Great news! I’ve been invited to interview for the University of North Texas master’s program in counseling psychology! It’s been my aspiration to attend UNT since I was a freshman, since it’s ranked #1 in Texas for it’s counseling program. The campus also has a quiet allure, and Denton reminds me of my hometown. What’s more, the interview will be the day after my birthday, so it looks like I’ll be celebrating in Dallas. Fingers crossed!
I also have been reading through the February edition of Writer’s Digest. The article “Failure to Launch” by Donald Maas has much insight into sharpening your novel. His pointers on crafting a strong narrative voice, putting your characters through trials, and striking a balance between interior and exterior stories have all given me some fresh perspectives on my own characters. The more I edit In the Words of Your Love, the more I hope to make Ross’ voice resonate with immense emotion and insight.
Today’s practice is going to be rock-solid. I can feel it through every inch of my body, rushing out the door once speech is over and catching up to Jacob.
“You pumped man?” I ask him, grinning.
“Psh, no way,” he murmurs. “I’m not really liking the way we practice now.”
“Aw come on,” I reassure him, glancing at a cluster of pink and red Valentine’s Day signs on a classroom door, “it’s not that bad. You’re getting better at the hurdles, you know.”
“I guess,” he says, his eyes wandering. Then he just barely grins. “It’s easy when you’re my size.”
I laugh in agreement. Jacob Ruiz is one of our team’s three shortest runners, probably at five-foot-three. When he joined just a few months ago, he was also the most reserved, changing in the locker room without saying a word to anyone. I still don’t fully get his shyness. He tries to take things as lightly as possible, I guess.
“So this weekend is your first meet, right?”
Jacob nods and shuts his eyes. “Kinda nervous.”
“Oh yeah. But you don’t have it too bad; coach only put you in two events.”
He cocks his head and looks at me like that was a limp attempt to make him feel better. I laugh. “What? You’ll have it down, man.” That’s when I’m grabbed from behind.
“You’ve gotta come with me!” Malerie cries, pulling on my shoulders so that I half-spin around. She’s got this huge grin on like she just won the lottery. It makes me want to know what’s up.
“For?” I look back at Jacob and call, “I’ll be there!” He just nods as he heads out the double doors, still looking so damn shy.
“There’s an opening on the yearbook staff! The yearbook staff.” She hauls me back down the hall, pointing. “They’re having a meeting now in my French class, Ross, and I started talking to this guy named Pablo, who’s the editor, and he said some girl quit because she was more dedicated to the soccer team, and now they can use me! It’s fate I tell you.”
“That’s great,” I say, missing my personal space as we find the room. “Sign up for it.”
“Oh, I am,” she says, waving me in. “Come on, don’t be shy.”
I shrug and step in, looking at the two students sitting in misaligned desks. One of them, who must be Pablo, gives me a wary look before sitting up and sliding a paper across the desk to Malerie. His eyes have dark dents under them, like he hasn’t slept well in a long time. But I don’t think much of that: we’re high school guys, and there are lots of dirty obsessions and distractions to lose sleep over.
“Glad you came back,” he tells Malerie, handing her an expensive-looking fountain pen. Looking at me, he doesn’t miss a beat. “Pablo J. Lopez. Yearbook editor.”
“Ross Chappell. Uh, track runner, not star.”
His laugh is dry but devoid of any seriously scathing sarcasm. Jutting a thumb against his chest, he watches Mal poise the pen over the paper. “So you’re in?”
“Most definitely,” she chirps, taking his pen and signing. Then she looks sideways at me and points. “I’d like him to join, too. Are there any other spots?”
Pablo cranes his neck to look at me. “This guy? He doesn’t look like much of a writer.”
“And I look like a mute, or what?” I scoff, keeping my eyes level with his. “I can. When I want to.”
“Oh.” Pablo leans his head back. He looks at Malerie and shrugs. “If he wants to.”
“What do you think?” she asks me, wiggling her eyebrows. “All you have to know is some basic BCIS stuff. Maybe a little Photoshop. It’ll be fun.”
“What…” I scramble for my words. “Yeah, I took desktop publishing last year. But I’ve already got a busy schedule. I’d like to, but I just don’t think I have time.”
