“We know only that in the earliest Greek poets a new point of view dawned, never dreamed of in the world before them, but never to leave the world after them.”
“Mythology,” Edith Hamilton
It is the middle of March in Troy. You are more than fourteen and a half, and your knuckles are tight from the cold as you wait at the Athens High School Track and Field Invitational for your main event — the two-hundred-meter dash. Track is the only sport at your school that gives out letters, stiffly embroidered A’s made of red on white on gold felt, just for being on the team. You had joined six weeks ago, but because that not-quite-scarlet A for participation was all you’d originally wanted (to fatten an already burgeoning college application), you have let most of the season pass you by. Race after race, the other girls, with their spaghetti-colored, spaghetti-straight hair, have leapt into and dashed out of the corner of your eye, and you have never placed higher than last. Today, however, your expectations are great. Today is the day you will use your home field advantage as an Athens Redhawk to not only put an end to this losing streak, but win a ribbon — maybe even first place. Last semester in English class, you aced “The Odyssey” final exam, but you have no sense of Homeric irony; and you will know nothing of Greek tragedy until, years later, you rush an Ivy League sorority that shuts the door on your hopes for intellectual sisterhood. And yet, and yet — here you are, setting the stage for a drama of epic proportions.
For the purpose of this drama, you must first finish assembling the characters. From the middle of the grassy oval field where you are to be stretching with your teammates, you look to the bleachers. The meet has attracted an impressive crowd, including runners from all the county high schools and their parents. You had told your parents four o’clock. To be here on time, Odysseus will have taken off of work early. He will have come home to find Penelope waiting with tea and a snack fit for the gods. While eating, he will likely tell her to be quick about getting Telemachus, an eight-year-old with a wise face, ready. You continue scanning the over-burdened rows, confident that soon, soon–
Ah, there is Odysseus — recently middle-aged, cigarette in one hand, binoculars in the other. He is an engineering type, crafty but soft-spoken, dark-skinned (though in a Greek way, of course), curly-haired, and Romanly nosed. Although he has his silences, Odysseus can be charming, especially when he thinks he’s on the brink of a new adventure. You have his nose.
Odysseus’ newest adventure is the latest in a string of jobs, and on his face is the clean-cut excitement for unknown peoples and demanding technological feats. The roads he’s designed, the highway overpasses, the complex additions to a chemical refinery — the last time you saw him this lively was ten months ago when he brought you to Troy to upgrade a power plant. Before Troy, you had lived in Euclid, Ohio — a perfectly agreeable city — and before Euclid, there was St. Louis, Atlanta, Houston, and two other cities in the Lone Star state, interrupted by a spell in North Carolina. When it comes to wandering aimlessly, Odysseus has a perfect track record: he never lingers anywhere longer than a year. Twelve months are all he needs to detect that a place isn’t quite home and to move on — and to move you on with him. So far, you have not resisted his treks northward and middle-westward, not really. But Athens is your eighth school in nine grades, and so you intend now to draw the line in Troy. Michigan, you’ve reasoned, is Midwestern enough.
And there, standing beside Odysseus, is Penelope. She is small and delicate, with beautifully small and delicate features, lovely, almost-hazel eyes, dark middle-parted hair that is caught low in a perpetually perfect bun. You have nothing of hers. It’s bleakly clear from the old photo albums that Penelope was even lovelier at your age, and has never in fact not been lovely. But lately an irritation has been living inside her voice as fire lives inside a match. There are things you can say that, before you finish, provide the igniting rasp, and she can look at you, eyes burning, as if she doesn’t know who you are, or how you found your way into her story.
Unlike Odysseus, who frets over the distant horizons, promotions and college admissions, Penelope’s concerns are far more localized. She is anxious about her blessed son, whom you cannot see from the center of this makeshift, secondary-school amphitheater, and, of course, about you — the son because he cannot speak a word of his mother tongue and you because you can, but refuse to. Plus there is some uneasiness because you are tall, your skin is not flawless nor creamily complected, your hips are already (thanks to Odysseus’ side of the family) wider than Penelope’s, and you do not always smile when cued. Also, while you still believe that your marriage will be arranged, you are beginning to voice suspicions that this practice may not be in keeping with the national character. A few months ago, you asked Penelope did she and Odysseus ever go steady. “Go steady?” she said, her accent suddenly prominent around the unfamiliar words. “What questions you are asking, Mina. You know we met on the day we were married.” How much more romantic it would have been if she had said–even if only for your benefit — the inverse: that they got married on the day they met?
One summer day not long from now, you will observe the Odysseus and Penelope sitting together in the front seats of an interminable road trip, the empty, parched interstate whirring by, and you will suddenly think you’ve pinpointed the reason behind Odysseus’ endless wandering: it’s her. This Odysseus brings Penelope along wherever he goes, and since she is always with him, there is nothing to distinguish his destination from any of the cities along the way. Without a Penelope to mark the end of his journey, your Odysseus (unlike, say, Homer’s) is suspended in a paradox of his own making. When you see this mistake on the way to the Grand Canyon, it will inspire a strangely tender feeling. On other occasions, another kind of tender feeling will be brought forth by Odysseus’ mention of a place lying between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This place is a far and distant kingdom, and in it there is a city with a princely, bejeweled past, wondrous riches, and fabulous buildings, a city where Odysseus and Penelope and — you’ve been told, though you can hardly believe it–you yourself were born. Odysseus’ eyes become soft and red whenever he speaks of this Ithaca — remembering horse-riding lessons, fairy-book hill stations, beloved manservants. Having been to this place before, most recently when you were seven and its food frightening and foreign (rice licked off hairy fingers), you have, already, many times, wondered at the powerful spell the kingdom seems to have cast on Odysseus, so blinding that he can’t see its filthy, garbage-strewn streets, the clutching, hollow-faced beggars, its glowing, miserable heat, and insectful discomforts. In the midst of such considerations, the tender feeling gnaws at you, sits like a hard stone in the middle of your chest. But then you remember all the many cities of his restless travels, the unnecessarily frequent and unfailingly chaotic dislocations, and the feeling quickly burns up.
In any case, fourteen and a half is not an age of sympathy. It is a time for action, a time when a girl must seize the reins of the journey, even if this means casting herself as the daughter Odysseus never had. Some day you may decide that the inflation of this moment was naïve, its consequences falsely perceived, yet you will still mark this day as the one on which you ran for your life.
* * *
In the meantime, it is still spring 1987, and the boy next to you is warming up. Between lunges, he tells you: “Keep your knees low when you’re in the blocks.” He is the fastest boy in school. From the one-hundred to the eight-hundred meters, he has broken the records for almost all the races, and everybody agrees that as a sophomore he has plenty of time to shatter the one for the metric mile. (Later today, he will.) Out of pity or to prepare his star-runner for the responsibilities of being team captain or simply in the interest of saving time, the coach has, since you approached him last week expressing an interest in no longer losing, made you and the boy partners. You are under strict orders to learn from him, do as he does.
“Don’t think of it as jumping when you come out,” the boy says. “It’s more like a crawl.” The wind lifts a tassel of brown hair off his brow, and briefly — just briefly — you see the eyes that have earned him the name Blue Streak. Another gust sends the sides of his bright red tracksuit flapping.
“A really fast crawl,” you say. To make sure you are stretching properly, you watch him and imitate: you spread your legs and with your right hand reach across to your left foot, making it only to the knee.
“Well, yeah. Fine, more like a spring then — a pounce.” He begins demonstrating, backing his long legs into imaginary blocks that are set in a medium start, which is the position you and he have decided best fits your qualities as a runner, for it most quickly puts the runner in stride.
The boy is right, of course. A pounce is exactly how the experts would describe the motion. The mechanics of sprinting, as you’ve studied them in the musty books from the second-floor school library, are finely evolved: The front leg, the “power” foot (in your right-handed case, this means the left), must be held at a 90-degree angle to the front block, which is placed approximately 14 to 21 inches behind the starting line. The toe of this power foot is what is placed on the proverbial “mark.” The back leg is at 120 degrees, with its knee opposite the toe of the power foot, and the space between the feet is 16 to 21 inches. The books concede that all bodies are not the same but even those not designed for sprinting (or any apparent athleticism) can, nevertheless, through proper alignment and posture, optimize the transfer of power and momentum and achieve greatness in sprinting speed — and thereby confirm an ideal of Humanism: that when refined, the body’s abilities can pull off feats typical of the gods.
