236 readings

1

WINNER
Jury Selection

Same routine every day. Clothes set out for the day. Invariable breakfast of cereal with berries, the same cereal, what a horse would choose—bland oats. Homework. The pool.
That, too. Into a bathing suit, clothes distributed on each hook, the same way every day—shirt to the right, skirt at the back, underwear to the left, socks in shoes. All locked in. Habits to guard against loss, and forgetting. Control, her friends would say.
“What do you mean, you can’t join us for a drink?”
“Yeah, yeah, we know, you swim now.”
In high school she tried out for the swim team. Goggles, caps, a pool with lap lines and dividers were alien. Latex pulled at her hair. The eye protection never fit and looked ugly. She hated it.
There was the time, too. Training before classes, before sunrise. Nuts, she thought.
She looked at her list. It could have been from high school or college. Paper due. Club meeting. Talk to the boyfriend.
If the water were cold, she’d speed through the workout. If warm, she’d have time to think about the paper in between counting laps or what she needed to do that hadn’t made the list.
She’d gotten used to goggles. They did improve her vision, a missed blessing. The things water walkers and swimmers did underwater. Ugh. As if all that exposed flesh weren’t disturbing enough.
She tried to concentrate on her own lane. Sometimes objects found their way to the pool’s bottom. She’d once spied a wad of bills in the shallow end but didn’t stop to rescue them. They drifted as she kept her rhythm past their dull green to the wall and back, their movement slow, almost dreamy. A contrast to the more disconcerting matter floating in and out of the discolored and nicked old tiles.
Breaststroke was too slow. Only the crawl. That’s all she did. Freestyle some called it. As she turned her head left to breathe, her mind drifted, to poetry slams and rap. Facedown in the water, she half-laughed and choked on chlorine at the thought of singing under water. The beat made sense, though, regular, repetitive. An old school dance maybe? Straight kick, kick, kick, arms pulled over head.
She was a lazy kicker, not surprising she couldn’t dance.
Water erased sound. The lifeguard’s thumping music didn’t penetrate.
She climbed out of the water into the humid air. The day’s first soap shower, back into work clothes, hair brushed, bathing suit, goggles, cap into towel, towel into plastic bag, bag into tote. Done. Back to work.
Repeat.
Again.
And again.
Where was the lock now? With such a practiced routine, how could it be left behind? Colorful hair bands attached to it should have made it conspicuous.
She’d managed to keep one lock for decades. Her latest was a gift. Maybe she’d left it on the bench where she put on her socks (she’d never lost one of them), or the counter where she left her wet suit or the wet floor where it might have fallen from either of those places. They rarely turned up in the gym’s lost and found. Only once did she find one exactly where she’d left it.
She knew people who had their cash stolen from lockers with big Masters on them. Her TSA approved lock could have been opened with a wire or the doohickey used at airports to check luggage. But she’d never had any trouble at a pool. The sucker locks on her porch door had been opened from a window the thief broke. He took the pink jewelry box she’d gotten as a child. Earrings made for her by a boyfriend, a garnet birthstone ring from her mother, a charm bracelet poodle from her grandmother.
“Hey, you really are at the pool,” interrupted her catalogue of losses. “But now you have no excuse not to join us for a drink.”
“Drink? I just gulped half the pool.”
“Okay, okay, we’ll go all in organic. No chemicals.”
She had to laugh. “But what are you doing here anyway”?
“Sent out on reconnaissance. To quote the last text I sent you: ‘haven’t seen you forever.’”
“Uh, was that the one asking if I’d enlisted and shipped out?”
“That’s the one.”
She sneezed.
“You’re not going to beg off with a cold after swimming over an hour.”
“It’s the chlorine. And all the laaadees’ perfume lingering in the air. But how do you know how long I’ve been under water?”
“The lifeguard seeing me look in thought I was checking for an open lane—and said, ‘after an hour that one should be done.’”
She hadn’t even noticed the lifeguard. They were part of the scenery, like ribbons on the ceiling for competitive backstrokers and boards at the side for determined kickers. The race clock’s oversized hand must have circled like her laps, a long, silent distance.
“What’s with you, anyway?”
Goggles left imprints exacerbating circles, smudging eyeliner and mascara. Chlorine reddened her eyes when the suction didn’t hold and water leaked in and puddled. She had nothing to say.
“Dumb question #2. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” It was so much easier to be under water. “I lost my lock, again.”
“Oooh, that’s big. Hey, the gang’ll pitch in and get you one with a homing device. No, really. Back to the question.”
“I can’t,” she exhaled as breath during a hard lap.
“Eat? You say you’re always famished after swimming. Right?”
She could do that. It made her smile when she was understood. Not gotten exactly, but that the signal was taken and she wasn’t pushed to tell. She could let herself be found on those terms.
When her close friends really wanted to know, they would ask her boyfriend, or parents, or Google. She could tell if they had. They seemed careful. Or pitying. Or frustrated. Because what worked for them—hugs, sympathy, expressions of love—did not work for her. Indeed, they made her angry. No one could understand. And she didn’t want anyone to.
Keys. Purses. Jewelry. Little stuff.
She kept the big things on her. In her.
She didn’t mind being found. But her grief would stay buried deep under the pressure of gallons of water, pushed far below the surface in the deep end.
Crossing the pool along the bottom requires strength and will. Usually, she couldn’t do it. Invariably, an invisible force pushed her to the surface. Her ears would pop. Fighting buoyancy hurt. Volume and pressure, no doubt explained by math and physics problems she once solved easily. Now she had no idea where to begin.
“I’ll pick the place.”
How long is a thought, she wondered before she answered, “Good. Good. Thank you.”
They didn’t touch as they walked out of the gym. The sky looked like the ocean, uneven grays. It was full of fat clouds holding back the season’s rains.

CONTEST

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