I followed Mom’s instructions and called Maribel at our apartment to tell her my plans. She was a good friend of Mom’s – they’d worked together in the ER for years – and needed a place to stay at the same time we needed someone to sublet our apartment. She moved in the day after we left. She said of course she didn’t mind my stopping by to pick up a few things while I was in the city, although she’d be at work and would miss me. I still had the key, I assured her, and would be in and out in minutes. She asked after my mom, and I filled her in on her progress. My next call was to our friend Brian who found us mezzanine seats for Wicked at a deep discount in under two minutes.
Practice ended at ten a.m. on Saturday. Justin drove us to the train station, and we landed in Penn Station just after noon.
“Hungry?” I asked as we emerged onto the streets of Manhattan. My appetite hadn’t caught on to my new training regime and I was still hungry all the time. My stomach had growled with emptiness the whole ride.
Mel and Erica were too busy gawking at the crowded streets to respond.
“This way,” I said and led them to a deli on the corner that served the best corned beef in the city. Once we’d filled our bellies, we tackled the streets.
“What’s next?” Mel asked, slurping down the last of her soda.
“We walk,” I said. “We’re heading uptown. I know a few cool shops we can poke around in, then we’ll cut through Central Park to my apartment. After that, we’ll head to Broadway and find the theater.”
“I’m glad you know what you’re doing,” said Erica. She looked like a country bumpkin lost in the big city the minute we exited the train station.
“Hold my hand,” I said. “I won’t let you get lost. I promise.”
She smirked. “I’m not that bad.” She turned to Mel. “Am I?”
“You should have seen the look on your face when you emerged from the subway,” Mel said. She imitated Erica’s overwhelmed expression. “Priceless.”
I laughed too, but Erica didn’t think it was funny.
“Hey, it’s my first time,” she said.
“And everybody knows it.” Mel laughed.
We started out on Seventh Avenue, through the Garment District, stopping at a few trendy shops I’d frequented with my mom, trying on a few things and buying nothing. It was just fun to look and dream. None of us had much cash. An hour later, we stood in the middle of Times Square. If Erica looked like a fish out of water at Penn Station, she looked like a deer in the headlights in Times Square. Her mouth hung open almost to her knees as she observed the characters traipsing through, her head swiveling right, left, up, and down as she took in all the lights. Times Square was visual commotion, and she didn’t know where to focus.
“Just keep walking,” I said.
Mel stopped every few feet to snap pictures.
It was a crazy day in Times Square but no crazier than usual. I didn’t know what was more entertaining: the crowd or the two gawking girls from upstate.
“I can’t believe you live here,” Erica said.
“I don’t live here,” I said. “I’m in Midtown, near the park.”
“How far is it?” Erica whined. We’d already gone about twelve blocks.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired,” I said. “You’re in better shape than anyone else on the team.” Over the last two months, Erica had become lean, but she was all muscle, her shoulders thicker than most guys’.
“Hey, I’ve been up since five,” she said, “milking cows and gathering eggs while you were still dreaming. A farmer’s work never stops.”
“You slept on the train,” I pointed out.
“Dozed, not slept,” she corrected.
All of our banter helped pass the time. We veered east and approached Fifth Avenue and 50th Street, the intersection for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I didn’t say anything, wanting to catch their reactions when they first laid eyes on it. I led the way and stopped as soon as I saw it. Mel and Erica, still bickering, plowed right into me.
“What the - ?” Mel said and then squealed, “Is that St. Patrick’s?”
Erica stood in wonder, staring at the edifice.
“Come on,” I said, once again leading the way. “Let’s go inside.”
We crossed the street and worked our way past the crowds to the doors of the church, slipping in as a group of Japanese tourists exited. The church was filled with people worshiping, taking photos, and examining the architecture. We walked down the aisle a few feet and then slipped into a pew. Mel made the sign of the cross and sat back, taking it all in.
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“Once, but it was a long time ago.”
“I’ve never been here,” Erica said. “This place is gorgeous.”
We watched the people coming and going, pointing out different points in the architecture to one another, the vaulted ceilings, the statuary, the organ’s pipes.
After ten minutes or so, I gestured toward the door. Before we left, we knelt and said a quick prayer of thanks for this sacred space.
“And please let us win the division title,” Mel added at the end.
Erica laughed, and I elbowed Mel in the ribs.
“Do you think that’s appropriate?”
“Hey,” she said. “We’re in church. When would it be more appropriate? Besides, we need all the help we can get.”
We headed uptown again. We weren’t far from my apartment, and I was excited to see it after all these weeks away. But I suspected it would be weird to see someone else living in my space, even if it was Maribel.
Erica stopped to buy a bag of fresh roasted peanuts from a street vendor. As we continued our walk up Fifth Avenue, we broke open the warm nuts and crunched on them.
