This book excerpt of BREATH LIKE WATER is courtesy of author Anna Jarzab, a Midwesterner turned New Yorker. She lives and works in New York City and is the author of such books as Red Dirt, All Unquiet Things, The Opposite of Hallelujah, and the Many-Worlds series. Visit her online at annajarzab.com and on Twitter, @ajarzab.
FROM THE AUTHOR
Ever since I realized I wanted to be a writer, I knew I wanted to write a book about swimmers. I swam throughout my childhood and adolescence, and while I wasn’t ever any good, my high school team was big and competitive and full of talent, which gave me a glimpse into the world of swimmers whose futures in the sport were bright and full of promise. But I never really had an idea for a swimming novel that excited me until about seven years ago, when I began to struggle with my writing and needed an outlet to process everything I was feeling about that experience. I began to write about a swimmer whose athletic fortunes had shifted, and who was fighting to regain her elite status and go to the Olympics. This is an excerpt from that novel, which is called Breath Like Water and will be available on May 19th. A minor setup note: This excerpt comes from early in the novel, a few days after the main character, Susannah, was disqualified for a false start during a relay at an invitational held by her club. This mistake has brought the already strained relationship she has with her long-time coach to a breaking point. Her new teammate, Harry, stumbles upon her putting in a little extra practice time at the pool after hours. Thanks so much to SwimSwam for featuring this excerpt of Breath Like Water! I couldn’t have written the book without this site.
“Take your mark,” I whisper, tightening my grip on the block.
I do probably thirty starts, and each time my body unfolds neatly in flight, assembling itself into a streamlined arrow before plunging into the water. This is stupid. My disqualification had nothing to do with the power or technique of my start. It was fear—of being late off the block and losing our lead, of freezing up and not jumping at all—that did it.
There are no do-overs. A hundred good starts now won’t erase the one that I flubbed.
But I keep going, taking comfort in the rhythm of it, in the feeling of doing something well, until I happen to glance at the clock. It’s been an hour, which is as long as I can reasonably expect Beth to give me. I toss my goggles onto the deck and hoist myself out of the pool.
“It’s probably none of my business, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your start.”
The sound of another person’s voice takes me by surprise. My foot slips on the slick metal gutter and I almost topple into the water. I grab the block to catch myself.
Harry Something is standing near the entrance to the men’s locker room, staring at me with those big, super-chromatic eyes, carelessly leaning against the wall like he’s holding it up instead of the other way around.
A pang of jealousy hits me square in the chest. An athlete’s job is to understand his or her body and what it can do. It gives you a special kind of confidence, which Harry seems to have. I used to have it, too, but now my body is so foreign to me I’d need the Rosetta Stone to puzzle it out.
“I know there’s nothing wrong my start,” I tell him. I wrench my swim cap off with a wince. It seems to take half my curls along with it. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry about that.” He strolls toward me, shoulders thrown back, hands in the pockets of his jeans, all arrogance and ease.
I wrap a towel around my waist, feeling exposed and a little embarrassed, as if Harry’s caught me giving myself a pep talk in the mirror. Why is he suddenly always around at times like these?
Harry sits down on a nearby bench and pats the spot next to him. I hesitate, then collapse beside him, feeling the full weight of my exhaustion. I sigh.
“Yeah, same,” Harry says. “Dave wasn’t kidding. That practice was grueling.”
“I feel like I’ve been fed through a meat grinder,” I tell him. He nods in sympathy.
“Which reminds me—why are you still here?” he asks.
I lift an eyebrow. “I know you saw that false start at the invitational.”
He scrubs his fingers against his scalp. The bright fluorescent overhead lights pick up the gold in his hair. We’re sitting so close to each other that I’m practically dripping on him.
“I saw,” he admits. “Dave was wrong to treat you like that. This sport demands a lot, and it’s not like you false-started to spite him. I’m sure you felt bad enough as it was.”
My throat tightens. “I deserved it,” I say. “I screwed up.”
“So? It happens. Shouldn’t mean you get a beat-down.”
“Yeah, well, I let him down. I let my teammates down.” I swallow hard. “I let myself down.”
I’m not getting into my history with this guy—I mean, I hardly know him—but he’s looking at me in a way that makes me think he might understand. Like there have been times he felt the same way.
