Okay, this has been up here before, but I took it down for personal reasons. It's a few months old, kind of outdated for me, but critiques are still welcomed. Hope you guys enjoy it and I'd realllly appreciate some feedback. :)
In the Name of a Painful Act of Love
2005 (Sharlene: 9-years-old; Chris: 19-years-old)
I walked into the office nervously, Mom right in front of me. She was nervous too because when she is, she always looks about her cautiously like a bird. I followed her over to the front desk, where a bespectacled lady sat erectly with a pen at hand. She was scribbling down something frantically.
"Hi; Sharlene Haswell?" Mom said hopefully, craning her neck out to the lady behind the desk. She had a habit of doing this, which made her resemble a bird even more. She folded her arms upon the high counter and waited patiently as the lady eventually looked up from her scribbles.
"One moment please."
Mom looked even more nervous and retreated from the counter. I sat down in one of the chairs in the far corner of the room. This was a physical therapist's office, an office for sports injuries, or for the old people who fell and broke their hips. Stuff like that. I had never been to this kind of office before, and I was scared. I had heard words like "ultrasound" and phrases like "electric stimulation" being thrown around between my track coaches and my mom. She had to explain them to me eventually, assuring me that they wouldn't hurt and quite contrarily, they'd help. I wasn't any less scared.
So here I was at the physical therapist office, awaiting my first appointment with Dr. Wickerman. He was supposed to be able to tell me what was wrong with my knees. I was a runner, a beginner at that too (9-years-old) and had been experiencing some rather concerning knee pain in one so young. My track coaches had suggested that I see an orthopedist (Dr. Peterson) so I could get an X-ray. So we did, and I was diagnosed with patella femoral syndrome, a severe form of knee pain caused by the unusual alignment of the kneecap. The next step, as prescribed by Dr. Peterson, was to seek out a physical therapist so we could be taught how to handle the pain. We were warned that it would be a long, strenuous, and occasionally heartbreaking process, but if I was as passionate about running as I claimed to be (or at least as my mom claimed I was) we would make it through. Dr. Peterson went through a list of all the physical therapists in Southern California that he himself had experience with or had been recommended to him by patients, and pulled out Dr. Dave Wickerman's card. He said that Dr. Wickerman knew exactly how to treat running injuries, specifically knee injuries, and that we were better off with him than with any other physical therapist around. So my mom and I, as eager as could be, headed off to physical therapy for the first time.
Mom and I waited in the office for about ten minutes. Mom read a magazine or two, occasionally laughing quietly to herself to ease her own nerves. I sat with a blank expression on my face, awaiting the possible doom that could befall me. Then a young man came out of the back room. He looked to be about 18, or maybe as old as 21, and had a clipboard in hand. I felt my face heat up as I looked him over. He was of average height but not one of the tallest boys that I had ever seen. He had short black hair, an olive complexion, amber eyes, a long, slim nose, and the ghost of stubble along his strong but relatively narrow jaw. Never had I felt so nervous around a man before, and I felt butterflies in my stomach at his appearance.
"Sharlene?" he called. My mom perked up immediately, tossing the magazine aside. I stood up and smiled politely at the man.
"Here!" Mom said eagerly. He smiled at us and nodded towards the room behind him. We followed him in.
"So," he said as he led us to an exam table near a window. He patted it for me to sit on. "Here we are. Before Dave comes and evaluates you, I'm going to ask you a few questions. I'm Chris by the way. Dave's son."
"Sharlene," I said quietly, then realized that he knew that already. He smiled at my blush.
"Okay, so your knees are the problem, am I right?"
"Where do you feel the most pain? Is it all around the knee, or in one specific area?"
I made a crescent shape on the inside of my knee, right along the area where my kneecap ended. Chris craned his neck to look more closely. Then he wrote something on the clipboard.
"Right, you have runner's knee," he said to my mom. At her perplexed gaze, he added, "Patella femoral syndrome is more commonly known by that name."
"We knew that," Mom substituted weakly. Chris nodded.
"So when do you feel the pain? Is it on normal surfaces, like on grass and concrete, or do you feel it when you go uphill, downhill? Anything like that?"
"Uphill and downhill, but mostly up," I replied. Chris nodded again, scribbling on the clipboard.
"When you're barefooted?"
"And what kind of pain is it?"
"Sometimes it's dull and achy, but other times it feels like a pebble is stuck in there," I said, pointing to the same spot as before. Chris' brow furrowed a bit as he scribbled that down too.
"Any history of trauma?" he asked Mom. "Car accidents, surgery…?"
"Okay…any other injuries that we should know about?"
"I have back pain sometimes," I admitted. I could feel Mom's glare hot on my face because I had never mentioned it. For some reason, I felt compelled to tell Chris about it.
"Where exactly? Could you show me?"
I nodded and scooted down the table and turning slightly so he could see my back. I rubbed the lower back area. Chris nodded again and asked me to stand up.
"Stand and bend over, please."
I did so and touched my toes. I felt his hand on the curve of my back and gooseflesh arose where his fingertips travelled. He felt my spine softly and then the muscles on either side. Suddenly, I could feel that the left side was tenser and more toned than the other. When he told me to straighten up, I turned to him with worried eyes.
"You have some curvature in your spine, but not enough to be called scoliosis. I'll have Dave evaluate your spinal area as well," Chris said, backing away. "He'll be a few minutes."
Later when we left the office, I decided that I was growing up because I had my first major crush on a boy. Not just any boy, but a boy that was already at the end of his teens, training to become a physical therapist, and the son of my own doctor. I felt proud of the maturity that had manifested itself within me, and was giddy with anticipation of the next appointment which was a week away.
2006 (Sharlene: 11-years-old; Chris: 20-years-old)
Dave, as I had come to know him by at physical therapy and at home, was having me do some new exercises against the wall at the back of the office. He said that I got to do some extra work because it was my eleventh birthday. He snickered at my pout and left me to my exercises, which weren't all that strenuous, but considering that I had ten different ones to do, it was in fact a challenge.
We had been coming to Hands On Physical Therapy for over a year now, and as I grew more and more comfortable with Dave and his colleagues (Yoshi, Annette, Peggy, Angelica, Mike, and Chris), Mom would simply drop me off and go out to do some errands. Dan took good care of me too; since I had been coming three times a week after the first month of my treatment, he often told me that I was like a daughter to him. That meant that Chris, whom I had not stopped crushing on, was like a brother to me. And he was. When I was having trouble with the routines that his father would give me, he'd sit by me and help me position my body in the correct way, or talk to me, or even help cool me down with the electrical stim.
