Octopus' Garden

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Maybe I am five. Or six, at most. It is summer. The Red Cross swim lessons are held at the high school. I have a navy blue swimsuit with a red stripe and an applique anchor. Very nautical. An alternating red towel and a blue towel. A bright yellow bag with brass grommets and braided handles, inside which my name is written in black magic marker. A pink swim cap with bubbles on it that makes me think of the song "Tiny Bubbles" that I once had to dance to in a ballet recital. The cap has an adjustable chin strap that stretches under my chin and snaps with a metal snap on the other side. Sometimes I like to chew on the strap of my swim cap in the car on the way to the swim lessons. It tastes like rubber bands. When my mother catches me chewing on the strap she gets mad at me.

The swim caps of this time period are outrageously ill-conceived, and oftentimes involve ululating rubber fronds of appliqued anemones or bulbous bubbles like plastic bubble wrap in the most garish colors possible: safety-cone orange, radioactive fuchsia, Travelodge blue. I don't know what people were thinking back then.

The pool is turquoise blue. It reminds me of a clear blue cough lozenge--the aggressively minty kind that hurt a little bit when you suck on them. I remember the smell of chlorine: pungent, bleachy, stinging my eyes until they became red swollen slits. How the chlorine lingered in my pores for days, as if I were pickled in it.

The swim teacher's name is Darryl. He has a blonde afro. He makes us do lots of bobs on the side of the pool, which seems like an essentially useless activity. He teaches us how to float. He tries to coax me into jumping into the pool, which I don't want to. My parents have told me far too many stories about the dangers of drowning. It seems counterintuitive. He is kind. He doesn't make me do what I don't want to do, even though at home my mother yells at me and insists that I'm shaming my parents because I don't want to jump into the damn pool. I fail Minnows the first time around, thus embarking on a lifelong career of Filial Disappointment. It's an ugly scene.

There's a fountain for rinsing out the swimsuits after the lessons. It squirts out cold water when I step on a pedal on the floor. There's a ringer with a hand crank for squeezing out the swimsuits. They come out damp and flat. I am very, very careful not to let my fingers get too close to the ringer. I am a pathologically anxious child. In five years I will play my first solo piano recital. In five years I will take my first college class.

There is a girl named Vicky who has asthma. She is painfully thin and shivers incessantly--constantly covered in goosebumps. Her lips are always a little bit blue. There is another girl named Vicky who is loud and round. One day, she inexplicably jumps into the deep end, even though she doesn't know how to swim yet, and she just sinks to the bottom. Darryl dives in after her, pulls her up, puts her on his back and swims her back to the shallow end. The rest of us are all a little envious, to tell the truth.

There is a lifeguard named Michelle who is in high school. She seems impossibly grown-up and sophisticated, with her blonde hair, glamorous tan, and actual breasts. Her locker is full of mysterious powders, lotions and paraphernalia: plastic razors, blowdryers and curling irons, Tickle antiperspirant, Coppertone, nail polish, and lipstick. When she showers, the entire girls' locker room becomes awash in the scent of strawberry shampoo. She is simultaneously fascinating and anxiety-provoking, and all the boy lifeguards cluster around her like lovesick grapes.
posted by Artichoke Heart at 11:01 PM


Oh, yes, I remember being on a swim team as a small child, and we had a lifeguard named Becky who seems very similar to your Michelle. Becky also had actual breasts. I don't recall much else about her.

M. Luminous
Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:42 AM  
Lovesick grapes -- that's a wonderful image. And chlorine *still* has that pickling effect on me, which my cat seems to enjoy tremendously but which I decidedly do not.

Excellent vignette ....
Blogger Shelley, at 10:42 AM  
Travelodge blue is brilliant. Being a violinist since the age of 5, I have always had trouble with group games in which balls are thrown at or toward or anywhere near me because my instinct is, and always has been, to tuck my hands into my arm pits as soon as the ball or frisbee or whatever it is, comes hurtling toward me. I catch most of these with my face. Also, when I fall, which, oddly, happens a lot, I do the hand tuck and land on my head.

I don't know where you live but if you're near Seattle I'll invite you to my upcoming concert. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. I'll even score you a free ticket and take you to a drunken musician party after where all the drunken musicians talk about fascinating artistic things, mainly other drunken musicians.
Blogger Radish King, at 12:19 PM  
Thank you, Luminous and Shelley!

And Rebecca, I am now feeling desolate that I'm nowhere near Seattle, b/c I would love to come to your upcoming concert, replete with post-concert drunken musician party. I have an entire book that is really a lengthy post-mortem of my fancy music school experience with extensive discussion of drunken musicians. If I weren't so shy about it, I would ask you to read it for verisimilitude.
Blogger Artichoke Heart, at 11:51 PM  
I would love to read it. I did time at San Francisco Music Conservatory. I've got umm, fancy music school cred.
Blogger Radish King, at 12:38 AM  
Rebecca, you so totally have fancy music school street cred. Maybe if I reassure myself that at least the most visible suckage has been cleaned up . . . ?
Blogger Artichoke Heart, at 1:04 PM  
Even if not, I love that kind of story. rebeccadotloudonatgmaildotcom
Blogger Radish King, at 1:58 PM  

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