by Emily King
On the crowded sandy beaches of southern California, newly minted lifeguard Amy Bergen has her hands full keeping the beachgoers safe. She loves her job and knows she made the right decision to finally pursue her childhood dream. The problem is—she’s still the busy owner and manager of a luxury auto dealership. And with so many roles to juggle, finding time to date seems like one more complication…until she meets Sarah.
When Midwestern transplant and middle school teacher Sarah Wagner sees Amy on duty at the beach, she is immediately drawn to her. But so are a lot of other women. And after a rocky first encounter, Sarah isn’t sure Amy is truly the kind of woman she is looking to date. But with Amy, desire just might win out…
As Sarah Wagner bent to collect a discarded bottle cap from the sand of South Coast Beach with her garden-gloved hand, she caught sight of a dark shape partially covered by a tangle of seaweed. With a startled cry, she jumped back, instinctively realizing it was a sea animal of some sort and might be dangerous.
“What is it? What happened?” Justin Morgan called to her as he rushed over.
Sarah pointed at the wide, flat shape in the sand. It wasn’t moving, and her fright turned to concern. She set down her Earth Day trash-collecting bucket and walked a little closer. Flies were buzzing in the area but dispersed at her approach.
Justin set down his own bucket and joined her in front of the animal.
They peered down at it. “It’s dead, isn’t it? Poor thing.”
Justin nodded. “Yes, it looks like it’s been here a while. It looks like a stingray.”
“A stingray?” Sarah repeated. She knew what those were, having seen pictures of them at some point in her life, but she had never seen one in the flesh. Animals with two broad, flat fins that let them almost fly through the water weren’t something she had encountered growing up in Iowa.
“Yeah, a stingray,” Justin said. “A young one, from the size of it. I wonder what happened to it that it washed up on shore. Maybe a predator got hold of it and injured it.” Justin was a southern California and South Coast Beach native and clearly knew something about marine life. Bending down, he carefully reached out with one of his rose-patterned, garden-gloved hands and moved the seaweed aside. The rest of the creature was revealed, including a long thin tail.
“Oh, cool, look at that!” a young male voice said. Sarah and Justin turned to see a trio of high school-aged boys approaching. They held buckets and wore gloves and appeared to be Earth Day participants too.
“It is cool, isn’t it?” Justin said. “But it’s a stingray, so be careful.” He began telling the boys about it, the teacher in him coming out. Like Sarah, he taught at South Coast Beach Middle School, so these high schoolers weren’t their students, but it was great to be around kids of any age who were interested in learning. Sarah listened as Justin finished cautioning them about its stinging mechanism and venom, now very glad that she hadn’t inadvertently stepped on that part of it.
“Where’s its mouth?” one of the boys asked.
“Underneath. Let me get something so I can turn it over, and I’ll show you.”
Another of the boys picked up a nearby piece of driftwood and handed it to Justin. “Here’s a stick.”
The shrill sound of a whistle cut through the air. A brunette in red athletic pants and jacket raced toward them, waving her hands as if to tell them to stop what they were doing. She must be one of the SCB lifeguards; she had official-looking emblems on her clothes and was coming from the direction of one of the lifeguard towers that dotted the beach.
“Don’t touch that!” the lifeguard’s voice carried across the sand. Her arms and legs pumped as she ran toward them. Sarah watched her fit figure approach, rapt. It was too bad the morning was cloudy and brisk; she could just imagine how amazing she would look running in warm weather attire, like shorts and a tight T-shirt or maybe even only a swimsuit. Sarah offered a smile as the lifeguard neared.
She stopped before them, her sunglasses-covered gaze stern. Sarah stopped smiling.
“I’ll take that stick, please.” She all but grabbed it from Justin.
Justin frowned. “Hey, take it easy. They only wanted to see…”
“So, you were going to poke at it? Don’t you know stingrays can be dangerous?”
“Enough said.” She ushered everyone back from the stingray and then surveyed the assembled group. “Did anyone get stung or otherwise injured?”
The kids shook their heads and answered, “No.”
“Good.” She cast an accusatory look at Justin and Sarah. “We want everyone to stay safe. If you see anything else potentially dangerous like this during Earth Day, or any other day for that matter, please just mark the area and alert one of us so we can remove it.”
It was clear she was dismissing everyone so that she could take care of her tasks. The kids murmured agreement and wandered away, and Justin moved away too. Sarah started to follow, but hesitated and then stepped forward. “You didn’t let him finish what he was saying. Those kids were interested, and he’s a teacher.”
