The Pace

He sat leaning against the brick front of the building and swam the race in his mind.  He was impatient to begin this morning, though this time there would be no other team members present: he was the only one who had qualified.  The only light was the glow of the streetlight; the sun would not rise for another hour.  The coach’s heavy step sounded as he appeared out of the darkness, nodded, and unlocked the door.  The metal-on-metal sounds of the old latch cracked painfully in the cold silence.   The waiting youth followed wordlessly into the locker room. 

Later, as he entered the pool area tying his suit, he was disturbed by the echoing stillness in the room, this eerie solitude during his workout, so different from the days during the past several months when the entire team had been filling the room with shouting and splashing.  The tile was smooth and cool under his bare feet and his soles rasped and hissed as he slowly moved along the deck.  He swung mechanically into his stretches, then shivered a little as he took his place and the end of one lane of the empty pool, pulling his goggles into place and fidgeting with them nervously.  The coach waited expectantly near the starting blocks until the young man settled into position and looked at him. 

“Ready?” said the coach quietly.  A nod.  “Nothing different about this,” said the coach.  “No matter how many are in an event with you, when you hit the water you’re all alone.”  To the blond athlete on the block, the coach’s voice revealed his disappointment that only one of his twenty swimmers had qualified.  He stared out over the water and waited for the coach to continue. 

“On the sixty; one thousand yards warm‑up,” the coach pronounced.  The swimmer adjusted his goggles again and glanced at the pace clock in time to see the red hand sweep slowly past the thirty.  He looked into the still water.  There was no movement on the surface or under the water.  It was a perfectly still, transparent turquoise blue.  The frugal coach kept the pool area dim; the illumination coming mainly from the underwater lights.  The surface of the water was a huge lens, focusing the light upward in a vast beam toward the high ceiling.  The swimmer stood looking out over a solid rectangle of pale, blue light, like a volatile source of incomprehensible power, or a supernatural jewel, fallen from the sky.  “Five seconds,” said the coach.  The youth leaned toward the water.  There was a brief moment of utter silence, then: “Hup!”  In one smooth motion which appeared without beginning or end, the athlete threw himself out onto the air over the bright surface and, after a silent glide, knifed into the water.  The sound of his nearly-naked body penetrating that shining blue surface was an explosion that echoed interminably through the empty building.  The smooth, pale rectangle of light was shattered irrevocably.  The light was instantaneously broken into a trillion tiny, shimmering shards, which danced electrically around the walls and ceiling, flashing and bouncing in the window panes and the coach’s curving glasses, as he studied his swimmer’s steady motions. 

He stroked rhythmically through the water concentrating on his breathing, the form of his strokes, telling himself that the cold shock would wear off after the first three laps.  He knew that the warm‑up was to begin with long, strong strokes increasing steadily in speed.  That was the pace.  He watched the black line on the bottom of the pool slide by underneath him.  It receded sinuously as he reached the deep end of the pool, until he saw the T appear at the end, letting him know that he was approaching the wall.  Without looking up, at the precise, predetermined moment, he tucked his right shoulder, let his momentum carry his legs over the top, whipped them toward the wall into stinging contact with the surface of the water, then kicked off the wall and glided back the other direction just under the surface, reaching out and beginning his rhythmic stroke again as he came up for air.  He settled into a familiar cadence, a favorite song, his stroke in sync with the constant, almost subconscious flutter of his feet.  He could hear the song in his head as if it was being played through speakers in the water.  It filled him with a rush. 

He reached the wall again; whip, slap, kick and he was off.  Always the pace ran through the back of his mind, governing the tempo of his smooth continuous motion.  He knew he had to keep moving, keep pushing the pace; he couldn’t get comfortable or allow the rhythm to take over.  He had to always push on to a new rhythm, a faster tempo.  There were no choices to be made, no turnings in the way, just a straight road and a constant driving beat.  The coach was right about the others, it didn’t matter if there was anyone else there or not.  No one else was ever there.  He was all alone in his head.  The pool lights streamed by him as he moved, brightening his face in passing, pushing him on to the next light, waiting silently with its jeweled blue beam.  He increased the pace again when he reached the blank wall and (whip, slap, kick) went back the other way.  He saw his goal ahead and increased speed again, nearly sprinting now toward the end.  He reached out and his hand touched the final wall with a feeling like an electric charge and he stood, the water streaming off of him in the enveloping blue light.

“Good pace,” said the coach, “You’re up again on the next sixty, three two‑hundreds on two and a half minutes.”  The swimmer stood still in the waist-deep water pondering the two hundred yard swims.  They would be near-sprints; he would have to be at high speed from the beginning.  He felt his stomach beginning to knot and tried to think about something calm, quiet: Sunday morning, Christine’s violin, waffles.  He yawned and stretched his arms above his head with clenched fists.  The water droplets ran down and dripped from his body soundlessly. The hand of the pace clock swept inexorably upwards to sixty and he dropped below the surface, kicked off the wall and stroked away powerfully. 
The door opened and she was there, looking a little startled.  After a long silence, he started to say something but she cut him off and asked him please to just go.  He wanted to come in, he said, but she looked away. 

