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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 21

Liz drove me over to Finkbine golf course for the first meet on September 3rd so I could cheer on the Iowa team, expecting the event would improve my mood. Although I hadn’t seen Coach Cretzmeyer since a hospital visit in June, or any of my teammates since the official visit in February, I looked forward to cheering them on against Northern Iowa, hoping to rekindle comradery with athletes who welcomed me so gladly six months ago.

The discomfort was apparent as I limped towards them, my broken leg easy to spot from the bottom of cut-offs. The freshmen huddled around me, grateful for any distraction before their initial Hawkeye race, the upper-class athletes giving me nods and short-lived smiles, acutely aware that I wouldn’t be a factor on the team this fall.

As they headed towards the starting box I shouted, “Good luck,” though none of the guys acknowledging my support as they jogged away. My head dropped, heartache the only thing I felt. Liz leaned into me and circled an arm around my waist – the clench tight, as though she was afraid I might collapse. These guys don’t give a rat’s ass about me.

Coach Cretzmeyer had a big smile and a hearty handshake as he hustled towards us, saying he was glad to see me up and about, apologizing for not talking more as he rushed off to organize the start. At least he was happy to see me. Liz and I stood at the top of the hill and shouted support as the race got underway, but it was for athletes I barely knew. Ones that didn’t see me as a teammate.

Coming to the meet was a mistake.

After the last runner finished I told Liz I was ready to go. I didn’t want to hang around and talk with the guys. Share the victory with them. I knew they would have nothing to say to me and all my platitudes would seem so empty. Liz didn’t say a word. In the background we could hear the chatter of voices from the two teams as I limped to the car staring at my shoes.

It was stupid trying to pretend I was on the team. I wasn’t. All this excursion did was make me realize I had nothing to contribute. That I was only a spectator. I wasn’t enrolled in classes and training was still months away, struggling just to walk the one hundred yards from the parking lot, aware I would be fortunate if my first stab at serious training came before Christmas.

Liz tried to engage me as we drove home but I just looked out the window and ignored her entreaties, drowning in self-indulgent misery. Who am I kidding? They don’t need me. The dream of contributing disappeared as we drove, flying out the window like a tossed bottle. My running career was more than likely over. As sure as shit and taxes.

In the week after the meet I spent mornings in bed, staring at the ceiling while Mr. Johnson puttered around downstairs in the kitchen, trying to conjure happy memories of running, perfecting my role as a pompous ass, too lazy to shower or change into street clothes, the effort too arduous and the reward too little.

Mr. Johnson’s pleas that I needed to “get out and get some exercise” were ignored. Instead, I laid on the couch and watched TV all morning, crawling upstairs after lunch to take a nap, staying in my room until suppertime listening to music, certain that my life was a dead end. Liz continued to stop over in the evening but my conversation was brief and laconic, every trite cliche from Liz met with distain. She finally stopped coming over. My behavior told her not to bother.

Even though I desperately wanted her help, I couldn’t find the courage to ask. As though I was such a loser that I was unworthy of her time and effort. It was hard to reconcile my irrational behavior, but I just couldn’t find the energy to escape its comfort. I longed to feel her arms around me, just like mom used to do for me when I was little, but I didn’t have the willpower to ask. The walls continued to close around me, the clouds over my head growing darker each day.

“Matt, I’m so worried about you.” Alice sat beside me on my bed. “I talked with Liz last night and she is at wit’s end…she doesn’t know what to do…how to help.” Alice couldn’t figure me out.

“No…I’m fine. I…I…” My head dropped. “Tell her I’m sorry…so sorry. I know I’m an asshole.” I took a deep breath. “She should find someone else. Another boyfriend. I’m just a loser. I’ll ruin her life – just like dad ruined mom’s.”

“Matt, I’m not giving up on you.” Her voice was hard. “But you have to talk with someone…maybe Raff.” I shook my head. “Or maybe a counselor…I don’t know. You did so much for me. I wouldn’t have survived without you.” She turned towards me and waited until I returned the gaze. “And I won’t survive without you now. You’re my guardian angel. I need you.”

I leaned over and kissed the top of her head and then took a deep breath, my shoulders falling forward as I stared at my bare feet.

“What do I have to look forward to?” I wiped away tears with a hand as they rolled down my checks. “I’m never going to run again…will probably lose my scholarship…so college is out of the question.” The tears dropped in my lap. “I’m going to turn out to be a loser just like dad.”

“NO YOU’RE NOT!” Alice grabbed my chin and forced me to look at her, the fierce countenance on her face disarming. “You’re not like dad at all. You’re like mom. You’re kind and considerate, always looking out for me. Don’t ever say that again!”

She hugged me tightly and cried.

Alice tried to help but she didn’t have the wisdom or the experience to bring me out of my funk. Her very presence was great comfort, finding her at my side when she heard me sobbing in bed the only thing that saved me many nights. But the pain still hung over me when I woke each morning, my sleep so restless I never felt refreshed. I hated myself.

Every setting seemed to trigger bad thoughts – staring at a bottle full of aspirin in the medicine cabinet, glancing at Mr. Johnson’s car as he idled inside the garage, imagining what it would be like to climb over the bridge railing at the Student Union. There was nowhere to turn. Even sitting at the kitchen table reminded me of dad’s kicks raining down on my ribs that day in May as I quietly suffered the pain he inflicted.

