|MCG's son @ the Tuolumne Pool|
Her name was Colleen, and she ruled the pool. Each blow of her whistle was followed by a “Heeey, don’t run!” or “Get off the staaairs!” or “Nooo splashing!” She usually wore white-framed Vaurnet sunglasses that matched any of her brightly colored bikinis: a solid pink, a solid yellow, a solid turquoise, and white. When she wasn’t screaming at us and blowing her whistle, she’d spin it around her finger with the intensity of boxer jumping rope. With her left hand on her hip, she’d get that whistle spinning to the right, and once the string had wrapped itself around her index finger, she’d get it spinning to the left. It was like her special lifeguard lasso – you didn’t dare get too close.
I don’t know if it’s because she seemed to single me out, or because I was intimidated by her sun-bleached blond hair, and all-American beauty, or a combination of the two, but Colleen was my nemesis. She was everything I wasn’t: beautiful, blonde, and powerful. Sure, she was a bit thick around the hips and had cellulite, but to me she fit a standard unattainable to all those around me. All the kids who swam at the pool were afraid of her, and she seemed to revel in her role as queen of chlorine. You didn’t dare pee in the water anywhere near Colleen’s umbrella perched high above the mass of sun damaged bodies. She was tightly wound, that was for sure, but it’s true that the majority of the kids at the Tuolumne pool had been sent, or dropped off, by parents without jobs who used the pool like they used elementary school, as a babysitter, only the pool stayed open much later and there was no homework.
It always seemed that nearly half the town’s kids were there. Even on weekends, after having walked fifteen minutes to get there with my brother in tow, wearing a hand-me-down hot pink bikini, which glowed against my sun baked skin, there was always a line of kids waiting at the gate before the pool had even opened. Even though we lived month to month on a skimpy welfare check and food stamps, my mom always managed to scrounge enough change from pockets of dirty pants and under the couch cushions to get us into the pool and enough for a treat even though she didn’t like us eating candy. Meanwhile, she’d stay home, drink coffee, and get stoned with her friends. We’d usually see their kids at the pool or across the street in line at the little store -- a lot of poor and working-class white kids, and a few super dark Me-wuk kids from the rancheria, and me and my brother, two of the only Mexican kids in town, passing as town Me-wuks. Like my brother and me, the Me-wuk kids never came to the pool with their parents; they often came without towels. They’d simply lie down on the hot, scratchy pavement, their skin turning ashy until they jumped back into the pool and emerged dark and glistening from the blue water.
There were a few kids who came to the pool with their parents; these parents often wore swim caps and nose plugs while they splashed around in the water with their spawn, or sat on big colorful towels in the shade. They were an oddity and their kids complete dorks. I don’t think I ever heard Colleen or any of the other much younger lifeguards tell those kids to take a shower before entering the pool, and they never came wearing cut-offs, so they were never turned away. I had seen a couple of teen Me-wuks with long, dark hair, wearing fringy cut-offs who paid to get in to the pool, get kicked out after diving into the deep end and pulling themselves out of the water to reveal long, bleached out, denim strings snaking down their legs and dripping with water.
Colleen always glared at me. Maybe I wasn't the only one, but I could feel her glare track me whenever I had to walk passed her and her flying whistle lasso on the way to the diving boards. There were two boards, the low board and the high board. Just climbing the stairs to the top of the high board made my stomach flop over, but it was a fear I knew I had to conquer. Some days, I’d march right past Colleen, daring to get close to the blur of her whistle, and other days, I’d walk the long way around the pool, opposite of Colleen, as slow as I could until I reached the high board. I’d let a kid or two who seemed more eager cut in front of me, and once the board was empty, I’d make a panicked assent to the top. The slight bounce of the board under my feet gave me a floaty, slow motion feeling that I savored, as I made my way out to the tip. It was exhilarating to be up so high above the smell of coca butter, baby oil and chlorine. Inevitably, my thoughts were interrupted.
“Heeeey, you on the board; you’re taking tooo lonng,” Colleen would
scream and blow a long shrill blast on her whistle.
When spooked, I would turn and make my way to the stairs then down, each one a mark of inadequacy.
I only remember Colleen using my actual name one time – it made me feel so important.
“Michelle, is there anyone else in there?” I had just walked out of the changing room, “I need to send one of the guys in to unclog a toilet,” but normally she’d shriek, “Hey!!!!!!!” or “Hey, you!!!!”
After about the third summer in row of Colleen screaming and blowing her whistle in a way that had nothing to do with saving my life, I forgot about wanting to disappear. Instead, more swiftly than ever before, I climbed the ladder, hand, foot, hand, foot, then pulled myself up and onto the board, and marched to the end. Hesitating at the tip, I waited for Colleen to notice, and I forced myself to jump at the first blast from her whistle. I heard a “heey” cut short as I fell through the air, until, splash; I was under the water, fighting my way back to the top.