Over time, I learned a lot about him. He had graduated from Moorwood High School a little over half a year before I started coming to Hands On, and was interning with his dad (courtesy of his dad) before he took off for college at UC Irvine. He didn't really have an interest in physical therapy until he shattered his shin in three different places and lacerated his thigh in soccer during his sophomore year. While in recovery, which was at Hands On, he learned a lot about sports medicine. After his injury, he spent even more time with his dad who urged him to take sports medicine as his junior elective. At his graduation, Chris announced that he would go to UC Irvine to study sports medicine before taking a job at Hands On.
I admired him for his dedication to the trade, and even more for still going back out on the soccer field after his very traumatic injury. It made me feel like I could do the same if push came to shove, and I even aspired to follow in his footsteps once I graduated from high school, which was a long ways away.
As I struggled with aligning my knee safely over my toes, Chris came over to me with an ice pack in his hand. I smiled at him briefly before continuing to concentrate on my exercise.
"Hey Shar," he greeted using my nickname, coming to stand next to me. It threw me off balance, as I was standing on one foot. The other was bent and was pushing a ball against the wall. It was designed to strengthen my IT band. As a result, I fell straight toward Chris who caught me lightly. I blushed embarrassedly and looked up at him before taking a step away.
"Sorry, Chris," I said apologetically. "You scared me."
"It's okay, Shar," he said with a smile. "You look good."
I blushed desperately, looking down at my feet. I knew that he was referring to my exercise, but I could help but fantasize that he meant it in a flirtatious way. Over the past year, I had begun to develop into a young teen. My breasts had begun to form and I had grown about three inches, so that I was up to Chris' chin. My legs and arms had started to tone and show more muscles and my hair had grown down to my mid back in a wavy fashion. I was always embarrassed that Chris had to see me go through this period, and I knew that he definitely noticed this. When I would stumble over my feet (which had grown from a size 2 to a 5) he would snicker much like his father and turn away, as if I wouldn't notice. Once I heard him mumble "Pubescent Klutz." Sometimes he'd comment that my lunges were looking very strong, yet feminine, when no one else was around. He always made me blush, and he never failed to embarrass me.
"Thank you, Chris."
"No problem Shar. When's your next meet? I'll see if I can come," he said.
"Saturday, and you said you'd come to the invitational, but you didn't," I replied accusingly, fetching the ball that had rolled down the hall and resuming my exercise.
"I had classes, coincidently. But I'm really hoping that I can come this weekend. You ran a 5:40 for the 15" (1500m) "last week, and you're going to be loads faster after today," Chris joked, unlocking the supply closet and stepping in.
"Maybe," I said, smiling shyly. I heard a muffled laugh from the closet.
"Why do you doubt yourself so much, Shar?"
"I don't know," I replied, switching the exercise to my other leg.
"Well you shouldn't," Chris said seriously, coming out of the supply closet. He walked over to me so that he was directly in front of me. Looking down at me sympathetically, he murmured, "I have faith in you all the time and you still continue to amaze me."
I looked away, down to the floor and nodded. I could hear Chris smile because when he did, he'd always breathe in deeply and let it out and he'd even sound happy. He tapped my cheek affectionately (it felt more like a caress) and kissed my head quickly, heading down the hall with two ice packs now.
I watched him go, a pang in my heart and a tear in my eye because I was eleven now and Chris was turning twenty-one in two months. I had hoped that my turning eleven would put me eight years behind his nineteen-year-old self, but I forgot that when I aged, he aged too. I turned my back on him and continued on with my routine, gloomily considering the fact that there was no way that we'd ever end up together.
2008 (Sharlene: 12-years-old; Chris: 21-years-old)
IECs were right around the corner, and so was my thirteenth birthday. Actually, my birthday was a month away, but I was excited because Chris promised me that he'd take me out to get ice cream with him. I spent more of my time at Hands On than ever before. When I wasn't at school, at practice, or at home studying, I was at physical therapy working my butt off. This IECs was the most crucial race I had ever been faced with. It determined if I was eligible or not to go on to Junior Olympics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I was especially feeling the pressure because I was currently ranked #5 in the Valley Youth Conference, a very admirable position, but still a vulnerable one. The top seven runners went on to prelims in San Diego.
Chris was as supportive as ever, although he wasn't around like he used to be because college was keeping him busy. However, he had given me his cell number when I had gotten one for my twelfth birthday. I called him every day, fully expecting him to not pick up the phone all the time, but it was more of a ritual than anything now. He was my big brother in every aspect; more like a step-brother because I still harbored that gigantic crush on him. And Chris was catching on fast. He was never as affectionate as he used to be and he always filtered his compliments toward me so that there were no hidden meanings in them. It tortured me a bit inside because the one thing that I wanted (besides going to Junior Olympics) was Chris to like me, and not in a strictly platonic way. I knew that he'd be considered a pedophile if he tried anything, but I couldn't help my hormonal pre-teen mind from fantasizing about such things. Human nature, I told myself.
I didn't see Chris until the day before IECs when he came over to wish me luck. Mom wasn't home, but she liked Chris well enough and trusted him with her life. He was welcomed whenever he felt like it.
I was in my home finishing up some homework so I wouldn't have to deal with it over the weekend when Chris knocked on the door. I ran into the front hall and unlocked the door, knowing full well who it was.
"Hey, come in," I said, smiling and stepping back. I pushed the hair out of my face and watched as Chris came in. He looked a lot more mature in the sense that he had finally understood how strenuous sports medicine could be. He smiled a bit at me and sauntered into the kitchen, leaving me in the front hall. Chris had been over a few times before, with Dave of course since they had come to be close family friends. He knew the house well. Well, not the entire house since my mom had recently given me the Talk. As in the Sex Talk. She said that I was getting to the age where I was realizing the opposite gender and all of their attributes. She also added that I might be attracted to older men (meaning Chris) and that the one thing that is usually on their mind is sex. Not that I would do it, she insisted, but just a heads up that Chris was beginning to realize that I wasn't just some kid anymore; I was a woman. It was totally awkward and even more embarrassing since I had definitely been using words like "hot" and "sexy" when thinking about Chris. Anyways, the whole reason about the Talk was to basically forbid me from letting Chris into my room. Mom had this funny feeling that I'd be seduced into my own bed. Not that I'd say no if the opportunity arose between Chris and I.
