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BREAKAWAY, Chapter 1

THE WARM-UP

 


CHAPTER 1

 

1989, 8th Grade

 

I desperately tried to kick, catch, and throw as early as my older sister did, but my hands never got a hold of anything. I never judged the speed of the ball hurling toward me before it hit my face. The look of frustration and embarrassment in my dad’s eyes burned. More than once, I read his lips. What did I do wrong with this one

My older sister Maria was an athlete, and sports mattered to him. He never missed a practice or a game of hers, but to me, he could be cold and cruel in that particularly hurtful way of ignoring me. I buried myself in books and schoolwork, thinking that if I stood out from Maria with perfect grades, he would see me, but it didn’t work. My mother was distant but consistent, quiet like a stream you take for granted will always yield enough water, so I did not crave her as I did my dad.

When Maria was a senior, I was in seventh grade. She became injured, missed the high school soccer championships, and graduated without a scholarship. Dad exploded like a backdraft, ignited when the first rejection came, his full fury unleashed with the last. He callously blamed her. She packed her bags soon after and never came back. This was a significant moment in my life, not because Maria left but because late one night afterward, I peeked through the kitchen door into the living room and saw him crying for the first time. His strength and power seemed stripped away in the gentle curve of his back, face in hands, full of regretful tears. I didn’t know who devastated me more, him for hiding that kind of caring love or her stealing it from me and leaving everything unsaid between them. That Fall, he was there, but not there, like a phantom. His absence hurt even more when he was present because there was no reason to overlook me, yet he did. 

There was one occasion every year when he almost redeemed himself to me. He took me to see the UC Berkeley ice hockey team play Stanford at Berkeley Iceland. Each year, I felt brave enough to ask to go with him because I genuinely liked the games. Neither my mom nor Maria ever came with us. Mom worked nights as a line cook at a little Italian restaurant in our neighborhood. Maria didn’t like the cold. It was a sport I paid attention to because it was urgent. It commanded attention like I wanted to. When I was 9, he took me ice skating, hoping maybe I could figure skate (because hockey was for boys). Of course, I wobbled on the blades, clung onto the boards like a life raft, fell, and cracked my kneecap open. The idea was scratched.

 

The game came around in November of my 8th grade year, several months after Maria left. We parked the old Chevy truck on a side street next to the rink and walked up to the ticket booth. I dragged my hand against the outside of the building. Dry paint chipped away under my fingers. Iceland was the only rink I had ever seen. It was in West Berkeley, sandwiched between two residential blocks and busy main streets. It was a curious foreign import. It could be sunny and 80 degrees outside but a shocking 30 degrees inside. The rink opened in 1940 when Sonja Henie skated on a Friday night with an orchestra and 4000 fans watching. The Art Deco edifice now looked like a rusty, worn version of a former shining star. Tinged and weathered around the edges, the big marquee read Iceland in cursive lettering, the letter A barely discernible. The scoreboard always had a few missing bulbs, and the Zamboni was a relic.

Dad walked up to the cashier and paid for our tickets. I pushed the metal turnstile bar forward with my waist. I liked the rink and all of its peculiarities. The lobby was crowded with teenagers leaving the public skating session. Drunk frat boys in Cal sweatshirts leaned heavily on one another, making their way toward the swinging doors leading toward the ice surface. The heavy, musty smell of the moldy rubber floor mats and the odor of sweet popcorn from the concession stand filled the air. The old cedar wood of the broad and long skate rental counter reminded me of my grandmother’s gross but reassuring moth balls and soft wool.

            He went to buy a cup of coffee from the vending machine, rocking with his slight limp from an accident with a chainsaw at his construction job. He compensated for the perceived weakness of the limp by walking in a wide stance, like an angry cowboy. I walked up to the giant marble fireplace in the middle of the entryway and stood close to the spiked iron grate to warm myself. Pushing up on my tip toes in my worn-out Converse, I looked at myself in the big mirror above the mantle. My eyes were hazel, not quite green. My hair was very dark brown, not entirely black like I wished it was. I was pale white, plain and simple. I was awkward and shy. I had my father’s stark Black Irish look. Maria and Mom had a whisper of a tan in summer and softer, less blunt-colored brown hair and eyes. In the reflection, I eyed the girls my age behind me, smacking gum, pulling up their tight Guess jeans, and flirting with a group of boys in Starter jackets and Jordans who stared at their perfectly round butts. Other kids seemed to know how to time jokes and throw clever glances around, but I was always on the outside looking in, just like I was in the mirror. One of the boys caught my eye in the reflection and walked toward me, even with my lame, shocked, frozen look. My heart jumped, and I glanced down at my ugly old Converse sneakers and the little stain on the front of my sweatshirt. My face bloomed, embarrassed but hopeful. Before he got to me, my dad appeared.

