A Lifeguard's Tale

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A summertime affair with a married woman.
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When I was eighteen, I got a job as a lifeguard at Cherry Park Apartments, a new housing development just outside Chicago. These days pools and recreation centers are dirt-common in suburban developments, but back then the concept was new and a bit daring, smacking of sybaritic luxury. This was some time ago, and things were a lot different than they are now. A lot different. The Beatles had just arrived, the Pill had just been introduced, and I'd just finished high school and was looking forward to going away to college in the fall. It was the mid-sixties and the very start of the era in which everything changed. It was a great summer to be 18, and there was probably no better job I could have had than lifeguarding at a private pool.

I never would have gotten the job if it hadn't been for Barry Bortnik, a guy I knew from high school swim team. We'd taken the Red Cross lifeguard certification program together, and we'd become friends of a sort, though Barry wasn't really the kind of guy I usually hung around with. He was an indifferent student and kind of small for his age, not that fast in the water and pretty unremarkable generally, but he got by pretty well on his nerve and brashness and tenacity, traits that gave him a reputation as something of a small-time hustler and bullshitter, always with an angle.

Bullshitter or not, Barry managed to talk his way into the job of head guard and pool maintenance manager at the newly-opened Cherry Park Apartments, and I thought that was pretty impressive. I found out later that some family business connections were involved, but however it happened, Barry was head guard and could hire and fire people, and when he called me and offered me a job as a guard, I jumped at it. It would be a hell of a lot better than spending my last summer before college bagging groceries and herding shopping carts at the local Jewel.

He drove me out to cherry Park one unusually hot and brilliant day in early June to show me around, and I was suitably impressed. Cherry Park sat in the middle of what was basically prairie, but prairie that was being rapidly developed with buildings and strip malls and the like. People had been leaving the cities for the burbs since the '50's, but this was all second-generation stuff out here, the beginning of suburban sprawl.

The apartments at Cherry Park were actually little townhouses, eight or twelve to a building, eight buildings altogether. Each townhouse had its own patio and balcony, sliding glass doors, central air, and all the buildings clustered around the pool and recreation center. They'd sold out fast, and when he drove me out there, we could see families moving into the last available units. They were young couples, mostly, just starting out, so there weren't a lot of kids. Barry drove directly to the pool, past landscaping so new that some of the trees still had nursery tags on them, and parked in a lot whose tarmac was so fresh that it still smelled like tar.

We entered the pool through the rec center, which was a big empty unfinished space at the time and would stay unfinished the whole summer I was there, with nothing but a single forlorn ping pong table standing in one corner. The AC hadn't been hooked up yet and the floor-to-ceiling windows were covered with brown construction paper, so it was hot in there, like a greenhouse, or maybe a brownhouse.

We passed through the freshly-tiled men's locker rooms and showers, and then into the guard room, which was to be the lifeguards' hang out and pool headquarters, and then stepped out onto the deck of the pool and looked out into the blazing sunlight. The pool was good-sized and shaped like a T, the long top made for lap-swimming with a max depth of 5'6", and the smaller stem serving as the deep-water diving area, with a high and a low board. The water was so blue it looked radioactive.

I shielded my eyes with my hand as I checked it out, but the pool wasn't really as interesting as the people out on the deck. They were all women, lying in the sun in their bathing suits; oiled, glistening, some with straps down, most of them already pretty tanned, and not a man among them.

Barry'd told me the pool wouldn't officially open until they'd passed a sanitation inspection at the end of the week, so I'd just assumed there'd be no one there yet. It never occurred to me that people would just come out for the sun, but there were maybe fifteen or twenty women out there, baking on lounges and recliners, leafing through magazines, chatting or dozing or sipping from plastic cups. They wore shorts, halter tops, a couple were in tennis outfits (there were courts nearby too), and of course bathing suits, both one- and two-piece.

They lounged around casually, comfortably, and they obviously felt right at home here. Apparently the pool had already become the social center for Cherry Park's housewives and female residents even before it had officially opened. The men were all at work, of course, which was the norm in those days, and so the place had the feel of a serraglio, the special place where a harem was kept. There was that unmistakable ambiance of a group of idle women without men. It surprised me.

