The acrid scent of chlorine wafted up from the pool as Shannon climbed atop the starting block at the first high school swim meet of the 2005 season. She scanned the stands for Coach Stevens and her teammate Rachel, a blonde wisp of a girl with an easy manner, a free spirit, and a smile that made her heart beat faster than swimming 100-meter backstroke intervals. As the shrill beep of the starter's signal pierced the air, she pushed off the block and launched into the pool. She glided underwater, dolphin kicking for added momentum, before bursting through the surface with a flurry of sweeping arms and kicking feet. The 200-meter butterfly was her best event.
Adrenaline and the knowledge that Rachel was watching from the stands propelled her to an early lead. By the halfway mark of the race, Shannon had gained a body-length lead over her nearest competitor. This race belonged to her. She powered through the water, confidence rising with every stroke until she neared the wall at the third turn. The swimmer in lane 4 had gained on her and was only a half-stroke behind her. Shannon touched the wall with her left hand a split second ahead of the other girl, then turned for the final push to the finish.
As her shoulders burned and legs ached with fatigue, she willed herself through the water, visualizing every stroke as a powerful bird’s wings lifting her forward. She didn’t dare turn her head for fear of losing time, but in her peripheral vision, she saw the Lane 4 swimmer slipping behind her. Now, she could see the T-shaped end of the black line at the bottom of the pool. Two more hard strokes forward and then she slapped the wall. She raised her fist in victory and immediately looked to the stands. There, she spotted Rachel with hands clasped on top of her head and mouth agape. Coach Stevens was pointing at the other end of the pool and shaking his head.
Sitting cross-legged on Rachel’s bed, Shannon slapped the mattress with both hands. “How stupid was that? Not touching the wall with two hands.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Rachel as she eyed their homework assignment on her desktop computer. “It was only one race.”
A race that she’d won. In her best event.
She stared at the “Fall Out Boy” concert poster pinned to the wall of Rachel’s bedroom. “I still haven’t heard from UF.”
“You will. You’re one of the top swimmers in the state.”
An assistant coach at the University of Florida had expressed interest in recruiting her until he viewed her high school transcript. She needed to improve her grades if she wanted to swim for a Division I program. That’s when Rachel, an average swimmer with a stellar GPA, suggested they study together at her house after school.
“Getting DQ’ed in the first race of the season won’t look good to any college scouts.”
“Have you from Coach Stevens?”
As if on cue, Shannon’s flip phone rang with an incoming call from their head coach. He’d promised to appeal her disqualification. She grabbed the phone off the dresser as Rachel spun around in her chair. Hope quickly turned to heartache as Coach shared the bad news. She slumped forward on the edge of the bed and watched a tear splatter on the hardwood floor.
“What’d he say?” Rachel asked in a hushed tone.
“The board denied my appeal.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Her throat tightened at the memory of staring up at the turn judge at the end of the pool. Ruddy face, Tom Selleck moustache, and a tribal tattoo on his right arm - the one he’d raised to signal her disqualification.
Rachel draped a willowy arm around Shannon’s taut shoulders as she sat down beside her on the bed. “What can I do to help you feel better?”
The cotton candy scent of Rachel’s perfume tingled her nostrils. A million thought galloped through her mind.
“I don’t know,” Shannon mumbled.
She melted into Rachels embrace, sighing contentedly as slender fingers kneaded the back of her neck and massaged her scalp. This was heaven. Shannon laid still for several moments before lifting her head and looking directly into Rachel’s glistening eyes.
“You are so beautiful.”
Rachel leaned forward and kissed her lips. Rapturous joy spiraled around Shannon’s heart and released a torrent of longing. She slipped her arm around Rachel’s waist and pulled her closer, feeling her small, warm body pressed comfortably against her own. As they kissed, time stood still.
LAKEWOOD HIGH SCHOOL 15th REUNION - WELCOME CLASS OF 2007
Shannon stared at the banner hanging above the registration desk in the hotel lobby. The pulsing sound of a Justin Timberlake song reverberated from the ballroom. Buttoning her blazer, she paced through the lobby toward the white-clothed table lined with name tags. She plucked hers from the table and pinned it to her lapel while scanning the rows of names. Rachel’s wasn’t among them.
A familiar voice spun Shannon around to the sight of a diminutive figure in a black dress that hugged her narrow shoulders and small waist. Rachel’s blonde hair was tinged with streaks of purple and swept up in a short bob. She gripped a gold lame clutch in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other.
Shannon felt her face flush as she sucked in a short breath and nervously rubbed the palm of her hand against her name tag. Her 11th-grade girl crush was all grown up.
