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“Do you trust me?”

The four words ease themselves together with the warm, October-night air and slide out across the bridge of my nose, tinged with the biting scent of wintergreen. They are whispered on half a breath, but still manage to slip through the tiny gaps of my ribcage and drop heavily somewhere on the other side, where my fingers cannot reach to pull them back out. Something new whirs to life in the middle of my buzzing, whirling thoughts — the rapid clicking of a tape player, or perhaps the scratching of some old record — a spinning rewind to replay every other time those same words have been recorded back behind my eyes: the backside of dripping, silver bleachers under the sneer of a Saturday-summer sun, against the cool, stale air of a midnight-washed dorm room, just barely grasped through 412 miles and the static of a near-dead cell phone.

Four words so easily spoken, but four words far more difficult to answer.

My own mouth fumbles for something to echo in response, the inner workings of my brain grinding furiously together in vain desperation, though as good as the words sound in my head they never come out with quite the same tune. And for however many times I have heard the same question, those one, two, three, four words, I have never before found a way to articulate anything in return. Because it is not something that is so simply asked for, and after all, I come from a world of chlorination and obligation where trust can not be so casually requested.

There are only four of us (just as there are only four spoken words), with twenty-five yards stretching before our bare feet and shivering bodies coated in fine layers of goosebumps, as the angry glare of red numbers flickers hastily overhead. Our eyes are glassed and metallic, our skin tingling with a vicious anxiety drawn taut over the blood boiling in our twisted, tied up veins. We stand straight-backed, broad-shouldered, knees hyperextended; we stand in the cacophony of a thousand storming voices but hear nothing of their sound, we stand clawed by the snarling chill of frigid winter hands, but we still all steam with the heated hunger to race.

We stand, a chosen few of many.

We do not ask them — “Do you trust us?” — and they do not question our strength or tenacity or steeled determination as they crowd expectant on the other side, stretching out over the lane’s glossed cerulean water as though they might be able to collectively reach across and meld their blazing, desperate intensity with ours.

There comes a second when every heart stands still, the entirety of the conference surely falling quiet at the feverish trill of the preparatory whistle, and even the weighted, panting breaths of those fresh from their warmup seem to hold in anticipation. The first eight spring into their lanes, set their feet (Maxie is the first of our four, she is always first because her lithe frame and fairy-light movements make backstroke look much, much easier than it truly is), now enveloped in the maddening engulfment of silence that precedes the sudden, rushed typhoon of lung-shattering cheers that will send them sprinting for the other end, thundering through one another’s drafts. And then there is the last baited moment of nothing, the smallest fraction of time that marks the end of the blaring start and the beginning of every coiled muscle firing all at once.

B  E  E  P  .

Everything erupts. Toes curl, backs arch, hands whip back, together in a wickedly impressive unison that betrays each of their individual frenzied needs to be the first out and under the water.

In less than half a minute they are charging back beneath the flags, the explosions of white-water fireworks bursting up from pounding feet and spinning arms making who holds the lead indistinguishable — our own voices are suddenly ripping up our throats and then Haley vaults off the block, arching and tightening in the air as she fires from an invisible bow (abruptly enough to be missed by the blink of an eye, she almost seems to fly even faster than she swims). She shoots down along the black line and for one-one-thousand .. two-one-thousand … pull down, three-one-thousand, she holds even with the girl in the lane beside her, but she comes for her first breaking stroke and Haley darts out across the surface in a rhythm her opposition can’t match. It is deceivingly effortless, the way she moves, cracking off the opposite wall and surging up and out again, again, again to send Evelyn fluttering out into the waves next.

We don’t wonder if Haley’s stretching fingertips will come to collide with the smooth skin of the touchpad, or wonder if Evelyn’s feet will flick her from the block in precisely the same instant. (These are simply things we know must happen, as surely as our ribs must repeatedly lift to allow space for oxygen to fill our lungs; there is no contemplation or expectation, only an instinctive sense of certainty).

I can not ask Evelyn — as she comes dipping, curving back through her own rippling wake and my feet space themselves so particularly beneath the decimally bent angling of my knees — to give me any additional assurance, and she can not ask, in turn, for my trust in the way she glides for me through the water. There is no time for hesitation, for doubt, for recognition or interpretation of any affordances. My chest dips forward and my arms circle back as Evelyn’s slicked, black cap dips one last time, our hips buck together, simultaneous. In that breathless gasp of time, with the streaking scarlet milliseconds stumbling over one another, we are suddenly one in the same. (We move as magnets, matching pieces that insist on revolving in opposite ways, mirroring too-similar movements in a tightening, coiling tension before violently thrusting away from one another).

It is all whistles and screaming and churning water, with hardly the time to blink or breathe or allow a heartbeat to throb but one second too long. I do not ask Evelyn, or Maxie, or Haley, or any of our teammates shrieking themselves voiceless at the far end of the lane, to trust me.

But still, their tumultuous, roaring repetitions of my name are the last of what I hear before the water rises up to swallow me in a deafening rush.

It is an overwhelming omnipresence, a constant electrical current that vibrates through the very marrow of my bones, and sews itself into the membrane of each and every last cell of my being until it crackles out my ventricles to blur the clarity of my blue-eyed vision.

“Do you trust me?”

(Part of me thinks, maybe, just maybe, I trust too easily, and that is why the four words sound inexplicably foreign in my ears and taste strangely bitter on my tongue. But the rest of me does not comprehend why something that should never be lost must be so constantly asked for).

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