“Good afternoon, Theo!” Roger greeted me as I entered the changing room.
“Oh, afternoon, Roger!” I replied with a smile. “How are you?”
“Same old, same old. Ready for the tryouts?”
“You know it,” I grinned.
It was Monday, and I was about to get a spot on the team.
Yeah, maybe I was overconfident, but I’d been state champion two years running, and I’d nearly managed to set a new state record; I was sure I could manage to swim, ride, and run fast enough. After all, there were six spots available on the team: there wouldn’t be six people better than me in this college, right?
“Is Lexi trying out for the girls’ team today?” I asked.
“No, she just came today to cheer me on,” Roger answered. “She doesn’t feel confident enough just yet; it’s mainly because of the swimming.”
“I get it,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s my weakest segment as well, I’m much better on the bike and run.”
Roger gave me a weird look. “Yeah, that’s why. Man, to think that only last year we’d been racing against each other.”
I blinked. He’d been racing against a girl the previous year? Ah, he probably got it wrong. I mentally dismissed the inconsistency and asked, “So, you two been together long?”
“Only since the spring,” he replied. “I’d had a crush on her since, like, forever, but she hadn’t noticed at all; she can be a bit dense sometimes.” He smiled. “But then some stuff happened that brought us closer, and I decided to confess. Turns out she felt the same way, but only figured it out there and then.”
“A classic love story,” I commented.
“Yeah, sort of. You ready?” he asked.
By then I’d changed into my swimsuit – briefs, they decrease water resistance compared to trunks – and put on my pink swim cap. “Yeah, let’s do it.”
We walked out and lined in front of the pool. I looked around; there were about twenty boys trying for the team, so I figured I had a one-in-three chance of making it in. But that wasn’t really a one-in-three chance, was it? It was much better, after all I’d trained hard for things like these.
There were also a few people watching us from the bleachers; Lexi was sitting there, and she smiled and waved when we emerged from the changing room. “Go Rog!” she shouted.
Roger was standing beside me, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his cheeks redden. Oh, these two were just adorable.
“Good afternoon, folks!” Coach Davis greeted us. “And welcome to the tryouts. The rules are simple: there are six spots on the team, and the fastest six of you will get them.”
He paused, and ran his eyes over us. “I’ll split you in groups of four in alphabetical order. You will each swim four hundred metres, bike ten kilometres, and run two and a half kilometres; the sum of the three times will of course be your total time. In case of a tie, I will go by seniority. Any questions?”
When we didn’t speak, he nodded. “Alright then. Andrews, Bean, Evans, Finley, you’re up. To the starting blocks.”
From then on, everything proceeded smoothly; when it was my turn, I went up to the starting blocks, assumed the position, and tried to clear my mind. All three segments were completely uneventful.
“Very good,” the coach said when we were all done and had showered to wash away the sweat and the chlorine from the pool. “I’ve summed up the times, and these are the six of you who will be on the team this month.”
He lifted up his clipboard and started reading names. “Evans. Freeman. Jones.” Roger nodded at that. “Ortega. Parker. Smith. Congratulations, guys. Well done.”
Good, I’d made it into the team. But the times were closer than I expected: I guess college was a whole lot different than high school, I would need to keep training hard to avoid being excluded.
“The rest of you, don’t be discouraged; by all means, try again next month,” Coach Davis continued. “Oh, and before I forget: everyone in the team is expected to maintain a 2.67 GPA, if you drop below that your spot will go to someone else. Am I clear?”
Five voices said “Yes coach!”
I, on the other hand, just stared at him. 2.67? That meant I had to keep a B-minus grade average over all my courses, and that worried me quite a bit: while I wasn’t a terrible student by any stretch, I’d never been known for my grades – I was lucky my high school had overlooked some failings, actually.
But this was college. There was no way around it. I would need to get to studying.
I was shaken from my thoughts by Roger punching me lightly in the shoulder. “Hey, congratulations, Theo!” he said. “You did very well, it’s the first time that I know of that a freshie manages to get on the team on their first try! But that’s to be expected from a state champion, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Wanna go over to CoffeePB to have a celebratory brew?” he asked. “My treat.”
“Sure, let’s go.”
Lexi climbed down from the bleachers to join us, and after she gave Roger a congratulatory kiss, we were off; Simon joined us as well, he’d made it into the team too.
