I was halfway to the nine-foot end of the pool at my neighborhood Y when a middle-aged man in the adjacent slow lane, quickly crossed over into my lane and began swimming towards me. We were about to collide, but when I saw him approaching, I immediately uprighted myself and started treading water. When he finally saw me, he asked, “What’s wrong? Why did you stop?” and then swam around me, oblivious to the danger he nearly caused.
At that moment, I turned around, certain that Lila, one of the lifeguards on duty, had seen what had happened, knowing she would speak to the man.
“I saw it,” the young girl said, easing her way down the steps of the metal lifeguard chair, red flotation raft slung across her chest. She walked purposefully to the edge of the three-foot end, blew her whistle, and beckoned to the man, who, now at the deep end, began swimming to her.
“Sir, you can’t cross lanes like that without looking.” Lila pointed to me. “You almost collided with that young woman.”
“Sorry,” he said and swam away.
When I arrived at the Y the next day, the pool was crowded, and the smell of chlorine
strong. Lila, a purple streak in her braided blonde hair, was in her chair diligently watching the swimmers.
“Hi there,” I said and waved as I passed her, then turned back and stopped in front of her. “I like what you did to your hair. The purple looks good.”
The corners of her mouth turned up slightly.“I’ve said this before; please don’t talk to me when I’m working.”
I didn’t respond. Geez, just trying to be friendly.
I scanned the lanes. Men and women swam the freestyle, faces in the water, eyes focused downward, bodies streamlined. They kicked, short and fast from the hips, fingertips entering the water, reaching forward, pulling the water back, rolling from left to right and turning their heads to the side to take deep breaths. Two guys raced against each other, splashing, and slapping the water as they swam. Jerks. Why do we have to take in mouthfuls of water and get pushed off course? Nearby, a woman swam the length of the pool underwater, scurrying along the bottom, like a flounder, while four older women in the multipurpose lane clutched colorful noodles, chatted, and giggled as they did their water exercises.
Two men and a woman occupied the medium lane, and soon, one man was swimming on the heels of the other. He must have touched the man’s feet because I heard the other guy yell, “Hey, watch out!” Then, minutes later, the same guy touched the woman’s feet.
“You swam into both of us,” she yelled. “You don’t belong in this lane. Go over there,” she said, motioning to the fast lane.
The man brushed her off and continued swimming. The woman immediately jumped out of the pool and walked to the area where Lila was stationed.
“Excuse me, guard. That guy in the medium lane bumped into me and the guy in my lane. We asked him to move, but he won’t.”
Lila walked over to the guy.
“Sir, it’s been brought to my attention that you’ve bumped into both swimmers in this lane. If you’re touching them when you swim, you should be in the fast lane.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, ducking under the divider and moving into the fast lane.
Days passed until I saw Lila again. She was in the locker room putting on her street clothes, and I was changing into my suit.
“I’ve missed you,” I said. “Were you sick?”
“No,” she said and turned away.
I walked in front of her. “Are you on tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here.”
“Great. Then I’ll be here, too.”
The next day, as I was coming into the Y, Lila was leaving.
“Thought you were on duty now.”
“I worked the early shift. Just finished.”
“Will you be here tomorrow at this time? I want to swim when you’re on duty.”
“I’m not the only lifeguard. Why are you so interested in swimming when I’m on duty?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“There are always two guards on duty,” Lila said and walked out of the building.
When I walked out to the pool, a male and female lifeguard were standing together and
talking at one end of the deck. I was happy to see only one woman in the medium lane because this meant we could split the lane. I jumped in, extended my arms in front of me and pushed off the wall, gliding forward and doing six laps of the freestyle before a third woman in a flowered swimsuit and pink cap joined us. Now we had to circle. The woman was much slower than both of us and swam only a short distance before stopping at the five-foot mark to adjust her goggles and causing the other woman to stop unexpectedly.
“There’s no stopping when you’re lap swimming,” she yelled to the woman in the pink cap.
The woman turned around and rolled her eyes. “I had to adjust my goggles,” she yelled and continued swimming.
I looked to the guards, curious if they would say anything, but they were still talking and
probably hadn’t seen what happened. What’s wrong with them? Why is Lila the only one who addresses issues before they become dangerous?
The following day, I arrived at the Y at one o’clock. Two female guards were standing together on the deck near the women’s locker room. I approached them and asked when Lila would be on.
“She’s here,” said the guard with short red hair. “On a break. I’m off in ten minutes. Lila will be back then.”
“Thanks,” I said, walking to the shallow end and jumping in. I swam the backstroke, head still, eyes focused on the ceiling beams above me, arms close to my ears, stretching as far back as possible, and rolling from side to side to increase the propulsion. After eight brisk laps, I grasped the edge of the pool at the deep end and rested. I saw Lila at the shallow end, talking to the lifeguard with short red hair. They must have had an altercation because I heard Lila shout something undiscernible at her and saw Lila yank the raft from her hands before ascending the chair.
The guard who’d been talking to Lila smiled mischievously.
I swam back to the shallow end, stopped in front of Lila’s chair, and glanced up at her.
“Don’t talk to me when I’m working,” she said loudly without taking her eyes off the swimmers.
Wow. She must be in a bad mood. I turned around and resumed swimming.
Minutes later, three women joined the lane next to me and were standing at the shallow end, talking. When a fourth woman in a yellow cap, swimming towards them from the deep end reached the area where they were standing, she couldn’t touch the wall because the women had created a human barrier.
Then I heard Lila: “Ladies, if you want to talk, you need to move to the multi-purpose lane.”
The woman in the yellow cap glared at the three women who still hadn’t moved. “Yentas,” she yelled. “Self-centered yentas.”
