I vividly remember the moment when I realized that Maria wasn't a boy. I know that may sound retarded, but for years she was like one of the guys, you know? Before everything changed, me, Maria, Steve and Jared had always hung out together since elementary school. The four of us did everything together. Jumped in the snow and made snow forts together, ate lunch in the cafeteria together, played pranks on other kids together, ran out to recess together. We still see each other on a rare occasion along with Steve's girlfriend, Michelle, but we're at separate high schools now and things are different. The thing I remember most about back then was playing baseball in the field behind our school after class.
We would rush outside after the ringing of the three o'clock bell with our balls, bats and gloves, along with some of the other boys in our class. Yeah, it was old and the bases were falling apart, but we would play for hours at that old weed infested diamond until our parents called us home for dinner. Steve's family lived a block away from the school, so whenever his name was yelled, we all quit and left.
I loved it whenever Maria ended up on my team because she was a damn good ballplayer. Even at eleven she could hit Martin's curve ball. She was the spirit of our team. Maria cheered us on when we were down a few runs. She made split decisions, over our coach's head, no less, to send someone out to pinch hit or to change out the pitcher. Having her spirit on the field made the game that much more exciting.
I remember the week in fifth grade she had gotten strep throat really bad. We ran outside as usual to play and divided up. Beside the fact that one team was a player short, Maria's participation was sorely missed. It was dull; no one cheered, no one fought humorously with Jared, our coach. In fact, my team lost, even though we had one extra player. We just couldn't manage without the usual presence of Maria.
We played on like this for years until one day something changed. We were in eighth grade. It had been like any other afternoon after school at the old diamond. Martin and Steve picked out the teams and we started up the game. I remember it well because it had been one of the few times Maria hadn't been on my team. It was my turn at bat and just as I was about to swing at the pitch hurtling towards me, something horrible happened: a sudden gust of wind blew up through the outfield and caught Maria's hat off guard, causing it to fall off. Her golden blond hair whipped in the wind. Her shirt curved around her own blossoming curves as she ran to retrieve her cap. This all happened in the few seconds it took the ball to get from the mound to the plate, but it seemed like a feature length movie to me because of the beauty of it all. Suffice to say, I missed the ball. And the next. I struck out for the first time in months. The guys chided me for being so clumsy; not knowing it was all due to my sudden discovery of Maria's graceful and wonderful body. I suppose I had been too young to really notice her before, but as a twelve-year-old the hormones started kicking in.
The game went on and along with it went life. The four of us went on to high school, Maria and some of the others we played with ended up at a private school a few minutes away, while Jared, Steve and I went to the local public school. At the beginning we tried to still hang out once in a while, but it got harder as we all found new lives and new friends. I still talked to Jared and Steve a bit, but eventually we also grew apart. Jared wanted to go to college for pre-med after graduation so he was busy with his studies and extra classes. Steve met Michelle and they started dating casually.
Meanwhile, I somehow got lost in the field. Freshmen year went all right, but after that, it all went downhill. Jared and Steve had other friends, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't fit it. I went to classes, zoning out while my teachers were lecturing, handed in homework late because I had forgotten, and got kicked off the junior varsity baseball team for falling grades. I lost baseball for the second time in my life. My grades slipped even more, I started skipping classes. My parents tried to talk to me, but I didn't listen; I just didn't give a crap about school or people, for that matter.
Things turned around, albeit slowly, during the spring semester of my junior year. Jared surprised me when he caught up with me in the cafeteria one day and sat across from me.
"Hey, did you hear?" The words came out breathlessly.
"Uh, about what?" I was completely confused. I thought maybe he was skipping a couple grades and going to college. What did I know? I barely talked to the guy in the last couple years or even saw him.
"That lot next to our old elementary school? With the baseball diamond? Well, I guess it's going to be torn up next month. Going to build a Walgreen's or something."
"Really." I shoved in another bite of hamburger.
"Seriously, Luke. My dad's on the county commission."
I shrugged. "Well, we're too old for that stuff. It's in the past."
"Don't give me that crap. You can't tell me that you don't think we ought to do something about it? That field contains like, our entire childhood! I told Steve about it and I called our other friends who don't go here. We're going to meet over there after school today around four. We're planning to get together some kind of rally or petition or something."
"Jared, please. It's just an old field. I'm busy anyway." I wasn't, but I didn't feel like dealing with him any longer at the time. People had begun to annoy me. I wished I had skipped school that day.
