K. R. Thorp
This is How You Decide to Run
Farm country near Flint, Michigan
Feb. 10th, 1982 – 17 degrees F
3rd quarter, Detroit Pistons down by 4, vs New Jersey Nets
Two sports seasons away from my parents’ split. He sat at the kitchen table in his regular spot and picked his teeth. We girls cleared the dishes. The Pistons would lose that night, eventually tanking the whole season, making his mood for the winter, well, unpredictable.
“I told you to look at me in the stands,” he said.
I pushed the edge of the heavy dinner plate between tines in the dishwasher.
“Rinse the plate before you put it in, for chrissake.”
The plate was a good metaphor. I had rinsed it, I had even scraped it, but not good enough, never good enough. I was thinking about his first question. A statement really, with an implied question: why didn’t I look at him in the stands? I could only do one thing at a time, whether it was playing basketball or clearing the table. My mom reached for the plate, I looked at her face.
It read: You really should rinse the plate better, but that’s beside the point, so don’t worry.
My face read: Thank you. I will love you forever.
Hers read: Stop it, I already know that. Just answer his question.
By then my younger sister had disappeared into the peripheries. I turned to him.
“Dad, I couldn’t look at you and dribble the ball at the same time,” I admitted.
“No shit. You were supposed to look at me before you started dribbling.” His hand gestured toward me like a shark poking at a floating carcass. “Before. Before. Before,” he said. “Not after.”
He was right.
It all happened so fast. I’d stolen the ball and was moving and breathing and concentrating on the basket at the other end of the gym long before I thought to check in with him in the stands.
Everyone knew it was a rare, golden miracle that I had the ball in the first place. Somehow, fumbling toward another player, I found it against my chest. I grabbed it and by instinct, knew to dribble to the outside lane. I expected to get blocked, but the second miracle occurred when no one tried to stop me. In just a few steps, I’d broken free of the pack where the eighth-grade girls towered over the seventh graders like rats over puddles of sewage. I knew they could make the length of the gym in less than 4 strides. I would need twenty. I had to hustle. I set my mind to the task of dribbling. The physics of my hand and the ball often defied my understanding; tripping, double dribbling and kicking the basketball plagued me. I had been practicing, though. And right now, the ball and my palm were in love. Everything was coming together. I drove myself and that loving action toward the open net. People in the stands were screaming their heads off. I knew my dad was among them. I knew he was probably, right then, lifting his butt inches off of the cold metal stands with the rest of the crowd, cheering. Sports mattered to my dad. He was good at all of them. Sports mattered to my whole town. Hell, sports mattered to the world.
I knew that my dad stood out among the regular fans. He was handsome and came directly from work in his business suit and tie. His shoes were shined by someone else. I knew that if he was rising to watch, then the assembly-line worker, mechanic and teacher dads were rising too. I knew that if the dads were rising, then the moms in their Valentine appliqué sweaters were rising. I knew if the moms were rising then the kids would have to stand, just to see what the heck was going on. That was the influence of my dad. He garnered attention. He made the game matter.
To have the ball in my hands meant that I had his attention. I tried not to think of this as I thought of this. I was going in for a layup, the easiest basket a girl could make and one that I practiced every day in this gym and after school in my own driveway. I’d shot late into the night, not always seeing the net above me, but telling myself I’d learn by feel. I’d made hundreds of attempts this week, last week, all of the weeks before now. Today was the day it would matter.
Before I knew it, I was under the hoop. A final pump of the ball on the floor, I lifted it and shot, jumping with my right knee high in the air, just as my coach, my dad and the eighth graders demonstrated a thousand times. I watched with everyone as that ball hit the sweet spot on the backboard and dropped clean through the net. Miracle number three: I had scored. The swish of the exchange satisfied something deep inside of me. The “I-will-never-be-good-enough” voice laid down. I scored. Everyone saw it. The voice inside of me saw it. My dad saw it. My life came together. I would be okay.
Then it ended. It was the wrong basketball net. The hoop belonged to the other team. I had scored for the enemy.
The stands were silent. The other team probably laughed. I know that a few enemy girls ran over with hands in the air to give me high fives. My own bench buried their faces under the neckline of their shirts. Behind them sat my dad. He was bent forward, his butt firmly pressed into its spot, one hand rubbing his eyes, the other holding his glasses in front of him.
I wish I could say that I knew to quit then. I wish I could report that I walked off the court and into the locker room, knowing who I was, or who I wasn’t, that day. Or, even better, I wish I could brag about the self-effacing joke I made. How my unexpected humor lightened the tension for everyone, the game carried on, the roof put back where it belonged, my shame dissolving before it could soak in too deep.
