As our car pulled in on that dark cloudy day it did not feel like business as usual back at my Sacramento high school. I took notice of things that normally were quite arbitrary. For example, the fact that it was a modern brown brick based building with large sections of glass all across the front was a marvel to me. I watched the California state flag out in front of the school, which was fully extended from the wind that was blowing strongly from the Northwest. The large school parking lot seemed barren compared to its usual activity. As we pulled into our parking spot I noticed the empty bike rack that was normally filled with bikes. I also took note of the few busses that were beginning to pull in from neighboring schools for our track meet and where they were from. I thought of the normal arrangement of busses at the end of a school day. As I asked myself why, while we were pulling in, that I was giving such nostalgic thoughts to my school, I knew it had something to do with the fact that my stay at Merriwether High was coming to an end as my senior year was wrapping up. It was my last track meet.
The weather was darker than any normal cloudy day here in Sacramento. There was also some drizzle in the air. I suppose you could say that the weather that day matched my mood. As I got out of the car I felt the coolness of the breeze blowing across the lot. I instantly knew what running straight into that would feel like, and it was not going to help matters. The drizzle was just enough that I knew my running attire would accumulate some dampness. Oh well, I thought, it's just one last time.
As I wished my Mom well, I stepped onto the soggy ground that we would be running over. Good thing I brought my cleats. I saw the masses of students and coaches starting to cluster together in groups out on the football field. I detected the fog in the air as I tried to see who already was over in our group, which was out towards the middle of the field. I walked over, as some students jogged right past me, to get to where my team was. I was definitely feeling mildly groggy.
I sat my bag down and started to dig out what I would need. I took off my wind breaker and felt a chill in the air. I looked across the field to the North and due to the fog I could not see the Soccer goal posts over by the Soccer field where we would be starting. I put down a towel on the field and decided to take a seat and begin my stretching.
"Hey, Matt." It was my good friend Trent. His wavy red hair tossed about by the wind, and small pellets of water amassed in spots on his wind breaker.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Oh, not much. Usual. Out too late with Abbey last night." Abbey was his girlfriend of a couple of months.
"So are you up for this today?"
"You know it." Trent quickly stated back. Trent was one of the better runners on our team. He had won a medal more than his fair share of times this year. His dad was like my dad, big in track.
"Lane!" Trent yelled. Running across the field toward us was my best friend Lane. Lane was quite short and slim for our age. Unlike Trent he probably was not the best fit for the track team, but he was still fast enough to sprint, although not doing so today. He would be running in the 10k with Trent and I today. Lane, like me, had brown hair, although his was longer than mine. Lane and I had been through a lot together. I felt better just hearing Trent call his name.
"Whassup guys." Lane sprinted over and threw down his bag.
"Nice weather." I snidely remarked.
"As usual I can count on you to help motivate me." Lane remarked back.
"Hey, I'll catch up with you later." Trent looked at us as he headed over to a couple other friends of his.
"Are you going to make it happen today Matt?" Lane asked me.
"What does that mean?" I looked at him with a bewildered look and appeal.
"I don't know. It's kind of your last chance at this right?"
I got up silently without a response to him. Then, out of the corner of my eye, was coach Scott who was heading over our way.
"Coach." Lane remarked as he shook his hand.
Coach Scott was an older teacher at our school, in his early fifties, with thinning gray hair, and a narrow frame. Dad really liked him because he was a die hard when it came to running. Even on a normal school day, one could approach Mr. Scott's desk and find at least two or three running magazines strewn across it. He was a social studies teacher, but took track very seriously.
"Matt, are you set?" He asked me as he patted me on the back.
"Yes, I think I'll be fine." I responded plainly.
"Fine is not going to cut it there Matt."
I just sat, staring at the ground and listening to him.
"Finish strong Matt. I think you've got something to prove, don't you?" He asked with what I thought was a smug attitude.
"Yes sir." I responded, still looking at the ground.
Mr. Scott walked away and I looked up at Lane who was kind of looking away by that time. I now felt worse than I did a few minutes ago. Who needs this, I asked myself.
"What an ass." I murmured to Lane.
"Yeah, whatever. Hey, I'm going to go find Trent." Lane said as he slowly walked away.
