I spent six summers in love with lifeguards. One, of course, in particular, but they were ever-present in my summer life and therefore, the subject of numerous seasonal crushes. The crushes stayed with me through the school year, the absence of the lifeguards and the pool like the aftertaste of strawberry soda; sweet and long to fade.
One lifeguard was a constant. I’ll call him Edward. I knew him first when I was an obnoxious, skinny kid, all ribs, elbows and knees, getting in trouble for running, dunking and goofing off in the diving well. Each summer we returned to the pool, he a bit older, with stories of college and his plans to attend seminary and me, a girl growing into a teenager, with insignificant high school concerns. My thoughts at that time went about as deep as the baby pool, selecting my brand of pop based on whether the color of the can matched the day’s swimsuit.
We had, however, long conversations over an empty pool on cloudy days or just before the pool closed for the day. He was four years older; why he put up with me hanging around, I’ll never know.
The summer I was sixteen, a girl I remembered only as chubby Emma from the dance classes we both took in elementary school, approached me at an event away from the pool. “Stay away from my brother,” she said. It took a minute for it to click; they had the same last name. She was Edward’s sister. I hadn’t put them together in my mind until that moment. “He’s got a girlfriend, you know.” In fact, I did know that, although he didn’t talk about it; I didn’t even know her name.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her, and walked away. I wondered what she knew, or thought she knew. Edward and I had never done anything but talk, and yet, I’m sure everyone who belonged to the pool saw my schoolgirl crush on the lifeguard, plain as the zinc on his nose.
That summer ended; the pool closed. He was leaving and I was returning to a life of other, real boyfriends and books. He showed up at my house; a shock to this day. Even though we’d known one another for years and knew where one another lived, our relationship was confined to the pool; he’d never been to my house, I’d never been to his. We were saying goodbye, without really saying it at all.
Before he left, he kissed me, and although it makes my heart ache to think of it, I know I kissed him back. It was a moment I’d dreamed of summer after summer. A fantasy that got me through the winter, longing for warmer weather and the serenity of the pool. It was, I knew, a first kiss, and a last. The saddest kiss I’ve ever had, the last few seconds of the final time I ever saw him.
I suspect I was some kind of one-minute bachelor party; a last fling of a man who would go on to be a husband and a father. I don’t know what went through his mind as he drove to my house, some need for closure, or a test to find out if in fact, there was something between us that he shouldn’t ignore. I don’t know what it meant to him to this day, but for me, it was a loss of innocence, the end of a childhood baked in Coppertone, marinated in chlorine.
It was more than twenty years ago, but the memory of those summers, of that last kiss, returns to me each year as I pull on a new swimsuit and take my first dip in the pool.