By Franny Zhang
Morrison heads across campus toward a building he has never been to. The aquatic complex gleams in the mid-distance while he and Sara walk over, chatting idly as they go. Morison had been planning to see a swim meet that afternoon, but he’d run into Sara outside his door and she’d asked to come along. Surprised, he’d agreed.
In the athletic center, they swipe their IDs to enter and then follow signs down to the pool. Morrison finds and opens the door to the spectator area, and they step forward into a wave of hot, humid, and chlorinated air. Morrison’s glasses fog instantly, and he shakes his head as though to clear them. When his lenses clear, Sara’s neat little face comes back into focus.
They find seats with a good view of the competition pool and get settled in. Morrison takes a deep breath and looks around at the timing board, school banners, and swimmers in the water. Such scenes are familiar to him from ten years past, though he hasn’t been swimming in months. But Charlie is here somewhere, competing for an opposing team, and Morrison would like to see him again. Not talk, hang out, or catch up—just see. That would be enough, he thinks.
“So you used to swim?” Sara asks.
Morrison rouses himself. “I did, yeah. Was pretty into it at one point. Did that whole wake up at 5 a.m. and go swim, get off school and go swim, spend five hours on Saturdays and go swim. You get the idea.”
Sara laughs. “I do, thanks. That’s pretty intense though. Did you stop because of that?”
“I think? Mostly, I figured I’d inhaled enough chlorine for a lifetime. It seemed like time to move on to other things.”
Sara nods as if he’s said something sensible, but Morrison isn’t sure. Do people give up things they love just because they’re inconvenient?
“Hope this is okay,” he says. “Swim meets can be hit or miss.”
“I’m sure it’ll be great,” she says.
Morrison, never sure of anything, says nothing. On the pool deck, officials in white uniforms stride out while timers gather behind the blocks. Morrison takes in the scene, and his gaze shifts toward the banner that spells out the name for Charlie’s school. Almost without meaning to, he sees Charlie again. His friend is standing off to the side, towel in hand, talking to an older man who must be his coach now. His hair is longer, a veritable tawny mane, but other than that, he’s just as Morrison remembers. Just as tall, lean, and strong, with the kind of muscularity that makes every movement look jaunty and feral at the same time. A flush goes through Morrison, and his pulse gains a new urgency. He leans over and hopes Sara doesn’t notice anything amiss. So this is it. Seeing Charlie again.
Charlie has been his friend since they were both eight-year-olds and novice swimmers on a summer YMCA team. Morrison’s mother had signed him up, but Morrison hadn’t wanted to go. He was sure he’d be the worst one there and expected to be made fun of and/or asked to perform feats of grace, endurance, and socialization for which he was ill-equipped. The first day, he arrived on the pool deck in his green swim trunks, having talked his mother out of a flashier pair with sharks, and tried, with a certain success, to keep out of everyone’s way.
He’d been there a few days, maybe longer, when he and Charlie were assigned to swim in the same lane. Even then, Charlie had a reputation for being difficult, and Morrison had been even more careful to keep to himself. He was surprised by how Charlie seemed to appreciate his approach, but apprehensive when Charlie turned to him and told him that he was crossing over too much. Morrison hadn’t known what he meant, but Charlie had helpfully demonstrated by windmilling his arms around.
Your arms are going too far over to the right and to the left. If you want to go forward, you have to keep everything on the correct side.
Morrison had nodded with great seriousness. That makes sense. I’ll try that.
For the rest of practice, he’d diligently practiced Charlie’s new technique, pleased that Charlie had offered to help him and intent on following his advice. When he went home, he told his mother he’d made a friend. She, pleased with this unexpected development, had taken him out for American food to celebrate.
Since then, Morrison had swum with Charlie. They went from the YMCA to a mediocre club team and then to a better one. Over the years, Morrison’s life formed around swimming and his interactions with Charlie. Don’t be a loser, Charlie was always saying, by which he meant, Don’t whine, don’t give up, and don’t give in. For years, Morrison had tried to do just that. More than anything, he didn’t want to let Charlie down. With Charlie, he felt needed, wanted, and respected by a person who rarely gave such honors. There were fights over the years of course, but the friendship endured. Charlie was the most constant presence in his life, and Morrison grew to depend on that, more than he meant to or realized.
There was one ordinary day at practice when that changed. Morrison and Charlie had been resting out on the wall between sets, and Charlie had made some joke or another—listen to this, Mopey Mo—and Morrison had laughed. He thought of how often Charlie had called him that over the years and tried to remember when it had started. The memory escaped him, but it had made him think that, however long their past, their future was limited. There would only be so many days for Charlie to call him by the usual nicknames before they went off to college and such things were no longer possible. The realization startled him, opened up some foreign territory inside of him. Into that space rushed a new feeling, the dazzling clarity of how much he would lose once Charlie was no longer in his life. He felt then that all of his happiness was in some way tied to Charlie. He looked over at Charlie, still laughing, and he thought that whatever he felt for Charlie was no longer a friendship. Friendship did not come from a place of such loss and despair.
