Seat race: A fixed start. Ready. Eyes on shoulders in front of her. Head in the boat, ears alert. She listen’s for coaches’ “Go!” In one movement, four blades catch the water, oars pull, powered by four pairs of legs. The boat surges then breeds momentum until the crew of sisters reaches the 32-stroke rate, counting on the stroke oar to keep them at it. Stroke…stroke…stroke. Power the sisters. Win this thing. WIN.
Win, to Itzel meant taking Patti’s place in the “A” boat. It was the end of a Saturday practice and the end of the racing season. The first race had been hard to call; then she and Patti exchanged boats for the second. She thought she won the second. Change back again for the third. The final score is a net calculation, a part of coach’s judgment. But a big part. Thinking about scores is not keeping your head in the boat. Focus, she thought, I’ll get it.
“Way nuff,” cox called, followed immediately by “Check it down!” She let us get too close to the dock, Itzel thought. She’s clueless. At the floating dock, the crew lifted the boat on cox’s command and set it into the slings. She saw Russ standing arms crossed on his chest with the men from the varsity boat, red neckerchief in a tight roll around his neck. He must have fifty of those things, she thought.
The men had come back after their practice to watch the seat race. Normally coach did not allow the men to hang around women’s practice, but the race was the last practice event. Itzy smiled at him and saw him flip a thumb up in encouragement without uncrossing his arms.
Just then she heard, “Great racing, Itzy!” and turned around to see Patti smiling, her hand outstretched. “Good luck.”
“The best,” she said and they shook hands.
Crew carried their oars to the wash down, then to the racks inside the boathouse. As she passed Russ smiled.
“You looked good out there.”
“Thanks.” She paused and looked at him squarely, open-faced.
“I’m taking a bus trip down to your part of the world this summer,” he said. Could we talk about it after dinner tonight?”
“Yeah, I would like that.” And she smiled, holding eye contact long enough to say what she needed to say. Oh yeah…would I. Her black hair braid flipped and her rear end waggled of its own volition for a couple of steps as she moved away.
Stormy, Itzel’s roommate, came over to walk her back to the dorm then the dining room for lunch. Stormy rows seat five in the “A” boat. The novice boat had won all it’s races when Itzel was bumped up to the “B” boat without fanfare. Afterwards, the novice boat slipped but the “B” boat won its next race. Both varsity “A” and “B” boats had had very average seasons so far.
The last race of the season was in a week. Traditionally, the last race was reserved for their Ivy rival across the river, just two crews per race and just for bragging rights. More alumni, more beer and more brats showed up along the riverbank for this race than for all the others combined. It was the unofficial start of summer. Spectator encouragement was loud and profane and the crews reveled in it. Both crews finished the season with enough motivation to last for the summer.
“You looked great out there,” Stormy said. “How do you feel?”
“I think I took two and three but I don’t know if by enough.”
“Three for sure. Your boat checked in one. We could see the stutter from the shore. Anyway, how do you feel?”
Itzel twisted her mouth into, don’t know. “I will know that when coach posts the lists. I did not feel the check, who was it?”
“Not important,” Stormy said, “You know we all want the best hammer in the boat.”
“Sure, why wouldn’t you?”
“Well, we would. But Patti has been in the boat for the whole season, she’s friends with everybody.”
“So what? I’ll do fine.” Itzel stared at her, “If I make the boat, I am a team player. You will not miss Patti if we win…. And we will.” Her face was as grim as her pronouncement.
“We all want to win…. Period.” Stormy continued for a few steps. “I know you are at least as good as Patti, maybe better, we’ll find out soon enough.” She took a few steps then turned towards Itzel, “But the boats are made. It’s bloody unusual to race for a seat at the last minute. I just hope there aren’t any hard feelings.”
“What are you trying to say. I don’t need anyone’s permission to compete.” She had stopped walking and was facing Stormy. “Anyway, Patti seemed fine. We’ve lived together for the whole year, Stormy and we do fine.” She looked angry and confused as the two walked up the rise to the bus back to school.
“Why do you think Coach had us race?”
“Morale. I think he needed something objective to hang his hat on.” Stormy looked at ground as she walked, “So the boat doesn’t come apart.”
The dorm room was old, old fashioned and spacious. The jock dorm. Two beds, two dressers and two desks in the middle of the floor, butted together. Desk lamps plugged into a brass outlet in the linoleum floor. All the woodwork was scarred blonde oak. One side was utterly organized.
Stormy’s bed was unmade, papers littered her desk. The roommates were both on crew but they were two years apart. The room assignment came because Stormy was majoring in Spanish and had requested a Spanish speaker.
