It was just like I’m at a regular track meet, she thought. So simple. Straightforward. Easy to ignore everyone around her. Natalie pressed her weight into her toes against the starting blocks and remained crouched over the starting line, hunching lightly on her fingertips lacing the spongy track. She waited for Coach to pass inspection, ducking her head.
After a few moments of silence, she expected that this time her form would be correct, that she would have twisted every ligament and placed her feet at the exact angle and distance they were supposed to be.
“Everyone look at Karine,” Coach said, gesturing to the tall blond at the end of the track, in lane one.
Natalie wished her nose would touch the track and she could dissolve.
“Perfect form,” he said. “Nice work.” He allowed Karine to get up and go, and she winked at the rest of the sprinters still grumbling in the blocks. The rest of the girls had to deal with more 30-meter sprint sequences at full speed…nothing less out of the blocks, Coach said. Certainly nothing less for such a short distance. The first third of the race was crucial. This was where they picked up speed so fast out of the blocks that they hit 30 meters in 5 seconds or less. This was where they reached top speed and then held their pace at 80 percent for the following two-thirds of the race. The beginning seconds were what would make or break a sprinter, decide if she would be a winner or be fighting to get ahead the rest of the 100-meter straightaway.
While Karine was allowed to show off her tan legs and chat it up with the boys’ track team, sipping her Gatorade and water, the team stayed in the blocks until their form was perfect, or more accurately, as close to perfect as they’d ever get. Natalie’s calves began to ache, but she kept watching Karine walk away. Her fingertips were numb from the rough surface of the track. She watched, hoping that Karine would do something to make her angry so that she would burst out of the blocks with enough speed to impress coach and make him leave the girls alone.
It seemed Karine was in his head, though. Coach stood at the 30 meter line with a stopwatch, timing us as they burst out of the blocks and across the line.
“5.6,” he read. Then “5.3” and “5.2.” He wanted under 5 seconds, and he didn’t get it. No matter how low they burst out of the blocks and pumped their arms. No matter how high they kicked up their feet. No matter how quick our toes touched down. No matter how perfectly our bodies were angled forward. They continued sprinting, jogging straight back to the blocks to explode forth. No down time necessary; this was punishment work.
After practice, Natalie stormed into the locker room, her t-shirt sticking to her neck, her breathing still fast and shallow and sat on the bench, head down and her one-liter water bottle between her feet. Her feet were hot, pulsing, like a heart, inside her sneakers.
“Nice job,” Kelsey murmured, her eyes full of fury as she opened the locker next to Natalie’s.
“That was harsh,” Natalie snapped, needing to spit but snorting it in instead. “Fuck.”
Karine walked in with her track spikes in hand and gave Kelsey a smack on the ass.
“Hey munchkins,” she said. Tall, blonde, full lips, gorgeous and oblivious. “What Coach did was lame today.”
“Yeah,” Natalie said sarcastically, and wiped her overheated forehead with her t-shirt. “Pretty fuckin’ lame. 25 sprints at full speed.” She pulled her backpack out of her locker before kicking it closed.
“Do you need a ride?” She asked Karine and Kelsey.
“Yeah,” Karine said, staring at the ground.
Kelsey shook her head. “I’m going with Maggie and Tish,” she said, and curtly walked away.
As she left the locker room, the afternoon heat hit Natalie in the eyes and prickled her scalp, sending chills down her spine. She knew she’d have a migraine later. Natalie struggled with the weight of her little sports backpack and Karine walked tall.
There was no sign now of Karine’s knee injury; she’d long discarded the black brace and the boot and had slowly built up running again. Karine was out of commission all last track season, up until a few months prior to this track season, Natalie mused. They were approaching the end of the year already—high school seniors, planning who they’d be going to prom with, imagining what it’d be like walking across the stage and what expensive dress they’d wear under their gowns.
Natalie, on top of all that, was counting how many seconds she’d gotten down to in the 30-meter exercise she’d run. Exactly five seconds, just once. She calculated how she could be stronger, faster. What miniscule things she could nitpick to gather speed. How she’d stay late at practices working on form and stretches.
She snuck a glance at Karine’s knee as she chattered away about her sociology classes and “that bitch Regan, the red-headed smartass in Mr. Nadeau’s study hall who snaps her gum and dresses like a slut and expects to have the world cater to her,” Karine droned.
Karine’s knee, though tan and sculpted, had an ugly long scar that Karine could never get rid of. In fact, Karine had plenty of scars she tried to ignore, and would have enjoyed the world ignoring any and all imperfections, but Natalie did not.
Natalie became friends with Karine sometime during junior year, just after Karine tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament during a particularly strenuous soccer game. It was, her doctors said, a common injury, much more common in women because of the stress placed on the ligament that was stronger in men. An abrupt change in direction sprinting down the field, jumping and landing a little too hard, then–pop–the knee was wrecked. Natalie hated Karine throughout the first few years of high school, considering her competition in track while Karine annoyed her for being so nice.
