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Authors: M. Elizabeth Lee

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BOOK: Love Her Madly
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Like hell it was.

Part I

What Happened Before

CHAPTER ONE

I hadn't pegged Cyn as a natural ally. When I first saw her, in the dismal cafeteria as we, the new freshman class, settled in for orientation, I thought,
Oh great, they've got those here
. She was blond, lithe, and seemingly absorbed in a paperback, as if unaware that her physical charms were rendering the rest of the females in our group of transfers and latecomers altogether invisible.

I should explain that this was not truly my first day at college. That had happened the previous fall, in what felt to me like another life. My aborted semester was staged at the State University, a massive campus-tropolis with ten thousand freshmen; a handful too many to goad into shy eye contact or stilted small talk through “sharing games.” Tiny U, with a raging hippie ethos and an enrollment of nine hundred students, had the time to ensure that everyone got very well acquainted.

It was a damp January morning in Florida, and there weren't quite enough chairs. I took a seat on the all-weather carpet by a wall where I could scope everyone out on the literal down low. The aging air-conditioning unit above me rattled, straining to circulate the humid air, and from behind the closed swinging doors that led to the kitchen, a radio was blasting bachata.

Other than the Barbie-looking blonde, my fellow students were a motley bunch. The college attracted what could politely
be called the misfit element: neo-hippies, homos, kids with fancy ideas and terrible posture, the narco-curious, the fantasy role-players, a handful of goths (their requisite black garb a sign of extreme dedication in the tropical heat) and me.

Why the hell was I there? Probably because the school seemed the polar opposite of what I'd experienced during my semester at Big U. I had felt so overlooked and invisible in my stadium-seating-only courses that, after the first couple of months, I simply stopped showing up. My grades tanked, naturally, but with some finagling involving the school psychologist, I managed to withdraw before my abysmal grades permanently screwed my chances of keeping my swimming scholarship. But Tiny U didn't care about sports. Their bag was molding eccentric, bookish high achievers into the next generation's nutty professors. My near-perfect grades and test scores were enough for them to grant me their own scholarship, and my crack-up at Big U seemed to further endear me to my admissions officer. She patted my knee and told me she thought I'd fit in nicely.

I sure hoped so. My social life at Big U had been pathetic. I'd been tossed into a tiny “suite” with three other girls. My roommates were nice enough, but proximity breeds contempt, and it quickly became apparent that I was the lone onion in a tight can of maraschino cherries. It was mostly my fault. Sheila, Mel, and Christina were polite to my face, but I knew that they hated me for stubbornly defying the open-door policy they'd enacted on our single bathroom. Maybe it was because I was an only child, but I couldn't tolerate someone evacuating their blackheads two feet from me while I showered. They found this impossibly rude, unaware that my watery respites were the only thing keeping me sane. I slowly earned their resentment and, eventually, their ostracism. The bright side was, they weren't my type anyway.

It certainly didn't help my mental state that as my world was
collapsing, I decided to quit swimming. I'd been competitive in freestyle all throughout high school, passing countless hours watching the dark blue tile of the lane marker whiz by beneath me. Kick, flip, repeat. I was fast, scrappy, and I hated to lose. I'd never considered myself to be a capital “A” Athlete, but I felt right in the water. It felt natural, even the skintight suits with shoulder straps that left red grooves in my skin and the goggles that gifted me with dark rims around my eye sockets for hours after practice.

I lived for the euphoric high I got at moments when everything went right in the pool. I felt superhuman, as if I had some special ability to knife through the water and meld my limbs into the exact planes that would get me to the wall just a little faster than the next girl. Of course, I loved to win. Not because some other chick was losing, necessarily, but because I'd asked something of my body, and it usually found a way to deliver. Sad as it might sound, my relationship with my heart, lungs, and fast-twitch muscles was probably one of the most rewarding of my early life. I was good to them, and they rarely let me down.

