“You’re going to be late for work!”
I pull up my swim trunks and pat my hair, as if that will keep it down. I’d hardly call my job at the Opal Shore Beach Club a job at all. I’ve been a member since before I can remember. Our family has been members for decades. Generations. My grandfather obtained one of their ultra-exclusive memberships back in the 60’s. He passed it along to my parents in the 90’s. One day, probably within the next ten years, my dad will pass grandpa’s membership to me and my siblings, and we’ll continue going with our children. So on and so forth.
Today, I work as a lifeguard, but rarely act like one. I basically get paid to sit in a high chair, get tan, and ogle girls in bikinis.
My mother’s in the kitchen wearing an apron. Her cheeks upturn into a radiant smile when she sees me coming down the stairs. I grab the lunch she made for me, kissing her on the left cheek, as it glows like a sunbeam.
“Don’t forget your pendant,” says mom, as I leave the house on another sun-splashed day for work.
But first, I untuck the chain from my shirt so mom can see it. The gold cross is an unofficial uniform at the club. Opal Shore is all white and Christian. I kid you not. And, my town is equally segregated. Sure, private clubs can choose to accept and reject anyone they want, but it’s odd that every member of Opal Shore is a rich, white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. Just saying.
So, I get in my car, and drive out of my garage onto a street lined with identical houses with spacious, elegant lawns. My car was gifted to me a year ago on my 16th birthday. What’s even more cliche is that every family on my street lives in carbon copy homes, with carbon copy cars, kids, even dogs. I pull into a parking lot chock full of luxury cars, many sporting MAGA and NRA stickers. Opal Shore wasn’t the Hamptons, but we’re pretty close; albeit seventy or so miles west. And, the people in both communities act the same I guess, except for my mom. Today at Opal begins like any other. I make my way down to the shore, drop my stuff at the lifeguard tower, say hi to my boss, and flex at some girls. Working at Opal has gotten me a nice tan. Plus, I need to stay fit for football season, which starts in a month. Everyone at the club knows one another, and, like me, the other lifeguards play on the football team. A few have graduated from high school and attend college.
I watch the waves crash through my sunglasses, while working on my tan. I can tell the members apart since I’ve been an Opel member all my life. However, if you were new to the club, everyone looked the same. The male members sit in lounge chairs by the ocean drinking beer, while the women gossip. Young children build sandcastles or swim in the ocean. Honestly, this job is pretty boring. I’ve only “saved” one person the whole time I’ve worked here, and they weren’t even drowning. To pass the time, I usually ogle the pretty girls when there aren’t many people in the ocean. Yeah, OK, maybe this sounds a bit cliche, but what else can I do?
Everything was same old same old until I noticed a girl I never saw before. She’s wearing a polka dot, two-piece with frills tied at the sides. She’s striking, with long black hair that coils up, bouncing when she walks. To get a better look, I lower my sunglasses to the bridge of my nose. Club members were staring at her and her family. I was pretty pleased by the sight, but no one else seemed to be. The drunken laughter and gossiping from the adults completely stopped, with all eyes on this girl and her family. They weren’t actually on Opal’s property, but on the fringes of the club adjacent to ours. Honestly, I don’t get why everyone was giving them the stink eye. They were just enjoying the beach like everyone else.
Boss drives up on his beach motorcycle seconds later, a vein popping from his forehead. Someone must have called him, and he hates getting called. He walks up to the lifeguard’s chair.
Although I wasn’t the youngest lifeguard at Opal, Boss and the older lifeguards still call me “Junior.” When I was 14 and started lifeguard training, I was short, scrawny, and willing to do anything asked of me. I was naive and went with the flow. My mother always told me to form my own opinions, but the moniker stuck. So, unfortunately, I’m still Junior.
“Hey, Junior. Do you see those people over there?” Boss Langdon says, his voice low and scratchy.
Mr. Langdon moved to our little town on Long Island from Manhattan, and his uptight accent stuck. He points to the family having fun and minding their own business.
“Them being here is going to be a problem, Junior.”
I didn’t really understand, so I just nodded. I didn’t want to get fired. Boss grips his lanyard, while disgust strains his face.
“These Jews come around here, disrespecting the Lord’s name, wearing them damn six- pointed Jew-stars around their necks.”
