As I push open the heavy red door, I am greeted by a stream of warm, humid air. The smell of chlorine fills my nostrils as I blink repeatedly, my eyes adjusting to the fluorescent light. Stepping through small puddles on the deck and listening to the quiet lapping of water against the pool’s edge, I feel beads of sweat starting to form on the bridge of my nose. The rhythmic splashing of the lap swimmers and the quiet hum of the filtration systems lull me into a kind of stupor. As I saunter across the tile floor, I prepare myself mentally for the next four hours.
Sitting five feet above the deck, I whisper to myself, “two in the first lane, one in the fourth, one in the fifth, two in the six, and one in the eighth. Seven total. Seven.” I look up at one of the three clocks hanging along the far wall. Fourteen minutes until I rotate to the dive well. Back down to the lanes. Six. The older and slightly overweight man from lane five has gotten up and is walking towards the spa. “One, two, three, four, five, six. Okay, still six.”
The Plex Pool is mathematical, its structural precision matched by its numeric exactness: lanes one through eight, a pH balance of 7.5, 36 laps make a mile, 81 degrees in the pool, 104 in the spa, 6 swimmers in the lap pool and 2 in the diving well, a depth of 4 feet, 10 inches, 14 minutes until my shift is over. Sitting five feet above the deck hunched over my bright yellow guard tube in my bright yellow guard uniform, I am always counting.
The linear design of the windowless facility with its the rectangular pools, straight lane lines, triangular flags, and small square tiles is both strange and mysterious in an unsettling way. The pyramid-like structure of the Plex roof, complete with massive curved vaults, is slightly off center in relation to the main pool, creating corners in unusual places and causing the light to fall in a bizarre, shadowy pattern across the deck. In all its seventies’ architectural grandeur, I find the geometric place disorienting, its design so outdated and atypical that it feels almost alien.
Then there’s the water itself, a small piece of the place on our planet from which all life was born. Within the water, we find ourselves in a most natural state— engulfed by that which we are. It is the closest we will ever come to experiencing our unconscious origin inside the womb. Drawn to this instinctive experience we choose water over all else as a place to exercise, to relax, and to gather. Perhaps this is why the the Plex Pool takes on an almost magical quality, one that is generated from the blend of the natural and the unnatural, the man and the man-made. The fluorescent lights and broad steel beams contrasted with the image of the human body gliding across the water’s smooth, undulating surface causes me to reflect on our place in a world so much larger and so much older than ourselves. What is it that draws us to this primordial water setting from which we have been forever separated by evolution? I believe that it must be an attempt to understand in a physical, bodily sense our beginning— the beginning of all life on this planet.
Always busy with lap swimmers, the varsity swim team, swim lessons, aqua-joggers, the dive team, and groups of friends playing water basketball, the Plex Pool pulses with life. There is a near constant succession of patrons who halt their lives to leave our land world for this aquatic one. From 5:45am every morning until 11:45pm each night, energy, animation, and vitality fill this otherwise numb, impassive space. But from all this activity comes noise. With every stroke there is a splash, with every shout there is an echo. Underneath the water’s surface, this all goes away. Noise is replaced with an eerie silence that is broken with every breath.
Swimming is a kind of chosen isolation, a purposeful separation from others. The opportunity to interact above water is immediately replaced with an inability to communicate beneath the surface. Submerging oneself into this solitary place is as freeing as it is limiting. Slouching in my elevated lifeguard chair, chewing on my whistle, and humming to myself, I too experience this detachment from a communal world of seemingly constant interaction. The Plex Pool is but a momentary escape from the chaos of everyday life in our hyperactive Boston College bubble.
“Two patrons in the first lane, one in the second, another in the fourth, two in the fifth and one in the seventh. Seven.” One by one the swimmers finish their laps and hoist themselves onto the deck. Heads down, wrapped in their towels, flip-flops slapping across the deck, they head back into the locker rooms. Only the women with the silver swim cap in lane four is still swimming. A regular during my Thursday night shift, I am familiar with her alternating butterfly and freestyle workout. When she stops for a moment, takes a sip of water, looks down at her watch and grabs a kickboard, I know she has begun her cooldown. I can’t help but wonder what must be running through her mind as she completes lap after lap in such an automatic, mechanical fashion. Maybe she’s only thinking about her exercise plan, her technique, the calories she’s burning, or the number of laps she has left to swim. Maybe I’m only thinking about my surveillance duties as a lifeguard: scan from point to point thoroughly and repeatedly, pay close attention to non-swimmers or weak swimmers, adjust your body position or stand up to eliminate blind spots, be aware of areas that are difficult to see. But I think it is more likely that we are both lost in cerebral worlds of thoughts and emotion: a mental space that is typically silenced by the man-made noise of our everyday life. Here in this strange shared space, we are together yet completely detached, each wandering in a sort of remote psychological realm that is revealed to us by nature of the Plex Pool.