A Better Parent
by Alison Gadsby
Niki is smiling. Just in case. She’s not happy, but when her son Jeremy sees her sitting in the stands she wants to look it. She got up at 5:00 am, tossed frozen fruit and some green protein powder into the blender (as instructed by her ex-husband Chris) and swirled up a nutritious smoothie that was immediately rejected as being too green, too wrong. Jeremy scrambled up his own eggs and slurped the barely cooked mess into his mouth as she drove downtown to the university pool for his first swim meet of the season.
His eyes wander up every few minutes, not to Niki, but to the empty spaces around her. No Dad. He’s had his headphones on since he woke up. She knows she shouldn’t be here, but it’s her weekend. She hasn’t been to a swim meet in two years. Ever since Jeremy got fast and started qualifying for bigger and faster meets, he always chose his dad.
It started with the dog. The thing she’d hoped might save her marriage. One parent had to stay home with the puppy while the other did swim practices and meets. Niki got the dog.
Jeremy needs to take six seconds off his 200 Fly to qualify for Provincials. That feels like a lot to her, but Niki knows nothing. Chris was the swimmer. When Jeremy started with the club three years ago, he was just a small, keen eight-year-old who had a knack for it. Good genes, Chris joked. But it’s no joke now. He swims nine times a week and Chris is some kind of swim official. The early mornings, when Jeremy is with her, are a killer. Some days she asks him to go back to bed and not tell his dad he missed practice. She figures it will make him a more flexible person. Chris’ philosophy is, ‘there’s no point in doing anything if you’re not going to do it right and do your best’. That was their marriage. Niki didn’t do it right. She never remembered to ask him about his day, she drank too much wine, and she couldn’t get up before eleven even one day on the weekend so they could get shit Chris wanted done, done.
Jeremy is bobbing his head back and forth to whatever song is playing in his ears. The rhythm of the imagined race moving his body.
Margaret, another mother, is screeching “Aidan, Aidan” like a fox looking for a lost pup.
Niki can see Aidan trying to ignore her, but her shouts are so loud the other swimmers start poking him to get her to shut up.
Aidan tilts his head slightly and his father yells, “20 seconds.”
Niki flips through the heat sheet for Aidan’s name. They want their eleven-year-old to go well under three minutes in the 200 Backstroke. Seems outrageous, but what the hell does she know?
Margaret turns to Niki, “Jay going for Festivals, too?”
Her using Chris’ nickname for Jeremy is irritating. In the buffet line at the awards banquet last year, Niki asked if she preferred Maggie or Margaret. Her reply was a terse ‘while some call me Maggie, it’s Margaret’. Niki was granted Maggie status last spring, but has stuck with Margaret.
“I have no idea,” Niki says. It must drive Margaret bananas to know someone like Niki exists. A parent who doesn’t spend hours poring over time standards and calculating Olympic probabilities for her kid.
The Olympics. That had been their biggest fight. After a particularly good swim meet Chris ruffled Jeremy’s wet hair and said, “Kid stands a good chance at going in 2028, maybe even 2024.”
“God help him if he changes his mind,” Niki said.
“Well I’m sure if you could weasel your way into his head, you’d change it for him.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t waste your time,” Chris had finally said, “Haven’t you got better things to do, wine to drink?”
They went on for over an hour, and when they paused for a second, she’d looked at the clock. She wanted to know the exact minute it ended for her. At 11:46 am on a snowy December Saturday morning, she officially hated him.
“Aidan!” Margaret shouts again waving her hands wildly. When he finally looks up, Niki can see fear crawling all over his face. Blotches of red over pale grey skin. Someone announces they’re marshalling the 200 Backstroke. There’s still loads of time before his race. But Margaret is spewing her panic all over this kid. His father’s fingers are frantically scrolling up and down his iPad at the time standards.
Niki wants to say something, but instead looks away and pulls a magazine out of her bag. Who was she to judge bad parenting? Everyone has a story to tell about their shitty parents. Jeremy won’t be any different.
“Nothing therapy won’t fix,” Niki’s mother used to say. “It’s not like we locked you in the closet or tied you to the bed.”
