Clarke has only ever once been this angry-- an anger that consumes everything around it, leaving no one or no thing left untouched. It’s an anger that makes her physically shake; an anger that stunts her into prolonged silence or catapults her into sudden, unrestrained tears. It’s the anger she felt when when the world wronged her so profoundly that she woke up from a ten hour emergency surgery only to find out that, while she survived against all odds, her father was dead.
Back then, the anger had halted her life in its tracks. Now, it drives her into her work with a reckless abandon that keeps her up all hours of the night. Maxim stops bothering to check on her several days into the paint-filled tirade when Clarke slams the door and tells him to go to bed. It’s not until Clarke hears that Lexa has landed herself in the hospital that she comes up for air. It’s the first time she’s texted Lincoln in months, close to a year, but she can’t bear the muddled messages of Octavia as the middleman when it comes to Lexa’s health. When he doesn’t answer, she thinks she might lose it.
That’s when it hits her just how much she still cares. No matter how angry she is, or wants to be, there is an overwhelmingly large part of her that cares so damn much about Lexa, it might actually destroy her.
“They’re going to be leaving soon.”
Clarke can see that Octavia tries to slip it in like any old conversation starter while they eat their breakfast, and does her friend a solid by pretending the not so subtle attempt at advice never happened.
“I’m ignoring you.”
“I can see that.”
Clarke stabs at her food aggressively, refusing to meet Octavia’s eyes.
“Why, may I ask?”
“Because I know you and I know when you’re about to annoy me.”
“I only annoy you when I’m right.”
Clarke scoffs. “Is that what you tell yourself?”
Octavia doesn’t take the bait, just studies her, and chews. Then, “You look like shit. Again.”
Clarke slams her utensils down and they clatter harshly against the porcelain plate. “What, Octavia? What could you possibly have to say right now that is so important I can’t finish my fucking eggs?”
Used to the barbs, but not inhuman, Octavia recoils and sits back in her chair, putting distance between them...just in case Clarke lunges. She waits, staring her friend down. It takes longer than usual, but Clarke finally blinks and works through a massive sigh before running her hands over her face. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles behind her hands. She looks up and offers an apologetic smile.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Octavia chuckles. “Yes, you do.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Yes, you do.”
Clarke glares for a moment, then admits defeat. “I don’t know what to do.”
“What’s on your mind, right this minute. No filter.”
Clarke sighs. She shrugs because she hates her answer. “You can’t patronize me.”
“No filter, it’s Lexa. Lexa in the hospital. Lexa less than ten blocks away from me. Lexa telling me she hates me after having sex with me all night. Just...Lexa. Always. All the time. Good and bad. I can’t get her out of my head.”
“And she’s leaving soon.”
“Yeah. Then there’s that.”
“You worried about it?”
Clarke tries to think. Worried isn’t the right word, but she doesn’t know what is, either. There’s no concrete way to describe what she’s feeling, and that might be the hardest part. If she could give it a name, she could finally pin it down and send it off into the night for good instead of staying up all hours, cursing her existence and assaulting innocent canvases.
“I don’t know what I am. I mean, I don’t even really know what I’m allowed to feel. Can I feel worried? She’s not mine to feel worried about. I’m also pissed at her, so why should I care if she’s leaving?”
“But you do.”
Clarke shrugs. “I do.”
“Because you care about her?”
“So much. Too much.”
“Maybe the space will be good for you.”
“That the thing,” Clarke growls, growing frustrated. “Space implies that we’ve been together, and need to separate. That separating will do us some good and allow us to come back to each other. But we’re not together. We haven’t been for almost a year, and we certainly aren’t going back to each other. Look what happens when we do. But here I am, still pining and still pissed. I don’t know what it means.”
“Well yeah, the sex kinda muddled things there. Probably shoulda gone with god instead.”
Clarke chucks a piece of ice at her, but follows it with a grin because Octavia is right. And she’s annoying when she’s right. “So what am I supposed to do now?”
Octavia links her fingers behind her back and gives a mighty stretch, kicking her feet up on the empty chair next to their table. “I think you just need to let it be.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Her friend shrugs. “Just...let it be. Don’t try to figure it out. Let whatever happens happen. You’ll find your way back to each other with time, I’m sure.” She comes back to the table and grabs Clarke’s face. “And in the meantime, for the love of god, stop having sex with her.”