“Oh? What does he teach?”
Sarah paused. “That doesn’t matter.”
The lifeguard folded her arms across her tall, strong-looking body and again fixed her with that stern gaze. “So, not biology or anything like that?”
“English,” Sarah admitted. She didn’t bother mentioning that she was a teacher, too, since she didn’t teach something the lifeguard would find relevant either. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know about stingrays,” she quickly added.
The lifeguard shook her head.
“He was going to show them—” Sarah stopped herself from explaining and sighed. The lifeguard wasn’t going to listen right now. Some people were just stubborn. Stubborn, but seriously hot. Sarah had the sudden urge to run her hands through her soft-looking, short, sable brown hair, pull her closer, and kiss her. But that was crazy. Sarah didn’t get urges like that with complete strangers. She hadn’t even felt so strongly about Robin, her last girlfriend.
The lifeguard seemed to be regarding her more closely now, but it was hard to tell with her eyes hidden behind those sunglasses. “Next time, let a lifeguard handle it. I don’t want anyone getting hurt on my watch.”
“Okay,” Sarah said. At least the lifeguard was stubborn for a reason. It was probably stressful keeping an eye on so many beachgoers. Or maybe she was just having a bad day.
Sarah turned and left to catch up with Justin. But she couldn’t resist one glance back. Pleasantly surprised to catch the lifeguard’s gaze, Sarah tried offering her a smile again. This time, she returned the smile.
~ ~ ~
Amy Bergen watched the curvaceous blonde catch up to the guy she was with and sighed. No matter how attractive some of the participants were, Earth Day was going to be a long one if they let their curiosity get the best of them while combing the beach for trash. Even though picking up litter seemed straightforward, it wasn’t without risk. The volunteers were instructed at the beginning of the day not to touch hazardous items and instead mark the area for professional pickup, but they sometimes couldn’t resist and ended up getting injured and requiring first aid or more. There was always someone who found something dangerous, such as that stingray or a used condom or even medical waste like a syringe with an attached needle. She and the other lifeguards regularly removed dangerous objects from the beach, but it was hard to get it all. She felt fortunate to have reached this group in time to avert an incident.
Although she had managed to prevent anyone from getting injured, Amy wished she hadn’t spoken so sharply to them; they clearly meant well since they had come to participate in the beach cleanup. It was just that lots of people coming to a hazardous scene only made preventing injury more challenging. She had wanted to break up the group before a larger crowd gathered. And she was worried about what they intended to do with that stick. In her experience, people with sticks usually got up to no good at the beach. She may have slightly misjudged the level of danger in this situation, but as a new lifeguard she wasn’t taking any chances.
Having completed the removal of the stingray, she walked back to her tower to watch her area of the beach and ocean for other potential problems. Her assigned zone was clear right now and her thoughts returned to the woman.
What the woman had said about the kids being interested echoed in her mind. She was right; this had been a missed opportunity to teach them. As someone who had participated in the SCB junior lifeguard program as a kid and who had recently applied to become an instructor in the same program, she was going to have to do better than this. She was out of practice that was all. She had spent too much time in the business world ordering people around—and too much time away from the lifeguard program while she toiled in the family business as owner and manager of a luxury auto dealership. She would do better next time out here.
Curious as to where the blonde was now, she picked up her binoculars. She and the guy she was with had been heading toward the pier. Adjusting the binoculars, she took a peek out of her assigned zone to see what they were doing.
After spotting them, she watched for a moment. They walked slowly, scanning the sand, searching for debris. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to be finding anything else that was potentially dangerous. Amy let her eyes linger on the attractive woman. Her golden hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, revealing her pretty face, and her body was exactly the right amount of curvy in all the right places.
Reminding herself that she was here to work, not scope out women, Amy pulled her gaze away and turned her binoculars back to her zone.
~ ~ ~
After spending the rest of the morning collecting trash, Sarah and Justin took their buckets to the Earth Day garbage drop-off area at the pier.
“Ms. Wagner!” A young voice called.
Sarah turned, searching for the source of the excited cry. She recognized an approaching girl as one of her seventh-graders. “Hi, Hannah!” Sarah smiled at her student, an energetic girl who wore her light brown hair center parted with French-braided pigtails on each side.
“Hi, Ms. Wagner! We’re collecting trash, too!” Hannah held up a bucket.
“Hi,” said the man accompanying her, a dark-haired and fit-looking guy of about thirty. He gave Sarah an easy smile, setting down his own bucket. “I’m Hannah’s uncle, Peter Grandin.” He removed his trash-collecting glove and extended his hand.
