I absolutely hate running. Which is only slightly problematic for me considering how much running is involved in soccer.
But I love the game. So, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I’m in peak form, even if it means grinding my teeth and pushing through the warm up laps around the field coach makes us do at the start of every practice. The running is especially intense right now because it’s boot camp week. Coach figures we’ve all been sitting on our asses all summer, so we spend a week before classes and practice actually starts just doing conditioning. It sucks.
Still, I know that I have to work hard for the things I want, so I’ve come up with a system to get me through the tedium of jogging. I imagine I’m Captain America. I imagine I’m training to be stronger, faster, better than I was the day before. I’m preparing for the most epic battle of my life. It’s the only way I can force myself through running mindless laps.
And it’s a good reminder. Because sometimes my life feels like a constant uphill battle. At least I’m always prepared for the fight.
I’m snapped out of my superhero training regimen by the sound of Coach Bradley calling my name as I pass where he’s sitting on a bench. “Harding! Hold on a second.”
“What’s up, Coach?” I ask, only slightly breathless as I jog up to meet him.
He stands from the bench, shoving his phone into the pocket of his athletic shorts before reaching out a hand to squeeze my shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
He asks me that every time he sees me. But I don’t mind, because I know it’s not just a nicety to start the conversation before he says whatever it is that he really wants to say. He genuinely cares about both the physical and mental well being of all of his players. He’s always made it abundantly clear that his door is always open and ever since I was made captain last year, we’ve gotten closer.
As with all the previous captains, he insists that I sit down with him for one on one sessions every other week to talk about the team, yes, but also to make sure I’m in a good headspace. Being captain is an honor, but it’s also a huge responsibility, which means that it comes with its own level of stress. Coach just likes to make sure that I’m not overwhelmed, and I appreciate his constant concern. It’s always nice to have someone concerned about you.
“Pretty good,” I reply with a wide grin. “Nice and loose.”
I know he wasn’t asking about my physical condition or even about today specifically, but the truth is that I’ve never felt better, physically or emotionally.
My mental state must be showing in my expression because he doesn’t push the issue, simply nodding and saying, “Good. You trained during the summer.”
It’s not a question. He can tell by the fact that I’m not struggling during the warm up laps that I didn’t slack off during the off season. “Every day.”
“That’s my boy.” He doesn’t smile, but I can still see the flicker of pride in his steel grey eyes. His hand drops from my shoulder and he shoves into the pocket of his shorts. “The scouts will be glad to hear it.”
I stand up a little straighter. “Scouts?”
His lips twitch and for a second, I swear he’s going to smile. “Let’s just say that if you play well this season, there might be some people who might be interested in signing you professionally.”
“That would be incredible.” I blink. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about playing professionally before. I’ve always loved soccer, and I’ve worked hard to get where I am because I’ve never been the kind of person to do anything half assed, but it’s not as though I’ve spent my nights dreaming of fame and glory.
I worked hard at both soccer and my grades when I was in high school, knowing that a scholarship was the only way I was going to be able to afford college, and in the end, it was soccer that brought me to Ridgewood. If I had been serious about playing professionally, I would have looked into the draft in high school, because the National Soccer League doesn’t have any rules about playing in college in order to be eligible. But I wanted to make sure I got a degree, so that no matter what happened with soccer, I always had a secure future. Now that the diploma was so close to being in my grasp, maybe it was time to start thinking about my future in soccer.
“Keep up the good work,” Coach nodded, indicating I should get back to my laps.
I probably look like an idiot with how wide I’m smiling. “Yes, sir.”
I begin to turn back to the field, only to pause at the sight of Priya Biswas emerging from the tunnels leading to the locker rooms, arms laden with refillable water bottles for the players to drink from during practice.
It isn’t as though I’ve never noticed Priya before. She’s pretty and I’m a guy, so of course I’ve always been aware of her presence. With her deep, brown eyes and smile that lights her entire face and produces a dimple in her right cheek, she’s kind of hard to keep your eyes off of when she’s in the room.
But she’s also Ravi Biswas’s baby sister. And that makes her unquestionably off limits.
Ravi Biswas was kind of a legend at Ridgewood. At a school that’s nationally renowned for both its soccer teams, having any sort of talent on the field makes you instantly famous. And the fact that Ravi held the record for the most shutouts in a season by a collegiate goalie made him a superstar.
I remember being completely intimidated by him when I first joined the team as a freshman. He was a junior at the time and had just been named captain, an honor usually reserved for seniors. But he bore the leadership position well, going on to lead the team to a perfect season, complete with a championship title. He was a force to be reckoned with, both on and off the field, which meant that there was unspoken rule that no one go near his little sister. Anyone who dared lay a hand on Ravi Biswas’s baby sister was in for a world of hurt.