“Wow. You look great.”
“Thank you.” Rachel stepped forward and gave her a quick hug.
Shannon breathed in the light vanilla notes of her perfume mingled with the stale musky scent of a recently smoked cigarette. She’d seen Rachel smoke for the time in the high school parking lot when Ethan Reznick fished a lighter from his pocket and lit the cigarette dangling from her lips. Rachel coughed and swished the smoke away. Ethan took the cigarette from her hand and used it to light his own. Shannon silently seethed, wanting to race over and confront the two of them. It was illegal to smoke on school grounds. Instead, she blinked back her tears, then turned on her crutches and hobbled toward the school entrance.
“I was about to step outside for a few minutes. Care to join me?”
“You still smoking.”
“Yeah, afraid so,” said Rachel, as she retrieved a pack of cigarettes from her purse. “Let’s walk down toward the marina. I can smoke there.”
“Great,” deadpanned Shannon as she opened the lobby door for her. When they reached the dock, Rachel lit a cigarette and exhaled smoky tendrils into the salty evening air.
“Remember junior year of high school?"
"How could I forget? Broke my leg on that stupid skateboard, then missed the rest of swim season.”
“Yeah, that really sucked,” said Rachel as she took a drag of her cigarette. “It was also the year my dad died.”
Shannon nodded. “I remember when you called to tell me. Mom had just brought me home from the doctor after he put my leg in a cast. I’m sorry if I said anything inappropriate. They gave me some really strong painkillers at the hospital.”
Rachel sighed. “I was kinda out of my mind too.”
“I thought I’d said something awful to you when I didn’t hear from you for days.”
“I’m sorry about that. It was a really hard time for me.”
“I knew you were hurting, but it felt like something else was going on. You stopped inviting me to your house after we….”
Shannon felt a blush rise in her cheeks. She needed to redirect the conversation. “Why’d you quit the swim team? You never really told me. And why’d you start seeing that loser, Ethan Reznick?”
“He had a fake ID. He bought me cigarettes.”
Rachel flicked ash from her cigarette into the blue-green water lapping against the dock pilings. “Do you remember Coach Stevens?”
“Yeah, he only coached our junior season. Missed most of it cause of my broken leg.”
Rachel stared out at the boats bobbing in th “After my dad died, Coach Stevens started paying more attention to me. Told me his dad died when he was young. Said he’d be there for me if I ever needed to talk about it.”
Shannon bit her lower lip. She would have been there for Rachel. She would have listened to her. But Rachel wasn’t speaking to her.
“The next day, he asked me to stop by his office,” Rachel said with a hitch in her voice. “He asked me how I was doing. I told him how much I missed my dad and started crying. He was so nice at first. Always listened to me when I wanted to talk about my dad. Always gave me a long hug afterward.”
Her stomach turned. “He was hugging you in his office?”
“I trusted him.” Rachel pinched her lips into a tight grimace. “I told him things that I hadn't told another adult. Then he started asking me questions.”
"What kind of questions?"
Rachel fixed her gaze on the edge of the dock. “Coach asked me if I’d been intimate with a boy.”
Shannon’s mouth fell open. What the hell was this guy thinking?
“Then he asked me if liked girls.”
"What'd you say?” sputtered Shannon, still reeling from the earlier revelation.
"I told him that I liked you. That I really liked you."
Tears pricked Shannon’s eyes as she listened to Rachel.
"Then Coach told me that he could help me with my feelings. I didn't know what he meant, but I just felt so confused and sad and unsure of myself. He said that he cared about me and wanted to help me. And that was all he was doing. Trying to help me. Then he kissed me.”
“Oh my god! Why didn't you tell me about this when it happened?"
"Because he told me that my feelings for you were unnatural and that he was helping me to refocus my feelings. He made me feel ashamed about how I felt about you. That's when I stopped hanging out with you."
Shannon swallowed a lump in her throat, recalling the anguish she’d felt in high school when her best friend told her that she was no longer welcome at her home. In retrospect, she’d sensed some kind of darkness slowly deadening Rachel’s light-hearted personality.
“Why didn’t you report him?”
“To who? He and Principal Langford were best buddies. Whose side would he be on when I told him Coach Stevens had stuck his hand down the front of my swimsuit. It was easier to just quit the team and avoid Coach at all costs.”
“You were avoiding me too.”
A tear trickled down Rachel’s cheek. “I was. I’m sorry.”
Shannon wrapped her arm gently around Rachel’s shoulders and let her cry.
“I wanted to tell you. It’s taken me 15 years to tell anyone.”
Shannon pulled Rachel closer and kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you for telling me.”