She stood before me, looking so beautiful, my heart ached. The wedding dress accented her slender frame, and her eyes sparkled with joy as she looked up at me. Smiling, I took her hand...
“Mommy? I want to go swimming. Please?”
It was the holiday weekend in July, and I was home after graduating college. With my degree fresh in the frame on the office wall, I was at work at the family business. I know, a lot of folks might think that a business that takes care of landscaping involves little more than a bunch of guys in a pickup truck towing a trailer with a few lawnmowers, a weed trimmer and a blower, but seriously, we did Landscape Design as well as the “mow, blow & go” that so many people thought of. And the majority of our clients were business and industrial complexes. We had 47 guys employed on our crews.
Me? I was in the office, since my degree was in economics and business management. Sure, I started out pulling weeds and pushing a mower, years ago, but now? Ahhhh ... A climate controlled office in the California summer heat was wonderful. I still was in shape though. Not “bodybuilder” shape, just well-toned and muscled for my 5’11” frame. I have the standard dark brown/almost black hair cut short. Never did like facial hair, so clean shaven and brown eyes that seem to work okay without help from glasses.
Oh, who am I? My name is Anton D’Acosta. Sure, that name makes me sound like some “goombah extra” from The Sopranos, but hey, it is what it is. At 23, I was single, had a great job and was enjoying life. I was also at my older sister Regina’s house for the holiday BBQ with her friends. My brother in law, Micah, was manning the grill and trying not to get splashed.
The plea to go swimming came from a small child who was looking forlorn as she saw everyone else having fun.
“Lizzie,” the woman who was a friend of Regina’s, and the childs mother, “I didn’t bring your bathing suit. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but maybe next time, okay?”
I looked over at Micah. “Hey, maybe there is an old suit from one of the kids?” Micah and Regina were several years older than me, and had already started installing the “next generation” of family members into the brood. Respective grandparents were delighted with the chance to spoil the little ones. Micah shrugged and said that if there was anything, it was in the spare bedroom. I asked the childs mother what size suit she wore, and went searching. SUCCESS! I called Lizzie and told her to get changed in the bathroom. I would change in one of the other rooms to help play Lifeguard.
Now, allow me a moment to describe Lizzie. She was slender, with long blonde hair that had shimmering highlights of red and auburn mixed in. Crooked teeth that made her smile all the cuter, and green eyes that blinked behind horn-rimmed glasses. She was maybe 48 inches tall, at most. She came out wearing the bathing suit, and one of the other kids let out a howl.
“She looks like a carrot!”
Yes, it was a 1-piece suit that was bright orange. I had heard the statement as I came outside and caught the child as she tried to run back in. “Hey, where are you going? I want to go swim and need a partner!”
Lizzie looked up at me and blinked back tears. “I don’t want to swim now. I look stupid!”
“No you don’t,” I smiled. Because if you look stupid, so do I!” I dropped my robe so she could see me in MY bright orange swim trunks. “Come on, let’s go!” She took my hand as I lead her to the small shed on the other side of the yard. “Now something I want to know, have you ever been in a pool like this before?” She shook her head ‘no’. “Well, okay. Relax. I was a Lifeguard at college, so I think I can take care of you. But first, we need to go over some rules. Okay?” Lizzie nodded. “Rule number one is; NEVER go near a pool alone. ALWAYS have an adult nearby. Got that?” Lizzie nodded and grinned. “Now, how about we see if we can find you some things to help you swim.
Quickly, I had a life vest and some inflatable arm cuffs on her. “This will help you stay afloat in the water, in case you get tired.”
“What is rule number two?”
“Always swill with a buddy. Today you are stuck with me.” I lifted her up and walked slowly down the steps into the cool water. After a few minutes, she was relaxed enough for me to release her. Soon, she was paddling about and smiling. “So, I am going to guess that ‘Lizzie’ is short for ‘Elizabeth’, right?” She nodded. “Well, I think ‘Elizabeth’ is too beautiful a name to be made short.”
“Mommy and daddy call me that because I’m still small.”
“Well now,” I paused. We were in the 3’ section, so no worries about being too deep. “How about I call you ‘Elizabeta’? That is ‘Elizabeth’ but ‘small Elizabeth’. Is that okay?”
A flurry of giggles was my answer. Taking my hand, Elizabeta asked me to take her around the pool. We stayed clear of most of the horseplay, not wanting her to get frightened.
Okay, I am a goofball. I admit it. So as we enjoyed the water, I started singing...
“I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’ garden, in the shade...”
