“Chlorinated” * Personal Essay * Liz Charlotte Grant

I. Chlorine

(KLOHR-een): Cl on the table of elements, in the halogen family; extremely reactive, strips color from whatever it touches, heavier than air; discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774 when he poured hydrochloric acid over pyrolusite (which resembles a lava rock) and, surprise, a yellow-green gas smoke evaporated, filling Scheele’s nostrils with the bright-white smell of bleach.

Chlorine was put to use in the cleaning industry for deodorizing and disinfecting; also used to clean human wounds. Then it was  used as a disinfectant for drinking water, first employed during a typhoid outbreak in Great Britain (neutralizing harmful bacteria in wells, taps, etc.). Eventually, it was utilized in swimming pools, after a graduate student at Brown University conducted an experiment on the college swimming pool in 1910 to antiseptic (if smelly) success.

II. Fourth of July

Sweat drips into my mouth, salty and warm, as I trudge toward the Victorian house at the top of the hill. My back, my neck, my t-shirt sleeves rolled as far up my shoulders as I can get them, my hair pulled into a ponytail—all of it has soaked through. I want to collapse into the grass beside the driveway; I feel faint.

It’s the fourth of July, I’m fifteen, and I have spent the morning with my high school marching band. We painted our faces with blue and red stars, then marched in red t-shirts in the neighborhood parade.

During our normal season, we wear white, blue, and gold uniforms (coats, pants, stiff hats with navy brims and gold buttons), looking like miniatures of the cadets at the Naval Academy a short drive away in Annapolis, Maryland. Plus we have 20 pages of music memorized. We aim to make artistic formations while jogging across a football field and playing our lungs out.

For every four, or eight, or two beats, our choreographer marks spots on the turf in spray paint to indicate where each set of feet should land. Sometimes we need to travel twenty yards in eight beats to line up our bodies into synchronized stars and crosses and arcs. We scribble our positions in small notebooks that fit into our back pockets, a map of the performance; we practice relentlessly.

On competition nights in October through December, we march onto the field in lines to perform before judges and fans sitting above in the stands. Set off by our conductor—usually a senior who climbs a podium and waves her arms to us on the field below—we sprint across the grass all while huffing into our instruments as gracefully and precisely as we can. In the end, we march off field to a drummer’s beat. A hundred brave spectators might clap for us, bundled in blankets and scarves, drinking hot cocoa and illumined by stadium lights. Later, the judges mark our score—on musicality, on the ambition of our artistic formations and musical selection, on our uniformity—and we head home after dark, 40 of us crammed onto a school bus, boundless energy.

But today, July Fourth, we had walked on pavement with sheet music in 95-degree weather with 100% humidity, our “uniforms” down to the bare minimum just to endure the sauna: navy shorts, tennis shoes, matching cotton shirts. I had clipped a portable stand around the bottom of my flute with the John Philip-Susa sheet music, photocopied to a quarter of a page; it levitated right in front of my nose. I rolled my feet, heel to toe, as I walked in lockstep with the other woodwinds, and puffed the notes one by one, though I knew the crowd could not hear me beneath the blare of the trumpets. My boyfriend held up the rear, a tuba player. My parents and two siblings waved from the crowd on the sidewalk, snapping photos with film.

In between songs, my bandmates and I continued to march at attention, in neat rows, and we smiled to the on-lookers, sometimes even breaking rank to wave. Heat radiated from the pavement and flushed our faces. Occasionally parents from the crowd handed us water bottles, or even squirted them over our heads and down our necks, which felt like mercy. And still, the sun climbed.

When the band reached the end of the parade route, several miles from where we had started, I searched for my mother with her hair frizzed by the mid-summer humidity, and her festive, sparkling earrings; my father’s receding hairline and round glasses; my brother and sister bedecked in red-white-and-blue, with head bands with bobbling stars like antlers (my mother’s idea).

Later in the day, my family and I would eat hotdogs and attend the firework show at the Naval Academy with friends from church. We would park and then all stroll the sidewalks together, holding hands in the crowd so no one would get lost. We would lie on the freshly mown lawn, smelling brightly of dirt and clippings, and we would play card games, squealing when we won. Later, the day’s heat would wane with the sun’s retreat.

But now, at the edge of my suburban city in Severna Park, the sun blazes. Four hours of performing has baked my shoulders and cheeks to a deep pink. The sunscreen I lathered on earlier has long since evaporated, and my water bottle is long empty. I feel parched and spent; I am ready to go home. Yet though I scan the crowd, calling names, I cannot pick out my family, cannot hear my own name bellowed, cannot find my mother’s SUV with its air conditioning blasting, reeking of plastic. And so I decide to head back home on foot.

