Martin felt the hard pebbling of the concrete walkway leading to the pool
in his building, the hot sterility of it, under his feet
as he inched over to the sign in sheet, which was no more than a cheap notebook
with names, apartment numbers and dates in quickly fading ink. As usual, there were few people there, and even fewer girls
. The building his family lived in was overrun with elderly people, faded and freckled people with inky surgical scars and flesh around the ankles. When they came to the pool, they either donned the white swimming caps and red Rita Hayworth lipstick of their youth, painting
their smiles in pink, or simply drank in the shade of trees that would never let light in around the edges of the pool.
The sun set everything not bleached by chlorine or the constant scrubbing of the sun damaged and nimble Russian lifeguards into an irresistible brilliance, like a microscope, sharpening every interruption from blue and white to a sharp point. Already, sweat dribbled down Martin’s back, his stalky ribs pressing white against his skin. After laying his towel aside and diving in, he welcomed the rush of cool water flooding the sensation from outside in, nestling somewhere in his stomach. Under water, he could see the breeze moving ellipses on the surface, projected down, covering everything in a milk of bubbles and lines.
Martin liked varying the temperatures in his body, letting his skin tighten from the sun before going again to the crystalline basin of the pool. As he stretched along the teal-and-white striped lounge chairs and rested his chin on his knees, he blinked away stray strands of water and welcomed the heat again. Not quite knowing that his would soon be a man’s body, and therefore not burdened by too many erotic thoughts, Martin didn’t take notice at first at the woman laid down feet first, facing him, across the shortest corner of the pool’s tiles edge.
As his eyes adjusted from light bouncing off everything, the lifeguard, seated under her umbrella, slipping her over-tanned toes in and out of the water, the flutter of the sign in sheet, and the aquamarine glow of the water, he tried to make out the design of her bathing suit. He couldn’t see her face, just a body, shortened by perspective, long legs that, while taut and shiny, came to their apex in soft billows. Grass huts, he noted, something from a beach song involving grass skirts and drinks with little umbrellas in them. Palm trees and suns painted in cartoonish primary colors freckled her lower midsection and, he assumed, her bikini top, indiscernible from this angle. He looked over at the lifeguard, twirling her whistle, thinking he would be caught looking. Losing track of the evaporation, Martin swiveled his head and re-dampened the impression his chin had left on the back of his hand.
There was no noise, no shuddering from the girl, no sign of even her breathing, in the still window of his view. The chlorine drying white around the fine hairs on the back of his neck made no sound; he was a statue. In the narrow billow of the girl’s bikini bottom, Martin saw a small red blotch bubble up, then slowly spread to the edge of the left thigh. It reminded him of steeping a tea bag to stain paper, of the blood flowing out from a mother’s throat in the opening scenes of that Snow White remake, of even the surfacing of an image on photographic paper in the darkroom at school, turned over and over with rubber tipped tongs. Of something in the future he had not quite expected.
Martin quickly tilted his head down, staring blankly at the small, wrinkled elephant skin of his wrists, and all the questions swam in his head. What to do. What to say. How could I let on what I’ve seen. All at once, the heat in the area surged, landing like a wild clawing hawk at the back of his throat. Sweat again encircled the chlorine constellations on his skin, and he felt dizzy, almost heat struck, his blood curling through every vein.
He dared to raise his head, and saw in front of him what looked like a small and nimble thread, or worm, working its way out of the same material in the bathing suit, sitting up, the way a cobra would before it strikes. It looked straight at him with an unraveling head of white cord. When he rubbed his eyes, the tiny crystals of white from his fingers melted across his lids, blushing out the sight in a flare of mild pain. Looking again at the same area, he saw the negative print of straw thatched beach houses on everything he tried to stare at, he had been looking for so long. The worm was gone. He was relieved he’d imagined it, but startled how unthreatening such an idea seemed to him. The stain remained.
Martin had to clear his head, but the image, the growth of red, would not let go of him. He crouched by the edge of the pool, unable to see his reflection for the wind and ripples, and doused his head underneath. This time, he would face away from her. He would sleep.
I was on the beach, but it was like a cartoon. Everything around me was one sided, as if, when I looked behind a tree or hut, it would just be white paper on the other side. People were playing and laughing but running in place, the sand just a page of beige. The hula girls all had the same plastic smile, stopped mid-dance, and the ocean was still, with stiff waves like whipped cream.
Gulls in mid sweep screamed, and all along the beach, the paper people’s eyes opened wide, afraid. Behind the cardboard waves, a thing, like an oil slick, began to stain the waves and inch toward the shore in a dark, inky banner. All the tanned cabana boys with their paper cut off shorts went hopping away, to some safe and unknown place beyond where I could see. It bled into the beige and came for me.
I could feel it curling up around my feet, the way the ocean water would when the tide comes in. Soft, like syrup, and warm. With everything there being starched and bland, the fluid was like life coming to shore was something alive, and I welcomed it, even if it would kill me, because I had no idea what it would do.
I sat down and let it come to me. I thought of that scene in Creepshow II when that blobby thing starts eating up the kids who go swimming on the lake it lived on. It ate through them like acid. I thought of the Bodysnatchers. But, I figured, if it didn’t burn me now, it wouldn’t kill me. So I laid down in it, in this big rusty puddle, and felt it close over me. And I felt a strange sort of peace in drowning, in that instant, of not having to be alive….
Pinching his eyes awake, Martin pulled himself up, his chest showing red slashes of the beach chair pressed into his skin
. Rolling his tongue along his teeth, he felt the need for a drink, something cold and fizzy
, to float up into his head and wash
this image away, like the Alka-Seltzer tablets or the commercial with the talking teeth in a glass. On his way to the vending machine and eventually out the front gate to the hot hallway leading to the freight elevator, Martin never looked back at the girl again. He didn’t need to. He wouldn’t know that feeling of drowning, and the release of fear, for many more years to come