“You see how I’m tucked here?” the boy mumbles, his face down between his arms, which are perfectly straight under the shoulders, not the least bit hyper-extended, though his shirt has ridden up and exposed a caravan of lumbar. The caravan surges forward, dipping under the lightly brown dunes of the skin, and in one stroke he has risen, expertly countering the off-centering torque, to a full stride, three long magnificent leaps, arms at the ready.
He comes back and stands before you, squinting. “See that? That’s what the coach means when he says ‘uncurl’ out of the starting position. But you just stand right up.”
“I do?” you say, your head having to tilt up to meet his gaze. “When?”
“All the time,” he says, shrugging. He brings his hands out in front, as if he were holding an imaginary loaf of bread. “You got to keep your hips tilted forward and down.” He squeezes his fingers together, tips his hands toward the grass, and extends his arms. Forward, down. He repeats the motion a few times, thrusting your extremely narrow “hips” away from his wide, flat chest. As far as you know, he speaks to no one else — no other female runner, at least — with this intimate, instructional intensity.
“The idea is to–” He pauses, his features endearingly perflexed.
“Maximize acceleration in the forward direction?” you offer.
The mechanics of solids are time-tested, and though you are new to their application in athletics, it is an assimilation based on familiars: the reliable and measured laws of Newton — in other words, aspects of inertia, acceleration, equal-opposite forces; in other words, elementary physics; in other words, your best subject. Thanks to this happy coincidence, your training this past week has been made exact by what you have learned is an oft-neglected muscle by coaches and dedicated student-athletes alike: the mind. In the mind, muscles and bones act as first-order levers, and the arms at 90-degrees swing about like simple pendulums. Usually when you translate the boy’s advice into these kinds of scientific terms, he says “What’s that?” and then “Oh, right” and sometimes falls silent. But he doesn’t seem displeased, and yesterday you overheard him explain to the coach that momentum is always conserved.
Today he just continues frowning and rakes a hand through the unruly chestnut strands at his forehead.
“Look,” he says, “it’s like being a cat. Do you have a cat? Okay, never mind. This is you.” There is the loaf of bread again, squeezed fingers turn the loaf into hips, but this time the hands pivot upward, turn in a dive downward, and then surge forward and away. “See it?” he asks, and when he repeats the motion, his hands appear clearly as though they are going over a speed bump before extending out. “You can’t let that happen. You’ve got to concentrate on staying close to the ground, and anticipate–”
“But I thought I was.”
“Last week, at Lake Orion, the gun went off and you stood up and started looking around like you were surprised or something.”
Last week, you had in fact been surprised, had surprised yourself, but not because you hadn’t been concentrating on the race. You’d actually been thinking about the finish, imagining one different from any you’d ever known: A nail-bitingly close victory — glory, triumph, receiving warm, breathy whoops of congratulations, being swept up on your teammates’ shoulders, the coach’s begrudging wonderment at your heretofore untapped ability, the coach tallying scores, yours being the one that sealed the team’s success. Everything in this vision, even the singing on the way home on the bus about bottles of beer, added up to create a sweet sensation of being essential, needed by others. The happy ending came to you like a calling; you woke to it. These would be the heady spoils of lingering in a known place, and of course that place would have to be Troy. Troy, where even Homer’s mighty Odysseus had had to bend to the will of the gods: hanker down and stay for a good ten years.
Last week, you think now, was a different world, a time when you and the boy were hardly acquainted, and you are at first pleased with his unsolicited attention. “I didn’t know you were watching.”
The boy shakes out his long legs, then taps the dirt out of his soles. “Well, everybody was watching,” he says. He raises his arms high, two pink blooms radiating under his tanned cheeks.
Your own face burns against the icy air as you suddenly imagine how your race must have looked from the outside. At the tail end of your vision, while watching the back of your competitors’ legs pump away from you, you had remembered what you were supposed to be doing, but when your own legs had finally gotten going, they had moved stickily, as if the bottom of your shoes were lined with gum.
The boy claps his hands together. “Okay, I think that’s enough stretching. How about five around the track and two bleacher climbs? You should be pretty warm by then.” As is his routine, the boy stays with you for the first few minutes, making recommendations about your striding form that you wish you could hear better over your ragged breathing, and then with a “Remember to stay down,” he speeds up to his own pace.
You take the rest of the warm-up slow. You are a sprinter only because the team needs two of them per metered dash. To promote a vigorous competition, the coach always puts the other girl, the one who usually wins, in the center lane, because she inspires those around her to run faster. He makes you wait on the sidelines, a meaty hand on your left shoulder, until all the first-string starters have chosen their positions and then you are freed to fill up whatever spot is left.
This coach, a round man who keeps his day planner tucked in the back of his pants, doesn’t regard the mind as being critical to achieving Track and Field excellence. He seems in fact not to have a working knowledge of mechanics, much less their applications to the body. This disappointing show has led you to take as your surrogate coaching mentor a Mr. Geoffrey H. G. Dyson, author of “The Mechanics for Athletes.” Mr. Dyson clearly understands how “mechanics is an essential tool with which to distinguish between important and unimportant, correct and incorrect, cause and effect, possible and impossible,” and his teachings have led you to decide that today you will slip out of your coach’s restraining grasp and take your place early — in lane one, beside the grass, where your teammate in lane four is close enough that her trailing aerodynamics can help you and far enough that her striding, sweatless grace doesn’t intimidate.
Each time you jog by the bleachers you avoid looking up. Now that you know Odysseus and Penelope are here, you ought to relax a bit. In running, having a strong power of inhibition means possessing the ability to block out distractions.
You decide to complete an extra lap, to warm up your muscles thereby decreasing their viscosity. The suspense will do Odysseus and Penelope some good. They have never attended a track meet before, so there is plenty for them to see.
A couple of weeks ago, your father came home from a trip out of town with a face that said a moment before he did: “You’ll like Omaha.”
“Another state line?” you asked. You were setting the table, and the roti plate landed with a clatter.
“Come on, Mina,” he said, with a thin but friendly smile. “What are state lines? Nothing when you have stepped over oceans.”
When you reminded him that he may have stepped over but that you were carried, he said: “Just give it a chance. You know how these places are. One and the same.”
That night, dinner became, predictably, a well-considered presentation of the civic attributes of Omaha, Nebraska.
“I spoke with some people,” your father said between the tidy nivaalahs he always made, rounding up, with a quick turn of his right wrist, a little pyramid of keema and a little daal — not a drop of food spilling nor smudging the front of his long fingers. “They are saying Westfield High is one of the best in the country. All the Ivies are recruiting there. You and I can even go visit next month.”
He started in then on Great Plains, fresh air, orderly cattle ranches, and efficiently-designed corn fields, describing them as if they were the jewels of the continent, as if he’d actually managed to see each of these wonders during his one day of interviewing.
“The sky is all around you, Mina — three hundred and sixty degrees. Nobody there looks up to see a cloud.”
This is how it always happens, you thought, your ears tingling. For Euclid, he’d promised you a glittering lake — five of them in fact, each as large as a sea — where you all might rent boats, watch storm swells, try fishing; he lured you to St. Louis with a “silver arch so big the airplanes fly through”; North Carolina had had green, green mountains and tobacco plantations straight out of his (and, you’ll learn later in life, every Indian ex-pat’s) favorite American movie, “Gone with the Wind.” Rodeos, Six Flags, Motown, RenCen, the most center of the country, the most northern latitude anyone in your family has ever lived at, the birthplace of the car, the birthplace of the light bulb, the place where the ice cream cone had been invented — he has tricks, this father of yours, and you have fallen for them all. You have participated in the enthusiasm of these discoveries, or rather been overcome by the allure of them, and you have both participated and excelled in those adventures he constantly suggests you must be having everyday at school. You have bested others with your prodigal prowess: aced exciting tests, conquered quiz bowls, mixed chemicals to lead victories in science Olympiads, vice-presidented math clubs, topped honor rolls, starred as a prosecutor on the mock trial team, hawked school-spirit tumblers as the Junior Achievement VP of marketing, made valedictory speeches, and been awarded time and again for upright citizenship and first-rate attendance. But you have never stayed long enough to actually go to the lake, to see the cowboys and other kind of Indians, to ride the Demon Drop.
“And the cows,” your father continued, “each has three, four acres to himself.”
The major export of Omaha was beef, apparently — beef as far as the eye could see. Sharing this fact, he laughed delightedly and shook his head. “My God, I have never seen anything like it — and we think our people treat them like royalty.”
You found yourself thinking hard. Somewhere in what he was saying, there was a flaw, a tautology.
“Where else can such a thing exist but America?” he asked, and you finally felt your mind turn the corner. Yes of course, you thought. Of course. How can all these places have, as he claims, unique and wonderful qualities if they are, as he also claims, all the same?