Up to that point I'd never really thought about who we'd be guarding. I'd just assumed it would be a bunch of middle-aged suburbanites and their kids, and maybe, if we were lucky, a few girls our age. I was a city boy, and that's who I thought lived in the suburbs--middle-aged people.

But these were attractive women for the most part, ranging in age from maybe not much older than I was to mid- or upper-thirties, and there was something about the way they acted, some easy indolence or sense of luxury that gave the place a country-club air. The residents of Cherry Park Apartments weren't especially wealthy. In fact, as I said, most of them were young and newly married and just starting out, but I suppose the uniqueness of having their own pool gave them a special feeling of privilege and status. I could feel it in the way they moved and displayed themselves. I wasn't expecting it, and I tried to look professional and nonchalant as I checked out the pool, while behind my sunglasses my eyes kept returning to those glistening, oily bodies.

I suppose I should say something here about who I was and where I was in my own personal development, since it's kind of relevant to the story. I was 18 and had just finished high school, looking forward to going away to college in the fall. I was a big kid and not bad looking, but I was kind of shy and studious, almost the opposite of Barry's frenetic personality. I'd been laid, I believe, three or four times by then (remember, this was the early '60's, before all the wildness started) and I'd liked it very much and hoped to do a lot more of it. But I still looked at the world in terms of kids and grown-ups, and I had no doubt as to which one I was.

These women at the pool, on the other hand, were adults by my definition. They were married, had husbands, had homes and cars and the responsibilities, and some of them even had kids. Their lives were already well underway while mine was yet to begin. So to my mind, we lived in two separate worlds, and in a lot of ways I thought of the women at the pool as having more in common with my parents and teachers than with me and the kind of people I considered my peers. I could admire their bodies and the skin they displayed, but we played in two different leagues, lived in two different worlds.

So I was a little surprised when a couple of the women called out to Barry and teased him about going swimming with them or rubbing oil on their backs, and he kidded right back, addressing them by name: Mrs. Schechtman, Mrs. Burnett, Mrs. Gross, a few by their first names. There was obviously a lot of teasing and socializing going on here, and Barry was in his element.

"This is Jack Zimmer," he said, drawing me forward. "He's a good friend of mine, and he's going to be another guard here."

He caught me by surprise, so I waved weakly and smiled. A few women smiled back, and a couple made some jokes about what it must be like being a friend of Barry's, but most of them were soaking up the sun or chatting and didn't pay much attention.

There was one woman, though, who from this distance looked hardly older than me, cooling herself off under one of the rinse showers everyone was supposed to use before they went in the water, standing with her head back as she let the water run through her hair. She already had a tan, which made the shocking pink two-piece she wore seem to glow against her skin, and she was totally absorbed in what cooling off under the shower. She paid us no mind.

I'd later find out that this was Shelly Greenberg, wife of Steve Greenberg, and that she was 33 years old and had two kids, Matt and Michelle, aged 8 and 5, but that was still in the future.

Barry walked me over and introduced me to Tom Goelz, the guard on the perch, who'd also been in the Red Cross certification program with us. As we chatted, one of the women stood up and walked over to the pool and waded in, thigh deep.

"If the pool's not open yet," I asked Barry, "How come you need guards?"

"To make sure no one goes in the water."

I gestured towards the woman and he dismissed it with a glance. "She's not really swimming is she, so it's okay. We've got to cut these people some slack. They pay our salaries, right?"

He took me over to meet a kid in dark glasses who was collecting towels.

"This is Richard," Barry said. "Richard, meet Jack, a new guard. Richard's our pool maintenance guy."

Richard had the look of misfortune about him, maybe because he kept on wiping away tears from beneath his very big, heavy, sunglasses with a balled up tissue he kept in his hand as he worked. He had a shock of curly black hair and slack, very wet lips. I could tell right away there was something wrong with him.

"I was supposed to be a guard too but I had an accident." He said. "Got chlorine in my eyes and fucked them up."

