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"Short of spontaneous combustion, nothing I could do or say was going to compete with [her] zeal for whatever scheme they were about to hatch on me. Though it wasn’t in the bag, it was obvious there was more."

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21 – Conspiracy

The uneasy feeling was morphing into something more serious.  As I settled myself into the backseat of Trevor’s car I began the search for my wallet in earnest.  Trying to dig through a bottomless pit backpack while keeping pace with one’s Amazon Goth companion in the free-for-all exodus after last bell is harder than it may appear.

Pulling out of the school parking lot, I became increasingly anxious as I searched from one compartment to the next until I had exhausted every possible absentminded wallet stashing location.  In a final act of desperation I turned the backpack upside down and dumped the contents: books, papers, pens, candy, flotsam, jetsam and keys, but no wallet.

Exhaling in frustration, I began the absolute last ditch procedure:  patting down the emptied flattened backpack in the hope that the shape of my trapped wallet could be felt, if not seen.   No dice.  It was gone.

The last time I had it was in the cafeteria.  I’d taken to finding errands to perform so that Trevor and Sam could have a few moments of ‘couple time’ at lunch.  He faithfully stuck to the business of buying our meals every day—the consequence of having lost a wager early in our acquaintance regarding my loyalty to Sam—but sometimes I’d take a leisurely stroll back through the lunch line to get something else at my own expense.  I felt confident, though, that if I wanted to, I could have turned these occasions into Ellery and Sam time, all expenses paid.   But that would have defeated the purpose, and robbed me of my private, self-awarded good citizenship medal.

Today’s excursion had been a banner day for quarter collecting, a secondary and admittedly self-serving motivation for my behavior.  I’d received three Kentucky quarters in change when I bought some chocolate milk toward the end of the break.  Just finding one ‘KYQ’ would make my day.  Catching three was like winning the lottery, except on a sad underachiever’s scale.  And subsequently loosing my wallet, with my triple prize inside, was like loosing that winning lottery ticket.  Who cared about the four dollar wallet or the five dollar bill inside?  Well, my driver’s license and my Shrek and Fiona themed debit card (with the bazillion dollar limit) were in there too.

Darn it!

“Are you looking for this?” Trevor asked, holding my wallet up, without looking at me, while he drove.

“Where did you find that?” I demanded—more peeved than relieved due to the non-coincidental timing of his question.

He could have returned it to me moments later in English class after lunch, or at any point during the second half of the day, but he chose to wait until after I’d panicked and dumped everything out like a two-year old.


As I quickly snagged it out of his hand he offered a patronizing, “You’re welcome.”

I caught a glimpse of his satisfied smile in the rearview mirror.

“Thanks for finding it…and for making me sweat it out; that was gallant,” I shot back.

Ever since the whole drowning thing where I realized that my friends weren’t perfect, or able to read my mind, I’d taken to voicing my feelings in slightly less guarded ways.  It usually felt very good initially, only to cause second guessing and lingering guilt afterwards.

Trevor seemed to get a lot of pleasure from my discomfort, even if it was self-induced much of the time.  My transition to a more open style of communication only added to his amusement.  He had to be one of the happiest Goths of all time, thanks to me.

“Gallant Sir Trevor.  That has a nice ring to it,” Sam interjected from the shotgun seat.

She was mostly neutral in the skirmishes between the Emperor and me.  Instead, she made it her business to be irenic (peace promoting) and find segues to alternate and more pleasant topics after these recurrent tussles.

“Lovely Lady Samantha has an even nicer ring,” he rejoined, the well pleased smile still reflecting in the mirror.

He pulled her hand, which he was already holding, up to his lips and kissed the top; stealing a glance at his beautiful, though darkly disguised lady, before turning his attention back to the road.  She sighed wistfully while smiling radiantly.

