I didn’t think I’d fall in love. I’m an unlikely candidate, after all: I’m better at structured activities. I’m not a huge fan of crowds. I didn’t want to have to be in the water with the boys the whole time. I don’t love the heat. I’m frugal. Cheap, even. But last summer, it became clear that both boys were strong enough swimmers, and our friends kept slipping us guest passes, and I took us on a couple of solo afternoon test runs — my wife was finishing a novel; I’m a morning writer — and we did it. We jumped in. We joined the neighborhood pool.
We have frequented a half-secret swimming hole in Stone Mountain State Park, and we have jumped waves from Kill Devil Hills to Oak Island, but no lie: The pool changed our lives. Or maybe just bicycling to the pool changed our lives. The greenway down the hill from our house became a kind of time machine, the boys out in front of me in helmets and swimsuits and closed-toe shoes while I trailed behind on my behemoth cruiser, backpack stuffed with towels and snacks and sunscreen and goggles. The whole thing was very 1986, very much my own childhood, as was the pool itself, with its gravel parking lot and concession-stand candy and high-school lifeguards calling adult swim every hour.
Snugging the bikes into the rack and walking through that gate, it turned out, was also walking into another version of myself, a simpler version, one where most of my jobs washed away. I’d set up in the shade — our pool has shade on one side from a magical stand of scruffy forest — and watch the lifeguards watch the boys. I’d read. When I got hot, I’d get in. When I got cool later in the evening, I’d switch to the sunny side. After mid-June, we went almost every day. I lost track of the days of the week. We landed in a sort of permanent half-vacation: We kept the backpack in the front hall, dried the towels on our kitchen chairs. The kids would get home from wherever they’d been and wouldn’t even ask if we were going. They’d just change and wait at the front door.
• • •
Last summer was the summer The Toad taught himself to dive. It was the summer he taught himself to do a flip off the diving board. It was the summer he then taught his little brother those things, and to see those two towheaded boys in the lengthening afternoon light, laughing and getting along and racing to get back in line for the board, was to be reminded in a slow-burning way of my great good fortune, to have these kids in my life and to get to see them being 5 and 8 years old. There are fewer rules at the pool: Don’t run; don’t roughhouse; get out every 45 minutes. Listen to your dad when he tells you that this adult swim coming up really is the last one, that after that we have to go. Or talk him out of it, talk him into one more concession-stand dinner: chicken sandwiches and dollar hot dogs and nachos and a Ring Pop for dessert. I got to see the kids as they really were. It was almost like spying on them.
And maybe they got to see the father I’m trying but often enough failing to be: someone who’s a little more patient, a little quicker to hand over a dollar for a soda, a little more willing — eager, even — to show them how to land a proper can opener.
Life is slower at the pool. The phone stays in the backpack, in its Ziploc bag. The boys play sharks and nimmows with the other kids — though this summer will be the one where they learn they’ve got that word backward. We’ve joined up for this year, too, of course. We’ll bicycle through another Carolina summer, racing thunderstorms and adult swim and a clock that keeps ticking through these boys’ years. If we’re lucky — if we pay attention, if we keep the towels at the ready, if we go most days — we’ll lose ourselves again.