The Parisians complain about the rain the way they complain about Americans in their city. It’s a nuisance—a hovering, clinging inconvenience that clogs up the streets and makes even the day’s most banal tasks tedious.
Clarke thinks it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. She should be preparing for her opening night, but instead she sits a bench under a café awning and draws. She hadn’t been able to get Octavia’s words out of her head for days, and she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to get out of the gallery.
She loves the gentle thrumming of the drops on the taught fabric above her, and the splashing of puddles as people dart about like they’re made of sugar. Clarke stretches her hand out to catch the drips that trickle off the edge of the awning, working the water around her fingers, pressing it into her skin. Decidedly not made out of sugar, she frets not about the prospect of melting, and collects each drip until the coldness of them makes her fingers ache.
It should shake her how accustomed she’d become to these little chases of feeling—moments of quiet desperation, reaching out into the world around her for even the slightest bit of tactile immersion—something to remind her, assure her, that she isn’t floating aimlessly about, unable to connect with the space around her. She exists in this world. She does. She can.
She wipes her hand dry on her scarf and returns to her charcoal stick. She sketches out the park across the street, the dripping branches, the flooded grass, the hooded and hunched figures on their way home before dark. Her lines are light and airy, nothing like the oppressive heaviness she feeling tugging her down with every thought, every unsettled flip of her stomach or stab in her chest.
Hearts are only meant to break once, she’d thought. Hers had cracked so many times, Clarke wondered sometimes if it was even still there. She’d lay in bed at night, her fingers pressed to her wrists in between anger fueled paint sessions, measuring each stilted, erratic thump until it eventually put her to sleep.
Even now, her fingers itch to take stock of her pulse. Instead, she lifts her head and watches the weary passers-by, breathes in the crisp air, smiles at the bandit squirrel making off across the street with a soggy bagel half. There are ways to exist in this world. There are ways to be happy. She promises it to herself as she rubs the shading into place and sketches out another tree.
Her phone buzzes in her purse beside her. A part of her wants to ignore it and remain in this quiet, rainy bubble of seclusion for as long as she can. Another part of her, however…
Lincoln [18:34pm]: Hey, Clarke. Apologies for the delay, lot’s going on. Lexa’s okay. Just needed rest and fluids.
Her heart thumps wildly at the response for a moment. She’d been waiting so long to hear back, several days of wondering whether she’d fucked up so much that even sweet, sweet Lincoln wanted nothing to do with her. She knew that Lexa had been fine, she’d read it online, but she’d wanted to hear it from Lincoln. A part of her maybe even hoped that she’d get a little more than she’d asked for. A part of her still couldn’t stop thinking about Lexa. It was an insatiable thirst that kept her dehydrated and always concious of it.
She should respond, she knows, but she also knows that Lincoln will understand why she doesn’t. There are too many emotions to feel about the news, and about the person it belongs to. There is still so much anger where there is also want. But she refuses to let it surge up inside of her any longer. The sadness comes as it pleases, but she refuses its kinship as best she can as well. It’s relief, a little annoyance, and finally catharsis that she hosts and allows to linger for a moment longer.
His hand on her jaw hurts. That’s the only thing she can focus on--not the cheering crowd, or the boomy, echoey swim hall, not the chills erupting under her shin or the fatigue in her legs. Just his hand, clenched around her chin, holding her attention on his mean, ugly face.
“Get your head in the fucking game, Woods,” he growls at her. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Lexa wants to shrink away, but his grip is firm and his eyes dare her to rebel. She hates his eyes the most, especially when they stare her down like this. She’s so very tired and hungry, and all she wants to do is forfeit and go to bed. It’s not a meet that matters. The only point of it is so that the coaches can show off to each other before the junior qualifiers.
“Are you even listening to me, Woods?”
She glances back up at his face, hating him the longer she stares. She hardly recognizes the man her mom took her to meet just three years ago. He’d been all smiles and encouraging words back then. She hates the hot tears that form at the thought of another lifetime when swimming was fun and her family wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s a smack to her cheek that has her wrenching out of Titus’ grip and scrambling backwards on her bench. He’d been mean, but he’d never hit her, and now she’s trapped in front of hundreds of people who are none the wiser as to what’s happening amidst the crowded pool deck.
