When I was 14, I used to hang out at a public pool in Raleigh, North Carolina. Back in those days, I was usually with 4 of my girlfriends. We spent a lot of our time there within the extremity of a hot southern summer. We pretended we wanted to meet boys, but in all actuality, we enjoyed the greasy food, the fountain sodas, and the popsicles. We pretended we wanted to be away from our parents even though they’re the ones who taught us how to swim.
This particular day was cloudless and the summer was everywhere. Towels dotted the grass creating one massive protective quilt. The smell of suntan oiled skin moved through the air on visible waves of humidity as we sat on benches surrounding a snack bar. I could feel the wooden planks leaving their marks along my pale thighs.
Like most southern days, it was probably around 100 degrees and that didn’t include the asphyxiating humidity. Kids were playing in the grass. A mother held her 5-year-old son beneath the shade of the snack bar’s awning. From the protection of her folded legs, he made eye contact with me a few times. Finally, the boy stood up and walked over to me. He smiled.
Upon breaking the silence, I smiled back at the boy.
How are you today?
The boy bored a hole to the inside of his cheek with his tongue. His shyness battled with curiosity, He looked down and then up again. He looked at me and then at his mother.
He walked back to his mother and plopped down again onto her lap. She ruffled his hair with her chlorine-wrinkled fingers. I watched and understood.
–-ing with you.
I wasn’t sure what his mother said. It almost sounded like the F Word, a word even my 14-year-old impressionable self hadn’t yet agreed to.
–-ing with you.
I’ve always been hard of hearing. My ears and what they’re meant to do have always frustrated me to say the least. They frustrate me because I often hear something entirely different from what someone is actually saying. If I don’t hear a person, I try and fill in the blanks on my own. I’ll put together the scenario (who said it, what we’re doing, what was said before, how they said it, their tone of voice, etc.) By process of elimination I’ll hopefully eventually figure out what they said and whatever words or syllables I didn’t hear. (Unfortunately, when I was 14, I lacked tact, experience, and maturity. I’ve gotten better at this process since.)
His mother smiled at me. All I could think was why would a mother say this sort of thing about her son? Why would anyone say such a thing? This time, instead of using another “What?” I opted to repeat what I thought I had heard. A repeat I’d tack a question mark onto.
He’s fucking with me?
The southern humidity began to erode the moment. And in spite of desire, I couldn’t stop it from happening. The moment I spoke, I had begun to erase it, a destroyed moment I would ironically never forget. The color drained from her face as did the summer around us.
I would never say that in front of my son. I said, ‘He’s flirting with you.’
I wanted to explain to this woman that I had thought the same thing. I wanted to explain to her that I was hard of hearing and surprised and apparently a bit naive. Feeling angular within a circular moment, tucked somewhere uncomfortable between childhood, adolescence, and the desire for independence, I felt like disappearing into the humid air. Instead, as everything else began to fall apart around me, I became louder and more hideous. She collected her belongings, scooped up their towels, and put out her open hand for her son to take hold of. As they moved away from me, my yearning for independence began to dissipate. I imagined taking her hand, my upper arms draped in orange Swimmies, my head stuffed into a blue bathing cap. I imagined running away from me, diving directly into the pool, and washing off these words associated with independence and ignorance and the ugliness of adulthood.