Right to Raft

Photo: Nadine Cordial

By Elizabeth Lauren Winkler

There’s a quality to youthful American summers that sets those childhoods apart. I’ve sped far enough forward now from that time that my memories have condensed into a series of vivid, if fractured, images: my parents parked on their canvas beach chairs (Dad slack-jawed in a heat-induced nap); crabs strewn like the bodies of a defeated army across a long brown-papered table; the sea of Fourth of July patchwork quilts; fireworks, post-explosion, dripping color through the night; heat throbbing on the courts at tennis camp; melting popsicles; tangled, sunburned limbs; and the cool, chemical blue waters of the country club pool.

I used to drift on my raft in the late afternoon, recovering from the heat and activity of the day. In my semi-conscious state, the chatter of mothers and squeals of younger children receded, lapping up again on the edge of my awareness only with the occasional canon-ball splash. When I opened my eyes, my attention was absorbed by the sky. It was vast but immediate, dwarfing the little affairs of the earth as it enveloped me in its embrace. As I drifted, all the emotions and impressions of the day dissolved into the simplicity of the lethargic clouds and fixed, cerulean blue.

   * * *

Last week, having escaped emails and the heat of the subway, I searched the pool deck for a raft. They’re usually floating, abandoned, in the water or flopped along the basin’s concrete rim. But after a thorough inspection, I saw that though I’d just rafted days before, the pool was suddenly bereft of rafts. A lifeguard shrugged his shoulders when I inquired. I headed to the pool office to pursue the matter.

For the last several years, the country club has employed Eastern European lifeguards, supplied by a corporate lifeguard service that also maintains contracts with several other pools in the area. Cheaper labor, I suspect, than the local American college students, who are too busy doing archeological digs on the outskirts of Istanbul to twirl a lifeguard whistle for the summer anyway. The lifeguards’ English is generally poor, but they manage to earn the affection of the children by the end of each summer. Two guards with dark brows and tanned, leathery skin slumped in the shaded cave of the pool office, like a pair of desert animals taking refuge from the relentless, pounding sun. They glanced up at me when I reached the doorway.

“Are there any rafts in here?” I asked. “I can’t find any outside.”

“No.” The guard behind the desk shook his head dramatically. “No rafts.”

“I just used one a few days ago.”

“No.”

“Yes, I did,” I said, a little incredulous that he thought he could correct my memory.

“It’s too dangerous.” He offered me a sympathetic grimace.

“But when did you get rid of them? I mean, I just used one last week.” My sense of crisis was rising.

“No no no.” He scowled, as though I was crazy to think there had ever been rafts at the pool. Were they trying to rewrite history already? Did they think I was so easily fooled? The recognition hit me: this is how it happens; this is how they change the rules. They pretend they’ve always been the same.

“I don’t understand. Has there been an accident? Did someone get hurt with a raft?” I tried to imagine how this could happen.

“No. But – how do you say? – better safe than sorry.” He smiled at his successful use of the phrase.

“You’re telling me that there’s never been an accident with a raft in the history of the pool, but you’re all of a sudden getting rid of them?” I was entering into one of my prosecutorial moods.

“None of the other pools allow rafts,” he explained, as though that settled the matter.

“That’s irrelevant.” I thought of asking him whether he’d jump off a cliff if the lifeguards at the other pools jumped too, but that seemed like too much. Instead, I gestured to the teenage boys bouncing precariously at the end of the diving boards. They had a habit of jumping and landing again on the board, milking their time in the spotlight to show off their newly muscled bodies. “Is floating on a raft really more dangerous than that?”

“I’m sorry.” He gave me his sympathetic grimace again. “Children can get stuck under the raft. It’s not safe.”

“They can also smack their heads on the concrete. They can slip on the diving board. They can choke on a popsicle. You can’t guard against every imaginable freak accident.”

I pouted theatrically, searching for a new angle of attack. But it didn’t matter how well reasoned my arguments were. The policy had been introduced, and authorities don’t like to retract newly introduced policies. It makes them look weak. I retreated to my deck chair to contemplate the tyranny of the irrational.

 * * *

The following afternoon I returned to the pool with an inflatable raft I had dug out of my family’s shed. The lifeguards may have thrown out the pool rafts, I reasoned, but they didn’t say I couldn’t bring my own. Rafting was an essential element of my summer experience. I was ready to fight for it.

I felt a little nervous walking into the pool with the raft under my arm. It was absurdly conspicuous, knocking into the walls of the locker room and the pool chairs on the deck. The gaze of the lifeguards, enthroned in their watchtower chairs, burned into me. They were all, inevitably, wearing sunglasses, which made it impossible to tell where exactly they were looking.  I wasn’t certain they were watching me, only that they could be. How Foucauldian, I thought, greasing myself up with sunscreen.