Elizabeta laughed and asked what song that was. I told her it was by a band called “The Beatles”. “Cool! Sing the rest!”
“We would be so happy, you and me! No one there to tell us what to do! I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’ garden, with you.”
About an hour later, it was time for us to get out so we could eat and relax. I guess I made a friend that day, because the child never left my side. Eventually, as the sun went down and the adults were still talking, a tiny blonde waif fell asleep on my lap. When it was time for the party to end, I found myself carrying Elizabeta to her mothers car and slipping her into the booster seat.
“Thank you, Anton,” she sighed. “I had fun today.”
“So did I, sweetheart. You have your mom bring you over again and we will swim some more.” I gave her a final hug and stood up to see her mother smiling at me.
Elizabeta’s mother was maybe 28 or 29, I was guessing. I also had been informed that she was separated from her husband. Didn’t know the details, didn’t want to know the details. Her name was Rachael and looked like an older version of her daughter. She made a few vague comments that I later realized that she was saying that I was welcome to come over and visit with BOTH of them, should I want to. Swim with Elizabeta and as for Rachael? Things of a more “adult oriented” nature.
Micah made sure to tease me over coffee the following morning. “You know, you looked like you were having fun with Lizzie yesterday! Her mom seemed to be interested in how well you two got along.” I growled a little as he continued. “She’s cute. Both of them. Hey, you could do worse. Instant family!” He slapped the table. “And she is already potty trained!” I wasn’t sure why everyone I knew was always so fixated on me finding someone to settle down with and start a family. Must be “an Italian thing” I guess?
“D’Acosta Landscape Services, this is Anton. How can I help you?”
“Hi Anton!” Regina’s joyous voice answered my inquiry. “Rachael called me and it seems you have made QUITE the impression on Lizzie.” I chuckled to myself. “And she wants to know if they can come over again so you can continue working with Lizzie on teaching her how to swim. What you got planned for later today?”
I told her that my schedule was wide open. Had not planned on anything except calling mom (yes, call me a ‘Loser’, I still lived at home) to see if she wanted me to get anything on the way home after work at the store. Regina told me that she would call mom and let her know not to make me dinner. All I could do was hope that Regina and Rachael hadn’t started “making plans” for me, without my consent.
An excited 6 year old child greeted me when I got to my sisters house. “Anton! COME ON! I want to go swimming and I had to wait FOREVER for you to get here!” (I guess at her age, two hours IS “forever”?) I laughed and told Elizabeta to relax and let me get changed, since I didn’t want to go swimming in my work clothes.
Soon, we were in the water and I was teaching her basic kicks, how to float and how to use her arms properly when swimming. Without the other kids in the pool, she was more relaxed and caught on quickly. Regina and Rachael watched us with smiles of obvious conspiracy. In my heart, I knew they were making “plans”. Rachael went into a small panic when she suddenly realized that she couldn’t see her daughter in the water. Rushing towards the edge of the pool, she was about to start screaming when suddenly, Elizabeta popped up from under the water.
“Mommy! Look! I can hold my breath and swim UNDER the water!” (I had decided that since there was nobody else in the pool with us, to forego the life vest and arm cuffs. I was right there in case she needed assistance.) Elizabeta ducked under the water and pushed off the side and glided out several feet back towards where I was standing. She surfaced into my waiting arms and I hugged her, telling her that she was doing great. (I also reminded her that even if she was getting better at swimming, to never go in a pool alone without an adult.) The adults on dry land clapped and cheered.
After dinner, I once again carried the child to the car. Elizabeta was wiped out from all the activity and hugged me tight around my neck. “Anton, you’re the best!” and she surprised me with a kiss on my cheek. “Ewww... ! Scratchy!” Rachael laughed and thanked me for taking the time to teach her child how to swim. “She needs something fun to do, it’s summer and she is home from school and doesn’t see her father except on Sunday and maybe for a few hours in the evening during the week.” I nodded at this, wondering if Rachael was hinting that I would make a good replacement.
“Okay little brother, spill the beans,” my sister stated as we sat on the deck enjoying the evening. Micah was checking the pH of the water and adding chemicals through the pool pump system. “You seem rather taken with Lizzie.”
“Lay off ‘Gina, she is a sweet kid and I’m having fun teaching her.” I took a long pull on my MGD. “I figure that if she learns the proper way to respect water and how to handle herself in it, she won’t be a story that we see a few times each summer on the evening news.” Each year, the tragedy of children drowning in pools was a sad reminder to keep an eye on them around water. “And before you start making wedding plans for me and her mom, let me remind you that Rachael is still married and I am not looking to settle down right now.”