"Do you have anything to eat?" Chris asked as I entered the kitchen. He was sitting on the counter with his hands supporting him from behind. He looked completely comfortable in that position, and ironically, it made me feel uncomfortable.
"Uh, yeah." I pulled out some cereal and a left over sandwich from when Chris brought me some lunch at Hands On a few days ago. He smiled at me appreciatively.
"Could we watch some TV?" he asked. I smiled and nodded. He followed me into the living room. I sat down in the rocking chair in the far corner and grabbed the remote. Chris sat on the couch, cradling the sandwich. I threw the remote at him, which he took and turned the TV on. He flipped the channel to ESPN (figures) and we watched in silence for a few minutes.
Chris was intently focused on the football game that had come on, and while he followed the football with his eyes as it travelled across the screen, I took to glancing at him every few seconds. He was making me so uncomfortable. I wanted to do something, anything, to get his attention. So I got up and walked across the room to the couch. He looked up at me questioningly until I sat down next to him, practically flush with his left side.
"Hi," I said shyly. Chris stared at me.
"Hi, Shar. What're you doing over here?"
"It's my couch," I replied indignantly, turning towards the TV to hide my furious blush.
"Yeah, but what are you doing right here?" he asked, stressing the last word. I shrugged but didn't reply immediately.
"Felt like it."
We sat silently, watching the game until the next commercial. The silence was killing me. I felt like I should say something, and it also felt like Chris wanted to say something. But no one moved a muscle, except when Chris went to take a bite out of his sandwich. I felt hot all over and nervous and tingly where my arm touched Chris'. I felt the heat of his skin through his shirt and the smoothness of his wrist where mine touched his. It was almost intoxicating, like the descriptions in those lovey-dovey teen romance books.
"Shar, I got to go, but I want to wish you good luck. I know IECs is a big deal for you, and you've been working harder than anyone I know since we first met. You deserve to go to Junior Olympics. You deserve it more than anyone else in this whole country, and I'm really, really proud of you," he finished, looking me straight in the eye. He wore his sympathetic look, which edged out two furrows in his brow which made him look so much older (and so much more untouchable) than he really was. His eyes were sad, almost as if they were sorry, and they almost shone a dark green. Then his entire expression changed into a light smile and he leaned forward to kiss my cheek. When he went to pull away, I hugged him and buried my face in his neck.
"Thank you, Chris," I whispered over and over to him. I felt his arms coil around me and his face against my neck, breathing slowly and deeply into my hair. We stayed like that for a moment, my arms tight around his neck and his hands combing my hair.
2009 (Sharlene: 14-years-old; Chris: 23-years-old)
I hobbled on my crutches into Hands On, about five minutes late. I checked in with Peggy at the front desk, who asked me how I was doing after my national race. I told her what I told everyone: like a failure.
Orlando, Florida was where AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) cross country nationals was held that year. It was the hardest qualifier race that I had ever done to get onto a national team. Even after the fact, I felt like no pressure had been lifted off my shoulders to win the gold and carry my team to USATF (United States of America Track and Field) after AAU. And when we finally went to Orlando, I didn't even finish the race because I had slipped on a particularly wet turn and hit my knee on a rock that was so conveniently situated on the side of the trail. I was carried out of nationals by my own coach, and arrived home in LA in a wheel chair. Not only did I not finish the race, my team didn't even place, and therefore had no possible chance in the USATF prelims. I hadn't gone to school for a week, and refused to do anything for my fourteenth birthday. On top of that, Chris only called five times since the accident, eventually giving up after two days of no response from me.
Perhaps the hardest part about going back to Hands On was the fact that Chris would be there. He'd be there to help me through my exercises, ice me down, help me out to Mom's car, and be over watching a movie with me on Friday nights instead of talking to me over the phone, wishing me good luck for the race that would be the next day. He'd be there to watch me get up out of the mud and hobble to the finish line. It felt like my death day had come too early because Chris would see me weaker than ever.
Sure enough, Chris appeared in the waiting room, clipboard in hand to take me back to my exam table. Instead of meeting me with a smile and a hug, he met me with a pained expression and cold hands. He put his clipboard under his arm and took my crutches from me. He put them under my exam table, and then came back to help me across the room. He situated himself behind me to the right with both arms around me, supporting my waist and shoulders. Together, we crossed the room to the exam table, where he picked me up lightly and set me down. I scooted back against the pillows that he quickly fluffed for me. Chris rolled the little cushioned seat close to the table and sat down.
"So, how's the knee?" Chris asked weakly. I gave him a look.
"No better than when I screwed it in the first place," I grumbled, looking away. I felt his fingers interlace with mine.
"You'll be better in no time, Shar. I'll make sure of it."
I didn't look at him. I couldn't because I knew he meant it. In my off time, I had had a lot of time to really think about my running career. I thought about when I first started and felt so free running and how there was no pressure to win the race or hit a certain time or qualify for league finals or worry about IECs and Junior Olympics. That's when I loved running with all my heart because it wasn't a commitment in the sense that I had to give up my social life and being a real teenager. When I started to get better, my mom just stepped in and took over my life from there. I was willing to go to physical therapy because it meant that I could experience the freedom I had before; I thought that I could still run without restrictions and without people telling me how to run. And it just took off from there. Every waking hour was about strengthening every single muscle group in my legs and running the 15 or the 3 (3000m) or a whole bunch of other crap. The only thing that kept me coming to Custom was Chris because by that time, we shared such a close bond that it could never be broken. If we were separated for over a decade, it'd make no difference. We'd still be the same after that decade.
So I told Chris all that. I told him how he was like a brother to me and that maybe running wasn't my thing and maybe God just didn't want me to run. There's that saying: people plan, God laughs, or something like that.
"Not that I believe in God, but if there is some mighty power who controls everything we do, then maybe that's why I can't run without pain," I said, trying my best to keep from crying. Tears had built up in my eyes so that I could barely see Chris in front of me. He listened quietly and with an understanding that I knew I couldn't get from anyone else.
"I just can't do this anymore if this stupid injury means that I can never run a 5:00 15," I sobbed. I didn't mean to be so dramatic or anything, but the last time I had cried like this was when I was in the hospital in Orlando. Everything had built up and only Chris could see me like this.
