Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Golden Lion, Chapter 1

“Nervous?” Lisa said, casting a glance at Les’ rapidly jiggling leg.
“No,” Les replied. His leg stilled.
“So, how was it staying at nana’s and tata’s? How’s La Jolla?” she asked.
Les shrugged. “Okay.”
“Did nana make her green chile?” Les didn’t respond. Lisa gave him a prolonged glance. “Talkative today, aren’t we?” she said archly.
Les said nothing, just stared straight out the windshield as they raced along the freeway.
As she drove, Lisa’s eyes flitted between the road and her brother. “You’re nervous about flying by yourself, aren’t you?”
“No I’m not,” he answered curtly. In fact, Les was nervous about the flight to Seattle, and growing more so by the minute. But he knew better than to admit it to his older sister. Years of bitter experience had taught him that.
“So what’s bothering you?”
“I’m fine, Lisa. Just drop it.”
Lisa was silent for a few moments. “Les, it’s okay,” she said, her voice assuming a softer, lulling quality that Les knew all too well. Here it comes. The heartfelt invitation to spill my guts. How many times have I fallen for that one? It was her one of her most effective tactics, and it always began the same way: she would ply him relentlessly with sincere, sisterly overtures to confidence. He could tell her anything, she would say. She would listen to him without judging, no matter what it was. Mom and dad would never find out. And she sounded so authentic, so convincing, that, even though he knew she was lying, she would still somehow persuade him into believing her. He would reveal whatever dark, horrible secret he was hiding, or the embarrassing incident at school, or the lamest, most stupid little thing; it didn’t seem to matter how big or small it was. It only mattered that she could get it out of him. Well, not this time, sister.
Les leaned back, looked sideways out the door window. The city of San Diego sparkled in the bright blue sunshine, the towers and skyscrapers stark and straight and proper against the ocean. Behind them, the graceful curve of the Coronado Bridge rose and dipped.
“So, how’dja do in your games?” she asked after a time.
Oh, like I don’t know this one, Les thought. Change subjects, get me to lower my guard, and then come back in for the kill. You’re being way too obvious, Leese. Hardly one semester away from home, and you’re losing your touch. “We went one-and-two,” he said finally, in answer to her question.
“Oh,” she said. “Not so good, huh? What happened?”
Les shrugged as if it wasn’t important.
“So what team are you on this year? JV?”
Les nodded once. If she was set on dragging something out of him, he was going to make her work as hard he could.
“Well, that’s good,” Lisa replied, undeterred. “I mean, at least you’re not on that freshman team you hated so much last year.”
Les stared down at the floorboards. “Yeah, well, that really wasn’t an option, since I’m a sophomore now,” he said acidly.
“I know that. I just meant, well, I mean, you made the cut, right? Plus, now you get to be on the same team with your bestie, so life’s a beach, no?”
Les turned from the window, leveled his eyes coldly at his sister. “Yeah, it’s a real beach.”
She looked at him, perplexed, until she had deciphered his response. “What, Omar made Varsity?”
“Of course he did,” Les said, “because that’s how things always work for me.” He paused, and then groaned loudly. “No, that’s not fair,” he said. “I mean, he totally deserves it. He led JV in scoring last year. Offensive rebounds. Steals. He was their best player, hands down. ‘Course it didn’t hurt that he grew five inches in the last twelve months.”
“Really?” Lisa said, evidently surprised. “So what is he now?”
“Six-one-and-a-half,” Les said. “He said his doctor told him he probably had four or five more inches left to grow.”
“Omar?” Lisa said, surprised. “In eighth grade, you two were the almost the same height.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” Les said icily. Then, sensing an opportunity to take a shot of his own, added, “Besides, you haven’t been around in forever. If you had, you would’ve seen him.”

“Oh, don’t you start,” she said, and the unexpectedly sharp tone told Les his blow had landed squarely. “Look, I’m busy,” she explained. “I took sixteen credits this semester. Plus my job.” She shook her head, her pony-tail bobbing. “Since I moved out, I just don’t have any time. Trust me, mom makes sure I know just how long it’s been. Every time she calls.”