"Oh wow," I said. "Sorry to hear that. You going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Just have to wear these stupid glasses all summer, and my eyes and nose run all the time, but they tell me that'll stop."

Barry let him say his piece, then took my arm and led me away.

"Wow," I said, "What happened to him?"

"Richard the retard? The only reason he got hired is because he's Marty Bowles' nephew, the guy who manages the Park. Richard was trying to score brownie points by changing the chlorinator tank one morning totally on his own. Didn't know what the fuck he was doing. The plastic feed tube from the tank was clogged, so what does he do? He pokes it with a wire, then blows down it, then puts it to his eye to see what the problem is, just like Moe in the Three Stooges. Of course he gets sprayed in the face with chlorine solution."

"Holy shit!"

"Yeah. It's a good thing there was a landscape crew nearby. They got him to the hospital in time to flush him out and save his eyes. But guarding was out, so his uncle made up a job for him as a kind of pool boy. He takes care of the filters and cleans up and stuff."

"Wow. That's rough."

Barry shrugged. "Yeah, I suppose. On the other hand, it saves us from having to test the kiddy pool for pee and clean the johns and do all that other crap. We get the glamour part."

"What glamour part?"

Barry took off his sunglasses, folded them up and hung them from the neck of his tee shirt. It was the first time I'd ever seen anyone do that, and I thought it was pretty slick.

He was about to say something when a woman seemed to come from nowhere, took a running start and jumped into the pool right in front of us, tucking her legs and arms in in a classic cannonball as she hit the water. The big splash missed us and splattered on the deck, but enough spray hit us to get us wet and make Barry swear.

The face that appeared above the water a second later was that of an attractive woman, mid-thirties maybe, in full make up, smiling wickedly as she shook the water from her dark hair and spit a stream of water at Barry.

"God damn it, Nina!" Barry shouted. "The pool's still closed! You know that. Now get out of there!"

The woman looked at me, treading water. "Isn't he cute when he gets mad?"

"I'm serious! Get out of there now or I'll suspend your privileges!"

She faked a sad face. "Oh no! Not my privileges! I'll get right out, lifeguard sir, right now!"

She turned and swam for the far side in a leisurely breast stroke, using a slow scissors kick that spread her legs wide before she snapped them together. Barry's anger, I saw, was all show. He was smiling as he watched her swim away and climb the ladder out of the pool, then stand there posing for him as she combed the water from her short hair.

He never answered me about the glamour part, but I understood what he meant. Of course I took the job.

And it was a pretty glamorous job. Or, if not exactly glamorous, eminently enjoyable. There were actually two pools. Cherry Park had an annex about a mile away, a separate four-building complex that was slightly downscale from the main complex (apartments rather than townhouses), and they had their own, smaller pool and Barry oversaw them both. There were ten guards, three of them girls, but the girls were all in college and not much interested in hanging around with us high-schoolers, so Barry relegated them to the smaller pool.

The work was shamefully simple. We worked three guards to a shift, two on the pool -- one on the raised perch near the diving boards and one in a chair by the shallow end --and one in the guard house handing out towels and ice and making change for the coke machine, but mostly reading or listening to the radio. Every half-hour or so we switched so we all got some shade time. Even so I got dark as sin sitting out in the summer sun. Most of what we did was yell at the kids for running on the deck or being in street shoes, or for bringing glass containers out on the deck or swimming into the diving area. We also gave swimming lessons to some of the kids in the morning free of charge. It helped break up the boredom.

We were a lot more lenient with the adults. In fact, Marty Bowles had instructed us to be, the idea being that it was their pool and we worked for them, and he wanted to keep them happy. During the day it was all women, so over time we got to know some of them pretty well and they got to know us, and sometimes they would bring us things -- lemonade, soda, cookies -- and sometimes we'd even babysit their kids for a short time while they ran home to take a roast out of the oven or fire up the grill. We each seemed to have our favorites

About 4 or 4:30 the pool would start to empty out as the women went home to greet their husbands. You could smell barbecues being lit and steaks grilling, and for the next few hours the pool would be quiet, a chance for us to straighten up the chairs and collect towels, skim the pool and hose down the deck. Then around 6:30 or 7 the adult crowd would appear, and things were different.