"I don't think I want to do track or cross country anymore," I whispered, covering my face in attempt to wipe away snot and tears. Chris never made a sound. "I really don't want to do it if it means going through all of this nonstop."
When I had settled down, I looked at Chris. Tears were running down his cheeks silently, but he didn't look to be upset. He rolled himself closer to the table so that he could rest his forearms right near my legs. For a moment, he just gazed at me as though in disbelief.
"You don't mean that," he said. There was a confidence in his conviction and in his amber eyes that were suddenly not amber, but black. It was the tears. "You can't give up on this. Running has been you since we met. You'll recover, Sharlene, you'll recover and then you'll win Junior Olympics and kick ass all over again, okay?"
I didn't nod, I just sat there, looking at him as even more tears bubbled up and ran down my cheeks.
"I can't, Chris."
"Yes, you can," he said desperately, craning himself toward me and taking my hand, which was clenched on top of my left knee. "You can, and you will."
I meant to say something in return, but all at once, the sobbing started again and I couldn't think about anything else. It was all over for me, all over, and nothing could change that. That stupid puddle, that stupid mud, and that stupid rock were all going to get it if I ever went back to Orlando, and everyone else who finished that race could just suck it. I cried all the misery out, or at least tried to, and my body shook with the intensity of my anguish. I heard Chris get up and move, scooting me over to the far right of the table as he climbed on, pulling the curtain in around us.
"What are you doing?" I asked through tears. He didn't speak a word as he pulled me to him, cradling me gently. I took that as a sign of comfort as I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried steadily into his collarbone. His hand combed through my hair, much like the time when we were on the couch together, while his other hand rubbed steady circles up my back.
"You're going to get through this."
2011 (Sharlene: 16-years-old; Chris: 26-years-old)
"Runner's on your mark!" the starter said through his tiny microphone. All thirty JV (Junior Varsity) girls stepped up to the start line. The track was a red tartan marked with golden lines. A good track to be certain; it had a bounce and firmness all at the same time. My lucky day, I hoped. Chris was in the stands for once, and as I chanced a glance over to them, I saw Chris at the railing with the stopwatch that I had asked him to bring and the video camera (which he was fumbling with and most likely cursing at) that Dave had told him to bring. With a video of my 15, Dave could accurately correct the collapse in my structure since the accident in Orlando.
Speaking of the accident, I was half-way through my recovery. It would be a long period, as my runner's knee had flared up again, the muscles and tendons in my knee were severely inflamed resulting in severe patellar tendonitis in the right knee, and I had just finished my growth spurt. In the off season, while I rested and prepared for an intense season of physical therapy, my body had begun to finish off its developing. My breasts had fully grown (to size 36a!) and I had gained more than 10lbs, although it barely showed. It just felt very different working with a fully grown woman's body at Custom and on the track.
Chris had been there with all the support he could muster too. When Dave finally cleared me for spring track for 2011, I was ecstatic and went to tell Chris, who was equally jubilant and took me out to some fancy restaurant. He'd been over to my house every day to help me with some of the more difficult physical therapy exercises, to make sure I did my core workouts and weights, and just because he wanted to be there. I was still crushing on him and none of my feelings had subsided for him, but I did have a boyfriend. His name was Jake. Nice guy, affectionate, supportive in the sense that he liked that I did sports, and was really smart like I was. When Chris found out, he was a little astounded. Actually, the way he found out was a little astounding too.
Jake was over on a Saturday night, and we were watching a movie (The Notebook or something) and had started making out on the couch. I had completely forgotten that Chris was supposed to come over and give me a routine that Dave had formulated for a Sunday run. Mom had given Chris a set of the house keys recently, telling him and me that she trusted the both of us. It was so embarrassing because she still has it in her head that Chris was a horny teenage boy, but in reality, he was in his mid-twenties and hadn't had time for any girls since high school. So, as I was saying, Jake and I were on the couch getting it on, and Chris comes in the house, completely oblivious to what he's about to walk in on. Being Chris, he heads straight for the TV room which was dimly lit. A normal person wouldn't have noticed what was on the couch at first, but Chris was always highly sensitive and quite overprotective. Seeing Jake made him a little upset in a sense. Jake and I broke apart immediately. My face broke out in a furious blush as I looked at Chris helplessly. He stared back at me in disbelief. Jake cleared his throat, said he should go, got his coat, and left.
"What the hell was that?" Chris demanded, turning the light on and shutting off the DVD player.
"Um, that was me and my boyfriend making out on the couch, Chris," I defended, standing up. I bet I looked a sight. My hair was probably all messy looking and my lips were most likely swollen.
"You're sixteen, Sharlene! You shouldn't be coming that close to-" he caught himself and held my gaze for a moment before turning around and striding into the kitchen. I heard him rummaging around in the fridge.
"Coming close to what, Chris?" I pressed, following him. "To sex?"
Chris froze and said, "No. No. Of course not."
"Then what did you mean?"
Chris didn't reply. I came around the island in the kitchen and stood directly behind him.
"I'm going to keep staring at you until you tell me what you meant."
"Then I hope your eyes don't dry out because I'm not telling you," he countered, turning around with a smirk.
I took that as defeat, but I did have my answer. Chris had meant sex, but the thing that puzzled me so much was why he cared so much if I did it or not. It was all brotherly sounding, but something didn't fit the puzzle for me. Or maybe I was just reading way too much into it, hoping that he meant that I shouldn't be coming close to sex with Jake, but with him.
I looked back from the stands to the starter, who had the starter gun held high over his head. I took a deep breath and centered myself. This was my race. No frickin' freshman was going to take this from me. The pistol went off and there was the thundering sound of sixty feet upon the tartan, sounding like a stampede.
The first turn was crap; I was boxed in until we hit the first straightaway. I knew that I was in deep trouble if I didn't get out of that position, and fast, so I slowed and wove my way to the outside of the pack and then made a beeline for the head runner, who was slowly choking on her own adrenaline. When she dropped back, I was left in the lead. Coming round for the start of the second lap, I felt great.
"1:10, Shar! That's fast, now keep it coming!" I heard Chris shout.
