Swim practice ends behind schedule nowadays, to the point of where the stars are young and frantically zigzag through the air. We also note the tiny dots could be satellites, orbiting at a snail’s pace. We never know. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me whether the kids leaning out their windows wish on a hot ball of galactic plasma or a hunk of metal and antenna. In fact, I couldn’t care less.
My swim kids aren’t stupid like that and they wear nothing but Speedos and one-pieces. They all look the same in the end, shivering and hugging themselves with legs that have droplets racing down them. The stench of chlorine is sickening, but I hold my breath and tell them they did good. My clipboard is professionally tucked into the crook of my elbow.
But it’s already late and they want to go home.
I stay awhile with the lingerers who use the diving board or the hot tub. They take free apples and pretzel packets from the bowl by the check-in desk. I pretend to evaluate their performance but who gives a damn, it’s not like we’re competing anymore. Instead I’m filling out divorce papers, positioned uncomfortably on a toilet seat in the men’s locker room. You see, who gives a damn?
The eighteen-year-olds are assistants. They stay around only to see if I’ll hand out their paychecks early. Some say their parents make them pay for gas so I’ll fold a few bucks into their palms. And when I’m not looking they steal from the vending machines.
I remember what it was like to be eighteen.
No, that’s a lie. I’m forty-nine. My son is seven but I’ll never see him again. When I was eighteen I would’ve never foreseen my issues as an old man. I never would’ve seen myself crying into a sink clogged with salty hair or commanding children to swim until their skin shrivels like a lemon left too long on the tree. They swim after the sun goes down. They swim under the stars that have been out since four pm and blink under the fluorescent lights of the locker room afterwards.
It should be called child abuse, but it isn’t.
After everyone leaves I go home. I drive my Toyota minivan through the dark streets. There are some people out, their ears protected by thick headphones, walking their Goldendoodles. I used to hate that breed of hounds, with fur sticking out all over the place and eyes like cloudy puddles after a rainy night.
When I approach my house I see my now-ex wife has parked her Honda Pilot in the driveway so I’m forced to parallel park. I knock over a trash can in the process but my neighbors are so naive these days, they’ll blame it on a raccoon.
The door is unlocked. Inside, my ex wife Leah sits at a recliner chair, her nose caught in a book. I know she wears her reading glasses when she’s pissed off, not because the lyrics of her memoir are seeping into a gray thunderstorm on the page. Today, those glasses seem glued to her face like a cliche librarian.
“Hey.” I’m holding my clipboard but all that’s attached is the divorce papers and swim practice attendance. “How was your day?”
Leah glances over her shoulder to where the clock on the windowsill drums a bedtime rhythm. I think she’s examining the thin horizon and stars behind a fingerprinted glass but it’s actually a gesture to portray how uncomfortable she is.
“It was fine. How was practice?”
I sigh, “They’re getting better by the day. But we’ll never be ready for a competition in time.” The first part is a lie but Leah doesn’t need to know. It’s not like she’s my wife anymore. “So is Ben asleep yet?” I turn on my heel and shuffle my feet in the direction of my son’s room.
She stands hastily and pinches my arm in her hand. “Don’t wake him,” she commands. And for the first time in three weeks we’ve physically touched. Leah drops my arm as quickly as she had picked it up.
I smile tightly. “So another night on the couch for me?”
“About that . . .” Leah bites her lip. “I booked you a room at the motel by the Pharmacy. I’ve just been going through a lot, lately, you know. It’s a little too much for me to wake up in the same house as you. I don’t mean to be offensive or rude . . .”
My clipboard digs into my ribcage because I’m grasping it so hard. “Not at all. I understand . . . Good night, Leah.” I begin walking back in the direction of the door.
“Wait,” she holds up a palm, “one more thing.” I spin eagerly on my heels, expecting a Thank you or something of the sort. She motions lazily to my clipboard, “Have you received the divorce papers?”
My heart is a shipwreck. Those damn stars and satellites.
“Almost done. I’ll send over when I’m finished.”
“Thanks, I know you’re busy.” And she’s back to reading.
And I’m out the door. Back into the beat-up Toyota minivan and back down the dark streets. I dislike retracing my steps because it’s like looking into a mirror and watching my past self. It’s almost ten o’clock when I pass the Pharmacy. There are neon signs and rows of happy pills. I’m only an insomniac when there’s a blackout sky.
