If Holden Caulfield Was a Swimmer

A shy young swimmer breaks down the dos and don’ts of chlorinated love in an excerpt from the new novel Swimming.

07.17.09 6:27 AM ET

Horny swimmers beget trouble. They leave pain in their wake, destroy careers, don’t care. There are stories. Legend has Chrissy Hughs, world butterfly record holder and Olympic champ, quitting when she falls in love with Leif Benson, world butterfly record holder and Olympic champ. Mutual passion gets her pregnant by accident and they have a baby boy they name Little Leif. Later, bored and chubby, her tired red eyes brimming with remorse, she tries to re-launch her swimming career, but never reaches the same level, no matter how hard she trains. Being pregnant changed her center of gravity, the baby sucked too much of the x-factor out of her, and her name had become too long to sound right on the podium: Chrissy Hughs-Benson. Legend has Arch Naylor taking one look at her and shaking his silver head.

Click Here for Nicola Keegan's Take on Writing Swimming

She shouldn’t have taken on his name, I say in the locker room after practice.

Babe’s drying her hair. What in the world does that have to do with it?

I look at her and shout, What doesn’t that have to do with it? She shakes her head, turns off her dryer. That’s the same question, only backwards.

I know what I’m talking about. Chrissy Hughs-Benson doesn’t work.

Peggy chimes in. If Babe would have been born a Rhoda...

It’s the first time we agree...And Rhodas don’t swim.

She finishes my sentence. Chrissy Hughs-Bensons don’t win golds.

I’m basking in harmony. You got it.

She goes in for the kill. If you follow that kind of logic, then Philomena of course would be...

Harmony is fragile, but I know what I’m talking about. A four-syllable anomaly. An exception to the rule.

She’s putting lip gloss on with a wand. Convenient.

Swimming. By Nicola Keegan. 320 pages. Knopf. $25.95.

Peggy is attracted to the horny masculine swimmers, the ones who whip towels into weapons and leave welts for fun. She likes the ones who refer to their colleagues as rookie balls, prick, dickhead, and rover, the squinty handsome ones who drape an arm casually over her shoulders, looking up when someone interesting walks into the room. She brings them home when the Peggys are out; they make out in the living room as I hide out with Dave in my bedroom, Adam Ant blaring in my ears. My lonesomeness fights long, weighted battles with fatigue, but fatigue always wins and I eventually close my eyes to a dark velvet dream world inhabited by the soaring silence of a flock of nectar-eating mega bats until I open them up to a fresh new day.

Supercoach E. Mankovitz stays out of our private life, but it’s obvious by the way he tugs at his mustache, slowly shakes his head, clicks his tongue, and sighs that he does not encourage swimming love because everyone knows that in swimming love it’s always the girl who sacrifices her future for the sake of great passion and not the horny swimmer, who keeps on winning medals, eventually stepping down to get a great job in marketing, communications, finance, sports psychology, or pediatrics. I have due reason to avoid boys with balls, a real excuse for turning mute and red and clammy, for standing back, slightly bending my shoulders forward to hide puberty’s kiwis.

But I like the kind ones who hold the locker room door and don’t say anything gross when I walk through. The sweet ones who say Good set, who ask me what I’m listening to on my Walkman because they really want to know, who won’t make fun of Adam Ant even if they want to. When I spot a certain nice swimmer with a shy smile standing on the other side of the pool, I squirm, thinking naked as he looks back and waves, the muscles in his lean arms undulating like water. Yearnings wrestle inside of me like ferocious animals, sending feelings into parts of my body that up until now have been sleeping.

Everyone knows that in swimming love it’s always the girl who sacrifices her future for the sake of great passion and not the horny swimmer, who keeps on winning medals.

But avoiding horniness is like avoiding life. The continuous stream of hot thought mixes with keen curiosity, eventually wearing me down, girl or no, and I find myself on a couch at a Friday night swimming party, his tongue in my mouth, and my old world empties, the new one filling up with sexy stuff. He turns his head, breathing slowly into my ear, causing both my ear cords and my vagina to whir.

My vagina has done many things in her short life. She’s jumped down hard on new bike; ridden the occasional, misbehaving pony; sat quietly in class listening to a nun. She’s plunged off a high dive the wrong way, vibrated along with a vibrating plane, idled sweetly with an idling bus, spent many summer hours soaking up heat from a faraway sun, but up until this moment, she’d never whirred.

He stops kissing me, whispering: You OK?

I say I think so, and Holy Name shoots up toward the heavens, small and smaller the faster it goes, exploding in a shower of burning black stars that disappear as they fall.

We make out in the parking lot, at the Peggys’ behind their wall of trees. We make out in the shady parts of the street, we make out lying down on the floor in the empty weight room, we make out by the bluish light of an empty pool. He’s never pushy. I no longer worry about the breadth of my shoulders, the muscular boobs that flex when I move; I’m basking in the discovery that kindhearted, cute but not handsome swimmers love everything about me, not suspecting for one second that I’m still girl.

Peggy doesn’t understand. Are you really going out with him? He’s so...She looks for a word she doesn’t have the patience to find. I can give you one of my old ones if you want.

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Nicola Keegan lives in Paris with her husband and three children. Swimming is her debut novel.