Sarah removed her glove as well and shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Sarah Wagner.”
“Hannah tells me you’re one of her teachers.”
“Yes, she’s in my pre-algebra class. She’s a good student.” Sarah smiled at Hannah, who beamed at the praise.
“That’s wonderful.” Peter patted Hannah’s shoulder.
From the corner of her eye, Sarah noticed Justin practically vibrating at the prospect of meeting Peter. Clearly, he had recovered from the chastising they had received earlier. Since he was part of the reason they’d gotten in trouble, though, Sarah couldn’t resist prolonging his wait for an introduction to the hunky guy in front of him by presenting him to Hannah first.
“Hannah, this is my friend, Mr. Morgan, one of the English teachers at our school.”
“Hi, Mr. Morgan,” Hannah said. “I have Ms. Smith for English.”
Justin returned her greeting and shook her hand, smiling. He then looked at Sarah expectantly.
Unable to delay any longer, Sarah introduced him to Peter.
“Hello.” Peter shook Justin’s hand. “So, you teach English?”
“Yes,” Justin said, smiling. “Seventh and eighth grade. What do you do?”
“Uncle Peter’s a lifeguard!” Hannah interjected.
“Oh, mm-hm,” Justin said, sounding very interested and taking the opportunity to sweep his gaze over Peter. “And are you here in your official capacity today?” he asked with a flirtatious tilt of his head.
“No, I’m off today. Just spending the day with Hannah and helping clean up the beach,” Peter replied. Sarah had the feeling Justin was wasting his efforts with him, because he wasn’t showing anything other than friendly interest. It looked like neither she nor Justin was going to have much luck finding a date today. Not that finding dates was the goal of Earth Day, but Sarah had been open to the idea and she knew Justin had been too.
“Ms. Wagner?” Hannah spoke. “Are you and Mr. Morgan doing the Fun Run next month?”
Sarah glanced at Justin, hoping he would tell her what that was, but he was still busy trying to assess the effect of his charms on Peter. She turned back to Hannah. “What’s the Fun Run?”
Peter spoke first. “It’s one of the fundraisers for the SCB junior lifeguard program. Hannah’s going to try out for the program this year.”
“Good for you, Hannah,” Sarah said. “I’d be glad to do the Fun Run.” An image of the gorgeous, running lifeguard from this morning popped into her mind. Would she be there, too? Sarah would welcome another chance to meet her, especially under the friendlier circumstances of a fundraiser.
“I’d be glad to do the Fun Run, too,” Justin said.
“Cool.” Hannah grinned at them.
“How far is it?” Sarah asked.
Sarah couldn’t hold back a small grimace at realizing the distance was three miles. She was fit to an extent, but it was from riding her bicycle along the local bike paths, not jogging.
“It’s on the beach,” Hannah added.
“That sounds good,” Justin said.
“It will be,” Hannah enthused. “It’s going to raise a lot of money. Uncle Peter helps run the junior lifeguard program. If I get into it, I get to jump off the pier at the end!”
“Really?” Sarah asked in surprise. The SCB pier was a very tall pier as well as one of the longest on the West Coast.
Peter nodded. “All of the junior lifeguards get to jump off the pier, if they’d like to. But the main goal of the program is to teach kids water safety skills. We instruct kids in a variety of lifeguarding skills, everything from different aquatic skills to rescue skills to first aid. The program involves both teamwork and leadership and a lot of physical conditioning. We’re expecting about a thousand students this year.”
“Wow,” Sarah said. If it was that many students, there were probably a lot of other kids from SCB Middle School participating.
“And do the students graduate to become lifeguards?” Justin asked.
“No, not yet. The program does help prepare them for that, though. Some students do the program for fun, and others do the program to develop and practice lifeguarding skills. If being a lifeguard is something they’re interested in, they still have to wait until they’re old enough and then go through lifeguard tryouts. But those are much, much harder.”
Sarah and Justin nodded.
“Ewww,” came a voice over the sound of the ocean.
They turned their heads in the direction of the voice. A woman was staring at something in the sand, her lips curled back in disgust.
“I think I’d better go see what’s happening,” Peter said. “Come on, Hannah.” They hurried off, Peter calling over his shoulder, “It was nice to meet you both.”
“Likewise,” they called back. Justin turned to Sarah and asked, “Do you want to go see what she found?”
“Seriously? After what happened this morning?”
Justin laughed. “I was only kidding.”
“Good,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “Want to check out the festivities instead?” She indicated the Earth Day displays, vendors, and activities in the plaza by the pier.
