So, it's June, almost July, and the heat is starting to shimmer in the city.
You can tell how hot it is by the wet, sticky shirt backs of the people on the
street . . . and everyone just seems to get more and more naked.
And there's nothing much going on, either. All the excitement is over. Ellen came out, the Indigo Girls came in, Tina Turner busted loose, and the Lutherans are in town for a convention.
It's too soon to start thinking about Iron Mike and the Saints (not too soon for praying, however)-so how can we pass these lazy, hazy days of summer?
There's the beach-but that's three hours away. There's the Bahamas-but who has the extra cash? And you can hardly even get a free boat ride on any of the Casino Riverboats anymore. Here we sit, wishing for Mr. Bingle and Celebration in the Oaks while we watch the tree surgeons take down the stately old trees along St. Charles Ave. that are infested with Formosan termites. Ah, summer in New Orleans. Let's crack open a few fire hydrants and hit the Slip N' Slide.
I remember summers in the city from my childhood. Our favorite spot was the Audubon Park swimming pool. Oh, how the water glistened in the sun, blue and inviting. I learned to swim in that pool, and I had my first serious crush on my swimming instructor, Miss Thibodeaux. She was tall and tan and young and lovely. Her hair was close-cropped into a short bob.
She drove a Ford convertible and she'd come up the street with its top down each Tuesday afternoon. We'd pile into the back seat and away we'd go down the river road to Audubon Park.
You could actually see the pool behind the fence as you drove into the parking lot. The lifeguard chairs were the silent sentinentals just peeking over the top. The parking lot was gravel-a mixture of clam shells and oyster shells which were hell on bare feet.
When we got to the poolhouse, we'd split up into male and female-type persons and enter our respective doors. The floors were cool tile and smelled like bleach. The lockers were peeling their layers of paint. Miss Thibodeaux would instruct us to pin the key on the inside of our swimsuits because there was always the chance of losing it to the pool suction. Out we'd go into the eye-squinting summer sun after sloshing through some unnamed green liquid that was supposed to kill germs. It smelled like Listerine or Dr. Tichners.
Miss Thibodeaux always started our lessons in the wading pool. There we would practice "floating" in the shallow water. When she was sure none of us was in danger of sinking straight to the bottom that particular day, she'd point to the big pool. "3 feet," she'd command, and we'd jump in like obedient little fishes. She'd put us through our paces: dog paddle, threading water, American Crawl. Eagerly we would swim to and fro in the pool, always squinting up at Miss Thibodeaux looking for her approval.
She was beautiful in the full sun and her body glistened with droplets of water. She was a vision for the eyes of an 11 year old. I believed her to be the model from which all mermaids were formed.
One afternoon, as I was chugging back and forth in the pool during mandatory lap time, I noticed that Miss Thibodeaux was not alone. There was another woman standing next to her, overseeing our progress. At first I thought she was a lifeguard, but she had no whistle. She, too, was darkly tanned and sleek.
Every Tuesday from then on, Miss Thibodeaux was visited by the lady she told us to call Miss Jan. When Miss Jan arrived at pool side, Miss Thibodeaux always gave us something to do. One day she even gave us 100 laps, but stopped us at 20 out of fear that we would in fact sink to the pool bottom.
The summer wore on with Tuesdays marking the high point of the week. All too soon, swimming lessons were over and Miss Thibodeaux was ready to "check us out." The check-out included a dive from either the low board or the high tower and a safe return to the side of the pool.
One by one, we climbed the stairs leading to the tower. No one wanted to disappoint Miss Thibodeaux with a belly-flop off the low board. When my turn came, I was nervous. Miss Thibodeaux and her, by now constant companion, Miss Jan, waved encouragement. I took a deep breath and dove. Unfortunately, another diver chose just that moment to swim across the path directly under the tower. I didn't even see him because my eyes were tightly closed.
We collided with great force and I was knocked unconscious. Miss Thibodeaux's greatest fear was realized as I sank like a stone to the bottom in the deep end. All I remember was coming to with her mouth over mine and her eyes filled with concern. I started coughing up big mouthsful of water and she helped me sit up so I could breath better.
"You gave us quite a scare," Miss Jan said in a quiet voice. "Yes," Miss Thibodeaux agreed, "I haven't lost a swimmer yet though." They both helped me to my feet and suggested I sit on one of the concrete benches near the pool. I saw Miss Jan trying to comfort Miss Thibodeaux. She took her hand and held it for a long moment, then she slid her arm around Miss Thibodeaux's shoulders and gave her a hug. At age 11, I thought this was the greatest thing I'd ever seen-two women touching and holding hands.
On the way home that afternoon, the long shadows crisscrossed St. Charles and then Carrollton Ave. Miss Jan proposed a snowball stop before heading home and we kids rapidly agreed. Everyone piled out of the car at the snowball stand, but I stayed behind, still feeling shakened by the pool collision. Miss Thibodeaux and Miss Jan had also exited the convertible and had moved over to one of the picnic shelters close by. I watched them intently from my backseat vantage point, wondering if they were talking about me and the accident. The rest of the kids had run to the swings with their snowballs and were celebrating by slurping the sticky syrups thru their straws. The heat was melting the ice so quickly that soon the race to drink the juice was lost to the overflowing mess. Hands turned red or green or chocolate, but no one seemed to mind.
It was at that moment that I turned my attention back to the two figures standing in the shadows of the pavilion. And it was at that moment that the possibilities for my life changed forever. There, under the oaks, I saw Miss Thibodeaux and Miss Jan in a lover's embrace, and while I watched, Miss Jan's lips came down to meet Miss Thibodeaux's. They kissed in what appeared to me to be slow-motion. Miss Thibodeaux leaned into Miss Jan's body and the two swayed slightly to some unheard music moving through the trees.
I, myself, was breathless. I knew that girls weren't supposed to kiss one another like that, but the kiss was so exciting, so thrilling, so intense. My 11, almost 12 year old heart almost burst.
I'll never forget that stolen kiss there under the oaks. It confirmed for me that girls could indeed kiss one another and that romance could happen between two women just as easily as between a man and a woman. I wanted to watch them forever.
But the kids were getting restless in their damp bathing suits and Miss Thibodeaux and Miss Jan quickly sauntered back to the car. I think Miss Thibodeaux knew that I had seen her with Miss Jan, but she just smiled at me as she slide behind the wheel.
When we pulled up out front of my mother's house, we all sadly said goodbye to both Miss Thibodeaux and Miss Jan. I would never see them again. I was slowly walking away from the car when I heard my name being called. I turned to see Miss Thibodeaux beckoning me back. "How are you feeling," she asked. "Fine," I replied... and I did feel fine-for more reasons than one.
Miss Thibodeaux waved goodbye to me and Miss Jan did likewise. I waved back from the curb as they started to drive away. In that final moment, Miss Thibodeaux turned back toward me and with a smile called out words I have followed til this very day. "Follow your heart, Pam."
I do, Miss Thibodeaux ... oh yes, I do. And I don't sink to the bottom of the pool, either.