34 is the slowest in the pool, which shouldn’t surprise anybody, because he’s new. He started swimming a month ago, probably because his mom told him to lose weight. He has these chubby cheeks, and his swimsuit is a size thirty-four, hence the name. All of us wear thirty-two or smaller, and his suit hardly even fits.
Jake saw it first. 34 changed out of his suit in the bathroom stall and crumpled it into his gym bag when he sat to dry his feet. Jake was spraying Axe and there was the tag, reaching over the zipper like it wanted to be seen.
“You wear a thirty-four?” he asked so loudly, so incredulously, we all knew to respond.
“34! 34!” We chanted.
34 made it too easy. He zipped his bag and ran off. I watched him waiting for his mom under a tree at the end of the parking lot. When I drove away, he was scratching the dirt with a sapling stick.
If coach puts you in the same lane as 34, it’s like you’ve done something wrong, which you have because it means you’re getting closer to the slowest on the team. 34 lumbers through the water. If it sounds awkward, that’s because it is. His legs trawl the bottom and he comes up for air every second stroke. I was the lane over and watched him finish late every time. Coach would tell him to hold up when the rest of us started each set. He peppered 34 with advice, which Jake said was how to diet. Sometimes, towards the end of practice, 34 would hang off the wall. Coach asked him to stay late and tread water. We watched his fat legs kicking below the surface, cheeks ripe, tomatoes souring under his swim cap. We’d shower, change, and only the slowest of us would see 34 coming back, towel around his waist. Jake always took his time. He’d sit on a bench behind 34 and ask him questions.
“How was practice, hot shot?”
“Swimmers should have some body fat to help them float, but not that much.”
“You’re not getting any skinnier until you can swim better.”
34 slid his clothing on over his bathing suit and slipped out without a word. His mom was already in the parking lot. He got in the passenger seat, still a zombie. It wasn’t like she brought him McDonald’s after practice, like Jake would’ve thought. They just sat next to each other, wordlessly. They looked like they were going to war.
My dad asked about practice over dinner.
“34 is struggling,” I said.
“That’s his name?”
“It’s because his waist is a size thirty-four. He’s a fatass.”
But it wasn’t really. If you looked at our team together, you’d find him and have to ask, “What’s he doing here?” My dad asked if I wanted ice cream, and I just said, “Homework.” I went upstairs and locked the bathroom door behind me. My clothes puddled by the toilet and I slid the scale out from under the sink. I was up half a pound. At practice, I’d felt it in the waist of my 32. I dry-swallowed two Bisacodyl and vowed off breakfast in the morning.
Jake had always been the fastest in our grade. He swam all year and went on night runs. I sat next to him on the bus to a meet once and he talked about the suburbs at night–strange bugs and rodents that slithered from hedges, undaunted by the sound of his feet slapping the pavement.
At one point, I was something like his number two, but I’d watched as others closed the gap. That fall, I’d hurt my knee during cross country, icing on the sidelines after for weeks. The time gathered on my waist, and I’d clench my stomach and butt during AP history to strain the muscles. By swim season, it hadn’t gotten any better. I went from a thirty-one to a thirty-two and sighed when 34 sauntered into the pre-season meeting, hiding under a sweatshirt and baggy jeans. He was already there by the time Jake arrived, patronizing him with a welcome to the team. The rest of us looked and whispered.
Maybe others could breathe when 34 joined. Maybe he was the best thing to happen to our team.
On Friday, the air crackled above the pool. There was a party that night, a meet the next morning. Coach was under the impression we kicked faster, harder, smoother to burst into the next day’s race. Well, everyone but 34. He skulked down his lane like a pedal boat.
Coach detained me after practice to run some extra drills. I had to swim the fly tomorrow. It had been my specialty a year ago, and now the undulations pinged my knee. When he started to deconstruct the stroke for me, it seemed like he was giving up faith.
By the time I reached the locker room, the party crew had vacated. Only 34’s bag remained. He was showering and belting something embarrassing, like The Fray. I lingered over his open bag, expecting Three Musketeers wrappers, a carton of apple juice. His swimsuit lay on the bench, a balloon deflated. I scooped it in my palms and felt how full it was, felt all that it could hold inside. I stepped my legs through and pulled it up, the fabric drooping a bit from my pelvis.
