Row On (Part 4)

[Ansel]

Pain. That’s all that I can feel. I know the floor is cold and hard, but I can’t sense it with my skin as I lay down on the RAC’s indoor track. I remind myself to control my breathing. As I exhale, I lift my feet up about a couple of inches above the ground and move my legs up and down like I’m swimming. We’ve been doing this ab workout for a while now. I feel like I’m almost at my limit…

“Aaaaannd… STOP!” Marco shouts. “Good job, everyone. Get some water!”

A collective sigh of relief waves through the entire group. I lay spread eagle with my back now glued to the floor from sweat. My lungs pump air almost as fast as my heart beats. Sluggish footsteps echo around me as the other guys search for water. I want to get up but this floor is starting to feel comfortable…

“That’s not a good spot to nap, bro.” Someone says nearby. Greg reaches for my hand and pulls me up. The glare from his glasses blinds me on the way up, but I eventually see his piercing dark brown eyes through them. “Rocco slept on the floor after tennis tryouts in high school. Got really sick when he woke up. Our dream of being a Doubles twin team failed before it even took off.”

Someone else passes by Greg and I. Rocco, Greg’s identical twin brother, glares at both of us with familiar piercing eyes. The only difference is that Rocco doesn’t wear glasses.

“That was you. You fell asleep on the floor.” Rocco replies without stopping. “You gotta stop spreading rumors, Greg, we just got here.”

We laugh as we walk to the nearest corner of the track. All the bleachers on the second level of the RAC Arena are pushed up against the wall, so there’s plenty of space on the side of the indoor track. A few of the returning rowers pulled the first row of the bleachers in the corner, so there’s at least where we can sit down. All of the new rowers, the last thirteen out of the original fifty, congregate back to this little corner after they use the water fountain.

We sit at the end of the open bleacher. I hear Greg groan as we sit down. He’s lean like his brother, but they’re both deceptively strong. He’s very vascular, with veins and muscles running and up and down his arms and legs. I rub my spaghetti-soft arms to see if I have any muscles at all.

I look around. Everyone looks so fit. The returning rowers are all built like machines. One of them, I think his name is Tucker, already has his shirt off. I’m sure they’re real, but it looks like someone expertly photoshopped his abs.

“I don’t think I belong here.” I mutter. “I didn’t even know I had stomach muscles until I felt them screaming during that last workout.”

Greg gives a small shrug. “I don’t have abs. It’s too much work to maintain. And come on.” He elbows me on my side. “You’re still here, aren’t you? As long as you can still move, you have every right to be here with us.”

Suddenly I feel someone move on my right side. Greg and I both turn our heads and see one of the returning rowers leaning on the bleachers. He doesn’t seem to notice us as he continues to drink from a Deer Park bottle. A bright red scar travels from his left eyebrow down the side of his face. Sweat drips from his fully shaven head, sparkling in the bright lights of the RAC. I’m actually not sure what his real name is. All I know is that he’s one of the returning rowers and people call him “Daggercalf.”

“Did he… was he just standing there this whole time?” Greg mumbles under his breath. I shake my head to reply, mainly because that’s the only part that my body is willing to move.

Daggercalf stands up straight, then walks away. A black tattoo of a combat dagger sits on the back of his right calf.

“I heard somewhere that Daggercalf used to be a part of Seal Team 6.” Greg whispers to me, even though Daggercalf is already walking up to Coach Marco on the other side of the track. He turns around and leans on the metal railings that stops spectators from falling into the lower level basketball court of the arena.

“Is that another rumor that you made up?” I ask nervously. Greg shakes his head.

After five minutes, Coach waves his hands at us, gesturing for us to walk toward him.

“Get pumped up! We’re doing Fun Runs!” Coach exclaims with a little too much excitement.

I smile at his energy for the next activity. The other new recruits whisper optimistically. After that killer ab workout and the endless circuits we did tonight, all of us are just happy to be doing something light.

Mike begins to snicker as he looks at us. “Fun Runs aren’t fun. There is no ‘fun’ in Crew!”

The returning rowers all laugh with Mike. Coach smiles as we crowd around him, waiting for the laughter to die down.

“Whenever anyone in this sport says the word ‘fun,'” Coach says, adding air quotes while saying ‘fun.’ “… You need to understand that they’re being sarcastic. I’m not saying that you can’t find anything fun or exciting in rowing, though.” He quickly clarifies as the returning rowers continue to giggle.

Coach begins to take off his hoodie and sweatpants as a few people whistle around him. He tosses his clothes on the side of the track, leaving only a shirt and a blue pair of basketball shorts on him.

“We’ll do a modified version of Fun Runs, since we have the track all to ourselves tonight.” Coach declares. “I’ll shout an exercise or action, then we’ll do a lap of it around the track. Sound simple enough, right?” A few people shake their heads. “For example.”

Coach points at the black parallel lines of the track. We all choose a lane, lining up behind the returning rowers already standing in front of the group.

“First one. Jog!”

The first row begins to jog, and the rest of us follow. I run on outside lanes while the faster runners take on the inside lanes instead. Coach runs side by side with Mike and Daggercalf. It’s so unnatural to see a coach of any team doing the same workouts as their athletes, but Coach seems like he’s in his element.

We finish the lap at different times. Diet and Luke bring up the rear, still making their way around the last turn.

“Here’s the thing about ‘Fun Runs.'” Coach says as we all look at the last two runners. “The sooner you finish the lap, the more time you’ll be able to rest in between. We start the next one after they cross the line…. Aaaaaand… Sprint!”

All of us make a mad dash forward. The fast runners during the jog become even faster, with Tucker leading the entire team in the sprint. I finish right before Diet and Luke, who are once again last to finish. I hope we don’t sprint again.

“High knees!”

We move forward at a jogging pace while bringing our knees up as high as we can like we’re stepping on coals.

“Skip!”

The new guys and I freeze in place. The returning rowers don’t miss a beat. They begin skipping; they hop with one leg after another, lightly bouncing up and down the track. We try to copy them and struggle for a few moments.

Every now and then, Coach would say he’s “feeling merciful” and throw in a “JOG!” or “SKIP!” before pumping up the difficulty once again. After one more “SPRINT!” Coach pauses longer than normal as I cross the line and finish last.

“All right… It’s been a good week of practice.” Coach says, talking even when he’s catching his breath. “Our next practice is Monday at 5AM, here at the RAC.” A few people, even Mike, groan out loud. “We’ll be practicing with the Women’s team from here on out.” A lot of people, including Mike, cheer with glee. “It’s gonna be a good solid few days til then, so I’ll make this last lap interesting.”

Coach points across the room.

“We’ll do two different exercises, half a lap each. We’ll stop and wait for everyone on the other side, then we’ll do the last exercise. First up… Crab Walks!”

The returning rowers all groan in unison. Even Diet, who I have never seen express any negative emotion, appears to look defeated.

“All right, everyone, assume the position!” Coach shouts as he sits down on the floor with his front facing us. We copy his movements and mimic his body position. “Crab walk from here to the halfway point!”

We move gingerly across the floor, trying our best to stay in the lines of the track.

I lead with my arms as I move backwards, pushing off with my legs to propel me forward. As soon as I make it around the first bend of the track, I start to slow down. Sweat begins to drip from my arms to my hands, making them slip as I try to move them off the floor. My legs, which has been feeling like Jell-O all week, ignore my commands to go any faster and instead do the opposite.

I finish the crab walks last, but Coach doesn’t start the final leg of the lap.

