“Persuasion” by Alisha Karabinus

Early August in Wichita is sticky-hot, drab, would be boring except I’m dressed for adventure, wedgie sandals and tiny terry shorts, a camisole that should be underwear, but in summer the rules all change. In summer, I can pack light, so when Parker meets me at the dorms, I’m not too sweaty, not too weighed down with my overnight bag and my file boxes on the luggage cart. “Rachel Barnes,” he says, flashing that smile I remember from the day I met him, that smile that made me want to commit on the spot, despite the prestige of following in my sister’s wake at Emory, or the sweet offer from Michigan. He’s the bright light in Kansas, all muscles stacked on muscles, and so tan it’s like the sun melted all over him. “Welcome to Wichita.”

“Nice to see you again, coach.”

“Just Parker,” he says. “Told you, everyone just calls me Parker. Let’s get you set up.” That’s when I notice the dark-haired girl skirting around him, face all scrunched like she smells something bad. “This is Maria. You’re gonna be rooming with her.”

“Hi,” she says. An old-lady line creases the space between her brows. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. In February, I only met guys in Nashville. I think she’s the only girl on the debate team. Was. She’s probably used to all the attention, used to not sharing a room on trips. Too bad for Maria. Like Parker, she’s not tall but wide, though her girth is all soda and cupcakes, concentrated in her ass and hips, in fleshy upper arms. Pretty skin, golden, good complexion, dark eyes, but nothing else to recommend her. No presence. No competition. “Hi,” I tell her. “Good to meet you.”

“You ready to get started?” Parker asks, and Maria’s out of the conversation again, standing there looking sour.

“I’m always ready.” And I load always with all the nuance I can cram into two syllables. Parker and I, we’re speaking the same language; I can see it in his raised eyebrows, the spark in his eyes as they dart from my luggage and back to me, all that fresh bare skin on display. He looks at me, and everything my sister said over the summer, about how I should have picked Emory after all, it’s all wiped away. Classes don’t start for another few weeks, but this camp is gonna be like high school summer debate camps on steroids, and I’m ready to trade up. I’m always ready.

“Got a lot to do in the next week,” he says, and he’s all business again, his hands working over the words, squeezing every syllable. “Maria’s got your prelim evidence packet up in the room. Looks like you came prepared?”

“Been cutting cards all summer with friends. Hyped for the topic.” Middle Eastern policy. Foreign relations are always my favorites. More exciting than domestic policy, which can so easily get bogged down in the line by line. Bore-city.

“Good girl.” He salutes me, and there’s that smile again, going off like a flashbulb. “Go on and get settled. We’re gonna meet in a little in one of the classrooms.”

He disappears inside the brick building and then I’m left with this Maria girl. “So,” she says. “Let’s get your stuff in the room.”

Side by side, we walk in, me dragging my luggage, Maria dragging her disapproval. “When did you get here?”

“Yesterday,” she says. “We came in the van.”

“Oh, you guys all came together?”

“Well, Parker drove to Memphis and we met him there. Most of us flew in, except James. He stays in Nashville year-round. He came with Parker.”

James. I remember him, I think; wiry guy, mixed, I’m pretty sure, with a fade and nerd glasses. Kinda guy probably wears a damn bow-tie in rounds. “Any other freshmen?”

“Some guy named Nick from down Georgia. I haven’t met him yet. He couldn’t make camp.”

“Who skips pre-season prep?”

Maria huffs noisily. “I know, right?” Suddenly she’s normal, like a real girl and not someone’s grandmother. “What a way to start your first semester. Come on, we’re up on the second floor.”

We only see one other person in the halls, probably a grad student, an older girl in a long patchwork skirt; she smiles hello and holds the door to the stairwell. Maria takes the handle of the luggage cart and I get the bottom, balancing the boxes. “Just down on the left,” she says, breathing hard. I try not to roll my eyes. Really? Like she doesn’t do this all the time? Like there are no stairs at college tournaments?

