Sunrise Club – Karen Uffelman
“If you want to be in the club then set your alarm clock.”
That’s how I ended up waist-high in freezing water at 5:45 AM. No one else in sight.
It had seemed so appealing the night before, several beers in.
“Oh yeah, a bunch of us have been going for sunrise swims down at the lake. It’s so refreshing!”
Ethan was tall and slender, with hair that looked like Justin Bieber’s. I liked him. He was hilarious and crazy smart, but also extremely flamboyant. He seemed to like me, too, for some reason – had come right over and introduced himself during student orientation, and ever after we were pals. If there was an open seat next to me in class, he’d usually take it, and he always made a point of waving me over at parties. I was partly flattered, and also grateful – I had never been popular, and Ethan definitely was, in his own way – but I also worried that people might assume things about me because of his attention. About what team I played for. Particularly all of the incredibly attractive women that were in his constant orbit. On the other hand, the more I hung out with Ethan, the more access I had to these women.
More access to Mary. That was what really mattered.
“Yep, it’s the sunrise club. Quick swim in the lake while the sun comes over the mountain. Incredible way to start the day! You should join us!” Mary smiled in that way that made my stomach feel hollow.
“Sure, why don’t you?” Ethan threw his arm around Mary’s shoulder. His physical affection with her was so effortless. I envied him, thought for a brief moment that if only I were a gay man I could put my arm around Mary and she’d just let me. No anxiety, no hesitation. Gay men were so lucky. I pulled another beer out of the cooler on the porch, and tried to look extra manly as I keyed off the cap.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m a little drunk, it’s 1:30 in the morning, I’ve got class at 8:00. I hate cold water. I’m a terrible swimmer.”
“Oh come on, we’re all drunk. That’s no excuse!” Mary winked at me. Little explosions going off in my chest cavity. I was never sure if Mary flirted with me like this because she assumed I was gay, or if she was actually making passes.
“Who else is going to be there? Who else is in this club?” I tried not to stare at Mary’s chest and imagine what she looked like in a bikini. Did they even wear swimsuits in this club?
“Well,” Mary started, “there used to be four or five of us, but the last few times it’s just been Ethan and me.”
I caught Ethan’s profile as he looked over Mary’s head. He really was awfully handsome. I wondered if Ethan was as gay as he seemed, or if he sometimes fell off of the wagon. It was shockingly easy for me to imagine Ethan and Mary kissing. Maybe Mary didn’t know that he was gay? Maybe she didn’t care?
“Come on, join the club! I swear you’ll love it. Say you’ll come?” Mary held her hand up for a high-five. Okay – she must know that Ethan was gay, right? And that I’m not. She must find me interesting, attractive. She wanted to me to swim with her in practically the middle of the night. She was inviting me to a special, exclusive rendezvous. Right? Right?
But there were some obstacles.
First off, I really am a terrible swimmer. And trying to highlight your manliness by underperforming athletically – I know this to be a bad strategy. I was betting Ethan was an excellent swimmer, probably could dive like Greg Louganis. And I really do hate cold water. Really, really hate it. Finally, I had a weird rash on my right leg that started at the front of my knee and crawled right on up the inside of my thigh, disappearing up my boxer shorts. Pretty much the worst rash you could imagine. Like an advertisement for STDs that didn’t even exist (couldn’t exist, since I hadn’t been lucky enough so far to engage in the kind of activities that earn you such things). The quack at the college infirmary had given me some cortisone cream, which seemed to be making it worse. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t think the rash was going to help convince Mary that she should get to know me better. I honestly felt awkward about Ethan seeing it, too.
Ethan eyed me. “Whatever, Mary. Don’t pressure…”
It was like a dare.
“You promise I’ll really be refreshed, and not just freezing and late for class?” I swung my head to the side and looked at her in a way I hoped seemed devil-may-care.
“I promise it will be awesome, and you won’t be late for class because we go at 5:30 in the morning. Plenty of time for a hot shower after you see the best sunrise of your life!” Mary still had her right hand held high, ready for me to commit. Was she inviting me to her hot shower?
“Alright, you talked me into it. I’ll go.” I slapped Mary’s hand and she grabbed onto mine, squeezing it tight and laughing.
“You’ll love it, I promise!”
I made a plan as I stumbled back to my dorm. Arrive 15 minutes early, get in the water. Leave towel close by, and when we’re ready to get out of the water, make sure to leave first. Grab towel, cover rashy leg. No problem. I’ll be in Mary’s club. I will love it.
Alarm clock went off at 4:45, much to the irritation of my roommate. I pulled on my not-long-enough swim trunks and a jacket , remembered just in time to brush my teeth, and walked in the dark to the lake. It was freezing outside.
5:15. I found a branch close to the shore, carefully hung my jacket and the towel I’d brought from my dorm, and waded in.
My feet were numb, and then my shins and calves, and then my knees, and then my thighs. Maybe the freezing lake water would be good for the rash on my leg? Or maybe I would contract some terrible bacterial disease from all of the geese shit rumored to be in the lake. A couple of geese swam by as if summoned by my anxiety and I flipped them off. Finally I was up to the bottom of my swim trunks. Every part of my body that wasn’t in the water was covered with tight little goose bumps and my teeth were chattering. The minutes ticked by SO SLOWLY and I tried to focus on the trees, the shore, the buildings beyond the shore to keep my mind off of how cold I was and how ridiculous I must look. I tried moving around a little, thinking that would warm me up, but each movement seemed to bring even colder water in contact with my skin.
15 minutes went by. 5:30, that’s when Ethan and Mary said they’d meet me.
No Ethan. No Mary.
It was getting lighter outside, and a halo was beginning to build around the mountain.
I could no longer feel anything from mid-thigh down, and decided to go a little deeper. It took another 10 minutes of tiny steps to get to waist-depth. I checked my watch – 5:43. I had that sinking feeling of a small child that’s been duped by older, smarter kids into doing something humiliating, but I could now see the top of the sun, growing slowly and then more quickly over the horizon. It was beautiful. The rays became warmer and stronger, and despite the icy water, I could feel warmth on my chest. Finally the sun emerged whole, in full glory, breaking the day. It actually was the best sunrise I had ever seen. In truth, I’m not sure I had ever witnessed a sunrise before, but still…Mary was right. It was an incredible way to start the day, and I felt a little in awe.
My watch said 5:45. No one in sight. I counted to 10 and then plunged my full body and head under the water, gasping as I came back up for air. I felt proud of myself – who cares if I was tricked into swimming in a frozen lake at a crazy hour in the morning? I actually loved it! I thought how ridiculous I had been to worry about some dumb girl (who couldn’t even get out of bed in time and was clearly unworthy of my regard) and what she might think of a silly rash. This was the life! And I could live it on my own! No need for flakey friends!
I had been dogpaddling around for a few minutes, wanting to be able to honestly say that I had been swimming (not just wading – that sounded so lame), when I spotted Mary and Ethan on the beach. I stopped dogpaddling and stood up. The water was only about three feet deep where I was.
“I thought you said 5:30! Where were you guys?”
“Mary had a flat tire,” Ethan called back.
I could see Mary’s bike propped up against the tree where my jacket and towel had been. My towel was no longer there.
“Plus, with the temperature this morning, we didn’t think you’d come,” Ethan laughed, “It’s, like, 41 degrees outside! You’re a madman to be in the water!”
“I’ve got your towel for you, though,” Mary smiled, “You must be freezing! Come on out!”