By EDIE MEIDAV
Sinking lower in the club’s hot tub and today a birthday marks his face one notch less recognizable when anyway, meeting someone these days means who you say you are matters both less and more. Who cares, really? Get older and it becomes easier to say who you are not. No king of industry, that myth abandoned before anyone finished saying Constantinople, but who even says Constantinople anymore, such flourish abandoned in his particular past as a history major, an epoch in which windmilling toward the future seemed to matter, toting around the flag of belief that what happened before could actually help you later. Now just a service-minded bumbler close to retirement going around to enlighten the masses and so what if certain efforts fizzled? Could happen to anyone. Card says educational consultant, consulting re: what again? Going around, flashing badge as if you too could qualify for an IEP like those cute smiley or slack-jawed special-ed kids, notes from home dangling on their chests. Please be sure Muffy wears mittens when thermometer is below twenty because she has Raynaud’s syndrome and don’t let Ricardo stare too long at computer screens because he has Irlen syndrome. Those kids are not the only ones who could use a note from home. What happens when the syndrome is despair? Circa eleven most mornings, best to call it a bloodsugar lull until it returns again at four, then again most Sunday afternoons once tasks are done. The unlisted and realer task seems to be about stitching a life above the lulls, like stakes in the hammock put up each summer for the sons, a faulty device which more than once snapped their paws. For which they blame him, why not, because there stands father, ready to absorb all like the brawny man on paper towels, politely absorbent and at the ready, as stated by his best report cards long ago parlayed into performance reviews. Politeness does keep the wallet warm. One of his sons finally took the hammock off his hands, the angry oldest one, though other sons still try sending seasonal gifts hard on the male pride, clearly meant not to shred but shore up the pitiable lonely old stiff, no one counseling what he is supposed to do with three beefy sons swaggering toward their ideas of future perfection and the least estranged one, the middling, still offering up telltale gifts, like that massager on his chair with its beads ripped from some porno store. And if none go around boasting about any great childhood, his own was no less unworthy, lacking both trauma and exaltation so that, unless anomie counts, no braggable war scars remain other than the one that seems to have turned him toward the current summit from which he tells people how to serve the children of the future only to find himself at an edge, ready to retire which for him floats the question: had any effort ever gone beyond anything?
Sinking lower in the tub, part of this year’s new self, a self-improvement kick, because why not join the lemmings who resolve to resolve what? Having joined this mildewed dank warren of a health club where one’s point in the family of man shows itself within the locker room’s flapping paps, a hearty male enfolding of good cheer, no bull-whip towelslap, only men folding towels under veinous feet on the ground, an act he has never before seen men do, but perhaps these men in this place know something he does not about esoteric staph stats? The labyrinthine halls of the gym disorient: perhaps the place had found itself more needed by the dying and so performed its own species of accommodation, like him, like the towel-feet men, dropping yet another
room at the end of yet another corridor so that as you look for any one thing you end up in a cul-de-sac with your first choice no longer plausible, the whole place a jigsaw of aspiration scented with sweat and cologne or is it more like longing and regret?
Much better to be here, however, than in the vast hygiene of the better- equipped gym in town, popular with young students, where each time he enters, another invisible tree-ring marks age around his girth, those gym kids probably students for whom he had sacrificed what again? Or what did it mean anyway, to improve someone’s education? Who needed education more, those slumping as they penciled in bubbles but rich with friends or he, the solitary if lateral-thinking consultant? Who cared if, while coming up, they sat in circles or rows, taught toward or away from the test, mainstreamed or segregated?
He had never guessed fully what segregation could feel like. When the papers finally went through last year, it became clear how much his grown children aligned with their mother, or had that pesky fact not been apparent for years? At his first dalliance, all the way back then, he should have started the papers, and here he finds himself late in life with no note from home, because what would home be, anyway? His new railroad apartment, mostly unfurnished, where he keeps himself from sliding into that certain undignified final base which he thinks means the peanut-butter-with-a-spoon phase, though he has already passed the stacked-ramen-packages, splayed-newspapers and extra-trash-bags stage. The riddle of late life rests in how much you teeter above the question of attaching and disbursement, locking up your empty stable, making up for omission with sins of commission.
