Authors: Barbara Valentin
Shuffling into the second turn, she felt blisters erupting on the back of both ankles as her damp feet rubbed against their wet canvas confines. Determined not to let him get the upper hand, she kept chugging along, panting hard.
When she heard him yell, "Pick it up, Ross," she started chanting to herself, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."
After what seemed like an eternity, she steered herself through the third corner. By this time, her thighs felt as heavy as cement blocks. An old couple, walking slowly enough to hold hands, passed by on her right, looking concerned.
She wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve. Her right side, just below her rib cage, felt as if she'd been stabbed with a thousand knives. Her parched mouth seemed to be coated with glue.
Kill me. Kill me now.
"Almost done," she heard him shout. That's when she heard a different voice, a friendlier voice, say, "Don't give up now. You can do it."
Mattie looked around, but didn't see anyone close by.
She pushed up the sleeves on her sweatshirt and ran a hand across her eyes. The salt in her sweat caused them to sting. Her mascara clumped, making her eyelashes stick together. Her ponytail felt like it had a large rock tied to the end of it.
If I could just stop to catch my breath.
Then she saw him.
Nick had moved from the center of the track to her lane and stood several yards in front of her. He had tucked his clipboard under his arm. In one hand, he was holding his stopwatch and was waving her toward him with the other.
"Come on, Mattie. Let's go."
Was he a mirage? She gave her head a shake and decided to aim for him, wishing she had the power to run right over him and keep going, all the way home to a nice cool shower.
When she finally finished, she barely had enough force in her to knock him off step, let alone keep going.
Nick caught her by the arm, clicked his stopwatch, and announced just loud enough for her to hear, "4:13."
In response, Mattie bent over, grabbed her knees, and threw up on lane one.
I'm never eating Pop Tarts again.
After a minute, she felt a hand on her back and saw a paper towel come into view.
"Here. Clean yourself up."
Mattie watched as he waved over a janitor to clean up the mess before he ushered her back to the center of the track.
It was clear to her that his brand of torture had elicited this type of response before.
"You ok?" he asked.
Making a face that told him she wasn't, he pointed to the water fountain near the entrance. "Go rinse your mouth out and splash some water on your face. You'll be fine."
He spoke with all the compassion of an IRS agent conducting an audit.
Still, Mattie did as she was told. On her way back to Nick, a jolt of pride began to work its way up from her blistered heels. By the time she reached him, she was fighting back the urge to squeal, "I did it."
Instead, she asked, "What now? Are you going to hang me by my thumbs for a couple of hours?"
Nick smirked at her. "No, upper body workouts come later. Thought I'd give you something to look forward to." Nodding toward the track, he added, "Three more of those and you have a mile. Twenty-six point two of
and you have yourself a marathon."
""Don't remind me," Mattie muttered under her so-not-minty breath.
Nick lifted his hat off, ran a hand through his wavy hair, and looked at her.
"Listen, Mattie. I'm not gonna lie to you. Training for a marathon takes hard work, discipline, and guts."
Mattie grimaced. "Bad choice of words."
He stood staring at her with a pained expression on his face. After a minute, he nodded towards the entrance. "How about we go grab some breakfast. We've got a lot to go over if we're gonna do this."
Mattie stayed planted to the spot. "You want me to go to breakfast. With you."
Nick glanced at his watch. "In about four minutes, first period PE is gonna start. I'd rather detail the plan you're going to follow for the next ten months over a stack of pancakes. But if you insist, I can do it right here in front of a bunch of gawking teenagers, too. It's your call."
"What makes you so sure I'm going to follow your plan?"
"Oh, you'll follow it." His eyes glinted under the shadow cast by his cap. "'Cause I won't get my win if you don't."
As her caffeine-free brain scrambled for a sharp retort to his veiled threat, he continued, "And neither will you."
"Hell is other people at breakfast."
– Franz Kafka
The Cozy Cup, a greasy spoon down the street from their old high school was nearly empty. When Nick opened the door to the narrow storefront establishment, he addressed a buoyant waitress who was busying herself with wiping down the long Formica counter.
