I’m fast. Put me on the line, the gun in the air, the white girls next to me, and the Latinas talking right to the moment the powder ignites, and I blow by them. The wind on my skin tears the sweat from my arm hair as my muscles pump. 100 meters in and I’ll have the lead by the length of my outstretched legs. By the end of the race, the Latinas stare open-mouthed, and the white girls will wipe the supposedly waterproof mascara from their cheeks while I break the tape and take my place on the podium.
“Winner of the girls’ 400 meter run: Piper Dupree,” the announcer would say.
“Piper. Piper Dupree,” Mrs. G says snapping her fingers. My eyes snap to her for a moment before wandering to the white board behind her.
“Yeah, here,” I say rolling my eyes. She sees me, gives me the eye. I like Mrs. G, and if I graduate, I’ll miss her. She’s the only one who takes my shit.
She turns around after calling the rest of roll and writes a formula on the board. Pythagorean theorem I think, but I don’t raise my hand when she asks. I’ve got a reputation to uphold. A sophomore in front of me raises his hand instead. I think I’m the only senior in Geometry.
I don’t mind school that much, but everybody else seems to hate it. So I act like I do too. Mom says not to give in to peer pressure, but it’s not like I’m doing drugs or anything. Besides I can get a pretty good laugh when I trash something right before class. Like how Mr. Dallas licks his lips every two seconds like he’s about to get laid for the first time.
I tried to make fun of Mrs. G once before Homeroom—something about too much makeup or some shit—and she heard me, and came right back.
“And you make fun of teachers to convince everyone else you’re as cool as you say,” she said. I don’t trash Mrs. G anymore.
The bell rings and I haven’t taken any notes, but when everybody else is gone I write a few problems down to work out at home. Mrs. G never says a word, but I’m pretty sure she knows what I’m doing. I slam my notebook into my pack and jog to the door.
“Ms. Dupree?” says Mrs. G. I turn in the door and lean on it to keep my cool, tapping my foot cause my meds are starting to wear off.
“You want to pass my class this year, right?” she says tapping her dry erase marker on the desk in front of her in time with my foot.
“Sure, I guess.” Though really my stomach constricts at the thought of not graduating.
“Taking notes during class may help with that.” Mrs. G looks at my half open backpack and the notebook inside.
“Sure, Mrs G.” I nod and shrug my pack higher on my shoulder.
“Mrs. Gerhardt,” she says, looking over the top of her librarian glasses.
“Okay,” I smile and leave the doorway to go to Spanish.
I don’t know why they require us to learn a language other than English. It’s impossible, and every Mexican I’ve met speaks English already. Besides that, the words get all jumbled up when I read English, let alone Spanish.
My teacher, Mrs. Peters, isn’t even Spanish though she makes us call her Carla. Her real name’s Carly, but she wants to “promote authenticity in the classroom.” Some days she teaches just in Spanish. These are the days I don’t even try, and I doodle in my textbook.
It’s the last class of the day, and I’m already worthless with the language. But it’s also the time when my focus goes and I can’t sit still. Practice is an hour away, and all I want to do is start warming up, jogging around the room, put in a few reps in the weight room, maybe even some core work. I’m not going to lie, I’m cut.
The boy behind me taps my shoulder, and I jump. I glance at him quick out of the corner of my eye to remind myself who he is: Aaron Jenkins. He’s not bad looking for a white boy: brown hair, big green eyes. And he’s a pole vaulter, so he’s got a good body. I can usually smell pot on him though, so when the note he gives me says Prom? Check Yes or No I check no and don’t say a word.
We still got a month ‘til the dance, so I’m not going to settle on the rich, pothead white boy. He taps my shoulder again, a little more rough this time and hands me another note. WTF?? I roll my eyes and crumple the paper in my fist before dropping it on the floor.
Carla says something in rapid Spanish that ends with “Seniorita Dupree!” I look up and around like she was someone I’d never met calling my name. She stares me down, waiting for an answer, and her eyes flick to the paper on the ground. Aaron snickers behind me when I shrug. Carla rolls her eyes.
“Would you like to share what you and Senor Jenkins have been so urgently discussing?” I look at the note, swipe it up and toss it to her.
“Sure,” I shrug again. Carla catches the note with a fumble, and I hear Aaron curse under his breath. She tries to smooth the crumpled paper open and crosses one arm across her massive bosom as she reads.
“Well, it seems we have an unlucky lover on our hands class. Seems you’ll have to find another date to Prom Mr. Jenkins.” The paper disappears into the trashcan as the class chuckles and several guys around us punch Aaron in the shoulder and laugh.
I turn and brush a curl out of my eyes, wink, and give him a one-shoulder shrug. “Better luck next time,” I say.
“Alright alright,” Carla says as Aaron’s face goes red. “That’s enough embarrassment for one period. Keep the notes to yourself and the romancing out of my class Don Quixote.”