It was ironic, but the scariest looking people I knew were also the most romantic.  Sometimes life around them was like being in a movie…on the Sci-Fi channel, where I was the alien orphan, under the care of two mysterious, clandestinely gorgeous humans.  One day the mother ship full of oddball shorties would come back for me…

Just moments later we pulled into an uncharacteristic destination:  Applebee’s.  It was a little early for a sit down meal, but I assumed that one of the Goths must have been particularly hungry.  As we settled into our booth, quite literally the only customers in the place, Sam excused herself to get something she forgot in the car.

Sitting across the table from Trevor, I realized with apprehension that he was smiling, as though enjoying some exceptionally funny inside joke.  My intuition told me it had to do with whatever Sam was retrieving from the vehicle.

Sure enough, as she rounded the corner her face was beaming with a brilliant Sam-style smile (nobody smiled like Sam) as she toted a medium sized gift bag back to our booth.

“Okay, El. Don’t be mad,” she began, scooting into her seat next to Trevor while placing the gift next to me on my side of the table.


This was always the opening line to something guaranteed to be unpleasant, or madness inducing.

“So, Trevor and I felt really horrible about what happened at Great Wolf…” she began.

Oh really?  Then why bring that up again…ever?

“And we wanted to make it up to you, and be practical at the same time.  Open it up,” she said, enthusiastically, gesturing toward my present.

I knew I would regret not running away while I still had the chance.  My house was less than five miles away.  I could make it home before nightfall, especially if I ran…

Propriety won out over my instinct to flee and I moved the bag in front of me.  After pulling off the top layer of decorative tissue, my fingers made contact with what felt like clothes.

Folded neatly, until I released it from the bag, was an oversized white cotton tunic with three-quarter length sleeves.  Before I could comment Sam added, “Keep going, there’s more.”

The next layer felt like a slick synthetic fabric of some sort.  When I pulled it out, I thought I was looking at a set of lingerie; twilight blue and ruffled.  The guilty part of my mind immediately concluded that they knew about my impossibly handsome boyfriend.  But how?

Now that my expression was even more befuddled Sam said, “It’s a tankini with hipster bottoms…by Marc Jacobs, exclusively at Nordstroms,” she added, as if referencing the designer and the store might clear up my confusion.

Of course, a swimsuit and cover-up seemed more in line with her opening comment about Great Wolf.  Then she continued, “It’ll make sense when you see the last part.  Keep going.  There’s one more thing in there.”

The final item is what gave the bag its weight.  Pushing past a last layer of tissue my fingers came in contact with a book.

Now that’s more like it.

Pulling it free and then turning it around to see the title I read,“Conquer Your Fear of Water. An Innovative Self-Discovery Course In Swimming.”

It was a ‘how to’ book on swimming.  This must have seemed like a kinder gentler option than the “Swimming For Dummies” guide that they probably really wanted to get for me.

Trevor’s face was ambiguous; it was in complete contrast with Sam’s excessive eagerness for whatever this care package portended for me and my fears.

“Oh…too late guys.  I’ve already ‘discovered’ that I’m hopeless.”

I tried to sound as final as possible, but short of spontaneous combustion, nothing I could do or say was going to compete with Sam’s zeal for whatever scheme they were about to hatch on me.  Though it wasn’t in the bag, it was obvious there was more.

“We’ve arranged for you to have private swimming lessons.  You’ll be getting one-on-one time with a certified swim instructor who teaches this method,” she said while pointing to the book.  “It’s all set up for early evening, right around dinner, so you’ll have the pool to yourself…starting tonight.  That’s why we’re treating you to an early dinner,” Sam explained, cringing a bit as she related the heavy news at the end.

It took me a minute to process the awful truth of what was looming just a short time from now.  My appetite had done the full three-sixty since we’d arrived.  I wasn’t hungry when we pulled in, just after three o’clock, but the wonderful aroma of grilled food outside the restaurant changed my mind.  Then, after opening my gift and being informed of my upcoming fate worse than death, I’d managed to lose that appetite again—possibly forever.

“That was really sweet of you two, but you should have asked before you signed me up and spent money.  I’m sorry, but the answer is no.”

