Men

He was running right at me.
I swallowed, and backed away, but he ran even faster and grew even larger.
I swallowed and focused on his feet, and then at the ball. But he simply rushed into my chest and we fell.
I was able to scramble back to my feet. But it was too late.
I saw the ball in the back of the net. I saw the other team jumping up and cheering in the middle of the field.
I was eleven so my vocabulary was limited. So I grabbed my head and kicked the dirt.
“Assholes!” Hiroshi yelled at them. The referee ran at him and held up a red card over our heads. “Fuck you!” Hiroshi yelled at the referee this time, until his father grabbed him by his collar and pulled him off the field.
“It’s okay,” my mom clapped as he stood next to Coach Khan, “It’s okay,” she kept repeating to me until I plodded away. I looked around at my teammates with their blank stares. I looked at our uniforms covered in grass stains. We lost the game 5 to 0.
As my mom drove me home, I looked through the window.
“It’s just one game,” my mom told me as we cruised past apartment buildings and corner-shops.
I nodded.
“This is about improving your health,” my mom continued. “If you play more, that’ll help improve your asthma.”
I kept staring through the window, and watched the buildings morph into bridges and then morph into houses and trees. I ate dinner while wearing my shin-guards. I went to bed and stared at the ceiling till flickers of light slipped into my room. I went to school. And then came back home, and finished my homework. I would go to school and then do my homework, over and over till Thursday when I would wear my shin-guards again. Coach Khan would pick me up and I would sit in the front seat, next to his son Nabil. Yevgeny, who was the tallest, would sit in the backseat with his cousin Lev. They would push and punch each other, while I would sit with my hands on my lap. That day, the entire team was waiting for us at the field in the far corner of Queens. We were the travel team squad after all, and that meant we were supposed to be the best players in our little corner of the world.
“We have to better prepared,” Coach Khan said once we were at the field. He tossed me a ball and it bopped against my chest and fell with a thud. I stared at it.
“Pass it to Ai,” he said, and I looked up and saw Ai with his pale skin smiling at me.
I raised my foot as high as I could and brought it down. I watched the ball roll a few inches in front of me. I looked at Ai and Ai looked back at me.
“Irfan,” Coach Khan told me, “Kick the ball till it reaches him.”
I nodded and ran over. I kicked and kicked and kicked, and finally Ai was able to pass it back to me.
“What the fuck man?” Hiroshi yelled. “How is this supposed to help us?” he asked, as he kept banging his feet against the ball, with bits of dirt sticking to his cleats.
Yevgeny had his arms crossed and waited at the other end of the field.
Coach Khan warned Hiroshi about his language. “Just keep kicking it,” he said.
“Yea, yea,” Hiroshi grinned and kicked at the dirt some more, till some of it stuck to his shirt as well.
Practice ended when it was pitch black. Coach Khan drove me home and told me I needed to buy new shin-guards for the upcoming game.
I shrugged and plodded up the front steps. I told my parents when they greeted me about needing new shin-guards. My mom told me that we would buy them before the game.
I asked her when the game would be.
“This Saturday,” he said.
“Oh,” I replied and went to brush my teeth.
It was only when I lay in bed did I realize what my mom had told me. I stared at the ceiling for the entire night. I went to school the next day feeling heavy. At lunch, some kid pushed me while I waited in line. When I got home, I did my homework on the front steps. Some of the older kids from our block walked over and kicked our front-gate. I didn’t move. I thought about game day.

.  .  .