This had been a really long season to me. Expectations on me could not have been higher in terms of my running when I entered high school. After all, my brother was all-state in both cross country and track. The expectation was that I would develop into something like my brother Gordy. I did have his longer legs, but other than that we looked and acted quite differently. While I always enjoyed running with my brother and my dad while I was in Junior High, I don't think I ever took it as serious as they had. I liked running, don't get me wrong, and coming out of Junior High, I think I had the same high expectations that everyone else did. In fact, I had a promising 9th grade cross country season and had taken first place in a 5k run towards the end of my Junior High campaign. I knew I had the skills. But now it was clearly a question as to whether I had the focus. Or if I even cared at all. I knew going in to this season that it would be a struggle to find my legs. Not only because the level of competition at varsity steps up at this level, but also because I knew my motivation was in trouble. Aside from a single meet mid-season in San Francisco, my standings were worse as a Senior then they'd been as a Junior. And it's not like coach or my dad had really been in my face over it. I think they knew that with the accident, things would be different for me.
Senior year felt to me like something I had to get done. A hoop to pass through. And that's how I treated it. Each supposedly fun function was another thing for me to try and just make it through. 10th and 11th grades were not this way at all. I missed life when it was easier like that. Gordy said this should be one of the best years of my life. Honestly, it had been the worst, and going through this track season was a contributing factor to be sure. Again, it felt like something I had to do; make it through the year I thought. After this then everything would be new. Then there would be no more remembering. But as my Senior year was closing out, it just seemed like I was going into a black hole. Coach Scott, my Dad, my Mom, Gordy, Lane, you name it, they were all reaching out to me, but I wanted to distance myself from all of that. I wanted to relieve them from their failed attempts at reaching out to me. I wanted to be numb from all of this. I figured if I could just finish this year, and then be off on my own, that all of this would go away. But the wear and tear of "finishing" the year out left me with a bleak outlook on what exactly I would do when the year ended.
Lane was my partner in crime this year in terms of missed practices. I missed practices this Spring for paint ball, golf, the Playstation 3 release, and a couple more reasons. And all of this was after "pep talks" from both my Dad and Gordy. But no, people were not in my face. They knew I did not have the motivation for this. They too just wanted to see me make it for the sake of me saying I made it through. This weather was indeed fitting for the day.
"Good luck" I said to Trent as we walked over to line up together.
"Hey, you too man." He said sincerely back. I sensed a confidence like he was taking coach Scott's advice. I felt that Trent was about to make the most of this day.
I was looking for Tom Dreys from Santa Rey. Gordy and I had done the math and he was the perfect person for me to pace off of today. Our split times were similar and I knew that if I could pass him at the ¾ mark that I would be set up well. Also, his performances were pretty consistent so he was someone I could pace myself with. I had him in my sights and was able to make my way over behind this tall young runner. He had his shorts pulled up so high I thought he could easily be sixty-five or so. Total nerd.
The gun sounded and we were off. For a moment there I felt quite good. I felt a sudden burst of energy as I fell in right behind Tom. I noticed for the first time how long his legs were. And I thought I had long legs. Also, his green shorts had to go. The race felt fresh, like another start in a long list of starts for me. I felt fine.
"Having fun yet?" I asked Lane as we passed by him.
"You bet." He said back. Lane and I went way back. We had been friends since like the fourth grade. We both enjoyed golf, rock climbing, video games, action movies, and basically just hanging out; not doing anything too intense. We'd also been camping on a few occasions. One thing he loved was martial arts, and over the years he had made me fairly curious about it as well. I think he fell into running just because it's something I'd enjoyed over the years, and he would often run with me to stay in shape. He was a good six inches shorter than me. I don't think he'd ever be a star of the team, but he hung in there, and I gave him credit.
Things felt pretty good up through about the two thousand meter mark. We were just over a six minute mile pace; I felt it. No sign of Trent, he was long gone up ahead. I started thinking that this Tom did not look as tired as I was already beginning to feel. But it really started to fall apart when Donny Jenson passed us. That should not be, I said to myself. He's a distance guy who fairs better in the cross country's longest events. And even there he's no star. Tom must be off his game. I sped up on past him, losing sight of the fatigue I was already showing.
Damn. I just started feeling exhausted as the wind picked up again. In no time Tom was alongside me again and I was pushing to keep with him. This should be easier, I thought. Gordy and I used Tom in setting a bit more aggressive pace than usual since it was my last meet. At this point it felt like an incredibly stupid idea.
