A dark sky above us, blue jerseys drenched in sweat, soccer cleats caked in Georgia dirt, there were multiple teams of 12 to 15 kids each on the vast grounds neighboring Carver Elementary. It was 2004. I was the lone Asian-American on the field.
We jogged single file. One at a time, lone runners from the back charged to the front. Coach called these “Indian Runs.” We called it hell. With practice coming to an end, Coach paired me with Cody and Dorian for a simple passing drill. They were fifth graders, one year older than I was. Dorian scored goals while Cody defended. Unlike them, I was no athlete. I watched as the ball flew back and forth between the two, whooshing through air, sailing above blades of grass. I joined them. Embarrassed apologies followed every time I sent the ball veering off course.
And then, for once, Dorian swung his leg with too much force. A booming thud followed, launching the ball into an awkward spiral, its path uncertain, I said what boys said when one of us screwed up. “Nice kick.”
Dorian responded immediately. “Why don’t you shut up and go back to your own country?”
Nobody chased after the ball.
“I was born in America. My mom has lived here for over 10 years. My father is buried in South Carolina.”
These are things I could have said. Instead, I stared blankly.
Silence never suited Cody. “What the fuck did you just say to him?”
Dorian flinched. Cody hurled, “fuck,” “asswipe,” and “shithead,” one after another. The insults piled on top of each other like a chain of cars crashing at high speed. I told Cody not to worry, but he yelled for Coach. When Coach arrived, I said everything was fine.
“That’s bullshit,” Cody said. “He told him to go back to his own country.”
My eyes scanned the field, searching for that lost ball.
Coach turned to Dorian. “Run a lap.”
Dorian fled without another word. Coach left. I guess I was expected to move past it as well, but I couldn’t, so quickly. Cody was the one to retrieve our ball from underneath a nearby bench on the sidelines. He didn’t ask me if I was okay, and I never told him that I wasn’t. I couldn’t even thank him. We continued passing as if nothing happened, stopping only when he noticed Dorian cutting through the halfway marker.
Cody said, “The whole field, asshole.”
As I watched Dorian sprint further away, I wished we could swap places. I wouldn’t just stop after five minutes. I would run until all the tendons and tiny ligaments in my legs tore themselves apart.
Kenneth Lee is an MFA candidate in creative writing at West Virginia University. His work has appeared in Foliate Oak, The Collapsar, and Entropy. You can find him on Twitter at @Leewaffles.