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“Two more,” I say to the rat-faced teenager behind the concession stand.
“Another pepperoni?” he asks.
I take off my swimming cap, but I yank too fast and wet hair rips off with the latex. My goggles clatter to the floor. I bend down and water drips off my shoulders. My body is running so hot the chlorine sizzles on my skin, promising a chemical burn, but the hallway is ice cold and my nipples are hard enough to cut glass.
Rat-Face hands me the pizza. I toss my soggy five-dollar bill on the counter and walk down the hall.
We’ve swam here before: Holdridge College, Home of the Hilltoppers. It’s been a running joke ever since my freshman year that this college is a jinx for me. I somehow always place dead last in any race I’ve ever been in at this pool despite the fact that Holdridge is a mediocre crew even on its best days. Coach Q says Holdridge couldn’t stroke a breast well enough to make a nipple perk a millimeter, and so he has the rest of the team treat these races like practice – everyone except for me. No, for me this small, offensively modest Methodist college may as well be the Olympics. This whole season has been miraculous for me: I’ve shaved time off every subsequent event I’ve raced from its predecessor and I’ve almost placed high enough to qualify for Nationals. Today’s meet is what determines if I qualify.
Usually, Dad and Paula come to watch me since it’s only a three-hour drive from our new home. (It’s their new house, but Paula is racked with stepmother’s guilt so she says our home despite my never having lived there.) And, usually, Shauna and I gossip in the hallway tucked above the pool. We either sit in peaceful silence or diagram the team’s HPV outbreak to figure out Patient Zero.
Today, however, none of the usual suspects were anywhere to be seen.
Instead, before Coach Q barked at us to get into the pool for warm-ups, Shauna walked out of the stairwell that leads up to our secret nook. She was with Amy Sutter: they were smiling, Amy’s swimsuit straps twisted up behind her back. The afterglow of sex radiated from them both and it melted me in place. Neither of them noticed me standing a few yards down the open hall as they walked onto the pool deck.
I’d heard about Shauna as far back as my sophomore year of high school. She’d broken the state’s decade-old record in the 200-meter freestyle, and in this she became a god among the slew of overly competitive, well-oiled Midwestern high-school swim programs. At that year’s state championships, I was talking with Billy Angstrom when Bailey Green and Jun Kim tapped our shoulders.
“Dude,” Bailey said.
“Honestly,” said Jun.
“What?” asked Billy.
Jun lowered her voice, inching in closer. “Shauna Michaels just got two coaches in a fight.”
Bailey leaned in even closer. “She was licking a Milford girl.”
“Which?” I asked.
“Don’t know the name, but it was a girl on Milford’s relay team,” said Bailey.
Jun held up her hand as if about to swear on a court Bible. “The Milford coach caught them and told Michaels’s coach to keep her dyke away from his swimmers.”
“My cousins in California sent their kid away when he told them he was gay as a two-dollar bill,” said Billy.
“Queer as a three-dollar bill,” I corrected.
“Wait, what?” said Bailey and Jun in unison.
Shauna and I finally met a week before our freshman year of college, standing next to each other in line for team tryouts. I remember thinking she would be more striking after hearing about her talent for so long. Truthfully, she stood out as exceedingly ordinary except for hands and feet that were comically oversized for her body, despite standing at almost six-feet tall. Her plainness even made me angry.
“Your cap has a tear,” she said to me.
I was fumbling at my head when she reached out, took my hand and placed my fingers over the rip just below my left earlobe. Even now, I remember the feeling of her hand encompassing mine entirely.
“Don’t sweat it.” Shauna slipped off one of the two caps she was wearing and put the pink tie-dye latex in my hands.
“Thanks,” I said while sunbursts exploded over my body. “You sure?”
Shauna pulled her remaining cap on tighter as she climbed onto the diving block. “I’ve been looking for a sign to cut my hair anyway.”
Coach Q hit the buzzer and Shauna dove into the water. As she raced, water slicked down her body like liquid mercury, slipping through the passage of her sharp shoulder blades like the Colorado River. She was at once bullish and graceful, reminiscent of National Geographic videos where great white sharks breach the water with a seal clamped helplessly in their teeth. Once she’d finished, she climbed from the pool, grinned at me, and winked with an intimacy that frightened me.
I’ve never worn another cap but the one she gave me since.
Flip flops clack up the staircase. I curl into myself as Shauna whips around the corner. She looks at me, a crumpled heap devouring anemic pizza on the floor while my matted hair starts to frizz.
“What are you doing?” she says. Her racing suit is black with twin strips of crimson slashing up the center. She kneels next to me and swats the pizza from my hand.
“You race in three heats,” she says. “You’ll get sick in the water.”
“I’ll feel bad for whoever cleans it up,” I say.
“How much have you eaten?”
I nod to the slice on the tile. “That would’ve been my seventh.”
“Jesus Christ,” she says. “We’ll make you throw it up.”
She lifts me from the ground. I fall into her arms.
“I’m cursed,” I say.
She pushes me away. “What?”
“This place is a bad omen. I’m cursed.”
“No you’re not – they’re all just giving you a hard time. C’mon, we’re going to the bathroom.”
“It’s not fair.”
She puts my goggles and cap in my arms. “If you have to, swallow your puke before you take a breath. Hold it even and spit in the drain when you finish.”
“It’s pointless. I’m defective – my body is defective,” I say through tears and marinara stains.
She gently but firmly pulls me down the stairs, her hands practically wrapping around my entire bicep.
“I’m not listening to this.”
I stop and take the pink swim cap in each hand. I pierce my long nails into a worn spot in the latex and rip it in half, balling the shreds in my palms.
She cups my shoulders. “Amy has extras. She’ll give you one, I’m sure.”
She brings me into the bathroom and locks the stall behind us. As I cry, she gently works her fingers down my throat.
“Heat 1 on deck,” the announcer says over the intercom.
Shauna fingers my throat harder. I puke. As I vomit she cradles me, rocking my body back and forth.
Michaela Rae Luckey
Michaela Rae Luckey is an Aquarius, a cinephile, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she studied English and Creative Writing. She’s relocated back to her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and is working as an Editorial Associate at the University of Chicago Press. Her first publication, "The Great Snapping Turtle of the Yahara River," appeared in Marathon Literary Review.