"Hey Peg. How are ya?"
"Hey Nick. How ya doin'?"
She flashed a pink-frosted smile at him and pointed to a booth in the back before pouring coffee for a construction worker who was sitting on a bar stool, hunched over the sports page.
Nick slid into the seat, pulled two plastic-coated menus from a holder on the table, and handed one to Mattie. She looked around. With its big black-and-white tile floors and dark red sparkly vinyl covering the seats, the restaurant looked exactly as it had when she used to dive in there after class to pick up an order of cheese fries to go. Still, it was a far cry from the establishments Eddie had taken her to. A very far cry.
Before she had a chance to study the menu, Peg appeared at their table, holding a little pad of paper. Mattie was fascinated by the waitress's hairdo, expertly styled, shellacked, and void of any natural color.
Addressing Nick, she asked, "So how are ya? You look good. How're your folks?"
Nick let out a short cough. "I'm fine. Folks are fine."
Peg pulled out a pencil that was tucked over her ear.
"Glad to hear it. Tell your Mom I still have her cake pan from the potluck at the church, would ya? If I knew you were coming, I woulda brought it."
Mattie watched as Nick unfurled the trademark DeRosa grin, shiny white teeth gleaming between deep dimples on each cheek.
"No worries, Peg. I'll let her know." He delivered his reply with a wink.
While the waitress-slash-family friend seemed unfazed by his brazen onslaught of charm, Mattie felt her pulse race and her heart do a gallop in her chest. She held the menu in front of her face, certain it was turning as red as cherry pie filling.
Damn that Pavlov…
"Now, what can I get you kids?"
Nick started, "I'll take the usual."
"How 'bout you, honey?"
After giving her menu a quick look, Mattie listed her breakfast demands. "Coffee, blueberry pancakes, bacon, and a large OJ."
Nick put his hand on Peg's arm and shook his head. "No. Make that a veggie omelet, egg white's only, turkey bacon, and a fresh fruit cup. Oh, and a water."
When he saw Mattie scowling at him, he asked, "Or would you rather have plain oatmeal?"
"You said we were going to go over the details of your plan over a stack of pancakes."
"I intend to."
Mattie stared at him for a moment. When he did nothing more than look through the notes on his ever-present clipboard, she folded her arms and sat back in her seat watching as Peg disappeared through the kitchen doors.
"Look, I've got to get to work. Can we get on with this?"
Nick handed her a piece of paper with "The Rules" typed across the top. "Like it or not, from now until October, you are my work."
Ignoring him, Mattie laid the paper on the table in front of her and studied it. "Running every day? Seriously? Isn't that a little excessive?"
When she looked up, she was surprised to see him watching her with an expression that, if she hadn't known better, could be mistaken as fondness.
But she did know better. At least she thought she did.
She slapped on a frown as he explained, "We've gotta get a lot of miles on your legs. You're going from not running at all to running over twenty-six miles in one shot."
"Again, don't remind me."
She looked longingly at the picture of a scrumptious, over-sized blueberry muffin on her placemat.
"If you don't think you can do it, you won't," he continued. "Besides, you won't be running every day. Some days, we'll cross-train. Swim or bike. I might even throw in some yoga."
It was a little past eight in the morning. Without her usual caffeine fix, Mattie's wit evaded her. "Whatever," was all she could come up with, so she kept it to herself.
Instead, she turned her attention back to Nick's list and began reading each rule aloud with increasing alarm. "No late nights. No junk food. No coffee? Are you insane? How do you expect me to function?"
"You just gotta replace those bad habits with some new ones."
"You know, that line might work with your sixteen-year-old protégés, but I'm a grown woman. A successful working woman."
"Yeah. So I see."
Feeling his eyes comb over her sweaty mass of curls, frumpy sweatshirt and almost makeup free face, she turned her attention to the omelet Peg slid in front of her. The clumps of vegetables on the otherwise stark white plate did little to stir her appetite. It's not that she minded the green peppers, mushrooms and onions, but she preferred them sitting on a cornmeal pizza crust, smothered in melted mozzarella cheese, and dripping with basil-laced tomato sauce.
