"Let me know if it hurts."
"I mean it now, alright?"
He nods--so innocent. I keep working.
"We're gonna get you loosened up," I remind him, "but it doesn't have to hurt. If it does, you let me know, and we'll stop."
He nods again. Possibly the most innocent senior on the team this year. The head coach has never uttered a bad word about him--which is saying a lot. Coach Davis fusses to me about these kids every day. The name Quin Hardy has never come up in the ruckus. That's why I don't mind giving him his pre-race massage every so often.
After a decade of hurdling, myself, I know how crippling those aches and pains in the joints can be. It's not a physical barrier so much as a mental one, and the high hurdles are definitely a mental battle. Hardy's suffered some trauma to his knees not too long ago, and now according to his doctor's order, he needs to ensure that he gets his scar tissue broken up as often as possible--especially before competition. That's where I come in.
Of course I don't need a license to do this. It's just a little rubbing on the knee. No special craft whatsoever by my understanding anyway. Any one of the coaches can do it. Hence why I'm honored that he chooses me every time. I look out for the kid. Something about him calls out to me. Since the first day I saw him there was something that told me to spend a little extra time learning him.
"Thanks, Coach." He smiles again, and his innocence bubbles out. "I think I'm ready to go. I feel good."
"Good news, Hardy. Try to get out to the starting line quickly. Don't let Smith nab your lane again." I have a stern sense of humor, some say, but Hardy responds well to it.
The other kids are intimidated when I start barking orders and furrowing my eye brows. Hardy just smiles even brighter, and says "Okay, Coach. I'll make you proud."
He dashes out of the field house looking confident. I gotta admit, my heart feels a little warm knowing that I've helped him prepare for the last dual meet of his high school track & field career. My hurdlers have nominated me Creston's Best Hurdle Coach of the Year--which of course means hardly anything seeing as how I'm the only hurdle coach at Creston High. Still, the irony--the satire--I appreciate it, and I know they're only trying to match my humor.
"Third and final call. Boys' one-hundred ten meter hurdles. Third and final call." The announcement means the race will begin soon, and that I need to get out on the fence to see how my team does. It's been a great season, and I'm looking forward to seeing the seniors compete on their home field one last time.
"Thank you so much for all of the time you spent with our girl," the father of one of my athletes begins, alternating between staring with sincerity into my eyes and gazing upon his wife and daughter with pride as the hug, celebrating a second-place finish in the girls' three-hundred meter hurdles, "It really does mean a lot to us."
"No problem at all. Thank you really. It has been a pleasure," I reach out to shake his hand, and I get a small lump in my throat.
The family wanders off as the gun goes off for a heat of the 4x400 meter relay, and I turn to the track, returning to my trademark pose on the fence. A sense of pride washes over me for myself, but mainly for my athletes. They really have done well this year, and haven't caused me any trouble--unusual for high school kids.
I hear another gun go off--for the final heat of the relay--and realize that I've ben staring off into the distance, at nothing in particular, for the entire race, just thinking about the season. Now that I'm fully aware of my surroundings yet again, I gaze to the center of the football field encompassed by the track, and I catch Hardy shooting me a look. He turns away instantly when I focus on him, but as my gaze drifts I catch him in my peripherals--staring motionless at me.
Now, I don't like to make people uncomfortable, so I decide to play it off. There could be a number of reasons for him looking my way, and I don't want to let him know I've caught him. Besides, how do I know if he's interested? He could just be looking over my head, but because we're so far away it appears as if he's looking at me--calling for me. Maybe that's it. Maybe he's calling for me. Maybe he wants me to turn around for something. Maybe something's behind me.
I turn my head to see what he's looking at, and there's nothing special. Just two stories of bleachers packed with departing spectators. Upon turning back to Hardy in an attempt to reconcile with his staring issue, I realize something--I have just for the first time admitted, in so many words, that I have been dying for this kid--my athlete, a student six years younger than myself--to declare a heart-melting, life-giving, undying affection for me.
