There is a framed, color photograph resting on one of the built-in shelves in the living room of my 5th floor apartment. Everyone who visits me here in downtown Baltimore pauses to pick it up and look.
There are nine bare-chested guys in the photo, all in their late teens or early 20s, standing beside each other, outstretched arms over arms, on a bright sunny beach, their backs to the Atlantic surf. They are all thick, hard-muscled and deeply tanned. And all wearing identical fire-engine red swim trunks with the words "Kill Devil Hills Lifeguard Service" emblazoned on the right leg.
There's a tenth guy on the very end, one who doesn't fit in. It's the same lifeguard trunks, but he's thin, lanky with unkempt hair and leftover boyhood freckles. Physically, he's not quite grown yet. Not filled out. Even in the still-photo, you can see an awkwardness. That boy would be me.
Don't misunderstand, I was a good lifeguard. I can still swim with the best of them, and that summer -- five years ago -- I pulled two people from killer rip currents and plucked a half dozen frantically struggling kids out of the water after they had disappeared below the surface, unnoticed by distracted parents.
It's just that I didn't fit the part. And though the photo is embarrassing even still to look at, I obsessively pick it up and wonder if the image of that gawky teenage boy is what Mrs. Adderson saw that summer.
* * *
"Hello. Are you the one I see about renting a chair and an umbrella for the day?"
Those were her first words to me. I looked down at her from atop the 14-foot wooden lifeguard stand where I sat facing the ocean, in a chair with my binoculars, towel, two-way radio, suntan lotion and a rescue float at hand.
She was correct. I was the one to see. All of the lifeguards in the towns on the Outer Banks islands off the east coast oversee the heavy wooden chairs and cumbersome umbrellas that people rent.
So I climbed down and, after handing me $15 for the day, she headed to the end set of chairs to my left.
She was middle-aged, brunette and alone. That's about all that stuck with me. After all, it was still early morning, and in another hour the crowds would start trekking down from The Viking Hotel, the 15-story high-rise behind me, and with them would be dozens of frisky teenage girls to flirt with, most of them wearing barely-there bikinis. They had such beautiful asses, and a few were beginning to suntan topless. Some of them would spend evenings cruising the beach bars, honing in on lifeguards especially. Surely, at some point I would get lucky.
I'm laughing at my words. Unlike the other lifeguards that summer, I had a poor track record with girls on the beach. Jennifer had taken a liking to me, but was just 17 and on a short leash from her parents. Their week at the beach ended with nothing more than a goodbye wave from her.
In truth, I'd only had sex with two girls, both back at Syracuse during that freshman year. One girl, wobbly-legged drunk, pulled me onto her bed in her dorm. The other, devastated by a bad breakup, turned to me for solace one Saturday night. I doubt either remember my name. Is it enough to say that each experience took only a few moments at the most? All I ever really wanted was to finish school, get a good job and find a nice, normal girl to settle down with and have lots of sex. I mean lots. In the meantime, I would pursue the girls on the beach.
All those aspirations began to change later that morning when, sitting on the lifeguard tower, I looked to my left and saw the middle-aged woman walking slowly from her chair to the water's edge, a hundred feet away from her. For me, it was just curiosity at first. She was tall, delicately slender, had endless legs and wore a basic black, modest one-piece, offset by alabaster skin. She did not belong in the sun, even at this morning hour.
As she splashed her feet around at the water's edge, I picked up my binoculars for a closer look, noticing her hair, light brown with streaks of gray, a wrinkle or two on her face, a few age spots around. I guessed maybe she was in her early 50s. Nonetheless, I kept watching her close up, invading her privacy, a completely voyeuristic act on my part.
She turned toward me, bent over to pick a small shell out of the water and one of the straps slipped from her shoulder, part of the suit falling with it, bringing much of her left breast into view. I even caught a glimpse of her brown nipple. Calmly, she pulled the strap back up, stood up and looked directly at me looking at her -- with my binoculars, no less. I was caught, and embarrassed. And she knew it.
It was the walk back to her chair that did it for me. I could see now that she was attractive, though not beautiful, and looked her age. But her walk was slow, at a measured pace, confident. This was a woman comfortable in her own skin, totally in charge of herself, and not unnerved that I was spying on her. I figured an accountant, or an attorney, maybe a CEO. I could just sense that she was smarter than the rest of us, and with every movement she became more and more attractive. For some reason, I couldn't take my eyes off of her. I was captivated.