Justin eyed the food booths. “Yeah, I’m hungry. Let’s get some lunch.”
They got drinks and slices of pizza and found a spot to sit. The sun was peeking from behind the marine layer now, and the warmth felt good after the chilly late April morning. Nearby, under the sun’s rays, gleamed a display of luxury hybrid vehicles from Bergen Motors, one of the festival sponsors.
“Nice,” Justin said, gazing dreamily at the sleek, new automobiles. “Can you see me in that coupe? Hot guy by my side?”
The coupe was indeed a beautiful car. Unfortunately, Sarah now tended to associate expensive coupes with her ex-girlfriend, Robin, and the cars did not hold as much appeal for her as they used to. Robin, with her designer clothes, expensive cars, and multimillion-dollar home, was a high-powered real estate agent who sold luxury homes in South Coast Beach and the other cities of Orange County to a wealthy clientele. Sarah had become swept up in her world of wealth and luxury, and it had not worked out well. Robin used aspects of Sarah’s modest upbringing and lifestyle in the Midwest as fodder for endless jokes and stories to tell her friends. Seduced by the trappings of Robin’s wealth, Sarah had found it too easy to overlook—for too long—Robin’s belittling behavior and faults and those of her friends. She mustered a smile for Justin’s benefit. “No,” she replied, teasing him, “but I can see myself in that coupe, hot woman by my side, cruising down Pacific Coast Highway, sunroof open…”
Justin laughed good-naturedly but then stopped as he looked at her more closely. With a thoughtful frown, he glanced from her to the expensive cars and back. “Looking at these cars makes you think of Robin, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Sarah admitted. Justin was all too familiar with her time with Robin, having been there from the start to hear of the excitement of the new relationship, to lend a sympathetic ear when things were going badly between them, and to comfort her when they broke up.
Sarah had met Robin almost immediately after moving to South Coast Beach two years ago. Exploring her new coastal city by strolling along its boulevards and doing some window shopping, she had stopped in front of a boutique to admire the window display after a lacey, sleeveless cocktail dress in dark pink on one of the mannequins caught her eye. It and the other dresses on display were not the kind of clothing one found in the stores of the small farming community in Iowa in which she was raised. In her hometown, what few clothing stores there were displayed mannequins wearing button-down shirts, jeans, and caps emblazoned with the names of tractor companies. Things like her dad wore every day. To buy a nice dress back home necessitated a drive of a couple hours to a larger city. Still, those were not in league with the dresses in this window. And Sarah’s salary as a middle school teacher was not in league with the cost of the dresses.
Just as she had been about to turn away from the window display, a woman carrying two large shopping bags had emerged from the boutique. She paused by Sarah’s side, gazing at the dress also.
“That’s a pretty dress.”
“Mm-hm,” Sarah murmured, admiring the sheath silhouette and surplice neckline.
“It would look beautiful on you.”
Sarah turned to look at the woman then. Intent brown eyes regarded her from an attractive, tanned, and lined, but minimally so, older face. Her short, neatly coiffed hair was reddish brown and she was nattily dressed in tan linen slacks belted at her waist, a navy-blue linen blouse, and tasseled loafers. Tasteful gold jewelry completed her look.
“Why don’t you wear that dress and join me for dinner Friday night?”
Sarah felt her eyebrows raise in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“A date. South Coast Steak at seven o’clock.”
Sarah tried to process this. Had this woman, a complete stranger who didn’t even know if she was a lesbian, just asked her out? Was this how things worked in her new city? Were all the women here so bold? “You don’t even know me,” Sarah said.
“Ah, but I’d like to know you.”
Sarah regarded her, curiosity piqued. She glanced again at the dress. She could easily imagine herself wearing it in the upscale steakhouse and sitting across from this attractive older woman for a nice dinner. But both the dress and the restaurant were out of her price range. She shook her head. “That’s nice of you to invite me to dinner, but I’m afraid I can’t…”
“Afford the dress?”
Cheeks reddening with embarrassment, Sarah managed to give a short nod.
“Here.” The woman handed her one of her shopping bags. “For you. Size eight.”
Reflexively, Sarah reached for the bag being handed to her. “What is this? The dress? How did…”
“The owner of the boutique has an accurate eye for size.”
Sarah frowned. “This was a little presumptuous, don’t you think?” She indicated the bag.
The woman shrugged, apparently unbothered. “I prefer the term audacious. I haven’t gotten where I am in life without taking risks and going after what I want.”
