Riding on a bus on a Saturday morning may not be most people’s idea of a good time, but those people have probably never been part of a guy’s track team, either.
“Now just chew,” Eric says to Matt Garza, looking like he’s making a move to swallow the ball of granola in his mouth, “and-” He stops talking as the lump appears in his throat, going down slowly. I, like Matt, nearly let my jaw drop to the floor when it freezes near the middle of his throat. Eric’s eyebrows dance up and down as he leans his head back and grins. The lump, which looks like a second Adam’s apple, then slowly rises back up, until it merges with the back of his chin and disappears. Looking back down, dead serious, he opens his mouth and shows us the nasty lump of granola back in his mouth.
“Ho ho, dude! No way!” Matt says, laughing and high-fiving him. “That’s awesome!”
“Better watch out for those gay guys,” Jordan says from the seat behind him, laughing as he scrolls through his iPod. Eric just makes a muffled laughing noise, and I lower my head and allow myself to smile, thinking Sammy would speak up against Jordan in a heartbeat.
“Why the hell is Steven sleeping?” Chris asks from two seats behind me, laughing and gesturing to our curly-haired senior teammate.
“Because he partied hard last night,” Dave says, looking up from his PSP. “Don’t even have to ask him.”
“Oh yeah.” Chris grins.
“You saw him?” I ask Dave.
He flashes me a quick twitchy smile. “I may have been there, sippin’ a little Jack Daniels and Crown.”
I just snicker and look toward the front, where Coach Jensen and Lara are making small talk with the bus driver. I can see LeRoy sitting on the other side two seats ahead of me, leaning against the window with his music in. I can tell he’s awake, probably looking out the window with his eyebrows a little furrowed, sulking over how his nervousness is a sign of weakness or some bullshit like that.
I haven’t been able to yet.
“Ross,” Coach Lara calls back to me as I stretch in my seat. “Wake the guys up, will you? We’re about two minutes out.”
“You got it coach.”
Dmitri Gonzalez sits up across the aisle, squinting. “Where’re we at?”
He grunts and runs a hand through his curly black hair. Looking behind him at his seat, he furrows his eyebrows. “Someone take my orange juice?”
Immediately Jordan looks up from behind him. Dmitri stares at him levelly.
“What?” Jordan asks, gulping before he licks his lips.
Looking outside, I can see the mid-morning sunlight shining on the stadium bleachers of Rio Grande High School. We pull into the parking lot, and a few of the guys bring their heads up to their windows, looking on at the other buses. From one of them comes a stream of guys in purple, white, and gold sweat pants and jackets. McHi.
“There’s my old team!” Jordan cries, sitting up and grinning. He salutes to a few of them as we drive by, and a couple of the bigger guys recognize him and point, yelling something I can’t hear. But I can tell from their expressions that they’re happy to see their old teammate, if also a little cynical.
“Alright, listen up,” Coach Lara says, turning in his seat after he has parked the bus. “Everyone’s running a little late like us, so we’ve gotta get set up and stretch fast. Meet starts in half an hour.”
As if on cue, LeRoy and his three guys, Danny, Tyler, and a still-lethargic Steven, look up in earnest.
“LeRoy, you’ll need to make sure you guys are aware of the time.”
“Will do, coach.”
As the unofficial captain of the 3200-meter relay, LeRoy’s been adamant as hell about his responsibility this year. They’re the guys who start us off, and I guess you could say they determine how the rest of the team does.
“Alright, new guys,” Coach Jensen says, sitting up with a clipboard in hand, “remember to come see me as soon as we get situated. I don’t want you guys to forget which events you’re doing. Jeb, Johan, Frankie, Will, that’ll be you four.”
I look back at my guys, who nod and say in unison, “Yes, coach.” I can tell they’re nervous, but Jeb especially seems to be sweating bullets.
We head outside, bags brushing up against each other and the guys calling out funny shit.
“Your bag touched my bag.”
“You’re hilarious, Abu.”
“Look at that guy from Memorial! Skinny-ass kid!”
“Dude, you’re skinny.”
“Yeah but look at those chicken legs!”
“Dave, you forgot your shorts.”
“Shit. Thanks bro.”
“Get out of zeh bus. Get down! Nikki Rowe iz coming!”
“Haha, get to zeh choppa!”
Outside, it’s still cool, even as the rays of sunlight grow in intensity. Beside me, Danny puts on his shades and taps fists with Steven. “Let’s do this, bro. Relay time.”
Watching for my guys, I wave them over and have them follow me into the stadium.
“It’s like a sausage fest here,” Johan cries painfully, looking out across the field. “Why did I pick this sport?”
“Because you like the challenge,” I say, grinning.
“There are girls here,” Jeb says gruffly, pointing and smiling. “It’s just hard to find them.”
