Rainbow Pathways is a privatized mental-health facility that specializes in depression and suicide. I somehow got a job there as the summer lifeguard.
It must be a hard position to fill—they called and hired me sight unseen. This worked in my favor. I’m a 108-pound male with a 5´5˝ frame. I have the metabolism of a methamphetamine addict and a tapeworm victim combined. As a kid, my relatives always told me I’d fill out when I got older, but now that I’m 22 I’ve realized the Bulk Fairy is never coming to leave some additional muscle mass beneath my pillow. Add to all this my scoliosis and genetic inability to tan, and I am as un-lifeguardy as they come.
In fact they hired me before I’d even been certified. When I took the test, I got lucky and had a mellow instructor. He walked alongside the pool eating a sandwich while I swam. When I stopped halfway with dry heaves and blueish lips to beach myself on the ladder, he licked his fingers and said, “Son, are you afraid of the water?” I told him “Only sometimes,” which was a white lie, and he shrugged and gave me a slip of paper. “Just don’t get yourself hired somewhere people could get in any real danger.” Since I wasn’t able to carry the 10-pound weight a full 20 yards, my certification states that I’m eligible for shallow-water lifeguarding only. Rainbow Pathways never asked to see it.
I am also plagued by spontaneous nosebleeds at the slightest change in elevation. Unfortunately my lifeguard seat is on a high-rise platform, so each morning I cut two pieces of sponge off an industrial mop I purchased and insert them into my nasal passageways. From this chair I can see the whole pool and yard.
The shallow end is full of Thorazine patients who wear water wings; all day long they bob in the water with the frozen facial expressions of someone just squeezed to death. A patient nicknamed “Goat” (white chin beard) sits to the left of the pool in his own plastic kiddie version. He has a tangled unibrow. Goat emits solid waste every time he goes into the water, so he’s not allowed in with the others. When I see he’s made something I do a special call on my whistle—two short chirps followed by one long—and Nurse Kweller sighs and walks over to Goat with a baggie and a small net, the kind one would use to remove a deceased goldfish from a tank, and she deposits the Goat turds into the waste baggie then asks him to follow her back to the ward. The water is dumped, the kiddie pool is bleached, and then the cycle begins anew.
My first day on the job was a rough initiation. All morning long, a special-needs patient named Ted had been sitting about 10 feet away from the pool in his motorized wheelchair. The nurses always accessorize Ted with Day-Glo sunglasses and lines of pink zinc across his nose and cheeks. These cheerful colors contrast sharply with the despondent front-slouch of his head. They’d also placed a reflective foil surface meant to mimic a tanning mirror in his lap; even the paralyzed patients can’t be given sharp-edged objects. Ted is in a motorized wheelchair because of a botched attempt to hang himself. Apparently this setback in no way tapered Ted’s zest for death.
By midafternoon I was feeling good about the job. Ted was belted to his motorized chair and had a very flaccid posture; with his bodily droop and the sunglasses, he looked permanently asleep. Then without even raising his neck, his left knuckle reached out to the armrest joystick and floored the chair forward at its maximum speed of four miles per hour. He tipped straight into the pool and sank.
Despite being terrified, I jumped in and swam down to try and unbuckle his seatbelt. I could feel the absorbent sponge in my nose ballooning my nostrils out to their maximum width. Ted kept tapping his wrists into my side, the greatest extent to which he could fight me off. Finally I got him out of the chair and struggled upwards. When we surfaced, Nurse Kweller and other staff members of heft kneeled down by the side of the pool, reached beneath Ted’s armpits, and lifted him out while I coughed and sputtered. Now during pool time Ted has to sit in a patio chair that is welded to the floor.
The other patient of note is Bikini Girl. Her bathing suit is not the clinic-issue unitrunk all the other patients wear. They’re not allowed to have razors, so she has a very ungoverned bikini line. She also has thick scars all over her wrists. Sometimes I stare at her, which is creepier than I even mean it to be because of my heavy mouth breathing. Since my nose is plugged with sponge, I can’t avoid making a deep exhalation soundtrack.
Today marks my third week into the job. There hasn’t been much drama since Ted; most days follow the same routine. Around 2 p.m. Nurse Kweller goes to the pool’s edge, removes her orthopedic shoes, then takes off her knee-hi’s and dips them into the water. When she wrings them out and puts them back on, she looks up at me and says, “Sure is a warm one.” Her voice always has a diagnostic inflection; she talks about the weather with the same tone she might use to confirm that a tumor “sure is malignant.” Goat has his bowel movement around 4. The pool stays open till 6, but Bikini Girl and Kweller or another nurse on the sidelines (one is always required to be there) are the only ones who stay late. Bikini Girl’s armpit hair waves underwater like a sea plant. “Goodnight,” I always wave when she exits the water. Then she scowls at me, picks her wedgie, and leaves.
