She was running out of beaches to drown herself. She didn’t like water, couldn’t stand rivers and lakes, but what she really hated was the ocean. Drowning herself felt almost like getting back at it. Her father always insisted that she learn how to swim, saying it was a fundamental life skill like writing, cooking, and affability. She tried her best, but like her wobbly bike riding, her swimming never went much beyond doggy paddling. Lessons always ended the same way: her father turning his back on her, his red suspenders forming an X like she had struck out. Then came the inevitable ping of his Zippo, like a shell being ejected from a rifle, and the ensuing stream of Marlboro smoke signals.
It turned out drowning, even for a poor swimmer, was much harder than she thought. Instead she was saved. Pulled out of the surf. But boy, did she like being saved! Everything about it was wonderful, starting with people on shore waving and pointing, gathering in ever-larger groups, frantically calling for someone to hurry up and swim out to rescue her. Then a tan, lean man with tussled hair bleached sandy blond by sea and sun, would swim out and pull her ashore, his strong arm locked around her chest. The best part, the part she always looked forward to, was having the crowd surround her seemingly dead, or dead-ish body, everyone holding their breath, praying for a miracle, the lifeguard telling people to back up, before she made an astonishing return from the other side. Applause, gasps, hugs, high-fives and even the occasional Praise Jesus. She loved it. So she tried to drown herself again, though not for real. It was even more amazing. Seven times she had done it now, including the real deal attempt. Unless she was going to spend half the day driving, there weren’t many places left to go.
Word traveled fast in the lifeguard community; tweets, Instagram pics and Facebook posts shared every heroic act up and down the coast. Over margaritas, following her fifth drowning, she learned about the lifeguard grapevine from her savior du jour. The blue two-piece was dumped for a green one-piece and she changed from blonde to brunette. She drove two hours up the coast only to have her drowning interrupted before the rescue could reach its climax, so to speak. The lifeguard at this beach wasn’t like the others, whose eyes were usually bikini bottoms or smartphone screens. He kept scanning the ocean, switching between his heavy-duty binoculars and the shade of his erect palm.
She gave it a try anyway, flailing, splashing, dipping under and coming up coughing water. What she was the most proud of, her signature move, was human driftwood. She had barely begun human driftwood, this one being particularly good and corpse-like, when he was on her. She acted lifeless after he pulled her ashore, going limp and holding her breath, but he slapped her.
“Ma’am,” he said and slapped her again. Harder. “Ma’am!”
She sat up, holding her face, as he reared back for another slap. “That hurt.”
“Ma’am, what do you think you were doing?”
She shrugged and smiled, “I don’t know.”
Jabbing his finger into her shoulder, he said, “I could report you for pretending to drown, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to call me ma’am, call me—Marilyn,” she said and put hand on his firm bicep.
She was banned from the beach. Getting in her car, sand clumped to her feet, she loathed the ocean even more.
At the ninth beach she had a good spot. The lifeguard was busy chatting with a couple of girls. It looked like it was going to be a smooth drowning. She was nearly ready when this little shit of a kid floated into her area. He was asleep on a plastic raft, bobbing on the waves. Whatever. She was going anyway. But the damn kid was hell-bent on eclipsing her: a wave dumped him off the raft and he started drowning. This was her idea. She was here first.
Scanning the beach, no one seemed to have noticed the boy, thrashing, trying to stay afloat. Those were her moves. She doggy paddled with fury over to the kid. Before she realized what she was doing she put both hands on his head and pushed him under. He kicked and punched weakly. Underwater he looked like a drifting astronaut. Kind of peaceful, she thought and pushed him deeper. He finally stopped moving, but the brat wasn’t done. He floated to the surface and just stayed there. Human driftwood. He was ripping her off again.
It happened so fast she doesn’t really remember; that’s what she told her lawyer at least. Someone spotted the body. The lifeguards pulled it out of the water. Someone dragged her out of the water, too, but not nice and slow. They wrenched her arm and, once ashore, jerked her hard onto her feet. Someone saw her push the boy under. She was in trouble.
The trial went on for weeks. Every day they waited for her. All eyes on her. Bathed in flashes. This was so much better than the beaches. No sand down her bathing suit, no more saltwater in her eyes or down her throat. And no more swimming. She could stay dry and the crowds were so much bigger, so much more enthusiastic. The day she was sentenced she even saw her father in the crowd. He smiled at her and she noticed he no longer wore his red suspenders.