Every afternoon and every other morning throughout high school, I would dutifully wrestle my mass of frizzy red curls into a ponytail, then snap the whole package under a swim cap, wincing through the inevitable tug of latex against delicate skin. I'd tiptoe across the chilly tile of the locker room, rinse in the shower, and emerge into the humid terrarium of the pool room. That the only Olympic-size lap pool in our Florida town was indoors was a dark irony to me. While my classmates were golden brown from their weekends at the beach, I, who spent hours in the water, was pallid. While most girls smelled of vanilla and orange blossom, I reeked of chlorine and Irish Spring soap.

By the time the summer between junior and senior years rolled around, I was beginning to think about quitting. I still loved competitions and was winning at meets, but I was bored
out of my mind by the repetitive grind of practice. Then, like the mystical granting of a wish I hadn't made, Coach Mike appeared on the scene, and everything changed.

A collegiate-level women's coach from the frozen north, Coach Mike brought with him a wife and one-year-old daughter. He was a straight-up Adonis: sandy blond hair, fabulous muscles, eyes the color of the ocean, amazing yet hard-won smile. He quickly became my all-encompassing everything, and by trying to please him every goddamn day, I became a very, very fast swimmer. It could have stayed a crush, but his wife was struggling with postpartum depression, and there I was, adoring young person, ready and willing to be his secret keeper and confidant. I pursued him as stealthily as I could, finding countless reasons to steal a few chaste minutes alone with him. When I won the meet that guaranteed my scholarship, he took me out to celebrate. Back in his car, fueled by celebratory drinks, he touched me for the first time, and I could not fathom a greater happiness.

I graduated, and we continued to meet up and fool around for the remainder of the summer, spending languid, sweaty evenings pawing and licking in the semi-privacy of isolated parking lots. I never thought of myself as a home-wrecker, but rather as his misplaced intended, his star-crossed lover, his water babe. He seemed vastly more sophisticated than the high school boys I knew. He would listen to me when I talked, for one thing, and he repeatedly told me I was beautiful. He whispered rapturous compliments into my hair about the merits of my long legs, my heart-shaped lips, and even found good things to say about my nearly nonexistent breasts. I believed every word of it, hungry as I was for his approval. He'd move the car seat into the trunk to make space and give me this smile that melted away my thoughts of everything but the anticipation of his hands on my skin.

Despite our many lusty sessions, and even though I repeat
edly told him I wanted to, we never had full-on sex. I wonder now if he feared I'd try to trap him with yet another baby. I was so obsessed with him at the time, it might have crossed my mind. He dropped hints that he'd leave his wife. He said she was crazy, and that he wished he could start all over with me. I was too blind to see that the little girl was the one who really had his heart. The end came when I went up to Big U. He stopped returning my calls, changed his number, disappeared. He was my first love, and he dumped me without a word of explanation. I tried not to let it get to me, and I reserved my crying time for the shower, which led to some long showers, which in turn, engendered the ire of my suite mates.

I could have told those girls what was up. I could have confessed my heartbreak and fallen into their arms, smearing snail trails of grief mucus all over their Big U sweatshirts. I don't doubt that they would have been kind to me and happy to listen. But I liked my misery complete and my depression abject, so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes glued to the calendar, counting the days until fall break would come and I could go see Mike in person.

When that day finally came, I drove directly to the pool to find him. Instead of finding Mike, I ran into Ms. Johnson, my old JV coach, who, while giving me a look that telegraphed exactly how little she thought of me and my trampy ways, breezily told me he was gone. He wasn't working at the school, and as a matter of fact, she'd heard he'd taken the wife and moved back north. So, heartbroken and misanthropic, I returned to my cramped, lonely suite, my pointless classes, and my nonexistent social life. Alarmingly, I had even lost all desire to step foot in the pool. I knew my scholarship depended on it, but I just couldn't force myself to care. I essentially shut down.

In truth, my epic failure as a student, and probably as a person, at Big U terrified me. It shocked me that I could surrender
to apathy so easily, shaking off my dreams like slipping off a robe. It would have felt less alien to me if I'd picked up a heroin habit and became singularly devoted to my fix, because at least then there'd be something I wanted. Instead, I was bafflingly devoted to nothing. Under a bizarre haze of alien nihilism, I, the swimmer, was drowning.

