By age 11, I was already a strong swimmer and a natural in the water, thanks to my yearly, summertime swim lessons. By now, my mother was fully overwhelmed by life as a single mother, and, as often as possible – given all her other responsibilities – she’d drop me off for my Saturday morning lessons while she ran some other errands. It took a couple extra summers to learn all the swim strokes, given that I never got to finish all of the lessons in any, one series.
Because I was a strong swimmer, my mother felt confident letting me go to the Cazenovia Park Pool by myself, which I did almost every day. And, because I was a real swimmer (you had to prove it) that meant that I could go to the separate, deep pool, with the diving boards and the lifeguard sitting in his 10-foot-high chair. (Yes. I felt like a Big Shot.)
One day, several other kids and I were waiting in line to use the lower board. I was wearing my two-piece, baby-blue bathing suit, which highlighted my fleshy, double-layered belly and showcased my ample thighs and derriere.
It was Terry Sullivan, the tough girl in the neighborhood who spelled her name like a boy. She didn’t go to our school. She went to Catholic School, but her holiness sure didn’t show. She smoked, she drank, she swore, she already liked boys, she wore black eyeliner and a skimpy bikini. She was a rough-hewn troublemaker with a strut. A classic hoodlum.
Only a couple years older than me, Terry Sullivan seemed a lot older because she was already so hard. She lived up at the corner of Burch Avenue and Seneca Street, right at the Buffalo city line, whereas I lived in the town of West Seneca.
Because she didn’t go to “our school” and she wasn’t part of “our neighborhood”, all we knew about her was that she had a younger sister and that they were being raised by their father. I never once saw their father. Nobody did.
They lived in a storefront that they’d turned into a flat. Its mammoth front window was covered with a dingy, ivory-colored curtain that was always drawn. I often wondered what went on behind that curtain. It was odd for a mother, like mine, to be raising her children alone in the 60s, but it was almost non-existent to hear of a father doing the same thing.
I was afraid of her, I’m not gonna lie, but I was smart enough to ignore her taunts. I was no stranger to insults. Growing up at 61 Burch Avenue was like attending Insult University, only nobody ever graduated. Plus, I did not want to get into a fight at the pool. I got plenty of fighting at home. The Caz Park pool was my summertime happy place that filled in the spaces between bike rides, tomato sandwiches, visiting my grandparents, ice cream cones, and the rare and precious day trips to Willow Beach and the Erie County Fair.
Plus, I felt for sure that Terry Sullivan could beat me up – and good. She was as tough as my brothers. My brothers were a known commodity. Terry Sullivan was a wild card. I wasn’t stupid. Plus, I only fought at home because I had to. I did not want to fight in public.
“HAAEEY! FAAATSO!” she yelled again, this time, even louder. All the other kids in line were scared, too, and nobody said a word. I kept my eyes straight ahead, locked on the spindly kid standing at the end of the diving board, as if he were the most fascinating creature I’d ever laid eyes on.
Readying for my turn at the diving board, I placed my right foot up on the ladder. In the meantime, Terry Sullivan had butted ahead of the boy behind me, who, naturally, offered no protest. I never looked back at her. “Yuuuuu FATASS!,” she scowled and then THWACK!!! Terry Sullivan slapped me so hard across my right leg that I felt the burn immediately. I never looked at her. To look at her would mean I would fight, and, that I would lose – just like I always did at home. I kept my eyes locked in front of me.
The boy on the board was a novice and was scared to jump into the deep water, so he stood at the edge of that diving board, hesitating for a lifetime. “Go ahead and jump!” a couple of the kids called out. “You’ll be okay. The lifeguard is right there.” Finally confident enough that he’d be okay, he turned to look back at us and smiled. Then he pinched his nostrils together and off he went.
It was finally my turn. I walked to the edge of the board and curled my toes over the edge, as if I had a technique. The August sun clung to me like a lamprey and I inhaled the humidity. “You can go to hell, Terry Sullivan”, I thought. “At least I have a mother and I have a girl’s name.”
I fixed my eyes on a point in the water, like I’d seen the Olympic divers do. I was in a trance, overcome with fear and rage, when the lifeguard blew his whistle at some kid and its piercing tone broke the spell. I uncurled my toes and jumped in, feet first.
My body descended the 12 feet to the bottom of the pool and I spotted the drains. I saw a couple quarters and a pair of goggles down there before my body started rising to the surface where it would be greeted by a welcoming dose of oxygen- when POW!
Terry Sullivan’s body landed on my back, a dense and furious punch….pushing me all the way back down to the bottom of the pool. I was scared but I kept my cool, and when at last I emerged, void of oxygen and gasping for air, I swam as fast as I could to the side of the pool to catch my breath and to let my fear subside.
“Are you okay?” the lifeguard asked.
Terry Sullivan was already out of the pool and was walking away. I watched her pick her bikini bottom out of her asscrack before she disappeared back over to the regular pool, right along with her pack of Tareytons and her hoodlum ways.
After that day, on the rare occasions when Terry Sullivan and I crossed paths, all that ever happened was she gave me a dirty look, but she never bothered me again.
I thought of what we had in common, that Terry was missing a mother and I was missing a father, and that maybe, it didn’t matter that she lived in Buffalo and I, in West Seneca. It didn’t matter that she went to Catholic school and I went to public and that she lived in a storefront and I lived in a big house and that she smoked and wore black eyeliner and I didn’t.
Somehow, in some way, for some reason, I wonder if we could have been friends.