Part of my problem with girls, aside from my dorky looks, was a basic shyness. Which makes it all the more remarkable, even now, to realize that I promptly climbed down from my lifeguard stand and walked as nonchalantly as possible over to her.
"These rays are murderous on fair skin, ma'am. You have enough sunscreen?"
"Thank-you, yes." she said from her chair, without even a smile. "But I'll keep putting on more, especially since I can't seem to keep my suit from falling off of me." She was looking dead-on into my eyes. She wasn't laughing.
Now my awkwardness and paralyzing shyness began catching up to me. About ready to retreat, I thankfully noticed the paperback she was holding: It was a copy of "Henry and June."
Finally, all those years of reading alone and frustrated in my bedroom just might pay off. You see, I had read "Henry and June," when all the other guys were playing soccer or, more likely, taking the panties off girls in the back seats of their cars. I knew the likes of Anais Nin, a now largely forgotten writer from the 1930s and '40s who consistently wrote not just about sex, but hot, hot sex. "White heat" she called it.
"You like Anais Nin?" I asked, incredulously, as if only perverts like myself would be caught reading her, especially in public.
"You're familiar with her, then?" she replied.
I told her I spent a lot of time reading Nin, including the endless personal journals about her numerous affairs, one of which was published as "Henry and June."
So where are you in the book? I asked, simply because I could think of nothing else quickly enough.
She looked down to the page and began reading aloud:
"Beautiful women and handsome men arouse fierce desires in me. I want to dance. I want to know perverse people, to be intimate with them. I never look at naive faces. I want to bite into life, and to be torn by it."
"And, of course," I responded, "You know this is the same woman who also once said, 'I have no brakes on.' "
And with that, Mrs. Anna Adderson smiled at me, an actual smile, mind you. She extended her hand and introduced herself. "I am Henry," I responded, asking how long she would be at the beach and if she was staying at The Viking.
"I'm here for the week, but I've rented the little cottage beside the hotel," she said, turning around and pointing to a small, older house with a screened-in back deck, much like hundreds of other 1950's-style cottages that still lined the beach, between the big hotels.
As she turned around in her chair to point it out, I began to notice that her modest black swimsuit -- made of nylon, I guess -- was abnormally thin, some kind of designer suit, I suppose, which clinged to her every curve, affording me a perfect outline of her breasts with her nipples pushing through the fabric. I could even see impressions from her puffy areolas. Her breasts were small, but absolutely perfect for her figure. And the suit showed the flawless curve of her hips.
As she turned, her legs parted, the slit of her pussy clearly outlined and the slightly swollen lips pushing out against the wet fabric. I can still today taste the fierce desire it aroused in me. You may ask yourself if you can taste desire. I could, at least on that day. I knew then I wanted her. I was all of 18 years old.
And so we became beach friends, sort of. She rented the chair for the rest of the week and said hello each morning. Once or twice during the day, I would invent some reason to chat her up for a few minutes, mostly about the beach. I'd point out the sandpipers and skimmers. She, in turn, would walk over to my lifeguard tower where we would somehow get onto some odd topics: South American travel, noir films, little-known authors, and champagne, which was her favorite drink. And she liked to talk about Anais Nin. That was good. I could keep up. Even her voice aroused me -- low and soft, choosing her words as carefully as she seemed to choose each footstep she took. I hung onto every word, every syllable, she spoke.
The younger women and teenage girls on the beach began to fade from my thoughts, even the two gorgeous young blondes sunbathing topless each day just a few yards in front of my tower. They looked nothing alike, but I dubbed them the "twins" because each had breasts exactly like the other. Even their nipples matched. How odd. It didn't matter. My erections, which seemed to occur incessantly in the hottest part of the day, were for Mrs. Adderson now.
Just before lunchtime Wednesday, after climbing down from the tower, the "twins" came up and, standing no more than two feet in front of me, proceeded to ask which were the hottest bars after sundown, the ones they should head to. I knew they were playing with me, standing so close. They had no interest in me, just wanted to tease me, fluster me as their tits lightly swung from side to side while walking toward me. I played the ever-professional lifeguard who's used to seeing half-naked women. I refused to let them catch me glancing at their tits -- though they were indeed fabulous.
