Advertisement

SEASON OF RENEWAL

Ajay Sahgal is author of the novel "Pool" (Grove Press). His last article for the magazine was on the origins of a pastrami sandwich

June is here, and it is the end of another year. I am well aware that some would call June the middle of the year, but I never have, and it seems I never will. The calendar may put it at Dec. 31, but it’s all over in June.

Just ask any schoolkid. There’s a sense of excitement in the air as June rolls around. Everyone’s more likely to misbehave, and there’s palpable near-chaos, not unlike that in Havana on New Year’s Eve in the final hours of 1958 as Fulgencio Batista’s regime expired. The kids are in control, like Castro’s rebels, pushing the envelope of what’s considered acceptable, testing their impending freedom. There is talk of summer plans, dramatic and tearful goodbyes. The yearbooks arrive, invariably signed the same way.

Have a nice summer, see you next year.

From kindergarten through graduate school, my internal clock was set this way: The year started in September and ended sometime toward the end of June. And what about July and August? Were these venerable months, named by noble Caesars not part of the year? Of course they were, but in a different way, a way that is sometimes referred to as “downtime,” something quite different and separate from the rest of the year.

Advertisement

I remember kids who couldn’t wait for summer vacation, couldn’t bear those seemingly endless last weeks of school, kids who kept countdown calendars taped to the insides of lockers, crossing days off as they elapsed. Summer camp was waiting, or that annual trip to some relative’s place on the other side of the county, the state, America. Every June, these kids were ecstatic at the thought of no homework, no class schedules, no teachers telling them what to do. Summer, to most, meant freedom. They could, they thought, do anything they wanted to do.

Summer meant something else to me. I liked school, liked classes and homework. I liked being around other students, team sports, homecoming games and winter dances in the gym. I liked terrible school plays and tests and quizzes, spelling bees and science lab. School meant the bustle of classes, books, friends and enemies, learning something new every day, soccer practice and important games. School meant living in The Now. And its yearly end in June meant having to look to other things.

Have a nice summer, see you next year.

We lived some distance from most of our school friends, and both of our parents worked. Without the structure and activity of school, summer became a time for quiet introspection. I read a lot in my room while my brother played an entire season of imaginary baseball games in his. There was camp for a few weeks. There were reruns on TV. There was also, thankfully, something in our backyard that took up the majority of our days--a swimming pool.

Advertisement

Each morning, as early as we were allowed, we dove in and emerged only for lunch and its standard 20-minute post-lunch-anti-stomach-cramp mandatory waiting period and when our parents arrived home for dinner. Sometimes we played together, sometimes we’d swim in our own little worlds. We made up games, with those constantly changing rules that only children could come up with. We’d involve the sometimes-reluctant dogs and always-reluctant baby sitters. We’d go into a kind of trance in and around the water, our skin pruned, our hair smelling constantly of chlorine, our skin getting darker from the sun. Evenings, I could see the water from inside the house, finally calm after a day of child-made waves. We’d sleep deep and hard those nights, tired from splashing and laps and underwater endurance contests and myriad dives and jumps, from climbing the ladder for the slide over and over and over again.

I missed school, missed my friends, but I needed the time away. You grow up at school, are shaped by your experiences there. In the third grade I found an interest in girls; in the the sixth grade I had my first kiss. And so on. But things happened so fast back then, things changed so quickly (and I with them) that there seemed no time to process it all. Summer always gave me that opportunity to slow it down a notch, to take stock, whether I knew it then or not.

There is a kind of meditative state I can only get by looking at the perfectly smooth and glassy surface of the pool on an already hot summer morning, knowing that in seconds my entire physical state and my surroundings will change. I know I am jumping in. I know I have made that choice, but it’s always a surprise, that surge of adrenaline that makes my heart pump faster in those fractions of seconds that I am midair, that solitary thrill I get when I realize the inevitability of that moment. I am inexorably moving from the world of the dry to that of the wet.

After a day in or by the pool, there is that distinct kind of quiet: Against the gentle background noise of little waves slapping tile, against the dull sound of the towel almost soundlessly rubbing against your skin, against the odd way noise is filtered through the water in your ears, there’s an aloneness. You are somehow returned to something more primitive--an animal who has just survived being out of its element, on dry land again, trying to recall that exact feeling of floating, sinking, defying gravity, defining the boundaries between breathable substance and unbreathable substance.

It makes me think of a scene in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” in which Benjamin Braddock, the quiet and utterly aimless recent college graduate, escapes to the bottom of the family pool. Amidst the noise of advice and chatter that his parents and their friends so kindly provide, he sinks, diver’s mask on his face, into the soundless calm of underwaterness. You get the idea that maybe, if he could stay under for a few days, a few weeks, the whole summer even, he would emerge with some answers, or at least a better sense of himself.

While those final days of June ticked away, while my classmates were wishing the clock to spin faster so they could finally do exactly what they wanted to do, I was working telekinetically against them, wishing it to spin slower. Because June was a harbinger of a time when the L.A. sun beat down so calm and strong that the swimming pool was the only place to spend the day to counteract the heat. June meant the prospect of having to face myself, having to sift through the data and process it, search the codes and break them down.

It wasn’t terrible or anything, but growing up takes energy and thought and maybe a little bit of work. You leave things behind, acquire other things in their stead. While the other kids were dreading back-to-school, I couldn’t wait to get a new notebook and new clothes and get back. I would be different to them, maybe taller or more knowing. I could reinvent myself each summer, whiling away whole days and weeks in that pool and, come September, have it all figured out, only to spend the year learning a million new things.

This June, I find myself 32 and coming up fast on the knowledge that you never stop growing up. And while I may not be able to make the swimming pool the center of my days, I still find myself sifting through the information. Everything that’s happened since September, the things I’ve picked up and what I’ve left behind, the newer and more complex codes--all of it has to be made sense of. For all the changing we do, we stay the same in ways we sometimes never recognize. For some, summer still means a lot of time at the beach, warm nights and more parties, a vacation. Everyone, not just kids, seems to have a different attitude. The days are longer, we sleep less, eat less. Something about the extra light makes us feel that there’s more time in a day, and we can finally do everything we’ve been meaning to do. We leave work early, take Fridays off. It’s not that there’s less work to be done. There’s just the odd perception that, for these few months, there are more important things at hand.

Advertisement

And my suspicion is that even amid a flurry of summer activity, there are quiet little pockets here and there, while staring out at the vast Pacific, or while stuck in traffic on the way, when people do some thinking, when they come to a brief still point in an otherwise fun-filled day.

June is here and things are winding down. I’ll work on my book, stay at home a lot, eat in. I’ll fix up the house a bit, read all the books I never got to this year. Maybe even make a few year-end resolutions. As I get older, I know the changes come September will be more subtle, less easily classified. But as often as I can, I’ll get to the pool, be underwater.

Where it’s quiet.

Where I can figure it out.


Advertisement