Losing a first tooth, pencil marks on a door frame, or buying a first training bra, all represent a rite of passage. Ariana Morgan, my friend and fellow competitive swimmer, served as the conduit for another. She changed me without leaving a visible sign.
I placed third the day I won my first trophy. I set it on the edge of my dresser, keeping it in sight. Moonlight encircled the gold-plated female swimmer with breasts bigger than any I would ever develop. She stood poised, frozen in starting position atop a base textured like an old woman’s skin. Dad tucked me in with a fleeting kiss on the forehead. Despite the long day, I relived my race. Like my trophy goddess, I bent like a “Z” with both arms extended behind me and waited for the blast of the starter’s gun. I fell asleep before the gun fired. The race repeated itself. In my dreams, I won. When I woke up, I knew I would make it happen in real life.
I liked coming in “First.” In the cloistered swimming community, people eyed me with recognition and respect. But somewhere between the age of nine or ten, Ariana taught me something neither my coach nor my parents could. Within our exclusive world, a darkness threatened the clear sense of accomplishment I felt after winning a race.
Although Ariana and I belonged to different teams, we bonded during the swimming meets. She stood an inch taller than I. Our hair color matched perfectly as did the pale blue of our eyes. Except Ariana’s eyes opened wide and darted about in what seemed like a constant state of vigilance. Her hair rebelled in a frizzy halo of distress, while my fine, white strands clung to my head and brought attention to over-sized ears. We admitted we played with dolls. With tentative stealth, we approached the transitory minefield of pre-pubescence and began to see boys as something more than booger-eating brats. We giggled and chatted about who looked best in Speedos and marked claims on guys we wanted to date when we were old enough.
During a meet at Washington University, Ariana and I sat together, arms and legs jittering, counting the minutes until our warm-up time. Swimmers waited for their races on rough wooden bleachers. Splinters snagged suits and poked through skin. The girls’ locker room had no door. A well-aged chemical treatment system used copper sulfate instead of chlorine and turned the water a toilet-bowl blue. By the end of a swim, Ariana’s and my hair turned the same distinct shade of green. We linked arms and pretended we were twins. Red-eyed from the pool chemicals, we bared our teeth and hissed like vampires hungry for fresh blood, then stifled our laughter to keep our fantasies private. Ariana and I finished our warm-up and headed for the bleachers. The Individual Medley was next, a race I’d won several times after growing two inches. Before we split up to get last minute pep talks from our coaches, Ariana grabbed me.
“Come on, we’ve got to go,” I said and pulled away.
“Stop and listen. I’ve got to tell you something.” She scurried around me and blocked my way. “My Mom told me if I didn’t win this thing, she’d beat me.” Her eyes got bigger and darted from side-to-side before she looked away. “Please let me win.”
I never doubted Ariana. Shame corrupted her voice. What once was melodious and light sounded harsh and low. She pressed her lips until they rolled in on themselves and disappeared. I noticed her jagged fingernails and bleeding cuticles and the broken stitch that left her team patch half-hanging off her suit. I didn’t need to step back to feel the distance develop between us. I ran to find Mom, who stayed poolside and helped my coach track our times. I watched her make notes on her clipboard about the last race before I tugged on her arm.
“Mom. Mom. I gotta tell you something.” I bounced on my toes with an urgency more pressing than pre-race nerves or needing to pee.
So many times, Mom seemed surrounded by an impenetrable wall of ice. Not this time. She sensed my distress. Mom turned and dropped to eye level with me. “What’s wrong? Your race is coming up soon.” She didn’t have her instructive mom-coach voice. I heard her protective, no-one-better-mess-with-my-kid tone. She guided me to a bench against the wall where we sat, side by side.
I told her what Ariana said. The crowd cheering for the race in progress, the splash of water, the overhead announcer, nothing could drown out the silence emanating from Mom. I imagined thoughts and words percolating through her head and prayed they weren’t as confused as my own.
“What should I do Mom?” I squirmed. My eyes burned with the guilt of wanting to win, the need to earn my parents’ approval, and the fear of winning’s consequence.
“You know the drill. Take out hard and improve your position.” She patted my thigh. “Letting Ariana win won’t help her.”
It’s what I wanted to hear, but I wasn’t sure I could live with the outcome. “I don’t want her to get a beating.” In my childish mind, it never entered my head that any other swimmer could beat us both. Although I had never suffered anything worse than a yelled warning or a quick rap with a wooden yard stick, my dad told stories of his father punishing him with a belt. I flinched thinking about leather tearing into Ariana’s perfect skin.
Mom cajoled and reassured, peppering her encouragement with the mantra: “Letting her win won’t help her.” I lost count how many times she said it.
I jiggled my legs and looked around at the other swimmers. My brow creased with indecision. I knew Mom suffered for my dilemma.
“Look at me, young lady.”
I felt honored by how she addressed me. I didn’t feel anywhere close to being a young lady. I was just a girl who didn’t know the right thing to do. The overhead speaker called my race. In one of those rare moments where mother and child understand each other as no others can, I recognized the anguish and empathy in Mom’s eyes, even though I didn’t know those words yet. She put her arm around me and pulled me close. “Just do your best.”
I finished first with my best time. Winning distracted me from my moral crisis. I rode home in the euphoria of victory. My adrenalin dipped back to normal levels. Dad put extra chocolate sauce on my ice cream. I dozed off, the taste of winning more satisfying than dessert. That night I slept and did not remember my dreams.
Months later Ariana showed up at a meet with a smudge of purple below one eye. We were both too young for make-up. I believed what I saw proved that some parents beat their children if they didn’t win. I wanted to reach out and pull her into the safety of my family. I couldn’t stop the whispered “No!” that escaped from my mouth. If only I could hide where no one would know what I had learned or what I had done to learn it. I wanted to shut everything out so I could privately lament the strange loss I felt. It dawned on me that a cheap trophy gathering dust on a shelf didn’t make anyone a winner. I searched the crowd for my mother. I just needed to see her.
Now I am an old woman with nondescript brown hair and crepe paper skin who eases into the pool. My back muscles writhe and bring life to the pensive mermaid tattooed there, a present to myself on my sixtieth birthday. I am afraid of heights, death by fire, ending up a warehoused carcass in a nursing home, but I have never been afraid of water. Swimming transforms me. The water wraps me in the comfort of a million hands holding me up and moving me forward. I tell myself this is what it feels like to be touched by God. I wonder if Ariana still swims.
Cynthia Stock retired from a forty-year nursing career one year ago. She wrote stories while taking classes during those years, and now devotes her time to honing her craft and publishing. She completed her first novel, The Final Harvest of Judah Woodbine, in 2014. Her short stories have appeared in both print and online journals. In 2018 Memoir Magazine deemed her submission to the #MeToo contest a notable submission. The story, “College Education or Desert Walkabout in Indian Madras” appeared in Shark Reef Magazine in July. Her story, “Baptism,” was selected for Blind Faith Books I Am Strength Anthology released in August. She prides herself on being “just the little old lady from Garland, Tx.”