When I was little, there was a box on the painted concrete. It was a wooden box built with a solid base. It was about two feet every way, width, length, and height. I stood in front of it, my new opponent. I looked about, moving my fingers and hands and arms anxiously. The chain-linked fence circumferenced my little world, and made me feel like everything inside these fences mattered and everything outside—homework, movies, and family spats—didn’t. My dad stood in the far corner with his arms crossed. He was talking to my new coach. This coach had only known me for a couple of months. He was a stranger, really. He was the first coach to take me on a run and time me on the mile, which by the distance I staggered behind him only seconds after we had started running, I was convinced that he wasn't impressed with me.
About two minutes earlier, my dad and coach had been standing near me and the box. The coach had explained what I was to do. It was simple. Thoughtless. But I had had a very physical childhood and was aware that even some of the most simple and thoughtless motions could be the most painful and trying. This was what I was to do:
“Two feet together at all times. Start by standing to one side of the box. Then jump sideways on top of the box. Then jump down to the other side. Then jump up back on top of the box. And down to the other side again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Got it?”
I had nodded.
“Jump right onto the box. Jump right onto the ground. Jump left onto the box. Jump left onto the ground. Are you sure you got it?”
I had nodded again. Then I had watched them walk over to the other side of the tennis court so that the net divided us. They put quite a distance between them and me. Generally, it’s easy to assume that someone is talking about you when they walk out of ear’s reach. However, I had heard so many coaches and so many parents and my dad talk about me in front of me as if I wasn’t even there, that at this point, I assumed they had relocated their conversation for a reason I hadn’t though of. Talking about how my mile was far too slow wasn’t a big enough reason to have to move so far away from me. I knew when I was a disappointment, wrong, or not meeting expectations, because I was told so. There was nothing hush-hush about it.
“Alright, Jade. Ready?” the coach called out.
He pushed a button on his digital watch, and I began jumping. I had never really done these mini box jumps before. I hadn’t done them sideways before either. The bottom of the box had little robber blocks in the corners to keep it from sliding when I jumped on top of it, which was nice and thoughtful. However, I had a big fear that I might not jump high enough to clear the little box, that I would then clip the top of the box with my toe, and fall onto the tennis court’s unforgiving hard-court surface which always resulted in some kind of bloodshed. So, in the beginning, I made sure to jump extra high to clear the way.
Shade. About fifteen seconds into my hops, I realized why the coach and my dad had walked over to the other side of the court. On the other side of the court, there was a large tree. As a writer, I’d like to be more specific about the tree. You know, maybe it was an Oak tree with large fuzzy leaves. Or maybe it was a medium willow. But I don’t really know trees and had no reason at the age of 15 to really care about what tree was on the other side of the tennis courts. All I knew was shade was for the weak athletes. I could make some sideways comment about my dad and the new coach being weak athletes, but all that really mattered was that I wasn’t a weak athlete. I was the only one who had a chance to play on tour, so what did their weaknesses matter?
After only a short time, the jumps went from being easy to very difficult. My calves started to lose their softness, and my muscles now tightened without relaxing. My balance started to waiver, and though it was only a split second here and there, I had to readjust and regain my balance before pushing off again.
As was common in physical exercise, I had no sense of real time. It had felt like hours. I told myself, surely the coach was timing me. Surely these hops would be broken down into different sets or a series of hops with breaks in between. That’s how most exercises had went in my young career as an aspiring tennis professional: 3 sets of 10 push ups, 5 sets of 50 sit ups, or maybe 10 sprints with 20 second breaks.
Surely, this wouldn’t go on forever.
My coach didn’t stop me. He and my dad were still talking with great animation and interest. Laughing even. My chest felt as if my lungs were being punched from all sides. My breathing became sporadic. My vision began to blur. Perhaps it was the sweat from my brow getting into my eyes?
I tried to distract my mind. Mind over matter.
What would Roger Federer do? I imagined him floating above the box, hardly touching any ground at all. What would Super Man do? He too, would hover above the box with his flying ability. What would a bird do?
A bird? Why was I thinking of a bird?
I guess at this point, I could only think of flying, floating, and hovering people and animals and things. It was all I wanted to be and do.
My chest began to tremble, as did my bottom lip. It was then that I realized sweat and tears were melting together on my cheeks and lips. My emotions were being exercised as well. I tried to wipe my eyes. Crying was for weaklings. And if my dad saw, wouldn’t he just be disgusted.
The tears wouldn’t stop. The sweat wouldn’t stop. But neither would my legs. My hearing left. My vision left. But Up, and down, and up and down, and Up and down I went.
Until I didn’t.
As if my life had skipped a beat, I woke up next to a box on the painted concrete wondering where the last few seconds had gone. My dad and this new coach were kneeling and hovering over me. There was a towel and a half empty water bottle resting nearby. The two faces above me were worried, but the clouds above them were not.
They floated in the air above. Light. Fluffy. Free.