On Saturday, our team gathered around Coach Khan. “Let’s do our best out there,” he said. “And let’s not forget to pass the ball around.”
We all nodded, and then ran to our positions. I ran over and stared at my new shin-guards under my bright red socks. The whistle blew. My head shot up and my teammates were yelling. Coach Khan paced the sidelines as my head was filled with the sound of car alarms and honking. Suddenly, I saw someone from the other team running at me. I dug my cleats into the grass and clenched my fists.
“Attack him,” someone yelled, “Go for him!”
I blinked my eyes and the other player was looming over me. Without thinking, I pushed into him and the whistle was blown.
The referee ran over and helped us up.
Play continued, and I glanced at my parents. They were smiling at me, which confused me. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even realize that we were still tied.
“Block the kick!”
“Don’t stand too close!”
“Block the kick!”
“Don’t stand too close!”
I shook my head but the voices were still there. They stuck to me like wet dirt, so I stood far away from the person kicking the ball.
Rajeev who was probably an inch shorter than Yevgeny but was much much fatter jumped up. But the ball soared over him. The other team cheered and hugged one another. Yevgeny yelled at Nabil. Nabil yelled at Lev. Lev yelled at me. And I stood back as Rajeev our goalie yelled at all of us.
For the rest of the game, our parents watched as we gave up goal after goal, as we dove into the mud with nothing but air. I cut my elbows. I cut my forehead. Don’t ask me how that happened but I ended up with some blood on my shirt after I wiped the sweat from between my eyebrows. My eyes filled with tears but I swallowed. The final score was 4 to 0. That night, I washed my cuts and couldn’t finish my dinner. My parents told me to eat, but I just went to my room and scribbled in my notebook.
The next game was on Saturday again. Hiroshi got his second red card. Rajeev ate some onion rings before the game and complained about cramps. And Ai at one point started to cry because he couldn’t kick the ball far enough.
We lost 4 to 1. I don’t remember who scored.
It was cold the next time we gathered for practice. We passed the ball till our teeth chattered. We then sat under an orange tree as Coach Khan placed cones around the field.
“We’re going to Long Island this week,” said Yevgeny and narrowed his eyebrows at each of us. “We have to work hard and get ready for that.”
“Whatever,” Rajeev grumbled.
Yevgeny glared at him. “Dude, you have to stop eating all that junk,” he said.
“Dude, does it matter? It’s Long Island,” he said.
“What’s the big deal?” Ai said as he picked at the brown grass.
Nabil shook his head. “They have the best equipment, the best training,” he told him.
“So what?” Hiroshi said and looked at the group. “If we just clean up our act, we have a chance at winning.”
Nabil snorted.
“What?” Hiroshi glared at him.
“Nothing,” Nabil shook his head, and smiled at the dirt.
Hiroshi looked at me this time and I shrugged.
There was a pause.
“Maybe we could all practice again tomorrow,” said Ai in his tiny voice.
“Dude, shut up,” Rajeev snapped.
“Leave him alone,” Yevgeny said.
“He always cries and shit. Can’t even kick the ball.”
“Leave him alone. Seriously. Just stop.”
I stared at my cleats as they argued. The drive to Long Island took us an hour and a half on Saturday and I stared at my cleats for the entire ride. The team we played against scored their first goal in the first three minutes. After the game, Ai wiped the tears from his eyes and Nabil tugged at his dad’s shirt as he tried talking with the other parents. “The best soccer teams are from Long Island but it’ll be a learning experience,” Coach Khan explained as the wind knocked down trash cans all around us.

.  .  .

I was in the backyard one day kicking the ball against the wall when my mom had come from work and asked me what I was doing.
“Practicing,” I said, and continued to kick the ball.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked.
“No,” I said and tried to trap the ball under my right foot but it squeaked away.
“Is everything alright?” she finally asked me.
I took in a deep breath and kicked the ball. I chose not to tell her about being pushed in the lunch line. I chose not to tell her about the older kids laughing at me as I would do my homework. I especially didn’t tell her how it felt to get pushed over during a game in front of everyone. My mother eventually nodded and went back inside. So week after week. Practice after practice. I’d go to the backyard wearing my shin-guards and knock the ball against the red and yellow brick-wall. And when Coach Khan would pick me up, I would already be sweating. I’d sit in the front as Yevgeny would make fun of Lev’s height and Nabil would laugh. I’d look out the window at the buildings. I would think about buildings and about scribbling in my notebook as we would pass the ball and then bitch.
“Fuck you dude,” Hiroshi said to Rajeev.
“Fuck you,” Rajeev would say back.
“Stop cursing so much, my dad’s right there,” Nabil would tell them both, as Yevgeny would try and juggle the ball on his knees.
Lev would glare at Yevgeny and then glare at me.
I would stand up and walk away. I would dribble the ball across the field, glaring at my shadow. At school, I would glare at my textbooks. I would glare at the homework, and at the desks. There would be fights. Once, I was cornered in an empty classroom and was knocked around. I was punched in the ribs and not in the face which I was grateful for. When I got home, I practiced kicking the ball against the wall. And every night I would go to bed staring at the ceiling until my eyes would feel heavy and I would slowly drift.

.  .  .

