Summer days seemed to last forever back then. Our mother was at work all day and my sister Fiona, my friend Rhiannon and I would spend all day at our Florida condo pool. The pool remained mostly deserted all day – everyone who lived in the development preferred crossword puzzles and macramé to the swimming we enjoyed.
There were two and a half pools in our development. There was the family pool that we stuck to, an adults only pool and a kiddie pool that was always too warm. It was a “swim at your own risk pool” with no lifeguards ever employed.
There was no one there to tell us to put on sunblock; we’d just burn ourselves day after day. There was no one to tell us to take a break for lunch. We ruled our day – children in charge from sun up to sun down. It was the late 1980s and our freedom was absolute.
Fiona was fourteen and was tall and skinny. She somehow exuded cool and brilliance at the same time – even when she was dripping wet. She always determined what game we were playing and who was it. Rhiannon, my friend originally, had just moved to Florida from Virginia Beach. She and I were both twelve. When summer ended, Rhi and I would start sixth grade together. Fiona was stuck playing with us because her friends lived far enough away that she couldn’t get to them by walking.
The pool was mostly deserted but there was always one person there when we were there. He wore the same too short, too tight blue swim short and threadbare white undershirt every time he was there. The only thing that ever changed was the book he pretended to read and position of his lawn chair.
We always knew he was watching us. He would peer over his book and watch as we played in the pool. Our bathing suits were stretched over our bodies as they shifted – in the water, running from each other. Our bodies were shifting too, from the bodies of children to adults. We were all in that in between space and he liked watching us.
We knew he wasn’t watching us in order to help or keep a protective eye on us. This became clear one afternoon when Rhiannon stepped on glass as she was chasing Fiona around the pool.
“I’m bleeding.” She said as she sat down, water from the pool mingled with the blood coming out of her foot.
“It’s glass.” I said.
“Duh, Aishling.” Fiona said. “Let’s take her to Gwen. She’ll know what to do”
We needed an adult so this seemed like a good idea. Gwen worked in the clubhouse of the condo building which was just next to the pool.
I glanced back as Fiona took one of Rhi’s arms and I took another. There he was. Watching. Mr. Smith was always watching.
“What have we got here? I’ve told you kids,” Gwen paused to blow out a long stream of smoke and take a new drag before continuing, “not to track water through the clubhouse.”
All of us tried to explain at once.
“One at a time,” Gwen said blowing smoke again, but this time slower so that she looked like an incense burner for a religion dedicated to single women in their forties who worked in billing at a condo office with amenities they never got to enjoy.
Naturally, we gave the floor to Fiona. “She got glass in her foot at the pool. We didn’t know what to do. Mr. Smith was there but he didn’t offer to help.”
Gwen sat Rhiannon down on a plastic chair and got out the first aid kit. She didn’t put on gloves –again, it was the 1980s and people did not glove against blood like they do now.
“It looks like the glass fell out. I’m just going to put a band-aid on it to stop the bleeding.”
“Why does he do it?” I asked in a whisper.
“What, Sweetie?” Gwen said in response.
“Watch us swim, why does he do it?” I asked.
Gwen sucked in a deep breath, the fresh air triggering a hacking cough. Once she caught her breath she put her cigarette between her yellowed fingers and brought it to her dry pursed lips.
“I don’t know, honey.” She sighed out the smoke this time. That was it. She told us Rhiannon needed to go home and tell her parents about the glass.
We were still young enough to rise with the sun. Fiona and I ate breakfast and headed to the pool. It was early, but the asphalt already burned our feet on the walk over. We threw our towels on chairs and ran to put out the fires on our feet by jumping into the pool. The water was cold and just what we needed. Rhiannon arrived soon after us and then, like clockwork, so did Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith set himself up in a chair beside the pool we were playing in.
“Let’s try something” Fiona said. Rhi and I were automatically in. “You’re it.” she yelled and slapped a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, I was it last time!” I said as we all ran from the pool.
He was watching us over his book. We could see it.
Fiona splashed as she jumped into the adults only pool. Rhi and I were right behind her.
“You can’t get us while we’re in the pool. You have to wait.”
This was the thing I hated about being it, the arbitrary rules that seemed to appear only when I was it.
“Tea party!” Rhiannon yelled, and we all sat cross legged on the floor of the pool and pretended to have a tea party.
When our heads broke the surface of the water he was there. Watching.
“I knew it,” Fiona said.
“We better get back to the other pool before we get in trouble,” I said. I was hoping to tag one of them on the way back.
Thwack. I hit Rhiannon a bit too hard by accident.
“Oh, sorry,” I said to Rhiannon.
“Oh my God, Aishling, we’re not even playing tag right now.” Fiona said.
Rhiannon looked at me apologetically but went along with Fiona who was cooler. I understood.
Ten minutes later Mr. Smith stood up and shaded his eyes from the sun. He looked at the ground and moved back to where he could see us, back to our pool.
“He’s back,” Rhiannon whispered.
“I know,” Fiona said, “I’ve got a plan.”
“What’s the plan?” I asked but they had moved on. It was time for Marco Polo. I was still it, of course. My eyes were closed.
“Marco!” I called
“Polo!” they responded. I could tell they were close.
“Marco!” I called
“Marco!” I said again.
Still, I was met with silence.
“Guys, it’s not fair if you don’t respond,” I said opening my eyes.
Rhiannon and Fiona were in a whispered huddled at the edge of the pool. I swam over.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“He’s gone but his stuff is here,” Fiona said.
“Yeah, probably had to go to the bathroom,” I said
“Or do something else” Fiona said. I had no idea what she meant.
“So are we playing, or what?” I wondered aloud.
“Oh yeah,” Fiona said, but it was like she wasn’t responding to my question but something else. “How long do we have?” she asked Rhi.
“Ten minutes. Max.” Rhi knew the secret.
I still had no clue what they were talking about.
“Let’s go.” Fiona commanded.
My sister walked her soaked string bean body over to Mr. Smith’s towel and book. There was fire behind her eyes and a determination in the way she walked. She tipped her head upside down and wrung her hair out. Rhiannon and I looked at each other for a second and smiled. We walked to the other side and did the exact same thing. By the time the three of us were finished, his towel and, more importantly, his book, were drenched.
We ran back to the pool and hung our bodies just at the edge. We let just our eyes hover near the rim – like the alligators everyone said were in the lakes nearby. We watched.
He came back, picked up his book and towel and looked at us.
“What’s wrong?” Fiona asked in a falsely sweet voice “Did your stuff get wet?”
I was stunned. Mr. Smith was too. We all had parts to play in this and Fiona had gone off script. Way off script.
“You have to watch out for those Florida rains.” Fiona said. “Never know when they will happen.” She glared at him and dared him to challenge her. He looked at this stuff and the path of water we left that led back to us. We didn’t know if Mr. Smith was a violent man but we were about to find out. He sighed and pretended to read his drenched book. He left a few minutes later with us laughing at his back.
Every so often Mr. Smith would show up at the pool and try to watch again. Every time we would let him know it was not okay. He took his book and towel to the bathroom so we stacked the chairs and soaked every seat.
“Florida rains” we suggested when he returned. He left in a huff.
We got older and traded the pool for the ocean. Eventually, Mr. Smith was arrested for peeping. We heard about it and were unsurprised.
It’s funny though because when I think about that time, I do think about the way it rains in Florida. The way it is sudden, torrential and ferocious.