The second lap was much better without all of the girls panting directly down my neck, but the adrenaline that I thought would keep me working through the whole race dwindled as I reached the second turn. My knee gave way for a moment and I stumbled and caught myself. There was a sharp crack and I felt a burning sensation under my kneecap and all along the side. I thought it'd subside, but as I started my third lap with a limp, I knew that I was in over my head. The straightaway was where I started crying. It was an intense and deep pain, as if someone was ripping out all of the tendons and cartilage. I heard a competitor not far behind me, and as my limp became even more profound, she passed me. Sure enough, she was a freshman. I cried out in pain as I took the next few steps, slowing down considerably. But I never stopped.
As we came around for the fourth lap, I saw Chris, but this time, he was on the field.
"Shar, off the track now! GET OFF THE TRACK!" he shouted at me. I looked at him through the tears and pain that seemed to obscure my vision and then shook my head. He looked furious with me. When I looked away, my knee cracked again and pain shot through the whole limb. I shrieked louder than before, and I finished the fourth lap in a horrid limp, screaming my lungs out with the pain. I finished second, but collapsed as soon as I crossed the finish line, on my knees and hands still screaming. I must've sounded like I was being tortured because the whole stadium had leapt to their feet to get a better look at the commotion and the race officials were all crowded around me in concern. A few of them tried to get me up, but as they set me down on my own feet, I collapsed to the track in even more pain than before.
"Shar! Shar! Get out of the way, man!" Chris cried as he pushed his way through the officials. I was on the ground, crying, when I looked up and saw him. I made no attempt to move toward him, and instead let him come to me. He put my left arm over his shoulder and heaved me up with a hand securely around my waist. "Can you walk?"
I shook my head and as he helped me across the field, I began shrieking in pain again. Even without standing on my leg, my knee had erupted in a fiery pain. Chris whimpered desperately and swept me suddenly into his arms, bridal style. He carried me out of the stadium all the way to his car where he placed me in the passenger seat.
When we reached my house, which was once again vacant because Mom was on a business trip, Chris carried me into the house.
"Where do you want to go?" he murmured to me. My head was resting gently on his shoulder. I was too exhausted from the pain that was pulsing through my knee.
Chris hesitated a moment, but nodded. He'd never been in my bedroom before. I pointed down the hall, which was to the left of the front hall.
"First door," I said weakly. Chris nodded and pushed the door open with his foot. I closed my eyes as I heard him throw all of the pillows off except for one, which he must've fluffed because when he laid me down, it felt like heaven.
"Your knee is swollen," he commented, his voice cracking slightly. I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He was crying, and this time, he actually looked like he was. "Oh my god, it's so swollen."
I reached out a hand for him, and he took it shakily. He sat down next to me, and I felt him shake.
"Chris, are you crying?" I asked in a hoarse whisper. My throat was sore from the screaming.
"Yeah, I am Shar," he replied and he sounded like he really was in tears. This was the first time that I'd seen Chris cry.
"Because… you had this great thing going for you… and then you got injured… and now look at you," Chris said in a shaky voice. He stared up at the ceiling of my room. I turned over to face him, slowly though because of my knee. "It's just really hard for the people who love you to watch you go from this really great athlete to someone who can't even walk on her own after a 15."
I was quiet because I had started crying too. I didn't want him to see the tears. He'd already seen me scream in pain and reach for him with a desperation that not even I had known could come from me. I felt ashamed.
"I'm not going to give up on you," he added, almost inaudibly. He took his free hand to cover his face, which was contorted in anguish. I pulled myself closer to him and laid my head in his lap. "I will not give up on you because you are the best thing that's happened to me, Shar. And seeing you like this is killing me."
Then Chris began sobbing openly. He sounded so hurt, and for a moment I was angry because he hadn't been in a position like this for ten years, and I was the one with the swollen knee and the low self-esteem and a broken dream. But then I realized that this sudden outburst of emotion came out of his affection for me. I suddenly understood what he was feeling. He had watched the girl, who he had considered his little sister from the get go, make it to Junior Olympics, take the gold, and then led her cross country team to a lesser championship called "nationals" only to come home in a wheel chair and a busted up knee. It was like his protégée had failed at the one thing that he could not achieve.
"God, Shar, why do you have to be like this?" he half shouted. I squeezed my eyes shut, shaking my head slightly as if to say "I don't know". "You're so amazing because you'll never give up, but don't you realize that your stubbornness is going to end up making you a cripple for life? Please, just stop doing this. I can't take it anymore."
"I know, Chris," I whispered, sitting up so that I was mere inches away from his hand-covered face. I gently pried his fingers away to reveal a pained expression. I held his hand in mine, rubbing circles across his knuckles with my thumbs. "I get this pain that you feel, and I realize that I'm causing it. But… running for me is like soccer for you. After your injury, you got up and out of bed to go play soccer. You were still amazing. And better yet, Chris, you showed even more passion for it than ever before. You loved it with all your heart. I… I can't give running up because I love it, too. I just can't explain it, but it's my life."
I hugged him then, and it was more intimate than ever before. He pulled my legs gently closer and over his so that I was perched upon his lap. I clung to him fearfully, and he clung to me as if I was the only thing that mattered to him.
"You've got to understand," I urged in a whisper, brushing back the black hair from his ear. "Please don't let me stop, no matter how much I want to. If you think seeing me in this much pain will kill you, imagine what sitting on the sidelines watching my teammates run will do to me."
His hold on me tightened considerably and I melted into the embrace, savoring the proximity of our bodies. This would the closest I'd ever get to being romantically linked to Chris. And at that moment, as his body racked with sobs beneath mine, I realized that I loved him. I loved him with all my heart.
2014 (Charlene: 18-years-old; Chris: 27-years-old)
"So Sharlene," Dave said with a sad smile. I returned it, wiping away the tears that were brimming in my eyes. "This is your last visit with us."
"Yeah, I guess it is. After, what, nine years, Dave?" I laughed. "I'm really going to miss this place. Like a lot. It's like my second home, and everyone here is like my second family."
"We all love you Sharlene, and we wish you the best at Oregon."
I laughed embarrassedly. "Yeah, me too."
"Don't worry, Sharlene," Dave assured me, clapping a hand on my shoulder. "You're a born runner and I think Oregon is extremely lucky to have you on their side."
"Thanks Dave. That really means a lot to me," I admitted sheepishly.
After my rather traumatic race as a sophomore, Dave had become more of a support system than anyone else. He replaced my mom in every aspect, and he was at every one of my high school meets. He came over every Wednesday to give me a sports massage and he regularly made orthotics for all of my shoes, new and old. In short, Dave was like my dad.
