On the morning of their last row, the four college boys grip the boat with straight arms above their heads and walk out of the boathouse. Coxswain's voice whispers in the dark and her breath disappears like cigarette smoke. Their socked feet patter down the ramp to the floating wooden dock. Tiny clouds of fog hover above the water and spread out to conceal the lake. One of the boys, the first in line, spits. To her count they roll the boat to their sides, and then lower it down into the water. One by one, they step in and sit down.
Coxswain grips the dock with her fingers to steady the boat. The air smells of wet wood, an under-layer of egg. Stroke used to dip his thumb in the water and pull it out, half-missing, dissolved by the polluted water. To make her laugh, he'd lower one finger and then the next, one by one, until he'd lost them all to the cesspool. Back when he was taking steps toward her, when each practice was an opportunity for him to increase his value.
The shoes wait, bolted to the footboard, curled in on themselves, damp and cool. The boys pry at the heels with their fingertips, rocking their ankles back and forth and tilting the boat with each motion. Finally, they settle onto the wooden slides and lock their oars into place. The lake ripples and then becomes the smoothest dark mirror.
"Push away," Coxswain commands.
Stroke reaches out; his massive hand grasps the corner of the dock and when he straightens his arm and locks his elbow, the boat stills, and time pauses. For a moment, nothing happens. In this micro-instant, Stroke's bronze arm halts the earth's rotation and fixes all of them in this boathouse scene. A sensation of permanence surrounds them, as if they are frozen in a photograph, being viewed by hundreds of invisible eyes.
Before Two's skinny white arm fully extends to help shove the boat away, before he can even begin to claw at the dock with his skeletal fingers, Stroke grunts once and sends them away, drifting sideways; the two oars on the starboard side scrape on top of the wood planks until they plunk into the water.
Coxswain tries to yell and whisper at the same time. She says, "Bowman and Three, arms only," and "ready y'all row."
The oars cut into the steaming water and they glide away from land. The night's stillness hasn't loosened.
In the center of the lake the fog thickens and the boys can't see.
"Way enough," Coxswain says.
The boat slows, and blades lift into the air, rotate, and spank down on the water's surface.
The crew drifts to a stop and sits slack, backs curved. Coxswain takes off her winter hat and combs her white-blond hair with a small pink comb. "Aw, you don't have to look pretty for me," Stroke says. She tosses her hair back and does not look at him. Her legs look painted with black spandex and she stretches them out, resting her feet on Stroke's shoes.
"He'll probably call it off," Coxswain says. "I couldn't see an ocean liner coming at us."
A wisp of fog hides her face. She reappears, rouged high cheeks and dull blue eyes set close together.
The fog drifts in between the boys, covering their heads and rolling along their backs. They sit still.
Bowman slouches forward and closes his eyes. They will need to row even if practice is canceled. The rowing ritual defends against the black mornings which sometimes pour into Bowman like cooling steel, making his head too heavy to lift from his pillow. The leg muscle burn, the sticky, thirsty mouth that tastes like blood and lung, the sudden nausea and quick vomit over the side of the boat—each stage purging the magnet inside him that attracts the darkness.
Bowman tugs his red Santa hat over his ears and sleeps while he waits.
Three sits in front of Bowman, chin to his chest, eyes also closed, but he does not sleep. He listens and tries to identify every sound: the drip from a raised blade onto the surface of the lake, a rustle of nylon, Coxswain clearing her throat. This distracts him from the turbulence in his stomach; this task helps him ignore the stomach acid that burbles at the base of his throat. His breath and his life taste like tequila gone sour.
"Well," Two says. Two sits erect, both hands on his oar-handle and still, he cannot see past the broad wall of Stroke's back. He leans to the side to speak. "Maybe we should warm up," Two says. The boat tips. "Head toward the bridge."
"Maybe you should shut up about it and sit still," Stroke says, turning his head and speaking to the air next to him. "Or you'll fucking dump us."
"He'll probably cancel," Coxswain says. She pulls her knees up to her chest. She unlaces her running shoes and slides one off. "I'd probably run us straight into someone's living room." She peels away her white sock and rubs the bottom of her foot. "Speaking of—try to keep your voices down." She holds up her hand and cocks her head. "Did you hear that?"
No sound except breathing from the bow.