The following afternoon, the same two girls were on duty. Through the glass enclosure that separated the pool from the lounge, I saw Lila sitting on one of the couches, drinking a soda, and watching the activity in the pool. I waved, but she didn’t wave back.
I surveyed the lanes. Richie, a frail man in his late seventies, was in the slow lane, sharing it with a burly thirtyish guy with black chest hair. The adjacent medium lane was empty, so I jumped in, grateful I had the entire lane to myself. After six laps, I got a cramp in my calf muscle and rested at the shallow end. As I massaged my leg, I watched the man swimming in the lane with Richie. Although I was happy the man wasn’t sharing the medium lane with me, clearly, he wasn’t a slow swimmer. He was doing laps of the butterfly and backstroke and demonstrated power and speed with both.
Richie was floating on his back, arms at his sides, and kicking, just enough to advance.
I watched the guy doing the backstroke raise his left arm and suddenly jerk it to the side, smacking Richie on the face with the back of his hand as he returned it to the water.
Richie floundered and started to go under.
I yelled “lifeguard!” and saw the guard with the red hair descend the chair while the other one continued to watch the swimmers. I kept my eyes on Richie, and before the guard was in the water, Lila burst through the emergency door, jumped into the pool in her clothes, and swam up to Richie who was now totally submerged. She dove underwater and pulled him to the surface. I watched as she positioned herself behind him and kept him afloat, his head resting against her torso.
The red-haired guard, carrying a flotation raft, jumped into the pool and swam to Lila and Richie. As Lila pulled herself away from him, the red-haired guard slipped the raft behind Richie, wrapped her arm around his waist, and swam to the shallow end using the sidestroke. Lila swam behind them keeping an eye on Richie and ensuring that he remained safely on the raft.
While Lila and the red-haired guard tended to Richie, the third guard had cleared the pool
of the swimmers, called 911, and brought a first aid kit to the deck. The other swimmers and I were now in the lounge watching the activity from behind the glass partition.
When Lila and the red-haired guard reached the end of the pool, they pulled Richie out and laid him on his back. Lila checked his airway, breathing, and circulation. When she couldn’t detect a pulse, she administered CPR while they waited for the ambulance.
I was happy to see that by the time the paramedics arrived, Richie was breathing on his own. They gave him oxygen, hoisted him onto a stretcher, and rolled him outside to the ambulance. The lifeguard who assisted Lila with the rescue accompanied Richie to the hospital.
I went to the locker room to change and saw Lila putting on some dry clothes.
“Great save,” I said. “You got to Richie before the guards on duty. Thank you,” I said and moved towards Lila to give her a hug.
She pulled back. “It’s my job. On or off duty. When I see an emergency, I spring into action.”
The next day, after I finished swimming and was on my way to the locker room, I passed the pool director. He was standing outside his office and asked to speak to me.
“Lila came to see me yesterday,” he said after I had taken a seat opposite him at a table in his office. She feels uncomfortable when you’re around. Says her co-workers report when you don’t see her, you ask when she’ll be working. They all notice the attention you pay her, and they tease her about it. Said she asked you not to talk to her while she’s on duty, but you persist. I don’t know what feelings you have for her, but I cannot have this drama in the pool. Lila’s my best guard and I don’t want to lose her. She’s upset. Already asked me for a transfer to another Y.”
“This is a big misunderstanding. I admire her assiduity and feel safe when Lila’s here, but I’m not interested in her in the way you suggest. I don’t know why she misconstrued the things I said.”
“The bottom line is, if you’re going to make Lila feel uncomfortable, you can’t remain here. I’m going to suspend your pool privileges for a month. You can still use the other facilities.”
“Really? I didn’t do anything,” I said, exiting his office. I couldn’t say anything more.
That evening, after I finished my dinner, I went into my living room and sat on
the couch, hands clenched in my lap. This is messed up. So unfair.I was nice to her, that’s all. I didn’t ask for her phone number. Didn’t ask her out on a date. Swimming is my primary form of exercise. A month is a long time not to be swimming. Maybe I can use a pool at another Y. Hope I’m not a persona non grata. I got up from my couch, went over to the bookshelf across the room and took down the eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch framed photo of my sister. Amy was wearing a navy and white striped swimsuit, her long blonde shoulder-length hair parted in the center and the college medals won at intramural swim meets hanging around her neck.
I removed the cardboard backing from the frame and unfolded the newspaper article tucked inside. It was dated three years ago. College swimmer drowns in the undertow at Jersey Nineteen-year-old Amy Baxter went under. I still feel like crying. Amy, you were a great swimmer and a dear sister. I miss you every day. This never would have happened to you if Lila were on duty.
When I returned to the Y after my month-long absence, I saw Lila in the locker room.
“I’m Stephanie,” I said, walking up to her. “Can we talk? You’re not working.”
Lila laughed softly. “I guess so.”
“The pool director told me how uncomfortable you were when I was around. It wasn’t my intention. Don’t know how my actions became so misinterpreted. I’m sorry.”
“Bet you’re curious about why I like swimming when you’re on duty.”
Lila nodded. “I’ve been wondering.”
I told her about Amy.
Lila gasped. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I read about the drowning. I had friends who knew the lifeguard. Said he was a real jerk. He’s never lifeguarded again since the incident.”
I turned to face Lila. “You’re not like the other lifeguards. You never take your eyes off the swimmers. It’s commendable.”
“This may sound silly, but the reason I don’t want to talk when I’m working is because I’m afraid of becoming distracted. My biggest fear is that someone will drown on my watch.”
I smiled. “I understand. From now on, I promise, no talking while you’re working.” And thankfully, Lila smiled back.