As we flew out of Hartsfield-Jackson, I studied the summer landscape for pops of blue. They were everywhere. A sprinkling here. A dense patch there. Cool blue rectangles blinked up at the sky like iPhone screens. The occasional cobalt circle marked an above ground pool. Every now and then, I saw a lake shape, or an oval the color of minty blast toothpaste. An hour and forty minutes later, as we descended into Newark, I saw them again—blue oases punctuating the neighborhoods of New Jersey.
Growing up, my family always had some kind of pool—the kiddie pool in which Dad could just about fit a leg, the three-foot deep, twelve-foot wide Calico that kept us cool for the few summers it lasted. Then, came the pool that defined my childhood summers through high school—four-feet deep, eighteen-feet in diameter, and solid walls you could push off of, so long as Mom wasn’t looking. There were even golden plastic anchors on the top caps.
It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood got a pool the summer we did. I could walk down my street and point out each one—most of them, above ground, like ours. The occasional in-ground pool would crop up, stirring within me the desire to jump the fence and test the waters.
Fall was the saddest time of year, when we had to drain the pool and cover it in this horrible black tarp that would collect rainwater and attract ducks. One fall, a rumor circulated that a pool in the neighborhood had burst. It belonged to Jamie M, my sworn nemesis since the third grade, when I told her I hated her guts and she told me the same.
Word on the bus was that her brother had been inside the house, watching television when the pool collapsed and sent a flood of water into the living room. At first I didn’t believe the story. It sounded like a grand flood myth. But later that year, as I rode my bike past the M’s street, I glanced a peek at the backyard. A bare gray spot marked where the pool had once stood. I almost felt bad for Jamie, but mostly, I felt sorry for her pool.
I am thirty-two years old now, and it has been at least fifteen years since our pool has gone to pool heaven. It didn’t burst. Like most things on earth, it got old and fell apart. My parents had patched the liner so much that it looked like one of those pebbled pool bottoms.
This past summer, when my sister and I visited home at the same time, we lamented the absence of the pool, as we had done every summer since Dad took it down. Grass had grown over the perfectly flat plot of ground where the steel walls had once contained 7,600 gallons of water, along with all of our childhood hopes and dreams. My sister and I sat in lawn chairs, on the very spot where years before we’d have been floating on rafts.
“You know mom thinks D— started using heroin because we got rid of the pool,” my sister told me. Several years ago, our younger brother got into drugs. He was lucky to survive the few bad trips that left him hospitalized and in need of rehabilitation. He’s clean now, as far as we know.
That night, my husband and I took a walk through the old neighborhood. My head turned toward anything that sounded like a pool filter. Mostly, I found myself gazing at air-conditioning units, but once in a while, the sound was actually coming from a pool filter. I would lose myself, gawking through a fence at the crystal waters that I so badly wanted to touch. Jamie M has since moved from the neighborhood, her yard, still without a pool.
My husband knows I want a pool. “Just a little above ground thing,” I keep telling him. I have no idea if our town will allow us to get one, and we would need to build a fence, that’s for sure. Not only that, but our yard is tragically sloped—terrible conditions for a pool.
Toward the end of our walk, we came to this one fence that I’d remembered seeing a pool behind, as we’d driven past earlier that afternoon. My husband didn’t believe me when I told him there was a pool in the yard. The fence did a good job of concealing it.
“It’s one of those giant inflatable ones,” I exclaimed, with all of the enthusiasm of someone trying to convince someone else of a dire truth. “Look, there’s a skimmer.” I pointed to a pole with a net on the end of it, hanging horizontally across the opposite side of the fence.
My husband still didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until I made him trespass onto the property with me and stare through the fence that he saw what only I had eyes for—a jumbo inflatable pool, as blue as the internet icon on his desktop.
“I want one,” I said. And it’s the truth. I would settle for an inflatable pool because that would mean having one.
Later that week, I asked my mom about what my sister had said about our brother.
“It’s true,” she told me. “I don’t think D— would have gotten into drugs if we’d kept the pool.”
“Why?” I couldn’t follow Mom’s logic, but that didn’t surprise me. This was the same woman who, when she found out that I was moving to Atlanta and my sister to Shanghai, asked me, “Atlanta, Shanghai, what’s the difference?”
“If we’d kept the pool,” she explained, “his friends would have spent more time here. He wouldn’t have gone to their houses so much. They all had pools. That’s why he hung out with them in the first place.”
I got where she was coming from, but pool or no pool, I still think drugs would have found my brother. I didn’t say this to Mom.
Since our return to Atlanta, I’ve seen my husband googling inflatable pools. He keeps bringing up the cost, telling me how much water it will take to fill even a small one. He’s right, and I also realize I don’t need a pool. Hot as Atlanta summers can be, a pool is a luxury. Gosh, air conditioning is a luxury, and we already have that.
In an attempt to fill the 18’ x 48” hole in my heart, I took our daughter to swim in our county pool this summer. At a mile and a half away from our house, it’s our closest body of water. I will spare my county the embarrassment of the details, but let it suffice to say, the conditions were sad.
Many friends have let us join them at their (much nicer) community pools, and we have crashed every pool party imaginable, but there’s nothing more enjoyable, or convenient, than opening the back door of your house and walking across the lawn to your very own blue oasis. Yes, pools have to be maintained, but I would gladly vacuum the liner and tend to the waters, just as Dad made me do when I was old enough to read the pH test.
When I think about the world, the way most people live, I feel guilty for even wanting a pool. I once visited a lady in my church after her house had been robbed. The thieves took everything of value—electronics, silver, family heirlooms. As we sat at her kitchen table, talking about the robbery, I noticed her journal was opened to a page entitled “Gratitude List.” The page was filled from top to bottom with things she was grateful for. She said she always made a gratitude list whenever anything bad happened to her. It helped her to see what she had.
Last week, as I sat in my living room, watching our thermometer reading break ninety, I made a list in my head. I was grateful for food, water, air conditioning, clothes, my husband, my daughter, music, literacy, books… The list went on. I could have sat there listing things all day, which is something in and of itself to be thankful for.
I still want a pool. The desire is as deep as the hole we’d have to dig in our yard if we decided to get one. I don’t wish this desire away. I don’t go to yoga and exhale it out like stale air. I like my desire. I like the fact that I don’t have something I want.
In the deep end of my heart, there is still a little girl who cries in the department store when her mother won’t buy her the doll she’s been stalking. Something in me empathizes with that little girl. I almost like her. She knows what she wants, and she wants it deeply. How inhuman it would be, to never feel the guilt of wanting something you know you don’t need. How very dull.