Coxswain takes a small red jar from her coat pocket and shakes it. She wedges her heel in place, flexes her toes, and dabs red paint onto a toenail. Stroke could cover her foot with one hand. Her feet make him think of skinned rabbits; they are as smooth and white as bone. So small and perfectly shaped and Stroke maneuvers an elbow to adjust his crotch.
Stroke worries that the bulge signals a lack of concentration, a failure of leadership. The coach is always saying, "Keep your heads in the boat." But with Coxswain facing him, sitting in full body spandex, knees bent and parted enough to glimpse the cleft in her crotch, Stroke thinks mainly about the head in between his legs, moving from under the waistband of his boxers and pointing like an arrow at his stomach. Coxswain flexes her bare feet, the tip of her tongue pressed between her lips.
"Give me a fuckin' break with this," Stroke says. "No curling iron?"
Two leans farther, the boat tilts more, but Stroke says nothing. After a while two says, "It must be excellent to paint your nails. To have that as something to look forward to. Especially bright red."
Coxswain finishes one foot and starts the other. The paint looks moist and fresh. It makes Two hungry and he leans to get a better look.
"Jesus back there. Keep your pants on, she's not going anywhere." Stroke jerks his body to level the boat. He doesn't even turn his head to speak; he just says the words while glaring at the top of Coxswain's bent head. Like he's trying to drill a hole through her skull.
Coxswain does not look up from her task.
Stroke remembers peeling the clothes from her drunken body and spreading her out like a buffet, on a toilet. This is not the thinking that will get his pecker in line, so he tries to blur his mind, tries to drift away from his insistent erection. He wonders what he still wants from her. What else is there to get? But the thoughts are too wispy, too much like the fog moving past his face. Maybe getting isn't possible. What if there is nothing to get? But there is, there must be. He could start, he thinks, by biting her foot. Three says, "Oh God," and no one responds. Head still bowed, eyes still shut, he tries to stretch his leg muscles. Not just practice, he thinks, someone should cancel the whole day.
Later, when his body is saturated with post-practice lethargy, when he's moving through the day with a dream-like detachment, he'll have to face the red-haired girl who left his room last night without even a kiss. He'll have to look into the eyes of this girl who refused to believe his sincerity, who denied his declaration of love because he was drunk.
He should insist on the truth of what he said, he should grasp her shoulders and explain that he is in love with her, but that he is afraid of being disillusioned, of learning the difference between the real her and the idea of her that he has constructed in his head. She will fail him, he'll explain, but she is not to blame—it is his fault for making up such an impossible and extravagant character in his own head. An ideal that no human could ever compete with.
And instead, Three will make some joke about being drunk, as if everything he said was part of a good natured, friendly, not-so-subtle plea to get laid. Is it possible to be drunk and sincere? Of course not, he will say, the context of any love declaration is more important than the actual words. Saying the words is easy, meaningless—it's when and where you say the words, the surrounding conditions that give the words their true meaning. Who doesn't know this? And the two of them, still very good friends, will laugh it off. Three will apologize again and again, and continue to develop the character of the red-haired girl that lives in his head.
Three's stomach sours and he hangs his head. The longing hurts him square behind the eyes and he prays for universal cancellation.
Two asks, "Why do we do this?"
Coxswain looks up to see Stroke elbowing his crotch. She remembers the taste of a party—a party flavored with too-sweet fruit punch and too-strong cherry vodka, where Stroke's saliva dried on her neck and something warm dried on her bare belly.
And throwing up, for the first time in her life, without experiencing any of the usual relief. Her stomach paused on "purge" and no amount of retching could reset her body. She remembers the security guard, with his black leather belt and flashlight, crouching, warm hand on her bare shoulder, gently waking her to the smell of sick and the downstairs bathroom stall. Still naked.
"Because we need friends, we have no life," Stroke says and laughs. "What the hell kind of question is that?"
Two says, "We never win. We never will."
"I do it to stay in shape," Coxswain says and Stroke looks over her breasts for the millionth time. Restrained and outlined in black. She never sweats at practice on the water, but always at the gym with the guys in a sports bra and naked shiny back.
Two continues, "We get up in the middle of the night to row back and forth, trying not to freeze and hoping to click on ten or fifteen solid strokes. Then we sleepwalk through the rest of our day. I don't know."