“Last one.” Coach declares.

He puts his feet together, then bends down and places his hands on the floor, creating an upside down V with his body.

“Inchworms.”

He moves his hands four steps forward, alternating left and right. Then his legs follow the same motion, moving up four steps to return him in the same V position.

“Move up using your hands, about one yard at a time. Then follow it up with the legs. Any questions? I’ll see you at the end!”

We all move like little caterpillars on the floor, moving our hands first then following it up with our feet. It seems simple enough, but I’m starting to see and feel why the returning rowers groaned earlier. The toughest part of this maneuver is right after you finish moving your hands and before you move your legs. My weak legs and arms shake as they extend up to that position.

It seems like a few people had different methods to doing these. Diet, who has been helping Luke all week, keeps spelling the word Inchworm as he moves his hands and legs. Further up, Mike keeps doing pushups after he moves his hands, then proceeds to move his feet.

I find my own rhythm and stick to it. Three hand-lengths up with my hands, then follow up with my feet. It’s not the best, but it’s the most efficient. And at this point, efficiency is needed on my part.

Not even a quarter of the way there, I can feel my energy draining from my body. I stand up, giving my lungs a chance to move air in and out without moving. My arms now feel like ramen. My shoes keep slipping on the sweat that drips from my face. I see other people in front of me stand up for a moment too before continuing on our last lap.

I’m in dead last by the time that I start up again. I look up ahead and see everyone moving farther and farther away. I need to focus. Move my arms. Then legs. That’s it. Keep doing it. Breathe, don’t forget to breathe. Don’t forget!

It’s been a while since I looked up. It seems that I’m just about to make the final turn around the bend to the finish line. I can’t believe I made this far.

But no one else is in front of me. I try to move my arms forward but instead I collapse on the floor. My body moves up and down as I heave for air.

“Everybody wait here.” I hear Coach’s voice say. “Craig, come with me.” Two pairs of footsteps get closer and louder. I open my eyes when I hear them stop right in front of me. “You’re Ansel, right?”

“Yes, Coach…” I manage to blurt out. My mouth has never been this dry.

Coach looks at Daggercalf, who looks down at me with an emotionless stare. Daggercalf kneels down and hands me a bottle of water. I sit up and I drink from it. My throat sings with relief as the water drenches it.

“Ansel, are you able to keep going? Are you able to reach the finish line?” Coach asks, kneeling down with Daggercalf.

I shake my head, but I can’t say it out loud. I don’t want to admit that I can’t finish something that everyone else in here could accomplish. I don’t even know how to say that out loud. Complaining won’t change anything. I shouldn’t have gone to practice today. I should have quit earlier.

“Ah, so you’ve hit your first wall, huh?” Coach asks, sitting down in front of me. Daggercalf immediately steps away and gives us space, but I still feel his eyes staring me down from nearby. “That crushing feeling of defeat. Thoughts of being useless and weak. Questioning why you’re even here in the first place.”

I’ve never seen Coach Marco up this close. Sweat glints on his skin like crystals. Dark circles hang around his hazel eyes. He furrows his eyebrows, and small creases form on his forehead. His smile, while slight and small, brings a warm feeling to wave through my body.

“But it’s true, though.” I manage to blurt out. “Look at them. Look at him!” I nod my head towards Daggercalf. “I’m cookie dough compared to them.”

Coach chuckles. “Physical strength is not the only thing I’m looking for.” He gets up and assumes the starting V position of the inchworm. “Come on, I’ll show you something amazing.”

I just stare at him for a moment. He looks so eager as he looks at me with a smirk on his face. I cave in and do as he says.

“There we go. That’s step one.” Coach says. “Step two is a little tricky though. You gotta do everything that I say, all right? Ignore that voice inside your head. Just listen to me. Go ahead and start when you’re ready.”

I nod my head. I do the first inchworm and immediately feel all the fatigue in my body once again. After a few more, I look up and see the rest of the team standing at the finish line. I freeze on the spot as I feel the weight of their gaze. They’re judging me. They’re wondering why a weakling like me is even on this team.

“Don’t stop, don’t stop, you’re almost there!” Coach says firmly, a little louder this time. “Forget them for a moment, you’re doing something amazing here. Focus!”

Oh, right. I’m just moving my hands, then my legs. Hands first, then I move my legs. My abs are still burning, and I’m not sure if it’s from the circuits from earlier or because of this stupid Inchworm thing. I can’t even figure out why I’m hurting, I’m so dumb. I’m a piece of shit—

“Remember what I said earlier?” Coach asks. “I know that voice is telling you that you’re a stupid piece of shit right now. I can see it on your face.” I look over to Coach, who mirrors my movements as I move across the floor. “I can only yell encouraging things at you from here, the rest has to come from you!”

I slow down, but I don’t stop. Hands, then legs. Hands, then legs. Everyone can see me struggle. This is so embarrassing. My arms buckle and I fall on the floor, but I push myself up before Coach could call me out on it. Hands, then legs. I’m such a loser. I look nothing like Tucker or Mike or Greg or Daggercalf, I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.

“ARGHHH!” An angry, terrifying roar comes out from my mouth.

I pause, my chest heaving up and down. I still feel tired, but I feel a strange burst of energy in my body. I look at Coach, who now sports a proud smile on his face.

“Almost there! Show them what you’re made of!” He matches the volume of my scream. He continues to encourage me with every move that I make. “If you have to scream like that to get yourself to move, then do it. You can bark, meow, or moo, do whatever you need to do!”

Hands, then legs. Yes, I’m a piece of shit. Listen to me. I’m moaning like a bitch, in front of twenty dudes who are better than I am. Hands, then legs. I don’t look like any of them. I’m not strong like them either. Hands, then legs.

But I’m still here! And as long as I can still move, this is where I belong!

I open my eyes as I hear them roar. I see the white tape of the finish line right below me on the floor. I collapse, but as I inhale as much air as I possibly can, I can feel myself smiling through it.

“No no, remember what I told you!” Greg taps me on the head and pulls me up into a sitting position, next to the metal railing. “Thought we lost you there for a bit. Glad you made it through.”

“Alright, everyone, go get water. We’ll start stretching in a bit.” Coach commands. He turns to me and pats me on the shoulder. “Good job this evening. I’ll have Craig take a look at you first before you join us, okay? Take it easy for a bit.”

Coach walks away while Daggercalf… I mean, Craig… stays behind with me. He tosses another water bottle at me that I immediately uncap and drink. I watch the form a circle and begin stretching, starting with their arms.

I lean my head on the railings and sigh. “I can’t believe I had to get the coach to yell at me just to finish that last lap…”

“It happens to everyone.” Craig says out of nowhere. I’ve never heard him talk before. His face appears softer, but maybe that’s just because I’m dead tired. His voice was low and smooth, making my bones vibrate just a little bit.

“What do you mean?” I ask, trying my best to get up on my feet. “You’re all fit and strong…”

“We all have that voice in our heads.” Craig says as he pulls me up from the floor. “We all have our own demons that we’re fighting. We can’t win every battle. We won’t win every battle.”

I’m starting to feel like Craig isn’t just talking about Crew anymore.

“That’s why we have coxswains on the boats to lead us.” Craig continues. We both walk to the circle. “That’s why we have a coach to teach us. That’s why we have teammates who we can trust to row on even when things get rough.” He nudges me gently. “Someone like you.”

