Waterland

water 8I grew up in an apartment complex not far west of Chicago under a landing path that routed planes in and out of O’Hare airport.  I was eased daily by the ebb of sound, by the whistle and roar of heavy jets and the mill-thrush churn of propellors from smaller planes.  At the apartment complex we had a pool where I’d watch the planes land, able to tell their breed by their underbelly as they glided overhead.  Sometimes I would float on my back with my ears just below the water surface and listen to the plane noise and the muffle of the water took away nearly every other nearby sound and being left with just the engines made me feel like they were my own, as if we were the only things sharing the world’s space.  The pool was an “L” shape with a deep part and a shallow part and it bisected the two main networks of apartment buildings.  It all covered a huge space and on either side of the pool, the buildings that surrounded courtyards worked as imagined stands to pick-up baseball games us apartment kids would have.  These buildings were the stands we looked up into when rounding the first-base lamppost en route to the storm drain, then to the third fence post off the sharp corner jut, and, finally, to the patch of sunken dirt at the top of gradual upslope we used as home plate.  That fence marked off a kidney-shaped lake just adjacent to our courtyard field where I learned about ducks, watching them for hours, squinting to see through the water to watch their feet reach and pull, countering the stillness above the surface, the behind-the-curtain, the Hemingway iceberg.  We could get over the fence by climbing it if we had the reach or guts to balance against its bow under our weight or if we were able to grab high enough on the hair of one of the two enormous willows and swing, if we were able to fight the rubbery counter pull of the branches and press our knees into our bellies.  Though there was nothing really over the fence for us, that is, none of us ever wanted to swim in the lake and there was barely any grass or walkspace to survey or make much with, it was the act of cinematic adventure we were drawn to, of the spirited orchestral soundtrack, of seeing ourselves escape danger through the camera we imagined captured it all.  It was very “Indiana Jones” or “Romancing the Stone” for us, or, for me, anyhow.  Sometimes at night we’d track the perimeter of the fence looking for movement across the water while playing a war game, each of us strapped with very real-looking guns without a signal of artifice, no bright muzzles, no cartoonish shapes.  Nobody worried about lessening the now risk that maybe just wasn’t there twenty-five years ago.  Today we are too self-deputized, today we are too afraid of the ghost.

It was the pool, though, that defined summer, the pool where’d I’d wait for one of the neighborhood lifeguards to unchain the gate in the morning, where I’d leave midday to eat peanut butter sandwiches and watch Days of Our Lives, where I’d hurry back to till dusk.  The pool was where I fell in love in glimpses and labored during chicken fights, where I used the viscosity of water to sedate my movement enough so I could recreate slow-motion runs of famous football players, and where I watched leaves flip as afternoon storm clouds fattened.  It was all things in one hole filled with water.

In 1985, I shared the water.  I was 9 and the year was a hard one for my family, although I didn’t know it until I was older and aware of those types of things.  My mom became part of my summer fully because she got laid off and we spent every day together.  We walked to and from the pool and throughout the day listened to a faded purple radio my mom kept by her chair.  We laughed and watched planes and talked baseball and there was so much music.  Still today we quietly recognize a Tears for Fears song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as our route of nostalgia, our stenographic shorthand through flicks of tone.  The music is our autobiography, our time stamp.  It has moved with us as the glue to our memories, as an allowance to our looking back.

That summer makes me think of surfaces, of what’s released and what’s interred, of decisions on what to make loudly part of the world and what to keep quiet.  There was enough then to make that time about shortage but my parents found a way to create our narrative as one of joy, of fullness.  For one summer, even though we had less, we had more. Less money, but more time. Less things but more life. The sound of the economic worries muffled by the water, by planes, by music.  In a summer looked back upon amongst other good summers, then, everything was particularly right with our world.

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