"Perks of the job, I guess?" asked Mrs. Adderson as she walked up just as the "twins" headed back to the hotel, now bored with me.
"They were just looking for information," I said.
"I think they were hitting on you, Henry," she said, with a slight smile.
"No, I'm definitely not their type."
"But are they your type?" she came back.
"Maybe once, not now."
"And what are you looking for now?"
"I'm not sure."
"Maybe something different?" she asked.
"You and I seem to have the oddest conversations, Mrs. Adderson. Why is that?" I asked.
"Kindred spirits, maybe," she said as she walked away.
Could I ask her out? She was 50, maybe older. She was sophisticated, graceful, possibly rich, and the first woman I'd ever talked to who -- in my mind at least -- was truly "seductive." I now knew what the word really meant. But I had no illusions about my own awkwardness, immaturity and goofy looks. And what if she rejected me, laughed at me for even asking? There would be no way to face her again. I was frozen, too terrified to act.
Maybe it was providence that stepped in. On Thursday, as her week's vacation drew near its end, I was on my tower in the late morning with my eye on a girl -- she looked to be about 10 -- who was out too deep in the water, no parents around. Sure enough, she went under, came up, screamed and sank again. I bolted off the tower, gave three quick whistle blasts to let the lifeguards on my flank know there was trouble, and raced into the waves, with them running down the beach to catch up.
My eyes were glued to the spot where she had disappeared. When I reached it, I dove under, couldn't find her, dove again and finally felt a hand touch my outstretched arm. A stroke of luck. I brought her to the surface, pulled her ashore and carried her to my tower, helped by the other lifeguards. A crowd formed, the rescue squad arrived, but the girl was okay, though a bit terrified until her mom showed up.
The rest of the day was busy but uneventful. Mrs. Adderson didn't talk to me. She lounged in her chair under her umbrella, other than to take a dip in the water every hour or so, with me again watching through binoculars and her knowing exactly what I was doing. I think it was beginning to amuse her.
As usual, by 4:30 the beach was about empty, everyone now back at their rooms to take showers and be ready to hit the bars and restaurants after sunset. Mrs. Adderson had left too. After I packed away the chairs and umbrellas, I walked down to the water's edge -- I did this at the end of every day -- just to watch the surf and to feel the breeze on my face, without having to keep my eye on swimmers. Fishing boats this time of day were often chugging their way back to the docks at Wanchese, not too far south of our beach.
As I stood, arms folded on my chest, I felt the heat of a human body standing beside me, just inches from my arm. It was Mrs. Adderson. She smiled, said nothing, and joined me in just watching the tide start to come in, a little closer with each foamy wave. Our feet began to get wet.
"You've had quite a day," she said finally, above the roar of the incoming waves.
"Thursdays are always busy, thousands of people on the beach," I answered.
"No. I mean saving that little girl. I saw you moving faster than I've seen anyone run. That was amazing. She owes her life to you."
I shrugged, sort of like quarterbacks used to do when asked about the game-winning pass they just threw to beat Notre Dame. An "it-was-nothing" attitude in my gesture, but I said nothing more.
"I thought you deserved something, so I got you this," she said, handing me a bottle of true French champagne. She reminded me that it was her drink of choice. This, I guess, was my reward. I was both flattered and embarrassed.
"Take it and drink it all in a single night of revelry with some girlfriend," she said.
"I don't have a girlfriend."
Then silence, only the noise of the waves and the east wind brushing past our faces as I read the bottle's label. I hated these awkward, quiet moments with her that so often followed my comments.
"Would you consider drinking it with me?" I asked.
* * *
"Tell me something about yourself, that no one knows," she said.
We were sitting on her screened-in deck facing the ocean. A small round table was between us with the now-opened champagne bottle being passed back and forth. We were on our third glass. Actually, we were drinking out of clear plastic cups.
She was asking nothing less than for me to open my soul, to reach down for my most guarded list of secrets withheld from everyone. What did she want me to do, tell her that I masturbate in the shower? Who was this woman? I wasn't clever enough for a quick retort.
