This spring, as mask restrictions began to ease and hope for a normal summer rose like pollen in the air, we began talking about the pool. The pool had been our oasis last summer, our way to escape the muddy chaos of the pandemic and disappear into a bright blue world free of fear.
I bought my daughter a new one-piece in anticipation of pool season and mended my swim bag with the torn handle. As I pushed my needle through the thick, plasticky canvas, a lingering hint of sunscreen escaped from the bag and tickled my nose, teasing me with memories of luminous summer days.
We are beach people; we live in the Ocean State. My daughter collects mermaid’s purses, starfish and quahog shells the size of softballs; the smell of the bay wafts in her through her open window at night, ruffling the curtains with its salty-sweet breath.
But last year, only a few months into the pandemic, the beach, like so many other things, felt exhausting. "Everything is hard," I told my 9-year-old daughter. "I need easy." She nodded.
Our community pool was easy, so we signed up.
I had kept a pool bag packed with essentials and refreshed it every night with clean towels and quick eats. We approached the pool with tactical, almost militaristic, zeal. Most summer mornings my daughter and I lingered in our pajamas, then bolted down breakfast, yanked swimsuits onto our clammy bodies and drove ambulance-style to the pool to get our pick of the striped umbrella chairs grouped in COVID-safe pods. For the first half-hour, we were often the only ones swimming.
Summer is usually a Twister game of avoidance for me, hoarding as much air conditioning as possible while still trying to be a fun mom. But we had lived inside for months, and suddenly, unexpectedly, I craved the sun like sugar. Each hour spent in its embrace filled me with optimism, something that no quantity of vitamins or living room yoga had been able to achieve.
Our days at the pool accumulated like badges and my pale Scottish skin got browner. My tan felt like a hug, something that we, as a society were not allowed to do anymore. The rays bleached my neglected grey roots white, erased my eyebrows from my face and made constellations of brown freckles explode all over my arms and chest. At night, I felt my sun-soaked skin expanding and contracting like a galaxy.
COVID restrictions somehow kept the pool peaceful despite the shrieks and squeals of kids as they hurled themselves off the diving board or pelted one another with squirt guns. There always seemed to be just the right amount of people to fill up the umbrella chairs — and no more. The locker rooms were closed, so pool members were given a special shortcut from the parking lot that led straight to the snack bar where we had our temperature taken and then could leave the world, and our masks, behind us.
The freedom we found there gave my daughter and me something to look forward to during a time when much of our world was still muted and shut down. Lithe and sleek as an otter, she spent four, six or even eight hours in the water perfecting tricks and diving for toys, emerging only for a proffered Fudgsicle purchased for $1 from the snack bar. The sadness and anxiety that had puddled up in her during rainy months of isolation evaporated bit by bit every day and were replaced with sanguine joy.
We gushed about our pool to anyone who would listen and planned to be the very last bodies forced out with the last gasp of summer, but August slouched to an end with an unseasonably cold week and our pool closed with little notice or fanfare just after Labor Day.
On opening weekend of this year, we showed up late. The locker rooms were open again, so there was no more shortcut. When I opened the door onto the pool deck, I saw not an oasis but a circus. People were swarming the deck and the blue water was rollicking, sloshing out of the pool under duress from so many writhing, splashing, diving bodies. All of the umbrella chairs were taken, so we plopped our things on a plastic picnic table. My daughter carried on, happy to be back at the pool but I stared and seethed.
“What happened?” I asked one of the lifeguards. “No more restrictions, we opened to the pool to absolutely everyone,” she said. I stared back at her. Everything is back to normal, she said with a smile. But this wasn’t my normal.
“It’s opening day,” the program director said with a shrug. “It will settle down.” But it never did.
The first official day of school vacation, we planned and packed and headed to the pool early, aiming to be the first ones there, but as we emerged from the locker room, we were herded into a throng of sweating, squirming families holding sparkly inflatable innertubes. There was a line to get into the pool. The teenaged attendant, overwhelmed by the queue of griping, irritated members, swung the doors open at 11:50 a.m. after making us promise that we wouldn’t put a toe in before noon. Everyone raced, Black Friday-style, to grab umbrella chairs.
For the first time in a year and a half, I wished that things were a little less normal.
Five minutes later, I sat greedily in the meager shade of the umbrella that I had fought off another family for, watching the water populate and teem with bodies. For the first time in a year and a half, I wished that things were a little less normal.
We made half-hearted stabs at more pool days until we were waitlisted one afternoon in July and forced to wait in the steamy hallway, where tempers rose faster than Fahrenheit, for almost an hour. After that my daughter suggested we “find something else to do."
So we returned to the beach, where we dove through frothy waves that tumbled us like rocks. We laughed and held hands and smiled at the sweetness of our afternoons, then drove home with salt flaking off our faces.