Coach Marco sees us walking up and waves for us to join. Craig finds a spot next to Mike and Tucker, while I sit between the twins. Greg, sitting on my right, high fives me as I sit down to stretch with my team.

Advertisements

Row On (Part 3)

[Marco]

I stare at the statue of True Grit, the bronze Chesapeake Retriever sitting between the Retriever Activities Center and the Admin Building. I rub the nose of the mascot of UMBC, which is known to bring students good luck. You can tell that people believe this because the nose of True Grit has a different color than the rest of the statue. Now that I think about it, maybe I should wash my hands because someone sick might have touched this today.

Oh no.

Maybe I should just go back to my apartment. I feel sick. I definitely should be inside. It’s already 7 at night, and it’s getting dark and it’s cold and I shouldn’t be here—

“Just breathe, Marco.” I hear Dietrich mutter next to me.  “We’re just waiting for Mike, he said he’ll be here soon—-”

“Holy crap, this is a big turn out.” I hear Mike growl nearby. A few of the returning rowers greet him. I feel Mike’s eyes staring at me like lasers. Slowly he steps into view. “Did I already miss him go into Coach Mode?”

“No, he’s getting cold feet though.” Dietrich pats me on the shoulder. “Just remember what we talked about last night. You have the knowledge and experience to be a coach. At this point, you’ll just have to get used to solving problems.”

Mike laughs as he begins to unbutton his shirt and take off his shoes at the same time. “Plugging up holes is like seventy percent of what coaches do anyway.”

I take another deep breath, releasing a slow stream of hot air from my lungs. I tap True Grit’s nose again and turn around.

About fifty people stand in front of me. I recognize some of them from last week’s Involvement fest. I gesture for them to move to the right side of the path; some of them are blocking the way through campus. Under the light of the street lamps around us, I could see a mixture of worry and excitement from the crowd. I try my best to hide my own excitement and anxiety, too. My heart races so fast that I’m afraid they’ll see it beating out of my chest.

“Good evening. Thank you all for coming tonight for the first practice.” I announce to them. “My name is Marco Moreno, the coach of the Men’s team of UMBC Crew. To my left is Dietrich Wilkens, Captain of the Men’s team.” Dietrich gives a small wave to the new people. “To my right is Mike McNamara, current Executive Board President.” Mike continues to strip from his work uniform and put on his loose-fitting workout clothes. “Before we start, I want to tell you guys something important.”

Both Dietrich and Mike turn their heads toward me. We had already practiced what I was going to say last night just so I wouldn’t freak out when it came time to say it.

I clear my throat. “Look around you.” The new guys look at each other. “Half of you won’t come back tomorrow.”

An audible gasp escapes from the crowd. I hear Tucker behind me exclaim “Damn, he’s not holding back!” and chuckles to himself.

“By the time that we start practices at 5AM next week,” I continue. “even more people will leave us. I’d be surprised if more than ten of you guys are still here once we get on the water.”

“So you’re trying to scare us off?” One of the guys in the front speaks up. He crosses his arms and slightly covers the Greek letters on his shirt. His dark skin still gleams gently under the streetlights. I swear I’ve seen him before.

“I’m trying to be honest with all of you.” I say to them all, moving my eyes and scanning all of their faces. “Rowing is an amazing sport, and it’s an experience that you just cannot compare with anything else. But it’s also demanding. Just ask any of these guys behind me about it, and they’ll agree.”

The crowd’s gaze shifts to the six returning rowers behind me. I hear Mike grunt in agreement to my right. The crowd remains silent, but I can feel their determination radiating from where they stand. 

“Shall we get started?” I clasp my hands together, making a few jump back in the crowd. “First, if you have health problems and concerns, come up here and talk to Jesus.” I point at the curly-haired guy closest to the crowd. Jesus, in his yellow UMBC Soccer shirt, waves once at the new people. “Now, let’s start with a warm-up.”

I point behind the crowd. Academic Row is the main vein through UMBC’s campus. It’s a straight, wide pathway bordered by eight buildings. The path connects the main front parking lots to the Albin O. Kuhn Library at the center of campus. The foot traffic on Academic Row right now doesn’t compare to the traffic during the middle of the day, but you can still see silhouettes of people walking down the concrete path.

“Jog from here to the library. Three laps.“ I command.

The crowd disperses to different directions. Tucker and Mike lead the main group towards the library. The sound of footsteps echo between the buildings as they jog down Academic Row. A few people walk towards Dietrich, who stands next to a pile of backpacks and clothes. The new recruits leave their belongings near the pile before jogging down to the library.

The last five people line up in front of Jesus. He pulls out a notepad and pencil from the pockets of his black and white Tiro pants. As each person finishes talking to Jesus, they join the rest of the running group down Academic Row.

“You were more honest to them than you originally planned.” Dietrich deduces as he guards everyone’s backpacks. “You scared a lot of them; more than half might not come back tomorrow.”

“It’s Sprint Season, though.” I point out. I look up at the steadily darkening sky. “We normally have lower numbers around this time of the year anyway. We might as well tell them what they’re signing up for…”

“Yo, Coach.” Jesus walks toward me with another person in tow. He stuffs the notepad in his pocket. He tucks the pencil behind his ear; normally his curly hair covers his ears, but he ties it back today in a puffy pony tail. “I’m gonna go run. This guy needs to tell you something though.”

He gestures to the guy behind him, but I’m a little more worried about Jesus. “How’s the knee? You have your brace on you, right?” Jesus sighs and bends down, lifting his right pant leg up, but I stop him. “Okay, okay. I believe you! You’d have no reason to lie…”

Jesus raises an eyebrow at me. “Don’t you do it—-”

“— Jesus has never sinned.” I continue with a smirk.

Jesus shakes his head while laughing then begins to walk away. “I thought you were above these jokes, Coach. You’re setting a bad example to the new peeps.” He accelerates into a jog and joins the rest of the group.

I turn to the guy patiently waiting in front of me. His incredibly blond hair appears to be radiating its own light. His blue eyes, while really cool to look at, feel hollow and empty. Even though he’s staring at me, it feels like they’re made out of glass. I’m not sure why that is.

Then I look at his right hand. He holds a long white stick with a black tassel at the handle. Is it a cane? If it is, I’d figure that he’ll be using it to help him stand right now…

“Evening there, Coach Moreno.” He says with a bit of Southern twang in his voice. “Name’s Luke. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He raises his right hand towards me to shake mine.

From the corner of my eye, I see Dietrich turn his head so fast that I’m worried his neck may have snapped.

“Hey there, Luke!” I beam, shaking his hand. His firm grip immediately takes me by surprise. “Wow, that’s a really good handshake you got there.”

“It’s the best way to make a great first impression.” Luke says confidently. “I spoke with Mr. Jesus about it, but he insisted that I speak to you directly about my… condition.”

Luke raises the cane he’s holding, and I feel my stomach do a hundred somersaults.

“Oh…” I blurt out. I hesitate to speak to make sure I don’t offend him. “Can… Can you see me?”

I can see Dietrich facepalm and shake his head in my periphery.

Luke laughs. “I can see you just fine! I’ve had Choroideremia for as long as I can remember, so I’m legally blind. But everything underneath the sun…” He looks up at the twilight sky. “… or streetlights… are clear as day.”

This is a first. I’ve never met someone with a disability during my eight years of rowing. I’m sure there are disabled rowers out there, and I’m sure they’re better than me! This will definitely be a challenge…

Luke frowns just a little bit as I pause, and I feel my heart sink. He clears his throat. “If it makes any difference, I’ve ran cross-country in high school. I know how to swim. I can hear and follow directions just as well as anyone. I just can’t see in the dark at all, and I have mild tunnel vision.”