I didn’t. I was 12. I was taught to behave. I was taught not to quit things. You don’t laugh. You don’t show defeat. You don’t crumble. The only honorable thing to do was to stay out there, take it like a man. I walked back to the other side of the court where my team stood. They looked down at me blankly. The best player, MVP, and future college recruit, Elise Sharpe spoke for everyone: Radcliffe, you suck.
I nodded. It was impossible to disagree. The flight of success 60 seconds earlier still whipped in my chest like a detached power line, while the moment’s reality dropped steaming cow poop over it. I would have been happy to die on the court that day. Instead, I stood there. I probably turned bright red. I probably tried not to cry. When the ref finally blew the whistle, I walked back to the end of the bench, looked at my Adidas and wondered, For Christ sake, what the hell was wrong with me?
Back in the kitchen, my mom stood at the sink. She looked out the fogged-up window, probably seeing her own pretty reflection against the black of night. An hour earlier she would have seen the frozen, barren ground that was the acre and a half of our back yard holding a dormant garden, the rusted swing set and a shivering dog buried in the straw of his dog house. Her hands were busy while she spoke.
“John,” she said. “I’m sure she knows she made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.”
“I’m sure she knows too,” he yelled and smacked the table. “What I want to know, goddamnit, is why she did it again? Why the hell did she make the same mistake twice? Is she stupid?”
I was standing right there, yet they spoke as if their adult words travelled on an elevated highway above me. I crouched a little as if under an overpass.
“She agreed,” he pressed his finger into the top of the table, “that after the last debacle, she would look at me after every ball exchange and I would point in the direction of her team’s basket.” He pointed the same angry finger into the air. “That is why I am leaving work early to get to a girls’ basketball game.”
A single mistake was tolerated by my father. Everyone deserves another chance. The same mistake twice? No way.
The truth of the matter? I didn’t know what my problem was. It seemed pretty simple, knowing which basket was yours and which belonged to the other team. I hadn’t told anyone, but this wasn’t the only issue I was facing. The smallest things tripped me up. Here I was, pre-adolescent and I couldn’t always tell time, or the difference between left and right, abilities my friends had mastered in third grade. I, instead, had developed a series of tricks and codes to make sure I was tracking. My codes helped me to figure out which direction to turn, or how to guess by the sun what the clock might be saying. The problem now was that other things were encroaching, like page numbers, locker combinations, what bus to take home, or at the three-story Arthur Lucas Jr. High School, which floors held the classrooms I was supposed to be in during each period. I’d written a lot of things on my hands in the past, but I couldn’t do that anymore because it might look to my teachers as if I were cheating. Which I was, in a way, cheating at life, but not academics. Though I was painfully shy, I read a lot and did well in writing and art. My math and sciences were slipping. My tricks and codes were mixing, melding, mushing and reproducing with each other. I couldn’t keep track of short cuts. I couldn’t memorize it all. I couldn’t honor simple agreements, agreements like looking for my dad in the stands to see which direction I was supposed to shoot the damn basketball.
“Maybe basketball is not her sport.” My mom used her gentle voice, as if she were just developing the idea in this very moment. She was a young, high school teacher, an art major and a non-athlete herself. What did she know about sports?
“Maybe…,” she turned to both of us, “maybe she should try something else, something that relies on her strengths.”
“Like what?” my dad snorted.
Yeah, l wanted to know, too. Like what? What strengths?
“Hmmm.” She turned back to the dishes. “Isn’t there another sport that she hasn’t tried?”
We looked at my dad. I prayed he would search for an answer lodged deep inside himself. Once found, he’d turn it over wanting to be sure it was wise and true. Then, he’d lift his eyes and look at me. He would see me as Scout to his Atticus; me as Half-pint to his Pa Ingalls. I would have even been Cordelia, the honest one, to his Mad Lear.
Instead, he didn’t say anything. He just looked at me.
“What about track?” I said too loud. I was afraid of his silence. We had field days in elementary school and though I never won, I never came in last either.
“Hmph.” He grunted, taking a deep, bored breath, getting up from his chair. “It’s just one foot in front of the other. How hard could it be. Anyone can do it.” He walked past us into the den to watch the game on TV.
My mom turned to me.
Her face read: That’s it, you’re off the hook, now go change out of your uniform and do your homework.
My face read: But…that isn’t what I wanted.
Her face read: But that is what you got.
K. R. Thorp
K.R. Thorp is finishing her MFA at the University of San Francisco. Growing up near Flint, Michigan, she now lives in Richmond, CA with her husband and two teenage daughters. As a young athlete, she ran a sub 5-minute mile. As writer, she is unable to do anything that fast. Her collection of poetry, Run Like A Girl, and her first novel, Topography of Home will be complete this Fall.