When Something’s Broken Near Water

The YMCA is two minutes from the house we still own together, the house on the market, the house I will live in until it sells. Half the sale sign is glamour shot: Bonnie looking thirty, but not at all like she did then. She wasn’t a blonde eighteen years ago. She wasn’t a realtor eighteen years ago. I did “all the money stuff” every Sunday night at the kitchen table she eventually said I could keep.

Ralph, the balding ID guy, manually punches in my card number. “Machine busted again?” I ask because I always ask, and Ralph always nods. Ralph’s about seventy, give or take a year, pretty average for Palm Oak, Florida, blow-through suburb of Orlando. 

The day my divorce goes through, I take the morning off, go swimming at the Y. A lifeguard sits on a red tower, all tanned ribs and legs, the skinny shape of community college and minimum wage. My shirt goes over the back of a slatted chair, towel over wallet in the seat. I am cubicle-white, my bellybutton shifts east to west as I amble toward the farthest lap pool. 

In the closest one, seven women kick in place, clutching purple foam noodles. Music rattles tall speakers near the building. Some are singing along, something from Grease. Bonnie loved that fucking film. We did it once in the living room, right on the ottoman, just before that last scene with Olivia Newton-John all tight in black. Bonnie wore her strappy red “Christmas” heels, kept saying, “Shake me, baby, shake me.” I was on my knees with one hand high and one hand low and tongue in between.

My trunks feel tight. I shimmy down the ladder, get into the pool as fast as I can. I haven’t swum in months. I am only halfway across the lane and breathing hard. I never thought of myself as a divorce guy, but the water doesn’t lie. 

In high school and college, I competed. Tried to get from end to end faster and better than the other dudes, even those on my own team. I was happy my dad’s grandfather was a Swede – not a hair on my chest or legs for resistance. In the early days, Bonnie said it was like dating a dolphin. Dolphins were sexy, she said, all that shine and click. 

My flip-turn is awkward, all belly and knees. When I break the water, I don’t hear the music through my strokes. Jessie says I tune things out, but she’s twelve and into Taylor Swift and gets mean when I ask her how things are at school. I won’t let her shut her bedroom door, even though Bonnie and I used to. She’s with me Monday through Friday afternoon. Bonnie and I let her decide who’d remain with her in the house.

When Jessie was little, she decided things with rock-paper-scissors, only she changed the tools: magic wand, paint brush, and chalk. In her world, wand beat brush, brush beat chalk, and chalk diffused wand. This time, she took two full days and there was no best two out of three. It was, simply, “I’m not doing the cooking, Dad.”

Bonnie stood there a half minute, silent, as our kitchen became not hers. “He’ll do fine,” she said, reaching up, and I thought she was going to touch me. But she put her hands on the back of a chair, fingers around the top slat. Her ring was already off. 

I am panting when I get to the wall. Not sure I can do another lap, I grip the concrete and bob once or twice. Five of the foam noodle women have climbed out of the pool. The other two still remain in the water, the sturdier one helping the other into a chairlift, into straps. That one glances over at me. I press off again.

Soon, my heartbeat’s in the back of my throat. I clobber the water arm after arm, but through the drum and rush, a squawking of voices. Flip-turn’s coming up, I try to focus. But my stomach’s too gelatinous, and I end up lopsided. Jessie would laugh, say something like, “Dad, do you have to hit remedial?” She swims, too, and does laps with me on occasion. But she’s more into books. She talks to me about Robinson Crusoe over pulled pork platters from the Pollo Tropical. I keep my mouth full. When I was in school, I always bought the Spark Notes. Usually, after the Styrofoam mac and cheese bucket is scraped clean, I wonder if Jessie made the right choice sticking with me.

My chest burns, and this time when I hit the tile, I stop to tread. The five noodle women, the sturdy one from the water, and the lifeguard surround the chairlift mechanism on the side of the pool.

“Don’t worry, Maureen!”

“We’ll get it going right!”

Maureen is the one in the chairlift. She nods thin-lipped at her friends, just once, as if she’s an astronaut about to be ignited from Cape Canaveral in its heyday. Her bare bony feet dangle about three feet from the water. 

The machine whirs. Maureen goes up an inch, stops. Her frail body jerks. 

“Don’t be scared, Maureen!”

College Skinny looks perplexed. He points like the women, presses something on the machine. The chairlift wrenches violently. Maureen’s head saddles side to side like a Buccaneers bobble-head would, if it wasn’t packed away in a cardboard box in the den, ready to go when the contract is signed and dated.

“It’s okay, Maureen.”

“Hang tight, Maureen.”

“Enjoy the view, Maureen!”

In acknowledgement, Maureen waggles a few bony fingers on the handles. The corners of her mouth go up slightly. The noodle women close ranks on the apparatus and boy lifeguard, rounded wet shoulders pressed together. In another world, the women would eat him alive. Here, he pulls out a phone. 

My legs stop pedaling, begin to sink. Winded and ashamed, I toe the bottom. Maureen looks away from her posse and squarely toward me.

Yes, Maureen, I tell her, I’d be doomed in a boating accident. Bonnie is the one on jet skis now, with sunburned shoulders and a new man who obviously doesn’t rub anything in well enough. Maybe I need the chair.

Maureen doesn’t say anything. From this distance, I’m not even sure she blinks. How’d you get here, Maureen? Are you married? Do you have kids? Did your doctor recommend swimming to lose weight, to lay off the Coke and chips? Do you still live in the same house you bought a decade ago with higher hopes? What do you worry about?

One of the noodle women turns down the music. Maureen appears relieved that Kesha has stopped blowing.

“Won’t be long, Maureen.”

“Bryan called the Wellness Director, Maureen.”

“You’ll be fine, Maureen.”

Guys at work told me I’d be fine.

Maureen, you won’t be fine, will you?

Her breasts drift further onto her stomach. She keeps her eyes on me even as a man in a polo shirt and khaki shorts chugs across the cement toward the group. The noodle women flutter around him, College Skinny still studies his phone. Mr. Wellness Director sticks a key into the machine, jiggles it around, and presses the magic button. 

Maureen rises. High in the air, her pale, hairless legs sway. I watch her soar farther above the water and move over the concrete. The noodle women buffet her once she’s on land, joking about the weather up there and how they really need fix the machine. I go to push off the wall and press on for the other side, but my calf stiffens beneath a shooting pain, a charlie-horse. As much as I can in water up to my chin, I try not to double over or drown. Fuck ‘fine,’ Maureen. No one’s going to fix the damn chair.