Out of Uniform

Kristen felt awkward and uncertain. The little office was crowded, and no matter where she stood, she always seemed to be in someone’s way. The room was noisy with the hubbub of several simultaneous conversations. Everyone was renewing old friendships and catching up on the latest news, and Kristen was at a distinct disadvantage—the only person she really knew was Beth, who was busily chatting with her friends.

Kristen’s eyes darted from face to face, trying to associate names with faces. She had heard everyone’s name, but it might help, she thought, if everyone were wearing a name tag—or had their name tattooed on their chest. She listened and tried to make sense of the disjointed conversations all around her.

“So, George,” Richard said, “did you ever get rid of that clunker of yours?”

George laughed. “Hey, I’m ready to give it up whenever you’re ready to buy me a new one, Richard.”

Everyone seemed completely relaxed and comfortable, in stark contrast to Kristen’s own tense apprehension, which made her feel even more isolated.

She didn’t know where to look. She was fascinated by the naked bodies all around her. She was particularly intrigued by the bodies of the men—she wanted to study the intricate interplay of the sharply-defined muscles as their bodies moved. She was curious, too, about the bodies of the women—the size and color of the aureoles around their nipples, the curve of their stomachs above their pubic region, the way they had trimmed their pubic hair. Reflexive shame compelled her to look away, but there was nowhere to turn. She was surrounded by naked people.

“I ran into Erik and his crew on Saturday,” Beth said.

“Erik?” The girl with the pony tail—Alicia—responded. “Is Maria still with Paul?”

“Yep,” Beth said.

Alicia shook her head sadly. “I don’t know what she sees in that guy.”

“I don’t think she’s ever looked in a mirror,” Don said. “I don’t think she realizes she could replace that jerk in a New York minute.” Alicia nodded.

In spite of the introductions, Kristen knew virtually nothing about any of these people. She didn’t need a name tag to remember Don’s name. He was deep in conversation, paying no attention to her. Only a few minutes before, he had laid his hands on her body, and she had put her hands upon him. But they couldn’t have exchanged much more than a few dozen words. She couldn’t pretend that she knew the man.

Glumly, she remembered several times when she accompanied girls from her high school and hung out at the mall. They were depressing memories—her friends seemed to have an easy rapport with everyone they met. Kristen always felt like the odd wheel. She felt much the same way now.

“So, we’re pretty mad at the cable company, and we’re looking into getting one of those satellite dishes,” Janet said to Trina. From the corner of her eye, Janet studied Kristen’s face and furrowed her brow.

“Oh, can I come up? I’ve always wanted to see one of those,” Trina said.

Although she felt isolated, Kristen was surprised to realize that she felt considerably more embarrassed about seeing the others nude than she did about them seeing her. She had practically forgotten that she was naked, but every now and then someone in the crowded room would move, and she would feel raw flesh brush against her buttocks, providing a vivid reminder that she, too, was completely bare.

“I’m sort of a contrarian,” Richard said. “If the herd goes this way, I’m going that way. It’s worked out pretty well for me.” He moved his hands to indicate the herd going one way, and himself going the other.

George nodded and made a diving motion with one hand. “Voooop! Right off the cliff, that’s me,” he said, laughing.

For the most part, Kristen felt that she was handling herself remarkably well. She had dreaded this moment all weekend long, imagining the lecherous leers of the male lifeguards. Now she felt oddly disappointed that they were giving her so little attention. These men seemed to see her as just one of the guys. It was disconcerting.

“Granted,” Don said, “it’s a good shoe. But I don’t see how they can charge that much money for it. You’re paying so much extra for nothing but hype.”

Kristen was slowly becoming aware of something more disconcerting than the apparent indifference of the men. She noticed that Janet was staring at her at every opportunity. There was an intensity to the green-eyed woman’s gaze that made Kristen very uncomfortable. Kristen was accustomed to men’s eyes following her every move. She felt a little queasy when the thought crossed her mind that a lustful lesbian had an eye on her.

“Is your sister going on the warpath again this year, Richard?” Alicia asked.

Richard rolled his eyes. “Probably so,” he said in an exasperated tone of voice.

“Man!” George said, shaking his head. “Why don’t you just evict her?”

“She’s my kid sister, George,” Richard replied tensely. “She’s actually a very nice person. She just has this one particular burr up her butt.”

Kristen noticed Beth checking her wristwatch. Kristen quickly glanced around the room and noted that Beth was the only person wearing a watch. Except for the lifeguard caps, it was the only thing anyone in the room was wearing.

Kristen started to feel vaguely uneasy. She was the only person without a cap; hers was still locked in her locker, and she couldn’t get at it until she got the combination later. Beth had told her that the cap was the uniform at Black Knife Beach. Kristen glanced nervously into the locker room, where the door of her locker was closed and locked. What was it Trina had said—something about severe penalties for being out of uniform?

“Bzzzzt!” Beth cried suddenly. “Okay, everybody, it’s six o’clock! Ding! Ding! Ding! Rise and shine! Time to get to work!“

Kristen was jounced about as everyone moved forward to gather around Beth. Don, standing right next to Beth, crouched down so that the shorter people behind him could see. As everyone took up their position, Kristen was dismayed to notice Janet standing right beside her. Janet’s eyes wandered slowly over Kristen’s body, and stopped on her face.

“Welcome back, everyone,” Beth said. “It’s good to see all your smiling faces again.”

“Faces?” Don said. Most of the people in the room chuckled appreciatively.

“I’d like to start things off with everybody’s very favorite thing—paperwork!” Beth said. There was a general groan. Beth held up a small stack of white cards. “Here are your time cards. You have to write in your employee number, and you have to write in your time every day. Let me make this perfectly clear, people: if you don’t fill in your time, you don’t get paid. Period. I’m not going to fill them in for you anymore.”

