As I leave swim practice I see my mom hunched over the wheel of her big SUV, waiting for me. Her silhouette is backlit by the white hot floodlights that ring the high school parking lot. Her hair is frizzy and wild. I’d been hoping my dad would pick me up. No such luck.
The November wind slaps my face and I pull my hoodie over my wet hair. I’m still overheated from practice, so the cold air feels refreshing. It’s only 6:30 but it’s pitch black outside.
“Why are you always the last one out of the shower?” she asks as I get in the car. I remember the warm water flowing over me, pounding my sore shoulders. I’ve started taking my shower after the other swimmers leave—I need some private time after practice. But I’m not going to tell my mom that—it would just trigger more questions. I slam the door and prop my feet on the dashboard.
“Where’s Dad?” I ask.
“Your father’s working late.” She sounds pissed. She backs up and then pulls out of the parking lot, moving awkwardly because her left arm is in a cast. She picked a black cast, I guess to match all her clothes. Or maybe her mood. I was worried that she’d have trouble driving with a broken arm, but she seems to manage all right.
“Would you please take your feet off the dashboard?”
“They’re cold. That’s where the heat is.”
“I don’t care. If we get in an accident, the airbags will explode and snap your spine in two. You’ll be a paraplegic.”
That’s so like my mother—always thinking of some horrible disaster around the corner. Just because she’s an accident waiting to happen doesn’t mean everyone else is. I’ll bet no one has ever become a paraplegic from putting their feet on the dashboard of a car. But I put my feet down like she asked and play with the dials on the climate control to get heat blasting on the floor.
We drive home in the dark. I turn and watch her silhouette go in and out as we pass by the streetlights. She’s leaning forward and peering through her old glasses, trying to pay close attention to the traffic. She’s also listening to NPR, which gives me a headache. I put on my iPod and drift away. Britney. Maroon Five.
She shouts my name to get my attention and I pull the buds out of my ears. “Yes?” I try to make my word feel like a cold dishrag thrown at her face.
“How was practice?”
“I suck.” My reply shuts her up.
After a few minutes of driving in silence, she can’t resist. “I hate hearing you talk like that. You don’t suck, Lindsay. You’re a good swimmer.”
“Not anymore.” I pause for maximum impact. “I want to quit the team.”
“Lindsay, sweetie, you love swimming.” So typical—telling me how I feel, like she would know. “I know it’s harder this year swimming against the older girls, but you’ll get better as the season goes on.”
I used to be one of the best swimmers in the entire league in my age group. But now that I’m fifteen, I swim with girls eighteen and under. That means I’m a sophomore swimming against girls who are being recruited for college. It’s rough. But that’s not all.
“Mom, my times are getting worse. I swam faster last year.”
“How’s that possible?”
Sometimes she’s just plain ignorant. “Mom, my boobs! They’re drag.”
“Oh. It makes that much of a difference?”
“Yep.” I’m amazed myself at the difference my new boobs make in my swimming. Last year, I sliced through the water like a fish, winning most of my races. This year, I feel like I’m swimming with a backpack on. I’m at least a full second slower in most of my races, and in swimming, a second is like a year. “I guess you’d know that if you were allowed to come to the meets.”
She’s silent and I know I’ve hit my target. I don’t really want to hurt my mom; I just want her to stop talking. And I’ve succeeded.
My mom can’t come to the meets. She’s barred from the swimming pool because of the scene she made at the first meet of the season. She was leaning over the railing, screaming at the officials that the other team cheated—she claimed a swimmer left the block early. Mom got so bent out of shape that she fell over the railing onto the pool deck. That’s how she broke her arm. It could’ve been so much worse but she landed on top of some of the eight and unders. Fortunately, none of them got hurt, but they were definitely freaked out.
Coach was livid. He told her she was banned from the meets for the season. This was a huge deal for my mom—she lives for those meets. There was some talk that we might forfeit the entire meet, but Coach talked the officials out of that. The other coaches in the league came to his defense. They know about my mom. She’s a legend among swim moms.
This was completely humiliating, but it has its good side. I no longer have to see my mom in the stands, clicking away at her stopwatch, writing down my times in her little red notebook. And I don’t have to hear her voice sail above all the other moms, screaming “Go Lindsay!”