From day one, he caught my eye--and not for the reasons I've lied to myself about. It wasn't because he's a hurdler. In fact, I didn't even know what his events were, but I hoped to myself that he would be a hurdler. It wasn't because I knew he could be a leading point-scorer on the team. I didn't even know he had speed. Something called out to me in him, but as much as I'd like to believe it was some pure mentor-like calling, I know that it wasn't.
On the first day of practice, my first season with the team, I had to put on the image that I was serious about my job while still being approachable to the athletes. I didn't want to become a door mat, but I also didn't want to be a road block. There was a fine line to walk on.
I would stand with my feet wider than shoulder's length apart, and tuck my hands in the back pockets of my khaki denims I wore to work that day. It was still cold out so I wore my team-issue wind-breaker I kept from my senior year at Almoe University. Surely I looked like a coach.
Coach Davis lead the warm ups on the track while I stood on the football field observing the kids. Several of them were trying too hard to impress one another by rushing through particular drills. One kid wore a heather-grey crew neck sweater with a white long-sleeved shirt peeking out, and a pair of white Adidas shorts that ended halfway between the knee and hip. He was fast, and he seemed to take the drills very seriously, but he really caught my eye when he took off running. With every stride his shorts alternated between showcasing what I can only describe as the most athletic-looking behind I have ever seen on a man--let alone a boy.
Through the duration of five separate drills I darted my head back and forth, dodging the miscellaneous bodies who got in the way as I hunted for the sight of this gorgeous pair of legs. His calves were toned. His thighs were full--not fat. And his butt was simply incredible--especially while running. In that moment I began hoping--praying--that he would be a hurdler so that I can spend a little extra time with him.
I know I shouldn't feel this way. He's a guy. Not only that, but he's a boy. He's a high school athlete--my athlete! Merely thinking of him the way I just did is unethical, and I should be ashamed.
However, he is eighteen-years-old.
Remembering that despite how old he is, I am indeed wrong for thinking of my athlete the way I am, I begin my retreat to the field house. Not, however, without looking back one last time. Hardy's no longer looking my way, but he seems to be lending a genuine ear among a group of girls. On the next yard-line, a group of senior guys make inappropriate groping gestures at the backside of one of the girls. Another group of guys, not too far from the first, are hooting and making large gestures like they're acting out a skit on Whose Line Is It Anyway. The boys on this team are typical high school kids--raunchy, immature, and reckless. Not like Hardy at all.
Inside the field house, I trudge through the locker room to get into the office where I've left the backpack I carry my athletic supplies in--you never know when an sprinter will need medical tape, pre-wrap, or extra spikes. All the while, I think about Hardy. Even though it's still an inappropriate relationship to long for, I don't want to ravish him. My desire for him isn't to fuck his hole and cum on his chest. Whenever I think of him, all I want to do is hold him. I want to wrap my arms around him, nestle my nose in the space where his neck meets the top of his back, and embrace him until I can't stand it anymore. Only then do I want to share a soft, dry kiss with him, sliding my hands briefly down his lower back--only grazing his athletic cheeks. I want to love him.
Getting lost in thought yet again, I finally come to the realization that I've been sitting on a cardboard box for minutes now. The office is full of random junk, and this old box of hoodies from a team fund-raiser has become a shelf for my backpack over the past few months. Coach Davis walks out the door uttering something to the extent of lock up when you're done here. I don't even remember him coming into the office. I thought I was here alone. Having nothing else to do, however, I grab my back, and hit the remote starter on my key fob for seven seconds, leaning on faith alone that the signal will reach my car where it sits in the parking lot.
The office door slams shut and echoes through the empty locker room. Concrete flooring makes for great acoustics in a rowdy high school boys changing area. After months of telling the kids to quiet down, it feels eerie when it's silent in here. As I make way through the center of the floor where we usually rally the team, I get this sharp feeling that someone's still in here.
"Coach?" It's Hardy. Of course. Being in an empty locker room with the high school child who I love from afar is the last thing I need right now.
I shake my initial fright, and turn toward him as he stands an awkward distance away from the wall next to the exit door. "What's up, champ?"
"Can I ask you a question?" He stammers, taking half of a step closer to me where I stand frozen.
"Well, if you count that one, then I guess I can grant you on more. It might cost you though," I rub my thumb along the pads of my fingers to seal the lame attempt at a joke.
