Outside, she leaned against the wall. Running away. The easiest way out. Easier than staying to apologize or attempt to explain, again. Her friend, Skye, stepped out onto the patio beside her.
“Shawna, what’s wrong?”
“Embarrassed, I guess.” Clumsy me, you know.”
“You are far from clumsy. You’re a runner, after all. He bumped into you, it wasn’t your fault the vase dumped over.”
“It was my elbow.”
“So? He was noisy enough about it, yelling at that other guy who tripped him. It was funny, really, like dominoes,” said Skye.
“Yeah, but it seems I’m always in the way, causing something.”
“Or, is it just how you perceive it?”
“Skye, you know how I am.”
“Yes, all too well, and I think you’re silly. Afraid of what people will think of you. So what if they think?”
“That’s easy for you to say. You have the great looks, the great hair, the great brains…”
“Shawna, stop it. Who won the race last spring? Who made the scholarship list?”
“Just barely though, and if that other team hadn’t stumbled they would have won. “
“There you go again. You’re ridiculous. Let’s go back in. It’s cold out here.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. Just forget it, get a grip.”
“Skye, you go first.”
“Hopeless, absolutely hopeless,” Skye laughed and shook her head.
Shawna and Skye walked back into the room, Shawna painfully aware of glances in her direction, Skye walking tall and confident.
Shawna ran the track after school, keeping ahead of the larger group of girls on her team. The wind in her face, her ponytail bouncing, her feet touching the ground as lightly as possible to pull forward into the next step as she covered the track, she loved the sense of running. She loved the long distance runs best. Not so much the speed, but the strength and endurance of pacing herself for the long haul. She finished her distance matching steps with the girl beside her.
After the training, their coach gathered the girls on the bleachers. The cool breeze rustled around them, stirring curls, brushing ponytails, cooling the sweat off their arms and legs.
“OK girls, you know we do a fundraiser each year.” The girls all groaned and adjusted positions for an uncomfortable listening session. “This year, the board voted to give a banquet, cooked and served by the team members.”
“Cooked by us? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m a runner, not a waitress.”
“Right, like we’re gonna run around in frilly little aprons.”
The coach raised his hand to interrupt the complaints. “There will be cooks that will be guiding you. Some of the moms offered to form a decorating committee, which will organize the serving team.
“Who will we be serving?” one of the girls asked.
“Parents, neighbors, whoever buys the tickets.”
“We have to sell the tickets, too? Whose idea was this?” the girls complained.
At the back of the group, Shawna cringed. She hated selling anything – anything actually, that involved talking to people. She got sweaty and nervous and panicky and choked, her thoughts jumbled and all she could think of was getting away – quickly. Then, maybe, she would have to serve tables, too? She prayed silently for a job hidden in some corner of the kitchen. She’d be glad to chop onions – anything that she could do by herself. From her thoughts, she heard the coach talking again.
“We have divvied up the tasks between the twenty seven of you. Each task, on a piece of paper, is in this box. You’ll draw one, and no trading.”
Grumbles, eyes rolled.
“No exceptions,” the coach said.
“I’ll draw first, let’s get this started,” said one of the popular girls. Shawna watched her put her hand in the box. “Greeter,” she announced her paper.
Of course, she would draw that, and she’ll be good at it, Shawna thought. Glad at least, that I didn’t get it.
One by one, the girls drew their papers, some happy to announce their draw, waving it triumphantly in the air, others disgruntled, making faces, thumping back into their seat.
Almost last, Shawna drew from the three papers left in the box. “Waitress.”
“They’ll all get served quickly,” one of the girls quipped.
“Or it will be dumped in their lap,” giggled another.
Silently, she walked back to her seat on the hard bench.
Later, she met Skye at the corner for a late evening walk.
“Couldn’t have been worse, what am I going to do? I dread the day so much I’m thinking of quitting the team.”
“Right – like that’s going to happen. Running away is what you’d be doing.”
“I could still run on my own.”
“What will you learn if you just keep running away?”
“I run away so I won’t have to talk to people.”
“What about the fun of the competition?” asked Skye.
“I do like the competition,” said Shawna. “It challenges me to push harder, to show me what I can really do as I match or push beyond the other girls.”
“See,” said Skye, “You can relate to others, you can be part of a crowd.”
“Only if I don’t have to talk to them. I can run without talking.”
“But, see, you just have to change your perspective. Think of the waitressing as a competition.”
“I am too afraid. What am I going to do?”
“You are going to breathe in and out just like you do when you are running. You are going to put one foot in front of the other, just like when you are running. You are going to move your arms and hold your head up just like you do when you are running.”
Shawna sighed. “And probably drop a tray right in front of everyone. My knees will be just like the jello I’m serving.”
“Is that how you think before a race?” Skye asked. “Do you imagine yourself tripping and falling flat on your face in front of a crowd? Do you imagine your shoe coming untied and catching your foot in it?”
“No, of course not.”
“What do you imagine?”
Shawna imagined the start line at the beginning of a race. “I think of the finish line. I look ahead to each lap, think of pacing myself, feeling the wind in my face, my ponytail bouncing across my shoulders, my muscles strong and tough, my shoes hitting the ground with a solid rhythm. You know what?”
“What?” asked Skye.
“I don’t even think of the crowd or the bystanders. I never even see them.”
“Interesting. The crowd cheering you on doesn’t get through?”
“Not at all. I hear wind, my feet, my heart, my thoughts, nothing else.”
“I’m wondering how you can apply that to being a waitress.”
Shawna laughed, “They will think I’m deaf if I don’t pay attention to them.”
“There you go again, thinking of what others will think of you. Who cares?”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Is it? How do you know that?”
“You make it look so easy, natural.”
“That’s like assuming all thin people are naturally thin and can eat anything they want. Maybe they are thin because they work very hard at it. Appearances may not mean what you assume.”
“But Skye, you talk to people easily, it looks natural for you. Smooth, effortless, easy.”
“Sure, that’s what you think.”
“Isn’t it?” Shawna asked.
“No,” said Skye, “It is not. When I play the flute in a concert, in front of a full auditorium, my hands are so clammy I can barely hold my instrument. My breath comes in short, wispy spurts. My tongue and my lips are dry and parched. I have to close my mind and create a bubble. Maybe like you do when you run. For me, my bubble is the music stand, the sheet of music, the notes on the page, the smooth silver of my flute, the musicians around me. Maybe like choosing what window you are going to look out. Your view is limited by that window. You don’t see the back yard through a front window, or the west side through an east window. The view is chosen and within those limits, that’s what you see.”
“I don’t really see how that would help.”
“OK, think of it this way. Now, what do you see or feel when you talk to people?”
“Panic. My throat tightening up, my jaw clenching, their eyes glaring into my face.”
“Think of a different scene.”
“Like what?” Shawna asked.
“Like a friendly face, smiling at you. Like your face, relaxed, smiling back. Think of complimenting their shirt or their hair or their friendly smile. Think of being calm, peaceful, breathing in a calm rhythm, like I would to the beat of the music.”
“Or, like stepping lightly around the track, focused on the finish line.”
“I don’t even have to win. Just keep moving, keep trying, keep running.”
“Or, keep passing the plates, and keep smiling.”
Shawna took a deep breath. “Just like running. But not running away. Running toward the finish line, not away from it.”
“Hey. I’ll buy your first ticket,” said Skye.