a story by Stephanie Dethlefs

He got to you before I had the chance. One long stride and I could have touched you, if I had moved, flinched even. But your father was there, deftly pulling his baby girl from under the water after you jumped in from the edge while his back was turned. You didn’t need a teen lifeguard to save you.

Instead I just sat there in a plastic lawn chair on the deck of the swimming pool in my staff tank top and shorts, sweating in the sauna-like conditions of the indoor private swim club, bored out of my fucking mind. The winter darkness outside made mirrors of the floor-to-ceiling windows, feigning a score of swimmers in the pool.

It’s probable I was fantasizing about the boy in the lifeguard office, waiting for his turn to sit in the chair, and how maybe today would be the day he would walk out onto the deck with his bare feet and skinny legs and ask me out. How this time, with this boy, my face wouldn’t flush the shade of a damn eggplant, my voice wouldn’t freeze with terror and with aplomb I would say why, certainly! I’d love to get drunk and make out with you.

Photo by anouar olh from Pexels

Does that ever happen to you, that oppressive embarrassment? You’re in your twenties now; I’m sure you’ve grappled with the perplexity of young lovers.

It’s likely that I was twirling my whistle lanyard; I did that most of the time, spinning it one way until it wrapped itself around my index finger, then flicking my wrist until it unwound and rewound the other direction. Did I ever tell you about how every now and then I would accidently let go and it would fly across the deck like a dart, splashing into the pool? And how I would have to sheepishly ask a patron to dive down and get it? So embarrassing.

No, of course I never told you that. You’ve gone on with your life without a sliver of thought about me. Sometimes I think that if I’d reacted when I saw your little swim-diapered bottom wiggle and chubby knees bend as you stood on the side of the pool, ready to jump into your father’s outstretched hands as you had innumerable times already that evening; if my brain had connected with my body, if what I knew was coming had pushed me toward you to prevent it, then the discussion around your family dinner table might have been about the dauntless young lifeguard who was there at the edge as your father pulled you up, ready to administer aid. He got to you before I had the chance.

If there was a conversation that night, it did not cast me in a good light. The disdain spreads through my chest like ink. Your father’s. My own.

Aside from your fair baby curls dropping out of sight, I remember two things about those moments we spent in close proximity. The first: no matter how many times you splashed water into your father’s eyes, despite all of the times he had to lift you out of the pool and onto the edge so that you could jump – again – his face shone as he watched you. It was only a matter of seconds before it was my own father in that pool and me clad in a pink princess swimsuit with wet hair plastered to my forehead, tiny toes curled over the edge, jumping into his arms, a broad smile on his face, laughing with each leap I made. (Was it a daydream, or an actual memory from before he chose a new family to swim with? Hard to say.)

Then I saw him put you back on the edge of the pool and turn his back, and you jumped, and you disappeared.

The other thing I remember was that as soon as your he pulled you up and kissed your head and eyelids and cheeks and held you tight to his chest until you stopped sputtering, he looked at me with steely eyes and said,

“That’s why they pay you the big bucks.”

You left the pool shortly after that. He wrapped you in a towel and cradled you like an infant. I watched him navigate the slippery deck, roots of shame sprouting deeply from the seeds of my own family dysfunction.

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