before sunrise

Pitch black outside, frosty cold and damp, the sun not having come up yet. I sink my chin into the ruff of my winter jacket, fighting sleep, fists shoved deep into my pockets. In the back seat of Pam’s beater Nova, I’m nestled in next to my buddies, Lidia and Katie, tracing smiley faces on the steamed up windows. The dots I’ve made for eyes melt into tears.

We idle silently in darkness as other cars begin to arrive, each shining its headlights into our warm interior, square patches of light shifting and panning over our tired faces. We wait for Coach to arrive and unlock the door, secretly hoping he won’t show so we can go back home to bed because we need our sleep, which is perpetually denied. With boyish bodies, narrow hips and flat chests, we are fourteen, but on our way to making the change.

Undressing in tired silence, we strip down to the chlorine-bleached swimsuits we’d slipped on under our school clothes before dawn. The tile floor feels cool and slick. We dread what is about to happen—at least I do. One by one we saunter out to the pool deck, snap on our swim caps, tuck in our hair, adjust our goggles and peel off into the tepid water. The first plunge is a shock, but then we get moving, creating a swift eddy within each narrow lane. The water tastes like soda ash and sweat. Soon we feel the pain—the pain of burning lungs and muscles starved for oxygen, the ache of churning limbs gone miles given little time to rest and cling to the gutter. We watch the clock, which with its large flat face watches us—mockingly—its austere second hand mercilessly sending us off with only moments to catch our breath. We repeat this pain after school. We repeat it the next day. We repeat it the next week, the next month, the next year, and the one after, and the one after, and the one after. We are aquabots. We are jocks. We are mermaids. The water is our second home. It softens us and hardens us at the same time. We become it—malleable, forgiving, resistant, reflective.*

These days I experience much of the same, waking before dawn, sleep deprived, to see the sun just beginning to come up, dreading what is about to happen, shocked by the sound of Calvin's first whine. The clock labors along as we pace back and forth and back and forth between bookcase, shutters, table. I taste the bitter pill of monotony, worry, frustration, of what has, in great part, become my life. I repeat it all the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. My boy Calvin softens me and hardens me at the same time, my dotted eyes sometimes melting into tears.

*Excerpt from a work in progress temporarily titled Memoir.

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