As we walked towards the café, we passed in front of a store; there were a few of them on campus, selling everything students might need (including some groceries). I’d been into that store a couple times, actually, and I suddenly remembered something.
“Hey, can you wait here for a bit? I need to buy some nail polish,” I said. I’d decided to be upfront and direct about it, and act more confident than I was feeling.
“Nail polish?” Lexi asked, tilting her head to the side. “For whom?”
“For me,” I replied. When they gave me a look, I continued, “See, since I got on the team, I thought I might show my team spirit. And what better way to do that than to wear the school colours on my nails?”
Their eyes said they could think of several better ways, actually, but they didn’t comment. Instead Lexi extended her hand towards me, palm up. “Hand,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Give me your hand.”
I complied, and she held it close to her eyes, inspecting my nails closely. “Dear god, Theo, what do you do to these nails? Do you even cut them, or just chew on them once in a while?”
“Well, actually…” I began, but she shook her head.
“This won’t do, this won’t do at all,” she chided me. “Come with me.”
She dragged me into the store, Roger and Simon following close behind us; she grabbed a basket, and moved swiftly down the aisle, stopping in front of a display labelled “nail care.”
“Alright, first things first, you need a proper nail clipper, and a nail file,” she said, grabbing them from the display and putting them in the basket. “And then a polish base and top coat.” She grabbed those too, and turned to me. “You said you wanted the school colours?”
“I did,” I replied, stunned by how quickly she’d taken charge of the situation.
“Okay, so light blue and silver,” she commented. She searched the display for a bit. “I’m afraid they don’t have any metallic silver, will a light grey do?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“Great,” she said, plucking them from their place. “And some remover and cotton pads just in case. Let’s go!” she exclaimed.
“Uh… Let’s go where?” I asked.
“To CoffeePB, of course,” she answered. “Weren’t we going there in the first place? We’re getting something to drink, maybe a snack, and I’m going to do your nails.”
And she did. We took over a table off to the side of the café, and in about half an hour I was sporting light blue and light grey nails, on alternating fingers. I turned my hands over, looking at the colours, seeing how the light reflected off the shiny top coat.
“Do you like them?” Lexi asked with a smile.
“I love them,” I replied, still staring at them, mesmerized. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You know, it’s nice to meet someone like you once in a while.”
My eyebrows raised towards the ceiling. “Someone like me?”
“Yeah, a boy who is so secure in his masculinity that he doesn’t mind wearing something feminine every now and then,” she explained. “I’ve spotted a few others who have painted nails here at college, but there are none on the triathlon team.”
“Oh.” For whatever reason, even though I loved the nail polish she’d put on me, her words made me feel a bit bad. “I hadn’t really put any thought in it. I just wanted to wear nail polish, that’s all.”
“And that’s perfectly fine,” Roger said.
Lexi looked at him with a gleam in her eye. “Then what about--”
“I’m not wearing nail polish, sweetheart,” he cut her off. “We’ve already tried that, you know I don’t like it.”
“Hmpf. Spoilsport,” she pouted.
“So anyway,” I asked, “Did I hear it right when the coach said we have to maintain a 2.67 GPA? That’s a bit high, isn’t it?”
They all looked at me. “No, not really,” Simon shrugged. “You just need to pay attention in class and review everything afterwards, that’s it.”
“It’s just…” I sighed. “I admit I’m a bit nervous. I’m still not used to college life, studying, and everything. And truth to be told, I’m not really the sharpest person around. My major is one of the most difficult, even, sometimes I wonder why I chose it.”
Well, I did know why I chose it: I’d looked up the employment statistics – how many people had a job five years after finishing college by major, and chemistry had come up near the top. Even though I wanted to make a career out of triathlon if I could, I didn’t know if I could manage it: often, this kind of stuff is entirely up to luck. And even if I did manage, it would take just an accident or an injury and my sports career would be over. It was best to have a plan B to fall upon should things go sideways.
“What are you studying?” Simon asked.
“Ooooh, yeah, that’s a hard one,” Lexi replied. “My sister is doing chemistry too, and she always complains how difficult it is.”
I sighed again. “Well, I just have to do my best, don’t I?”
“Yeah, sorry. There’s not much any of us can do to help you, except tutor you a bit if you need it,” Roger said.
I smiled. “Thank you, but I’ll manage.”
We parted ways after that; the three of them went back to the sports facilities, since they told me they wanted to run a few miles around the track before the day was over. I, on the other hand, made my way to my dorm room. I’d arranged my daily schedule around my morning run, so I didn’t need to train any more than I’d already done that day, and I wanted to study a bit to review the day’s lessons before bed.
