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Original artwork by Rowan Bartolomei

The Lifeguard


Nancy J. Fagan
Fiction

The sun rose in Arizona with a fizz off the cool desert that sent clouds of ovine marshmallows through the sky. Air dry as rough bone surrounded me, as heat sizzled its way to the empty pool deck. Seeking to heal a break in my soul in the warmth of a worn chaise lounge, I squinted up. Vivi, I’m here for you.

A woman sat on the chair beside me, probably in her thirties, the curve of her torso graced by yoga pants, with ashen hair tied loosely at her neck. Freckled and pale, her exact, but older, replica sat in the next chair. The elder wore a skirted bathing suit that dragged furrows in her bronzed shoulders. The more I looked at them, the more I saw it. The tilt of their heads and the trace of Midwest in their speech reminded me of Vivi, as did the child nestled at their feet, a cascade of brown curls down her back. It nearly hurt to look at them, but I found it just as hard to look away.

The girl, about four, jutted her chin at an angle with her head tipped back, as if she could not focus well. Her whine carried through the air as she spewed nonsense: “Cooca looka loo.” Her mother sang back, “Liberty, shhhh. Liberty blinked and pressed her lips together. I watched her gather her fists in bunches as she bobbled her head from side to side. Then she bellowed, “Cooca looka loo.” 

I glanced around to see if the noise bothered anyone else. A man in a pair of erratically patterned swim trunks sipped from a beer can and held his phone to his ear. Another family with two teenagers concentrated on their board game, red pool noodles on the ground under their table. A twenty-something tapped their foot to the pulse of their AirPods, oblivious.

A spray of water laced my toes, and I rubbed them with my towel. I reserved a Pueblo-style hotel, its adobe nestled between red rock and cacti. The scrub of a desert landscape dotted the gentle slope of the hillside. Chaises looped the pool area. Coral-colored umbrellas protected tourists from sunburn. The resort’s playscape, located just close enough that a lazy parent could say they kept an eye on their kids, teemed with children. A man smoked outside the fence. She would have loved it, my Vivi. The sky cleared slowly, and I took off my t-shirt to let the southwestern sunshine kiss the skin around my bathing suit. I felt a hint of calm for the first time since Vivi died. Three years is a long time to grieve.

I watched Liberty step closer to the water and balance along the edge. My stomach sank as she teetered and then, almost absentmindedly, righted herself. She bent, as if to dive, and stared at her reflection, her royal blue bathing suit stretched to its limit. She snapped the elastic away from her bottom. Her mother and grandmother raised their faces to the sun, and I wondered if they sensed peril as I did. Though I angled my chaise away from the three of them, they stayed in my periphery. That’s something Vivi would have done; she looked out for strangers. 

Liberty spoke with a lisp, a catch in her r’s. “Grandma, watch me spin. I’m a mermaid,” she giggled, and twirled on the cement. 

Her mother glanced over her sunglasses. “Don’t be silly, Liberty.”

Of all places to sit. Next to a family that looked and sounded like they belonged to Vivi. Or did I miss her enough to fabricate pieces of her in others? I shook my head and tried to focus on my book.

Another mind-numbing story by a popular author who churned the same book out each year, filled with romance and loss with a save at the end. Predictable. I needed something dependable to deaden the buzz of my mind. I read the first sentence twice and looked around again. A hawk drew a circle in the blue then dove to the earth with a swoop and a trill of his wings. A cadre of ants devoured a patch of sticky green around a discarded can of lime soda. Vivi would have reminded me to leave the army alone and not crush them with my flip-flop. If they stayed away from my tote bag, I’d let them live.

The girl approached so quietly it seemed as if she dropped from the sky. “Hey lady,” her fingertip a soft scratch against my skin.

I startled and pulled my arm away from her tap. “Hi.” I glanced at the mother, but her head lolled to one shoulder. 

Liberty pressed my arm again. “Lady,” she insisted. Her eyes held a curious look. A pair of plastic sunglasses hung from the neck of her bathing suit. Dirty, bubblegum-painted toes jutted under my chaise. She smelled of Coppertone. I wanted to touch her hair. Instead, I tucked my hands under my thighs. I needed quiet reflection on Vivi’s life while in the desert she dreamed about. An opportunity to say goodbye. It seemed the least I could do to honor her. 

