Chlorine emanates off the water, creating a chemical fog that engulfs Pleasant Hills Pool. It wafts past the fence and over the evergreens, so that those who live in the houses nearby look up from their grills or gardens and sigh. It’s the smell of summer, something they endure, like the maddening chirp of crickets, or the afternoons smug with humidity. In exchange, they are granted those two or three perfect evenings when the sun drifts behind the trees, fireflies brighten their backyards, and summer shines.
Float Night is the highlight of the season. For one evening in August, the pool becomes a sea of bloated, bobbling plastic creatures. The littlest swimmers stay in the three foot section-- separated from the main pool by a taut, nylon rope. They splash around in inflatable rings, attempting to mimic their older counterparts. But beyond that white and blue line of demarcation, it’s a savage’s game.
A week before the annual event, Andrew Kearney spies a blow up recliner in the window of a local hardware store. The plastic is designed to reproduce the look of an upholstered leather chair with roll arm sides and a tufted back. He’s too old for the Superman float, now deflated and boxed up in the garage. His mother had preferred a less expensive option, one of the many safari animals, donuts, or swans they had at TJ Maxx. But Andrew insisted.
When Andrew arrives at the pool it is with his sister, Keri, and her outsized flamingo float. Andrew’s friends are rougher than Andrew, less polished. Only Andrew does well in school. Only Andrew continues to play baseball. And only Andrew still attends Float Night.
Unlike previous years, the Kearneys are now both green badges, old enough to be at the pool unattended. They check in at the front desk and look for the other member of Keri’s flock, Lily.
Andrew spies her sitting just beyond the diving tank on a monogrammed blue beach towel. He notices that tonight, special occasion as it is, Lily has exchanged her PHP Swim Team suit in favor of a Speedo two piece. The curve of her hip, the flatness of her tan stomach, all of it is on display for him.
“Hey, Lily,” Andrew says as he plops down next to her. “Nice suit.”
Lily’s face reddens, and Keri looks down.
Lily and Keri tether their floats together with a thin rope so that, from a distance, it looks like two flamingos on a leash. With a month of swim team already behind them, their legs are strong. Laying on their bellies and kicking hard, they move rapidly, though circuitously, through the water. Andrew, bigger by far than both girls, rocks his float side to side, which creates a wake large enough to capsize a flamingo if it doesn’t move away fast. The girls shriek every time Andrew nears them, at which point he stops the game and goes back to floating around the pool, waiting for the right moment to once again begin his gyrations.
From his recliner, Andrew can take in the whole pool. To the right of him is a group of boys a year or so younger. Every few minutes they slide off their floats and into the water. Andrew watches as they swim down to the bottom of the pool and then propel back to the surface, their heads popping up, one after the other, like ducks in a pond. The little boy in the blue trunks wins the race every time. Part of Andrew wants to swim over and offer a challenge. He can beat them all.
Beyond the chaos of the pool and the confines of the concrete deck is the world as Andrew knows it. Green and blue and serene. The few parents who don’t drop their children off sit in white adirondack chairs on the grassy knoll that slopes away from the main swimming area. Andrew remembers his mom doing the same thing when they were younger. She would read while the kids played and then ply them with packages of fruit snacks to get them out of the water.
But there’s no one to get him out of the pool tonight. Mrs. Kearney is picking them up at 8:30 sharp. Until then, he can do as he pleases.
He paddles back over to Lily and Keri.
Typically, the rules at Pleasant Hills Pool are established and easy to follow. Don’t run on the pool deck; avoid swimmers doing laps; leave flotation devices at home. So when one of those rules is lifted, the rest are drawn into question. Kindergarteners sprint across the deck of the deep end, clutching their rubber ducks and belly flopping into the water. There are no adults in the pool on this night, so there is no one to worry about crashing into. Even the diving tank, the deepest, coldest, part of the pool, has kids floating in it.
All of this chaos unnerves Lily. She likes the excitement of the evening, not exactly knowing what to expect or who will be there, but she appreciates the rules. She thinks that’s one of the reasons she does well in school--she follows directions, does her work, and doesn’t fool around. It’s fun to be in the flamingo float for a while, but then there are so many children and so many floats it’s disorienting.
Lily knows Keri feels the same way, but neither girl wants to say it out loud. They are quiet girls. Nice girls. The worst thing either of them ever does is read with a flashlight after lights out.
As Lily watches Andrew swim over, she notices how much older he looks. Even though he is tall for his age, Lily thinks of Andrew as many years their junior, not just the one grade below her. He’s typically running around, roughhousing, acting like a child. Tonight, though, he looks mature in his seersucker swim shorts and recliner float. His sandy brown hair has grown long over the summer and is starting to cover the tops of his ears. His arms and legs hang over the sides of his float and make him look even bigger. Squinting in the evening sun, Andrew almost looks like a man.
“Hey, Lily. Keri. Wait up.” All the swimming has caught up with him; Andrew’s breathing is heavy. “Want to play a game?”
Lily looks toward Keri, who shrugs and says, “sure.”
“Ok, so we could do Marco Polo but the pool’s too packed.”
Andrew pauses and looks around him. There isn’t enough room to have a race, and he isn’t sure he would even win one. Both his sister and Lily have been swimming all summer. They were on a winning relay team at the last meet; his parents dragged him to it, but he was impressed watching them compete. When it was Lily’s leg of the race, Andrew watched her cut through the water with a rhythm that none of the other swimmers could match.
The girls are looking at him now, waiting to be told what to do.
