When I think of summer, I think of the St. Charles Community Pool. Set back amongst pine and oaks in the corner of my hometown’s community park—the one with the rusty canon and the creaky swings and the water fountain within the mouth of a cartoonish-yellow concrete lion—this pool’s sidewalk perimeters are soaked with memories, permanently absorbed within the pools basin’s walls (along with the chlorine smell and urine, I suppose).
My mom signed my little brother and I up for swimming lessons at the St. Charles Pool when we were young. I learned the backstroke and the sidestroke and how to float on my back there. I learned to breathe underwater there.
I still remember.
The instructor took us to the pool wall, my small class of fellow students grasping the edge. “Kick,” she’d tell us, the sun beating down and the pool shining a not-natural aqua.
“Splash, splash, SPLASH.” I had a tendency to kick my legs a little too eagerly, my feet rising above the water, making flap, flap, gurgle noise with each hearty kick I made. Big splashes. Obnoxious splashes, really.
“Now,” our instructor would say, “Keep kicking, but gently.” She’d look at me when she said this. I eased up. “Hold the wall”—my little fingers would grasp the edge, smooth and rubbery like a dolphin’s side—“and I want you to talk to the magic fish.”
We all gasped. Magic fish?
The instructor nodded. “It’s a secret,” she explained, “but there are magic fish in this pool. They are invisible, but you can talk to them and they will hear you.” She glanced at us, hanging on her every word. “Do you want to know how?”
“Yes!” we all cried. My brown eyes were huge with excitement, the water reflecting in my pupils.
“Okay,” the instructor replied, tugging at her dark curly hair held back in a ponytail. “Watch.”
She lowered her torso and began to kick. With her fingers still clutching the pool’s edge, the instructor put her mouth to the water, pursed her lips and blew outwards. As if a pop can had been opened underwater, tiny bubbles gurgled to the top. I was amazed. The instructor lifted her mouth.
“Now I’m going to listen to hear if they talk back,” she explained.
We watched intently as she turned her head to the side, placing her ear into the water. Her face broke into a wide smile, freckles from the sun scattered across her nose and cheeks like cinnamon flakes. I liked her freckles.
“I heard them!” she said, lifting her ear from the water to stand upright next to me.
She nodded towards us, our little bodies awkwardly kicking like puppies. “Now it’s your turn.”
Yes. I smiled. Then I began kicking hard and fast as I gripped the pool wall. I wanted to hear the magic fish, too.
Slowly, I put my lips to the water, just as my instructor had done. I hesitated, then blew outwards, as if the water was blue bubble gum. To my delight, bubbles popped up, tiny ones, dancing and bobbing. I grinned, looking at the instructor.
“Good, Lindsay!” she said. “Now turn your head and listen to hear if they talk back.”
Oh yes, I thought. The best part.
I turned my head and placed my ear into the water. It felt funny, the cold water flowing in the crevices of my ear. I listened for the magic fish. Nothing.
Maybe I didn’t talk long enough, I thought. I turned my head and blew bubbles, more eagerly this time. I placed my ear back into the water. Listened. Nothing.
I blew bubbles. Listened. Blew bubbles. Listened. And soon enough, I was breathing.
It was a great technique the instructors used, the whole magic fish-thing. A few summers later, when my brother was listening for the fish and I was off in the deep end with the advanced class, I knew the magic fish weren’t real anymore. I wish I did, I often thought. I wish I believed. But with things like that, it’s like Santa Claus. Your gut eventually speaks loudly, and your belief switch turns off. Still, I asked my brother then if he talked to the magic fish.
“Yes!” he claimed. I smiled.
As I got older, the St. Charles Pool inspired feelings of excitement, nervousness and anxiety for me. It wasn’t about magic fish anymore. It was about Tom the High School Lifeguard and swimming by his stand, pretending to “just happen” to pop up from underwater right where he sat with that hot dog-looking lifesaver. George Strait’s “Carrying Your Love With Me” blasted from the pool’s gated office. I asked for that George Strait cassette tape for my ninth birthday that fall. When I hear the song now, it takes me back to the pool all over again. Funny how songs and smells do that.
The pool was where I sometimes saw classmates, but more importantly, crushes. Every time my mom took us to the pool when I was older, the butterflies would grow as I looked for my crush’s bike outside the pool gate. If he were there, my stomach would both flip with excitement and flop with anxiety. I needed extra bouts of Play It Cool vibes. Once I took my required pre-pool shower and walked into the pool area wearing my favorite bathing suit—a hot pink one-piece with a white tie-dyed heart my mom and I picked out at Meijer—I would “nonchalantly” glance to see where my crush was. Once I identified his location, I would actively avoid eye contact and the side of the pool he was swimming, then pretend I never saw him. I liked him, of course, so I avoided him. Some things never change.
The St. Charles Community Pool is closed now. I think it had to do with money and costs to keep it open or something like that. Recently, I drove my bike around the paved path that circles the pool. I couldn’t help but look past the gate and see the empty concrete basin of a pool, drained and chipped and cracked and empty. The dark forest green slide tubes, dismantled and disconnected like broken bones. The chipped paint and the dull wood. It’s depressing, really.
But the memories don’t fade for me, to my surprise. Even now, almost 20 years later, when I look up at a blue sky framed with pine trees and oak tree leaves swaying in the breeze, it takes me back to the pool. Where I had the same vision of the sky and the trees while floating lazily on my back in the cool water.
That’s what the pool is to me. Sunny skies and floating and hot days. George Strait and concession stand beef jerky sticks, splashing noises and bare feet on hot sidewalks. Magic fish and Tom the Lifeguard and fifth grade crushes.
Since the magic fish are invisible, I’ll pretend they still live there. In the empty basin of a pool full of memories.