Serenity Prayers for Long-Distance Swimmers
First meet of the season and in the locker room they huddle slick and weightless and pray to Our Lady of the Individual Medley, Our Lady of the Flawless Back-to-Breast-Stroke Flip-Turn, Our Lady of the Plastic Lane Lines. They pray to be turned into salt water, into mermaids, into dolphins or jet engines. They pray to be turned into swift-gliding sailfish and they pray for those saddle shoe-wearing St. Agatha’s bitches to turn into anchors covered in brine and barnacle. They ask forgiveness for peeing in the pool at away meets, but they explain to Our Lady that as three-time state champions, it is their duty and their right.
The first event is the 500 freestyle and a St. Agatha’s girl dives on a false start and realizes it mid-air, twisting back towards the diving block as she falls, then climbs out of the pool head-down, red-faced. When the gun bursts a second time, Cassie kicks off the block and then she’s underwater singing her exhalations, listening to the buzz of her submarine breath like a kazoo, like a pulse. Tonight, it’s a uniformed girl from St. Agatha’s who crouches at the end of Cassie’s lane and flips the waterproof counter on odd-numbered laps: 1, 3, 5, Cassie is blowing through and steady, pulling ahead and humming. She’s on lap 7 and she’s singing Can’t Get No Satisfaction to the tune of dolphin breath. Lap 9 and the St. Agatha’s girl dips the counter and flips Cassie the bird underwater. Cassie thinks to bite her, to tear off her upside down middle finger like a shark attack, but instead she splashes on the flip-turn and pushes off the wall, darts to the other side of the pool and on lap 11, the St. Agatha’s girl has turned the counter back to 7 just to fuck with her.
But it doesn’t matter. Cassie doesn’t have the easy aquatic elegance of Neha, the butterfly stroke goddess with liquid hips, but Cassie can pull stroke after stroke with her thick arms and she can splash the St. Agatha’s girl in her ridiculous yellow skirt, and there she goes, it’s lap 19 and she’s sprinting, her joints are loose and she’s limbless, and then she touches her fingertips to the lip of the pool and she’s won.
After, she dips underwater and unpeels her swim cap and her hair is loose and drifting in the pool. This is the reward of winning, the slow floating in the winner’s lane until you lift yourself up with shaking arms and your team is right there, and you all feel like some mythical sea animals, unbeatable. Cassie sees her father in the bleachers and she nods at him and he nods back, because his baby is the captain and his baby is the best.
All along, Neha’s been standing at the edge of the pool and watching, holding her breath. Cassie pinches Neha’s swim cap, snaps it for good luck, then Neha climbs on the block for the 100-Fly. In the bleachers the St. Agatha’s girls whisper dyke and Neha’s grateful her parents don’t understand the word. Neha’s the girl everyone looks to in religion class when Mrs. Graham talks about the pagans in India with their funny blue gods. Neha tells Mrs. Graham to just cut it with the India shit I’m not a goddamn ambassador, and then Neha is usually escorted to the headmistress’ office and the headmistress puts forth her theory that athletics make the girls too combative for their own good.
“The sportsmanship award is ours five years running,” she says. “I don’t want any problems this year. Are we going to have any problems?”
Neha sits in the office and thinks of how her hips want to move, how if the headmistress saw Neha do the butterfly stroke out of water, she’d wet her skirt and pray a rosary. Neha imagines the headmistress in a racing suit, the pocked thighs and the folds of fat pushed under her shoulder blades, her dainty steps into the shallow end and then her clumsy strokes, arms lifted too high out of the water to get any speed.
“Are you listening?” the headmistress asks, and Neha nods and nods until she is let out of the office, still thinking about the great pool in her head where everyone she hates would lower into the water and flail until Neha had to come and save them.
In the St. Agatha’s pool, Neha glides above water, thinks of her mother’s sari dragged in chlorine puddles as her parents climb to the bleachers, then thinks nothing but the power of her own arms, her legs fused together and her hips pumping. She thinks this is poetry, this is prayer, if she’s an ambassador for anything it is this.
On the bus ride home from St. Agatha’s they sing We Are the Champions and spin past the small towns with abandoned forts named after saints. Everything here is named after a saint. But the bus is filled with chlorine smell and they are wearing sweat pants with their nicknames ironed across the back and Coach Jaime is sitting in front calling her fiancé, telling them my girls did it again, they nailed it. Every Thursday night is like this, and then Friday morning they are back in school and no one else seems to understand that they are amongst sea-myth creatures, gods in knee socks.