When the faucet turned, I dropped trow, slunk to my locker, hustled to the shower. By the time I emerged, 34 had gone. Shadows rustled under the tree where he liked to wait. My dad muted Animal Planet when I got in, asked about 34, and all I said was, “He’s fine.”
There was a new bottle of Bisacodyl on the bathroom counter. My dad had IBS so he could say that was why we went through so much. I swallowed a handful before bed and felt how far 34’s gym bag was from me. He’d be alone in his room, eating his junk food, watching his TV, not at the party, either. Maybe he emerged from his cavern to gaze upon the stars, finding the company of owls, praying mantises, ladybugs gone nocturnal.
Jake insisted he wasn’t hungover in the morning. He came in wearing sunglasses, chowing down on a breakfast sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil.
“You should’ve been there,” he said to me. We were leaving the locker room. 34 was already in the pool, running drills with Coach. Maybe he came every morning for remedial lessons. Maybe he was hustling all of us, would be our big victor today. “How much longer till that fatass quits the team?”
I shrugged. When Jake left, I clasped my hands over my hips. I could slide two fingers between my pelvis and the nylon.
In the butterfly, I worked from my abs, feeling them wrestle away 34, Jake, my body too. We were a snake shedding its skin. We were a larva, slouching towards our cocoon. I came in third, which was good enough, judging by Coach’s shrug.
We won. Jake’s hangover did not deter him. He barely got first and then stood at the pool’s edge when 34 paddled through the free. His mom sat in the stands, hands folded in her lap, while other parents cheered and hollered. He finished thirty seconds after the others. He crawled out of the pool and vanished into the locker room.
34 was gone when Coach wanted to award him the Golden Goggles, the team spirit award for a job well done, a “courageous” first swim meet. With nobody to pass them to, he slid them onto his forehead, rubber straps slapping his receding hairline. After the pool cleared out, I found him in his office.
“I’ll bring the goggles to 34,” I said.
They sat on the passenger seat. If I brought them to him, maybe he would think it was a joke. Golden goggles might break the camel’s back.
I’d swallowed three Bisacodyl in the bathroom and passed my dad in the kitchen. “I’m going out,” I said.
He lowered his eyebrows, expecting I’d been chugging his Miller Lites in my bedroom, saw instead my running shoes, shorts. He passed me his Hi-Vis vest and said, “You don’t have to go now.”
“I know,” I said.
He poured himself a glass of tap water and sighed, “Lord knows I’m trying.”
I asked him what he was trying and he looked at me and said, don’t give me that. So I opened the door and called, “I’ll be back soon.”
Our suburban streets wound like intestinal folds, like the undulations of sea vegetation. Houses notched along the curves, finding privacy as long as homeowners didn’t look through the backyard, where the folds crashed into each other. I sucked in my stomach so my ribs tightened my skin.
Each curve conducted me along the track. The goggles slapped against my collarbones. I wouldn’t know 34’s house if I passed it. I wouldn’t know which window to peek through for him, eating his night snacks, sitting in silence, in a compartment separate from his mother. So I ran faster, vaulted higher off the pavement, blurring the parade of night rodents in my wake.
Paul Anderson was sitting across from his daughter Katie, who was daring him to leave the queso in front of her younger brother, Ben. Pizza hadn’t gone well. Katie had watched Paul try patching the dough. Ben squeaked in delight when Paul peekabooed through the holes. When the dough dribbled in the oven, Paul said, “Let’s go out.”
Taco Bell was closest. He strapped the kids in their car seats and scanned the radio for something “kid-friendly.” Ted Kaczsynski had just been arrested. They’d identified him as the Unabomber. Whenever the sketch of him appeared on the news, his wife, Sara, made Paul change the channel. Katie found it upsetting. If the news wasn’t upsetting Katie, then the train that ran behind their house was. At night, the tracks ushered through cargo trains so long, Paul could rush to Katie’s room when he heard her first screams, prop her by the window, and point out graffiti on the sides of cars until it finally disappeared.
