The Deep End: Part One
He was the cutest boy at our high school, blessed with honey brown eyes, messy sunshine blonde hair, and a swimmer’s lean body. He could melt a girl’s heart just with his smile, which revealed a dimple in his left cheek. He talked easily with everyone, whether they were teachers, or upperclassmen, or administration. He was on the swim team in the fall semester and the tennis team in the spring, and in between he was the vice president of the junior class. His father was the town doctor and everyone agreed that Mark LaWren was going to be something special when he grew up.
I was in love with him.
And he didn’t know I existed.
Of course he didn’t. This story wouldn’t be special if it was just one of those “guy meets girl, guy and girl fall for each other” kind of stories. But it also isn’t one of those “shy awkward girl learns she’s not shy or awkward but actually beautiful and then the popular guy amusingly falls for her” stories either. But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had English together, and Spanish, and Algebra II. He sat on one side of the classroom and I always sat on the other, a great sea of desks and backpacks between us. He was a good student. He gave thoughtful responses to the teachers’ questions and he turned his work in on time. Cute and smart. Sigh!
My best friend Megan pointed out to me on several occasions that my obsession with a guy I’ve said maybe five words to was actually creepy and stalkery. Okay, it’s true I knew a lot about him, but it’s only because I paid attention. And anyway, I reasoned, all of my knowledge will one day be useful once Mark sees me, like really sees me and asks me out and falls in love with me. It was bound to happen, my fantasies convinced me. After all, I’d seen the movies and read the books and the heroine was almost always the shy, awkward, doesn’t-know-she’s- beautiful type. And I was shy, and awkward, and I definitely didn’t think I was beautiful. Any day now, I thought. It would happen any day.
But then, it didn’t. We graduated, and I never got my fantasy high school romance with Mark. I moved off to college and Mark stayed in town. He got a job as a lifeguard for the community pool. I studied, and studied, and had long phone conversations with Megan and Allison (my other best friend), and studied, and sometimes I ate something or slept for a little while.
It seemed as if our lives would never really cross. And I resigned myself to that fact. I tried to move on, I really did. I went on a few dates my sophomore year, but all I could think was Mark wouldn’t have worn that, or Mark wouldn’t have tried to kiss me after eating garlic oysters (ew).
But then, at the end of my junior year, when I’d given in to my mother's pleas and agreed to spend my Spring Break at home, things changed. My path definitely crossed with Mark’s, but there was no way I could know that. How could I know what would happen when I agreed to go swimming with my friends? There was really no way I could know.
Before we get to the next part of the story, there’s something you should know: I’m kind of terrified of deep water. No, not “kind of.” I am seriously terrified of deep water. It’s a strange phenomenon: this secret of mine that not even Megan and Allison know about. It’s not that I can’t swim, or that I had some sort of traumatic near drowning experience (at least none that I can remember). I just panic when I’m in the water and my feet can’t touch the bottom. And I mean serious panicking with heart palpitations and blurry vision and quick gasping breaths. It’s awful. It’s humiliating to have to be rescued by sunscreen-slick-skinned lifeguards who slice through the water like they’re cutting butter while I flail like a whale who has forgotten how to swim before passing out.
So, can you blame me for not telling Megan and Allison my embarrassing secret? Over the years, I’d successfully avoided deep water. It didn’t even occur to me when Megan called and I agreed to go to the pool with her the next day that my phobia might be a problem.
But I was very, very wrong.
Megan splashed me and I flinched. “Come on, Lily,” she coaxed. “The water feels great.”
“I’m fine,” I said from my perch on the side of the pool. My legs hung in the water and I wiggled my toes. “You know I’m not much of a swimmer.”
Megan somersaulted in the water, splashing me again with her feet. Allison laughed and glided over to us, as graceful as a mermaid.
