My arms are burning, like my triceps are ripping through my skin.
“Faster,” I hear him shout from the side of the pool. “Come on!”
They slosh through the water. Hold them steady, I think. Visualise your fingers. You’re touching the wall.
My mouth is assaulted, my throat nearly clogged by water, I grit my teeth, hold my head under, purse my lips and wheel my arms, the end is in sight, fingers reach out, my toes wriggle and I wrestle the last ounce of strength from my legs as I reach the wall.
I feast on the air as I break through the surface and rest my head against the side of the pool. He sighs, checking the stopwatch.
“Once more,” he says.
I raise my head and open my mouth but the only defence I can offer is to let my head rock from side to side. He slings the stopwatch against the wall.
I turn my back to him and pull off my hat and goggles. I close my eyes and bury my head under water, letting my forehead sooth. I exhale slowly then resurface.
“You’re down three quarters of a second. You need to work on your breathing technique.”
I nod as I edge over to the ladders and try to heave myself out of the pool. My shoulders droop as I clamber up, the arch of my foot tightens between steps. I stop halfway as his hand lodges on my shoulder. I look up at him, his smile mounted above that barreled chest and broad shoulders. Light obscures the rotting grey hairs emerging from the side of his head.
“You’re better than this,” he says.
I summon that smile he demands.
“I’m better than this,” I say.
“There’s my state champion.”
My smile grows wider than I’d intended.
He offers a hand I can’t decline, wrenching me out of the pool. Then he lingers – like he always does – at the side of the ladder so that I have to walk in front of him.
“Nationals are a month out,” he says as we walk.
I tread towards the locker room when I feel those calluses clamp around the base of my neck. His steps stalk mine, he presses down and my insides shrivel like the tips of my fingers. That familiar grip grinds along my shoulders, like someone strangling water from a towel. The door feels so far away now.
“You need to work harder if you’re gonna keep your place on my team,” he says as his fingers creep under the straps of my swimsuit, crawling backwards and forwards.
The locker room door edges open and his fingers recoil but his hands linger on my back.
Alex pops her head out like a soldier peaking over the trench.
“Howdy Alex, I’m just about ready for you,” he says. “Why don’t you dive in and cut loose those legs of yours?”
“Sure,” she replies, emerging from the door that’s been shielding her.
She looks at me and then to the ground as she approaches.
“S’up Karen,” she says, turning her head to the pool.
“Hi,” I reply, as I watch her pass.
He ushers me over to the door with his hand on my waist as I hear a splash behind us.
“Alex has been doing some extra training with me,” he says. He leans in, his stubble scratches my cheek. I feel his warm breath tickle my ear. Chills swim down my spine and he whispers, “I think she might be able to compete in the 200m.”
“Oh…” I begin my approach towards the door, one step at a time.
“She’s shaved nearly a second off her time. You should think of doing the same.”
“I’ve got math test comin’ up and-” He latches his hand around my wrist, reeling me back to him.
“I’ve got a math test for you,” he hisses. “What’s 1:40 minus three quarters of a second?”
“Our target time,” I answer.
“Our target time. Mine, yours and more to the point: my friend at TMU’s target time,” I taste the stale milk on his breath and I lean my head to the side. “Now, Alex is in damn fine shape and you look like you could drop a few pounds never mind seconds. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I purse my lips and nod.
“Hit the showers,” he says as he releases my wrist before snatching the door handle and swiping it open.
I catch a look at myself in the mirror inside my locker door as I collect my things. I turn my head to both sides, sucking my cheeks and clamping them beneath my teeth. Then I release them.
I thrust the door back against the cabinet and make my way to the showers. I turn each shower on and let the steam smother the room. I feel tears plotting their escape. I sit and rest my head against my knees and I feel the water scorching my back. I will it to melt my skin and beg the steam to choke me. I watch as a strand of red hair is lured into the drain. The tears begin to flee.
