I WANT TO tell you about a difficult place that I visit regularly since moving to my suburb in the inner fringes of a large Australian city. The place is a gym, and I like it in the winter because there is a steam room there, a good place to zone out and think about the day. In the summer, the place is best known for its appended outdoor pool, and this pool is the source of both its interest and its difficulty.
The gym sits above the pool in a pale alien sphere and, occasionally, at the pool, you see a sunglassed person peer up and say searchingly: ‘Oh! There’s a gym up there.’
The pool itself is famous. It’s been immortalised in films, in rare things – famous novels – and even rarer things, famous newspaper articles from the 1980s that are still sometimes photocopied and taught in university classes today. Recently, I saw footage of this iconic pool in the museums of two different capital cities, in two separate art exhibitions, exhibiting simultaneously. We love our pools, and this one especially.
I love this pool very much and need this gym very often, and as with all things we need and love, I take special licence to scrutinise its workings to a level perhaps unwarranted. This essay is a short appreciation, but some of my appreciation takes the form of complaint. As such, I choose to leave the pool – the place – anonymous, in the vain hope that there is room, in our searchable society, to keep certain details undigitised and unnamed.
I think of this hope – I think of the undigital, the primordial – because the pool in question moves towards the modern only lurchingly, as if some inner amphibious brain is always pulling it home. If upkeep is strong, then facilities are creaky. If repairs occur, they are involved and counterproductive, suggesting that outside forces conspire to fix the pool in space and time. Members of its public embrace the ahistoric vibe. For every thirtysomething who discovered the pool in his twenties, and remembers, while he squeezes a swim in between work and sleep, how easy it used to be to laze around this pool all morning, there’s at least one old-timer who has circled back around to this twentysomething fantasy and experiences it as daily life. It is always a lone man, and each of these lone men haunt the pool at odd hours, sitting in white plastic chairs, never reading, barely talking, just eking out the day with the same contented smile on each distinctive face.
In the newspaper article I’m thinking of, the pool is described as both a microcosm of society and a leveller thereof, all the classes mixing in their bathing suits. This only makes it especially delicious that the pool is literally stratified. The pool has steps, levels: a famous stack of bleachers, which becomes very crowded on a sunny day. It is up for grabs whether lying on the top row feels like you’re exposing yourself to the community or parcelling yourself away. Little balconies, incidentally, overhang this pool, but only once have I seen a face peering through the windows with the rippled look of strangers behind reflecting panes. Never once have I seen anybody on the balconies, some of which are festooned with nautical souvenirs.
When B moved to our city from another state, I took her to the pool on a burning summer’s day. We climbed up on the bleachers. That night her husband called me and said, ‘Did you take my wife cruising at the pool today?’ This is one of the pool’s uses, especially on the bleachers, which transform, depending on the crowd and time of day, between a place to lie down and soak up the sunshine and a place for men to gossip, hang out with their mates and put on performances that could be classed as cruising – but in the friendliest, least edgy, most straight-friendly possible way. It would be achievable – if improbable – to miss them totally. It would be improbable – but achievable – to take someone home for the day. It’s enough to make you wonder about the difference between cruising and looking, and whether it’s just a matter of who happens to be in the space. Everyone in every space is always watching something. At crowded pools, other people are always in the way.
I was once surprised, when I was single – in another city, in a different country, on the other side of the world – to find the queer spaces I was used to almost wholly missing, perhaps because the cultures were a little bit more integrated; certain rights-based causes were a little more advanced. Of course there were parties, and of course there were bars. But most of the time, after I’d spoken to guys online, I went to meet them in places that were full of people like B – and people like me now, since I’ve been with J for some time, and we often find ourselves in the kinds of places where radical politics are expressed as vegan menu options. I knew, of course, the kinds of sweaty places I was missing largely existed because of historical need; and knew, of course, these sweaty places had their own problems: the less like everyone else you looked, the less masculine you were. Without them though, it seemed that many other things were missing too – parts of queer culture that we could find elsewhere, even in mixed bars, but which, mostly, currently, we don’t.
I came home to this country, some years passed, some laws changed, and I wondered if, as standards shifted, as barriers were smashed, certain sectors of culture would wind up smashed along the way. There would always be bars and parties, beats and sweaty places, places where people cruised – which was enough of an outcome – but where, as well, you benefited from having to be around the types of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, where strange alliances were formed and discord was sown. But while these places would always be there, they would not be the same, and it would not be possible to forensically separate each one of the vital aspects we would like to keep.
As I explained, this is a brief appreciation of a pool – and it is also a cautious tribute to that other kind of space, one that telegraphs, possibly, the future, or just one future, for queers and gays within a society sufficiently kind to allow for the coexistence of many-gendered subcultures, layered on bleachers, where from one angle everyone you see is like me and B, and from another everyone is trying to get laid. Queer spaces are valued because they are bumping grounds, places where different people meet because of common interests; but mixed spaces are interesting sorts of bumping grounds too. It’s not life as we know it. But what is it like?
THE BEST TIME at the pool is the month in which I write this, the third and final month of our Australian summer. In the early days, the first hot ones, we all lose our minds. Including the pool staff. Standards of upkeep plummet. This summer, I knew my days in the steam room were over when I took my hand off the ledge where it had been resting and someone’s toenail clipping came with it.
I was swimming in the pool with B one Tuesday when an acquaintance dive-bombed between us. ‘We thought you’d be at work,’ we said, because he works in an industry that doesn’t slack off just because it’s hot. ‘I am at work,’ he told us. ‘I’m at a business meeting,’ and he swam off to make his fortune at the shallow end.
In that newspaper article from the early 1980s, the author walked around the grassy area near the children’s pool and took a taxonomy of the books that everyone was reading; they spotted Christina Stead, Katherine Mansfield, John Fowles, and others. Recently, on the bleachers – which is where we read now – I saw Olivia Manning and Lee Child. J spotted Roland Barthes. I have been trying since then to find an aqueous-sounding way to say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same; what goes away must come around again. But I have also been busy reading and swimming and trying to forget about that time I touched a toenail clipping in the steam room. One day over Christmas, J gave up his comfortable waterproof reclining chair to a man who was reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Pan Macmillan, 2016), and we all had a conversation about how sad that book is. When we came back at 9 am the next day, the same guy was there again, in the same blue chair, just a little closer to the end.
More reading, and more convivial recliner-swapping, happens at this sleepy end of the pool – the retirement community, which is close to the bleachers, but hidden in a sensible, forgiving stretch of shade. Sometimes we hang around out here in the deeper water with friends who are single, and they come and go between us and the shallow end, where they sidestroke past the bleachers and hover and nod hi to guys they meet on Friday nights. But there is still excitement in our quiet, shady place. Last summer, a drunk guy jumped in with his jeans on.
Strange to think it all will end – not because the pool will, but because we will, and I don’t even mean the whole big-picture ending, going off the true deep end, into the big blue day. I mean that even out here in the retirement community there are friends who have retired into a different place. They have gym and pool memberships in completely different suburbs, and you can’t blame them, because there’s more grass there, and even better shade, and you never, ever see a person that you once made out with, or spoke to after midnight in an ambiguous tone.
I broached it in the car with J earlier this summer, and I’m sure that we’ll switch gyms and pools one day. This will have very little to do with politics, or toenail-based complaints. It may also have very little to do with age. It’s only an acknowledgement of the strangeness of place, which makes different options visible as the seasons change. May each person be responsible for his or her own gym membership. What goes around comes right around and swims back into place.