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A drawing of a child’s pool with pink flamingos floating in it. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $14 I ever spent: A plastic kiddie pool

The pool was a place where I could think, but most importantly, it became a place where I didn’t have to think at all.

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I barely had enough money at the time to put gas in my car, but I wanted the kiddie pool very badly. Needed it, really.

The pools sat in a giant stack outside of the Walmart Supercenter next to a pile of bagged mulch and discount beach chairs. We were there for groceries after a very long, bad week of work, and suddenly a pool seemed like a necessity.

“It’s cheaper than going to the movies and we can use it over and over again,” I told my then-partner, and she reluctantly agreed. I waited to grab one until we left, lugging it out to her car while she maneuvered the grocery cart. We stuffed it in the back seat, wedged behind our heads alongside sweaty bags of food as we drove back home.

Living in Orlando means getting used to the oppressive heat. One of the ways Floridians do that is by regularly throwing themselves into various bodies of water. We live for excursions out to the springs, lakes, and oceans. Nicer homes have their own in-ground pools (and the requisite expenses that go along with keeping them clean). A kiddie pool seemed perfect for me, a raccoon of a human who got her dinners most nights from the convenience store. I set the kiddie pool on the back patio — a cracked slab of concrete that never got much shade — and filled it regularly with a busted old hose rigged with duct tape that I sometimes used to wash the dogs. To me, it seemed like ideal enjoyment: a fun, cheap way to cool off and decompress. Most of my days were spent running myself ragged. To soak in a pool meant to truly chill the hell out.

Growing up, my family couldn’t afford much. There was no pool at our tiny rental home, no access to bodies of water other than the garbage-filled retention pond out back. That’s where I’d seen my first used condom, floating near the reedy lakefront, bloated as a dead jellyfish. My grandparents bought a kiddie pool for my much younger cousin one summer, and I spent any time they’d let me sitting in it, the littler kids begging me to get out so they could play. Buying a kiddie pool of my own felt like a throwback to a younger, simpler time.

My now ex-partner only got in the pool with me once, but after I got it set up in our backyard, I used it religiously. She moved out not long afterward and took a lot of our things with her. I got to keep the pool. It was bright blue plastic — not inflatable, the rigid cheap stuff. You had to roll it along on its side like a giant hula hoop to move it anywhere. It was covered with cartoon marine life. A seahorse with a grin full of shiny white teeth that looked like dentures. Fish wearing baseball caps. A starfish in sunglasses. It was so, so stupid. I loved it.

When I was angry with myself, with my then-partner, or with my work, I climbed into the kiddie pool. I drank a beer or three. I brought books out with me and read them right there in the water, pruney fingers carefully flipping pages. The dogs roamed the yard as I lay back and attempted to dissociate. I stared at the limbs of the oak overhead and listened to the world revolve and move around me. I was tuned into everything. There was a neighbor starting up his lawnmower. Someone leaf-blowing. Kids screaming as they chased each other down adjacent streets. Wind rustling through the flapping leaves of palm scrub. Another neighbor yelling at her husband for screwing up the hamburgers he was grilling for dinner. And once, my dog digging up the dead body of a squirrel, rolling around on it, eating it in two gigantic gulps.

I was working on what would become my debut novel. It was a book about taxidermy. I’d spent weeks thinking about that work without actually doing any writing. I mean, I’d researched. I’d read. I’d dug through web forums about scraping and curating dead animals; the process of reanimation through careful, painstaking preservation. But I did not want to write the book. I was afraid of what it would look like — the kind of breadth it would take to build such a big world. Mostly, I was afraid that I would fuck it up.

I have fucked up many other things in my life. My relationship with my ex-partner is one big example, but even on a day-to-day level, I have to work hard to convince myself that I am a fully functioning and capable adult. I drink a six-pack of beer instead of cooking myself a meal. I make dumb jokes instead of interrogating my hurt feelings. I bought a kiddie pool and laid around in it instead of confronting the fact that my day job at the library was bringing me a lot of misery. It felt extremely possible that I might wreck a book, too.

Sitting in that pool, I promised myself that I would work on it. That no matter what, even if no one ever read it, I’d finish that damned novel. So after long days working my library job, I’d go home and devote my time to the book. I’d stop at Publix and buy loads of frozen pizzas and cases of beer and cubes of boxed wine. I’d let out the dogs, put the pizza in the oven, and throw the hose into the kiddie pool. Then I’d take my computer out and perch it on a plastic chair. And I’d eat that frozen pizza, drink my drinks, and try to write. It’s a miracle that I never dumped my laptop into the water. Maybe it’s a miracle I got anything written at all. But somehow that kiddie pool made it feel manageable. Just sitting inside that water, trying to tell a story about a Florida backyard not so different from my own.

I used the pool far into the fall, when the weather turned Florida cool, which isn’t exactly frigid, but not an ideal time to be sitting around in a plastic tub wearing nothing but a swimsuit. I sat in it and read. I sat in it and cried when I was worried about money or had a bad day at work or wondered if I’d ever finish my book. Fully estranged from my family — the family that lived only five minutes down the road — I sat in that pool and struggled. Alone, watching the leaves fall off the oaks and swirl into the hose water, I found it okay to cry. The only living things that ever saw my tears were the dogs, and once, that same neighbor who was grilling, which I found deeply embarrassing. Then I’d wipe my face, dry off, and head back in the house again.

When the book found a publisher, I was elated. And terrified. There I was back in the pool, but for very different reasons. Not to avoid the bad feelings I had about my work and the fact that no one might want it, but because someone actually did. I sat inside my kiddie pool, drinking beer, and willed the world away for weekends at a time. I was worried. I was happy. I was worried that I was happy.

The pool didn’t care. It took me, my anxieties, the book, as well as all the bugs and leaves that accumulated inside it.

What is a kiddie pool? A body of liquid, a small place to put your body. A vessel. I thought a lot about the kiddie pool when I was away from it; waxed poetic over it with friends via text message and also chatted about it late-night drunk at the bar, picking up women after my divorce was finalized. The pool was a momentary womb. A place to float free. The pool was important because of how my body fit inside it and how it fit around me.

The pool was a place where I could think, but most importantly, it became a place where I didn’t have to think at all. I could just … exist. Floating there in the backyard, sweating despite the cold hose water, drunk on shitty beer, I could sit inside a place that felt very much like home. And when that very Florida novel came out, the very queer one that I’d put my whole heart into, I celebrated that fact in my kiddie pool. It was purple-pink dusk and the mosquitoes were flying, but I’d lit a citronella candle to ward them off. Then I lit a leftover Fourth of July sparkler. Held my beer aloft, looked down into the water riddled with oak leaves and dirt and grass trimmings from the yard and thought, “This is all I want. This is mine, my Florida, my little corner of the world.”

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer and is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Mostly Dead Things.

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