Make-Believe Nostalgia

Yesterday I visited a community pool for the first time in a number of years. Growing up, we relied on our friends’ swimming pools because there wasn’t one in our community. In fact, the one I went to today was a small one that I’d never been to before, and I went because my aunt was feeling nostalgic: she used to go to that pool when she was a girl, visiting her aunt in the next county. So she and I went. As it turned out, there was a certain charm about this place that made me somewhat nostalgic for a life I’d never experienced.

My own nostalgia started stirring as soon as my aunt told me how she used to come to this town – only twenty minutes away from our own – and stay with her aunt, and come to this pool with her cousin. I started thinking about who I’d gone to stay with as a kid and what family I’d visited. Where I should have felt nostalgic, it was all made up: my entire family had always been right in my town. There’d never been anyone to go visit away from there.

Later, as my aunt attempted to swim laps around parents holding little kids and small children doing handstands and chasing diving sticks, I sat nearby on the edge of the pool with my legs in the water. To my immediate left was the lifeguard and to my immediate right was a group of about six elementary school boys. They kept doing cannonballs and the lifeguard kept yelling at them, and the only thing I could think about was The Sandlot. If you’ve never seen it, you’re missing out. It’s funny, but it’s also nostalgic to the core. I kept expecting the lifeguard to morph into Wendy Pefferkorn and those little boys to become the kids from The Sandlot. When those boys got kicked out of the pool for doing (what else?) obnoxious cannonballs, I started observing other groups further in the distance, and for the rest of the day was struck by the dichotomy of early and late teenage life that was, in some sense, quite idyllic.

The group I kept noticing was a group of teenagers, probably 16-18 years old, playing a game of beach volleyball in the sand court. What struck me first about this was that, because all the girls were in bikinis, it reminded me of a more countrified version of a Snoop Dogg video. But then I got to thinking: to have access to a place like this as a teenager has to be something of a dream-come-true. You can spend all day outside with all of your friends and no adults. You swim, you eat, you play volleyball, and you lounge around socializing – IN PERSON, and not via text or the Internet. It was clear that these particular kids were on the other side of their awkward stage because they all seemed comfortable around each other and all mingled together as a unit. I watched the volleyball soar over the fence, then watched two boys lift the bottom of the fence up while two more wiggled under and then ran down through the yards of the surrounding houses in pursuit of the escaped ball. All of the sudden, I felt incredibly nostalgic. I wanted to go back to being a teenager and socializing in the summer with a large group of my friends. I wanted to spend all day at the pool because I was able to walk or ride my bike there. I wanted to watch on, laughing, while people wiggled under the fence while the lifeguard wasn’t looking. It seemed so simple.

That nostalgia was totally made up, though. That wasn’t my life. I didn’t have a big crew of friends. I didn’t have a pool to walk to. I was never not awkward. I wasn’t comfortable being in a bathing suit in front of most people, much less my peers. I was nostalgic for a life that hadn’t existed for me.

A little while later, I was back in the shade, sitting on my tile in the brittle brown grass. My aunt went to swim laps during adult swim, but I was tired and stayed back. As I sat there, a new group caught my eye. There was a group of girls all huddled together, probably between 12-14 years old. There was a larger group of boys around the same age. It was like a Venn diagram of people. On one side, a circle of girls; on the other side, a cluster of boys. In the middle, one or two girls and three or four boys who were socializing with each other, but far more awkwardly. For these kids, I’d be willing to bet that this is the first summer during which each gender has realized that the other doesn’t have cooties. The girls have started socializing with the boys, and the boys have started realizing that the girls are… well, filling out their bathing suits. Last summer, these boys were probably only concerned with video games or little league games. This summer, they’re in the process of becoming guys (though not yet men). A boy asked a girl to borrow a dollar so he could get a snack and asked her to walk with him. The two of them started walking toward the snack bar when a second boy ran up from behind and started poking at the girl and pushing her playfully, teasing her about something. The first boy spun around, suddenly angry, and threatened to hit the second boy if he didn’t stop touching her. The girl, for what it’s worth, didn’t seem to be fazed by any of it. I next heard a little boy giggling, and then heard him yell to his friends, “Hey, check this shit out!” He couldn’t have been older than 12, and I thought to myself, “Ah, yes. I remember the days of being away from my parents at the pool all day, learning to swear with my friends and checking out boys.”

Except I don’t actually remember those days because they never happened for me. I didn’t even really start swearing until I was a senior in high school. I never had a coming-of-age summer that was experienced the way that I imagine these kids are experiencing their youth. It really makes me wish I had, though.

Maybe the nostalgia was just all coming from a want of a simpler time when everything wasn’t quite so connected or a time when I actually saw my friends in person on a regular basis, when I didn’t feel like I was so isolated from all of them. Maybe it made me remember fondly the days when my girlfriends would mingle with the boys, but at the end of the day, they still wanted to hang out with me and never ditched me (or the group), changed plans, or held off on making them all together until they could consult with their boyfriends. Maybe the nostalgia came from a secret desire to be able to go back and change who I’d been and be someone else because that allows me to wonder who I’d be now. I wouldn’t be the same person, but would I be better or worse? And when it’s packaged that way, would I necessarily want to trade off the good things in my life now just to be someone with different memories?

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