“Look, Luke.” I say calmly. “I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t stay. I’m more worried about your safety than anything else—–”

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” Dietrich exclaims, sidestepping between me and Luke. He begins to shake Luke’s hand. “Dietrich, Team captain— Holy crap, that’s such a great handshake…” Dietrich shakes his head and refocuses. “I’ll run next to you. Visually impaired runners usually have guides with them, isn’t that right?”

“Ah, you’re familiar with that?” Luke crosses his arms and smiles at Dietrich. “Would you mind being my guide until I prove my worth to Coach Moreno?”

Before I could even stop them, Luke and Dietrich accelerate to a jog on Academic Row. I run after them for a little bit, but I stop since I’m the only person watching everybody’s stuff.

“Hi Coach Moreno!” A sweet voice shouts behind me. I turn around and I see a short girl waving at me, standing next to True Grit’s statue. I think her name is Liza, one of Lily’s coxswains. Directly behind her stands a tall person who holds a giant sketch pad over their face with just one hand.

“Hey. Liza, right?” I walk closer to them. “I know it’s you, Rusty, you don’t have to do that.” Rusty brings the sketch pad down. His eyes are puffy and red. He wears a blue sling for his left arm. “How bad is it? How are you feeling?”

Rusty looks away, avoiding eye contact. Liza pats him on his right arm.

“Rusty just wants to tell you something.” She sings. “Remember, Rusty? Tell him what you told me!”

I stay quiet as Rusty clears his throat. I’ve never seen him this distraught. He looks at my direction and takes a deep breath.

“I broke my left clavicle.” He croaks. “I didn’t want to get surgery done on it, so it’s not gonna heal for about eight to ten weeks. And even if I switch sides and row on the starboard side, I can’t… I can’t…”

The first dozen of the running group comes back from the Library. They make a big circle around the statue. Mike and Tucker, who leads the group, grunts Rusty’s name out loud and pats him on the head without stopping.

“Rusty, it’s okay.” I reassure him. “I’m just glad that you’re alive. We didn’t hear anything from you for almost a week!”

“But… I can’t row!” Rusty exclaims. His voice quivers. Liza holds on to Rusty’s right hand. “I want to still be in the team! I want to do what I can to help!” He pauses. “Also I destroyed two ergs and I feel really bad!”

Liza hugs Rusty around the waist, calming him down a little bit. I look around. More and more of the runners are coming back and going around us. A few seconds later I spot Matt’s familiar face as he comes up the path. I wave for him to stop and he slows down to my side.

“Hey.” He exhales. Sweat glistens on his tan skin like dew. “Rusty… Nice sling… What’s up?”

“Is there a way to adjust the coxswain’s seat on the Fours?” I ask Matt. A confused look replaces his tired expression. “I’m trying to put a really tall person on the seat. Is that possible?”

Liza and Rusty hug each other a little closer.

Matt continues to catch his breath. His brow furrows in concentration. “I guess… Definitely not on the Pococks… Maybe on the Dirigos… Won’t be comfy though… That okay?”

“Is that all right with you?” I ask Rusty, who is trying his best to understand the conversation. “We don’t have a cox on the team, so you’d immediately be filling an important spot. And you’ll literally just sit there and yell at everyone.”

“I…I…” Rusty stutters. “…Never… before… boat… coxed?”

Liza giggles and pinches Rusty’s right arm. “I’ll give you pointers, silly! You’ll be a decent cox in no time!”

I smile at the two of them. “Now go home and rest up for now, okay? Come back next week when we start morning practices. Your goal for right now is to get better as soon as possible.”

Rusty nods vigorously and thanks me. He and Liza walks off, disappearing down the steps towards the Quad.

“I thought you were gonna ask me about the ‘Other Project.'” Matt says. “And don’t worry, I’m basically done.” He quickly adds as I open my mouth to ask. “The rest of the parts are in the trunk of my Charger at home;  I drove my Tesla to campus this weekend.”

I smirk. “Oh, what happened to your sedan?”

Matt’s face lights up. “I sold it during the break! It had a couple of problems with the cooling system, and it starts to make funny sounds when I go past 100 miles per hour and…” He glares at me with suspicious eyes. “When did you start caring about cars?”

I shrug. “I don’t even know what a sedan is.”

Matt shakes his head as he smiles. “Jesus just warned me about you, too!” He joins a few of the running recruits as they go around the statue.

After two more laps, they all stop and group up near the statue once again to catch their breath.

Tucker and Mike walk over to me, hands on their waists as they try to control their breathing. Tucker won’t stop glaring at Dietrich and Luke, who continue to talk and laugh with each other.

“… not even his type… trying to get back at me…” Tucker seethes under his breath.

“Just ignore him.” Mike says, trying his best to conceal his smile. “You’re just mad because the only blond boy toy from the new bunch doesn’t want to talk to you.” Mike and I burst in laughter as Tucker crosses his arms. Mike turns to me. “You look incredibly relaxed. Seems like you’re a natural coach. Guess I made the right decision to hire you.”

“Wow, you managed to brag about yourself while complimenting me.” I say sarcastically at Mike. “And we just got started. Anything can happen. They’re about to run up the Stairs in just a bit; someone’s bound to trip and break an ankle.”

“Well I believe in you, just like everyone else here.” Mike declares. “I mean, you were even able to fix Rusty’s problem. You can do anything.”

I feel my face turn red like Mike’s hair. “Nah, that was simple. You really just need a working set of eyes and basic skills in English to cox a boat. He really wants to help.”

Mike pauses. “Wait, he didn’t tell you that he’s gonna ask out that coxswain chick?”

I look straight into Mike’s eyes.

“What?”

 

Row On (Part 2)

[Rusty]

I wave yellow fliers as people pass by. “Join Crew!” I shout over them. A few people jump back in fear, while others grab the fliers tentatively.

While waiting for his friends to finish talking with Coach, a sophomore stands in front of the Tri-fold poster board and examines the whole thing with a huge smile on his face. He moves closer to read the captions under the photos, then trace the bubble letterings of “UMBC CREW” I had glued on top of the board. I’m really hoping he doesn’t see some of the misspelled words I had forgot to correct while finishing the board this morning.

“I can’t believe you guys actually raced against schools like Harvard and Yale.” He exclaims with wonder. “What’s it like?”

I let out a hearty laugh and scratch the back of my head. “I haven’t done that yet. I just joined the club last semester!”

He silently mouths the word “wow” before thanking me again and walking away with his friends. They disappear in the middle of the room, into a crowd of cautious students checking out the different club sports offered here at UMBC. Over twenty gray tables replace the Ping-Pong and pool tables that usually lives here in the spacious Game Room, forming a large U-shaped chain of rectangles. Fortunately for us, the Crew table sits near the main entrance to this room, so people will see us as they come in. I can hear even more noise blaring from the entrance as other clubs and groups do their best to recruit new members for the semester all throughout the Commons building.

A warm feeling wells up from my chest, and I put my hand over my heart. What if that Sophomore and everyone else show up, then end up liking Crew, just like me? I want everyone who signs up today to feel the same thing that I did when I first joined the club.

“You okay?” I hear Coach Marco ask. I see him sitting down behind our table. I’ve never seen him wear anything that looks professional, but today he’s wearing a blue checkered button-up shirt with a blue and gray striped tie that he loosened up just a bit. He even shaved the depression beard that lived on his face for a while now.

