Arrivederci, Peter

THE year I hit the acme of summer jobs was the first and only time I was a lifeguard. I confess, this was my dream job. After two summers as a temporary office worker in a windowless publishing company, the opportunity to sit and stare and become a well-tanned monolith of authority was my idea of perfection. No doubt this minimalist approach appealed to my 20-year-old notion of what work and responsibility were all about. That summer I took over the aquatic jurisdiction of a condominium club pool some 16 by 24 feet sunk deep in Chicago suburbia. Not exactly Olympic dimensions, nor a surf-pounded beach. Still, I got to wear mirror shades and a regulation LIFE GUARD T-shirt, and to sit in an elevated steel chair perfecting a stony, responsible gaze. The height of coolness. Besides, that was the summer I had two boyfriends -- one came with a beard and a motorcyle, and the other had the better part of an Ivy League education

and a Datsun 240Z.

But all this changed when I met Peter -- not another brawny college kid with good wheels, but a sturdy, dark-eyed, somewhat petulant 12-year-old who ruined completely my carefully cultivated taciturn image.

That summer Peter was living with his grandparents in the condo complex. Of course, to any pre-adolescent kid with no driver's license this meant spending nearly every moment at the pool -- and within my care. To say he was an instant standout among the toddlers and their distracted mothers is not doing him justice. Peter had dark, poodly curls, and a plethora of earnest but wily devices for getting his own way. Could he help guard, wear my whistle, get out the kickboards? No, no, no to all of this, I h ollered, clambering down from the guard chair.

Having Peter around was like suddenly acquiring a little brother. Make that three little brothers. Or maybe he was my first real hint of what it was like to actually have a child -- to be in charge of someone small who could also be fierce and charming and stubborn and utterly his own person. With Peter around I could no longer be cool and stoic and 15 feet above the fray. It was work trailing around after this kid who dropped towels and thongs and water everywhere and who created chaos whenever he can nonballed into the pool. On the occasions that I refused to come down, Peter would climb up into the guard chair, squirm in next to me, and put his head on my shoulder, and just when I started to think he really was a cute kid after all, he'd insist it was his turn to wear the whistle and the jacket and couldn't I slide over a little more?

Nearly every day Peter came to the pool. And on those days when he wasn't allowed to swim, he'd show up at the chain link fence, bouncing against the steel mesh like a caged puppy. He would press his face against the wire and ask me about chlorine levels or tell me about a letter he'd received from his father. Our friendship was like any other. You never told people how much you liked them, you just talked about movies you'd seen or asked them to carry some buoys for you or shouted at them to stop splas hing so much in the shallow end. When Peter finally left late in August to join his mother in Rome, I was lonelier than the day the guy with the 240Z went back to college. Sitting silently in the guard chair suddenly seemed incredibly dull.

Finally we closed for the season. My fellow lifeguard, an impossibly V-shaped towhead, headed back to the Florida State swim team, while I, about to embark on my junior year abroad, packed three suitcases of tweeds and flew off to London. I had no idea other than a scribbled Rome address on a scrap of paper that Peter and I would ever meet again. But English university schedules, I discovered, were studded with plump, four-week holidays, and in late December I was within phoning distance.

Standing on a crowded street corner fumbling with an unfamilar phone and foreign coins, I was no longer tan and in charge, and Peter answered the phone in Italian. Should I pick him up? No, he would make all the arrangements and we -- my traveling companion and a few other Eurailpass types -- would rendezvous in a neighborhood pension. Such valor, I marveled after hanging up, and in a foreign country.

It was to be a performance of more self-possession than even I expected. Peter simply took charge of our odd and galumphing group of Americans. ``Shush, not so loud in English,'' he said, pressing a stubby finger to his lips and ushering us into a red-checked-tablecloth type of place whose black-jacketed staff Peter seemed to know intimately. Soon we were elbow deep in insalata, zuppa, and general good cheer. All this from somebody 3 feet 9 I had fished out of the deep end of a pool. I

wondered how long the performance would last -- me playing the self-conscious tourist and Peter the little dictator.

I should have trusted our friendship more. On the walk home, Peter held my hand the whole way. I think we talked about Italy, my school, his school. Dumb stuff. When I finally deposited him on his doorstep and in his mother's welcoming arms, he begged me to come inside for one minute more. Under the narrow beam of his desk light Peter riffled through a handful of snapshots. ``Look, it's you and me in America,'' he said, pointing to a particularly blurry shot of me grinning out from under sunglass es and him scowling at the camera, tugging on my arm. Life-guarding and America seemed very far away.

``Goodbye,'' Peter said softly, pulling the heavy double doors to just frame his face, leaving me standing in the hall feeling silly and sad and not knowing what to say to someone who was neither my brother nor my son but definitely a friend. I'm sure I blurted out ``Goodbye'' or ``Don't forget to write.'' But it was Peter who rescued us both. ``Goodbye,'' he said again. ``Rome, Christmas 1974, don't ever forget it.''

I never did forget that year, though I never saw or heard from Peter again. I still have my LIFE GUARD T-shirt, which I wear when ironically I want to feel irresponsible, or at least remember a time when all I had to care about was a 16-by-24-foot pool and who I was seeing Saturday night.

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