I didn’t like sports when I was little. I was shy then. Didn’t fit anywhere. Then one day, on the playground in the rain, some tall kids tossed me a ball. Just like that I arrived, like it had always been planned that way. It was like waking up. I could feel the air in my lungs; I could feel my heartbeat. Every time I step onto the court it feels like that. Like I’m part of everything.
Coach and the guys, they’re not like family exactly. They’re more like my conscience, reminding me what it takes to be accepted. What you have to do, and what you can never do.
I didn’t tell them about Keith. Making friends with a social outcast is the kind of thing you can’t do. I used to look for him, though, after practice. The skinny blond smoking alone by the dumpsters. Sometimes we talked. Nothing important, just an occasional greeting or remark on the weather tossed casually across enemy lines. The day my girlfriend dumped me I bummed a cigarette off him, then set a pile of leaves on fire throwing it away when the guys showed up. Keith didn’t say anything, just stamped out the flames with his combat boots and wandered off.
It was kind of exciting having a secret. The knowing glances, the wordless nods–they were someplace separate from everything else. The rest of my life was part of the team, but this one thing was mine.
“Hey, Adam. Let’s play horse.” This enormous forward named Mark towered over me, blocking the fluorescent lights. Practice was over, Coach was already gone, and most of the guys were stretching or packing up. I was gasping like a beached fish on my back. Coach had made us do suicides, and I’m not a great runner. My head ached, and my calves felt like metal bands about to snap.
“Okay,” I said. I knew he would push if I argued. Coach says you can’t be your best if no one pushes you.
As I lined up my first shot, Mark elbowed me in the ribs. “See pretty boy out there?” Keith was watching through the glass double doors. He nodded; I nodded back. He flicked his cigarette, and grey ash sprinkled his combat boots. “Maybe you’d rather be out there with him. You’d make a cute couple.”
“Fuck you, Mark.”
I hit the shot, but I lost the game. “Tell your girlfriend I said hi,” Mark yelled as I left. I couldn’t close the door quickly enough to drown out what he said next, the ugly word I had first heard on the playground in the fifth grade. My mom had spanked me when I asked what it meant. I wondered if Mark really knew what it meant, or if it was just an empty sound he had learned to parrot, to stay safe.
Keith was still waiting outside, watching, listening. He gave me a look of cold superiority. He would never be one of them–one of us–and he knew it. He held his cigarette out to me. I took it, and he walked away.
I wanted to call after him. I wanted to say I was like that pile of leaves I had set on fire, and I needed him to stamp me out with his stupid combat boots. I wanted to…
I took a drag of the still-burning cigarette before squashing it against the glass. I don’t remember what it tasted like.
Stephanie Clauson lives in Texas, where she loves the sunsets and hates the summers. She has a degree in English because she wants to be a writer when she grows up. In the meantime, she dances the dance of words with her eyes closed, inventing the steps as she goes.