Morrison said nothing to Charlie or to anyone else. He knew instinctively that if Charlie found out about this new feeling, whatever it was, it would doom the friendship—the very thing he could not bear.
Now, almost a year later, he’s in the same room as Charlie again. Sara is sitting beside him though—pleasant company—and together they’re listening to teams as they begin their ritual cheers. Morrison has long thought that the point of cheers is to force people to say nonsense together that they could never say apart. He suggests as much to Sara, and she tilts her head to the side and says that she’d never thought about it that way.
As the first events begin, Morrison continues to try to amuse Sara with details about the finer points of swimming. He points out sloppy flip turns, slow starts, and poor breath control, and she nods along. At one point, they both let out a genuine cheer as their school’s relay places first. They look at each other sheepishly and then smile.
“Can you swim?” Morrison asks as the relays conclude.
“Let’s put it this way, I would not immediately drown,” she says.
“I was never very good at putting my head in the water.”
“That’s pretty common actually. And it is a ridiculous thing to do with your time. Hey, let’s spend hours of our lives not breathing. Sounds fantastic!”
It was absurd, but they knew that and on some level enjoyed it. It gave them a chance to be vain about their strength and endurance, their youth and indestructibility. Morrison had been part of that, and he hasn’t been able to leave it behind so easily. He still dreams of swimming almost every night. Entering the water, stroking up one side of the pool and back down another. No matter how far he goes, he’s only ever turning to go back over where he’s been before.
Despite Morrison’s best efforts, Charlie had found out of course—whatever there was to find out. That was perhaps inevitable, and the reveal may have come about as a mistake on his part or even a deliberate and unconscious confession. At one meet, the women’s team had made a sign that said, We Heart Charlie, and Morrison had taken it and held it up for Charlie to see after one of his races. Charlie had seen, but instead of smiling at the joke, he’d frowned and turned away. His expression might have been one of recognition or alarm.
After that, there was a fastidious withdrawal, a pointed remove and coolness. Morrison felt it, denied it, accepted it. He was hurt that Charlie would respond that way, but his understanding was expansive enough to allow that Charlie was an eighteen-year-old boy and did not know what to do either. They finished swimming at the end of spring and tacitly dropped contact with each other. Morison has not heard from him since; has not seen him until this last hour.
The meeting proceeds, and Morrison watches the swimmers in their lanes. He thinks as he often has before about the particular loneliness of this sport. You compete alone, without teammates to rely on, unable even to hear their cheers, unable to hear anything through the water that both buoys and restricts you. At the end, you could reach out and shake hands. Good job, nice swim, that was all there ever was to say.
“Why are some people wearing those weird long suits?” Sara asks.
“Oh, the leg suits? They’re supposed to make you faster because the material repels water. The funny thing is that it’s not the material that does it. Some studies have found the suits actually make you faster because they compress your fat and make you more water-dynamic.”
Sara turns to look at him. “What kinds of studies were those?”
“They dragged some Russian women behind a boat,” Morrison says. He holds his hands up in response to Sara’s look. “I’m not making this up.”
He might have been making it up. Charlie had told him this story and Charlie was not known for his respect for the scientific method. Morrison smiles to himself, remembering.
They sit through a few more uninteresting events until they reach the 500 freestyle. This, finally, is Charlie’s event. Morrison sits up in his chair as he sees Charlie walk up behind the block. There, Charlie proceeds through usual warm-up routine, stretching, checking his goggles, and slapping his forearms to increase blood flow. Around him, seven other swimmers proceed through their own preparations. When the previous heat finishes, they still and wait, standing motionless behind the blocks for the orders that are to come. Come on, Charlie, Morrison thinks.
Swimmers, step up. They step onto the block, placing one foot at the front and one at the back. Swimmers, take your marks. They lean over and grip the blocks, brace themselves against them. They pull back slightly as they wait for the sound. The sound is a signal, and the signal is go. The starter blares, and they rear back before flinging themselves forward. They fly through the air and enter the water. The water is cold, but the water is always cold. They kick forward and stay down for as long as they can. Deep water is fast water, and it is the need to breathe that dooms them. They have to break the surface, and when they do, they slow down. They take their first stroke, and the race truly begins.
Charlie is a distance swimmer, but he has never swum like one. He thrashes wildly through the water, and people seeing him swim for the first time tend to assume he’ll tire quickly and fall behind. They’re wrong though. Charlie can maintain almost the same speed from beginning to end due to some combination of physical gifts and extraordinary willpower. He would show signs of tiredness—a red back, a contorted mouth—but he never gave in to these exertions. It has always seemed to Morrison that what Charlie wanted to win against in that pool was nothing as insignificant as the competitor next to him; rather, it was time itself he was trying to beat. Time took everything in the end, reduced all to wreckage, but in a race it could briefly be made into a measure of achievement rather than destruction. Charlie could make the numbers come out right, seize those tiny passing moments as no one else could. They all had to celebrate that. How could they not help but love that?