You're probably wondering about Chris. Well, Chris went AWOL about two weeks after that really bad race. He had been avoiding me during the time that it took him to decide whether or not to take off; when I came into Hands On, he'd immediately ask Peggy or someone other than him to bring me back to my exam table, and he'd have Yoshi show me all the new exercises and do the electrical stim. I tried to shake off the feeling that I got from him at first, but when I called him one day and he picked up, he said a lot of really weird stuff.
"Chris? It's me," I said hopefully. There was hesitation on the other line. I could taste is like water running between my tongue and teeth.
"What's up with you?" I asked casually. "You've been avoiding me."
"Uh, yeah, I suppose so," he admitted quietly. Actually, he sounded incredibly distracted. I heard a feminine giggle in the background, which sounded more like a purr than anything.
"Is this a bad time?"
"No, of course not," Chris defended quickly. "I mean, I'm kind of doing something right now, but whatever."
I wanted to tell him it wasn't something he was doing, it was someone, and that I wasn't stupid. I was a big girl and I could take the term 'sex' without cringing.
"Okay, so why are you avoiding me?" I demanded. "I miss you."
He sighed, and I heard him lick his lips and maybe ruffle his hair. "Look, Shar…"
"Oh, I get it. You can call me later," I said in realization. It was what happened between us after the race. He was feeling awkward about it.
"No, let me finish. It's just that… there's this huge age difference between us. Nine and a half years or something like that. I like you a lot. I've always liked you. But… it's just not right. I can't like you. Not like that. You're… Sharlene. You're untouchable."
He likes me, I thought. He really, really does like me. My face felt hot with a blush and I felt giddy in my stomach. Chris, the man that I'd been crushing on for seven years, finally reciprocated the feelings that I longed to share with him. Oh Lord. And even if he was letting me down, albeit not as gently as I would've liked, at least I could see him and know for a fact that I was the object of his affections.
"And I've made the decision. I'm going to take a little, um, vacation. I need to get out of the valley. I just need to clear my head because you've got me all jumbled up inside. I just… I'll see you around."
My face fell gradually, and it felt like he had dropped a rock in my stomach. What the hell was he saying?
"Wait, Chris. Are you… are you like taking off?" I said cautiously. I hoped, prayed, wished that I didn't understand him correctly. "Because if you are-"
"Shar, just stop talking because you're going to make me regret this. Don't call me, but when I'm ready to come back, I'll call you."
He hung up, leaving me alone on one phone line.
The tears didn't come. And the phone call never came.
So it'd been two and a half years since I had last seen Chris. He hadn't contacted me, but I had tried. He changed his number, and that hurt me so deeply that I felt as if I had sunk into a depression. I felt as if he'd abandoned me and didn't care anymore. The man that I loved had taken off and had left me with an immense burden. At least I wasn't pregnant and he was the father, I thought.
"Well okay, Sharlene," Dave said, standing up from his chair. "I'll see you around okay? I'll be at your graduation, but after that, you better stay in touch with me. I'll miss you kid."
"Of course, Dave," I smiled at him. "I wouldn't stop talking to you for the world."
I turned to gather my sports bag and leave when Dave stopped me gently.
"And Chris is doing okay, wherever he is," Dave murmured with the same sympathetic look in his eye that Chris used to give me. "In case you doubt that fact."
"I'm not," I assured him. "He left me-I mean, us, and now I'm over it."
I said goodbye to Yoshi, Peggy, Annette, Angelica, and Mike, but no Chris. He wasn't there, I had to remind myself. Peggy's dog, Teddy came frolicking up to me and I bent down to pet him, promising him that I'd always love him and never forget him. It was a long goodbye because Peggy didn't want me to go and Yoshi wouldn't stop kissing my cheek and Annette had me in her bear hug. Once I broke free of the goodbye party, I headed out to the parking lot where my car was parked.
I fumbled around in my sports bag for the keys, stopping just in front of the trunk to look around some more. It was quite difficult since it was already 7:30 and the light was dwindling fast. When I finally found my keys, I looked up and saw Chris leaning against my car.
"Sharlene," he said as if he meant to explain. He started toward me.
"Wait," I said, holding out a hand to stop him. "What are you doing here?"
"For… us," Chris admitted quietly, gesturing lazily to an invisible, hibernating relationship that existed between us. I didn't lower my hand, but Chris came closer nonetheless. "I fucked up, Sharlene."
"Yeah, you did," I accused haughtily. "You left."
"I know, but now I'm back."
"Don't… don't try that crap with me. What's your excuse? That you were afraid that what happened after that race would turn into something more? If that's it, wow, you're just…" I tried to finish that sentence, but the words stopped in my throat and I swallowed that choking sensation and proceeded to push past him to unlock my car. I was going to say that he was paranoid, but that wasn't the truth. The truth was that he was completely correct because the intimacy shared between us at that moment was unlike anything that we as friends, a couple or whatever we were, had experienced before.
"You know what? I don't really want to hear it anymore," I said, turning around and gesturing madly with my key. "I guess that I should at least be grateful that you did pick up the phone and tell me that you didn't want to be around me anymore, but that just wasn't you and that's why I'm so screwed up about this. I've imagined myself in this position a million times over, but somehow when I get past the 'Oh, Chris! You're back! Where've you been?' part, I can't seem to configure the answer to that question.
"And now I'm not so sure that I want an answer anymore. It'll probably just make me feel sick to my stomach knowing that you went to, let's say Vegas, and hooked up with some stripper all because I had one bad race and we almost exceeded the limits of friends. I'll probably end up being disappointed, but then again, it's not you to disappoint me. You've never disappointed me and you shouldn't have broken that reliability and faith that I found and had in you."
"Sharlene," Chris said sternly. I crossed my arms and jutted out my hip, which I hoped conveyed some of my attitude, and fixed him with a penetrating glare (or at least that's what I hoped it was) and found him to look much older, but still handsome. His face was calm, but his eyes held intensity so bright that I would have been afraid to look into them if tears weren't brimming in them. "I love you."
It took the whole of ten seconds to process what he had said. And still, I found that I couldn't understand that proclamation.
