Biomythography - Note 27.3
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection
When I was twelve I wintered at the YMCA. There were no girls of interest in my swim practices there but I was satisfied anyway. It was cold outside and I was glad to keep in shape for the summer. That's when I could be surrounded by girls again and prove that I was good at something. The other kids at the YMCA were still fun. I liked the place. I enjoyed being on the team. My best friend was Aki and even though we had to compete against each other, we managed to share laughs at every meet. But my family moved out of the county. That was the end of swimming there.
My parents found a winter club that practiced in Montgomery Village no more than twenty minutes from our new home. Those kids, too, were fine. The training wasn't the best but it was good enough to keep me fit. When summer league came back, I kept winning. Girls saw me finishing in first place again. I managed to talk with some of them. One got a crush on me and I crushed on her right back. We flirted for months.
I would have been happy to stay with the same practice schedule for the winter. My father wasn't satisfied, though, because my younger brother was talented. He needed better training and that meant I had to move, too. The next fall I joined the Rockville Municipal Swim Center.
At RMSC, a swimmer who started training year-round at the age of twelve was way behind. I had been spoiled by my successes as one of the top three breaststrokers in the county but the RMSC coaches put me in their high school prep level, which was their rating for athletes who had no real promise. Their evaluation could have seemed insulting but, really, I understood it was right. I had no real promise. Puberty was passing me by. I'd grown from 5'2" to 5'5" and I'd gotten a bit more muscular but that was it, athletically.
The high school prep group slotted me into the bottom three lanes. When the coaches put you there, it was because they had decided you would never be good enough to join the RMSC National Training Group. Their NTG squad prepared for the Olympics and for intense national or international competitions. They went to college on athletic scholarships. The higher three lanes of high school prep had the potential to join NTG someday, maybe.
Our practice took place in the Montgomery College pool, where they piped in music underwater. I worked out to the Top 40 hits. That fall, I made friends with other high school level swimmers and acquired a dumb nickname, 'Muscles,' that I sort of hated because it implied I was as stupid as I felt. But my friends used it on me with affection, so it was impossible to protest.
After six weeks, the best swimmer in the fastest lane moved up to the National squad. Some teens got promoted to higher lanes including a girl I had been flirting with. She was the cutest in the pool. Or maybe that was just my opinion but I was utterly sure of it.
"You're slacking," I would tell her. Such wit. And she would giggle.
"Faster than you, Muscles." She'd splash me.
I'd pretend to be wounded. The problem with all of this, in the view of the coaches, was that the girl I liked was an excellent swimmer with at least college potential. She was two lanes faster than I was. And we still splashed each other and flirted across the lanes, oblivious to and annoying the hell out of everyone else.
But she thought I was funny. I thought she was an angel.
After another week or two of us leaving our swimming lanes to splash each other, the coaches moved her up to the next-fastest lane. I wasn't sure whether it was because she was so good - she was - or because it put more distance between us. It inspired me to create a furious plan.
"Why are you cruising so fast today, Muscles?" one of my friends asked. The day after the girl I loved got promoted, I was lapping everyone in my lane. As it turned out, I hadn't been practicing very hard before.
"Got to move up," I growled.
"So you can get closer to her?" he tilted his head in her direction. So much for it being a secret. Did everyone know? It's a good thing I was pink with effort and breathing heavily already. But he was one of my best friends. He wasn't mean.
My look in return must have said everything.
"Well, good luck." He shrugged his large shoulders.
A few days later, all the kids in my lane were lobbying the coach to move me up. During the distance swims and even the sprints, I was lapping them. Because I was furious and executing my plan, I never seemed to get tired, either. They were sick of me.
"Well," my coach's mouth got tight, his expression grim. I don't think any of the other coaching staff knew what I was up to but he sure did. He tried not to look at the girl I liked. For a second or two, he couldn't help it. Then his gaze snapped back on me. He sighed like he knew the other staff were going to give him trouble. "I guess I don't have much choice."
That put me within flirting distance again. I got giggled at and splashed more. But I loved it. Underneath the laughter, I was still furious and executing my plan. My idea was not simply to be close enough to flirt. It was to be in the lane next to her. Or swimming right with her. My main problem was that she was simply faster than I was. She practiced harder, too. I'd never really thought about my level of effort before in any competitive way. In a general sense, I wasn't a competitor at all. I preferred letting my friends beat me. Unless a girl was watching.