No, I should be able to do this. I calmed myself down. I just kept at it until about the half way mark, but I could feel a soreness in my legs, almost a cramping. Damn, not now. Not today. I could not afford to stop cold turkey and stretch out. I had to slow down off of Tom's pace. I had to let that go. And for a little while I did feel better, safe from hitting the wall.
"Hey." It was Lane's voice. Lane? I nodded as he was just behind. This should not be. Not a single time this season was Lane with me at just beyond the half way point. I decided to push myself forward again. I could sense I had pushed a bit ahead of Lane, but he was still in the vicinity.
"Dad, I got the scholarship from Pepperdine." I was recalling my brother telling our family how he was awarded a scholarship to run for Pepperdine, the University. My brother Gordy was an elite runner, having took first place three times in his Senior year of High School. In 10th grade I had similar visions for myself, even knowing I was a bit more aloof than my brother. My 9th grade performance was every bit as good as even his 10th grade times.
None of that mattered, I thought. Good for Gordy. This year was a waste anyway. Unfortunately the current pain did matter, and the fact of the matter is that Lane was right behind me and I knew it. Yet I could not stop the cramps, nor the physical pain I felt.
Tom was long gone out ahead of me. No sign of him nor his green shorts in my immediate view. I grabbed some water quickly, gobbled it down, and threw the cup to the ground as I continued on. Another waste of a meet.
Kris, why did you do this to me, I thought. The accident was something I had done a pretty good job of blocking from my memory as of late. But on this dreary day, in this situation, my mind could not help but go back to it. Kris was my girlfriend who I had met during a trip to Tahoe during my 10th grade year. We had been going out just over a year before the accident happened. Kris had red curly hair and stood at around 5'7". She was not the most well built girl in the world, but to me she was a beauty. I hated even to remember what her face looked like with slivers of glass sticking out of it and blood strewn across it. The thought of her lower stomach crushed to a pulp also crossed my mind.
"Get some sleep." Kris looked back at me and said as she sat in front and I in the back diagonal from her. I still remember every twenty seconds or so cars zooming by us that Summer night. I was on the verge of falling asleep. But that sound of passing cars still haunts me.
Why bother with all this, Kris is dead; I thought. I pushed on as drizzle turned to light rain. Remembering Kris, the accident, or any of it, seemed completely useless. And that was about as long as I could stand to think of it visually. And perhaps that was longer than I had pictured it in my head than at any other time in the past year or so. Now I push on, away from the memory. The farther I can push it away the better. Life is unfair, I thought, not wanting to think of how Corey is in a wheel chair now. Corey was the only other survivor from the crash.
As we got close to the 7000 meter mark I felt sick for some reason, like I wanted to throw up. What was the point of all of this?
"You'd go on that thing?" Kris had asked me. We looked at it from a distance. The ride had shoulder straps and arm straps attaching you to it while one's legs were left dangling on the outside. "Sky Ride" I think was the name of it. Hanging from the shoulder attachments the people on board road along, legs dangling below, as the glider above was attached to some rails which flung the bodies outward as the glider made its turns. I was game to go on this ride, but Kris would not. She sat eating her cotton candy while Corey, Tina, and I braved it out.
"Your braver than I." She said. Little did she know.
I knew it was my last race on this track team. All my pain was turning to sadness as we were reaching the 7500 meter mark. It just dawned on me that there was no more hope in track, this was it. My junior high dreams were completely out the window. I would fight this pain and finish it out, but it was all just more disappointment. Lane passed by me to my left without saying anything. I think he knew that whatever he said would be inappropriate. There was nothing to say. He knew it should not be this way. We both knew he was not having the race of his life here. We both knew what this was.
My head started to hurt a bit as well. I sped up knowing that I could keep pace with Lane. Or that I should be able to keep pace with Lane. What was this, I asked myself. I felt like I could black out. I had had this feeling once before in practice about a month ago after we ran seven miles or so. I did exactly the same thing here that I did then too. I stopped running. I just stopped. This just was not something I would be able to check off.
I moved way over to the side and knelt down. I could feel the tears coming on but I was not even sure which of my thoughts they were associated with. I kept my crying from being audible, but at the same time I did not move. I just sat there, and for the first time in a long time, did not know what I was going to do next. I put my hands over my face as the tears were streaming down. Then I felt a hand touch my shoulder.
