by Lynn Holmgren
During lifeguard training, Shelley and her nine classmates were shown videos of ho beach blanket crowds, sun glare and splashing hands; runaway umbrellas and riptides. Now Shelley was a single red dot on a cool foggy shore where they had yet to drop off her lifeguard chair. She pulled at the tight seams of her new one-piece bathing suit, which rode high on her hipbones and pulled her small breasts flat. An oblong patch on one side of the suit read “GUARD”. She positioned herself to the right of the boardwalk that led from the small parking lot, sitting upright on her hard, red buoy.
By 10 am the fog had not lifted and Shelley had eaten everything in her lunch bag except the carrot sticks, dry and wrinkled from a night spent in the fridge. The adjacent rock jetty and towering vacation homes perched on the nearby dunes looked saturated, like wet paint that might easily be smudged if one were not careful. She narrowed her eyes until the beach was a sandy smear. Shelley and the other junior lifeguards had been drilled to understand that the point of lifeguarding was to not let anything bad happen, to be in a constant state of preventative awareness. She blinked rapidly and the beach became a series of photographs, seagulls caught hovering above the slate-blue water with salty stares.
Two seagulls swung close and landed, stalking her backpack with sideways eyes. “Shoo!” Shelley threw a small, round stone at them, and their eyes scattered like pebbles, wings spread, before landing another two feet away. She looked expectantly towards the board walk; surely the gulls would not bother her in a tower. She yawned and stretched her toes into the sand. She felt like wrapping up in her towel and lying down in the sand to take a nap. But she knew that the DPW boys could deliver the lifeguard chair at any time and she wasn’t about to be caught sleeping her first day on the job.
She calculated how much she was getting paid to sit alone on the beach. She’d only had one summer job before this one – working at a small gift shop – but it didn’t really count as a real job, because it was Shelley’s mother’s friend and Shelley spent most of her time dusting the antiques or re-stocking the salt water taffy. She was beginning to think that maybe all work was pretty boring.
Just before noon, a couple arrived at the edge of the boardwalk. Shelley quickly swept away the broken clam shells spelling out her crush’s name in the sand and stood up, scanning the water’s edge. The couple deposited their cooler and various overstuffed bags on the end of the boardwalk. The woman was barrel-shaped, with short, dark hair that made her head appear like a cork. The man, in a pair of Bermuda shorts, was slightly balding and only came up to her shoulder. Sparse curling hair spread across his chest like dark fizz. They chose a spot to the left of the boardwalk by the shore and the man took several trips while the woman unwrapped from her bright green sarong and arranged the things on their blanket.
Shelley watched as they blew up floats of various sizes and dumped out plastic shovels and castle molds on the sand. The man and the woman took turns looking into an oblong basket that the sarong now covered and smiling at one another. Shelley looked out at the water. The couple appeared in her vision as they hobbled over a wide band of beach stones to reach the water’s edge.
The woman’s black bathing suit capped her hips and the man’s blue swim trunks were tied tightly above his belly button in a complicated knot. They entered the water in slow measures, yelping with surprise and delight as each new body part became submerged. The woman was moving more quickly and she pulled the little man along with her. Shelley thought she heard a small cry from the bassinet and frowned at the two figures in the water.
They cried out to each other, bobbing and dipping in the waves like perky seals. The woman spouted water from her mouth in a stream and the man laughed, choking a little and clearing his throat. Their voices carried with the wind onto the shore as they treaded water, side by side:
“I’m so glad that we picked today!” the woman cried.
“I’ve never been more in love with you,” the man replied.
“Just think,” the woman said, floating on her back now, churning up water with her heels, “Just think how happy they will be to know we finally made our choice.”
“I know!” the man cried, grabbing the woman’s large shoulders like a float.
“I know!” the woman echoed, “Together forever or nothing at all.”
“I’ve never felt more alive!” shouted the man as they raced together and tumbled back onto their blanket. The man approached Shelley, exhibiting a toe he’d cut on a barnacled rock in the sea. She fished for a band-aid and alcohol swab in her small tackle box first aid kit. He bandaged his toe with slow, careful hands in front of her, swabbing all around the cut, applying light pressure with the gauze. He looked up when he was done, smiling with her.
What appeared out of the bassinet was not a baby, but a picnic – baguette, cheeses, cured meats, fruit and a small blue vial which they saved for last. Shelley’s afternoon passed quickly, buoyed by their celebration. As she heard her mother’s familiar five-horn toot from the parking lot, she saw the woman curl up around the small man on the blanket. The DPW boys would later say that they found the couple at dusk, wrapped in each other’s arms on the sand in a dead clasp.
It was beyond her duty, her parents said, no one could have prevented that.
“You will never be left alone again,” her supervisor told her, and the impossibility of this promise rose in Shelley’s mind like an endless wave, never to break upon the shore.
Lynn Holmgren enjoys composing songs and stories while riding her bicycle by the sea. She was raised on Cape Cod and now lives in Dorchester, MA where she is a student in the MFA program at UMass Boston. She helps to organize an award-winning community reading series called Write on the DOT and regularly hosts “Metaphoria”, “The Insta-Poet Challenge” and other original literary game shows.