of keep-away with socks. Your pile of clothes is still next to your towel, but as you begin to towel off and dress, you are missing something important.
No one would steal underwear. That's unthinkable. The act of picking up someone else's would induce enough teasing and ridicule that any joke would be basically nullified.
But it's not there. Your pants, shirt, socks, and shoes are present, but there is a right way and a wrong way to get dressed, and putting on socks before your Fruit of the Loom boxer briefs is about as wrong as it gets.
No problem, you'll go without for the rest of the day. You've got a bus-ride and one more class. 87 minutes between you and your drawers. Get dressed, get dressed. Then keep your head down. And hope you don't get one of those uncomfortable, uncalled for bus-jouncy erections on the way home.
Your pants and shirt are on. Your socks are on their way. You're bent over drying off your feet with your towel when you hear the lobby noise invade from outside. The door is open, but only slightly. It's your mom’s voice and she yells your name. Time stops. Everyone stops to listen. Even the waves in the pool are quiet so they can hear what she has to say. It's a yell. "DO YOU NEED YOUR UNDERWEAR?"
A seventh grader's vision is based on movement. If you don't move they can't see you. You are perfectly still deciding on your answer. "NO." You yell back, because if she doesn't get an answer there is a very real danger of her marching into the locker room for a hand delivery. Your answer seems to have done the trick. The door is closed and a normal amount of movement has crept back into the room. Four seconds later, the barrage begins. "Yeah Mommy, and can you come put them on for me?" And, "I've got an ass that needs wiping too!"
Amazingly, the comments don't seem to be directed at you. The predatory instincts of adolescent comedians seem to be neutralized by the universal vulnerability of the situation. The bus ride home is fine, it seems only one gender will be privy to the anecdote, and all vibration induced changes in anatomy have been taken care of by the time the bus pulls into the parking lot. It isn't until you're walking home from school, through the same walkway by the parking lot, in front of the same group of older girls that Scott starts laughing, grabs your pants, and starts to pull them down.