From our vantage point on the bleachers, we watched them. We sat shivering, frozen still, in polyblend short-shorts and tee-shirts knotted—coquettishly, we let ourselves believe—at our waists, bobby-pins jabbing into our skulls. Officially, our school had no uniforms, but unofficially, we had our own imperatives, established by some monolithic entity of girls— girls before us, girls among us, girls who were distinctly not us, but whom we didn’t dare disobey, not then. We were silent as our coach rattled off the workout for the day—ladders, fartleks, repeats—or announced who had achieved a personal record in the last meet, the rest of us obliterated as if we had never achieved anything, as if we didn’t set and achieve our own personal records outside of track all the time. As if just getting through another day then in our own shifting, deviant bodies that felt so removed, alien, from who we were inside our heads, didn’t feel like a personal record. Our coach would admonish us for playing board games with the rival team during down-time at meets, or for being five minutes late to practice, or for laughing to ourselves during cooldown when we thought the stilted theatrics of our workouts had melted away, another grueling afternoon to blot out behind us. We were student athletes, our coach would profess, but beyond that we were young ladies. He told us to focus; don’t waste my time, or yours, he would say, as we fixed our faces in his direction, but our eyes would drift beyond him, towards the boys.
From the other side of the stadium, we watched them as they whooped and yelled and laughed, whipped off their shirts, dumped bottles of water on their heads, slapping and knocking each other in a joyous frenzy. Their voices in a rousing chorus. Their bones, sharp and jutting, like they could rip through the skin, sinews stretched taunt. Their winter-pale chests; the weird aching tenderness of their bare skin flashing in the sun. The way the disparate parts of their bodies, when examined individually, each for each—a skinny wrist, a bruised knee, the nape of a neck—seemed so much more delicate than the whole boy, like something that needed protecting.
Their coach was a history teacher who was born here, grew up here. Never left here, never wanted to. He had been on the team himself when he was young. He lived all day in the past, and why would he leave such a beautiful place—the Astroturf infield greener than Eden, the ever-forgiving, ever-yielding surface of the track red as Mars. The past for the boy’s coach was contained within the bowl of the stadium where we practiced, never making it over the slopes of the bleachers, forever falling right back into the center.
Our separate universes within the stadium still swirled and crashed against each other, despite our coaches’ best efforts to keep us apart. We’d share the track with them and they’d come hurtling from behind, yelling inside!, and we’d move to the right as they sped by us, shirtless—always shirtless. On bus rides to invitationals, which were always co-ed, when they’d claim reign to the back, spread out an empire across the seats, and belt out “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie in perfect unison. At home meets, where they sat next to us on the bleachers, calling in pizzas and meatball subs for delivery right to the stadium, mashing them between their teeth, open-mouthed exhibits of their shameless hunger. Or on rainy days, when the wet ground cramped them with us inside the school lobby for core, its nubby industrial carpet reeking beneath all our hands. There, we could hear that they called their stretches different things than we did, named them after exalted graduates whose legacies lived on through heel lifts and seated twists: Griffins, Codys, Jasons. Sometimes they would bend down into a plank position but thrust their hips back and forth—Saturday Nights!, one of the captains, the redhead, would call out and the older boys would all snicker, like they not only knew about things we didn’t, but actually did those things too. Later, years later, we would laugh at how little they surely knew then, of sex and its manuevers. We would understand that their encounters then, if there had been any at all, had been fumbling and novice, artless, worlds away from the spirit of their pantomimes. But we almost had to admire the efforts of their hoax, admit that we maybe believed them, at least a little bit, at least for a while.
We were freshmen: fourteen, fifteen. None of us the coach’s favorites, or anyone’s favorites, besides each other’s. It was clear the coach did not have high hopes, or low hopes, or even wishes, for any of us to make Regionals at the end of the season, never mind States. But we knew better; we knew that the light you see from stars has already burned out a million years ago—the news just hasn’t arrived to you yet. In those afternoons down at the track, we reclaimed every agonizing, clicking second of the clock as our own, as just another way to kill time, count it down, as we lunged toward something else we wanted so much more than to win races against each other—to leave all of this behind.
