Fiction · 01/06/2010

P.E.

My boyfriend Daryl laces his sneakers at the kitchen table, pulling on the heel and double-knotting, like he’s headed to Athens or Lake Placid to bring home the gold.

“You’re an elementary-school gym teacher.” I blow on my coffee.

“You’re just jealous.” He shovels his cornflakes into his cavernous mouth. A dribble of milk leaks through a maze of stubble before he wipes it with the back of his hand. “Think about my perks.”

“What, like free Salisbury steak and pizza lunches?” My cup crashes into the sink next to last night’s dinner plates, red and gooey-globby. It had been Daryl’s turn to wash.

When we pull up to the entrance of Logan Elementary, the kids meander out front like lobotomized squirrels looking for nuts. But when Daryl steps out of the Subaru they flock to him, bouncing, trying to catch his eye with their eager faces. Even the fat kids, the one who lingered at the end of the line in my gym classes and tried to burrow their chins through their necks. Daryl high fives their little hands, and they follow him through glass double doors adorned with construction paper pumpkins.

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I have always wanted children. I told Daryl on our first date at Dave and Busters, where he nodded while stroking a basketball into a net as many times as he could in ninety seconds, his dark curly hair swaying like ropes around his face. We talked about children a lot⎯about Gabrielle in Daryl’s fourth-period PE who got a shiner the size of Rhode Island during dodge ball, Roger who was diagnosed with leukemia, Louie who shat on one of the exercise mats during gymnastics month. Never our own. One night a few months ago, when I tried to kiss him, my hand on his crotch, he pulled out a folder of logos he’d created for the new school sweatshirt.

“Which Fightin’ Parrot do you like best?” His eyes searched mine urgently, waiting for my answer with held breath. When I started to cry, he patted my head like a dog.

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My friends have husbands who hold their children like kryptonite, who stay home and watch the game while the kids are ferried to ballet or little league. But it’s not what you think with Daryl, I tell their jealous ears. I couldn’t even begin to explain.

It started with the candy.

“I don’t want the kids to have this stuff,” he explained when he climbed into the car with a bowl-full of leftover Halloween candy. “Childhood obesity is an epidemic. Half of my kids can’t do one chin-up.”

But instead of throwing it out, he ate it over the course of several nights, even ruining his appetite for the acorn squash pasta and salmon I’d made from a women’s magazine recipe, hoping to soften my career-woman image. Because apparently being a bank manager was too careerist for him. His mother stayed at home, he’d always brag, and look how well he turned out.

“I just am not hungry, Diane. I’m sorry.” He touched his stomach at the table, pushing his tongue against his smooth white cheeks.

“When did you start shaving in the evenings?” I scraped his portion into a Tupperware container.

“I haven’t.” He kissed the top of my head. “I will so eat dinner in an hour.”

“Well, okay, then.” I roll my eyes. “I will be so happy. What are you, eight?”

But when I found him in the kitchen later that evening, he was wolfing down Chef Boyardee, which I hadn’t bought, from the can.

“Took it away from Stella Johnson,” he explained, heading to his old X-Box in the living room. “The kids aren’t allowed to use can openers.”

“I’m going to leave you.” I stood behind him, my hands shaking so bad I dropped my purse.

“Don’t go.” He swooped down to collect it, hugging it against his chest. “I’ll change.”

We had sex every night for weeks. I considered stopping my birth control.

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“Why are you layering your socks?” I asked one Saturday.

“I think I tore the crap out of these shoes.” He lifted up his foot and put his forefinger between the lip and ankle. “They feel so big.”

“Why don’t we just buy you a new pair?”

“Okay.” He nodded while rolling up the pants legs of his Levis, tightening his belt.

I begged him to go to the doctor; he insisted the flu was going around.

“Sherrie weighed me yesterday,” he explained, eating a Three Musketeers on the way to work. “She said I’d only lost three pounds.”

“Having the school nurse weigh you is not the same.” I shook my head. “Maybe if you ate nutritious things instead of candy you wouldn’t be having these problems.”

The students were growing so fast, or maybe they were the fifth- or six-graders outside, because when I dropped him off that morning, they were up to Daryl’s shoulders. His gym pants fell over his too-big new shoes; the cuffs of his hoodie over his hands. I canceled my appointments. At home I looked through his nightstand for prescription bottles, bags of marijuana, whip-it cans. Instead I found Matchbox cars. A hand-held video game. An X-Men comic book. I opened a strange duffel on the floor of the closet. Inside were boys’ underwear, size six shoes. A t-shirt that could fit on my old beagle, Charlie.

I imagined yellow, milky boy bones nesting in our tomato garden, Daryl’s gaunt, haunted eyes in a pedophile database. As I pulled up to Daryl’s school I could hear children out back in the soccer fields. I lugged the duffel and rested it against my thigh and stared into the nucleus of little bodies on the field, looking for Daryl’s tall, lean frame among them, around them.

“Daryl!” I shouted, not believing he would leave his kids unsupervised.

They looked at me from time to time but did not answer. When I finally spotted him, the boy with the dark curly locks, t-shirt as big as a dress, I cried his name over and over, but he pretended not to hear me, digging his little feet in the earth and making a beeline for the ball.

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Jen Michalski’s collection of short fiction, Close Encounters, is available from So New Media (2007). Her work has appeared widely, including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, failbetter, storySouth, Gargoyle, Hobart, The Potomac Review, and others. She is the editor of Sages of Baltimore: Selections from Charm City Writers (CityLit 2010) and the lit journal jmww.