I looked around in shock.  Whose authoritative resolved sounding words were coming out of my mouth?

“I bet she’d change her mind if she saw the instructor,” Trevor said with a chuckle at the end.

I refused to be baited.  Sam took over where Trevor left off.

“He’s Trevor’s friend from the health club.  You know who he reminds me of El?” she asked, baiting me some more.

I just stared at the space in between them.

“Remember that guy at Tinsel Town?  The one who was asking about you that day we dressed you up in Goth?   What was his name?” she asked, trying to engage me.

Trevor and I both took the bait on that, staring intently at her now that she had our full attention.

“Ellery dressed up in Goth?  Are you serious?  Do you have pictures?”

He was more serious and less amused than I thought he’d be.  Why would that matter to him?  This tangent diverted my attention for a moment, but then I got back to concentrating on not getting sucked in.  It felt like a trick.  Besides, Ash would flip if I said yes to them so quickly when he’d begged me to take swimming lessons every day of the first week we started dating, until I threatened not to love him anymore if he asked me again.  We both knew that was an empty threat, but in the end I had held him off with a qualified ‘maybe’…as in ‘maybe when pigs fly’.

“Sure I do.  At home.  I’ll show you later.  She looked awesome.  Kind of a one hit wonder sort of thing, though.  She’s never done it again, though I wish you would,” Sam turned from speaking to Trevor to addressing me.

“But any way, that guy, the really cute one…your totally handsome stalker, remember?”

He was all I thought about around the clock, of course I remembered him.

I just shook my head, feigning ignorance.

“You don’t remember that boy who came up asking if we’d seen you?  Oh, what was his name?” she asked, getting impatient at my lack of acknowledgment and her own poor memory.

“Well, any way, the instructor reminds me of him, a little.   Except your swim instructor is smokin’ hot.  Not my type,” she qualified, glancing at Trevor with open, up turned hands, “but you’ll really like him.  He’s very nice.  We interviewed him first, to make sure you’d be comfortable around him.  Believe me—you will be.”

That Sam-style smile was turned all the way up to blinding.

“You interviewed him?” I asked, skeptically.

“His name is Raffi,” Trevor said.  “He’s my spotting partner at the gym.  He’s big into swimming, but he’s also into helping people overcome fear of water; very committed to the cause.  I think he almost drowned as a kid or something.”

He was being sincere, but I still felt wary.

“Trevor introduced me to Raffi so we could discuss the training program and make sure it was a good fit for you before getting you involved.”

Leaning closer to me from across the table she continued, “Ellery, it’s really different.  I think it’s going to be a very good thing for you.  It’s not like traditional swimming lessons.  Instead of forcing you to focus on surviving, you spend time getting comfortable in the water and then take as long as you need learning swimming skills at your comfort level and pace.”

Taking the book from my hands she opened to the table of contents and then handed it back to me.

“It’s all outlined in the book.  You don’t even have to get wet at first, if you don’t want to.  I have a really, really good feeling about this.  Please just try it,” she concluded with a bit of wheedling in her tone.

Here comes the guilt trip portion of the monologue.

“You don’t know how bad we felt about what happened.  If we’d lost you…”said Trevor, shaking his head as though he couldn’t continue.

I had to give him credit.  He was very convincing and intense as he took the lead in the guilt-tripping.

“The ability to swim is an extremely important life skill,” he continued.  “You owe it to yourself to at least try; especially when we’ve gone to so much effort to make it easy and enjoyable for you.”

That was impressive.  I couldn’t think of a single ungracious response.

“So you’ll give it a try then?” Sam beamed, jumping back into convincing mode.

Just then the waiter came up.  Who knows what he’d been doing up to this point.  Sleeping, maybe?

“What can I get you folks to drink?” he inquired.

Trevor replied, “We’ll have two cokes, and what about you, Ellery?”

“Looks like I’m having water.”