I grin as I put my hand down. “Yeah, I just I couldn’t imagine Involvement Fest happening indoors, but somehow they managed to pull it off. Plus,” I lift up the sign-up sheet. “It’s only been 10 minutes, but we already have fourteen people interested! Isn’t this great?”

Coach furrows his thick eyebrows for a moment but gives me a reassuring smile. “You’re right, and I think most of that came from your friendly attitude.”

“Yeah, you’re doing really well as our wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.” Tucker replies. He stands next to the Tri-Fold, only wearing a pair of tight-fitting compression shorts while holding an oar with each hand. For some reason, his body has an eerie sheen under the fluorescent lights. “I mean, it’s not your fault. You’ve never raced. You barely know anything about rowing.” Tucker winks at a passing Freshman from my dorm, who immediately walks away from the table.

Coach rolls his eyes. “Leave him alone. And didn’t I tell you to put a shirt on? We’re gonna get in trouble if they see you like that.”

Tucker shrugs. “We won’t get in trouble; I’m only lightly-oiled.”

“Then, is there anything else that I can do to help?” I ask hopefully. Coach turns to me with a concerned look. “I want to pull my weight with keeping this club going.”

Tucker leans in towards Coach. “He should have said ‘Keeping this club afloat’ instead.”

Coach mutters. “Yeah, it would have been an awesome pun — I do have something for you to do!” He raises his voice so suddenly that I jump back just a bit. “You can help Dietrich and Mike bring some ergs from the RAC. They should be heading back now, but they’ll need help carrying it up here.”

“Consider it done!” I skip past the tables and make my way to the entrance of the Game Room. People immediately step aside as I get near them; I don’t blame them, because seeing someone as tall as I am skipping towards them would probably be scary.

It’s even louder outside the Game Room. The next hallway on the right leads to the “Student Orgs” space where I think all of UMBC’s Greek Life has set up tables. Banners and signs decorated in Greek letters line the hallway and well-dressed upperclassman walk past me. I could hear K-Pop blasting from speakers from the lower levels of the building. Involvement Fest truly has taken over the Commons today.

After almost slipping twice on the main stairs of the building, I hear someone scream “RUSSELL RAPTOR!” somewhere nearby. Before I even turn around, I could hear Liza running towards me from the side. I bend my knees just a bit and catch her just as I turn around. She always smells like lemons and oranges, so I could feel my sinuses clear up immediately.

“LIZA LLAMA!” I shout back at her. We let go of each other and take a few steps back. She wears her small red coat over her Hello Kitty t-shirt, making her look even younger than she is. She seems to be traveling light today; I know she has classes but she doesn’t have a backpack or books on her. “Where’s your— Oh.” I look behind her and see Jeremy Cazares carrying a black shoulder bag and a pink umbrella. “That’s not nice, Liza Llama. My roommate is not your butler.”

Liza and I start cackling. She grabs her bag and umbrella from Jeremy and thanks him before the three of us walk towards the lower level exit of the Commons.

“Wanna come to class with us?” Liza asks, pulling on my sleeve. “It’s just Calc 3, it’s not too bad! There’s a bunch of other Freshmen like us there so you won’t stick out!”

“Rusty’s in Pre-Calc this semester!” Jeremy chuckles, punching me on the shoulder. “And have you seen this man? He sticks out wherever he goes!”

“Well, he can just doodle on my notes!” Liza grabs her umbrella as I open the glass door for both of them. “You still owe me a drawing, remember?”

Drops of water hit my face as we leave the Commons. I completely forgot that it was raining outside. The Quad, a square patch of grass between four buildings, is the spot where Involvement Fest was held last semester. I guess it’s a good thing that they brought everything inside this time. Even the concrete trail that cuts diagonally through the Quad looks drenched in the rain. The sound of rain at least replaces the noise of Involvement Fest out here.

We pause, hesitating to walk into the cold rain. Liza hands me her umbrella. “You’re the tallest. You hold it.” With a flourish, I open up the umbrella and shield both me and Liza. She moves closer to me, hugging me just above my waist and pushing her face right below my sternum.

“Wow.” Jeremy remarks, zipping up his jacket and raising the hood over his head. “I can never get used to this. The height difference is seriously unnatural.” Liza and I look at each other. I’m just about 7’1, so the difference is probably insane to see when I’m at least 2 feet taller than her.

Half-way across the Quad, I spot Dietrich and Mike pulling four rowing machines out the backdoor of the gym. I wave at the two of them as I say goodbye to Liza and Jeremy.

“I’ll visit you later after my lecture!” Liza shouts as we begin to walk our separate ways. “I have to show you a cute puppy video that I saw last night!”

I keep waving my arms at Liza and Jeremy until I’m almost face to face with Dietrich and Mike. They’re wearing waterproof jackets, but their exposed heads are now wet thanks to the rain. I greet them both of them as we bump fists.

“Hey there, big guy. Here to lend a hand with these ergs?” Mike hands me one of the two rowing machines he has and we push them towards the Commons. Saran wrap covers the long rowing machines, shielding it surprisingly well from the rain. The tiny wheels in the front squeak as we go over puddles of water. “And you should just call him ‘Diet,’ you know. We’re all friends here. Marco is the only person who calls him by his name.”

“Speaking of friends…” Diet says, keeping his voice low. He effortlessly pushes two ergs at once next to me. Small drops of water begin to stick to his glasses, but I guess he can’t do anything about it. “That girl you were talking to…”

“Yeah, I was just telling Diet about it too!” Mike howls, pride beaming from his face. “I had no idea you had game, bro. Are you going out with her?”

I feel my face get hot as I laugh. “I haven’t asked her out, but I do have a thing for her.” Mike grabs me with his free arm and pulls me in for a hugs.

“My man, Rusty!” Mike releases me. “Just make sure to always ask for consent and always wear protection—-”

“That girl is a coxswain for Varsity.” Diet cuts in monotonously.

After a short pause, Mike turns to me. “Forget everything that I just said. Don’t date her.”

“Wha–?” My jaw hangs open.

“It’s a curse.” Diet explains, turning to me. “Dating a teammate is always a bad idea.”

“Why?” I ask, suddenly feeling concerned. “I mean, we’re not technically in the same team. She’s with the Women’s team, and we’re basically just a club, aren’t we?”

“We practice around the same time and place, though.” Diet continues as we reach the lower entrance of the Commons. He pushes the blue button on the side of the entrance, causing the doors to open automatically. “You’ve seen what happened to Marco and Lily. I’m just hoping it stays pretty tame between them.”

“But… but why is there a rule against it though?” I ask again, pushing the erg through the door and into the building. The suffocating roar of Involvement Fest surrounds me again. “I’ve been in a couple of sports teams before Crew, and I’ve never heard of that rule.”

“The reason, my friend…” Mike replies, heading towards the elevators on the right side of the lower lobby. “… is very simple to explain.”

Diet tries to suppress his laughter. “This theory again?”

“It’s a solid theory, don’t laugh.” Mike hisses, pushing the call button. The fire in his eyes matches his hair. He pulls out a pocket knife and slices up the Saran wrap on the ergs. “You see, Rusty. Everyone in crew is a little crazy. With the amount of time we train and how close we get during practice, a few people are bound to like each other. And if you combine one kind of crazy with another…”

The elevator makes a loud DING! as it reaches the bottom floor. Once it opens, Diet and Mike pushes two ergs in, struggling to make both fit inside. They twist and turn the ergs until they lift up one end and rested it above the elevator entrance.