“Exactly,” I say. “Besides, we’re here to win, Johan.”
I watch him until he slumps his shoulders. “And what about Sara?”
“There’s not much to say in that regard,” he tells me, annunciating every word carefully and looking off. “Sara is just Sara.”
“I’m sorry,” I say to him over my shoulder, sincerely meaning it.
Out in the field, people are scrambling all over the place. Officials are running around with clipboards, talking with each other and pointing at things that still need to be done. In the stands, parents, family members, and friends are starting to file in, adjusting their hats and sunglasses as they wait and talk proudly. And around the track, off in the grassy outer edges, other teams are setting up and stretching. It’s a lot to take in, and I feel my heartbeat quicken. I crave this rush, let it wash out all my negative thoughts. I smile as we set our things down, scoping out the crowd for mom and dad.
“Alright,” Lara calls, dawning his aviators after the star-spangled banner has been sung and the applause carried out, “3200 relay’s up. Let’s go guys.”
It takes a couple more minutes before the relay is set up, the officials finally standing back and looking on. Steven clutches the blue relay baton, kicking his feet out to the side every few seconds and puffing his cheeks out when he exhales. His eyes dart every now and then, but he manages to smile a couple of times without worry.
“Let’s see some hustle!” Mr. Saenz hollers from the bleachers. “Smoke ‘em, Steven!”
Quickly the other relay team guys stand back, the one official with the whistle posing.
“You got this, man,” LeRoy calls from the side, his arms folded.
“God, I wish coach would let me do this relay,” Jordan tells Jeb, making a clicking noise as he cocks the corner of his lips back. “Saenz weighs it down.”
“You think you’d do better?”
Jordan grins and looks on. “Absolutely.”
Then the crack of the gunshot reverberates in the air and they’re off. There’s a roar of voices, mine included, as Steven takes off, his start almost perfect and gaining him a slight lead. But the guys from McHi and Weslaco have sick starts, and stay with Steven through the whole first lap.
“He’s good,” Johan says, watching keenly. “I’ll be as fast as him, maybe.”
The first call for guys running the 110-meter hurdles and the 100-meter dash comes through the speakers, and Jacob shifts uncomfortably.
“Look,” I tell him, “it goes by quick. And I’ll go up there with you.”
“Don’t think that’ll help,” he says. Grits his teeth. Looks sideways at me. “You’d do that?”
“Shit, Jacob,” I laugh, ripping open a power bar and taking a small bite, “it’s not like I’m carrying you up there. Come on.”
He nods and bites his finger until his whole hand is shaking.
I drop the last half of my power bar in my bag and follow Jacob as he walks along the outskirts of the track, his red shorts swooshing softly but somehow still audibly to me. Or am I hearing my own shorts? We’re both skinny, the stick-legged type of guys. Either way, I know he’s got this.
“Second and final call for the boy’s 110-meter hurdles and boy’s 100-meter dash” the announcer booms, this time a little threatening. “Boy’s 110-meter hurdles.”
Danny rushes by us again, this time for his final lap. His eyes never fall on us, instead focusing strictly on the curved path he’s following. Jacob looks after him for a couple of seconds, then looks ahead again, his right hand twitching for a split second.
Before we know it, LeRoy has stuttered across the line and is punching a fist into the air. Tyler and Danny and Steven scream in accomplishment and slam together around him in a winning group hug, as the other teams trail behind in third, fourth, fifth place. Sure, we didn’t get first place, but to us, to Bishop Lynn High school’s track team, second is perfectly good cause for yelling and jumping.
As the guys head back, Jacob and I congratulate them and slap hands with our teammates. Their sweaty, red faces pass by in blurs, and before I know it I’m watching as Jacob follows the other guys to the opposite side of the track, where they’ve just finished setting up the hurdles.
I can only follow him a certain distance, and I stop near the edge of the football field, where a couple of guys in white shirts and black shorts are raking the sand for the jumping events.
“Come on Jacob,” I call, my first word strained as I catch his eyes, “it’s all you, man.”
He nods and finds his way around the other guys to his lane, lane five. I watch as he stands in place, staring down his path at the hurdles like they are indiscernible figures in the ocean.
Don’t worry, just relax. It’s quick, man. Quick and easy. You can do this. Use the fear.
Once everyone’s in line, the call comes for runners to go down.
During practice this past week, Jacob struggled with getting his starts down, and really tried Danny’s patience. But Wednesday and Thursday he seemed to have finally gotten the hang of it, not to mention improved his height over the hurdles by a good amount.
And now’s it down to the wire.
The official murmurs into the microphone for them to take their marks. Jacob does fine getting his butt up and his back leg planted. Then the crack comes, and they’re running. My eyes dart to the two ladies in white behind the starting line, but they keep their hands with the orange flag behind their backs. No false starts. Good.
