Month: July 2013

Stay Sharp

Stay sharp. I see you there, in the back of class, eyelids drooping, raised pencil tapping the page as you start to drift off. Sit up. Stay vigilant. In an hour, you’ll become your other self.

Not all superheroes wear spandex, but you do. You fold up glasses and your ill-fitted jeans and trade them for the stretchy red that glows in the sun. You’re not embarrassed. You don’t half-ass your spandex and wear it with running shorts. You pull that suit on and you own it. The tiny clicks as you pull the buckles of you boots tight are a call to action. As you kick anxiously in the start gate and draw in a deep breath, your throat contacts. Sharp, bitter winter air. You love it. If it could curl out of your mouth in tendrils, it would.

Five, four, the official counts down, his sheepskin chopper clamped firmly on your shoulder. In three seconds, you will be brave and gritty and terrifying and graceful, and scared, and agonized, and you will feel the lactic acid saturate you, and when 32 calls track on you, you will hang on her ass, dammit, if it’s the last thing you do, if you pass out doing it. There’s a moment in every race, a split second, in which you decide who holds the reins, your mind or your body. You’ve gotten distracted a few times. You’ve wondered what’s for lunch or thought about the girl who went out behind you. You’ve felt it hurt and thought, I’ll take this hill easy, I’ll make it up on the next one. But what feeling is worse than thinking you’ll pick it back up on the next hill, and realizing it was the last hill you were cresting?

There’s a moment in every race when you decide. The scary thing is, you can’t guess it in the start chute. Today, you could pick the easy route. You could coast it in and place in the forties. Your coach wouldn’t give you a second look, good or bad. You’d go to the team tent and pick out a nice fat brownie off the table, and pull your heart-rate strap from its uncomfortable spot wedged up your sports bra, and huff a little sigh as you pulled your shirt back down, but as you slung your bag of dry clothes over your shoulder and headed for the van to change you’d notice that you can walk pretty comfortably and it doesn’t hurt that badly to lift your bag, and you’ll remember how when you finished you could stand up and un-bind your skis right away, and how you sort of half-assed that back hill, and how when number 32 passed you, you just let her go, and you get this sinking feeling, this feeling as you pull off your spandex that you put it on with an intention, with a resolution, to fight on the side of good and to fight for your team and to defend your team and to cause yourself pain pain pain and agony and risk failure because you get this beautiful opportunity to go outside yourself, and it’s practically sacred, and you squandered it and you squandered your power and your team’s trust for an easy out and doughy legs and an easy brownie whose calories you don’t deserve and as you pull on dry wool socks you make a vow, you make a vow with yourself that tomorrow, tomorrow you will do it right.

You made this mistake last weekend. This weekend you won’t. There is a moment in every race where you decide, and today you’re going to decide right. It won’t bring you a win. Hell, it may not even bring you points. The starter’s chopper shifts on your shoulder, begins to lift. Two. Your every muscle tenses.

One.

French Press

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8 A.M. She sits at the kitchen table, toast crumbs collecting in the folds of the newspaper, taking a sip of her coffee. She likes it strong, but heaped with sweetener. The house is empty, like it is every morning. Husband at work, daughters away at school. Some mornings, it’s empty softly, but this morning the whole house’s emptiness rings hollow, almost stinging. Every beige-painted, angular corner. Her laptop sits feet away. She can feel the work inside of it that she isn’t accomplishing.

FOUR HOURS AWAY BY CAR, three-fifteen if you’re speeding, a woman sits at the kitchen table, toast crumbs collecting in the folds of the newspaper. She also takes a sip of her coffee. She likes it weak, and black. She makes it in a Mr. Coffee, unlike her daughter with her French press and strewn myriad of sweetener packets. Her house is also empty, but the washing-machine hums in the background and one of the two grandfather clocks begins to chime. Just as it finishes its melancholy song, the clock on the other side of the house begins- the times are off, the chimes are slightly staggered. Though it doesn’t borrow the mother, it absolutely rankles the daughter. Every fifteen minutes, every time she visits, the chimes chase one another’s tails as her hand slips a bit on her porcelain cup of weak coffee, her fingers sweaty from nerves. Every fifteen minutes all night, the chimes talk to her and keep her awake, loudly, wordlessly. She listens to the chimes every fifteen minutes, she thinks, but she never listens to me. The next morning she dumps sweetener packets into her porcelain cup (brown water, she thinks) as her mother regales her with stories about the quilting group and her church luncheons, about the squirrels in the bird-feeder and the woman in the checkout lane, but the only ones she really hears are the ones about the grandchildren. Not her children. The other grandchildren. She hears them and it claws at her insides a bit. The way her mother treasured the minute details of those spoiled children. When she was younger, her mother had gone to her races, but had she been watching? She had hugged her as a child, but she couldn’t remember a whisper of “I love you.” She was sure to whisper “I love you” always to her own daughters.

HER OWN DAUGHTER sits in the college dining hall, scratched mug of black tea between her freckled fingers tipped with stubby maroon nails. She thinks coffee is bitter. She stuffs a loose lock of puffy hair back into its ratty bun while continuing to type with her other hand. Her mother tells her to pull her hair up, that it looks better that way, though the daughter has seen pictures and knows that her mother’s used to be just as puffy and golden-brown. Her mother also tells her to be careful what she eats because she’s been looking a little, well… lately. She rips a curved edge off the poppyseed muffin seated behind her computer, in front of the drowsy-looking boy who also has messy hair. She beams at him a little without ceasing to type.

ABOVE MR. COFFEE and a quilting book, the mother wonders if she should call her daughter, four hours away. (Always four for her. Never three-fifteen.) She’s unsure what to say. It’s not a holiday. They haven’t talked in awhile. The clocks chime in the background. For the first time she notices that one clock begins only as the other trails out. She decides to wind them both, and pick up the phone on the way back to the kitchen and call her daughter. She starts with the grandfather clock, then proceeds to the mantelpiece, the smaller clock, flanked with pictures of the grandchildren. To the left of the clock, the freckled legs of her daughter’s daughters dangle from the boughs of a maple tree, and both girls smile below the soft clouds of their fluffy hair. On the clock’s other side are her son’s children, dressed in coordinated blues and yellows. She realizes they are coming over that night, and that she hadn’t planned a dinner. In a hurry, she forgets to wind the clock, bustles past the phone on the dining-room table, and grabs her purse and keys.

THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AWAY, however, her daughter is picking up the phone herself. The coffee in her French press is getting cold and her computer is still shut. The other end rings a few times, then a soft, “Hello?” A hello often confused with her own. In the background, dining-hall dishes and soft morning voices are audible.

“Mom, are you there? Are you alright?”

She sips her coffee as she stops to think, and be sure.

“Yeah, I think I am,” she says.

She pauses. Why could she say she had called? It wasn’t exam period, and she wouldn’t be coming home for a few months yet, so no transportation concerns…

“Mom, are you still there?”

“Yeah, I just wanted to hear you.”

“Alright, it’s me,” says the daughter.

“I love you,” whispers the mother.

The daughter paused from her typing for a split second. “I love you too.”