Winner takes it all

November 3, 2011
Florian and I sat in the living room of her chic white house in the suburbs of Phoenix admiring the castle she and her father had constructed out of Kleenex boxes and toilet paper tubes.

“It’s gotta be at least three feet tall, how long did this take?”
“It’s thirty-eight-and-a-half inches to be precise, to scale, might I add, and I’m not exactly sure, we’ve worked on it all summer”
“Wow. So, watcha wanna do?”
“Well, we could play outside.”
“It’s a hundred-and-twelve. Yeah right. Could we just watch a movie?”
“We don’t have a TV. Mommers thinks it’s bad for you.”
“Oh! I just got this new physics toy!”
So we sat and played with her Fly Wheels, small plastic discs with a rip cord, until her parents yelled at us for doing so inside, and forced us into the heat of the desert afternoon. It wasn’t terrible. We played ping-pong under the shade of the awning and we climbed her trees. We dared not get the Fly Wheels back out for fear one would go over the fence, and then we’d really be done for.
On the first day of school, Florian and I sat on the floor of the classroom in a discussion group. Though we were all very eager to discuss our interpretations of To Kill a Mockingbird, the voices settled into a lull, as they do without fail every twenty minutes or so in a classroom. Florian, with her plain lavender t-shirt, khaki shorts and crew cut looked at me.
“It’s too quiet in here. Somebody get me a thumb tack.”
The two of us burst into laughter, getting odd looks from around the room.
In January, the winter Olympics were coming up, and for our project Florian and I were going to make replica medals, a task we took on with no idea of how we would accomplish it.
“What on earth are we going to make these out of?”
“Metal, hopefully.”
“No duh.”
“I can’t weld though. I guess we could just use cardboard.” she resigned.
“No! Do you have a bench press?”
“Yeah, I can bench a hundred pounds.”
“Florian, I weigh a hundred pounds.”
“Anyways,” I paused to scowl “Why don’t we paint one of the weights gold?”
“And do a larger than life!”
And so, after imploring parental permission, we went to her workout room and carefully selected a nice shiny 50 pound weight, which we excitedly painted with a few too many coats of gold. We always took as long as possible to do school projects, because we never got to see each other. We were best friends, but we lived in different worlds. Florian was in the pool by 6 A.M. every morning, training, and then back in the water straight after school. I lived in a third floor apartment where my dad and I spent many an evening on beanbag chairs playing video games.
In April, Florian missed a week of school to participate in the hugely publicized Alcatraz invitational, where swimmers take a ferry out to the old prison and then swim back nearly 2 miles to the San Francisco shore. As her parents put it, she was on the Olympic track. That summer she flew to Australia to attend a 2 week training camp at the Sydney Olympic village. This prestigious camp had 20 attendees who swam day in and day out with a top notch coach- Michael Phelps. Instead of returning home after this exhausting experience, her parents then escorted her to Indonesia, for a week-long scuba diving crash course.
“It’s amazing, being able to breathe underwater.”
“I’m sure. Why did you go again?”
“Because after I’m done being an athlete, I’m going to be a marine biologist.”
“Right. Well, I’m glad you had a good time.”
“Yeah, I mean, training with Michael Phelps was crazy, but I honestly think I learned more diving.”
“How so?”
“Michael gave us all sorts of great tips and everything, but my weakness has always been stamina, and when you dive, you wear weights, so I’m going to start training with a weight belt, to work on that. Then maybe I’ll finally get a good time on the distance races.”
“I see. I didn’t know you could swim faster than you do. You finished a half lap ahead of everyone at your last swim meet!”
“Yeah but that was local.”
After the end of eighth grade I moved away. Her parents, in conjunction with some of my other classmates’ threw me a going away party. It was a pool party, and her father had scheduled every single second of it. Mostly with races of this sort or that, all of which Florian won. All the exorbitantly wealthy members of my gifted and talented class brought me presents I had no use for and left me their phone numbers, knowing I would never call. That night, as my mom drove out of their gated community it really hit me that I would never see any of my dear friends again.
I saw my first snowfall November of my freshmen year. Though I was in consistent email correspondence with Florian, I made sure I called her right away to rub it in her face.
“Hi! Florian?”
“Florian isn’t home right now, she’s swimming. Who is this?”
“It’s Peri…”
“Oh. Would you like me to tell her something?”
“No, it’s fine.”
One afternoon in February, I sat in my bed on my laptop on Gmail chat with Florian. It was a Wednesday, because those were the only nights she didn’t train, because she had to go to CCD. Catholicism was the only thing her parents allowed to take time away from her “career”. Her parents referred to the chance of her becoming a professional swimmer as her career, despite her more realistic ambitions to go into science. They said she could go to college after her second Olympics.
“So wassup, I haven’t talked to you in forever!”
“I knooow right? Lol its been sooooo long. But im good ya know?”
“Umm, yeah. Glad to hear it.” I was somewhat taken aback by her lack of grammar and punctuation, as she had always been the type to start an email with “These are all the errors you made in your email:…” so her usage of “lol” was just short of alarming.
“Yeah! OMG guess what!”
“Antonio asked me out!!!!”
“That’s great.” I had also always known Florian not to have an interest in boys, or at least to be too busy to consider dating one, so this too, was startling.
“Yeah! You sound kinda upset…”
“No! You just seem to have changed a lot.”
“Oh, well, I’m not weird or anything, I’m just normal.”
“That’s what’s odd, I’ve never known you to be normal.”
“Well, you know what? UR just mean and depressing!”
And her icon switched from the pleasing green of available to the somber grey of offline. That was the last time I talked to her. The last thing she ever said to me.