"It's okay Matt." It was Lane. He had stopped for me. I got up and just gave him a hug as the tears kept coming. Ignoring everything else around us, even ignoring the thoughts in my head, I just held on to Lane as we stood silently on that chilly day.
"So what happened Matt?" Gordy asked me on the phone later that afternoon.
"I followed Tom Dreys like we talked about and then at about the half way point I just cramped up. I'm not sure what happened." I responded.
"Was Tom going faster than we thought?" Gordy asked.
"I'm not really sure. I just think I over-exerted myself given the weather and stuff." There was a few second pause after I said that. "Yeah, I just cramped up."
"He must have run a quicker pace himself. I'll check on his final time and get back to you. So how's Mom's new job?" Gordy went on with his questions, and I gave as short of answers as I possibly could. The rest of the conversation was a blur as I just wanted to get off of the phone.
What will I say when they ask me about this at school? What will I tell coach Scott if he asks for more details? I set upon the task of coming up with a list of possible excuses to use. I settled on telling them something similar to what I told Gordy in that Tom ran way faster early than I anticipated, and that it threw off my entire pace which somehow caused me to cramp up. I don't think anyone paid close attention to my split times, so it seemed like enough to avoid further inquiry. It was good enough for me.
Of course as the day wore on I pretty much found other things to occupy my mind. But I really did not feel anything. All my planned excuses and all the busy work still left me pretty numb. It all felt very empty. To what point was all this homework; where did any of this lead? I decided to watch a live concert recording that I had of Bon-Jovi to ease some of these thoughts. About an hour into the concert I got a call.
"Hey Matt, it's Trent."
"Nice race man, I saw your final time." I told Trent, working myself up to the point where I could hide the numbness and sound enthusiastic.
"Thanks. Hey, Lane, Rick, and I are going to Judy's pool tomorrow for a barbeque, swimming, and such. Any interest?"
"Yeah, why not." I responded. Judy was a friend of his girlfriend, Abbey.
Trent and I spoke for a while about the plans for tomorrow, a party coming up next week that Abbey was throwing, and about how our baseball team won 4 - 2 over a neighboring school and would probably make the playoffs. Not once did he bring up what happened to me. Lane and Trent were two of the truest friends I had. I knew the weather forecast for tomorrow was great, so this would be a good time. Last I heard Judy had a mansion for a home and Trent said something about her parents being out of town. I felt a bit better; still numb, but better.
As my motivation felt higher that night I went to reach into the shoe box. This box was something I kept tucked away and it contained things that I did not want my parents or friends to know about. I reached for the torn out page from Lane's karate magazine that I had seen a while back. I had not looked at it in a while, but I had a longing to read over it again that night. It was for the "Oceanside Karate Institute" in Oceanside, California. They had a special live-in program for High School graduates that wanted to pursue martial arts and either also complete Jr. College or do a work study type program. I had thought about finding more about it before because I really wanted to fill the void that would exist after my graduation, but I had put it off. However, given the events of the day, that void was something that had a sense of urgency for me. The last thing I wanted now was college, and this was something physical that I could be doing without so much thinking. Lane knew someone who was a brown belt at the school and said the guy could do some of the most amazing things in terms of martial arts. I was not sure of much regarding the exact details, but it did interest me. Lane was into a lot of things martial arts, and had taken some karate himself at a local school. The whole "mind, body, spirit" notion that Lane spoke of captivated me a bit despite my apathy as a whole. He said that this karate school in Oceanside was far different than most and that people from across the country, and even other countries, have gone there for various programs. Anyway, there was an e-mail address to set up a free consultation to see if it was a possibility and I finally reached the point to send it across. I mean what the hell, at least checking this place out could not hurt anything.
As I opened up my e-mail account the next morning to send off this initial e-mail for the "OKI", I saw a name in my in-box that froze me. "Mandy Barrett" it said. Did I really want to open this? My stomach was feeling light. I could suddenly feel the adrenaline. Mandy was a friend of Kris who lived in Tahoe. She lived near a beach on the South side of the lake. Kris and I used to spend some time with her, but after Kris's death I have not communicated with her other than one time when I went to visit Corey in his physical therapy. What did she want?
To : Matt Larsen
From : Mandy Barrett
Subject : Hi.
