At the Pool

It is the summer of my 11th year.

I am on the border between Spain and Portugal, and it is hot. It was hot all the way across Spain, and it’s hotter here, it feels like I am going to melt. I am not accustomed to heat of this level, coming from a temperate climate. Never have I wished more ardently for a sea breeze. I am guzzling water determinedly and it pours right off of me in the form of sweat. Thus, when we pass the pool, I am shrill and insistent in my demands that we stop so that I can take a swim. I imagine diving into cool water, I imagine the relief that will come with being entirely submerged.

We stop and pay the entry fee and root around in our bags for swimming clothes. Prior to puberty, my body was lean and clean, gender indiscriminate with shorts on. People referred to me as a boy, then, even with the long hair pulled back in a ponytail. I don’t know if it was the planes of my face or the way that I carried myself, but I was usually read as male and here at the pool, walking along the tile to the steps, it is clear that people think I am a little boy, perhaps not least because all I have on is shorts. My loathing for traditional swimsuits runs deep.

The shimmering water does indeed beckon and I dive in, porpoise-like, until I feel my head clearing. It is then that I can pay attention to my surroundings, and I realise that the pool has what I can only describe as a diving tower. It goes beyond mere diving boards. There are boards at multiple levels and at varying degrees of springiness and I, of course, decide that I must go to the very top. If I am going to dive, I want to do this right. No half measures.

There is a line of us waiting to dive, inching our way up the ladder and bunching at the back of the platform. We are slick and slippery, water evaporating off us in the heat, chloriney smell hovering around us in the air. I am surrounded by dark hair and dark eyes and people chatting in Portuguese and I am at sea in an alien land at the same time that I feel very much at home and bonded by our love of the water and of adventure.

When it is my turn, I am suddenly frozen with fear. The pool seems tiny and very far away. I wonder if it’s even possible to hit the pool from this height, or if I will drift off course and end up crashing into the tile. A teenaged boy notices my hesitance. He is wearing blue and white striped shorts and his hair is matted back against his skull with water and he smells like bitter oranges.

‘Aqui,’ he says, standing on the platform to show me how to stand. I step forward and he nods, carefully moving my arms into position. He models the movement of knifing into the water and then coming up again, and smiles. I smile back. It is infectious. The water still seems terrifyingly far away but I remind myself that everyone else has jumped before me successfully, and I shake my shoulders and somehow I feel very concentrated and focused in the moment and the sights and sounds and smells fade away and I shift into position and take a deep breath.

I dive, falling through the air like a stone and seeking so far to the bottom of the pool that I think surely I am going to slam into the bottom, but of course, I don’t. Instead, I bob up like a cork and I see the boy at the top of the tower. He waves at me and dives himself, neatly, so cleanly that the water barely splashes. The leaves that have drift onto the surface of the pool flutter for a moment before settling again.

I drift back to the side of the pool to lie on my towel and read a book, occasionally returning to the water when I start getting too hot again, and eventually we pack up and leave, arriving at last in Lisbon, where I have my sea breezes again.

I have never forgotten the boy at the pool. I don’t know why the memory sticks with me. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me at all, a single and very brief incident in a long life. He was a few years older than me, if I recall correctly. I don’t know if it was the day, or the heat and my fatigue, or the boy, or the pool, or what confluence of events it was, but the event is still clear in my mind. Sometimes I see him in my dreams, the boy, saying ‘aqui’ and reaching out to me.

I don’t remember much of Lisbon at all, other than feeling overwhelmed by sights and sounds and people and wanting to retreat into myself and being unable to, resorting instead to lashing out until people leave me alone, let me stay at the house, let me sit in the shade with a book. But I do remember the boy at the pool. I remember his hands on my arms and the smell of bitter oranges and his warm smile and that brief moment of connection with another human being, bound by common love of water and a sunny day at the pool.