Tonight I arrive home to find the basement has flooded. I live in the basement. Mother is standing in the calf-deep water and the bottom edges of her bathrobe are submerged. “Guess you’re on the couch,” she says. I watch her flick cigarette ash into the water; behind her my inflatable bed floats by like a raft. “I told your father we needed new pipes.” It’s been seven years since he died. My mother believes she informed him of every accident and disaster that has occurred since. She looks bitter, like she thinks he died to avoid the ordeal of getting new pipes installed.
Just then my little brother Kevin appears on the stairs. Mom hardly ever calls him Kevin; his usual title is Miracle Boy. She found out she was pregnant with Kevin the week after Dad died. For her, this transformed Dad’s death into an exchange rather than a loss.
Miracle Boy can get away with anything.
I watch Kevin remove his penis and begin urinating in a long arc from the stairs down to the basement’s floodwater. He’d make a poignant fountain if someone instantly turned him to marble. As he finishes my mother scratches her hairnet and reaches down into the water to fish something out. It’s my retainer. She hands it to me and says, “Don’t say I never gave you anything.” When her cigarette lands in the water, its death-sizzle seems like a sound made by the last bit of hope leaving my life.
The next day at the pool I’m grumpy; sleeping on the couch aggravates my scoliosis. It will be weeks before the water damage can be fully cleaned up. Much longer if there’s a proliferation of mold spores. When the plumber said the space was an ideal breeding ground for them, Mother nodded my way and said, “That would be the first and only act of reproduction this basement will ever see,” and then they both laughed as the plumber hunched over to mimic the curvature of my spine. This morning I woke to Miracle Boy jumping on my stomach like it’s an inflatable moonwalk. I have no sheath of abdominal fat to shield his feet from impacting my kidneys.
“Let me take Ted in the water,” Bikini Girl says. She’s testing the staff today. “I’ll hold him in my arms like he’s a baby.” Though in her arms, gaunt, fully-grown Ted would more fully resemble Jesus freshly removed from the cross. I picture their unlikely Pietà: Bikini Girl and her brazen pubes playing a scantily clad Virgin Mary, Ted being caressed as Christ’s sunglassed counterpart.
“Too risky,” Nurse Kweller says. She’s right. Ted can turn the most benign situation into a machination of death.
Set on getting some form of adventure, Bikini Girl swims to the edge of the pool and leans up against the wall, then turns to me. She places her finger overtop her mouth in a “Shh” position, then removes the bikini and becomes only Girl. Taking in a deep breath, she dives down to the bottom and begins somersaulting and scissor-kicking. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Her pubic hair is moving like an acrobatic ferret in a good way. I’m so transfixed that I don’t notice when Goat goes to the bathroom, and by the time I remember to look over at him the waste has diluted in the warm water, which is now entirely brown. Panicked, I blow the dung-alert signal on my whistle and Kweller grabs her small net and walks over, then gasps. “Let me go get my gloves,” she says.
For a brief moment we are all alone and unsupervised. It’s just myself, the floating lily-pad Thorazine patients, Goat in his brown water, and Ted draped across the patio chair like a drunken worm. Then there’s the girl. She stands up out of the water and shows me her chest, the first girl ever to do so. When we hear the echoes of Nurse Kweller’s cloggish hooves returning, Girl puts her suit back on and begins swimming laps like nothing ever happened.
That night on the couch, I think of nothing but the girl and how to get her to like me. In the morning I rise early, long before Miracle Boy is awake, to purchase self-tanner and a pair of sunglasses that do not have separate lenses. They are like a small welding shield and when I put them on I feel like I’m in charge of something. After my purchase I go directly to the handicapped stall in the drugstore bathroom and strip down, cover every part of my body with the tanner, and wait. When I don’t appear to be tan five minutes later, I repeat the process. Eventually there is a knock on the stall door and I open it to see a man with a badge that reads Loss Prevention Officer. “Do you have any unpaid merchandise in this stall?” he asks, and I hold up a receipt covered with orange fingerprints. He nods and looks at his reflection in my oiled chest. “Sorry,” he says. “We have to check after 10 minutes. Women love to bring pregnancy tests in here and pee on the sticks without paying for them.”
By the time I get to the pool, I am the color of Nurse Kweller’s pantyhose. My new sunglasses are apparently more for vanity than protection; I have to squint behind them all day. “Did you eat something you were allergic to?” Bikini Girl asks me.
I return home that night to Mom chain-smoking over the makings of a casserole. When she sees me her mouth opens so wide that her cigarette almost falls into the mixing bowl. “What in the world happened to your skin?”
