The main condition for the design, we said to the contractor standing in our Knoxville back yard 15 years ago, is for the pool to look like it’s been here since the house was built, in 1926. Yes, he said, he thought he could do that. No vast expanse of boring white concrete pool deck, we continued. And no bilious blue bottom. Make it look inviting, and make it look like it belongs here. The man nodded as he made notes on his clipboard, which he viewed through the most beaten-up pair of eyeglasses I’d ever seen, bespeckled with flecks of gunite, the special concrete that soon would fill the gaps within a rebar form deep in a hole under the lawn where we now stood and sketched out plans. This one definitely won’t be like any of the others we’ve built, he conceded at the end of our meeting.
In the end, we managed to create a small, oasis-like sanctuary where there once was an expanse of asphalt driveway, and more recently lawn, my ex-husband and I. Tucked tightly but neatly into a private corner behind the house, the pool was almost a rectangle, but not quite: the end of it curved slightly, more or less like an elongated comma, where the old driveway hooked around and to the right, so you could pull into a garage once upon a time. You could still swim laps in a pool designed like this, which is what mattered; we calculated 90 lengths, or 45 laps, amounted to a mile, give or take.
Our swimming pool served as a forgiving resource for exercising the body, for two adult people who had not quite reached middle age, not officially, but there sat The Next Chapter, poised just on the horizon, leering at us a little, sending up few warning signals here and there. You will not be able to run thirty miles a week forever, it foreshadowed through torn sinew and even one stress fracture. The pool, we correctly predicted, would serve also as a gathering place for family and friends. It would be the perfect venue for a difficult child just then entering his middle school years, his own kind of sanctuary, where he could exhaust some of his tireless energy and be with his friends where we could keep an eye on all of them.
Our home office—once upon a time the garage—looked out onto the water through two pairs of French doors. On the other long side of the pool, just opposite them, stretched a masonry wall separating us from our neighbors. But the west-facing windows on the second-story guest quarters over their garage looked directly down into our otherwise private retreat. So we planted a bamboo ‘hedgerow’ in front of the existing wall. If you know anything at all about bamboo, you know during the warm summer months it grows the way wildfire spreads, rapidly and without provocation. You can measure a stalk of bamboo in the morning, and by late afternoon you’ll see new growth. And the next morning fresh shoots will have poked their way through the soil around it. You don’t plant bamboo without being fully committed to it. In short, we had a privacy wall that rose a solid two stories and even higher in no time flat, thanks to the bamboo proliferation—a nice addition, even with all those bothersome yellow leaves to clean out of the pool’s skimmer baskets every day.
What I could not have predicted then was how soon our family would scatter like those leaves, and our marriage end—and with it, all would be lost. The pool marked the beginning of the end; the very week it was finished and filled, when Knoxville’s temperate spring days had warmed just enough for a pair of fourth-graders to gather up their water guns and noodles and jump in, the first in a series of, what? Tragedies? Or just stupid mistakes? would insinuate itself into our family life. The boy would wake up one morning alienated from most of the friends he had known since preschool. And his parents would search for answers and strategies to help him walk the straight and narrow through some very bad days, and then weeks and months, and one colossally horrible year, before everything finally came unglued for good. Still, the pool offered respite from all of that, if ephemeral, and from grownup acquaintances who lacked the fortitude or compassion to stand by us through difficult times.
I’ve been thinking about that pool lately, after I saw something recently that reminded me how much I love the distinctive shadows water casts on a flat surface. Specifically, standing at the kitchen sink in front of the window in my Knoxville home, I could see those dancing, luminous shadows outside, thrown up against that masonry wall, and I could even see them playing on the ceiling inside our house. How glorious! I could walk out the back door, the one just off the kitchen, and in about ten or so strides step down into the pool and sit on the steps, the weight of the world levitating right off my shoulders and floating out into the ether.
A friend once observed that water is the best salve for so many conditions, not least of all the human one. The primal element for cleansing the body, even for washing away sin, say millennia of believers. The medium for soothing the tired, over-wrought muscles and skeleton at the end of an impossibly long day. Every mama knows the bathtub is the best answer to a fussy baby or toddler who refuses sleep, or who might have been a bit feverish, or was teething and couldn’t find solace by any other means. But once his soft, slippery, bare bottom settled into that soapy, warm bath, surrounded by sweet smells and enticing toys and sparkling bubbles glowing with the full color spectrum, you could feel your tiny little boy’s body begin to relax, distracted by the sensorial theatre going on around him. Even the family dog had to come and see what was happening, to lap up some tub water to the utter delight of the little person sitting in it.
And so was that pool a theatre of sorts for me in two of the last three years I lived in my Knoxville home. After long days teaching ballet, after I turned the deadbolt at the school and drove the short distance to home, my habit was to tuck under my arm the folded NY Times I’d gathered up from the ballet school lobby, and head outside to the pool with wine in hand and our family’s sweet Shiloh Shepherd, Teddy Blue on my heels. I relaxed into a chair at the shallow end and put up my feet while the waterfall in the deep end gurgled satisfyingly and endlessly. The pool’s dark gray bottom and blue-green mosaic tiles attracted dragonflies—or were they damsel flies? I could never be sure—in precisely the same colors, that hovered just above the surface of the water the way they do, staring at you with their enormous, prehistoric-looking eyes, before they skittered off to wherever such creatures retreat. By nightfall the pool’s lights were on and the newspaper was finished. When the mosquitoes were not bad, I lingered there as long as I could, with Teddy content to sniff around in the yard for awhile before he curled up under my feet on the flagstones that still radiated heat from the day.
There was nobody else around on most occasions. There was a husband busy at a well-conceived but untimely restaurant that would almost be his undoing, with this household and the one person in it far removed from his work life there. And a boy, now a young man, was alternately away at a school that was trying mightily to help him work through big problems, occasionally home but often absent, or home and completely disconnected from the immediate world and instead engaged in a faraway universe as viewed on a screen, connected through headphones and a tiny mic to strangers who held sway over him for long hours. They were not happy times, but they are over, and although our family didn’t survive, we certainly have individually.
I miss the pool. I realize how one-percent-sounding it is. A First World problem, some might say. That’s minimizing something big a tad too much, if you ask me. Or maybe it’s deserved. I’m glad I had the delicious opportunity to live like that, at least for a while. But there’s enough distance between me and that final painful year now, that I can strip away some of the most pungent layers and find the sweetness beneath them. On these difficult Vermont winter days, I’m happy to live in my head a little, to open the sunny back door inside it and walk outside in a pair of flip flops, with my folded paper and glass of wine, maybe some Gypsy Kings as my soundtrack, or maybe Eric Satie, and simply relish being alive and loved.