When I was nine years old and my sister Shelly was thirteen we drove to Orlando to spend a week with Cousin Ed at his new condo. We’d officially moved from New York to DC a few weekends before, and the weeks followed were a bleary-eyed tumult as we tried to set up our new lives and worked at cross purposes to reestablish boundaries and battle lines in a new house. When Ed sent pictures of himself by his new pool my father agreed that we could all use a few days off. “The girls will have fun,” he kept telling people, as if we were the only ones going crazy.
We rented a station wagon, the kind with so much wood paneling on the sides that you might think an entire tree had gone into making it, and left the District before sunrise. Mom had changed into something that could pass for real clothes but Shelly and I were still in our pajamas, and because it was the eighties and child safety hadn’t been invented yet, Shelly stretched out on the back seat and I tucked myself in between the suitcases in the back and we both went back to sleep. I slept all the way to breakfast in North Carolina, and for the rest of the trip Shelly and I sang, fought, joked, yelled, complained, begged for food, and insisted that we needed to pee again. It was fun.
Ed had moved to Orlando earlier in the year, and for a moment it looked like his life was finally coming together. Even my innocent little eyes could tell that Ed had been only barely holding on to whatever it was that grown-ups held on to, but a new job and a change of scenery seemed to be good for him.
His condo was in a gated community comprised of what looked like hundreds of boxy four-story apartment buildings that stood in odd clusters connected by needlessly winding streets. The buildings all looked the same except for the colors. They were all pastels: light blue, light green, light yellow, light pink. I suppose those were actually light red, but light red is just pink.
Ed’s light blue building was the best in the neighborhood because it was in front of the pool, and his apartment was the best in his building because he was on the first floor, and the sliding glass door in his living room opened to a little patio that spilled directly out to the pool deck. Shelly and I politely endured the greetings and gifts and candies that Ed provided, and together we even managed to get one of the suitcases out of car and at least partway down the sidewalk, but we were desperate to get into the pool and as soon as Mom indicated that we had satisfied our duties we got changed and dove in headfirst.
Under normal circumstances, we would not have been allowed to dive headfirst. Or to dive at all. Or run on the slippery pool deck. Or get in the water without an adult. Pool safety had already been invented, I guess. But we were on vacation, and on vacation you can suspend all the normal rules because nobody ever gets hurt on vacation, right? So we ran along the slippery deck and dove in without an adult watching, without even checking to see how deep the water was. I got out right away to tell my parents that the pool was amazing and to celebrate that we were here and maybe to make sure I wasn’t in trouble but mostly because I was excited, and I remember clearly seeing my Dad sitting with Ed, laughing, drinking a beer while Ed smoked a cigarette, as Mom came out of the house with wine cooler in one hand and a bag of potato chips in the other. The world might as well have turned upside down. I leaped back in the pool.
New Yorkers in Florida for the first time: we were like zoo animals accidentally released back into the wild. We didn’t even know what to do. We went to shopping malls. We bought shirts that we would never wear outside of the house, or even inside the house if there was company or an open window. We ate fast food for lunch and had dinner at a restaurant located in a strip mall. Mom and Dad both drank odd-colored cocktails in strangely-shaped plastic cups, not just at night but during the day, too. There was no bedtime, and there were several bags of chips open at any given time. Ed had cable television and Shelly and I discovered a world we’d only heard about from kids with divorced parents–we kept flipping back and forth between MTV and Nickelodeon as if either one would disappear if left untended for long.
On the third morning that we were there I woke up way before everybody else, as was my custom. Ed lived alone but he had two bedrooms anyway; he slept in one by himself and my parents slept in the other. Shelly slept on the couch in the living room, and I slept on top of my sleeping bag on the rug in front of the couch. Except for me and the TV that nobody had turned off the night before, everyone and everything was unconscious. I looked up at the TV for a while, I don’t know how long, but the feeling that my day was slipping away quickly overtook me. The day before my parents hadn’t woken up until almost ten. Shelly hadn’t woken up until Ed pushed her off the couch–playfully, of course, but she hit the ground with such a resounding thud that even Mom laughed. I had spent several hours alone watching TV and–eventually, reluctantly–reading.
But we were in Florida, and it was already daylight and warm and we were only going to be here for a few more days and I would never ever never have a pool right in front of my door again. And although I knew that my mother would never approve, and that if we were back home and I even thought about it I would get into serious trouble, we were on vacation and all rules were off, right? I went into the bathroom and changed into my bathing suit, which was still a little wet from the day before. I didn’t try to be secretive about it. I sang to myself while I got dressed. Not full-volume, of course, but loud enough. If somebody woke up then they could come out and join me, or at least keep a responsible adult eye on me. I actually kind of would have preferred it.
But nobody did. I brushed my teeth, flushed the toilet, let my feet slap on the kitchen floor while I filled a glass with tap water and shoved a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch into my mouth and, well, crunched it. Nothing. I padded barefoot across the living room and opened the door. It made a reassuringly loud shushing sound as it opened, and still nobody responded. At that point I figured that I had done my due diligence.
I stepped out into the morning and walked, and then ran, to the pool. Right along the edge, I ran past the shallow end to where the water turned deep blue, and with pure unbridled joy I leaped into the air over the water and missed.
My feet hit the cold water just fine. But a split second later my jaw crashed onto the cement rim of the pool, right around the sign that said “9 FT.” The resounding crack split right through my skull and veiny red streaks of pain shot through all of me at once. The recoil sent me back a few feet towards the center of the pool. My eyes watered, my teeth hurt, and my stomach tightened itself into a furious little ball. I remember looking up at the buildings surrounding the pool, how the colors on them and on everything else seemed to bleed outside of the lines, as if I’d drawn with a magic marker on the wrong kind of paper. The colors bled and then ran and then turned gray.
I couldn’t move anything on my body but somehow I stayed afloat and drifted towards the center of the pool. Slowly, slowly, the colors came back and then went back inside their lines. The last thing that broke the spell was when the gentle waves I’d created carried the end of my own ponytail into my open mouth, and I was able to use my hand to pull the hair out. I turned over–gently, gently–and paddled back to the shallow end, trying to move as little as possible.
I didn’t get out of the pool. I moved onto the pool’s second step and just sat there. I checked my chin with the back of my hand: no blood. Maybe a bruise, but nothing torn. I ran my tongue over my teeth: no obvious damage. My head still screamed bloody murder but little by little that, too, subsided to a dull roar.
I told myself, “If you cry, they’ll never let you do this again.” It was a truth as clear and profound as any that had ever passed through my nine-year-old mind, and this held me together until eventually I was able to slide down one more step, and then one more, and then get my head underwater, and then move back and forth across the shallow end of the pool.
This was what I was doing when my dad came out, in his robe and sunglasses, sipping from his coffee cup. “Don’t go in the deep end if nobody’s watching,” he said. Then after a few moments he went back inside. That was it.
I stayed in the pool for a little longer and then dried myself off, got changed, and spent most of the rest of the day watching TV quietly, impressed by my newfound stoicism and unaware of the ways, good and bad, that it would guide me in the years to come.