The smell of bacon flirts with me as I arrive home. I head straight for the kitchen. Mom’s standing over the cooker, still wearing her work apron.
“Hey hon’. How was practice?” She asks.
“Exhausting,” I say.
This can’t go on.
“Coach still pushing you hard?”
The bacon hisses as I lean against the counter.
How do I say it?
“It’ll all be worth it in the end,” she says.
The pan spits oil onto my jeans. I pat at the spot.
“Do you mind taking over? I need to get back to work,” she says.
Now’s not the right time.
“Another double?” I ask.
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” I say.
She wraps her arms around me, cocooning me.
“Oh hey, a letter arrived for you today. I left it over on the table.” She says.
I go and pick up the letter. Underneath it lies an open one. Urgent is printed across the top of it.
“What’s this urgent one?” I ask.
“Oh it’s nothing hon’. I just forgot to make an electricity payment, that’s all.”
“Mom you still remember to send birthday cards to Dad’s family and we haven’t seen them since-.”
“Must be all this cooking I’m doing for you between shifts that’s making me forgetful then!”
“Are you sure you don’t need me to get a job?” I ask.
“Positive dear. The only jobs I need you to do is open that letter and watch this bacon whilst I go to work.”
I dunno if she’s getting worse at changing the subject or I’ve gotten better at noticing. I pick up the letter and wander back over to the cooker; she kisses me on the way past and says goodbye. I take a knife from the drawer and slide it along the top.
It’s from TMU. I got in, it’s a scholarship offer! Place dependent with a full one being offered if I win at nationals. Tears breach through my defence again and my throat clogs. I look at the bacon, now shriveled and smoking. I strip it from the pan – the stench burns my nostrils – and drop the rashers in the bin. I toss the hissing pan into the sink and head for my room.
I plug my iPod into the Iron Man dock and play my Disney Hits playlist. Tom Brady grants me a smile as I turn on my computer. I open a homework tab and a Facebook tab. Murmurs of discontent arise from my stomach. I convince myself that by allocating ten minutes to Facebook, I’ll commit to fifty to work.
Half an hour later and the homework tab’s been replaced by her twitter feed. I’m still swiping through photos of Alex. Moana has done little to dampen the howls of derision from my stomach. Happy family photos, Christmas and that perfect holiday bikini picture. I pour over photos from swim meets; zooming in on those toned legs of hers that glisten in the pool. There I stand on the podium, supported by two tree trunks. I hammer the mouse to close each tab then toss it away and hold in the standby button. I slap the light off and throw myself onto my bed, staring at the ceiling.
I get the message at lunch time. He wants to see me in his office after school. I spend the rest of the afternoon wondering how to get out of it, each solution riddled with errors.
I arrive late to the pool. I nudge the entrance door open and he spots me. He’s waiting for me outside his office. He walks towards me and I freeze. I can’t leave, but I don’t want to enter. He opens the door fully and I nearly stumble into him.
“Come in, come in!”
“Sorry I’m late,” I say.
“I didn’t even realise,” he says fanning his hand. “Come on, let’s go talk in my office.”
I follow him down the corridor, under the eyes of previous swim teams, their pictures lining the walls. He holds the door open and his breath licks my hair as I pass into the office, polluted by cologne.
“Please, take a seat,” he says.
“I’d really just like to get started with training. Maybe I’ll stay a little later tonight,” I say.
“Well, I’m glad you’re coming round to that idea,” he says, pulling the chair out from under the table. “Sit.”
I buckle and kick the desk as I sit, a picture of us at the state championships threatens to fall. I’m taunted by his medal from nationals.
“I gather you got the letter from my friend Mr Herrera at TMU,” he says, sitting down.
“Yeah. He offered me a scholarship, a full one if I win at nationals.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I think I’m going to go with Alex for the 200m at nationals.”
“You can’t!” I say.
My throat dries.
“She swam sub 1:41 last night.”
