Tara wiped beads of sweat off her forehead with one hand as she tugged Tommy with the other. “Come on, buddy.”
“Pool,” whined the toddler, pointing at the only open patch of clear blue in the packed kiddie pool.
“Mommy needs to find a chair first.”
Tara squinted at the curving line of sun-bright white plastic pool chairs snaking around the kiddie pool, desperately missing her sunglasses. But there was no way she was dragging three kids back to the minivan to get them.
Two young girls in neon bikinis shoved past Tara, unbalancing her bulging red mesh bag stuffed with towels, sunscreen, swim diapers, dry clothes, snacks, and treats. It crashed forward, and she only just stopped it from slamming into Tommy.
“Why does the pool smell like pa-corn?” asked Jamison.
“Pop-corn,” corrected Tara, throwing a quick glare in the girls’ direction. “They sell it here.”
“Can I get some?”
Tara herded her three boys through the maze of chairs. Most were empty, but on closer inspection all had been reserved with a towel, a shirt, a flip-flop. A bag of Goldfish crackers.
“Mom, I wanna go on the zipline,” said Henry.
Tommy wiggled out of Tara’s grasp and made a break for the pool. As she lunged forward to grab him, she glanced up at the line for the zipline platform, on the far side of the large main pool. It was at least twenty people deep. “That line is really long, Henry.”
“Ohhh, did you see that guy’s splash?” said Henry, slapping his palms to his head as an especially beefy teenage boy who’d just crashed into the designated zipline pool sent up a titanic spray. Cries of surprise broke out as everyone nearby was soaked.
Tara looked back at the line. Henry was eight now. Maybe he could wait by himself. But the line was all teenagers. Big boy teenagers who looked like giants compared to gangly Henry.
“Pool,” cried Tommy, grabbing at Tara.
“Don’t pull on the bag, buddy.” Tara grit her teeth as the straps dug even deeper into her shoulder. If only she could find an open chair. Then she could think. Come up with a strategy.
“That woman’s leaving! Quick, Henry! Grab her chair!”
Henry bolted ahead, dodging tipped-over bags and strewn sandals. Tara sped up, hurrying Tommy and Jamison along as she hiked the heavy bag up on her shoulder.
Just as Henry reached the open chair, another woman sat down on it and flipped open a book. “No no no,” Tara whispered under her breath. Henry looked back and shrugged.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Jamison, dancing around.
Tara dragged the back of her wrist along her forehead, the beads of sweat now rivulets. “Okay. Come on, Henry. Come on, Tommy.”
“But mom, I want to get in line for the zipline,” whined Henry.
“It’ll just take a few minutes,” said Tara. Probably less than that. Jamison was still potty training, and didn’t always make it to the toilet in time.
He didn’t make it.
Giving up the hunt for a chair, Tara headed for the grassy hill on the far side of the main pool. The shady spots under the few sparse, stunted trees were taken, but there were a couple of spots left along the chain-link fence separating the pool area from the parking lot. The grass was dry and spiky and the dusty ground threw out even more heat than the summer sun, but it was better than nothing.
Shuffling past towels, bags, and flip-flops, Tara made it to a spot big enough for her to lay out two towels. She dropped everything and began slathering sunscreen on the boys. Tommy screamed as if she was rubbing acid on his skin. “You need sunscreen, buddy.”
Tommy screamed louder.
Next to them, the two bikini girls who’d shoved past Tara earlier lounged on fluffy towels. They wrinkled their noses at her rambunctious boys, now playing some made-up slapping game as they ran around on the towels. They turned to whisper to each other, their heads shaking and shoulders hunching in a classic teenager “Oh My God” posture.
Tara tried to ignore them. They were just acting their age, which she guessed was about eighteen. Her mouth hiked up in a half-smile. After all, she’d acted the same way at that age, sitting at the community pool with her friends, their tanned high-school bodies tense as their aviator sunglasses-dimmed eyes scanned the tidal flow of families, ever on the lookout for people who were cool. People who mattered. And it wasn’t the moms.
She told her boys to calm down, an automatic reflex more than an actual command. “Okay, guys,” she said, snapping the sunscreen bottle shut. “To the kiddie pool. Walking feet, please.”
