Two years to the day after we flew to Berlin for a family sabbatical, I separated from my husband. It wasn’t Berlin’s fault. And maybe it wasn’t M’s either. But things were put into motion during that yearlong hiatus from our so-called real life that a separation had shifted imperceptibly from the category of impossible to damn near inevitable.
I couldn’t have told you I was going to leave my husband even three days before I did it. Three days prior, truth be told, I was in the thick of a national rowing regatta in Camden, N.J. with my teammates from Minneapolis. It’s fair to say I wasn’t thinking about my husband at all in those sundrenched days of racing and watching boats charge past from shore.
Under my team’s canopy near the water’s edge, I sat slumped in a vinyl folding chair in my club’s green and white striped tank and black lycra shorts. I was exhausted. I’d had two races that morning and would have a third before noon.
I heard my coach’s voice from behind me: “Your bow’s looking a little green,” and I knew he was talking about me and he wasn’t referring to my shirt. I didn’t straighten up to see who he was addressing nor who might be looking me over to see how far gone I was. I neither protested nor confirmed I was the bow of whom he spoke. I was feeling green all right, now that he’d said it. I’d just rowed my heart out in the bow seat of a women’s eight with no great results; we hadn’t advanced to the next heat. And just prior to that I’d raced in a mixed double with a man I knew slightly in one of the earliest races of the regatta, and we’d been stung by the competition, coming in last in our heat. I was both wiped out and disappointed. The butterflies of the morning had been replaced by fatigue and humility.
Trying to nap in a camp chair among younger, more refreshed rowers struck me as a poor choice, so I roused myself to find a quieter place to lie down. One of the male rowers on the team had set up a small tent near the canopy, and I knew he was out on the water racing just then. Surely he wouldn’t mind if I just laid down on the thin air mattress on the grass under the blue canvas and closed my eyes.
Ah. That was much better. I felt my muscles melt into the mat.
It’s just as well M and the girls didn’t make the drive to Camden to see my races, I thought as I studied the blue nylon ceiling above me. Rowing is a terrible spectator sport anyway – a 1000-meter course like this one covers too much ground for even a motivated viewer to catch more than the start of the race, or the midsection, or the finish line. There are no announcers offering commentary or orientation, no way to tell if you’re even watching the right boat. And it’s not as if I was likely to take home any medals based on my performance so far. No, I held no grudge against M for not coming. Though months earlier, when anticipating my first national regatta, I was sure he and many of his extended family who live in the Camden area would be on the sidelines to cheer me on. There was a time when I’d been the center of M’s world, but it hadn’t been that way for quite a while. I found the freedom of his absence at the regatta vaguely thrilling, in a way that had little to do with my performance on the water.
When I next held my wrist over my face to check the time, my watch read 11:20. That couldn’t be right. Maybe my foggy eyes weren’t reading it right. But when I stumbled out of the tent and asked around, a couple of women rowers confirmed I had the right time.
This was not good. My double’s race started at 11:45. We had to launch, get warmed up on the water, and line up in the chute for our start. I started running across the grass toward the double where I was to meet my rowing partner, leaving behind the inhaler from which I’d meant to take one last puff, my water bottle, my chance to use the bathroom – all things I’d planned to do before my next race. Halfway across the field I saw my partner walking toward the team tent to find me. I waved to acknowledge I was coming and kept jogging toward her. I knew I was late. But there was nothing I could do now to turn back the clock.
Though we’ve known each other for years and crossed paths at the boathouse dozens of times, B and I had never had the chance to partner up until now.
The nerves I’d felt earlier in the morning had vanished. My body was tired and had no room for games. I couldn’t be bothered with nerves now. We had to get our boat on the water.
We untied our boat from the wooden “T”s on the ground, lifted it to our shoulders and carried it down to the docks. The officials checked the boat’s shoes to make sure they were tied down, the one regulation they enforce before you launch: make sure the rowers can get their feet out of the built-in shoes should they flip out on the river; without ties your feet could get trapped in the shoes, unable to pull out of the sneakers to swim free.
But this was a relatively new boat; there were no problems with our shoes. We pushed the boat up and overhead and placed it with a light splash in the water. I held the boat at the dock while B ran back and carried our four oars down to the dock and we plunked them into place and tightened the oarlocks. I clipped my stroke coach into the latch facing B’s seat. She’d be stroking this boat and setting the pace; I’d be steering our course from bow seat.
