Word House

THE INVISIBLE HEM | January 2, 2008

 They say it’s hard to know yourself without first knowing your mother.  But sometimes, the only way to know her is to become her. 

Outside her bedroom window the shingled roofs of the estate homes sparkled like diamonds in the September sun.  Off in the distance Pen could see the giant Morris Park water tower lording over its subjects – pricey golf course homes with matching birdhouse mailboxes lining streets with names like “Pebble Beach,” “Winner’s Cup,” and “Fairway Circle.”   

The ad in the newspaper said novices but either way, Pen knew joining the Morris Park women’s crew team would mean pain.  Blisters, sunburn, sore muscles the least of it.  She promised herself not to over-think it. 

Perched on the edge of Arden’s bed, Pen tied up the old pair of sneakers Arden had left behind and tucked the t-shirt into the sweatpants that had doubled as last night’s pajamas.  She looked in the mirror.  “How…” she said.  How in the world did I get like this?  Maybe this was rock bottom, she thought.  That would explain it, this sudden show of determination. When you’re down as far as you can go, the only place left is up.Or out.  

The boathouse was lit up like Christmas.  Strings of tiny white lights draped beneath its A-frame eaves made her arrival feel like a celebration.  And in a way, it was.  In the dark, she caught up with the other women who stood shivering outside the boat house door.  “Good morning everyone.  I’m Ivan,” said the figure that appeared through the boat house door.  His voice was big like a radio announcer’s.  “I teach people how to row crew.”  Pen couldn’t make him out, the intricacies of his face lost to the backlight of the open boathouse door. “Quick review, in case you’re not sure why you’re here.” Pen shielded her eyes in an effort to see his face.  “First, yes it’s dark and yes it’s early, but this is when we’ll start.”  He paused, the smoke of his breath billowing in the cool morning air.    “Okay, everybody’s clear on that.  Next,” he cleared his throat, “it’s been my experience that there are three kinds of women who take this on.  First, there are those who sign up to get six pack abs and look hot for their boyfriends.  Then there’s the Xanax crowd – depressed housewives who think exercise can excise demons.  And finally, there are those of you who were queen of the court in high school basketball and think you can slam dunk a crew stick.   I’m here to tell you this is not your mother’s lawn tennis.  This is hard.  This will hurt.  Some of you will cry.  And some of you will come back.  “Let’s see,” he drew his clipboard close.  “I count 18 of you.  We have two boats of five.  I have no doubt that tomorrow we’ll fill those boats and only those boats.  Now let’s get started.”Pen looked around at the others.  It appeared to be an even mix of the depressed, the determined and the vane. One by one as the sun rose behind the trees the women took their seats on the dewy grass to listen as Ivan explained the intricacies of crew; the parts of the boat – the shell, bow, skeg, hull, rigger, the cox box through which he would count strokes, call out proper oar rotation and body positioning.  “In the end,” he said as they crouched in mock seating position, “crew isn’t something you learn from a textbook.  It’s something you have to feel.”   Pen watched the others brush stray grass off the backs of their legs as they headed toward the pier.  She wondered whether she was the only one who had struggled to get out of bed that morning, whether she was alone in her twisted thinking that if a crew team didn’t serve to lift her out of her depression, it would at least serve to punish her.“Don’t resist,” Ivan called through the cox box just after they pushed off. “Resisting just slows you down.  You’ve got to get into the flow.  C’mon, ladies.  Focus.”Pen felt the burn set in quickly.  Ivan, the golden-haired muscle boy in spandex shorts, as it turned out, was barking baritone orders as if they were pedigreed race horses, born and bread to row at superhuman speeds.  By her own account, Pen was a sad, sagging, sack of somebody past her prime, both vexed and perplexed by the surprising turn of events her middle years had taken.  Crew hurt.  The hard slab seats, the crouched, knees-up-your nose positioning, the blister-burning oars.  Pen felt the urge to cry, but it quickly turned to anger as painful spasms pulsed across her shoulders.  The grunts and groans of the other women, the crunch of the oars as they dipped and circled through their locks, the sounds roared through her ears like trains through a tunnel.  Ivan, so smug in his sleek mirrored sunglasses, Pen thought. “This is either going to break you or kill you,” he had said. “Stroke,” he called out.  “You’re resisting again, people. Let it go.”“This – makes – no – sense,” Pen finally choked out between breaths.  “How do I let go?  If I let go, the oars will fall in the water and we’re sunk,” she said slapping the water spitefully. He reached over the side of the boat, dipped his hand in the water and flicked it in her direction.  Pen blinked. “Ladies, listen up.  Do you hear the water?  Have the lines started to fade between the boat and the water?  Are you sitting in a boat or floating through water?  Are you listening?” he repeated.  “Because you’ll never know if you don’t listen.  You’ll never stop resisting and you’ll never get us across that finish line.”Pen felt the tears and blinked them back.  Her legs ached as if she had run up a mountain in double-time.  There was fire in her palms, raw and bleeding now, her fingers curled so tight as to make her wince later to straighten them.  Sweat poured from her temples and she heard herself begging for it stop, for the boat to stop, for the pain to stop.  And it was then, in that moment of excruciating physical pain, that something unexpected happened.  She felt hopeful, a word always so intangible to her, like the words her mother never uttered let alone bothered to explain.  Words like God, faith, love, “I love you.”  Hope.  Just then Ivan called out:  “That’s it!  You’ve got it.   Don’t give up now!”This time when Pen pulled back, the oars cut the water like freshly waxed skis through new fallen snow.  And with the motion Pen felt the most unusual sensation of unity, of oneness – with the boat, the water, the land, the air – all of it.   Ivan had called it “swing” in their meeting – that hard-to-describe feeling when near perfect synchronization of motion occurs.  She looked down at her thighs and felt for the first time in years not old and fat and useless, but invincible.  Endorphins.  She allowed the thought.  “Let it go,” Ivan called again.  He raised the Cox Box and leaned into the boat.  “Breathe from your heels,” he commanded.

“Don’t look now, ladies, but there’s the finish line.  You can see it, can’t you?  Just past that rock,” he pointed to an invisible marker.  “Cross it and you’ve won.  Now kick it up and let’s bestow that finish line with the love and the joy of a first place trophy.”  Ivan’s voice was calm and confident. “Do not delay, ladies.  Embrace and disarm.  You are the task.  You are the energy.  There is nothing you can not do.”

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About author

I do PR for a writing instruments company. I have three kids. I like to write. I used to write for a newspaper. I am very busy but still find time to over-think things.

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