Opening Day

Already, there were thirty or more vehicles in the parking lot—cars, trucks, campers, vans, plus a couple motorcycles. Around them milled people of all ages, with picnic baskets, thermos jugs, beach blankets, and more. Two or three women were bare-chested, and one man was completely naked except for a pith helmet. Everyone was talking, smiling, laughing. One man hoisted a large ice chest out of the trunk of his car, opened it, and started handing cold soft drinks to everyone who happened by.

Kristen felt as if she had stumbled into some stranger’s family reunion. The mood was festive; everyone here seemed to know everyone else, and they looked happy and excited to be meeting old friends once again. Kristen lowered her eyes and strode intently across the parking lot toward the steps that started the path down to the beach. The beach bag that swung slowly from her left hand brushed against her calf as she walked.

“Crystal! Hey, Crystal!” a man’s voice shouted so insistently that Kristen turned to see who was doing the shouting. “Over here!” the man shouted, with a sweeping motion of his arm.

Kristen smiled, and walked toward the man, who stood next to the driver-side door of his car. She peered through the windshield at the blonde woman in the passenger’s seat. “Hi, Paul,” she said. “Hi, Maria. Nice to see some familiar faces. I remember you two from Saturday.”

Paul smiled and puffed out his chest theatrically. “Hard to forget a hunk like me, isn’t it, Crystal?” he said.

Kristen laughed. “Maybe so,” she said, “but I think I’ve just got a good memory.” Paul clapped one hand to his chest and turned his eyes heavenward in a mock display of wounded dignity. “And my name is Kristen, not Crystal,” she added.

Paul looked puzzled, then he smiled. “That’s right,” he said, nodding. “Kristen is such a beautiful name.”

“Just not as beautiful as Crystal, though?” Kristen said with a mischievous smile.

Paul shook his head. “Crystal’s a nice name—a very nice name,” he said. He boldly looked Kristen up and down, and a broad grin spread across his face. “But Kristen is so much nicer, in so many ways. I think I just couldn’t believe that I’d met an actual Kristen. Your kind is rare, and exceptionally precious.”

Kristen blushed and fidgeted uncomfortably under his frank appraisal. “What a nice thing to say,” she said. Other men had looked at her the way Paul did—he was undressing her with his eyes, she thought. But in this place, that phrase seemed bizarre. Soon she would truly be undressed, and Paul, like every other man on the beach, would really be able to see her then. She glanced over at Maria, who sat with eyes downcast, as if lost in thought. “You’re very good with flattery, Paul,” Kristen said.

“Hey, babe, it’s the simple truth,” Paul said, smiling and taking a step toward Kristen, who shrunk back just a little.

Maria stuck her head out the passenger-side window. “I remembered your name, Kristen,” she said.

Paul scowled and slapped his hand noisily against the roof of the car. “Hey, shut up in there and get your clothes off,” he shouted. He lowered his head to look into the car. “Look, you haven’t even started. Do we have to go through this every damn time?”

“Sorry,” Maria said meekly. She started fumbling with the buttons on her white blouse.

“When are you going to grow up?” Paul said.

“Hey, that’s not very nice,” Kristen said.

Paul looked up and smiled. “Hey, every now and then a man’s gotta give his old lady a kick in the ass to show her he cares,” he said jovially. Kristen didn’t laugh. She watched him warily. Paul returned her gaze, and thumped a couple more times on the car roof. Then he looked down and muttered, “Jeez, hasn’t anybody got a sense of humor anymore?”

Maria had her blouse unbuttoned, and was removing the black bikini top she wore under it. She put her head out the car window again. “I’m okay, Kristen,” she said. “Honest.”

Kristen looked into Maria’s eyes, then into Paul’s. “Okay,” she said, nodding. “Listen, it was good to see you two again, but I’ve got to get down there now. Have a good day today.” She turned and took a few steps away from Paul and Maria’s car, then stopped and turned back toward them. She smiled. “Play nice,” she said. Paul nodded, and Maria smiled and waved.

