Eddie Field had ears that stuck out like mug handles from either side of his head and a face that was a constellation of freckles. He wore his hair in a Boy’s Regular barber cut, cropped close to his head, which only served to give emphasis to both the freckles and the unfortunate angle of his ears.
Eddie and I were in the same grade at school, and during the 1970s our parents belonged to the same summer swim club. I saw a lot of him as a result, but he wasn’t a friend, exactly. The club was a sort of working-class version of a Country Club—no tennis courts, no rolling golf green. It did have shuffleboard courts, though, and one or two of the courts were actually playable, if you avoided hitting the weeds forcing through the cracks in the cement. There was a musty-smelling piano in the clubhouse that retained most of its keys, and a bumper pool table that we played occasionally, passing the lone surviving cue.
The real pearl of the place, however—the real reason that the large working class families I knew paid $100 a summer (a fortune!) to belong there—was its in-ground swimming pool. In the 1970s, no one I knew had a yard big enough to house an in-ground pool, let alone an income big enough to put one there, especially one this large. It was what my father would call a “beaut.” I don’t know how big it actually was, but at age 5 or 6 I thought its proportions epic: as big as an NFL field and deep as an ocean. That pool was the first in-ground swimming pool I’d ever seen, the one I learned to swim in. And I thought this was what wealth itself would feel like: having things so large and grand that you could dive in and get lost in them.
The pool was the domain of us kids, except on weekends, when the fathers came and would swim, too. But during the week, the pool was packed with only us kids while our mothers watched from the grass beyond the pool’s cement apron, smoking cigarettes and sipping Tab. Sometimes a mother would join us, stretching a bright rubbery bathing cap over her head and dipping a toe to take the temperature of the water. I thought it funny that our mothers wore bathing caps, which were often covered with a riot of rubbery flowers, because most of them didn’t go under at all but instead swam like my mother did: lowering themselves gingerly into the deep end and then doing a measured crawl or side-stroke to the shallow end, where they’d step out, remove the bathing cap with a grisly snap, and pat their hair back into place.
Watching them, I dreaded growing up if it meant not appreciating the outstanding bounce of the springboard that could ricochet even the smallest and lightest kid nearly to the bottom of the pool. Fully immersed as I was in the deep end of childhood, being a grown-up didn’t look like a lot of fun. Given that most of my generation has yet to attain adulthood, I’m guessing most of us still feel that way.
My best friend during those summers was a girl exactly my age named Diana. She was everything I wasn’t… gregarious, easy-going—and she knew how to dance. Best of all, she was from a large, lively family—she was one of eight—and it gave her a sort of leverage and authority around the pool that impressed me and attracted me all the more, especially since most of my home life consisted of my being alone with my parents. One of her older teenage sisters was a lifeguard, and the other worked the snack shack. In later years, Diana and I would work the snack counter, too. But when we were about 10 or 11, that kind of big-girl responsibility still seemed far out of reach.
While I spent most of the school year cultivating a persona that flew decidedly below anyone’s radar—below the notice of classroom teachers, CCD teachers, my parent’s friends, my friend’s parents, priests, aunts, uncles, administrators, or anyone in a position of authority or influence, as well as boys of any kind and the tougher-talking girls in my grade—things were different in the summer. Happily ensconced in my friendship with Diana, and, by extension, her whole family and both the boys and girls they knew at the pool, I felt less shy, less chronically embarrassed, more free.
Besides, while I still found it excruciating when either an adult or a boy would address me directly, the pool was a place where kids were left mostly to run together in packs, so neither happened too often. Eddie Field was part of that pack, too. When I search my memory for specifics, I can’t place him exactly. But I know that he was always there, somewhere in the background, overshadowed, like me, by the more animated among us.
And so it went. Most days, I spread my towel on the grass next to Diana, and for the first time in my life took pleasure in being part of a larger group. Being part of something larger than myself, I realized happily, made me dwell less on my own shortcomings.
