Behind the Costume

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CW: This piece contains mention of sexual abuse.

You never realise what you have until it’s gone. The synthetic-blue pool reverberates around and around my head as I inhale the thick chlorinated air. It drugs my lungs and I feel drunk in a fairy-tale land. Everything is just out of reach. Chaos from the night before buzzes like a migraine; the world an impossible echo of something that used to be true. The tears I slept in are an iron mask stopping me screaming for help: Too late now.

Oblivious in the stands, my parents, grandparents, siblings all wave their flags and cheer ecstatically. Vaguely I wave back but it is like greeting the moon: they feel a million miles away. Just how much I need them in this moment hits me as I hear how hard they shout my name.

“Emi-ly! Emi-ly! Emi-ly!”

I swallow and concentrate on breathing. Inhaling for six counts, I move to the edge of the pool. I hold my breath for eight: The mass of clothed onlookers stare at my waxed body, squashed into the tightest suit. Him too. Exhaling for seven, I throw my towel onto the ground. An electric thrill of fear is conducted through my skin under the audience’s gaze. I have to repress my revulsion. I take a last swig from the water bottle and my insides are drowned with coldness. My shaky fingers snap the goggles over my plastic bald head. Clambering onto the starting block, my legs become numb jelly. A race like this would have empowered me before. But he’s broken that.

I curl the toes of my right foot tightly around the edge and crouch in the starting position, as if about to make a prayer. As if he hadn’t crushed all my faith in just a few minutes. Although I can’t see him, I sense his eyes prickling into my back. My icy insides boil over with hatred. I trusted him; my whole family did. He took us all in with his façade of giving a shit about me. My fingernails dig into my clenched fists. It all felt surreal, like some terrible story you would hear from someone else, anywhere away from your own routine regularity. And yet, here I am. I peer across the three lanes next to my own. The other girls shift on their starting blocks, smoothing down their bald heads and fixing fierce goggles over their eyes. We look like flies, so replaceable. Unable to take much else in, I gaze down at the gently rippling surface below. Neat square lines of the tiles wriggle about as if trying to escape their two-dimensional prison. I clamp my hands onto the edge. I can’t let him see his effect on me.

“I will not let him win,” I whisper.

The whistle splits my head like a bullet.

Instinct launches me into the air, stretching my body out into the optimum streamlined position, just as he ingrained into me. My hands pierce the water first, entering another world. Soaring through the water in a gentle upward gradient to the surface, my legs make frantic butterfly kicks. Tucked under my arrow-shaped arms, my head spins in this blue tinged refuge. I am poised in motion, veils of water resistance gliding across my smooth skin. But it’s tainted now. The back of my throat is on fire from vomiting last night up. If only I could expel everything he did from my body. Still I am under his control, doing just as he wills; a performing seal out on parade, jumping through his hoops for some sick amusement. I push forward into the rippling light above and leave the eerie shelter of the under-water. My hydrophobic cap snaps open the surface. Instantly, the hubbub of disembodied shouting and cheering clicks back into earshot.

The surface plunges at my ears as I pull myself along using alternate strokes. I drag my face through the water, no matter how much I need to breathe. My hands scoop through the pool with my fingers expertly slightly separated. I kick my legs as a hard as I can. But I did not kick hard enough when it mattered. How do you fight off the man who taught you how to be strong? Desperate to breathe, I start to gulp water; head aching, muscles alight. My limbs cut silkily through the water. I think that was what provoked him. He insisted on lingering in my hotel room when they waxed me.

“Leave my star swimmer alone with you hairdresser airheads? Anything could happen!” he shouted in his poolside voice, probably an attempt at humour. Everyone in the room grimaced awkwardly. He embarrassed me. But I believed he genuinely cared. Until they had finished, packed away their things and clicked the door shut on just the two of us. Uncomfortably, I reflect, it was a game of power and control. Clearly, being applauded for training top tier swimmers does not make you a good person. Before yesterday, I thought that only villains did awful things. I would dream up far away criminals plotting malevolent schemes, but it transpires that it’s those closest you have to fear.

Three arm-strokes in, I can finally breathe. I turn my head slightly to the side. My mouth levels with the dip my speed makes against the waterline. I wrench at the air, gulping in as much as I can before submerging my face again. It reignites my lungs. Another three strokes and I turn my head the other way, then the other, and this way and that way and soon I am spinning in my own vortex. The nausea kicks in again. I taste the faintest hint of metallic saltiness trickling onto my tongue. I close my eyes. The taste triggers the memory of his assault on my mouth. I reopen them almost immediately, not affording the smallest mistake.

Aware of the bubble streams from the other competitors encroaching into my peripheral vision, I decide I must win this race. Every fibre of my being is a swimmer, my family pumping all their support into my career. My birthday presents were club memberships, new suits, fins to replace the ones my feet had out-grown. There was no joy on earth greater than the look of pride on my parents’ faces when I brought home more medals; my little sister pointing excitedly at how shiny they look aligned on the wall. But last night, I saw the truth behind the person who had spurred all this on. I can’t bear to imagine going home with a part of him tinting the people I love’s view of who I am: I don’t want a shiny wall flashing with his true colours. I will do anything to scratch off my coach’s glossy reputation, even if it means cutting short my own swimming career.

“I will let myself win,” I promise the water.

I imagine my applause, picture a smooth ascent out of the water and tossing my towel hard at my coach as I walk past him. His mouth hanging open in surprise, hand outreached as if to touch me: to shake mine, to clap me on the back, to hug me? Nausea courses through me at the thought. The strings of his control over my every breath, his eyes scouring my form for any minute slip up, scrutinising my very being. I decide it is over. The assumption that he would ever assume his skin could touch mine again repulses me.

Pushing, kicking, fighting with every atom of my being, my mash of fingers slam against the edge of the pool, my head crashing after them. Touch down. It all goes black for a moment. My life as a swimmer melts away; schedules, diets, restrictions dissipate. I am reborn.

If you have been affected by domestic or sexual abuse, please get in contact with Yellow Door.

More articles in Short Stories
  1. Birds, Dandies, and Sweethearts
  2. A Terracotta Tale: Part 1
  3. Behind the Costume
  4. A Terracotta Tale: Part Three
  5. A Terracotta Tale: Part Two
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I am a third-year English and History student who has rediscovered creative writing

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