"Too hard, huh," she replied, not looking at me, instead gazing out at the ocean, her right foot raised up, resting on the arm of the empty, third chair at our table. That put her exquisite long leg, and especially her ivory thigh, above the table top. There's something about a woman's thighs, especially when her legs are open, that just does it for me.
I wish I could say I was bone-hard and ready to rip off her swimsuit. Instead, I felt a weakness in my gut, and was shivering from nervousness. Seriously.
"Ok, then tell me about some fantasy you've had," she said.
"You really like to get to the heart of things, don't you," I managed somehow.
"Would you rather me ask about your family or the weather?" she questioned. "Do you own a dog? We could talk about your dog." Her right eyebrow arched as she said it. I got the sarcasm.
After a long pause from me: "Ok, fair enough. I don't know if this counts, but in high school I fantasized all the time about girls out of my reach -- cheerleaders and beauty queens. Like those two topless girls on the beach. But dating them was about as realistic as my walking on the moon."
"So you never even asked the cheerleaders or beauty queens out?
"No. Never," I said, laughing at myself and my humiliating lack of self-confidence in high school. The stories I could tell.
"Anyone else you fantasized about?"
"You don't let up, do you," I said. "Just remember, you asked. I've never told anyone this, and I don't know why I'm telling you, but I dwell a lot on my stepsister."
"Aa-haa. Now we're getting somewhere," she said. We both laughed.
"This is so twisted. She's two years older than me. But she was the first real 'woman' that I paid attention to. After high school she went to a local junior college and still lived at home. And out of the blue, just a few months before I left for Syracuse she began walking around the house in her underwear. And she would surreptitiously crawl in my bed at the first hint of a thunderstorm and lie on top of me."
"But worse, I'd be brushing my teeth and she'd come in the bathroom in her pajamas, strip them down and sit on the toilet, peeing right in front of me. She wouldn't even close her legs. She would ask if I thought she should get a landing strip. Or would I help trim her pubic hair. Everything was to embarrass me. To jerk my chain. Mostly, it made me obsess over her."
"Don't get me wrong," I said. "Nothing ever happened. And I do love her as my sister. I guess she's always been my best friend. Still, it's creepy."
"It's not creepy," Mrs. Adderson said. "So, did you give her that landing strip?
She looked at my face. "Never mind. I have my answer."
"It was just a pervy lark, I guess. Nothing else happened."
"Maybe like Anais Nin, you're tempted by what she called unknown pleasures," Mrs. Adderson said.
"What about you," I asked, emboldened by the champagne as we finished off the bottle. "Who do you fantasize about?"
"I don't really fantasize so much about specific people, more about situations," she answered.
"Mmmmmm. Like having sex on an overnight flight to Europe."
"Go ahead," I said as casually as I could speak the words, though I was in complete disbelief that she was actually going to talk about this. I was too flustered to look at her. So there we were, both of us beginning to talk intimately, and now each of us was staring out at the waves, not looking at each other.
"Well, in my fantasy, my partner and I are sitting side by side along an aisle, and ask a flight attendant for a blanket as the lights are turned down low since it's nightime over the ocean."
Mrs. Adderson goes on but puts her leg down and turns toward me now. peering directly into my eyes.
"We raise the chair's arm between us and then spoon, him in back of me. We're covered by the blanket, you see. He rearranges our clothes to gain access to me, but we have to be very quiet since the other passengers have settled down, many of them sleeping or watching a movie. And then just as things get interesting between us, just as we start, shall I say the 'connection' between us, the plane hits turbulence. Not much, but just enough to get that roller-coaster movement as the plane lifts and falls. It makes sex almost impossible to do but breath-takingly exciting. What's even more exciting is that we can't make any noise or we'll be discovered."
"And who's your partner? Mr. Adderson?"
"It's really not important who he is. Sometimes an imaginary boyfriend, other times a stranger I happen to sit down beside. . . . Do you like this fantasy of mine?"
"Very much. Keep going," I said, somehow getting the words out. "Did you say a stranger?"
This, the most erotic conversation I've ever had with anyone, is now interrupted by her cellphone ringing. She answers, gives me a look and I know it's time to go. As I'm heading down her steps into the sand, I stop and ask: "Have you ever really done something like that?"