The adults came out to play, and we were told to let them, as long as it didn't get too far out of hand. The pool had a 'strict' no-alcohol policy which was routinely (and even blatantly) ignored at night, and though the pool was supposed to close at 9 PM, if some residents wanted to keep it open later, all they had to do was pay the guards' overtime and give Marty a call, and he almost always okayed it. So staying open till eleven, twelve, even one AM wasn't unusual, and the partiers, invariably drunk by that time, always tipped us lavishly. We loved working late night parties, and there were a lot of them.

~ ~ ~

It was during one of these dinnertime lulls toward the end of August while Barry and I were cleaning up the pool that I happened to mention, "You know, this job would be perfect if we only had some girls our own age around. That's the only thing we're missing."

I was skimming the pool, using a long-handled net to scoop leaves and other debris from the water. It was a job I particularly liked, especially at this time of day when the shadows lengthened and the pool was deserted so the water became smooth as glass. Barry was hosing down the deck with the high-pressure nozzle, and Ray Krantz, the other guard, had gone out to the new Burger King to get us dinner.

Barry finished hosing down a section of deck and then looked at me, and I couldn't really tell if he was smiling at me or squinting at the sun. Despite his brashness, he'd always looked younger than most of the guards and the least athletic, and he'd started smoking these cheap little cigars with built-in wooden holders to give himself an air of authority. He really didn't smoke them. He just clamped the wooden holder in his teeth and chewed on it all day. He was chewing on one now.

He looked like he was going to say something, then apparently changed his mind and went back to washing the deck for a bit. Then he stopped and looked at me. "What do you mean by 'our own age', Jack? Like high school girls? Or older? Like eighteen? Nineteen?"

I shrugged and made a non-committal face, because I thought he was going to bring up the female guards, who were only a couple of years older than us but who pretty much kept to themselves. Their college experience had apparently given them a level of sophistication we couldn't hope to understand, and besides, they all had boyfriends with cars.

"What about twenty-one?" he asked. "Or twenty-five? Is that still our age? What about thirty, or even thirty-five?"

I honestly didn't know what he was getting at and went back to skimming. He watched me for a while, then started hosing down the deck again, washing dirt and debris into the grass at the base of the cyclone fence that surrounded the pool.

"You've really got to broaden your horizons a bit, Jackie," he said. "We're not in high school anymore you know, and age is just a number. It really doesn't mean shit. Mrs. Allenberg , how old you think she is? She's twenty-two, not that much older than us. And Mrs. Grossman, Sandy Weiss, Shelly Greenberg? Are you telling me you wouldn't do them?"

I looked at him in something like shock. I knew all these women and they were all very good-looking. On slow days we sometimes talked about who we'd sleep with or what we imagined their sex lives were like, but that was pretty much teen-aged bravado. They were all married women--adults in my way of thinking--with husbands, homes, responsibilities, some even with kids. While I could certainly admire their bodies and the skin they showed, I'd never really taken the idea of sex with them seriously. Maybe I'd used one or two of them for masturbation fodder when I was home in bed, but that was just fantasy, like the girls in Playboy. To my way of thinking, we lived in two separate worlds-- adults and kids--and there really couldn't be any crossover, at least, not in that sense. I mean, they were married, and married women didn't screw around except in Alfred Hitchcock movies. There was something vaguely incestuous about it.

He sprayed a bit more then stopped and started dragging the hose back towards me.

"And I'll tell you something. These women are alone all day with nothing to do. Nothing to do but watch TV and come out here to the pool and then wait for the old man to get home and hope he's in the mood. And for some of them, that's not even an option. A lot of these guys travel. They're on the road most of the week."

"Well, some of them have kids," I said.

"Yeah, right. Like women with kids don't need to get laid?"

What he said about the husbands was true. We'd get a few hubbies out at the pool after dinner, but for the most part, you only really saw a lot of men there on the weekends. During the days it was all women.