The room is small enough that I’m glad we’re only here for a week, two single beds and tiny closets and a sink next to what I guess is the bathroom door.

“I took the bed by the door,” Maria says. “Hope that’s okay.”

“Doesn’t matter.” I’m already breaking down the cart, pulling off my file boxes. “Where’s my packet? What do I need for the meeting? Should I bring all these cards?”

“Uh,” Maria says. Helpful, this one. “I think we’re just going over the packet. We got in so late that I’m not sure anyone’s really looked at it much yet.”

“You didn’t read it? Aren’t we starting tomorrow?” Christ, camp is only a week and we’ve got the practice tourney. I’m really hoping she’s not going to be my partner. When I turn around, slinging my laptop bag over my shoulder, she’s holding out the packet. It’s only about two hundred pages, I’d guess. I went through that much on the plane up from Dallas.

“Here,” she says.

“Thanks. Where we headed?”

“Building next door. We’ve got classrooms assigned, but I don’t know if there are laptop plugs.” She’s got her packet and a legal pad, old school, like the kind my sister still uses for the flow during rounds.

It isn’t a long walk, but homegirl is totally panting again, doglike, by the time we roll into the classroom. I walk in before her, and there’s Parker, sprawled out in a chair at the front of the room, and the guys have pushed the tables into a tight semicircle around him. There’s James, just like I remember, light-skinned and acne-fied, a blond guy I met but whose name I can’t pull up, who looks like a Fox News poster boy, cornfed and husky in a button-down, which seems entirely ridiculous for August anywhere, and another guy I haven’t seen before, dark-haired and long-limbed in a tight polo, with a face that might be attractive if Parker wasn’t in the room, burning so hot I can barely see anything else.

Parker looks relaxed, but once we’re in seats, he sparks up like a house on fire. “Everyone, this is Rachel. She’s new. Get to know her later. We’re gonna be working most of the night. You’ll have plenty of time. Rachel, you’ve met James, Tom—” That’s the Fox News kid—”and Maria. This is Phil.” Phil nods at me, gives me a hey-baby smile, but most of my attention is given over to Parker.

“Prelim teams,” he continues. “James and Rachel. Tom and Maria. Phil, you’re a floater. You’ll get an assigned partner for the tourney. Focus on performance. Reveal nothing. Work with Rachel most, since she’s new.” He rubs a hand over his head, ruffling his short hair. “Let’s talk first affirmative. James, you work on the pullout case we talked about in the van?”

James leans forward. “Yeah, I started writing it up—”

“Stop,” Parker says, waving a hand. “Save it. You know better. We’re running safe and not debuting anything big here. We’ll save that, maybe even for the second tournament. Sit on it, work on it next week.”

“We running oil?”

I’m flipping through the packet as they’re talking, one eye on Parker, one eye scanning titles. I’ve already seen that oil is the sample case provided. I can’t help it: I laugh, just a quick thing, almost a snort, almost embarrassing, but enough to shut James up.

“Whatcha got, Rach?”

I love it; already Parker is comfortable with me. “We can’t run oil,” I say, eyes rolling. “Not even for the camp tourney. The bullshit teams are gonna run oil because they’re sitting on one better idea and they don’t have anything else.”

“Yeah, I mean, that’s obvious,” James cuts in, “But what do we—”

“Oil’s obvious, even if it wasn’t the premade affirmative. I mean, c’mon, oil? Everyone’s working to refute oil. Go Cairo,” I say. “Let’s run with Cairo. It’s solid but not obvious. Too amorphous for most teams here unless they’ve been building it all summer. I’ve got the cards. We can pull heartstrings, which is good; it’ll make up for any evidence we’re missing. I’m guessing we’ve got full database access here? I don’t have any of my school accounts yet. I’ve been borrowing from friends.”

