“Descartes said, ‘I think. Therefore, I am.’ But he could have said, ‘I dive. Therefore, I am.’ Or, ‘I win. Therefore, I am.’ The grammatical subject of any true sentence must exist. QED.”
Alice hit the final period with a satisfying thump. Mr. Thomson would have to give her an A, which was all she needed to maintain her G.P.A of 4.00.
Earning a 4.0 in high school was one of her three goals. The second was to maintain a weight of 120 pounds.The final goal — winning the diving championship at the state 2A tournament – was theone that mattered, the one that took her breath away. And it was within her grasp. She’d been sixth last year, most of her competitors had graduated, and she’d been practicing four hours a day since May. Not every day. Once a week they drained the pool to clean it; and she used that time to lift weights and work on her posture and her smile. Swimmers had it easy. If you touched first, you won. With diving, it was important not to alienate the judges with a scowl or an eye roll, and give them an excuse to dock half a point. Every half point counted, particularly when she went up against her rival, Stacey Knowles. So, Alice practiced her smile.
She’d entered her three goals on the public website. Every week, she updated details of her progress, and checked on other kids. Several who had started with her had dropped out, failed, and, as failures, no longer existed.
Failure is not an option, she reminded herself when she woke up at 5:30 for morning workouts; and when she considered relaxing after school with Facebook or with friends. Relaxation was out. She refused to think what would happen if she failed.
Reaching the finals of the state tournament was trivial.
In the finals, each of her first five dives was perfect. She and Stacey were neck and neck in points. For her last dive Alice climbed onto the board, bounced a little, moved to the edge and stood, shoulders and hips perfectly aligned. She was pushing her limits, doing the most difficult dive allowed. She forced her face into a small smile to cover the fear that crouched behind it. Then she leaped, up and over and over, her limbs rigid and parallel as tines on a fork, and pierced the blue surface without a splash.
The scores came in: 9.5, 10, 10, 9.5, 9. Alice’scoach grinned wildly and gave her a thumb’s up. The scores weren’t perfect; would they be enough?
Alice watched Stacey climb the stairs with mixed feelings. She wished her rival didn’t exist, but she knew that, without her, she herself wouldn’t have been driven to achieve excellence.
Stacey smiled cheerfully at the judges, and then propelled herself into the air, with a slight tremor in her right foot that Alice would have corrected after watching the videotapes.
They waited for the results. The judges hadn’t noticed the tremor. That last dive had made all the difference. Alice didn’t hear the applause as she headed to the locker room. It was someone else’s applause.
She passed Stacey coming out of the shower.
“Cheer up! There’s always next year,” her rival called kindly.
But Alice was a senior. There was no next year, no college scholarship for a failure, and no other goal worth pursuing.
Somehow, she made it through the rest of the meet and the awards ceremony. Later she slipped away from the party at Red Robin, returned to the pool by taxi, and broke a window to get in. A sign said,”Pool empty for cleaning. No swimming or diving.”
She changed into her swimsuit and bathing cap, and headed for the board, where she bounced a few times and corrected the wheel for her weight.
She inhaled the harsh scent of chlorine, and smiled into the gloom, at the empty stands and the names on the wall that would never include her own. Then she stood with her shoulders and hips perfectly aligned, arms stiff at her sides like a brave soldier. Nothing must break her fall.
Descartes could have said, “I cry. Therefore, I am.” Or, “I fail. Therefore, I am,” which is to say, “If I am not, if I do not exist, then it is not true of me that I fail.”