“Dead man’s float,” he says quickly.
Unlike a diving contest, they can remain in the pool for this game. The air is getting colder as the August sun dips in the sky, and Andrew doesn't want to leave the warm, inviting water.
Keri and Lily exchange looks.
“No, it will be fun. You have to float on your back until you sink, or someone sinks you. You can’t grab on to your float or the wall. And your feet can never touch the ground.”
Keri slides off her float and pushes it over the lip of the pool. She’ll play the game. She feels bad that none of Andrew’s friends come to Float Night anymore. The boys normally spend their summer nights playing video games in the Kearneys’ basement. But Keri knows they sometimes sneak into the woods beyond her house to drink her dad’s vodka. Her mom seemed relieved that Andrew still wanted to go to Float Night. That he was still a kid.
The girls are in the section marked 5’5” so they have to tread to keep their heads above water. Andrew can stand.
“Ok. Ready, set, go.”
And at that, they each lay back and let their legs drift to the surface.
With her head in the pool, Lily can hear the whooshing noise that the water makes as it enters her ear canal and stifles the outside noise. She spreads her arms out at each side and balances her body so that if someone should swim into her, she will still stay afloat. Her legs are perfectly straight and pointed at the ankle. Flat on her back, Lily’s hip bones protrude out of the water, which ebbs around her thin frame.
As soon as he starts floating, Andrew realizes he has chosen the wrong game. The girls are much smaller than him and can easily drift along in the crowded pool without sinking. But already Andrew can feel kids bumping into his legs and arms, throwing him off balance. He lifts his head up slightly and notices Lily’s eyes are closed. The water carries her closer to him. He can see the two small mounds of her breasts--the only parts of her body not submerged.
Before tonight, Andrew never noticed Lily like this. His sister has nice friends. Quiet girls who are generally not that much fun. Occasionally they all watch a movie. Or share a pizza. Earlier that summer, they played man hunt in the woods together. Lily had found him hiding behind the trunk of a fallen tree. When she tagged his shoulder, she squealed with delight. She seemed so happy to have found him, Andrew was embarrassed for her. It was just a game. But when he told everyone he was going back inside to play video games, Keri had called him a sore loser.
Lily seems different now. Older. The girls are starting high school soon, so maybe that’s it. Andrew thinks back to her squeal that night. How she grabbed his shoulder and held on for a second. How happy she was she found him.
He kicks his legs and floats closer.
Lily can feel Andrew at her side. She thinks it’s funny he chose this game. Or any game at all. One time, when playing man hunt, she found his hiding spot. It was the same one she had seen him use several times before when she and Keri would watch him play with his friends. When she tagged him out that night, he seemed so surprised, as if he thought it wasn’t possible to lose. Maybe he was a poor sport like Keri said. But then why would he want to play with them tonight? In any event, Lily isn’t going to let him win this time either. She stretches her arms out so that he can’t throw her off balance. She imagines a wall of water beneath her, holding her up.
The next time Andrew lifts his head, he can’t see Keri. It’s just him and Lily.
Smaller children are bumping into Andrew so vigorously that he is struggling to stay afloat. But not Lily. She seems to be suspended in space. Watching her makes Andrew think of a game they used to play when they were little. Someone would lie prone on the ground while a group of kids circled around. They would each put two fingers under the body; the goal was to levitate the person off the ground. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Invariably the strength of all those tiny hands would lift the person a foot or two before the giggling started and gravity took hold.
Andrew inches his fingers closer to Lily. The first touch is glancing. Lily moves her torso, but she doesn’t recoil.
Lily can’t see Keri anymore. She hopes the other girl won’t be mad, but right now she is more concerned with beating Andrew. The water at her feet feels cold, and she can tell she’s floating closer to the diving tank. There are fewer floats around now, some of the younger children have gone home already, and this side of the pool seems to be a long way from where she started.
When Andrew’s fingers touch hers, she first thinks it’s by accident. But he seems to be getting closer and closer to her. She points her feet and flutter kicks towards the frigid water. She wants to win and is afraid he is going to sabotage her. Grab her arm and pull her underwater. Or take her hand and pull her around so she loses her balance. She shuts her eyes and floats.
His fingers creep towards her side. Light as a feather stiff as a board. They graze her breast. Keri is nowhere to be found. They glide towards her neck, touching everything they can.
In his head, all Andrew hears is Lily’s squeal. The one of delight. He knew he would win. He always wins.
Lily never says no. She doesn’t shout or ask him what he’s doing. She’s a quiet girl, a nice girl. She fixes the strap of her bikini, flips over on her stomach, and swims. Fifty free is her event. She puts her face in the water and breathes to each side. Within minutes she is across the pool, searching for Keri. Andrew is back on his recliner, watching.
When Lily finally finds Keri, she is at the sign-in desk with her mother.
“Keri, there you are,” Mrs. Kearney says, “Is Andrew with you?”
At that, Keri realizes she has lost track of time. Float Night is ending. She is back in the world of rules and regulations, curfews and conditions. Before she can respond to Mrs. Kearney, she feels someone behind her.
“Let’s hit the road, ladies,” Andrew demands.Then, “Shotgun!” as he heads to Mrs. Kearney’s SUV parked out front.
Lily sits in the dark back of the car with bloodshot eyes, rimmed in red. Her best friend is next to her, miles away.
Christina Lesnewich is a writer and teacher living in suburban New Jersey. She is pursuing an MFA at Albertus Magnus College. Her fiction explores the intersection of gender norms and class distinctions.