Patrick was sitting at his desk when I entered the room. “Oh, hey, welcome back!” he said, turning his head to look at me. “You’re early. Did you make the team?”
“I did,” I replied with a smile. “But I wanted to study a bit before dinner. Fun fact! I found out that if my GPA drops below 2.67, I’m going to get kicked out of the team right away, no questions asked.”
“Oof, that’s rough, friend. I know that feeling.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I do. Scholarship student, remember? If my GPA drops below 3.33 for too long, I risk losing the money.”
“3.33?” I said, looking at him wide-eyed. “But that means…”
“B-plus or above, yeah.”
I stared at him with renewed respect. Whoa. I knew he was smart – he would have to be, to get a scholarship – but to maintain that level the whole time? That took dedication, too.
“But if you have trouble with something, I can always tutor you,” he continued. “I know we don’t share too many courses, astronomy and chemistry are quite different after all, but if you need something and think I can help, just ask.”
I smiled at him. Pat was a really good guy, always worrying about others. “No, thank you, don’t worry,” I replied. “You think about yourself, I’ll manage somehow.”
“If you say so,” he shrugged. “Offer’s always open. Oh, nice nails, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said, a bit startled that he’d noticed. “I had a friend paint them, they’re the school colours.”
“Yeah, I know. Cool.”
“…You don’t think it’s weird?”
He shrugged again. “Why would I? Boys can wear nail polish too if they want.”
Again I felt a small pang in the back of my brain, and again I wondered why.
I nodded in acknowledgement, and then sat down at my desk, putting the shopping bag with the nail polish and other supplies on my bed. I pulled my notes from the morning’s lessons from my backpack and booted up my old, battered laptop – I’d bought it second-hand a year before with three months’ savings from a part-time job: it kept chugging a bit, but it was still serviceable, and that was a good thing because I definitely couldn’t afford to replace it.
I looked down at my notes and at the lesson’s title I’d written down. Significant figures and exponential notation. Alright, let’s go. Come on. I got this.
Just put your head down and study hard, you’ll get it.
“I’ll never get it!” I groaned, lying my head down on the study hall table. “It’s just… So complicated!”
“Don’t worry, Theo, it’s not that hard, really. Let’s run over it again,” Lena said, smiling at me. We’d quickly bonded after that first day, and often spent time studying together. She was a really nice girl; she’d even complimented my nail polish when she saw it.
“See now,” she pointed at the page. “Significant figures are just that: significant. It means that the dozens or even hundreds of places after the decimal point don’t matter, because they’re too tiny to have an impact on things.”
“But the two numbers are still different,” I protested.
“They are,” she acknowledged. “But in the grand scheme of things, those differences are too tiny to matter. Think about it like… The difference between buying something for nine hundred ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents, or buying it for a thousand dollars. It would take you buying thousands of them for the single cent to make a difference.”
I perked up. “Oh, like how for sprint races the time is measured in seconds and hundredths of a second, while in long races like marathons it’s measured in hours, minutes, and seconds?”
She blinked at me. “Sure, you can put it like that,” she said.
Finally. By using a sports analogy, I’d finally managed to get it.
We studied a bit more, and then took a small break, just to relax and cool our brains – I found it extremely difficult to cram lots of information into it at the same time.
“Are you interested in role-playing games, Theo?” Lena asked while we sipped a soda.
I shook my head. “Never played one, why?”
“Well, we’re about to start a new game, and we need players. I was wondering if you’d like to come.”
I thought about it. It would be one more thing, between sports and studying. I didn’t know if I had enough time, to be honest. But on the other hand, it would be a welcome distraction from everything, a way to turn my brain off and just enjoy myself once in a while.
“Sure, why not?” I said. “Who’s coming?”
“Well, there’s me, and my sister, and her boyfriend,” she replied. “And his brother, he’s the game master. That’s kind of the narrator, who oversees things and makes it go as smoothly as possible. Oh, and you now I guess.” She smiled.
I smiled back, but at the same time I had a thought. I thought about Pat: I’d never seen him do anything beyond studying, it was all he seemed capable to do. He never took a break, never enjoyed himself in any way.
Maybe it would do him good to distract himself from schoolwork.
“Do you have place for one more?” I asked.
“Sure. Do you have someone in mind?”