“Uhhh can you wait out there for a bit?” Diet asks, squeezing his bulky body into the elevator. “We’ll get those ergs once we bring these out on the top floor.” He turns to Mike as the door closes, who is scrunched up in the corner to make space. “Mike… Is it just me, or are these ergs stuck?”

I throw away the plastic wrap and wait a full minute before the door opens again. This time, it’s just Mike with the ergs, still stuck in the same positions.

“Don’t worry, we’re okay.” He says quickly, breathing very heavily like he’s been lifting something. I can’t tell if he’s sweating or if he’s just wet from the rain. “Diet’s already called for help, we’ll get out of here in no time!”

“Can’t I just carry the ergs up to the Game Room?” I ask, testing the weight of one of the ergs by lifting it off the ground.

“No!” Mike exclaims. His voice makes the walls of the elevator vibrate as the door begins to close again. “Just wait here! We’ll fix this!”

Once the door shuts, I push both ergs to the stairs then turn them around so my back is facing the steps. Slowly I get on the first step and walk backwards, pulling the machines up with me. The wheels on the front of the ergs make it easy to bring up each step. They’re not as heavy as they looks, but the length, shape, and front-heavy design of the ergs make them awkward to pull up like this. I continue to breathe calmly and go up the first set of stairs carefully.

I smirk as I conquer this first challenge and set my sights on the next set. As I push the ergs on the first level I realize that I’m still a little annoyed. I just want to help out the club. There are less than 10 of us right now and every little bit should make a difference. But now, something simple like carrying these weird-looking workout machines need to be delegated to the veterans of the club. I have one semester of rowing under my belt already! I can do this!

I eventually reach the last set of stairs, but I stop and try to control my breathing. As I prepare to pull the ergs again then ascend, I feel more determined and confident about being useful to this club. I have the ergs that Coach is looking for. I’m saving the day, even if they underestimated me. And one of these days, I’ll ask out Liza to dinner and—

My right foot slips on the next step. I land on my butt and drop both ergs on the stairs, slipping further and further down.

“SHIT!”

I jump back up on my feet and reach for the ergs, but I slip on another step. I lose balance and found myself diving closer and closer to the base of the staircase.

The ergs crash first. Parts fly in all directions. I close my eyes and brace for impact.

Row On (Part 1)

[Marco]

I stare out into the brown waters of the Patapsco River Basin. Waves crash into the three wooden docks floating past the shore in front of us. Further out, I spot a couple of waves break and turn white before crashing back into the churning waters.

“Okay, that was like 2 whitecaps in half a minute.” I declare. “That’s not too bad, right? We can still take an Eight out, right?”

Dietrich glares at me through his oval glasses. He bites his upper lip, a typical Dietrich-esque sign of hesitation. “Marco, that’s not safe. We don’t even have a launch ready yet; you don’t have a boat to follow us. Besides, it’s cold, the current is too strong and…”

I let Dietrich tire himself out as he lists more reasons why we shouldn’t get on that water. I know more than anybody else that it’s not safe to be on the water right now. Even if it’s warmer than it usually is at this time of the year, the last week of January in Baltimore is not a great time to row.

I turn around and face the Middle Branch boathouse, a giant white and gray eyesore that clashes with the brown bricks of the Cherry Hill apartment complex on the other side of the street. Six other disappointed faces await for our return under the open left-most bay door, one of three doors of the boathouse’s lower level.

“I get it, Dietrich. I just…” I sigh, but Dietrich pats me on the shoulder. We begin to walk towards the rest of the group, each step causing my heart to beat faster. “I just wanted to make my first day as the coach to be special.”

Out of the 50 guys on the team last semester, only seven decide to show up today, including Dietrich. The six in front of the door huddle together like giant penguins, shielding each other from the chilly breeze coming from the basin.

I clear my throat and address them all for the first time today. “Did anyone hear from Jason? I thought he was showing up.” I scan their faces as they all quickly look up from the huddle before hiding once again. No sign of him. I look over to the parking lot but his yellow Jeep is nowhere to be found.

“That rat bastard’s not gonna show up.” Someone in the huddle shouts. That gruff and hoarse voice sounds like Mike’s. “Pretty sure he still hates you.”

“But that would mean we don’t have a coxswain right now!” Tucker exclaims as he lifts his head from the huddle, snarling at me and stomping his feet while hugging himself tight in his blue Navy hoodie. “I’m gonna say it now, I’m not gonna cox for these guys again. Not after what happened last time, Rusty!”

The six of them begin to argue in their huddle. Rusty, the tallest of them all, crosses his arms and turns to Tucker. Over everyone else’s voices, I could just barely hear Rusty exclaim “I didn’t know I couldn’t eat seven bananas before practice!”

I flail my arms at all of them to get their attention. “Come on, you guys. We’ll worry about that next time. We’ll just do a quick warm-up first and a couple of circuits before we move some of the shells in the boathouse. Let’s start with a run to the bridge…. and back.”

They all freeze at the same time, then glare at me in unison before I could even finish my sentence.

“You mean…” Tucker breaks the silence, taking his hands off of Rusty’s neck. “You mean we’re not even gonna row today?”

I open my mouth reluctantly. “Well, it’s too cold right now, and the winds are too strong, and…” My Dietrich impression can’t lift their spirits. Disappointment dawns on them like fog.

Just then, Dietrich takes a step forward. “You heard the coach.” He points at the bridge to his left, which looms over the treeline. “To the bridge and back, let’s go!”

They groan in unison and stomp away. A few of them strip their extra layers and make small piles of clothing next to the boathouse door. Dietrich turns to me and pats me on the shoulder before walking to Tucker and Rusty, who begins to argue once again. As Rusty starts running on the trail, Dietrich and I bring up the rear and jog next to each other towards the Hanover Street Bridge.

“I’m sorry about earlier.” Dietrich eventually says next to me.

“Wha–?” I manage to grunt out of my mouth.

“I overstepped your boundaries.” Dietrich replies effortlessly. “I should have let you try to get their attention once again. You’re the coach, I shouldn’t have jumped the gun.”

“I…. wasn’t mad…. about that…” I begin to feel guilty for not running at all during the break.

“I know.” Dietrich gives a small shrug then punches my left shoulder, almost knocking me off-balance. “But as the captain of this team, I still have to acknowledge my mistake. I already undermined the coach and the season just started.”

I truly didn’t mind when Dietrich stepped in earlier. He continues to apologize for a while before I distract him with possible circuit and workout ideas after we run.

By the time Dietrich and I reach the boathouse, I could see the rest of the team standing and facing the water. Dietrich points to our right. From a distance, a green and white boat floats on the water with two people rowing in it.

“Okay, so why do they get to row and we don’t?” Tucker greets us, tapping his foot impatiently. Everyone else chimes in after Tucker’s comment. Dietrich stops but I continue to jog past the guys. I hear him call me back but I ignore him.

The boat turns as it reaches the middle dock, floating parallel to the drenched wooden planks. It’s impressive how they can delicately guide the boat to the right dock at the right speed and angle even with the strong current and rough waters. A man and a woman sits on the Pair, and I immediately recognize the girl with her high pony tail. My lungs already feels like it’s burning , but I slow down and walk towards the docks.

I knew she’d be here.

