I learned to dive in order to show up my big brother Andy, who trembled visibly at the plank’s edge while our swimming instructor at the Phoenix Swim Club tried to coax him into the deep end of the pool. Then as now, my brother was my moral compass; I secretly admired the way he refused to jump to prove himself. When my turn came, though, I was compelled to leap into the unknown by some instinct I didn’t fully understand — and was then compelled by expectation to repeat this false act of bravado over and over again. I was scared, but by pretending to be bold, I learned to love diving: the chilly moment of impact, the explosion at the water’s surface, the stunning quiet below.
This begins to explain how I grew into an “over imaginative” teenager prone to nightmares and poetry, a girl who found herself one summer night, at fourteen, hiding in another family’s oleanders, clothes dripping with water from that family’s pool. I crouched there, along with two friends who shall remain nameless, straining not to scream from anticipation and fear. We breathed quickly, taking gulps of hot, heavy air that tasted like coconut and citrus, sweat and cooling mud. We were waiting for something, anything, to happen. Around us, the night was alive with the hiss of cicadas and another sound that defines my childhood in Phoenix: the pulse and hum of laboring pool pumps.
That summer, it was our unspoken quest to hop every pool in our North Phoenix neighborhood.
“Hop” as in to make a series of quick, springy leaps into water contained in rectangular, pinched-oval or kidney-bean shaped pools. “Hop” as in partake surreptitiously, without prior written permission of the pool owner who was, conveniently, asleep.
“No one’s coming,” I said finally, after we’d crouched in the bushes so long our knees were practically fused to our chins. I pointed to a ranch-style house on the corner and whispered, “Let’s try that one!”
Our first attempt had been disappointing; after all, we weren’t out there just to make a pool-by-pool comparison or even to seek relief from the oppressive summer heat. To put it plainly, we wanted to make something happen. We wanted to make a noisy splash, to wake someone’s parents, to see them framed in the bedroom window: a worried mother in hair curlers and a red-faced father shaking his fist and shouting, “You kids!” Like most teenagers, we sought our independence awkwardly, trying to sever ties to our parents by mocking their good care.
Who are those kids? we hoped our victims would wonder. We wondered ourselves: Were we really bad girls sneaking out past curfew? Or good girls bound for good colleges, who always finished their homework before tucking themselves into bed? It is the confounding nature of adolescence to say you’ll do one thing and then to do just the opposite; to hold, against all logic, contradictory desires. Looking back, I see how lucky we were; our rebellions were only minor blips on the trajectories set in motion by our parents. We played at badness as we huddled together in the oleanders, half-hoping for car headlights to pursue us to our hiding place, for someone to slow, to search for us, to reveal who we were outside our families’ homes.
When it didn’t happen, we emerged from the bushes and set off for the next pool, avoiding the streetlights like burglars, trying to keep to the safety of the darkness in between. Most of the neighborhood was asleep at that hour of the morning, like the peaceful pillow doubles that occupied our own beds. There were lights on in a few of the houses, though, showing the guts of family life through windows arranged between the bones of walls. This intimacy was thrilling to us; in the outdoor culture of Phoenix, we didn’t know our best friends’ houses as well as we did the shared spaces: the schoolyard, the mountain park, the Christtown mall, the backyard pools that I naively believed everybody had.
At the next house, we scaled the cinderblock fence and paused at the top to survey our escape route. “No dog,” I said. No gate either; on the way out, we’d have to get a leg-up on the branches of the orange trees that squatted near the fence. “Good pool,” someone said, as we admired the curvy water slide and shark-shaped rubber float. “Let’s go!”
The first time I wrote about Phoenix, I was 23 and enrolled in a New York writing workshop. Previously, at Bryn Mawr College, I’d penned unconvincing stories featuring commuter trains, skyscrapers, and on-street parallel parking, writing myself into this landscape as the hip urban character I thought I’d become when I went east for college. But in that Manhattan classroom, I closed my eyes and saw oleanders, orange trees, a long block of ranch houses, a lighted swimming pool at midnight glowing weirdly green. I saw three girls perched on the threshold of adulthood, straddling a cinderblock fence, and an idea began to shimmer distantly, provoking me the way those pools had at fourteen, the way the real story – the one you’re meant to tell – always does. Writing requires a kind of boldness, a willingness to leap into the unknown. I teach my students that you must begin with what you know, but write to discover what you don’t.
We dropped heavily, like grapefruit, onto the grass and sprinted to the pool, cannonballing into water strangely warmer than the air. Afterwards, we ran for cover, our hearts beating out of our chests. Citric air scraped our throats as we laughed and whispered and told it over and over.
“Did you see the lady in the bathrobe?” someone said, though there had been no lady. “Yes! And the carport light coming on?” someone else fibbed. “They almost caught us!” I shrieked. And when the coast was clear again, we slapped arms around each others’ backs and swaggered down the street. It was almost dawn.
I had to write this story many times in order to understand it. Now I see that pool hopping was my adolescent way of acting as protagonist, making a splash in order to make a story. The first time I told the tale, I looked up from what I’d written and was surprised to see interest in the faces of those New Yorkers. I learned then that my stories, set in the peculiar landscape of Phoenix, might take the reader – or the writer – someplace she hasn’t been, can’t go, might have gone. After 30 years in the east, I still travel home this way, where I’m still that girl swaggering down the street at dawn as if she owned the neighborhood.