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The Lifeguards



Our boys were lifeguards, we told ourselves, and were surely safe. Weren’t they safe? They knew CPR, had shown us their fanny packs filled with Band-Aids and plastic breathing tubes. Xavier, Bobcat, and Charlie (my son) had taken the course together, weekend mornings at Barton Springs. We’d dropped them off at dawn, the Texas sun just starting to climb above the horizon, making the surface of the spring-fed swimming hole flash red and orange. We’d said we’d walk Lady Bird Lake together, or we’d stand-up paddleboard or grab coffee. Instead, we smiled as we dropped the boys, went home to the adult lives we’d begun to create again, now that our children were fifteen. I was ghostwriting a cookbook; Annette was working at Hola, Amigos Daycare; and Whitney had become an Austin real estate titan.

Now that we no longer had endless summer days with elementary schoolers underfoot, it was harder to connect. But our friendship was unbreakable, as safe as the neighborhood where we’d raised our sweet little kids.

Or so we thought.

By the end of the summer, one of us would be gone.

“Where are they?” I said, glancing at my watch. (I liked wearing a thin gold watch I’d bought at an antiques store. Sometimes, I told people it had been my mother’s, conjuring an “old money” family that didn’t exist. Oh, how I loved the idea of a mother who’d wear such an elegant timepiece on a slim wrist! My actual mother, in contrast, had a tattoo of a snake on her hand.)

It was 11:00 p.m., which was definitely too late.

“Riding their bikes around the neighborhood, they said,” said Annette. Her son, Bobcat, was rail-thin and six-three, a reluctant ninth-grade basketball star. Despite Bobcat insisting he just wanted to build computers in his room, Annette’s husband forced their son to keep playing. During the last game of the season, an opponent elbowed Bobcat—hard—in the soft place underneath his rib cage. It was awful to see Bobcat’s face crumple in pain . . . but he only glanced toward the stands at his father . . . and didn’t make a sound.

When my son, Charlie, went over his mountain-bike handles on a trail and cut his forehead, I felt his pain viscerally. I could scarcely watch him pedal away, even now that he wore the most expensive safety equipment available: a two-hundred-dollar full-face helmet, padded bike shorts, neck brace, wrist, elbow, and knee pads, and a back protector made of VPD, whatever that was. Despite Charlie’s complaints, I’d bought all the items at Dick’s Sporting Goods on layaway. (The sign above the gear was a siren call: you can buy the feeling of safety!) Sure, the other kids made fun of him with his braces and helmets, but I’d rather my son be embarrassed than dead.

It was possible, as Charlie had suggested gently, that I had anxiety issues. Maybe, as he’d said, I should “use our money to talk to someone.” But you couldn’t see a therapist on layaway, now could you? I’d handle my brain when I’d somehow gotten Charlie to college without any major bodily damage. Splurging on things that made me feel more secure was working for me, so I ignored Charlie’s complaints and insinuations and loved him hard and bought him safety equipment.

Annette went to every game wearing Austin High colors from head to toe. She had platinum blond hair and bronze skin, wide brown eyes. She carefully sculpted her thick eyebrows into perfect arches, accented her high cheekbones and naturally plump lips with drugstore makeup, and wore expensive jewelry at all times. When Louis (who had been too short to play basketball himself) led cheers for Bobcat from the stands and stomped his feet on the bleachers, tried to start “the wave” and was largely ignored, Annette stood by his side. We all loved Louis, his childlike enthusiasm, but Annette knew, as we all did, that Bobcat played only to please his father but really came alive when explaining the best graphics card for his latest home-built PC.

Louis wanted his son to be the athlete he’d dreamed of becoming himself—he couldn’t fathom a person with physical gifts not wanting to use them. I thought it was just a matter of time before Bobcat either became who he was meant to be or stopped trying. Did Annette defend her son behind closed doors? Or was marriage about acquiescence, silencing yourself in the name of marital harmony?

I wouldn’t know. I was a single mom, the struggling one in a sea of serene, wealthy wives. Everyone I knew had the money for psychiatrists, aestheticians, Peloton machines, and massages. I didn’t own my house. I worried about our electricity bill. I was so nervous that my friends would drop me—nobody wanted a single woman at their barbecue.