Of course there are threats to their brashness. There is the youth pastor who, last October, stumbled into the locker room, the globe of his head shining with sweat, stammering his apologies when they caught him crouched by the door. The next afternoon he gave them each a necklace in a velvet box, and they snuck out of lunch and unstrung the cords, letting the pearls bounce down the hill to the highway. There’s the fiancé who picks up Coach Jaime in his doorless Jeep, and from the bus stop they watch Coach Jaime’s whipping hair, the fiancé gripping their coach, and Neha and sometimes Cassie feel a kind of jealousy they cannot name. There’s the headmistress and there’s the St. Joe’s boys down the hill who look at them with a desire they only find funny in its exaggerated longing.
But it’s at one of the St. Joe’s parties where Cassie stumbles, where she isn’t a match for a St. Joe’s boy’s punch mixed with all the clear liquors from his parents’ basement. The furniture has been pushed to the sides of the living room and the lights are off and they’re dancing with the St. Joe’s boys, all grind and twist and hair flip. It’s the St. Joe’s swim team and the boys have the same aquatic understanding as the girls, the same narrow hips and broad shoulders. They’ve all used chlorine-canceling shampoo and they’ve all practiced diving until their bodies are nearly horizontal when they meet the water. So when they dance it’s like swimming. The girls close their eyes and sip their punch and for an instant Neha and Cassie are dancing together, Neha’s arm reaching for Cassie’s neck and to Neha it feels like homecoming, it feels like a caught breath.
Neha goes to the bathroom to stare at herself in the mirror and say stop it stop it. But who wouldn’t love Cassie, the giantess that she is, the beautiful bulk of her? Neha looks at her reflection and says dyke bitch what the fuck are you doing? She says don’t be an idiot. Stop these fruitless thrill-crushes, first Coach Jaime (freshman winter through junior year spring) and now Cassie. Always Cassie.
Neha comes out and there’s a boy waiting for the bathroom. He tells her, you know you’re the prettiest, you’re my favorite, and Neha feels that she’s part of some line-up. She feels like she’s wearing a bathing suit and swim cap and she’s nothing but muscle and skull. There have been other parties and other boys telling her that she is beautiful, but Neha recognizes this one, thinks he might have once kissed Cassie, so she lets him slide his hand under her shirt and lets it rest over her bra, as though attaining that much is enough.
When Neha goes back to the living room the boys have set up a pulsing dance-floor light and the swimmers writhe in disco-shadows, and there’s Cassie pushed against a wall, a boy’s hand up her skirt. She’s giggling into his neck and then they slide to the floor and Neha sees the tug of belt buckle, Cassie’s eyes rolling back. She switches off the music, pulls Cassie from under the boy and punches the boy in the jaw.
They decide not to tell anyone because the headmistress would kick Neha and Cassie out of school and suspend them for drinking, so they drive to Erica’s house and throw sleeping bags on the floor. They tell Erica’s mom they’re having a slumber party when they’re really giving Cassie water and the prayers they’ve made up: Our Lady of Bad Decisions and Spiked Punch, smudge out the sight of Cassie on the floor, the boy’s fingers moving in and out of her. Neha knows they’re praying for her, too. She knows that what she did looked like sportsmanship or love. She knows that Cassie thinks she must have confused the two. Still, Neha says her own prayer, one she knows is blasphemy to the team but she says it anyway, she says thank you for letting me be the one to save her.
It’s Cassie who starts the game, and the other girls know it’s partly because of the boy’s fingers up her skirt and partly because Cassie thinks she’ll win since she’s got lungs like hot air balloons.
After practice, Cassie gets out of the pool and tells them to watch. She stands on the block, adjusts her suit, pulls her lips up to her nose and then she dives. They gather and watch her arms over her head as in exaggerated prayer, her hips pumping the butterfly kick. She crosses half the pool without coming up, then she keeps kicking and she’s at the end. She kicks off the wall and makes it a second lap before breathing.
“Who’s next?” she calls out, gulping air.
This is how it starts.