“Mama,” she hears Jeremy’s voice, but he’s no longer sitting where he was. Hawk-eyed Margaret pulls on Niki’s t-shirt pointing to Jeremy directly beneath them.
Jeremy holds up his goggles. He has chewed at the ends and anxiously twisted the rubber so that now they’re broken.
“There’s a spare in your bag,” she shouts quietly.
“These are them,” he says.
Margaret interrupts, “Aidan has an extra pair.”
Jeremy looks to Margaret and then back to Niki and shakes his head. They are not the right kind. He can only wear some Swedish brand with silicone pads. Chris found them, of course and they can only be purchased at the swim store miles outside the city. Niki points at her watch. She doesn’t have time. He’s terrified. She nods her head, but taps on her watch to tell him it’s too late.
Jeremy puts his hands together and pleads with her. She knows if Chris were here, he’d have a dozen pairs in the glovebox of his BMW. In his back pocket.
Niki collects her things and as she puts her sweater on she asks Margaret to give Jeremy a pair just in case she doesn’t get back in time.
“47 minutes,” Ken says. He counted the number of heats and the average times and gives her what is likely the exact time of Jeremy’s heat.
As Niki pulls open the doors to the gallery, a man falls through, almost tripping down the stairs. A small boy, about four or five years old, stands holding the door with his small body while the man struggles to get back up using the railing. He reeks of alcohol, a familiar blend of freshly drunk beer and stale old whiskey. Niki’s Dad had the very same smell. It’s as overpowering now as it was when she was little.
The boy’s eyes are glued to a bright pink Nintendo DS. He follows his father as he weaves between the backs of cheering and whistling parents and the wall, falling down on his butt beside Margaret and Ken. Niki can’t take her eyes off the boy who doesn’t miss a step walking and playing his game. The drunk man scans the deck and when he sees someone, he waves awkwardly. Niki follows his gaze to a girl about the same age as Jeremy. She doesn’t wave back until the young boy lifts his eyes from the game. They share a smile as the girl bends her wrist back and wiggles her fingers. The boy gives her one small thumb up, before sinking back into his game world.
Niki can hear Nana Mouskouri blaring in her head with that tinny car radio voice. The CBC playing full volume while her Dad slips on and off the gravel shoulder of Highway 7.
Niki’s unblinking eyes start stinging and she goes back to where she was sitting. Jeremy is waving his hands, but Niki doesn’t look down.
Margaret lifts her phone points to the drunk Dad and mouths to Niki, ‘Should I call the police’? Niki shakes her head aggressively, no. Aidan is in the water and Ken is shouting over the railing. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. AIDAN. Kick. Even the drunk Dad is startled each time Ken yells. Margaret puts down her phone and joins her husband at the railing, blocking the view of anyone else who might want to watch the race.
Niki sits. She sees the young boy is playing a word game. He’d already found a bunch of four and five letter words from an eight-letter anagram. She looks closer.
“Did you get, SPILL?” she says.
The boy tilts the game away from her.
Aidan finishes his race and Ken is shredding the heat sheets.
Ken looks up to the clock and shouts, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before he turns to leave.
Aidan goes under the water and then comes up and starts banging his head on the wall. He took off eight seconds, won his heat and now has to wait for the other boys to finish. Not good enough he’s the fastest kid here. Jeremy approaches him after he gets out of the water and whispers something in his ear. They share a handshake that includes a fist bump, a side fist and a high five.
“Fucking high fives. Are you kidding me?” Ken says to Niki as though she’s to blame for the gesture.
Jeremy holds up Aidan’s goggles and gives her the okay sign.
Then from across the gallery, at the deep end of the pool, she hears Chris’s whistle. He used to do it in the playground when Jeremy was little. Like their son was a dog. Chris shouts Jay’s name and holds up a pair of goggles. Ken uses Niki as a handrail as he steps up and walks out of the gallery, mumbling more profanities and throwing the ripped and crumpled sheets to the ground.
The drunk Dad stirs and Niki can see it before it happens. He’s choking on all the drink, trying desperately to not spill his guts, swiping at the saliva dripping from his mouth. Liquid vomit fills the concrete floor at his feet.
It takes over twenty minutes for two security guards to turn up. One of them steps down and kicks the drunk Dad in the lower back. The man opens and then closes his eyes. The boy slowly slides to sit beside Niki, never once turning away from his jumbled words.