The motel is completely lifeless except for one door to a room that’s propped open by a man’s booted foot. He’s having a smoke in the chilly night air with his eyes closed. In the “No Vacancy” sign, the “o” is burnt out and so is the “Vac”. Leaving this decayed piece of property with “Nancy”. All good times, I try to remind myself.
There’s a teen at the front desk. She’s thin with violet hair that barely sweeps her shoulders. The gum in her mouth is watermelon and she’s smacking it so hard, like trying to fade my problems into the background. Also, she’s trying to defeat Sudoku with half a #2 pencil.
“Um, hi,” I mutter, and she looks up. “Reservation under Leah Calvin, maybe?”
She blows a bubble but the pink size doesn’t grow to over the width of a bouncy-ball. “Maybe sure. Room three. Your room buddy is already there.” She slides the key over the wood of the desk and it screeches.
I offer a quarter of a confused smile, “Room buddy?”
“I know,” she yawns, “I thought calling them your roommate was a little weird.”
“I didn’t ask for a roommate.” I take a step back without picking up the keys.
The teen plasters a grin onto her face. “You didn’t need to. It came with the Presidential Suite Bargain, Leah. Pay half price and share the room.”
My teeth grit together. I’d thought some alone time would be nice but with Leah it’s always a trick. “What kind of deal is that?” I mumble under my breath, grab the keys, and continue out of the room.
Outside is cold like a million darts into my skin. My minivan stays parked with a slightly cracked windshield, mirroring the few specks of yellow in the sky. I don’t belong to a religion but sometimes I pray to the stars. Or satellites. Which is a never-ending explanation for my bad luck in life.
Room three is just around the corner. Now that I’m close to the curtained window, I can see a pinch of light shining through. My key is sticky in the keyhole but the brass is cool against my fingers. The door clicks open when I put my weight against it.
On the other side, there are two beds. I have no idea which idiot decided to call this the Presidential Suite because there’s a table that rocks like a mental pirate with a peg leg on a sinking ship and a bathroom with a cracked bathtub. All the lamps are flicked on so it glows with a rusted, timeworn yellow.
The blankets are torn off the farthest bed. A man in a discolored robe sits cross-legged, his long hair running smoothly down his shoulders and blocking my view of his face. He’s bent over and reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. His copy is shiny, right off the presses.
I step carefully inside and shut the door, noticing that he doesn’t flinch. “Hey room buddy.”
Finally, the guy glances up, sweeping his auburn hair out of his eyes. He licks the tip of his index finger and dog-ears the page he’s on. “Are you a serial killer?” he asks. I want to laugh but his gaze is unmoving and so I think he’s serious.
“Uh—um, no. No, I’m not.”
“Great!” the man grins and slaps his book closed. Michelle Obama smiles from the cover and it reminds of a memory where Leah sat in her chair, reading the same book. Her reading glasses weren’t in the scene.
He signals towards the unoccupied bed and I slowly make my way across the room and sit on it. The mattress feels like granite underneath my bottom.
“So, were you delightfully surprised about the deal too?” he asks, chuckling to himself and scratching at his stubble. It looks like an army of ants on his chin.
I peel my socks off my feet. They are almost green and stink of sweat and chlorine. Those naughty swim kids. “I was. My wife actually made this reservation so I had no idea.”
He flips off the lamp beside him. There’s no answer except for, “That’s why I don’t have a wife.” The lamp beside me still sputters and coughs cold rays of light into the room. “Do you mind turning your light off? I like it dark when I sleep.” I reach over and twist the motel room view into darkness. “Good night.”
“’Night,” I whisper.
But I’m not ready to tumble into dreamland yet. The man begins snoring, his breaths uneven and hiccuping. I realize I didn’t even catch his name but by the time I’ll need to return to the pool where too many toddlers have peed, he’ll be gone.
Before I fall asleep, I slip my wallet out of my pocket and examine a silly photo of my son. His tongue is fully exposed and his eyes sparkle like polished marbles. He’s sucking on a vanilla ice cream cone and some has caught on the tip of his nose. If only my swim kids could see this photo, this moment. Maybe then I’d be worthy enough for him, for Leah.
Tonight, I don’t see the stars or the satellites. There’s a thick ceiling between us but I can sense the fields of them like connect-the-dot worksheets, except for lost forty-nine-year-olds like me. Swim practice ended late like it always does. The swimmers don’t wish on stars or satellites because they aren’t stupid. It’s just me, their tired coach, wishing on astronomical spheroids of plasma and statues of trackers and solar panels. Good to know, good to know.