“What if I’m not interested?” Sarah managed to ask.
“Then keep the dress anyway. But I hope to see you for our dinner date.” She turned and walked away.
The conversation was surreal, but Sarah wasn’t ready for it to end. “Just dinner?” she called after her.
The woman turned, a smile of victory appearing on her face. “Just dinner.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“’Bye for now, Sarah.” Robin opened the door of a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S parked at the curb, got in with her remaining shopping bag, and drove away.
“’Bye,” Sarah said faintly. The whole encounter had been so out of the realm of anything she had ever experienced that she knew she would wear the dress and meet her for dinner.
True to her word, Robin had not tried to make the evening into anything more than a dinner date. And the date had been pleasant—pleasant enough to result in other dates that had turned into more than just dinner. And that had been pleasant, too—as good, if not better, than things with her previous girlfriend. But Sarah should have known better than to think that anything worthwhile could have come out of being so casually picked up. Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, she liked to think she was a little wiser and would be better at avoiding women like Robin.
She sighed again, trying to push away thoughts of Robin and instead focus on enjoying her pizza with Justin, listening to the live music being played, and watching a group of people doing yoga on the grassy area of the plaza.
Justin brushed off his hands and got to his feet. “I know what will cheer you up. Let’s go to the face-painting booth.”
Sarah laughed. “Okay.” She popped the last bite of her pizza into her mouth and stood up.
After getting rainbows painted on their cheeks, they collected their bikes from the bicycle valet booth and pedaled to Sarah’s house. She lived close enough to the beach that when Justin came over, they often walked the few city blocks to the beach and took a staircase down to the sand. The pier was a little further, though, so today they had biked.
At the rental house that she shared with two roommates, Justin said goodbye and kept pedaling to his apartment further into the city. Sarah would have preferred to live by herself, but having roommates was the only way to afford living in a beach city. She hadn’t moved all the way to California from the Midwest not to live near the beach. And if she was going to live near the beach, then she was really going to live at the beach, not in the inland portion of a beach city. She felt lucky to live in this house, even if it took a sizeable chunk of her salary and meant having less privacy.
She parked her bike in the garage and then headed around to the small backyard to rinse off the bucket and the garden gloves that she had taken to the beach as part of keeping the trash collection during Earth Day a zero-waste event.
An image of the woman from the beach floated into her mind again. She had returned Sarah’s smile as they parted, so maybe like Sarah she would welcome another meeting. Sarah wondered if she had already ruined her chances with her, though, because of the stingray incident. That is, if the lifeguard was even a lesbian.
What if she hadn’t ruined her chances? The lifeguard was probably stationed in that tower near where she and Justin had been picking up trash, so it should be easy enough to find her again and find out. Sarah just had to muster the courage to try.
Amy woke but stayed in bed. If she stayed there, she could avoid going to Sunday brunch at her parents’ house and avoid hearing another round of criticism from her family about becoming a lifeguard. She wouldn’t have to endure their judgment for taking a break from the family business or endure their guilt trips about covering her auto dealership in her absence.
Unfortunately, if she missed brunch, she would face criticism, judgment, and guilt for that too. That was what had happened last Sunday when she’d had to work. Sighing, she turned back the covers and got up.
She paused to pet her orange tabby, Sandy, who lay curled at the foot of the bed. A bit of drool from her mouth had dampened the bedspread again. She had started drooling only recently and Amy was a little worried. She planned to take her to the veterinarian if it got any worse. After petting Sandy once more, she went to the kitchen to get something to eat before brunch.
Brunch was a meal that really didn’t work for her and not just because of family drama during the meal. It was too hard to wait until lunch to have breakfast. She liked to have both breakfast and lunch each day, not skip breakfast, give it a new name and move it to lunch. It was just one less thing she had in common with her parents and her sister. She fixed herself some scrambled eggs, toast, sliced fruit, and coffee and sat down to eat.
As she finished eating, she heard the thunk of the thick Sunday paper being deposited outside her front door. She put on a robe over her bed clothes and stepped out to get it. An article about the Earth Day cleanup was on the front page. An image of the blonde swaying her hips as she walked along the sand popped into her mind. She had been with a guy, but the two of them had seemed more like friends than a couple. Could she be a lesbian? And would she be at the beach again soon, or had she just been there for the Earth Day event?
Refilling her coffee mug, she took it and the paper out to the table and chairs on her balcony. She took a moment to savor the view of the water and to breathe in the fresh ocean air. She loved her beachfront condo. She had bought a place in South Coast Beach instead of inland near her dealership in Santa Ana even though it had meant a commute of about an hour each way. Living at the beach was worth it. And now, with her change of jobs, she had zero commute; she could walk to work.