“I bet it’s possible to not to see a person for 10, 15 miles,” your father said, as if this would be a heartening circumstance.
“I thought we moved here because Troy schools are the best.”
“They’re better in Omaha.”
“But we’ve only been here half a year,” you said.
“We’re not moving tomorrow, Mina,” he told you, shaking his curly head again, so reasonable, such friendly scorn. “You can finish this year out. I’ll go there first. You all can join me when your school is over.” He turned to address your brother, generously ascribing some of the difficulty he was facing to him. “Try to understand,” he said. “When a person changes his job, he has to go where it takes him. This is just the way–” He paused when your mother came back into the room, carrying a fresh bowl of rice. Then, looking down at his plate, he shrugged. “Who knows?” he said lightly. “Maybe we’ll even get a house.”
Your mother’s eyes flashed up to your father’s face, the pleasure on her own spiking — eyebrows open, lips unfrowning, cheeks bright and curious, but then this expression was brought into control (for your mother doesn’t like shows of natural emotion; it is not in her culture). But the pleasure, you saw, was still there. Duped, you thought, we’ve all been duped. The house business was simply part of the trick — a glittering prospect that he had employed before as bait, even though it was an improbability, given the fact that you all have lived in apartment complexes the entire life of your memory.
Now, with a lovely bloom still evident in her pale cheeks, your mother served your father another ladle of daal.
“Are you being fired?” you said.
“Mina!” Your mother’s voice was shocked, but in an automatic way.
“What a thing to say?” Now the softness of her cheek was replaced with hard-skinned alarm. “Has anyone ever spoken to one’s parents in such ways?”
You paused briefly here. It was a curious question, the second. Well, of course, someone has, you think. Someone must have — though perhaps it may seem legitimately unthinkable to a person who calls her own father, you discover as you translate the oh-so-Lucknawi construction, “My Dear Sir.” But for now, you return your attention to your father, who is absorbed in forming another bite on his plate. “Why–”
“Yes?” your mother said, watching you watch your father, the flicker in her eyes threatening to flare.
Your brother by now had slipped low in his seat, his curly hairline hovering just above the plane of the dining table.
“Is there something you are saying?” your mother asked.
“Why can’t you just keep the job you have?” you said, then ran from the dinner table. From the hallway, you heard your mother’s words echo: “You shouldn’t be tolerating this. You are spoiling her.” Your father gave some reply, but you couldn’t make it out. Then she went on: “Just finish your food. No, leave her. She will be fine,” thus, concluding what you felt were precisely the kinds of moments in which she betrayed you that stung the most — that is, when she tried to get your father to share her high faith in your durability.
Of course she’ll be fine, you thought tearfully, slamming the door to your room. She’s been fine before. And before. And before.
* * *
A little while later, when you snuck out into the hallway, your parents were speaking in low murmurs; there was laughter even, and the dishwasher going. You grabbed the cordless phone and slammed the door to your room again.
You called your friend Steven to break the news of your moving. Having never lived outside of Troy, he took it hard. “Can your dad just do that?”
“He’s done it before,” you said, in a weary voice.
“But we need you,” Steven continued, “for the team.” Though Steven preferred cross-country, he ran the 1600m and 3200m for Track to speed up the first halves of his longer races. He had, therefore, seen you run. You had the decency to laugh.
“No, I mean it,” he said. He explained that to qualify for the Invitational, each school had to have a minimum number of runners and backups. “Jamie’s sick and Sue is saying her mom won’t let her come back, but everybody knows it’s because she’s saving her precious ankle for tennis. See, you can’t go.”
You explained that your parents didn’t care about sports, probably didn’t even know you were on the team.
“You could stay at my house,” Steven said. “It’ll be like boarding school.” In his house, he continued, you could share his room, nobody’d mind, as you were quiet, nobody’d even notice as long as you didn’t eat much. He told you which shelves you could take, how much closet space, offered the other half of his bed. He began then elaborating on the bed part and was describing the parameters of second base when there was a knock on your bedroom door. You instinctively covered the mouthpiece.
“Mina, who are you talking to?” Your father knocked again, softly.
You were about to give your usual reply: “Stephanie,” when he, your father, said,”Listen, it is not all set.”
Your mother would have opened the door, barged in at any time, especially at such times. But not him. He had finer, more strategic methods.
“I’ve got to go,” you said, in a whisper, to Steven.
“You and I can visit,” your father continued, gentle-voiced, “and see the place. Decide then.”
Not all set — these words held you like a siren song. Not all set. Tears, you knew most definitely now, would not keep you out of Omaha. Tears were childish — fluid, ineffectual. No, the time now was not for weeping, nor for conventional displays. It was a time for reflection and silence.
“Mina, are you listening?”
Silence: an oath of it, stony, sacred, like that of those white-eyed figures in your Western Civ textbook.
“Beta, are you in there?”
Like that of those curly-haired, chadar-wearing statues on the field trip to the DIA. Absolute, non-negotiable silence.
* * *
Lake Orion was an older school than Athens, its track cracked and dangerously pitched. On the bus home from the meet, Steven was morose. “Who knows when I’m going to see you again, Mina.”
“Tomorrow in Math,” you said absently. The low afternoon sun whirled from one side of the bus’ grey-green interior to the other, brightening the scratches in the windows then sliding off, leaving you and your teammates to travel along in customary dimness. At the front of the bus, the coach rose, twisted (with some difficulty, it seemed), and drew his “playbook” from his pants. Leaning backward on a slab of green seating, he began making announcements. He congratulated the winners of today’s meet, and reminded everyone about the extra practices that had been scheduled in preparation for the Invitational next weekend.
“You know what I mean,” Steven said. “Who knows when I’m going to meet another person like you?” He was narrow-faced, with thick lips and a surprisingly deep voice, which dropped just then. “Come on, will you at least think about it?”
You were quiet, feeling aware suddenly how the question had changed. That is, how the “it” had changed subjects.
“Will you?” he asked in a whisper.
The coach ended with a special note of congratulations for Michael. He enumerated achievements — how many races won, how many seconds shaved, how close “we” were to the county record — making it clear that he expected, after each success mentioned, applause that was just as lavish and courting.
Michael was sitting in the seat ahead of you and Steven. You could see the back of his head, smooth hair trimmed neatly down to an eighth of an inch of his scalp. He didn’t stir. There was not one acknowledgement of the hoots and cheering. The head held steady, perfectly at attention. This was also how he sat in front of you in Advanced Chemistry.
“I might not be moving,” you said aloud. Once you had looked over Michael’s shoulder, and found him reading a pamphlet that he’d tucked inside his textbook. It was illustrated with a grid of nine small photographs of the beginning of a race. At first glance, the photos appeared identical, but actually they were time-lapsed frames of nearly the same instant, one at which the running figures were coming out of their blocks, rising with fractionally different rates and forms.
“I thought you said it was for sure,” Steven said. “That it’s always for sure.”
“It might be different this time.”
“Really?” he said. You wondered if you heard some disappointment.
The coach had finished his speech and turned away to speak with the bus driver. Michael had put on headphones. His ears were pressed unevenly, the left more than the right. And now you saw that the skin on his neck was flushed, the red splotches irregular like stains.
“Well?” you heard Steven say.
“Well,” you said, “you’re going to be at the Invitational, right?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“If I win — if I can show him that I’m part of a team–”
“Never mind,” you said, but a plot had begun hatching.
Steven sighed deeply, and after a moment, he said, “It’s going to be weird without you around.”
“Your grades won’t like it.”
“Come on, Mina. You always make jokes.” He slid down, dispiritedly dug his knees into the back of the seat in front, where no one was sitting beside Michael. “It’s not like going all the way or something.”
You had a sense of what this meant, but strictly in theory. All the way — yes, that was the dangerous limit, the real risk. Short of this, there was nothing really. And technically speaking you had never been forbidden to go short of all the way. Nor, for that matter, had you been forbidden to go all the way — not in so many words. That neither of your parents knew the words to formalize these prohibitions was also a technicality, but still.
“Okay,” you said.
“Okay what?” Steven said, suspiciously.
“Can what?” he asked, greedy again.
“We can do something.” But still there was no image, of people, of entwinement, not with Steven. In passing, you wondered — or maybe this was a thought you had later, or a way of thinking you adopted later — What does this person want? What does he believe about me?
The next day, you and your brother were at the dinner table, hunched over separate copies of the Qur’an-shareef. A rupatta was sliding back off the top of your head, while a small, white skullcap was stably centered on his. Your mother sat between you two, at the head of the table. Her filmy pink rupatta was tied perfectly around her head, ears covered, not one hair escaping. To you this style had always looked and felt like poking your face through those theme-park photo displays with scenery on the other side, where your features might be supplying the missing expression of a dinosaur or a sea captain, though you never knew because the back side was blank.