“You’re going to finish this meet, and you’re going to win. Is that understood?”
Lexa shakes her head, clamping down hard on her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
“No? You think you have a choice? I’m coaching you for free and you think you get to choose when you do or don’t swim? That’s not how this works, kid. When I say swim, you say how fast. Got it?”
Finding her voice, Lexa draws her knees up to her chest and shakes her head. “I don’t want to.”
Titus slams his fist down on the bench, sending Lexa’s fourteen-year old frame leaping out of its skin. “You’ve never swam so well in your damn life! What’s the problem?!”
Lexa doesn’t know how to tell him that when she was swimming her last set, she forgot where she was. She doesn’t know how to tell him that instead of chlorine, she tasted salt. That instead of the bottom of a pool, she saw the endless depths of an ocean filled with the debris of her family’s boat. She doesn’t know how to tell him that she heard her mother’s screams and saw her father’s face, and the only thing she could think to do was to kick harder and swim faster because if she did, maybe she could reach them in time.
“I don’t want to go back there,” she mutters, wiping her tears on her bare shoulder. “I don’t want to see it again.”
“What are you talking about? Just swim your damn sets and we go home.” His voice softens slightly for a different approach. “I thought you wanted that Xbox, huh? Thought that’s what you were going to do with your prize money. Don’t you want those games?”
Lexa shakes her head. “I just want to go home.”
Titus practically growls as he stands from the bench and yanks Lexa up with him. He bends down and gets in her face. “Listen to me, and listen to me well because I’m not going to say this again. You’re going to get in that pool. You’re going to do or see whatever it is that put you at a 2 minute 200 IM, and you’re going to show these assholes exactly what a Titus Smith swimmer can do. Got it?”
“And if I don’t?” It’s not a challenge. It’s the softest, meekest little question that slips out of her before she can stop it. She flinches, expecting a strike to come, but it doesn’t. When she looks up, Titus is staring at her, cold as ice.
“If you don’t, you go back to Florida.”
He says it with steel in his voice and it makes Lexa cower more than anything that’s come out of his mouth that day. She can’t go back to Florida. She can’t go back to the children’s home that sent the oldest kids to bed without dinner because they didn’t have enough food. She can’t go back to fist fights that broke out at night when the adults were asleep, or the crying toddlers that wailed for their parents early into the morning. She can’t go back to being so close to her former home, her former life, but having nothing to show for it.
Titus puts his hand on her shoulder and squeezes. “Whatever you have to do to win, you do it. Otherwise, you go back and your life is over. Understood?”
Lexa swallows and looks back at the pool. She had a decision to make. One evil over another. Swimming saved her life, and now it would be her life. It was that, or it was nothing. There was never going to be a choice.
“Am I understood, Woods?”
Lexa looks back at him. It this was going to be her life, she might as well makes the most of it. She’d see her parents, and relive the accident, as long as it meant going forward. She couldn’t go back, not without them. As long as she had Titus, she had swimming, and as long as she had swimming, she had her parents. She’d let that drive her, until she just couldn’t go any more...
Lexa sits with her feet in the pool, dangling in the cool water. There are tears in her eyes, but she doesn’t bother wiping them away. They will only continue to come. She’d left Titus at sixteen, nearly ten years ago, but his grip on her never quite seemed to fade. She kicks at the water in a weak show of frustration. He’d derailed her life completely and she had let him. For two years she let him manipulate her, exploit her trauma and her pain, let him transform her into a mindless machine driven by toxic permutations of her parents’ death over and over until she knew of nothing else. For two years, he refused to let her move on, and for ten years after that, so did she. She couldn’t do it anymore.
It’s the clicking of heels on tile that tells her who is joining her without having to turn around. She doesn’t bother hiding her tears. Anya has seen plenty of them. She’s just about the only person who has seen them, besides Clarke, and Lexa is beyond caring.
Somehow knowing before even sitting down, Ayna runs her hand over Lexa’s hair, then down to her back as she sits next to her swimmer. They don’t talk at first. Anya just lets Lexa kick at the water and let loose the occasional sniff. She squeezes Lexa’s thigh at times, looks at her phone at others, just providing the comfort of her presence and the understanding of all that Lexa’s been through.
