Too Pale for a Lifeguard
by Maia Lena
“I’m not much of a swimmer.” Paine couldn’t swim at all but she wasn’t about to admit that to this dreamboat.
Ray tightened his arm around her shoulders. “That’s okay, I’m a lifeguard.”
“I know, but it’s getting dark.”
She stared into the distance, watching the towering waves — giants, monsters — ascending toward the sky before crashing violently downward and vanishing, only to rise again, repeating the pattern over and over. The ocean terrified her, but how could she tell him that? He was a lifeguard.
And what of her other fear? She could not tell him that, either. It was obvious he expected it, and soon, if not tonight. She had already told him she would be here for a week, already shown him where she was staying, already admitted to being here alone. Would he laugh at her? Best to keep silent and think of a plan to get away should her fear become too great.
“Let’s just sit on the beach a while. It’s too dark.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
He spoke so gently she looked up at him in surprise. She tried to read the look in his eyes and got lost in their color. Green, like the sea. No, blue. She sighed, suddenly happy. Those eyes! Hard to believe they were looking at her, admiring her.
She would do anything for him. “I’m not afraid. Let’s go!”
She ran to the water. He ran after her and caught her hand and together they leapt into the waves. She laughed and splashed him. He splashed her back.
“Try and catch me!”
He was off, swimming fast, too fast, too far in.
“Stop! I can’t swim!” At least that was out in the open.
He stared back at her. “You mean not at all?”
“Not at all.”
“But you said you come here every year.”
“I love the beach. I love lying in the sand. I love the smell of suntan lotion and the seagulls and the green umbrellas and the boardwalk and the amusement park on the pier and all the tacky little shops. I love all of it.”
“But the ocean itself?”
He was coming towards her and his beautiful eyes looked troubled.
He’s taking this too personally, she thought. “Yes, I love the ocean. I love to watch the waves. I love the way it makes the air smell clean and salty.”
But there are things in it, she added silently, and shuddered as she felt a strand of seaweed wrap itself around her leg.
“You hate it.” He sounded hurt, almost grieved.
She looked away from him and watched the sky turn mauve as the sun dropped lower.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Jellyfish, sharks, seaweed wrapping itself around me and pulling me down. I don’t know, all kinds of things.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way. We come from the ocean. All life does. Everything that crawls across the face of the earth had its origins here. If people had any sense they would worship it instead of poisoning it with their garbage.” He was frowning at her now.
“Ray, it just scares me, that’s all. It’s too big, too angry, too powerful, too wild. But I love it too. That’s why I come back every year.”
Mauve deepened to indigo. A star glittered overhead. Paine shivered as the air grew crisper. “I’m getting out.”
He followed her back to the beach. “Paine, I think we met for a reason. I am going to help you overcome your fear.”
Which one? she thought.
He put his hand on her back and she felt a ripple of desire.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Not now. It’s too dark. I’m getting cold.”
“I’ll warm you up.”
He held her, but his skin was damp and she shivered more. She broke from him gently and sat in the sand, her legs outstretched, toes pointed towards the creeping tide.
He dropped beside her and ran his foot up and down her leg. She stroked his blond hair. “Ray, a drop of golden sun,” she whispered.
“More like a stingray,” he said and pinched her arm.
She giggled, relieved to discover he had a sense of humor.
He massaged her shoulders. “Why did your mother name you ‘Pain’? Were you a difficult delivery?”
She stared at him. No, not a trace of a smile.
“I never knew my birth mother so I don’t know if I was a difficult delivery or not. I was adopted when I was a baby. My adoptive father is a history professor. They named me ‘Paine’ after Thomas Paine.”
“Thomas Paine? Is he a relative?”
“You’re not joking, are you?” She sat up and pulled away from him, suddenly annoyed. What was she doing, snuggling with a man she had met only that morning, a lifeguard who had never heard of Thomas Paine? Why did she act like a different person whenever she came here? Next year she would go someplace else, Niagara Falls — no, that was water too. A city, maybe — San Francisco, the city on the bay — no — Boston — no — water , water, everywhere. Stop it, Paine, stop that babble in your head.
“No, I was! I was joking. Ha-ha.”
He’s lying, she thought, but it touched her that he cared what she thought of him and she felt ashamed of her irritation.
“Do you ever think about your real mother? Would you like to meet her?”
Her annoyance resurged at the word “real” and then vanished at the sight of his aqua-colored eyes in the moonlight.
“Birth mother, you mean. Yes, I think about her. I wonder what she was like, if she was scared, why she didn’t take me home with her. I wonder what she’s doing now. Does she think about me? Does she think about me every day? Does she think about me at all?”
“Do you hate her?”
“Of course not. Why would I hate her? I’ve had the best life, the best.” She began to weep, surprising and confusing herself.
Ray did not acknowledge her tears. He sat silently beside her for a moment, his hand on her shoulder. “Would you like to meet her? I will take you to her.”