"I know you've probably given up on me by this time," Chris said quickly. "But you're everything to me, and during these past two years, I've really taken the time to sort these feelings out. There wasn't a day that went by when I didn't think about you first thing in the morning or last before I fell asleep at night. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I was home and you were just a ten minute drive away, but realizing that I couldn't go back to you because… of this age difference thing. I've come to really hate that term. It's dirty in the sense that it's keeping me from the person I want to be with for the rest of my life."
"People…" I tried, testing out my vocal cords which felt as if they were recovering from a bad cold, "…should be able to be with whoever they want to be."
"No argument there," Chris laughed lightly.
"I… can't describe how badly you betrayed me. You left me. You left me after you held me and I held you and we let each other cry. You left me after seven years of this… whatever you call it, and then you give me a load of shit and then leave me and then come back and say you love me. All I can say is what the hell."
"I know." He looked so helpless. "I know, I know, I know! Goddammit, I screwed up! But please, Shar, please, just give me a chance."
"I loved you so much. I loved you since the first time I saw you nine years ago. And it hurts so bad right now because I still love you," I admitted with a small sob. Chris' face froze for a moment in its helplessness and desperation before the realization of what I had just said sunk in.
"Then it's settled, right?"
I shrugged as he took a step forward, testing the boundaries. I dropped my sports bag as gooseflesh erupted on my skin. Chris came slowly towards me, gently taking my hands and intertwining our fingers together. I looked up into his amber eyes that had not changed at all since the last time I saw him. His breath was hot against my cheeks as he leaned in. The ghost of his lips brushed mine, and just as we were about to collide-
"Sharlene, you forgot your orthotics!"
-we jumped apart.
As Dave came closer, he seemed to realize that it wasn't just Sharlene, but that there were two people named Sharlene and Chris.
"Chris? Is that you?" he asked, slowing to a hesitant walk.
"Hey Dad," Chris said as I stepped away from him.
"My God, it's really you!" Dave said in disbelief and rushed to hug his son, who reciprocated equally. "My God! Oh Lord!"
"Thanks, Dave, for the orthotics," I mumbled as I went to retrieve them where they lay next to my sports bag because Dave had tossed them away at the sight of Chris. I picked both up and quietly unlocked the car, watching Dave and Chris hug each other fiercely, and Dave laughing and Chris crying. They only noticed that I left when they heard the screech of my car's tires. In my rearview mirror, I saw Chris separate from Dave and look at the tire marks that I left behind.
God, I've graduated, I thought as I walked with Mom to our car. There's a diploma in my hand!
After such a long time of dreaming and planning of the day I'd actually graduate from high school, it'd finally come. And after such a long time of aspiring to go to UC Irvine, it had turned out that I was going to Oregon. I didn't want to admit openly that the whole reason I put aside UC Irvine was because of Chris. It would make me seem boy-crazy and heartbroken. Which I was. But nonetheless, Oregon was a good college too, and I'd fit in there more than anywhere else. I'd be the best I could possibly be.
And I had come to accept that as a fact in my life, that running was my definite route in life and there wasn't anything else that I wanted to do. Actually, in the two years in which Chris was absent from my life, I had felt more distant from the sport I professed to "love" than ever before. I doubted myself as a serious athlete, as someone who was willing to do anything to win. I wondered if I'd be a much happier person without running. If I'd be much different than I was. If I'd still have the same understanding of certain parts of human nature that other people did not. And I didn't dare blame it all on Chris because if I did blame it on him, I would start thinking about him which would take my eye off the prize. That would be something he'd reprimand me for. Just thinking about that would send me into a frenzy of tears. So for two years, I was absolutely Chris-free, and I considered myself over him.
When he came back into my life earlier this year, it seemed almost unrealistic. That the very day in which Dave brings up his son for the first time in two years is the day that said son comes back. Coincidence. For sure because Dave was just as surprised as I was at his reappearance. And this reappearance had led to the point where I almost was satisfied with his return, but it was cut short so I never found out everything I wanted to know. Or feel.
I decided to put such unbecoming thoughts out of my head as I linked my arm with Mom's and rested my head on her shoulder.
"My poor baby's all grown up," she cooed, patting my head as she unlocked the doors.
"Oh, Mom, don't be like that," I laughed, buckling up and turning on the radio as she turned on the ignition.
"So what's in the criteria for tonight, sweets?"
"Probably just relax."
"No fun with friends?" she asked concernedly. I considered that prospect for a moment.
"How about the two of us just go out to dinner and then see a movie, okay?" I compromised. Mom smiled and backed out off the high school's parking lot.
My phone went off at around 3am in the morning quite belligerently. At first I thought it was a part of my dream (which was about an ice cream man being chased by troubadours) but then I realized that it couldn't be because after about two minutes of incessant ringing, I finally opened my eyes and realized that the ringing hadn't subsided with the effects of the dream. Grabbing it quickly, I saw that it was Chris. I was immediately wide awake with a sick feeling in my stomach. I sat up, supporting myself with the hand that did not clutch the (annoying) cell phone and debated whether or not to answer.
Wow, I suddenly thought. If I were three years younger, I would've taken this call without a doubt. But now, oh my God, I was avoiding Chris. I was afraid of him, afraid of what he had to say, and afraid of what I'd say in turn. Who exactly was I now, if I couldn't talk to Chris?
"Hello?" I managed weakly.
"Jeez, it took you long enough to pick up," I heard Chris murmur in faux annoyance.
"Sorry, I was sleeping," I replied with a hint of attitude. "What do you want?"
"Such a greeting. I wanted to see you. You graduated today. Technically yesterday, but you get the picture."
"Why yes I did," I smiled a bit. "And as for seeing me, come pick me up and we can talk then, okay?"
Boldness was something I never really associated with myself. Sure, I had passion and perseverance, but I had never considered myself bold right up until this moment. I hadn't thought that statement through, and to Chris, that could be silently promising him something that I wasn't willing to give.
"Oh, okay. I'm actually right outside," Chris admitted sheepishly. I hung up and darted out of my bed and ran to the window. Pulling back the curtains, I saw Chris' big white pickup outside, and sure enough, there he was leaning against its side adorned in a grey hoodie and his white-framed glasses. He hardly ever wore those, but when he did, it always made him look sexy.
Putting on a pair of jeans over my underwear and slipping on my sneakers, I quietly crept out to the front hall, careful not to wake Mom. My coat hung on the coat tree and I grabbed it hurriedly, stashing my phone in one of the pockets. A few moments later, I was standing five feet in front of Chris. A small smile lit his face in the darkness of the early morning. I hoped I looked a little less tired and a little happier to see him.