B doesn’t bow; her eyesight would not be strong enough to see the boats behind us or track the buoy line if she were bow. Bowing was fine with me, as all I had to do was keep us straight to follow the course that was marked with plastic buoys strung the full 1000 meters of the course.
It occurred to me as we extended our oars and took our seats that she wouldn’t be able to read the numbers on my stroke coach to check our rating. We’d have no idea how fast our start was nor where to settle. We’d have to go by feel.
From the first stroke after we pushed off the dock, something inside me perked up. All four of our blades had engaged fully as one and the set was steady. That first stroke was light and full of energy. Second stroke was solid too. I looked in surprise at B, this nurse a few years older than me, humble and sweet, small yet solid. I took in the strong lines of her back and her smooth, deliberate catches.
“This is going to be good,” I said aloud, about four strokes in, and I meant it, because that’s all it took to feel the potential of our combination.
Our plan had been to warm up first, but I was already more than warmed up from my two previous races. I couldn’t worry about whether B was warmed up for this race; either she was or she wasn’t, but we had no time left to get acquainted with one another’s style and try different ratings and race starts. By now it was after 11:30 and we needed to row up to the start of the race, cross the buoy lines and enter our lane. Latecomers would be disqualified.
“We’re going to be just fine,” I said to B, feeling the need to offer reassurance in place of an actual warmup. We doubled back to cross the buoy line to enter the course well above the starting line. We found our lane and I scanned the nearby boats for bow numbers close to our own in order to find our heat. Stick with them and we’d be sure to drift to the starting line and the stakeboats at just the right time.
And as if by magic there they were, our competition, emerging out of nowhere: pairs of fit middle-aged women befitting boats averaging 50-54 years of age. Though I’m younger than that, and my partner older, our blended age landed us in this category.
The sun beat down on us in a way that made the water sparkle, and the trees and grass shimmering along the shore looked lush in the summer heat. It was midday and we had floated nearly down to the start of the race course but not quite, and all was quiet. Women who love rowing as much as we do emerged and cut across the river to join us. I felt a calm delight in being part of it all.
I could hear the master of the race call out the names of the boats in the heat just ahead of ours, as we held water, rowing to hold still just above the stakeboats, awaiting our turn. Saginaw, Lane 1, he began, and called out each club and lane, and then we heard his command, Attention, GO! And there was a sudden splash of blades in water and oars turning in their oarlocks, and the heat ahead of us was off and gone, and all that remained was them receding and us rowing up to the stakeboats where teenagers lay on the floating docks and took hold of the stern of our boat at the starting line.
As a young woman in a tank top leaned out over the water to put her hands on the tip of our boat to anchor us at the starting line, simple, earnest words came to me, unbidden, leaping from my heart to my throat: I love this sport.
And sitting at the start on that gorgeous summer day in Camden on this unfamiliar river I felt not nerves so much as anticipation, a calm acceptance in the face of the unknown. The next few minutes yawned like a chasm before us and I felt in that moment the coalescence of so much worry dissolving in the midday heat, leaving in its place the sensation that anything could happen. We could have a stellar start and be off and running. We could catch a crab midway through and flip our boat in front of our coach and the whole Minneapolis club. We could come in DFL: in rower speak, Dead f’ing last. We could have the best row of our lives.
We could not know yet that there would be a false start, nor that we’d realize even in those first five strokes that we’d be ahead of the pack; we couldn’t know that we’d land among the top three, good enough to clear the hurdle to the semifinal. But it was delicious, that moment of not knowing, basking in the moment that divided before the race from after, sitting on the precipice between spectator and contender.
I couldn’t know yet that B carried across that water the news that her nephew had just died by his own hand. I couldn’t know that the joy and connection I felt in that moment would soon be put in stark relief with the difficult place my marriage had become. I had no idea that I would leave my husband before the week was out. All I knew in that moment was that I was in the right place and somehow, in spite of my nap, right on time, doing the thing I loved best, with someone I trusted rather than knew from experience would be a good match for me. I felt, with clarity in my heart, that in that moment anything, absolutely anything was possible.