"Fine." He got up and left the cafeteria. I shook my head and finished my lunch.
In class, I couldn't focus on anything. I hadn't expected to find Jared talking to me, let alone bothering me about that stupid field. What did I want with that pile of gravel and weeds? That part of my life was over. Now baseball was a bad taste in my mouth. Instead of going to seventh hour, I skipped out and headed to the parking lot for a smoke before I left for home. I opened up the trunk of my car looking for my secret cigarette stash. I couldn't find them. Moving around empty fast food wrappers, I stumbled upon an old baseball instead. I picked it up; there was some writing on it. "Luke's first home run, April 16, 1998" was scrawled across the side. My mind swirled with memories brought up by that ball. My first home run, my first fly ball, my first slide, my first strike out. My first time seeing Maria in a new light.
I leaned against my car and turned the ball around in my hands. I realized I had been acting like an asshole to Jared. I remembered how much I loved playing on that field when I was younger. I suppose I had just waved it off because it felt like that part of my life was over. All the guys I had played ball with had moved on. Different schools, different lives, different priorities. I had tried to move on too, but I hadn't quite figured that part out.
I resolved then and there that I had to do something with my life. I couldn't continue to just slide through with a blasé attitude towards life. I needed to turn things around. The first thing I needed to do was apologize to Jared. Then I could go meet up with the rest of the old baseball gang and dig up some more memories with them. Maybe we could play one last game. I could connect with Maria. For the first time in a long while, I found myself looking forward to something. I felt exhilarated.
I unlocked my old Cavalier and left the school parking lot with my music blaring. I hadn't found Jared's car in the lot and figured on just meeting him at the field to talk to him. It would be good to see all the guys again, including Steve and Maria.
Maria. My mind paused on her name again. I remembered that fateful day back in eighth grade. I remembered her rare smiles to me as I came back from striking out trying to encourage me. My fingers tightened on the steering wheel and sweat started to trickle down my neck. That old nervousness had come up just as it had when I saw the wind whip up behind her when I had been up at bat all those years ago.
Somehow I made it to the field. I sat in my car an extra few seconds to compose myself before heading out to join everyone. I got out and was slowly walking towards the small group of people when I heard a car drive up beside me.
"Hey, Luke! Glad to see you here." That sweet voice sent a shiver down my back.
"Oh, hey, Maria."
She smiled at me. "Jared said you wouldn't be able to make it."
"Yeah, well, someone canceled on me." I smiled back casually while thumbing my belt loops.
"Great. Let's go join the others." She grabbed my hand like she used to do when we rushed on this same field years ago and we ran over to join them. A couple of times her hair brushed against my face. I almost collapsed.
We stopped to greet the group. I caught up with all the other guys who had ended up at different high schools and chatted while Maria headed over to Jared and Steve. A few moments later, I felt a slap on my back and turned around. It was Jared.
"Sorry about earlier, I…" I sputtered.
He waved it off. "Don't worry about it. You're here."
"Yeah, I am. So what's the plan?"
Steve answered. "Jared thought we might start a petition or something. Get enough signatures, maybe save the field."
I was up for that. "Sounds good."
"Yeah, with Jared's dad on the commission, he can get us some forms and stuff." Added Steve.
Jared nodded. "Yeah, I already mentioned it to him. He's bringing me some info when he gets back from work tonight."
"Great. So, now what? Why don't we…" I started.
Maria broke into the conversation. "Maybe we could play a game? For old times' sake?"
Did she read my mind?
"Yeah," agreed Steve. The rest of us also nodded assent.
We broke off into two teams. Maria ended up on mine. I cartwheeled inwardly.
I didn't keep score; it was all for fun. I connected with the ball my first couple times at ball. I had found my stride again. I wished I had kept up with practicing my baseball skills after I was kicked off the high school team. Then it was Maria's turn at bat. She hit a long drive past the short stop into center field, but I had been watching her so intently that I almost forgot to run home. I smacked myself for letting the same thing happen to me again. The guys got after me too for losing my head. Martin was on second and ran up to me and had to shove me towards the base. He gave me a weird look after the inning ended. I shrugged it off and blamed the sunlight for hiding the ball. They rolled their eyes at me and moved onto the field to start another inning. The next few innings ran smoothly after that. Maria blended into the scenery and became one of the guys like before. I felt at home once again.