Coxswain lowers her voice to imitate the coach, "To pull our balls off."
Stroke says, "And if you're not into it there are at least three guys who'll take your place."
Coxswain twists the cap onto her jar and puts it into her pocket. She blows on her toes with a rounded mouth. Flecks of lipstick have fallen away like paint chips.
"I'm talking about when this is all over," Two states. "When we're sitting around somewhere, far away from each other. After this day has blurred into a hundred others, and we're wondering what the hell we were trying to do all that time on that lake."
"In the fog," Three mumbles.
As if on cue, the fog seems to thicken and hides one person from the other. Each person sits alone, inside their own Styrofoam cooler, packed with dry ice.
"Sometimes it doesn't add up to much," Two says to himself.
Their legs feel weak and bruised. The boat drifts in the water and the lightest rain begins, misting down on the five, partially hidden, motionless figures. Coxswain stops them. They've drifted under the bridge. The relative quiet is broken by the sounds of a single car, as it moves across the asphalt far above their heads.
"It's a waste of time." Bowman's loud voice echoes.
"That's not what I mean," Two begins, but Bowman talks over him.
"Trying to add it up," he says. In a pinched and nerdy voice Bowman says, "Let's see, the boat plus the water plus the fog, divided by the cold and night equals aerobic fitness plus thigh muscles..."
"Plus vomit," Three says.
"Plus a raging hard-on," Stroke says and grunts at his own comment.
"I'm just saying," Two begins.
"I'll tell you why," Bowman says. "I'll explain the point of it all, the purpose of our self-inflicted toil."
As they wait, it's as if a plug has been pulled and the crew's collective sluggishness drains away. The hum of blood moves through ear canals. Sweat rises on upper lips, pumping hearts begins to jog. By the time Bowman speaks again, it feels as though hours have passed.
"We're in charge of the dawn," he says, barely jostling the boat as he ties his feet into the shoes. "We pull the sun into the sky and without us..." Bowman leaves the rest unspoken while the others set themselves in place.
Coxswain gives a command and three oars cut into the water, turn the boat and pause, holding the boat still.
After slipping on her shoes and tucking her legs back into her space, Coxswain turns to look into the fog bank they were about to enter.
The boys grip their oars and slide forward until their butts almost touch their heels.
Coxswain holds up her hand and cocks her head.
One by one, each boy turns his head and stares at the wall of white fog. Visibility matters very little to the boys; even on the clearest, sunniest day, they can't see the finish line. They might glimpse the land that streaks along the side of the boat, growing ever smaller as it moves toward the horizon's vanishing point. The boys do not steer; they do not aim themselves in any direction or know exactly how much longer they'll have to pull before it's over. They are the engine, and Coxswain controls the throttle while she drives. This morning, they know that she can't see any better than they can.
Everyone listens for the sound of the coach's launch or any noise from the direction of the parking, but they hear nothing.
When it comes, Coxswain's shout echoes like a gunshot under the bridge. She yells, "Ready y'all—" The last word stops, poised on the edge of a cliff, leaning toward the drop...The boys wait, stretched forward, hands wrapped around their oars, muscles compressed like coiled springs.
"Row!" The volume and the sound of the single word booms like thunder.
For an instant, the power of the first pull lifts the front of the boat up and out of the water, and the stern pierces into the bank of fog. The sensation is of skimming above the water, gliding on a cushion of air.
Coxswain barks out commands and the boys rip their oars through the water, their muscles speeding toward burn, each boy trying to feel their way into a rhythm, into the groove that will transform their single pull into a force that changes night into day.
Legs slam down, backs hinge, arms pull and the boys send themselves backward, faster and faster, toward an end they cannot see.
Coxswain screams, "Come on you guys, I want ten right now, ten at full power—One!"
The pitch of her voice rises with the stroke count; each number demands more from the boys, forcing their taps deeper and deeper toward the glowing, burning, fire at their inner core.
The boys hear no words, only the insistent, urgent tone of Coxswain's shrieks. With fibers tearing deep in their muscles the boys rocket through the water, pulling sunlight into the fog around them and moving farther and farther away.
The last thread of caution, of hesitation, that separates each rower begins to disintegrate and one by one each boy vanishes into movement.
Clicked into the power of their synchronized rhythm, the crew flies away.