“Let’s take a walk through Central Park and then we’ll head to my place,” I said.
“More walking?” Erica groaned.
“I want to see the park, then we’ll go to my apartment. It’s just a couple of blocks more. I promise.”
In minutes, we entered the park. I just wanted to see and smell the place because the closer we got to it the more I realized I missed it. The park was always a haven for my family. We’d spent most of our free time there, visiting the zoo, watching street performers, concerts, and theater, picnicking on the grass under the city sky. Living in Two Rivers was peaceful, the air clean and fresh, the trees and grass more vibrant, but the park had an energy the town didn’t. I needed a dose of it right now.
Mel and Erica seemed to sense my feelings and kept quiet, or maybe they were just tired of walking and complaining about it. If they only knew I walked as many blocks most days in my swim-school-swim routine in the city.
We backtracked to East 57th Street and Lexington Avenue and minutes later stood in front of my building.
“Here we are,” I said. The afternoon had turned warm, and both Mel and Erica were flushed from their exertion. They’d removed their sweatshirts and tied them around their waists. They collapsed against the side of the building in exhaustion while I fished around in my bag for my keys.
“Water,” Mel gasped.
“In a minute,” I said. “And relax. We’re taking a cab to the theater. No more walking.”
Before I could enter the lobby, the door opened, and Phil, the doorman, stepped out. He rushed toward me, a huge grin on his face. “Aerin!” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi Phil,” I said, happy to see the always present doorman who had welcomed me in and escorted me out of my building ever since I could remember. He even went to a few of my swim meets, the big ones. Funny, I hadn’t thought of him once since I’d left, but seeing him made me realize I missed him very much. “I’m visiting the city with my friends.” I introduced Mel and Erica. “I thought I’d stop by and pick up a few things.”
“How’s life upstate?” he asked.
I gave him a few details about life in Two Rivers and my swim season.
“And how’s your mom?” he asked. He’d always had a soft spot for her, stepping out to get her taxis without her asking, and carrying her packages upstairs.
“She’s doing very well, Phil,” I said.
“Do you have your key?” he asked.
I waved it in front of his face. “Sure do.”
“Let me get the elevator for you.” He held the door open for us and pressed the button for the elevator.
“You have a doorman?” Erica whispered.
We got off on the sixth floor. Our apartment was in the front of the building on the right. My parents had rented it soon after they got married and Mom had hung on to it after the divorce although she often wished we lived somewhere less expensive. She never had time to find us another place, and here we stayed.
I let my friends in and followed them down a short hall that led to our living room. The place was neat, dust-free, everything in order. A vase filled with fresh flowers stood on the coffee table giving off a pleasant fragrance of lilies, Maribel’s favorite. I switched on the lights even though the oversized pair of windows at the front of the room let in plenty of sunlight. I pulled the blinds and looked out at the street. Everything was so familiar and yet so strange. I felt a little tug in my gut, a yearning to return. That was not about to happen anytime soon, and I put it down. I was here for a purpose.
“Kitchen’s here,” I said and walked them into the galley kitchen with barely enough room for the three of us. I opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of filtered water with thin slices of lemon floating in it. I poured three glasses. Maribel wouldn’t mind. I’d refill the pitcher before we left. We sucked down the water in seconds, and Mel and Erica pushed their empty glasses toward me for refills. We emptied the pitcher and sated our thirst.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Mel asked.
We took turns refreshing ourselves and met in the living room again.
“So, this is your place,” Mel said, looking around.
I plopped down on the sofa. “Yup.”
Mel’s eyes were everywhere as she tried to take in the room. Several windows gave a sweeping view of Midtown and she gravitated to one and looked down on the city.
Erica wandered around the room, checking it all out, and stopped when she faced the furthest wall. I called it “Mom’s Wall of Fame.”
“Wow,” she said, “look at this Mel.”
My mother had arranged all of our trophies, ribbons, and prizes on the wall, Mom’s on the left, and mine on the right. Framed copies of newspaper articles detailing our triumphs filled the open spaces. Her spoils filled a much larger area than mine did.
“Check it out!” Mel exclaimed. “I don’t think you can fit anything else on this wall.”
“Your mom was good,” Erica said. “Look at all the plaques, Mel.”
My mother had won titles in club, varsity, college, and –
“Your mom went to the Olympic Trials?” Erica shrieked.
Mel bolted toward the framed news story that told of Mom’s experience at the trials. She read the story aloud, then stared at the wall, taking in all of Mom’s achievements.
“And I thought having a doctor for a mom was cool,” she said at last. “This is incredible. Look here Erica.” She pointed out one win after another, NCAA, Nationals.