It’s been hard on my mom, though. I think my swim meets and my little brother Bobby’s travel team soccer are the most important things in her life.
My dad tries to make all my meets now, despite his busy work schedule. He’s a lawyer and he’s been working nonstop on a big case lately. But he still makes the meets on Saturday. I like to look up in the stands during warm-up and see him in his chinos and knit shirt, reading the part of the Sunday Times that comes on Saturday. He’s a handsome guy. Sometimes I watch him laughing with the other parents and it makes me happy.
When we get home, I go to the kitchen where dinner is waiting for me in the refrigerator. Our housekeeper Carmen made spaghetti for my brother and me, so I just have to warm it up in the microwave.
My dad’s still not home. Carmen says he called and left a message that he was held up at work. I wonder why Dad called home instead of calling Mom on her cell phone.
I watch my mom light one of her scented candles, then take a bottle of white wine out of the refrigerator and pour herself a glass. She’s been doing that a lot lately. The painkillers she’s taking for her broken arm have a label warning against drinking alcohol, but it’s none of my business.
Bobby’s working on a report for social studies on the moon landing in 1969. He’s supposed to interview a family member about the moon walk. I hear Mom say she doesn’t remember anything about it; she tells him to call Grandma. Mom doesn’t usually blow off Bobby like that. She starts wandering around the first floor drinking her wine and gazing into space. I hear her trip in the foyer and spill some wine. It’s a little weird.
I sit down at the kitchen counter to eat by myself. We’ve got this silly rule in our house that we have to eat dinner in the kitchen or dining room, so I can’t take the spaghetti to my bedroom. I try to eat fast before my mom can turn her attention back to me. But I’m nowhere near fast enough.
She walks back into the kitchen and pours herself more wine. “Sweetie,” she starts. “I hope you’re not self-conscious about your body, because you’re becoming a beautiful woman. You should be proud of your body.”
I put my head in my hands. She’s so irritating. “Mom, I’m fine with my body, OK? We don’t have to talk about this. I just want to quit swim team.”
She purses her lips to say more, and it’s so painful for me to watch because she looks like a little injured sparrow with her arm in that cast, with her big old glasses and frizzy hair. She can’t put in her contacts or blow dry her hair to make it smooth like she usually does.
Part of me wants to put my arms around her and hug her. But I confess, it’s a small part. Mostly I just want her to stop pretending she has any idea what it’s like to be fifteen.
To be honest, I’m a little worried about my mom. I’m not sure what she does all day. She’s an adjunct professor at a local college teaching freshman creative writing, but that doesn’t seem to take up that much time of her time. When Bobby was younger, she had her hands full, but now she sits in the study for hours staring at her computer screen, doing who knows what. Writing a blog, she claims.
“We’ll talk about this more when your dad gets home,” she says. It’s what she always says. I finish my spaghetti, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and escape to my room.
About an hour later, I hear my dad come home. I’m on high alert waiting for the two of them to come to my room so we can have a “talk.” I rehearse what I will say: I’m just not happy swimming, it takes too much time, it’s too hard. But they stay in the kitchen, talking to each other. I go to my bedroom door and try to hear what they are saying. I can hear the refrigerator door open and close and the tone of their voices but not the words. They sound animated, urgent, with my mom’s voice ranging up and down like she’s upset about something.
Even though I’m relieved that my parents are leaving me alone for now, I’m nervous that they’re arguing about me and swimming. So I go to a corner in the upstairs hallway where you can hear what people are saying in the kitchen. I stand there and listen.
My parents are trying to keep their voices low, but even so, I can hear some words. I’m relieved to hear that they’re arguing about my dad’s work, not about me. I know my mom thinks he works too hard. I hear the word “associate” from my mom, and then my dad says something about settlement. I think that means maybe the case he’s working on is going to settle before trial. There’s silence for a few minutes. Then I hear them leaving the kitchen. I’m afraid that they’ll find me eavesdropping so I slide into the hall bathroom. I hear my mom going upstairs and down the hallway to the master suite. When I leave the bathroom, I run into my dad.
