When the last of the bells quit ringing, the final classes let out, and waves of ecstatic kids storm across and away from the schoolyard, you will find yourself winded and sweating beneath the hot warp of summer sky, experiencing a level of pure happiness that will not follow you throughout your life. The months ahead mean everything, hold in them boundless adventure, the fulfilling of many destinies, and the unidirectional flow of each day and your achievements therein determine who you are come next year, how you’ve grown. At this age, summer vacation feels eternal, the hours regenerating like the arms of a starfish. For this reason, under the influence of this abstract sense of disposable time, you will spend the first couple weeks lazing in your room, playing video games, in a sort of suspended animation. That is until your buddy, Tim, invites you to go swimming at the public pool.
Boyhood is all about proving oneself. Take the iconic train scene in Stand By Me, in which the boys reach that pivotal railroad bridge and are forced to cross. This is more than a bridge, of course, more to the boys than an obstacle. This is an imperative challenge, an essential part of the hero’s journey. And when Teddy chides the others to “go around if you want to, I’m crossing here, and when you guys are dragging your candy asses half way across the state and back, I’ll be waiting for you on the other side relaxing with my thoughts,” the others have no choice but to “man up,” as they say.
The Municipal Park Public Pool holds in your heart a nervous charge. Everybody’s half-naked, first of all, and you, compared to Tim’s older brother, Davey, who smokes Camels and sports the faint traceries of a mustache, are still an underdeveloped child, as much a man as a shadow is the very thing it shadows.
So, you must prove yourself. You spot Davey and his friends sharing a cigarette behind the girl’s locker room. They’re gesturing at the high-dive, shaking their heads and bristling, an animated scene of fearful declension. You know what has to be done.
ROAD OF TRIALS Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, you rose and dressed yourself in swim trunks, T-shirt, and sneakers. Pulling the cotton shirt down your back you feel the sting of the previous day, your body marked red by the sun. But is it a burn? Or is it the sun joining in on the mockery from your failure, a branding you’ll not soon forget. The failure to jump off the high-dive truly mishandled the first day of summer break.
There you were, standing, pissing in the shallow end, mouth agape, as you saw Davey conquer the high-dive. That jackknifing son-of-a-bitch. Friends surrounded him: backslap here, grunting handshake there, and hugs from the bikini’d bosoms of pool sirens. Trying to avoid the oncoming pressure you went under, the slow-motion Zen of floating underwater, but you can’t hold your breath much. Surging up in a fit of madness you reached for the side of the pool, lifting yourself into the cool air. It’s possible. Feet searing upon concrete and you were walking to a quick death. The line was short. First step. You reached for the silvery tongue of the railing to pull yourself up, and every step after you counted your blessings. You firmly planted your feet on the diving board, feeling every grainy minutia attached to the length of the platform push against your skin. You imagined this would scrape off your soft layer of epidermis very easily, like a stationary sheet sander.
Then not so inexplicably, an outside force, an unknown force, overtook you. Was there a cramp or a shift in the atmosphere? You stood frozen—for too long—long enough for someone to notice and cry out in laughter. Your face seemed to combust as you climbed down. You looked over long enough to see kids pointing and bee-lined for the fence, which you quickly climbed and cleared slipping and falling into the dirt. Only when you had reached home did you stop to dust yourself off.
Woe. You fall into your bed as if from an airplane. Forging the pillow with your face, warm waves wash over your body as you start to drift off. Defeat is a stone cold bitch. It seeps into your bones. But defeat is not the end; it is a rung in the ladder, a step on the path. This struggle is epitomized in the film The Sandlot. In which the leader of a motley crew of baseball boys, Benny, makes the decision to venture into the back yard of “the Beast.” Benny gives himself no choice but to succeed in the act of retrieving the ball—pain, or even death, may be the outcome, but living in fear is not. As Benny prepares to climb the summit, he thinks back to the eternal words of Babe Ruth: “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart kid, you’ll never go wrong.”
No challenge equals no satisfaction. You’ve accepted your fate now. You’ll conquer the high-dive or die by its hand. THE VISION QUEST Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of being a pregnant woman in 1988.
