Nov 7, 2019
The sun was out when I arrived in Michigan; it had been dark when I left Boston. I texted my dad, “Landed.” When I got off the plane called to let him know again.
As we pulled away from the airport, I noticed a ghostly, broken-down building whose concrete mass alluded to the 1970’s, the sort of municipal exterior that was popular then. This ghostliness isn’t uncommon for Michigan, not of buildings, nor of people. Once my parents and I walked around the foundation of an old shopping center, kicking around the old tiling. My mom could identify the former stores by their discarded flooring. She’d lived in the neighborhood during her first marriage, when my (much) older sisters were still kids.
“What is that? Has that always been there?” I asked my dad.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“I never noticed it before.”
It is so flat here, I must have had some sense of this growing up. We passed several strip malls in the short drive back to my parents’ house. My dad and I had about 30 minutes at home before we’d meet my mother for lunch.
I grew up in this house. My parents recently put a wood floor in the hallway; the floors of my childhood were covered in carpet or linoleum that bubbled up and wrinkled over time. I got a snack in the kitchen, checking the bottom drawer of the cupboard to see if my mom still hides sugar-free chocolates there. She does, but I didn’t eat one.
We had lunch at a relatively new and mediocre vegan cafe in Dearborn before heading to Allen Park High School’s swim pool. I was in town for my niece’s last-ever high school championship swim meet.
Outside the school, I watched a middle-aged man walked onto the lawn to take down a makeshift sign for some fundraiser. He inhaled a cigarette like a sigh, in a posture that was familiar to me.
Walking up the steps in the spectator stands, I said hi to one of my sisters, my niece’s mom. My niece swims in the same league that I once swam in, though she goes to a different high school. I raced in this pool as a high-strung teenage athlete with dreams of attending a liberal arts college. So many people stayed here, people I swam against and with, both enemies and ghosts. I watched the swimmers warm up, and remembered how hopeful and intense I’d been when I was in their position.
My niece handles herself with much more ease and humor than I did, walking around the pool deck with an air of belonging. High school girls scrambled around the pool deck, cheering, getting ready, racing, congratulating, and consoling, the brightness of the blue water reflected in their goggles. I am proud of her for finding her place in a community.
Our league is called the “Downriver League.” Downriver is a collective name for the nondescript suburbs South of Detroit, literally down the Detroit River from the city. Downriver is made up primarily of the descendants of white factory workers who were paid living wages for their labor, uneducated but perhaps eventually skilled. People here are bored and tribal. Events like this swim meet are a major source of entertainment.
I felt tired, from the stress of the previous days, the travel, and the environment. When my niece raced, though, I cheered with more passion than I meant to, momentarily aligning myself with the crowd. Parents, siblings and boyfriends all yelled with gusto for their swimmers. My niece did well in her race, dropping 6 seconds from her time. She got out of the pool with heavy breaths and a smile. I walked down to the pool deck from the stands and gave her a hug. She had taken her swim cap off, to reveal her curls that were coiled tight with energy, unlike my own lazy spirals. She wore a black racing suit, called “knee skin”, which despite its name looked terribly synthetic. By then she was teary, almost blubbering, She cried into my shoulder, the familiar mix of chlorine and drug store shampoo radiating as she said “thank you for being my inspiration for swimming.” I cried too.
After the meet my parents and I went back to their house. My mom turned on the TV to a holiday baking competition. We sat in our favorite chairs, which were not quite Lazy Boys, but close. I opened a Paris Review anthology, though I only half read and spent the other half of the time watching the show, despite the fact that I’ve more or less decided to abstain from television. Holiday baking championships are one of very few interests my mom and I have in common. We watched until 11 p.m., when the need for sleep outweighed the need for entertainment. I fell asleep in the same room I grew up in, more or less unchanged since I had lived in it.