“Mama, can I go to the pool?” I ask.
Without even looking up she says, “No, baby. I told you the pool at this hotel isn’t working.”
I know the pool isn’t full of water because it is the first question I ask whenever we are about to choose another hotel. Still, I say “I mean, can I go to the big empty hole in the ground? I’ll be careful.”
Mama is putting pieces of dirty clothing into a white plastic bag to be laundered, smelling each one and still folding it before stuffing it in. She’ll be finding things to do all day, things that would normally take her a few minutes to do, she will make last to keep her mind busy. I wonder if I’ll learn how to do that when I become a woman. Mama sits up and eyes me for a moment and I know she is wondering why I’m wearing my white bathing suit if I am not going swimming. I’d been wearing it since breakfast, I got dressed in it. She noticed then, somehow she was noticing for the first time again as if it could tell me something.
“Where’s Sam?” she asks.
“Helping Papa,” I say, she already knows where Sam is. Since my brother is helping my Papa, I suppose I should be offering to help her. But my brother is older than I am. “Pleeeaasse?” I ask reminding her I’m still a kid. I remind her whenever I can, whenever I remind myself.
“Fine, be safe,” she concedes and I’m out the door.
Since I’ve already scoped it out along with the vending machine, ice machine, and brochures, I know the pool is through the outside plaza and a ways behind the hotel. It’s not shaded, there is no canopy or trees. There is a rectangular chain link fence but with the exception of one maroon Mazda on the outside, the area is vacant. On a day like today, where just the walk from my room to the fence is making my scalp tingle with freshly hatched eggs made of sweat, this place should be full to the brim with squeals from kids and damp beach towels. The only thing I hear is the mute sizzle of the sun heating the concrete and the whisper scratches of my bare feet on it. It was criminal to have a non-working pool in summer time, no matter where you come from I decided.
I squeeze through the fence no one is watching and move straight to the stacked up lounge chairs and climb up on top like I’m the princess in “The Princess and the Pea” on a stack of mattresses. The plastic strips are burning my skin but I ignore it like I do my smoking feet. My friend Anna would make a fuss, would wear her shoes and wrap a skirt around her legs and tell me I’m nuts. But I feel brave when she says that.
I start singing Bob Marley. Mama was singing the same thing earlier, it must be in my mind. She sings all the time, doesn’t even know she does it. I want to be like her but I always know when I’m singing.
“Do I look worried?” a voice says. I drop a squeak into the empty pool, it echoes back along with my embarrassment. I see a boy with dark hair on his head, it curls around his ears. He is squatting over a crack in the ground, a stick is next to him like he’s been using it. Using it on what, I wonder?
“You where telling me not to worry about a thing,” he says. His voice is deep but I can tell it just changed. When that happened to my brother, Mama cried for a week and Papa let him have a beer.
“Oh.” I don’t answer him. I swing my feet back and forth on my tower, trying not to look at him even though I want to stare.
“Come over,” he says. I do.
“What are you doing?” I ask. He is squatting but only his bare feet are touching the ground.
“Pool is empty,” he says.
“I know,” I say, bunching up my nose like I do when Sam teases me.
“Why are you in your swim suit?”
Because I love it, I want to say. The white makes me feel beautiful but the cut makes me feel comfortable since it is one piece and low in the back. There used to be writing on the front but it faded so much I can’t even remember what it said. But I don’t tell him that I would wear the swim suit everyday and at school if I could. Instead I joke, “I dunno. I was thinking that if I got dressed for a party, I might find some balloons.”
He laughed, looking at the crack. I move closer. Then I see it, the light helped me see the piece of gold metal like it winked at me. I want to pick the piece up but it’s right by him. Instead, I ask him if it’s his and he says yeah, he was trying to fix his watch and a piece of it fell off and into the crack. He picks up the stick again and pokes at the parched dirt like he’s grilling a hot dog over a campfire.
“That won’t help you, silly,” I say, “here.” I crouch over the spot, he makes room for me. My toes feel slimy. The backs of my knees start dripping right away from being pressed up on the backs of my calves but I don’t want to sit down no matter how nuts Anna might say that I am.
Its just a small gold disk and I can see it clearly and know its a snap to get out. He offered me the stick but I shook my head, it was too big anyway. It was going to be like trying to dig a coin out of the sides of the chairs in our Nissan. I could always get them, Sam’s fingers were too big and he gets too impatient wanting to beat me to them so this would be a cinch.
“It’s my grandfather’s watch. Or, it was my grandfathers. I never met him or anything. He just gave it to my Dad to give to me when I got old enough.” He didn’t say so, but I understand that he just became old enough. I feel a river break loose across my temple. It itches but I can’t feel it as much as I feel him watching me.
“Almost gotcha. You got any money? There’s two cream sodas left in the machine we could go get next. I know because I counted them.” I say proudly. Without even pausing for him to answer I ask, “How long are you staying here?”
“In the hotel?” I nod. “Uhm, not sure. I guess we’ll find a place to live after my Dad gets a new job and that will be soon. That’s what he says. How long you staying?”
“Not sure either,” I say but Mama says Papa will fix the car by tomorrow and we can leave then. “Bingo!” I say lifting out the piece. I shine it on my suit and give it back to him and he says thanks without looking at me.
I’m about to leave since he never said he wanted the sodas but he takes my hand and shakes it. He shakes it like he’s meeting me but I haven’t told him my name and he hasn’t told me his. And he shakes my left hand with his right. So I guess its something different than a handshake, something I don’t know about. Still he isn’t looking at me, still he doesn’t let go of my hand and I don’t argue any of it. I’m looking at the dark hairs on his arms. I didn’t know boys had dark hair on their arms.
“What room are you in?” he asks. I tell him. He nods and lets go of my hand and says thanks again before leaving. I sit by the pool for a long time after that, singing but not noticing what song. The whole time the skin on my legs feels smoother to my fingers and I also feel taller. My hair feels smoother too so I take the rubber band out of it.
When I get back to my room, Mama asks me where I’ve been as though she didn’t know. I shrug as if I never told her. The room isn’t much cooler but it’s better than outside and I soon fall asleep on my bed and only wake up when there is a knock at the door. Mama answers it, says something I can’t hear, then comes over and drops something on the bed. “Why don’t you get dressed, baby,” she says when she sees I’m awake. “You can help me find a place for dinner.”
As soon as I roll over, it rolls over too and hits my skin, a freezing kiss on my ankle and I gasp.
An ice cold can of cream soda.