Bend your knees. Keep your arms stretched straight out in front of you. Make sure your tips are pointed up and aligned properly. Close your eyes. Take a breath. Listen for the motor to rev. Feel the rope stretch taut. Feel the rope begin to pull you. Look ahead. Keep your back long. This is how you water ski.
I am eleven now, and everyone says I should learn how to water ski. Mom, Meg, Audrey, Missy, Becky. They all say I can do it. They say it’s time.
Becky is my babysitter (a word I hate), and she teaches kids and adults how to water ski in the summer. She’s been doing it since she was seven years old — the waterskiing, not the teaching. She’s a fish out of water, my mom says. Missy is our neighbor at Audrey’s cottage on the lake, and she’s been waterskiing since she was a kid, too. My mom learned when she was a teenager, and Meg learned last year even though she’s younger than I am.
I’m a late bloomer, they say, a phrase that is funny to everyone except me.
I’ve never seen Audrey water ski in person, but I have seen a photograph of her waterskiing with four other girls on Lake Winnipesauke. She’s young in the photograph, a teenager, and she and the others are wearing matching one-piece bathing suits with ruffles at the waist. She’s wearing a swim cap, too; they all are. If the photograph was in color I’m sure I’d see rose-colored suits clinging to their wet bodies, and rosy lipstick on their smiles.
In the photograph the four women are waterskiing side by side. One boat is pulling all of them at the same time. It’s very impressive.
That’s nothing! We were just getting into formation when that photo was snapped, Audrey always said.
She recalls that she and the other girls would do all kinds of tricks while gliding over the lake. They could do tricks like Look ma no hands! while squeezing the rope handles between their knees.
They made it look so easy, this formation. They made it look like waterskiing was something all girls were meant to do.
Today is the day. They all say I can do it. It’s time, they say. I’m not so sure.
For one thing, My Period came back this morning.
I got My Period for the first time two days after my eleventh birthday, which was nine months ago. I guess I’m a late bloomer in some ways but not in others because none of my friends have it except for me. I wish I could give it back and wait a little longer, maybe until my friends catch up, but I’m practically a woman now so I know it doesn’t work that way.
I still haven’t told my mom that I got it; she’s always making such a big a deal about things like that. I haven’t told anyone. When I can’t sneak maxi pads out of the nurse’s office at school I wad up some toilet paper and stick it between my legs. This helps control most of the blood, and best of all I can just flush it away and make a new one when I have to pee.
Toilet paper does the trick most of the time, but I’d be foolish to think it’d be a match for the lake. I’ll just have to go without and hope no one notices.
Despite my sincerest protests, my mother is adamant that I learn how it’s done.
Even your sister can water ski and she’s younger.
When she says this, she exaggerates the word younger in a way that makes it sound like it ate extra vowels.
If she can do it so can you, she insists.
I’m not so sure. Meg has always taken to things like bicycling and diving and waterskiing in a way that I simply cannot seem to. Last summer, she got up on her second try. Everyone cheered, even me, though I didn’t feel like cheering on the inside. She got so good at it that she even learned how to drop a ski and balance on just one. She never fell, just let go of the rope when she was finished and coasted along the water like a dragonfly skimming the glassy surface.
She made it look so easy; she looked like she was born to water ski.
We’re in the water now, Becky and me. My life vest is a little too big, and bobs uncomfortably up around my ears. Missy is driving the motorboat and Mom, Meg, and Audrey are all in the boat too. My mom is my spotter and that means she’ll tell Missy to stop the boat if I fall. Becky helps manipulate my body until it’s in the right position and gives my shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Bend your knees. Keep your arms stretched straight out in front of you. Make sure your tips are pointed up and aligned properly. Close your eyes. Take a breath. Listen for the motor to rev. Feel the rope stretch taut. Feel the rope begin to pull you. Look ahead. Keep your back long.
This is how you water ski. This is how you water ski.
It takes nine tries until I make it up. Everyone is patient. Everyone holds their breath, including me.
When I finally get it right — when my arms don’t buckle and force me forward, when my back is long and confident in what’s pulling me up out of the water, I glide. I soar. I feel unbreakable and fearless and good enough.
I become immediately aware of the weight of my small, sturdy body being pulled forward. Every part of my self is fighting against the power of the boat’s engine in order to stay upright. At the same time, I feel intoxicatingly weightless, like a feather that is being propelled forward by an affable wind, its reflection cloudlike above the surface of the water.
I am in formation.
I am in formation and Audrey is clapping her hands for me. Missy keeps hurling a fist in the air: You’re doing it! My mom and Meg are cheering; I can see their mouths open wide as they shout over the wind and motor and water. I am in formation and everyone can see.
It is almost as if I am watching myself from somewhere higher. I’m outside of myself, watching as I water ski. It feels dreamlike, and there’s a part of me that wishes that it would never end.
As the boat begins to trace the curve of the lake, I see the wake before me recoil and swell. I already know it’s all over, almost as quickly as it began.
As I stumble over the wake I reflexively pull my elbows in to steady myself, which sends me lunging forward. In a matter of seconds I am submerged. My too-big life vest jerks me quickly back up like a whip crack and when I return to the surface I gasp for air, stunned and blinking the water out of my eyes. I am suddenly aware of how free my feet feel; the water skis were thrown from them upon the forceful contact with the water. My privates ache: the space between my legs feels like it has been punched by the might of a giant. It feels like being forced to do the splits.
The impact of the fall leaves me dizzy and slightly disoriented, but it’s only a matter of seconds before I can hear the motorboat circling back to retrieve me. My mom helps to pluck me out of the water and we collect the bobbing skis. Everyone is squeezing and smiling and clapping at me, so I pretend like falling was no big deal.
Back on shore, I am overcome by a palpable sense of belonging. Becky wraps a towel around my shoulders like a medal and gives me an approving nod.
I feel as though I’ve entered a new part of girlhood, one I didn’t even know was ever there. I bask in the approval of these women who are my family, my mentors. I’ll resolve to water ski every chance I get if it grants me access to the heart of this group of fearless, graceful women.
My heart continues to race until hours later when I settle in for sleep. There’s a mess of toilet paper and blood between my legs; the coolness of it comforts me under summer’s humid shroud.
I think tomorrow I’ll ask my mom to bring me to the pharmacy for maxi pads.
I fall asleep to blurry, wistful thoughts about waterskiing in formation, my knees squeezing the rope’s handle as I glide along the water, arms linked with girls dressed in rosy, ruffled suits.