Manny dangles from one arm on the monkey bars. He stretches for the next blue bar, but only his fingertips touch. He looks down. His feet wiggle in his new tennis shoes. They’re a size too big and are still being broken in, but Manny likes them because of the shiny logo.
“Come on, son.” Dad claps from the bench. Dad’s phone is lying on his puffed belly, stretching the Ohio State Football logo of his shirt. He’s taken a break from looking at it.
Manny doesn’t move. He’s frozen. There’s no momentum. Had he not been suspended in mid-air, Manny would’ve just been standing there raising his hand, waiting quietly to be called on. Manny’s hand starts to sting. He knows he can’t hold on much longer. Other kids run underneath the monkey bars and around him. He looks to Dad who only shrugs. Manny drops, his feet slamming onto the ground.
Dad rolls his eyes and turns to say, “Jesus. This boy, I tell ya.” He’s always talking to imaginary parents who share his disappointment. He faces Manny, “Good try, son. Now get back up there and do it again.” Manny brushes off the woodchips stuck to his palms and knees and climbs back up the platform.
Manny wipes his forehead. For the first time, he was happy that Dad made him get a buzz cut. This would change when he saw his reflection again, though. He wanted long hair like the guys who play country music on TV. “Happy to not have your Lennon hair now, I bet. Right, Manny?” Manny nods, but is confused. Lemons don’t have hair. At least none of the ones Manny had ever seen did. Dad says weird things sometimes.
“Alright,” Dad walks towards the bars, “let’s see it, buddy.”
Manny launches to the second bar. Swinging, he glides from one bar to the next. “Faster now. Come on, you’ve got to go faster.” Dad’s voice is rising like lava and he’s getting closer. Manny feels his whole body clench. He continues to move through the air. “Move!” Dad erupts. Manny gasps as his hand misses the next bar. His body twists and then stops swinging. He’s two bars further than last time, but now he was hanging just the same. Dad folds his arms. If there’s one thing Manny knew after living for seven years, it was this: He was definitely not a monkey. Manny drops again. Dad sighs and returns to the bench.
Manny follows and sits next to him. “I’m sorry.”
Dad puts his arm around Manny and laughs. “What am I going to do with you?”
They sit like this for a moment, watching all the boys and girls chase each other around the playground. Giggles and shrieks complement the now setting sun. Manny notices a crowd gathered near the rope climb. Soon they break into pairs of two. “Hey!” a lone girl waves her arms at her friends, “I don’t have a partner!” They talk again for a moment and then begin searching the playground with squinty eyes. One of them spots Manny. He shifts in his seat as the lone girl runs towards him.
“Hey, kid.” She stands in silence, waiting for his reply, but he only stares back at her. Her long black hair hangs in a ponytail and her pink shirt is stained with brown dust. Manny guesses she’s eight. Maybe even nine. “You want to race me?”
Dad pats him on the back. “Well, go on, Manny. Answer her.” Then Dad turns to the girl, “Sorry, sweetheart. He’s shy for some reason.”
“It’s okay. Some of us want to race around the playground and see who’s fastest.” She points to her friends. “I need someone to race with – the course is only big enough for two at a time.” She looks back at Manny. “You want to?”
“Well, that sounds fun. Doesn’t it, son? Tell her you want to, Man.”
“Yeah, okay.” Manny hops off the bench and follows her back to the starting line where her friends waited.
They welcome him into a circle and go around telling him their names. Manny learns Pink Shirt’s name is Jillian and quickly realizes that Alexa, the tallest and chubbiest, is the leader as she explains the course to everyone.
“Okay, guys. You got to go up this rope onto the climber and then slide down one of those slides over there.” The slide fit two people, a divider in the middle. “Then you got to go up the rock wall on the other climber, go down the stairs, do the monkey bars, and then run back to here. Okay?” Everyone nodded. “Dustin and me are gonna go first.”
Dustin crouches into a track runner’s position in front of the rope climb. “You’re going down!”
“Somebody say three, two, one, go.” Alexa got in position next to him.
After Jillian counts down, both racers take off in a frenzy. Dustin gains an early lead onto the first climber and down the slide. He puts even more distance between them during the footrace to the rock wall. He shoots up it and then has no problem through the monkey bars and coasts to the finish line.
“I left you in the dust!” He points at Alexa with both hands as she finishes.