Here’s the thing about my friends. I love them to pieces, and any time we’re together it’s like we’re fifteen again. Megan is petite and has the body of a gymnast. She has brown hair, and brown eyes framed with long lashes, and an adorable nose that has always reminded me of some woodland fairy. Allison has a long, willowy figure with white blond hair and gray eyes. In other words, they are both absolutely gorgeous.
I tugged at my t-shirt. Sometimes I wish I had uglier friends.
While their bodies are just as thin and toned as they were when they were fifteen, mine isn’t. My hair is dark and untamable, my nose too long for my face. My body has dimples and rolls and bits that jiggle.
I’d recently discovered Body Positivity and I was trying really hard to own it and work it and slay it. Whatever “it” was. And you know what, normally I’m okay with my body. Don’t spiral into self-hatred like I used to, but confidence is hard to come by and I’m self-conscious in a bathing suit. Especially if I’m going to see Mark.
Speaking of Mark, he was in the lifeguard stand, looking cool and regal like a prince watching over his realm. He looked even better than he did in high school. His shoulders were even broader, and his face more chiseled. I think I sighed out loud.
“You are a fine swimmer,” Megan said, completely oblivious to my pining. “Remember when you beat Gary McCarthy in a race across the pool at camp?”
“That was a long time ago,” I said. And the pool was four feet deep all the way across, I added silently. I pulled my hair off my neck and piled it onto my head, letting the breeze cool the sweating skin.
“I’m not sure swimming is something you ever really lose,” Allison pointed out. “It’s like riding a bike.”
“Don’t gang up on me,” I said, laughing.
“What are we ganging up on Lily about?” I turned to see Jake Greene standing behind me. He had blond hair, not golden like Mark’s but sandy. His blue eyes smiled down at me over a flurry of freckles. He wore a gray t-shirt and blue gym shorts. A large black swim bag hung from his shoulder.
“We’re trying to convince Lily to swim with us,” Megan said, leaning against the pool wall.
“Will you help us?”
“You know me,” Jake said with a shrug. “I think everyone should swim.”
“You’re a special case though,” I countered. “You were on the swim team all four years in high school and now aren’t you competing for your college?”
Jake shrugged, an easy grin on his face. “Doesn’t mean you can’t swim though. What was Megan saying? You beat Gary McCarthy in a race?”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” I asked irritably, annoyed that they wouldn’t leave me alone.
“Training,” Jake said. He started to walk toward the locker rooms. “I expect to see you in the pool by the time I change. See you later, Rabbit.”
I wrinkled my nose at the old nickname.
Megan and Allison looked at me expectantly. “You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?” I asked.
They shook their heads.
“Fine,” I said, standing and wiggling out of my shorts. “But I’m keeping my t-shirt on.”
The water felt amazing. I closed my eyes and let the water soothe my burning and sweaty skin. My t-shirt clung to my arms and billowed around my stomach.
Megan grinned triumphantly. “I knew that you’d like it.”
“Shut up,” I said, but I was smiling. I took a deep breath and dropped under the surface, blowing bubbles out of my nose and squeezing my eyes shut. I pushed off the floor of the pool and broke through the surface, splashing Megan.
Megan yelled in surprise and Allison laughed. Megan splashed Allison and she skittered away.
“Let’s swim to the other side,” Allison suggested. She began a leisurely backstroke as Megan followed her.
I swallowed. In the center of the pool, the depth reached 6 feet, well over my 5 feet and 2 inches in height. My heart kicked a quicker beat in my chest. My hands felt sweaty. Was it possible to sweat in the water? My hands were definitely sweating.
“Lily, are you coming?” Allison asked.
“Um,” I said. Allison and Megan were already halfway across the pool. I could feel the heat of a blush creep up my neck. “I-” I couldn’t think of an excuse. I felt ridiculous, afraid of deep water at the age of 21. It was ridiculous. It’s just water. Maybe if I faced my fear it would go away? It was worth a try, right?
I took two slow, shaky breaths and kicked after them toward the deep end.
Look for Part Two, which will be released next Tuesday, March 19, 2019