“Hi Linds,” he says, sounding like he didn’t expect to see me. I brace myself for something about swim team, but he seems distracted and heads on back to the master suite where my mother is.
There’s no way I can eavesdrop when they’re in the master suite. I’ve tried.
About an hour later, at ten o’clock, the front doorbell rings. I’m in my room, finishing up my homework so I ignore it. When it rings again, it seems obvious no one else is going to get the door so I go downstairs. I pass the family room and see Bobby lying on the couch, transfixed by the glow of the TV. It’s way past his bedtime. And my mom left her candle burning. What the heck is going on here? A neglected kid and a fire hazard?
Standing at the front door is a woman I’ve never seen before. I’m guessing she’s in her late twenties, pretty in a mousey sort of way, dressed in a pants suit with a fancy scarf tied around her neck.
“You must be Lindsay,” she says as she holds out her hand. Her mouth smiles while her forehead pinches together over her black-framed glasses. Her shoulder length hair is pulled back, exposing large pearl earrings. They’re probably fake.
“I’m Jane Coburn, an associate in your dad’s office. Is he here?” She keeps peering around me like we’re at a party and she’s trying to see if there’s someone else better to talk to.
“He’s upstairs. Do you want me to get him?”
“Yes. Well, that’s not really necessary if he’s busy. I’m just dropping off a file that he needs to review tonight.” She reaches into the black leather tote on her shoulder and pulls out a thin manila folder.
I know enough about computers to know she could’ve easily PDF’d the entire file and sent it to my dad’s email. But I take the folder anyway. “Okay, but I can get him if you need to see him. I mean, did he ask you to stop by?”
Our eyes lock. I can’t figure out why this woman is on our front porch.
“Well, sort of,” she says with that deer in the headlights look.
Just then I hear my dad coming down the stairs. He’s in jeans and a flannel shirt, the kind of clothes he throws on when he’s in a hurry. His hair’s messy and there’s something musky about him that I can’t exactly put my finger on. His face looks like it did last year when he totally forgot about Bobby’s birthday party.
“Jane, it’s great of you to stop by with those papers.” He glances at me, then back to Jane. He shifts from one foot to another. “Sorry I didn’t get back to you—I might’ve saved you the trip. Have you met Lindsay?”
“Yes, yes,” she says as she looks back and forth from me to my dad. It’s clear that she wants me to leave them alone, but I think my dad wants me to stay put. Or at least he should. I’ll leave only if my dad tells me to.
“You’re the swimmer, right?” she finally says.
I nod. And continue to stand there.
After what seems like forever, Jane turns to leave. “See you early tomorrow,” she says.
My dad closes the door with an emphatic push, and then sighs.
I blow out the candle my mom left burning and accidentally spill wax all over the window sill. The candle does smell great, though. Pumpkin spice fills the kitchen. I go to the family room, wake Bobby, and take him to bed—someone has to be the adult around here, right?
I return to the kitchen to make myself a cup of chamomile tea. Dad’s there too, pouring himself a scotch. We bustle around the kitchen quietly, bumping into each another, exchanging thank you’s and excuse me’s. Then we both sit down on the stools around the kitchen island, beneath the hanging lights that give the kitchen a yellow glow. Dad reads the Wall Street Journal and I scroll through my cell phone, waiting. I steel myself for one of Dad’s heart-to-hearts, which usually sound more like a closing argument to a jury. I figure I might as well rip off the band-aid and get it over with. And now, I have some questions of my own.
Dad finally looks up from the Journal. “I hear you want to quit swim team,” he says.
“And you’re going to try to talk me out of it.”
“Well, I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”
Great. I pause and drink my tea. “Why do you and Mom always act like I don’t know what I want? I do. I’m just tired of swimming.” Then I ask, “Who was that Jane person who came here tonight?”
He looks surprised. Now Dad is the one with that deer in the headlights look.
“She’s the young associate I’ve been working with on the big case. But the case is settling so I probably won’t be working with her as much anymore.”
“If the case is settling, why did she have to come here tonight?”
“It was kind of a misunderstanding actually.” Dad takes another drink of his scotch.
There’s another long and awkward pause between us, then I say, “And what’s wrong with Mom lately?”
Dad looks surprised for a minute. “What makes you think something’s wrong with Mom?”