But then she had to go, so we broke off the game. The teams wouldn't be even. I ran up to her.
"Leaving so soon? We don't have parents calling us in for dinner anymore." I grinned at her like an idiot.
She smiled. "No, we don't, but I do have to go. I have a date tonight."
"Oh. Really? That's nice." I tried to sound happy for her and not like a piano had been dropped on me, but I think I failed.
"Yeah. He seems nice. He's in my trig class at school."
I merely nodded so I wouldn't act like any more of a jackass in front of her, hoping she hadn't noticed.
"See you at that petition signing, Luke." She waved and then headed for her car. I waved back and walked back to the group. Jared was looking at me funny.
"Like I said, the sun was in my eyes and I…" I started.
He raised his eyebrows. "Dude, you just got shot down." The other guys laughed.
"Maria. We know you like her."
"Don't be stupid. That was years ago."
" 'Years ago?' What was years ago?"
I swore inwardly at this and wanted to kick myself. Then I swallowed my pride and went on. "Well, you know. I had a crush on her a while back. In eighth grade. It was stupid."
"Sure you don't still like her?" asked Steve. "She's pretty hot now." He winked.
"Of course I'm sure. Jackass." I ran a hand through my hair to wipe away any sweat that may have appeared. I realized it was suddenly just the three of us; the others had left. "What's not to be sure about?" I thrust my hands in my pockets.
"There's a lot to be sure about. I'm pretty sure she's got a great body now. She really filled out when she got to that private school." Steve jabbed me in the shoulder. "Hey, if I wasn't with Michelle, I'd go after her myself."
"It's not her body, it's her… Oh, why am I talking about this with you idiots? There's nothing there. Nothing! She's only an old friend who I barely see any more. That's all."
"Uh huh…" Jared's mouth twisted up in a smirk.
"I swear, it was the sun. I couldn't see the ball so I didn't run home right away."
The two of them glanced at each other. Jared spoke. "The sun, huh?" He pointed up to the sky. "Luke, there are tons of clouds out. What sun?" He grinned. I realized that the moron level of boys didn't disappear when they made it to high school; high school merely intensified it.
I glared at them. "I, uh… oh, screw you guys. I have to go. Hope the field doesn't get 'dozed or whatever before you get those signatures." I turned and walked hurriedly away to my car, feeling like a complete jackass myself. I was fiddling with the keys when a head appeared next to my window.
"You should tell her," Jared stated. He stood there with his arms crossed, a smile playing across his brow.
"What? No! Even if I did like her, which I don't, I wouldn't do that."
He shrugged. "Well, since our game got cut short, how about we grab something at Tony's later and talk? I'll see if Jared and some of the others will go."
Glad for the change of subject, I heartily agreed. We said our good-byes and I headed home for a shower and some homework. Yeah, homework, I guess I finally felt inspired to do some. I had gotten baseball back; it was time to get my grades back.
Later that night, I headed over to Tony's. I must have been the first one there because I didn't see the other guys there. I got a table and sipped on my water as I waited. And waited. I ordered some soda. I was halfway through my third Coke when I saw Maria walk in with some guy and sit down in a booth across the room. I tried to turn away but couldn't. Her beautiful face completely mesmerized me.
Fifteen minutes later, I was about to just go ahead and order something when I heard a disturbance across the room. It sounded like raised voices, female and male, arguing. Looking over, I saw it was coming from Maria and her date. She looked upset. I think the guy was trying to get on the same side of the booth as her. He was moving out of his seat, but Maria was motioning him back. I told the server to come back later and then I got up and walked towards Maria's table. How I managed that, I don't know.
She saw me and smiled gratefully. His back was to me because he was still trying to leave his side of the booth. Everything afterwards happened in a blur. Maria turned to me again suddenly, but she had this look of distress on her face. I wanted to reach out for her, but she solved that by jumping up out of her seat and coming to me. I didn't know what to do so I stood there quietly.
"Luke? What's wrong? Is Grandpa dying?"
I opened my mouth to say something but closed it again. Staying quiet was probably my best bet for whatever she was thinking.
"Oh, my God! He is!" Maria turned to her date. "I have to go. That's my cousin, see, and my grandfather's deathly ill. Bye!" She grabbed my arm in her familiar way and steered me out of the restaurant. I threw some money on my table as we hurried by. We stopped outside my car.
