It was the kind of scorching day where Rou Han expected his skin to blister and crack open. Along with the blessing respite that the holidays brought, he was suddenly left with a plethora of free time that university and assignments used to fill in. And while he’d never complain about not needing to do anything, the idling hours of this particular period left him in some sort of limbo.
The Swimming World Championships were today and the week leading up to it had already been enough torture. A blanket of heaviness had settled over the entire town and the whispered chatter behind his back was incessant and only grew.
The heat outside and the sudden drop in temperature from the air-conditioned orchestra rehearsal hall made his head spin and threatened to bring on a devastating migraine. However, the tension from everyone in the room was more than enough to make him forget about the pounding in his head. The glances barely lasted for two seconds before the conductor was calling them to attention; there was a passage that needed revision.
Someone finally found the resolve to ask him about it during a five-minute break. It didn’t matter that the person asking was someone Rou Han had never seen before — he was all too familiar with the question they asked: “Do you think Kuan Wu can win?”
When he put himself in their shoes, he would probably ask himself that question too.
On the drive back home, he spotted people setting up a projector screen and foldable chairs for the competition’s broadcast. The time difference meant that along with all the people in the neighbourhood, he’d have to be awake at around two in the morning, but that wasn’t too far off from what he was already used to.
For everyone in town, Chang Kuan Wu was the local hero. With each accolade he gained as an athlete in national competitions, people worldwide started mentioning him and his neighbourhood fame skyrocketed to unlimited bounds.
To everyone, Kuan Wu’s name came before his own. The national swimmer, Kuan Wu, was friends with that Rou Han boy, the one from the orchestra. Kuan Wu, the swimmer, was always around the kid called Rou Han. He was Kuan Wu’s Rou Han.
“Doesn’t it ever bother you?” Kuan Wu asked. It was a few days before Kuan Wu’s flight to the World Championships and they were sitting on the steps of the porch. Rou Han had been perfectly content to silently stare in the dark, so he hadn’t been prepared for that question at all.
Rou Han turned his head and tried to imagine what other people saw.
Kuan Wu’s dark hair was always dry and dishevelled from being in the pool. He’d recently gotten blonde highlights, a style that suited him. All those years of swimming had broadened his frame, and combined with his height, he dwarfed whoever was next to him.
His skin was tan as if the sun itself followed him and wafts of chlorine hung around him like a clingy child. The crescents in his eyes that appeared whenever he smiled radiated energy so impossibly bright.
“No,” Rou Han answered before catching himself. “I mean, no, I’m not bothered.” The unusual lull that stretched out between them set him on edge. The jagged edges that usually settled low in his stomach started to rise and then —
“I want to win. I’ve never wanted to win something so badly in my life, ever.”
Rou Han pulled his knees to his chest. The wind was cool on his face but his fingers were numb. “Why wouldn’t you?”
Kuan Wu merely laughed. He raised his arms over his head and pulled his shoulders back. A hungry glint that Rou Han was more than accustomed to sparked in his eyes.
“You know what it’s like during competitions, though I guess I know what I’m capable of.”
If they weren’t sitting so closely next to each other, Rou Han would have batted his head. “When it comes down to competitions at this level, isn’t that all that matters?”
The thing about competitions was that Rou Han had always done this long before anyone else had. Kuan Wu told him about all the regional swimming meets that had turned into national ones and before he knew it, Kuan Wu was flying to international competitions.
He’d watched live streams and broadcasts of all the competitions available where the 800 metres and 1500 metres were around seven and a half minutes and fourteen and a half minutes of torture respectively. Once, he’d watched one competition with his aunt and when Kuan Wu finally touched the wall after leading from the beginning, the entire house was well aware of the results.
Holidays were always the worst because Kuan Wu was never around due to his crazy swimming schedule. Whenever he was away, Rou Han wished he could contort himself to bridge the gap. The elastic band going through the crevices in his chest tightened on both ends. He was a starfish on the shore, waiting for the tide to come in and wash over him.
As much as swimming kept them from seeing each other, Rou Han was still grateful for it because it was how they’d met in the first place.
Rou Han had been enrolled in swimming classes because his parents believed it would help strengthen his immune system against colds and flu. Kuan Wu had joined swimming classes and continued because even as a child, he had been a phenomenon in the water.
“What sort of place makes you swim for a week?” Rou Han asked, pulling up the tie of his school uniform. What sort of person willingly sent themselves to something like a swimming camp?
“It can be difficult, but isn’t it cool once you get to beat everyone?”
From personal experience, Rou Han knew swimming was a brutal sport. Knowing Kuan Wu made him think about it more. Like every athlete, his desire to win was dazzling, and the way he made the water yield to his movements was mesmerising to watch.
When it was dark and everyone else in the country was asleep, Rou Han walked up the block where the projector screen was situated and found a seat amongst all their neighbours. He had watched the preliminaries and after Kuan Wu had won a gold medal in the 800 metres, the 1500 metres finals were left.
“Do you think Kuan Wu can win?” Mr Chung asked, taking the chair next to him. Honestly, the father should have been answering that question, not asking it. Then again, no one knew Kuan Wu the way Rou Han did.
The answer was always the same. Rou Han took a sip of his coffee and watched the blurry pixels of people on the screen.
No matter the results, Kuan Wu would still keep swimming. At the end of this competition, he would be back here before the week ended.
When the swimmers had taken their positions on the stands, Rou Han leaned back in his chair. It was the start of roughly fourteen-and-a-half minutes of antsy nervousness interspersed with cheers that would grow in fervour with each lap. This was just like any other competition and the results were already guaranteed.
“Hey.” Rou Han looked up from the tiles at the bottom of the swimming pool, recognising the boy in the black swimming cap. He was the fastest in this class for seven-year-olds and under. The coach had said his name once or twice. “Why were you absent from the last lesson?”
“I fell sick.”
Rou Han hadn’t wanted to come back a second time after fighting off a cold, but his parents hadn’t given him a choice.
“The water.” That was what his parents had said, he was fairly sure of that.
The boy’s eyes widened as if he’d never heard anything stranger. “How does that happen?”
By: Zhen Yi