“Sir, can you stand on your own?” the other guard asks. The man shakes his head. The guards bend on either side of him and put an arm under each shoulder and lift. On the count of three they step up and drag him to the top leaning him against the railing as one speaks into his walkie talkie asking for help.
Niki’s head bounced off the wall. She was thirteen. She listened as her father tried to crawl up to this bedroom. He fell backward twice, landing on the hardwood floor with a thud that shook the house. When she had dared leave her bedroom to help him navigate the narrow flight, he had just enough strength to give Niki a good shove down the stairs.
As the guards turn the dad toward the exit, Margaret shouts after them, “Hey, his kid’s here too.”
The boy shrinks into Niki. “He’s fine here,” she says.
“He’s from some club up north,” Margaret says, “We don’t know them.”
“How’d you get here, son?” One of the guards kneels beside them.
“Did your father drive?” he asks.
Niki says, “We can hang out until his sister finishes swimming. I can get them both home.”
Margaret says, “You can’t do that.”
Niki tells her to shut up.
“I can get him home,” she says again.
“Unless you’re a relative or friend of the family, I’ll have to take the boy with me,” the guard says.
The Dad is mumbling something, barely able to keep his head up. It’s as if he’s gotten drunker.
The boy stands up and robotically follows the guards. Niki wants to grab him, stop them from taking him away, but her throat tightens and she cannot take a breath. How she always dreamed of punching her father back but the best arguments happened after he died. Minutes after the dad and boy disappear, Niki still has her eyes on the door.
They announce the boys 200 Fly. Jeremy is in the last of three heats.
He swings his arms around as he takes his place behind Lane 4. He unplugs an earphone gives his name to the timekeeper and steps back, intermittently slapping his legs and swinging his arms.
Niki can’t speak. She wants to cheer him on.
Chris has moved closer to the starting blocks. Go Jay Go. Jeremy claps his hands and throws two fists in the air toward his dad. Happier than a pig in shit, Niki’s mother might have said.
Chris was filling a suitcase with clothes when Niki stumbled into their bedroom at two in the morning last January. It was a post-holiday holiday party she had to attend, but she was angry he was leaving. What gave him the right to pack his bags? It was over. Long over. And don’t think because you’re packing up all your shit that it’s you who’s come to some suddenly wide-eyed decision that this isn’t working. You massive mother-fucking dickhead. She’d gone off the deep end, she knew it and all the while she helped him throw his crap in a couple more suitcases, she was stripping off her own clothes. As he stopped at the front door, Niki stood naked in the living room applauding him and his big move.
Margaret is still talking about the drunk father. All disgust, pity and shame as they wonder who his swimmer is. Niki looks down to the girl, who is beside her coach staring blankly at the gallery’s exit doors. Niki knows that face, lifeless because any twitch or slight movement will trigger tears and with tears comes a full-blown breakdown.
The race starts and Jeremy kicks fast and furiously before he comes up with his first stroke, a full body length ahead of the swimmer next to him. His first turn brings him even further ahead of the pack. Niki rocks back and forth to the rhythm of the stroke. It soothes her. This is what she will tell him after the race. She will thank him. How the grace of his swimming calmed her.
As Jeremy turns again, Margaret asks Niki if she knows the drunk asshole. Niki shakes her head without looking at her. Margaret keeps talking anyway. How she demands people don’t speak to her when Aidan swims and yet she yacks and yacks now. Margaret adds, how sorry she feels for the drunk man’s kids.
Jeremy finishes. Niki’s eyes are clouded. When she stands to cheer, tears spill down her face.
“You wonder why some people become parents,” Margaret says.
Jeremy glances up at the clock and throws his hands in the air before diving backwards under the water.
Niki watches Chris whooping and hollering, wiping his own eyes. He stares back at her. If only once he could look like he doesn’t know he’s the better parent.
Alison Gadsby is a Toronto-based fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from York University, where she was awarded the bp nichol award for exceptional achievement. She was also recently awarded a two-week residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts.
Alison is an active participant in the literary community and is the founder, curator and host of Junction Reads a monthly prose reading series in Toronto.