Except when it felt pounding and urgent, life felt mostly dull, annoyingly tedious—one day would lead to the next, but it would take a lot of these days to be crossed off until we got somewhere we wanted to be: old enough to drive, to be upperclassmen, to be headed off to college, where everything was promised to be better than here. And what better than here seemed to mean, exactly, was that we could get what we wanted faster and easier. But in this excruciating interim, the boys were our entertainment.
We gave them nicknames—codenames, really—so we could talk about them in public without them or anyone else realizing it. But besides that, the names made them more our own. They made them belong to us. We would riff on their last names—we called Jake Fisher “Gill,” Ben Campbell “Tomato Soup.” Or we’d spin off famous likenesses, no matter how contrived—we called Angelo Martin “Poor Man’s Howard Hughes” because he was never without his aviators, even when running hurdles; we called Allan Weston “Good Enough Jude Law” because he was born in the UK and had a gaze that could be described as smoldering, at least by some suburban approximation, although his accent was fading and now mostly affected.
Every day at lunch, or in the locker room before practice, we would report to each other on any sightings we’d witnessed during the school day. Even if we just saw them walking down the hall, it was news-worthy, funny somehow. They were so conscious of being seen, but in a different way than us—they performed, they relished attention. For team spirit days, they wore feather boas and piles of Mardi Gras beads; they stretched openly in the middle of the hallway or in study hall, toe touches and knee bends, grinning and audacious about their need to flex their tight muscles. They either basked in the spotlight, or were completely unaware of how funny they were: their insistent, jagged hallway strides when they raced to class, their grumbling in the lunch line about dogmatic cafeteria monitors and rising prices of fake meat.
Within the mass of them, we had our favorites: mostly the older boys, two of the three captains, but not the third, because he was sullen and curt but deep down we secretly liked him too, elevated his everlasting bad mood to something poetic. Lord Byron, we called him, inspired by our assigned reading in English class. He was also the fastest on the team, and elicited the same begrudging reverence from us as everyone else. One captain worked at the sporting goods store in town, and we always talked, only half-kidding, about getting him to fit us to new shoes, just to feel our feet held firmly, safely, in his capable hands. A few of the other upperclassmen worked as baggers at the grocery store, and we’d see them there when we went with our parents, laughing to ourselves as they were reprimanded by the cashiers for being too rough with the fruit. But then there were the boys in our own grade who we had not noticed much previously as they shuffled through the years somewhere in the crowds alongside us. They were more interesting at track, a secret life within them illuminated somehow. All of the track boys were different from other types of jocks at school, distinct from the football players and baseball guys and lax bros—it was weird to call them jocks at all. We couldn’t nail down exactly what it was; they were more sensitive, maybe, but that wasn’t saying much or nearly enough. They were canny in their own certain way; they had their own brand of a lanky, upright mystique. Steadfast: that was the word. We thought they were steadfast. Maybe a little bit noble.
