Our differences didn’t drive us apart — his secret did

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I didn’t know I was caught in a riptide. I heard the whistle and struggled to swim out of the ocean.

I was drawn to the lifeguard on the shore, shaking a red rescue can in the air. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest under a blue rash guard that tapered down to red shorts. His head was shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat, eyes hidden behind black wraparound sunglasses. Salt-and-pepper sideburns. Square jaw. Cleft chin. Handsome as hell.

I checked his left hand for a wedding ring. There wasn’t one.

He said storms elsewhere made these Malibu waters more dangerous. He shook my hand, told me his name, then asked where I was visiting from. “Here,” I said, pointing behind me to the house I was renting through Labor Day. It was only the Fourth of July weekend.

“Good,” he said, “then we have all summer.” He gave my fingers a final squeeze.

I moved to Malibu during the pandemic. I needed to escape the loneliness of my home in L.A., even if it was just to drive to another house in a different location. As an introvert and a writer, I had thought I could handle the isolation. Five months in, I realized I wasn’t going to make it.

Fifty-six years old, divorced and single for more than a decade, I struggled with intimacy. In Malibu, I could be maskless on the beach and maybe meet a man “in the wild” instead of on dating apps that statistically don’t work for older Black women like me.

When I arrived last April, the beaches were empty. I decided to practice intimacy by getting to know the ocean that was now my backyard. I longed to dive into the water, but I was afraid. I wanted someone to swim with me. Then I got caught in the riptide.

The next weekend, I flirted with the lifeguard unabashed. He was an athlete; he said after his first divorce he did the Ironman and helped a friend with cancer run the L.A. Marathon. I told him I wanted to swim and asked how I would know when it was safe to get in the water. He offered to take me. For the rest of the summer, we met before his shift.

He helped me through the rough surf. “Face the wave, dive under, and swim through it.” I struggled to keep up until he made us stop to take in the magic and mayhem of Malibu. We treaded water and talked about our lives. The ocean connected us. We never would have matched on the dating apps. He was a white boy from L.A. I was a Blerd from Queens, N.Y., and a lifelong Democrat. He was a registered Republican. We didn’t dwell on our differences.

We talked about the light off Point Dume, how to hike the Backbone Trail and ace the Malibu Triathlon. He was endlessly positive, compassionate and loyal to a fault. He stayed true to people he’d long outgrown. I hoped he would ask me out.

The fifth week, he told me about another lifeguard, a former Navy SEAL, who could better answer my questions about the ocean. Then he offered to introduce us. Maybe he wasn’t interested in me after all and swimming with me was a good deed, like when he helped his friend with cancer run the marathon. I wanted him to get closer and open up. Except I was the one keeping a secret.

I was already intimate with him. He just didn’t know it.

My girlfriends and I had looked the lifeguard up online. Google spread his whole life out before me — including his ex-wife and current wife. Their wedding registry was still posted. “But he doesn’t wear a ring.” My girlfriends harrumphed, “You need to ask.”

Instead, I asked him to come over some evening for an affogato, a drink made by drowning vanilla gelato with hot espresso — an apt analogy for what I wanted to do to him. He responded by taking me out for dinner on the moonlit patio at Geoffrey’s, Malibu’s most romantic restaurant. He said in 40 years of lifeguarding that he’d never asked a woman out he’d met on the beach.

Sounded as if he wished he hadn’t. Our first date, and already he was pushing me away.

The following weekend was Labor Day. If felt like saying goodbye to new friends at the end of summer camp; I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. However, when his shift ended, he came over with sushi. We made plans and went hiking, biking and kayaking.

Finally he opened up enough to tell me what was really going on in his marriage and admit he hadn’t officially separated from his wife — yet. Knowing the truth, I felt closer to him than ever but also further apart.

The next time we went swimming, the waves seemed insurmountable. He easily dove out beyond the break, but I froze, stranded on the shore. Now I understood why it took him so long to ask me out. This wasn’t a relationship. It was an affair, and I was the other woman.

That’s when I realized intimacy isn’t about knowing someone else. It’s about knowing yourself. The lifeguard got me into the ocean, showed me how to dive in and come out stronger on the other side, but for now, I would have to swim on my own.

The author is a TV writer and author of the memoir “The Officer’s Daughter.” Find out more about her at ellejohnson.net. She’s on Twitter @Elle2Tha and Instagram @ElleJay1850.

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