During my senior year I followed the selection of the United States Olympic team for London, 2012. There was buzz about who made the soccer team, and the gymnastics, but I was watching the feed on the women’s swim team, looking for one name. After much anticipation, the official team was announced, and sure enough, “Florian Morrow, age 18” was on the list.
“This girl is somewhat unusual,” explains the coach being interviewed on CNN. “She’s barely 18, and she dropped out of school to train.”
“I understand she was an honors student before that?”
“She was, she’s very intelligent. It was a difficult decision, but as she puts it, she’s putting all her eggs in one basket. And sure enough, she made the cut.”
“Well, we look forward to watching her swim this summer in London.”
Within a few weeks I, along with everyone else she’d ever known, received an invitation to a celebration of achievement and belated 18th birthday party to be held at her house right after the end of the Olympics. I hadn’t been to Phoenix in years and I hadn’t talked to my dear friend in years. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to do both. I quickly sent an R.S.V.P that I would indeed be attending and that I was so proud of her.
The opening ceremonies were beautiful, full of fireworks and Double-Decker buses, and everything else classically British. My favorite athlete, and as it turns out, America’s favorite athlete, was to swim 8 races over the next 12 days. I glued myself to the TV when she was swimming. Her first race started promisingly, but a cramp had her finish last. Her second race came with great anticipation, the general public expecting an American victory. They got just that, but from another swimmer, Florian placed 4th. The trend carried through the next five races. She performed honorably, but never exceptionally. She didn’t get her gold medal, or any medal at all.
“Florian Morrow, she started as a great prospect but has performed somewhat disappointingly.” said the first commentator.
“I hear you. But hey, she’s got one race left, the 800m this morning.”
“That she does, and we wish her the best of luck. But let’s talk about the schedule for the rest of the day.”
“Right, well, as you said we’ve got a few more races this morning, and then the closing ceremonies are tonight.”
“So, are the athletes competing today going to make the closing ceremonies?”
“Most should, but I don’t think Ms. Morrow is among them, she’ll be on a plane home.”
She was always busy. She would race and then she’d fly home. Her parents would leave her home to get dressed up while they went to get the cake and then guests would arrive. She wouldn’t have slept in almost 24 hours. I too, would be on a plane to Phoenix. I would miss her last race while I was in the air. My parents drove me to Minneapolis and from there I was on my own. I waited in the terminal as far away from the entrance as possible for an hour past when my plane was supposed to leave and finally boarded. As I got on all I could think was that for her, and for our national pride, I hoped desperately that she won that last distance race.
I sat looking out the window as the grey sky of the Midwest became the grey smog of the southwest. I watched as bluffs and trees became mountains and cacti. While I watched my thoughts of what I’d say to her after all these years swirled with David Bowie’s voice coming from my iPod
“Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom?...There’s nothing I can do.”
The plane landed. I grabbed my one bag and got in a taxi. I read the driver Florian’s address off the invitation. The car drove past all the familiar sights of the city where I grew up and then into her neighborhood, and then up to her house. I still didn’t know what I’d say to her. I gave the driver his money, and asked if he knew whether Florian had won the 800m. He didn’t appear to speak much English. I got my bag and walked to the door. I was about to ring the doorbell when I read the paper taped to the door. In messy sharpie it said
“Hey, welcome to the party, I’m inside, just come out to the backyard.”
There didn’t appear to be anyone else there yet, and her parents’ Subaru wasn’t in its usual spot. I knew I was early, but I didn’t expect to be the first one there. I opened the door and I walked in. I went to the trophy room expecting to find guests there, but it was empty. It was just how it had been, except that there was a large blank space on the wall. There was a circle on the wall from where something had been hanging and the paint was more vibrant having been protected from the sun. Near the top of the circle was an industrial metal rod that could’ve held a fifty pound weight.
Remembering that the party was in the back yard, I put down my bag and went outside. There were five tables covered with plates and napkins and trays of fruit, waiting for guests to arrive. But the yard was empty. I walked over to their unused recreational pool. I knelt down at the edge, slumping all of my weight onto the back of my shins. I looked into the water, still and clear and chlorine scented. I looked at the blue lights along the edges designed for night swimming. I admired the architecture of the carved perch underneath a waterfall. I spent what felt like an eternity absorbing every detail of her posh backyard. My observations spiraled inward from the bushes to the concrete to the water until there was only one spot left to look.
There, in the middle of the oblong pool. There she was.
“Florian! I’m so glad to see you! It’s been so long!”
No response.
“Flor! I’m so proud of you!”
“I guess you’re meditating. You can’t hear through water. You’re trying to improve your lung capacity.”
She was there, suspended a few inches off the bottom of the pool. Her expression masked by five feet of water. From what I could see she was peaceful. She was thinking.
“You’ve really mastered that whole buoyancy thing, huh?” with the tremor of desperation.”Or maybe it isn’t you. You’re probably inside getting ready.”
But she was there. Resting there peacefully suspended in time, with her one Olympic gold medal chaining her to victory. To me she was always first place. Slower only than sunshine and with the power of earth-bound flight.
There she was. Held only by gravity, and the weight of her dreams.

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