The rest of the class is so distracted by Aaron’s failure that for the rest of the period I can actually focus on what Carla is saying. I figure out that the perfect tense is actually the past tense. No wonder I’ve been failing all my verbal quizzes. I can only speak present, and bad present at that.
After the bell, I shove my unopened book into my bag and bolt for the door. Practice calls. But Aaron grabs my arm as soon as I’m out the door. I nearly clock him as he swings me around. He dodges and stares me down.
“What? You trying to change my mind by looking into my soul?” I say and roll my eyes.
“You’re going to regret embarrassing me, Piper,” he says back, and I can’t help but laugh.
“Sure, and you’ll beat me in a 400, too.” Nobody’s beat me in a 400 since last year at the State meet. Thinking about that makes my feet itch and my teeth grind, so I don’t stick around to hear him say he could. I wave over my shoulder without looking at him.
“Bye bye,” I sing. I imagine his face turning red again, and forget about the State meet for now.
In the back of my mind, I register him yelling at me that he’s going to race me to the music room at the end of the hall. When he flies by me and I’m still walking, I can’t help myself, so I tighten my backpack straps and bolt after him.
His tennis shoes grip the linoleum better than my chucks, but I still catch him easily and pass him with three strides left to the music room. I’m not even breathing hard, and he leans up against the wall like he just escaped the cops. I cock an eyebrow and pretend like I’m smoking a doobie. He coughs. I leave through the side door to my left. The choir is practicing the Hallelujah Chorus, and I take that as confirmation of my badass comeback.
Once I’ve walked next door to the track, I hit the locker room and take my place on the bench with my girls. Julia’s a pretty blonde from uptown, and when she’s not in uniform her clothes are always on point—I think her dad is a rich stockbroker. She’s also my anchor for the 4 by 400 meter relay; she doesn’t say much but she’s got my back. Give her the stick with the lead, and there’s no losing it.
Dina and I lead off. She’s black too, though she keeps her hair short. Says it makes her more aerodynamic. When I hand her the stick, it’s like magic: step for step she’s with me until the baton leaps from my hand to hers. Three spot goes to Berenice: Latina like her name. I can’t remember the last time I heard her say anything without cursing or going off in Spanish—probably cursing then, too. Her mouth is sludge, but her legs are fire.
When I’m not doing Coach’s special workouts, I’m with my team on the track. I slap their open palms as they crowd around me. I throw my hair into a ponytail and feel the brush of my curls running across my neck, and a chill runs down my spine. Lacing up my trainers, I flex my toes and feel my home holding me tight. My mind’s buzzing and every conversation in the room runs in and out of my ears, taking thoughts in and out of the center of my brain like a ball on string bouncing on a board. Over and over and over. Paulo asked Lisa to the prom with a candy ring. Jason might call Jessica tomorrow night—J and J, that’s cute. Coach is planning a hell of a workout for Monday, but the meet’s tomorrow, so we’ll get off—
The whistle echoes off the cement walls so all I can hear is the ringing and the echoes of the Hallelujah Chorus stuck in my head. My feet tap in response and Berenice looks over at me.
“Chica, chill your shit,” she whispers. I settle on drumming my fingers on my knee in response.
“Alright, tomorrow’s the first meet of the season ladies,” Coach yells over the fading chatter. She wraps the whistle lanyard back around her neck and puts her hands on her hips. She pulls out her clipboard and reads off the line up, but all I can focus on is the trace of mascara on her cheek, quickly wiped away. I’m thinking a million miles an hour and my feet tap again. She fiddles with her wedding ring, and I wonder if Coach and her husband—Mr. Miro, the Boys’ Team Coach—had a fight.
Julia elbows me, and I glare at her. She nods at Coach, and I realize she’s looking right at me. Then I see all the girls looking at me like I’ve got four legs. I stop tapping and sit up straighter.
“Um, huh?” I say to Coach. She kind of chuckles, and I’m glad to see her smile. Guess whatever happened couldn’t be that bad.
“As Captain this year, do you have anything you want to say to the team before the first meet?” Coach motions toward the center of the room. Blue and white banners hang on the walls with the school mascot of a Viking yelling and pointing like Uncle Sam and raising an ax over his head. The Dutchman stares me down like it’s my job to give the most kickass speech of my life.
“Sure, yeah. Well.” Great start. I’m standing at my bench and Coach subtly jerks her head toward the middle of the room. Berenice pushes me and my team giggles and a couple other girls snicker. “Well first of all respect each other in here and on the field.” I look at my team. “Unlike these bitches.” I look at Coach who’s glaring even though the room is alive with muffled laughs. “Sorry, Coach. But seriously, it’s like the golden rule, you know? Do to me what you want to get back or something like that. If we can stick together as a team, encourage each other, and keep that negative sh-uh-crap out of here. Cause I’m positive, if y’all are positive, we got this season in the bag already.” I pause for effect, feeling my heart pumping and the adrenaline rushing through my brain while I think about that first race.