Les didn’t really care; he had only been trying to get under her skin the way she so easily got under his. Besides, he expected to be doing the very same thing once he was out of high school and in college. “Meanwhile,” he continued, “here I am, stuck at five-six. I’ll probably end up five-seven, five-eight if I’m lucky.”
“Dad’s five-nine,” Lisa offered.
“Yeah, and dad’s the tallest one in his family. And mom’s side’s hardly any better. And even at five-nine, I’m screwed. Do you know how many five-nine NBA players there have been?” Playing in the NBA had long been his secret dream. Lisa already knew about it; she had dragged that secret out of him some time in seventh grade.
“No,” Lisa said. “Do you?”
“Yeah, I googled it. Twenty-three.”
“Well, there’s that one that dad told you about. What’s his name again? Bud somebody? Or Dud…Stud…”
Les, who had begun chortling the moment she said Dud, burst out laughing. “Stud?” Les said. “Stud Webb? Yeah, that’s the guy’s name. I bet he probably wishes that was his name. It was Spud. Spud Webb.”
“Spud? Really?” she replied, wrinkling her nose. “Spud? That can’t be his real name. Who would name their kid Spud?”
“A potato farmer?” Les suggested sarcastically. “A potato-chip mogul?”
“You’re such a jerk,” she said, but laughed anyway. Les felt a momentary sense of camaraderie between them; for all their antagonism, it always pleased him when he could make her laugh. “Anyway,” she said, “this Spud person wasn’t very tall, was he?”
“Five-seven,” Les said. “But I don’t have a forty-two-inch vertical leap like he did. That guy could dunk a basketball in high school, when he was only five-three. I can’t even touch the rim.” Les shook his head in disbelief. “That’s just sick.”
“So? That still leaves twenty-two others. Maybe you can be number twenty-four.”
Les gave his sister a sidelong, dubious look, unsure if she was being genuinely encouraging, or baiting him. “I’m almost positive none of those other players are half-white and half-Mexican. I just need to face it. I don’t have a chance of making the NBA.” As soon as he said it, Les regretted the admission. Her plan is working, he thought. She’s wearing me down. Don’t fall for it.
“Well, not with that attitude, mister,” Lisa said, giving Les a look of mock sternness.
Les rolled his eyes and grimaced. “Gee, thanks, mom.”
“I don’t get something,” Lisa said. “If everything basketball-wise is so bleak and terrible, why would you want to stay home and play during Christmas break? Why not fly to Seattle with the rest of the family? That way you wouldn’t have to go by yourself. And you wouldn’t be all nervous and uptight right now.”
“I’m not nervous,” Les said. “And there’s no way I was gonna miss any games. Basketball’s not the problem,” he said. “It’s just that the circumstances in which I exist suck.”
She looked at him and half-snorted. “You’re so weird.”
“And you’re not?” His age-old reply.
“Shut up.”
“No you shut up.”
It was a routine exchange, usually conducted with perfect seriousness, sometimes in complete fury. Now, though, it felt different: ironic, familiar, vaguely sentimental.
They drove on in silence. Les saw the first sign for the airport, and his stomach convulsed with heightened anxiety. Without his knowing it, his leg resumed its rapid jittering.
“So,” Lisa said, seemingly out of nowhere, “you still have a crush on that girl from your freshman algebra class?”
How does she do it? Who else could go three-for-three when it comes to sore subjects? Maybe mom. Les feigned a blank look. “What girl?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, a sly smile stealing over her face. “Vanessa?”
Les struggled to maintain his expression of ignorance. His crush on Vanessa was very much alive. Her cousin was on his team, and the knowledge that she would be there in the stands was in no small part responsible for his decision not to miss the last three games before Christmas.
“Come on, Les. I know you like her. You told me all about it last year, remember?”
Of course he did. Yet another secret she had pried out of him, although that time it was a little different, because he had secretly wanted her to. “Oh,” he said as if finally remembering, “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“Do you have any classes with her this year?”
“First-hour English,” he said.
“Have you talked to her?”
“Oh yeah, we talk,” Les replied. Especially during one amazing week where they were part of a group assigned to research the use of sensory detail in Of Mice and Men.
