The hot boiler voice of the Assistant Coach caromed flatly off my ears so that I failed to absorb one word of his diatribe. The Coach winced at his screeching comments, and pushed his cap lower toward his ears to block the overheated whistling that had flowed forth for over five minutes. I had always been somewhat lanky. I had never had a mass greater than that of 177 pounds. My metabolism had never failed to absorb the raw excess of calories from my careless diet. Doctors had said nothing about my physique, and for eighteen years, that had been the extent of the commentary about my weight.
But for the last six minutes of non-stop verbosity, there had been a constant stream of voluminous words directed solely about my appearance and heaviness – or lack thereof. If I hadn’t had eighteen years to build up a healthy self-esteem, and a thick layer of apathy, those six minutes might have made me cry tears of steam into the night. The short of the complaint was that, at an even six feet in height, and one hundred and sixty five pounds, I was too fat for the thin boat, and too skinny for the fat boat.
The whole conversation was not as distressing as what I had seen two days prior. Our lumbering train had gasped while we jogged around the paved edge as a snake wriggled through the breakers in easy fashion. The brown boundaries of the water lapped in miniscule tidal waves onto an inch of trampled shoreline where a dead rat ignored our feeble parade, and the air bore the stench of a three week old cesspool. This was the lake where we would practice rowing.
After our jog, we stood around in our spanking-new spandex shorts trying not to look at the hazy water, or below the waistlines of any of our teammates. The shorts had the disadvantage of providing distressing views of certain bodily areas that should have been covered by acres of fabric. This fact almost mitigated their beneficial properties, of preventing clothes from being eaten buffet style by the seat-slides. The awkwardness was broken by the Coach introducing us to the boats, which bore odd paint jobs, scars, and several decades of heavy use.
Just when we thought that we were going to touch, or perhaps even sit in the boats, we were directed to sit, and for the next several hours, we were bombarded about the theoretical and practical aspects of rowing. Once the discussion was over, we followed standard operating procedure. We did not touch the boats, and we did not hold an oar.
The next afternoon, we were back at the lake. Large, puffy tendrils stretched from cloud to cloud, and formed larger grey masses which spat hail and rain at the vans we waited in. Eventually, without even exercising, we headed back to campus.
Throughout the day prior to the rant, I had a tingling sense of anticipation. My psychic powers told me that I would actually row. I was therefore able to ignore all of the superfluous comments about how I should lose or gain pounds because I was about to do something ridiculously fun. Finally, with a sigh of resignation, the Coach signaled that I should join the lighter boat of men, and with that we were issued oars like oversized rifles, and paraded out onto the half submerged dock.
The boats rocked crazily as we stepped in and strapped in our feet. After an agonizing half-hour, we were on the water. As the Coach circled our boat in his dingy, shouting invectives at us, I was ready for the sublime experience of cruising across the water’s surface like a cool breeze. The order then came to row. With the force of eight men, the boat surged forward unevenly. And then stopped. We had lost an oar. Once recovered, we moved in an undead manner, jerking and stumbling grotesquely around the water.
After an hour, my hands began to ache. I dismissed it as a mild side effect from the constant struggle the water and I were conducting. Each stroke, every individual molecule of hydrogen and oxygen gripped my oar like cement, and attempted to rip it and my arms from my body. Conversely, my back and legs strained to move the millions of defiant particles at all costs. Sweat trickled down my sunburned neck as my fingers crushed the worn wood on my oar to prevail over nature.
Suddenly, we were drifting back to the dock. I hadn’t even realized that we had made our seventh feeble turn. My eyes had ceased to know more than the back straining in front of me. Gingerly, I unclasped my hands from the oar. Gaping, raging, raw oozing crusty dried blood open blisters looked back at me from where smooth palms with a crisp canvas of life-lines had been. I felt numb. There was no joy in my body, as I left the boat. There was only the farcical bliss of the stigmata of rowing.