We didn't even play for five minutes before Mrs. Taylor called us back to the living room. Auntie Laine, Angela, Curtis and I all hopped into Mrs. Taylor's black Tahoe and she drove us to this huge park. Groups of kids were standing around in the parking lot but they looked nothing like the ones I went to soccer camp with in Portland.
Portland's soccer scene was all white boys with blonde or brown hair cropped short, or cut in slightly shaggy Abercrombie cuts. The white girls all had long straight ponytails and strong, lean legs. There was usually a smattering of Asians from Aloha, a few Indian kids from Bethany, some Latinos from Beaverton, and a handful of mixed kids like me, but in this parking lot the ratios were flipped.
Most of the kids here were Latino. There were some Asian kids, a few Black and mixed-race kids like me and C.J., and a few white kids too, but even they looked a lot harder than the kids in Oregon. What I noticed next was that it was almost all boys. Only a handful of girls stood in clusters around bags and I thought about Nat and wished she were here. Normally, I would have ditched Mom and started walking around, talking to friends I hadn't seen since school got out, or teammates I hadn't played with since basketball or spring soccer. Now I just watched, trying to figure out who went with who and waiting on C.J. to show me the ropes.
"Come on, E," Curtis said, already providing me with a nickname. "I'll introduce you to the guys."
"So, have a good day, Erika," Auntie Laine said before I got to far away, "and I'll see you around five tonight."
"Okay," I said, pulling on the shoulder strap on my bag and ignoring how tight my chest suddenly felt. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I followed C.J. as he walked toward three boys juggling a soccer ball.
"What up, kid?" a boy with black spiky hair asked as he gave C.J. a high five.
"Not much, not much. Hey fools, this is Erika she just moved here from Portland."
Before he even finished this introduction the ball came sailing toward me. I dropped my bag instantly and let my body respond. Right knee, left knee, right knee, head, left knee and then down to my right foot where I passed the ball to C.J. who caught it in his hands.
"Whoa, she gots better handles than you, Jose," said the taller of the boys with longish brown hair and a hint of Asian in his eyes.
"Better than your punk ass too," Jose responded as he leaned down to lace up his cleats.
The short kid with a short-cropped afro held out his hand. "I'm Manny, and that fool over there is Alan. Looks like you might have better handles than all of us."
A whistle blew and kids streamed to the shade of a tree on the edge of the field.
Throughout the morning I lost myself in the familiarity of soccer drills: dribble through cones, pass, trap, pass, trap, wall pass, throw-in, penalty kick and for that first hour I forgot everything but the ball, and the grass and the summer sun shining down. I didn't even pay attention to my competition the way Nat would have wanted.
Instead I pretended that the coaches were the ones I'd played for back home; that the boys I paired up with were Nat or Paris or Andie, girls that I'd known my whole soccer life. I let myself get lost in the only truth that felt right, the stiff leather of a soccer ball, the green grass of the field and my body's automatic responses in that world.
On the soccer field I didn't have to think about Jem, still up in Portland playing with our cousins at Uncle Kev's house, or Mom and Dad's bodies buried six feet underground. I didn't have to think about Nat meeting up with Paris because she was her new best friend and the two of them would call Jason and Derrick, the guys we'd been crushing on before I left, to see if they wanted to meet at the movies.
I played as hard as I had to in order to forget.