I was one of the oldest kids breathing the eye-stingingly chlorinated air of the Dolphin Swim Club when I started lessons there the summer before eighth grade. Most of my peers had moved on to competitive swimming, the kind you do while wearing a sporty cap. I just wanted to mellow in the shallow end, being encouraged to “make a big pizza, cut it in half” while learning the breaststroke.
I quickly advanced through the ranks of the baby classes, though, if for no other reason than that I could stand with my feet on the bottom of the pool and my head above water. I cycled through instructors and classmates into the school year and through the winter, and then at some point that spring, I was assigned to Morgan. She was seventeen; had short, spiky, red hair; and worked in the scene shop of Rockford’s independent playhouse. For an hour twice a week, I was her only student.
At this point in the story, he interrupts me. “Am I about to hear how you lost your virginity to a lesbian?”
“No! Nothing like that,” I scoff. I would never have wanted Morgan to come on to me, especially skinny, just-got-my-braces-off, Land’s End one-piece me. But those hours did feel like nothing so much as a pair of friends enjoying each other’s company, even as she instructed me to backstroke four lengths of the pool in exchange for a few minutes of candid conversation. We talked about books—she ordered me to read The Catcher in the Rye, and then when I complained that nothing happened, cried, “Because it’s LIFE!”—and boys. She sighed over the long-haired scene shop worker who was playing Balthasar in Romeo and Juliet that year; after my class field-tripped to see the show, I teased her by snorting that he wasn’t much to look at.
One day in the midst of our usual routine, she chirped, “Colleen, we should hang out sometime!” I drew back; I scrunched up my nose. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see her somewhere outside of the Dolphin’s echoey humidity, and I never outright rejected her stabs at friendship beyond the pool, but I couldn’t imagine what we would do. My school friends and I went to see Dreamworks animated movies in the theater and stayed up too late eating candy at each others’ houses and recorded weird radio shows on my friend’s karaoke machine. I didn’t have a clue how actual teenagers, ones old enough to have their own cars with “MORGY” vanity plates, spent their time.
It must have been around the same time that our twosome was invaded by Bart, a tiny automaton in a Speedo whose shoulders when he was practicing the butterfly terrified me. Once Bart was around, Morgan made us focus more on actual swimming. Our conversations receded. Then, not long after that, she switched teaching days with a red-faced roarer named Ryan, who not only kept Bart and me plowing away at laps throughout our lessons, but actually tried to get me to improve my form. Freshman year was fast approaching, and before the end of the summer I left the Dolphin behind for good.
I think of Morgan now as “the one that got away”—not in the way my listening friend meant, just as a mentor I let pass me by. In the alternate history I’ve created, she teaches me how to put on eyeliner, lets me try a quick drag on a cigarette—but just one; she doesn’t actually let me start smoking that young—and lends me books to read and movies to watch. Maybe she offers a low-key heads-up that ditching the clunky crucifix necklace might be a better look for me, or she tries to dissuade me from wearing my dad’s kilt to school as a nod to my Scottish heritage before shaking her head and letting me make that mistake. Maybe she and I don’t see each other much once I disappear into high school, but just knowing someone a little older, a little removed, a little more aware that almost none of it will matter in just a few years, helps.