Name: Christopher Ledbetter
Title: Hard To Breathe
Dreams are like sunsets, beautiful and fleeting. I often wonder what kind of sunset I’d create if I could control it. The colours I’d choose. The balance. The flow. And if it were mine, maybe I’d make it last all day. But then again, there's not much point to that. Like dreams, perhaps a sunset’s beauty walks hand in hand with its brevity.
The air’s thick with autumn’s earthy scent while I sit outside the Hydraulic Road Hilltop Grocery, watching the sun descend toward the foothills behind my school. Monet’s Houses of Parliament has nothing on this. In fact, Monet’s whole outlook on sunsets would’ve been different if he’d lived here in Charlottesville, Virginia, if he could’ve seen what I’m looking at right now.
Condensation from my Gatorade coats my right hand while I bite into the strawberry Scooter Crunch in the other. Not exactly the best post-basketball game meal. But hey, they called my name when I entered the store. I open up my journal to record my day’s outing on the court, as always. I feel like I played pretty well today, but in four pick-up basketball games, I only averaged three points, one steal, and two rebounds. That’s not getting it done.
I need to make the team this year. It’s the last chance for recruiters to notice me. Last chance to get a scholarship since I’m not playing soccer anymore. I’m done with that.
I sigh in a puff that becomes visible in the air. At least my defence is getting better. The guys I guarded only averaged two points per game. And my team stayed on the court the entire time. Small victories, right?
I kill the rest of my Gatorade. It’s a cold fruit punch-flavored river of goodness. I toss my trash and head down the now darkened, winding road toward my house. Actually, it’s far from a house. It’s the tiniest apartment known to man. Every room is two steps from every other room. All Mum can afford, I guess.
I practice my moves down the sidewalk, loving the feel of the worn leather beneath my fingertips. No one should ever bother with a rubber ball. I dribble right-handed. Left-handed. Spin around the oncoming night jogger. Behind-the-back. Between the legs. Shake and bake on that crack in the cement.
After basketball camp at the University of North Carolina that Mum suffered through multiple yard sales to pay for, I have moves. Moves I’m about to unleash when tryouts come around. Too bad no one saw them earlier this afternoon at open gym. Where are my moves hiding?
Soon, the smell of Mum’s baked chicken slides an arm around me and leads me by the nose before I even approach the charcoal gray, metal door to my apartment. If it’s Sunday, it’s chicken day. I swear, she knows one hundred and one ways to cook chicken.
“Mum, I’m home.” I kick off my low-top Adidas and stride into the kitchen.
“Hey, Mo.” She looks up from her hunched-over-the-dining-room-table position and takes her glasses off. Her black hair is wound tight atop her head. “Your plate’s in the toaster oven, keeping warm.”
“Thanks.” I spoon on some cold green beans and mashed potatoes from the stove. Canned and boxed, but it’s all good to me.
“Aww, I’m sorry honey. I should’ve warmed them up, too.” She swipes several strands of dark hair out of her face. “Hey, your dad called today. You should really give him a call–”
“For what? So he can tell me how many goals he scored in his last game… in Greece?”
“At least he’s still sending us checks.”
“He plays professional football, Mum! He can afford to send more than lunch money,” I fire back.
Dad’s shadow looms across oceans. It’s like living under a suffocating blanket. He completely wrecked my love for soccer. In fact, I’m still trying to shrug off his Greek heritage. I’m going to be as American as apple pie. Except my last name will still be Anestis. And I’ll probably still have twice as much body hair as the average American.
Mum’s brown-skinned face falters, probably from the pain of my words and the truth in them. “Well–” She turns back toward the table. “I did get a package from Athens yesterday. I wondered whether or not to open it, send it back or… just give it to you.”
I take a half-step back. “A package?”
Mum walks slowly into the den and fishes a small brown box out of the bottom of her desk drawer. She hands it to me. Her lips are pressed tight. She crosses her arms and twists the wedding band around her finger with her thumb.
Mum braved moving across the world from America to Australia for love, of all things, with visions of a better life. Even though she doesn’t talk much about it, her eyes fail to hide her disappointment that that life is over. That she’s back in the United States with me without dad. Makes me wonder how she’s managed to pick up the pieces so effortlessly once her own dream shattered.
“Why do you still wear that?” I ask with a quiet voice.
She unfolds her arms and stuffs her hands in her pockets. Her gaze shifts to her feet. She sighs. “I don’t know, kiddo.”
A pang hits me as I study the box and its evidence of international travel scrawled across the outside. Definite mixed feelings. I almost wouldn’t know how to accept a nice gift from him. Though, I also don’t want to get my hopes up. “You remember that crap-tastic sweatshirt he sent me one time with the broken English like some Greek person translated it incorrectly?”
“At least he’s trying, sweetheart.” She flashes a forced smile. “By the way, how’d you play today?”
“I killed it,” I say triumphantly. No way am I telling her that those yard sales didn’t mean anything. “Your son is unstoppable.”
“That’s good, honey.” She puts her glasses back on and returns to papers she’s grading. “After you eat, go be unstoppable on your homework.”
After my shower, I stare at the prints of famous paintings that hang on the wall above my bed. Rembrandt. Monet. Botticelli. Okay, they aren’t prints so much as pictures I printed off the Internet in art class last year. But, they spoke to me. And I hung them over my bed in hopes that one night maybe I’d dream I was inside one of them. Of course, I’d actually have to fall asleep to dream.
Ever since Dad left us, I developed full-blown insomnia. It affects everything. My schoolwork. My basketball. My life. I decide to get to work before my insomniac brain shuts down despite being fully awake, before I have to suffer through yet another night of staring at the ceiling while counting the heartbeats that pulse in my aching eyes.
A new nine-weeks term begins on Monday. I place dad's package on my desk and plop onto the bed. The box stares at me, but I don’t have time for Dad right now. I need to focus on my studies. After the required reading in my Geometry book, it’s problems one through twenty-four, only the odd-numbers. I never could figure out why teachers do that. Odd numbers. Like even numbers are so evil.