I never thought there would be life after Ana.
The way she broke up with me, like letting go of a clear plastic bag with a store-bought gold fish and watching it explode on the floor, left me breathless and shriveled up inside. Ana was the one staring down at me, watching as I flopped and screamed silently for air.
There were nights when I would curl up in bed, wringing my hands together and begging God to fill the hole in my chest, sew up the gash that grew from her absent kisses and daily text messages. I was surrounded by the athletic and the AP geniuses, never worrying about the downtrodden and the loners who had, I thought, no clue about what it meant to push your limits. That was supposed to be my comfortable existence at Bishop Lynn high school as a junior crossing the halfway point to Seniordom.
All I knew was that I was broken, and that I had the right to get back at Ana. The AP tests and Districts would mean nothing until I made her damn aware of what it felt like to be emotionally maimed.
No, I never guessed the person I would become after I had lost her, or where to start with picking up the pieces and moving on. Even after LeRoy betrayed every guy code in the book and asked her out. You bet that had me seeing red. I became driven to hate them, thinking of her as utterly self-centered and him as a fake Catholic. I wanted to show them that they weren’t holding me back, that I was going to race and date and fuck and maybe even find love again on my own.
I was going nowhere but down, and I didn’t want to save myself.
Then Malerie Knighten brought me out of the squall.
After working out a class schedule mix-up with my counselor, I walk out of Bishop Lynn High and into the gray evening light, wondering why things feel so ass backwards. I should be happy, right? Moving to AP English will bump up my college apps into the league of the outstanding few. Not to mention my three years as a track runner make me more than just a generic AP kid.
Then I see what’s got me feeling out of whack.
In front of the library, standing out among the grassy hills and baby oak trees, is LeRoy A. Espinoza, looking like he’s waiting for someone. LeRoy, unlike me, practiced today, and he’s still dressed in his track shorts and shirt. He is bigger than me, the running stick of the team, but not by much. And I’m pretty sure he still hates me.
He sees me as I approach, watching me from behind those glasses which give him fish eyes. But I’ve never laughed about it, mainly because LeRoy can have the angriest eyes I’ve ever seen. Somehow, when he’s pissed off they narrow at the edges, but the center of each pupil grows blacker, fiercer. They become something like brown, judgmental, enveloping pits.
Like now, when he’s staring me down.
“’Sup,” he says in a low voice. I walk past him and take a seat on one of the benches.
“Nothing much. You?”
“Just got out of practice. It was pretty tough.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll run harder tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“I had to talk to my counselor about switching into AP English. For DAP.”
“You serious? You were taking CP before?”
I feel annoyed. “Yeah, but it was a mistake.”
And it was. Nobody had told me when I moved here that it was either AP or regular classes once you’re a junior – no pre-AP, no in-betweens. Either you excel, or you get pigeonholed. Welcome to our imperfect school system.
“Oh,” LeRoy says, but he doesn’t look away from me. I know what that means. God, do I know. He has something to say, but he’s struggling to get it out. I want to tell him, ‘Just say it, man. Get it off your chest again. At least for a little while.’
“I just…,” he starts, then bites his lip in frustration. I used to wonder how I could ever help him stop looking so frustrated. But it’s gotten old, and every time I tried to help it didn’t change anything.
“I need her, y’know?” He continues, pleading with me. “She trusts me-”
“She trusts me too,” I add coldly.
“And I’ve known her since junior high. We were good together, we still can be. I just…need a chance. Please Ross. Can you…please, let me talk to her alone?”
“You already talk to her when I’m not around.” I look at my cell. Come on, mom. Get me out of here.
“No…like, having her alone. Away from you. I just want to try-”
“Taking her from me?” I almost yell, standing up. “That’s what you’d do, man. No, I said no, and it’s still fucking no! I won’t give her up. I’m sorry LeRoy, but she picked me, and I’m happy with that. So leave us alone. It’s not so sad if you try to get over it.”
He stares at me. Then he looks away, his eyes bright and searching. I get up and start walking, feeling stiff and near the breaking point. If he won’t leave, I will.
Deciding that walking is not enough, I pull my red backpack close to my shoulders, take a breath, and start running.
Fortunately, that’s what I can do best.
I’ve been on the varsity track team for three years now. Coach had told mom and dad one time after an awesome race that I had Midas feet. They were proud, always have been, but sometimes their support doesn’t hold up against my own expectations. I am not a fantastic runner by any means. I could never make it to Florida or Arkansas in any of my events. Hell, I haven’t even taken any first, second, or third places at Districts the past three years. And it has never stopped me from pushing myself even more. I could care less about the medals and earning a spot on that podium.
But I do care to run. I love that feeling: your legs pumping, when your breath is coming and going so fast that you think your heart might stop beating. Then the fatigue afterwards, that warm body feeling when your muscles are tight and radiating heat like they’re alive. It’s then that I know that I’m using my body like I should.
LeRoy doesn’t call after me, and that is chilling somehow. I race across the street, thankful that the school traffic is long gone, and into a vacant field. I haul it, snapping my feet over thorn bushes and gnarled dry roots as the sun simmers on the horizon.