“I see a ton of talent in here, girls. But that can only come out if we’re all confident in our own abilities and confident that our sisters have our backs. Cause I got yours. And if you got mine, we can do anything.” A couple girls give each other raised eyebrows. “Yeah, it’s cheesy, but don’t believe me? Just do it anyway, and see what happens.” I hold up my fist and open it for the proverbial mic drop and take my seat on the bench to the whole team’s applause.
“Very nice, Piper. Maybe I’ll try screening your speech next time.” The girls laugh again, and I shrug while Coach pulls a curtain aside from in front of the blackboard. All of the workouts are listed by event, and I find the mid-distance workouts. The 4X4 team is practicing handoffs today. No problem.
I grab our baton with the words “Fab Four” sharpied on it and jog outside when Coach dismisses us. Seniors run the workouts most of the time, but Coach supervises. Only field events have a special coach, and they have to share with the guys. Mr. Miro usually gets the inner four lanes, and Coach takes the outer four. I say all the better; we get the better workout then.
When I get to the line, the boys are already warming up on the field: stretching, sprints, goofing off. I look over my shoulder and flip my bangs out of my eyes to make sure my team is with me. I tuck my shirt into my shorts quickly before motioning to the girls to take a lap. As we stride out around the turns, some of the boys’ heads turn, and I grin knowing they’re looking at us. Doesn’t bother me to say my girls and I are hot.
“Let’s go,” I say as we head into the straightaway toward the finish line. The girls fall in, and we sprint for the line. They stay with me for a little bit, but I can’t help but let my legs go. My race nerves are starting, and my stomach buzzes straight through to my feet. I’m gone in a second. I hear an astonished whistle as I pass a group of freshmen guys.
When I cross the line I see Coach waiting. I turn to see the rest of my team cross a second or two later. I do a couple standing leaps to loosen up some more, and Julia shakes her head as she bends and puts her hands on her knees.
“Damn, girl.” I’m surprised because Julia doesn’t curse. Coach doesn’t seem to notice. She’s looking at Mr. Miro talking to some of his long distance runners.
“Coach,” I say. “Anything we can do to make our handoffs quicker? I think we can break the record if we get it right.” This is only half true. I know we can break the record, and the only thing that’s going to stop us is if someone finds a way to make our shoes stick to the track.
Coach looks at me with blank eyes as if she didn’t know I was there, and I catch a tear slide down the side of her nose. She quickly wipes it away and tries to smile. I try to pretend like I don’t notice, and I cross my arms and cock my head as I usually do when somebody gives me instructions I don’t need. But my forced apathy only seems to trigger her.
“Um, Piper,” Coach starts, and her voice cracks. “You’re in charge.” She spins around and nearly runs to the locker room. I watch her go, feeling like I don’t have anything to say for the first time all day. The girls in my squad watch for my lead, and I see the rest of the team gathering near the line.
“Okay.” I put my hands on my hips and stand up a little straighter. “Stick to your workouts, but, uh, don’t overdo it. Coach will want you fresh for tomorrow. Good form, good handoffs, you know the drill.”
I don’t notice the next hour pass while the rest of the girls practice and my squad practices our handoffs on the football field. Over and over, we run in place, one in front of another in our racing order. I yell, “Stick!” and Dina’s right hand flies down to her hip, open for my handoff. Then we’re on the track, marking out our steps, hitting our stride, and perfecting what I already know is perfect. But the whole time, my mind runs in and out of the reasons Coach isn’t standing next to us right now.
If Coach is crying, some shit hit a fan somewhere. She pushes us as far as we can go, sometimes further, and girls have said some hateful things about her because of it. But ain’t nobody made her cry. I’m feeling myself get pissed as I make my last handoff to Dina. It’s sloppier than usual, and she has to turn around to take the stick from me. I stumble to a stop and get down on my knees to punch the turf by the track.
When I stand up to watch Berenice hand off to Julia on the other side of the track—much more fluid than mine—I see Coach standing with her hands on her hips by the finish. The whistle around her neck blows in the breeze, seeming to pull her toward me. I jog in her direction, but I see Mr. Miro coming up behind her with a grimace. I slow to a walk, but don’t blink as he touches her shoulder and she flinches.
She takes a step away from him and crosses her arms across her chest. She’s not crying anymore, and it doesn’t take more than a few words from him to set her to flipping shit. I walk a little faster even though I know I shouldn’t get involved.
“—at practice Paul? You want to do this now? I have a meet to prep for!” she shouts, and this seems like a weird thing to be shouting about to me. He says something quietly that I can’t catch, but it only sets her off more. “Yes it does matter more to me right now! Cause at least I can count on these girls when I can’t count on anyone else.” He sees me coming and tries to pull her close, but she pushes him away. His eyebrows meet and he points at her chest sharply, still trying to maintain privacy while he speaks.
“Tell it to Lila, Paul,” she says, and he slaps her.
The next thing I know, Dina and Berenice are pulling me off Mr. Miro, and he’s lying on his back, face bloody.