I fell in love with the first swimming pool I met. It was at the historic Norfolk Hotel, in Nairobi, where the grounds were lush with palm trees and the ambrosial scent of frangipani mingled with chlorine. I remember thatched umbrellas shading the lounge chairs and waiters in starched white uniforms serving Coca-Cola in condensation-pebbled glass bottles. The drinks came with cups of ice, a rarity for my mother and me, age five at the time, because we lived on a farm with no refrigerator outside the African city.
And that blue. There’s something about it—Tiffany blue, robin’s-egg blue, swimming pool blue—that quintessential color of summer that gives life a halcyon filter. Underwater, human sounds are muffled, your body is near-weightless, you feel invisible to the world above. Surfacing, you’re a new person. It’s transformative.
I’ve been chasing that blue, that feeling, ever since. When I moved to Texas twenty years ago, I found it in natural spaces, such as Blue Hole Regional Park, in Wimberley, and the river at Blanco State Park. But I still love a swimming pool, from a stock tank at the Floresville ranch where my mother has lived since the nineties to a family resort such as Schlitterbahn, in New Braunfels—especially at a family resort. Maybe it’s because I spent my overseas childhood dreaming of coming to the U.S., with its Golden Arches and bright plastic wonders, but there’s something about a manufactured environment that is especially alluring to me.
So on a recent Saturday, one of the first of many overwhelmingly hot days to come this year, I head for Houston along with my sixteen-year-old daughter, Willa, and her friend. We’re making a pilgrimage to the Playmobil tree house of pools, the Apollo Creed “Living in America” entrance of pools: the world’s largest Texas-shaped lazy river, which is on the roof of the downtown Marriott Marquis Houston.
Rain falls the entirety of our two-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin, but as in any good technicolor American dream, just as we pull up to the Marriott Marquis, the clouds clear and the sun comes out. My shoulders drop an inch. We leave our car in the massive parking garage shared by the neighboring George R. Brown Convention Center and cross the skybridge to the one-thousand-room hotel, which is just a few blocks from Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. But baseball, beer, and hot dogs will have to wait for a future visit.
The front-desk receptionist checks us in and gives us three plastic wristbands that let us access the sixth-floor Altitude Rooftop & Pool, which is open only to hotel guests, though day passes are available Monday through Thursday. Once in our pool-view room, I drop my bags and change into my swimsuit. I’m not going to waste another minute of this day indoors. Willa and her friend, on the other hand, immediately sprawl on the beds and sign into my Netflix account. “Are you serious?” I ask. “We just want to chill for a bit,” they respond. I leave, thinking, “Isn’t that what the lazy river is for?”
Stacks of white-and-pale-blue-striped towels for the taking—my love language—greet me at the entryway to the pool area, where an attendant searches my bag for food and beverage. If I want anything to eat or drink, I’ll need to buy it from the High Dive bar and grill. From the looks of the tables crowded with classic pool fare—burgers, quesadillas, “country-style” chicken fingers—as well as trays being whisked back and forth carrying cocktails with fun names like Caribbean Kiss and Summer Catch, the strategy seems to be a profitable one. I won’t be able to resist the siren smell of greasy summer food for long.
Along one edge of the deck, I see the rectangular infinity pool, which overlooks Kinder Lake, in Discovery Green park, where several kayakers are paddling around. Nearby is a large hot tub—unpopulated in this heat—and next to that is the reason I’m here, plastic wristband and all: the lazy river in the outline of the state. But what was clearly the shape of Texas from my room window seventeen floors up now just looks like a cool, meandering pool.
The area is crowded enough to feel lively but not so much that I can’t find an empty chair. There are two large shaded sections as well as reservation-only cabanas complete with sofa seating, safe boxes, giant Jenga sets, and flat-screen TVs. Inside one, several women are decorating for a party with a garland of paper cacti and engagement rings and gold Mylar balloons surrounding a giant diamond-ring balloon.
Lounge chairs border both sides of the lazy river, and I stake my claim near where I estimate Fort Stockton would be. I wade in just as my skin begins to bake. I hate being cold, so I’m relieved to find the temperature mild enough that I don’t wince. The water is kept at 80 degrees year-round. In one of the clear inner tubes I grab from a pile at one of several entry points, I float the river, people-watching, unaware that I’m humming along to Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower” coming through the speakers until it hits the chorus and I sing along.
While Texas isn’t the only state to contain a pool shaped in its likeness—there’s an Oklahoma-shaped pool at the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma City and an Alabama-shaped pool at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery, to name just a couple—it will come as a surprise to no one that Texas has the largest and highest. And I’m in it. The hotel’s 510-feet-long lazy river, which opened in 2017, sits 110 feet above street level. It takes ten to fifteen minutes to float the whole thing, but as with every lazy river, in the rush hour of a sunny Saturday, there are traffic jams, with tubes backed up at the sharp curves and corners of the state.