The man and woman steps up from the Pair like ballerinas dancing in unison, wearing only tight-fitting spandex even in this cold weather. They ignore me as they remove the oars from the water. The instant that Maximilian Bradford and I lock eyes, I feel my blood begin to boil. I’ve prepared for him this time. He flashes his signature smile, innocent and sweet, but I maintain my gaze into his icy blue eyes. Once I reach the dock and stand level with him, I turn my neck up to continue our eye contact; I keep forgetting that he’s almost half a foot taller than I am.

“Marco!” I hear Dietrich shouts behind me. Two pairs of footsteps follow his as he walks next to me; the scent of lavender wafting into my nose means that Tucker is one of them. Dietrich grabs my shoulder. “Is this why we came here in the first place?”

“Well I hope it is!” Bradford cuts in with his booming voice before I could even answer Dietrich. “It’s always nice to see spectators watching me row. Isn’t that what this sport is all about?” He gives a hearty laugh then sighs with satisfaction at his own joke.

“No…” I say obnoxiously loud, but my lungs gasp for more air after finally stopping from that jog. “Her… traitor… TRAITOR!” I glare at Lily as she leans over the boat to close the last oar lock. She doesn’t seem to flinch at what I said.

Bradford beams at me. “Trade her? Well she’s not even a student in Loyola so that’s out of my control! Anyway.” He winks at Dietrich and Tucker. “Can one of you get us some slings for this boat? I’ll show you where I stashed away two of them earlier on the side of the boathouse.”

I see Dietrich and Tucker just nodding at Bradford, practically drooling as he walks past me with both oars on his right shoulder. With them gone, I turn my attention to Lily, who finally stands up.

Lily immediately crosses her arms, waiting for me to say something. We haven’t seen each other in a month. What do you even say to your ex when you finally see them again?

“Damn, it’s only been a month and you’re already dating other people?”

Her green eyes burn red. “AND HERE WE GO AGAIN!” Lily scowls, kneeling down to one knee and grabbing the Pair on the sides.

I storm up further down the dock past Lily to face her, forcing the wind to strike my back instead. “Well? Isn’t that what you’re doing? Why else would anyone row on a Pair with another guy in the middle of winter?”

Lily glares at me, and I wince. “I’m here to negotiate a deal with Loyola, but of course you wouldn’t care if the Women’s team had a chance to win this season!” She lifts the Pair up in the air in one smooth motion, flipping the boat upside down while her arms are raised straight up above her. With grace and without breaking eye-contact with me, she lowers the entire sixty-pound boat onto her shoulder. “I get it, all right?” She spits on the dock. “You’re just trying to one-up me for breaking up with you. That’s why you’re coaching the Men’s team. But I’ve been doing this for a few years now.” She takes a few steps backwards. “I know more about running a crew team than you. HEADS UP!”

Lily pivots in place, but I can’t just let her have the last word.

“Oh yeah? You know more than me?” I shout at her as she continues to turn around. “I bet I can do better—-”

The bow end of the Pair swings at me as Lily turns around. I try to duck, but my legs wouldn’t move in time. I raise my hands up and shield my head, absorbing the blow from the boat. The force knocks me off-balance, and I fall past the dock and into ——-

SPLASH!

Everything is cold. The sudden change in temperature shocks my body, forcing me to gasp for air. Unfortunately, the cold, salty and metallic-tasting water rushes into my mouth instead. I swim up to the surface and spit out the harbor water and gulping a bit of air before bobbing down into the water once again. The cold water saps the heat and energy from my body, and my soaked hoodie and sweatpants only make it tougher for me to move. I kick hard with my feet and raise my hand up above my head to reach for the dock that was surely still nearby. All I feel above the surface is air. Suddenly I feel a large hand grabs my arm and pulls me up into the surface, dragging me face-down on to the wooden docks.

I cough up as much of the water that I swallowed. It took so much energy to roll over on my back and turn my head to the right towards the shore. Mike stands over me, wiping his hands on his basketball shorts. His hood hides the red hair and most of the fiery beard on his face, but I can see his eyes glinting like stars.

“Mike!” I exclaim, coughing a few more times, my teeth chattering. “Don’t know…what I would have done… Thanks!” I struggle to get up on my feet as the wind freezes the water drenching my clothes. I kick off my wet shoes and begin to strip down to just my compression shorts.

Mike sighs and takes off his hoodie, then tosses it to me as I finally remove my own drenched hoodie. Even with just a tank top on, he doesn’t look like he’s cold at all. Once on, the hem of Mike’s hoodie drapes over my knees.

“You know, I’m supposed to be working right now, but seeing this…” Mike points at me. “…Makes it all worth it.”

I hesitate. “Really?”

“No.” Mike answers immediately. “But I’m your friend, and I like rowing. Those are pretty high on my list of priorities, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

We walk back towards the boathouse. I keep an eye out for needles on the ground since I’m walking barefoot. The Pair sits on two green slings in front of the right boathouse bay, with Lily hosing down the boat while Bradford continues to charm Dietrich and Tucker.

“I’ll at least make sure the circuits make you guys sweat.” I mumble. “I’m already messing this up aren’t I?”

Mike chuckles. “Come on, don’t feel so bad.”

I glare at Mike, who actually cracks a small smile. “You just told me off a few seconds ago, how can I not feel bad?”

Mike shrugs his thick shoulders. “Do you remember being great at rowing on your first day on the water? Even if you have all the information and know the theory behind everything, you’re gonna fuck up on your first day.” He slaps me on the back. “Just don’t make a habit out of this, all right? Sure, I talk a lot of shit about you behind your back, but I know that you’ll make the right decisions, starting now.”

I look back at the rest of my team waiting on the blacktop. It’s only the first day. Classes haven’t even started yet. I can’t get all flustered and worried about not being a good coach. A few people seem to believe that I can do this, and I gotta show them that I can help this team succeed under my command.

“Everyone, listen up!” I shout at everyone as Mike and I get close enough. “Tucker, Dietrich, come back here! Sorry about what happened earlier.”

All seven of them form a semi-circle in front of me. A sudden surge of emotion erupts from inside me. I feel their energy and excitement for the season ahead of us, and I know they expect me to help them achieve their potential. I feel the anxiety of such responsibility sit in my stomach, but I know I can do this.

“I’ll make sure you guys sweat with this workout that I fixed up during the break.” I declare to them all.

Mike grins and crosses his arms. “Are you gonna do them with us, Coach?”

I laugh nervously while pulling the sleeves to Mike’s hoodie back up to give him a thumbs up. “Of course. I’ll never ask you guys to do anything that I can’t do myself.” They all smile back at me. I take a deep breath in. “Now, let’s figure out who’s been sitting on their asses all winter!”

 

Photogenic

The first thing he did
When we first met was
Apologize. He’s sorry
Because he wasn’t
Photogenic.

And he wasn’t lying.

Every time I take a picture of him,
He looks like he’s sick.
His face, lopsided. His grin, toothy.
Why does it look like his bones break
Every time I snap a photo?

Here I am, trying to show
This beautiful creature to the world
One
Frame at a time.
But, of course, no dice.

And yes, I did record him.
Videos won’t cut it, either.
It shows him in flux but
The camera skips the pixels
Of nuance and subtlety.

Shame. In the flesh,
My eyes see what cameras
Fail to catch.
No photograph can capture his charm.
No video can copy is grace.

All to myself?
Maybe it’s possible to have
Too much of a
Good thing.
It’s intoxicating.