“That’s cool,” Malerie says, nodding and standing up straight. “But I just wanted you to see what the project is about.” She smiles, like a little kid might when she’s trying to make her parents happy with a mud pie or something equally distressing but well intended.
“Well.” I rub my shoulder and think about it. “What’s it for?”
For the first time, the girl with the black sweatshirt across the room looks up from her work and says, “Love quotes from couples. Yay!”
Pablo and Malerie nod at me.
“She thought of it,” he says, tilting his head at Malerie. “I figured, what the hell. Guess Valentine’s Day is getting to me.”
But I’m not really listening to Pablo.
So that’s it. The pieces fall into place, and I suddenly understand that look in Malerie’s eyes. Her anticipation. The reason she’s hinging on my answer.
“No, thanks,” I say as rigidly as I can, and turn and walk back out the door. Turn my back on this shit.
“Wait, wait,” Malerie comes after me, “Ross! Look, it’s not all about that. I just-”
I spin around, keeping a neutral expression. “Therapy, right? You think this will do me some good, help me get over losing my girlfriend.”
“Look,” she huffs, placing her hands on her waist, “yeah, that’s what I was thinking. But the first reason that popped into my head was having you to help me. I didn’t want to do this on my own.” A look of anxiety crosses her light face. “Seriously,” she says in a much quieter voice, “I was scared just talking to Pablo and the rest of the yearbook people. I mean, they’re dedicated, and they seriously doubt I can do a project in time for production. A project that wasn’t even supposed to be in the yearbook. I’ve got a month to try. But I want this. I feel like I’d love it, and I just wanted someone else to feel the same.”
I feel my face and my anger soften. “Yeah, well, I see where you’re coming from.”
I sigh and step back inside the doorway, the late bell already ringing. Malerie shakes her head and says, “You don’t have to officially sign up. But I’d really appreciate your help.”
“You really think you’ll need it?”
Malerie shakes her head again. “I could live without it. But I can’t let you miss an opportunity I value this much.”
I nod, feeling a kind of tender confusion. That’s something I’ve never heard before. Something so honest and…considerate.
And just like that, I feel a small desire to commit, like a flame igniting inside me.
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll do it.” Then I pause. “Thanks for thinking of me.”
“Of course,” she says, grinning. “Come on.”
Both of us walking back in, Malerie approaches Pablo. “He can help me, even if he’s not on the staff, right?”
“Technically, no,” Pablo says, his hand fidgeting with the pen as he glances at the girl with glasses. She tilts her head in disapproval. “But…since we’re already making a special exception in your case…” He exhales and picks up the sign-in paper. “He can.”
“Yes!” Malerie jumps up and offers me a hand. Reluctantly, I give her a high-five.
“Congratulations,” Pablo says to me, clearing his throat, “you’re in deep now. We have to get you guys to meet with Mrs. Coleman no later than next week. She may or may not keep you two on.”
“You can count on us,” Malerie says.
“Fine. We’ll meet again later in Coleman’s room. Be ready sometime early next week.”
We both nod.
Pablo reminds Malerie of a few deadlines, strict rules, and loopholes that should help her design what he refers to as “the ultimate confection of ink-and-paper romance.” It already sounds like Malerie and I have our work cut out for us.
“So, you excited?” Malerie asks me once we get outside. I shrug.
“It might be a bad idea,” I say with bitter honesty. “You know that.”
“Yeah,” she says, fingering one of her shirt sleeves thoughtfully as we pass the tennis courts, “but I trust you, and your ability to handle yourself.”
I thank her before taking off, wondering what’s holding me together.
The first extended practice isn’t exactly how I want to finish a Wednesday, but it comes regardless.
I walk out to the field to join the other guys as coach gathers us around.
“Okay, listen up. I know you guys aren’t exactly thrilled about practicing an extra hour, but Coach Jensen and I are confident that this will get you guys even more prepared for Districts. Each day that extra hour will be nothing but the bettering of individual technique; no sets, no uniform workouts.”
I look up at the sky and thank God.
“I know this because from now on it will be completely up to each of you alone to decide how much more experienced you want to become. To help keep this focus, I’m going to break you guys up into teams, each with one leader who’ll not only practice for himself, but coach and help train the others on his team. It’ll be a big responsibility, since the captain has to motivate others and keep up his own training.”
And with that he pulls out his clipboard. No one moves.
