The sharp, tangy, chemical smell of chlorine is the scent of the first moments of freedom. It’s the aroma of growing up, of diving in, of starting to move away.
As kids, my best friend Crystal and I went to the public pool every chance we got. One summer we only missed a few days of open swim, and that was because one of us was sick or out of town, or because we just couldn’t get a ride.
Even though I hated the constant smell of chemicals at home - Clorox, Windex, Lysol, and Comet, and the vacuum fumes that mixed it all together - I loved the smell of chlorine. It must have more to do with the association than the aroma itself.
Like Clorox, chlorine burns your eyes and gets up inside your nose, even before you jump into the pool. But as a child, chlorine represented an hour or two of freedom from Mom and a perfectly made bed I wasn’t allowed to sit on, and one toy out at a time while she cleaned the house all summer.
Crystal and I had the most fun at the pool. No yelling parents. No brothers at our throats. No fighting over toys or struggling to find a moment of privacy in our chaotic homes. She’d dive in and I’d jump feet first into the chlorine, quickly forgetting to worry about who might’ve peed in the shallow end once we started our underwater tea parties and somersault contests.
Over the years the simple freedom of those hours turned into opportunity. Our swimsuits got smaller, our chests got bigger, and the locker room became more than just a damp, slightly mildewy place to sing Madonna songs while washing off pee and chlorine. With its mirror-covered walls, it became the perfect spot to spend an hour prepping for a covert makeout session meetup across the street.
We told our moms we wanted to walk into town to get pizza after our swim. “We’ll get the bus home after,” we’d say smiling, holding out our hands for a few bucks.
Before our moms had a clue, frenching boys had become far more interesting than cheese sticks with an extra side of marinara sauce so that we each had our own, so that we were free to double dip without worrying about sharing germs.
The Pizza Factory lost out to the forest across the street from the pool. We’d each lean against a tree with our chosen boy, or the boys who’d chosen us. I’d wonder if mine noticed that I’d used coconut shampoo, and Sunflowers perfume. Could he tell that I’d covered myself in vanilla lotion and brushed my teeth twice?
The boys always smelled like chlorine, and I wondered what they’d been doing while we were busy with our Caboodles and cosmetics. Sometimes the smell of cigarettes told the story of them waiting in the bushes, arguing about who got the pretty blond, and who got me, the one with the braces.
- Krisa Bruemmer