*

Later I would learn that my boyfriend, panicked at my disappearance, had driven up and down streets near my neighborhood, shouting for me, certain that I had collapsed beside the road due to heat stroke. But I do not walk along the road; instead, I choose the path behind the neighborhoods, the paved trail that marks out a rare greenspace in these suburbs.

My father and I jogged on this trail at 6AM when I trained for community field hockey and lacrosse try-outs throughout middle school. Once, my mother had forgotten my younger brother, only 8, at one of my lacrosse practices; we got all the way home before she remembered that he had begged her to play on the playground equipment on the other side of the field, and that she had not fetched him when my practice had ended. I now wonder if the same has happened to me.

The walk home stretches for a mile and a half. I march past flowering blackberry brambles, tufts of unmowed grass, over a pedestrian bridge with iron railings, and finally along the curving road where my dad and I would pick up the trail. Each sign of nearing home is a mile marker. I remembered jogging here, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other agony. The early mornings. The red-hot throat, the panting, the just-to-that-tree-and-then-I-can-stop. The sun pressing on my back.

I do not have the case for my flute, having left it under the seat in my mother’s SUV; the instrument swings at my side, flashing at me in my peripheral vision; but I can only focus on my next step.

Across the asphalt, past the house where I babysit, I see my street; then across the road and into the development. Now tromping up the hill, calves burning. Now one intersection, now two, then the house on the hill, up there, and our two-story brick Victorian looms over the ridge. Now I clop along the driveway, telling myself to keep moving, don’t stop even though your legs are cramping, even though the yard is spinning, even though your breath comes in wheezing gasps.

There is no SUV parked in the driveway, and I have no key. But my goal lies just ahead: I pass the garage, tread the footpath behind the house, unlatch the gate, and onto the back patio, until finally, the pool, azure and shining, calls to me. I chuck my hat onto a plastic lounger, step to the concrete edge, and launch myself into the water.

Chlorine burns my eyes. Chlorine fills my nose. I come up sputtering, tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. Yet I can feel the cool doing its work on me. My body temperature is dropping. The water lightens my arms and legs, my clothes ballooning and billowing beneath me, my tennis shoes floating. I smile as if, for this moment only, some former owner had carved out the earth behind the Victorian two-story, just for me.

Sometimes when I swim in the pool after school lets out, I sink to its bottom in my one-piece on purpose, daring myself to hold my breath for longer each time. I pretend I’m training to dive to a Caribbean shipwreck to retrieve Conquistador artifacts, or perhaps to discover a species at the bottom of the ocean, a Jacques-Cousteau-in-training.

From down here, I often scream or sing to listen to bubbles streaming from my mouth. Perhaps I notice an errant leaf riding the tumult of the waves on the surface above me, or the chemicals flowing blearily from the filter at the far edge of the pool, beneath the diving board. Perhaps I study the strands of my brown hair, spread-eagled around my skull, flying in errant currents; or press my palms into the curved floor, my body feeling vivid in the blue; or I blink shut my eyes and release myself into the waves, imagining my body floating across the void of outer space, an abandoned traveler.

*

Years later, I would puzzle over this event—where had my parents gone? Had I misheard their communication? Had they forgotten me altogether, or had I forgotten to tell them where to meet me when the parade ended? I have seen the photos of the event, my face flushed, hair pulled into a ponytail, flute aloft, but my family does not enter the frame. They are absent from the photos and absent from my memory, alike.

What I did recall was me, at age 5, how I had been dropped by the bus at the end of our driveway. When I walked down the driveway to the doorway and knocked, I discovered, similarly, that no one was home. I walked to a neighbor’s house on our block and joined them for an episode of “American Gladiators” until my mother arrived, presumably phoned there by the neighbor. But then my mother had scolded me—why had I left? Why hadn’t I stayed put? Why had I embarrassed her like that?

I would wonder—fifteen years after that fourth of July mishap—had I also been scolded by my parents for my decision to go off on my own, after the events of the parade? I would never recall.

*

Now, having reached my destination at last, I repeat my expedition to the scratchy bottom of the pool and settle my body on the concrete, knees bent to my chest. When I open my eyes to see the blue underworld, I notice a glinting beside me: I have forgotten that I am still holding my flute in my left hand. I chortle, bubbles escaping my open mouth, then kick off from the floor and stand, waist deep now, the noise of rushing all around as I lift the instrument into the air; water streams from the holes. The odor of the chlorine seems to wake me, and I wipe my eyes with my hands, not caring that my mascara has run onto my palms, down my cheeks; instead I grin and dive backward, back into the wide expanse that alone holds me up.

—About the Author—

Liz Charlotte Grant’s lyrical, raw voice beckons her readers to ask the toughest questions of faith and living. She’s currently writing a memoir about losing her vision in one eye and reckoning with the healing power of God. Liz lives in Denver with her husband and two elementary-aged kids. Learn more about Liz at LizCharlotteGrant.com.