Next to you, your brother was rocking back and forth, trance-like, babbling out the Arabic in an Americanized accent. Though six years younger, he had somehow, since these home-school recitation lessons began last fall in Euclid, gained an alien-like expertise, and the language gushed out of him with vigor, seeming to encounter none of the resistance it found in your body. It was as if the child had no windpipe, epiglottis, tongue, teeth, lips, not a single dense intervening thought, as if it didn’t disturb him in the least bit that the two of you were being required to recite something–perhaps make pledges, who knows — in a language neither of you nor your parents understood. He, for example, had never once stopped to ask your mother what this word might mean, or how come she herself didn’t know, and why you had to “read” this book in this way just because she had.
Although you didn’t give voice to any such questions today, you were officially speaking to your mother, for you had realized, shortly after taking your oath of silence, that to not communicate with her would make the daily logistics of life nearly impossible. But your mother had made the last few days difficult anyway, contrived to make you deliver things to your father (cups of tea, briefcases, newspapers, etc.) and lectured you endlessly about the words you were not saying to him: “You must stop this, Mina. You think this is a game, but peoples’ feelings are hurt.”
If you were in any mood to appreciate the strategic talents of others, you’d have admitted that, rhetorically speaking, this was a brilliantly constructed trap, designed to elevate you but also, simultaneously, make sure you knew your place. But you were in no such mood. Indeed a sense of urgency had come over you ever since the Lake Orion meet yesterday, and left you with two competing visions: one of uncommon athletic victoriousness; and the other of something more elusive, but also involving a victory of sorts. This second vision was of Homecoming, the dance next fall, around the corner really, and the possibility that if you were to stay in Troy this summer and dedicate yourself to Track practice, the chances of the boy with the blue eyes and the skin-splotching modesty asking you to go to the dance with him might increase. You imagined meeting him in the school’s field on dewy, quiet mornings, running beside him, breathless while he explained the efficient intricacies of his body. You imagined him stopping you one day, the day you could keep up to his pace, and saying, “Hey, did you know there’s a dance tonight?”
Just then the phone rang, and your mother rose to answer.
It was your father, who would, apparently, be working late. Your mother caught your eye and pointed down to the book, then she herself lingered on the phone girlishly.
The black calligraphy, ornate and large, loomed, each letter as big as the top segment of your index finger, which you must, humiliatingly, drag from right to left as you sounded out the words and conjoining symbols. Alif zabar laam–al. Hay zabar meem–ham. Lately, your parents had begun looking into Nebraskan neighborhoods and strategizing about real estate; they’d been studying maps and making appointments with someone in Omaha named Ruth Ann. Ruth Ann had called today, your mother told your father, with some new listings. Daal paysh–doh. Doesn’t she know that he was toying with her? Why would this time be any different when he still had the perfect excuse? When he could always reason — and make her ultimately agree — that for now the house must sacrificed for the chance to give you and your brother a superior education? Laam zayr laam–lil. It was a sham. Laam zabar alif–la. A dirty trick. Hay zayr yay–hay. But, as so many times before, your mother was letting herself fall for it. She was softening to the talk of backyards and laundry rooms and kitchen islands and guest bathrooms. You could hear it in her voice, even as your own was struggling with the long, awkwardly holy vowels and the strange swallowed sounds. Ray zabar bay–rub. Bay zayr laam–bil. And you could see it in the way your parents had for this past week presented a decidedly united front. Which would not do. It would simply not do.
“Alhamdo-lillahay-rubbilallameen,” your brother chimed from across the table, looking up through his absurdly long eyelashes.
Your mother got off the phone; you pulled your tongue back in. She slipped her rupatta off her head and announced merrily that today’s lesson was over and that you all would be having pizza tonight. Your brother let out a cheer, but you sensed the undercurrents: tonight a declaration of truce would be proposed, no-fault apologies would be exchanged, bygones would have to become bygones.
“I’ll order it,” you said to your mother, and she was so pleased, as if you’d offered to cook an eight-course meal.
* * *
A couple of hours later, your father arrived, and in the hallway, you said “Hello” and quenched a stab of guilt when he brightened with surprise. “Hello, there, Miss Mina,” he said, pausing from taking off his coat to muss your hair.
You helped set the table and when the pizza came, you made yourself wait until your mother had opened the lid enough. “What is it?” you asked casually, when you saw the frown form.
You came around the table and peered over her shoulder. “Oh, no,” you said — tried to, at least — without excitement. “Sausage.” There it was, bits of fried-brown lying between the onions and green peppers.
Your mother’s nose wrinkled further, and she immediately shut the grease-stained lid.
And on the other pie, there was pepperoni.
“They must have made a mistake,” you said. “I said peppers, hot peppers. I always say that.” Can a person be avidly glum? Can such an emotion exist, and if so, isn’t this the very sentiment that should be kept off your face at such a moment? “I can’t believe they got it wrong.”
“Check the receipt,” your mother said, closing the second lid. She stacked the boxes together and placed them at the end of the kitchen counter. She wouldn’t touch them now.
“They forgot to give us one,” you said quickly.
“Just call them and make them take it away.”
Your father, loose-tied, with dark circles under his eyes, looked at his watch. “Arré, they must be closed. No matter.”
“Of course there is matter,” you mother said, sharp-voiced now.
“We’ll get this business off, Farzana. Use paper towels, or just wash it. What can we do now?”
“You can’t just wash it,” your mother said.
“What — should it all go to waste then?”
A standoff ensued in the classic sense: husband and wife, equally unbending.
Here, you stepped forward to propose a compromise. The pepperoni was a lost cause indeed. You would take that pizza to a friend’s house tomorrow. But the other one could be salvaged, could it not? With some simple efforts?
On your prompting, you and your father began to use tissues and forks, and work like surgeons on your separate halves — you averting your nose theatrically from each crumble of sausage as though it were an offensive gallstone or tumor.
“There,” your father said, when the main part of the operation was completed. “Napkin.”
You handed him a dampened paper towel, and he began dabbing off the remaining juices.
Your mother looked on with undiminished unease. “There is some daal still from yesterday.”
Your father scowled — now you saw the hurt feeling that she claimed only you could draw forth — and you stepped in again. She could have the daal, the three of you would eat this, and we would all make the best of it.
You took her daal from the fridge and put it in the microwave, also transferred a naan from the freezer to the toaster oven, set a slice of pizza on your brother’s plate then served your father. With each action, you were implicitly admonishing rash behavior and appealing by example to their better, more rational selves. Once the daal was microwaved and the naan warmed, you sat down at the table of the apology dinner, and for good measure you bit into a spongy slice of pizza before continuing. It was juicier than usual, with a sharp, smoky fragrance.
In between bites, you mentioned that this making-the-best-of-it-quality was something you had picked up from sports, and you made, as if it were just occurring to you, an analogy: Families are much like sports teams. In both everybody makes a commitment, contributes to the common goal, works together from one season to another — and continuity is prized above all. “Sometimes,” you continued, “a family’s and a team’s goals can overlap.”
Your family ate and listened with uncharacteristic docility.
You had recently discovered that most of your classmates were the children of hippies. By such equivalencies, and factoring in the socio-political climate of India in the 1950-60s, you had concluded that you therefore were a child of the grandparents of hippies, people who had reliable (but, in many ways, timid) successes planned for your future: a respectable education at a universally admired university, a steady job in an enduring industry, perhaps an advanced degree and — your mother often interrupted your father to say — a decently arranged marriage, of course. Your parents believed (as you, frankly, did too) that each of these plans, down to the marriage, depended on your getting good grades at the best of secondary schools.
“Grades are number one,” you assured them now, but — you risked adding — since joining the Track team you had learned that there were, in the American system, other important factors to scholastic life and college-prepping, and that because you were a member of this team, people — such as your coach, your fellow runners — were counting on you.
Your father’s interest was piqued, an impressed gleam edged his eye, and the more you spoke, the clearer it became that the conflict of interest you had on your hands–that is, his interest in going versus yours in staying in Troy — was one of epic proportions. And that your father was not merely on obstacle, but your adversary, albeit blood-tied and beloved, but an adversary nonetheless — and an eminently crafty and worthy one at that. Conflicts inevitably drift toward resolution, but the resolution in this case could not, must not, be left to fate or the whimsy of a restless man. No, this conflict would need drama: raised expectations, high stakes, unexpected turns, a nail-biting climax, the whole shebang.
