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Today's Story by Julia Halprin Jackson

“Isn’t the point of synchronized swimming that you do it with other people?”


Patty has Vaseline in her hair and waterproof blue mascara smeared across her eyelids. Hank can see the hibiscus bobby pin in her bun from up in the stands, and now that he sees her in the pool, her arms above her head as she waits for the music to begin, he is nervous. She’s a small brown dot in the center of the pool, which ripples in the evening light. The other girls wander around on the asphalt, their thin frames draped in towels, waiting and watching Patty wait.

It’s a long moment, this interval between getting in the pool and starting the routine. The audience shifts. His mother’s camera snaps and shudders. Patty’s arms are high, her smile refreshed. Her braces match her blackberry suit.

“Come on come on,” his mother says under her breath. “Not again.”

The last time Patty competed, the coach accidentally played MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” instead of Air’s “Playground Love,” which resulted in the world’s most blasé interpretation of 90s hip hop. She’d had to sacrifice her signature move, a long, slow oyster, her body making a strong V at the water’s mouth. When she left the pool, the other girls had quietly moved to the very edge of the cement, their ponytails dripping with glitter and water.

That night when she got home, Patty was quiet. Hank thought that’d be the end of that, that he’d no longer see his sister splayed out on the lawn, curling her arms and flailing her legs while their mother’s peonies squished underfoot. But that was last year, and here they are again, congregated at the city pool with all the families watching, someone’s dad navigating the spotlights at the top of the stairs. And still she waits, her face calm, her eyeliner visible even from the top of the tenth row.

He turns to his mom and asks, “Isn’t the point of synchronized swimming that you do it with other people?”

She doesn’t answer. And then, finally, the music comes on, a song Hank has never heard, but he can tell by the expression on his sister’s face that it is the right one. She transforms, her unwieldy arms plucking at the air, culling it of oxygen. Her upper body is rigid as she kicks in a circle. And then she’s under, her legs taut and straining as she kicks first one way, then the other, her arms and head invisible underwater. What is she thinking about down there, while her legs do the talking? Does she realize she’s alone? Surely she must register that she is bigger than all the other girls, who wait on the side of the pool in their matching suits. Can she feel the eyes on her legs? Does she like that feeling?

When Patty resurfaces, she exhales loudly, loud enough that the coach notices, and for a moment he can see her lungs heaving through her suit. And the smile, don’t forget the smile, the smile is back, looking less like the other girls with their plastic, pristine faces, and more like a girl in the limelight who doesn’t realize that others are watching. It’s a secret look, the one she’s giving now, as she tucks her knees under and spins. When the refrain starts up, he can see her lip synching.

“Oh, Patty,” his mother says. “Forget the words.”

But she doesn’t—as her moves grow more furious, and the music builds, Hank can hear his sister chanting along. The only word for that look in her eyes is swooning. She’s swooning, her breasts two small indentations above the roundness that is her stomach, looking rounder in that purple spandex, and before she can help herself, she’s done a flip turn and emerged radiant, her mouth open wide, words echoing across the water. Hank doesn’t know the rules to this sport but he can tell by the way the mothers are whispering that she’s beginning to break every one of them, and for that, he’s glad. She slips under again, her arms churning before she splashes upward in a body jump, her mouth open as she lets out a long, uneven bellow. The music fades but the spotlight remains on that face, her face, the face of someone who doesn’t belong and probably never will, her braces radiant in the moonlight. And when she gets out of the pool she doesn’t take a towel, like the other girls; instead, she stands dripping on the asphalt, still singing.


Julia Halprin Jackson is a 2012 graduate of UC Davis’ M.A. in Creative Writing program, where she wrote 100 one-hundred-word stories and began a novel-in-progress, Foreigner. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in anthologies by SMITH Mag, Flatmancrooked, Beyond Words Publishing, Scribes Valley Publishing, and the American Diabetes Association, and journals such as California Northern, Fourteen Hills, Sacramento News & Review, Fictionade, OccuPoetry, sPARKLE & bLINK, Catalyst and Spectrum.  Read more at juliahalprinjackson.com.


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.


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