“Uh-huh,” Lisa said, undeterred by his hedging. “Have you asked her out?” Les didn’t answer. “Well?”
“No,” he admitted reluctantly.
“How come? If you like her, you should ask her out. Here: Just get Omar to come along, and get this Vanessa to bring one of her friends. You guys can go to the movies, or Balboa Park, or the beach. Mom and dad will let you. You’re fifteen. You’ll be sixteen in March.”
“I know how old I am.”
“Come on. Seriously, what’s the issue? Are you scared?”
“I’m not scared,” Les said, bristling. “I don’t know, I’ve just been busy with basketball. You know how it is, Leese…I just don’t have any time.” He mimicked her tone as well as her words, exaggerating them for emphasis. It was an admittedly desperate attempt to change the trend of the conversation. Lisa ignored it.
“Listen,” she said, “take some advice from your big sister. If you’re ever going to get anywhere, with a girl, or even in life, you’re going to have to step outside your comfort zone. You gotta put yourself out there, you know? Even if you’re scared. Look, I was scared to move out of the house at first. That’s why I didn’t do it last year. And I won’t lie; it was hard being on my own. But now I’ve made some great friends, and I have the freedom to do whatever I want, and there’s all this, all this…life going on, you know? And when I think about it, I realize that it wasn’t worth being afraid of. If you let being afraid stop you, you’re going to miss out.”
“I told you, I’m not scared! Why do you keep assuming you know how I feel? You don’t know. Nobody does!” Folding his arms over the wretched churning of his stomach, he stared straight ahead, refusing to look at her.
Lisa watched him for a moment, then turned back to the road. “I tried,” she said. “I guess you’ll have to figure it out the hard way.”
“I guess so.”
They didn’t speak again until the car had exited the freeway. “San Diego International Airport,” Lisa sang, breaking the tense silence as they turned onto the terminal road. Hardly a minute later they were pulling up alongside the curb. Les grabbed the backpack that was tucked behind his legs, placed it on his lap. His heart was pounding now, his stomach flipping and flopping sickly.
“I can’t go in with you,” Lisa said. “I have to be to work by eleven.”
Les nodded and reached for the door handle. “Pop the trunk, will you?” he said, not looking at her. “I need to get my bag.” He started to get out, but was stopped by Lisa’s hand on his arm.
“Hey,” she said. She waited until he met her gaze. “I’m sorry, Les. I didn’t mean to preach. God knows we get enough of that from mom and dad.”
“Yeah,” Les said.
“You alright? You look a little flushed.” She looked down at his arm. “And your skin feels a little clammy.”
Les pulled his arm free. “Geez Leese, I’m fine,” he muttered.
“Alright,” she said. “Well, have a good flight. Oh, tell mom I’ll call her at grandma’s on Christmas Eve, and tell dad I’ll feed the dog and do all that other stuff at the house.”
Nodding absently, Les climbed out of the seat and went to the back of the car to retrieve his bag. When he closed the lid of the trunk, Lisa was standing there. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she said, eyeing him skeptically.
“Peachy,” Les replied.
Lisa wrapped him in her arms with a tight hug. “Well, I hope so,” she said, speaking into his ear, “I’d hate to think my weird little brother is silently suffering.”
“Who, me?” Les replied. “You’ve never accused me of being silent about anything.” Lisa laughed, and hugged him again. Les, worried that she would feel the hard pounding of his heart, pushed away after a few moments. “Um, thanks for giving me a ride,” he said, forcing his mouth into a tight smile.
“Sure thing,” Lisa said.
Les stood looking at the terminal. He didn’t want to walk away. When he glanced over, Lisa was smiling with a mixture of concern and sympathy. It was an expression he wasn’t used to seeing from her. “You should probably get going,” she said. “You barely have an hour to get to the gate, and you never know how long security’s gonna take.”
Les nodded. “Yeah. Okay. See you.” He forced himself to step onto the curb, and walk towards the glass doors of the terminal. He knew Lisa was standing there, watching him go, but he didn’t dare look back. I don’t even like her that much, he thought. Why do I feel so bad about leaving her?

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