I was sitting in the bathtub when I saw it. I’d let the bubbles dissolve until all but a few curled around my toes. The water was cool like dishwater after the plates had soaked and you’d forgotten about them when you went to the den to watch Gilligan’s Island, and mom would yell, “You get back in here and finish your job before you watch television!” just as the Professor was about to try out his new escape plan. There was no such thing as a pause button. You had to wait for the commercial or wait a long time for the re-run.
There on my stomach was a single dot. And I knew.
Maybe it was a mosquito bite, I told myself. But further inspection revealed another one inside my elbow and three more on the back of my knee cap. They itched.
“Mom!” I screamed. And within moments she confirmed. It was the chicken pox. My brother had them first and I’d done an exceptional job staying away from him for weeks. I made him maintain a single cushion on the far end of the couch as we watched afternoon cartoons. I never crossed the pillow line between us. I hadn’t sat anywhere near his spot for weeks. I even moved chairs at the dinner table to ensure distance. I hunkered down in my room with my books and my Barbies and made certain his door was closed before I ventured downstairs. I didn’t touch the banister. I washed my hands so often there wasn’t even a little dirt under my fingernails and there was pretty much always dirt under my nails, but not when my brother had the chicken pox.
Billy had been sick in June and he was mostly better by the 4th of July. I figured I was out of the woods, that my vigilance had paid off. Now the days were thick with summer heat, and my brother’s former agony was my own. Only mine was worse. So much worse.
When it is 96 degrees and humid and your skin itches like it’s on fire from the spots between your toes to the insides of your ears and your house only has two window-unit air-conditioners that your mother only runs when absolutely necessary, meaning when she is napping in her own room or cooking adjacent to the window unit over the kitchen sink, what is a nine-year-old covered in pox supposed to do? I tried desperately to scratch the hard-to-reach spots in the center of my back with the turkey fork or by rubbing up against tree bark.
Eventually, coated in calamine lotion, I climbed into the knotty Pawley’s Island hammock strung between a couple pine trees, and read the latest Nancy Drew caper, trying to take my mind off my misery. Sweat beaded on my forehead and rivulets of pale pink calamine trickled down my legs. And I complained. Oh, how I complained. Mom would come out of the house with an icy glass of lemonade, wiping a hand on her apron and sweat off my brow. And I’d moan, making sure she realized that no one in the history of any illness that was ever suffered had suffered as much as me, itching miserably in that bumpy hammock.
She’d bring out a washcloth hardened in the freezer, and put in on the back of my neck. “Oh, I am definitely dying,” I’d whine in a most tragic Scarlett O’Hara voice. Afterall, tomorrow is just another day...for misery. “If only we had a pool,” I lamented. “That would be the one thing that would feel good right now.”
Mom went to Kmart the next day and surprised me with a round, blue plastic pool with little fish stamped on the bottom and up the 8-inch sides. She filled it with water from the hose and emptied a tray of ice cubes in it. The ice melted in minutes, but I sat on the back porch somewhat blissful in my tiny pool until it turned into a hot tub, making me itch all the more.
Now carrying immunities to my affliction, Billy was allowed to join me in the pool and together we filled the space as water spilled over the sides. Every so often mom would empty a bucket with cool water from the spigot, pouring it over us as we’d squeal with delight. I’d briefly forget my agony until I realized my family may no longer be worried about my well-being at which point, I’d begin another tortured moan. Our dog Snoopy, a scrawny mutt who tried to pass himself off as a Dalmatian with his occasional spots and stumpy tail, lapped up the pool water until we shooed him away.
Up until we got that plastic pool, our swim experience was limited to the occasional hotel pool and swimming lessons at the NC State Aquatics Center. When we were lucky, our neighbors would bring us to the University’s Faculty Club. Located in the midst of rolling hills dotted with cows adjacent to the School of Agriculture, it was a luxury to go there, but we always had to be on our best behavior so we could get invited back.
Yet even when we were on our best behavior, mom said “Don’t be pests,” and we weren’t allowed to ask our neighbors to take us. We had to wait for an invitation. Itching to swim, we’d sit under the dogwood trees on the side of our house, watching longingly and trying our best to look desirable as Mrs. Lucas packed up their car with towels and snacks and our friend Lynn climbed into the back. “Maybe they want some family time,” mom would say, and we’d head to our porch, dejected. Sometimes mom would set up the rotating sprinkler in the front yard and we’d leap over it until the ground became mushy and our legs were covered in grass.
There was one house in our neighborhood that had a pool. One day, a For Sale sign magically appeared in the yard. We begged our parents to buy it, even though it was just one story and smaller than our house. When mom and dad declined our sales pitches, we took to hoping, praying and crossing fingers that the people who DID buy it would have a kid our age.
Neighborhood Harriet the Spy that I was, I stalked the real estate agent, eager to assess the clientele who might become our new neighbors. When I’d see her pull up at the corner house with the pool in her lime-green Gremlin, I’d ride my bike up and down the street, casually observing her tidy up the front yard in her goldenrod Century 21 jacket, her straight, shiny, long brown hair clipped in the back with a tortoiseshell barrette, her fashionable mini-dress and tan, stocking-covered legs. She was the kind of woman my dad would call a looker and I couldn’t stop looking.
I’d park my bike against the Old Farm sign at the top of the hill and work my way down the block for a better view, Scooby Doo darting from Sycamore tree to honeysuckle bush, where I’d strain to hear her discussions with childless couples or people carrying infants. Surely, they’d have to be rich if they could afford a $23,000 house. At last, a couple with two children showed up. The kids appeared close to our age. There was hope. I reported back to my brother, and we began plotting how we’d befriend the two before any other kids in the neighborhood stood a chance.
The next day a SOLD sign went on top of the yellow post and our dreams were clearly about to come true. We got our bathing suits ready. But a month later, when the moving truck arrived, there wasn’t a kid in sight. The Looker had sold it to a couple without children. And as far as we could tell, they never even used their pool. You could walk by the tall wood fence on the hottest Saturday in August and there wouldn’t be a single splash. But we knew that just over the wooden wall was a little slice of heaven that we could never reach, like an itch you just couldn’t scratch.
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As shared at Story Salon on January 18, 2023.