Boss’ voice grows louder. He doesn’t care that others overhear him. A couple of white guys with beer bellies within earshot mutter anti-Semitic slurs. It’s not like I haven’t heard them before in jokes, just never directed at people.
I notice the riptide pulling this family closer to our shores. This was actually fine, as the law clearly states that the ocean is everyone’s property. So, Opal Shore doesn’t own it; just the sand on our beachfront. Even so, our members aren’t happy. The more this family drifts toward us, the angrier our members get.
The striking girl with the polka dot bikini, as well as her mom and dad exit the water, while a little boy, whom I assume is her brother, remains in the surf. He’s scrawny, and his swim trunks are several sizes too large. And, while I don’t think it’s smart leaving him alone in an ocean with a splash of riptide, I say and do nothing.
A little later the surf gets rougher. Opal members take their children out of the water. But, the scrawny little boy remains. By now, the tide has pulled him in front of my chair. For a moment, I doze off, having nothing important to do, or girls to ogle.
Suddenly, I’m awakened by the voice of a screaming child.
“Hey, mommy look, look!”
I perk my head up to see what’s happening. I spot the little boy, the riptide pulling him farther out than moments before. He’s clearly struggling, with arms flailing. I look for his family, finding them tanning and chatting. His mother is walking in the opposite direction. I look at our club members. They should be helping, but no one is moving. They’re ignoring him! I realize my time as a lifeguard has come. But, for some reason, I freeze. All my training has led to this
moment. My swim trunks remain glued to the lifeguard’s chair.
A beach motorcycle rides up behind me. Great timing.
“Junior, tell me why I got another call?”
Boss puts his hand on his forehead, casting a shadow over his eyes.
“Junior, that’s the Jew kid, right?” he says while squinting into the sun.
“You have no obligation to get him, Junior.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. I swivel toward him, surprised and aghast. On the one hand, I knew I didn’t have to save anyone who wasn’t a member of our club. On the other, wasn’t it basic human decency to save any drowning person, be they a stupid member or not?
“Junior, you look like you’re about to stand up, don’t even think about it.” His grip on my shoulder tightens.
I look back out, scanning the ocean. The young boy appears and disappears, bobbing up and down beneath the waves. His tiny lungs prevent his screams from reaching the shore. I once again look at our club members. They’re listless, uncaring, unbothered, disinterested, and heartless.
Boss glares at me. Everything is happening lightning fast, but to me, it’s all in slow
My hand holds the rescue buoy without feeling it. My brain frantically races from the drowning boy, to my heartless Boss, the other lifeguards, club members, football, school, home, and my mom —
My mom. She always saw the best in this job, and in me. She was so proud I’d be saving
people, even though I saw lifeguarding as an excuse to get tan and watch girls. Mom would want
me to do what’s right. Still, if I lost this job she’d be so disappointed. We didn’t need the money,
but it wasn’t about that.
I grab the buoy and stand up.
“Junior! If you go out there, you come back without a job!”
I throw my sunglasses in Boss’ chest.
“God, will you please shut the hell up?”
I run, dive into the water, and swim out to the boy. His head pops up less often, as the riptide pushes me away. I keep swimming until I reach him.
“Grab onto this, buddy,” I say, as I push the buoy into his hands.
The boy’s grip is weak, but he holds on while coughing up a ton of water.
Towing the boy, I swim back to shore, ignoring the piercing, furious stares of my Boss and Opal Club members. The kid’s family thanks me profusely. I dismiss it, patting the kid on the shoulder. I’ve never seen the Boss so mad.
“You’re fired, Junior. I’ll be sure to tell your mother about this.”
“Fine,” I respond. “But, know I’d rather lose my job than disappoint my mom, and myself
by letting someone drown. Isn’t that what lifeguards are supposed to do?”
I return the buoy, grab my shirt, and start walking toward my car.
“Yeah, keep walking, leave the club, and don’t come back,” members murmur amongst themselves.
So, I drive out of the club’s parking lot, likely for the last time. Of course, I’m scared what my mom will say when she learns I got fired. But, I have a feeling she’ll understand. No one else would, of course. Mom was always the exception. I turn on the radio, flipping the control until I hear a song everyone my age was listening to.
I suddenly relax and smile as I drive home in my generic car, past the generic houses and lawns, with the generic adults, kids, and dogs.
I smile, because my mom is no longer the one exception in town.