The Bleachers

I sit behind the block, fidgeting with my goggles and cracking my knuckles. There is one more heat before I swim, and watching the other swimmers race makes me want to rip somebody’s spine out. I lick my lips; the arena tastes like rusted copper and it reeks so grossly of chlorine I could swear the air is tinted yellow. The drone of thrashing water and frenetic onlookers makes my mind go numb.

Silence settles over the building as the next heat steps onto the block. The stillness is louder than the uproar moments before.

Beep, I say, mimicking the starting official. Beep Beep. Take your mark.

The starting buzzer fires, shattering the silence. The crowd erupts violently; their shrieking voices make my ears ring.

I love it.

I stretch my ankles, counting to ten as I bob up and down on my tiptoes. My hairs stand on end and my stomach feels like ice — for the first time in years, I am nervous. This race will be my last.

I whip my arms around me, slapping myself to get the blood going. The pool churns violently as athletes smash into the wall, ricocheting off at breakneck speeds. I envy the swimmers. There is nothing like the sensation of breaking the water with your body, the hit of jarring frigidness, the exhilarating rush of surging through the water in streamlined form. The icy numbness flowing through your veins, the muted roar of the crowd underwater. The unrelenting support of your closest friends.

I look up. I’ve stared at this ceiling for countless hours: during dryland, through sprint sets, or when drifting down the pool after an exhausting day. The lighting is normally white, sharper than a cloudless January day.

But today, the plaster above me is a musty beige. The air feels warm and damp, and the ceiling lights are weak. I can’t help but wonder if the dimness is just my imagination.

The swimmers before me have fifty yards left. I slip out of my sweatshirt and sweatpants and pull my goggles over my eyes, snapping the strap into place before pulling a second cap over my head. My goggles had been a present for my ninth birthday; they had black rims and shimmering lenses, two bright neon-blue ellipses that danced in the sun like the glittering scales of an exotic fish. Now the replaceable bungee strap has faded from years of use, and the blue-black stripes have been reduced to a dim blue-gray. My swimsuit feels thick and silky, black as tar.

As the heat before me finishes, I hear a crack and a searing pain shoots between my shoulders.

“I’ll be watching your race. Good luck,” my friend chuckles. His voice is warm and damp beneath the golden balcony lights.

I turn to face him — it’s OshKosh, wearing that goofy-looking smile I know all too well. I smirk as I rub my reddened back.

“You too,” I reply, “but I won’t need any.”

He laughs.

We both stare at each other through our goggles, unable to see the other’s eyes. As the crowd dies down, the only thing I can hear is the pounding of my heart. I take a deep breath, and I step onto the block for the last time.

The race is just like any other — when it is over, I talk with my coaches, cool down, and change. I have twelve events until my carpool finishes his last race, so I take a seat on the bleachers and try to read.

OshKosh approaches. I love the way he lumbers about, the way he holds his thick frame upright, his acne-studded body, his short, prickly hair. He is wearing the OshKosh sweatshirt that gave him his nickname; it is the same design as the one he wore to his first practice with us, eight years ago.

“Hey,” he calls out. He’s showing me that foolish-looking grin I love so much, but his eyes are clear and dark as he sits down beside me.

Only he knows I am moving. Tomorrow I’ll be half a country away and yet here I am, sitting on these bleachers, reading.

I glance at him. He is carefully adjusting his cap, trying to squeeze the tips of his ruddy ears beneath the velvety silicone plastic. His upcoming race means a lot to him; it is his last chance to qualify for regionals.

I need more time with him. I have to be there for his race: to see him achieve his dreams, to at least say goodbye — maybe I can stay a bit, maybe my carpool won’t mind the wait–

But I know I can’t. I have clothes to pack and a plane to catch. And my carpool — I can’t be so selfish. It is impossible for me to watch his race.

We sit in silence. On the bleachers, not moving, not speaking — the timestamps above flicker rhythmically as I watch our final moments together slip away.

My friend takes a deep breath and holds it before quietly letting it out; he laughs bitterly, staring restlessly at the grimy tiled floor. The silence is suffocating.

I hate it.

The bleachers are disgusting; they are littered with smashed food particles, spilled drinks, hair, more hair, an unidentifiable black, stringy substance, and God knows what else. I must leave, and as I look back, I see him sitting calmly on the bleachers — the sunlight dances around the room and lights the metal seats ablaze. There he is, staring straight back at me, eyes unblinking, face expressionless, unmoving and indomitable. He looks away, still unblinking, brooding over the days to come without me.