As Liberty’s four-year-old face examined mine, Vivi’s image flashed before me again. It didn’t take much. Though my wife straightened her mop of curls then tucked the bulk of it into a tight knob at the base of her skull for work, the texture of the girl’s hair stirred me. And Vivi always had her toenails painted pink under her Crocs. 

The grandmother held out her hand. “Let’s swim,” she called to the girl. Liberty squealed and ran to her. The elder slid neon floats on each of Liberty’s arms and folded her close before they stepped into the water.

 

The horror of Vivi’s death brushed the edges of my mind like a gash that wouldn’t heal. She left me raw. When she drove straight into a cement barrier, the combination of speed and recklessness crushed her instantly. I suppose the weight of her prison job crushed Vivi, too. Tears sprang to my eyes again and I pressed my fingertips against my lids. I recalled the moment I received the news in slow motion as if it were not painful enough on fast forward. Though the details I retain seem nearly inconsequential, the simplicity of the words crushed me. What I remember is the ring of the doorbell and marinara sauce bubbling on the stove. The foyer held the smell of garlic and onions. 

I stopped at the mirror and ran my fingers through my short purple hair before I threw the door open. “Can I help you?” 

The buttons on his shirt gleamed and I read the name McIntyre or McIntosh on a brass nametag over the flap of his pocket. He folded his hands at his waist, elbow resting on the handle of his revolver. 

“May I come in?” He stepped into the foyer and cleared his throat to gentleness. “I have bad news. I’m sorry to tell you that Vivian was killed in a car accident this afternoon.”

A humble sentence that left a permanent hollow in my soul. Though I listened for more, I heard nothing particular about Vivi. Nothing about her last day, why she took that unusual route home, or if my name fell from her lips as she perished. He tried to catch me as I doubled over but I felt the smack of the tile as it bruised my knees. 

Left to scrape together the rest of my life, I remained surrounded by all the things that we shared. Her DNA hung heavy in our air. Our weighted blanket felt unbalanced without her under it, and the chess set that I refused to put away held her fingerprints on the white pawns. However, our loveseat no longer held her impression. Some things are resilient. 

I clung to what I could. I tucked a photo of us on a tandem bike into whatever book I was reading to use as a marker, and its tip extended from my current novel. The photo captured Vivi peering at the stranger who used my phone for the photo. We rode that bike along Lake Michigan from spring through fall and twice in the dead of winter to watch the ice form and froth before it melted. I am short and heavy and sit in the back, and she is, was, the opposite. Tall and lithe and arrestingly beautiful, she had the grace I lacked. But we always fit together like a wink and a smile. 

Witnesses said she drove straight into the concrete wall. The police measured the speed and angle of the car, discussed the absence of skid marks, and referred to the negative toxicology report. They called it an accident and suggested she may have fallen asleep. But, in the end, nothing in that report really mattered. Vivi, my Vivi, was gone.

She worked as a prison nurse but corrected me each time I said that aloud. She’d flip her curls over her shoulder and point her index finger. “I’m a correctional care nurse.” Though she rarely discussed her patients, I knew that many suffered from illness and violence. Each week, another soul with psychosis or an overdose threatened to overwhelm Vivi because she took on their pain. No one considers how nurses suffer from what they witness. She’d come home from work with half-moon nail marks on her arms where an inmate gripped her tightly with fear or loathing. In her last year, the job clearly weighed on her. 

“I think I’m getting what they call ‘correctional fatigue,’” she said when I asked her why she could not sleep. I heard her prowl through the nights or felt her toss in our bed. During the five years of our marriage, the sadness of her days slowly eroded her. I asked her to quit, but she said drinking wine helped enough.

“It’s time, Vivi,” I said. “This is too much.”

“I will, soon.” She smiled, the bow of her lips drawing her nostrils up. “The money, Lou, it’s great.” She tossed her keys on the sideboard. “And my patients need me.”

“We don’t need them. We don’t need any of it.” I reached to touch her cheek, but she turned away.

Maybe I didn’t understand her pain. Especially the pain that I caused.

 

Liberty sat at the bottom of her mother’s chaise, with her child-sized version of my wife’s face. I could not turn away.

“Ma Ma Ma!” she prattled. 

Her mother shushed her with a wave of her hand and Liberty grew quiet and traced her finger along her mother’s spine. She grabbed the hem of the yoga shirt and pulled with her teeth, but the mom did not notice. Liberty curled in a lump, and the singing resumed with its drone of consonants.