"You guys know Eric," the coach said on the next Monday, making the move official. "He's been in this lane before and he had all best times in the last swim meet, so he's moving up permanently."
Instantly, the other teenage boys in my lane asked me for my times. It was what everyone did. They rated themselves against what I'd achieved. After a bit of talk, I understood that they intended to defend their lane. There was nothing they could do about breaststroke. They felt dejected about it but I was the fastest in the pool. My butterfly and freestyle were mediocre. Some of them could kick my ass. And my backstroke was awful. They intended to rub that in whenever they could and keep me as low down on the practice chart as possible.
If it weren't for Furious Plan IV (since it was not my first furious plan), I might have eased up and looked to make friends with them. But they were in the way of the plan. And I already had my friends.
Three weeks passed and I improved my times some more. My practice speed kept improving, too. I had moved to the front of the lane to which I'd been so recently promoted. And I knew that if I could get one more promotion, I'd be swimming next to my crush.
"You are looking so good," she told me during a break in our workouts. One of the girls next to her tittered. "Your butterfly is way better."
"Thanks. Don't slack off so much or I'll catch you."
"I'm still faster than you in butterfly, Muscles!"
Amazingly, my times in freestyle had passed hers. She had not gotten mad about it. Although she remained fiercely competitive with some of the other girls and with her older brother, who was already part of the National squad, she seemed to like it that I was faster than her in some things. She could still train the hell out of everyone, anyway. To my dismay, she seemed to take my improvements as a challenge.
I had modeled my practice habits on hers as much as I could. Now she stepped up her efforts further and I struggled to keep pace.
"Gallagher, another meet with all best times," my coach announced a couple weeks later. He was getting used to it. The other staff members were starting to accept me, too. "Geez, a 1:09.23 in breaststroke. That's best on the team for your age group and you've got a year left."
The coaching group decided to put me into the fastest lanes whenever they did specific breaststroke drills. It was a sideways promotion but it meant I got to swim with the girl I loved. I was ahead of her, even. A few times, I started to lap her in breaststroke but I stopped. She called me on it.
"Did you slow down just so you didn't pass me?" her voice was half flirting, half mad. I had finished a couple laps ahead of her in a drill. When she finished, she strolled over to me with the accusation.
"Don't do that." She was still breathing heavily. She never eased off her efforts in practice. "It's okay, pass me."
So, over the course of the year, I kept improving my times. I moved up to the third-fastest lane. It was a huge transition and an admission from the coaching staff that they were considering me as worthwhile to train. Their move put me right next to the girl with the cutest grin. For three weeks, she and I hung out on the lane line between us, talking whenever we got a break. On the other side of me, a couple of my old friends moved up, too.
"You're not the only one, Muscles," a friend told me in triumph at his move. He had gotten three meets with all best times, too.
I had friends on all sides. My situation couldn't have been happier. Then one day after my girl and I splashed each other for most of the hour, the coaches moved her into the fastest lane.
Furious Plan IV had never stopped but, with a lane between us again, I cranked it into my highest gear. I was already the second-fastest swimmer in the third-fastest lane. All I needed to do, I thought, was mow everyone down in my way and make the coaches admit I was good enough to elevate again. And again.
The timing toward the end of the swimming season was close but I made it. By the end of that year, I had passed up about forty swimmers to be with the best girl (in my totally objective opinion) in the fastest lane of the practice pool. A couple of my friends had moved up lanes close by me, too. We had all done something more than we or the coaches had expected. At the end, the coaches had to read their announcement of the list of next-year promotions. That included promotions to the National Training Group. Of course, the girl I liked made it in. To my shock, not much farther down the list, I made it, too. Near the end of the list, they read out the name of one of my best friends on the team, the one with so many best times.
Unlike summer league, where flirtations had to end abruptly, the RMSC held a year-end dance. It was sort of a forced socialization event. It was hard to tell who really wanted it. The coaches? Parents? Older girls? Nevertheless, when it was announced three weeks ahead, every guy immediately started pounding me on the back and telling me I had to ask my girl to dance.
I was petrified. No one seemed to understand how ugly I was in clothes. Did the girl I loved not understand that I was a troll? It seemed unfortunately possible.