A few of them have done synchro before, swimming at summertime cocktail parties in matching sequined suits, treading water on their backs with their legs in the air, their toes pointed like ballerinas. Some are lifeguards in the summer and others give swim lessons to the elderly at the YMCA after school. They’ve all played the shallow-end games of holding their breath. But Cassie wants to turn it into a circus act. She wants to turn it into something that will make them saints, apostles of Our Lady of Impossible Feats. She says, hey, come on, show us what you’ve got, and Neha pretends that Cassie is speaking only to her. She stands on the diving block and says a prayer to Our Lady of Pulmonary Strength and she makes it nearly two thrashing laps before she comes up.
I think we’ve got something here, Cassie says, and she throws her arm around Neha’s shoulder and Neha feels like the brightest star over New Jersey.
Every day after school the sixteen of them sit cross-legged at the bottom of the pool, beating their arms to stay underwater, pushing their bodies down against the tiles. Neha thinks about her parents asking why she wears a rosary like a necklace, Jessica thinks about finding her mother’s vibrator and pressing it over her underwear, Rachel thinks of Coach Jaime’s boyfriend, Katie thinks up more blasphemous names for the Virgin (Our Lady of Used Tampons) and Erica thinks please, please I can’t hold my breath any longer. Cassie keeps her eyes shut tight against thoughts, but she is always the last to come up for air and when she does, she takes short, shallow breaths as if she doesn’t deserve them.
It’s two weeks after the party when they learn that Our Lady of Schoolgirl Justice gave the St. Joe’s boy a collapsed lung at a meet in Piscataway. Neha tries to give Cassie a high five, but Cassie only shrugs and then dives into the pool and doesn’t come up for three laps.
A month before States, there’s the Spirit Day meet against St. Joe’s. It’s supposed to be a fundraiser, and all the most spirited students will pay three dollars to come and watch the boys swim the girls. There’s the race in sweat pants, the race with kickboards between their teeth, the race around the perimeter of the pool, the water treading contest, the cannonball and bellyflop competition, synchronized swimming to pop music while cheerleaders in flip-flops line the pool and swish their pom-poms and try to not get their skirts wet.
Cassie convinces Coach Jaime to add another competition to the day. The St. Joe’s boys will need to sign a waiver but Coach Jaime agrees and now at practice, Cassie hardly comes up for air at all. The headmistress gives them a locker room speech about sportsmanship, how they won’t show those boys too hard of a time. The headmistress played lacrosse in college but seems to have forgotten everything. Neha thinks maybe that’s what a convent will do to you.
The morning of Spirit Day, the team comes to the pool in the bus they’ve decorated with streamers and blue and gold washable markers. They pour into the locker room and see the St. Joe’s boys have snuck in and strung the lockers with toilet paper, hung jock straps from the mirrors. Neha says gross, Erica says jerks, Stephanie says assholes. Cassie only swings open the door to a stall and when she comes out, she has her suit on and war paint streaked across her cheeks.
Spirit Day means there are no winners, only participants. Spirit Day means they cannonball into the pool in their sweatpants and doggy paddle to the end, sandwiched by St. Joe’s boys in the other lanes. The boys bark as they swim and their voices bounce off the tile, and the cheerleaders move and sway for the boys while the girls stare ahead and get to the finish, then perform all their other tricks until it’s time for Cassie’s event.
Neha stands next to the boy she kissed at the party and he tries to hold her hand but she shakes it off and tells Cassie good luck. They climb to the diving blocks and Neha wishes she could stand on the side and watch Cassie fight against her need for breathing. She thinks of the impulse to deprive yourself of something essential. She thinks of what she and Cassie might have in common.
The gun goes off and all ten swimmers gulp air before diving. They’re underwater, heads down and arms reaching. Neha thinks of homeroom when the Sisters of Mercy lead them all in the serenity prayer, when she repeats, God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, fingers crossed behind her back because bullshit, she can change anything she wants with flutter kicks and the right momentum off the wall. She’s on her second lap, her lungs thirsting and her head beginning to throb, and she prays, So I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Above her head, she crosses her fingers against the sublime myth that happiness should be reasonable.
Every night since the party, Cassie has held her breath before going to sleep. She has sat up in bed and imagined herself underwater, shuddering free from anyone trying to touch her, kicking away, away. She tries to remember the thrill of racing, but all she can think of is her body gathering itself up, not sharing itself with anyone. All she can think of is the deep end.
Nearly three laps and Neha finally surfaces, rubs her eyes and sees only watercolor splotches blotting out the pool and the bleachers. She treads water in the middle of the lane and looks around for Cassie, but she can’t find her. Cassie is somewhere underwater, gliding close to the bottom, and there’s no knowing when she’ll come back.