“I sometimes wonder,” my sister smirked, “why you don’t always seem to have a girlfriend or two. Vinnie (our older brother, Vincent) always seems to have a few at his beck and call.”
“Unlike the family horn-dog, I am taking my time. You remember when I did that play in high school? ‘Guys & Dolls’? What was that song they sang?” I took a deep breath and channeled my inner ‘Skye Masterson’: “I’ll know, when my love comes along...”
“Crap, there he goes with the hopeless romantic shit,” I heard Micah say.
“Happy Birthday, Dear Elizabeth! Happy Birthday, To You... !!!” With a deep breath, Elizabeta paused a moment, then blew out the candles on her cake as we all clapped.
The last four years had been busy. Since my first meeting her, she had grown a little and was blossoming. She also had taken a BIG interest in swimming, and was on one of the community swim teams. There was a City League that in the summer, encouraged the kids to do something besides stay at home and play video games. Sure, there was other sports options, like soccer or baseball, but some kids loved the water. Naturally, D’Acosta Landscape Services was a Team Sponsor for whatever team Elizabeta was on. We paid for all the kids on the team to have the same bright orange swimsuits and each child had a bright orange baseball cap with their team name embroidered on it. My company usually had advertising in the program handouts at each event.
While she was never good at diving, Elizabeta was exceptional at the 100 meter races, no matter what stroke was required. And in a relay? The child could slice through water like a torpedo. After many hours of our working together, her ‘crawl stroke’ gave her that extra edge in order to hit the finish line or transfer point at the end of the pool often a full body length ahead of her closest competitor. In fact, she spent so much time in the water during the summer, her blonde hair had tints of green due to the chlorine. She groaned that she had to use so much conditioner when she showered, so her hair didn’t get brittle and fall apart. However, the idea of cutting it never entered her mind. In the water, it was always in a tight pony tail or braid.
I was twenty seven at this point, still single and still enjoying it. Sure, I had dated, and even had one or two semi-serious relationships, but no “sparkle” with that special someone. I figured that either I would eventually meet her, or I would just be a confirmed bachelor. My siblings were both married (yes, even Vincent) and between the two of them, I had two nieces and nephews respectively. At least now I was living in my own apartment.
“Anton!” Elizabeta giggled as she cut her cake. “How big a slice of cake do you want? Do you want ice cream with it, or not?”
Rachael looked over at me and grinned. She had fully divorced her husband and was now in a serious relationship with another fellow. I liked him, but for the fact that he never seemed to take much interest in Elizabeta. “I swear that child loves you more than her father, the way she is always concerned about you.” I just shrugged my shoulders.
The birthday party was at a bowling alley that had private party rooms set up. He kids got pizza, cake and ice cream, soda, and three hours of unlimited play on two of the lanes. Since I was never that good at bowling, I just clowned a bit and rolled the ball, hoping it stayed out of the gutters. Elizabeta stood and lined herself up. I called out to her.
“Hey! If you knock them all down between your two throws, I will see about you getting your birthday wish, providing it isn’t a pony!” I knew that she had been a big fan of some new line of dolls that were out, making a big dent in the competition against Barbie dolls, and figured that she would want several. (The fact that I had worked with her mom for getting sizes for clothes that she wanted was what she had unwrapped earlier, with squeals of glee.) Looking over at me, Elizabeta stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. The look was adorable. Stepping forward, she released the ball...
And rolled a strike.
“Oh boy, you’re in for it now! A parent laughed. Rachael nodded. I figured this was going to cost me several bucks, but so what?
Elizabeta skipped back to me and hopped into my lap. “Did you really mean it?” she asked. “I can have what I wished for?”
“Short of a pony,” I answered. You guys live in an apartment that says ‘no pets’ and it would be hard to hide it.”
Throwing her arms around my neck, she kissed my cheek. “Goodie! I want us to go on a date!”
I did my best to keep my eyes from popping out of my head as I looked over in a slight panic at Rachael. Damnit, the woman was holding her stomach and laughing at me!
“You did promise!” she gasped. “And I do trust you, Anton. I know you would NEVER take her up to ‘Lovers Lane’ and press your advantage with her!”
The other adults were all snickering at my situation. It got worse when Elizabeta asked; “Mommy? What do you mean, ‘press your advantage’?” Howls of mirth answered her.
