We're out at the soccer field behind the school waiting for gym class to start. The shorts I'm wearing are a little bit too small and the aluminum bleachers are cold against the backs of my thighs. I'm staring off into space or something when Russell Wojciechowski, who's sitting next to me, pinches me just above my knee, says, “Odd or even?,” and tugs upwards, sharply.
"Ow," I say.
"Odd or even?" says Russ.
"Odd or even."
He separates his thumb and forefinger, looks down, and counts my hairs. "One, two, three, four. Yep, even."
"Oh," I say. "Oh, good."
And then Mr. Engel comes out of the shed on the other side of the field with a mesh bag of soccer balls and a stack of orange cones. He's wearing dark blue warm-ups with the U.S. Soccer logo on them, and as he jogs over he pants visibly, faintly, as it dissolved into the October air. In about five years, my friends and I will run into Mr. Engel in the Spartan Valley Mall on the way out of a movie one Tuesday night. He'll be working at Dick's Sporting Goods, across from the food court, and Scott Connover, who was the best basketball player in our grade and would often be late for his next class to stay after gym and play a quick game with Mr. Engel – first to five, while we changed back into our jeans – will insist that we say hi before we hit up Sbarro.
But even if I could know, now, that by the time I'm sixteen Mr. Engel's forced jocular familiarities will reveal a fear of my disapproval far greater than my fear of his disapproval had ever been, I don't think it would alleviate the terror I feel right at this moment, right now when I'm going to have to dribble one of those balls around all those cones, knowing that I'm going to start slow and tentative, and then kick the ball harder than I mean to, that it's going to run away from me and I'm going to chase it down and knock it back in the direction of the next cone, and that I'm going to slip because I'm wearing black Converse high-tops with no traction on the slick grass, and my glasses will fly off of my face and Mr. Engel, not content to let my humiliation speak for itself, will say "Merriweather! Don't freak out!," and the cold air will be aggravating my asthma and I'll lie there for a second, wheezing, watching the clouds, delaying the moment when I'll have to sit up and see everybody looking at me.
Mark Asch is the longtime Film and Books editor of The L Magazine and responsible for NYC’s venerable “Literary Upstart” event each summer. You can find him roaming, reading and writing around Brooklyn, NY.