Julie is not making the mistake of trying to be friends with the remedial beginners. Her trick is to channel her father. When she first got the lifeguarding job he sat her down at the dining room table, stared at his hands in the new way he had and said, “That’s a serious goddamn responsibility for a sixteen-year-old.”
It was serious. People had died right here, not this summer but before: a man had a heart attack while swimming. He had been wearing the same blue bathing suit as Julie’s brother. Glimpses of that suit were all she and her mother could see for all the legs crowding around him. When Danny finally pushed his way back from the ice cream truck to find out what was happening, their mother’s fingers pressed white into his tan shoulder before she walloped the hell out of him. Now they were both gone, her mother to Oregon and her brother to college.
On the dock of the small man-made pond, Julie wraps the string from her whistle around her finger until the tip goes numb and blue and thinks, no horseplay. The sky is colorless and each time she notices the air against her skin, it feels hotter than the time before. Reverend Parker’s son, Ben, is visible underwater no matter how far down he goes, which is partly because he’s so pale and partly because he can’t go far. Beneath the surface, he looks like one of those fish that never see the sun.
“You see that shark?” Dinah asks when Ben pulls himself out of the pond. Everything about Dinah seems secondhand: her straw hair and animal eyes, her scabby skin that the sun is coloring the same dull red of her bathing suit.
They are both nine. Ben is nervous; Dinah is brave. Or maybe just mean: each day she terrorizes him with new, nonexistent dangers in the pond. This is what caused them to fail the first time, Julie thinks, they are more interested in sharks and snapping turtles and each other than learning to float or timing their breathing with the movement of their arms. She wants them to grow up and fall in love with each other, despite what she imagines will be his father’s disapproval and her mother’s anger at her trying to better herself.
“Swam right by you,” Dinah says, balancing on one foot. “Hammerhead.” Julie will tell her friends about this later, when she will point out that Ben already looks like he has been bitten in half, his dark blue suit disappearing under the water, leaving two halves swimming, as if his skinny legs were trying to catch up with the rest of him.
“Knock it off.” She’s pleased at how much this sounds like her father. “Get in the water.” And they jump, Dinah first. “Kick.”
“Did you feel that? Ben?” Dinah digs her fingers into the slick green underside of the dock, kicks harder and faster, even though Ben concentrates, trying to ignore her. “Somethingistouchingmyfoot,” she pants, her feet churning the water into white froth.
“What?” Ben panics, trying to separate her words.
“Something. Touching my foot.” She screams and Ben screams too, higher. They scramble onto the dock, gasping and staining the boards dark with streaming water.
Instead of laughing, Julie squats down and looks Dinah in the eye. “Are you happy now? You scared Ben and yourself.”
“No.” Dinah rolls onto her back and shields her eyes from the sun. Her breath comes in slower and slower hiccoughs. “I’m not scared, there really was something down there.”
“There was not.”
“There was,” she insists, as if proving something was there means she wasn’t scared.
“Maybe we should just practice on the dock.” Ben twists his hands together and holds them in front of his mouth.
This is the second time this has happened this week. Julie considers talking to Dinah’s mother, but their small house is so close to the park she treats it like their backyard. Dinah just appears each morning and disappears each afternoon; she doesn’t get dropped off or picked up. They rest on their stomachs on the dock to demonstrate, backs arched into bows, moving their arms and legs and twisting their heads to breathe. There are only ten minutes left in the lesson.
“Fine,” Julie says, although this is no way to teach swimming.
When Julie asked if she could use her mother’s car, her father said, “It’s hers, you’d have to ask her.” But her mother didn’t call for more than a week and by then Julie decided she preferred the close-up of the town she got by walking: the discarded bottles glinting in the sun, squirrels in the gutter looking like they could just be asleep, flashes of catcalls that could be saying anything.
On the way home she passes a man on the maintenance road that runs out the back of the park. If he had been inside the damp stone pavilion, in the deserted shower area where the daddy long legs live, her guard would have been up. But sitting in the gold afternoon sun, she barely notices him: stupid cop sunglasses, dirty-looking tan.
And then he says, “Clever girl.”
She keeps walking, but it’s like her leg hiccoughs, her flip-flop coming loose. She jams it back on, between the wrong toes, and listens to the uneven echo-y sound of her footsteps the rest of the way home. She has caught a lot and missed a lot of what has been yelled at her over the summer. At least this, she thinks, comes close to something true.