Hi! I know we have not spoken for a while and I wanted to write and see how your doing. I know I was so selfish for a long time there in not contacting you. We all have been. I guess we just miss Kris. I feel really bad that we have not included you more out here. I hope you've had a better Senior year since I saw you in November. Anyway, I'm going to be in Sacramento in a couple of weeks from now and I would like to meet up with you again.
Mandy was always so sociable; she was a little fire cracker who stood at about the same height as Kris. She had long black braided hair. She was cute too. She had always been someone that I thought was fun to hang out with. But when I went to visit Corey in November it was so much different. It was like there was a very solid line that could not be crossed between us. It was like walking on egg shells. I have not thought about her much since that time at Corey's room there in the hospital. I could tell she was trying to reach out.
"Hi Matt" I turned around and there she was walking into the door of the restaurant. It was Mandy, just with a little more make up on than the last time I saw her.
"Oh my Gosh, it's so good to see you." We gave each other a hug.
"Good to see you too." I said as I gave her an extra squeeze.
When she arrived into town two weeks after I received the e-mail, she had given me a call and we decided to meet at a Chili's in Sacramento. It was a convenient place for both of us. We met around 7:00PM or so, and I'd made sure she knew that I'd treat.
"We've missed you so much." She said as her eyes lit up. I could tell already that she was much more jubilant than the last time I saw her.
She handed me a rock. At first I was confused but then as I turned it around I saw that engraved on the rock were the words "never quit".
"Cool. Thanks." I said. We were seated and given our menus. We talked for a little bit about her trip here and how she had been doing. We decided to just order something to drink for the time being, and maybe an appetizer later.
"So how has your senior year been?" she asked just after that.
"Okay." I said trying to be as honest as possible.
"And your track?"
"Okay." I responded, hoping that she would not notice my irritation with the question.
"Oh my Gosh, it's so good to see you again." Hadn't she already said this, I thought to myself. Only this time a tear came out of the corner of her eye.
"Excuse me." she said as she applied a tissue from her purse. "Matt, I wanted to wait and say this, but I think I'll just say it now anyway."
"What?" I asked, now curious where she was going with this.
"Matt, Kris loved you so much. I know you guys only knew each other a year, but she adored you."
"Thanks." I was not comfortable with this conversation.
"God I miss those visits from you guys in Tahoe. I mean every weekend! And the ski trips."
"I know" I replied, now feeling more than a tinge of sadness myself. She hit a chord when mentioning the ski trips. I thought of Kris, Mandy, and I going up the chair lift together one time, and how much different I felt back then. Nevertheless, I tried to get through the conversation by discussing specifics of one of our trips. We recounted some of the details of that trip for a few minutes before Mandy again changed the subject.
"Matt, we worry about you. Are you doing okay?"
"In terms of the accident?" I asked.
"Well, when I went back to school I met with a school counselor for the first month or so." I stated and then continued, "I just figure I can handle this now. I mean I've got to deal with it right? It's over. It's in the past." I just wanted to stay cool in the moment.
"Where are you going to school next year? What are your plans?"
"I don't fucking know." I stated back. I was not exactly sure where the anger came from, but the words had burst from my mouth. I felt extremely uncomfortable all of a sudden. She and I both paused for a half minute or so before tears again came from her eyes.
"Matt, your, your" she began stumbling with her words as she spoke softly. "….you're a …. a great guy." After a long pause she continued, "Just…. just some people I heard….. say…."
"Excuse me." I said as I moved toward the restroom. In that moment it felt hard to breathe. I felt like I could black out. I went and sat in a stall in the restroom for a few minutes just to get away from the situation. I can't be acting like this, I thought to myself, I've got to get myself together. I wiped a tear away, washed my hands, and returned to the table.
The rest of the time we both steered the conversation far away from any talk regarding Kris. It did not feel the least bit comfortable. Before long, Mandy had to leave. We never ordered an appetizer. We left $20, way more than what would have been required to cover our drinks, and just got up and left. When I got a little ways toward home in my car I noticed a voice mail waiting for me on my cell phone, of course it was Mandy.
"Matt, I'm really sorry about that back there. I guess it's just hard out in a restaurant and all. I mean hard in terms of dealing with our feelings and stuff. I meant what I said. You will always be in my thoughts. Call me or send me an e-mail soon. Promise me you will. Again, sorry. Love ya, Bye."
I clicked off the cell phone and drove the rest of the way home. I could not tell at the time just how much seeing her affected me. I never called her back.