Kevin runs over to the light switch and turns it off; my figure remains in the dark. “You glow,” Kevin says.
The couch is so uncomfortable that my mind stays awake racing all night. She’s all I can think about. I now need to do something special to get her attention. Finally I get up and go over to Dad’s old desk and open a drawer that probably hasn’t been opened for seven years.
The next day I stare at her all morning and afternoon and try to be patient. Finally Goat does his thing and I sound the defecation whistle, ready to act while Nurse Kweller’s attention is diverted. I cough a few times, loudly enough to get Bikini Girl to look up at me, then toss a note into the water. I wrote it with my father’s old military pen. Its waterproof ink stays true regardless of inclement weather.
Bikini Girl swims over, scoops it into her mouth and swallows.
I stand up and clench both fists with disappointment. I can feel the sponge in my left nostril absorbing stress-induced blood. Pull yourself together, I think. You are a lifeguard. You cannot lose your cool. You are tan in most places. I did forget to put self-tanner beneath my arms. There is a line under my bicep whose equator divides neon bronze on one side from arctic mime-flesh on the other. I also forgot to do the backs of my knees and there are streaks here and there. In these spots I look like a genetically aberrant tiger.
When I sit back down, Bikini Girl winks at me as she pulls the note from her lips—she was only pretending to eat it. It’s exciting to watch her unfold it, but then a new worry seizes me: What if she gets offended? What if she shows the note to Nurse Kweller, and after I deny writing it they give me a penmanship test to prove my guilt?
The note says PRETEND TO DROWN.
After reading it, she eats the note for real then begins swimming laps without making eye contact. “Not again,” I almost say out loud, because this is what happens every time something good has the possibility of happening: It doesn’t.
Several minutes later I hear a groan. When I look down, I see a few of the livelier Thorazine patients flapping their water wings and pointing towards the deep end. Though their facial expression repertoire is limited to “content zombie” or “sleepy zombie,” their upper arm fat is jouncing behind their floatation cuffs with forced urgency, and when I look down I realize it’s happened: Bikini Girl is motionless underwater. From my elevated position I can see her sitting on the pool’s bottom looking up at me, her eyes blinking as her breath escapes in a final bubble. Then her eyes close, her legs become uncrossed, and she really looks like a corpse. I begin to wonder if she’s still pretending.
After sounding the panic whistle, I jump into the pool and swim down to grab her around her perfect abdomen. When I see the pulse of her neck I relax a little. We travel to the top and move towards the ladder, which I somehow manage to ascend while holding her in my arms like a new bride. Although she is bone-thin, she weighs far more than I do. I think about a single ant carrying an apple.
I lie her down on the grass, the grass on the right side of the pool that does not receive Goat’s daily drain-off water, and slowly wipe her hair away from her face. Then I place my mouth to hers and feel such a new form of pleasure that I don’t even hear the approach of Nurse Kweller’s thundering clogs.
Nurse Kweller is a statue of bulbous musculature. When she pushes me away it’s like getting sideswiped by a golf cart. I’m jettisoned backwards, unable to find my center of gravity before falling into the pool.
I surface to see Nurse Kweller giving powerful chest compressions that are knocking the wind out of Bikini Girl. Nurse Kweller is a CPR juggernaut. “Stop,” I yell, “She’s conscious!” Finally the nurse pauses, lifts Bikini Girl upright, and gives her a pat on the back that’s hard enough to dislodge a tooth.
“What happened?” she asks.
“I got a cramp,” Bikini Girl says.
Nurse Kweller looks at Bikini Girl and then at me, then back at Bikini Girl.
“Maybe you shouldn’t swim so much.” As she leads Bikini Girl away, I watch the droplets of water fall off the back of her suit and splatter the cement.
All night I think about a way, any way, that I can get to touch her again. But when she comes to the pool in the morning, she stops at its edge.
Bikini Girl is in her top, but instead of bottoms she’s wearing jeans.
“I’m not allowed back in the water for a week,” she says from across the pool. “The doctor is doing some tests to make sure my cramp wasn’t a side-effect of medication. He’s afraid it could happen again.” She has a lovely, butterfly-shaped bruise on her upper ribs from Nurse Kweller’s vigorous resuscitation.
Looking down at the shallow end, I can see Bikini Girl’s rippling image. It’s spread across the water like some desert mirage that all the Thorazine patients are crawling toward. And I cannot wait, not a week or even a minute. When I stand up and dive towards her reflection, there is a moment when the cool relief on my skin feels like the surface of the water is an entrance to a different world, a place where I can have her and I’m no longer me, where my old life is a forgotten blur above the surface.
Alissa Nutting is a Las Vegas writer; her story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, comes out in October.