“Good,” Parker says. “Good. It’s straight from Obama. ‘The United States opposes the use of violence and repression,’ etc., etc. Presidential rhetoric.” Of course he knows the speech. Parker, I bet, was good, back in the day, and not just for that smile, that face. These kids, my new teammates, I’m not sure how they’ve held their rank. Already my impressions are dropping.

“Best speechwriters around,” I say. “And as soon as we start talking riots and democracy and ‘by the people, for the people,’ they’ll be relying on the most basic stock arguments.”

“Which we can answer like it’s nothing,” Parker says. “Won’t last for the long haul, but great for camp. Give us a chance to assess the other teams, get a sense of everyone. All right!” Rubbing his hands together, he says, “Never mind, Phil, work with Tom and Maria.” Tom is glaring, but I don’t care. I’m basking in the light of Parker’s praise.

By the time we break for dinner, we’ve got the framework of a 1A , answers to the ten most obvious arguments against it, and I’ve managed to move around the table so that Parker’s looking on with me at my laptop. I can feel the warmth of his arm leaching through the thin fabric of his T-shirt.


That night, I’m brushing my teeth and there’s Maria in the bathroom door, lingering in her baggy cotton pajamas. She starts out nice, all real-girl again: she says she likes my haircut and she asks where I bought my tank top. She even touches one of the skinny angel hair straps, and then she’s looking at me in the mirror, not face-on, and she says, “So, do you have a boyfriend?”

At this point, I figure either Maria’s a lesbian and this is a come-on, or she’s still sour-faced about Parker’s reaction to me. Doesn’t matter; the answer is the same. “Yeah,” I tell her reflection. “Adam. He goes to TCU.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” Obviously she doesn’t know much about TCU. “You going to stay with him, do long distance?”

What does she even care? I don’t see us becoming best friends or anything. She’s probably the type who stays home every weekend watching Twilight or something, arguing over team hairball or team hairspray, when the rest of the free world is worrying about football teams. I rinse and spit, wipe my mouth. “I don’t know. It’s not really like serious or anything. It’s just a good time.” And the last thing I want to do is pine away my non-tournament Friday nights mooning for Adam, who thinks a good lay is five minutes in his Dodge Ram. He’s an okay kisser, but I’m pretty sure I can find three or four of those in Nashville.

“Hey, be careful, okay?”

Of course I look at her like she’s crazy. It’s a total shift, except it’s not, because this is really all she wanted to say. Maria says, “It’s just that, well, some of the guys like to take advantage of the frosh.”

In the mirror, I smile at her. “Thanks,” I say, picking up my hairbrush, wondering how a debater could be so bad at being oblique.


Wednesday night we’re sardined in the corner of the dining hall, talking about peace policy and basketball. Monday and Tuesday were mostly lectures, starting at nine and carrying on all day, short breaks for lunch, shorter breaks for the smokers, and shortest dinner breaks for those of us who are serious enough to get by on a snagged apple and yogurt cup in the interest of getting down to the real work in someone’s room. Parker’s off the hook for all that; he’s been playing pick-up games on the campus courts. He’s next to me, recreating one of the games for James and Phil. Under the table, I can feel his leg, the fuzzy dark hairs tickling my skin. Maria is talking to me, but all I really hear is Parker complaining about the soreness in his shoulders. I’m counting the seconds between touches, translating the cipher his knee is tapping out under the table.

After dinner we end up in Parker’s room, tangled up in the small space. The floor is all interwoven legs and staggered piles of folders. “We gotta load up on ad homs. We can build some beefy stock arguments from that. And ignorance, authority, and belief,” Phil is saying, and Maria is shaking her head.

“I don’t disagree, but you can’t just win a round on only fallacies.”

“Sure you can. Are you serious? With a topic like this? Come on, half the people writing hate Arabs.”

“Hey.” Maria’s father is apparently Saudi, which you would never guess because her name is Maria.

