Months after the celebrations of life, my wife invited a man to the house for lunch. I toasted four slices of wheat bread and unwrapped two slices of cheese from their plastic slips. He and I spoke about the absence of snow. I found his views exhausting. I could not hear my wife anywhere in the house.
I dropped tortilla chips beside his sandwich while he explained that he had spent that morning installing four planters for the city, big planters with automatic irrigation systems, in a newly cemented median. He would finish another median’s worth of planters once my wife drove him back downtown. Perhaps hearing her name, my wife appeared. She asked if he was ready. When he’d finished his lunch, and the two of them had left, I cleaned up his crumbs.
She came home with another man two days later, a college statistics professor. A Lutheran minister followed three days after that. Yet another man, this one without a clear profession, arrived for lunch a few days after this, and this guy stayed for dinner: Mark Spitz, a famous swimmer.
We were hunting for a mentor. My wife was looking for a man who could take me under his wing, set me back on track. We were looking for a man who could take my wife out of her life at that time and treat her as she felt she’d long deserved to be treated.
Incorrect, my wife said. She said the mentor part was accurate. She pointed out that fear had become my closest confidant. She said that I had made a cuckold of thought. She said that protracted obsession with pride-preening and K2-scale self-pity and cultural ignorance had taken the place of our dead son. She said this was not about saving me, and she said this was surely not about salvaging our love.
Two days after we’d eaten two meals with Mark Spitz, it was suddenly Mark Spitz’s birthday. My wife told me it might be nice if I took him out for a drink. I’d once prided myself on the open mind’s value, she reminded me.
I asked her if she really thought Mark Spitz had nothing better to do with his time.
She shrugged. You never know, she answered.
Alas, very few men have snubbed me with greater kindness. My wife rolled her eyes. She brought no one home for lunch for weeks, including herself. Closer to April, I completed a letter to my wife, whom I’d located in Mexico City, and then I destroyed it. The letter was terrible. I just wanted to speak to her. She had left while I was gardening. Her note apologized. You’ll be fine, she wrote.
It takes too many people a lifetime to find themselves at Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México. Even then, you’re not ready. If you grew up in almost any part of American, you’re not ready for any part of Mexico. The world I witnessed through the rear passenger window of the Uber to my wife’s compound confronted my every sorrow and sensual dimension of sorrow, past and future, and condemned all of it.
When I arrived at this compound where my wife had allegedly holed up with friends, Mark Spitz opened the door. He took my bag, walked me in with his arm around my shoulder, said he’d been thinking a lot about the last time we’d met. He said he thought, now that he’s had time to think about it, he would like to be my mentor. My wife came out of the kitchen and took Mark Spitz’s hand.
It was a harrowing few weeks after that, but Mark Spitz held up his promise and met me, per many terse email exchanges, my wife CC’d, in Santa Fe. In my reflection in the swimming pool water, on that first morning, before dawn, a wizened messenger reported that I should not be taking my shirt off in public.
Spitz: undaunted. In one week under his mentorship, I fleeced four minutes from my 200 Free. Very few competitive organizations desire men my age, but the Regional Olympics Organization in Colorado Springs took my digits at Mark Spitz’s insistence and contracted me as a pacesetter for the Regional Nineteen and Unders.
This moved us to Colorado. The Nineteen and Unders fussed over Mark Spitz in embarrassing excess, and he fussed over them in uncomfortable, affectionate expressions of support for their work and time and effort. One afternoon, eating granola bars on the bleachers, he snatched a young swimmer’s phone and texted another young swimmer to express her love to that swimmer. They both played it cool, feigned a little dismay, but their gratitude was electric. Life, Spitz told both young women, though he was looking at me, isn’t long. You must do things like you have rapidly expiring minutes to couple. Say less. Do everything fast. Everything is ending.
I was ending. Mark Spitz was erasing me. I’d lost ninety-seven pounds. I was in the water twelve hours a day. The most painful and least complicated seven weeks of my life came and went under water. I was literally and existentially swimming. I saw everything out of water as a suspended, monochromatic prune. I ate all of it. I had no time to talk. I had too much time to think. Every thought was unutterable. My body cried out to Athena. My ghost son came and went. I eliminated another four minutes from my 200 Free. The faster I swam, the less Mark Spitz talked to me. Absurdly, this made me swim harder.
Sometimes, he would nod from the end of the pool, then he stopped nodding entirely. Then he stopped showing up to practice entirely—
My wife said, Is Mark Spitz a whiner? Does he call me like this, a self-conscious Junior High kid? Is he a fretter? Why are you talking to me about your mentor? Is he worth your precious words? Do you think I don’t have enough of him at home? Do you think I need more Mark Spitz?
Swimming the Pan-American Games in Peru would be technically illegal at my age, the Nineteen and Unders coaches informed me, but our club was no Florida, no California. No one was looking at us. Plus, I had Spitz. In a world of turinabol swishing and methasterone suppositories, Mark Spitz said to me one night from the shadows of the lockerroom, startling me, What does age even mean any more?
Peru: no one stops my paperwork. I’m on the deck. No one cares, but everyone glances. My competitors in the qualifiers are half my age and double my height. Two men from Brazil openly point at parts of my body. Mark Spitz is nowhere to be found. Yet, I destroy my previous splits by nearly five seconds. I lap the gentleman representing Columbia. Afterward, I slap the water and shake hands with the other swimmers. I pump my fist to indifferent bleachers and vacant faces.
All of this will seem abundantly absurd in the future, but I’m not done. I take third in Finals the next day. No one meets me after I change clothes and bag my medal. I will learn that Mark Spitz has already flown back to the states to be with my wife. I have a return flight myself that goes through Denver the next day, but I will miss it. I’m no Odysseus. There’s no Telemachus chasing. Nothing was ending just as everything was ending. I rubbed my face. I remember rubbing my face, and then I walked out of the arena.
Outside of Lima, I stopped walking and dropped my duffle bag. I looked up to the brushy-beige hills and saw a line of sweating men. They were digging an agricultural aquatic system, sponsored by Wells Fargo, the foreman told me in Spanish. He told me about the hostile weather, pollution and contamination, feckless consumption patterns by the wealthy and poorly educated middle class. I nodded. I grabbed a pickaxe. I looked him in the eye, and I asked him if he thought I’d changed. He touched my shoulder. He laughed, a good one from the gut. He told me these people were dying from thirst.
Christopher Merkner is the author of the story collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. His stories have been reprinted in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Mystery Stories anthologies.