Lion in Winter

There’s something about a breezy summer night. The barometric pressure pushes all of that air around with the promise that something is coming. The atmosphere is thick with it.

I can’t stay inside on a night like this. I don’t care how late it is. There’s too much energy all around. The lights are still on, food is still cooking, music is playing, and women are laughing.

None of my friends are feeling it though. To my surprise (and if I’m honest, my contempt), everyone seems content to hang in their rooms and in the parking lot of the little motel we’re calling home for the week

Bah. I can’t take it here. There’s too much going on out there. So even though our trip leader would freak if he caught me leaving, I wiggle my feet into my chucks and trot casually down the concrete stairwell and out into the Mexican night. Maybe they thought I was going to get ice or going down to the desk. I don’t care. This night and this town are calling my name.

Above the hot glow of the city, and deep in the cool southern sky, I spy the tail end of a shooting star and take it as a sign to point my cons that way.

I can’t believe how alive this place is…even at 11:30. There are probably 35 people packed into this little storefront cafe. Men, women, kids, and babies. All chattering and laughing and gesturing. As I glance in (probably a little too obviously), a shiny man in his mid fifties pops through the kitchen door holding a flaming something or other, and the entire place breaks into song.

Kids on bikes are whizzing around everywhere. The urchin to bike ratio has to be like 2 or 3 to 1, but you’d never tell by the way they drive. Smooth, confident, and fast, they sweep through the sparse traffic and over the sidewalks like a flock of birds.

I’m strolling at a pace relaxed enough to keep me from sweating too much, despite the warm night. The capricious flow of cooler air that pinballs down the street with me helps too. I was born for weather like this. Was it really just 3 days ago I was brushing snow off my Focus? Seems like another lifetime already. I can’t see how I’ll spend one more midnight scrolling through facebook and netflix after experiencing a midnight like this one.

There’s a huge lit area up ahead, and after a few more blocks, I start to hear what sounds like the hum and cheers of a crowd. Even before I round the corner to the park, the rhythmic bounce of the ball and the rattle of the metal net clues me in. That star must know how much I love basketball.

I worm my way close to the court for a closer look. I’m kinda surprised I didn’t stumble on a futbol game or even a midnight rodeo in this carnival of a town. There’s gotta be like 300 people here. Looks like about 20 came to play. They’re easy to pick out—shirts slung over their shoulders, clumped hair shiny with sweat.

The game looks pretty close. My Spanish isn’t what you’d call stellar, but I heard the guy with the whistle call out “13!” on one end, and “11!” on the other. Out of habit, I start to size up the 10 guys on the tiny court. If they’re playing pickup, I might just get in, and I want to know my competition. A scrappy point guard in camo cargoes just broke his unfortunate guardian’s ankles with a killer crossover at the other end. The inbounds pass is a long outlet back this way, and as I follow the ball, my eyes get hijacked.

On the bleachers across court, a girl in a turquoise sundress is looking this way. She has a softness in her eyes and her smile that almost actually speak, and I’m so disarmed by her gaze that I quickly look away, and then all around me, hoping some lucky fella is returning that penetrating stare. No dice. Everyone nearby is zeroed in on camo boy and the others on the court.

My heart is slamming around in my chest now, and I hazard another glance at her. The look she floats over our empty side of the court is a loaded one. Without a sound, I translate it easily. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you.” Despite the heat and humidity, I’m frozen in place for a moment until she does something that makes my heart jump into my throat. Without taking her eyes off me, she gracefully pulls her long, silky hair back into a loose ponytail and begins to descend from her seat.

Our connection is snapped without warning by the roar of the crowd and a forest of arms thrust into the air. The underdogs won. The throng pours onto the court like someone breaking a gumball machine. My head feels like it’s swimming as I’m swept into the rush, but I haven’t had a drop of Cristal or Cuervo tonight. She didn’t look at me. She looked into me. And I looked into her. The connection was fierce and faster than instantaneous. It was here waiting for me. My whole face probably looks furrowed as I shuffle stupidly with the human current.

I scan  from one side to the other, now looking to pick up where we left off. No turquoise anywhere. The confusion I felt 10 seconds ago is buried by a load of denial. I know this feeling. Like the time my ticket got called at the Patroons game and I got to take one shot from center court to win $500. That stuff never happens to me. Like ever. I way over-thought my form, but the shot still felt good when it left my hand. On line. Far enough. The half second that the ball was closest to the basket seemed like 10 minutes. The crowd was silent, my heart was still, and I watched in slow motion as my shot came down perfectly in line. I leaned forward onto my toes, trying to help it find its way, just in time to see it spike into the back plate, up into the air, and finally glance off the left side of the rim and toward the visitors bench. I was in disbelief. That chance just literally slipped through my fingers and there was no getting it back. Near misses. The story of my life. And tonight looks like it may be “de ja vu all over again.” as Yogi would say.