His gift as a consultant had rested in how readily he noted what others did not, and in the categories of both politesse and watchfulness his performance reviews glowed. And so he keeps watching the guy who saunters around town with an immaculate handlebar mustache and admirably huge tentlike camel jacket, but how after all does that homeless guy keep himself so together, the jacket so unstained over khakis over the strange pink water shoes he wears no matter the season? Often the guy carries a book of unusual provenance: a field map to the stars or the Dordogne, once The Magic Mountain, only the surprise consistent. Occasionally you spot the guy lying on a carpet in a local drugstore or bookstore, taking upon himself a cleaning task involving the dismantling of some aspect of the store, the metallic shin guard under the makeup display, the prescription glasses. And why not? Managers indulge him in this town known as being progressive, prone to education, allowing all comers, takers, givers. Maybe the man known as Karl in his camel jacket has always been more of a giver, scouring the missed spots, going through town with yet another clerk saying, O yes, there goes Karl reaching the place I could not. What seems to be the case is that Karl knows something, he has his place, touchpoints, a lunacy that weaves the town tighter. On a birthday late in life, late to so much, from the hot tub it is easy to envy Karl, who just today was striding purposefully down the main street past the pizza palace, grasping a rotten grapefruit in one hand and a book with a hot pink cover in the other. Such firm powerful hands, always tasked.
A girl now steps down into the hot tub and usually she might go unnoticed except that is a lie—noticing girls never stopped, even during the dalliances which kept threatening to crack the foundation of everything, each dalliance rising and falling like an empire, building over the rooftops of those before. And yet could there not be forgiveness? When had moving toward life become a wrong? Be hungry for the world, a teacher of his had pronounced, and once that had inspired, but what is he to do now with this girl in her plum bathing suit staring at him? Not as if he is deformed, no Toulouse-Lautrec or whoever that runty painter was with the stubby legs and the famously hypertrophied manhood: more like the opposite. And gazing at plums pushing that bathing suit forward, her face with such unblinking hazel eyes, gleaming beauty but barely disguising the sneer the youthful use in warding off the old before she, too, must look away.
Clearly it is too hard to take him in, fine and well but let her go do herself because really he is no terrible specimen, a man who despite ramen and stacked newspapers still sends year-end tax-deductible contributions, leaving this year a few cherished cans in brown bags as charity for the scouts, a man never an irritant to the eyes, actually easy on the eyes according to his last dalliance before the divorce, hair perhaps less black and shrinking but so what? He had not slid into the folded-towel-under-feet stage. So what could so disconcert Miss Plum? Ms. Plum. Probably mid-twenties, few disappointments, hazel plum attending swimming lessons or swim team, daddy’s favorite, all pursuits lauded, skin that smooth brown, perhaps half nature, half nurture, tanning salon rounded for G-string perfection.
Can he be blamed for the boil starting in his chest and not from the hot tub? One tactic might be to storm out, though storming would mark defeat: she would see too much. Good that at least his uppers still defy age. Delts, traps. It would be foolish to surrender too readily when he has fought bigger battles and won. Of course he knows what she might think. Before the wife and joyful lawyers and all the papers he’d had to sign, there’d been that much older lover whose infirmities of the flesh he could not help seeing as moral laziness, disorder and sloth, arms freckled and a sleepiness around the eyes, a hazed attention and entropy to which he would never succumb. And yet she had loved him no matter what he did, had held him in a light in which he could do no wrong, extending his way the gracious gaze of time toward the unlived.
How dare Plum look at him like that, today, on his birthday? Best tactic might be to stare back so as to better dismantle her, thought-telegraphing: this hot tub is only big enough for one of us, and one day too, Plumette, the sun will set on your empire—you too will be old. He might look elsewhere, but Plum and her eyes stay too bright, fixing on him as the strangest of specimens. Behind him, in the pool, a gaggle of geriatric Esther Williams types frisk about, a poolside aerobics instructor loud in leading the hijinks of these chattering women who treat the water as if it were in one of the kiddie amusement parks to which he once took the sons, a place to wield odd foam-shaped swords and scabbards. The cap-headed Esthers must have received some memo about being a senior which he has managed to fend off. Time to learn the moves, friends, swish swish reach now slide pump slide! A few men spottable among the Esthers, smiling, declawed and denutted. As if each person reaches a particular birthday, the exact day enfolded in a secret envelope, each person’s day toted up by liver spots, divisible by anomie, and at this date suddenly everyone learns old-people pool moves? Not him. He would resist that tree, stay in the eden of blissful ignorance despite the swishing reach around him. Higher! Give me some life, people! When all he knows is crawl and it will stay that way, the crawl and no flip at lap’s end, just touch the edge, turn, lap again, with sometimes, okay, an affirmation in his head: I am strong, I am strong. Highly repetitive, peaceful, and why not? Always a better man after a swim, younger, too, probably, if someone were to test his immune system, those stats known at least, the way that people listen to their era’s music for a whole weekend and their white blood cell count vaults, their whole immune system strengthened: lingering in the past seems to help. So what do the Esthers find by aqua-dancing this old-human way, simultaneously forward and past, making their struggle against mortality almost as naked as the energetic instructor prancing poolside, young gluteus maximus bared to indoor elements and gazes, exhorting them to greater heights, friends, against a soundtrack with a repetitive chorus: love shack, baby!
