When we finally reached shallow water, I stood up and pulled him to his feet. I could feel his legs give out and his weight collapse. At this point, two men met us and helped carry him the rest of the way. As I emerged from the water I walked towards where the men had sat him down. His friend was standing over him, saying something in Spanish, and as I listened, trying to make out a word or two, the color began to come back to his skin. In the water, he had looked almost white. A small group of people tried to ask if he was okay, but nobody beside his friend could speak any Spanish, and so we all looked on in silent concern. Meanwhile, my brother, who had sprinted to a private club just a hundred yards down the beach, where the closest lifeguards were stationed, had returned empty-handed. Despite his urgent pleas, the lifeguards had refused to come, for it was against club rules to leave their post. Should something happen to a member while one of the lifeguards was gone, the club would have been held liable. I didn’t understand why a potential victim was a bigger priority than an actual one.
Thankfully, the man who I had pulled from the water seemed to be recovering, despite his depleted strength and prevailing shock. I didn’t know anything about vital signs or monitoring the status of someone who had just endured this type of distress, so once we were on shore, I felt as if my job was done. I assumed that one of the people tending to him knew more and was better suited to monitor his condition. There was an older grey-haired man, maybe in his mid-sixties, who seemed to take on somewhat of a leadership role. He was kneeling by the victim’s side with his arm around his shoulder, ordering him to drink water. Just then, a woman came down from the parking lot to tell us she had called 911 and that an ambulance was on its way. This seemed to bring relief to the group. But I soon noticed the expression on the grey-haired man’s face turn uneasy, as if he had detected something wrong that nobody else could see. “How long ago did you call them?” he asked the woman.
“Five minutes ago,” she said. “They should be here any minute.”
The grey-haired man then turned to the victim’s friend. “Does he have papers?” he asked, but he was met with a confused look. He tried to translate by gesturing with his hands, as one often does when communicating with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. “Does he have papeles?” He took out his wallet and pulled out his driver’s license. “Papeles?”
The friend didn’t respond, but a suspicious look come over his face and I wondered if he thought that the grey-haired man was a police officer or a government official. When the question was pressed, he shook his head, though I don’t think he understood what exactly was being asked and why. I’m not sure any of us did.
It was not long before a real police officer arrived. I paid close attention to the victim and his friend, now expecting to see fear on their faces. I realized that the sight of a police officer must cause an entirely different reaction in them than it did in me. The victim was still sitting with his elbows on his knees and his head titled down at the sand. What I could see of his eyes resembled what I saw when I first swam up to him. His friend stepped back to let the officer in. There seemed to be a surprising silence that pervaded all of us who were standing around, as if we were all suddenly afraid of the police officer; afraid that if we said one word, if we even breathed, this man, whose life had just flashed before us, and which we had become so quickly invested in, would somehow be taken away. It was a fear governed by how little we knew of the victim’s situation. Maybe he had papers, maybe he didn’t. Maybe it didn’t matter.