You began describing the Invitational that was coming up and the prestige your school would enjoy by both hosting and participating in it. You spoke of the magnitude of seconds, and the keen importance of shaving these slips of time from one’s efforts. Gazing down at your family’s submissively curious faces, you felt as if you were at the valedictorian height of your powers of persuasion. You told them about the potentially Olympic caliber of your team’s star runner, and you borrowed some of the coach’s words to say that he — meaning the star — could not do it alone. He needed your support, the support of his team to go all the way: all-state, all-American. Implicit in your words was a challenge that your father would surely recognize: if you win the race, the family stays here; if you lose, Omaha it is. But you knew you wouldn’t lose because whenever you applied yourself, you always won. Plus this time you had a secret weapon: the star runner Michael, whom you’d helped get through last week’s Chemistry lab. You would train as he trained, eat what he ate, read what he read. And if he gave you a sports pamphlet to study, you would sneak it into textbooks as he did. You would live in his world for this coming week, and — you dared to think — perhaps for much longer.
You didn’t of course mention all these details to your parents. Instead you broke off with a solemn, steadfast air. Did they finally see, you implored, what you’d been trying to tell them for so long: that the reason you couldn’t possibly leave Troy was because you were a winning component of a winning team?
During your final warm-up lap, you hear the coach announce that it is time to head for the bleachers. You deposit your tracksuit in a pile with the others. The spring lays its icy fingers on your bare legs. In row H of the home team section, you see Odysseus don his binoculars. You wave and point to the reserved aisle of the stands where you must first join your teammates for the drill.
All the time you are climbing up and down the metal steps, you feel the binoculars on you, and when you finally go to talk to Odysseus and Penelope, you find yourself at a strange loss, not sure what to say or how to stand, as though you’ve lost all your new-found powers. “Runners will often hold their hands in a very taut manner, extending the fingers or clutching the hands in a tight fist. Both positions will create tension in the body, which should be corrected as soon as it is noticed because the tension will not isolate itself in the hands.” Later, you will think that this was because you had never worn shorts, just as Penelope had never worn a skirt — not one single garment higher than the ankle in fact — in Odysseus’ presence. But for now, as you note her red, woolen shawl of a (naturally) fine weave and the fancy way she’s done her hair, as if he’s taken her out to a nice dinner or something, you simply feel cold, and wish that you hadn’t taken off your warm-up jersey.
Well,” Odysseus says, “here we are.”
Penelope asks, “When are you going to do the race?”
“After the sprints and the hurdles,” you say. “When they finish the really short-distance races.”
Now you see Odysseus’ son, sort of. His head is smaller than the cotton candy it is buried in. He puts one eye around the sugar-cloud and asks, “Are you going to win something?”
“Just watch,” you say.
“Of course she is,” Odysseus says. “That is why she was specially asked to join the team.”
“Who were you talking to down there?” says Penelope, with her old habit of tagging questions onto Odysseus’ assertions.
“The girls are running with the boys?” Odysseus asks.
“No,” you say.
“No. He just helps me — Coach told him to. He’s the one who’s going to break the record.”
Penelope nods approvingly. “He’s very tall.”
“Where is your name on this list?” Odysseus points to a program for the Invitational.
“That’s the starting roster. Only varsity runners get their names on that.” You pinch some candy from near Telemachus’ ear.
“Varsity?” Odysseus asks. “What is this varsity? Aren’t you on this team?”
“Not yet. I mean, yes, but not that part. Varsity — varsity means the second string.”
“What is the best then?” he asks. “First string?”
“JV.” Another mistake.
“Javy?” he says, understandably mystified. But fortunately he doesn’t ask what the “J” means.
“Just starting,” Penelope says, “and she is already on the best part.” Whether she is skeptical or impressed, it is hard to say. She turns to wipe a pink splotch of sugar from Telemachus’ chin.
“Practice,” Odysseus says. “She can do anything if she practices, on any team.”
“Not any team,” you remind him. “We have a really good coach and a really strong lineup–”
“Westfield is having a strong running team. I’ve spoken to a fellow–”
“Not like this one,” you say. “Not every place is like every other place.” The wind picks up and seems to blow your words into the wrong direction.
Odysseus turns away to look across the track. Anxiety, according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, is a common feature of the mind of an athlete. Indeed, “[t]he ready state of anxiety, producing accelerating heart and breathing rate, cold sweat, dilated pupils, or additional energy, is a normal occurrence and is actually necessary for athletic preparedness.”
“Someone is calling you,” Odysseus says.
You see Steven shouting up to the bleachers: “Coach wants sprinters down on the field.” He looks a few rows over and catches sight of you. “Mina,” he says, waving, “are you coming?”
“Okay.” You wave back.
“Who is that?” Odysseus says.
“Just some guy.” Your fingers are sticky from the cotton candy. You try to wipe them on your shorts, but there’s barely enough material.
“Don’t do that,” Penelope says. “I have just been washing these things.” She pulls a tissue from her purse.
“All right,” you say, waving away the offering. “I’m going.”
“Break a leg,” Odysseus says.
“Arré, why are you saying such a thing?” Penelope looks appalled.
Odysseus produces a condescending but charitable chuckle. “It means good luck,” he says, smiling and turning back to you, who would of course, like him, know the idiom.
“Not for runners,” you say, correcting him with the 1,791st through the 1,794th words you’ve spoken to him in two weeks.
Odysseus looks away again, lips closed in a thin, rare frown. Perhaps this means he is embarrassed. Perhaps, you begin to think, he does not like seeming unknowledgeable in Penelope’s presence. Now more thoughts intrude. Does this mean he loves her? Does he care what she thinks of him this deeply? Or does he take care of her simply because he has to — because that’s the story he’s in? Also: Would he have married her if he didn’t have to?
And finally: What about you? How exactly does he feel about you?
Odysseus clears his throat. “Good luck, then.”
As you turn away and head back to the track, you recall that “[i]n some [athletes], self-elevation may lead to harmful overconfidence.” With each step, the bleacher creaks and shudders. Will Odysseus ever understand what Troy means to you? More to the point, will he ever appreciate the life his actions are condemning you to live? The life of the perpetually new girl? New to the 9th grade, now to the 10th. New to state fairs, sand hills, classrooms full of the stoic grandchildren of Nebraskan farming families, personality-crushing gym classes, eye-opening slumber parties where all the pizzas ordered have pepperoni because you forgot to tell yet another set of well-meaning parents you were “allergic.” New again to the fine, fractious boundaries in yet another unfamiliar school cafeteria, and the problem of deciding who you should and shouldn’t befriend, even though Jeanine/Carla/Phyllis is perfectly nice and her geekiness (much like yours) shouldn’t be held against her. Always new. Constantly new. Known for newness. New years and years after it should matter. Shiny, temporal, hesitant, unsure, lacking always in seniority, authority, expertise — always guessing, always approximate. Something always around the corner that could shake one out of one’s skin: spring break, fraternity parties, a drink called “Sex on the Beach,” a person who thinks Pakistan is in India, a person who thinks people in India eat the brains of monkeys, a person who tells you that you must be Hindu because you’re from India. Always pushing down the new panic and alarm, and pretending it doesn’t matter that nobody knows where you’re from, including yourself. With college comes the promise of stability: one place for four years, but somehow you are still new. New to living with people who drink alcohol, new to feeling like the only sober person around for miles and miles. And new finally, in your senior year, after a particularly halting conversation with your mother about a sturdy Indian boy whose aunt lives near your university and is interested in “seeing you,” a conversation in which you feel the difference and the disappointment between you and she sweltering and bloating and souring so that you aren’t able to communicate to her that there is, in your mind, no value to being looked at and dismissed as not pretty enough by the gnarly old auntie of this or any such suitable boy, new then to the bitterness of beer. Of hating it and drinking it out of revenge. For much of your adult life, the unfamiliar world would surge around you, like an ocean in which you are floating, and the only thing to be counted on was that each wave would be indistinguishable from the next, though still indeterminate and new.
And this pattern of experience would continue, repeating itself over and over again, until one day you will find yourself — on a whim, an irresistible detour taken with a complicit co-worker on a business trip for a literary journal you business-manage–new even, for once, to not being new. To taking I-75 and visiting Troy in the final year of the century, when it will have, true to the rumors, finally achieved its full glory. Grown on the map. Parts of Troy will rise as its motto proclaims “the city of tomorrow today.” Somerset Collection (née Mall) will straddle both sides of the road now, with a windowed walkway your father could’ve have designed connecting Tiffany’s to Nordstrom’s. The roads will be smooth and regularly paved, lined with plazas featuring upscale grocery stores. All this strident and magnificent prosperity might have, actually, been foreseen in 1987 (and could conceivably be explained away as the nature of the ’90s), but what wasn’t imaginable back then was the other rumor circulating about Troy: that Indians professionals have flooded in and taken over, conquered its job market and reshaped its suburban life. By the time of your visit, these Indians will have raised the median — median – income for a family in the city to $92,000 dollars a year. They will have boosted the percentage of Asians to over 13.25%, handily outpacing the African-American (2.09%) and Hispanic (1.46%) populations combined. They will be raising children who show the promise of making even more dazzling incomes.
