what all the best athletes know

M. tells our son about the trip we are taking out west. In the car, on the way into school, he asks: How many days until we get to San Francisco? I count out the days for him, explain the things that we will need to do before then, and the things that we will do when we are there. Later, back at home, I show him a map of the country, trace the path we will take, all the states we will fly over. “That’s a lot of states,” he says.

I am reminded of the trip I took to visit J. that summer so long ago. He could not meet me when I arrived, so I took a cab to his house, waited. On the table in the entry way, he had left a note that said: “Just about the time your flight landed, the sun came out.”

At night, we go to a birthday party at a strange German bar where an accordion player moves through the crowd and periodically will burst into song. We arrive late. I am tired and I have not eaten since lunch, so even the watered-down drink I order makes me dizzy. It also makes me effusive and so the time passes in a blur of high-pitched chatter and accordion song.

The bar is in the basement of what once was a modest private home and has a worn, shabby feel. Long card tables are set up along the wall, folding chairs scattered through. It reminds me of the VFW Hall that our friend S. took us to nearly every week of the summer I was pregnant with W. He was in his karaoke phase then and as often as we could, we drove out there to watch him perform in the sprawling low-ceilinged hall, for tables of indifferent, gray-haired locals.

We sat up close with some of his other friends and cheered enthusiastically for each other. I’d put my legs up on a chair, rest my hands on my giant belly. Occasionally, S. would urge me on, hold the microphone out in my direction and I’d shake my head. Not for lack of desire: I would have happily joined him for a “Total Eclipse of the Heart” duet or delivered on my own an impassioned rendition of a Journey ballad. But in my condition, aside from the very real awkwardness of my body (“From here,” this same friend S. had remarked once while he was walking behind me, “It’s like I’m watching March of the Penguins.”) there was also the challenge of self-image. I was charmed by the whole spectacle – loud, anachronistic – for its irony and it seemed to me, at the time, that nothing was more earnest than a pregnant woman. I explained this to S., who suggested: “Well, maybe you could do ‘Oops, I Did It Again,’” to which I responded by scowling so long and so hard at him that my face hurt.

My son wants to know if it will be sunny in San Francisco, so we look up the weather. When I show him the little sun icons next to each day, he jumps up and down. “Look at all those suns,” he says. I feel obligated to show him the forecast for Pawtucket, tell him, “See? There are suns here, too.” He points to the cloud icon next to today and then the one for tomorrow. “That’s not a sun,” he says, “and that’s not a sun either.”

The physical therapist tells me to walk back and forth on the carpeted floor so that he can see what my knees look like in motion. Then, to stand still. Then, to turn around. He pokes at my kneecaps. Try to relax them he says, try to let them drop down. I send silent, urgent messages to my kneecaps, begging them to drop. “Don’t try to force it,” he says. “You’re forcing it. Relax.” I break into nervous laughter. “It’s hard to do, I know,” he says. “Just try.”

He is wearing those shoes that are not shoes – the foot-gloves – but with black dress pants and a striped, collared polo shirt – a conference attendee from the ankles up. He has me lie down on the massage table and props up my legs with a foam cushion. He is unceremonious as he works on my thighs, pressing down on them hard with the heel of his hand. I try to count the holes in the acoustical ceiling tiles. “It all starts when we are young,” he says, his hands digging deeper into my flesh. “We all have weaknesses, so we learn how to compensate for them when we walk or run. But we’re doing it wrong,” he says. “No one really teaches you how to do it right.”

“You have to start with the weakest thing. The bottom of the bottom of the pile. People think that when you exercise, you should start with the thing that you’re good at, get better at that. But you should start with your weakness, work to get rid of it, then move on to the next weakness. All the best athletes know that.”

Over lunch, I catch up with a friend I’ve not spoken with in some time. It’s been a difficult year. She tells me about her partner, who will be moving out of the house they bought together. Her teenaged daughter, growing more elusive each day. She speaks quietly in measured, complete sentences. “I feel like I am ready to launch,” she says, “but I haven’t been able to translate that to direction.”

Our sandwiches arrive on oversized plates piled high with homemade potato chips. We pick at them gingerly. At the next table, men in suits speak loudly about the meeting they have just come from. “That’s just a dead end,” one says, as he looks over the menu, then pushes it aside. “Put a fork in it,” he says, “cause that shit’s done.” 

One night on that trip to California all those years ago, J. took me to a party on the beach. There were fires burning in big steel drums. The air was cool and damp. I remember the seaweed on the beach – the profusion of it, in dark piles. The popping sound it made when you tossed it into the fire. Clustered around each fire, groups of people stood drinking from bottles. We couldn’t find anyone we knew, so we walked down toward the water. I don’t remember if we ever met up with the people we had gone there to see. I don’t remember what we talked about, whether we talked at all. I don’t remember leaving. All I remember is that we sat there on the wet sand, for a long time, facing the pitch dark sea while the fires burned and crackled behind us.