Amy saw any number of pretty women at the beach on a given day, so she wasn’t sure why her thoughts were lingering on the curvaceous blonde specifically. Maybe it was that she had stood up for her friend and for those kids. And maybe it was that she had just seemed so intent and focused on her trash collecting. Amy wanted to date someone serious and caring like that at this point in her life.
~ ~ ~
Just before the appointed time for brunch, Amy pulled into the driveway of the three-car garage at her parents’ two-story Craftsman-style home. Her parents lived on the other side of South Coast Beach, where plots of land were larger than those at the beach. She parked her Lexus SUV next to her sister’s newer one. While she still had the same SUV that her parents had given her as a college graduation gift, Aurora had long since traded hers in. She liked to get a new model every couple of years. Amy took good care of her older vehicle and thought the recent wax and polish job she had personally given it made it look almost as good as Aurora’s new model.
She got out and smoothed her slacks and blouse, her usual attire for Sunday brunch. Starting up the walkway, she readied herself to hear the inevitable criticism about her new job. She wondered if today would also be another day when her family would interrogate her about her love life, or lack thereof and ask when she was ever going to get another girlfriend. Such conversations weren’t pleasant, but at least her family was tolerant of her sexuality and had been ever since she had come out during college.
Amy let herself in the front door with her key and walked in. Conversation drifted from the living room, about the auto business as usual. Her parents, sister, and brother-in-law were sitting and chatting with, what looked this week to be, mimosas in hand. “Hi, everyone,” she said with a smile.
“Amy! Glad you could make it this Sunday!” her mother exclaimed by way of greeting.
Amy blinked. She hadn’t expected the criticism to start so quickly. “Mom, you know I was working last weekend.”
Her father spoke. “A definite drawback to not being your own boss in that job like you are at your dealership.” He returned to a sales numbers conversation he was having with her sister. Amy sighed and took a seat.
Although her parents were in their sixties, they had no plans to retire any time soon. Her father, Robert, continued to run his original dealership in South Coast Beach. A tall man with an easy smile, he had a full head of hair with only some of it graying. Her mother, Beatrice, ran the second dealership in Newport Beach. Visits to the salon kept her hair a dark brown in a stylish cut that fell past her shoulders and featured long bangs parted to the side, all of which slowed any appearance of aging.
“And how many units did you move this week?” her father asked Aurora, inquiring about the number of vehicles her dealership had sold.
With studied nonchalance, Aurora swept a lock of her salon-highlighted blond hair behind one ear and named a high number.
Their father let out a low whistle. “Impressive!”
Aurora grinned, as she rightfully should. Amy offered her congratulations, as well.
“Thanks,” Aurora answered. “And don’t worry—we sold plenty at your dealership, too.” She liked to remind Amy that they were all working more as they covered running her dealership while she took time off from it to work as a lifeguard. But Amy hadn’t asked Aurora or any of them to do so, having planned instead for members of her management team to cover her absence. It was her father who had insisted that family members do the job.
“Now, Aurora…” their mother warned.
“I wasn’t worried,” Amy said, trying not to let Aurora get under her skin. She already knew that her family had moved plenty of vehicles at her dealership. Just because she was spending time away from her dealership didn’t mean she wasn’t checking on things. But she really hadn’t been worried. Her parents and sister were all very good at sales. She was too. The only difference was that running an auto dealership seemed to come naturally to them, filling each of them with energy and enthusiasm, whereas it only drained her.
“Good.” Her mother reached over and patted her knee before rejoining the numbers discussion. Amy looked over at Aurora again and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. Aurora, ten years her senior, had long since paid off her own loan for her dealership. For Amy, on just a lifeguard salary now, paying off her loan was going to be impossible to do quickly enough to meet the terms of the loan. While being an open water lifeguard paid fairly well, especially as one acquired more skills and certifications and moved up the career ladder, it did not pay nearly as well as being the owner and general manager of a successful luxury auto dealership.
To pay off her loan, she was either going to have to find a buyer for her dealership, which would not only incur the ire of her rather controlling family but also would take some time, or she was going to have to eventually resume her role as general manager and earn that salary in addition to her ownership income. And she was going to have to figure it all out soon in order to continue being a lifeguard, something she very much wanted to do.
