Sunday, January 15, 2012

#Sample Sunday: La Cienega Just Smiled

Chapter 1

Sixth Grade

April 2002

"I dare you to kiss me," Reyna said as they sat on the merry-go-round sharing their vegetarian lunch. Scott actually preferred to eat meat, but because Reyna ate vegetarian, so would he.

Scott slammed his foot into the dirt and abruptly stopped their slow drifting course. "What?"

"I said I dare you to kiss me."

"I heard you, but … but, why?" Scott shook his head of shaggy blond hair trying to process what he was hearing.

Reyna drew in a breath and made her cheeks big like a blowfish. She always did that when she needed to think. She held her breath for several seconds, then let it out as she said, "According to my sources, we're the only two sixth graders who haven't had a first kiss. Most everyone in our class has gone beyond kissing."

Scott stared at Reyna dumbfounded, wondering what she meant by ‘beyond kissing’ and when he would do it.

"I mean, I know you would rather kiss Amanda Stratfield, but I figure you can practice on me. That way when you finally kiss Amanda, you'll be really good at it."

Scott was still too stunned to speak. Not because his best friend wanted to make out with him; he was actually quite all right with that. What shocked him more was that she thought he would prefer to kiss Amanda. Ever since Reyna walked into his English class six months ago, he wanted nothing more than to be near her. Something about her afro, her armful of shiny bracelets, and the way she always knew what she wanted made her the most fascinating person Scott had ever met.

He loved the way she would tell him stories about her village in Puerto Rico and make him feel as if he were right there as well eating platano or swimming in crystal blue waters during an afternoon break from class. He loved the way she always told people she would be a doctor when she grew up, not that she wanted to be a doctor. Quite unlike when he told people he wanted to be a professional athlete. In Scott's case, his career choice was not an option. He would one day be on the cover of a Wheaties box whether he liked it or not.

He sat with Reyna during lunch on her first day and every day since. Amanda was just a decoy, someone he pretended to have a crush on whenever someone asked. For some reason, he never felt right about telling people he liked a black girl.

"Um ... " he finally managed to say.

"We can go behind the slide if you want, so no one will see."

"Um ... okay."

Reyna grabbed his hand and pulled him to a secluded spot behind the slide at the edge of the playground, a spot hidden from the rest of the field. There were only a few other students outside. Most of the middle schoolers felt it was uncool to eat on the playground and preferred to eat in the cafeteria.

"Did you feel that?" Reyna asked after their fifth attempt at a successful kiss without teeth getting in the way.


"A flutter in the pit of your stomach. I felt it in mine."

Scott closed his eyes and thought about it. He didn't really want to stop kissing and start thinking, but at that moment he would have done anything Reyna wanted.

"Yeah, I felt it, too."

"La Cienega just smiled."

Chapter 2

Friday Oct. 31, 2008

For the first time in my life, I dreaded going into a game. I was in so much pain, it even hurt to breathe. I clenched my left hand into a fist hoping to tame the uncontrollable twitching in my fingers. I rotated my shoulder in small circles while biting down on my lip to keep from crying out. This couldn't be happening. Not in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. I couldn't be feeling this debilitating pain in the shoulder of my throwing arm. Not the arm that would get me an athletic scholarship to college, the arm that would one day land me in the NFL or MLB. Not the NBA, though. At six feet tall, I knew I was probably too short for a white guy in professional basketball.

Maybe I was overreacting. I just wasn’t used to strange pains in my body. The last time I was sick was when I caught the flu from Reyna the summer before eighth grade. And that was because I refused to let her sit home alone. I spent three days at her house making her soup and throwing away her nasty used tissues.

A wave of nausea overcame me and I placed my football helmet in my lap just in case I needed to use it as a bucket. What was going on with me? These symptoms had been coming and going for four months now. Ironically, right after I had my picture and a write up in an issue of Sports Illustrated next to a shoe ad with Lebron James. Never had they all attacked me at once and never had the pain been so intense.

I looked at the game clock. Forty-five seconds left and we were up by one point. As long as defense could hold them for a few more seconds, my shoulder wouldn't be an issue. They would win this game without me, then I could get another shot of...whatever ... from Derek before the state championship to make it through that game. If defense could just hold on ... damn. The other team scored a touchdown. We were now down by five, which meant I was going in.

I felt like a pig caught between a wolf and a slaughterhouse. Either way I was dead. If I went out on that field and failed, everyone would hate me. And if I didn't go out on that field, we'd lose the state playoff game and everyone would still hate me.

I scanned the crowd and looked at all the expectant faces, the students, parents, and fans who wanted a victory for Charleston Prep and expected me to deliver it. The crowd chanted my name waiting for me to go out and create a miracle ... as usual.

I glanced over at the cheerleading squad and checked out my girlfriend, Amber. What would she think of me tomorrow after I let down the school and the entire city by single-handedly losing the playoff game? She'd probably just dump me for Andrew Walters. That way the captain of the football team could date the captain of the cheerleading squad.

Did I love her? Would I miss her when she dumped me? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to be with her or not. As quarterback of the football team, I somehow felt obligated to date a sexy cheerleader. What kind of person had I become?

I only half listened as Coach Reed instructed me on the final play. I already knew what it would be: a quick dance out of the pocket, then a 60-yard aerial to Lawrence in the end zone. I rotated my shoulder again and felt my knees almost buckle from the pain. My eyes watered and my stomach clenched. There was no way I could make that last throw.

"You all right, kid?" Coach asked when I didn't explode onto the field as usual.