“Is that it, then?” Anya asks softly after several moments of silence. “Are we done?”
Lexa lets out a long, shuttery sigh. She shakes her head and shrugs. When still no words come, she throws up her hands and lets her head fall as the tears return.
“Hey, it’s okay. You can take a break, Lex. If that’s what you need. You’re more than just a swimmer, you know that right? I know you love it, but you can be someone else for a bit if that’s what you want.”
Lexa looks at her with red eyes. “That’s the thing, An. It was never about swimming. It was never about the sport or the Olympics or the medals. It was about them. It’s always been about them.”
“Your--I don’t understand.”
Lexa swirls her feet around in the water, trying to find the courage to tell Anya after all this time.
“I see them when I swim. The harder I swim, the more clearly I see them. And if I stop…I don’t see them anymore.”
Anya sits frozen in silence with the information, overwhelmed by the new glimpse into Lexa’s life. As her agent, she feels irresponsible. As her friend, she feels devastating guilt and sadness.
“Lexa...I. I didn’t know.”
“Only a few people do.”
Anya nods, things clicking into place. “Titus?”
“Yes. He was the first.”
“That’s why he got you riled up before meets?”
“Gus knew too.” Lexa can feel Anya tense beside her, but she presses on. “He didn’t think it was healthy, but when he saw how fast it made me…”
“ Lexa-- ”
“I know. I shouldn’t have let it go on, I just--”
“You should have told me. I could have helped you. I had no idea you were doing this to yourself. I could’ve...we could’ve been doing things differently your entire career.”
There’s a lot of things she could have, should have, done differently, Lexa thinks. She could have told Titus to shove it up his ass. She could have told her therapist the truth about flashing back every time she swam hard. She could have been healed, put back together, moved on over a decade ago. She could have worked through her shit, and maybe, just maybe, she could have been there for Clarke. Maybe, she could have been the person Clarke needed.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to,” She admits. “ Not at first. I could have addressed it for what it was, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to let them go.”
Anya places her hand on Lexa’s thigh and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Maybe it’s time to stop now. Maybe you should stop fighting it.”
Lexa looks up at the familiarity of the words. She frowns, trying to place them. “What do you mean?”
Anya chews on her lip. Her brow creases and she shakes her head, and it’s almost as if she’s feeling guilty.
“We all knew something was wrong, Lex,” Her agent says quietly. “We knew you weren’t happy. But you were winning...so easily, too. You were such a phenom, it was easy to forget you were in pain.”
Lexa knows this. She’s always known it. She’s been USA Swimming’s medal machine for years. They used her and she let them because what else did she have going for her? Still, it hurts to hear it put so bluntly. Maybe there’d been a part of her that thought it was all in her head. Maybe there’d been a part of her that wanted to trust in the only semblance of family she’d known since her parents’ death.
“Yeah,” Is all she can say. “I know.”
Seeing the defeat and the hurt in Lexa’s features, Anya panics. She grabs Lexa’s hand and pulls it towards her. “What can I do, Lexa? How can I help? Just say the word and it’s done.”
Lexa pulls her hand away gently, “I think I need to take some time.”
“Okay. Okay, what does that mean? What do you need? You want to postpone your press tour? We can pull you from the Euro Prelim, postpone your--”
“I don’t want to postpone anything.”
“Okay. We can do whatever you want, just--”
“I want to cancel it.”
Lexa turns to her and looks her dead in the eyes. “Cancel it. All of it.”
Anya is slow to nod, but she does. “Okay. Okay, we can do that. For how long?”
“Indefinitely.” Lexa pulls her feet out of the water and stands.
“Lexa. Are we…” Anya shakes her head. She lowers her voice, almost in disbelief. “Is this you retiring?”
Lexa shrugs. “I don’t know, An.” And she doesn’t. She has no idea what she’s doing. The only thing that she knows is that if she doesn’t stop now, she’ll swim her life into the ground, more so than she already has. “I just need some time. I’ll send you a statement tonight.” She doesn’t say anything more and doesn’t look back when she walks out of the hall.
She only has to knock once before Lincoln opens his door. She’d practically jogged from the pool to their hotel, and she’s out of breath from the cold, wet air that’d been hanging over the city for the past week.
“Well, hi,” he says, grinning at her pink cheeks and wild eyes.
