Issue 202, Fall 2012
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, I’d just been kicked out of the apartment in SoHo where I’d been living for several years when my landlady, a ninety-five-year-old artist, finally died. That crumbling little building was the last ragged fort of old bohemia, sandwiched between Louis Vuitton and Victoria’s Secret. For decades my landlady had clung on, through Alzheimer’s 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 twelve million dollars. My books and winter clothes went into storage with the dining-room set I’d 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 wouldn’t think I was a bum, and sat at my little desk, really a folding snack table in the guest room, doing the crossword 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 look 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 were a more graceful term for these minor high-rise city-states) actually had a very nice pool, small but almost empty on the weekdays, set on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan. On a clear day you could see the individual cars traveling across the George Washington Bridge and up and down the 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 Simenon’s 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 didn’t look any faker than his mustache, which turned up at the ends like Poirot’s. (I read a few dozen of those Agatha Christie books that summer, too.)
The woman (his wife? his daughter?) was blonde and stocky, and when I hung, resting between laps, on the side of the pool, and she climbed down the ladder across from me, I could see how her thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair. It 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 hurt 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 man’s 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 shouldn’t say this, because I’m sure I was a kid like that, too, but I couldn’t stand the little crybaby.
But the thing I wanted to say, the significant thing, was about the guy’s boobs. Yes, they were hairy, but that wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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, and I quickly looked away. I admit, it kind of freaked me out.
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 I’d swum in a supervised pool like that, maybe since I was a kid myself, and the change in perspective was dramatic. Before, I’d 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 I did, 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 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: I’m an adult now and he is the one intimidated by me.
Except for Lisa. Of course, I didn’t 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 lifesaver’s red one-piece, and one of those macramé things braided around her ankle. But this day was extra hot and every few pages, I’d 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.
“That’s okay,” I shouted as she sprang from her chair. “Relax.”
“No, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s my job.”
I dove in, wriggling along the bottom like a tadpole, and popped up at the other end. “Look,” I said, “I think it’s 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. It’s 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? You’re kind of little. Don’t they have some kind of height requirement?”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Try it and see.”
“Okay,” 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 wasn’t 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.
After my landlady died, the thing that really stuck with me was how—what word shall I use?—how lustful she remained right up to the end, long after you’d have thought that her body would have forgotten and her mind slipped free of such base desires, moving on to less worldly matters, or at least more urgent fears, like, for instance, death itself. Nope. The very first time I met her, her Alzheimer’s was already well advanced, and when her caretaker, Maria, introduced us, she gave me a warm kiss on the cheek. “Of course I know him,” she scolded Maria, and then tittered coyly, “very well. And he knows me . . . very well.” She batted her eyelashes at me.
Maria laughed. “She thinks you are one of her former lovers.” Apparently she’d been pretty wild in her time, and bisexual, too. She slept with Jane Bowles and Max Ernst and tried to seduce Tennessee Williams, which would have been a real coup, but they ended up just friends. After that, she flirted with me about half the time. When she got her second case of pneumonia, she even asked me to escort her downstairs to the ambulance. Otherwise, she ignored me completely or asked Maria who I was.
“Maybe I should marry her,” I suggested. “Then we’ll all live happily ever after.”
Maria laughed. “Yes, I’m sure her family would be very pleased.”
“Who are they to doubt our love?”
Then Maria told me a story about taking the landlady to a party, when she was already in her late eighties but still able to get around a bit. It was held by one of her old pals, a decrepit composer. When Maria came to pick her up, the old woman’s clothes were all mixed up. She didn’t have her bra on, and her underwear was backward.
“Did you have sex?” Maria asked her, but she just giggled. It turned out she’d gotten together with one of the other old ladies, who was still naked in a back bedroom, wrapped in a quilt and smoking. Meanwhile—and this is the part that gets me—Maria said she found the host, who was probably ninety himself, sitting and brooding at his piano, plunking chords in a dark fit of jealousy.
“Don’t ever fall in love,” he told Maria. “It’s just poison.”