Kristen turned and resumed her trek across the parking lot. A rusted-out black van sat near the beach steps. Kristen eyed the vehicle idly as she approached it. The van’s windows were dark, the glass tinted, but as she came closer to the van, Kristen realized there was someone in the driver’s seat. She knew that much only because she saw movement when the person’s head turned. Feeling curious, she watched the darkened windows intently as she walked.

She was about four or five car lengths from the van when its engine came to life with a sudden roar. Kristen jumped out of the way when the van lurched forward, tires squealing, and raced across the parking lot.

“Stupid sonofa…” Paul shouted. He picked up a small rock and hurled it at the back of the van as it passed him. People scattered as the black vehicle careened across the lot, trailing blue smoke. The van kicked up a spray of gravel when it turned onto the narrow gravel path that led out to the main road, and disappeared through the trees that screened the beach parking lot from the road.

Paul and Maria ran to where Kristen stood. Maria wore only her unbuttoned white blouse and the bottom of her fairly conservative black bikini. The tail of the blouse flapped behind her, and her firm bare breasts had a rhythm of their own as she ran.

“Are you okay, Kristen?” Maria asked breathlessly when she reached Kristen’s side.

“That moron could have killed somebody,” Paul said, looking toward the parking lot exit, where the van had disappeared.

“Was it somebody you guys know?” Kristen said. “He sure was in a hurry.”

“I didn’t recognize the van,” Paul said, shaking his head. “It was sitting there when we came in. I didn’t know there was anybody in it.”

“Hey, Maria, are you okay?” Kristen said.

There were tears in Maria’s eyes. “I should have put some shoes on,” she said, wincing. “I think I scraped my feet up.” She leaned against Paul’s body, and raised one foot. The sole was scratched and oozing blood. “Don’t run barefoot on blacktop if you don’t have a tough sole,” she said, through clenched teeth. “I think I can handle it at the end of the summer, but not this early in the season.”

“You’ll have to get that cleaned up, and get some disinfectant on it,” Kristen said, concerned.

Maria nodded. “We’ve got a first aid kit back in the car,” she said. “I’ll go take care of it. See you down on the beach, okay?” Maria turned and hobbled back toward the car, obviously in some pain.

Paul stood beside Kristen and watched Maria walking away for a few seconds. Then he turned to Kristen. “Are you sure you’re alright? That guy was some sort of maniac.”

“I’m fine,” Kristen said. “Not a scratch on me. Shouldn’t you be worrying about Maria?”

“Aw, she’s tough,” Paul said. “She seems all meek and mild, but she can take care of herself.”

“I hope she can,” Kristen said, watching as Maria paused for a moment before resuming her painful trek. “Listen,” she said, “I’ve got to get down to the beach, and you’ve got to go help Maria, whether she needs it or not. Okay?”

Paul shrugged and nodded.

“Okay,” Kristen said. “I suppose I’ll see you down there.” Kristen turned and started down the beach steps.

The steep rocky trail down the cliff side to the white sand beach seemed easier now. As she made the descent, Kristen watched the waves washing over the sand. She was fascinated by the rhythm of the waves, like the slow and steady pulse of the earth itself. This sea had beat against this shore millions of years before any human being had stood here. A smile spread across Kristen’s face. The animosity and fear that filled up so much of people’s lives seemed very distant on Black Knife Beach. This place was a world apart.

When she had walked clear of the rocky rubble that littered the beach near the base of the cliff, Kristen stopped for a moment and took off her shoes and socks.

Barefoot, she walked across the soft white sand to the main lifeguard station. She stepped through the open doorway, and stopped. The little office at the front of the building was empty. The locker room door stood open, and the lights were on in the locker room. “Beth, are you here?” Kristen called through the locker room door.

“Yes, just a second,” came Beth’s voice. A moment later, Beth stepped through the locker room door, totally nude. “Hi,” she said, smiling brightly. “Ready for opening day?”

Kristen was surprised to feel the blood rush to her cheeks.

“Kristen, you’re blushing!” Beth said. “You’re not getting cold feet on opening day, are you?”