In the front hall, Julie sorts the phone bill out from the rest of the mail. Her father’s name is printed inside the open window of the envelope. She would like to open it and see a long list of calls made late at night to a number in Oregon. She can’t bring herself to open the envelope. But she can’t stop thinking about it, either. She walks the perimeter of the back yard, noting that her father’s small garden has remained as ordered as his drawers of socks and folded t-shirts.
Clever girl. He wasn’t that old, maybe thirty. Maybe twenty-eight. Julie picks at the new blister until her eyes tear, then sits by the curb, sifting through the sand in the gutter leftover from winter until her father comes home.
“Well, Jules,” he says getting out of the car. “Another day, another dragon slain. You?”
“Same here,” she says brushing the sand from her hands. “Slain.” She follows him in, stopping in the cool garage to write wash me on her mother’s car. She’s disappointed the car isn’t dirty enough yet for the words to show.
After their standard summer dinner of hamburgers and salad, Julie watches her father read the newspaper and tries to ignore the mosquitoes. “Do you want to go on a bike ride?”
“Now?” He turns another page.
“Sure. You could show me some new houses.” Her father is an engineer. When Julie and her brother were younger, they would ride their bikes to different subdivisions and listen to him describe the floor plans: off the foyer to the left is the living room, to the right the study. Imagining the names of rooms in her father’s voice is comforting.
“We don’t really do houses that much anymore, babe. It’s all HVAC systems for bigger buildings.”
“But you should go for a ride if you want to.” He finishes his section and refolds the newspaper.
“Thanks,” she says, as if she wants, or needs his permission.
After parties or movies or just driving around, Julie comes back to the park with Paul and Sara and Sara’s boyfriend. They hang from the monkey bars, the steel still warm from the sun, or ride around on some bike that Paul and Sara’s boyfriend have stolen. This is the part she likes best: riding in the dark, the way everything seems to move faster, the threat of unseen rocks or branches, the possibility of impact.
Tonight the bike is a girl’s, small and not new. With a tiny pour of beer the boys christen it Pink Lightning, and because it is July and things are already getting boring, they take turns riding it off the dock.
“We should turn them in,” Julie says to Sara. They are floating in the shallow end, listening to the splash and gasp of the boys hitting the water. She imagines the tug of gravity that makes them kick up hard for the surface, yanking the bike after them. “In solidarity. For the girl who lost her bike.”
They had spent every summer until sixth grade at the small, scooped-out pond that anchored the park like a button in the middle of a couch cushion. Then the seventh-grade boys migrated to the rectangular cement pool complex across town, which meant Sara went too, and Julie drifted along behind. But she prefers the park – the familiar drainage culverts, the secret waterfall and the damp smell of leaves – to burning chlorine and hot parking lot pavement.
“You have to admit, it’s a shitty thing to do.”
Sara says, “That’s the difference between you and me, I don’t have to admit anything.”
Right, Julie thinks, glad she hasn’t told Sara about her mom. She can feel the exact line all around her body where the water meets the air. Julie empties her lungs and sinks deeper, pictures what Dinah would: a moon-white tentacle wrapping around her waist and dragging her down into the dark water.
After Sara and her boyfriend leave, Paul pulls his car onto the maintenance road.
Julie scans radio stations. “Dinah told Ben there was a hammerhead in the pond.” She expects him to laugh, but instead he seems to think about it. Paul never does what she expects him to do.
“Hammerheads aren’t even that dangerous.”
“Compared to what?”
“What is?” She tries to look past her reflection to the trees outside her window.
“What is what?”
“Around here?” Paul shrugs. “Nothing.”
Later Julie focuses on the angle of her neck against the car door, the too-cold air conditioning, his belt buckle digging into her. She thinks about what it would be like to be in the trunk, the cold ribs of the car floor pressing into her side, planning how to save her own life. Paul exhales, “come on,” but takes his hand away as soon as she says no. She is disappointed; she wants something to give in to. Finally he says, “You’re just scared.” And she thinks, right, but not of you.
In bed that night she turns the words over in her mind. Clever girl.
Days off she lies on a towel in the yard until it gets too hot, then walks to the two-dollar movie theater. “Don’t forget your beret tomorrow,” Paul says, “don’t forget your black turtleneck.” Which might make her feel bad if she didn’t actually like the movies they showed, which are either black-and-white or French. The black-and-whites feature dames that smoke and fall for the wrong men. The French movies feature waifish girls who are blasé about sex. They also smoke. Julie is the only one under sixty, under seventy, at these films during the day, including the employees, who favor her with the senior discount.