That’s when I realized it never ends, this nonsense. We are fools to the finish. On my own deathbed, no doubt, I’ll be peeking at the nurse’s legs and desperately hoping she smiles at me.
The place I went running was a few blocks away, along a quiet road of big houses with a wide, treelined median. One morning as I was finishing up, I noticed that a cop had stopped his car along the street and was talking to a black guy at the curb. Figures, I thought as I walked by, one black guy for miles around and of course he picks on him. I went to a nearby tree to stretch and when I looked up, the cop car had pulled alongside me.
“Excuse me,” he yelled. “Can you step over here a minute?”
I felt a rush of free-floating guilt and a sudden urge to flee, but I walked over, calmly as I could.
“What’s going on, Officer?” He was a beefy guy with a round, pink face.
“I was just wondering what were you doing out here today?”
“Me?” I looked around and then down at my shorts and sneakers. “Running.”
“Yeah, you know. Jogging. Like for exercise.”
“Actually, sir, you were walking when I saw you.”
“Well I finished running and I was cooling off.”
“Uh-huh. Do you have any ID?”
“I was running. I don’t even have pockets.” I showed him my key. “This is all I have. Do you go running with a wallet?”
“No, sir, I do not.” He looked me over, narrowing his eyes. “I’m going to tell you why I stopped you. We’ve had several break-ins in this area recently, and you were acting kind of suspicious.”
“One, you were on the grass when most people use the sidewalk.”
“But it’s better for my feet.”
“And you were looking around a lot, like maybe you were looking at houses.”
“Well, I probably was. It gets boring running. I always look around. Even when I’m just walking I tend to look around.”
“And I saw you looking at me before when I was talking to the other gentleman.”
“Oh yeah?” I wasn’t going to explain that one. Finally I gave him my address, or rather my parents’ address, and my name and Social Security number. Then I waited while he checked me over. He stuck his head back out, looking a bit sheepish.
“Okay. Sorry, sir.”
“Yes, sir, hope I didn’t bother you, but we’ve just been having these break-ins. They’re really on my back about it.”
“No, that’s fine. I understand. But I can go now?”
“Oh yeah, for sure. Sorry, sir.”
“No problem.” I realized that he, too, was much younger than me, not much older than the lifeguard with the back zits, and he now seemed slightly cowed, as if I might get him in trouble. “Thanks,” I said.
“No, thank you, sir, and sorry again. It’s just they’re really busting my ass about these break-ins.”
Then, as I was walking away, a man came by on a bicycle. He was wearing only bike shorts and sneakers and rode sitting up, with his hands free of the handlebars. He had a broad, smooth chest that looked shaved or waxed and tattoos on both biceps. As he rolled by, lost in his thoughts, an absent expression on his face, his fingers lightly but insistently and unmistakably brushed his nipples, arousing them in slow circles. We made eye contact, and he gave me a frank and innocent look, still teasing his stiff nipples, as if completely unaware of what his own body was doing. Then he sailed away.
When I got to the pool that day, the same lifeguard, the long-legged girl, was sitting at the table by the entrance. Now I could see what book she was reading—Hart Crane’s Collected Poems.
“Hey,” I said. “Good book.”
“Hey there.” She laid it facedown. “How’s it going?”
“I just got hassled by the cops. I got pulled over for jogging.”
“What?” she laughed. “No way.”
Then I told her the whole story, leaving out the part about the nipple-biker and how it had reminded me of the Russian with the one big boob, who I saw was right there at that very moment, waist-deep in the water, swinging his snively kid or grandkid around in a circle. Lisa laughed at my impression of the cop, and when I handed her my guest pass, instead of punching it, she just gave it back and said, “Don’t worry, it’s cool.”
“Thanks,” I said. “What’s your name, anyway?”
She held up the cursive, golden word that dangled from a chain around her neck. I couldn’t make it out.
“What’s it say? Tina?”
“Jeez, are you blind?”
So I brushed her hair back out of the way, and leaned in closer. She held very still.
“Lisa,” I said.