microphone and podium

Summer 2007, Volume 3

Physical Education
Excerpt from a novel-in-progress, Home School
by Suzanne Greenberg

Keith Wheeler had been living in his office for the past two weeks and showering at the gym. He had rarely used the gym at all before this, but he had been paying monthly for the privilege ever since Beth had been talked into signing a three-year family plan contract. He figured that at least one of them should be taking advantage of the place.

Since he’d left his wife and daughter, most mornings before officially opening up his office, he drove the several blocks to the traffic circle and headed straight for the locker rooms. Surrounded by other men doing early morning work outs, he figured he didn’t look so out of place in his sweat pants and tee shirt, that only someone who had been following his moves a bit too closely would even know that he hadn’t worked out before showering.

While the exercise equipment intimidated him, Keith had discovered the place had a small indoor lap pool, and a few mornings he had actually swum a lap or two before showering. His slow crawl back and forth was hardly enough to constitute a work out, but Keith reasoned it was a start or at least an effective way to shake off the ache that came from sleeping on a sofa.

Having put off his swim and shower until late afternoon, Keith wondered now if he had accidentally walked into the wrong gym--there were several at the traffic circle--or had come in a different entrance. Except for the desk clerk, he seemed to be the only man there. Women wearing tiny shorts and tops and large, complicated sneakers, stood around the entranceway chatting, and he could have sworn that several looked him over when he handed the desk clerk his membership card.

He smiled at the group of women and thought he heard a muffled giggle as he walked toward the men’s locker room. He felt almost buoyed up enough to try to figure out the weight equipment and work out before showering, but then he remembered the photographs he needed to sort through and order and opted for a quick lap in the indoor pool instead.

When he walked into the pool area, a young woman in a red tank suit thrust a bright pink children’s pool noodle at him. “A latecomer,” she said. “No matter. We’re glad you’re here. Name?” she said to him.

“Keith Wheeler,” he said.

“Okay, Keith Wheeler, jump right in,” she said when he stared at her. “That’s the best way to do it. Here, let me show you.” The woman lifted his arms up and wrapped the noodle around his chest. “Now put your arms down. See, it’s just like a life preserver. Don’t you feel safe?”

What Keith felt was far from safe. The noodle felt like his daughter’s legs wrapped around him, but instead of peeling the noodle off, he gripped tighter. Bobbing in the water were three women and two men, adults smiling at him too hard, noodles keeping them afloat. Here’s where the gym men were in the afternoon, he thought, learning to swim with the women.

“Jump!” one of the men shouted. “Just do it, Keith, buddy.”

Keith imagined this same man yelling at a suicide jumper. He angled his leap so he came down close enough to splash him in the face.

“Excellent,” the instructor said. “Didn’t that feel good?”

The man who had been shouting at him now was wiping the water out of his eyes.

“It did,” Keith said. “It really did.”

“Okay, here’s our key word for the day. Kick. It’s the only thing you have to remember. We’re going to line up next to each other and kick our way to the end of the pool.”

As Keith kicked to the end he found himself bumping noodles with a woman wearing a flowered bathing cap and bright blue goggles that somehow lit up on the sides whenever she moved her head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not very good at this.”

“Please don’t talk to me while I’m kicking,” she said.

“All right! You did it.” The instructor applauded for each of them as they reached the edge of the pool. “Now go wash that chlorine off. I’ll see everyone tomorrow for lesson numero three.”

In the lobby as Keith waited for the clerk to retrieve his card, he felt someone tap his shoulder.

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” the woman said. “I just can’t talk at all out there. I really can’t.”

“Oh, you’re the lady with the goggles,” Keith said.

“My nephew gave them to me. He said they were lucky.”

She still smelled faintly of chlorine, but he wouldn’t have recognized her outside of the pool otherwise. He had imagined long hair under her swim cap. He assumed the goggles had sharpened her features. But the woman next to him now had short, spiky black hair and a face that was more angular than pretty.

He took his membership card and slid it quickly into his wallet before she had a chance to see his scowling picture, taken in annoyance shortly after Beth had signed them up.

“So, see you tomorrow, huh?” the goggle woman said to him.

“Right, tomorrow,” Keith said. “I can’t wait to find out our new key word.”

“You missed breathe,” she said. “That was our first class.”

“No wonder I had so much trouble today. That was a bad one to miss.”

They were the only ones in the lobby now, and Keith held the door open and watched the woman walk out in front of him. She carried a huge, zipped shoulder bag that looked nearly as heavy as she was. Was he flirting? She wasn’t even his type. He waved goodbye as she got in her tiny toy-like car and drove away.

Back at his office, Keith arranged the photos in an album. Although this complicated his search for negatives later, he placed the photos on the first pages that he hoped the couple might be compelled to order more of, the reprints for aunts and grandmothers and the 5 x 7's and 8 x 10's for framing. These were where he made his real money.

He had trained himself not to be disappointed. Although they may have hired him because he was supposed to be a real wedding artist, the photographer who shot in black-and-white and still used actual film, when it came down to it, people rarely chose his best photos. Instead, they blew up the more predictable, sentimental ones, the groom feeding the bride the first bite of cake, the requisite photo of the flower girl standing on tiptoe to kiss the bride’s cheek when she bent down.

