My face doesn’t belong to me. The mirror shows angles and aspects, but never the whole thing. This is the primary rule of appearance: anything on the surface belongs to everyone else.
When I navigate the halls at school, the boys all turn to watch, but they are not watching me. Instead, they admire my covering. They get distracted at my skin, and never go beyond it to my joints, muscles, bones. They are a hundred million light-years from looking at my heart.
Underwater, it’s different. Underwater, none of the shapes are exactly how they seem. Florescent light shines through the practice lanes, distorting everything.
As soon as I leave the starting block, I can feel the muscles under my skin. They flex and pull, and then I’m at the end of the lane, turning over, pushing off. The water is cold, but cold is good. It proves things, like endurance and capability, and that you’re alive.
In the mornings before school, I hold practices of one. The swim coach likes this. She calls it supplemental, but I know that my long, solitary practices are the real ones. In the afternoons, with all the other girls splashing around me, I’m just going through the motions.
During my solitary practices, I don’t wear goggles. I don’t tuck my hair under the latex swim cap. The water is my natural habitat, and I always swim the length of the pool before I come up for air.
It’s a gray, chilly morning in February and the gym is bathed in the weak glow of dawn. I’m finishing my laps when I notice a disturbance in the light. The shadow is narrow and long. It wavers below me, sprawled on the tiled floor.
When I break the surface, Brian Macklin is standing at the edge of the pool, looking down at me.
He’s wearing his brown canvas coat. It has a plaid flannel lining, which I noticed once in class when we were comparing answers on a study guide. His hair is standing up wild from his winter hat, and the tip of his nose is red.
“Why are you here so early?” he says, which is one more thing I like about him—he always says what he means, instead of wasting time with trivial things like hello.
I’m looking up at him, treading water. I run both hands over my hair, slicking it back from my face. “Is it early? What time is it?”
“Almost seven.” He glances at his watch before he answers, but I can tell from his voice that he already knows the time, just like he knew that I would be here. “You’ve got to be pretty dedicated to show up to school an hour and a half before the bell.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“You just don’t seem like the kind of girl who gets competitive, is all.”
“Seeming isn’t the same as being,” I say. “And anyway, it pays to practice. I can hold my breath longer than anyone on the team.”
He swallows before he speaks. “You should teach me.”
His eyes are a strange shade of hazel-grey, fathomless but too transparent to be called dark. They remind me of a river when the water’s up. They remind me of secrets, and muddy inlets where you can’t see the bottom. I have a strange, breathless feeling that when he looks, he sees me.
“I’m usually too busy to give private lessons,” I say, “but you’re in luck. I happen to have an opening.”
He swallows again, never taking his eyes from mine. “When?”
The invitation is a challenge. We are both waiting to see what we will do.
He unzips his coat and shrugs out of it, then drops it on the cement. He’s wearing a crew-neck sweater, awkward and a little too big. When he pulls it over his head, his T-shirt pulls up with it, showing the flat white of his stomach. He kicks off his sneakers, flails out of his jeans.
Finally, he is standing above me in nothing but his boxers. I can tell he wants to turn away, hunch his shoulders, cover his chest, but he doesn’t. He’s offering his bareness to me, his spattering of freckles, his thinness.
I want to tell him that the outside doesn’t matter. If the surface mattered to me, I would be a different person. I want to tell him these things, but I would be lying.
Beauty is grim and subjective and complicated. It does matter, and I can safely say that his freckled shoulders are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
He crouches at the edge of the pool and slips into the water. When his teeth start chattering, I reach for him. His skin is warm and slippery. With my hands on his shoulders, I stop floating and pull him down with me.
There in the blue gloom, I open my eyes. The light is pale above us. From this close, I can see his eyelashes in magnified perfection, cool and wavering. When we kiss, our mouths make a perfect seal, keeping in the air. It is the opposite of breathing.
Legs tangled, we sink to the bottom. He is still looking at me.