by SARAH WAMBOLD
The line was already three deep in front of the beer cooler at Casey’s convenience store in Cedar Rapids the Monday afternoon I drove to Iowa City. It was a gray day, which was unremarkable in itself, though it had also begun to rain, explaining the early line for Bud. There were whiskered cheeks and drawn out eyelids on those who waited before me but I knew that the rain played very little part in their or my own decisions for early booze that afternoon.
When my part in the beer-buying routine came, I shamelessly grasped the cooler handle and pulled down a beer. I had arrived at my childhood home five days earlier, and realized that being back in Iowa enabled my drinking like nothing else. A majority of my visit home was supposed to be spent with family and the few friends whom I still talked to, but mostly everyone drank alone.
Our deepest secret is that we’re all exactly alike. This is also what we draw the most attention to. Before I left Texas for home, a coworker tried her best to act as though she didn’t realize this, as though she had never considered something like team sports before and asked me about being a synchronized swimmer. “How does that happen?” she asked.
Here is how it happens: a group of swimmers — usually women — dance in the water. Sometimes the swimmers are upside down, with their legs straight up where their heads should be and they might bend one knee and then Kick! Kick! Kick! several times with the tempo of the music and then Slap! Slap! Slap! their legs on the surface of the pool so that it makes a cloud of exciting splashes that quickly clears to reveal eight or ten pretty little heads, smiling amid sharp elbows bent to perfection like the corners of a star. The group moves together across the pool. The music can be heard beneath the surface. It is pleasing to the eye.
I left the convenience store and followed a caravan of cars along the county road. The interstate would have been the more direct route, only full of cars less familiar with the territory. I stayed with those accustomed to the place, those who needed to stop every mile to decide whether or not they should go on. During that time of year the earth gave the illusion that it was drenched and the air above it felt like a solid weight on everyone. When I’m home we relieve this tension immediately by falling into line with each other’s worst habits and spilling similar truths about our character along the way. I took quick gulps of my beer in between the raindrops on my windshield. It splashed across my car.
I arrived in Iowa City buzzed and wet along with everybody else. I stopped at a streetlight in front of the pool where I used to practice. At my house, I had paused in front of a mirror to admire myself in the swimsuit I had worn during that time as a synchronized swimmer. The suit fit better now than it had then but I remember the way I used to feel in it, fat with a sparkle. That discomfort was absorbed by my team who were supposed to look like me, at least in style if not in body. Most of the team had never actually seen synchronized swimming before. Mercifully, there were a small number of us who had already learned the technique and my small town Fourth of July routines were more than enough background to be considered one of the best swimmers.
We attempted to teach the others how to scull and log roll in a simultaneous effort to appear pretty. The prettiness was impressive even though we hardly ever stayed that way for long. The same muscles that got tired in the water also steered me back to it, but now I was safely afloat in my car. Iowa is full of long drives that are beautiful but you will get bored. Stopping for a drink can put you back on track. When you do it enough, you learn how to put the two together.
Synchro is first practiced out of the water using our arms to represent our legs until we have the choreography memorized. Then we add the music and then we add the pool. At first you look at your teammates to make sure you are together but mostly you use a count to hit it, like a regular dance routine. After a while everyone just knows when to do things.
In Iowa City I looked for a place to park and failed to find one, so I kept circling the blocks with the beer between my knees. I swallowed the last bit of sourness on a street where I wished I could have parked. It was brick and curvy, a place I wanted to get out and walk on, maybe run into an acquaintance. But it was still raining and everything was too neatly packed in. I realized I couldn’t have squeezed in anywhere, no matter how small I’d made myself become.
In hindsight I think just I needed attention. I needed to prove I could be successful in college because in class no one was recognizing my efforts. Sports are something my family does really well. Team sports in particular where you can feel important and modest at the same time. We know how to keep our problems from affecting anyone else. My parents were happy I was involved with sports again, something they knew how to talk about. My mom even took part in sewing decals onto the suits for our performances. Our conversations about synchro made me feel close to her the way talking on the phone feels close despite the machinery.
I settled on waiting out the rest of that afternoon’s rain at a bar on the edge of town near the interstate that will take you across the Mississippi River if you let it. The parking lot was full of Oldsmobiles and Chevys but oddly, the bar was empty except for a trio of regulars at a table in the middle. No glasses were raised when I entered, only eyes. I ordered a beer and sat down with my book at table in the back. When I glanced up at the trio, one of them was smirking at me. I could have smiled back but why bother, I thought and drank as fast as I could.
You can drive anywhere in Iowa City half sober and be mistaken for a student or visiting professor’s assistant from some more understood place. You become a part of something you no longer know anything about. When I finally found a parking spot behind The Sanctuary where I was meeting my friends, a man asked me if they were still checking the meters. I shrugged. I knew they were. You never forget that in a town where no one wants you to stay too long and its useless to tell people that. Inside the restaurant, I ordered a ginger ale and felt out of place. I moved toward the back and found one of my friends reading Clan of The Cave Bear at a table by herself. Our other friend came in from the rain without a coat. I felt more comfortable and ordered a glass of wine.
We still remembered our old routines, our history almost too present in our conversations. But that’s why we were together at that moment. When we imagined each other’s lives, we hadn’t been too far off from where we thought they’d go. On the surface we were all together and even below it where we looked different we were still kicking at the same level. There were moments where each of us fell behind: career, relationships, drinks. Like the team I had been a part of, our performance didn’t matter. When I departed later that night, I promised to keep in touch and took the interstate straight home, ready to leave Iowa the next day. I thought about my coworker who seemed surprised that she even had a question for me, let alone that I had an answer for her. But that is how it happens.
Sarah Wambold is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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