Tommy and Jamison ran.
“Walking feet, please,” Tara called after them. They ran faster.
“But mom, I want to go on the zipline,” moaned Henry, tugging on Tara’s arm.
“Just come in the kiddie pool with us for a little while. We’ll go to the zipline later, when the line is shorter.”
Henry’s shoulders dropped, but he followed Tara and his brothers into the kiddie pool. Jamison and Tommy immediately began splashing, earning Tara another annoyed look, this time from a mom as she wiped drops of pool water off her sunglasses with her impeccable white linen cover-up. Tara knew that look. She got it a lot. Control your children.
She told Jamison and Tommy to be thoughtful of the people around them and not to splash, knowing it was futile. In their minds, the point of a pool was to splash. But she said it loud enough so that the glaring mom could hear. Sure enough, Jamison and Tommy just splashed more. The woman leaned down and spoke in full, adult sentences to a pigtailed little girl in a pink tutu swimsuit sitting in the shallow water, calmly playing with little pink toy watering can. With another annoyed glance at Tara and her splashing boys, the perfect mother and her perfect daughter moved to a different part of the pool.
Well maybe if I had only one kid. Tara shrugged it off and hiked up her black swimsuit with the strategically-placed ruching that did little to hide the fact that she’d carried three children. Sweat was now pouring down her back, she was near-blinded by the sun bouncing off the pool water, and the smell of popcorn and chlorine was giving her a headache. But the boys were having fun now, chasing Henry as he ducked in and out of the water. Well, no one was crying anyway.
She hovered at the edge of the kiddie pool, fanning herself as she scanned for potential trouble. She scolded Jamison for bellyflopping too close to an infant and apologized to the fretting mother, told Tommy to spit out the pool water three times, and asked Jamison to please stop shoving his little brother under the water twice.
“Henry, you’re too big for those kiddie slides,” she said to him after he slid into a pile of toddlers waddling in the wrong place at the wrong time. More apologies.
Poor Henry. He was too big for everything in the kiddie pool. She’d have to get Jamison and Tommy out of this pool at some point so she could walk Henry over to the zipline. But she hated to disrupt the current peace.
Just then, Tommy slipped and fell backward into the water. Tara rushed forward into the shallow, hot water and pulled the sputtering Tommy back up to his feet. As she tried to calm him down, Jamison started dancing again.
So much for peace. She dragged the three boys out of the pool and back to the bathroom.
The one good thing about the grassy hill was that it had a clear view of the zipline pool. She enticed Jamison and Tommy back to the towels with a promise of peanut butter sandwiches. While they were distracted by food, Henry could get in the zipline line, which was shorter now, and she could watch him.
The bikini girls, chatting as they surfed their bejeweled phones, were not happy to see Tara and her boys return. “Great,” she heard one of them say.
Tara told her boys to calm down once again as she ripped open velcro sandwich bags. While the boys ate, Tara stole a glance at the girls. Their teeny bikinis were dry. Their long blonde hair, carefully styled to look unstyled, was dry and their thick mascara was un-smudged. They hadn’t gone in the pool at all, despite the heat. They must be roasting.
Of course, they weren’t here to swim. Tara smirked and looked back at the teenage boys in line for the zipline. They were joking around with each other, shoving and slapping—why were boys always slapping each other?—and pretending not to know about the two cool girls sitting on the hill. But the lightning-fast glances they shot in their direction, and the equally quick glances the girls shot them over the tops of their phones, made it clear they were all too aware of each other.
Tara remembered well the fluttering chest, the hot blush, that a glance from a boy could bring on. And the struggle to pretend she didn’t care, just like these girls. That she wasn’t blazing hot and secretly wanting to do a cannonball off the diving board. But that would be crossing over to the wrong side of that bright line between kid and adult. Not cool.
“Mom, can I get in line for the zipline now?” asked Henry.
“Yeah, buddy,” she said as she wiped peanut butter out of Tommy’s hair.
“I’ll make a crazy face as I go.”
“Okay. We’ll be watching.”
