No Life Guard On Duty

swim poolThe summer of the yellow swimsuit  she was ten and tall for her age.  Skinny as a beanpole, her mother would say, in a way that always made her feel disapproved of.  She looked up beanpole in the dictionary, but all it said was “a pole up which bean vines climb”, giving her no clue as to the possible source of the disapproval.

Every day that summer she went to the pool in her yellow swimsuit. It was a cool lemony color, a color that made you think of lemon snowcones on a hundred degree day.

Put on your cover up, her mom would say.  It was terry cloth, with a hood, and also yellow, but different than her suit, like the hot ball of the sun in a cloudless sky.  That year, yellow was her favorite color.

She loved going to the pool.  She loved the blue smell of chlorine and the sound her bare feet made slapping against the wet concrete. She liked the cool dank smell of the women’s showers where you could rinse the chlorine from your hair and suit.   She always rinsed her suit so the yellow wouldn’t fade.

She loved the repetitive sameness of the days –  splashing in the 3 foot end with friends playing Marco Polo.  She loved doing flips off the low diving board, swimming down to the bottom and crouching there to spring towards the surface, bubbles streaming out of her nose as she shot past the big black letters 10 FT

She loved running back to her towel, shivering and smoothing her pruney fingertips and waiting for the yellow smiling sun to warm her.  She was too shy to get in jostling line for the high dive where boys from her school gathered in a knot all elbows and smooth brown skin that bumpled over the knobs of their spines and ribss.

She loved brushing her wet hair out with the big plastic brush with the mirror on one side, then laying on her canary yellow Tweety Bird beach towel with her eyes closed, the sun burning red images of itself on the inside of her eyelids, the sun beaming down into the water, swells of sound lapping at her ears: the thrum of the diving board, the tweet of a lifeguard, the rise and fall sound of kids laughing, kids shouting, kids crying, kids calling to each other Marco, Polo.

At noon she’d climb the hill to the concession stand and get an ice cream sandwich, which she ate in the sun while her yellow swimming suit dried, licking first up one rectangular side of the treat, then down the other, nibble at the top, repeat.

Her dad would pick her up at 5, when the shadows were long on the hill.  She’d wait for him outside the metal turnstyle that let you out but stopped you from sneaking in without paying.

When her suit was dry she’d head back down for what she’d think of as the afternoon session. The mood of the pool changed then.  The lifeguard went home; in his seat was the sign No Life Guard On Duty.  The kids were fewer, older and quieter, most of the ones she knew gone home.

The older people stood about in the pool, some with swim caps, mostly in darker colored suits and looking to her like penguins, their movements languid.

She would lie on her towel and the heat made her arms and legs feel warm and heavy. When she got tired of lying still she would venture to the edge of the pool and dangle her legs in.

Sometimes different people would talk to her, but not often.  It never made her feel weird, or any weirder than the sun made her feel, as if her head were made of helium floating ten feet above her warmed and browning limbs.

I like the color yellow he said.  But not at first. At first his towel was one over from hers. Then the one between them – an old woman with a black rubber swim cap and a blue one piece with big white polka dots on a green towel – got moved while her eyes were closed. When she opened them she saw him clearly, his shorts a crisp white flag against the royal blue of his beach towel, a towel that had a yellow strip around the edge so that he was sitting in a kind of halo.

You don’t talk much, he said, and she said unexpectedly (even to herself), that’s what my mom always says, and then found herself telling him about beanpoles and, surprisingly, laughing together though he was old, more like her mom’s age than her own.

Later it was this she thought of when she thought of that time, that time when she’d loved the color yellow, it was this she thought of, the yellow lines on his towel connecting together in a beanpole halo.  It was this she thought of and not the cramped, damp encounter in the echoey women’s locker room, her father up the hill waiting in his car for her to get her forgotten beach towel,  the suddenness of the white flag of his shorts in the dim gloom of the women’s locker room,  the water drip drip dripping somewhere in the background, the Tweety Bird beach towel balled into her mouth, absorbing sounds nobody heard.

4 responses to “No Life Guard On Duty

  1. This was so beautifully written…you had me transported in a sweet haze of nostalgia, then jolted me into a state of cold dread with the ending! Nicely done.

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