“Rosie, come here NOW!” Dad’s voice boomed out over the crowd. 

The boy bolted away. My shoulders dropped. Dad wadded up the empty coffee cup in a tight fist and threw it in a trash can. People glared sideways at him with small shaming head shakes at his punishing tone like I’d been spanked. I winced. 

“Boys only want one thing,” he said.

Countless times, the same thing came out of his mouth at Maria.

“He didn’t even talk to me,” I replied, baffled that he was implying the boy was a threat.

“I’m telling you,” he said, coming up close to me in the rush of people, the smell of coffee layered over beer and cigarette smoke. “Watch out, Rosie.” 

He turned and moved forward without waiting to see if I was catching up. Was he telling me not to cross him, or was I actually attractive enough to any boy that there was something to be wary of? I searched for his A’s hat in the crowd. He pushed his shoulders forward right then left, like the hockey players who carried the puck plunging into the boards. I caught up to him directly before he opened the double doors to the rink. He passively let them fall behind him, and I caught them just in time before the wood banged against my forehead. 

            He marched up the first set of bleacher stairs, climbing, breathing hard, to the very top. We sat in a top corner because he could smoke there, and no one would bother him. He settled his back onto the cement wall behind us and pulled out a soft pack, tapping a cigarette out with a crunch of the plastic wrapper. He put it to his lips and struck a match, taking two short puffs, then a long, relieved drag. He shoved a clenched fist into his jacket pocket and, with the other hand, tapped ashes off with a sharp flick. I read the moment - tread carefully. He was in a bad mood.

            The smoke curled away through a crack in a small window above us while we waited for the game to start. When I was younger, he explained the rules of the game with small, precise hand gestures, drawing the players’ positions out in the air like a coach with a dry-erase board. Over time, he added to the complexities of the rules, slashing his hand against his shin and gesturing hands over his head in the air to demonstrate tripping and high stick penalties. He made me watch the blue line to catch if a player stepped off-sides, “Watch them hold back at the blue line, where the player with the puck has to cross first. If another player is in the offensive zone, before the puck, it’s off-sides.”

            He could be uncharacteristically animated at the games when he disagreed with a penalty, and two discontent lines creased under his dark-rimmed glasses. Wiry gray hairs would stick out sporadically around his temple like angry exclamation points. He argued with referees who couldn’t possibly hear him from the stands, “That was a trip! That was a high stick!” He would scream an octave too loud, “That was bullshit!” 

            “Don’t talk while the game is going on,” he barked at me. “Save your comments for the end.”

I became irritated and picked out things I was annoyed by - the knees of his jeans so worn through, his mismatched socks peeking out from his work boots, the ring of dirt around the collar of his Carhart, the ashes landing on his beard. I glanced out at the spot on the ice surface where I cracked my knee and remembered how he hadn’t put his hand out to help me up, trying to challenge me or disregard me. I never figured out. 

            People filtered in from the warmth of the lobby and scooted their way down the old wooden bleachers, cursing when splinters caught them. Some people rubbed their bare arms, realizing it was colder than they thought it would be. We Will Rock You, and Eye of the Tiger thumped from dusty speakers. The rink had a wide steel gabled roof, four stories high like a cathedral that magnified sound.

            “Go Cal!” The crowd erupted. 

            “Go, Stanford!” A small huddle of Stanford fans yelled from across the ice on the opposite side of the rink. 

            I stepped onto the bleacher and watched the regiment of Cal players meet at the boards and explode onto the ice, breaking its surface with their blades. Some players stretched near the home bench, others warmed up by skating in circles, easily balancing on the outside edges of their blades. Even from way up in the farthest bleacher, I heard the chisel and crack of blades digging into the ice. 