You’re seven months pregnant and delirious with heat flashes that spark within you like a match. You watch Greg Louganis take to the springboard during the preliminary rounds. He cracks his head on the board. They cut to the audience, who look around wildly, hands to mouth. You switch off the TV, and yet the memory sits undigested. You will recall that Greg witnessed the mortal injury of Sergei Chalibashvili, from the high-dive: “I remember closing my eyes when he dived because I had a premonition something terrible was going to happen, I still remember feeling the platform shake.”
That evening, sleep comes abruptly, and with no end. The baby boy in your womb is kicking. You dream you are Louganis. Your smooth, placid walk propels you to the edge of the high-dive. You vault out off the platform as if on a pendulum, and as the pool nears you erupt in a fevered chill.
You will later find out, when your boy is apart from you, though still clinging to the breast, that Greg Louganis has HIV.
THE MEETING WITH THE GODDESS A friend with an understanding heart is worth no less than a brother. And a brother is worth no less than one summer at an equestrian camp, or a complete box set of The Baby-sitters Club.
The idolatry of your older brother has started to fade. His fallacies steadily blossomed this June, like freckles in summer’s glow. His initial disinterest in being your defender has revealed itself as his inability to protect you from the bullies down the block—he is, in fact, unable to protect himself from them. You watched him choke on the high-dive at the pool earlier this summer. Last week he came home at dusk, banging the screen door shut. Your mom turned to him angrily, and upon the landing of her gaze—she softened. He was shaking, his new Lee jeans torn, a grass stain on the seat.
You have begun to accept the flawed nature of the universe. Your rabbit died while you were away at summer camp. His replacement—a poor excuse for a hare—is wiry and skittish. It seems to have developed an aversion to the carrots you’ve provided. You have decided its hops are insufficient. “I’ve come to terms with my mortality salience,” you think, as you ask your father for a Coke. “Death is inevitable.”
You follow your brother up to his room. Hover in the doorway. He wants you to leave. You tell him Albert Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” You tell him—a fresh ice cream sandwich beginning to melt in your hand—that grass grows, birds fly, your first grade teacher’s gnarled and arthritic hands make you uncomfortable, and he will plunge off that high-dive into that chlorine filled pool by the end of this summer. Such is the nature of the universe.
THE BOON Of all creatures that breathe and move within the suburbs, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.
It’s all in the preparation. You roll up a bath towel and stuff it in your backpack. Wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt, you pedal your GT Vertigo across town to the lake, your little sister on her own training-wheels in tow. This GT is a bike you couldn’t live without two Christmases ago, something you literally prayed for (and felt a shade of guilt, even then, asking God for something so trivial). When your mother alluded that “Santa might not have room in his sleigh,” you silently cursed her, which led to further guilt. The rugged handle grips feel strange in your hands, somehow nostalgic (these are your first experiences with nostalgia, but they will continue forever, haunting you). You’d hoped this bike would spark something within you, prompt a new identity, that of the diligent BMX freestyler, conqueror of street and park and vert. You subscribed to Freestylin’ Magazine, but your interest flagged. The only trick you could learn was the bunny hop, putting in the hours behind Dairy Queen, out of sight. Barspins felt completely out of reach, tailwhips something otherworldly. And you feared this would set into motion a pattern of failure, of giving up, that would stay with you as you aged and death began to loiter in the periphery, your own mortality blunt as rings on a dropped tree.
“Kaisen, Sino-Japanese for ‘good change,’” your sister says, padding barefoot toward you at the end of the dock, “is a philosophy that focuses on overall improvement, with a concentration, of course, on discipline. This idea, however ostensibly simple, is challenging in practical application. Now jump.”
Staring into the water feels like staring into oncoming traffic, the syrupy depths just a terrifying void. This is not like the Public Pool, that aquamarine rectangle of chemically treated liquid, where you’re able to see the bottom, the half-bodies of everyone submerged refracted in the tepid ripple.
But, it’s all in the preparation.
You tuck your knees, straight arms, straight back, toes gripping the buckled boards. You stare into the abyss, black and waiting.
“Don’t die a coward,” your sister says.