Katie was the fussier one and wanted Sara at bedtime, so Paul would put Ben to sleep. He’d read two books then nod off besides his son. Already two, Ben wasn’t talking, only babbling. Sara brought him to the speech therapist at the elementary school, to a child psychologist who watched him play behind a two-way mirror. After they’d read their younger kids to bed and Paul had checked on Amanda, their oldest, who read herself to sleep, Sara would sigh, “I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.” Under the sheets, her hand would glide over Paul’s flaccid penis and rest with a sigh on his chest.
It was unrelated, but Paul knew Ben was gay. It wasn’t that he liked his sisters’ dolls. Paul just knew. It was a fact.
Ben stood onto the seat and stomped his feet. Katie looked straight at her dad. “He’s shaking his rump, Dad. Daddy, he’s shaking his rump.” Butt was one of the words Sara did not allow.
“I know, Katie,” Mr. Anderson said. He lifted Ben by his toddler armpits and sat him down. “Sit, Ben. Eat.” Mr. Anderson pinched the soft shell taco before Ben’s face until he took a bite.
The thing is, Paul thought he would know if Ben was gay. In the early days of Sara, there had also been Joey. Joey was a year above them, an economics major from New York City. Paul had never been to Manhattan, but he liked listening to Joey talk about it when they worked on problem sets and smoked weed out the window.
One night, weeks before Joey’s graduation, Joey asked, “You have a girlfriend?”
A chill gouged Paul. Joey’s roommates were never home. Joey wore shirts with so many buttons undone and pants that Sara called “kinda faggy.”
Joey brushed hair from Paul’s forehead. He kissed Paul.
Paul grabbed his things and left Joey’s room. He counted the days until Joey’s graduation. When Sara asked what happened to Joey, Paul just said, “I think he likes me.”
Ben was stomping on his chair again, and, as Katie quickly pointed out, shaking his rump. “Ben, behave.” A mother with a bevy of redhead children in Jump Rope for Heart shirts watched, smiling, clucking her tongue. At least she’d had to come here too.
Sara would be home with Amanda in the morning. They’d gone to New Jersey to see her parents. One of Sara’s parenting magazines ran a feature last month about how each child needed alone time with each parent. Paul was wondering when his time alone would come.
Because he did go back to Joey’s room. He did join a group of Joey’s friends for a weekend in Provincetown, telling Sara only that they were going to the Cape. He did still get Christmas cards and birthday cards from Joey mailed to his office. Joey called Paul baby daddy, said he’d gone soft in the suburbs. Paul locked this correspondence in his desk drawer.
Because he did love Sara. Because two gay men had been stabbed in Boston in the Public Gardens last week, kissing on their walk home from dinner, only seven PM on a Sunday. Because he did love his kids, and there were some things Mr. Anderson could never do.
Ben’s face flared red. Katie wailed in the seat across from him. “Daddy, Daddy, do something.” Tortilla chips littered the table. Queso dribbled down Ben’s chin. What had they said about infant CPR in that first aid class? The one when another dad made strong eye contact at Mr. Anderson and Mrs. Anderson kept saying, “Earth to Paul, Earth to Paul.” Did Ben qualify as an infant? He patted Ben’s back. He shouted for help, and the redhead mother hurried over. “I’m a nurse. Can I help your son?” And she had the chip out his throat while all her redheaded children watched somnolently. Katie screamed and moaned, and none of the redheads reacted at all.
The woman slid the chips in front of Katie and petted Ben’s hair as he drank from a cup of water with both hands. “You need to stick to soft shells, buddy. Your daddy should know that by now.”
He and Katie split the remaining chips. He guided Ben through each bite, starting a refrain of “Chew, chew, chew” that Katie sang the whole ride home. At traffic lights and stop signs, Mr. Anderson jumped when he saw drivers in aviator sunglasses and hooded sweatshirts. He wanted Katie to keep singing, to stay ignorant of everything that lurked outside their car.
When they got home, the kids begged and begged to sleep in his bed, Katie whining and Ben just shouting noises. They fell asleep watching The Little Mermaid. When Mr. Anderson heard their little snores, saw their kid hands clasping each other, he went downstairs and poured vodka in a plastic Peter Pan cup. He sat on the back lawn, watching for fireflies, listening for the rush of the train behind their house.