“Whoa, hey,” Phil says, waving his hands in front of his face. “It’s not like I said it. But you know we’re going to be able to spot that shit in the cards. The evidence is full of bad reasoning and bias, people lying to themselves about their own prejudice, and I don’t just mean the crazy fundie bloggers, I mean everyone. It’s not personal. It’s just fact.”

“I’m going to bed,” James says, shoving his glasses back up his nose, and Maria stands, too. “You know this is basically tomorrow’s lecture, right? We can save it.”

They head out together and then Phil stretches, and he’s gone, and it’s just Parker and me left alone in his room. Every night, I’m the last to leave these sessions, but it’s not like I always offer a massage. Tonight, though, I do. “I mean, you said your shoulders hurt, so I thought―”

“That would be great, Rachel.”

“So lie down there,” I say, and then, “Take off your shirt, too. It’s easier that way.”

And he does; he hauls the T-shirt over his head and lies down and I’m looking at his spine and the muscles that move in his shoulders even when he’s still. So I’m on the bed, and I’m digging my fingers in deep, so deep I’m leaving ghostly white tracks in his tanned skin. The way he sighs, I just want to throw my leg over his hip and squeeze. I can’t, though. I don’t want to create an impact calculus sort of situation where he is forced to decide in a moment between fucking me and not fucking me. I’m still a student and he is still a professor, so I just rub his shoulders and bite my lip. Parker is not wearing any underwear―from the way those russet sweatpants lie over his hips, I can tell. But that’s okay, because I’m not, either.

I’m waiting for a sign, and he’s not giving me one, so I push a little further. I lean down, fan a breath over his shoulderblades. “You smell so good. Not even like cologne, but like sweat, good sweat. Manly.” I remember to talk slowly, like I can’t help it, like I’m overpowered by him. Guys love that.

“Saucy girl.”

That should sound stupid, but Parker’s voice is the god of all sexy voices, so he could say anything and it would get my blood churning. I want to take everything off and rattle my bones. “Bone” is a good word just now. Maybe I should just say it right out: Lay it down. Give me the pipe. Rock my world. But that’s against the rules. Also, cheesy as hell. So I just say: “I’m quite the minx.”

“Oh, she talks back. Bold, bold.” Parker flips over, folded arms cradling his head, and turns his big hazel eyes on me. He never seems to blink. “Just how good are you with those hands?”

“I can show you.” My hand drops to his chest, real light, just laying there, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, because it is. “Want me to do your front?”

“I was hoping that this would have a happy ending.”

One by one, my fingers hook into the space between Parker’s sweatpants and his skin, and he just sits up on his elbows, leaning back and lifting his hips. Not protesting, but not helping, not really. Letting it happen. Letting me do what I want, so there can be no doubt that I am the one who wanted it. Can’t fault his caution. That’s reasonable. But he doesn’t touch me at all, and that’s strange. No hands on my wrists. No nudge to guide the pace. He just wiggles a little; he gets this tight, helpless expression. He’s breathing fast and hard, so I do it, too. It’s fake, of course. There’s nothing too great about handjobs. It’s just back and forth, up and down. Boring. My wrist is burning, but I can’t even switch hands. Who wants to stop only to start again? When finally, finally he goes off, I’m sitting there wondering what to do with my hand. It seems rude to wipe my palm on his sheet.

But Parker’s a gentleman, and he offers me a Kleenex. I wipe my hands, toss the tissue, and wait for some return gesture―a gentle kiss on the neck, a hand easing under my tank top―but he just grins and stretches, arms unfurling until he can almost touch the walls. “That was perfect, Rachel, just perfect.” He’s beaming with pride, like I’ve just won a big prize or something. It’s the same smile I see during the after-dinner sessions when we do well, and here, with his pants still wadded around his thighs, it’s a little weird. Still gorgeous, though, pure Hollywood with those bleachy white teeth.