There were a few discontented murmurs. Beth shook her head. “Come on, folks. Since the timeclock is broken, you get to write your own time in. You know that I’m not a real stickler about this stuff, so long as you get the work done. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Kristen looked at the little punch clock hanging near the door. “Uh, Beth?” she said. “Is the timeclock really broken? It looks like it’s just not plugged in.”

There were a few annoyed grumbles from the other lifeguards. Beth looked at Kristen and smiled. She noisily cleared her throat, and spoke a little louder than before. “As I said, the… timeclock… is… broken, and has been for five years.” She raised the stack of timecards over her head again. “The only thing I care about is that we’re getting the job done, and doing it right. But you guys have got to help me out here. Just fill out the timecards, okay?” There were a few grumbles, but the lifeguards all nodded.

“Okay,” Beth said. “Just think of it as your own little sacrifice to Papyrus, the God of Bureaucracy. Next item. Educational update. Let’s see,” she said, shuffling through a stack of colorful brochures, “how to listen to and interpret weather reports, a bulletin about sea lice, the instruction manual for the walkie-talkies, something nice about how to use a ladder safely. Really good stuff.” She held up the stack of brochures. “We’re all supposed to review this stuff together. Now, it’s my understanding that all you folks know how to read—am I right about that? If so, you know where to find this stuff. Please take the time to look it over, okay?” She plopped the stack of brochures back down on her desk.

Janet leaned forward a bit and stared into Kristen’s eyes. She wiggled her eyebrows and smiled, as if trying to get Kristen’s attention. Kristen blushed and turned her face away, pretending to study a map hanging on the office wall.

“Next item,” Beth said. “We’ve got a laurel wreath for Richard.”

“A laurel wreath already?” someone said.

“This is a leftover from last year,” Beth said, studying a little white card. “It’s for Richard’s heroic rescue of the lady from the boat.” Most of the lifeguards laughed, and everyone applauded as Beth handed the little card to Richard.

“Don’t I get another one?” Richard asked, laughing. “I mean, I had to revive her after she saw she was surrounded by naked savages.” Everyone laughed.

“I think this one is supposed to cover that, too,” Beth said, chuckling. “Anyway, folks, Richard gets the first laurel wreath of the year, and, boy, did he earn it!” The lifeguards laughed and applauded again.

Richard took off his cap and tucked it under one arm. His hands were busy with the little white card. Kristen craned her neck to see that the award was a little enamel pin with a gilded image of a laurel wreath on its face. Richard detached the pin from the card, and pinned it onto the side of his cap. When he put the cap back onto his head, there was another brief round of applause. Richard tipped his cap to acknowledge the applause.

Janet leaned over toward Kristen. “Hey, blondie!” she whispered.

Blushing, Kristen turned her face away again. “Hush,” she whispered. “I—I’m trying to listen.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “Next item. We are pretty short-staffed again this year, and we have to cover the weekends. We did pretty well last year, and we’re going to use the same kind of rotation this year. I want you all to give me your preferred schedule, and I’ll get something final worked out by the end of the day.” There were a few grumbles, but most of the lifeguards nodded.

“However,” Beth continued, “we’re all going to have to work straight sevens for the first two weeks, until we can get our rookie up to speed.”

There were loud groans from many of the lifeguards. Kristen smiled apologetically and hung her head.

“Grow up, people,” Beth said. “It’s just two weeks. Sorry if it screws up your social life, but that’s life.”

“Hey, it doesn’t mess up my social life,” George said. “I don’t have any dirty clothes to take to the laundromat anyway.” Most of the lifeguards laughed.

“George, you need to get out more,” Richard said, laughing. Kristen breathed a sigh of relief that the anger directed at her seemed to be quickly dissipated.

“Speaking of our rookie,” Beth said, looking squarely into Kristen’s eyes and smiling mischievously, “you have probably noticed that she is out of uniform. She isn’t wearing her cap.”

All eyes turned toward Kristen, who looked at Beth with a dismayed expression. She was suddenly intensely aware of her own nakedness, and she felt the stirrings of a reawakening sense of shame.

“The rules are pretty clear, I’m afraid,” Beth continued. “A lifeguard out of uniform earns a demerit. Ten demerits, and you’re fired.”

Kristen gasped. “But—but it was an accident!” she said.

Beth nodded. “I personally think the penalty is pretty harsh,” she said, “especially considering that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she isn’t wearing her cap. But unfortunately, I’m not allowed to just act as if this never happened. So here’s what I propose: no demerit. Nothing goes in the personnel file. And in exchange, she agrees to pay a forfeit.”

The other lifeguards nodded approvingly.

“A—a forfeit?” Kristen asked.

“Yes,” Beth said, smiling sweetly. “I have something in mind that I would like you to do. If you’ll agree to do it, you won’t get the demerit. Your record stays clean.”

Kristen felt betrayed. “What is it?” she asked. “What do I have to do?”

“No, I’m not going to tell you that. But I promise you, it’s nothing bad. I think you’ll actually enjoy it,” Beth said.

Tears were forming in Kristen’s eyes. She struggled to maintain her composure. The other lifeguards stood around her and several soft voices offered advice: “Don’t be afraid. It’s okay. Take the deal. Beth’s all right. You can trust her.”

“Come on. I’ve already asked you to do several things that you didn’t want to do, haven’t I? Are you sorry that you did any of them?”

Kristen shook her head. “No,” she said, barely controlling her trembling voice.

“Okay,” Beth said. “Show me you trust me. Take the forfeit.”

Kristen fought back a sob. Her knees wobbled.

“Come on, Kristen,” Beth said.

“Kristen?” Janet cried. She lunged over and threw her arms around the startled Kristen in a tight bear hug. “Omigod, Kristen! It is you!”