“You grew up here?” your companion, who is the poetry editor of your lit journal, will ask, rubber-necking at the blooming suburbs of magnificently new homes, white-columned and five-bedroomed edifices, with professionally managed lawns and Indian children shooting hoops beside the Lexus in their driveways, and Indian grandmothers hanging bright-colored laundry on the clotheslines off the back decks, and Indian fathers barbequing in kiss-the-cook aprons.
Not quite, you’ll say, your heart in your mouth, bloody, pumping, your family had missed all this. This was perhaps, you’ll explain privately to yourself, because you’d come at a time when Indians, were, well, new. But then you’ll begin to wonder if this is entirely true. Would you and your family have ever been able to take such a tasty bite of the jugular of the American dream?
Later that day, during lunch (at one of the neon-lit middle-eastern restaurants that have cropped up, where the waiters are sure you’re from Lebanon? Egypt? Not Syria, really?), you’ll regain your resolve to dismantle the relationship.
You’ll bat away each question your companion, perhaps he would call himself a boyfriend, asks with a smile that you’ve often felt on your face — coy, mysterious, unrevealing. This smile is something you have in fact become known for. It’s symptomatic of a way you have developed of being, a way you are, among these white men you chase. Or among white people in general, or — you suddenly think — maybe among all people. The smile is the keystone of a pose you’ve so long adopted that it no longer feels like a pose. In it, you are unknowable and deeply foreign. You speak not of being from Houston or Michigan, but India, the land of mystique and impregnable customs. You don’t tell lies, but you let them exist, with the shawls you wear, the pierced nose, the hennaed hair, your wistful talk of Lucknow as the land of your birth, where you family was landed and genteel for generations. You strive to embody Lucknow’s ruling characteristics: you are agreeable, deflective, easy to be around, delicately mannered, and un-self-divulging. Consequently, all the relationships you’ve had so far have only gone so far: early inter-classroom/office stalking followed by light flirtation and recognition, some tentative, after-hour gropings, perhaps a little consummation, but no more. No meeting of friends or parents, no holidays together, no talk of relations or actually personal histories. For weeks, you’ll happily drift along at this affectionate distance until the interest is mutually lost or the man starts asking questions and you extract yourself, citing parental pressures — which is an actual falsehood since your parents don’t know a thing about this aspect of your life.
“So what was pre-Indian Troy like?” your companion will ask. This morning you and he left early from a conference where you were supposed to be networking and raising funds for your struggling publication.
“Oh, you know,” you say with a shrug. He is slim-shouldered, with an eager, inquisitive intelligence. By American standards, his own manners are rather delicate, but he can thrill you with boisterous departures from his usual scholarly attitude. He is a white white boy, you tell yourself, though there’s no need, especially in the restaurant where his skin color is outnumbered and he seems to radiate in the dimness. No. He is Evan, who was your friend long before he became a lover. No. A white boy, who he is leaving for a graduate program in a university on the West Coast and wants you, asked you yesterday, rather sweetly, to come along.
“That the best you got?” he says, showing a tenacious unwillingness to be annoyed.
“For now.” You signal the waiter for more wine, which you like much better than beer but still feel vengeful drinking.
A smudge of disappointment appears on Evan’s face before he turns away.
Finally, you think.
After lunch, you give him directions to take Big Beaver (grimly and without irony) then Rochester Road past John R. The two of you pull into your old apartment complex: yellowing vinyl siding, aged brown roofs, its car parks rusting but somehow dear. If it wasn’t before, the complex is now most definitely on the wrong side of the tracks. Has he seen enough? you wonder during this Plan B, for which you’ve decided to reveal all your humiliations, be from a plain, ordinary American city, diminished and de-exoticized, so that he will go awaywithout you.
But a strange thing happens as you ride around at 15 mph through the pre-fabricated streets, past the shabby net-less tennis courts and the basketball court placed on a hill beside a brook into which the ball would always roll and come out slimy and black, and by the over-managed man-made pond, and the two-swing playground with its insufficiently sanded sandbox: it’s 1987 again, and the complex is still a respectable place to live temporarily, even though the four-to-a-building townhomes are little factories fuming fried onions and garlic, and the Camrys haven’t been upgraded or even kept up particularly well.
Often in your life when “it’s 1987 again,” you are not actually at the complex.
Often, you are, instead, still descending your school’s grooved metal bleachers and smarting from how unmoved Odysseus had seemed to you just moments ago — how uncharmed and unpersuaded. How could he, you are wondering, of all people resist the allure of a prospective victory at Troy? And what will he do when you win and show him you belong here and that this place, with its unique and particular combination of characteristics, is the one — the only one — where you can thrive and achieve your full glory?
To your right, the playing field, its bright red lanes and oval yolk of green, is vivid with activity. Clusters of athletes, distinguishable only by their school colors, huddle together composing stratagems. Down there, there is purpose and fair play and goodwill; every body the owner of its own fate.
As you continue to descend, the PA system begins announcing, to varying amounts of cheering, each of the cities whose schools are present at the meet, but all you hear is: Houston, Bryan, Albemarle, College Station, Atlanta, St. Louis, Euclid. It’s as if these are just names to Odysseus, not bits of your life, chopped up and scattered, a year here, a year there. When will these travels end? you wonder. Now, the old furies make their appearance: Where is he wandering to? What is he after? Where in the world is his Ithaca? How can you be expected to participate in this longing to continue when you don’t know where you’re headed? Your thoughts then take a new turn: What if he’s wandering not toward but away from something? But what could that be? Dangers, dark fears — what? He’s the commander of the ship, yes, but does he have any idea what he’s doing?
But your next thought gives you pause, literally: mid-stride, your sneakered foot hovers between two slabs of bleachers. What if Odysseus does know? What if he can foresee, as well as you can, the hardships to come? And suddenly there is yet another, even more sinister, turn: What if Odysseus doesn’t care what effect these dislocations might have on you? Or worse: What if he wants you to experience them? But why? What would be the purpose of keeping you from getting attached to anything, ever, of stripping your life of all possible warm and known familiars? Does a captain ever worry about what is happening, what is really happening, to his crew?
With a growing sense of desperation, you begin to wonder if perhaps your father isn’t the man you thought he was, and whether the man he is is even capable of appreciating the significance of the victory you are planning. And you begin to fear that your drama is missing something.
Steven is waiting for you at the steps at the end of the stands.
“Hey, slow down,” he says.
“I thought the coach wanted us.”
“Just the starters. He wants to tell them what to do about the wind.”
I need to know what to do about the wind, you think, but Steven has taken your hand and is drawing you back in under the bleachers, where it is dark and shadowy. You feel your eyes adjust by degrees. Sunlight spilling in through the slates of the seats lights up the litter down here, fallen streamers (mostly red and yellow for Athens), stray pom poms, soft drink cups, and hot dog wrappers, a few with the hot dog still intact. An inexplicably warm breeze, of popcorn mixed in with something sour, sits atop the cool air. The PA system crackles with another announcement, and the muffled cheers of the spectators and the stomp of their shoes on the metallic benches float down from above and faintly echo around you, as if you’re inside a hollow mountain.
“You cold?” Steven puts your hands in the pockets of his track suit, which he is still wearing because he doesn’t need to warm up for another hour or so.
You look past his shoulder and find the row, eighth from the front. Your brother’s size fives are swinging in boredom.
“Shouldn’t we go then?”
He pulls you into his arms. “You’ve got time.”
Time to see his face approach, and note just how pale his pale skin is. You have never seen anything like it, and up close his blond hair is not solid-seeming, but appears more like filaments of light. It feels for a second that you can see through them, him, but then his strength, in a body the same size as yours, is surprising, tensile; and although his mouth is wet, cold, and rubbery, it warms yours anyway. Also warm is the impression of his fingers, long but soft, slipping lightly up the cold skin at the hem of your shorts.
You pull back, but he draws close again. “I thought you said that we could still do something,” he says against your ear, and another hand finds it way around your waist, then into your shirt, and begins sliding up your panting ribcage.