 

My last conversation with Vivi surged with tension. We sat on the loveseat, her head on my shoulder. It was the last time our bodies aligned. She wanted a child; she begged for one. 

I responded, “I don’t think we should.” 

She met my eyes. “I’m thirty-eight, it’s time.”

I heard the bluntness of my words. “It’s good that you feel it, but I don’t.” 

 “Come on, Lou, don’t overthink this,” she said. She wrapped her body around mine. “We’ll make great parents. The best.”

I am careful and calculate the odds to protect both of us. I knew I only had room for Vivi. 

“It’s not for me.” I rinsed the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, hoping the ring of the plates would temper her response.

Her voice rose an octave. “It’ll be an adventure,” she said. “We have a chance to create something of our own. Someone to take care of me when you’re gone.” She pulled me to a chair, put her hands on my thighs, and looked deep into my eyes. “You can do it.” She waited.

“Would it?” I asked. “I mean, be ours?”

Her eyes crinkled. “I have some ideas for donors.” 

I watched her careful gaze and noticed the way she caressed the words. Her manner and voice soothed my unsteadiness, but I reminded her of a fact. “I’m forty-five, I’m too old.”

Vivi’s tone shifted. “You’re young enough. What are you afraid of? And age is a variable we can control. After all, you wouldn’t carry the child.”

I pushed back. “Just because you want something, doesn’t mean you get it.” My voice slapped against the walls of our small kitchen.

She looked startled. “For Christ’s sake, Lou, you don’t know what you want,” she said. “Think of me.”

 “No, not this time, Vivi,” I said. “You don’t get to decide this.”

“You’ll see, once I get pregnant, you’ll be into it.” She nodded and held out her arms to me. 

I felt the ground under me shift, watching the way her copper eyes sparked with hope. “What if I can’t love a child?” I asked. “What if something happened to you, or them, and I couldn’t protect either of you?”

Her eyes infused with passion. “I have faith. In you.” 

I could tell she was blinded by want. She nodded again as if I agreed with her. “I’ll call the doctor in the morning. We have options. Good, solid ones.”

I put my hand up to stop her.

“Now is the time,” she said and pulled my hand toward her. 

I drew it back. “You don’t get to determine our future alone.” I blinked at my words, and she winced so tightly I felt her deep hurt.

 “I just want something to look forward to,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “We’ll build hope for the future.”

“It’s my decision, too.” I heard the note of warning in my tone. We stood close, the weight of the air holding us there.

“God dammit. I need this.” 

Her acid tone startled me, and I felt myself bend. “Vivi, I’ll think about it.” 

“You know, I can find someone who wants a child instead.” She closed her eyes, but not before I saw tears well. After eight years together, we knew the best ways to harm each other.

I didn’t want her to see my pain and turned away. “How could you?”

Grit traced her voice. “There’s one thing I want, and you turn your back.”

“Vivi, it is not a thing.” I rubbed my hands together. “It’s a human.”

Her voice trembled. “Lou, honey, it’s a baby.” 

I spun back to her. “I’ll give it some thought?”

“Sure you will.” She went to the bedroom and slammed the door. 

That night I considered the pros and cons of having a child as I heard the lullaby of her breaths. She did not spoon me that night and the coldness of our bed kept me restless. I tumbled the problem over and back and finally realized she meant more to me than my fears. If I had a baby with her, then I would learn to care for it, to protect it, and to, perhaps, love it. For her. Once I made my decision, I fell into a deep sleep.

She left before I woke, so I planned the day carefully. I made her favorite dinner, lemon chicken with fettuccine and homemade sauce. I picked up a baby onesie at the maternity boutique and folded it on Vivi’s dinner plate. It read I Love My Moms in minty letters on its front. The table, set with silver candlesticks and a fine bottle of cabernet, looked as good as any fancy restaurant; perfect. Until Officer Mc-Irish ruined it all. After he left, I threw the pot of sauce in the trash barrel and put the platter of chicken in the sink and hit it with the mallet. Pieces of white meat mixed with shattered bits of Fiestaware littered the black granite. I dipped the onesie in a dish of olive oil, then touched it to the gas burner, and tossed it into our stainless basin. I sobbed and watched our dreams die in that sink. 