A great shout goes up as Charlie finishes. Morrison claps and whistles even as he watches Charlie lean into the gutter, his shoulders heaving as he tries to catch his breath.
“So…what just happened?” Sara asks, clapping along as well.
“He broke the pool record,” Morrison says.
“Oh wow, go him,” she says and gives a little whoop.
Charlie remains in the pool until his heat finishes—it’s considered poor form to do otherwise—and then pulls himself out. His teammates rush over to congratulate him, and Charlie looks up at the scoreboard with a happy expression that makes Morrison happy as well.
Go, Charlie, he thinks to himself.
At the end of the summer, Morrison had gone off by himself to a quarry lake just outside of town. He had vague memories of going there as a child, and he felt a strange compulsion to return. He found few people there, and that suited his purposes just fine. He went around old hiking trails with cans of beer half buried in the dirt and then down toward the lake itself. There, he passed time as people do, throwing rocks into the lake’s surface and watching the idle paddling of two ducks. As he lingered in his solitude and sorrow, he wondered if someone else would show up, surprising him and forcing him to put away his mourning. In some ways, he wished for the wise advice of a distant and convenient stranger, but no such presence arrived. He remained exquisitely alone.
As time passed, the sky became heavy, gray, textured, and the wind began to rise. It swept past, fluttering his shirt around his torso, whipping ripples across the lake. He thought he ought to seek shelter, but instead he sat down on a boulder by the shore. Come on, he thought. Come on, come on, come on.
Soft growls of thunder turned into great cracks that split the air. Wild veins of lightning etched the skies, flashing, fading, and then flashing again. Morrison watched and did not move. He wanted more than either sound or light. He wanted what was coming, what was borne across the landscape by the clouds advancing slowly and inextricably toward him. He saw the rain rush across the lake surface and then felt it across his skin. Cold, individual drops quickly blurred into a downpour that soaked him through. Water ran down his face and body and every other exposed surface. The lake leapt with the riotous pleasure of meeting this like-contingent from the sky while stones gleamed and sand darkened and the ducks took off into the wind. Morrison’s face was wet, and he thought he was being absorbed by the rain and dissolved by it as well, worn away by its famous ability to remove all that was not essential. He looked up into the rain, blinking again and again as his eyes filled.
When the storm was at its height, he rose and shed his clothing. He stepped forward and entered the water. It felt almost warm compared to the rain, and he walked forward until the depths forced him to swim. He swam to the middle of the lake and took a deep breath. He exhaled slowly, sinking down as his air escaped.
Bubbles streamed from his skin as he descended. He opened his eyes and looked at the rippling, exploding silver underside of the lake. Drops shattered the surface only to be absorbed again in a constant, roiling display. It struck him as beautiful, unearthly, almost profound, and he wished Charlie were there to see it with him. He closed his eyes again and blew out the rest of his air. He turned over, delighted by the ecstatic disorientation of the depths and how direction no longer had meaning. He sank farther and a deep, distressing ache began in his chest. The seconds passed and his need for air grew enormous.
Morrison was a swimmer, and he knew what a swimmer knows about drowning. He knew about the keen pain in the lungs, the rise of desperation, the need for escape, but he knew as well the greatness of the depths, the intoxicating breathlessness, the crush and embrace of the element. He knew how his body was balanced between these two forces, neither won nor lost, only ceded as they saw fit. He stayed there as long as he dared, just feeling his body, loving the water with a hopeless submission, and staying as long as he could within it. When he was ready, when it was time, he kicked out and sent himself up toward the surface again. The rain was still falling and he breathed deeply, desperately. The heavy, wet air made him feel almost like he was breathing underwater, that ultimate fantasy. He felt like laughing and then did so. Out loud, where no one could hear him.
He swam back to shore and stood in the shallows. The thick clouds moved on, and the wind subsided. He stepped back onto shore and stood in the changed, glistening landscape. He felt a weight shift inside him, and he knew that when he left, this moment in his life would be over, never to come again. But that was true of every moment of his life and everyone else’s. Why should it matter now especially, to him?
In the pool, he has that same feeling again, one of departure. Charlie walks away to warm down, and Morrison clears his throat and turns to Sara.
“Do you want to head out? I think we might have seen the highlight.”
“Only if you want to. I could stay longer.”
“I think it’d be good to go. I’ve relived enough of my glory days.” Sara nods, and they stand up and make their way to the door.
“So what do you think of your first swim meet?” he asks.
“It was fun,” she says after a moment. “I’m glad I got to come.”
Morrison smiles and he thinks he knows what she means. She might think it’s silly and a little strange, but she will accept his interests and past and, by extension, him. Morrison looks at her and listens to the distant echo of cheering behind him. He takes one last look across the water. He will not speak to Charlie; he will leave things as they lie, walk out with Sara, and believe it is for the best. He feels bad for her, inadequate to the occasion, but unsure what else he can do. He smiles and leads the way out.