I sat on the edge of the pool, testing the water. What were they going to do? Force me to hand the raft over mid-float? Pull it out from underneath me? I happened to be wearing a fire engine red bikini, and it struck me as deeply appropriate that my suit aped the authority of the lifeguards’ red uniforms.

I decided to take the plunge before anyone could intervene. It would be more awkward to call me out once I was already on the raft. I climbed on and pushed off from the wall, gliding into the thick of things. Boys were playing water basketball with a hoop attached to the far wall. Two girls bobbed up and down, erratically shouting “Marco! Polo!” across the pool. A little boy in floaties clung to the ladder, gauging the distance to his mother who stood with outreached arms, coaxing him to leap.

I tried to act like I was completely oblivious to the lifeguards, just floating innocently along. After all, I reminded myself, I was innocent. What could be more innocent than floating on a raft? After several minutes, I glanced up at a guard in the chair above me. If he had registered my presence at first, he’d already become distracted by the kids jumping on top of each other in the well. No one bothered me. No one took the raft. My self-consciousness about my little act of insubordination slipped away. I drifted and paddled and drifted until I grew bored.

 * * *

When I returned with my raft days later, the lifeguard from the pool office told me they’d received complaints from other club members about the loss of the rafts. He nodded to the raft at my side. I would be allowed to use it one last time, from 7 pm to 9 pm that evening—but that would be it.

“For the rest of the summer?”

“Yes.”

“No rafting ever again? But it’s so silly.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” He actually looked sorry, which made it worse. I couldn’t fight him. The enemy was somewhere else – some obscure, pervasive force that mingled a desire to protect the children, if not from guns then at least from rafts, with the fear of lawsuits and the bureaucratic neglect of reason.

“Who’s enforcing this, if it’s not you?”

He tapped the logo on his golf shirt. Continental Pools. “Company policy. It’s the same for all the lifeguards at the other pools too. 7 to 9, ok? That’s it.”

I sighed. “OK.” This small show of mercy might have touched me, if I wasn’t so overcome by the oppressive idiocy of it all. I opened my book and tried to forget the loss of the rafts.

By 7 pm, the heat had lifted. The sun lay heavily upon the golf course, throwing everything into shadow or golden shower. Couples stood in foursomes drinking cocktails by the cabana. A couple of stragglers hopped weakly from the diving boards. It wasn’t hot enough anymore to crave the pool, and I was deep into my book. The awaited hour had finally arrived, but I didn’t want to raft.

The irony confounded me. How cruel of them to schedule my farewell float for an hour when no one really wants to swim! I tried to return to my book, but I was too agitated by the knowledge of those precious rafting minutes slipping away. I threw the book down. If this was the end, I had to make the best of it. I’d force myself to raft, whether I wanted to or not.

I dipped my feet. The pool was strangely lukewarm, as though the water temperature had risen to meet the air as it cooled. I lay the raft on the surface of the water, but I was stumped by the finality of it all. How do you raft in a pool for the last time? It felt too momentous for such a trivial activity. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I stopped thinking and slid onto the raft.

The splashes of my entry sent a few drops of water to land on the lens of my sunglasses, and the sun shot my vision through with sharp, glinting rays of light. I settled on my back to watch the clouds, stretched like shredded tufts of cotton across the evening sky. Far above me, a tiny toy airplane, which I mistook at first for a distant seagull, carved its lonely path.

When my raft drifted into the shade, I paddled quickly, chasing the shrinking puddles of sunlight. Branches tossed lightly in the breeze, a synchronized, silver shiver of a thousand little leaves. It was classic Instagram material. (#pool #summer). But I felt momentarily gleeful knowing that these images, for which it lusts, were completely mine. I let them pass, watched them shift and fade, safe from the all-seeing digital eye.

A single leaf fell from the tree above me. It’s unsettling to see a leaf fall in June, still green and fresh. It confuses the seasons, makes one feel the threat of autumn in the prime of summer. The leaf spun for a moment on the surface of the water. From high above me, the lifeguard whistle sounded, long and shrill and final—rafting’s quietus. It seemed an excessive touch of melodrama on the part of the scene’s invisible author. I imagined offering critical commentary: a bit heavy-handed with the whistle, no? Try for something subtler.

Umbrellas were being lowered, deck chairs stacked. I drifted a moment longer, reluctant to respond too promptly to the whistle’s commands.

 

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