We’d cleaned everything, and though it was early, it was already 95 degrees out, thanks to a disgusting heat wave that kicked off the season. The air was stagnant and unbearable, so we hopped in the pool to cool off.
I jumped in first, mostly because I wanted the water to hide my body, which was still coming out of hibernation mode. My skin hadn’t seen the sun in months.
Miller slipped in from the side, his back to the water and his face looking out through the pool fence and down the hillside, where the cabins stood empty, not yet filled with applause for talent shows. His body looked as though it had never seen a winter in its life. He had always been beautiful, ever since the day I met him, at camp in fifth grade, back when he went by Gavin.
I recognized him the second he showed up at our staff meeting. Gavin Miller, technically my first kiss, standing before me a decade later, still every bit the dreamboat. We had spent three weeks “dating,” which meant sitting next to each other on Pizza Fridays and one kiss at the end-of-summer dance—lips closed, eyes open, urged on by mutual friends. “I’ll email you,” he said when his parents picked him up later that night. He never did. I don’t think I’ve liked anyone as much since.
He, however, did not recognize me. Mrs. Harrison introduced us. “Gavin Miller,” she said. “This is Kara Tompkins. She’ll be your lifeguarding partner.”
“We went to ca—” I began, just as Gavin extended his hand and, with all the sincerity in the world, said, “It’s really nice to meet you. Call me Miller.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too.” I said. And that’s all, because I don’t go around reminding people about the time they kissed me. If he can’t remember, I guess maybe I shouldn’t either.
We swam at opposite ends of the pool on that second day, pushing off the walls and floating on our backs. “We should probably get out,” I said. “They’ll be here to swim any minute.” I pulled myself out of the pool, pulled on a pair of shorts, and sat down in my chair, reapplying sunscreen and trying to look professional. Then a bee flew near my ear and I got up, screamed, and threw myself in the water. I felt a hand grab for mine, and when I came up, Miller was there, laughing at me.
“Kara,” he said.
“There was a bee!”
“No,” he laughed, looking me in the eye. “I mean, you’re Kara. Troop 5-C Kara.”
“What gave it away? My name? My face?” I was suddenly annoyed.
Miller shook his head. “You’re the only girl who has ever run screaming from me when I tried to go in for a hug.”
“There was a bee,” I said.
“5-C Kara,” Miller smiled. “Still afraid of bees.”
His hand stayed on mine while the water made lapping noises around us. We stopped speaking and just stared at each other, trying to see the six years that had passed.
“I should have written you,” he said, moving in a little closer.
A voice called out through the gates: “Hey baby!”
Miller pushed away from me and swam to the side of the pool. I looked over to see a pair of girls our age standing by the fence. One was staring at Miller. The other was glaring at me. Miller talked to them for about five minutes before they decided to leave, whispering to each other as they disappeared down the hillside.
“Your girlfriend?” I asked.
“Time to work,” was his answer, and he was right. A crowd had lined up against the gates.
That was the last time we went swimming together.
“Break time is over,” one kid yells. “Stop being lazy and let us back in!” A woman in a straw hat, presumably his mother, shushes him, but gives me a look that would suggest she agrees. Miller is already back in his chair, a towel draped around his neck.
The gates open, the swimmers fill the pool, and finally I have something safe to set my eyes upon.
The last half of the shift always plays out like a dream. The haze of the afternoon completely takes over, and everything is sunshine and light, the water beaming us a perfect reflection of the sky. Everyone floats about in a post-lunch sugar crash, lazily gliding along the pool or else reclining on lounges, eating Goldfish crackers and looking for shapes in the clouds. We hardly ever blow our whistles. This is not a time for running. Our job is just to make sure nobody falls asleep underwater.
Miller twirls his whistle. Round and round the cord goes, until the whistle rests against the finger and it’s time to twirl it the other way. I try to keep my eyes on the water, but I’m constantly drawn to his technique, how his fingers move, how easily the cord seems to wrap around them. I catch him looking at me once, when I stand to adjust my towel and clean my sunglasses. For maybe three seconds we stare straight at one another, and then before I know it, my concentration kicks in, and I’m in the air, then in the pool, a flailing two-year-old coughing and screaming in my hands and water in my ears.
“He fell out of his tube!” the kid’s mother says, with a horrified look on her face.
“He’ll be OK,” I tell her.
“Thank god you saw him,” she says.
“It’s no problem,” I tell her. I pull myself out of the water and wrap myself in a half-soaked towel, trying not to let anyone notice that my hands are shaking.
Miller gives me a look from his chair. “Nice job,” he mouths. It’s the first time either one of us has had to “save” anyone. I notice that he’s clutching his whistle, his fingers wrapped around the metal, with the cord jumbled up underneath. I pull my whistle from around my neck and start twirling it around my finger, the wet cord leaving marks on my skin. Round and round it goes, the silver shimmering in circles. I’m cold from the water, but the sun feels so good that I decide to drop my towel and let the rays hit my skin.
Our replacements arrive at 3:30, and one of them, Emily, asks me about the big rescue.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” I tell her. I look over at Miller, who is headed toward the gates.
“Like how did it happen?” Emily asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I just jumped.”
I pack up all of my stuff and head down to the staff-parking area, where I find Miller leaning against his car.
“5-C Kara,” he says. “Hero of the day.”
“You know you’re allowed to go home now, right?” I open my backseat and shove my wet bag inside.
“It’s going to be like 100 degrees tomorrow,” he says.
“Well, you know. You should come swimming with me.”
“Sure,” I laugh. “Why don’t you email me about it?”
“I was 10!” he says.
“You were 11!”
“So young,” he wails dramatically. “So stupid!”
“Look out for bees.”
“You are the worst,” I say, feeling happier than I have in a while.
“Goodbye, Gavin.” ♦