“Brunch is ready,” Emilia Alvarez, her parents’ housekeeper, announced from the doorway. Her apron was immaculate and her hair was pulled back in a tidy bun as always. Emilia had worked in a hotel kitchen at one point and knew much about preparing brunch. She had come to work for Amy’s parents because she wanted to slow down and have lighter duties. Amy thought her parents were lucky to have a kind and reliable person like Emilia in their employ.
They made their way to the dining room. Her father took a seat at the head of the table and her mother a seat at the opposite end. Aurora sat to their father’s right, her husband Fred at her side. He was a manager at a telecom company in Irvine, the city where Aurora’s dealership was located. Amy took her seat to her father’s left, an empty chair by her side. She supposed things could be worse—her parents could be trying to fill the chair by setting her up on blind dates.
“Thank you, Emilia,” Amy said as she served them each a beautiful plate of blanched asparagus topped with ribbons of prosciutto artfully arranged to nestle a poached egg, all of which was drizzled with hollandaise sauce. Toast points were arrayed along the edge of each plate. Emilia came around with a pitcher to refill the glasses of mimosas but brought Amy a flute of plain orange juice, knowing that she preferred it to the cocktail. Consuming too much alcohol didn’t mesh with Amy’s fitness regimen, so she drank only occasionally. Once everyone was served, her father raised his glass and made one of his usual toasts about another successful week in the auto business.
With one of the trimmed pieces of toast, Amy dabbed up some of the hollandaise and popped it in her mouth. The food was delicious, as always. It alone was reason enough to come to brunch. She’d already had toast and eggs for breakfast, but Emilia took them to another level.
“You’re awfully quiet over there, Amy,” Aurora said.
Amy raised her head to find her sister’s gaze and everyone else’s gazes on her. Having been lost in her thoughts while enjoying her food, she had no idea what the topic of conversation was. In truth, she hadn’t been making the effort to pay attention. She didn’t feel like she was part of many of the conversations at brunch anymore now that she had taken a different job.
At previous brunches, she had tried telling some work stories and describing her activities as a lifeguard, but her family’s only responses had been some polite nods and a few utterances of “Is that so?” so she had stopped mentioning any of it—including the very important fact that she had changed over from her initial seasonal lifeguard position to a permanent one. She knew they wouldn’t take that news well at all.
But she was happier at work than she had been in quite a while; she wished she hadn’t waited so long to explore her childhood dream of becoming a lifeguard. She was only thirty-one: not at all too old to start a new career path. She hoped to take this new career path even further by becoming an instructor in the junior lifeguard program.
The SCB junior lifeguard program was what had enamored Amy of lifeguarding. Starting in junior high school, she had done the program each summer. Initially, her parents had been wary of signing her up for the program because they wanted her to work in the family business, not grow up to become a lifeguard. But she had reassured them that she just wanted to swim, kayak, surf, and do all of the other things that kids got to do in the program, not become a lifeguard, and they had relented. They couldn’t very well argue against practicing swimming and other water skills.
It wasn’t until subsequent years, as Amy excelled in the program and eventually reached junior lifeguard captain status with Peter, her best friend then and still, that the thought of becoming a lifeguard seriously entered her mind. However, she had been thrown for a loop when Peter professed his love for her their final year of the program. She and Peter had been close, but she had no idea that he felt the way he did. She hadn’t thought of him romantically and it was hard to tell him that without hurting him. What she wanted to say but didn’t feel that she could at that point in her life in high school was that she wasn’t into any guy romantically, despite having dated a few. She already knew that she preferred females. The whole ordeal made their senior year very awkward and going off to college to get away held a lot of appeal. The decision to do so was made even easier when her performance on the high school swim team netted her a scholarship. She made the decision to major in business administration, because her family business was what she knew. Peter stayed in South Coast Beach and became a lifeguard.
She and Peter lost touch that first year she was away at college, but as soon as she came back for summer break, they ran into each other at the beach. The encounter was strained, but when she gathered her courage and came out to him, he gave her a big hug and things had been immediately better between them. They stayed in touch over her remaining college years and when Peter fell in love with another woman, Amy was very happy for him. She attended his wedding and met his wife, Tammy, a manager of a department store. Amy’s and Peter’s renewed closeness fortunately didn’t seem to bother Tammy.