“Go Jacob!” I scream, as he successfully clears the first hurdle. “Go, go, go!” My voice sounds drowned out, but I don’t care. I yell after he’s over the third one, then the fourth, and the fifth, which one of his Nikes grazes but does not knock over. The clock’s racing on, too, probably at nine or ten seconds, as they clear the seventh and eighth ones. It’s clear that he’s falling back to last, the guys from McHi, Weslaco, PSJA, and even Rio Grande pulling ahead by at least four or five feet. I can see Jacob’s strength faltering, and he topples the ninth hurdle, tripping for an instant before regaining his footing and rushing on. Quickly I make my way over, glad for the two or three shouts of good job and good race to Jacob Ruiz coming from the crowd.
As I approach him, Jacob hacks and coughs once before letting a trail of spit drip through his pursed lips.
“Better than throwing up,” I tell him, patting his back and leaning over with him. “You alright?”
He gulps, closing his eyes and smiling.
“I’ll let you rest,” I tell him, sitting up and starting to walk back to our area.
“Did pretty bad, huh,” he calls after me, that small amused tone in his voice.
I turn and look at him, now standing upright with his wet hair in small downward spikes. His shoulders rise and fall with every quick breath. His left leg spasms, his calve and thigh twitching like a live thing is crawling under his skin.
Looking him square in the eye, I say, “You’ve probably never given anything else in your life that much effort. That’s far from bad.”
The same eerie sense of dread that comes over most mammals when a solar eclipse occurs is hovering over us when the meet ends.
“God,” Forrest says, slinging his bag over his shoulder as he waits on Matt to get changed, “finishing with 116 points is bad enough. But being beat out by Rio Grande? Which hasn’t happened in, like, ten years?”
“It’s pretty epic fail,” Matt replies, clicking his tongue as he stuffs his shoes away.
We’re in the locker room of Rio Grande High, wallowing in our disappointment. The meet ran late, too, and it’s almost four-thirty by the time everyone has changed and is ready to take the grim walk of shame outside.
“Where the hell’s LeRoy at?” Jordan asks to no one in particular, looking around. He gets a couple of shrugs and weary looks.
“He went with Ana,” I told him, and as that wry looks starts to spread on his face, I add, “He’s Catholic, dude. Not the way you think it is.”
“If you say so,” he chirps.
Boarding the bus, I try to make eye contact with my teammates and look at least content, as they withdraw in their seats like weary foxes in a cave.
“Dude,” Chris says to me, as I take the seat in front of him, “what happened today?”
“Some big let-downs,” I tell him, shrugging and passing Mark a Powerade, “It wasn’t our meet this time, man.”
“Yeah, no kidding. I’m pissed at myself.”
“You’re not the only one,” I tell him, stuffing my fifth place medal deep into my bag, “but this one’s already gone. We’ve gotta be ready for next time.”
As we wait behind the long line of buses to pull out of the parking lot, Coach Lara stands up, his shades atop his head now. His eyes, complacent but determined, look us over. “Alright, listen up. I know you guys didn’t have the best meet ever today.”
He pauses to clear his throat, the corner of his lips rising in dry amusement.
“But, this is what Coach Jensen and I expected.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” Jordan grumbles from the back, as other guys around him mutter something along the same lines.
“We threw you guys for a loop, making you guys responsible for your own practice. As a result, most of you did not perform today as you probably would have liked to.”
“No kidding,” I hear Jeb say from closer in the back. Looking to my left, I notice for that Jacob has already passed out, his head resting on his track bag.
“That’s okay,” Coach says, his soothing tone sounding super out of place. “This was just the Rattler Relays. We weren’t here to show off, and time is on our side now. We’ve got next weekend off, and you guys can really start to get into the new routine.” He grin. “And by the way, guys from Goliad, you really impressed us today.”
Some hoots and cheers rise up, and I look back to give my guys a thumbs up.
“And team leaders,” he adds, “you guys really helped them out today. We may not have left with a trophy, but we sure as hell brought our team spirit out on that field for everyone to see.”
At that we let out our biggest team yell so far. Coach smiles once again, that old glimmer in his eyes. He’s right, and if nothing else, we’re definitely ready to get back on the track and work out the last few kinks.
As the bus pulls out, I feel a tap on my shoulder. Jeb is giving me a toothy grin.
“Thanks for leading us, man. I would have died out there today if it wasn’t for you.”
Behind him, Johan nods and flashes me an okay symbol with his thumb and forefinger. I am aware of the pride trying to burst through my chest. “Anytime, bro. Glad you guys are here.”
For what feels like the first time in ages, I smile. I’m helping others again, not just worry about my own recovery.
And nothing will ever feel more like healing than being trusted like this.