“Check this out,” Hiroshi told me before we played another team from Long Island. We were playing in a tournament against better teams. When we arrived for the tournament, we stared at the bright green fields. I looked at Hiroshi, as he ran across the field and toward the trees. He pulled his pants down and started peeing. Some of the parents who walked by covered their mouths and gasped. Some shook their heads and glared. I on the other hand looked at my feet and dribbled the ball. I dribbled till it was our turn to play.
The team we faced was taller and faster. They’d run at us again and again, and I would fall and slip. Hiroshi would sometimes pull me up and run after the other team even if the person didn’t have the ball. I remember Hiroshi chasing after them and pulling them down. The referee eventually threw Hiroshi out of the game. But Hiroshi kept laughing from the sidelines and was still yelling at the other players as the game winded down. My mom drove me home and said that Coach Khan thought I was getting better as a defender.
“He says you’ve made the biggest improvement out of everyone,” my mom said.
I crossed my arms. I was covered in mud.
That entire week, I practiced dribbling in our backyard. I practiced balancing the ball on my head one day. I sat on our front porch after I was starting to sweat. The white Russians from the apartments walked by and kicked our front gate. I glared at them. They laughed. Even when they left and even when Coach Khan arrived, I was still glaring.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I shook my head and murmured, “Nothing,” as I sat in the front seat.
At practice, we finished our drills in the first half-hour. But when we sat under the tree, we had our heads lowered and we were picking at the clumps of mud.
“Maybe we should practice some more,” said Yevgeny.
Nabil shrugged.
Rajeev ate a granola bar and tossed the wrapper onto the grass.
Yevgeny glared at him and Rajeev rolled his eyes and picked it up.
Lev and Hiroshi tied up the blades of grass and Hiroshi started giggling at whatever it was that he found funny.
We had a week off but I continued to kick the ball against the wall each and every day. I also tried holding my breath while under water in our bathroom tub. I could never last long. I would push and push. But I could always feel my ribs growing sore in the first few seconds. I could also see and hear that kid who would push me in line. When we drove into Long Island again, I had my hands clenched.
“I think they’re talking shit about us,” Hiroshi said as he we gathered on our side of the field and watched the other team.
“They probably know we haven’t won anything,” said Ai.
“Everybody knows we haven’t won,” Nabil muttered.
We watched the other players gather in a circle and laugh and smile over their shoulders at us.
“That’s messed up,” said Lev.
I looked over at Yevgeny. He was silent but his eyebrows were narrowed.

.  .  .

My heart was beating against my eardrums when the game began. Hiroshi passed the ball up. Nabil dribbled through the opposing D and then kicked. The goalie caught it and threw the ball back onto the field. Their midfield trapped it and began passing it back and forth, back and forth until they reached me. I dug my cleats in. I clenched my fists. The person with the ball was some freckled kid and he barreled right toward me. He then stepped to the left. I swung my arm behind me as I turned direction but he was already gone. He launched the ball at goal but Rajeev grabbed it. At half-time, it was a tie ball-game.
“Just follow the game plan, you guys are doing great,” said Coach Khan as we sat and gasped for breath.
“Dude, that guy keeps coming at you,” Hiroshi told me as we sat on the grass.
“Don’t let him scare you,” Yevgeny said.
I nodded and drank more water. Nabil was yawning and flexing his back.
“Don’t be gay,” Lev said as he walked past me.
At the start of the second-half, that same freckled kid was heading my way again. I veered to the left. Then I veered to the right. He dribbled to my left shoulder and went past me and kicked, and Rajeev blocked it. I glared at the other team. My ribs began to hurt. My eyes started to swell up. It was near the end of the game when I was challenged again. He was running at me with clumps of dirt flying up. This time, I charged at him, and as he changed direction, I swung my right arm around me. I expected to turn back around and find him in the distance. Instead, the crowd had fallen silent. I stopped and looked around me. I heard someone crying. I followed the sound and saw the boy on the ground. He was cradling his face. Coach Khan ran down the sidelines and motioned for me to walk away.
“Dude, that was awesome,” Hiroshi whispered as we watched the other team’s coach help the boy to the sidelines.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Dude, you punched him in the face,” he said.
“I did?”
“Yea,” Hiroshi smiled and patted me on the shoulder, “It was really awesome.”
Nabil, Yevgeny, and everyone else gathered around me and laughed and cheered.
We eventually lost 3 to 2, our closest loss of the season. But as we walked with our parents to the parking-lot, my teammates were laughing and jumping up and down around me.
“Dude, I think you gave that prick a black eye,” Yevgeny said and laughed.
“I didn’t even know,” I admitted with a grin.
“Yea, the referee didn’t see you for some reason,” Yevgeny said and punched me in the shoulder. “But who cares, right? You gave him a black-eye!”
I smiled. That day while heading home, I listened to the radio. I ate my dinner and fell asleep. And on Monday, when it was time to stand in line for our cold lunches, I found that boy who liked to push me and I stepped on his foot. He stared at me and pushed me. I pushed him back.
We eventually grabbed each other and fought. We kicked and punched.

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