When he saw the strap of her polka dot swimsuit peeking out from under her white tank top, he knew. He knew it was her.
It was a hot and miserable day. So hot and miserable that the beach was nearly empty. For the lifeguard at the entrance, it was made even hotter and more miserable by the metal lifeguard’s table placed in the border between the gravel and the sand. Life-guarding had seemed like the perfect job for him since he was an exceptional swimmer. It was too bad that he spent most of his time at the table checking beach passes, except for when he was teaching five-year-olds how to not drown.
He sighed and rubbed his nose. He could already feel it burning under the 40 SPF sunscreen he was wearing. When he first started working at the beach, he refused to wear the ridiculous zinc oxide that his more experienced co-workers kept pressing into his hands. After a few weeks of extremely bad sunburn, he caved, but he always avoided putting it on until it was absolutely necessary.
He reached for the bottle in his bag underneath the table. His flip-flop strap, though, was caught on the sign that read, “Welcome to Lake Bluegill! JIM will check your pass.” When he leaned over just a bit more so his fingertips could clasp onto the drawstring bag, the sign shifted, then teetered precariously, then fell with a hearty smack!, bringing the folding chair he was sitting on with it.
“Damn,” he murmured, inspecting his palms and knees that now had bits of sand and gravel embedded into them.
A small and poorly covered up laugh drew his attention upwards. A girl around his age with a polka dot swimsuit and light brown curls, highlighted naturally by the summer sun, was standing in front of the table, surrounded by three young - and by the look of it - very sticky children.
Jim brushed off his knees and palms, clearly embarrassed, and stood up. “Sorry. Just let me…” Jim jerked his thumb towards the mess.
She nodded. “Sure.”
He quickly righted the sign, checked for cracks, and re-set up the folding chair. When he faced the girl again his cheeks were pinker than before. He blamed it on the sunburn.
“Sorry about that,” he said, clearing his throat.
“No problem,” she said as she handed him a beach pass. “I’m sure it was knocked over in a very noble attempt to race to the beach and save a drowning man.” He could hear the good-natured playfulness in her voice.
“Er… something like that.” He flashed her a humble grin. He read the name on the pass, then gave it back to her. “Have a good time at Lake Bluegill, Miss Henson.”
She looked surprised. “Oh. No. I’m not a Henson,” she told him. She motioned to the young kids. “These are the Hensons, and from the looks of it, the remainder of their lunch. Robbie, come here,” she said, her attention to the little boy covered in what looked like popsicle juice. She sighed. “Well, the water will clean you off.” She turned back to the lifeguard named Jim. “I’m their babysitter, Pam.”
He glanced at the kids behind her; they were covered with blue and orange stains and were fighting amongst themselves. From the strands of hair falling out of her ponytail to the strap of her swimsuit hanging off of her shoulder and her overall harried look, it seemed like she was new, and while good-intentioned, unable to handle it all.
“Well, have a good time.”
“Thanks,” she said grabbing Robbie by the hand. “Abby. Jess. Come on.” He watched her lead her brigade past the table into the sandy beach.
It must have been one heck of a day to drive her to the beach in the unbearable weather. No one else arrived after her, which gave Jim the chance he wanted. He turned in his chair and positioned himself so he could have a view of her.
He watched her feet hop on the hot sand, doing a choreographed dance that only she seemed to know the rhythm to. One second the sand would be covering her toes, and when it got too hot the next second later, he could see her brightly painted toes emerge. When she raced them to the water, her feet submerged and reemerged from the sand even faster, until she reached the cool water’s edge. There her feet left big imprints next to all of the smaller sets. The waves would come up and cover the indents, then fall back to leave them filled with water. He knew his feet would make hers look delicate.
He watched her scoop up the youngest girl, the one named Abby, and settle her on her hip. Her arms weren’t bronzed like his, but slightly pale, like the kind of pale from being extra cautious and applying a lot of sunscreen. The polka dot pattern of her swimsuit complimented it. On of these pastel arms supported the little girl’s back gently, yet firmly, and she ventured into the small waves. With a light yelp from the cold, she laughed and jumped back, causing Abby to laugh along with her. She tilted her head to the side to hear what Abby was saying. He liked how she did that.
