Liam McBreen: Stroke

Mar 2023 | Short story, The Optimist

The four cock-covered walls of the high school toilet cubicle. Cracked paint and wet concrete. Catholic school humidity.

There is laughter from beyond the stall. The playful, faux-bravado laughter of boys as they nervously undress. Towels wrapped around waists, they shimmy underwear down. Pick them up slyly, foot-to-hand, face the wall and don’t dare drop the towel. I am standing in the cubicle getting changed into Adam Stevens’ spare pair of speedos. This is what it all comes down to.

  Wooden stalls that swell in the summer months. Horse-flies and forgotten lunchboxes. Most of the boys are in board shorts, while all the really good swimmers wear speedos. I opted for league shorts – the Warriors – as they don’t create much drag in the water but also don’t invite the same amount of bullying as wearing speedos to school swimming. Adam Stevens wears speedos but he never gets bullied. The blue and yellow ones – same as last year. He never gets bullied because Adam Stevens and his speedos are what wins swimming sports for our house year after year.

The smell of chlorine and between-class marijuana. Damp socks stuffed in leather shoes. Apple cores and maggot-ridden sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Adam and I are in Solomon – the red house – and I am getting changed into his speedos to compete in the house relay, the final event of the day. I am putting on his speedos because Loretto – the blue house – are neck-and-neck with Solomon, and it all comes down to the relay.

School chants muffled through the changing room door. We’ve been everywhere, man. We’ve been everywhere. / We breathe the mountain air, man. We’ve been everywhere.

It is standard practice to have your fastest swimmer go last so the team can finish strong and to have the second-fastest swimmer first so they can get out ahead and secure a lead. I am swimming first and Adam is swimming last. I am taking off my league shorts and putting on Adam’s speedos because he says they will make me faster in the water. It all comes down to the relay.

Soft dicks scrawled in sharpie. Underwear draped on the toilet stall door. The blue rubber raised surface pattern of the changing room’s anti slip mats. Adam’s speedos are already damp, as if he wore them earlier in the week. They are halfway up my leg when I hear a bang on the door.

‘You in there? Do they fit alright?’

I pull them up and feel myself in them. I feel myself with them.

‘Yeah all good man. Cheers for letting me use them.’

‘No worries bro. I used them at squad training last night so they might still be a bit wet sorry.’

Erect dicks with vivid outlines – mostly circumcised. Comically large heads with very little ball hair. I adjust Adam’s speedos, skin cold against the wet fabric. They are black and make my legs look paler than they already are. I open the door to the cubicle.

‘Looking good. Must be the right size.’

Dicks carved in brick with a math compass. Scribbled on the cistern with a ball-point pen. Small dicks with students’ names written beside them. Big dicks with students’ names written beside them. A small circumcised dick engulfed within a larger uncircumcised dick. Penises so meticulously drawn, and with such eye for detail that I imagine they must have taken hours. And lazy dicks, with uneven shafts, sketched at speed between third and fourth period.

Adam takes a step forward and shuts the door behind him.

Long dicks that arc and spiral, their large balls hanging low like medallions of masculinity. Dicks that are wider than they are long, balls hairless and harrowing. Saint John Baptist we your children / sing the glory of your name, hey!

Balls, harrowing and hairless. A penis tied in a bow on the back of the cubicle door. Rows upon rows of cocks all shapes and sizes, an ever-growing monument to teenage ingenuity and toilet-stall boredom. Adam stands directly in front of me and very slowly gets down on his knees.

There’s a patch of greenish-black mould in the corner of the ceiling. If I look at it for long enough, it almost starts to look like a penis too.

Whisper prayers into my waistband. Adam grabs a hold of the string at the front of the speedos and carefully ties them in a knot. ‘You wouldn’t want these coming down in front the whole school.’

Harrowing and hairless, the patch of mould changes with each exhalation. The image of Jesus on the cross.

Wood that swells in the summer months. The taste of chlorine on innocent skin. He stands up, pats me on the shoulder and opens the toilet door. ‘Look alive,’ he glances down at the speedos. ‘The relay’s about to start.’ He shuts the door and walks outside, leaving me alone in the stall. The relay is what it all comes down to.

I hit the sunny water as the starting gun fires. Mr Costello, our math teacher, shooting blanks from the corner of the swimming pool. Empty noise followed by an inconsistent splash. Loose goggles slowly filling with water. I remember the day he asked the two of us to collect rows of chairs from the chapel. We sat against the lectern and ate un-consecrated wafers, our stifled wails echoing through the empty pews.

With each breath I try to look sideways to see the other swimmers, but the goggles are so full of water now it’s all just a sunlight blur. I feel as though I have mistimed my underwater kicks and worry that I’m coming dead last.

Stained glass windows depict the fourteen stages of the cross. Jesus falls the second time; Veronica wipes the face of Christ; etcetera, etcetera. In math class Mr Costello taught us about the holy numbers, digits that reoccur throughout the Bible in association with the Lord. I gasp for air on every seventh stroke.

The second swimmer dives over me as I reach the end of the pool. I take my googles off and Adam helps me out of the water.

‘Good stuff,’ he says, ‘you got us out in front. I told you you’d be faster in speedos.’ I can barely hear him over the cheering, the whole school standing in the bleachers, waving multi-coloured flags as the second swimmers for each house make their way across the pool. I stand and smile, harrowing and hairless. This moment belongs only to us.

We lay on the red carpet looking up into steeple, alone in the empty chapel. Wet my hair with holy water. Bless my leather sandal straps.

The second swimmer reaches the far end of the pool and our third swimmer dives in, by the time he is halfway back Loretto have edged into the lead. ‘Don’t worry,’ Adam smirks, as he adjusts his goggles and puts on his swimming cap. ‘I’ll be able to pull it back.’

The cheers grow louder as the third Loretto swimmer finishes and their last swimmer dives in. Adam steps up to the platform. He bends his knees and leans forward over the water as our swimmer glides into the wall. By the time he gets there we are in last place.

The school erupts when Adam’s body hits the water, as if they know they are about to witness something transcendent. They were here last year, and the year before that. We have all studied miracles. Adam Stevens and his speedos have come to save us once again.

The entire school, regardless of house, are yelling and cheering Adam’s name from the bleachers; red banners full mast in the chlorinated sky. By the time he emerges for his first breath he is in third, a few more strokes and he’s in second. The applause is deafening.

The Loretto swimmer is almost at the end of the pool, thrashing water to foam like a cornered porpoise. Adam just glides along the surface, barely making a splash. He overtakes the Loretto swimmer and reaches the end of the pool. This is what it has all come down to.

Adam makes his way back through the crowd, all high-fives and handshakes, a congratulatory pat on the back from Mr Costello. Bare feet hot on the poolside concrete, he is heading my way, through the bleachers and the students and the schoolyard chants. We love him, we hate him, we love to masturbate him. / Here’s to brother Adam who’s drinking tonight. Mr Costello looks up at the stands unimpressed.

‘We’re champions,’ he says, with his steady-the-ship smile, putting his damp arm around my shoulder. ‘Until Loretto beat us in house singing that is.’ He shakes out his long hair, still dry thanks to the swimming cap; his green eyes bloodshot from the chlorine. ‘Now,’ he says, nodding to the changing sheds. ‘Let’s get you out of those speedos.’


Liam McBreen grew up in Taranaki with the sand between his toes, and lived in Wellington for a few years before moving up to the mighty Waikato. He graduated from Waikato University with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and is currently studying towards a Masters in Professional Writing. He has had work published in Poetry New Zealand and Mayhem Literary Journal.

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