"Thanks for the save, Luke."
"Uh, don't mention it…" Yeah, really, don't mention it, Maria. What had just happened?
"You're a great player in a pinch, you know? You always seemed to come through when we needed you."
"Yeah, I guess so." I hadn't really looked at it that way, but I did remember batting for my team when we needed a good hit to bring us back into the game. It was at those times when Maria was playing coach and asked me to go in. "You're welcome," I added awkwardly.
We stood there in silence for a while. I was thinking about a lot of things, most involving the girl standing in front of me. Mainly involving my failings at talking to said girl. Thankfully, Maria broke through then, taking me away from my painful thoughts.
"Luke? Um, do you think you could bring me home…?" She smiled wryly.
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure." I answered hesitantly before jumping over to open the car door for her.
I muttered a "you're welcome" before I got in and started up my old car. We rode in silence for the few miles to her house. I had nothing to say. Well, nothing I could say that wouldn't completely ruin our current shaky relationship. Yeah, that was me, thinking about ruined friendships while riding in a car next to the girl I had loved and wanted and admired since eighth grade.
How could I have been so stupid? Why did I even agree to meet the gang again and play a game of ball? Or go to Tony's for some catching up? Why did I have to go over and… what did she call it? Pinch hit? Yeah, pinch hitting for her. Like I was never good for anything except in emergencies. Who wants that? I just wanted … what did I want? I wanted a cigarette.
"Luke? Are you okay?"
Was that my name? It must have been. I answered quite pointedly with a "huh?"
"What's wrong?" Maria looked at me. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. I didn't dare glance over for fear of going into a ditch or rolling the car or something. I stared straight ahead at the flashing yellow dashes illuminated by the headlights. My white knuckles stood out above them. "Uh, nothing's wrong. I, uh, just get nervous driving in the dark. That's all."
She chuckled. It sounded to me like a choir of angels warming up.
"I get the same way, don't worry about it. I'll be an extra pair of eyes for you." She glanced over and laid her hand on my arm for a brief moment before replacing it back in her lap and looking out at the road before us. That brief moment seemed like a lifetime. It was almost as if I was dying and my entire life flashed before my eyes, past, present, future, everything. The weirdest part about it was seeing Maria there in my vision. If I died right there on that road, would she still be there?
I jerked the steering wheel and drove onto the side of the road. I shifted into park and my right hand still rested on the gearshift while my other gripped the wheel tightly. Maria must have thought I was going to pass out or puke or something because she spoke.
"Uh, Luke, what's going on with you tonight? You're acting really weird." She rested her hand on my arm again. "Luke? Look at me."
I finally tore my gaze away from the paved shoulder staring back at me through the windshield and looked at her. My head had regained movement but my tongue hadn't. I could do nothing but stare at her. At her beautiful flawless face as she looked at me like I was a diseased cow.
She took a breath as if bracing herself for something. "Luke, I think I need to tell you something."
Oh, God, I am going to die…
"The date I was on, well, he didn't ask me. Michelle and her sister set us up. I'm not even taking trig this semester."
I didn't see any earth-shattering problem; girls do that all the time, right? "Oh?" I said.
"Yeah. If I hadn't been set up, why would he act like such a jerk?"
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe he was told to make a scene? I know it's crazy but…"
"No, no, I don't think so." I thought back to earlier that evening at the restaurant. My friends hadn't shown up either. Maybe I had been stood up on purpose. I told her this.
"Wow, that's freaky." She turned and leaned back against her seat. She was almost on the console, dangerously close to me, dangerously close to setting me off again. "Maybe they set you up to pinch hit for me."
I opened my mouth to say something, and I eventually did, but it wasn't what I had expected. "Maybe I could do more than pinch hit for you. Like be a starter," I blurted, instantly regretting it and ready to dive out of the car and make a run for it.
She was silent for a while; I reached for the clasp on my seatbelt.
"It's late, I should get home."
I put the car in gear and drove her the rest of the way home. As she got out, the most amazing, most unexpected thing happened. She kissed my cheek and smiled, "I'm sure I can make a deal with the coach. See you at the petition signing." Then she went up the drive, waved once over her shoulder and entered her house. At that moment, I was glad I didn't have a convertible or I may have ended up in the atmosphere.
"See ya," I whispered, too late. I pumped my first in the air as I backed out of her driveway.