Wednesday, July 30, 2008

saving nicole


There are moments in life when a person surrenders himself completely to that moment. They’re moments of total and perfect truth; of acceptance. In them, he is content of the state of everything around him; sure that the universe holds no more secrets for him to search for. Just for that moment, the world so vast shrinks into a bubble of space and time where everything is as it should be. And here is where he should be.

For Ja, those moments come every time he sets his feet on the starting line.


Brandon Justice Carter established himself firmly in the world record books with his impressive showing on Saturday’s race hosted by the New York State Association of Independent Schools Athletic Association (NYSAISAA), finishing the 100-meter dash at an astounding 9.68 seconds – slashing four-tenths of a second off the previous record time set by Jamaican Usian Bolt.
The Sports Illustrated article of Ja was sparkling. On the cover that month’s issue was Ja crossing the finish line, the blue ribbon cut where Ja’s stomach pushes it forward, his wavy black shoulder-length hair tied in the usual ponytail a few inches north of the base of his skull, almost at the very top of his head where a Japanese topknot would be.
With a cabinet case overflowing with trophies and a pass to the upcoming Olympics to his name, the seventeen-year-old Filipino-American from Loyola High School in New York has a more daunting and immediate concern which looms in the horizon. The question follows wherever he goes:
Where will he attend college in the fall?
To speculate would be like designating a card in deck to a school (and yes, there are that many schools vying for Justice’s services on their track and field team), tossing the deck in the air, then seeing which one falls into an overturned top hat. Unlike other young athletes of his caliber of raw talent and market potential, with their high-priced agents and entourage, Justice has been far from being outspoken, and in fact shown himself to be an enigma of sorts, what with that long hair (uncommon to other sprinters who might even shave their arms, legs and chest to minimize drag) and his quiet, stoic demeanor.
Undoubtedly the most sought after prospect in the track and field game in American athletics history, Justice will be pressed by the NCAA board to make a decision next week, a few days after his next race, this one for the interstate championship and one with the potential to yet again put Justice’s name in the record books.
Sources close to Justice say that the well-documented left knee injury that sidelined Justice last season has healed completely. And after a new experimental rehabilitation treatment, Justice had been clocked in at speeds upwards to an amazing 9.65 seconds during practice runs.
Time will tell if the young man will reach that mark; if he’ll meet the expectations of many who see him as the Lebron James of the sport. The stars are the limit for the young man. His dreams are in his reach.
Ja knows well of dreams. When others spend lifetimes searching for theirs, Ja has known since he was seven.
“Close your eyes,” the little girl tells him, her voice soft, gentle.
“Are you sure about this?” His voice croaks.
The girl creeps closer, her large black eyes fixed on the seven-year-old Ja’s lips. “Are you so frightened of me?” she whispers.
“I’m not scared,” he declares. It's a lie.
“Prove it then.”
She purses her lips and closes her eyes. She cranes her neck up a little to meet Ja’s face. The other half of the space between their lips was for Ja to cross.
“Gentlemen, to your marks!” shouts the umpire.
His fingers touching the grainy surface of the race track, Ja bows his head like a pilgrim would in a holy place. He calms his breathing, sucking in air in long intervals until his respiration and heartbeat are adjusted. He closes his eyes, shuttering off the dull late-afternoon sunlight. Slowly, the flood of noise from the arena fails into the distance until all he hears are his breathing and his heartbeat, then, soon, nothing at all.
Ja pulls his head up at hearing that girl’s tender voice whisper. His eyes strain at the intense mid-day sunshine assaulting his face. The scene is almost red, it’s so hot. Ja narrows his eyes, but not to adjust his sight, but to focus on his prize baking under the searing sun – a black car parked on the curb by a school yard.
“Get set…!” The umpire raises an air gun above his head.
You won’t outrun me, Ja thinks, his eyes trained on the black car. You’re not fast enough. He bends forward, every cell in his body burning to get running…
Ja jolts to a quick start, pushing his body forward with a might kick of his hind leg. The ground beneath him churns; miniscule granules of sand and dirt fly; the green track sways like gelatin with each breach of his shoes’ cleats into the floor.
Light from cameras flashes from the sidelines. Each one is a tiny sparkle blazingly bright; dozens of them fill a split-second frame of his sight before fading and being replaced by new sparks of ashen.
Ja bows his head to push himself forward, faster. Strands of his hair beginning to escape the noose of his ponytail, he bullets past the others, letting them squabble for second among themselves.
4.52, reads the timer this sudden instant.
A little more than half the track to go. Ja tells himself, his body, that he needs to run faster. Faster or else it’ll escape him.
Ja raises his head and sees his prize driving away from him. The red daylight begins to fade into the horizon where the black car is following. Ja tucks his head to his chest and pushes on. Faster, he tells himself. Faster.
The tendon behind Ja’s left knee begins to twitch then painfully heat up. His body begins to usurp against him.
“Listen to your body,” his coach tells him. The old man begins coughing and pulls out a handkerchief out of the pocket of his sweatpants. “Qualify,” he struggles to say. He coughs again. “That’s all we want, got that, Justice?”
Ja runs circles around the wheel of his ipod, thumbing through songs in his pre-race playlist. He settles on one and presses play. “Got it,” he says nonchalantly as he plugs an earpiece into his left ear.
“Hey!” The old man pulls his runner by his sweat shirt and forces him to look him in the eye. “No screw ups,” he says sternly. “You injure yourself again and you can say bye-bye to your career –”
“And yours too, right?”
The old man straightens his stance. For a moment, he possesses a regal appeal – like powerful kings who have armies to threaten with. “If it gets out that you had an ACL injury you barely rehabbed from successfully, you can forget college; forget getting out of your two-bit neighborhood.”
“You honestly think I care?” Ja retorts without a second’s hesitation.
The old man shakes his head. “You have talent people would kill for, your whole life ahead of you… but you act like it’s already over.” He fixes his stare on Ja firmer, trying to measure the young man. “Every time you run, it’s like… you’re running away.”
Ja raises his chin. “I don’t run away from anything.”