“I’ve done it before.”
“But you’re slowing down.”
My eyes burn.
“I’m going…“ I croak.
I get to my feet, sniffing, I approach the door.
“There is one way…” He says.
I turn as he snakes around the table towards me.
He unzips his jacket.
“I don’t know if there are enough shifts in the day for your mom to cover tuition fees,” he says. “You could still enter nationals. You might even win.”
My grip on the handle loosens under my sweaty palm.
He slithers forward and leans his forearm against the door. He leers down at me.
“All we need is a little cooperation,” he says as the hairs on the back of his hand brush me. “Teamwork.”
He lifts my hand from the handle, wrapping his fingers around mine. My eyes are burning. I grip his hand tighter. My temples are pounding. I lure his face towards mine. Then I feel my right leg crunch between his legs. He wails as he recoils and I run.
I’m back in the main school building. Tears stream down my face as I sprint down the corridor. I spot the girls toilets and burst through the door. I nearly fall on the sleek tiled surface as I slide to a halt. Alex stands in front of me.
“Karen?! Are you alright?” She asks.
I stagger back towards the door but she latches onto me.
“I lost my place on the team, and-” I stutter as I shrink to the floor, laying back against the door.
“What happened?” She asks, crouching.
Her eyebrows jolt as she answers, “Me?”
“You,” I say, trying to cup my hand steady over my mouth as I wheeze. “You and your sub 1:41.”
She lets out a confused laugh and says, “I can’t swim sub 1:41.”
I feel the tears subside.
“Karen, what the hell happened?”
“He told me you were doing extra trainin’,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “He said you were takin’ my spot in the 200m. Then he…”
I glance up at her, “H-he tried to… or suggested that we…”
I thud my head against the door and inhale. She sits down beside me. I exhale. She cradles her arm around my shoulder. I inhale. I lean my head against her shoulder and exhale once more.
“My scholarship…” I say.
“We need to tell to someone,” she says.
I lift my head off her shoulder and ask, “Will they believe me?”
“Hey,” she says, brushing my hair out of my eyes, “I believe you.”
I had initially considered this piece to be contemporary fiction as it deals with themes that are current societal and cultural issues. However, as it developed I found it belonged to the young adult genre. I felt it would be more effective to tackle the themes with first person narration.
The piece deals with sexual harassment. After some research into sexual harassment involved in Olympic Teams and sports teams in general I read an article about the economics of consent by Brit Marling which helped tie my ideas together. Economic security is something which grants women a modicum of power in a patriarchal society. Men are often the gatekeepers of a woman’s potential for economic security, they often abuse this power and apply pressure on women from their position of power.
The coach attempts to use Karen’s need for a scholarship to reduce or eradicate the cost of her going to university. She’s coming from a home with a single mother working in a diner. If she stands up to him and reports him, does she lose the scholarship? Is she now a troublemaker, a persona non-grata like so many are when they report harassment in the workplace? That’s a dilemma I wanted to expose – something which countless victims of sexual harassment have faced.
Secondary to this, is how the coach pits two girls against one another. He objectifies Alex, and paints her as the obstacle to Karen getting her scholarship. Those seeds are sewn onto Karen, dividing them. It was then important to show support for the victim, uniting the divided parties. If Alex confessed to Karen, considering how she was controlled, would Karen have believed her? Showing belief in the victim, especially in a world where social media allows people to destroy victims, is incredibly important.
I think on reflection the piece would work better with wider context, which exists in my head but the piece had a word limit. I don’t think I’ll return to this and expand upon it, however. I think it only scratches the surface of the characters and I think it could maybe have been subtler in places. When a piece contains difficult themes, it’s not about marching in and becoming some kind of martyr. Whilst the story has roots based upon plenty of research, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m still learning and there’s a fair chance there’s something problematic in the piece. I also think an additional feel for the characters existing in this world would be beneficial to the story having life outside of the theme of sexual harassment.