Bread Crumbs

I’ve been writing more drafts. I’ve been drawing more. I’ve been dancing more too. I’ve been uploading more videos on my YouTube channel (it’s just me playing video games, but still). I’ve been singing even more and recording it and posting it on Facebook. I’m cracking more jokes than ever, commenting and speaking out more online and in real life.

Now that I deleted my dating apps, I’ve had a lot of extra time somehow. Less time talking to dudes I’ll never meet or never date. More time developing my artistic side.

Also I kinda got tired of chasing after people. That got old. Maybe if I just put myself out there, someone will find me interesting enough to date.

Wow, it’s like I’m leaving little bread crumb trails everywhere.

Father’s Day

I slice through the New York Strip like butter, revealing a glorious pink medium-rare center. I inhale the aroma wafting from the steak and almost drool just from the combination of garlic and thyme.

Dad lets out a chuckle from across the table. “So what did they say after your thesis defense?” He asks just loud enough for me to hear over the energetic chatter of other customers here in the steakhouse. “They didn’t enjoy all the puns, did they?”

“Oh, they loved the puns.” I say after swallowing a piece of the steak. “Okay, maybe they complained after the third Terminator reference, but it worked out in the end.”

Dad smiles through his thick black mustache. Creases and folds form on his face, which is something that I’ve never noticed before. I guess he’s getting older now. Or maybe it’s because I barely see him anymore, and any changes, big or small, will immediately look foreign to me. He struggles to slice a small piece of his rib-eye, incredibly well-done as usual, and chews meticulously so his dentures wouldn’t fall out of his mouth. He sighs and stares at me, making me stop right before I eat another piece of the steak.

“Thank you.” Dad exhales deeply as if saying those two words managed to take the wind out of him. “Not just for buying me dinner for the first time… Thank you… for still coming to dinner with me.”

I chomp on the next piece of my steak and chew slowly. This is the fifth Father’s Day dinner we’ve had where it was only me and Dad in attendance. Maybe I’m just more forgiving than my other siblings and Mom.

“It’s nothing, really.” I shrug. “I can’t really say no to good food…” I raise my glass of water in the air. “Happy Father’s Day!” I exclaim before placing the glass down a little too quickly.

We both go back to our steaks. Every so often, Dad would break the silence between us with small talk, but I offer short replies in between rounds of chewing my food. All around us were happy diners, smiling and laughing warmly at one another. Each table, like ours, has a father-figure sitting down on it that attracts all the beaming grins and chuckles from their respective families. Seeing Dad just sitting there making polite small talk, however, seems incredibly surreal.

“Is something wrong?” I finally ask. Dad jumps in his seat, taken aback by my question. “Normally you’d be complaining about Auntie Cynthia or doing something embarrassing by now, this is really concerning—–”

“I know you’re gay.”

I freeze mid-sentence. I haven’t heard my dad say that word in decades. His face looks more determined now. This is what he wanted to talk about all along.

“Dad, this isn’t the time—-”

“Your Auntie Cynthia called me on the phone and told me all about it.” He snarls, a chunk of steak flying from his mouth and lands on the edge of my plate. “Do you know how embarrassing that is? Apparently all your aunts and uncles and cousins already knew about it. And it seems like I’m the last to find out… When did you come out?”

I don’t know where to start. I never expected him to bring this up.

“What’s wrong?” He asks. He scans my face for any answers but I continue to stay stoic. “Son, I’m doing the best that I can to be a father here. I’m here if you need to talk about it.”

“Dad,” I start to speak, my voice quivering just a little bit. “There’s nothing to talk about. Now come on, you’re making a scene—-”

Dad drops his cutlery on the table. The clanging of the metal causes dissonance with the vibrant energy around us. His breathing becomes erratic. The façade he had earlier is now gone, revealing the frustration he’s been hiding all along. This is the father that I remember.

“I have every right to know this as your father!” Dad half-screams, slamming his fist near his plate. I could feel the gaze of a few people around us. “I’ve done everything that I could to make sure none of you went hungry. The least you can do is treat me like your –”

Something inside me snaps.

“WHY DO YOU THINK I’M STILL HERE?” I bellow. More diners turn their heads but they eventually return to their tables. Dad tries to speak again but I quickly cut in. “Don’t you think I know that? I get it. You’ve sacrificed so much for us. No matter how much I hate to admit it, I can never say that I’m not your son!”

“Then what’s with all the secrecy?” Dad interrogates. His nostrils flare and his eyes grow wide. I feel inclined to be intimidated, but I’m not a teenager anymore. His hands flail wildly, making him appear larger and threatening. I know his game. As he realizes that I’m not flinching, he switches tactics.“What, do you think I hate gays? You’re my son, I would never reject you for being–”

“Our Florida Vacation, 2007.” I reply with confidence, crossing my arms. A few shades of color drain from Dad’s face. “After we saw Cousin Dylan propose to his boyfriend in Jacksonville, you told me that if you ever find out that I was gay,” All the air vanishes from my lungs, forcing me to inhale sharply. I clear my throat. “… you would break legs, chain me up by my ankles and hang me from the ceiling.” Dad tries to speak but nothing comes out. “Well?” I throw my hands up gesturing for him to say something. “Was I supposed to think you liked gay people after that?”

“I…” Dad stutters, averting eye contact. “I was drunk. That was just a joke—”

I roll my eyes. “You were sober! You spat on Dylan when he tried to hug you. You kept calling them ‘faggots’ as we drove away—” An exasperated sigh manages to sneak its way out of my mouth as I place my hand over my face. “‘I was drunk…’ what kind of fucking sorry excuse is that?”

Dad looks like he just ran out of steam. He sits on his chair with slump shoulders. I have never seen him look so defeated. “I…” he starts softly. “I just want you to tell me. In person. Not through text or on the phone. Not through someone else. I shouldn’t have to hear this from your relatives. This is something that you should be telling me face to face. I’m just… Just trying to be a good father–”

For a moment I feel like I should believe him. His face reverts back to its old, wrinkled self. His furrowed brows soften, and a small frown develops on his lips. I feel the need to forgive him, but something holds me back. I’ve heard him apologize before. I seen him apologize to Mom countless times. I’ve forgiven him so many times myself, and I always end up disappointed in both of us.

“And I’m trying to be a good son.” I add. “This is the least I can do. I can spare an hour or two with you for dinner. I tell you things about my life.”

I can see our waiter walking closer to us. A concerned expression forms on his face for the first time this evening.

“But I’ll choose what I want to tell you.” I declare. “On my own terms… When I’m ready, not when you ask me.” I point at him as he dares to even open his mouth to talk. “This isn’t about you… and it never will be.”

I can’t even tell if I forgave him or not. I don’t feel like I did, and I feel like it was a lukewarm answer. But it seems like Dad’s shoulders relax a bit. He sits back on his chair once again, staring up at the ceiling. I do the same. The ceiling itself isn’t interesting. The long light fixtures that hang from the ceiling and drop to about 4 feet above each tables are nothing to cry home about. I don’t know what Dad is doing, but I just need to make sure the tears welling up from my eyes don’t fall and flow down my face.

Before the waiter could even speak, I hold up a hand to him. “I’m sorry about all that noise, we were just having a moment.” I try my best to fake the happiest grin I could plaster on my face. “Can I also get one of your drink menus? I think my dad just needs something to drink.” I wink at the waiter, who winces immediately. Once he walks away from us, I sigh heavily before returning to my plate.

Dad raises an eyebrow. “You don’t know how to wink. You’re just like your Auntie Cynthia.”

I smile. “There we go. That’s the dad I know and love.”