Their meets were Mondays; ours were Tuesdays. On the way back from ours, we’d prank-call them from the bus, sore from our races but hysterical in an endorphin afterglow. We’d find their numbers on their Facebook profiles, and reason that they wanted girls calling them—why else would they list their information for anyone to find, advertise it with total, blinding trust? We’d dial *67 first so they couldn’t tell it was us—couldn’t tell it was anyone—and still they’d always answer, even when we knew RESTRICTED NUMBER was flashing across their phones. This consistently amazed us; we knew better than to ever fall for a call like that. “Hello?” they’d answer, always flustered, their voices at immediate attention, like they were perpetually waiting to be reached. We’d picture them in their bedrooms, home for hours since their practice ended for the day. Every girl’s room was different but all boys’ rooms were the same: dank-smelling, poster-laden, full of hidden things of varying levels of shame—shames of lingering childhood, shames of burgeoning adulthood. The flavors were distinct. We’d pretend to be other people than who we were; older girls we had seen them with, other guys on the team, teachers. Our voices across the line would be loopy and gross, choking down laughs: unbelievable, but they always did seem to believe us, even for only just a few seconds, a hesitation before finally eliciting a “yeah, okay,” or hanging up. Sometimes though, they would talk to us, play right along. When we pretended to be his ex-girlfriend from his freshman year, checking in on his mile times, John Caputo, number two of the top seven, laughed and said, “I guess still not fast enough to get you back, huh?” and we almost felt bad. Or when we pretended to be the AP Physics teacher discussing Adam Moore’s flatulence in class, he said, “I’m just trying to get on your level, Mr. Moreno!” We laughed together, deep and genuine, him and us, until Adam said, “well, have a good night, ladies,” and hung up, leaving us back to the company of each other, alone with the sounds of the bus jolting over the back roads towards home.
We thought it was unfair that the boys would always be faster than the girls because their hearts were bigger—that it was a simple, incontestable fact of anatomy that they could pump more blood with every beat, a fact that the best girls on our team and every other team, were resigned against. Not unrelated: for the boy’s home meets, they always played “Baba O’ Riley” over the stadium PA when it came time to run the mile, but never for the girls. At the top of the bleachers, we’d look down to watch them glide through the perfect symmetry of those four laps, their heads up and earnest, to the sounds of not needing to be forgiven. It was always golden hour; they were always cast in gleaming, heavenly light.
Later that season, we found out from one of our own captains how the boys’ had a tradition, a list they passed around their team, ranking every girl on ours in order of hotness, updated daily, if situations called for it—how they were brutal, unforgiving, marking girls down if they looked sloppy that day at practice, if they tripped over themselves doing knee-kicks during warm-up, if they were just plain unfuckable, which seemed to be an arbitrary but unredeemable designation. When she was a freshman, our captain had heard that they had written that she looked like a drowned rat whenever it rained during practice and her hair got wet. Now, she still pinned her hood to her scalp whenever it rained, kept her eyes to the ground with her hands on her head as extra insurance. Another one of the older girls told us that in the woods, during long runs, the boys played Fuck Marry Kill with all of our names in their mouths. No one was spared, but some were sentenced to death much more than others. All of us were fodder, fair game. “Don’t think they don’t see you—they do, just probably not how you want,” she said.
But I thought of how we played MASH all those times in study-hall, on bus rides, at sleepovers, with their names through our pens instead: how according to us, being fated to date certain boys on the team was a jail sentence; getting married to another, its own kind of hell. Now, when I think back to those games, I think of the places we’d end up later, how they were better or worse than our lives then. I think of the people we would end up with—the people with whom we’d share all those things we waited for, yearned for while running repeats at track, with whom we’d tick off first-times until we ran out of first-times, and life just kept going—and think of what ways they were and were not like the boys. Those days at track were the last time I could remember really being a part of a team, or anything close to it.
At the end of our freshman season, the team’s number two, John Caputo, got suspended for driving to school drunk, and the boys didn’t make States for the first time in ten years. Lord Byron didn’t get the athletic scholarship he needed for college, and never ended up leaving at all. For the next three years, and whenever we came home after that, we’d still see him running around the perimeter of the high school’s campus, almost gray underneath his neon running clothes, or down the town’s post road at any given hour of the day. None of us come home anymore, because home isn’t there anymore, but we know he’s still out there, running in the same circles.
For the rest of our time on the team, we would watch the boys. We would watch them as they stumbled from afternoons of ladder repeats, their legs shaking and unable to bend. We watched them lose their races, hang their heads between their legs in defeat. Their faces, looking down and panting, their desperate gulps of water, their gasps of air—it was enough to churn our stomachs. All those afternoons down at the track, the sun beat down on them, burned their skin, and we just watched.
NIKI BARNHART is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Juked, The Rumpus, Barnstorm, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Post Road.