He worried that focusing on these photos would make him feel sad about the demise of his own marriage, but arranging the pictures felt, as always, like pure business. He had spread them out on two long card tables that morning, and he quickly got back to work. There was nothing upscale about his office, just this room and the attached bathroom he had turned into a darkroom by stapling a dark blue towel over a small window. Keith rarely met with clients here, preferring instead to bring his portfolio and set up meetings in coffeehouses, where he could let his work, not his office, make the first impression.

Three weeks had passed since the wedding, and it was now more obvious the bride had been pregnant. No one he worked with seemed to care much about these things anymore, but in case pre-wedding pregnancy went out of vogue, Keith tried, whenever possible, not to highlight it, shooting the pregnant brides from the front where their pregnancies were less obvious.

At six p.m. the coffeehouse wasn’t crowded, just a few college students cramming for mid-terms and several stragglers, hunched over books. He saw one count out his change for a coffee and wondered for the first time if the haphazardly dressed people Keith had always assumed were artists were actually homeless. Maybe he’d have to find another coffeehouse at which to meet his clients.

“Oh, look at that one,” the bride said now. “We look so happy. We need an 8 x 10 of that, don’t you think?”

Keith swallowed his coffee and didn’t bother looking at the husband before writing large cake face in his notebook. No matter what kind of plans the couple had for an egalitarian marriage, the woman always chose the wedding pictures.

An hour later, Keith left the coffeehouse with his final check and an order large enough to keep him holed up in his darkroom for the next several days. He was about to turn onto his street before he remembered that he didn’t live there anymore. He made a sudden u-turn and heard a car honk at him.

He drove slowly to his office, knowing he should be relieved to have a place to go besides the coffeehouse but still not eager to spend another night on the couch he’d inherited when the previous tenant had left it behind.

Soon, Beth and he would have to sort things out. He’d find an actual apartment somewhere with two bedrooms and make a schedule to see his daughter. He’d never been away from her before this, but he couldn’t quite imagine seeing her without Beth standing somewhere nearby hovering, making sure he didn’t get her too excited and start her asthma up, give her the wrong food, strap her in the wrong seat of the car.

When he thought about Jennifer’s thin legs gripped around him, he missed his daughter so much he felt pain shoot up the back of his neck. He shook it off by replacing her legs with the hot pink noodle and then the goggle lady, so much smaller out of the water. But for now he needed to concentrate on the work he had left, to focus on the moment.

The next afternoon at swim class the word was float. Keith had worked most of the night, slept late and intended to come in to the gym only to shower, but he had somehow arrived at the same time as the swim instructor. She winked at him and said, “See you soon, Keith Wheeler,” in front of what seemed to be the same group of women as the day before loitering in the lobby.

“That’s very brave of you,” he heard one of the women say as he dug his membership card out of his wallet. “Most people never confront their fears.”

Not knowing which woman had talked to him, Keith had shrugged in the group’s general direction. He heard someone whisper, “How cute is he,” as he walked into the locker room. And now, here he was, standing in the shallow end, getting ready to float.

“We’ll start with the back float today, so no one has to worry yet about putting his or her face in the water,” the instructor told them. She wore the same regulation-looking type swimsuit, but like yesterday, she was on dry land, standing by the pool talking down at them. “What we are all going to do is just relax and lie down on top of the water like we’re about to take a nice afternoon nap on the couch.”

Having just gotten up from the couch in his office, Keith was uninspired by the nap analogy. He looked at the goggle lady, who seemed to be staring at a fixed point on the instructor’s shoulder. He thought about whispering something clever to her about all of the instructor’s “we” talk when only some of them were getting wet, but maybe goggle lady didn’t want to talk in the water even if she was standing up in the shallow end. While Mr. Jump looked like he might enjoy a daytime snooze, the goggle woman certainly didn’t. Keith thought the instructor might have come up with a more inspired visualization.

“And, float!” the instructor shouted. All around him, Keith felt the water move as if several small speedboats were racing through the pool in different directions. He was being splashed in the face so vigorously that for a moment he panicked and forgot that he’d known how to swim since he was four year’s old.

“It’s okay to take a minute,” the instructor said. Keith looked around and saw everyone still splashing frantically about. He was the only one left standing. She was talking to him. “Pace yourself. Visualize yourself floating in air if that helps.”

“Right,” Keith said. “Air.” He found a less frenetic patch of shallow end and stretched out. He couldn’t remember the last time he had actually floated, and now that he had managed to edge away from the group, he could see its lazy appeal.

“Okay, that’s it for today. Much better, Keith Wheeler. I think someone remembered to breathe.”

Keith found himself taking his time in the now empty lobby after getting his card back. He scanned the ingredients on the protein bars that were for sale and carefully read each flyer promoting aerobic and yoga classes before he finally had to come to terms with two things: he had been waiting for someone and he had missed her. The goggle lady must have skipped her shower completely that day.

He turned on his cell phone when he got in his car and found that he had three new messages, all from his daughter: a report of an injured knee from hopscotch, a lost baby stroller and a huge crisis, Beth planned to sell the television he had just fixed. “Call me earlier tonight, Daddy,” she said in the last one. “I need to talk to you.”

BIO: Suzanne Greenberg is the author of Speed-Walk and Other Stories, winner of the 2003 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post Magazine, The Sun, West Branch and The Mississippi Review. She teaches creative writing at California State University, Long Beach.

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