I’m planning a scale back from regular posting, all for something good and exciting (not writing related), but I mention so that no one wonders. And if I still wind up posting regularly, you get to wonder what is she still doing here?
Before the good change presented itself, I decided this would be the next story I told on a Friday. Then yesterday morning I was sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, trying to meditate and quiet the monkey chatter while coffee brewed. But the monkeys wanted coffee and I think the only way they knew to get some was to say Ooh, let’s write about Art. Remember, you promised us last week? The monkeys won. Long live monkeys.
The summer I met my husband, I also met Art. One day I saw him hanging by the pool at the downtown hotel where I lifeguarded and then I kept seeing him. He was a softspoken black man in his early twenties with warm eyes and a kind smile. Everything about him seemed gentle. My roommate, Jackie, and I shared lifeguard shifts, and Art showed up on her days too. In her open, friendly way, she accepted him instantly and I decided I could trust him too, even though neither of us were sure how he got a key to the pool.
I’d taken a lifeguard class only months before. Even though I’d dog-paddled in oceans and pools since I was five, I never took to formal strokes like freestyle, where you have to periodically plunge your face into water. It’s so disorienting. I still feel that way. I failed my first formal swimming class the summer I was six. I wouldn’t hang my arms into a point and let my body fall into a dive. I’d chicken out and pull my torso up every time. I recall a paper with the words FAIL on it. My mom says she remembers the class but not me failing.
The lifeguard class I took before the summer I met my husband and Art was held at an indoor pool at some fancy boys’ school. I remember holding a brick over my head while treading water as part of the final test. I could tread water for days. I learned that if I fill my lungs with air and take shallow breaths, I turn into a giant raft. Body fat helps, and this trick works even better in the ocean. Lifeguard tests are a bit more rigorous. They don’t care if you can float. They want to know you can drag a panicked, thrashing 200-pound man from the deep end of a pool. They want to know you can save other people’s lives.
I passed the lifeguard test, though still feel like they looked the other way and let me in out of pity or perhaps a shortage of lifeguards. Jackie and I waited too long to apply for an assignment, so we didn’t get our first choice of a big community pool where we could both work at the same time. The small hotel pool in the city was one of the only ones left where we could both work, though on opposite shifts.
I often think about what would have happened if we’d been more organized and applied earlier. We would have lifeguarded somewhere else and I never would have met my husband. Maybe he would have met a different lifeguard and maybe they would have gotten married, though it’s just as possible they wouldn’t have spoken. Life is one big choose-your-own-adventure book, isn’t it?
Before each morning shift at the pool, I had to take the elevator down to the bowels of the hotel and get the key from the security manager, Mr. Salotta. If I wasn’t five minutes early, I was late and met with snide, disproving comments. He was the one who later basically called Jackie and I idiots for buying Art’s story that he somehow shared a phone number with a stranger due to some quirk with the phone company. It doesn’t work like that, he said. You girls should know better.
I was a young, soft nineteen. I once posed for a photograph in my lifeguard bathing suit because a male guest asked me to. There was nothing lascivious about the pose or request, but my cheeks burned red when Jackie’s mom chose that moment to stop by the pool, her eyebrows raised in concern.
The security guards that worked for Mr. Salotta were always coming by the pool to chat. They were older and married and seemed nice enough. One offered a tour of the penthouse suite while it was under renovation. You have to see it, he said. The view is amazing. It felt too impolite to keep saying no.
The suite was massive and dark and silent except for plastic sheets flapping violently through the open hole where the balcony door would go. I held tense until the guard decided we should head back and thought what am I doing here?
Oh man, I had so many dreams that summer about the pool. I feel like I had one every night. The dreams were roughly the same. I was lifeguarding and the water was too murky to see the bodies I was supposed to pull out. Yes, bodies.
I blame whoever dumped several quarts of General Tso’s chicken from their hotel room window over Memorial Day weekend. After that, the hotel installed locks so the windows only tilted out far enough to drop a pencil or maybe a nibble of eggroll. By then it was too late to do anything about the stew of grease and sauce and breaded chicken bits in a pool with an already failing filtration system. It took days for the water to clear up and then it never did in my dreams.
Joe, my husband, picked me up with this line: So, you save any lives yet? It was a chilly afternoon for summer and he was standing in water up to his belly button with his torso and shoulders stiff like people do in cold water. There was maybe a flight attendant sunning herself on a chaise lounge, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves, so we started talking about pools and drowning and then he invited me to a ball game the next night.
I didn’t know then that he probably asked me that because he never learned to swim. I had no way of knowing we would one day get married and he would spontaneously break into frantic but perfectly executed freestyle strokes across the length of another rooftop pool during our honeymoon. I couldn’t have known he would later find a twenty dollar bill at the bottom of that same pool. It was all pure luck.
