Sticks and Bones

The swimming trunks cling wet and cold to my legs as I lift my right foot and step onto the first metal rung. Three short steps to the pale green board that stretches ahead over the diving pool. I want to get this over with as soon as possible. I hoist myself up the last two steps. I can feel the oddly pebbled surface of the diving board beneath my feet. Drops of water fall from the legs of my trunks onto my feet. I cross my arms over my chest and shiver uncontrollably. My anxiety has heightened during the ten-minute wait in line with my sixth-grade classmates. Off to the side of the pool our gym teacher, Mr. Banning waits. He holds a clipboard in front of him, its edge pressing into the soft folds of his stomach. A silver whistle on a chain hangs from his neck. The rest of the class waits behind me. Every single one of them must be staring at my back.

I cannot imagine a worse scenario than this. Wet and half-naked before my peers, attempting to dive. I am comfortable under the water, a sleek otter. But I’m afraid to dive head-first into the water. I cannot get past this unreasonable fear. Complicating matters is my fear of the diving pool itself. The pool is twelve feet deep and the water grows darker at the bottom. On the floor of the pool there is a grate, two feet by two feet. I do not know what is in the darkness beneath the grate, but sometime in the last few months I have convinced myself that there is a shark circling beneath, waiting hungrily for release. I have seen “Jaws” and I am scarred for life. No amount of reasoning can quell my panic when I have plunged into the water, each time imagining the shark squeezing past the grate and rushing towards me.

I inhale the thick smell of chlorinated water. My classmates chatter behind me, their voices echoing oddly over the pool. Water is sucked into the drains at the edge of the pool. The high ceiling’s vents whine far above. A large clock hangs on the opposite wall, and the red second hand sweeps across its face. I have to get through this. Mr. Banning taps his pencil against the clipboard. I’m about to take my first step when behind me I hear a boy laugh and say “Toothpick”, and the entire class giggles.

///

I was teased constantly for my scrawniness as a kid. Even strangers, upon meeting me for the first time, would tell me I needed to “eat more”. It’s rude to call someone “fat” to their face, but “skinny” is acceptable. My younger brother was just as scrawny. We had inherited our father’s genes, and a part of me hated him for it.

One summer when I was nine my mother convinced me to sign up for a two-week soccer camp. Although I had played for three years, I never really loved soccer. I played right wing but never scored a goal, forever choking up and passing the ball to one of the bolder boys who would kick it sailing into the net. But I was a good kid, afraid to rock the boat, forever obedient. I did what my parents wanted.

She made a car pool arrangement with another parent. The woman and her thirteen-year old daughter would pick me up each morning. The girl would smile weakly at me then stare out the window while her mother tried to engage me in conversation. She’d drop us off at the park and the girl would dash off to join her friends in the older league. I was the youngest kid in the entire program, by at least a year or two. My shyness and my skinniness and my age set me apart from the other boys. On the second day one of the boys looked at my scrawny legs poking out from my shorts and nicknamed me “Bones”. Unfortunately it stuck.

It was humiliating and infuriating. Over the years I had perfected the skill of flying under most people’s radar, but for those two weeks I was the reject, and no one would befriend me. I grew to hate the summer sun and the manicured fields, the smell of freshly cut grass. I wanted cool weather and jeans and long sleeves.

My car pool partner did everything possible to distance herself from me, then one day as her mother was pulling up in the station wagon, she called me “Bones” in front of her girlfriends and they all burst out in nasty seventh-grade laughter. I sank into the backseat and held it together until I got home. When my mother opened the door I burst into tears and ran inside. When she followed me I slammed my bedroom door closed. I hated her for making me go to that stupid camp.

I stayed scrawny all the way through high school. My first year of college I weighed 128 pounds. I started working out and by the following summer I weighed 140 pounds. I stayed disciplined at the gym for the next ten years, but was always a hard gainer. It wasn’t until I hit thirty that my metabolism changed. Between that and quitting crystal meth I began to gain more weight.

If I had rubbed a bottle and conjured a genie as a kid, my first wish would have been to “look normal”. I didn’t need big muscles, I just wanted to look like everyone else.

Wishes are ephemeral. Years at the gym have changed my goals. Two years ago I thought if I was 170 pounds I’d be perfect. Today at 173 pounds I keep throwing weights around, hoping for bigger arms. A 45” chest isn’t enough.

If we only knew then what we know now. If “Bones” could see me now, maybe he wouldn’t need to cry.

///

I can hear the word “toothpick” and their giggling echo over the pool. I need to disappear. I step closer to the edge of the board, dipping closer to the surface of the water. I take a breath and launch myself off the board. My clumsy arc falters and I pull my legs up at the last second, and there is the loud smack of my skin against the water before I plunge beneath the surface. I know they’re all laughing again, but I can’t hear them down here. I sink lower, the skin of my belly stinging. I want to stay down here forever. I kick my legs and swim even lower, towards the grate at the center of the pool. My heart beats wildly as I wait for it to burst open. I hold my breath, waiting for the beast, hoping it will eat me alive.

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