Parker swings his feet onto the floor, snatching up his pants, and then he’s hurrying me out.”Hey, wow. I didn’t realize it was so late. Listen, be―” The smile slips, shaking on one side, like part of him is sorry he has a thing for students. “Discreet.”

“Of course.” Guess he isn’t into cuddling.

“Don’t forget, we’re running cases tomorrow night after dinner.” At the door, he’s all romance suddenly, and he touches a finger to my cheek. “You’re sweet,” he says, brushing loose hairs from my forehead. He’s so close I can taste each exhaled word, but he still doesn’t kiss me, can’t kiss me because the door is open and he’s checking the hall. No one’s there. Doors are closed. We’re safe, but he nudges me out of the room anyway. I stand at the door for a moment. It’s yellow. The paint seems fresh.

The faculty floor goes quiet early, even with the grad students stationed there, but I creep down the hall anyway. No one wants to sit through a curfew lecture. The door at the stairs is heavy and loud on old hinges, so I wriggle through the smallest opening possible and run up to the second floor. That long corridor is also empty, with low lights flickering at every third door. Back in our room, Maria is still up, sitting stiffly on her bed in the pool of light cast by her clip-on lamp, a frown already fixed in place. I wonder how long she’s been waiting like that. The space around her bed is empty, and so is her nightstand. No shoes, no books. She hardly seems to exist.

“Hey, Maria.”

“Where were you, Rach?” She is so obvious. Too casual. Too fake.

“We were following up on that blogger angle. I―”

“I’ve been waiting almost an hour.”

“I like to be thorough.”

Silence booms. Maria pushes her fingertips into her forehead, massaging the skin in a slow circle. “Rachel… maybe we should… I think we need to talk about this thing with Parker.”

“Really, we don’t.”

“I know you don’t want to hear this―”

“If you know I don’t want to hear it, then don’t say it.” I stop in front of the mirror, checking out my cheeks, my forehead. A summer breakout might hurt my chances of getting Parker alone again.
 Next time, I want to get his hands on me.

“What about your boyfriend?”

Reflected, Maria seems so small and far away. “What does Adam have to do with anything?”

“I just don’t want to see you get used.”

“What’s wrong with two people using each other?”

“But that’s not what’s happening here.”

“Oh, you know so much. So tell me, what’s happening here?” She’s not going to quit, so I turn around. Cross my arms. Lean against the wall. Wait for the big revelation, the boohoo story of how she was abused, or one of her friends. Maybe even by Parker.

“Rachel, honey, even if you think he’s cute, it’s still abuse.” She sways, pushing emphasis into the words. “He’s a teacher.”

No arguments worth addressing. I drop onto the bed and roll away from her. “It’s not really your business.”

“I just don’t think you can make an informed decision about this.” On the white plaster, her hands are fluttering silhouettes, like shadow puppets. Show me on the wall where the bad man touched you.

“I’m tired, okay? We have to get up early.”

I count all the way to thirty and she doesn’t say anything, so I relax. The click of her lamp echoes through the room.


At lunch on Thursday, I’m greeted by a phalanx of shoulders closing off the longer tables. Either someone saw my walk of shame, or Maria must have gotten up extra early to play gossip queen. During morning lecture, I noticed everyone not noticing me―the gazes that slid past, the flickering text messages, the quick turns and hidden whispers. I got sixteen friend requests on my Facebook in an hour. Mostly guys. It’s fine; there are plenty of smaller tables scattered through the dining hall, and I have my laptop and news feeds to keep me engaged over yogurt.  Anyway, when the tournaments start, all these people in their polo shirts and tattered white hats, they’ll be the enemy, so it’s not like I’m burning for approval here.

Like I conjured him with a thought, Parker appears, glistening in slick green basketball shorts and a sleeveless shirt painted with the hieroglyphics of his morning workout. He stops by my table, fingers trailing over the spare few inches of wood grain.

“Talked to Phil a minute ago. Heard you did well this morning on the privilege discussion.”

