Swimming by oneself is hardly ideal, but in some ways, it helped me. Coach Pete would give me stacks of workouts written longhand on yellow legal paper. I took these back to the country club and spent the next few days working through them. I swam every day, usually for ninety minutes, putting in something like 3500 yards per workout. Pete had a tendency to put me through fifties and hundreds of stroke work when I was on my own, perhaps intentionally pushing my focus towards butterfly. At the Devilfish pool, by comparison, we did longer freestyle sets at a more controlled, aerobic pace6. This was brilliant design philosophy. Pete gave me aerobically challenging sets to do on my own, but they were sets that would keep the mind of a twelve-year-old boy engaged and occupied as he swam by himself. It was rare that I saw anyone when I swam at the country club, so I needed the push that those workouts provided.
|With my father before a Cotillion.|
I didn’t lack for motivation, however. By now, my mental image of myself as a swimmer was fully formed. I needed this sense of self-identity to get through my continued struggles at school.
My social life became a war of attrition. I came in, and I acted cool. In this I was lucky because my parents’ economic success put me in a position to meet the right people. By itself, however, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel like I belonged, and there remained plenty of kids who flat-out refused to talk to me. Brute name-calling continued, and the very coolest kids wouldn’t look at me at all.
My folks enrolled me in the local “cotillion” dance club, a biweekly junior high mixer available by invitation only, designed to teach boys and girls how to dance and interact. Junior high dances have always been fraught affairs, but the cotillion was well run, most especially because it encouraged kids to dance. This was possible because the club itself was socially exclusive. With only the “right” people in attendance, the organizers could preach a motto of, “Don’t say no to a dance.” Thus, dancing with a girl became no big thing, for all that it could have been. Cotillion taught us to slow dance and to shag, an iconic style set to Coastal Carolina beach music. For that lesson especially, I was eternally grateful.
Cotillion was a new experience, and one that I enjoyed. We’d get dressed up in shirts and ties—but never socks—and the girls would wear party dresses, and we’d fumble through the rituals of junior high courting. This wasn’t perfect, but it was a chance to get to know people, and it was kept deliberately low key. Chris and I went to these dances together a lot of times, along with some of our other friends from Riverbend. As always, it helped when I walked in with my head held high. We danced with the girls, and—I hoped—didn’t step on too many toes.
Things finally began to change on the night of my first Christmas formal. I saw a cute girl in a long pink dress with voluminous pleated petticoats, and for whatever reason, I was smitten instantly. I walked over and asked her to dance with fearless self-confidence, and when she turned to look at me, I saw that she had deep blue eyes and brown hair that swept back from her face and ran all the way down her back. She smiled, and I smiled back, and when we danced, and I knew immediately that this was somehow different from the casual dancing I’d done previously. It was a slow song for one thing, Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. It played, and we held each other in a way that seemed to promise more than I’d ever experienced.
The song ended, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. “I’m Dan,” I said at last.
We were still holding each other when the music began again. I don’t remember what else played, but I stayed with Jennifer for the rest of the night. It passed in a blur. When we finally said goodbye, I found myself surrounded by Chris and a few other friends, all of whom stared at me in awe. I had Jennifer’s phone number in my pocket and had promised that I would call.
It turned out that Jennifer was an eighth grader, and she established a lifelong pattern for me—a decided preference for older women. I called her that week and soon enough we had plans to go on what would prove to be my first date. My mother drove me out to Jennifer’s house, and we picked her up. Mom then dropped us at the movies, where we saw a Saturday matinee showing of Fright Night. We kissed passionately about midway through the movie, and it was electric. Jennifer’s mouth tasted like cinnamon, owing to the power of junior high lip gloss. My head was spinning when we left, though I at least had the presence of mind to hold Jennifer’s hand on the way out of the theater.
Jennifer and I weren’t serious, exactly, but we talked on the phone occasionally, and we danced together exclusively at any number of future cotillions. Because of her, I met some legitimate Cool Kids for the first time. One in particular was Angel, a truly stunning girl with a bleach blond pageboy and perpetually ripped punk rock jeans. Angel came over and sat next to me during a free reading period in my English class a few weeks after that fateful Christmas formal, throwing her arm around me and sharing my book like it was the most natural thing in the world. A ludicrously erotic experience for 7th grade English, it was notable because Angel was one of the coolest girls in the entire school. She claimed me as one of her own while the whole class looked on.
Even then, I didn’t truly feel like I belonged.
6. Pace as defined in terms of effort: easy (60%-70%), aerobic (70%-80%), tempo (85%-90%), and hard (100%, i.e. full sprint).