Finding Their Stride A Team of Young Runners and Their Season of Triumph
By Sally Pont
Rebound by Sagebrush Copyright ©2000 Sally Pont
All right reserved. ISBN: 0613304039
Gretchen and Leyla arrive first, lugging Tupperware. They are slim and fragile as origami. Their skin, fresh from showers, is smooth and brown. A window over the kitchen table, facing west, breathes light on the crests of their hair. They are eager to please, clamoring in birdlike voices to help. I set them to chopping vegetables. After they pile their containers on the table, the transparent sides revealing neatly stacked cookies and brownies, paper towels between layers, they make quick work of some pulpy tomatoes and a few yellow peppers. Then they look at me with large eyes, pleading to do more. I turn my back on them not because I want to, but to pull, from the cabinet by the stove, pots and lids that tumble and thump on the floor.
Heels in the stairwell clip-clip to the door of my apartment. A club of chipper freshmen, Sara, Holly, and Rachel, bursts in, midconversationSara and Rachel artsy and tough in Doc Martens, Holly softer, sweeter, with dimples. They are all noticeably narrow, as runners should be, even in their loose skater clothes. Holly, though, is the strongest of the three and should, quite easily, be amongthe top five on their cross country team. Because I have water running into two of the pots to boil for spaghetti, I can't really hear their greeting, and they can't really hear my reply. They have food and drink that they toss on the table, then they chatter away, wandering into the living room to poke through the CD collection and wait for the rest of their team to arrive.
They are here to eat because the pleasure of food now might dull the pain of racing five kilometers tomorrow. Pain is clever, though. From the first stride, it spelunks through the body, mining deep. It begins in the cavern of the head with a hammered ringing, shimmies down the larynx, scuffs the stomach, swings from hamstrings, digs its spiked heels into ankles, then catapults back up to the melting knees, the roasting heart, and the head again, where the ringing has become the howl of the dog.
In one minute, pain completes this circuit, taking bites as it goes. For Leyla and Gretchen, that carousel of pain will go around twenty-four times during tomorrow's race. So now they are in my kitchen, buttering bread.
Soundlessly, Dave appears with a white laundry basket of produce from his family's farm. It is full of a tough, leafy vegetable, some tubers with dry dirt clinging, and several dozen cherry tomatoes. A few have split, and carmine juice swirls at the bottom of the basket.
"That's broccoli rabe, isn't it?" I ask, indicating the thick, spiky leaves.
"No, but I don't know what it is." His feathery hair sifting from side to side, he nods as if he is gaining points for caution. In his thrift-store pants and ocher shirt, he looks like a young Kerouac.
"Look, look." I point to a burst of pale green spores with the wooden spoon I am clutching. "There's the broccoli."
"No," he insists. He knows that we are arguing not about vegetables, but about language. I wonder if I think Dave is a great runner simply because I admire his intellect. At a stalemate, we face each other, I with my stained spoon, Dave with his silence. In my mind, I acknowledge he is right.
While Dave vanishes into the whirl of the living room, I instruct Gretchen to chop some of his veggies for the salad. She plucks feathery stems from the basket, tomatoes dangling like tiny bells.
The water on the stove rumbles but is not quite boiling. I turn the heat down a bit and swirl golden oil into the dancing water, not knowing when the whole team will assemble, ready to eat their preface pasta. The oven rocks and guffaws. Eyeing the water, I wrap aluminum foil around loaves of buttered bread. As I am searching for my pot holders, a voice calls hello behind meSam George.
"Ms. Pont," he starts in with the practical: "When do we eat? When do we eat?" He is the captain; he eats, and does everything else, passionately. With long fingers, he rests a pie on the counter in front of me. Flustered, I stutter, "Soon, it'll be ready soon. Soon." Sam, over a foot taller than me, pats my head. Because his charm is undiluted, he gets away with it.
Nervous footsteps dash in and around the building, thumping up the wrong corridor, turning around, then slinking back again, listening at the door.
"Sam, someone's lost," I say. "Go see who that is."
I stir the sauce. Thick bubbles balloon the surface then sink under their own weight. One bursts and sends tomato splattering across the stove top. The red droplets sizzle and brown along the edges. Flecks of oregano blacken and stick.
The door opens and slams, opens and slams. More voices puncture the smells of the kitchen. "I have knives and forks," says Rajeev; "I have Coke," says Nimish. "Where can we put them?" they ask in unison, as if they have rehearsed. Rajeev is more handsome, Nimish more humorous, but the two have, by choice, been linked like a pair of cymbals. Even in races, they run together, thin legs pedaling away. As they run, they chronicle for each other, in whispers, the exact location of their pain. That way, they know how far they have gone and how far they have left to run.
"Put them wherever you can," I reply. The counters are strewn with objects useful and useless, but there's no time to tidy. On the cluttered table, they somehow find room. The kitchen is full of bodies, casting Giacometti shadows; the living room is full of pitched voices, bickering and flirting. No one seems at all worried about tomorrow's race.