Sure, there were pasta parties and team gatherings, but Karine and Natalie seemed to have gathered the same group of followers who eagerly followed them around and begged to be taught. After Karine’s injury though, the girls began to treat her as a kind of martyr, asking about her knee, their eyes glued to her thick black brace, asking about how long she had to wear it (“one year after surgery!”) and how long she had to go to physical therapy (“four-to-six months, thanks for asking!”)
“Natalie…” she heard Karine somewhere behind her, her voice low and guilty. Natalie was instantly suspicious, tucking Madame Bovary under her arm and reaching for her English binder. She had to suppress a smile before turning around.
“What’s nibbling in and around Krin today?” she asked.
“Today it’s serious,” Karine said quietly, and Natalie immediately stepped back.
“Sorry, chica. Go ahead and tell me.”
“Um…” Karine glanced around, holding her books to her chest in usual fashion. I think it was a comforting mechanism. “I don’t know if we should talk here. Can we go to the bathroom?”
Natalie shut her locker. “That’s an even worse place to talk.”
Karine appeared confused.
“Well…because…people can walk in on us,” Natalie said.
Karine wanted to skip class, but Natalie refused, so Karine wrote a long note while their Chemistry teacher, Mr. Grakowski, droned on and on about hydrogen bonds and they drew diagrams of atoms. After Mr. Grakowski handed a stack of exercise papers to the front of the room to pass around during a short film, the stack wound its way to Karine and she slipped her note on top of the pile before handing it to Natalie, her head low. Natalie slipped the note into her folder and read it while taking notes on the movie, squinting as she bent over Karine’s bubbly handwriting.
At the end of class, Karine marched out ahead of Natalie, her long blonde hair masking her face.
“Krin,” Natalie demanded. When she didn’t answer, Natalie tried again. “HEY! KRIN!”
Karine stopped walking but didn’t turn around. Natalie jogged to catch up with her, tripping on her ripped jeans while a couple of cheerleaders sniggered.
Natalie grinned at the cheerleaders as she regained her balance and caught up to Karine.
Natalie waved the note in front of her face. “Why didn’t you say something this weekend?” she demanded.
Karine tried to snatch the note back, obviously embarrassed, but Natalie held it out of reach.
“Karine! You could’ve called me. I would’ve picked you up right away. I’m serious,” Natalie said, watching Karine’s face. She was not taking her seriously.
“It isn’t a big deal,” Karine said. “It could’ve been an accident or something. Maybe I just…overreacted.”
“Karine he hit you.”
“I don’t know, maybe he didn’t! It wasn’t even hard. It was just like a tap. Maybe he was joking.”
“Why else would you be telling me? He’s your boyfriend. He should not be hitting you.”
“Well, it was my fault for pissing him off anyway. You can’t just expect a human being with feelings to just let everything go–”
“Oh Jesus, stop it Karine, I’m gonna puke. Don’t even try making excuses ‘cause it’s not gonna change what happened.”
Karine’s face twisted. “But everything’s fine with me and Josh, legit.”
“Yeah well it doesn’t sound like it. Honestly it’ll just get worse.”
“Okay, Natalie, out of line. You can’t just judge Josh like that. You don’t know…”
“…what a relationship is like,” Karine finished.
Natalie scowled. “Right. Okay.”
“See? I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” Karine snapped. “Couples fight. It’s not something to flip the fuck out about. I knew you would get like this–”
“Okay, so go talk to someone in a relationship,” Natalie said, watching the ceiling intently. “Or better…someone who’s been in lots of relationships!”
“That is not what I meant. I meant that you can’t judge all guys based just on your experience–”
“Don’t even go there, Karine.”
“Natalie?” Karine asked. I snapped my head up because Karine didn’t like people staring at her knee. Present day, shitty parking lot, shitty practice. Feeling shitty because Karine was voted Captain the day before. All hail the returned conquering hero.
Karine, queen of the track, queen of our hearts. It was true she commanded respect wherever she stood. Now, this knee injury—Karine didn’t demand attention for it. It was attention she simply accepted. Want to see my scar? Karine laughs. Of course you can see it. You can even touch it if you want.
We were quiet rivals, of the track sort. The track sort—in which the shit you doled on yourself was punishment more brutal than the Coach’s. Because if you lost to a teammate during practice, it destroyed your pride inside, made you need to do something different, obsess over finding out what that thing was—well anyway, that’s how I and most of the team worked. But then there was Captain Karine.
If she was the Captain of a ship she wouldn’t have been saying anything and giving her orders to her second-in-command. On the track, Karine would shake her hair loose while the rest of us tied sneakers. She’d lay on the track and roll her shirt to her bra line and tan her stomach while I led the other girls in stretches.
