THE HOTEL SHELTON was large and moist. At least the health club part was, steamy and reeking of that nose-tickling chlorine smell that on this day especially signified luxury and fear. Luxury because I knew that not every dad took his daughter to an Olympic-size swimming pool on the umpteenth floor of a hotel in New York City, and fear because this Saturday might be the day that I would finally have to do a dive from the high diving board. After this, we would be going to Wanamaker’s to buy a charcoal corduroy skirt and pink oxford cloth shirt and I didn’t want to make my dad angry in the slightest. If we didn’t get the clothes today during the Post-Christmas Day Sale I would never get them, and I had already told three of my friends that I would be looking really sharp at Peter’s party tonight. Most of the other girls in the seventh grade had far more extensive wardrobes than I, but there was a lot of trading around, and I knew charcoal corduroy was going to be a prime bargaining chip in the future.
My teeth chattered as I wiggled into the turquoise latex tank suit with the breast-shaped top (currently not filled out by me, that’s for sure). I stuffed my thick hair into the white rubber bathing cap that smelled like new tires and left bright pink ridges on my forehead. I ran through the antiseptic footbath and emerged, trembling, into the huge tiled room to confront the Pool From Hell, with second-story balconies all around, and three diving boards. My dad, on the high one, waved to me, did a little run, hop, jump thingie and then he was in the air, his arms outstretched, like wings, until at the last second he folded them together and parted the water with his hands in praying position, toes neatly pointed until they disappeared. This signature Swan Dive was followed by his even more spectacular Jack-knife, and then it was my turn.
From down below, he urged me on. Several (expensive) summers at camp were supposed to have led up to this display of aquatic skill. I inched out, toes clinging prehensile fashion to the diving board’s scratchy hemp carpet. It was wet and cold but at least it wasn’t slippery, like everything else in this room. In my mind I tried to recreate the little hop and jump he had performed, but I couldn’t. Again and again I reached the end of the board and all I could think of was how much it would hurt if my face hit the water full on. Finally I went to the back of the board, turned and ran. When I reached the end, I grabbed my knees and flung myself into space. I believe it was the only Cannonball ever executed from the high diving platform of the Hotel Shelton pool. Let us be kind and say only that my maneuver did not pass unnoticed.
We made it back downtown to Wanamaker’s all right, and I somehow managed to score not only a skirt and blouse but also a jumper and two pairs of pink and gray argyle kneesocks. The way my homeroom teacher carried on the next day about my new clothes made me think I must have been looking pretty raggedy up until then, and the more effusive her praise the stranger and more self-conscious I felt.
Worst of all was the knowledge that I had not really earned the clothes; I had not done The Dive. My father that day had not been angry, but a look of defeat appeared that I had not noticed before, and that afterwards never really went away. More of our weekend afternoons were spent henceforward at the movies than the Hotel Shelton. Which was quite o.k. with me. Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye were the best company an eleven-year-old girl could wish for.
And inside Loew’s Sheridan, ensconced with our box of Junior Mints, one thing was certain: in this cozy dark cave, I would never have to wear the damn bathing cap.