Before he headed back home from our first meeting, Joe gave me a souvenir wine glass he got at some event and told me to drink from it each time I saved someone’s life. I wrapped it in a towel and took it home with me and drank from it that summer, not once but twice. I still have it somewhere, though I don’t drink anymore. I still have the commemorative baseball from the game he took me to, and it’s not like I play with that either.
I saved a couple little boys that summer. No big deal. They were too short and wandered into water too deep while their mothers turned away for the split second it takes for a little kid to go from not drowning to drowning. I jumped from my chair and into the water and yanked them out. No CPR, no parade, just doing my job ma’am.
You’d think the murky-water-drowned-bodies-dreams would have stopped then, but they got worse. Art kept coming by too, though maybe not as much. By then, Jackie and I knew he wasn’t a hotel guest and we knew where he lived, or roughly anyway. We all went out for ice cream one night. Art didn’t have a car so Jackie and I picked him up on a street corner in a part of town that wasn’t bad but wasn’t far from it. He sat in the front seat and I sat in back and the three of us acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for two white girls to be going on an ice cream double date with a slightly older black man we barely knew and couldn’t reach by phone because of some story about crossed lines.
The thing I remember best about Art was that he loved Prince. This would have been around the time Prince changed his name to that symbol. Art came by the pool with artistically lettered lyrics to The Most Beautiful Girl in the World on white-lined paper. I don’t remember talking about anything personal with him. We mostly sat. I watched the pool for drowning boys and Art slipped away after awhile. Once, when it was raining, he tried to show me a self-defense move in the fitness room. He pressed my back to his body and held a meaty, brown arm at my neck, but not in any way that screamed rapist.
At the end of summer, Jackie and I both took off Labor Day weekend and a substitute lifeguard filled in at the pool. She had big blond curly hair and an air of indifference. When she claimed Art trapped her in the stairs of the hotel and chased her until she managed to escape, Jackie and I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that we thought she was making it up. It’s just that we took this guy out for ice cream. He’d drawn sweet lyrics and sat quietly by our side for months.
This would have been when Mr. Salotta practically smacked our heads together for buying Art’s story that he shared a phone line with someone else. No, we don’t know his actual phone number or where he lives either. Not really. If you go to this street corner, you might see him waiting to get picked up for ice cream, but probably not. No, we don’t know his last name either. We never thought to ask. Sorry.
It wasn’t much to go on, so the police never found Art if they looked for him at all. Summer ended and Jackie and I slipped back into classes and faded tans. When police sketches appeared around campus of a man wanted in connection with the rape of a local lawyer, Jackie said hey, that looks a little bit like Art, don’t you think? Later, we watched Art being led somewhere in handcuffs on the news, his head hung down. His name was really Arthur and he really turned out to be a rapist.
Too many things happened that summer for me to make sense of then. The things I remember most now are, oddly, food related. I remember getting Burger King a lot before my lifeguard shift because there was one right by the hotel. I remember the Chinese place around the corner, which is probably where the infamous General Tso’s Pool Chicken came from. I remember packing too-tangy store bought chicken salad in a cooler the time I filled in at a deserted rooftop pool in a shady part of town.
At one point I looked at a building across the way and saw a dodgy looking group of boys staring from the rooftop. One flashed what might have been a gun or could have just as easily been a chicken salad sandwich. The thing is I continued to sit there like some dumb mute while every part of me said Go.
What if I’d decided not to just sit there? What if I’d called someone? We didn’t have cell phones then, but there should have been a poolside phone for emergencies. The hotel pool had one. There wasn’t one in the darkened penthouse under renovation or in the stairwell where Art led the poor substitute lifeguard.
What if I’d spoken up about Art to Mr. Salotta? What if I’d said, look, there’s this guy who comes by the pool all the time, and your guys probably know about him and he seems nice enough, but what’s his deal? But we didn’t want to get Art in trouble. Art seemed like one of us, and Mr. Salotta seemed like an asshole. This is how it is sometimes when you’re more afraid of speaking up than the thing you have every reason to be afraid of.
I want to share this story with my daughters. I want to tell them about that little voice we all have that feels wrong because it feels like fear and we’re taught not to be afraid or show fear. It says things like let’s get out of here and no thank you in such a way that leaves no room for wiggle.
I want to tell my daughters that the nice men look like the bad men and honestly you can’t tell them apart that way. Don’t count on luck to save you every time. You might get lucky but the next person might not. You have to listen to the little voice and sometimes you have to speak up, which feels harder but it’s often the right thing to do.