At the far end of the pool, as if obeying the song’s injunctions, a tall boy nuzzles his ginger-haired companion, actually sliding his head under her hair so as to better kiss her neck, both with that unblemished self-regard of youth, deep in a morning-after that will continue for a few months until it fades. What he would like to shout poolside is this message: it all fades, friends! Love shack, baby! Enjoy your little moment.
Probably these two are also students for whose education he has sacrificed hours on his tired rear, hours spent sitting which, it turns out, steal moments from your ischemic health and circulation, but no prizes for him, no thank you, modest to the end, just asking for decency, people, or what banner would his sacrifice parade under? Plum with her short gamine hair has actually gone so far as to turn the back of her neck to him. Back of her neck as in j’ai toujours aimais ta nuque, but what film does that come from, which omegas did he forget to take, what again are the computer games that aid memory so he can more fully recall that film he for sure saw with his wife, that much he knows, even as Plum turns her nuque like she really cannot stand one more moment looking at the geezer in the tub. Such a neck should be nuzzled. Surely a nuque much nuzzled, but by whom? Young pimply lothario? Big floppy sugar daddy? Comment allez-vous? What is she doing after all with such awkward grace, standing with leg bent, toe at the knee, extending out to an underwater arabesque, some kind of subtle ballet move, another fool mistaking the future for a ladder, this moment just one rung in a series of acts toward self-improvement.
The boil too much, the attempt at homeostasis impossible, but for him at this juncture there can be no capitulation, he cannot just surrender and get out of the tub, because then she will see the less than perfect physique but who ever instated perfection as anyone’s cross? Some psychologist somewhere could be having a field day at his expense. Anemic father, invasive mother. But no one is helping him, his struggle must continue, solo and valiant but also that of a frog who cannot exit water with its heat turned up by degrees. She arabesques with that nuque but then stares through him every now and then, a gaze meant to vanquish, doing him in, as bad as his ex with her hair chopped short after his last dalliance, one of those acts meant to deprive when once he loved letting her hair flow through his fingers. In his current state, can he take young Plum seeing him? No and nugatory, the choice clearly Hobson’s, when the only choice left is to stay in the tub and let heat peel off his skin. Why not? Peeled old buzzard. They could find him there, the opposite of WWII heroic soldiers found almost completely preserved in the ice melting off the Italian Alps, an educational consultant on his own birthday whose learning outcomes would suggest no further need for status assessments, scalded alive, cause held tight, no one knowing about his own little Iwo Jima, his campaign tight and high as a flag.
So finally her ballet finishes and she rises. Let her. All that rises must what? Little does she know how decisive is this point in combat, or does she? Let her decide to parade with that glorious minimus before him, magical thinking having actually rewarded him, that he might stay unseen during the decisive match point, though perhaps she has pity and so lets him win as she steps slowly out of the tub, savoring victory with her unblemished little perfect body, of course knowing he watches. Should he say something to show he is in charge, something ridiculous, something about if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the fire or perhaps something about the weather? Of course it is always better to stay manly and silent, enjoying all conquest, eyes consummating the meal, the love shack song subsiding, an uncanny silence descending at his coup, hat over heart, a moment of silence, people, the instructor says behind him.
As he watches Plum walk past. Tugging at her bathing suit, in profile so he can better know his overthrow, still stuck in the tub. Who triumphed? He cannot know for sure but gets a sense. Plum passing him, a whiff of some herbal essence as she goes to stand at the white plastic chairs where she had placed her towel, along with a display of various aqueous accouterments.
And then, with a delicacy that rips him, almost beautiful, there comes her shudder away from him and the rest of the pool. Only those actively scrutinizing would know, but little ever escapes his notice, both his gift and doom, and so he gets to notice that what she does is remove first one eye and then another.
Only because he angles to see it is he now granted a vision of her face: two gouged holes no monster could envy. Two melted slits, gashes which count as no one’s ideas of eyes but which must do enough of the trick. Two gashes allowing in some sight. Somewhere an optician had chosen hazel. The same doleful eyes that conquered him are now placed into a careful white case. She then pulls goggles on over what he can never fathom before her swimming cap is yanked on as well, neat and plum to match, and there she stands about to dive into the pool, as ready for her laps as a knife.
Edie Meidav is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Lola, California. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. Find her on Twitter @lolacalifornia.