The ride across town to the aquatic center on Reservoir Road took twenty minutes or so.  We passed the drive in quiet reflection, just listening to the radio.  During our early-bird special dinner and afterwards I’d had time to reasonably assure myself that the scope of the conspiracy was larger than my two companions, and that somehow they had been manipulated by the security team in regard to my swimming lessons.  Thinking through all that might entail made me feel more positive about the upcoming experience than I would have ever believed possible.

When we arrived Sam pulled part two of her care package out of the trunk:  a trendy looking swim bag filled up with things I’d need like matching flip flops, two towels (one for after the pool, and the other for after the shower) and a collection of sample sized Aveda bath gel, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion products.  My best friend was annoying and pushy, yet pleasingly thoughtful and thorough.

They wouldn’t just let me out at the door, fearing I’d hide out in the locker room or possibly run off.  But once I’d been transferred to the custody of my ‘instructor’ I made Trevor and Sam promise to leave the premises, making it clear that I would not cooperate if I thought they were watching.  After all, they were not my parents, and I had a right to some privacy.

When it came to my reaction to the instructor, they were more right than they’d realized.  I did like him.  He was smokin’ hot.  He was everything I’d hoped for, and less.  Less clad, to be specific.  His perfectly cut body, especially the musculature gracing his chest and abdomen underneath that gorgeous light coffee colored skin made my urge to gawk and touch him nearly impossible to override.  In fact I failed at this multiple times; the gawking and the touching.

“Who’s Raffi?” I asked him once they were gone.

“It’s actually a nickname my grandmother gave me.  My first name is Ashraf.  It’s Persian.  Raffi is a familiarized shortened version,” he explained through a big warm smile.

I knew the happiness had nothing to do with explaining his name.   I was happy too, sort of.  My hunch had been dead on.

“Thank you for finally agreeing to this.  I’ll be able to relax whenever you go near water now,” he said while taking my bag from my hands and placing it on a nearby pool chair.

Just as promised, the large indoor aquatic center was mostly deserted.  There were a few senior citizens doing laps in the lanes at the far end, but everyone else was off having dinner.

“Are you really a certified swimming instructor?” I asked.

“Not in this country, but I used to work as a lifeguard when I was younger.  I had to study up on this particular teaching method, but it’s very straight forward; ingenious really.  And it’s perfect for you.   You’ll be swimming circles around me in no time.”

He took my hand and guided me to the edge of the pool, indicating that we should sit with our feet in the water.  The smell of the chlorine and the droning sounds of pool pumps and exhaust fans were bringing on a panic attack of memories associated with my last swimming experience.  I tried to block the unreasonableness by diverting myself in mystery solving.

“I have a question,” I asked, after we’d been sitting for a moment.  “How do you know Trevor?”

He looked a little guilty, or maybe it was chagrin.

“I thought it was important to know the strange looking person who befriended and now transports my love nearly everywhere she goes,” he explained in all seriousness.

“So I trailed him when I wasn’t on duty, to make sure he wasn’t being evil in his private time,” he smiled a little at his joke, “and then I joined his health club and made friends with him in the weight room.  He’s nicer than he looks.”

“That’s debatable.  What did you think of Sam?”

“She’s nicer than she looks, too,” and he chuckled again, but then he turned serious and added, “It’s obvious that she cares very deeply for you.  If I didn’t know the relationship, I would have assumed you were family.”

“We’re ‘framily’, actually.  Those are friends that you love like family, so they’re called framily,” I explained.

We had never discussed my specific term of endearment for the Goths.

“Ellery, do you consider me…to be framily?” he asked, deeply serious, searching my eyes.

My stomach did a flip and a twist, but I held it together and confessed the truth.

“Temporarily, I guess.  But that’ll never be good enough for me.”

I looked out over the water as I said this.

He still had my hand between his and squeezed it a little tighter in response to my admission.

“Or me.”

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1 Comment (Leave a comment »)

  1. YES! I love the interactions between Ash and El! I knew it would be him to help her fear of water :-) *squee*

    Comment by Danielle — May 28, 2010 at 10:55 am

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