Pool Buddy

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
June 22, 1998

When I was in junior high school, we spent the whole summer at the pool. The coolest kids had tans in May; I don't know how they did it. In 1971, when I was fourteen, there was a kind of bikini that was the absolute butter -- a little something held together at the hips and thorax by brass rings -- and early that summer the most popular of the popular girls had circles of untanned skin underneath those rings, and they would pose themselves at poolside with the suits twisted a little, so you'd notice the circles of white skin. I was a redhead with blond eyelashes who freckled like a banana, and I could never manage a low trick like that. I sunbathed anyway, and there were only a couple of days when I'd actually turn that sickening purply red in the process and my mom would make a soda-and-calamine lotion and plaster it on me at night. If you were lucky, the reward for all that sun was that your hair would get streaks. There was nothing special about our suburban pool, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. All summer, we girls lay horizontal, with the sunlight warm and pinkish on our closed eyes, and absorbed reassuring daily pool sounds: the shrieking lifeguard whistles, the unaccountable bursts of laughter, the grumbling P.A. announcements -- "Free swim is over!" -- and the soggy 'kshpratshh' of some fatso doing a last cannonball from the high board. All summer, we girls gave off two perfumes, subtly intermixed -- the choky smell of chlorine in our hair and Coppertone suntan lotion everywhere else. Coppertone smelled exactly like coconut Daiquiris, only we didn't know it then.

If you didn't have a summer boyfriend, you had to have a pool buddy. Going to the pool alone and just being there was too fraught and anxious; all of us moved in pairs or packs. As the school year wound down, I would start casting about for my pool partner, covertly comparing summer-camp schedules and family trips and registering who would be around and, like me, available. The summer of 1971, Norma Levy was my pool buddy, and we had a deal. One of us would call the other before heading off to the pool, and the other one had to be ready to leave at that same instant. Arriving together meant that neither of us ever had to emerge from the locker room alone, looking blinded and with her pallid skin glowing geekily. We never wanted to have to hunt around for a place to sit, or to approach a murmuring group and have no one in it yield an inch to make room for another towel. Together, Norma and I were safe. Each could count on the other to push her towel over to make room, and that way, side by side, with our towels touching, we had a raft, a cabana. We shared our snack-bar money and poured Coppertone onto each other's back, and we vowed never to ditch the other just because some guy had begun to talk to one of us over by the water fountain and asked her why not come sit with him in the shade. I intended not to do that, but sometimes, on a particularly hot day, when the guy really did have a green towel spread out under the maple tree, up behind the diving boards, I just had to. We all knew that an afternoon date by the pool might not amount to much -- might not even amount to a date the next afternoon. Still, it was worth it, even if it meant breaking faith with your pool buddy, because there was no summer moment more perfect than walking off past the diving board alongside someone cute like Randy Ginn and knowing that everyone else at the pool would see. Anyway, I knew Norma would have done it, too, given the chance, so in an instant I said a sheepish goodbye to her and headed off with him, leaving a dark imprint on the concrete where my wet towel had been, knowing that in another instant the sun would fade it away.

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