“Life’s Better at the Beach” is emblazoned on the matching plastic tumblers belonging to the three women on lounge chairs next to me as I take a float break. One asks if I’ll snap their photo. When I inquire about the cups, they tell me they’ve been friends for more than 25 years. They live in different cities across Texas and Louisiana and come together for trips every two or three months. I was expecting her to say “years,” and she laughs at my shocked face. The trio usually goes on cruises—their husbands join in for those—but otherwise it’s just them. Their most recent trip was to the Margaritaville Lake Resort, in Montgomery, Texas, and that was a blast. They like to read, drink, go to museums. But mostly they enjoy just being together and relaxing.
“Mom!” I hear. I look up to see Willa and her friend floating by in tubes. I’m relieved that they’ve finally left our room. They wave and smile, even let me take a picture of them, then shriek when a little boy jumps in, splashing water. Willa gives me a teenager-specific look of exasperation. After three circles around the state, they call it quits—“too many little kids here.”
The bride-to-be arrives at her party cabana, and her friends woot and cheer. The server delivers rounds of shots (some kind of red liquid) and takes a group picture at their request. The rooftop is a prime location for amateur photo shoots and Instagram selfies.
I embrace the cliché, posting a couple of images of the lazy river, and immediately get responses from friends: “What did y’all think?? It seems so cheesy I have to try it” and “This pool is on my bucket list. For real.”
My server looks slammed, so I go to the bar and order $12 loaded nachos and a $15 margarita with a Tajín rim. Nearby, there’s a mariachi band playing and a giant ice sculpture of a Don Julio bottle with a luge for tequila shots. One of the three women I met earlier has made it to the front of the line and holds up two shots. “They’re free!” she says.
By 4 p.m., the pool’s crowded, the temperature hot, the guests lethargic. A dad sleeps on a lounge chair, his mouth open. On the chair next to him lies a child’s baby doll, its mouth open too. Parents walk the river—it’s only three feet six inches deep—holding clingy children in one arm and floats in the other. Tattooed men hold beers as they wade. High school volleyball players in town for the Lone Star Regional Championships at the convention center spin around in their tubes, trying to dunk one another. There are a lot of pink and red shoulders. I reapply sunscreen before heading back into the river.
As my inner tube gently bumps against others, I gaze at a new, giant structure on the northwest side of the hotel, on Crawford Street. One side of the Marriott Marquis’s rooftop pool area is completely blocked by one of the hotel’s towers, and now this building of high-end residences is obstructing another. It feels as if it won’t be long before infinity ends at the concrete wall across the street.
“He says he’ll take requests!” I overhear a teen say to a friend. I turn my head and see an actual deejay in a corner of the deck. He’s been there all day. I had assumed the songs piped through the speakers—that genre of music specific to skate rinks and adventure parks, family-friendly pop mixed with old-school classics—were from a playlist.
The pool rules state that “all guests are expected to maintain a ‘family-friendly’ atmosphere at all times,” but as the sun goes down, this rule is bent in the hot tub, which takes on a pickup vibe. It’s crowded, eyes wander, and hands extend to unnecessarily “assist” you stepping in. Also bent at this hour is the rule forbidding revealing swimwear, defined as “swimwear that reveals private parts including but not limited to the buttocks. Examples of revealing swimwear that’s strictly prohibited include thongs and French-cut swimwear.” At least two French-cut thongs and several buttocks have made an appearance.
The sky darkens, guests pull up chairs around two giant firepits, and parents gather their charges for dinner. I follow their lead—there’s a Vietnamese restaurant I’m dying to try.
I was hoping for a late-night swim before bed, but pool hours for guests are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In our room, as the girls watch a movie, I press my forehead against the window and look down at the glowing outline of Texas. Empty of people and lit from below, the aqua luminescence is mesmerizing.
At 8:30 the next morning, with my book and a coffee, I settle into a lounge chair near the southeast corner of the state, around Corpus Christi. There are already several children in the water and a father and son playing giant chess on “Texas Island.” Unlike, say, New Orleans’s French Quarter or Austin’s Sixth Street, there is no party residue here. No discarded shot cups or deflated balloons. The pool feels dewy-eyed and fresh.
I’ve started my book several times, but my brain won’t hold the words. I’m instead compelled by the pool, the kitsch, the tubing Texans. I take one more float around the state and emerge from where I began, transformed once again.
Maya Perez is a writer based in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Shape of Water.” Subscribe today.