The crowd in the arena is swept into a more frenzied tumult of cheer. Justice is a good seven paces from the runner-up, his coach can tell as he watches from the stands. He pulls out his handkerchief and coughs. “Go get ‘em, boy,” he whispers to himself, hiding his pride of the young man he trained to run since he was ten. “Go get ‘em.”


His cheeks flapping, Ja grins and swallows hard, trying to ignore the pain in his left knee. Faster, he eggs himself. You can reach it. His knee begins to quiver. Yet he presses on. Nothing will stop him. Nothing will slow him; not when he’s so close – so close that he can hear her tiny voice yell for him.
Ja pulls his head from its bowed positions. He sees a little girl push her bust out of the left-side backseat window, her profile outlined in the eerie red daylight behind her. “JA!” she shouts again. Her lips move slowly as if she were suspended in a space of the world where gravity and time has no control. She mouths, Ja… hurry… please…
Ignoring the pain behind his knee, Ja runs on, fueled by the sight of his prize slowly escaping him. The little girl pushes her body out of the car window further until she’s sitting on the ledge of the window. Ja, her lips mime, Save me…
She begins to cry, each tear falling to the hot concrete road a few feet from where Ja lands his running shoes. She cries harder. Her tears drops down and travels across the partition between her and Ja and splatters on Ja’s knee. He’s getting close. A little faster, he thinks.
They drop to his cheeks now, her tears. It drips down with his sweat and falls away as he runs. Her entire torso out of the car window, she reaches her hand out. Ja reaches out his.
She is so close… Just a little closer… a little faster…


A blinding light flashes in front of Ja. He is frozen, his muscles, hot and energetic, stilled in mid-race; his eyes are shot. When the light eventually fades, the car is gone; the scene is no longer red hot. In front of him is the profile of a winged naked girl, her hair flowing around her as if she were under water. She reaches out her hand to Ja like the little girl in the car did. Ja puts out his open hand, trying to catch her.
The wind begins to stir as the girl’s wings begin to flap, scattering bright white, glowing feathers everywhere. Slowly, she floats away from him, her hand still stretched out for Ja to touch. Unable to move, Ja watches desperately.
“No…” he whispers.


