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Monday, July 10, 2023

"The Pool on Ocean Avenue" by Denise Kaplan - 2022 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist



"The Pool on Ocean Avenue"

by  Denise Kaplan


Somewhere along the four-lane arterial of Ocean Avenue that connects Park Slope to Sheepshead Bay, where cars barrel down day and night,creating a constant Niagara Falls-like hum, and what was the gruesome scene of several of my cats being flattened by said traffic,sat a series of large single-family houses where the quiet was never interrupted by the incessant Doppler effect of cars, buses and motorcycles. Motorcycles were a particular assault on the ears in the summer months when the windows were opened during the day. Their roar was only drowned out by the rumble and cough of the air conditioner at night as my sisters and I all bunked up in the same cool room. The three-story house was large enough to shield my backyard from the urban clammer of Ocean Avenue and provide a sanctuary away from the noise and heat and monotony of summer.

In July of1978,every day was filled with lazily sleeping late, pouring salt on slugs, applying calamine lotion to mosquito bites, peeling off white bits of burned flesh and filling ice cube trays with orange juice. But the best thing about summer was having a backyard with a pool. The pool, the star of the Brooklyn backyard bonanza, the crème de la crème, the jewel in the crown that was our block was our pool. That magnificent body of water of my youth was four and a half feet of above ground majesty. In a simpler time before there was tik tok and selfies and before we discovered boys and smoking and roller skating and disco, we had water, and it was all we needed.

My fathers welled with pride over the swing set he built (total death trap) and the hydrangeas that lined our driveway that looked like pink cheerleader pom poms, but his crowning achievement was his pool. Easily viewed over a low fence by all the neighbors green with envy and sweat. Our backyard was mostly concrete with a patch of dull green Astroturf where my sisters and I used to peel away the edge and expose a mini biome of worms, ants, and pill bugs. Then we would poke the poor creatures with punk sticks. There was a weeping willow tree whose tendrils reached down into the pool like fingers to caress the water and at night. During those hot summer nights green spotlights lit up the willow and the water just like the hanging gardens of Babylon.  The pool had no heater and we stayed in the water until we were trembling, our skin like braille, and our lips nearly white.

My father built a deck at one end of the pool although the word “deck” makes it sound grander than it was. The deck was about 4feet by 4feet but large enough so my two sisters and I could stand shoulder to shoulder and jump in together holding hands.Our other favorite trick was to stand with our backs towards the pool, arms outstretched and take the Nestea plunge.

One day my sister Christine, the reckless one, ran into the house screaming “I have an idea”.  She came back out with Elephanté, a small blue, plastic, elephant with wheels on his feet. He was a toddler’s riding toy left over from our younger days. We thought we were saying “elephant” in French when we named him.Such sophisticated children we were. Christine positioned Elephanté as far back on the deck as possible and sat on the toy with her 14-year-old body. Elephanté was built for a 2-year-old, so he was a noticeably short elephant and when she straddled him her pelvis was positioned lower than her knees and her legs were spread wide. It looked slightly like she was giving birth to him. “Here I go!”, she screamed and took off, wet feet slapping, trying to pick up speed. I think she must have envisioned herself sailing through the air on the back of the elephant Dukes of Hazzard-style but Elephanté’s wheels caught on the very edge of the deck. He got stuck, bucked his hindquarters up and dunked my sister head-first in the water then toppled in on top of her while she caught a mouthful of chlorine water.

She was not deterred. She had a better idea. With lobster red arms hanging over the edge of the pool I watched as she stumbled inside the house again and came back with Hoppity Horse, another left over toddler’s toy. Hoppity Horse was made of an industrial strength,heavy-duty,yellow,rubber and was roughly the size of a wrecking ball with a horse’s head. It had rubber handles sticking out of the sides of the head and black vacant eyes. This was in in-door toy. The point of the Hoppity Horse was to sit on it with the head sticking out of your crotch, hold on to the head sticks and bounce around the house while possibly learning how to masturbate. But Christine had other plans for him. She climbed the five steps up to the deck with Hoppity and shoved him between her thighs. Standing there on the deck with a yellow horse head sticking out of her coochie and giant yellow rubber ball coming out her ass like a cartoon fart, she took her peach-colored rubber nose plugs, adjusted them to either side of her nose and squeezed her nostrils shut. One hand on a Hoppity Horse handle, one hand in the air she screamed a very nasal “One….two” she bent her knees deeply, and on three she launched straight up into the air.With a giant splash, the positively buoyant giant rubber ball shot back up to the surface like a breaching whale but at an angle and flung my sister into the side wall of the pool. Unfazed, Christine half-swam, half-flopped back to the deck a bit bruised and possibly a little concussed to try again. But I was already on the deck with hoppity between my own legs eager to try the new game. I had lost my nose-plugs in the depths of the pool already, so I held one hoppity stick and with the other hand I squeezed my nose. Not wanting to make the same mistake as my sister, I angled my body and leaned forward. When I jumped, I leaped a bit too far forward and landed in the water on my face and belly. My hand instinctively let go of the hoppity and when we hit the water he bounced backwards out of the water and hit my sister square in  the nose plugs.

Don’t worry, she was fine, and all summer, and for many summers after that, with zero parental supervision, our goal was to jump into the pool with hoppity horse between our legs and stay on, riding him like Poseidon’s bucking bronco but we never could break that noble steed.


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