“I’ll be fine,” Kristen said. “But this is like déjà vu. This is exactly how I first met you on Saturday.”

“I should be ashamed of myself,” Beth said, looking down at her bare body. “Wearing the same drab old outfit day after day. It’s so un-chic.”

Kristen laughed, but a rush of powerful old emotions flooded over her, revived by the memory of her introduction to Black Knife Beach. She had come a long way since then, but she still felt she should look away, though her eyes wanted to linger. Beth herself seemed perfectly comfortable having curious eyes study her nakedness.

Kristen was still baffled by Beth’s total lack of self-consciousness. The smooth shoulders, the slender but strong arms, the firm round breasts, the trim stomach that curved out just a little between her navel and the neatly trimmed reddish-brown pubic hair, the narrow waist that tapered out to the roundness of her hips, the swell of her buttocks, the long shapely legs, even the bare toes with their perfect pedicure—every part of Beth’s body was exposed to anyone who cared to look, and Beth seemed totally oblivious.

Kristen’s own body seemed almost to tingle with nervous anticipation at the thought of going back into the locker room, where she would take her clothes off for the day. She thought of herself as a nudist now, but when she was nude—especially on the beach, knowing that everyone could see her—a curious warmth seemed to spread out from the pit of her stomach through her entire body. The sun against her skin, the breeze moving over her, even the sensation of her own arms brushing against her hips or her thighs as she walked—Kristen felt her own nakedness with every atom of her being. It was not an unpleasant sensation, but it was a powerful one. She couldn’t understand how Beth and the other people she had met on the beach managed to go about their business so calmly, while this fire raged within herself.

“I just realized, Beth, I’ve never seen you with clothes on,” Kristen said. “Do you even own any clothes?”

Beth laughed. “Of course I own clothes, silly. I even offered to let you wear them home on Saturday, remember? I just don’t wear them down here. Speaking of which…”

“I know,” Kristen sighed. “The dress code.”

“It’s strictly enforced, you know,” Beth said with a smile.

“So I’ve heard,” Kristen said, taking a step toward the locker room. “Oh, would you…”

“I’ll be glad to help you with your sunscreen,” Beth said. “You ought to ask George to help sometime,” she added. “He really has the magic fingers.” She raised both her hands and wiggled her fingers.

“Magic fingers!” Kristen laughed, rolling her eyes. “Just what I need!” She took another few steps toward the locker room door. As she brushed past Beth, Kristen leaned over to whisper in Beth’s ear. “Anyway, why would we settle for hamburger when we have filet mignon?” she said, giggling.

Beth looked at Kristen with an expression of puzzlement for a moment. Slowly comprehension dawned in her eyes. Kristen was startled when Beth suddenly guffawed loudly. “You just don’t know a filet mignon from a hot dog,” Beth said, laughing. “You’re pretty young. You’ll learn.”

Beth’s laugh was contagious. “I was talking about Don,” Kristen protested, as she struggled to suppress her mirth.

Beth’s eyes twinkled. “I know very well who you were talking about,” she said. “But, listen. We can’t waste the whole day with idle chit-chat. There’s work to be done.” She stepped to a position behind Kristen, planted her hands squarely on Kristen’s back, and gently started to push the laughing Kristen toward the locker room door. “Hurry! Hurry!” Beth said. “I don’t like being the only naked person in this room.”

“Okay, okay!” Kristen said. She walked into the locker room and sat down on the bench in front of her locker, still laughing. She looked out through the locker room door, and saw that Beth was already busy with some sort of paperwork. Kristen let out a sigh, and stared for a moment at the lock on her locker. Beth almost always seemed to be tangled up in some kind of bureaucratic red tape, Kristen mused. It was good to see her laugh from time to time. Burdened as she was with her responsibilities as senior lifeguard, did Beth ever have a chance to relax and just enjoy this beautiful beach?

Kristen reached out, dialed in the locker combination, and opened her locker. She tossed the shoes she had been carrying into the locker and they landed with a noisy bang. She grabbed the hem of her dark blue t-shirt, and quickly pulled it up and off over her head. She ran her fingers through her hair, restoring some rough order to her tousled platinum blonde pageboy bob.