Seeing Peter’s happiness as a lifeguard as she worked, not so happily, at her dealership had made Amy wonder what it would have been like had she also stayed and become a lifeguard. She said as much to Peter one day and he encouraged her to find out. At first, she laughed. She knew what lifeguard tryouts consisted of: things like timed 1,000-yard and 500-yard open water swims and a 1,500-yard continuous run-swim-run. The 500-yard swim would be similar to the 500-meter freestyle that she used to swim in both high school and college, but the 1,000-yard swim would be another matter. One thousand yards was just over 900 meters, which was eighteen laps of an Olympic-size pool. While she still swam and maintained a certain level of fitness with windsurfing and other activities, her college swim team days were behind her. She would have a lot of training to do to be competitive against what she knew would be a few hundred other very good swimmers vying for the available lifeguard positions, especially since swimming in the cold, choppy ocean was a lot different than swimming in a pool.
The thought of doing the lifeguard tryouts stayed in her mind, though. She soon created a training regimen for herself. Countless beach runs, sprints, swims, pushups, lunges, and planks later, she got herself into competitive shape again. It felt good. She joined Peter in some of his workouts, and by the time lifeguard tryouts arrived in January she was ready. The ocean temperature on the day of tryouts was a bracing fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, but the most difficult thing about the timed open ocean swims was swimming in such close quarters with the frenzied crowd of contenders. There were no marked lanes in the ocean like there were in a swimming pool. It was a free-for-all of rapidly churning arms and legs, and she was accidentally kicked in the face a couple of times. Despite the difficulties, she placed well enough in the tryouts to be able to interview that very day. When she was hired, it felt like she finally had a job that fit.
She supposed she could try telling her family about her renewed interest in the junior lifeguard program. “So…I submitted an application to become an instructor for the junior lifeguard program.”
Her father looked up from his meal and squinted at her. “That thing you did when you were a kid?”
“Yes, but this time I would be one of the instructors.”
She wished she hadn’t said anything. She didn’t know if her dad or the rest of her family would ever understand that she had dreams and passions outside the family business. And she was already nervous about her application for the junior lifeguard instructor position. It was a bit of a long shot this early on. She only had three months under her belt as a lifeguard after receiving her general lifeguard training, which was the bare minimum amount of time required to be eligible as an instructor for the junior lifeguard program, but she hoped that with what she felt was a strong performance in the interview, her history with the program, her good job standing, and a recommendation from Peter, who was the assistant coordinator for the program, she would get one of the few positions open this spring. It would be very satisfying to give back to the program that had given her so much during childhood, and she was eagerly awaiting the day when the hiring decisions would be announced.
Amy wracked her brain for a safer topic of conversation, one that would interest her single-minded family. Remembering the crowd that she had seen admiring the display of luxury vehicles from her dealership at the plaza by the pier yesterday, she spoke again. “I wonder how much extra foot traffic and sales the dealership will see from my display of hybrids at the Earth Day event yesterday.”
“Oh, so you’re already missing the business?” Aurora asked.
Amy took a breath. She should have known her comment would draw a jab even though she had signed on as a sponsor for the SCB Earth Day event almost a year in advance, long before she had taken her lifeguard job. She had asked her parents and sister if they wanted to participate and bring vehicles from their dealerships as well, but they had declined, saying it would be a waste of time and money. She didn’t understand their resistance; people who were interested enough to participate in Earth Day would be exactly the type of people who would be interested enough in green technology to buy a hybrid vehicle.
She had ignored her family’s protestations and decided to sponsor the event herself, having grown more and more tired of everyone trying to tell her how to run her business. She liked having the ability to support the community event while at the same time being able to enhance awareness of her dealership and potentially attract new customers. Her family was more comfortable with more traditional marketing ideas. It was just as well; they had yet to fully embrace green technology, so none of their dealerships carried the full line of hybrids anyway.
Amy decided to ignore her sister’s jab. “The sales guy I had working the event said he thought the display went over very well. A handful of people even made appointments to come in for test drives.”
Her father cleared his throat. “If there’s an increase in sales, it certainly won’t be enough to pay off your dealership loan.”
Amy took another breath. “Of course not, Dad,” she replied in a more reasonable tone than the comment warranted. Her father constantly reminded her that she owed money to the bank. He had co-signed the loan to finance the startup of her dealership, just as he had years ago for Aurora. Apparently, he now thought Amy would default and stick him with the remainder of the loan payments. She wished he knew that she would never let things come to that point.
“Don’t worry, I’ll pay off the loan, just like I paid off the one for my condo.” Amy was very glad that the condo was hers free and clear. She wished that she were there right now, instead of at this table facing the ongoing disapproval of her family. At her condo, the only disapproval she encountered was when she tried to give Sandy a flavor of cat food other than chicken. She wondered if she could use the excuse of needing to go shopping for a new blanket for Sandy in order to leave brunch early.