The slimy, wet floor emanates a strong smell of sweat and chlorine. It rises up Ria’s nose and seems to settle inside her brain, making her feel dizzy. Thirty or forty six year olds like her have been running in circles on that wet floor for what feels like an eternity, and Ria finds herself insistently looking at the whistle the coach wears around her neck. It’s green, like the floor.
When is she going to blow it?
Suddenly, what feels like a block of wood crashes into Ria’s ankles. She looks down and catches a glimpse of pink. Someone has tripped her! She frantically waves her hands in the air, but can’t prevent gravity from hurling her down. The floor hits her like a slap, leaving the left side of her body numb.
Ria feels the vibration of someone’s feet hustling away – the culprit – as the rest gingerly crowd around her. The smell of sweat intensifies as the other children get so close they are practically breathing on her. Ria can hardly breathe, suffocated by the pain, the smell and the heat of the other bodies. Then Helaine, their coach, forces the children to disperse, and the poignant smell is replaced by a fruity scent as she sits beside Ria. Helaine’s eyes are grey and inexpressive, they remind Ria of cement.
Helaine’s monotone voice is is slightly aggressive. She wants to look concerned, but you can tell from the mechanical way in which her lips move that she couldn’t care less. She puts on a smile but it’s all teeth. Ria’s pain seems to intensify.
It’s like her arm is on fire.
The heat begins at her elbow, and propagates to the rest of the body, like an earthquake. Ria mumbles that she thinks her arm must be broken, but Helaine isn’t listening to her. She grabs Ria’s arm, which is awkwardly bent at the elbow, and yanks it. Ria closes her eyes, trying not to scream. By now she knows the arm must be broken. The coach, however, is of a different mind, and insists that the arm can’t be broken, because it moved and when a limb is broken…it doesn’t move.She says it very matter-of-factly, in that metallic voice that is so machine-like that it can’t be wrong, a human can’t contradict it.
Defeated, Ria lets her arm hang at her side. She wonders whether the coach might be right. After all, she doesn’t know how much pain people feel when their arms are broken. Her arm throbs so hard she thinks her heart might have decided to settle there. But does it hurt enough to be broken?
Ria follows Helaine towards a long, winding pipe, which is also green. Its hollow end stares at her, like a snake ready to attack. The coach turns the handle on the pipe, and icy water gushes out of it and onto Ria’s feet. Ria can’t help it. She squirms and hides her arm behind her back.
“Come on, don’t be a whimp” says Helaine, in a mildly frustrated tone. “Give me your arm.”
I would rather walk home in my bathing suit! Is what Ria would like to say.
Instead, she extends her arm towards the coach and turns her head away from the pipe, hoping that, because she can’t see what is going to happen, it won’t hurt as much. The other children are huddled together in a corner, gaping at her with a mixture of awe, pity and fear. Then the icy water hits Ria’s arm, and her friend’s faces fuse into a blur.
Curled inside her bathrobe, Ria watches the other children pretending to swim, their curious eyes burrowing into hers. She can’t stop crying. From time to time, Helaine coach tries to persuade her to get in. The coach is clearly disappointed now, and even though Ria hopes she won’t say it out loud, she knows what the coach is thinking: what a cry baby.
Her mother always used to say that. What a cry baby. What a cry baby. Ria can hear her mom’s voice chanting inside her head. Cry baby. Cry baby. Cry baby!
Unexpectedly, Ria notices the pain in her arm seems to have subsided. Maybe she wants to prove her mother wrong, or maybe the pain is so persistent she has become inured to it. Relieved, she realizes that there is no more reason to cry. She begs the coach to let her swim, raising both arms to prove that all is well again.
Helaine smiles. For a moment, she almost seems human. And, most importantly, she seems proud of her.
Of course that doesn’t last long, however. As soon as Ria tries to move her arm into the water, the stinging pain is so strong and immediate it makes her want to puke. She can’t swim anymore, and as she struggles to keep her head afloat her memory brings her back to the day in which she had been the last person to have the courage to go from one end of the pool to the other. Feeling the familiar fear of being a failure overtake her, Ria’s eyes swell with tears. Maybe, she thinks, I am a cry baby.
Then one of Ria’s friends offers her a rubber ring. Yes! What a great idea! Incredible how that small gesture of kindness filled her with hope so quickly. The coach helps Ria into it, and there she is, swimming away with her good arm. Occasionally, she also tries to move the other one, convinced that with enough will-power she will eventually learn not to notice the pain.
For what seems like an interminable hour, Ria stomps her feet and good arm to reach the other side of the pool in a succession of pain, moments of relief and then more pain. Until she hears the whistle.
It’s finally over.
Everybody storms out of the pool and rushes to their bathrobes, eager to be free from the coach’s rule. Ria slowly follows suit, first struggling to climb out of the pool, then to keep up with the others. The floor is her enemy now, and she can’t help but anxiously look around her for dangerous glimpses of pink. She is so caught up with avoiding legs or anything that might trip her, that she walks straight into a massive glass door, hitting her bad arm again. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Ria’s babysitter is observing her from the other side of the glass, and the apprehensive look in her eyes, the first one Ria has received up to that moment, is all that she needs to smile.
During dinner, Ria’s mom tries to take the heat out of the situation. “Of course it’s not broken,” she reassures her husband. “Ria is such a cry baby!” Ria’s mom playfully pinches Rias’s cheek, and the poor child turns to her plate for comfort. Incredible, how that single pinch could hurt more than her swollen arm.
I knew it. She thinks. Of course my arm isn’t broken. If it had been, the pain would have certainly been unbearable. I probably won’t even get a bruise from this thing. As she tries to ignore the pain to use her knife, she tells herself that next time she won’t cry, no matter how much it hurts. Ria’s younger brother, who is only three and, therefore, still maintains the healthy curiosity of someone who doesn’t have to worry about work all say, notices something.
“Dad, don’t you think that Ria’s left arm is growing?”
By the time Ria finshes eating desert, one of her arms is double the size of the other, and her shirt is braced around it so tightly that it almost feels like it will suffocate.
Without even finishing his food, Ria’s dad swiftly cleans up the table and leaves.
“Honey, where are you going?” asks Ria’s mother.
“To get the car keys. Ria’s arm is clearly.”
I knew it! Thinks Ria. She has never felt so relieved in her life.