Previously on, in The History of Una's Athletic Underachievement (a PBS special of my wildest nightmares), we learned about my patronizing Wii Fit and my memories of elementary school gym class. In today's episode, we discover what happens when an ambitious but uncoordinated young woman tries in vain to overcome her genetic makeup and be a good sport.
(Note: Some names have been ever-so-slightly changed to protect me from anyone who might have a Google Alert on themselves.)
I only joined track in the first place because my friend Rachel convinced me it would be a good character-building exercise. Up until sophomore year, my extra-curricular activities had been limited to Art Club and a local musical theater class composed mostly of twelve year-olds. I had the pasty, black and white complexion of Peter Lorre in M. Rachel, by comparison, was almost six feet tall and built like a tree. She played a different sport every season. She glowed with health. I don’t know what I was thinking, listening to her. I suppose I hoped that running would be transformative, that it would sprout me up a few inches, turn my chalk-colored skin a healthy peach, and form sinewy muscles out of the soft, fatty pads of my calves and upper arms, which were so undeveloped that neighbors probably suspected that my parents were raising me for veal.
Genetically—and I'm certain this could be backed up by a blood test—I am at an athletic disadvantage compared to most of the world's population. I come from a clan that has churned out successful musicians, businesspeople, artists, and writers, but put up a volleyball net at one of our family reunions and you will clear the yard. It is a true story that my father, who was captain of his high school debate team, once put his back out changing a roll of toilet paper. I was never forced (or even encouraged) to play competitive sports as a kid, but somehow I must have intuited my lack of ability because I soon came to live in fear of them. I decided that track was my only option for organized athletic participation, as its sole requirement for eligibility was that I be able to remain upright while moving forward. To excel, of course, you had to be strong and fast, but to be a member of the team all you had to do was show up. My high school was a magnet school for math and science, and attracted the types of kids who begged Santa for new graphing calculators, so jocks were in short supply.
It didn't take long for me to realize I had made a mistake. On my very first day I had to run a timed loop of the Central Park reservoir—just over a mile and a half—under the supervision of the coach, Ms. Patchman. Easily in her late sixties, she appeared small and shriveled, her tiny head poking out of the collar of her tracksuit like an angry turtle’s. Her cheeks were sunken like a cadaver's and she wore her thinning hair in a close-cropped, wispy Afro the color of rusty tap water. When she saw me I could swear her eyes narrowed. She nodded once in acknowledgment of my arrival. "Ever run this far?" she asked, her voice a gravely bark that suggested she mixed her morning eggs with shards of glass and rusty screws. I mumbled that I had not. She considered this for a moment and then sighed. "When you vomit," she finally said, "Try to do it off the main path." I like to think that it is to my credit that I did not throw up until I got home that night, anxiety turning my stomach to vinegar.
Luckily I started group practice the following day, and found that there was safety in numbers. Running with the rest of the team allowed me to study and imitate them as though doing field research on an alien race. There were a few slower girls with whom I could keep pace, and I carefully pumped my arms and kicked my legs in tandem with theirs. I learned how to run through a "stitch"—a painful abdominal cramp—by pinching the muscle and breathing deeply, and even if I didn't have one I would mime one every so often just to appear legitimate to the Japanese tourists snapping photos along the reservoir path. I also learned a lot about Ms. Patchman from the other girls. Legend had it she had once been a great runner but had injured her knee and had to retire. They were all pretty sure that she didn’t wear a bra, but none were willing to do the kind of research necessary to find out definitively. She has no husband or children and was widely assumed to be "a lesbo." She had once chaperoned a school dance wearing a bolo tie and blew a whistle when kids started slow-dancing to November Rain.
Ms. Patchman kept her office in our high school's basement with the rest of the physical education teachers and encouraged us to visit for one-on-one meetings, but I couldn't bring myself to go. Not only was I already terrified of her, but I had unintentionally flashed one of her colleagues, Mr. Mariel, during an 8th grade swim class in which I opted for a floral cotton suit with a sweetheart neckline instead of my more trustworthy Speedo. I had propped myself up on the lip of the pool to ask a question, and when I looked down I saw that the neckline had stretched below my ribcage. The thought of accidentally running into the man who had seen my awkward, fledgling buds was more than I could bear, plus it provided a great excuse for not having to face the angry, pinched face of Ms. Patchman. I felt certain that if I ever stopped by her office, she would simply level her gaze at me, her milky eyes looking up and down my scrawny frame and short legs, her nose wrinkling as if catching a whiff of the unmistakable sour stench of failure.
Since I was a terrible runner, it was pretty easy to avoid interacting directly with Ms. Patchman; she spent the vast majority of her time training and tending to the good runners on the team. The slow runners were treated with a mix of apathy and disgust, like we were stray cats peeing in the hay reserved for her thoroughbreds, and she eventually separated our workouts from those of the varsity girls’ so that we wouldn’t slow them down. Not that we minded. All of us in JV were thrilled that we hadn’t raised anyone’s expectations of our abilities; in fact, we kept them low on purpose. One spring, I accidentally won an 800 meter race by inadvertently joining the slowest heat, made up of the types of people who carry inhalers and wear strapped-on goggles. You should have seen Ms. Patchman’s face when I crossed the finish line—I think she almost smiled. As I collected my medal I cursed myself for having excelled enough to garner her attention, but the next week I tripped over a hurdle and the universe righted itself once again.
Unfortunately no amount of underachieving could exempt me from the weekly 5K races that were part of fall's cross-country schedule, which is how I found myself on that uptown train senior year, my muscles tense and my stomach in knots, trying to find a way out. A braver person would have simply marched over to Ms. Patchman—who was sitting alone at the opposite end of the subway car—and quit then and there, but I was too afraid. A healthy respect for authority figures combined with a near-evangelical devotion to conflict avoidance led me to believe that telling my coach that I wanted to quit the track team would be tantamount to a made man telling Vito Corleone that he wanted to stop whacking people. I fantasized about Ms. Patchman ripping my uniform off of my body with her bare hands and then marching me up to the registrar's office and demanding that I be expelled. The next morning I might awaken to find a lacerated sneaker under my covers, reservoir mud seeping into my sheets, and then I'd have to change schools and use my mom's last name, and maybe even get a nose job before I'd stop having nightmares about waking to find her standing in my doorway with a starter gun aimed at my forehead.
(To be continued... the next time I have writer's block and have to post from essays I'm working on.)