Sharp, electric fear like the sting of a stingray. “You’re not really a lifeguard, are you? I knew you weren’t. I thought when I met you this morning that you were too pale for a lifeguard. They usually have more color this late in the season.”
“I am a lifeguard,” he said. “I guard the life of the ocean. I protect the ocean from humans, not the other way around.”
She began to run, then realized she didn’t know where her towel was, or the bag with her hotel key in it.
“Paine, wait. Don’t run away. We’ve been looking for you for so long!”
He stood before her, looking into her eyes. He’s hypnotizing me, she thought. He’s erasing my fear. He’s making me go somewhere with him.
It was a beautiful night. She understood now why most people found the sound of breaking waves peaceful.
“Come. Meet your mother. And your father.”
They stood knee-deep in water. He flung out his arm to the vastness before them. “Your parents. My parents. The parents of us all. You can swim.”
He took her hand and they swam together, down, down under the waves and she could see and she could breathe and she was not afraid.
“Now, Ray, now. Take her now.”
The voices came from all around them, tiny bubbles of voices.
“I brought you here to make love to you, my sister-queen.”
He pulled down the straps of her bathing suit. It slid off her body like a living thing and floated away. He grabbed her waist and pulled her towards him. She felt something between her legs and panic struck, worse than ever before, for this was not what she had expected, this thing wrapping itself around her, this tail — yes, he had a tail, his legs had vanished and she saw that he was half-fish. She screamed and even in her panic, noted that her lungs did not fill with water.
“Do not fight me, I am stronger than you. Let me initiate you, then we will be more evenly matched.”
She stiffened her hand and jabbed him straight in the eye with the tips of her nails. He flinched and let go. I can swim, I can swim, she told herself, working her arms as she had seen others do, pushing the water below her, pulling herself up, up, up to the surface.
Cold fingers clutched her ankle. She twisted around and struck Ray in the throat with the edge of her hand. His fingers uncurled, the sea-green of his eyes rolled up into sickly white.
Up, up. She broke the surface. Moonlight bathed her face. Water surrounded her on all sides. The beach — where was the beach? She shivered with cold. I will die now, she thought.
A gentle wave nudged her. She laughed with relief as wave after wave guided her to shore.
There he waited for her, half in, half out, tail flicking, splashing.
“Out here, you have the advantage,” he said.
“What are you?”
“Your other half. Your brother, your husband and your king.”
“We are the same, you and I. I don’t know how you managed to live on land for so many years. I can only do it for one day a month.”
“We are not the same. I am not what you think I am.”
“I am not mistaken. We know one another. We always do. I don’t know how we lost you but we have been looking for you ever since.”
Paine felt a pang of belonging such as she had never known. But no, this was too bizarre, she was having a bad dream, she would wake up soon, soon, please soon, before she did something crazy like get back in the water with this creature.
“You tried to rape me.”
He looked away. “I’ve done everything wrong from beginning to end. It will be my fault if you never return to us.”
“Push me back in — I’m caught on something.”
“I can’t come near you. I don’t trust you.”
“Paine, please. I’ll die if I’m out of the water too long.”
She walked away from him, walked naked onto the almost empty boardwalk. The sensation of swimming under water came back to her; swimming and breathing and not being afraid. She sank to her knees and wept. She had believed herself content to never fit in, to never feel at home anywhere or with anyone. But now she had felt it, if only briefly, and her sense of isolation would be a thousand times worse and never again could she fool herself into thinking she was happy.
She sensed a presence beside her and flinched. A pair of hands draped a large beach towel around her shoulders. She turned to see a man hurrying away. “Thank you,” she whispered, touched by this gesture of kindness from a human stranger. Still, it made her feel no more like one of them than she had ever felt. Kindness never did, no more than cruelty or sickness or an appetite for chocolate éclairs.
She pulled the towel tightly around herself and stared out at the beach, searching for the sight of a large fish tail flopping, flopping, but saw only darkness.
She began to walk, one end of the boardwalk to the other, back and forth, all night, trying to get warm. At dawn, she returned to the beach, to the spot where she’d left him, bracing herself for whatever she might find. A few dead fish, a few dead hermit crabs, nothing else. She had been right not to trust him; he had not needed her help. Still, she was relieved not to see him here, gaping and flopping like a dying fish.
She looked out at the waves. In the daylight, nothing seemed as terrifying. The tide pulled gently, invitingly at her feet. She moved further in, letting the water lap around her knees. She took a few more steps. Baby steps, she thought. If she went further in, if she stayed long enough, would she grow a tail like Ray’s? Would she lose her legs, be able to return to land only one day a month?
She would never know. She would never test it. For he was out there, she could not see him, but she could sense him, somewhere nearby, waiting for her, pulling at her with his hypnotic eyes, inviting her home where she belonged, drawing her to the one place where she could never go. Not while he lived. For she could feel him, and underneath his silent lures, he was angry. Angry, like the waves. Wild, like the waves. Powerful, like the waves, like the sea that had given birth to them both.
Copyright © 2011 by Maia Lena