Alexa drops her hands to her knees, panting. “At least I don’t say lame stuff like that, Dustin.”
“What? It’s my catch-phrase.” The group groans, Dustin smiles.
“Okay, okay.” Alexa takes back control and points at Manny. “You and Jillian go next.”
Manny sizes up the course. Dad sneaks over and tries to hide himself beyond the first climber, not paying attention to Manny or the other kids for too long. He always does this when Manny plays with friends.
“You ready?” Jillian plants her feet. Her arms lock into position and her front knee bends.
Manny nods and stands next to her, legs spread. One foot is in front of the other, but his back is straight. He notices their shadows on the ground. As far as he could tell, it was the Flash versus small eighty year-old man trying to do the splits.
“Dustin, you do it.”
In his best announcer voice, Dustin counts down and then imitates a gunshot which sends Jillian wrestling up the rope. Manny follows behind. He reaches the slide as Jillian flies down it. Dad’s arms flail around. “Move, Manny! Do you want to get beaten by a girl?!”
Manny gets to the bottom of the slide and pushes his legs harder than he ever has. He reaches the rock wall with Jillian. She struggles to find her footing as she climbs, but Manny propels himself upwards, disregarding which blocks his feet land on. He keeps hearing Dad’s voice in his ears and head. A bunch of jumbled yelling.
Manny reaches the top of the second climber before Jillian. He hops down the stairs and looks up to the shiny blue bars above him. His legs tighten.
“Atta boy, Manny. Now,” Dad’s voice is intense and strict, deeper even, “remember what I said. You’ve got to move quickly or else you’re just going to get stuck like you always do.” He is standing just past the platform on the other side of the bars.
Manny jumps to the third bar this time. “Alright, buddy, there you go!” Dad claps rapid fire. Manny swings through the bars, hand after hand, in perfect rhythm. Left. Right. “Faster!” Left. Right. Right. “Manny! Jesus! Come on. You’re losing focus, boy.” Momentum dwindles. Manny’s swing turns into a shiver. He comes to a complete stop once again. “Again, really?” Dad sees Jillian coming down the stairs. “You better not let her beat you. So help me, God. You are not going to get beaten by a girl.”
Manny drops off the bar.
“Hey!” Alexa shouts, cupping her hands around her mouth. “If you fall off the monkey bars, you gotta go up that pole over there and down the spiral slide!”
“What?” That wasn’t part of the – I can’t believe this.” Dad is talking to imaginary parents again.
Manny bolts to the pole while Jillian starts the monkey bars. As he climbs, he hears cheers for Jillian. Everything gets silent when he rides down the slide. He knows she’s already won, but he wants to finish the race. Once at the bottom of the slide, he sprints to the finish line. He freezes once he realizes no one is there.
Then he sees them all crowding around Jillian who is writhing on the ground. Her knee is bleeding and she’s covered in woodchips.
Dad speeds towards Manny. He grabs his hand and pulls him away to the parking lot. As they step onto the pavement, Manny looks back and sees a woman screaming. “Are you serious!? Where are you going? Come back here!” She’s bent over Jillian and looks angrier than any adult Manny has ever seen. Dad doesn’t look back, he just keeps pulling Manny.
A few hours go by, Manny hears the phone ring at home and Mom answers it. It’s Ms. Montoya and Mom’s excited at first. But then she gets upset and her voice is shaky. “Okay, I’ll handle it now,” She says and hangs up. She calls to Dad who’s in the basement watching football.
They yell back and forth at each other for a long time. Manny tries to keep playing video games upstairs, but they’re getting too loud. Dad says, “I can’t have my son losing to a girl. He won’t lose to one and he sure as hell won’t act like one.” And Mom says, “What does it even matter? All that matters Is that we love him!” They continue on like this for a long time until Dad gets fed up. He grabs his coat and slams the door. Manny pauses the game and goes downstairs. Mom is crying and he hugs her.
Weeks later, Manny notices he’s seeing Dad less and less. Mom says that Dad got a new apartment because they didn’t have enough space, but Manny knows they have plenty of room. One day, while Manny’s over his apartment, he asks Dad why he doesn’t live with them anymore. Dad tells him, “Because your mother decided it was for the best.”
Ever since Dad said that, Manny sits in silence more often than he ever did. He wonders why girls ruin everything.