I focus on the necessity of food and empty four boxes of spaghetti. It bends and swirls in the dark, frothy water.
Though I believe in this sacrament of sharing supper, I know that, once again, I have taken on too much. Neither my kitchen nor my mind is equipped to feed thirty. The stove, all burners going now, red coils slightly akimbo, holds me transfixed out of electric panic. If I leave it, disaster will surely strikeburning, spilling, sweeping damage, the loss of human liveson a level worthy of the evening news. My eyes dart maniacally from pot to pot, my hands stirring here, adjusting heat there, my mind all the while conscious of the conversations behind me. I imagine mothers come undone at this containment because they want to control their children. I simply want to join mine, to converse, to laugh, and then to be fed. Nevertheless, I keep my chest to the stove, arms up, ready for earthquakes, tornadoes, overcooked noodles and bland sauce.
Exclamations greet Kate Webbink's platter of cannoli. She smiles shyly, covering her braces. With their cellophane wrapping, the sweets are bright as flowers in a bouquet. I smile at the pattern: this year, more girls on the team, therefore more desserts at the spaghetti dinner that signals the birth of the season.
With long-distance runners, especially young ones, the desire to eat is incessant. They devour hundreds of grams of fat and several thousand calories, regardless of recommended daily allowances. Though Leyla and Gretchen, converts to cross country from tennis and field hockey, are low-fat eaters (the nineties' version of the calorie counter), knowledgeable about the fat content of snacks, meats, even fruits, they get dreamy when the subject of ice cream comes up. But whenever they profess their passion for fresh fruits and their discomfort with McDonald's, all the boys and the rest of the girls are incredulous.
Eyes glaring over their glasses, Nimish and Rajeev move in on me with plates up, shifting slightly from side to side, backward and forward. Though I am small, they are smaller: under ninety pounds; I swat them away. The door again clicks open and closed. Paper bags rustle. Coke fizzles in plastic cups.
"Can I heat up the garlic bread?" someone asks.
Someone hands me a bag of pretossed Caesar salad.
"I have a cheesecake!"
Body parts dance all around me.
"Ms. Pont!" Sam's voice erupts from the living room. "Can we listen to music?"
Good, I think. They can distract themselves till the pasta is done. "Sure, Sam!"
When the music kicks in, loud enough for a rave, it is Ani DiFranco snarling: "Fuck you, and your untouchable face. Fuck you, for existing in the first place." I wince. Sam's DJing skills are impeccable.
Face pink from the furiously boiling water, I throw a string of spaghetti against the wall. It sticks. With my hands sausaged into mitts, I lift a pot and take it to the sink where a colander awaits. I empty the spaghetti into it. When the water rises and subsides, I drizzle oil into the noodles and toss them up.
One of my frequent fibs is that I'm a great cook. I'm no such thing. Sometimes I'm a lucky cook, turning things out that are tasty and lovely simply because food can be that way. Most of the time, I'm nervous about preparing food because I am afraid of failure. With my cross country team, though, my fear is more complex. I love them so muchtoo much, I knowthat I want to feed them ambrosia, manna, fishes and loaves ... mythic foods.
Arms disjointed from bodies hold up flimsy plastic plates. With two spoons, I pull slippery noodles from the colander then drop them, pell-mell, onto the plates. Fingers catch loose skeins, and the arms move away to ladle their own sauce.
Something is burning. Sam has placed his plate on a hot burner, and it vaporizes while spaghetti liquefies and conforms to the coils. As I quickly scrape with a knife, scooping hot, pasty gunk into a paper towel, Sam holds the plate up to his face as a postmodern mask.
"I'm keeping this!" he says, then secures a fresh plate. He serves himself, piling pasta higher than before.
I am now alone in the kitchen. I cut a piece of bread from the loaf I baked the night before and butter it. Outside the window, the geese gather on Green Pond, their muscular wings turbulent, hailing early fall with hungry shrieks. I pour another full pot into the colander and serve the second round; Nimish and Rajeev come back for thirds.
It is the week before school begins as well as the day before the first race, one of those hectic times in which everyone is busy but unproductive. Sam Cohen, then, is the last to arrive, worn out from his duties as senior class president, which today meant helping run orientation for new students. His crisp shirt is neatly tucked into trousers, his hair, freshly cut, bristles cheerfullybut he seems otherwise burdened: from his responsibility, from his recent service project in Virgin Gorda, where he built houses for the homeless, and from thoughts of the future. He says he isn't hungry. His shoulders fold like the wings of a tired bird. He paces the kitchen before entering the fracas in the living room. I sense that he, like most of the team, is beginning the season with one thought dominant in his mind: when will it end?
Excerpted from Finding Their Stride by Sally Pont Copyright ©2000 by Sally Pont. Excerpted by permission.
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