Sometimes, I drove by neighborhood parties I hadn’t been invited to. Not on purpose! I just happened to be going for a swim at Barton Springs, or grabbing a bottle of Sauv Blanc at the Barton Hills Food Mart. On the way home, I’d swing past a friend’s house to see the street jammed with cars, the yard filled with people I would have thought would have included me.

Would have included us—me and Charlie. If Charlie was with me, we wouldn’t mention the fête. If I was alone, I would swallow my sadness. I told myself, as I lay awake in my queen-sized bed littered with cookbooks and recipe notes, that I was glad I could toss and turn without bothering anyone, could eat a bowl of cereal at three in the morning if I wanted to. Or a sandwich. At three in the morning. Hooray!

But on this night, I wasn’t alone. I was cozy in the circle of my two best friends, Whitney and Annette, celebrating the end of the school year. The boys would start their first full days as summer lifeguards in the morning.

We had been through so much together in the fifteen years since our children’s births. Annette and Whitney both really did seem to love me, which meant everything. I was so scared of losing their warmth.

I watched TV shows and movies about “BFFs,” puzzled over women seeming utterly relaxed with each other. Around my best friends, I was very careful. I needed them too much, I knew. I made gift bags for them “just because.” I was on high alert, the ultimate people pleaser, shape-shifting into whatever Whitney and Annette wanted: a good listener, someone to praise their choices, free at the spur of the moment for a glass or three of wine. I ignored what I needed to be the perfect friend, terrified they would ditch me.

Among them, I was safe inside the “rich mom” circle. If I messed up and was cast out, I’d just be a woman who couldn’t quite afford the neighborhood, and Charlie would feel like I had as a kid: miserable, desperate to escape. He would leave me if the world I made for him wasn’t good enough to want to stay. I knew on some level that this chain of causation was overly dramatic, but on the other hand, the securities of wealth were absolutely real. Our rental home fed to schools with resources and college counselors. We had a Neighborhood Watch.

“The boys are fine, Lizey,” said Whitney, using her affectionate nickname for me. She was five-two with thick black hair that always fell in a shining curtain as if she’d just left a salon chair.

Whitney knew I was a worrier; she passed me the bottle of Chardonnay. We were sipping out of Whitney and Jules’s stemless glasses. The glasses were expensive and fashionable, but I liked a stem, myself. Not that I’d ever say so. “You’re fine, Lizey,” said Whitney. My best friend knew me well: her words made my stomach ease.

I’d met Whitney sixteen years before, when I’d been pregnant with Charlie. I’d arrived in Austin with a few hundred dollars in my wallet, and Whitney had been on floor duty when I’d walked into Zilker Park Realty. She had a friend (Whitney always had a friend) whose elderly mother had just moved into a nursing home and was considering renting out her Barton Hills bungalow. As soon as I walked into the twelve-hundred-square-foot house (the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator a perfect 1970s avocado green), I knew that 1308 Oak Glen was where my new life would begin.

The bungalow was probably worth three quarters of a million now, a “teardown.” Whitney and Jules had bought it a while back, becoming my landlords. It was a bit odd how it went down, to be honest: One day Whitney just mentioned that I should write the rent check to her from now on. They hadn’t raised my rent—not yet—and I was hardly in a position to negotiate, but I’d been a bit confused, even upset, at first. Why hadn’t they told me they were buying my home? I never could have bought it myself, but it would have been nice to have been asked, to have been given a chance to bid.

Although I told everyone I was a food writer, I had myriad side hustles to keep us afloat. I was careful, lest any Barton Hills neighbors see me working a menial job. I walked dogs in Round Rock and took on “Tasks” for TaskRabbit. A folder on my desk labeled “Recipe Ideas” was actually a checklist of odd jobs to follow up on each day. Every minute Charlie wasn’t home, I was trying to make some money.

The Lifeguards
by by Amanda Eyre Ward

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593159462
  • ISBN-13: 9780593159460