Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: Swimming Upstream
The final whistle blew. Cheers erupted from the blue team’s bleachers, grudging half-hearted claps from the red. Perching on the aluminum bench the past two hours left me stiff and numb, but I rose with the rest of the tide, shouting my congratulations. When the hubbub died down, the dispersing crowd left me exposed. I became engrossed with my cell—a game of avoidance.
The humid room was suffused with the sharpness of chlorine, reminding me of childhood swim lessons at the Y. I’d always loved the atmosphere at an indoor pool, and if I closed my eyes and listened to short bursts from a whistle and the lap of water, I almost felt like a child again.
There was a commotion by the entrance to the locker room as the blue team formed a circle of bare torsos, arms folded over shoulders or around necks. Their muscular backsides were just hidden from view by royal blue Speedos. After a victory chant, they broke apart, slapping one another on backs or bumping fists. Obvious bulges pressed against the confines of their skimpy suits, leaving nothing to the imagination, and my face reddened. It was rude to ogle them, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.
One stood apart from the rest—unruly blond hair slicked back from his forehead, lanky frame, standing nearly a foot taller than those around him. I didn’t allow my gaze to venture below his waist. My heart skipped a few beats when he stepped away from the group and scanned the bleachers. Our eyes met, and a breathtaking smile transformed his handsome face. Brett waved, mouthing that he’d be right out. I nodded, watching his graceful exit to the locker room.
I waited for him in the crisp October air, my back against the bricks. Other members of the swim team passed me in groups of three or more. They were still high on their victory, the discussions animated. A few glanced at me curiously, but nobody stopped to ask who I was.
I slipped the phone out again, my talisman against the stares, a message I wanted to be left alone. My other hand shook, and I jammed it in my pocket. The rough creaminess of the envelope nestled there scraped against my knuckles.
A love letter.
After Brett left my room last week, I found the confession on my bed, penned in his strong hand.
There’s something you need to know. I’ve tried to fight my feelings for you, but my reasons were ignorant rather than noble. Worries about what everyone at school would say about us stopped me from telling you the truth. My feelings have grown to the point I no longer care what they think.
I love you. There . . . I said it. If you can forgive me for being such an ass, maybe you feel something for me, too?
All my love,
I’d read the note so many times, the words had left an indelible imprint behind my eyes.
“Hey, thanks for waiting.”
His appearance startled me back to the present, and I sucked in a deep breath. “Congrats on the win.” I glanced over at him, hoping my overgrown bangs would conceal the tempest inside me.
“Dude, what are you wearing?” He cocked an eyebrow as we meandered through the maze of buildings side by side.
“You did say there was something to celebrate tonight.”
Brett snorted. “Your definition of celebration usually consists of jeans, a hoodie, and a six-pack of Bud. What’s with the bow tie?” He flicked it playfully.
We turned the corner, and the red awning of Jensen’s Cantina came into view. I clutched his arm, bringing us to a stop. “I think we should talk before we go in there.” I slid the envelope out of my pocket.
Brett squinted in the gloom. “What’s that?”
“You left it in my room.” I handed the envelope over.
“Oh, my God, I’ve been looking everywhere for this! I’m so glad you found it.”
The heaviness of dread roiled inside me. “I don’t understand.”
“Brett!” A pretty wheelchair-bound brunette in front of Jensen’s waved and smiled shyly.
“Hey, Millie! Be right there.” He held a finger up then turned back to me. “I was too much of a coward to give her the letter. I carried it around with me for weeks, and I must’ve dropped it when I came to visit you.”
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as if I’d crammed a dollop of peanut butter inside, and all I could manage was a nod. The letter wasn’t for me. A burning pang flared in my belly.
“I’ve been such a jerk. I was worried about catching flak for dating a paraplegic, and I’m so ashamed of myself. I was thinking of leaving the note in her mailbox after I drop her off tonight. What do you think?”
“I think . . . Millie is one lucky girl.”
“Thanks, man.” Brett slapped me on the back. “Let’s go inside. I want to introduce you two.”
“I’d . . . love to meet the woman that captured your heart. Just give me a sec, okay? I need to make a call.” I dangled my trusty cell in the air. Once again, it was saving me from an awkward moment.
Brett and Millie disappeared into the entrance of Jensen’s, and I eased into the shadows of one of the closed shops, sliding down to sit with my back against the wall. I blew out a long breath while I waited for my heart to slow.
Realizing the love letter was written for Millie was difficult. Even though it was never meant for me, I still felt possessive of it and of him. For six glorious days, Brett had been mine—at least theoretically. When I’d first read it, I’d gone from disgusted to curious and then had an epiphany. I was gay. It sounded simple, yet I’d made it to my junior year of college without admitting it to myself. But seeing the words written out effected a change in me, allowing for acceptance.
I stood, dusting my pants off, and peeked through the plate glass window of Jensen’s. The bar appeared cozy with polished dark wood, dim lighting, and a smattering of memorabilia on the walls. Brett and Millie sat at a table along the wall, their heads bent together in conversation. She laughed at something he said, and a lovely blush crept over her skin.
“I can do this,” I muttered. The door jingled when I pushed it open, and they both glanced my way.
“Over here!” Brett waved.
Waving back, I made my way to the table and sat across from Millie. She smiled warmly at me, and then her gaze was fixed on Brett again.
“Beaker, I’d like you to meet Millie.”
“Beaker?” Millie giggled then slapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right. I’m a mad scientist, so . . .” I tilted my head, taking her in up close. She was beautiful in a fresh-faced way, and her expression was open and friendly. “It’s great to meet you, Millie.”
“You, too . . . Beaker.” She giggled again.
Even if Brett hadn’t told me the letter was for Millie, his awed expression whenever he looked her way would have.
The three of us spent the evening talking, laughing, and drinking. It turned out Millie was a bit of a science geek herself, and we agreed to get together again soon.
On the walk home, I felt lighter than I had in a long time and knew everything would work out for me eventually. Maybe someday I’d even tell Brett how his mistake had helped me find my truth.
Sarah Aisling hails from New Jersey and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and awesomely precocious daughter. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SarahAislingAuthor