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Lifeguard

Poetry & Prose | April 27, 2010

I stare at Kate from across the pool. She is beautiful, at least for right now. That’s the thing—she has this way of looking extraordinarily plain one moment, but then she’ll shift in her chair, and the sun will catch the curve of her neck, her hip, a line of skin that disappears gracefully beneath the red of her swimsuit, transforming her. I watch her flicker back and forth.
A whistle blows. “Five minute break!” she says. All of the kids swim to the edge of the pool, slowly, as if the whistle is winding up a set of invisible strings that pulls them out of the water. I climb down from my stand a few seconds after Kate descends from hers.
We sit at the picnic tables near the entrance.
“When do you want to go to the funeral?” I ask.
“Early,” she says. “Around four.”
Three nights ago, Eli’s parents crashed into a semi-truck as they drove home from the movie theatre. Eli and I were at his house, listening to records and drinking beers I had stolen from the refrigerator in my garage. Then his phone rang. He stood up quickly and walked straight to the bathroom; I could hear the sound of him slamming the toilet seat down, over and over.
“I don’t know what to say to him.”
Kate is looking at the water. “You can’t,” she says.
“Listen.” For a moment, I feel like maybe nothing has changed. “We should take a trip. You, me, and Eli. Before we have to leave for school.”
“What kind of trip?”
“I don’t know. Just drive somewhere a few days away.”
I can tell by the way she’s holding her shoulders that it isn’t likely. Another lifeguard blows the whistle. Break’s up.
Kate is on her feet before me. As she heads to her stand on the other side of the pool, I say, “I like your purple nail polish.”
“It’s lavender.”
“Your lavender nail polish.”

***
We’re in the car, changing. I’m in the driver’s seat, leaning to the left of the steering wheel and struggling to pull black dress socks over my damp feet. Kate is in the back.
“Don’t look,” she says.
I put my head down, but I can see part of her breast reflected in the side mirror. Feeling guilty, I shut my eyes tight, like a kid counting for hide and seek.
“Okay,” she says.
I open my eyes and look at her, this time through the rearview mirror. She is wearing her mom’s black dress, and it fits her poorly. The fabric is all bunched up at the shoulders, and the dress hangs loosely on her body, making her seem small. As she slides out of the back to get into the passenger’s seat, I take the keys off the dashboard and start the car.

The service is held just north of the city at a place called North Cemetery. It has another name no one uses—Hopewell Cemetery. The sun is bright, and my neck feels itchy beneath my collar. I recognize some of Eli’s aunts and uncles, but many of the people here I’ve never seen before. We sit in white foldout chairs arranged around the two large holes in the ground, coffins to either side.
“The souls of the just are in the hands of God,” the rabbi says.
I read the first part of the little brochure distributed by the ushers. In loving memory. On the front is a picture of Eli’s parents, standing under a tree and looking at each other. They are very young in the photograph, and it looks like his mom is about to say something to his dad. I glance at Kate, who is sitting between Eli and me. She’s holding his pinky in her left hand, moving her thumb back and forth across the edge of his palm. I want to grab her right hand, but that one is holding the brochure.
“And their passing away was thought an affliction, but they are in peace.”
Now their knees are touching. Eli’s is hidden beneath black suit pants, but Kate’s is peeking out from underneath the hem of her dress.
“Hey,” I whisper to Kate. But she doesn’t hear me.
I wonder where Eli will live now, who will keep his dog while he’s at school. I can tell he’s trying hard to look like an adult, his back pressed firmly against the chair and his hair combed neatly to one side. The effect is spoiled by his feet, which are turned awkwardly inward. They are innocent and tragic, those feet.
“They shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
Kate is scratching her ankle. A few weeks ago at a party, she tripped into a potted cactus, just drunk enough to think it was funny as we crouched next to her and used tweezers to pick the needles out of her calf. Her hair had rubbed softly against my cheek as she leaned over, placing a hand on my shoulder for balance.
“The Lord is thy keeper, and the faithful shall abide with Him in love.”
We stand up as the coffins are lowered into the holes. I think about my own parents. The heat is sweltering, and a lot of people are fanning themselves with the brochures. I look at Eli. He isn’t crying, but his eyes look defeated, like they’re curving downward. And for the first time in my life, I feel like I am in charge.

Late that night, Kate, Eli and I are sitting in my living room. On the coffee table there are three cans of soda, an empty pizza box, and a copy of The Sandlot, which we rented but haven’t watched. Kate is petting my dog, who sits next to her while comfortably licking his nose.
Eli is still wearing nice pants and a button down shirt, but his suit jacket and tie are lying on the floor next to the couch. A little earlier, my mom put a Tupperware container full of chocolate chip cookies next to the jacket, then kissed the top of Eli’s head and squeezed his shoulder before going to her room. We haven’t said much since then. Kate is swinging her heel against the side of the couch, and Eli is watching it go back and forth.
“Let’s go to the pool,” he says.
I look at Kate, and then back at Eli. “Okay.”

It’s dark, and I stub my toe as we walk silently along the back fence. Kate is fumbling with the lock, and I take out my cell phone for light. She finally gets the key in, and we push the gate open slowly, wincing at the dull scraping sound that feels much too loud to get away with.
“Sshh,” I say.
As we’re walking past the pump shed, I hear the motor for the filtration system clicking on. Eli looks over, but Kate is already on the grass, heading towards the wooden gazebo used for birthday parties. She is the first to start taking off her clothes. She pulls her shirt over her head by grabbing it at the back of the collar to reveal a black, lacy bra. The straps that arc across her shoulder blades are dangerously skinny, and, for a second, Eli and I are mesmerized. She sits down on the pavement to wriggle out of her jeans.
“Well come on, guys.”
When all of us are down to our underwear, we walk towards the edge of the water. Kate jumps in first.
“She looks good tonight,” I say.
Eli smiles, the first I’ve seen in awhile.
“Feel okay?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
We stand there a few moments longer, and then Eli goes in after her. My arms are clasped tightly against my chest, and even though it’s warm outside, I start to shiver in my boxers.
I back away from the edge of the water. Unsure of what to do, I walk over to the lifeguard stand and climb up. I stare at the pool; it seems more like a dark, rippled sheet of glass than water. At the opposite end, Eli and Kate are leaning on the first string of lap lane buoys, talking. It’s difficult to see, and they look more like shapes than people. A few seconds later, I sit down and rest my hands on my knees, watching them, making sure that they don’t drown.