But when Henry’s turn came up, Tara missed it. Jamison and Tommy, swinging their sandwiches around like swords, had strayed off the towels. One of the bikini girls flinched as Jamison brushed past her.
“Seriously,” said the girl as she scooted closer to her friend.
Tara told her boys to stay on their towels, a sharp edge creeping into her voice. She took a deep breath to calm herself. She wasn’t going to get through the afternoon if she couldn’t keep herself under control.
“Mom! Did you see me?” asked a breathless, dripping Henry as he climbed out of the zipline pool.
“Yeah, buddy. That’s was awesome,” lied Tara.
“Can I go again?”
“Sure.” Tara took Jamison and Tommy’s sandwiches away. Tommy screamed in fury, garnering more eye rolls and an audible “Oh my God” from the bikini girls.
“Sorry,” she said to them, fully flustered now.
The girl closest to Tara turned her back to her.
Tara’s temper rose to match the summer heat. What did these girls have to be so annoyed about? Their biggest problem in life was keeping their Snapchat streak going. Kids were a distant future to these girls. College was still ahead of them, careers, around-the-world travel. Life was so exciting at that age, but no one was allowed look excited. It wasn’t cool. If only they knew how fast that distant future would come. If only she’d known. She would have appreciated it, instead of worried about looking the right way and doing the right things and knowing the right people. It was all such a stupid waste of time.
Tara tore open the box of chocolate chip cookies and shoved one in her mouth, trying not to watch the girls as they flipped their gorgeous hair and tapped on their sparkling phones.
Tara turned her back on them to watch Henry’s second trip down the zipline, refusing to be distracted this time. Henry waved, then grasped the hook and leapt off the platform. He flew through the air, eyes and mouth wide open, shouting “ahhh” all the way down. His skinny legs flailed as he hit the end of the line and he dropped, laughing, into the pool.
Tara smiled, a wistful lump in her throat. That’s how you do it.
Why did she stop doing cannonballs off the diving board?
“Did you see me, Mom?” he said as he climbed out of the pool.
“Yes I did, buddy. That looks like a lot of fun.”
“Oh, it’s so fun.”
Her smile dropped.
She eyed the line.
It wasn’t that long, just a few people. The lunchtime lull.
“Henry, come here.” She dumped the whole box of cookies out on the towel. “Have as many as you want, guys. Just stay here.” Jamison and Tommy dove into the pile of cookies.
“Keep your brothers on the towels till I get back,” she instructed Henry when he reached their towels.
“Where are you going?”
“Down the zipline.”
Henry’s mouth dropped open.
Tara hurried down to the zipline pool and got in line. She told herself not to look at the boys. If they were doing something they weren’t supposed to, she didn’t want to know about it.
Tara’s heart thumped in her chest as she waited. After several long minutes, she climbed onto the platform for her turn. The tanned teen working the top of the zipline pulled the rope to back to bring the silver triangle hook back up to the top. He handed it to Tara. She wrapped her hands around the grainy hand grips, took a deep breath, blew it out.
With a running jump, she flung herself into the blue summer sky. She sailed down the line, stomach in her throat, shouting “ahhh” even louder than Henry. When the hook jerked to a stop at the end of the line, Tara let go and flew through the air, legs splayed wide, landing on her back in the water. She plunged down into the blue pool water, a million tiny bubbles dancing across her skin.
She hovered in the water for a few weightless moments before buoying back up to the surface. She popped her head out of the water, finally feeling cool.
“Yea, Mom!” shouted Henry. He and Jamison were pumping their fists in the air and jumping up and down. Tommy was throwing cookies.
Laughing, she climbed up out of the zipline pool, made her way back to the towels, and high-fived her boys.
The bikini girls had put down their phones to sweep their long, hot hair into buns. “The pool’s nice and cool, girls,” Tara said to them.
They gaped at her.
“Come on, guys,” she said to her boys. “Let’s go splash in the kiddie pool.”
“I bet I can make the biggest splash,” said Jamison.
“No way,” said Henry. “I’m bigger than you. I’ll make the biggest splash.”
“Nope,” said Tara, slicking back her wet hair. “I’m going to make the biggest splash.”
She grabbed her boys’ hands and ran to the kiddie pool. “Just watch me.”