The funeral, the burial, and the scores of Vivi’s friends and mine who came and went and donated to a prison charity in her name, guided me through the rituals they thought I must endure to heal. Her parents took most of her things. They said they’d donate her clothes to their church, but I suspected they stored them in her childhood room to preserve her. My sister didn’t show. When everyone went home to their own spouses, their own children, and their own lives, I became the forgotten victim. 

I thought back on our last conversation and how it felt like we were cut off in mid-sentence by the wall she drove into. If only she could have come to the desert with me. With our baby.

Vivi longed to see Arizona, to seek solace by meditating on the red rocks, but instead of taking her then, I promised that we would do it later. I never imagined that later would arrive without her. 

I tried to sleep, to shut out the noise at the pool, but the sudden command of the mother’s voice compelled me to pay attention. I watched the trio through nearly closed eyes.

“Liberty, go play.”

“Swim Ma Ma Ma, coochie?” The girl pulled on her mother’s arm. “Ma Ma Ma!”

“Liberty, I can’t get these pants wet, you know that.” She pulled the floats off Liberty’s arms and Liberty screeched as they scraped along her wet skin.

“Bathing suit?” Liberty begged. 

She touched the girl’s nose. “I told you, I forgot it. Draw a picture.

Liberty huffed and perched on the edge of the grandmother’s chaise, a fat crayon in her right fist, and crackers in her other hand. She swung her legs and chattered until I could listen no more. I closed my eyes again.

Vivi Vivi Vivi, I repeated her name as a silent mantra. I nodded lower and soon I slept, deep and hard, my jaw slack. I woke to a light touch on my forearm.

“Listen to me.” The girl’s whine nearly hurt.

She stood at my feet and touched the bottom of the chaise with two fingers, rubbing through the plastic threads, spreading them apart. 

“Whatchya doing?” 

I crooked my finger at my book. “I’m reading.”

“You’re sleeping,” she said. She stood firm.

“Maybe I was.”

“Swim with me,” she demanded.

“Oh.” I looked at her mother’s back and the grandmother’s front. 

The grandmother waved and called, “Liberty, come back here, don’t bother people.”

“It’s not a bother. I mean, she’s not a bother,” I answered, despite the truth.

“Swim.” The girl grasped my hand. I put my book down and followed her to the pool.

She held my fingers in a tight grip and examined my gold-mirrored glasses. It looked to me like the sun was quietly scorching her face. 

“Put your sunglasses on,” I implored, as her legs kicked at me under the water. 

She smiled a stubby-toothed grin and donned the glasses, then kicked her legs to go farther in. The tips of her hair dipped into the salt-water pool and pulled the curls limp. She reached up to touch the V necklace around my neck.

“Vee Vee,” she said, releasing it and propelling herself deeper.

“I think we should stay in the shallow end.” I looked to her family for support. “It’s safer.”

“Pffft,” she replied. I hoped the floats on her arms would keep her above the water.

“I want to take a break,” I told her. 

“Stay,” she said. “I want you to stay.” 

“Maybe later, we’ll come back,” I offered and led her up the stairs.

The mother turned and smiled at us. “Good girl,” she called. 

I wondered if she meant me or Liberty. 

Liberty settled next to her grandmother, and I picked up my book. Maybe relaxation would come. However, a sense of unease kept me alert. 

Liberty perched on the edge of her chair and nibbled a fistful of carrots as she swung her legs. Her whine, “Ma Ma Ma,” or “Cooca looka loo,” annoyed me so. Meeting her convinced me that Vivi miscalculated. I could not love a child. Her mother sat backwards on the lounger, leaned toward the grandmother, unbothered by the chatter, and thrust a juice box in Liberty’s direction. I watched them over my book and considered the repetition of their noses, the cheekbones, and the tilt of their shoulders. 

“Ma Ma Ma.” 

I leaned back and closed my eyes against the sounds of Liberty’s pleas. I repeated my mantra again as the sun dried my suit, but the fretful serenade underscored my reverie.

 

As I dipped in sleep, the whining came to a halt. Startled by the quiet, I listened for Liberty against my will. The gate opened and closed with a chink. Clicks and whirrs came from the pool filter. Traces of music came from the lobby, but I did not hear Liberty. I sighed and slit my eyes toward her family. Her mother looked away from the pool, the grandmother nodded her head to her chest. No Liberty. I scanned the preschooler heads around the perimeter. I found one in a speckled bathing suit across from me and another child on the playscape outside the fence but no Liberty. I felt a fullness in my throat when I did not see her, this child who rankled me, so I rose to my elbows and scanned the area once again. Craning my neck, I found her beyond the family with the red noodles. She sat at the shallow end of the pool, on the top step, and traced the water with one delicate hand.