My heart is beating so hard that it feels like it’s going to punch its way right out of my chest. I can’t even remember the last time I was alone like this with a guy. Maybe never.
I twist my towel in my hands and stare at Harry’s knee, which is bouncing up and down like he’s got so much energy he can’t contain it. We might be sitting too close. I can smell him over the omnipresent fug of chlorine in the air: Irish Spring soap and clean cotton, with a hint of red licorice.
Harry radiates warmth, with his hundred-watt smile and inability to keep still. Every time he looks at me, it’s like I’m sitting in a spotlight.
“I get it,” Harry says. He points to the water. “But that’s not going to help.”
“Come on. You know how to dive off the block. That’s like Competitive Swimming 101, you’ve done it a million times. So—were you practicing, or were you punishing yourself?”
“Throwing yourself at the water like that. Reminding yourself how awful it felt to screw up, so you never do it again.”
I gaze at the cap and goggles in my hand. “What else can I do?”
“I read up on GAC before I chose to swim here,” Harry says. “I know Dave’s whole schtick is using data and analysis and massive yardage to bludgeon people into perfect swimmers, but a) half of that is junk science, and b) we’re not machines.”
“But we can be. That’s the whole point.”
“No, we can’t.”
“Because we want stuff. Desire is one of the defining characteristics of our species. Machines don’t want things. They just obey their programming.”
“I guess.” I can’t deny that I want things. I want to win, and maybe more than that, I want not to lose.
“You seem disappointed,” he says.
“Sometimes I think I’d be happier if I didn’t want things,” I tell him. I keep forgetting we’re strangers. It feels nice, right now, to have someone to say this stuff to, though I might regret it later.
Harry shrugs. “Probably. But I still think it’s better than being a flawless, unfeeling automaton, which is what Dave wants us to be. Don’t you think?”
“The trade-off is that sometimes you don’t get the gold star.”
“At this point, I’d settle for not getting DQ-ed,” I tell him. He laughs, and then so do I. Harry nudges me with his elbow as if to say: See? It’s not so bad.
“But you’re a great swimmer,” he says.
“What makes you so sure?”
He smirks. “Um, aren’t you a world champion?”
“I’m not a world champion anymore.”
“You’ll always be a world champion. That’s how it works. Can’t fool me.”
I smile. When I arrived at the pool for early practice this morning, I didn’t think anything could make me feel better, but somehow Harry has. Maybe the fact that we’re strangers helps him see what I need more clearly than my friends or family or even I can.
“Some people, when things don’t come easy, they give up. But you clearly don’t. You could be licking your wounds at home, but you’re here doing something about it. I respect that. I think it’s cool.”
Am I imagining things, or is he blushing? It’s probably just the heat. It’s like a sauna in here.
He’s looking across the wide blue ribbon of the pool, deliberately avoiding my gaze. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was nervous. But that would be silly.
I stare at my feet. The nail polish on my toes is chipped. “Tell that to Dave.”
“You know the saying that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent?”
I nod. “Honestly, I think it’s kind of bullshit.”
“Same. I mean, no offense to Eleanor Roosevelt, but of course people can make you feel inferior without your con- sent. Nobody wants to be treated like garbage. And if you’re not a total narcissist, self-doubt always manages to creep in. I guess the trick is to not let it stop you.”
“If I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know. But you’re going to be all right,” he says. “I promise. That’s the nice thing about swimming: the water is new every day.”
“Why are you doing this?” I ask. He frowns, looking con- fused. I gesture between the two of us. “This. Saying these things? You don’t even know me.”
He rubs the back of his neck and turns away from me. I feel bad. I think I’ve embarrassed him.
“I thought you could use some cheering up,” he says, standing. “Sorry if I bothered you.”
“You’re not bothering me,” I insist. “I appreciate what you said.”
Harry relaxes. “We’re teammates now. I’ve got your back.” He offers me his hand to shake. “Harry Matthews.”
“Nice to meet you, Susie.”
“Actually, it’s—” I stop myself. Nobody’s ever called me Susie. I think I like it. “Nice to meet you, too.”
Harry grins. “And now I know you.”
Available May 19 wherever books are sold:
Excerpted from Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab, Copyright © 2020 by Anna Jarzab. Published by Inkyard Press.