Meditations on swimming pools

Sit up, drank, stand up, drank

Artwork by Jess Zlotnick

It’s a late summer evening and the twilight sky mixes with the heady fragrance of star jasmine and recently burnt birthday candles. I’m fifteen years old, at a party for identical twins. Sitting by their backyard swimming pool, a friend and I dangle our legs in the water, and she swishes her ankle in circles creating a steady looping current that disturbs the mosquitoes hovering above the surface.

“I had sex.”

She stops moving, allowing the pool to settle in eddies around her like lime jelly. In response to her secret, I let out an anxious half laugh. She starts to cry.

In the moments after, I remember feeling nauseated by the faint smell of chlorine. She immediately played it off, it’s just sex right? It was consensual. It’s just something new. We are going to have heaps of sex! I wasn’t nearly as okay with it. After we had dried off, I grabbed my lolly bag and went home to scrawl angsty feelings of jealousy and resentment in my Smiggle diary.

Even six years later, as if magnetised, my mind retreats back to the curdled humidity of that February night. I’ll be on the bus or ordering my soy latte and suddenly re-submerged, listening to her confession beside that chlorine campfire. It’s like a bruise I cannot help but push.

I’ve always thought of the swimming pool as a kind of theatre. Not just a backdrop but a crucible, distilling behaviour into spectacle. Drama is evoked in the pool’s very architecture, with the flapping flags, bright colours of the lane dividers,  and splashing sounds ricocheting off tiles.

I swam competitively growing up. It’s where I learnt what it meant to win and where I became aware of my nakedness, dipping in and out of the water, catching glimpses of tan lines on thighs, shoulders and legs. Spending most of my summers poolside, the pool in its various iterations has encompassed my life like a caul.

Cinema shares a similar intimacy with the space. Against the glittering blue, bodies gleam, wealth toils and eroticism thrives by the water. Take anything from James Franco’s motel pool romp in Spring Breakers, to Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet’s peach-eating Italian romance in Call Me By Your Name.

When I ask my friend Bella, an ex-state level competitive swimmer, about her relationship with the water, she calls the pool her “tissue”, describing how she feels a compulsion to swim during times of grief.

“For me it’s like swimming through your issues. Tumbling through them. The water makes me calm. I think anything you do from childhood becomes like that. It helps me to resurface my goals.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that we feel this cathartic comfort in the water, when we consider that the adult body is over half water. Cambridge Professor Pamela Hirsch draws a more literal association, explaining that “semen”, “sweat” and “tears” all exist in a similar liquid state. In 2017, researchers at the University of Granada, found that even blue-coloured light, like that from a swimming pool, increased the “relaxation process after acute psychological stress”. Likewise, in her 1979 essay ‘Holy Water’, Joan Didion called the swimming pool, “water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the Western eye”. There’s something about this domestication of nature that makes it easy to forget the dangers of the water. Especially when it is concreted, landscaped and tiled into an aesthetically comfortable kidney bean shape.

The writing of American essayist Peter Selgin, is similarly entranced. Over the phone, Selgin explains to me that the swimming pool is to him, a “constant companion, my best friend”. For Selgin, swimming is like “lying in a bed of silk sheets”, “cool and luxurious” and “if you’re doing [it] well there’s no sense of effort…things just start to flow”. He likens the experience to “coming home”, welcoming the wa sensation of knowing that he is returning to something familiar, each time he slips into the water.

When asked to summarise his relationship, he speaks of a great intimacy.

“I would say something a little bit embarrassing…I feel like I’m making love with the water…There’s a real sense of being embraced, and of doing something intimate, it’s not a human body, but it is a body.”

There’s also a fluidity to time in the water, it stretches and condenses, allowing us to transcend the present moment. In movies it becomes a space for deep contemplation like Cameron in Ferris Bueller or Bill Murray in Rushmore. As Selgin suggests;

“If I go swimming tomorrow, it’s the same swimming I did twenty years ago. The thoughts are different but the body feels the same. It exists on its own plane, apart from everything else that is changing in my life.”

The temporal rhythm of the pool is closer to the Greek idea of kairos, where chronology is reimagined as a swollen, instantaneous now. Often, the only indication of the future comes from the steady trail of bubbles left behind by the kicking feet of the person in the lane in front. You slip into a “dream state”, Selgin explains, recalling times when he felt as though he could “fall asleep while swimming”.

Yet for the competitive swimmer, time is everything. For ex-national water polo player, Benjamin Ient, time “feels exhaustion based”.

“Time is the most important thing, because you’re trying to beat the clock, but time also in a sense doesn’t exist, it’s just an interval during which you cross a distance. Once you’ve done it enough, there’s a lot of muscle memory and you’re almost not thinking about what you’re doing.”

When Benedict Anderson coined the concept of an “imagined community”, he intended it to mean a modern nationalism, a “separate togetherness”. The pool’s infrastructure is designed to keep patrons isolated; turnstiles, lane ropes and cubicles divide. Yet once in the water, each swimmer is performing the same movement and travels through the water in synchronicity with one another. The result is this kind of anonymous simultaneity, and within that, bodies obtain what Selgin calls “a certain grace”.

“People’s bodies do look beautiful, the water somehow improves them…You know you see a pebble in the water and it has that bright colour and when you lift it out of the water it loses its vividness. People are like that.”

The pool might function as a theatre for physical performances and a type of modern nationalism, but there’s also something about the space that lends it to tragedy. After all the pebble is eventually eroded by the water’s ceaseless ebb and flow. John Cheever’s 1964 short story The Swimmer is the most obvious manifestation of this. In it, Ned, a wealthy New Englander, attempts to swim home via his neighbour’s pools. The lush summer-time fantasy soon descends into a surrealist critique of his exuberant lifestyle as it is revealed that several years have passed over the one afternoon, causing him to rapidly age.

As Ned’s memory fades, the pool taunts him, the brilliant blue a reminder of his deteriorating vigor. At the story’s end, Ned is confronted by the tomb-like carcass of an empty pool. Here the cathartic healing properties of the space are literally drained, becoming like an inverted womb. In a 2015, Guardian review W.B. Gooderham called the story a “quietly devastating journey into one man’s heart of darkness”. Here the pool emerges as a Macebethian stage through which drama is exemplified, and indulgence and grief intermingle.

I wonder if my 15-year-old friend had waited to tell me her news elsewhere, away from the water, if the poignancy of the memory would have diminished? Was it the cinematic glow of the pool that gave her confession the melodramatic edge it needed to wedge itself in my mind? Was the pool her “tissue” as it is for Bella? I am reluctant to ask her about it now. Not for fear of dredging up old emotions, but because it feels private, maybe even sacred, existing as Selgin suggests, “on its own plane, apart from everything else”.

There is something seductively cult-like about the swimming pool. It has a certain kind of concentrated intensity over-brimming in its glittering, redemptive and cathartic qualities. It unbounds time for some whilst burdening others.

That night suspended in the fleeting twilight, there were three bodies transfixed in conversation; my friend, myself and the water. I find a perfect parallel to this in the final line of the trailer for Frank Perry’s film adaptation of The Swimmer. The camera drifts across the sapphire surface of a pool and an omniscient narrator booms, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” That’s just it. The swimming pool asks us to look closer, to analyze our chlorinated reflections. To talk about ourselves, to confess and indulge and to perform in its blue theatre.