His knee can take no more. Rebelling against Ja’s stubborn will, it falters. Ja hears something crack, and his body falls forward. He crashes to the track floor right shoulder first. His momentum carries him forward still, and Ja begins to tumble ahead. Again and again he flips, his skin scraping the ground.
“Oh my god,” whispers the old man as he watches his runner, his boy, topple across the track.
Flipping over and over, Ja travels another twenty meters, he was going so fast. Then, mercifully, he stops, his front to the warm afternoon sky. He’s breathing hard. His heart rate is banging against his chest like a jackhammer. Close to passing out, he turns his head to his side where he sees the black car driving away into the red distance. The sound of a little girl screaming for help remains yet, echoing in Ja’s head until it slowly fades.
Then, he hears nothing. He sees nothing.


Laid on her side on Ja’s parent’s bed, she reaches behind her, grabs Ja’s tiny hand and pulls his arm across her chest.
“How many kids do you want to have?” she asks in a hush, trying not to disturb this solemn moment when she has her boy’s arm around her.
“Don’t know,” he answers.
“I want lots. I’ll spoil every one of them.” She sighs and closes her eyes to try to fall asleep.
As she shifts her head on the pillow, she feels her boy’s tiny fingers brush her long blonde hair. She smiles, but she represses the urge to giggle. He’d stop doing that if he knew she was awake, afraid that she’d tease him about it. He’s right. Blushing bright red, she begins to conspire clever, rhyming jokes to make fun of him in the morning. But the thoughts of petty gags cease quickly.
“I know you’re awake,” he whispers into her ear. Her eyes flare open. “Keep pretending that you’re sleeping,” he continues, “I might not be able to say it if I knew you’re awake.”
He turns silent, shying from the chore he practiced for the last few days.
“Say what?” she whispers.
Another moment of silence. Then –“I like you.”
She blushes harder. Her face begins to feel burning red hot. Unable to control her cheeks, they part to give way to a smile.
She shrinks her voice, tiny as it already always was, afraid that if she spoke too loud, she’d wake up from this dream. “I like you too, Ja.”
That night, cuddled with the girl, Ja’s world is set in place. All the questions his seven-year old mind had asked, far from being answered, wanes away. His past, his present wane away, and all he’s left with this moment… is this moment. He somehow knows that if had nothing else to live on, he could make due with the simple thought that she sleeps next to him every night; that she’s his girl.


The voice is soft as if spoken from a distance. “Justice… Justice…” Slowly, that voice grows louder. The track physician looks down on Ja. He points a small flashlight into his eyes, and bright white floods into Ja’s sight.
“Do you know where you are?” the physician asks.
The flash of cameras shutters around the scene of Ja laying on his back. A few moments later, the old man, his coach, elbows his way past the crowd of racers, photographers, TV cameramen, and on-site doctors and takes a knee beside Ja’s stiff body.
“Justice!” he says, his voice shaking with worry. “Do you hear me, boy?” He stares down into Ja’s wide-open eyes staring blankly above him. “Justice! It’s another world record you pulled!” The old man smiles, his smile gleaming with a fatherly pride for his young runner.
His mouth agape, Ja silently continues to look up as if seeing something invisible to everyone else.
“Justice,” the old man says again. “Jus –”
“I didn’t make it…” Ja whispers.
Ja’s emotionless face begins to crumple. His eyes shrink behind the wrinkles of skin as he frowns.
His speech is shaky. “I didn’t make it…” he mumbles.
He starts to cry; cry unlike he had ever cried in his life. He never thought anyone could be so sad. He never thought the world was so cruel. Lying on his back, the first thing he thinks of is the pain, the desperation, the overwhelming sadness that crushes his chest and impedes his breathing, causing him to snort from his nose. The second is racing again, a new chance, a momentary fix, a salvation from this painful moment.
And the moment is a bed of needles under him. “I didn’t make it…” His face, bright red and terribly furrowed, is a sorry, ugly sight of human vulnerability. It never occurs to Ja, a man with man’s pride, to cover his face. He lets all to see; lets the cameras take pictures of him weeping.
“Stop your crying!” the old man orders. He is angry at his runner; at how the young man reminded him of his own very human nature to shatter with such sadness.
“I wasn’t fast enough… I wasn’t fast enough… I wasn’t fast enough…”

By Augustine Martinez