by Alicia Cohn
TW: sexual assault
When your head pops out of the water, he is there, two lanes over and looking your direction.
You wheel around. Shoving away from the wall is pressurized with adrenaline. You shoot forward like a rocket.
Whoosh air out your nose. Turn your head. Grab some air. Raise arm behind you from the elbow. Slice through the water with your hand. Repeat.
You swim another 50 meters and tell yourself not to stop. You can keep going. Every day you are swimming longer, your strokes getting stronger. Every lap you tell yourself you can do another. Usually, you can.
You follow the line at the bottom of the lane. You glance to the side to take a breath; you return your gaze. Still there.
You pause after another 50 meters and reach for the bottle sitting on the concrete just outside the edge. You see him without moving your head. He is looking at you. Why?
You don’t know him. Even if he knows you, you think he would not recognize you with the cap and goggles misshaping your head. It is one of the comforts of swimming: You are practically naked, yet anonymous. Why is he watching you?
You use your feet to shove away from the wall again. Swish like a rocket through the water — your favorite part, the moment you feel airborne underwater. You jet up to the surface, one arm up and over. Breathe. Brush your thigh with your thumb when you drag your arm behind you. Cut through the water ahead of you like a knife.
He’s looking at the clock, you realize. Not you. Relief propels you under and back up in a flip turn, something you have to be in the right headspace to do. Turns make you nervous: The dive down, trusting you have enough space to flip and come back up again without losing your breath. The line can’t help you. You have to know the surface is there.
Sometimes you just touch the sides and shove off from both ends without flipping underwater. It feels good to know where you are.
Underwater, you check the lanes beside you on your next lap. But the woman next to you is on a kickboard and you cannot see past the water she churns.
He’s there again when you stop at the end. He adjusts his goggles. You’re adjusting your goggles. Which of you started first? You’re not sure.
You don’t look directly at him.
But he has dark hair on his chest — not too much, just enough to create a shadow. His body is not large, but it has the sculpted planes of a regular swimmer. You suspect a daily practice. But then why is he matching your pace? You are not a good swimmer. You have only recently started swimming daily. It is cold outside now and running inside makes you feel trapped. Your body tenses up and you feel like you can’t breathe, like you’re hyperventilating, like you’re going to start crying. There is no reason for this. You just don’t feel safe staying in one place for that long.
He seems objectively attractive.
Shove off, jagged force through the water; your feet did not touch the wall evenly and you are veering across your lane. You rise to the surface, correct your body position, keep the arch in your spine. Straighten out.
You had good coaches in high school. It is coming back to you. The muscle memory is there. Your body feels light. It feels good to be in the water.
Perhaps this is a chance encounter in real life with a potential date. A miracle amid the modern dating landscape. No app, no carefully produced self-marketing summary concealing his actual character. No pictures to scroll through. No smile concealing a heart of darkness. Just a real man who likes to do something you also like to do.
You haven’t been on a date in eleven months.
He might be nice. He seems serious about swimming from his muscles and the quality of his cap and goggles. From the way he matches your pace. But he stops almost as much as you do. Is that normal? Is he doing it on purpose?
Whoosh. CO2 out, fresh oxygen in. You enjoy the perfect timing as you draw back your opposite arm.
It might be a good way to start a conversation. “For a minute there I thought we had the same pace and I was really proud of myself,” you’ll say.
Is that an unfeminist thing to say? Does it show weakness? But men are always just a little bit faster than women, aren’t they? A bit stronger. Just slightly more powerful.
You turn your head too quickly and take in some water with your next breath. You can feel it tickling the back of your throat when you face back down, a tiny collection of panic warning you might start coughing. You have spoken to a therapist about the hyperventilating. It is linked to your heart rate spiking, she said. When your heart rate spikes, you feel like you’re in danger even when you’re not. You feel like you can’t breathe and start gasping for air. As if his hand is still on your throat.
You’re in the middle of the deep end. But the line is there, solid. You turn your head and push all the air out, forcefully. You take a deep breath of air, filling your lungs as much as you can.
The panic dissipates with the bubbles of air. Self-correction. You don’t remember having to do it so often in high school.
“For a minute there I thought we had the same pace and I was really proud of myself,” you repeat the opening line in your head. You’ll wrap your towel around yourself. Take your cap off first. Your hair will look terrible but it’s better than wearing a condom on your head to talk to him.
What if we go on a date and he wants to kiss you? Are you ready for that? For a man to touch you? You don’t want to be like one of those girls who jumps or starts crying in his mouth or yanks your hand out of his when he’s trying to be sweet.
Well, they are not all that nice. He might be one of the ones who seems nice. Until his apartment door closes behind you.
What if he wants to have sex immediately?
