When I came up for air at the end of the last fifty yard sprint, my nemesis, Celeste, said, “Who’s that old hippie?”
I peered at the far end of the pool thirty yards away where the girls in my lane stared.
Stringy, dark blond hair fell on his shoulders as he rocked back on his heels, arms crossed, hands buried in his armpits against the late afternoon chill—a pose I’d witnessed so many times it was tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.
My glance sprinted away from Dad. What if our eyeballs knocked into each other? I’d have to speak to him. Then every kid in the pool would see that we were connected.
He didn’t look like any dad I knew. Even the hippie-leaning men at the marina who smoked pot had worn close-cropped hair. He looked like Willie Nelson, ready to burst into Shotgun Willie.
I jammed my goggles back on, faced Coach as if I hadn’t just seen my father for the first time in months.As I listened to Coach—the man I revered more than my parish priest—my panic notched down a couple rungs. Coach Farmer embodied everything a coach should be—firm, serious, cool-headed, expecting one hundred percent.
A lot like Dad, I realized with a single arrow of clarity.
I dove into butterfly, the first lap in a set of 200 Individual Medleys.
From the bird’s eye view of several lapsed decades, years after Dad passed away, I wonder what he felt that day, watching me workout. The too-familiar—splash of water, click of hand paddles, bark of Coach’s commands, climb of steam to sky—had to toss him back twenty years to training for the Olympics, the eight years he raked in ribbons swimming high school and college and AAU.
Did remembering bring joy or sadness?
Did he hope I would fulfill his shattered Olympic bid? Or could he tell by watching me at sixteen that I wasn’t Olympic material? Did he figure out I’d never break a minute in the 100 Free?
At the end of practice I darted into the locker room. Maybe if I took a long enough shower, everyone would be gone by the time I had to face Dad.
When I emerged, the sky around the pool lights had darkened to night. Just a few freshman boys rat-tailed each other with their towels. Celeste, thank God, was nowhere in sight.
Dad stood against the glass wall inside the double doors rubbing his hands together for warmth.
I walked over to him. “Hi! When did you get here?” I injected surprise into my voice, took a deep breath, and leaned in for a hug that was all elbows and sharp-cornered shoulders.
Me at 5’6” and Dad at 5’7”, I stared eye-to-eye into the liqueur of love and leftover hurt that always lapped between us. I’d catch his height before I was done growing, but Dad would always loom large on my emotional landscape.
I stepped toward the parking lot and let out my breath, hoping the cool night breeze would blow Dad’s ever-present BO off my person.
Dad followed me into the lot, talking about how, in order to see me swim, he’d tacked on an extra thirty miles to the 250-mile bike ride from Miami. He biked because he could, not because he had to. A forty-eight-year-old man riding half way up the state of Florida impressed me not at all. What would have impressed me was if he’d used a bar of soap.
Headlights pulling out of the lot illumined the family Duster as Dad hefted his bike into the trunk.
I ducked into the driver’s seat, not wanting him to guess how embarrassed I was that we’d been spotlighted by my teammate’s low beams.
My waterlogged eyes stared at the rainbow rings circling the traffic signals, rush hour headlights, and neon storefronts.
Chlorine and stink warred for dominance inside the foggy windows.
I turned south onto US1 and drove into the stretch of dark between Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach.
Dad talked about a flat tire he’d had on his trip, how he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. His voice caught when he brought up selling the Annie Lee.
Dad had cast a fishing line for my sympathy and hooked me through the heart. I didn’t want to think about how I was a willing participant in the divorce, how four years later, I was still deep-down relieved to be disconnected from Dad.
“What did you think of Coach Farmer,” I threw out, hoping to get Dad talking about swimming.
But after a cursory discussion of tonight’s workout, Dad moved on to new affections—carrot juice, hummus, and Tabbouleh—decades before I could imagine juicing a carrot, grinding garbanzo beans to paste, or tossing tomatoes, parsley, onion, and mint together and calling it a salad.
I yawned. Why couldn’t we talk swimming? I had good memories of Dad rounding out my Red Cross swimming strokes with butterfly and backstroke. When I was in fourth grade he taught me to bend my elbows and cup my hands in freestyle. And he’d perfected my strokes without making me feel like a loser.
Dad would have made a great coach. But he stuttered whenever he got nervous. Maybe that was why Dad coached me when I’d needed a daddy who clapped when I twirled.
But Dad loved me. I knew it at the bottom of me. Maybe it was nobody’s fault that on the other side of the equal sign from love lay my thousand what-ifs.
What if today, in the pool, I hadn’t been so mediocre?
I wouldn’t ache so deeply over disappointing Dad if I didn’t love him back. I knew this because Ralph’s rants sluiced off my skin like pool water.
I sighed. The smell of Dad’s perspiration always pitched me back to childhood and all my various pockmarks. Dad hadn’t uttered a single criticism since he climbed into the car.
I cracked the window to let in some fresh air.
We hit the lights of New Smyrna Beach—Dudley’s Funeral Home, Pappas Drive-In Restaurant—and I was home. Albeit, I’d lived here less than a semester. But a passel of friends and teachers had taken me in. Along with Mom, they made me feel more than mediocre. This was my new, upgraded reality.
I only had to deal with Dad for the duration of his visit. I had my whole life to worry about the wounds in my soul.
But I didn’t have to wait that long. Six years later God scabbed over every wound when He gave me the strength to do something I didn’t know I needed to do, didn’t even want to do. I forgave Dad.