I guess this is to say that the morning of orientation, the life preserver of my second-chance school was wedged so tightly around my chest that I wondered how I could breathe. I was feeling so hopeful that things would turn out better that it made me a little nauseated. Steeling my nervous gut against the discordant odors of ammonia and grilled cheese sandwiches drifting in from the kitchen, I told myself life was about to improve.

I was on the lookout for any evidence that my feeling was correct when an upperclassman girl switched on a microphone and began to rehash a bunch of stuff that I'd already read in the handbook. I spent the time surreptitiously searching for potential future friends. No one immediately jumped out at me, but considering my limited experience in that area, I didn't have much to go on.

I should clarify that it's not like I never had any friends. As a kid, I had playmates and did time in uniform on a few in­glorious soccer squads. What I loved most, though, was dodging the asphalt-boiling summer days in the air-conditioned twilight of the local roller rink. In that glossy-floored paradise of Top 40 hits and snow cones, I felt at ease. I remember gleeful hours playing tag in my purple skates with the other girls. I went to all their birthday parties, invariably hosted at the rink and all serving the same rainbow-frosted ice cream cake. I even fostered an intense best-friend-forevership with another skating redhead before her family moved away to Georgia and we never saw each other again. I didn't see any signs of pariahdom ahead, but it was on its way.

Puberty struck with catastrophic vengeance. My bony frame erupted in fatty bulges, my skin went radioactive, and my hair morphed from soft strawberry blond waves to a hellish carroty bush. My mom put me in swimming classes to try to spare me the humiliation of being a
pudgy
,
pimply ginger, and I realized that underwater, no one can hear you scream. My former friends morphed into shallow, vicious gorgons, consumed by their status in the junior high food chain. The skating rink parties of the past were now meaningless, as was every other pleasant or otherwise human encounter we'd ever shared. It wasn't just that our friendships were so quickly forgotten, it was that those girls seemed to suddenly
hate
me with such shocking purity that I spent countless hours wondering what I'd done wrong.

Obviously, my appearance made me a target. I did as my mother suggested, and pretended not to hear the mean jokes or nasty commentary. That worked great. Soon, I was feigning deafness seven hours a day (band class excluded), and I wised up to the fact that accepting the torment with a smile wasn't going to do shit for me in the merciless world of preteen girls. Instead, I aspired to master the special art of disappearing in plain sight. I cherished the days that no one spoke to me, and then I'd go to swim practice.

Girls from swimming helped fill the social vacuum that I'd earned with my celebrated awkwardness. Almost interchangeably quiet and sensitive, these girls and I would sleep over at each others' houses, bake brownies, and engage in speculative conversations about boys, but no friendships ever stuck. The faces would simply change by the season, without any of us feeling bad about it. By high school, my swim friends had become my competition, not only in swimming but also for boys, status, and presumably, the opportunity to mate and further our genetic codes.

By sixteen, my junior high pudge and acne had melted away
like a half-remembered nightmare. I'd grown tall and lean, and my features had arranged themselves in a way that still verged on the elfin, but attractive elfin. I knew this only because a girl on the team let it slip that her older brother referred to me as Tinkerbell. It was great to no longer be at the very bottom of the social totem pole, but as far as the cliques went, I was over it. I had stopped seeking out friends and demurred from most chummy overtures. I expected the worst, and besides, with high school more than halfway over, there seemed little point in forging new bonds. I had books, and TV, and enough acquaintances that I didn't feel like a total outcast, and while I was in the protective cushion of my home, that had been good enough. This time around, I knew I needed to find some people to call my own, or I'd be lost, lonely, or dead.

My future classmates began to stir, and I tuned in again to what the orientation leader was saying. She was copy-paper pale, with blueberry-colored dreadlocks, a nose piercing, and a wide smile that she wielded relentlessly. She began chirping that it was time to have fun and get acquainted through a really exciting exercise.

The essence was, she would play music, and we would all walk around, saying our names aloud to anyone we happened to make eye contact with. Then, when she stopped the music, we would partner up with the closest person to us, and we'd receive further instruction.

BOOK: Love Her Madly
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