Kristen hadn’t worn a bra this morning, and a sort of warm glow seemed to spread through her body when she felt the air on her bare breasts. Her mother had brought clothes out to the house the night before, including underwear. But this morning it had seemed silly to put underclothes on just for the short walk down to the beach, where she would only have to take them off again. She pulled a towel from her beach bag, and tossed the bag into the locker. Standing, she spread the towel neatly over the wooden bench.

Kristen undid the snap and lowered the zipper on her dark blue shorts, then slid the shorts smoothly to her ankles. She sat on the bench and bent over to pull her shorts off over her feet. The decision not to wear panties this morning had been more difficult than the choice to forego her bra, but now she was happy she hadn’t worn anything under her street clothes. For some reason she couldn’t understand, the thought of the other lifeguards catching a glimpse of her in her underwear was intensely embarrassing.

She pulled the bottle of sunscreen from her locker. Starting with her forehead and working downward, she carefully coated every inch of her bare skin with a protective layer of the suntan lotion. On each of the previous two days at Black Knife Beach, she had evidently missed some small patches of exposed skin. She hadn’t suffered a serious sunburn, but the small unprotected areas glowed an angry red, and felt sore and sensitive. The experience reinforced her mother’s advice—Kristen had to protect absolutely every part of her body from the summer sun.

She glanced frequently through the open door into the office. At any moment, some visitor might walk through the office door, and Kristen knew that anyone who entered the office would be able to see her through the open locker room door. Her cheeks reddened at the thought, but she continued to work methodically, spreading the lotion over her body, and watching through the open door.

She hesitated when it came time to apply the lotion to the most private parts of her body. On the two days before, she had stepped around the corner of the row of lockers, where she couldn’t be seen from the office. The other lifeguards all seemed so matter-of-fact about every part of their own bodies. Kristen didn’t want them to see that she could feel embarrassed about something as straightforward as applying sunscreen. She looked away from the door. She poured a small drop of the suntan lotion onto one finger, and traced that finger slowly down the narrow groove between her buttocks. Her face burning, she poured some lotion across the fingertips of her other hand, and slowly rubbed it onto the sensitive flesh between her thighs. She closed her eyes and stood motionless for a moment before she had the courage to look again through the open door. Beth was still alone, standing naked, pinning something up on the bulletin board. Kristen breathed a relieved sigh.

“I’m ready, Beth,” Kristen said, stepping out into the office with the bottle of sunscreen in her hand. “I just can’t get the upper part of my back.”

“Okay, just a second,” Beth said, with a nod.

Kristen studied the photos Beth was pinning to the bulletin board. There were four of them—portraits—one boy about ten years old, and three young adults, two men and one woman. There was a thick black border around each photo. Under each photo was a little white square with a name and a date.

“What’s this?” Kristen asked.

“We do this every year, at all the lifeguard stations in the city,” Beth said. “It’s a tradition.”

“Who are they?” Kristen asked.

Beth gazed into Kristen’s eyes for a long moment. “These are the people who died last year at places where the Department of Parks and Recreation provides lifeguards.” She tapped the photo of the young boy. “Maidstone Beach was closed due to dangerous tides. This boy’s parents came to the beach anyway and let him go into the water. There was no lifeguard there to save him.” She pointed to another photo, one of the young men. “This guy was drunk. He fell off the high diving board at one of the outdoor pools, and got a concussion. He never woke up.”

Kristen stiffened and drew a sharp breath through her teeth.

“The other two were lost just a little while ago, actually,” Beth continued. “After their prom, at about two o’clock in the morning, they went down to Horseshoe Cove to go skinny-dipping. There was no lifeguard on duty to protect them, either.”

Kristen let out a long slow breath. She put one hand over her mouth as she studied the faces in the photos. “I—I guess I’ve never really understood just how serious this job really is,” she said, her voice quavering.

“It’s the best job in the world,” Beth said. “It really matters whether you do it well.”