We were almost halfway through the season, and my days were an endless blur of school, swim, study, and sleep. I woke up at 6:30 each morning to catch the 7:15 bus, attended classes, then swim practice or a meet, followed by dinner, a shower, and homework before I crashed into bed around nine. I tried to stay up late enough to catch my favorite TV shows, but conked out before they were over, no big deal because once swim season ended I’d have plenty of time to play catch-up.
Most days I didn’t bother to dress up for school, although some of the girls, Jordan and Tati in particular, managed to pull it all together that early in the morning, fixing their hair and makeup and coordinating cute little outfits. I was more the sweatpants and T-shirt type, my hair wrapped up in a messy bun on top of my head, my face clean of makeup; simple, comfortable, and I liked it.
On non-meet days, Coach scheduled morning practice at 5:40, but it wasn’t mandatory, so I didn’t bother going. In the past, I’d never skipped morning practice, knowing it separated me from the rest of the pack and gave me my edge. Gym class first period and no ride to school at 5:30 a.m. were two great reasons to skip it, and since I wasn’t trying to stand out at Two Rivers anyway I slept in guilt-free, and listened to the other girls complain about jumping out of bed and into the pool.
“I’m starting to feel like a reptile,” Mel said at lunch on Wednesday. She never missed morning practice. Coach allowed the boys to swim too, to stay in shape in their off-season, so Justin drove her to the pool and put in his own time. “My skin is so dry,” she said. It was a common swimmer problem – the chlorine dried out our skin, turning it ashy and dull. No matter how much or what type of lotion we slathered on before and after swimming, we still felt tight and itchy.
“Well, if you’re reptilian you’re cold-blooded, so you can tolerate being in the pool longer,” said Erica. She, too, was an early riser and made morning practice most days.
“I’m not cold-blooded,” Mel said. “That water is freezing. I can’t stand it if I’m not moving.”
“That’s the point,” I said, taking a bite out of the second half of my turkey sandwich.
“At least your hair’s not turning green,” Erica said, gesturing toward Jordan, who sat at a table a few rows from us with Tati, Travis, and Sean. Jordan’s overprocessed hair was a pukey shade of green, and the ends looked like straw. She picked at a salad while playing footsie with Travis, unaware that her head was starting to look like Kermit the Frog’s.
“I’m a brunette. I don’t worry about that,” Mel said.
“What about redheads, Aerin?” Erica asked me. “Your hair doesn’t turn green, does it?”
“No,” I said, “but my sensitive skin takes a beating from all the pool chemicals.” I stroked my cheek; it was a little tight, but softer than it usually was at this point in the season. Must be the excellent moisturizer Aunt Mags recommended and the decrease in pool time.
“I can’t believe you guys get up so early to swim,” said Kelsey.
“Don’t remind me,” said Erica. She looked like she was ready to fall asleep at the table.
“It’s only three times a week,” said Mel, “and it’s not mandatory, but anyone who’s serious about swimming makes it.”
“Not Aerin,” said Erica, giving me a sidelong glance.
“Hey, I’ve got gym first period. I don’t want to work out in the pool, dry off, and then hit the gym.”
“A weak excuse,” Erica said.
“And, unlike you two, I don’t have a ride, remember?”
“You could walk,” Erica suggested. “You only live a half mile from the school.”
“At five-thirty in the morning? No thanks.”
Mel finished the rest of her orange juice and crushed the carton in one hand before putting it down on the table. “Tatiana has gym first period, and she makes morning practice. And a few of the other girls walk to practice in the dark, so that’s no big deal. Aerin doesn’t come because Aerin is a slacker.” She met my eyes straight on.
“Ooooh,” said Erica, sitting upright. “This is getting interesting.”
A flash of anger ran through me, starting at the top of my head. I swore I could feel it run through my entire body and exit somewhere from the bottom of my feet. The air between us bristled with tension. I rose to Mel’s challenge. “You called me a slacker?”
No one had ever done that before. Other swimmers slacked off, not Aerin Keane, who gave every practice, every event, every heat, everything she had, and then some. I was the hardest working swimmer no matter what team I was on. Then I remembered I was no longer that swimmer.
“Yeah, you’re a slacker,” Mel said, leaning forward and staring right into my eyes. “You skip morning practice, you wimp out at the end of your races, and you don’t push yourself in the weight room.”
I didn’t react. I was an intentional slacker, no doubt about it. I figured I could get away with it since no one had any idea of what I could do. Until now, I thought no one had noticed. Was she the only one? I had to stop this talk.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m busting my butt. I never miss practice. I’m always on time. I keep up with the rest of you, including Tatiana and Erica. I’m racking up points. I’m pulling my weight.”
“She’s right,” Erica said, coming to my defense. I gave her a grateful smile. “Not everyone comes to morning practice, Mel, only the ones who want to do their best. I think Aerin’s already doing her best.”
Ouch! That hurt, but I kept my face neutral, not letting on that my temperature had risen five degrees. Where was that lunch bell? I had to get out of here.
“Something tells me you can do better,” Mel said.
“And what is that?”
“You’ve got the best technique of anyone I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Your starts are perfect, and your turns are powerful. I can’t figure out why you always get bogged down in the middle of a race. You’re in great shape. You don’t appear to be winded. Something just doesn’t click.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to win,” said Erica. “Not everybody does.”
Mel rolled her eyes. “Please, Erica, really?”
“Just saying,” Erica said.
Kelsey leaned forward. “I think Aerin’s an excellent swimmer.”
“You can’t weigh in here, Kels, you’re not a swimmer,” Mel said.
“Hey,” said Erica, “that’s not nice.”
“Only a swimmer can tell when another swimmer’s slacking off, Erica. You know that.”
I’d had enough. “You’re lucky we’re friends, Mel, or we’d be done after what you just said.”
“Come on, Aerin, you know what I’m talking about. How’d you do last year? Where did you finish?”
She was getting too close for comfort. I had no clue how to answer, but I didn’t have to because the lunch bell went off signaling we needed to move on to our next class. A wave of relief flowed over me as I got up and grabbed my book bag. “Later, Mel,” I said.
She scooped up her stuff and followed. “We’re not done, Aerin.”
“Yes, we are.” I pushed my way through the crowd and headed to College English.
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