Over Steven’s shoulder you see a swab of cotton candy falling, stick end up. The cloud of pink lands with a soft bounce. Your brother’s face appears between his knees. He squirms down beside someone’s legs to get a better look. Then another face appears between the backs of the bleacher seats. You see Odysseus blink once, blink twice — or you think he blinks twice because you feel as if you’re counting something. Before Odysseus sees the cotton candy, he sees you, and then his eyes seize upon you and he stops blinking.
* * *
On the field, the boy who was supposed to be the first to kiss you is listening to the coach’s strategies against the wind. Already out of breath, you join the huddle just as it is breaking up. The boy’s ears are bitten to a red that matches his jersey. He gives you a thumbs-up and shouts, “It’s picking up, especially on the inside. Keep your head low, lean left, and don’t forget to stay close to the ground.” He really is beautiful, you think, your eyes filling. There is an un-adolescent symmetry to his face, him being the one-in-a-million genetically blessed teenager whose features have matured at the same rate. “Are you okay?” he asks, suddenly frowning; then “Hey, what’s the story?” The story — What is the story? What if the story is that he is your Paris, and that you–you were never meant to be the daughter of Odysseus at all but the fickle chit Helen?
The coach tells you and the girl who usually wins to find your lanes. But lane one, you discover, is already occupied, by a small Chinese girl from Lake Orion, and you must settle for number two. According to the authors of “Sprinting Speed,” “Fear, once accepted fully, is followed by relaxation and control.”
You step back into the blocks. There are two hundred meters between you and your only chance to stay in the city-state of Troy. You crouch down. “Even when fear turns into anger, proper channeling toward the opponent, the problem, or the frustration can actually improve performance and delay fatigue [thereby] creating an unbeatable attitude.” You let your knees sink heavily onto the track. Too heavily. The ground, a thousand spiky pins, digs into your skin. You bounce up to adjust the weight. “Often accompanying anger is the pugnacious instinct or the urge to batter the opponent.”
You take your mark. You get set. You keep your eyes down low, away from the binoculared field of vision. The lanes, recently re-painted with your school colors, are as bright as blood. Now, you think, Odysseus is sure to remember this day. You see the turn fifty meters in front of you where the track bends. You wish suddenly (and irrationally) that you didn’t have the lane all to yourself. You remember what the boy said about uncurling and pouncing. You remember to want to stay as close to the curve as you can in order to win — which is what you must do because that is the only resolution you have planned for.
You recall that a runner typically reaches maximum acceleration at somewhere between 50 to 60 yards, sooner for a beginning runner. But “fighting to increase speed can induce rapid fatigue, disrupt smoothness of form and actually have a slowing effect….Mastery of proper relaxation prevents speed loss and undue tightening in the final 10-15 yards.” Years later, when you see Troy as it has become, it’s possible that you will feel tempted, the next time you and Odysseus are barely speaking, to say something wounding about how things might have turned out better for him, for everyone, if he’d stayed in one place. It’s possible, but not likely. It’s more likely that you won’t even think to say such a thing to him, for Odysseus is a different man now, a man changed, finally, by his travels: professionally hampered by his fickle-seeming employment record; frustrated at having to argue for promotions and acknowledgement of his seniority; still living in an apartment complex, though now he himself finds it stifling and resents the fact that condo-style living is supposed to be enviable for people his age; reluctant, despite all this, to make any sort of large changes now that he is close to retirement and he and Penelope, after so many years of timid socializing with a changing set of strangers, have made friends, found a small community of people with whom they have something more in common than just being Indian. Odysseus has in fact become so afraid of change that he forbids anyone from calling the maintenance man when something in the apartment breaks down. The dishwasher flings each night’s rice off the plates and dries the broken white grains into hard little barnacles on the glasses and teacups of the top tray. The shower in the second bathroom leaks a brown and runny deposit along the back tiles. The world is allowed to impose itself as never before, as if now — after all those years of escape and finickiness, of striving for improvement, feeling proud and relieved to have gotten away — Odysseus wants back all the discomforts and inconveniences of living in that Ithaca of his. Or rather it’s not entirely clear what he wants, for he wears a nearly permanent expression of indifference and distraction, and takes time to answer a question as though his mind is always making a long journey back from some other place. Penelope, these days, is beside herself, bewildered but soldierly. One day on a trip to the grocery store, when she is lamenting your un-married state and you ask why it is that she never seems to have a kind word to say about you, her face hardens as usual but then something suddenly snarls loose across her features, and she stops the car, overcome with great heaving sobs. Unable to face you, she wonders in a pitifully small voice what kind of example she and Odysseus have been setting for you all these years.
But for now, you are still holding your position against the March wind of 1987, still readying to show them, to open Odysseus and Penelope’s eyes. In a few short moments, Troy will sail by in your periphery, its cheering crowd mad (it will seem to you) with a lust for victory, and behind the crowd, its industrial-looking high school building, where, showcased in various displays in various departments, sit science prizes, English certificates, medals for speaking French that bear your name. All these ribboned, plaqued, academically trophied morsels of this life don’t mean anything to Odysseus and Penelope, or rather they are artifacts of a prestige your parents believe you should be able to achieve anywhere.
In the set position, the girl “raises her hips until they are even with the shoulders or an inch or two higher than the shoulders,” the head stays down, but the eyes should be focused on a spot three feet ahead because “[a]ny attempt to look farther down the track will put a strain on the neck.” The girl must also bend her knees, tip forward, and hold her breath. On average this position is held for 1.5 to 2.0 seconds. But sometimes the man with the gun gets distracted and delays, in which case the start can become the longest moment in a runner’s life, an excruciating wait for the end of the beginning.
At the end of the day, you will probably realize that there is more to losing than coming in last.
Or: at the end of the day, you will realize that there is more to losing than loss, and that jobs are not always easy to get and even less easy to change — you can apply yourself, persuade others, make a case, but in the end, the companies may never hire you. It is their will against yours. Regardless, from now on, after every new city, you will find yourself thinking: “Was this it — was this the high point of our journey, our family’s plunder through Western Civilization? Or, or, is it still to come?” And no other departure will feel like the leaving of Troy — when, that is, you thought you knew with absolute and sickening certainty, a simultaneously troubling and soothing notion, that this was it, that you were falling away from the height of your imaginary powers, your power to believe that you could wish something into being, your power, more generally, to affect the fates of men, and also falling away from a moment in your life that you would tell yourself about, over and over again, self-consolingly, mistily, correctively, assuasively, coachingly, captivatedly, chidingly, legendarily, asymptotically (perhaps you were never really there, at the fabled high point), and high-handedly (as if your use of antiquity as a metaphor were original, as if this metaphoric device of yours weren’t trodden and depleted and had been, by better minds, wisely forsaken). It will grow and grow, this myth of your will at fourteen and a half. And one day, you may even share it with a lover — let him speculate on the details of this golden age, now actually ancient history, as the time of your most noble and lofty endeavor. You’ll say you had high ambitions once, so high that you broke with your past to pursue them, and your lover will think you mean the time in your life when you were in one of the country’s best engineering schools, had studied fiercely and fretfully, only to drop out in your final year and become a person who wandered from job to job, trying to discover what you were actually interested in. And you’ll let him, the lover, think so. But the one after him, the complicit co-worker turned friend turned lover, won’t let you let him. He will have studied your gazing at the streets of Troy in its latest incarnation. He will ask you what you mean by “high ambitions.”
Or: in the long run, you will go to new places on your own and start over the business of getting to know people without remembering why that inside lane ever mattered. But cities later, through high school and college, you will still try to feel “from Troy,” and still continue to believe that another year there wasn’t too much to ask for. For many of those cities did wash over you, and those years of moving were bewildering. They felt like the product of a mistake — as if Odysseus, the one who’d been charged with bringing you across on that original flight from India, had fumbled somehow and let you slip, fall out of the PanAm cabin, and you’d been left in the Atlantic, bobbling in the sea. Did he mean to do it — this is the bewitching, circadian question — involve you in this ill-planned, incomplete migration?
* * *
“Well?” Evan stops to say in the summer-empty field behind the aging high school, as the two of you are walking meanderingly down lanes 3 and 4. When instead of answering, you ramble about your track days, he listens for one whole lap, then finally says, “Okay, show me how you do it.” There is a serious, well-meaning light in his eyes, though he has never been or aspired to be an all-American anything.
You cast off your summer shawl and begin demonstrating. While describing what you can remember of the purpose of the blocks — how the runner must back into the mark, with only the toes touching the ground, how when the runner crouches down, the center of gravity must stay before her, hovering in the air beside her bellybutton — you will think: The weather is so different from the last time you did this, warm and thick.