I stood at the door of the apartment in a suit. I figured that if we were going on a ‘date’, I might as well do it right. In my hands was a box from a florist with a wrist corsage. Earlier, I had been informed that she would be wearing a mint green dress that matched her eyes somewhat. As a result, I asked the florist to have the carnations in the corsage tinted a slight green as well. I knocked, waited, and the door opened.
Rachael and Regina stood there laughing as I blinked from the sudden light. “Sorry Anton,” my sister giggled. “We wanted to get that first picture as a candid shot.”
I just nodded and asked if my date was ready.
“Are you SERIOUS?” came the answer. “Even at her age, she knows that you ALWAYS make the guy wait a few minutes.” (I guess they learn early?) “Actually,” Rachael stated in a low voice, “Lizzie has been ready and waiting for you for about half an hour. She is so excited and nervous at the same time. Please make sure you tell her how pretty she looks, okay?”
I’m not a total idiot, and I nodded. I figured that she could have rolled in the mud and I would still tell Elizabeta that she was beautiful. I heard a door open.
And my jaw dropped.
Standing at the end of the hallway, looking shyly in my direction, stood my ‘date’ for the night.
Yes, the dress was green. A sundress that had straps at the shoulders and a ruffle of lace at the bottom. The hem was just at the knee. Black sandals were a cute touch and there was a hint of makeup on her innocent face. And her hair? It seems that her mother had taken her to a salon earlier for a styling. Soft curls framed her face, cascaded over her shoulders and down the back. In a few years, hearts would be broken, left and right, as she made her way through the halls of her school.
“Say something!” my sister whispered.
Holding out my hand, I smiled. “Elizabeth, you look magnificent!”
Giggling, she came to me. “You always call me ‘Elizabeta’.”
“Well, ‘Elizabeta’ is the name for a little girl. Tonight, I am honored to be at the side of a young lady.” I got down on one knee and held both her hands in mine. “An exceptionally beautiful young lady!” Reaching over to the table, I grabbed the box from the florist. “And a beautiful lady needs flowers!”
As I slipped the elastic band of the wrist corsage onto her hand, Elizabeth blushed and seemed to get a little flustered. Suddenly, she reached forward to give me a hug. “Thank you, Anton!”
I stood next to her for a few pictures, and managed not to look too awkward. My suit was a dark charcoal and went well with the dress, from what we were told. Taking Elizabeth’s hand, I stated; “I made our dinner reservation for 5:00. That will give us plenty of time to eat before we continue with the rest of the evening.” Elizabeth wanted to know what I had planned for her, but I just winked.
I had decided that if this was going to be a “date”, well, it was going to be a REAL date. Dinner was not going to be at some fast food place or where there was some sort of cartoon character as a mascot. We ended up going to a quiet Thai place. I had called ahead to order the food, stating that the person with me was young and didn’t have much experience with food that was overly spiced or hot. They promised a dinner that was “flavorful” but wouldn’t burn our tongues. (To keep them from questioning things, I had said that it was a birthday dinner for my niece. Please, no “fuss” or singing of “Happy Birthday.)
Elizabeth had a pineapple & chicken stir-fry, while I enjoyed a pork and veggie curry dish. Several glasses of iced tea washed the meal down. Elizabeth told me that she had never had food so delicious or unusual before. I guess her diet was too “Americanized?” The hostess beamed when she heard her. We decided to hold off on any desert.
After paying the check, I took her hand and led her to my car. I made sure to open her door and confirm that she was buckled in. The car wasn’t anything special. A 2001 Hyundai. It got me from “point A to point B” with a minimal of fuss. It also was so “non-descript” that if I wasn’t careful, I could lose sight of it in a parking lot, since it tended to blend in with all the countless other “silver-gray plastic jelly beans”. But, it also seldom caught the interest of any Highway Patrol folks as I zipped along the interstate.
“Now where are we going?” Elizabeth asked. My answer? “Dancing!”
Our city zoo had a special program called “Boogie with the Animals”. Once a month, the zoo stayed open late and with the purchase of a special ticket, you could stay and dance to live music. It was a way to raise extra funds for the animals and their care. No, we didn’t actually dance WITH the animals, and with the exception of a few birds in the trees, none of them were around us. The band being featured this evening played a mix of “beach” style and “big band” music. Lots of horns and happy up-tempo music. As the music started, I led Elizabeth out into the open grassy area where people were gathered. I took her hand in mine, and proceeded to show her some basic steps.
