I hold her squirming, slippery toddler thighs, evasive like slick eels. She clomps her feet down, uneasy steps in the little pool, even with the extra buoyancy of the chlorinated water. She likes to open her mouth, like a great whale, letting the pool seep in, then out through her widely spaced teeth, two on top, two on bottom. She, surprisingly, exults in going under, seems to fall purposely: Oops! Silly me! Throwing her head back, eyes squeezed tight shut as she leads with her upturned chin, mouth open, nostrils flared, beckoning the water toward her until she is fully immersed, sinking, trusting that I’ll catch her, lift her upright to breathe clear air. As she emerges, a look of unadulterated glee followed by just the faintest hint of melancholy. A mermaid she wishes she could be.
She is so thin and graceful, wearing an electric blue bikini, mousy hair. I’m surprised when she approaches me poolside. Overweight and awkward, I wear my pudginess like armor; it keeps me humble, it keeps me introverted. I long to be charming, liked. Don’t we all at this preteen age? (At every age.) I can’t believe it: friends with me? She’s inquisitive, chatty, polished. I feel more elegant just being near her. It is revealed eventually, this is the truth: I am just a means to her end, a conduit for connection to my tall, older brother. He has reached the golden age: past gangliness, past acne, post-braces. I’m in awe of him too.
I’m learning to swim in the side pool, previously a hot tub but converted to what we call “the baby pool.” A bridge of dark brown tiles, just an inch under the surface, divides the tiny pool from the larger. Like a stumpy appendage, a bleb of an outgrowth, the small pool protrudes. The older kids like to coast back and forth on their tummies, sliding like monk seals. I can barely touch the bottom, on my tippy toes I bounce along, suspended for just a moment, like a moonwalking astronaut. A perimeter ledge for seating, I leap from side to side arms outstretched with orange inflated “muscles,” skinny legs flailing behind me. Sometimes I sink under with the effort, sour liquid up my nostrils, eyes stinging from chlorine. I grab the a handhold of smooth tile, turn, and try again.