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, turning back to look into his face. 

“I don’t know,”  he said, despairingly.  Why didn’t she know? he thought.  He always, always had to explain it, had to talk about it, couldn’t just dive in and do it. 

“How many times is this going to happen with us?” she demanded. 

He had no answer for that.  He felt alone and completely defeated, “What do you want me to do?” he asked.  She looked at him; he knew it was the wrong thing to ask. 

“Do whatever you want,” she said, and closed the door.  He turned and sprinted away into the darkness, the familiar pain welling up as he came to the wall.  His breathing was ragged, but he was into the last turn: whip, slap, kick, and he stroked for the wall, pushing himself beyond the pain, shutting out everything except the image of his hand touching the wall.  He could feel the tile, see the small bubbles which clung to it and would rise to the surface en masse when his final stroke drove into the hard barrier.  Suddenly he was there, and he stood and breathed and breathed. 

“Twenty seconds,” said the coach, “tenfivehup!”  He was off once more.  He sat at the table and drank and laughed with the friend he had known as long as he could remember but they both knew that they would talk about her in a moment.  One of them would bring it up in a casual, contrived sort of way and they would stop laughing. 

“She told me what happened, said his friend, suddenly serious.  I didnt ask her to, but she said she wanted me to know.  

“I tried to talk to her about it but she wouldn’t listen,” said the blond youth hammering his strokes into the water.  He could not make himself to look at his friends face. 

“She says she cant talk to you about it.”  He felt the next question approaching like an avalanche.  He knew that he could not answer it, that he could not even sit still and wait for it to be asked. 

“I have to go,” he said.  His friend began to protest, to explain around to where the question could be asked and it could sound reasonable, normal for his voice to form the words and send them out into the air and across the table.  The swimmer was staring into his glass, and the liquid rose, built and surged over him, taking with it everything around him, rinsing him of the sound of the words and the feeling of waiting for them to come.  He went through his turn (whip slap, kick) and sprinted on.  He had reached the point that he had longed for from the start, the point where the motion took over, the pace began to move of its own volition and carry him along like a stick in a stream.  He no longer had anything to do with it.  He could no longer feel his body, think of breathing.  He was the sound of the furious, churning water.  He was encompassed by it, there was nothing in him not explained by the frenzied liquid; it defined him completely.  He was the absence of water.  He saw images on either side of him flick by in a torrent of motion.  He thought if he stopped he would be trapped forever in one of them.  They were filled with people and words and he passed them by.  He hit the wall at full speed and stood to hear the coach’s voice. 

“Stay on the pace… last one…all out…five secondshup!”  The movement of the water was the only sensation left, it was no longer cold, it had no temperature at all.  He no longer felt any motion in himself.  He could not feel his arms moving or his feet kicking.  He was completely automatic.  The only feeling was the tightening grip of crushing pain building in his chest.  He had no longer any desire except the pace, he cared for nothing but the pace.  He began to see dark patches and flashes of red at the periphery of his vision.  He could no longer feel any connection to the world around him, all of it was a net thrown up to slow him but he knew that if he only held onto the pace with all of his strength it would carry him to the end.  The pace was now driving ahead in a fury.  The coachs voice came from above dimly: “Push it! Push it! Push it!” 

The dark patches built into immense clouds of blackness.  Red lightening flashed and pounded him, vibrating through the pool and the entire building, crashing and echoing around the walls.  A large chunk fell out of the ceiling, exploding into the water, it missed him by only inches. 

“You care only about yourself,” said the girl seated next to him, looking tearfully out the window.  “You’re wrong,” he said, “I left myself midway through the last two hundred.”  She closed her eyes and was torn away from him as the raging torrent around him increased in velocity again.  Now began the familiar running tide which pushed against the pace, threatening to throw him back.  He flung himself at it, through it.  It stretched out the images to the left and right of him.  He could make out fewer and fewer details, faces he knew became blurred, unrecognizable.  He could only vaguely see a row of firmly planted trees, set starkly against a red roiling sky; then a wind tore them out of the ground. 

He felt the building begin to crumble around him.  Huge pieces of masonry and steel fell into the frothing water, leaving gaping holes with the wind screaming through.  The windows exploded outward in flying spears of glass and the sky fell in burning, white-hot sheets of flame into the light and water around him.  There was a crescendo of sound and the coach’s face appeared, looming on the scarlet horizon, bright with a glow that charged the last stretch of water ahead of him and illuminated the final wall.  He strained forward in a cataclysm of pain just as the last standing portions of the building shattered, showering the water with a black rain of debris.  His hand shot forward through space and time and slammed against the final wall, still standing amid the smoking ruins on a bleak, empty landscape with the sun just beginning to brighten the eastern sky.


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