I really had no business laying my head in his lap like we were something. And he had no business holding my hand the way I resist from everyone else. After all, he was going out with one of the white girls who pretended to be Puerto Rican, and I pretended I wasn’t going out with an actual Puerto Rican.
I doubt he remembers it, but I do. It was a scene that would have made those white suburban moms double-down on or reconsider the racist beliefs they pretended not to hold.
Silly white girls. Always pretending we’re something we’re not.
Zaidis played with my fingers, swiping his thumb across my hand and squeezing them with the same force you’d use to pick berries without bruising them. My comically small hands, made even more ridiculous inside his giant bear paw. Everybody was so goddamn loud on the bus that it vibrated, but Zad and I sat quietly in a three-seater, my head resting in his lap and our gym bags piled on top of the wheel well.
I’m not sure what was eating Zaidis, but I was done smiling for the day.
The Boro had just won the District track meet. Handily. Cleaned house against the five other schools in our little corner of New Jersey. Schools twice our size and net worth, a fact they were just tacky enough to show off.
In Manalapan and Marlboro, they didn’t drink tap water. They had cleaning ladies. Seventeen year-old students drove cars that made my mom’s Taurus station wagon look underdressed in the parking lot. Lex coups, beamers, and Benzes, which their parents gave them on the condition they made honor roll and turned down that goddamn rap music. Who the hell are the Lost Boyz anyway?
At the Boro, we couldn’t compete with their German cars or designer labels, but we all read The Great Gatsby. We knew how New Money loves to sparkle.
But you’ll have to trust that it wasn’t jealousy. Honest. When Bruce Springsteen is the marquee alumnus from your high school, you know better than to resent your working class roots.
But you also know that rich people see money as a quantifiable metric that measures exactly how much better they are than you, which is utter bullshit, and God knows you don’t put up with bullshit.
Bullshit like last year, when their perfectly manicured parents fought against redistricting that would have sent their sons and daughters to my high school. They rushed to the school board meeting — from temple, or CCD, or Wall Street, or their McMansion with marble countertops and ugly, angular modern art that someone told them was a great accent piece for the living room — to tell the superintendent that this just wasn’t going to fly. You would not send their pride and joy to a lesser school. You would not force them to go to the Boro.
But Manalapan was at one hundred twenty percent capacity.
But Marlboro was bursting at the seams.
But the Boro was one of the top 500 high schools in the country, ranking higher than Marlboro OR Manalapan in some statistical index, which seems totally arbitrary and meaningless to me, but you people seem to care about status and rank and hierarchy and what other people think.
Pfffft, are you kidding me? That’s not possible.
Because, you see, the Boro had black kids. They’d try to tell you that wasn’t the reason, but we knew.
Real black kids who looked and acted and talked and dressed black, whatever that means. And Latino kids. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Salvadoreños who spoke Spanish and salsa danced and laughed loudly and got offended when you assumed they were related to the DeJesus family.
We had more than one or two token minorities, the ratio that lets white people feel safe but not discriminatory. The ratio that lets white people make one joke a year without feeling racist because – hey! I have a black friend and he laughed at my stupid fucking watermelon joke. The ratio that Republicans rely on when they’re giving their misleading pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-get-an-education-then-a-job-because-it’s-as-simple-as-that-and-there-are-no-complicated-systemic-issues-that-we-have-a-responsibility-to-address-as-a-nation pep talk. (Don’t even get me started. Another day, another blog post.)
At the Boro, black and Latino kids were on every team and in every group project. In every class and every club. In the locker room, the poor, defenseless white kids had to compete with their naturally sensual curves or their naturally gigantic penises. You couldn’t change classes without seeing twenty of them. They were our lab partners and our prom dates. Or, in my case, both.
Blacks and Latinos, everywhere. Can you even imagine?
And so, yeah. Taking home that trophy was a deep and vindicating kiss my black ass. An enormous, ball-grabbing, middle finger-waving, pelvis-thrusting Fuck You. Finally, the underdogs were having our day.
The Boro’s finest athletes gathered on the infield of the track, chanting BUR-ROW! BUR-ROW! BUR-ROW! like we were digging for the gold we already had around our necks and in our hands. To hold that trophy over our heads, where they’d always held everything else. The same jerks who assumed we weren’t good enough had seen us prove we were. And God, did that feel good.