After filling her mouth with a forkful of hot food, her face contorted into a pained expression.
Nick nodded, "I know, right? It's good stuff."
Mattie groped for her water and guzzled it. When she had distinguished the fire in her mouth, she gave him a weak smile. "So good."
Nick swallowed a mouthful of buttermilk pancakes saturated with melted butter and syrup, and nodded at her plate. "From here on out, no more rich food. Not while you're in training, got it?"
While Mattie tried to discern his use of the word "rich," the memory of Eddie taking her to brunch at the Hotel Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue came to mind. She had never seen such a sumptuous display of her least favorite meal in all of her life.
It was the first and, unfortunately, last time she ever had Eggs Benedict. She savored every single bite, not minding in the least that the dish consumed her entire recommended daily calorie allotment. Salivating at the memory of the silky sauce, she sighed.
While she still fantasized about Eddie returning from wherever slimeballs go just so he could grovel at her feet and beg forgiveness, there was still no denying the fact that he had impeccable taste. He was what her mother would have described as a cad. Her absentee father, she could only imagine, would have admired his audacity.
She could still hear her ex-fiancé saying through mouthfuls of foie gras, "Everything tastes better when you wash it down with champagne."
Yes, especially when you don't have to pay for it, you low-life scumbag.
Mattie looked across the table at Nick. He sat frozen, fork in hand, waiting for her reply. His expression was a collage of pride, vulnerability, and hurt, but Mattie noticed something else in those long-lashed eyes. Hope?
Forcing an expressionless smile, she admitted, "I'm just not much of a breakfast person."
First, she noticed his shoulders relax, then his entire countenance. "Well, you're gonna have to become one. You're in training now. What you eat and when you eat it fuels your body and has a direct impact on your performance."
"Easy, big guy. I didn't say I was going on a hunger strike. I know I may not look like it, but I've been dieting on and off my entire life, so please, don't lecture me about proper nutrition."
She was relieved that Peg appeared before Nick could respond. With check in hand, she stared at Mattie's plate and asked, "How was everything? Want a doggie bag?"
Mattie nodded and Nick handed her a twenty. "Great, Peg, as usual. Keep the change."
She stashed the cash in a pocket of her apron and sashayed towards the cash register, humming an unrecognizable tune.
After she returned with a box, Mattie filled it with her leftover food, pulled on her jacket, and grabbed the list of rules Nick had given her. "So, are we done?"
She waited for his reply with the patience of a teenager begging to be excused from the most excruciating dining experience ever.
Nick, using the tone of a parent admonishing an ill-mannered teenager, responded, "You're welcome."
Mattie rolled her head back. "I'm sorry. It's just—I've got to get going. Really."
Nick stood and nodded toward the entrance. "Yep, we're finished."
As they made their way to the door, Mattie's conscience threatened to get the better of her. It was obvious that Nick's finances were not as robust. Why else would he need to take a job coaching someone like her? From her perspective, his plight reeked of desperation. What happened to the Nick who, on more than one occasion, used to strut through the halls of Knollwood High with at least three members of the cheer squad drooling in his wake? Eddie always used to grumble about how Nick would steal the limelight when they were kids, rubbing Eddie's nose in his athletic achievements.
Having grown up in the shadow of a pretty, popular, and petite older sister, Mattie had always sympathized completely. Thing was, he sure didn't seem to be rubbing anyone's nose in anything now.
Feeling compelled to thank Nick properly, she stopped and turned to do just that when her nose pressed against his chest, and her words got lost in the soft synthetic fabric of his jacket.
He sprang away from her like she had just spritzed him with cold water. "What's the matter?"
Mattie looked away, embarrassed. Her benevolent mood had passed.
"Geez. Forget it. I was just thanking you for breakfast."
Nick looked down at her with the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Forget it yourself."