She glanced at her mother’s back, then reached for her swim floats and tried to push them up her damp arms. “Ma Ma Ma” again, but the mother ignored her. Liberty stood and kicked the floaties under the chair. She sat again, her torso erect on the edge, shoulders back, with an air of defiance about her. 

It started like a ballet above the water. She dipped her arm in and watched the drops run to her suit when she reached over her head. She repeated the motion with both arms until it looked like she swam through the air. She kicked her feet and sang again, “Cooca looka loo.” I glanced at the women as they talked and gestured, focused on themselves and not at the girl on the edge of the pool. I sat up.

She slid her butt to the first step and shivered her shoulders as the water streamed across her belly, the blue of the suit stretched to a shine. She seemed content as she sat, sprinkling water over her arms, her feet dangling. Her sing-song babble stopped and a peaceful calm settled over the pool. I looked down at my book again and tried to focus on the words. As I read, I kept her in sight. 

A movement, slight, like the flit of a butterfly, stirred my attention. I bit my lip as she slipped to the next step. I inhaled and held that breath. One step and then she splashed a little more. I let my breath out. She popped down to the next. It seemed a mistake to slide down more, but she did not fight it. At the third step, up to her neck, I leaned toward her tiny figure. With a thrust, she glided like a swan toward me. Her gaze focused on something as she slipped across the water. Then she descended. Her eyes opened wide and bright as if she were transfixed. As she moved away from the steps, she grew smaller and there was only deeper water. Liberty stared at the surface of the water and moved her mouth around a bubble that seemed to come from her stomach. A slurry of smaller ones followed it and she tilted her head. Her hair lagged and spread behind her. She tried to speak, or yell, but the water swallowed her. I watched her sink, her eyes braced with fear, as bubbles spat from her nose. She floated her arms slowly up and down in the way that water allows, and I believed she could swim. But then the movement changed, her head froze, and she flexed her fists. She stopped in a sunbeam, and her eyes lit. She reached up and her mouth formed the words, “Vee Vee.” I stood.

I glared at her mother and her grandmother, but they did not turn. They let her go so easily. I rushed to the edge and took a breath to scream. Liberty’s mother suddenly glanced at me. Her eyes darted rapidly from side to side and then down. We both looked at the girl, cross-legged on the bottom of the pool, her hair drifting around her, an arc of pain over her twisted brow. 

We yelled in unison. “Liberty!” 

She jumped into the water as I dove, cutting my distance to the girl. I reached for her and skimmed her arms as her mother scooped her up, away from me, into the air. She cradled her close, embracing the teeny, heaving shoulders. Underwater still, I watched those yoga pants, slick against her skin, as she climbed from the pool. I stood and stared.

“Liberty, what were you thinking?” The mother’s ponytail fell loose from its tie as she ran her hand over Liberty’s face, checking each inch of skin, examining a strand of hair. She cupped the tiny chin as the girl coughed and gurgled.

“Trying to get to Ma.” She spewed water onto the cement. Her nose ran streams over her lips.

“Liberty, Mommy’s here. Mommy’s always here.”

Liberty sputtered on her mermaid towel and the mother cradled her close again. Her grandmother sang softly, “Cuchachooo chooo,” and Liberty smiled at her through bleary eyes. I stood helpless in the pool, watching them love each other.

The women braided the girl’s hair and fed her with pieces of a sandwich they pulled apart. One handed her orange goldfish in a plastic cup, another juice box, and a fidget spinner that Liberty twirled and clicked and twirled and clicked. The grandma patted her ample lap and Liberty climbed up and settled in like a cat. I watched her sleep, my book opened again, glad my sunglasses provided cover for the rush of emotion that coursed through me. 

I imagined Vivi’s whisper in my ear. “You nearly saved her.” She would have been proud of me. I wished I could have saved Vivi too but, suddenly, I knew, I must let her go.

A warm glow eased the lump of grief in my chest as I gathered my towel and slipped the tandem bike photo into my t-shirt pocket. I left the book on the chaise for someone else. I grabbed my tote bag, the one with the straw beach umbrella on it and cradled it. Reaching into its rough lining, I caressed the satin box inside. Vivi. Here you go, here we are.