A Guided Tour of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Marta Balcewicz

Drowning men are unattractive, says Beth. It’s all-male lane-swim hour at the municipal Sequoia Street pool. Beth and I are seventeen and we are lifeguards. In the month since we’ve started working here, Beth has come up with a comprehensive ranking system: from least to most attractive. From fug to god. A drowning man is least. You just don’t expect it. You figure they know how to float, considering all their flamboyance, she says. Hey, you’re preaching to the converted, I say. Wait, did you miss my pun? Beth says. Flam-buoyance? I laugh. We’re on our break, the fifteen minutes when Sandeep and Tom leave the lifeguard office and climb the lifeguard towers and we descend the towers and take their spot in the office. The office chairs feel hot to the touch when we sit in them. It’s because they watch porn, Beth explained on our first day of work. Fifteen minutes of passion can melt the polypropylene off these puppies.

Next! she says, continuing with her list. A black angel, a brown angel, or a ginger one. I tap a pencil on my lips like I’m recording minutes. Do those constitute three separate rankings? I ask. Beth has to think about it. Sure, she says, narrowing her eyes like the angels are liable to get re-ranked. And what is an angel? I ask. Beth promises me a trip to the Vatican. I’ll buy you a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and everything, she says. Next! But I interrupt her countdown. I want to be taken there now. Beth thinks about it. Okay, she says. She puts out her hand and stands up. I follow.

Beth jumps in, her legs straight as chopsticks. I follow. My legs scissor and my knees graze the pool surface. Beth dives to the bottom. I follow. We reach the tiles and lie easily on our backs, no effort, no breathlessness. This violation of the human contract with the wettest of the elements can only be achieved if you’ve got years of synchronized swimming behind you. Synchro-swim teaches you the loopholes, to do whatever you want. If we hadn’t stopped going after we hit puberty, we’d probably be able to fly off the tops of buildings by now, to bust through walls with our eyes.

I snuggle into Beth’s municipal lifeguard swimsuit. Above, we see swimmers glide by, each in their lane, neatly demarcated by a string of blue and white buoys. I snuggle into Beth’s municipal lifeguard swimsuit harder, like we’re watching a meteor shower, or fireworks, or a ceiling-mounted TV. Beth makes a motion with her hand. Wait for it, wait for it, the hand says. Men go by. Freestyle, breaststroke. Some asshole swimming butterfly. On our first day, we petitioned a “no butterfly” policy. Sandeep and Tom just shook their heads and laughed like we deserved to be wrapped in straitjackets. We told them we’d take it all the way to city council. What about when women swim butterfly? Tom asked. That’s different, we said, then laughed at how we said it at the same time.

Synchronized swimming will make a hive mind of you. How else do you think you can draw a rhombus using only legs, arms, and some waterproof lipstick?

Beth makes a new motion with her hand: Here it comes, watch now! She points to a man

swimming backstroke. In the moment when his back is neither angled to the left or right, in the moment we see it before us, flat as a cutting board, ugly and white, Beth points her finger. See?

I can see the angel. I can see the angel flying past now. The man’s back-hair, sparse but curly, makes a shape like two wings resting across his shoulders, a respite from their heavenward flight. The man nears the end of the pool, turns onto his stomach, and flips around, pushing his feet from the wall. He passes over us again and disappears.

I follow Beth to the surface. And now you know what an angel is. That was a brown angel, she says, holding onto the edge of the pool. Right, I say. A brunette angel. The second least attractive kind.

Tom comes running. “Bitches,” he says. “You’re not supposed to be in the water.”

Beth starts laughing. She points her finger at Tom’s lungs or his heart, something between his chin and the waistband of his municipal lifeguard swim-shorts.

“What’s your issue?” Tom says. “You’re blocking the lane.”

Beth drags her finger down, points at Tom’s municipal lifeguard swim-shorts, and laughs even harder.

“What are you even doing?” Tom says. “You’re in some fucking cult.”

I laugh too, to make it worse. To make him believe he’s next on the ranking, and that we are a cult, and that he is not in it.

“Ignore them!” Sandeep yells from his tower. “Anyway, their break is over.”

And so it is. Beth pulls herself out of the water, except she stumbles a little because she’s still laughing. I follow. We climb our opposite posts and watch Tom and Sandeep close the office door behind them, the porn theater door.

In our first week of work Beth told me that the kind of movies they watch leave women obliterated. How do you obliterate a human? I’d asked. Oh, hundreds of ways, Beth said. Like, you don’t come to their aid when they’re in trouble, she said and by way of example she waved her hand at the pool, at the men swimming in all-male lane-swim hour. I see, I said. I pictured a pack of wolves forming a tight circle around a big-breasted woman. The wolves wore their thickest fur; it was the height of January. They barked and the picture went white.

Marta Balcewicz‘s stories, poems, and essays appear in CatapultVol.1 Brooklyn, AGNI Online, the OffingTiny Crimes (Black Balloon Press, 2018), and other places. She lives in Toronto and recently finished her novel about a teenage girl’s adventures with an aging 1970s New York punk scene semi-legend.