Please, please, not me.
“Danny Medrano,” Coach looks up at Danny, a sophomore, “you’ll take charge of team one, which includes Matt, Forrest, Spencer, Jordan, and Frankie.”
All those guys nod and make eye contact.
“Next,” coach continues, reading down his list, “we’ve got…Chris Ramirez leading team two. With him will be Jose, Will, Tyler and Eric.”
Chris bows his head and mutters, “Damn.”
I chuckle. I remember Chris being good at bossing people around back when we were in Boy Scouts. He’ll be a good leader, I think.
“For team 3, which includes Mark, Jebediah Valdez, and Johan Vasquez…Ross Chappell will be the captain.”
Dammit! I bite my tongue to keep from swearing and laughing at the irony.
Coach gives me an expectant look, and I nod.
I can feel those other guys on my team gazing at me, but whether they are feeling supportive or reticently questioning my role as a leader, I can’t tell.
Eight weeks until Districts.
After our rocky first practice, I’m sitting alone in the garage at home, our shape of shish-ka-bob sticks slowly taking form. I pick up the glue gun, feeling the warmth radiating from the white tube, and begin applying some to one stick.
I’ve decided that she’s doing it on purpose. Getting together with LeRoy. Ana is trying to show me how I failed. But in what way?
I hear the door open and turn as mom comes out, smiling her motherly smile at me.
“How’s it going?”
“Slowly,” I say, turning the basketball in one hand and carefully applying more glue. “But good.”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
“Nope. I’m doing okay.”
“You sure?” She must have asked me that half a dozen times since I told her about Ana and I breaking up after she had picked me up from school.
“Alright,” she sighs, leaning against the doorframe. “But I don’t like to see you hurting like this.”
‘Me neither,’ I think dully to myself. I just nod at her and resume working.
She heads back inside, and I return to my thoughts.
So, LeRoy has no shame, no empathy. He used to, though.
I think of one time in particular when he first seemed to be changing. It was last fall. After track practice one November day it was just him and me on the benches by the parking lot, waiting for our parents. We had just finished speaking to Ana, and for that one time I had let it slide as he pleaded with her. She had done her best to be friendly toward him, but it was obvious that his desperation was straining them both, and she finally left with a hasty “bye.” I tried to tell her that it would be okay, that he didn’t have to be our friend anymore. But something held me back. And her eyes were laced with so much irritation and rejection that I couldn’t look at her long enough before she was gone.
That made me far from patient.
“She’s beautiful,” he told me, and I tightened my fingers on the bottom of the bench.
“No shit,” I muttered. “Why are you looking?”
He just remained quiet, and I think that was the only thing that had stopped me from beating the hell out of him. I looked up at the sky and remember how clear it was that day, one of the first cool days of the year. An entirety of blue.
I felt my hot head cooling off faster than usual, and I started to pity LeRoy. The sophomore track runner who was once emo and utterly reserved to his poems. Poems which I had read; poems which reflected loneliness and longing. I remembered the days when I had been at that point.
“I’m sorry,” I told LeRoy, shaking my head and staring at the horizon. “I’m sorry it’s all messed up like this. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”
He looked up at me, and I could see the forlorn aching in his eyes, the way they were curved downward like the eyes of a wounded dog. I knew I had to start being accountable for some of his suffering.
“You’ll have your chance.” The words were drawn out of my mouth like stitches being taken out of the skin by a doctor. But for just that one moment, it occurred to me how not in love I felt. I mean, it wasn’t that I didn’t cherish Analise. Of course I did. But I wasn’t in love with the us. Our union was a high school romance, limited by our own inexperience. The future, maybe even marriage, was another universe away.
“What are you talking about?” he asked me, exasperated but tired. It was stupid, but at the time it had made so much sense, what I had said. Altruism wouldn’t change his situation, though.
“Don’t be weaker than me,” he said, shaking his head.
I had laughed bitterly at that. No one, not even Analise, had ever understood the difference between empathy and weakness. It was just giving, not giving up, not giving in.
I catch sight of a glob of glue in midair, too little too late as the next instant brings a searing pain in my left arm. I winch and touch it, my fingers not shocked by the fading heat as the glue hardens. Picking it off amounts to almost no pain, and I discard the ball and get back to work.