            The referee dropped the puck at the first face-off, and the game was set in motion. I forgot about my dad as the skaters repeated slow, wide turns, waiting attentively with their heads up like hawks for a pass. The soft tap, tap, tap of the puck meeting the blades of their sticks sounded like music notes climbing - then a loud sudden clap as a long quick pass was received, like symbols crashing. My dad’s neck rose. Cal skaters bounded toward the net, drums beating rhythmically inside me, their bodies rushing toward a climax. A stick cracked the puck into the air and flew between the goalie’s legs like a knife, striking its target on a triumphant high note. Dad stood up and punched one arm up in the air. I tried to match how excited he was to catch him there, that spot where he was suspended in the excitement of the moment, where he was happy. For a quick second, cheering together, swept away by the goal, we both felt the way only sports makes you feel - like we were in the game ourselves, like we had shot that puck and scored, too. Contended, he sat back down. 

            “I’ll tell you about Bobby Orr’s tie-breaking goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup win against the Blues.” Nostalgically, he went on, “He was extraordinary. A player like that boosts the capabilities of everyone around him, and in turn, they continue to make him better.” 

            The famous picture of Bobby Orr miraculously diving through mid-air after scoring, almost entirely horizontal like a bird with the Boston Bruins crowd roaring behind him, was framed above our TV in the living room. He told me this story dozens of times. When someone repeats a story, they think you haven’t heard dozens of times, you really do feel like they don’t see you. I tried my best to act surprised. An occasional head nod, a weak, “Amazing Dad.” How was it humanly possible he thought I hadn’t heard this story? I wanted to talk about the game in front of us, not some old Boston team he had on a pedestal. I couldn’t help but zone out as he went on and got lost in the game again. 

 

            It turned into a good rally. Toward the end of the game, both teams were seething to break a tie. Sweat poured out from under their helmets. The players on the benches stood, tense and anxious at every change in possession, ready to leap over the boards. Both coaches readjusted their hats and lurched forward, waving their arms frantically, directing like possessed conductors. In the middle of a swift line change, a Stanford center grabbed the puck off the stick of a distracted Cal defenseman, took one quick stride into the offensive zone, drew his stick back, and took a slap shot. Like a light switch, the goalie was forced to become alive with concentration, gymnastic explosion, and flexibility. He quickly extended his glove to the highest corner, caught the shot, and snapped it back into his chest, collapsing to draw a whistle. I was absorbed by Stanford’s agitation and, in suspense, how a tie feels like you’re gambling, doubling down in poker. 

            In hockey, the change of possession could happen quicker than snapping fingers. A similar heightened chorus repeated - a pass opened - bodies careened together in front of the net - the anxiously anticipated shot bulleted through the air. The tiniest place the goalie could not stretch himself for peeked open. I saw the whoosh of the puck again, this time extending the netting back like a punch to the gut. The Cal crowd roared. Stanford players turned away, bankrupted and worn, too tired to rally and regain a lead so close to the end of the period. The score was 4-3, only a minute remained. 

            “That poor goalie,” I whispered.

            Dad snuffed at me as if I had said something he didn’t like. 

            “What did you say?” He questioned me.

            “I feel bad for the goalie.” I explained nervously, “It’s so exciting when they make a big save.”

            He turned and looked me in the eye for the first time all night. “Big saves are for the winners, Rosie.” He tapped a long ash off the 20th cigarette and said, “Not everyone’s a winner.”

The way he said it, correcting me with a bit of condescension, felt like he was insulting me, not Stanford. Obviously, I was not a winner. 

            “I can see you watch. You feel it.” He conceded. “Sorry, you can’t play sports, Rosie. Not everyone has it.” 

It was the most profound statement he had ever made about me. It felt like a little whip. An intimacy stripped by an insult. How was I supposed to respond? Thanks, but no thanks? I couldn’t help myself.

“Maria couldn’t have caught that,” I quipped.

“She had good hand-eye coordination,” he corrected me. 

“Not good enough,” I mumbled again, quietly filled with self-righteous indignation.

He shot me the threat eye - a tight squint from the eye closest to me - shut up before I say something I regret. I complied.

            Stanford missed their last feeble half-hearted shot. Cal players made long, lazy passes to run out the last few seconds on the clock. Two opposing players near the benches began to circle one another like suspicious, salivating dogs. One jutted his face forward, spit out his mouth guard, and spewed insults. The two lunged toward each other - tossed their helmets off, threw their gloves and sticks down. They grabbed each other’s jerseys and landed fists hard on each other’s faces. I watched, entranced by the force of their strikes, the heavy heaving breaths, the heat steaming from their necks. The referee broke up the fight by throwing himself over them like a blanket over a person engulfed by flames and dragged the two toward the locker rooms and off the ice. After belligerently cheering on the fight, the frat boys began to stumble out. The rest of the crowd started to follow because the last few seconds were irrelevant. Big spots of blood stained the ice. I was transfixed by how red the color was. 