I know LeRoy despises me with a passion half the time, and the other half he wants to be alright with me so badly. As if Ana doesn’t exist at all, and we are just two single guys trying to get by. But it never lasts. He’s obsessed with her, tells himself he can’t live without her. It’s all just weakness, telling yourself you can’t live without somebody. LeRoy makes himself a hopeless case, and who else can he blame but himself?
Not me. I worked hard and played fair. Ana chose me.
It takes me ten minutes to get home, and when I do I feel accomplished. I’ve never run all the way back, but maybe I should more often. Not ready to go inside just yet, I go into my backyard and stand by the trampoline, shrugging my backpack off before falling onto its stretchy black surface. My weight is spread out and I undulate back and forth. A nice way to unwind.
I kick off my sneakers and start to slide out of my red hoodie when something vibrates down low.
“Whoa.” I reach into the front pocket and pull out my cell. I grin. Analise is calling.
I flip my cell open and say, “Hey baby.”
“Hey Ross,” Analise says. Her voice is warm and, God, so sexy. I think of her deep eyes, her smile, the way her freckles give her cheeks greater dimension, and my head swirls wildly.
For almost half an hour I lie on the trampoline, talking and laughing with Analise about every subject imaginable.
“Oh my God,” she gasps, “in volleyball today we had to do sixty squat jumps.” She adds in a fake whiney voice, “Now my butt hurts whenever I sit.”
I laugh. “Aww, my poor baby.”
“Eh. I’ll stretch a lot tonight before I go to bed.”
“Sounds sexy,” I grin, almost immaturely.
“Psh. Imagine my weird expressions,” she muses, probably referring to that half-pleasure, half-pain feeling that comes with a good deep stretch. “Oh, that reminds me. Your face has been looking good lately.”
“Oh, you think so?” Feeling my internal defenses rise ever so slightly, I feel my hand brush against my cheek. No bumps, no white heads. It’s about damn time.
“Mm hmm,” Ana says, and I hear her open a bag of chips. “And you looked clean-cut today too. Nice shaving job.”
She makes a flustered but loving sound. “Well, it’s hard to put into words, you know?”
“Yes, baby,” I smile. “I think I get you.”
Then I remember something else.
“Hey, guess what?”
“In two weeks it’ll be our one-year anniversary. Woo-hoo.”
“Oh wow, it feels like it’s been longer than that. Got any celebration ideas in mind?”
“Yup.” I smile, thinking about my plans to take her to The Rivière, one of the fanciest and most expensive Italian restaurants in town. “But I can’t saaaaay anything.”
“Aww Ross, come on. Just a hint?”
“Nope, nope. Next subject.”
“Oh, all right,” Analise puts on her pouty voice, which I totally love. “Hopefully it works out.”
“Hell yeah,” I agree. “I’d like that.”
I smile at the cotton clouds drifting above me in the sky. “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” Or so the weather man had said this morning. But Tim Smith, the Channel 4 forecaster, seems to be able to predict the weather as well as a blind man inside an underground bunker.
“Really?” Analise says, sounding pleased. “That’s awesome! God, I hope it floods.”
I laugh. “Not that much rain, but it might be cold.”
“Brr,” Analise teases, “keep me warm, okay?”
“You know it, baby,” I reply with a sheepish grin, and we laugh.
I smile and close my eyes, too happy to breathe.
“I love you,” I whisper, meaning it with all of my heart.
“I love you too,” Analise says, her voice just as airy and romantic as mine. I never thought just the voice of a girl could make me feel so close to her in body, intimate and warm.
Then Ana throws me a curveball. “Did you talk to LeRoy today?”
I feel my breath catch with the instinct to lie. Opening my eyes, I say, “Yeah, after I went to the counselor.”
“Oh yeah,” she says, sounding distracted. “Everything work out?”
“Mmm hmm,” I reply, feeling irked at how quickly she can jump between different subjects. “Got the schedule change and everything.”
“Well good,” she says softly. Uncertain pause. “What did he say?”
“I’m just asking,” she says defensively, and I can hear her shut her bedroom door. “I was thinking he might be over all this by now. Maybe he was willing to talk to you. You guys are on the same team, after all.”
I laugh in disdain. “He hasn’t changed. Tried to talk me out of dating you today. I nearly beat the shit out of him for being so stupid.”
Ana is silent for a few seconds. I blink twice and wait. Finally, there’s a sigh from the other end and the noise of her opening her backpack.
“I’ll let you go,” I offer, sitting up. “You’ve probably got homework.”
“Yeah,” she says, her voice neutral. “But it’s not too much.
“Look Ross, just don’t talk to him anymore. He needs a lot of space before he can really stop.”
“I won’t,” I nearly growl, thinking of how he had been the one waiting for me. “But he’s persistent. I’ll try, but I bet he comes up to me again. I’ll be waiting for that day.”
Ana exhales and says, “I don’t want you guys to fight, alright?”
I just keep my peace rigidly and grunt.
“Fine,” she says, “you’re right. It would be justified. Whatever. I gotta go.”
“I’m sorry babe. I just don’t want him to threaten what we have.”
“Yeah,” she says, suddenly sounding far off. “Me neither. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sure. I love you.”
I close my cell and stare up at the darkening purple sky, wondering what’s happening to the perfect existence I have.