“Don’t expect me to thank you,” she tells the elderly man at the window whose knotted hands shake as he rips her ticket, “this should be my boyfriend’s job.”
“Maybe I’ll be your boyfriend.” He winks at her.
“Maybe nothing.” She winks back.
The dark theater is the only place she doesn’t feel she has to squint to protect herself from sprays of water, or the too-bright sun, or low hanging branches in the dark. Her cardigan sleeve is stuffed with tissues for the movies she cries at. The women around her don’t cry; Julie figures they’ve had actual things to cry about.
Friday it’s a stingray flying in silent circles under the surface of the pond. Ben and Dinah refuse to go back in.
“No way, I saw it.” Dinah crosses her arms in front of her chest.
“Me too,” whispers Ben. “I saw it too.”
They sit on the dock for the rest of the lesson. Ben and Dinah keep watch; Julie dangles her feet in the water and doesn’t allow them to speak to each other. Across the pond the man is back. Reading the paper, or pretending to read the paper. She can’t be sure which.
When Ben’s mother comes, he is already fully dry. Dinah waves goodbye and spreads her frayed towel on the sand of the fake beach. Julia climbs the guard tower, where she’ll sit until noon. Soon it will be warm enough to not wear her guard sweatshirt. Which is good, because when she first pretended not to notice him, she shrugged hers off, thinking, you want to look, look. She’s cold, but it’s too late to do anything about it.
When the ice-cream truck comes, Julie looks for Dinah to wave, but only sees the small, blue rectangle of her towel. She walks towards the maintenance road practicing in her head what came to her that morning: clever enough. She’d say it, and then she’d just let whatever was going to happen, happen. But the bench is empty.
Instead, the man is standing at the edge of the trees, with Dinah next to him, a popsicle sending red streaks across her hand. Next to them, there’s a dent in the brush, a short cut, Julie thinks, for people or animals or both.
“Hi,” Dinah says, as if nothing is wrong and for a second Julie thinks maybe he’s her uncle. “Do you know Julie?” she asks. “She teaches swimming lessons.”
“Julie,” the man says. His sunglasses reflect the sky behind her, and she knows that the whole chilly morning he hasn’t been watching her at all. “Sure, I know Julie.”
It’s true, she thinks, he does know her in a way. Maybe not everything, but enough. Like how she thinks this is different from saving someone from drowning. How this would teach Dinah’s mother a lesson. She could walk away and Dinah would turn up later, maybe dirtier than usual and with leaves in her hair, but essentially unharmed.
Overhead a branch snaps as a squirrel jumps from the top of one tree to another. There are two ways to learn to swim: the one where you get wet gradually and the one where you get thrown in and have to figure it out yourself.
“Dinah, c’mere.” Julie doesn’t look at the man’s face; his hand twitches toward Dinah’s shoulder.
“But,” Dinah starts, “we were going. . . “.
“Now,” Julie says.
But Dinah doesn’t move until the man says, “It’s okay,” in a voice that Julie thinks is surprisingly gentle.
Dinah’s hand is like a small, sticky bone in hers and Julie moves back three steps before turning to walk away.
“Say ‘thank you’.” The man calls this to their backs.
“Thanks,” Dinah calls turning and waving with her free popsicle hand.
“Both of you,” the man says.
Julie keeps walking but he calls again, “You better say it.” He still sounds friendly, with something underneath. Her eyes burn from the too-bright sky and she has to mouth the words before she comes out and says them.
Julie wants to sit on the top step of Dinah’s house until her mother comes home, wants her presence to spark a tiny burst of fear, but she wants a glass of water more. Dinah pulls her arm. “Come see my room.”
“In a minute.”
The kitchen is neater than Julie expects. The drinking glasses are the cheap kind, ones you buy four at a time at the supermarket. She fills one with water and drinks it before hurling the glass at the wall. She reaches for another and another. As she throws them, she imagines them coming apart just from the force of the air and the pressure of being thrown. When they hit the wall and crash to the floor, it doesn’t feel like breaking them as much as it feels like helping them realize their potential.
MEG TANSEY received her MFA in 2004 from the New School University and is currently an associate editor at the fiction journal Pindeldyboz.