See, on days like these, shoes were such a pain in the ass. If you brought your shoes, you had to keep an eye on them. You would set them next to the fence, and every few minutes, you had to look to make sure someone had not stolen them. It was a poor neighborhood and stealing shoes was pretty common. You had to wear socks if you had shoes, and that was fine going in, but when you got out of the pool at Kosciuszko Park, you were wet, and putting the socks back on was impossible. Cage would not wait, and you were forced to carry them home anyway.
So, when we went to the pool, we never took our shoes, which was fine, but I have tender feet.
If you don’t know what tender feet are, you are lucky. See, I never felt secure if I didn’t have my shoes on. I needed to be able to run away as quick as possible. Always felt like one day I would have to run off into the city to get away from my father, so my shoes were always on. The bottom of my feet did not get any conditioning. They were without callous, without tough skin to fortify them. The muscles of the foot were weak. As long as I had my shoes on I was fine, but without them my foot was doughy.
Cage had feet made of stone and leather. I swear that kid could have gotten his feet run over by a truck and the truck tire would pop. He had the idea that he would one day have to run, too, but he had conditioned his feet for the shoeless run.
When we went to the pool, it was a long walk for me. See, we were only given a few hours. Cage’s mom made sure he had a waterproof watch so we always knew what time to get back. On a regular day, we could stay out from sunrise ’til the lights came on, but on these days, they wanted to see us after two hours.
Well, I had to walk very slowly. Every bit of stone, every crack in the sidewalk was a big deal. Every one of them was a challenge to my tender feet.
Me and Cage realized early that we needed to be with each other all the time if we were going to survive the neighborhood, so he was always right beside me.
“Hurry, man, can you hurry? We are running out of time. She said two hours. It’s already been ten minutes.” Through the street, hot as the sun and burning my feet. Through the park and the bits of glass, through the stones and the bird shit. There were places where I could walk on the soft grass, but most places it was the asphalt that ran through the entire park. The pool was on the very far edge. By the time we got there, twenty minutes had passed.
“Fuck, man! Now we only have an hour and forty minutes. You gotta toughen your feet up. You’re such a pansy,” he yelled, before we paid our fifty cents, and he ran to the pool.
“Don’t run, you little fuckers!” the lifeguard yelled, but Cage ran anyway. He kicked into the air and tucked his legs. Within a blink, he was in the water. He kicked his way to the top and looked up at me. “Get in, Jesse. The water is warm. It’s great.”
The water was never warm. Not one time ever was that water anything but ice cold. I took a different approach to entering the pool.
First the toes. Why had I come? I hated this place. Then the feet. I barely got here this time. Did you see all that glass? Then the calves. Why is this water so cold? It is out here in the heat all day. Why does the sun suck so much at heating water? Then the thighs. God, I hate water. My nuts are gonna freeze. Holy shit, nothing has ever been this cold. Now the chest. I can’t even breathe. It’s too damn cold, my chest is seizing. How does Cage do this so fast? Why hasn’t he drowned as all his muscles seized up and his lungs froze? Then the shoulders. Oh my god, my muscles are seizing up and my lungs are freezing.
Once I was in, I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t swim. I had to stand. The water was over my head only a few feet in. The other kids made me nervous. A few summers before, an older kid had dunked my head under for a second. I had nearly died. Now I was not comfortable anywhere near the middle of the pool, so I waded over to the side wall to hold on for dear life.
Cage came to get me. “Jesse, you gotta get off the wall. You look like a pansy. Look at all those girls laughing at you.”
In Cage’s mind, there were always girls and they were always laughing at us. Troops of phantom girls followed us everywhere laughing at all the dumb shit we did.
“Come on man, the girls. They are watching,” he snapped. He kicked away from the wall and disappeared under the water. The thought of that water over my head nearly sent me into a panic attack. I was not going to do that. I cast an eye around. He might be right this time. There might be girls.
Cage swam in the deep end for a while. He’d grab me and try to pull me away from the wall, splash me and kick my legs out from under me a few times, but he always ended up clinging on the wall right beside me, talking about whatever movie we had watched the night before.
We were always running late when we got out of the pool.
First of all, our mothers never gave us towels. Taking a towel out of the house was an invitation to steal it, and we did not have the money to be replacing towels. We have no shoes, so the cold water is running down our legs. I’m freezing now, my teeth chattering, my arms hugged tight to my body.
Now I’m cussing as I walk. “Shit, damn it hell. Fucker bitch.” All the terrible clumsy cussing I only did when I was cold. Normally I was a fluent curse wordsmith, but when I was cold, my skills with the foul language plummeted.
More stones, more bird shit. More hot asphalt, only this time I don’t mind much as long as I keep walking. Grass and twigs. Acorns when I didn’t expect it. And more broken glass to navigate. We were always running late when we came home from the pool. Cage ran ahead and yelled out that we were back in hopes that my slow walking could be masked.
By the time we got home, my feet were filthy. Mom brought a hot sudsy water out and I had to wash my feet. The water was always too hot. All day water has been burning my feet and chilling them to ice cubes. I finally get a towel and I have to dry myself and my clothes because my mother doesn’t want me tracking in the water.
Out of wet clothes. Into dry ones. Let the toes dry before, finally, socks and shoes. I would sit staring at the television and the soap operas my mother was watching, and I would wonder…
When could I go again? How many days would I have to wait to get back to the pool?