So I kept my distance and I locked Priya away in the dark recesses of my mind, knowing that there were some lines a good teammate never crossed.
But based on what Priya had drunkenly confessed to me on Friday night, that silent understanding had worked too well. It had been two years since Ravi graduated, and I assumed that as soon as he was no longer on campus, guys would be flocking to Priya. Apparently that isn’t the case.
Or maybe the problem isn’t that she’s not getting attention, but that she’s getting all the wrong kinds of attention, as evidenced by the fact that she currently looks extremely uncomfortable as she attempts to maneuver out of a conversation with Greg Matthews, a sophomore second string midfielder.
Deciding she might be able to use some assistance, I call out, “Hey, Matthews. Less flirting, more running.”
Greg has the decency to look somewhat sheepish before he sprints to rejoin the rest of the team. Priya glances at me and nods her gratitude briefly before returning to her task of filling up water bottles.
I want to say something. Anything. We don’t usually talk at practice. To be honest, before Friday, I’m not sure that we’d ever had a conversation. But I also don’t want to pretend we don’t know each other at all. You can’t bare yourself like that to someone and then expect to move on as if nothing happened. I just don’t know where to start.
The truth is that talking to her at the party had been a welcome distraction, but if I admit that to her, I’d have to explain why the distraction was necessary in the first place. And at the moment, I can’t think of an explanation that doesn’t make me sound like an epic douchebag.
So I settle for flashing her a smile and saying, “Thanks for sharing your skittles.”
Her lips twitch as though she’s trying not to laugh and I find myself willing to do absolutely anything just to see her smile. I want to cheer when the corners of her lips lift upwards and she quietly says, “Any time.”
Before I can continue the conversation, she grabs her tray of filled water bottles and heads for a group of my teammates taking a break on the opposite sideline, leaving me wondering why the hell my heart is racing. Because it sure as shit isn’t from the running.
To keep myself from thinking about it too much, I return to the conditioning, working myself extra hard in order to keep my thoughts focused and by the time practice is over, I’m completely exhausted. But in the best possible way.
I’m walking back to my on campus apartment when I hear a familiar voice call out my name. “Hey, Braden.”
I blink, stretching my lips into my friendliest smile at the blonde walking in my direction. It’s not that I’ve been actively trying to avoid her, but after our brief fling at the end of the last semester, I just kind of assumed we’d part ways. Which, now that I think about it, was a pretty stupid assumption. It’s not like this is a huge school.
“Katie,” I nod, trying to keep my voice neutral so it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to find a way out of conversation as quickly as possible. “How was your summer?”
It’s not that I don’t find her enjoyable to have a conversation with, but I’ve never been the kind of person who remains friends with an ex. Not that Katie’s really an ex, because I’m pretty sure we didn’t do anything close to dating, but seeing her again is still awkward for me. Especially since she told me she wanted to move things into more serious territory and I told her that I didn’t feel that way about her.
I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. But whenever we were together, I always got the sense she was more interested in the fact that I was on the soccer team than she was in me as a person. I may be a dick but I have some self respect.
“Incredible,” she smiles sweetly, taking another step towards me. If I wasn’t extremely sweaty from practice, I think she might try to hug me. Thank god for strenuous exercise. Her hand extends and she gingerly places it on my bicep, taking her lower lip between her teeth and looking up at me through her lashes. “I missed you, though.”
A lump forms in my throat and I don’t know what to say without offending her, so I go with the very intelligent response of, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah,” she nods, her smile widening as she begins to slowly stroke my arm. “And now that school’s about to start again, I was thinking we should hang out.”
I saw this coming and I still don’t have a plan to let her down easy. The truth is, I completely suck at telling people no. “Look, Katie, that’s sweet, and we had fun, but…,” how do I say ‘I’m not really interested in being your trophy boyfriend’ without coming off like a conceited prick? “I’m seeing someone.”
That’s definitely not what I meant to say. Still, it does get her to pull her hand off my arm and look particularly sheepish as she says, “Oh. Sorry, I hadn’t heard that you had a girlfriend.”
I can’t believe that worked. “Yeah, well, it’s new so…”
Taking a step backwards, Katie nods and says, “Well, she’s a very lucky girl,” before turning on her heel and walking away.
I watch her go and wonder how long it will take before news of my new relationship is all over campus. Because apparently people at this school don’t have anything better to do than speculate over other people’s personal lives. There’s even an entire notification service to let people know whose single and who’s taken.
Which means I’m absolutely fucked. And apparently in need of a girlfriend.