You will look up to find Evan regarding your bent-over body with what appears to be skepticism but, you’ve learned to recognize, is his brand of lust. He’s not, your mother is sure to note, after she (if she) recovers from many other shocks, proposing marriage. But what he’s asked of you, this co-habitation, involves another kind of faith, the faith needed to quit and look for a mediocre job, to depend on him while you do, to be poor together and struggle, to make public all these romantic intentions. What he doesn’t know is that Penelope is still after her successful doctor/engineer son-in-law. But even she has recognized that at 26, without a career yourself, without her loveliness, your star has dimmed. Her matchmaking relations are starting to recommend divorcees, men in middle age, widowers with forlorn children, and she, who once would have been insulted, has now begun passing on these prospects to you for consideration, believing like all the other aunties that all you can hope for now in this life are the scraps from the bottom of the husband barrel. Or maybe they believe it’s all you deserve.
Did Odysseus mean to do it? Did he mean to drop you?
With this question will come the memory of the deep estrangements of your recent years, when one or the other parent refused to speak to you, your mother more often playing the ill-cast mediator, saying, “Well, this is the life” when she meant “This is life,” the limits you tested, the willful violations of that Lucknawi politeness, and also perhaps common decency, the phone call you answered knowing you were drunk, the times they embarrassed you — not for being parents, but for being people who were as uncertain and apologetic as you were, not like parents at all, but children who didn’t know anything, not how to speak to the gas inspector, not what to tip a waiter, people who couldn’t even imagine (did they ever try?) how things might be like for you in all those different American schools — and the times when you sharpened your embarrassment and aimed it right at them. Corrected them in a department store for the benefit of an over-polite cashier whose patience was straining, with clerks at the doctor’s office and the mechanic’s shop, in a restaurant for the eyes of a waitress whose spiky hairdo you wished you had.
What would have happened — you wonder for the millionth time, the thought like a voluptuous temptress, doubly irresistible because of the warning light in her eyes — if Odysseus had settled in Troy, where the conditions were so clearly in his career’s favor? Would you yourself be living here now, feeling as confidently and permanently Trojan as these other Indians, and reaping the rewards of a migration that could be deemed unequivocally successful by all parties?
“How do you know how to do all this?” Evan asks.
“I learned it from a book.”
He shakes his head. “Someone showed you,” he says, in a tone you’ve never heard from him, possessive, pinched with jealousy. Your heart swells with love at his quick perception. He sees through you as no one else can, perhaps as no one else ever will.
You lift your neck and glance far, far down lane one, much farther than it’s recommended. There appear in your mind’s eye, well beyond the prescribed feet ahead, the happy, stable edifices of those Indians who hadn’t been as adventure-loving as your family, immigrants who’d staked out a spot and settled on it. Now and then, here and there, you’d met such community-minded Indians before. They were often wealthy enough to take their children to India every summer but comfortable enough to let the children grow up as natives of the new country. It could take your breath away how belittlingly these aunties and uncles spoke of their homeland, as if keeping up with it were an odious duty. Even their children were practiced complainers, as if their summer visits qualified them to dismiss the whole place. Bah, we’re better off without all those headaches, they’d say like old grandfathers, with hard, Third-World lives to look back on, instead of pert, frumpily chic frat girls and fashionably dopey, all-American-seeming boys. That Troy of all places had grown such a population — bred these absolute towers of disregard, who were untentative, unshell-shocked, unworried about their awful pronunciation of the beautiful Urdu–stings you, especially since in your house, it’s always, still, India around the clock. It is: Arré, just imagine if these eggs could be scrambled as they scrambled eggs in Lucknow? And: Oh, when will we be able to find fabric in this country like the kind of fabric that could be found in Lucknow?
Living with a man is not marriage, far short of it. What it is in fact is Odysseus’ worst fear, the final step that will make you irreversibly unlike the people you come from. Having failed to live up, having discarded a respectable career, having aged yourself out of their idea of respectable marriageability, you ought to be able to offer your parents something more. But all you’ve got now is your potential happiness. Is it enough? you wonder. And does this boy have any idea what he’s asking of you? Does he need to? an equally defiant voice counters; and why must those people, the other immigrants, always be there in your mind’s eye, hovering out of reach as if on the horizon of a race?
“I’ll race you — one lap,” Evan says, hunkering down beside you in lane two, comically folding his tall frame in half as part of the joke.
For a runner, “[i]t is also important to distinguish between simple reaction time (one, predetermined response to a stimuli) and choice reaction time (when the stimulus is presented, individuals must choose from two or more responses).”
“Fine,” you say. “You win, we go. I win, you go.”
He hardly pauses to consider the proposition, as though he’s not at all surprised. But then he says, “Fine,” suddenly game-faced himself.
The two of you crouch down side by side and decide to go on three. “One,” you both say, in unison, “two…”
At the first bend, you are four strides behind, still chasing him, but by the second, you’re close enough to hear his hard-drawn breaths. Motor-mindedness — this is the athlete’s finest trick. It is when the mind, a properly trained one, retreats, takes an early curtain call, and the body must go through all of its motions as if — and this is the key — as if they are native.
Down the next straight-a-way, you feel your strides lengthen to match his. “The float is described as maintaining a fast pace with relaxed hips and arms. It is difficult for the observer to notice this change but it is felt by the runner.” With the warm summer sun on your back and your breath easy, you begin to reconsider that moment in your high school life when you believed your fate was entirely in your hands — or rather, your feet. Perhaps it needn’t have been the decisive break that it was. Perhaps it and the many other struggles that followed were not so much battles of will but simply of instincts, of answering the question of whether your family should stay or go differently: There is more to discover here — Odysseus would always say, with genuine, though perhaps not heroic, curiosity — something else to see. And if, you think in the home stretch, if there was some part of Odysseus that knew but didn’t mind what all that moving was doing to you, how it left you at sea, maybe this was because he hoped those many migrations would, by replicating over and over again the chaos of arrival and the giving up of everything known and familiar, transmit to you a sample of his own experience and sacrifice. Perhaps he thought they would make you from him. And if that was so, then perhaps he kept moving because he couldn’t help it, any more than you could help swimming to the shore, making your own way across the continent, taking the new terrain more recklessly than your parents ever dared.
* * *
Later that night, in the final summer of the millennium, in a hotel room just within the city limits, when you tell Evan that you would have gone with him even if you’d lost, he will whisper something in your ear, and a few moments later, you will be new, finally, to wrapping your bare legs around a man’s bare waist and feeling — as he slides dearly against the very bottom of your being, nailing all your organs up into place, one by one, kidney, liver, lungs, heart, as if the fit of each had been loose — feeling yourself gasp, genuinely. It is a new sensation, catching you, for once, off guard, and you spend the rest of the night in various angles on the bed, happily plundered, sex made new, wholly re-invented with someone you can be certain knows this person he says he loves.
But what about that other race?
“[W]hen a sprinter leaves his blocks…he drives backward with a force equal to that which propels him forward.” Shoulders parallel to the ground, the runner, whether girl or woman, pushes first on both feet, then the non-power foot surges frontward, the opposite arm rises, there is a wide, lurching, misleadingly clumsy-seeming step, the trunks lifts — the body enacting an almost evolutionary motion — until the runner is upright, accelerating, confidently inhabiting the full and classical stride. All this will happen. But just before the finish line your legs will lock like the front ones of a horse; and while your lungs burn raw (are chaffing, surely), you will never even see the blur or hear the swishing of the shorts of the girl next to you. Afterwards, the fastest boy in the county will, with his sadly inflected eyes, console you from a distance — and then a long-distance (when someone catches you on the phone, you will say you were speaking to Michelle). Also, Odysseus will take you out of Athens the very next day after the Invitational and will schedule a moving van for that weekend, even though that means breaking the apartment’s lease. He will not speak a word of what he’s seen, will not rant, or scold, or say that his honor is besmirched. In fact, he’ll hardly speak at all, won’t build up the adventures offered by Omaha, won’t animate the drive across the middle of the country with his usual lively narration–he’ll simply announce that it’s time to go and are you all packed. And he will be this way for the next move too, from the next city — it’s his version of the silent treatment, except that his silence lasts for years and years, and sometimes remains in his eyes even when he is speaking. This first leaving of Troy will not be a clean break for anyone, just the first of many fine fractures.
But you don’t know any of this yet. It hasn’t even occurred to you that something like this might happen. You’re just a kid still who believes that it’s possible to learn how to win a race (and change the course of adult events) the same way it’s possible to learn how to solve an equation. Given that, what choice do you have when the gun pops, but to take your mark, get set, go?