As we progressed to the upper grades of elementary school, recess increasingly became the time for boys to show off their athletic skills while the girls watched and gossiped on the sidelines. Occasionally, the girls would organize their own games, and a few would work their way into the boys’ competitions. I was never fortunate enough to be picked to play on any of the teams, so I spent most of my recess time with the sideline girls.
Late March meant that we were soon going to participate in the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge. I wanted so badly to reach the top level this year–something that had never happened in the past. I did pretty well on most challenges, but it was the 40-yard dash that had always held me back. No matter how hard I tried, I was always about two seconds slower than the requirements.
I was sitting with Kathy and Tiffany; we were talking and watching a softball game. Corey Wood hit a fly ball far over the reach of the boys playing in the outfield. He casually tossed the bat behind him and started with a slight jog to first base. As he turned past each base, he picked up speed until he was sprinting towards home.
“He’s so fast,” Kathy said.
“I wish I could run like that,” I said, not thinking the others were listening.
“You can,” Kathy replied.
“You can run as fast as Corey.”
“Sure you can,” she gave me a small punch in the shoulder. “You just need to practice.”
We argued for a little while. Kathy insisted that if I practiced enough, I could get faster; I told her I didn’t believe her. She told me I need to believe in myself; I told her I believe that I am too slow. The truth is, I enjoyed her encouragement, and I kept arguing to keep her going.
“I can’t even do the 40-yard dash in less than 20 seconds.”
“Sure you can,” Kathy said. “It just takes practice.”
“Why don’t you two go practice right now,” Tiffany interrupted our banter.
Kathy and I looked at each other and laughed.
“The start and finish lines are right over there,” Tiffany said, pointing to the blacktop area behind us. “You can race each other.”
“But we don’t have a stopwatch,” I yelled at Tiffany, as she turned around and faced us from the finish line.
“Doesn’t matter. You’re just practicing, right?”
“That’s right,” Kathy punched my shoulder again. “Just a practice. Let’s go.”
Kathy pulled her dark, black hair into a ponytail, placed her hands on the starting line in front of her, and put her feet in a racing start position. I awkwardly did the same.
“Ready!” Kathy yelled to Tiffany.
Tiffany raised both hands and yelled “Ready… set… go!”
She dropped her hands, Kathy started running, and I followed a split second behind her. I ran as fast as I could, but every time I thought I would catch up with Kathy, she would pick up speed just a little. I think she crossed the finish line a full two seconds before me.
“Nice race,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”
The look I gave her was meant to say no, but she just smiled and skipped back to the starting line. I felt obligated to follow. We assumed our starting positions, and Tiffany started our next race. Kathy was even faster this time, and Nick was waiting with Tiffany at the finish line. How did he get there so fast?
“Way to go, chump,” Nick said in between laughs. “Get beat by a girl often?”
“Shut up, Nick!” Kathy said.
“I’m not surprised, though. After all, you are just one of the girls.”
“Let’s go,” I said to Tiffany and Kathy. I hated confrontations, and it was easier for me to just walk away.
I started walking to the outside drinking fountain with my friends, and Nick followed. He continued laughing.
“Where you going?” he asked. “To paint your fingernails? That’s what girls do together.”
“Shut up,” Kathy said. She turned and stepped between my persecutor and me.
“He’ll never be your boyfriend, Kathy. You know why?”
“I don’t want him as a boyfriend!”
“Well, that’s good, because it will never happen because he likes boys.”
I froze. Did Nick really just say that? How did he know? I wasn’t really sure if I knew. I mean, I had noticed some strange habits when I watched a football or basketball game. In the past I paid attention to the games, but recently, I had started thinking about how muscular and handsome the athletes were. I told myself I was just admiring the types of physiques I would like for myself.
“I told you to shut up, Nick!” Kathy said. This time she slugged him in the shoulder.
“Let’s go,” I said. “It’s not worth it.”
“Just like a faggot to run away!” Nick shouted as we went through the doors to the school.
The three of us walked in silence until we reached the restrooms. We stopped. Tiffany and Kathy looked at each other, hoping to come up with something to say. I looked down, held out my hands, and pretended to inspect them.
“I need to wash my hands,” I said.
“Okay,” the two girls said in unison.
I surveyed the room once I entered to make sure I was alone, entered one of the three empty stalls, shut the door, and cried until recess ended.