There is blood on the pool deck. Coach points and we stare: blood, in the small grooves between tiles; blood, barreling towards the nearest drain like it’s being chased.

“Oh no. No, no no. Did someone start—” his voice trails off. “Is someone on their—”

We lift our butts and examine the tiles around our crotches. Coach buries his face in his hands.

“Oh, my Gatorade tipped over,” Katie says. “It’s not blood.”

Coach bends to pick up the bottle and says, “You’re all a bunch of fruit loops.”

In the showers, we roll our suits down to our ribs. We shave our pits and our pussies but don’t touch the hair on our legs. If Coach sees we’re smooth, he’ll start yelling and he might never stop. We are scared of Coach; we adore him. Coach decided months ago we should wear two suits. Then he decided we should all wear men’s trunks on top. Mine are black with red flames. “Good thing the boys think you’re pretty,” he tells me. “They don’t have to know how goddamn slow you were today. I could’ve gone down to the music store, gotten a piano, chucked it in the pool, and it would still kick your ass.”

Neither Coach nor I know that I’m gay. We both know I’m taking too much Vicodin: a prescription I got for the kidney stones I passed months ago. In the middle of a meet, he corners me and asks if I’m stoned. I’m wearing my goggles on the pool deck again. I’m not usually this calm before races.

Coach doesn’t tell my mother. “That bitch is crazy,” he says. When my relay breaks a school record, Coach pumps his fists into the air. But by practice the next day, Coach seems to have forgotten about the record because we lost the meet.

“Freakin’ Emily here got disqualified for a one-handed touch in the IM,” he says. “And Courtney got third in the backstroke. Third.”

“And this one—” he says, eyes locked on me. “This one’s a freaking drug addict. Bet you all didn’t know that, did you?”

Then Coach explains the rules of Arkansas Death Match to the freshmen maggots who haven’t played before. We must swim one fifty-meter sprint every minute. We must stay right beside our partner. Hitting is encouraged. “Drown them,” he says. “Hold their head under and drown them.”

Coach pairs me against Alex, my arch nemesis. She wins the first sprint, and that’s when Coach starts yelling. “Are you gonna’ let her kick your ass like that?” he screams. “Aren’t ya gonna’ fight?”

We push off the wall at the same time, and I watch her underwater. I can see Coach screaming when I turn my head to breathe. I can’t hear what he’s yelling but I’ve heard it all before. If you swim that slow in a meet, everybody in the stands is gonna’ stand up—not to cheer, but to VOMIT.

I time my stroke to hit Alex. My arm smacks hers in midair, and Coach starts jumping.

“Get down with your bad self!” he screams. “You’re an animal! Alex, are you going to let this piece of dog shit beat—”

We push off again, and Alex starts hitting back. Her fingernails scrape my shoulders, and she pushes to the center of the lane, so I push back. I’m afraid our arms will lock together. I’m afraid we’ll tear each other apart.

When we finish Death Match, Alex won’t look at me. Our own heavy breathing is all we hear. And then, sobbing. On the deck, a sophomore is in full-on hysterics. She’s doing squats while Coach screams at her. Her trunks are too big for her, and they slide down her hips with each squat.

When Coach sees we’ve finished, he forgets about the sophomore. “Good girls,” he coos, bending down to pat our heads. When the other girls reach the wall, they let Coach pat them too. I feel bruises blooming.

Then Coach notices something in the water. It’s bloated and grapefruit-sized and shaped like a parachute: white with a hint of red. We don’t know what it is until we see the string.

“Girls,” Coach says. He doesn’t know what else to say. He leaves, shaking his head in disgust, and when he’s gone, we’re not maggots or fruit loops or dog shit. We’re not turds or addicts or animals. We’re girls. Just girls.

Gabe Montesanti is at work on her first full-length memoir about the phenomenon of roller derby. She lives in St. Louis where she skates for the local team, Arch Rival, under the name Joan of Spark. Recent work has appeared in Sinister Wisdom, Devil’s Lake, Crab Creek Review, and The Offing, Gabe has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where she is currently a teaching fellow.

Photo by Therese Brown