I basked in my mother’s successes. No one knew better how much work went into it than the three of us, all swimmers training to do the same thing.
“And these are all yours?” Mel asked, moving over to examine my side of the wall.
I got up from the couch and joined her, standing between her and Erica. I showed them how everything was arranged chronologically, telling my life’s story. It all ended when my mom’s problems started.
“How come you stopped here?” Erica asked, pointing to a trophy dated almost a year ago.
“That’s when things started to fall apart around here. I lost my focus. I didn’t care about winning anymore, so there’s nothing new to put on the wall.” It made me sad. I didn’t want it to end like that.
“No problem,” Mel said. “You’re going to start picking up trophies and titles again. You can also invade the next wall, start hanging stuff there.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said, liking her idea.
She turned away from the “Wall of Fame” and took another tour of the room. “It must be weird to see a stranger living in your place,” she said.
I shrugged. “My mom’s friend is keeping the place safe for us. We’re helping her out. A win-win.”
“Does she sleep in your room?” Erica asked. “That would be really weird.”
“No, I think she sleeps in my mom’s room,” I said, but I sprang off the couch and headed for my room to check. I found the door closed, a positive sign. Holding my breath, I opened it slowly, Mel and Erica right behind me.
Inside, my room was just as I’d left it but it looked like Maribel came in once in a while to dust.
“This is your room?” Erica asked, pushing past me to enter. Mel followed.
I stood back and let them examine every inch of my space. I had a four-poster bed covered with a hand-sewn quilt my grandmother had made. She’d cut pieces from the dozens of T-shirts I’d gotten at swim events and stitched them together. Posters and framed artwork of the wild animals I loved - giraffes, lions, tigers, chimpanzees - decorated three of my walls, along with posters of my favorite swimmers: Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres, Peter Vanderkaay, and a few others. The fourth wall held my TV and a bookcase.
“It’s very different from your room at the Flynn’s,” Mel said.
“It took years to get my room the way I want it,” I said, plopping down on my bed and stretching out. So good to be home again. “The room at Maggie’s is temporary.”
Mel dropped into a Papasan chair in the corner, and Erica took the seat at my desk.
“So no chance you’ll be staying in Two Rivers?” Erica asked.
I shook my head. “Once my mom gets out she’s coming back here. And I think I’m coming back too.” As soon as I said the words, a wave of sadness rolled through me. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get attached to Two Rivers, yet I’d grown to care for my new friends. I liked the tight-knit small town life, the school spirit, the “everyone cares” mentality. It wouldn’t be easy for me to return to the fast-paced anonymity of city life.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Mel said.
I ignored her assumption and hopped off the bed. “We need to get moving. The show’s in an hour.” I opened my closet door and rummaged around for the gear I’d come to retrieve. I pulled out boxes and laid them on the bed.
“Look at all that stuff,” Mel said and joined me at the bedside while I pulled swimsuits out of the boxes. Most of them still had tags. Erica came over to inspect too.
“Where did you get all those suits?” she asked as she picked up an open back kneeskin in black with blue racing stripes. I grabbed it from her.
“Just what I was looking for,” I said. “I won it at my last championship meet.”
“You won that?” Mel asked.
I nodded. “These are the prizes that don’t get hung on the wall. I win them at one championship meet and wear them at the next.”
“Does it make a difference?” Erica asked.
“She wears one and then wins another one,” Mel said. “I’d say it does.”
“It works for me,” I said.
“Tati has suits like these,” Erica said.
“I figured. That’s why we’re here.”
“Too bad we’re not the same size,” Erica said. She was at least two sizes larger than I was.
“But we are,” Mel said. “Hint, hint. Got any extras?”
I pulled out another one just like the first. “How’s this?”
“You’re serious?” she asked, reaching for it.
“Why not? I can only wear one at a time.”
She held the suit up against herself. “I’ve never worn a kneeskin.”
“You’ll get used to it. But you need to practice putting it on. It’s not easy. It’s like a second skin.”
“What else you got?” Erica asked.
I pulled out top-name goggles and caps, enough for each of us. “Is this stuff better than what Coach gets?”
“Coach gets top-notch stuff,” Mel said, “but not top of the line. I think these are a step up.” She pulled the goggles on and adjusted them to fit.
“We can borrow these?” Erica asked.
“You can have them,” I said. I grabbed another suit, cap, and a pair of goggles in case I had issues with the others, and packed up the remaining gear to store back in the closet. We collected our stuff and left my room.
Before leaving the apartment, I refilled the water pitcher and made sure everything else was just as we found it. I left a note for Maribel: “Sorry I missed you. Thanks for taking care of my place.”
Phil waved down a cab in seconds, and we made it to the theater with minutes to spare. We found our seats, and it was show time.
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