My eyes keep bouncing from head to head in search of that ponytail. Nada. The court begins to clear a bit as pickup hopefuls grab loose balls and try to prove their worthiness. My Spanish may be a B minus, but the dit dit dit dah of the dribble is a code I understand perfectly. With my mind and heart tangled in that long hair, my body switches to autopilot. I wait passively for a miss, and pull down an easy rebound. I instinctively head to my favorite spot behind the arc on the left side. The weathered Wilson in my hands looks like it could be as old as me. It’s smooth with the wear of a thousand nights on this court. I pick up my dribble, turn, fade, and shoot.

CHANG! Nothing but net.

That sound snaps me out of my trance, but I can see it’s not thrilling the 6 or 7 guys who were waiting for my rebound. But in true basketball fraternity, one of them tosses me the ball again as I step 6 feet to my right. There’s something about tonight. In this wide awake sleepy town that always smells like exhaust, I’m a different person. I’m normally an okay shooter, but tonight, the ball feels like it’s flowing out of my hands. The basket seems 10 feet wide. Nothing I chuck misses, and finally I find myself in my least favorite spot—the right corner. But this is Reynosa, not Rensselaer, and as I leave my right arm in the air for effect, my shot finds the bottom of the net—earning some genuine respect from my brothers. I catch the ball again and toss it to one of the guys who’s been camping under the rim. I’m not cool enough to hide the stupid grin on my face. I wonder if she saw me?

The guys continue to do their best A.I. and ‘Melo impressions until the dude with the whistle barks to clear the court for the next game. I’m sherlocking the bleachers where I last saw her  when I’m snapped out of my daydream by someone calling, “Ay! Leon!” and I remember I’m wearing my yellow threadless shirt with a shaggy, bespectacled lion on the front. Three shirtless guys with zero body fat are waving for me to join them at center court. Again, I do a quick look around to make sure it’s really me they want. Any other lions in the immediate vicinity? Nope. Apparently we’re skins, so I abandon Leo under the hoop and start to lace up my kicks. Still no turquoise.

It’s another tight game, and I make my team happy they chose me. My streak continues with a couple open threes, a mid-range jumper off a screen, and a ridiculous sky hook a la Kareem Abdul Jabbar—just to test fate. Our point guard “O” ain’t nothing to sneeze at either though. He’s the fastest guy on the floor by far, and he’s got 9 of the 19 points for our side.

Every time play stops, by eyes skip around the perimeter of the court, looking for her. Still denied. Despite working up a good sweat, I can tell that the night has gotten much cooler, and the tension in the air has grown tighter. It smells like rain. The thunder that was timidly knocking earlier in the night sounds like it’s about to kick the door down.

But the show goes on. That camo kid comes down the middle and hits an impossible scoop in traffic to put them up 20-19. Game point. As I trot under the hoop to make the inbounds pass, I notice my shirt’s gone. Jeez. Can’t a guy play a game of shirts and skins without worrying about his clothes walking away? Not cool. I’m trying to shake off my frustration as we jog down to set up on the other end. O takes the ball down the left side, but the defense collapses on him and two of our guys go to help. Reflexively, I drop back and away to an open spot—the right corner. The ball nearly hits me in the face because as I’m looking into the scrum, I see a flash of a color I was not expecting to see. Yellow. It’s my shirt. But what paralyzes me is the face of the person carrying it over her shoulder. It’s her. She’s wearing a tattered green hoodie now. No wonder I couldn’t find any turquoise. I manage to catch the ball despite our gaze being tangled. Everything goes into slow motion again. My guy has already turned on his heels and started flying at me. My eyes click quickly to him and then to the battered rim. Muscle memory takes over, and I slip into my shooting motion. My guy is nearly in my face. Dang, he’s fast. Everyone on the court’s eyes are locked on me, but there’s one pair in particular that feel heavier than those storm clouds overhead. They’re a soft honey color, and they’re set just above the green and yellow blur in my peripheral vision.

For a hair of a second, there’s about two inches between the smooth brown of the rock and the speeding, strained fingers of my defender as he flies in to save the game. Close, but no cigar, amigo. I get a clear rainbow into the air, arching it perfectly toward its pot of gold. With incredible irony, it tangs off the far side of the rim and straight up into the air. Again, the crowd is silent, and I feel the first enormous drops of the thunderstorm slap my face, arms, and chest. I raise up on my toes again, but there’s no time to stay there. I’m not going to miss this shot.

Whether it goes or not, I almost don’t care. I find the two beads of honey again and start racing toward them. On the fuzzy edges around my eyes and ears, I’m aware the shot is falling, and I think I hear a CHANG.

Hundreds of arms shoot into the air once again as those first giant raindrops are chased by millions more. The clamor of the crowd gets rolled up into a boom of thunder. I’m almost within arm’s length when her clean laugh somehow finds me over the chaos. She flashes a smile that makes my chest seize, and as the throng scrambles for shelter, we meet with all the violent beauty of colliding stars. On her tip toes, she clasps the back of my neck, and touches her mouth to my ear. By now, no words are needed, yet through her smile she breathes just one into my ear.


Author: thejeffr

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