One day, we had been swimming as usual—in and out of the pool, bumming Mike and Ikes from Diana’s sister at the snack bar, and shooting discs on the shuffleboard court, when the sky turned dark and thunder sounded in the distance. Diana’s oldest sister, as lifeguard, blew her whistle and ordered us out of the pool. The temperature had dropped a little, too, so I pulled a gray sweatshirt over my head and, eventually, untied my bikini top and slipped it off from underneath. The wet suit against my skinny body was uncomfortable and gave me goosebumps.
The overcast sky threatened to rain, but didn’t. So we played some more outside of the pool—horsing around on some rusty playground equipment, later standing in a big group near the lifeguard stand talking and laughing and waiting for the sun to reappear. I was on the periphery of a group of other preteens teasing a sandy-haired friend of Diana’s sister—he was possibly her boyfriend—for not removing his mirrored aviator sunglasses even when the day clouded. Well, he said with an easy shrug as he flashed a heartbreakingly cute smile, “They look cool.”
That made some in our group whoop and tease all the more. One of the boys tried to grab them, and the boyfriend swatted the hand away as easily as he would a gnat, and pretty soon someone asked Diana’s sister if we couldn’t go back in the pool because the thunder had moved on. She said fine, we could, but to listen carefully in case she called us out again, and before she had that sentence fully out of her mouth the most bald-faced boys were already jumping back in the pool and calling for the rest of us to join them. Diana and our other friend, Joanne, jumped back in, too, and before I knew what I was doing, exactly, I had lifted my sweatshirt off and started to toss it back on the grass behind me with the intent to join them.
Only I didn’t—Diana was already signaling frantically at me from the pool—and instead of tossing my sweatshirt aside I balled it up suddenly and hugged it to my naked chest. But I was a little too late: Everyone, or so it seemed, had already noticed my mistake. I had fully exposed to all of them the small, swollen mounds that passed for my breasts in those days. The boys in the pool collected at my feet, swarming like rats around a morsel in the water, and they were all pointing and laughing and jeering. Those horrible boys, who never know when to quit a joke.
On the deck, a few others who also hadn’t jumped in yet, were pointing and laughing, too. All, that is, except for one: he caught my eye with deep embarrassment of his own, the tips of those famous ears went crimson, and he turned away. It was Eddie Field.
Whether he was embarrassed for me or because of me, whether he turned to avoid the sight of my naked breasts because it was excruciating for him, too, or because he knew it was excruciating for me… didn’t really matter: All I knew was that he left me some fragment of dignity, and I was painfully grateful for it.
I’d like to say that the moment ignited a respectful friendship between Eddie and me that lasted for many years. I’d like to say that I ring him up occasionally or shoot him an email. But the truth is that I don’t know what happened to Eddie Field.
The few times I saw him in school or at church after that, I avoided him, and he avoided me. It was all too much for both of us, I guess. By the time I was in high school, the swim club property had been sold to a developer who razed the clubhouse and snack shack, filled the pool with dirt, and erected some kind of industrial building. A few months ago I emailed my old friend Diana and asked whether she knew what happened to Eddie. She said she didn’t know. Neither did our mutual friend Lisa.
For my part, I grew up (and my breasts grew bigger), and eventually I went to a different school. After that, I more or less forgot about Eddie.
But my daughter Caroline, lying in the dark at night, forever stalling bedtime by asking me to tell her a story, has gotten impressively good at jogging my memory. “Do you have any scars? From what?” she’ll ask.
A year or two ago, it was, “What was your most embarrassing moment when you were my age?” And that question dislodged from somewhere in my memory that day at the pool and Eddie Field.
Since then, Eddie, like the club’s swimming pool, has taken on epic dimensions. He’s the hero of the story I tell about him. And around our house he’s larger than life. “Let me guess,” says my partner, V., as he crams an empty tomato can into an overflowing bin, “Eddie would have taken the trash out already.” My daughter, who doesn’t suffer gladly any boy her age, deigns to deem the least-icky boy in her class barely “half an Eddie.”
Eddie has become the measure of all men I’ve known, past and present, and I am lucky enough to have met a few Eddies in my life. I can only hope the same for Caroline. But as I tell her and her brother… you have to know what you’re looking for before you can find it.
Unless, of course, you find yourself accidentally bare-breasted.