"Hi," I whispered.
"Hi," he answered, pushing off and walking towards me. I didn't wait for him to come to me; I met him half way, gazing into his eyes gently.
"So what brings you to stand outside of my house in the middle of the night, Chris?"
"We need to sort things out," he said matter-of-factly. "We need to, erm, decide where we as a-as a couple are going to go from here."
"Sounds smart," I conceded. "So where are we going to go to sort all this out?"
"My place sound good?"
"Only if you drive," I joked, as he went around the side of the pickup to the driver's seat. I found that the passenger's side was already open and I hopped in quietly, buckling up obediently like a child. When he started the ignition and took off down the street, I turned toward him.
"Do you still love me?" I asked, staring at him intently. Chris did a double take.
"Of course I do."
"Okay," I said, relieved in some way, and turned away from him. "I still do too."
I heard Chris snort, and we drove on in silence until we dropped off the freeway, took a right, then a left, and ended up outside an apartment complex, different than the one Chris used to live in. In fact, it was across town from the old one… and closer to where I lived.
"So here we are," Chris said lamely, resting a forearm on the steering wheel and facing me.
"Here we are. Outside your apartment. In your car," I deadpanned.
Without warning, he leaned across the car to cup my cheek with the hand that had been on the steering wheel, and kissed me slowly and deliberately. It was the kiss of a 27-year-old man with chapped lips and calloused hands. I kissed him back, placing a hand over the one that was slipping slowly down my cheek to rest at the curve of my neck. It was a slow kiss at first, to get the hang of the feel of our lips against each other. And then I scooted closer and the speed picked up considerably as I grabbed for him with my other hand and Chris was practically out of his seat in his anticipation. Our mouths were slanting against each other wildly; his hands in my hair, at the base of my skull, and my fingers were tugging at the hair at the nape of his neck. My nose kept bumping against his glasses, so I wrenched them off his face and dropped them somewhere in the backseat. He didn't even seem to notice. Then his mouth left mine to trail kisses down my jaw line and whisper sweet things against my neck. I moaned appreciatively, before pulling away.
"Chris," I whispered, looking at him bleary-eyed and flushed.
"What?" he answered breathlessly. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, I just think that we should maybe get to the talking part now."
"Oh, right," Chris said bashfully and retrieved his glasses before sitting back against his seat. "Wow, you kiss..."
"There'll be time for that later," I reprimanded with a smirk. "Now talk."
"Okay," he conceded. "First, I want to reiterate how sorry I am for these past two years. I shouldn't have done what I did. I just… I needed to get away because I was afraid of what'd happen to us if our friendship was put in jeopardy. I was feeling guilty the whole time because I still remember the time when you were fourteen and you told me how you thought we were so close. That if we were separated for a decade, it'd be no different when we reunited because we have this bond, this relationship. I felt confined," he sighed. "Don't give me that look because that's not what I meant.
"You have this aura that just radiates the need for a significant other. It feels like you need someone to share things with. Since I first met you, I wanted to be that person that you could trust. And when I finally got that… I bolted because I was afraid that I'd screw it up. And I guess I did, but I didn't want to disappoint you either."
"It's true. You've been the one person that has seen me through and through and I was afraid that you would have expectations that both of us knew couldn't be met."
"That's not true. I've always seen you-"
"I know, and I was stupid. But I'm better now, truly I am," Chris insisted. It sounded like he wanted my approval, my blessing, but he already had it. He had had it for nine years. I gestured for him to come closer and he obeyed. I leant my forehead against his and caressed both his cheeks gently with my thumbs.
"Sad boy," I whispered. "It's okay."
His hands came up to rest on my wrists and he gently removed my hands from his face.
"That doesn't make it all better. I want to show you that I can be better than how I've been."
"Then go ahead."
Chris sighed and ruffled his hair in distress, as if he was about to pour his soul out to me. Again. I smiled gently at him.
"Okay…Shar, you've graduated. You're a legal adult at eighteen. You can make your own decisions now, and I know that I haven't been in town that long and we're probably two very different people by now…"
He took another breath, a deeper one that faintly resembled the ones he took when he was completely and utterly content with himself. I cocked my head in anticipation for the rest of his sentence. Chris turned his head to face me slowly.
"Move in with me."
I froze, my smile dissipating as the seconds grew longer.
"I… I don't know what to say," I confessed.
"I don't know what to tell you then," Chris shrugged. "You don't have to say yes, you know. I won't feel any different than I do right now. I'll still see you."
"No, no," I laughed, reaching out to caress his cheek and jaw. "It's just that moving in with you implies that… that we do things that are more than making out."
"Does it now?" Chris smirked and cocked a brow as I dropped my hand sheepishly.
"Well, I think it does."
"It doesn't have to imply anything if you don't want it to," he assured me. "You're still young, and I don't expect you to want to move faster than your own pace, no pun intended."
I laughed at his weak joke, and looked down at my hands.
"Chris, I'd love to move in with you," I whispered. "I…I really, really love you."
"Then it's settled," he murmured, repeating what he had said to me after I reciprocated his feelings toward me. He opened his door and hopped out and came around to open mine. After helping me out, he led me up to his apartment. We stopped right in front of his door. Both of us seemed unsure as to what would happen next. Would we take it to the next level? Would we simply sleep in the same bed, or watch a movie and fall asleep on the couch together? What would happen?
"I've never had a woman in my apartment before," Chris admitted sheepishly. "You're the first, Shar."
"Should I feel honored?"
We both laughed quietly and a bit shyly.
"So, are you going to open that door, or are we going to stand out here freezing our butts off?" I asked as my teeth started to chatter. In response, Chris hugged me to him, resting his chin atop my head.
"I'll open the door after I tell you something."
"I'm being serious now, Sharlene," Chris chided. "I want to let you know that I'm all in for this to work. I love you and I'm here for you. The moment you step into that apartment is the moment that you step into my life outside of being the son of your physical therapist. I've always been in every aspect of your life, and now I want you to be in mine. You are the most amazing person that I know and I want you to see just how amazing I can be."
"Cocky, but okay," I snickered, pulling away from him just enough so that I could look him in the eye seriously. "Open the door, Chris."
Review please! I know, not entirely realistic... but you know what? You can tell me that in your review!