I nodded while trying to control my breathing. "Yeah, yeah. I'm fine."

"We need this, Kincaid. Everyone is counting on you."

I started putting on my helmet and began a slow jog down the sideline as the crowd went crazy.

"Scott, wait!" I heard someone yell. Reyna ran toward me in her trademark white leather pants that hugged and accentuated every curve of her body. A sudden heat arose in me. Like someone dropped a plate of warm biscuits in my lap. I turned to the cheerleading squad and gave a guilty smile to Amber when I realized how much Reyna's figure excited me. By the time I turned around again, Reyna and her huge afro stood directly in front of me. It had really gotten long. I suspected she hadn't cut it since sixth grade. "What's wrong?" she asked as she began to replace the tape on my wrist. It was her way of stalling so she could talk to me.

"Nothing. I'm fine."

Reyna rolled her eyes. "I know you're not fine. I can see it. You can’t hide anything from me," she said, holding me with a compassionate stare.

I looked away. I knew I couldn't lie to her. I just hoped that she cared enough about me to not get me taken out of the game. For some reason, she held that kind of power. She was very convincing. Everyone trusted her judgment and ended up doing whatever she wanted. That was how she was able to convince the athletic trainer that he needed her as an assistant. Now Reyna attended all sporting events and wielded almost as much authority as the trainer himself. She claimed it was practice since she was going to major in sports medicine in college before med school, but I liked to think it was her way of getting close to me.

"Look, Scottie, it's just a game. It's not worth doing permanent damage to your shoulder. And I know it's your shoulder. I saw you wince when you picked up your backpack yesterday after chemistry." She had finished the unnecessary taping of my wrist and had entwined her fingers with mine. "And don't think I don't know about that shot of ‘God-knows-what’ you took before the game. If I tell Coach or Doc they'll yank you out so fast —"

"Reyna, please don't do this to me. There's a scout from USC in the crowd," I said in a forced whisper although no one would have been able to hear me anyway over the screams from the crowd.

I looked down and jumped at the sight of our fingers entwined. We hadn't held hands like that in years.

"Is there a problem?" The ref asked as he approached us. My eyes pleaded with her.

"No, no problem," she said still looking at me.

"Then let's go." The ref headed back to the field.

I turned to follow him, but Reyna grabbed my good arm and said, "I know Coach wants you to throw it in the end zone, but you'll never make it out of the pocket. You've been off balance and sluggish all night and 63 is gonna blitz. I know it. Hand off to Harry and let him lateral to Lawrence. Lawrence can run it in. You get down and protect that shoulder."

As I jogged toward the huddle, I was thankful I had a friend like Reyna. I had been feeling woozy and clumsy all night, but still somehow I managed to get the job done and throw three touchdown passes. Only Reyna noticed something was wrong.

After I handed the ball off to Harry, everything went black momentarily. I hoped someone had tackled me and that I didn't just collapse of my own accord, but I couldn't be sure. I heard an explosion of applause and cheering. Lawrence must have run it into the end zone clenching our victory. I hoped everyone's attention would stay there so no one would notice me lying motionless on the field. Just a few more seconds and I'd be able to concentrate my energy enough to get up and no one would even know anything was wrong.

That didn't happen. Seconds later, Reyna was at my side. A hush fell over the crowd as slowly people noticed the star quarterback was down.

"Scottie, can you hear me?" Reyna slipped her flashlight out of her waistband utility belt and flashed it into my eyes.

"What happened? Was he hit? I missed it?" Doc said as he joined her.

"Sixty-three blitzed," Reyna said as she began her examination of me. She carefully maneuvered my helmet off and brushed my hair away from my forehead. I thought I saw something in her eyes. Something I hadn't noticed before. Something like love.

"I swear to God, Scottie, if you don't answer me this second I'll ... I'll ... "

My cheek started to twitch. Anyone looking at me would think I was trying to smile. Actually, I had no control over what the muscles in my face were doing.

I blinked several times and shook my head, trying to snap out of the trance the pain had put me in. Then I forced myself to smile and said, "Did we win?"

Reyna breathed a sigh of relief. "You're such a pill. I can't believe you're joking around at a time like this," she said as she checked my pulse. "What day is it?" she asked.


"Too easy. All our games are on Friday. What's my middle name?" she asked.

Feeling a bit better and enjoying throwing off her meticulously planned world, I grinned and said, "Bossy."

Reyna rolled her eyes and let off a string of her favorite Puerto Rican swears. I always thought it was hilarious that she never considered it cursing if she said it in Spanish. "If I was sure you didn't have a concussion I'd smack you upside the head." She stood, grabbed her kit and stormed off the field, leaving Doc to finish the examination.

I lifted my head and tried to prop myself up on my elbows. "Not so fast," Doc said, easing me back down to the ground. "I have a stretcher coming, just to be on the safe side."

"Doc, I think it might be best for everybody," I looked around the stadium filled with still hushed fans, "if I walk out of here on my own two feet."

"I don't know, Scott. If you –"

"I'm fine, really. I was just playing a trick on Reyna." Doc eyed me skeptically. "Watch, I'm fine." Hiding the true effort of my actions, I jumped up and gave a wave to the spectators. The crowd erupted in cheers once again.

Amber ran onto the field and jumped into my arms. "You big jerk, you had everyone scared to death," she said as she kissed me and playfully slapped me on the chest.

I kissed her back hoping she didn't notice the terror on my face at the realization that I couldn't move my left arm.

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