I glared at my paddle, convinced that the intensity of my gaze could somehow force it through the water faster. My skinny nine-year-old arms sunk the right side into the water and then quickly rotated the kayak paddle in my hands to sink the left side. The paddle was feathered so to not catch the wind. As I turned it I could feel it slide in my hands, wet from the salt water.
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“Ugghh” I grunted as I pulled through the stroke, the incoherent supplications that every child recites running through my head. “Please, please, please” I repeated, not really knowing for what I was exactly asking. The paddle slipped once again and the blade edge cut through the water cleanly and uselessly. Hot helpless frustration flooded my body. I looked up through the sticky strands of hair stuck to my forehead. My father was fifty or more feet in front of me. For several seconds I watched the play of his shoulder muscles. They rippled back and forth in a constant rhythm that seemed to alter so little I reasoned it must be effortless.
My father called back to me, “Don’t you be a worm and no woman,” a favorite saying of his, “no pain, no gain”, another favorite saying of his and hated one of mine.
“I’m trrrryyyyyinnnngg” I yelled back at him, knowing contained within the word “trying” was the word “failure”.
The secretive pines of the rocky Maine coast flew by. We had been kayaking for a while now, weaving around the small islands located in the large bay where we spent our summers. We had packed a lunch and its remains as well as a wet towel and a found buoy lay between my legs, forcing them in a weird contorted like position. I kept knocking my elbows against my knees. Blood, mingling with salt water, flowed down my leg where I had scrapped it on a broken piece of plastic climbing into the kayak.
I had not wanted to go. I never actually wanted to go but today especially because I had thought I would not have to. When I had woken the sky had been the deep slate gray that promised a summer rain. Being Maine, the absence of the sun made it quite cold and out on the water, it was even worse. The wet brine breeze frequently raised goose bumps. Gazing out my window from my warm bed, I had been overjoyed. I had hoped that the darkness of the sky would mean a reprieve from the “sports camp” my father believed should be summer. I could just be left alone where there were no failed expectations. But I had underestimated my father. He never actually mandated that I had to go with him on the runs, bike rides, swims, and kayak rides that consumed his time and I certainly didn’t do all of them. However, if I didn’t do at least one of the four each day he had the ability to make me feel extraordinary ashamed. I was lazy, a worm and no woman.
The sky continued to get darker but I didn’t much notice as, like a mini-Sisyphus, I struggled to keep up with my father. We turned the corner onto the little inlet where our house stood high upon a hill. However, though we could see the house, we were still quite a ways away. The tide was coming out so we were battling against the water to come in. I knew this but felt a small spurt of, not joy, but relief as I could see the end in site. We were almost home and I had done my duty for the day.
At that moment the wind picked up. I looked down at the metal handle of my paddle and up at my father, now closer but still in front of me, and felt the relief of only a moment ago leave my body in a rush that I felt on a physical level. That one thing, which would not have meant much on its own, was the last straw. I was tired, my muscles ached, I had never wanted to be here, and I certainly didn’t want to be here now. It suddenly seemed very pointless and miserable. My father turned around and yelled at me to hurry up.
My head snapped up and in that moment I hated him. I hated him for making my helpless and in my hatred, stopped thinking about even the next minute. I sank my paddle deep into the water and PULLED. And then I did it again. And again. I could feel my muscles spasm. I was going to sprint the last several hundred yards in and I was going to beat him. I wanted so much to beat him, with the intensity that comes from knowing I was foolish and silly for even aspiring to such a thing. My kayak shot past my father’s. He looked up and I could hear him begin to laugh at the sight I made, the little girl in the big kayak, her arms rotating like dual windmills.
“I am going to win” I screamed at him. He began to pick up his pace. Seeing that I could feel myself giving up. Easier to give up now than down the line. It was inevitable anyway. In a matter of minutes Dad’s kayak was far, far ahead of me. So far ahead of me that I could slow down without him noticing. Tears ran down my cheeks.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled up against the rock we had set out from. Dad was sitting, waiting for me. He was still laughing.
“Look at you girl!” He crowed, “gave me a run for my money for a moment there” but I knew that wasn’t true. We pulled the kayaks into the boathouse and began walking up the hill to home. Swinging my sore arms back and forth and keeping my eyes on the dirt road, I followed behind my father. Even as I asked the question, I knew how weak it made me sound.
“Why couldn’t you have let me win?”