Swim

The door swung open into the dimly-lit room with walls covered in dark paneling. Only a thin beam of sunlight peeked through the heavy curtains. A musty, mildew smell greeted the family that crossed the threshold. The father, a cigarette dangling from his pressed lips, exhaled a cloud of smoke as he bent down to turn on the old, brass lamp. The meek light barely brightened the room. The mother, observing the futility of the lamp, flung open the velvety curtains and sunlight eviscerated the darkness.

The young boy, short and pale with a shock of copper-red hair, followed his parents into the room and immediately jumped on one of the beds. He stood up and smiled before he started bouncing on the squeaky bed. The thick navy blue bed cover bore the imprint of his tiny feet with each bounce.

“You’re gonna get hurt,” his mother admonished. She gave him a hard stare until the smile left his face. The boy stopped and sat down on the edge of the bed sullen and despondent.

He watched his mother busy herself with getting settled into the hotel room. His father reclined in a chair near the window savoring the last of his cigarette. Relaxed after the long drive, he watched his wife and son. The sad look on his son’s face concerned him.

“You want to go swimming?” he asked.

His son’s face brightened as he became animated once again. “Yes!” he yelled. He jumped up on the bed again but only stood up for fear of his mother’s wrath. His mother and father exchanged a look that he didn’t understand, but he could tell his mother was reluctant to go swimming. His dad smiled anyway.

The flurry of activity required to go swimming easily bested the limited patience of a four-year-old. His mother seemed frozen in time as she got dressed in her bathing suit. His father was ready in a matter of minutes. The boy bounded from one side of the room to the other bursting with restless energy. Finally, his mother emerged from the bathroom ready to go.

When they stepped outside, the sun seemed exponentially brighter than it had been through the window of their room. The boy squinted in the bright light. His copper hair, corkscrew curly, rustled in the slight breeze and sparkled like a campfire. His pale skin burned a phosphorus white. Anticipation tugged at him as he held his mother’s hand. She gripped his hand a little tighter as they neared the pool, the smell of chlorine overwhelmed them.

The pool glistened in the bright sunlight as tiny waves rippled across the surface. Despite the heat of the day, few people lounged by the pool. A woman lay on her stomach to their right. Her bathing suit straps were undone and flung to the side. She looked like she was asleep as she didn’t acknowledge the new arrivals to the pool.

The hot concrete that surrounded the pool pricked the young boy’s tender feet. He yelped a little and hopped along until he could pull himself up onto one of the pool chairs. His father laughed.

“Do you want to go in the big pool or the kiddie pool?” his father asked squinting at the boy. His son noticed that his father’s cigarette was gone, a rare sight.

“We’ll go into the kiddie pool,” his mother interjected. They exchanged another look before his father turned and walked to the big pool.

The boy watched as his father stood on the edge before he dove into the water head first. His father disappeared and then re-surfaced with his thick, dark hair plastered to his face.

“The water feels great!” he said from the deep end. His mother smiled and nodded before she took her son to the kiddie pool just a few feet away. Both mother and son tip-toed into the water, which was only two feet deep.

“Be careful. A lot of kids drown in pools every year,” his mother warned.

“Does it feel good?” his dad asked from the edge of the big pool. He looked pointedly at his son who stood hesitantly on the bottom step in the water. His son smiled and shook his head. “Why don’t you let him come in here?”

The mother looked chagrinned. “No, this is good enough.”

“He has to learn to swim someday.”

“We’ll get him lessons.”

“I never took lessons.”

The couple stared at each other without a word. Finally, the father shook his head and dove back under water. Meanwhile, the boy had ventured to the center of the kiddie pool and began splashing and playing in the water. His distrust of the water, a trait he inherited from his mother, had subsided, for the moment at least.

His father emerged from the pool and made a beeline for the pool chair to retrieve a cigarette. He stood there for a moment, water dribbling off his thin, sinewy frame still muscular from a youth spent doing hard labor. The man flicked his lighter and puffed the cigarette to life. His son stared at him and admired him from afar. He loved his father’s strength and admired how easily he took to the water.

His father walked over to the kiddie pool and sat on the edge as he enjoyed his cigarette. “Are you going to get in the water?” he asked his wife.

“No.”

He looked at her for a moment and shook his head. “He has to learn how to swim.”

“I know.” Her face resisted any further conversation.

The boy, still playing in the middle of the small pool, splashed his father on a whim. The man looked irritated at first but he returned the favor mostly missing his son and hitting his wife with the bulk of the water. She screamed and turned away. The splashing war continued as she backed up the steps and trotted to the pool chair for her towel. Father and son laughed. Finally, the splashing stopped and the boy joined his father on the edge of the small pool. His father reached over and rustled the boy’s wet hair. They sat there enjoying the moment, another one that the boy would remember long after his childhood ended.

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