THE MAGIC FLIGHT There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for jumping off the high-dive.
It’s early Tuesday morning and a search for diving in your Kids Encyclopedia Britannica leads to Greg Louganis: “(born 1960). U.S. diver Greg Louganis won gold medals in the springboard and platform events at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, the first man to do so in consecutive games in more than 50 years.
Your mom peers over your shoulder. She has a look on her face that reminds you of that feeling that settled in your gut when you held the rubber tubes surrounding your handlebars, the treading like a fingerprint. “Greg Louganis,” she says, gripping your shoulder wistfully. “I watched him in the 1988 Seoul Olympic preliminaries when I was pregnant with you.” You resolve to do five—nay eight—push-ups before going to bed.
You head to the pool. Your arms shaking as you steer your bike down the center of the road. You nearly topple over on a turn.
Tim’s already there when you arrive, and an audience seems to have preemptively gathered. Tim mentions that some kid just had a nosebleed in the pool. You glance sidelong at the surface of the water, scanning for evidence of the crimson slick. You begin to climb the rungs of the high-dive. The palms of your feet tingle, sensing the earth drawing farther from you. At the top, you stand unsteadily upon the pale green diving board. The plank seems to twist away from you. You walk toward the end. People watch. A baby near the concession stand, head lolling on its shoulders. Sounds fade, shadows bend. The pool looks empty, like a drug commercial you once watched. You will somehow miss the water and split your head open on the tiled edge. You will jump wrong, belly-flop, say, and your gut will split like the abdomen of a dissected frog. Your sister is somewhere, no doubt trying to will you over the edge with her mind. This is it, the end of summer. The water becomes as black as the lake, as if you’re diving into your own death. Then you vault out off the platform as if on a pendulum, and as the pool nears you erupt in a fevered chill.
RETURN THRESHOLD So, the Municipal Park Public Pool gods don’t hand out all their gifts at once, not build and brains and flowing speech to all. One man may fail to impress us with his looks but a god can crown his words with beauty, charm, and men look on with delight when he speaks out… Another man may look like a deathless one on high but there’s not a bit of grace to crown his words. Just like you, my fine, handsome friend.
There should be a word for the crisp melancholy you feel after accomplishing one of your loftiest goals, a German word. You expect to be struck with some visceral sense of achievement or honor, but it’s fleeting, and even that immediate pride breaks quickly as a wave.
This is part of growing up, but you don’t know it at the time. You’re simply looking into the near future, the first day of school, hoping the word will spread. You fantasize, wildly, of that walk down the hallway, of the embellished rumors already buzzing around your name, building your legacy. Pedaling home, you smile. You should feel a shade of guilt in this desire for glory, but you don’t.
There will be other challenges, of course—higher high-dives, so to speak—but every trial prepares you for the next. Take Ralphie from A Christmas Story, and his quest to acquire the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder ring. Day after day, guzzling “gallons of Ovaltine” and mailing in the evidence, working ever further to decode the polyalphabetic Caesar cipher’s slow reveal. The message, of course, was for Ralphie to “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Thus, Ralphie, understandably let down and a trifle jaded, “went out to face the world. Wiser.”
You could’ve stayed behind and basked in the comradely hair-tousling and backslaps, sure, but you chose to relish alone. This is the case, more often than not, when a sentient creature graduates from one level of being into another. This is part of growing up, but you don’t know it at the time. This is why dogs go off to die alone.
MASTER OF TWO WORLDS Your force is greater, your prepubescent limbs never wear out. You must be made all of iron.
You’re staring at a poster in the nurse’s office; one of four set side-by-side along the wall. The poster contains an inexplicable bald eagle sailing along a sunset that’s the same shade as orange Play-Doh. “L-I-F-E: A Journey, Not a Destination,” it states. You wonder why there are dashes between the letters in “L-I-F-E.”
School is back. Was this summer an illusory experience? You set out on a journey and mastered it. You walk down the halls, chest pushed out like a raging silverback. Davey nods hello. You’re not sure what to do and think maybe you’ve waited a second too long to reply, but you forcibly throw your hand through the air, it’s rigid and angular but it works just fine.