During polymetrics Karine got to sit out for most of the season, thanks to her knee. In fact, Karine was able to sit out of anything, thanks to her knee.
The other girls and I busted ass picking up our feet high and making our hearts pump blood before we sprinted directly to the hurdles where we’d step up and over, up and over, stretching out our legs trying to get height, then kicking as high as we could and finishing with some sprints. For the long-distance sprinters, like me, who didn’t care for relays, we’d do twelve repetitions of 200-meter strides. Strides were similar to sprinting, just a little slower—Coach would always tell us to run about 60-75 percent of our fastest pace. When we were about halfway done, like clockwork, Karine would drop out—knee hurt, period, shin splints, ankle sore, thirsty—the excuses racked up throughout the season. She’d walk out and not look back for the duration of the practice.
Meets were often the same way. Charged with energy, nervous with typical track-meet-anxiety, I would have to rub Maggie or Kelsey’s shoulders and we’d run as a pack so they could focus on something other than the 4-by-100 relay that was one of the first events in the meet. Karine sat on the sidelines while parents and opposing schools swarmed the track. I often couldn’t find her when we needed to move hurdles or ace bandages or extra spikes, but she did turn up when I had just botched a race. Or if there was something to gossip about.
“Want to know your time? Almost beat my record!”
“Not really…I sucked. Fourth place.”
“Okay so you just ran like… a…13.8 in the 100. And my record is…like 13.3 or something like that.”
No, Karine. I did not just almost beat you. Not by a long shot.
A mind full of questions. The biggest one was why.
It was three months into the season. I had poked and prodded. Adjusted my diet. Spent my winters bulking up my legs on the rowing machine and strengthening my abs with medicine balls and running when I could. I had new spikes. I had forced my body into, what I believed, was the perfect running form: chin tucked over my knees and my hands loose, thumb touching my middle finger instead of holding my hands in fists, which wastes energy. I stretched before warm-ups and stayed late to practice long jumping to cool down. I came to the track on weekends with Kelsey and worked on her form.
And did Coach notice?
Of course not.
Karine was on the brain. Karine, who was only reliable showing up to practice half the time but was reliable about staying at practice only part of the time until things got difficult. The results still showed, so why bother working hard anyway? She was a fallen star, a fallen track star. Before we were friends I had quietly pitted her my number-one enemy because she was the one girl on the team whose times I could not beat or even match. After her knee injury she sat on the side of the track during every practice and every race, on crutches. She’d only just started trying to run again.
So when Karine said “Natalie?” on the way to my beat-up little Honda Civic, which was covered in political and environmental bumper stickers and had one door that always stuck closed, I looked up, hoping she wasn’t going to ask what I thought she was going to ask. She sounded concerned.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You like Jonathan right?”
“Mmm. I don’t know,” I said, raising and lowering one shoulder. “I guess. I’m not going to say anything if I decide I do.”
Karine sat on the trunk of my car. “You’re not? But what about prom?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ve got…lots to do. I’ll figure it out.” I dug my key into the keyhole and unlocked the passenger door by leaning across the seat, but Karine didn’t get in. The afternoon sun was blaring on my neck and chest now. I waited for Karine.
Karine turned around. “Why did you walk out of the locker room when Coach told everyone I was going to be Captain?”
I had walked out of the locker room when Coach announced Karine as Captain. That’s why he was so hard on us today. All the girls knew it. Karine knew. They were, in a word, pissed.
Unsportsmanlike, Coach bellowed as we sprinted today, unsportsmanlike teammates result in unsportsmanlike treatment. You are not competing against your teammates and you are not a team of individuals. You do not do whatever the hell you please and ignore the whole team. You are not the team. The team is made of all of you. And goddammit, you don’t even deserve a spot on this team if you’re going to act like you’re entitled to whatever the hell you want…
I looked at her, jostling my keys in my left hand. Thinking about the Knee, thinking about Josh, and Jonathan and the last two track meets (I needed to push harder, needed to break 28.6 seconds in the 200 meter sprint) prom and graduation and how I wanted to end my senior year.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll talk on the way back.”
I stood outside my driver side door and watched Karine get in the passenger seat. I followed, holding my key in the ignition without starting the car.
“I left because I needed some water,” I began, glancing at her as I started the car and began to reverse. From the look on her face, she knew I was bullshitting. “And my ankle hurt. Bad,” I said, watching out the rear view mirror. “I had to go. Get out of there. You know.”
I put my car in drive and prepared to leave, glancing at her face’s reflection in the dash.
For a few moments, I was afraid that Karine would try to bust out of the door, but she didn’t.
“You’re as bad a liar as I am,” she said, chuckling through tears.