But after the buzz wore off, I felt like dogshit.
I looked down at the gash on my knee, knowing wasn’t the cause but the effect of what hurt. I came in seventh. One position away from placing.
I had been leading my heat in the 400 intermediate hurdles until I tripped. I still cleared it, but clumsily. It was the last hurdle, so I landed with no room to recover and no gas left in the tank. It didn’t matter that I ran my PR. I just wanted to contribute something of substance to our win. One goddamn point would have been nice, you know?
It’s the hurdles, asshole, you have to stride long, not fall short.
I blew it. I fucking blew it. I watched her hair streak past me, taking my spot on the podium. Next to two of my teammates, both underclassmen. I know there’s no I in team, but I wanted to be up there with them.
It felt wrong. Blatantly unfair. I always worked harder than anyone on the team. I never complained, never skipped a workout, never got injured, never scratched a race to rest my quads. How could this happen to me? How come no matter how hard I worked, I just couldn’t get up on that podium?
None of us want this to be true, but it is. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you’re just not good enough.
I walked on the bus with a convincing smile on my face. I over-laughed and started braggadocious chants so no one would notice that I was a tiny, swirly bouncing ball of emotion. The kind you get for twenty-five cents from a gumball machine. The kind you lose or forget about or throw away three months from now when you’re cleaning your room.
Instead, I radiated fake sunshine like a tanning bed. A great sport, a team player. That’s who I was. That’s what I was supposed to do.
I was so goddamn tired of being the mascot.
I don’t know why I sat next to Zaidis. It’s not that we weren’t friends, but it’s also not like we were. I barely knew him, aside from admiring his V-shape and the kind of shoulders that would have made Dwight Howard jealous. Standing a leggy six-foot-two, he was one of the lucky guys who matured early but still kept his baby face, with prominent cheeks and a mischievous smile.
Zad ran sprints and was on the wrestling team, but was mostly famous for getting so angry during a home football game that he took off his pads and started sprinting toward the locker room. Just took off.
Everyone in the stands watched, stunned, as “Mike the Trainer” took off in his golf cart and caught up with Zad. I don’t remember if he came back to the field, but I’m also sure it didn’t matter. Watching him pump his long legs, not giving a fuck about what you or anybody thought, was one of the more memorable, exhilarating athletic achievements I watched from those bleachers.
On the bus with me, he sat quietly and held me while I stared at the seatback in front of us, letting myself get smaller and smaller and smaller. In Zaidis’s hand, I felt warm and safe and unbroken. I felt so small that there was nothing I could do but grow.
The bus slowed then stopped in the parking lot. A hundred thousand smiling faces surged toward the door, carrying on their unfinished congratulations all the way to their cars or the locker room. I waited for the swell to die down before grabbing my bag and getting off the bus, Zaidis trailing me.
The parking lot glowed with the kind of insufficient lighting that prevents insects from swarming but does nothing for actual visibility. The same orange glow from chase scenes in the movies, where the cops can’t find the villain because everything looks like a shadow. In a different context, this is the kind of parking lot where you walk with your head on a swivel, carrying mace or with your keys between your fingers like that’s some valid kind of defense.
But contrary to what you might have heard from the Marlboro PTA, no one here was all that concerned about crime or safety. Not even when their pint-sized, blonde, virgin daughter was all alone with a fully matured black football player she barely knew.
We said goodbye, the point of the story where you’re supposed to exchange phone numbers or AOL screennames or maybe get bold and go for a kiss. But I was as likely to kiss him as I was to give him my heart, the whole of it, which is to say not at all. This was the end of the story.
Zaidis did hug me. But then he walked away. We weren’t even friends, but somehow he knew.
Watching his figure meld with the darkness, I was so grateful for puberty and track jerseys and how this terrible lighting made it easy for me to stare at his shoulders, his beautiful shoulders, broad and strong.
And I wondered. Do you only get a chip on your shoulder if you’re strong enough to carry it?
Every step, his shadow seemed to occupy more and more of the parking lot until it vanished entirely. And then I was alone again.