“It’s my specialty.” I can catch -ists and -isms buried in the most innocuous briefs, and there’s nothing more exciting than turning the entire round away from prepared notes and facts and into the more slippery realms of morality and persuasion. Once, one of my opponents, he was talking about date rape victims, the way they get blamed. About how they secretly wanted it, about how short skirts and high heels were a checkered flag waving guys home. He didn’t even say it himself, just mentioned the prejudice, and all it took was one question in cross-ex to push the whole round into a discussion of patriarchal entrenchment, a discussion where I was the wronged party, the victim, just because I was a girl. It’s not even like I was offended; I’m not like Maria, assuming everything is misogynistic by default. It just made for an easy win. In debate, it’s never about what really moves you. It’s about what you notice and what you can exploit.

Parker says, “You’re so talented, Rachel.”

“Thanks. It helps when your sister went to Nationals.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

Heat prickles up my neck. Of course not; he meant last night, but I was too busy thinking our conversation was going to follow some sort of linear, predictable path of statement and counter-statement. Before I can recover and reconnect, he’s gone, walking away, towel tossed over his shoulder. Rows of heads swivel away when I look around. I scoop up my computer and shove it back into my bag. I work better without interruptions anyway.


Friday night I’m trying to do last-minute prep for the tournament when Maria comes bursting in all dramatic with a girl I’ve seen her and James talking to, but who I don’t know. They look like a pair, dumpy and tight-lipped, except the nameless girl is blond and more, well, American-y. “If you’re coming in here for girl talk or whatever,” I say, eyes already back on the pages scattered on my bed, “let me know and I’ll pack up and head to the land of somewhere else.”

“Actually,” Maria says, “I brought Ashley in to talk to you.”

Great. I stretch, fold my hands way out in front of me, roll my head on my shoulders, shake my hair out. Only then do I look up. “Hi, Ashley. I’m Rachel. I’m also kind of like busy here, you know? Maybe you guys have noticed that we’re working.”

Sometimes you’re working,” Maria fires off, and I look at her, surprised. I didn’t know she could get all ragey. It’s almost impressive. I almost want to listen.

But instead I just smile. “Everyone needs a break sometimes.”

“It’s okay, Maria,” the girl—Ashley—says. “It’s normal.”

I hate it when people try to talk around me, about me. “Yes, taking a break is normal, but so is wanting to do well. So what is it already?”

“Ashley used to go to school with us. She transferred out. I’ve been trying to get her to talk to you. I hope you’ll listen.” Maria sits down on the edge of the bed and crosses her legs, then uncrosses them immediately. I watch a few of my cards slide to the floor and resist the urge to smack her in the back of the head. There’s no time for hugging and learning and growing here.

Ashley, at least, has some respect for the work; she sits down on Maria’s bed, facing me. “I left after my freshman year,” she says, “because of Parker.”

“Okay.” Because, what else am I going to say? Too bad, sorry you couldn’t handle yourself?

“And there was another girl, a junior. He’d done it to her, too.”

Done what, exactly? If he was humping this lardbucket, then why wasn’t he—maybe it’s camp, the different environment. There’s time, I’m thinking. School hasn’t even started yet.

“He has this whole routine where he gets in your head. And he’s hot, too, I won’t deny it. You know he’s married?”


“So that doesn’t bother you?”

“I don’t want to marry him.”

“Rachel, I know it seems like everything is just so simple, but—”

“Okay, listen,” I say, because I’m tired of it, because I’ve had enough, because I just don’t care about this girl’s story, or Maria’s after-school-special attitude. “I’m eighteen. I’m an adult. And I’m sorry, but in the end, that means what I do is my business. And I don’t really want to discuss it with you. Either of you. So you can leave, or I can leave, or I can just put on my headphones or whatever, but we’re done.”

Maria stands up, slowly. More pages fall off the bed. I want to scream. “Rachel, everyone knows. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“We’re done.”

