Fidelia, he thought as he paid his dime. Fidelia, he thought for seven miles as the Southern Pacific jostled its way. Fidelia, he thought as the streetcar deposited him and a horde of reveling youth at the oceanside park. The swimmers ran with mad folly toward the Baths. Below the labyrinthine structure, waves crashed in thunderous applause, wild lilies bloomed, and cliff-lodged cypress trees reached to the sea. Teddy breathed in the lilies and the salt and the faint odor of brass polish all at once, and allowed himself to think of Fidelia once again.
When Fidelia’s lovely little face came into his mind’s eye, it was if someone had smacked him straight in the heart with a flyswatter. A bracing sting of sorts. It didn’t crush his heart, exactly, but captured it under the metal mesh with singular precision. A few years before, Teddy had taken a quarter from his mother’s jar to join his friends at the pools. And, to be fair, upon realizing that Saturdays were free for children, he attempted to return the coin. But, his mother interceded with her newly-purchased flyswatter from Montgomery Co. She had smacked his thieving little hand until it welted.
He was no longer a child. He pulled on the sweater that identified his duty and boarded the rowboat to begin his shift. Unlike the 10,000 swimmers required to wear suits provided by the establishment – black wool or, if well-laundered, grey with SUTRO BATHS knitted in white block letters – Teddy sported checkered slacks and the name LIFEGUARD.
The Baths were just shy of 500 feet in length, and more than 250 feet wide. The rowboat was a matter of practicality. The swimmers bounded into the water by trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms. In the cacophony, Teddy bobbed silently. He maintained austere composure as he considered both the great importance and absolute futility of his job. He was but a single signpost warning of the possibility of getting drowned.
Still, there was no better sea bathing in the world. "Rival in magnitude, utility and beauty, the famous abluvion resorts of Titus, Caracalla, Nero or Diocletian...,” read the programme. Indeed, there were noble pavilions, balustrades, promenades, alcoves, and corridors adorned with fountains, tropical flowers, and the collected treasure of foreign travels, all leading to the pools themselves. Unheated seawater filled a great plunge tank. There were seven more heated to varying temperatures, ten-degree gaps between each, from ice-cold to a steaming eighty degrees.
A roof of 100,000 glass panes allowed the sunlight to break across the swimmers. And in that shimmering melee of thousands of dark bathing costumes in millions of gallons of sea, he saw Fidelia. He recognized the elegant line of her pale neck against the wet wool. Teddy knew the curve of her calf and the steam-curls of her hair, new since their childhood. He knew the perfect arch of her foot as she emerged from the toboggan slide. And, floating yards and yards away, he knew that when she dove into the seawater tank it would be one fluid movement, neither sound nor splash.
But he was mistaken. Fidelia made a comic leap, arms and legs whirling akimbo, in a very wet and indecorous performance.
Teddy was stricken. Either this was not Fidelia, and how could he not recognize his Fidelia, or there was some terrible abluvion of the Fidelia he’d ever known.
Teddy steadied himself on the little boat and paddled closer to the saltwater pool. He watched Fidelia as she climbed the stairs to the waterwheel and laid down on it. The giant wheel slowly revolved, dumping tangles of swimmers into the pool. As Fidelia was discarded into the water, she crashed screaming into a rowdy mess of boys. She threw her head back in a fit of giggles.
Teddy’s heart was no longer trapped under the fine mesh of the swatter. Instead, its beating seemed to seize. There was cutting sensation as if he had dived into the hot pool, climbed out, raced down to the small ice-cold pool, and dove in there.
Teddy straightened his back and embraced the gallantry of his lifeguard sweater.
“You there,” he addressed the girl, “be careful.” He broke out his most manly timber, “You mustn’t play so roughly with children about.”
The girl simply laughed and shook her curls.
Fidelia, he thought for the very last time. Fidelia, I hope that you’re waiting for a locker attendant for hours, cold and shivering, miserable, in your rented wool bathing suit.