You’re definitely not ready for that.
500 meters, according to your watch. That’s barely anything. Why are you so tired? You’ve been in the pool 12 minutes and you keep stopping to catch your breath. It’s embarrassing. You need to try harder. Push yourself. Don’t stop at the end; flip over and go again.
Maybe you could be ready for sex. Get back in the game. Get over it. The trapped feeling. The sensation you could be grabbed from behind as you sprint for the door.
A man with a nice body would be a good way to get back in the dating game, right? Maybe he would not be too challenging, emotionally. Maybe you could just do the physical thing. You could discuss swimming. And then not discuss anything at all.
You could take control. You could push his head down between your legs and let him know you want him to take care of you first. Keep your hand on his hair, keep him there.
Not in a weird way. Not if he resisted.
You pop up at the deep end and hold onto the edge. You bob up high enough to get your lungs out of the water, pull in the air as deep into your belly as you can. Too many laps in a row. You can’t do this. You have to stop or slow down.
Swim back to the shallow end more slowly. Think about your form. As you tire it’s easy to lose the arch in your back, the zipped-up legs.
He’s gazing across your lane again, and now you can tell for sure he’s waiting for the minute to zero out on the clock. He dives back under the water without hesitating when it hits double zeros.
He may not want to talk to you at all. Perhaps he didn’t notice your pace matched. Maybe he’s used to that. You’re making much too big a deal of this. It isn’t “meant to be.” It’s just a coincidence. Nothing planned, just the same place at the same time.
You’re aiming for 750 meters. The length of a sprint triathlon. You did one once as a teenager. Open water. No line at the bottom. You were fearless then.
Was he here before you got here? You didn’t notice him. He might be swimming much farther than you. You probably won’t have a chance to talk to him. It’s probably for the best.
Make these last few laps the best. Whoosh. Breathe. Pull. Turn. You don’t flip under at the end. You touch the ledge, turn with your head above water, and push off again.
All the books say it’s OK if you’re not ready yet.
Last 50 meters. Slow it down. Don’t pull as hard. Enjoy the buoyancy of your body. Follow the line at the bottom.
You’re not synced up with him anymore. He is half way down the lane, going the other direction. If it’s meant to happen, if it’s a real life miracle, it will.
You reach your goal and pull off your goggles. Stop your watch from tracking the activity. Hoist yourself up and over the edge of the pool. Take off your cap. Catch your breath. Was that far enough? 750 meters is barely anything. And 20 minutes isn’t very fast.
You can feel the lines your cap and goggles left on your face, squashing your skin into weird shapes. You don’t remember that part from high school, either. Aging — it’s been 10 years — means showing your scars in unpredictable ways. You don’t realize what the future is going to be like when you’re a teenager. You think enough momentum will get you through anything.
Breakup? Dive back into the dating pool. Fight with your best friend? It won’t last. Moving schools in the middle of the year? Luxuriate in the complaining until, suddenly, you like your new school and your new pool of friends and your new boyfriend. Everything ends if you keep swimming.
You stand and go for your towel. You dry off slowly, more thorough than you would ordinarily. Might as well give fate a chance.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see him get out of the pool. Is he done? Did he finish early when he saw you get out? Was he thinking about this moment during his swim as well?
You are putting on your flip-flops. You have nothing left to do before you escape to the locker room. You start walking in that direction. You have to pass him. Will you silently meet eyes? Should you look away from him?
He is peeling off his cap. He looks up. You are steps away from him.
He looks directly at you like he was waiting for you.
“Hi,” he says. He’s wearing a speedo and nothing else. He’s taller than you expected, his chest broad. He’s standing between you and the exit.
You jerk your eyes away from him, like he is the sun.
“Hello,” you say, and don’t stop moving. “How’s it going,” you add, because you think out of the corner of your eye he might have opened his mouth again.
Follow the edge of the pool toward the locker room. The lines are still there. They look wavy through the water but it’s an illusion. The lines guide you out the swinging doors. Your towel clutched to your waist. Your shoes slapping against the concrete. You don’t look back. You don’t know if he’s still watching. Your eyes are on the sign for the women’s locker room, cradled now in the gentle echo of the hall.
You pause. You put your hand on the concrete wall and think about breathing: In slowly. Out slowly. Count how long it takes to breathe in. Count how long it takes to breathe out. Is he still watching you? Should you look back? What if he was a nice one, not the one who would grab your hair and shove your head into the floor?
Breathe in. Turn and enter the locker room. Breathe out.
Alicia M. Cohn is a political editor and freelance writer with bylines in The Denver Post, 5280 Magazine, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Credits, Christianity Today and other publications. She lives in Denver and takes classes at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She tweets @aliciacohn.