He watched her put the girl down and listen to a taunt from the boy. She played along and acted insulted. She walked farther into the water until it was up to her hips. She stuck her tongue out, turned, and dove underneath the water. The boy looked confused and wandered out. With a shriek, he jumped from the water, and she emerged, the polka dots darkened by the water, laughing at her successful prank. He laughed with her.
While he laughed, his watch beeped. It was a handy, yet dorky watch that his father had given him. It was telling him that it was time for swim lessons. He lazily grabbed for the clipboard on his table, not bothering to look at it. He doubted any of the kids that were signed up even came.
He switched the greeting sign from “JIM will check your pass,” to “KATHY,” without waiting for her to show up. It was pretty clear that no one else was coming today.
Jim looked over his shoulder to where she was laying in the sand, being buried by Robbie. He was packing sand over her stomach and her calves at the moment. Jim caught himself staring for a bit too long. He cleared his throat and grabbed his towel out of his bag. Rather self-consciously, he pulled his shirt off over his head and made his way down to the water’s edge.
The lifeguard’s tower was supposed to be the meeting spot for lessons, but no one except the staff knew that, so Jim scanned the clipboard in front of him. “Robin?” he called out. No answer. “Tommy?” No answer. “Jess?”
“Hey, Jess. He’s calling you,” Pam said from her burial spot. Jim saw her sit up, spilling the sand from her chest and shoulders back onto the ground. He averted his eyes as the rest of her polka dot clad-body emerged from the sand. He traced the outline of someone’s bucket in the sand with the heel of his foot until she brought the little girl over.
Pam transferred the shy girl’s hand from her hand to his. “It’s alright, Jess. This is…?” She looked up at him for help.
“Jim,” he supplied as he looked down at Jess and gave her a warm smile.
“Jim. And he’s going to help you today, so don’t you dare be shy!” Pam straightened up and met Jim’s gaze. “If anything happens to her, it’s my ass,” she joked. Then she added, “But seriously, though. Be careful.”
She turned her head. “What, Robbie?”
The boy stood with the shovel held loosely in his right hand and a very accusing look on his face. “You said ass.”
Pam raised her eyebrows and looked to Jim. He gave her a goofy grin that turned into a laugh, which quickly turned into a cough when Robbie eyed him.
“Uh… No. No, I didn’t. I said class.”
“Smooth,” Jim said under his breath.
“I did!” she exclaimed. “Because, you know, if Jim isn’t careful, he can’t teach anymore. Then it’ll be my class.”
Robbie eyed her suspiciously, deciding whether to believe her or not.
“Look,” Pam sighed. “Even if I did say ass, that doesn’t mean you can.” Robbie opened his mouth to protest, but Pam stopped him. “When I’m around you say butt, or behind, or rear, or… or--”
“Derriere?” Jim supplied.
She looked over at him with her mouth slightly open but twitching into a smile. “Or derriere. Not ass. Got it?”
He was still ruminating it over when Pam said, “Let’s just go back to the sand.” She glanced over her shoulder, and gave Jim a small wink.
It was time for another layer of sunscreen before he got into the water because he could feel his cheeks getting hotter.
Jim wasn’t paying much attention in the water. He was thinking about Pam stealing glances at him. He was pretty sure that every time he looked over at her she looked away, embarrassed to be caught watching him, just like he watched her earlier.
His muscles flexed as he pulled himself onto the kickboard to show Jess how to kick. He was sure Pam saw that. A drop of water slid down his cheek and onto his lips. He was sure she saw that. His legs kicked as he dove under the surface. He was sure she saw that.
But when he actually looked from the water to the shore, he was sure she hadn’t seen it: there was a large guy with his arm around her.
And she was smiling. Not watching. And his hand was on her polka dot swimsuit strap, teasingly pulling it off to put on sunscreen.
He saw the polka dot strap, and he knew. Even though he had forgotten, he now knew.