When I was fourteen, my father built a pond in our yard. He rented a backhoe and started excavating in June. I wanted to help dig the hole but he said no—this was a job for a man, not a boy. I stood in front of the living room window with my mother and sister and watched as he fumbled with the levers. “There goes your college fund,” my mother said.
None of us thought he could actually do it: build a pond big enough for swimming. Mom swore it would be just like the kitchen cabinets he’d tried to make. Slowly, the hole grew wider and the pile of dirt higher. We wondered if that hole would ever be filled with water or if we’d have to pretend it didn’t exist, like those half-built cabinets stacked in the basement.
I think he knew it would be our last summer together. Maybe he hoped the pond would change things. Or maybe he wanted to escape the clunky sounds inside the house as my mother turned the pages of Teach Yourself to Play Piano. Every night, she banged at the piano keys while he drove the backhoe—the backyard illuminated with portable flood lights, orange extension cords snaking across the yard to the front of the house. My mother said it was a fire hazard. Maybe she hoped the whole house would burn down.
He was determined to finish the pond before the end of summer. “It’ll be great!” he said when he breezed in at night, opening the refrigerator to take out a can of beer. If he came to dinner, he talked about pond ecosystems, about predator fish and prey fish and how you needed a mix of both, while we nodded our heads. Now I wonder what it must have been like for him, a family full of naysayers, nobody to believe in you, nobody to really see you.
Despite all our doubts, he finished the pond in late August. It was thirty-five feet wide and ten feet deep. He’d built a wooden deck along one edge. On a Saturday, he drove to Massachusetts to buy fish to stock the pond. He came home with the back of his truck loaded with them: bluegill, perch, catfish, minnows. One by one, he lowered the plastic bags into the pond. “To let them acclimate,” he said. We watched as the fish floated on top of the water. He’d really done it. We all had to admit that the pond was a marvel.
My parents hosted a pond unveiling party during Labor Day weekend. It was embarrassing; most of my friend’s parents were struggling to make ends meet during that time and here my dad was spending money to dig a hole in the ground. Nobody knew then that he’d be gone by Christmas. That my mother would have to put the house on the market in the spring. That before the next school year started, we’d be living in an apartment on Laurel Street. My mother would have to give up her piano but she’d keep that piano book on the coffee table for years.
People clapped my dad on the back, said “well done” and “wow” but I could tell they all thought he was a fool. Mom walked around with a pitcher of sangria and topped up people’s glasses. My friends were already in the water but I didn’t feel like swimming. My sister and her friends gathered by the table of food, whispering to each other. I tried not to stare at their breasts beneath their swimsuits, small little lumps the size of silver dollars. Eventually they went into the water, daring each other to do cannonballs, water splashing onto the deck. When they emerged from the pond, their suits clinging tight to their bodies, riding up their bums, the outlines of their nipples visible, I felt so uncomfortably attracted to them that I went inside.
It was there that I saw my father and Miss Rowland, my sister’s teacher, coming out of the bathroom together. I ducked into the living room so they wouldn’t see me. Miss Rowland swiped my father’s lips with her thumb.
I wasn’t sad when we lost the pond. It never felt like ours, really. We weren’t the ones who wanted it. I heard the new owners got rid of it. They didn’t want a pond either. They drained it, probably let all the fish from Massachusetts die, before filling it back up with dirt. As if it never existed at all.
After the party was over—all the glasses washed and put away, the paper plates and napkins stuffed into a trash bag—my father joined us at the window to admire what he had made. The reflection of the fading sun shimmered in the water. The party had been a huge success, like something out of a movie—all the kids jumping into the water, the grown-ups clinking their glasses together, Steely Dan playing on the new outdoor speakers.
“It’s luminous, isn’t it?” my mother said, pressing the palm of her hand against the window.
“When it freezes this winter, we can skate on it,” my father said. But of course, we never did. We imagined it though, all four of us standing shoulder to shoulder at the window. We could really see it.