That swimming pool stuff: A personal essay

Illustration of a woman floating serenely on the surface of water that is shining from rays of light.
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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Three weeks into this unceremonious quarantine, I discovered that I had run out of shampoo in the guest shower of my family home. The thought of buying a brand new bottle in these circumstances, for my use at a home where I spend less and less time, felt futile, so I rummaged through a cabinet and decided the orange bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo would suffice. It is a gentle clean for sensitive hair, hairs that are the very first of their kind, and I suspected this change in product would probably leave me with greasy roots. But who’s going to see me anyway?

In the shower, I poured the shampoo into my palm and discovered the scent of swimming pools. Or rather, the scent of the hair-brushing session between my mother and me that would take place after an afternoon spent in chlorine-treated water. After a shower, she’d spray me down with Suave detangling spray — the green bottle with an octopus on it. 

From the ages of around 3 to 6, the most peculiar pattern followed me: Each time I ate scrambled eggs and swam directly after, my body would burst into angry, hot hives afterward. We’d pat on anti-itch cream, maybe run my back under a cool faucet, but we never could pinpoint the source of the reaction. My mom suggested it was just nerves. A decade and a half later, the hives have suspended their visits, but the stress of my preschool days have only compounded.

A highlight of summer used to be buying a new swimsuit from Target or Kohl’s — surveying the repertoire, adding in a new number to the mix for variety. I loved swimming pools; I loved wearing goggles and diving down to the 10-foot depths. You may have heard of it as the breaststroke, but to me this was the mermaid technique. My tiny, pruned fingers would touch the concrete bottom of the pool as I opted out of my peers’ Marco Polo game, sinking and floating at will in my private, imagined world. 

From the ages of 10 through 16, I did not purchase any bathing suits. This might seem odd, as those are the years the body changes most. It was simple: I didn’t like the way my legs looked, so I stopped swimming. There were different excuses: I don’t want to take out my contact lenses, I’m on my period, I don’t like the beach for the sand. On occasion, I would jump into the pool with athletic shorts disguising my body, the synthetic fabric weighing me down. And when I was 15 and an overzealous diet campaign birthed a body I finally felt was fit to see the light of day, it became a piece of pride to state jokingly that yes, I’ve had this bathing suit since fifth grade. Yes, it still fits.

It’s all fluid, that swimming pool stuff.

If one thing has been made certain by this pandemic, by the pain of unexpected goodbyes and heightened screen fatigue, it is that I do not like change. I never have. I cried for a full day in sixth grade just because my best friend was leaving our carpool. A carpool. And while my not having grown since sixth grade has injured me in the athletic and aesthetic realm, it has offered me a consolation of consistency in my physical perception. It allows the comforting option to keep clothes of previous, simpler eras just because they still fit. I do not like to see my body change because it is one of the few variables I believe I have control over.

One thing I’ve had no problem changing is my hair. I rinsed the Johnson’s shampoo out, stringing my fingers through a bleached portion of leftovers, having chopped off half of it two weeks prior. Hair grows back. I suppose everything is growing at every moment, but sometimes it can be hard to see. It’s all fluid, that swimming pool stuff.

———

Five months into this unceremonious quarantine, my roommates and I went to a swimming hole near Sacramento. With my back engulfed by the clear freshwater, I stared into the sky. I’ve learned that even the sky can be temporary; just four days later it would be clouded by smoke, red and angry, hiding the day. Just a month before, it had been illuminated with historic strikes of lightning.

I might just be growing up, or it could be a nihilistic symptom of coming of age in an era of apocalypse, but a lot of things I used to find terrifying don’t scare me anymore. I am coming to terms with my comical lack of jurisdiction over what the future holds. I don’t think my body is a site to be preserved or a tragedy to be mourned anymore. I don’t want to be anchored to myopic nostalgia or a number on a scale or a pile of ill-fitting clothes when I am realizing, maybe for the first time in my life, just how precious every day of sunshine is. 

I want to spend as many days as possible in the water, plunging into oceans and rivers with the awe of a child, shivering in cold as my hair is submerged. I will let my ears get plugged beneath the surface, my eyes closed and chin to the sky as I float along with the current. I will wear the new swimsuit I bought this year. I bought it because my old one didn’t fit.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].