Hardy walks closer to me. Wearing his trademark innocent smile, but with a hint of worry, his eyes call out to me with sincerity for help, and his head hangs low like he's done something wrong.
In that moment blood rushes through my body. Surging adrenaline makes it tough for me to stand. In lieu of locking my knees and falling over, I shift my body weight and shrug my shoulders. With an exaggerated worried expression, I usher, "What's going on, Hardy? Is everything alright?"
"Can we sit down?"
I escort him into the office where I know we won't be interrupted. The poor kid looks like he's just lost his best friend--or like he's just killed someone. Without hesitation he takes a seat in the older-than-dirt wooden chair next to the door. I don't want to sit behind the desk because that would be too authoritative. But I don't want to sit in a chair next to him because that would be too personal considering how I know I feel about him. Instead of choosing one or the other, I pull the leather, rolling chair from behind the desk, and sit across from him--roughly five feet away.
"Now, what's going on?" I ask one last time, worried over what he might answer.
He barely lifts his head to look me in the eye, "Could you rub my knee again?"
So desperately I want to say yes, but that would be too weird. Of course I'll do it before he competes, but now it would just seem like we're doing it for pleasure. I must have been staring blankly at him for too long because he follows up with, "It just started bothering me after the race. I didn't want to bother you, but I saw you were in here so I just figured I'd ask if you had the time."
"Hardy, is that really what's bothering you?"
He frowns subtly, and shakes his head, closing his eyes for a few seconds.
When he opens up his eyes, they are glimmering. Frosty-blue irises are amplified by pools of water building along his eye lids. His lips part for a short moment, but then slam shut again. He blinks once more, and a sizeable tear falls from his eye lashes, splashing onto his hooded sweatshirt.
Detecting that something is seriously wrong, I rush from my seat into the chair next to him, and throw my arm around his shoulder. "Hardy, it's okay. You can talk to me. What's the problem? Did someone do something to you?"
I'm hugging him awkwardly to console him, but I make the fatal mistake of pulling him in too close. His hair--smelling of Head & Shoulders and wind--mashes against my nose. The smell alone disarms me, and I inhale by mistake.
My lips pucker up to kiss him on the head, as I would my little cousin when he runs to me for solace. That's when I catch myself, and cut the nonsense.
"Coach, I--" he can hardly get a word out without sobbing. Finally he looks up to me, and our faces are way too close. If I so much as look down, our foreheads would collide. His eyes shimmer with tears, and he forces me to swim in them. I can't break my focus, and we stare at each other. Speechless.
That's when his free arm reaches for me. I see it coming, but can't--or won't--bring myself to stop it. He places his soft, warm palm on my jawline, staring into my eyes all the while. I'm paralyzed. I want to stop him--I want to kiss him. I want to have this moment with him. This could be the moment in which we start out lives together. But I can't do that. His chin lifts his mouth closer to mine. The heat of his breath through his nostrils automatically puckers my lips. I can smell the blank, undefined aroma of his nasal passages. I feel almost as if I could die right here and now.
"Hardy," I mutter, but he keeps moving. "Hardy!"
I take his hands, and fold them inside of mine, "You know this can't happen."
He winces, and his entire chin quivers.
So many words I want to say. So many things I want to do. But none of it is okay. He's my athlete.
He stands up without breaking his gaze into my eyes. His eyes look like he's been wounded. I can't look at him any longer, or I'll cry myself. I can feel him staring a hole into my back while he walks toward the door, but I can't turn around. Like a stuffed toy, I sit at the edge of the old chair.
Just as I hear the door handle rattle, I sit up straight and utter, "Hardy."
"Coach," he collects himself.
I turn around in my seat, and throw my arm over the back of the chair. "You know this can't happen--"
"I get it, Coach. You don't have to--"
"Quin," I interrupt him with a serious stern tone I only ever use on the kids when they're disobedient in practice, "You know this can't happen for as long as I'm your coach. We're going to get you to the state track meet, you're going to do your best. After that," I slide my phone out of my pocket and wave it next to my face before finishing with, "You know where to find me."
[To be continued...]