            “All right. That wraps it up.” 

            Dad reached over and slapped his hand down on my leg. We both flinched as his hand made contact with my thigh. It wasn’t a burning, cruel slap but almost what I had been afraid to hope for - a sign of affection. He had never even hugged me before. He drew his hand back quickly into his pockets. I could hear the sound of his keys jingling. While he rose, I gripped the bench with both hands on the sides of my legs to steady myself and dropped my head. 

Somewhere between his hand, leaving my leg, and returning to his jacket pocket, I lost something. When he stood and took two steps away, a hole seemed to expand in me like a balloon filling in slow motion, filling with the death of the hope that the touch could have meant something more.

            “Rosie, let’s go.” He said, “We can’t stay here forever.” 

            He brushed ashes off his chest.

            “Just a minute. I’ll meet you outside.” I replied.

            I waited to see if he would turn to face me. Instead, unusually, almost apologetically, he allowed me to stay back with a little lift of his chin instead of another order to follow him. 

            The crowd was gone. The players cleared the ice. One Cal player stood at the foot of the stairs to the locker room, balancing casually on his stick, flirting with a pretty blond girl wrapped in a plaid flannel blanket. I stared at him, squinting, trying to catch the sparkle in his eye and imprint it. He gazed at her like nothing else existed. How must that feel? It had to feel better than the hollow expanding inside me.

            Two girls walked into the rink with rolling bags, followed by two women who I thought might be their mothers clutching coffee mugs, wearing full-length satin down jackets with fur-lined hoods. The girls sat on the bottom bleacher and began to lace up figure skates. 11 o’clock seemed late for practice. I walked down, stood behind the chain link fence at the end of the surface where the goal usually was, and let my forehead rest on the hard steel. The Zamboni driver jumped into the creaking driver’s seat and backed the machine up to shave the ice. The air in the rink was distinct from the air outside. Purer. Newer. I drew it in. The way it was so crisp cast a silence over my mind. I closed my eyes, feeling the hum of the machine. I didn’t know the difference between solitude and loneliness. Everything was loneliness, and the hum of the machine lulled that heartache. It finished, and I drove back into the garage. The bin lifted and dumped out the snow, slightly pink with blood.

            As soon as the ice solidified, the two figure skaters stepped onto it. Their blades cut longer, more elegant lines than the hockey skates. Their ankles were fixed stiffly in their boots, but their bodies leaned gracefully at the waist. One of the women screamed directives from the boards, smashing the silence like a bottle breaking. The skater with a curly blond ponytail flying behind her passed me before I turned away to leave. I knew her. Or at least I’d seen her before in my Algebra class. She wasn’t always at school. I thought she was chronically ill or something, but obviously not. Stephanie. She caught my eye as she switched her skates from speeding forward to backward in front of me. As her face receded away quickly, her mouth curled up in a smile. 

            “Goddammit Rosie! LET’S GO!” Dad yelled like the woman screaming at the two skaters moments before.

Really? Was he always going to command me like a dog strayed from the leash? Couldn’t he come up with something more original?

            “Coming,” I mumbled and rolled my eyes. 

I went outside behind him and walked down the street to the car.

            At each stop light on the way home, I paused to consider how he had celebrated that moment and touched me. He said I felt the game. I almost caught him. Then I snapped back like a rubber band, angry, remembering his hand pulling away again and his backward consolation that I was a loser who couldn’t catch a ball. 

            He spun the truck’s wheel with the heel of his right hand and drove down Shattuck Avenue. We crossed the border into Oakland. He drove past our turn. I realized he was taking the long way home. We passed the elementary school, the BART station, and the bowling alley. It gnawed on me. Why was he taking the long way home? Did he want to tell me something? Should I review the game? Sitting next to him, I could viscerally feel the horrible loneliness of that hole that had opened inside me. He didn’t speak. We just rode on. 

A burgeoning little defiant flame rose in me, hot and red like the blood on the ice. I loved the ice rink. I loved hockey. It was everything I wasn’t but wished to be - fearless, fast, wild, strong, and beautiful. At the right moment, I would speak before I was spoken to. I would look him in the eyes and tell him I wanted to try to skate again. Maria was gone, and now I would matter.


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