I was spending some time at my parents place that summer. I was thirty-eight and out of ideas. I had finished my midlife crisis graduate degree a bit early, and after turning in my thesis, I promptly fell into the utter despair that comes from completing a long, difficult, and entirely pointless project. I was deeply, profoundly in debt, ruined really, and had no idea what I would do next. Also, Id just been kicked out of the apartment in Soho where Id been living for several years when my landlady, a ninety-five-year-old artist, finally died. That crumbling little building was like the last ragged fort of Old Bohemia, sandwiched between Louis Vuitton and Victorias Secret. For decades my landlady had clung on, through Alzheimers and pneumonia and broken hips, while her relatives and accountant bided their time. When at last she went, only the South American woman who looked after her cried, and a month later the building sold for $12 million. My books and winter clothes went into storage with the dining room set Id won in my divorce settlement, and I moved across the bridge to New Jersey.
Immediately, I established a new regimen. I rose at eight, so that my parents wouldnt think I was a bum, and sat at my little desk, really a folding snack table in the guest room, doing the crossword puzzle until they left for work, when I sometimes took a quick nap. They never reproached me, but I wallowed in my failure and liked to imagine the looks on their faces if I got a job in their building buffing the floors. Then I went running. Then lunch. Then down to the pool.
The apartment complex (I wish there was a more graceful term for these minor high-rise city-states) actually had a very nice pool, small but almost empty on the weekdays, and set on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan Island. On a clear day you could see the individual cars traveling across the bridge and up and down the citys west side, like corpuscles in an IV drip. On a stormy day you could see the weather before it arrived.
That summer I swam, snoozed, and got my first tan ever. I tried to read, but my heart had turned against literature, which I blamed for much of my misfortune. Had I looked at Tolstoy or Stendhal, I think I would have hurled myself off the cliffs. On the other hand, I was afraid that opening a new book by a promising young writer might trigger a homicidal rampage. Would that I had never learned to read! The only safe choice was Simenons mystery novels about Inspector Maigret, which I consumed one after another, in measured doses, like lithium. Sometimes all you can stand to think about is a guy with a mustache solving a murder.
The only other weekday regulars at the pool were a few lizardy old-timers and this weird Russian family. At least, I thought they were Russian. The leader was an overweight guy with a toupee and a tiny Speedo swimsuit. It was a garish brown-red color, rust really (I mean the toupee here, not the Speedo, which was, get this, white). I kept waiting for it (the toupee) to come off when he swam, but it never did, so maybe it was real after all. It didnt look any faker than his mustache, which turned up at the ends like Poirots. (I read a few dozen of those Agatha Christie books that summer too.)
The woman (his wife? his daughter?) was blond and stocky, and when I sat submerged in the Jacuzzi, bubbles rumbling around my nose, and she lowered herself in across from me, I saw how her thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair. The marks looked like welts, like someone had whipped her, and even though I knew it was only from sitting and reading Us magazine, I instantly felt something sorrowful and wounded about her, like there was always smoke in her eyes, smoke only she could smell, or else she was allergic to something that was there around us but that I was too crude to sense.
Then there was the kid. He was five or six maybe. A real whiner. He was blond and wan, and no matter what he was doing — floating in the mans arms and practice-kicking, jumping into the pool, eating a cookie — he screeched incessantly in this high, petulant squeal that set my teeth on edge. I shouldnt say this, because Im sure I was a kid like that too, but I couldnt stand the little crybaby.
But the thing I wanted to say, the significant thing, was about the guys boobs. Yes, they were hairy. However, that isnt the key issue. What I really wanted to mention was that one of them was bigger than the other. I think the left. And I mean dramatically bigger, like several cup sizes. I didnt even notice it at first, he had so much else going on, but one afternoon I just happened to lift my gaze from Maigret Sets a Trap, and there he was, rising from the pool, mustache drooping, water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank, and I saw it, one flat male breast and one pendulous female breast. It was as if something womanly, long buried, was fighting to burst forth, as if the man was riven in two. Although I knew he couldnt see me behind my shades, I felt like he was staring right at me, with a plaintive face, and deliberately showing me his burden and his wound. What could cause such a thing? Cancer? Cholesterol? Love? (Love in the Time of Cholesterol?) The mad thought occurred to me that it might start throbbing wildly, like a cartoon creature in raptures. Teetering on the verge of a freak-out, I quickly looked away.
The other people who were always there were the lifeguards, mainly local teenagers. There were usually two on duty at a time, one sitting in that high chair over the water and one checking for passes as you came in. It had been a very long time since Id swum in a supervised pool like that, maybe since I was a kid myself, and the change in perspective was dramatic. Before Id been intimidated, especially by the girl lifeguards: Not only did their sleek bodies, summer-streaked hair, and impossibly tan, impossibly smooth legs disturb me, but they also swam better than me, obviously, and by virtue of that seemed more adult, as if they had been promoted to Woman while I was still a little boy who might get water in his eyes and need to be yanked out, bawling.
Now of course I was old enough to be their father, and for the most part they treated me as such, punching my pass with a thank-you, informing me politely if the pool was about to close. When I said good morning to a burly blond lifeguard with a nest of big back zits (bacne, we called it in my day), and he looked down to avoid my gaze, it suddenly hit me, maybe for the first time: Im an adult now, and he is the one intimidated by me.
Except for Lisa. Of course, I didnt know her name at first. Remember, they sat up top and the sun was always in my eyes. She was just a slim silhouette, with long dark hair, a life-savers red one-piece, and one of those macramé things braided around her ankle. But this day was extra hot, and every few pages, Id jump into the water to cool off. I was the only one swimming, and I realized after a couple of turns that, due no doubt to some insurance rule, each time I got in the pool, she had to put down her book, leave her shade and soda, and climb up the ladder to her post.
“Thats OK,” I shouted as she sprang from her chair. “Relax.”
“No, thats OK,” she said. “Its my job.”
I dove in, wriggling along the bottom like a tadpole, and popped up at the other end. “Look,” I said, “I think its safe, -really,” and showed her how the water only came up to my eyes, although I cheated a bit, pushing onto my toes at the deep end. “If I start drowning, just yell, ‘Stand up, you idiot!”
A girlish laugh rang out from the haze of sun I was talking to. “No way. Its my sacred duty to protect you.”
“Hey,” I asked, “do you think if you had to, you could really lift me out of the pool? Youre kind of little. Dont they have some kind of height requirement?”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Try it and see.”
“OK,” I said, hoisting myself onto the concrete. Water ran down my legs and puddled around my feet. I waved a finger in challenge. “Be on your guard. When you least expect it, expect it.”
I lay back down in my chair, and from the safety of my sunglasses and book, I looked her over more closely. She wasnt -really short at all. In fact, her legs were long and slender, and they kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun. She wore a too-big hooded gray sweatshirt, and the bathing suit cut high above her jutting hip bone. And her ass, when she climbed down from her throne and sprawled on her belly to read, was just perfect.