“You meant my parents.”
“You told me to stop fighting it. You meant my parents, swimming. All of it. Right?” When he doesn’t answer right away, she backs up and leans against the wall, overwhelmed. “Right?”
“I--yeah, Lex. I guess so,” he says, quietly.
“How’d you know?”
He frowns. “You’re more transparent than you think, kiddo. We could see it. We all could. You were holding onto something huge, and it was making you great, but it was also...torturing you. You were wound so tight as a kid. Like if you let go you might burst apart into tiny pieces and never be put back together. I wanted to help, I just didn’t know how. I figured, as long as you wanted to swim, as long as you wanted to keep going, I could at least try to be your friend. As best that I could be. But when I saw you after your last swim...I knew you were done. I just didn’t know if you knew it yet. ”
Lexa nods, the tears coming back faster than she could stop them. “Linc?”
“I think...I just retired.”
It hits him hard to hear it out of her mouth. It’s both the last and the exact thing he was expecting. He’d almost hoped for it. He wanted Lexa to finally catch her breath. He wanted her to let go. He just never assumed it’d happen so quickly. He swallows his surprise and nods.
“How do you feel?”
“I…don’t know yet.”
“Have you told Gus?”
“No. I’m going to call him...soon. I just. There’s something I need to do first.”
He nods. He lets her get halfway down the hall before calling out to her. When she turns, he smiles. “She’s at the gallery, by the way. Her show opens tonight.”
Lexa stutters. “I--how did you?”
He laughs. “Transparent. Remember?”
It feels almost like a wedding with Raven, Octavia and her mother all crammed into Clarke’s tiny bedroom above Maxim’s gallery. Raven has fussed with her hair three different times and her mother can’t stop taking pictures. She might be the only one in the room not crying, and that could very well be because she’s been too busy rolling her eyes.
“It’s a gallery opening, jesus. I’m not drying for fuck’s sake.”
“She cusses when she’s nervous.”
“It’s her first solo show in almost two years, let her be nervous.”
“She’s not nervous, she’s just worried about the champagne flutes that there are plenty of. I counted myself.”
“Well, I can understand the fear. Maxim is a space cadet from what I’ve gather. Clarke will be--”
“Clarke is right here, ” Clarke chimes in, swatting Raven’s hand away. “My hair is fine. I am not nervous, and the champagne flutes are fine. Maxim is an airhead, but he is a very sweet, special airhead and I am eternally grateful for this opportunity he’s giving me. So be nice to him, I mean it. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to put my dress on and--”
It’s Bellamy who comes barrelling through the door, shoving his phone in her face. “Have you seen this?”
“Bellamy! What the hell, get out!” Octavia shrieks, pushing on her brother’s back, but he’s steadfast.
“Fuck off, O, this is important. Clarke, look.”
Clarke sighs and grabs the phone expecting some ridiculous new meme or an article on carnivorous plants. What she reads, instead, makes her heart skip a beat, quite literally. Her hand flies to her chest as she clutches at it in disbelief.
Anya Green, anyagreen@firstname.lastname@example.org
Lexa Woods to go on Indefinite Hiatus from Competitive Swimming
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Paris, France, 03 February 2017 - 3x Olympic Gold Medalist, Lexa Woods, has announced an immediate and indefinite hiatus from competitive swimming with the conclusion of the FINA World Championships in Paris, France. Ms. Woods will not be taking any interviews at this time.
As of 2017, Ms. Woods is the most decorated female swimmer in the sport’s history with 10 Olympic Gold medals, 2 Silver and 1 Bronze, as well as 5 FINA World Championship Gold medals. She has been swimming competitively with USA Swimming since the age of eleven when she joined Titus Smith at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. At the age of sixteen, Ms. Woods joined Gustus Phillips and began training at the University of Southern California.
Ms. Woods has not stated her reasons for this hiatus, and hopes for privacy and understanding as she steps away from the sport to pursue other interests.
“I--” she waves off Raven’s attempts at grabbing the phone, distractedly, in shock. “I have to go.”
“Hold on there. Clarke?” Its Abby’s turn to crowd her daughter’s space as she places her hand on Clarke’s shoulder and bends down. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I--” Clarke shakes her head. She stands and yanks on her coat. “I have to go,” is all she repeats.