Running had been the tonic that got me through this shitty life. Something positive which helped me embrace the new sunrise with hope and excitement – despite all the craziness abundant in the rest of my life. Now there was no future. No reason to welcome in a new day. I wondered if it would have been better for everyone if the drunk driver had killed me? Would I even be missed?

Just as mom had discovered, I learned how ephemeral the good life could be, how quickly it could pivot on the head of a pin. Getting pregnant with me was the biggest mistake of her short life. Mine was pinning all my hopes on running.

I sighed and got to my feet, limping towards the back door, cinching my sweatpants tighter as I shuffled towards the pair. Danny and Scott Skogstad sheltered their eyes as they peeked through the panes of glass, looking to see if anyone was home. Both were in running clothes. They gave each other awkward looks when I opened the door, Danny stepping in first.

“Can we talk?” I nodded and pointed to Mr. Johnson’s kitchen table. The vibes were unnerving as they glanced out of the corner of eyes before they plopped on the chairs. Was it Liz? Did she send them to let me know I was an asshole?

“You heard about Coach Raffensperger’s heart attack didn’t you?” I nodded at Danny. I was such a piece of shit. They probably wanted to berate me. I hadn’t visited him in the hospital and he had been there for almost a week. Danny continued.

“Mr. Zelinski took over for Raff.” He paused and looked at Scott. “But he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.” Scott nodded. “He’s a nice guy and everything, but he is so disorganized.”

I sighed. That wasn’t good. Scott jumped in.

“Yesterday, at the Jefferson Invitational, he forgot to turn in the frosh-soph entries. Our first big competition and he already screwed up. They let us run but we didn’t score…even though we would have won the meet. Brian and I were 1-2.” Scott frowned as Danny continued.

“I mean, Brian was so pissed. He bitched all the way home on the bus. He’s thinking about quitting.” Wow. Danny took a deep breath.

“Mr. Zelinski uses the workouts that Raff left him.” I could hear the exasperation in his voice. “But he doesn’t understand a thing. He misses splits, couldn’t tell if what we do is good or bad…he doesn’t even understand interval training.”

Danny slid forward on the edge of the chair and glanced at Scott, turning back to me.

“He doesn’t know we are talking with you…but right now I really don’t give a shit.”

I didn’t know what he meant.

“You gotta help us. We’re begging you.” Danny nodded emphatically. “Please. We need your help. To get things in order. Please, please, please.”

They both stared at me. I didn’t know what to say.

“I mean, guys...I’m not a coach…”

“Doesn’t matter.” Danny leaned forward and stared intently. “You know almost as much as Raff.”

They both nodded. Their resolve was fierce.

“But I can barely get around.”

“Who cares?”

They just stared at me, refusing to concede, every bit as competitive as their older brother.

“How will I get to practice?”

“City bus or on your bike.” I could tell I wasn’t going to win. “Well…” Their cheeks lifted almost imperceptibly, the whites of their eyes growing in size. “Okay, I’ll do it.” It wasn’t like I was doing anything important.

They both leapt off the kitchen chairs, patting me on the back, as excited as they would be after a big win.

“Righteous dude! Yes! I’m going to call Brian right now and then talk with Mr. Zelinski to let him know you will be there tomorrow.”

I smiled for the first time in weeks, wondering what I was getting myself into.

I timed it. The three mile ride to East High on September 19th took me twenty-two minutes – if you included pushing the bike up the last hill to the school. I didn’t have the power in my legs to make it. Six months ago, I could have run it in fifteen minutes.

I talked with Mr. Zelinski in his office before practice and then he introduced me to the team, either not knowing or unaware that most of them were my teammates last year. It was almost embarrassing. I nodded and raised an index finger for a wave.

They hooted and hollered so loud the tennis players stopped practice and stared at the cross country team, curious what was going on. The air was charged with electricity when the guys jumped off the bleachers and started the warmup circuit around the school grounds, chatter circling the group like a bunch of teenage girls.

That evening at dinner, Mr. Johnson and Alice subtly smiled at each other, listening quietly as I went on and on about practice, talking so much my food got cold. They were both happy I was back to my old self. My excited description of taking the team through jumping jacks and burpees, trunk twists and toe touches, high-knees and carioca; arranging the groups for intervals while shouting out splits; pulling the guys together afterward and praising them for their efforts. It was so mundane and yet so thrilling. I hadn’t been this excited since the State Meet last spring.

This was all it took to bring me out of the funk. A purpose. The feeling someone needed me and that I could contribute to a cause. After dessert I was so tired that I went to bed at eight, sleeping through the night for the first time in months.

I walked over to see Liz the next evening after supper, awkwardly knocking on the Skogstad’s back door, giving her a hug when she came to greet me, nodding when I pointed to a patio chair. I wanted to invite her to our home meet on Saturday. I sat down and took a deep breath.

“First of all.” I dropped my head, wiping tears from my eyes. This was way harder than I expected. “I want to apologize for being such an asshole.” She started to speak but I held up a hand. “No, I appreciate what you are going to say…but I was an asshole.” Liz smiled with a hand over her mouth.

“Even though I never said it, without your support…you being there every day, I don’t know that I would have survived.” She smiled softly. “I mean it.” A cloud passed over her face when she saw I wasn’t kidding.

“There were many times I thought about ways…to put it all behind. Get it over with.” I looked into her eyes. “It was only my love for you that kept me going. I’ll be forever grateful…” She rushed over to me and palmed my face, kissing me on the lips. We both smiled. I was so happy.

We talked until it was dark, giving her a hug and a long kiss before I left for home.

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