“All right. But if you want to talk—”

“No, Maria, it’s not going to do any good,” Ashley cuts in. “She’ll figure it out on her own.” She looks at me, not annoying-frowny like Maria always is, but just sad, and for a minute I feel it, this weight, like maybe things are going wrong, but then I think of Parker, his smart-sexy voice, his shoulders, those arms, and it’s gone again, just poof. And then, so are they, and all I’m thinking is I’m glad they didn’t really ask any direct questions. I would hate to have to admit that I didn’t even sleep with him.


Sunday night and we’re done, packed, file boxes loaded, plaques put away—Phil with his evidence award, me and James with our second place—and everything’s wrapped but the last-minute parties. A bunch of us piled in the van with some people from SIU and UMKC, because Phil used to hook up with a girl who has an apartment by campus with a pool that’s usually empty. We came together but we’re not really together, because of me and Parker. Because of what everyone thinks Parker has done, only James and Phil will go near him. They’re all crouching in the shallow end, sinking up to their shoulders. Sometimes they laugh, but I can’t hear the conversation over the sound of Maria’s voice. She is keeping me company, making sure I don’t stray and talk to him. It’s stupid, but I don’t want to make a scene. It’s not like I’m going to throw some fit or go make out with him in front of everyone, but I hate the way she looks at me like I can’t be trusted because I’m just a kid. The baby. All I can do is hang onto the ladder and pretend I’m not sulking. Striped buoys the size of cantaloupes float in the middle of the pool, dividing the two regions. No one is brokering any peace treaties tonight.

Maria and two girls from UMKC who I only know by sight are sitting on the edge of the pool, feet dangling in the water. Maria is in cutoffs instead of a swimsuit, and the wet denim screeches across the cement when she moves. Little Mike and Deepak from SIU are bringing a joint around to everyone; they swim one-handed, the other hand held high in the air to protect the burning ember from the water. They leave trails of ash, these meandering lines that slowly dissolve in the darkness. When Deepak swims to my ladder, I let him hold the joint to my lips. Through his long brown fingers, I suck in smoke, so much my lungs burn and I have to exhale in one massive cloud. He’s clinging to the other side of the ladder, his legs tangled with mine, and it’s so obvious that he, at least, isn’t just here because Maria wanted help in keeping me away from Parker.

Deepak’s toenails are jagged against my ankles, and his passive-aggressive approach is way too sad, like some guy at a high school party, so I kick off the wall and backstroke away from him, floating really, only the laziest motion propelling me toward the other side. Smoke trails from my nose to the sky, to the gray-on-black patterns of clouds. The water drowns out all the things I can’t make myself care about tonight, like schools and tournaments and who has the best affirmative so far.

My head bumps against the far wall and I twist, sinking for a moment and then surfacing, my hands secure on the concrete lip edging the pool. Everything seems distant until a trick of acoustics washes the conversation in the shallow end all the way up to me.

“You never want to pass up an opportunity,” Parker says. “Never.”

“You trying to say quantity is better than quality?”

“Phil, Phil, you’re missing the point. Every one of ’em has some quality.”

“Except for the ugly ones.”

“No such thing.”

“Come on, man,” Phil is insisting. “Some chicks are just dogs.”

“Hey, I never saw an ugly girl with my dick in her hand,” Parker says.

Phil’s laughter flies across the pool until it is swallowed by the sounds of Little Mike and Maria arguing about the U.N. I let go of the wall and drift beneath the water. The chlorine scours my eyes. I count, one, two, three, four, then start skipping, by twos, by fives. It doesn’t mean anything. It just fills the moment.

Gasping, I break the surface and climb out of the pool. Water slides through my hair, down my cheeks, onto my shoulders, collecting around my feet. Maria says something near me, maybe to me. I don’t know. I’m focused on my towel, on rubbing my arms, my legs, my face most of all, rubbing until long after the skin is dry and it begins to hurt, and even then I can’t stop.

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