The Lifeguard

by Joshua Willey

Around the time of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I got a job as a lifeguard at the pool on Arguello Street. It was one of the oldest pools in the city and there were some unsettling discolorations on the floors. Next to the pool was a park. It was a quiet part of town and after work I'd linger on the benches, watching bums scour the trashcans, drinking mat´┐Ż and listening to the city hum. One night, I was reading under a streetlight and a girl walked up and sat down.

"You're the lifeguard," she said.

"That's right. Are you drowning?"

"Maybe so," she said, smiling and lighting a cigarette. She was pale and had very clear, light eyes, almost colorless, but slightly blue, like ice.

"I'm the one in the polka dot suit."

"I don't let myself look at the pretty girls. I feel like once I start…"

"You can look at me."


"I look at you."

"I will then. I am now." She had an alluring way of blowing smoke to the side, and the asymmetrical cut of her hair, the steel stud in her lip, and her worn clothes lent something rugged to her appearance.

"What are you drinking?"

"Maté." I held it out and she took a drink; then made a sour face.

"Let's go get a real drink," she said.

"What's a real drink?" I asked. I would not have guessed that moments later we'd be sitting in McDonald's, sipping Dr. Pepper.

"I come here all the time," she said.

"I've never been before."

"Why not? They don't have them where you're from?"

"They do. I guess it always seemed too well lit."

"Sometimes you need the light to appreciate the dark."

"I see that."

"Where do you live?"

I pointed toward the ocean.


She pointed in the same direction.

"What do you do besides lifeguard and sit in the park?"

"Now that I get free swim passes, I swim. I borrow stuff from the library. I explore the city. You?"

"I work at the Wayfarer."

"I've seen that place."

"Come by. I'll give you a cup on the house."

That night I couldn't fall asleep. I watched a movie with my housemates, a couple from Villahermosa; both bus drivers. The only bus driver couple I ever heard of. It wasn't as though they thought of driving busses as a day job; it was more than a career even; it was a passion. They went to bed after the movie and I listened to music in my room. At two I went out to an all night joint where I knew the staff. The chef came out and sat with me. She had just gotten a job as a cook for Raytheon and would soon be shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan. I told her about the girl with the clear eyes and she said it sounded just like true love.

I woke at noon the next day and went for a swim; then I took the bus out to the Wayfarer. She was at the counter in a black and white checkered apron and a Sharks hat cocked to one side. She winked at me when I stepped in and poured me a cup. When she brought it over she kissed me on both cheeks.

"You smell like chlorine."


It was busy, so she couldn't talk. I finished my book and waved to her before stepping out.

I had to work the following evening. There were a couple hours of team practice first, and the air was filled with splashing and whistles. Lap swim started after that, and Roxy, who was working the desk, turned on the radio and we hoofed it a little when nobody was looking. A Russian came in and bobbed up and down the slow lane, looking so happy he could fall asleep. A couple kids with buzz cuts dove in and immediately entered the impenetrable zone of their rhythm, swimming fast, with the lightness of habit. I was reciting the periodic table to myself and then there she was, stepping out of the locker room in a two-piece polka dot suit, a stud in her belly button matching the one in her lip, a swim cap on her head. She did the YMCA and smiled in my direction, then dove in and swam the length entire without coming up for air. When she emerged beneath my chair I seized the opportunity.

"What are you doing tonight?"

"Taking you home," she replied, and pushed off the wall into a lap of freestyle. She stayed with this stroke for some time, doing kick turns beneath me. I wondered how a smoker could have such wind. After a while she switched to breaststroke. At one point she got out and walked around the pool, water beading up and running down her skin, her pores opened by her heightened heart rate, her cheeks flushed. She took a kickboard from the bin and walked back to her lane, reaching out and running her fingers down my calf as she passed by. She concluded her swim with butterfly.

When we closed, Roxy handed me a note: directions to her place.

"Who is that girl?"

"I have no idea," I said. I rode until I reached her address. I locked my bike and knocked. A big guy in a plaid shirt answered the door. He looked confused for a second but then stepped aside and invited me in.

"She's upstairs," he said. A steak was sizzling on the stove. I walked upstairs and there she was in an oversized tank top and short shorts. She ushered me into her room and closed the door.

"You seem like you only have one foot in the world," she said.

"I guess you're right."

"So where's the other foot?"

"If I knew that…"

She kissed me, and I kissed her back, and we fell on the bed.

I woke in the middle of the night to see her sitting naked on the windowsill, smoking. We looked at each other for a moment. Half her face was illuminated by the streetlight. Her radio was on low, reactions to Obama's first Oval Office address. An Escalade rolled by bumping Big L.

"What are you thinking about," I asked.

"Your foot."

"What about it?"

"Where it is."

"Where are your feet?"

She didn't answer.

"It's like sometimes all consciousness seems like false consciousness, so if you want to be true, you have to forego consciousness altogether."

"I think I know what you mean. You study philosophy?"

"Not really. My brother."

"You are happy?"

"No. It's not about happiness."

"What's it about then?"

"If I knew that…"

The next few days I was sad. She'd thrown me out of equilibrium somehow. It's not that I wanted to be with her all the time, but she had entered a space I thought was mine alone, and now that space was changed. The silence and emptiness in which I soaked, the current I floated upon, it was all given a new tone. I decided to go for a swim. I rode over to the pool and talked up Roxy for a while. Then I stood under the shower with my eyes closed before walking out and diving in. I just drifted to the bottom and when I started up for air, the girl in the polka dot suit and swim cap passed me, going the other direction. The scene seemed to unfold in slow motion. Our eyes met through two layers of goggle plastic. She said something, but I couldn't make it out, only see the bubbles rising from her mouth to pop on the surface of the pool.

BIO: Joshua Willey was born in Oakland California and studied literature at Reed College. He's currently shopping a novel about hitch hiking and studying Chinese translation. Some of his work can be found in Rain Taxi, Opium, Stumble, Shelf Life, Wilderness House, Adbusters, and Black Heart.