How would she react when she saw me in the mismatched Sears catalog corduroy outfit my mom bought for me? Could I burn the house down in time to get donations from the Salvation Army and go in random denim and t-shirts? During the lead up to the event, my mind was bursting with a dozen plans per day, some of them involving going to the dance, some of them involving my parents dying from a plane crashing on the house (“sorry, can’t go, I’m an orphan this week”), some of them with me just wandering into the woods and never coming back.
“You have to ask her to dance,” one of her girlfriends told me, inches away from my face on the last day of practice.
“She’s actually going?” Some of my hopes and dream scenarios had been pinned on her not being allowed. She had mentioned that her father was opposed to letting her dance.
“Of course. But she thinks boys are dumb.” Her friend sighed with exasperation. Probably she agreed with that sentiment. “That’s why you should ask.”
On the day of the dance, I panicked and changed outfits. I changed again. Then I mercifully forgot for a while, got into a wrestling fight that smeared my clothes with clay and dirt, and put on my fourth best pants. Ugh.
I looked awful. When I arrived in my mom's car, I expected my friends to point at my clothes or to make fun of me because I couldn't drive. They all arrived with their parents, too. They didn't seem to care what I was wearing. They didn't even notice. We talked and threw a plastic football in the grass. In the back of my mind, I tried to think of the lessons I'd gotten from socializing at school: one, sometimes you've got to speak up; two, girls think dances are important. Eventually, the sky darkened. I hung out with my friends for as long as I could but finally I had to turn and face the inevitable. I marched inside the building like I knew I was going to die there. In my heart, I was doomed. I accepted it.
Inside, about thirty-five girls were standing near the walls of the recreation center. The dance floor was empty. On the far side of the floor, a band played cover tunes. Someone had turned down the hot, bright overhead lamps. That let a spinning, colored disco light array provide its weak illumination.
For a while, I wandered along the edges. That put me with the rest of the crowd and it was awkward. Next, I hovered around the food and the drinks. The prospect of eating made me feel sick. I ate something anyway because I was trying to fit in. I kept looking for the girl who I loved but she was nowhere in sight. My friends had told me she was here. But I didn’t see her or any of our mutual friends. The crowd seemed to be mostly older teenage girls from different RMSC practices. I didn’t know them.
Still, I worried that everyone understood why I was there. After an agonizing fifteen minutes, I saw her come back in through the side door with two of her friends. My heart skipped. My feet, too. But I froze as I studied her expression. She looked grim.
In the green and purple disco lights, everyone looked sickly. It was hard to tell her mood at a distance. I started to approach her, to ask her to dance. Her gaze caught mine. She looked away.
Something was wrong. My resolve evaporated.
I walked around the room once. It was my way of passing by her, just to be close in case she wanted to talk. She said nothing. I tried to nod to her. I wasn't sure she noticed. A minute later, I wandered back outside.
“Some of us are smoking out back,“ one of my friends told me outside the door.
“That sounds good.”
“We can’t go all at once in case the coaches notice.” He said this with a total affectation of disinterest, as if we were spies exchanging information at a public checkpoint, which we sort of were.
“Got it.“ I moseyed along the parking lot in exactly the wrong direction. When I reached a stand of trees I turned to the right. Out of sight of anyone in the lot, the recreation center, or even the road, I hiked around the building and down the hill at the back. I was still within earshot of the cover band in the dance hall.
The group of boys parted to let me in. One of them grimaced at me as if he knew why I was there. But he didn’t say anything. An older boy raised his eyebrow in surprise.
We clustered together and smoked pot for a few minutes. Some kids complained about the coaches always narccing us out to our parents. Other kids complained about their parents. Everyone knew I was chickening out. Eventually, one of the older boys had to mention it.
"You should go back in, man," he exhaled a puff of smoke. "If I had any girl that gave a damn about me, I'd go in."
"She's beautiful," another said. He shook his head, amazed. "You should."
"She's in a bad mood," I said.
"You should still go back," the older, wiser one insisted. He had turned fifteen. "Let her be in a bad mood but with you there."
"Come on, Muscles."
"All right. We'll see." The older boys passed me the pipe. One of them laughed as I inhaled the coals to bright red. After smoking more and listening to their complaints about life and getting more of their advice, I gathered up my courage and returned to the dance.
When I walked in, the lights had been turned even lower. Green and purple polka dots floated on the walls. Most of the older girls had fled the scene. They could drive. Probably, I guessed, they had left. Had they taken the younger girls?
Carefully, I walked my circuit through the recreation center. She wasn't among the girls who remained. However she had done it, she had gone.