On a day in the fifth grade, exhilarated by triumph, I was abruptly engulfed in shame. An angel came to my rescue.
There was a day long ago, it is said, when angels walked among us. They still do. One of my first encounters with one happened in the fifth grade.
I had just met Alan. We quickly became friends, in part because as compared to me Alan was so worldly. He talked openly about girls he wanted to date. In the tiny room behind his house, we slid out a paperback he'd hidden under the mattress, Lady Chatterley's Lover. We read the forbidden words aloud. We underlined them. It was exhilarating to inhale the taboo, to say words like “tit,” and then look innocent when his mother asked if we were ready for lunch.
On hot summer days we went to the beach. From years of San Diego living I'd come to anticipate the thunder of the breakers at Mission Beach and La Jolla, the white foam of the surf, the grainy sand to pile into castles. But because he knew how to swim, Alan dared the depths of Mission Bay. He snorkeled and kicked swim fins through the cove at La Jolla.
One Saturday Alan invited me to join him at the Muni, the municipal swimming pool at the foot of Texas Street. Standing in front of the wide entrance, I was attracted to the giggling and splashing that spilled over the walls. As our footsteps echoed up the hallway to the men's dressing room, I was nervous. I'd never been in a public place where people took off their clothes. The hallway opened into a large room with benches. A wire fence reached up from a counter, enclosing the area where a worker handed out towels.
I followed Alan, stepping up the long stairway into the room where we would leave our street clothes. A cold chamber with gray, concrete benches and walls, it had no roof. As we undressed, the mid-morning sunlight streamed down unhindered onto our bare skin. I listened to the chatter of children my own age, and the deeper talk of older boys and grownups, and I knew I was in a special place. This was the world of boys and men.
Leaving our clothes in a locker, we ran downstairs. The smell of chlorine bit high up into my nose. The hallway opened into the sun and the screams and laughter of hundreds of water-frothed bodies. Adults stood at the shallow end of the pool, calming and guiding the smaller children. Teenaged lifeguards in red swim trunks paced around the edge or sat on seats atop tall wooden tripods. From the middle of the pool to the deep end, teenagers splashed and swam, playing tag and shouting “Marco,” “Polo.”
Alan and I entered the pool at the shallow end. Holding onto the lip at the edge of the pool, we waded deeper. Soon the water was up to my chest.
“I'll stop here.”
“Okay,” said Alan. “Try bending your knees and put your head under. Just for a second.”
It sounded safe enough. So I dipped, emerging with only wet eyes.
“Good. Now go under and open your eyes. I'll do it too.”
This was a challenge. I'd never opened my eyes underwater. Would I be able to see?
We bent our knees and went under. Concentrating on holding my breath, I opened my eyes. Through the pale green shimmer I saw Alan. He stared. Then he smiled and waved. I waved back. I looked around. Like white grassy stalks, human legs stretched down to the floor of the pool. At their tops bright colors shimmered, swaying back and forth in slow motion. Green-white bubbles effervesced, trailing the hands of swimmers and fizzing in my ears. Laughter from above descended and was transformed, muffled and gurgly in this unearthly world below.
Conqueror of my fears, I leaped out of the water. In the same instant Alan flew out too. We laughed. We jumped. We screamed.
Within an hour I'd graduated from kicking, while holding on to the edge of the pool, to the dog paddle. Then, arms lifting above the surface, I was swimming. It was a day of triumph.
Mid-afternoon we left. We walked down the hallway, into the changing room. An older boy stood inside the fenced enclosure, handing out towels. Alan disappeared into the crowd, leaving me in a line of about fifteen boys. I was excited. But it was important to be inconspicuous.
“Oooo,” called out a boy in front, pointing my way.
“Oooo,” jeered another.
What was wrong?
“A logey! He's got a logey!”
Fingers pointed at me.
What was a logey?
“A logey! A logey!” The voices chimed in rhythmic mockery.
Alan was upstairs. Who would help?
My face boiled red, a beacon shouting “I don't belong.” I was exposed. Nowhere to run.
Then I saw the angel. He stepped forward slowly through the circle of boys. Calmly, deliberately, he handed me a towel.
“You've got spit on your face.”
I took the towel and wiped my cheek.
The angel retreated into the shadows and vanished.
The jeering stopped. The fingers that once pointed now grabbed again at towels. The laughter and chatter returned.
Now I knew what a logey was.
Silently I walked upstairs and changed into my street clothes. Alan and I strolled into the afternoon sun, shared stories, and waited for the ride home. During the drive I pondered that unknown, mature hand that reached out from nowhere and then withdrew.
Every now and then, if we are fortunate, angels step forward, say a word or two, and then disappear. With their touch, their eyes, their voice, they escort us home.