It is no small feat to be responsible for a human life. Margot was told this on the first, and every subsequent day of her job. The phrase inspired in her, whenever she saw it written on the cracked plaster of the break room or in the header topping a memo about proper CPR procedure, the heroism she’d expected in lifeguarding.
In truth, the job was all about procedure, routinely checking the surface of the water, knowing a swimmer was in trouble before an incident occurred, clearing the head above the water-line, prioritizing oxygen above anything else.
This chain of command comforted Margot. She’d learned to love the rigidity inherent to being the one responsible in an emergency; she imagined herself responding to the gushing mother of a child saved from death by Margot’s textbook-learned maneuvers with “it was nothing,” and meaning it.
Today was a slow day at the pool. There was no one there but The Boy, swimming his same fluid laps. He had been at the pool every day for months. He never said anything to Margot before his swim but afterwards he always seemed more relaxed and he would wave goodbye to Margot while she watched beads of water collect in puddles on his collarbone.
From the perch of her lifeguarding chair, Margot stared down at the water. The pool was a municipal one, owned by the city. She imagined the architect of the complex as some kind of long-haired swinger; a man who’d envisioned a steamy public sex grotto for the new age. This at least would explain the faux rock-effect surrounding an indoor public pool, the conspicuous blank spot at the very center of the deep end where perky breasted bottle blonds were supposed to frolic before the waterfall got written out of the blueprints by the city council.
Timing herself carefully, Margot swung herself out of her seat and down the ladder that led up to the lifeguard chair. She situated herself at the foot of the lane where The Boy was swimming, faced the wall, then bent over in a deep stretch, making sure to jut her pelvis backwards. When The Boy came up for air, in the bare second before resubmerging to turn and swim in the other direction, she made eye contact with him through the condensation on his blue plastic goggles. Still bent over with her head between her legs, she smiled as though embarrassed and was gratified to see his stride falter, just for a moment.
The Boy did not deserve her affections. He was not beautiful but Margot was. Until recently, she had been fat, the kind of gloriously obscenely obese that others are drawn to, just by the want to be in proximity of that much decadence. She had found pleasantness in her size, come to see her girth as so much rising, an invading conqueror with constantly expanding territories.
She’d lost the weight swimming laps at the very same municipal pool where she worked now. She liked to imagine the 100 pounds of fat she’d worked off in the lanes, floating, unskimmed, just on top of the water. When her shifts were particularly slow, she’d work hard at visualizing it, opaque flesh-colored globs of something undulating on the surface, collecting in oily deposits by the drains, looking for all the world like The Blob. Run, don’t walk!
But days like today, days with The Boy, Margot did not think of much else but him. Walking around the surface of the pool, idly holding a buoy, Margot watched his confident stroke, the aerodynamism in his form. She felt she died in the moments between his breaths, worried constantly until it resurfaced from the capsule of the water that she would forget his face in between laps.
She had a fantasy of telling him the things she could tell no one else, of him as her underwater psychiatrist, sitting in an overstuffed armchair bracketed to the bottom of the pool, his thick lensed plastic goggles taking the place of horn-rimmed glasses, though they would slide constantly down his nose, as psychiatrist’s glasses are wont to do.
“Doctor,” she would say, having dived to the bottom of the pool to make her appointment. “I’m in a terrible way.”
“What do you mean?” The Boy did not often say much else. Margot had barely heard him speak in real life. In her mind his voice was unaffected, constantly calm, with the uncanny shadow of emotion often found in the voices of the heavily medicated, though that was just the distortion of the water.
“I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve lost a lot of weight.” Here she paused for a congratulatory remark but The Boy just stared back at her through the goggles, his eyelashes, long and dark gently brushing up against the scratched plastic lens. “It’s confusing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where does it all go? What happens to all that matter once it’s not a part of you? And how do you know if what you’ve let out into the world is good or evil?”
The Boy let a burst of air bubbles loose from his mouth and Margot watched them rise drunkenly to the surface. “I see my reflection and I wonder what happened to the rest of me. What parts of ourselves do we discard if we get the chance?
She waited for The Boy to respond; he never gave answers.
“When I was a little girl, I hated coming to the pool. I would wear one of my dad’s t-shirts over my bathing suit so the other kids couldn’t see my thighs. The shirt made me smell like his cologne and the other kids would tease me. When I got out of the water the fabric of the shirt would stick to my skin. One day, I got in in just a t-shirt without the suit underneath and didn’t tell anybody. Then I lifted it up underwater for Sam Kneebaum. He didn’t get a boner but that’s because nudity isn’t really sexy underwater.” The Boy released another, thinner stream of bubbles. It seemed as though he was running out of breath. Behind his goggles, Margot could see his eyes begin to water. She took his hand, and flipped it over, ran her fingers gently over the ridges of his water-mottled skin. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
The Boy never answered this question either, merely stared at her, and when she could hold he breath no longer, Margot would swim full-out to the surface of the water, emerging gasping and dizzy.
It was the silence that first caught Margot’s attention; she no longer heard The Boy’s even stroke, that desperate gasp of air just before the turn. Scanning the water, Margot could see him struggling, flailing sluggishly below the surface, probably too cramped up to move.
She sprang into action, rushing towards the lip of the pool, reciting the chain of command to herself under her breath. She was thinking of how smooth the skin of The Boy’s neck would feel under her fingers as she supported his head, how she would pull back and softly shake her head when The Boy tried to transition their mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a kiss. Reaching his area of the pool, she faltered. Her reflection flickered gently with the motion of the water, below it, she could see The Boy, ever closer to the concrete bottom of the pool, still moving all four limbs but accomplishing nothing. She brought her focus back to herself, traced her hands slowly down her hips, shrinkwrapped into her red one-piece. Her reflection followed suit, then turned to the side. Smiling, Margot admired the spare-ness of her waist, ran her fingers down the fluid lines of her body.
Arriving home that night, Margot found a magazine on her front stoop. She did not subscribe to the periodical. She did not even open it.
The address on the label was for the apartment 5 doors down from Margot, the Markuses. They seemed like a nice enough couple, both blonde, both around 6 feet, but she guessed you could never really know about people.
The title of the magazine was crude and made Margot wonder if there were really only jugs inside. She imagined page after page of breasts with no context; surprised breasts caught off guard in candid shots. On the cover of the magazine was a girl in an oversized button down shirt with only one button buttoned, right between her breasts. Above and below the button there were two skinny, perfect triangles of flesh.
Sometimes, things are so awful that there aren’t even words to describe them. Margot needed a whole new language to describe how the magazine made her feel. But she didn’t throw it away. She left it out on her desk in mock carelessness, partly to see how it would look there, to try out what it would be like to be that kind of person.
Margot could not get that button of her head. That night she lay awake in bed, thinking of that shirt hanging on by just one ragged buttonhole. She imagined that the button was already halfway out of the buttonhole, that one might only have to blow in the model’s general direction to make the fabric fall way. She imagined that underneath the cotton, besides the triangles already visible, the girl had no skin. Maybe the shirt was the only thing keeping her insides in and they’d had to airbrush out the blood soaking through the shirt.
Unable to sleep, she stood in front of her mirror and tried to recreate the cover. She didn’t have a button down shirt so she sliced a t-shirt from neck to mid-breast and then from mid-breast to thigh. She stood there, imagining all the secret worlds that now lay beneath her white t-shirt. She leaned down and blew on the little strip of fabric keeping the garment on. The shirt fluttered a little with her breath but it did not fall off. She was pretty sure her insides were still in. She stripped off the shirt and stepped into the shower. In the heat of the water she cooed.