“Ok, dude…what’s the deal?,” I said to Matteo after they’d finished filming a segment for At Home with Maya that featured me and Jacob swimming.
“I told you. Nobody wants to see the fat kid in the pool. It’ll make much better TV if it’s just you and Jacob having a good time.” I really didn’t like it when Matteo became a film critic of the reality show he appeared in. That was altogether too sophisticated, even for a smart kid like him. “Besides,” he said, “this way I get away without having to do any exercise.”
He smiled. It was actually a nice smile. He didn’t totally outsmart us, but it is true that he got what he wanted. I still had half an hour with him, but I knew he wasn’t going to get in the pool for me.
“What is it with you and the pool?,” I asked. “If I had a pool like this in my backyard, I’d never get out of it.”
I gotta admit that I was having trouble figuring Matteo out. I just couldn’t totally relate to a kid who hated sports as much as he did. Although I did have it figured out that one reason he hated them so much was that he sucked at them. He’s actually improved a little in the time I’ve been working with him, and he has been showing me at least a little goodwill most days…but he’s got a long way to go if he doesn’t want kids to make fun of him and get picked last.
Sitting there, I suddenly realized that part of my job description with the Sharpmans was being Matteo’s sports therapist. And what I learned in sports psychology class wasn’t gonna help me much, since the professor didn’t cover people who weren’t athletic.
It was Joyce who suggested to me that Matteo might have ‘body image issues’, probably because one or both of his parents convinced him he was a fat kid. She also suggested that Maya, who was famous for how she looked, might have issues of her own that somehow got projected onto Matteo. But Matteo’s just a kid and shouldn’t be worrying about shit like how he looks in a bathing suit. (Joyce: “that’s easy for you to say because you never thought you looked anything but great in a bathing suit.” I didn’t want to get into an argument with her, but I did have a period in high school when I was jealous of a couple guys on the swim team who had 6-packs, but then I realized how totally gay that was and I got over it.)
Certainly someone fucked with Matteo’s head early in his life. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me as well as it does, but I also care about Matteo, and I’m afraid about what this all is doing to him. It’s only making him angrier and more stubborn…as his showing up at the pool in his school clothes shows. I don’t really blame him too much. But what can I do about it? I mean, yeah, I’m the kid’s gym teacher…but I don’t think either Robert or Jean-François – neither of whom I’ve even met – are going to give me a vote where ratings are concerned. And who knows, maybe America does want to watch a 9 year old boy on a diet. I honestly think that some of the weight would come off if I could just get him to be more active, but me forcing him through workouts in the gym 3 times a week is only going to make him hate it more and dig in his heels even further. I think I know Matteo well enough by now for that. It doesn’t take a mind-reader. Or a sports psychologist. Or the therapy he’s getting from the dietitian he’s driven to Beverly Hills to see every Wednesday.
I can’t say all of that to Matteo, since his parents are still his parents and I’d only get my ass fired if I spoke up…but I do want to be able to make some progress with him. So I took a pool chair 6’ away from him (I didn’t have my mask on and was still in my boardshorts) and wanted to see if he was interested in talking any.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said after a minute of sulky silence.
“What what’s like?”
“Sucking at sports. I bet you were always good and got picked first.”
“I’m not gonna lie to you, yeah, I usually did get picked first for a lot of things.”
“Is that the only sport you played?”
“No, I played football too, until a very good friend told me to drop football so I wouldn’t get hurt for baseball, which is where my heart was. It kinda sucked, since I really liked playing football…but he was right.”
“Who was the friend?”
“Sumter Henderson. Shortstop for the Tennessee Smokies at the time. You can look him up on mlb.com – he’s been up and down from the Chicago Cubs until this season. He’s got a new little baby girl in the house, so he’s one of the guys who decided to take this season off.”
“Was he like your mentor?”
“Yeah, you can say he was,” I said.
“How come you don’t play pro baseball anymore? If that’s not too personal a question…”
“It’s no secret,” I said, “I realized I wasn’t good enough to make it to the majors and I didn’t want to spend my 20s on broken down old buses driving around the South playing in the minors for $1100 a month.”
“Wow,” he said.
“Hard to believe you weren’t good enough at something athletic. You seem so good…”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m still good enough to hit home runs when I do get to play. But good enough to play in the Major Leagues is a whole other kind of good.”
“Do you miss it?”
“No,” I said, truthfully. “But it is awesome being involved in baseball again with you guys.”
“You mean with Jacob. I’m just a pain in the neck you have to teach to run…and put through his Beverly Hills Institute of Advanced Kinesiology and Weight Reduction exercise program.”
“Dude,” I said, “that’s not true. I want to help you, if I can. I just don’t see why you hate sports so much. I would much rather have played sports than been in class.”
“Yeah, well…that was you. You probably hated school because you sucked at it.”
I laughed. It was the only thing to do.
“I wasn’t your typical dumb jock, I’ll have you know. My grades were good, so were my SAT scores and I went to college…I even got through AP calculus. My Dad wouldn’t have let me play ball if my grades were bad…and Mom’s a librarian. I know how to read. I just loved playing sports and getting sweaty.”
Matteo flinched. I’m not kidding.
“I think I can get you turned around so that, when you go back to school, you won’t suck at everything. But you gotta work with me…dude. You won’t piss off your gym teachers, they won’t piss you off, and you might even enjoy getting sweaty.”
“Yeah…not happening, Mr. Block. And what are you going to do about the Beverly Hills Institute of Advanced Kinesiology and Weight Reduction?”
The kid had me stumped there. I didn’t know what I was gonna do about it.
“I don’t know,” I finally told him truthfully. “But let’s talk about things we can control, ok?” Joyce was big on saying that to me when I started to get worked up about not having a job. I wasn’t sure Matteo understood what it meant after I said it. “You. In that gigantic swimming pool I’d have killed to have had as a kid. Friday, since that’s your first non-gym day after today. And I don’t want to hear anything about not wanting to appear in a swimsuit. You’ve got one that fits, right?”
“Yeah. Mom keeps buying them for me in the hopes that I’ll wear one. I lied about that.”
“So you’re gonna put it on and come down ready to get in the pool. I’ve got a kickboard in case you don’t remember how to swim. I’ll send Jacob upstairs or something so he can’t keep telling you you swim like you’re retarded. Which I’m sure you don’t.”
“You haven’t seen me yet.”
“No, but I expect to. Did we just make a deal?”
“Yeah…ok…it’s a deal.”
“You also got totally out of doing anything active today. We didn’t even play catch or anything.”
“I won’t tell anyone. Besides, they’re all gonna be concerned with the footage of you and Jacob in the pool. They forget about me at times like that. Which is totally fine with me.”
“So go on upstairs. I’ll change and head home and see you tomorrow.”
I wasn’t sure what he was thanking me for, but I said ‘you’re welcome’ anyway before I realized that was the first time he called me Hunter. Then I went into the pool house to change into my baseball clothes so I could drive home. The pool house has a super cool-looking walk-in shower next to the mosaic tub: it had all kinds of shower heads pointed every which way…and the thing was calling to me. Sandy said I should use the pool house to change, and, well, showering off the chlorine is part of changing, right? I decided to take advantage of the shower, and hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for it. It turned out to be pretty dang awesome, with all those shower heads blasting away at you. There was even some great smelling shower gel in little bottles. It was only after I was done in the shower and toweling off, though, that I realized that the shower gel was part of the Bedrossian Body & Bath line that Melanie Kate told me Maya sells on one of the home shopping channels..
I took the rest of the little bottle I opened with me when I left. I was curious to know what Joyce thought of it.