That’s a hard question to answer because it’s mostly a feeling. “Well, I guess because she’s drinking more, and she’s not supposed to drink at all with the painkillers she’s taking. And because of the fiasco at the swim meet when she broke her arm. She really, really freaked out. And tonight she yelled at Bobby when he wanted to talk about his homework.”
I don’t mention the bits of the conversation I’d overheard them having in the kitchen about his work and the “associate.”
“Maybe you’ve got a point.” We sit there for a long time in silence. Then he continues. “Maybe you could say your mom’s going through a new phase of her life, where she’s not sure exactly what her role’s going to be in the future.”
“You mean with her job?”
“I guess that’s part of it. I mean, she’s a really smart woman.” He shrugs. “She could do anything. She’s trying to figure that out.”
“You probably think my wanting to quit swim team is just a phase too. It’s not.”
Dad starts to smile when I say this, but he’s the one who taught me to make arguments like a lawyer would. “I’m not saying it’s a phase, Lindsay. I’m not saying that at all. I understand things don’t seem to be going your way this year. You know, you’re used to being the star.”
I nod. I can’t remember when I didn’t swim. I’ve been swimming since I was six on our Country Club’s summer team, and all year with my competitive team. My bedroom shelves are full of trophies—Coaches’ Trophy, MVP, everything. My best stroke is the freestyle; I hold the club record in my age group. I’ve always been the anchor on the free relay, at least until this year. This year I’m the second leg on the “B” relay—which is like the Siberia of swimming.
“You’re not always going to be the star, honey.” He’s looking down into his glass, ice cubes tinkling as he takes another sip. “That’s just not how life works. We all go through tough times. I lose some of my cases. Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way we want them to.”
He’s talking very, very slowly, his voice almost a whisper. “But here’s the thing – when something’s really been important in your life—like swimming’s been for you—sometimes you have to stick with it for awhile. Keep trying. See if you can get over the tough times and make it work.”
As my dad talks, something shifts between us, like Mom’s pumpkin spice candle has cast a spell over the kitchen. He sure doesn’t sound like he’s making a closing argument to a jury. Instead, he seems like he’s talking more to himself than to me. I almost stop breathing.
“So you’re telling me I should just suck it up,” I say. The sound of my voice seems to startle him.
“I guess you could put it that way. At least for a while.”
We both sit there without speaking for maybe ten minutes. The only sound is the refrigerator going on and off. Dad opens the door to get more ice cubes, and for a minute we are bathed in a cool blue light.
I’m thinking about those new hi-tech racing suits that some of the swimmers are wearing. I’ve heard that the new fabrics use compression technology to cut down on drag. Maybe they’d flatten my boobs enough so I could swim faster. It’s worth a shot. I’m sure if I mention that to Mom, she will immediately order one online, even though they are a little pricey.
“Maybe I’ll give it a little more time,” I say.
“That’s my girl.” He smiles and starts to get up, but I can’t let him off that easily.
“So are you going to help Mom figure out this new phase of her life?” I’m trying not to sound too much like a smart aleck. I’m pushing my dad now and we both know it.
There is a very long pause, then he says. “I guess I can try.”
He then turns to leave the kitchen. “I gotta check on Bobby,” he says. When he hugs me goodnight, I’m surprised to feel him trembling.
I stand in my room in front of the mirror and do some exercises to strengthen my shoulder muscles. They’re going to have to be a lot stronger if I want to swim faster.
I try to visualize myself swimming the freestyle. I want to be like a fish again, fluid and fast. I fly off the block and hit the water, then streamline down the lane and come up fast to the surface. I’m in the lead as I emerge from the water, then I plunge into the wall for my turn. I flip over like a dolphin, then pull out of the turn, still in the lead. No more breaths until I hit the wall. I’m in the homestretch now. I am Lindsay the swimmer. I will win by a touch.
Mom and Dad are in the stands, together, cheering.
Julia Conover is a retired lawyer living in Philadelphia and writing short stories. She has published in The Painted Bride Quarterly and The Philadelphia Lawyer and is currently working on a book of linked short stories about the lives of women in the late 20th Century. She remembers (barely) what it was like to be fifteen.