The kid was a natural. She quickly caught on, and with the delight of youth, was soon moving to the music and having a blast. After a few songs, the MC said that they were going to mix it up and play something else. Horns blasted and I recognized that great piece “Conga” from Miami Sound Machine. To my delight, Elizabeth did a great version of a merengue shaking and wriggling in front of me. The song ended and we laughed. I figured it was time for drinks to cool down.
“Where did you learn to dance so well?” I asked as we sipped our cokes.
“My friend Ticoara,” she answered. I knew Ticoara from the swim team. A lanky girl who was half Mexican and half African American and ALL barracuda in the water. She held several records for the Swim League. “Sometimes we all go to her place after school or practice and we hang out. They got a whole bunch of CD’s and we listen to them.”
I nodded and made sure that we were well rested for the next, and final, set. It was one that if you slipped the band a few bucks, they would play a request. It had cost me a $50 bill, but what the hell?
“This is a special song for a special young lady,” the band leader announced as the muted horns started softly playing. “We hope you’re having a wonderful evening, Elizabeth!”
She gasped as I held her just a little closer and we started swaying to the Frank Sinatra classic...
“Someday, when I’m awfully low
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you,
And the way you look tonight.”
It was a magical night and we enjoyed the rest of the set. And then? Home. We decided that neither of us wanted to stop for ice cream or a snack. It was almost 11:00 and Elizabeth was starting to get sleepy. After all, it had been a VERY exciting day for her.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, Elizabeth turned to me and smiled. “Thank you, Anton. This was the best night of my life, EVER!” I told her that it was high up on my list as well.
I escorted Elizabeth to the door and her mother opened it. As we stood in the entryway, Rachael asked if I wanted to come in for coffee. I declined and said that a certain young lady needed to get to bed. Elizabeth looked like she could hardly keep her eyes open. After another hug, I headed back to my car. My cell phone rang.
“Hey bro!” (It was Regina.) “Micah should be home soon to download the pictures onto a disc for you. He called and said you two looked like you had a blast.”
My brother-in-law was an amateur photographer. He had been following us all evening at a distance taking pictures of me and Elizabeth. At dinner and at the zoo, dancing. I wanted her to have a disc of pictures for a special memory of tonight. I must admit that when I saw them later, we did look good.
Sophomore year of High School can be a challenge. Juggling studies, a social life and extracurricular activities can be maddening. And if you are not careful, they can bury you in frustration.
Wednesday swim practice had me frowning at my stopwatch. Yes, by now, I was a regular “coach” for the teams that Elizabeth swam for. (She was good enough, by now, to have several colleges interested in her. Scholarships were starting to be offered, even though she was still two years away from graduation.) I found myself helping out and driving the kids to/from practices and meets. The Family Business was still a big sponsor and I loved spending time doing all that was needed. Since I was STILL single, a lot of the “Team Moms” (and even a few older sisters) had made it a game of trying to flirt and entice me. Sure, a few dates happened, but still nothing special.
Back to the stopwatch...
“Okay squirt, what was THAT all about? You are almost twelve seconds off your average time for the 100. You feeling okay?”
Holding the edge of the pool, Elizabeth puffed out some air and bounced slightly in the water. “Sorry Anton. I sort of got distracted and I swallowed some water by accident.”
“We got Regionals in two weeks, young lady. We need to stay focused. Now, take a few minutes to cool down and then hit the showers.”
Elizabeth got out and as she walked away, I watched the water pooling at her feet as she toweled off. She sure had come a long way from the “orange carrot” of nine years ago. Hips flared out suggestively above long, firmly muscled legs. Tummy and buttocks were nice and tight. And her breasts? God, I was surely going to hell, the way I looked appreciatively at them. A delightful 32-B was my calculation. And she did, without a doubt in my mind, “rock” that orange 1-piece swimsuit.
On the drive home, Elizabeth looked out the darkening sky. I could sense there was something on her mind.
“Anton?” Do you remember what it was like in high school?”
“Well, that was back when the alphabet only had seventeen letters and dinosaurs had training wheels, but yeah, why?” Maybe this was leading up to her earlier ‘distraction’ at the pool?
“I got invited to a party Friday night.”
“Okay. That could be fun. Where? Who?”
“It’s going to be at Jim Doziers house. He is turning eighteen and his parents said he can have a party. He is on the football team. He’s a center, whatever that is.”
“That’s the guy that snaps the ball to the quarterback,” I answered without thinking. “So, do you like him? How did you meet? Or are you going with someone else or not anyone in particular?”
“What is this? ‘20 Questions’?” she giggled. “I just know a couple of girls on cheer squad and he said that they should ask me to come with them. There will be lots of people there.”