“Flip for the shower?”
“You go ahead, I want to call around.”
At that moment, Stormy’s phone rang. “No need for that.” Stormy listened for a moment and said “Thanks, Celia.” She looked at Itzel. “Congratulations.” She smiled.
“Yesss!” Itzel pumped her doubled fists. “Yesss. We will win, I promise you.”
Stormy looked bemused at Itzel’s intensity. “You’re going to help the boat Itzy. No question. Welcome aboard.” The delay was just noticeable when she said, “You know the table rules?”
“It would be best if you skipped lunch so everyone can say goodbye to Patti.”
Except for two who left for the weekend, everyone showed up for dinner. The crew table was two normal tables pushed end-to-end. The extroverts among them kept conversation light and funny. There were no interruptions because the varsity table boundary was inviolable to outsiders. Itzy kept one eye on Stormy to see if she was appreciating her blending with the tightly bonded crew. By the time dinner was ending, Itzy felt like an insider. Commitment to the boat came natural and fast. As they began to rise from the table, Stormy suggested all of them meet at the crew’s favorite bar.
“I’m supposed to meet Russ….”
“He’ll be there tomorrow. Besides, Russ will understand…tonight anyway.”
They pushed their chairs to the table as Stormy looked for Itzy’s decision.
“Hi Itzy.” It was Russ.
“Save it, Russ,” she hissed. “Not at the table.”
The trip to the bar was a muted get-to-know-you affair that lasted one beer for most of them. Itzy and Stormy walked back to the dorm.
“What happened tonight, Stormy.”
“Nothing happened. Things went fine.”
“I mean about Russ.”
They walked while Stormy thought about it. “You blew him off.’ She turned and looked steadily at her roommate. “But you know that.”
“He knows the rules. He is not supposed to bother us at the table.”
They had reached the dorm elevator and rode up without speaking. As they reached the room, Itzy said, “Well, anything else?”
“Russ knows the rules better than you, Itzy.” She said it quickly as though she’d been just waiting to get the rest of it out. “When we get up and push chairs in, the rule gets iffy.” She threw her cell phone onto the desk. It spun and slid off onto the floor. Stormy leaned over and picked it up, “Okay…I’m going to say it. You dissed him, Itzel. Bad. Did you see his face?”
“I was just following the rules.”
“Yeah, sure. I’d be surprised if he ever talks to you again.” She hesitated, “He’s a sweet guy, Itzel. There was no need for that crap.”
Itzy spun and stalked out of the room. “I have nothing to apologize for,” she yelled back. Part way down the hall she heard the room-phone ring.
“Itzel!” Stormy’s voice boomed down the hallway.
Itzy sauntered back.
“It’s your Mom,” Stormy said, handing over the phone. “She sounds upset.”
Itzy took the mobile receiver and leaned back against the hallway wall. She waited until Stormy was well back into the room.
“Okay, Mom, hi, what’s up?”
“I have bad news, mi amor. Aunt Dolores has died.”
“Aunt Dolores in Guatemala? I thought Dolores would live forever, Mom.”
“We’re going to the funeral. Your father is more upset than I’ve seen him in years.”
“When is it? Should I send something, some flowers or anything?”
“In three days, Itzy. We are all going.”
For a moment, Itzy wasn’t sure what her mother meant. “No, Ma, that’s not possible. I’ve got a race and exams are coming up.”
“I know it’s short notice, Querida….”
“No Ma, it’s not the notice, I can’t leave. I’m in the “A” boat now and there is a race on Saturday. We have to practice.” Itzy waited for a response. Nothing. “Exams start after that. Please, Mami. It’s impossible.”
“Itzel…Dolores was the most important woman in my life. Your father’s too. I’ve already sent emails to the Provost about exams, and to the coach.” Her voice took on a cadence, “William’s ready to start the fight all over again, Querida. We need you with us.”
“I can’t go, Mom. I can’t!” The last, flinty “can’t,” squeaked out.
The phone was quiet. “This is family, Itzel. Aero Mexico at noon. Be at Logan an hour early. I’ll meet you at the airport in D.F.”
She leaned against the wall; arms hung at her sides; tears streamed freely. But for one unruly sob, there was no sound. One of the girls looked out of the room next door then jerked her head back inside. The disconnect buzzer took on a klaxon sound rebounding down the muted hall. After a few pulses, she punched it off, scrubbed her cheeks with her fingers, stood up straight and looked around.
Why would Papi be ready to fight?