by Cole Meyer
This is your home. This sandlot, the park not far from your house. Sneak through Mrs. Jefferson’s yard and cross the street and you’re there. With its weeds poking up around the mud-stained bases and the rusting chain-link backstop and no outfield fence, dead-center in your winding subdivision, where you learned to ride your bike on the cracked asphalt path, where you raced Lex from home plate to the playground on the other side and back to settle all arguments, where you played catch with your father, where he taught you to stop stepping in the bucket, to step instead into the pitch and square your hips and squish the bug. This is where your father coached your little league teams, from tee-ball all the way through senior league, and when you aged out, this is where you practiced with him for the high school tryouts, taking cut after cut until your fingers went numb from the vibrations. Watch the ball into the bat, he said, holding it up in front of you before tossing it in the air. Focus. That was what he drilled into you, above all. And this park is where he found you when you didn’t make the team freshman or sophomore year, where you told him you were done with baseball. This is where he said he’d never known you to be a quitter.
And this is where you cried at sixteen, atop that big blue slide, when Lucy broke up with you, because this is where you had your first date, your first kiss. You were fifteen then and so nervous you thought seriously about calling it all off. But you packed a picnic basket with ham sandwiches and your mom’s caprese salad and a family-size bag of Ruffles and two cans of grape Fanta and ducked under Mrs. Jefferson’s kitchen window, and from across the street Lucy waved at you in a yellow sundress. It was the middle of July. After your picnic, you both sat on the jungle gym with your legs dangling and watched tee-ball practice. Sweat collected on your collar. You leaned back on your hands, positioned your arm behind Lucy in a way that was around her but not really and she scooted closer to you. You watched the kids scramble after a ball hit ten feet in front of home. You turned to Lucy, put your arm confidently around her waist, dipped your head in for a kiss, but she tilted hers at the last second so you only caught the corner of her lips. You both laughed, and tried again, and swore to say that the second kiss was your first. You’ll always remember that real first kiss, and you hope she will too.
This is where you hit your first and only home run. You knew when the ball soared over the right fielder’s head that it would keep rolling, and you put your head down and chugged around second, and around third, and you didn’t know until after your superman slide into home that you’d run through the third base coach’s stop sign. Connor and Lex and the rest of your team swarmed you at home and pounded your helmet and your back and at the entrance to the dugout stood your dad, arms across his chest, grinning wider than you’d ever seen. He said, Just kept running, huh? And you think this is advice you’ll give to your children someday. Even when the odds seem against you, just keep running. You assume when you’re older, your words will naturally sound more sage.
And this is where you brought Katrina after homecoming senior year, when you slipped out together an hour early, because her parents wouldn’t let her go to the after party at Lex’s house. You both wanted time alone. There was a condom in your wallet that Connor gave you at lunch on Friday. One to you, to Lex, to Brandon. He said if no one used theirs he wanted them back. You parked on the curb just ahead of where the streetlight coned, and Fall Out Boy came through the stereo, and you turned the volume up and Katrina turned it back down and straddled you, leaned your seat all the way back. She tasted like the punch you both drank way too much of, thinking, maybe, someone had spiked it though of course that’s a thing that only happens on TV. Your hands were clammy, and you worried she would notice. You tried to dry them off on your pants discreetly. It was way too stuffy in the car and suddenly you couldn’t breathe. You pulled away and Katrina cocked her head with a little smile, a flash of white behind cherry-splashed lips, and then it didn’t matter if you couldn’t breathe. Your body was running well ahead of your brain, trying to round third when you were still on second and you were thinking of a way to reach for the condom without breaking off the kiss again, but then Katrina slid off of you, back into the passenger seat. The condom stayed in your wallet for the rest of the year. That night, you ended up lying together in the outfield grass, lips still tingling from your kiss, and you listened to the rustle of the wind and coyotes howling in the marshlands to the south. You watched the planes above blink among the stars and the full moon, headed anywhere in the world you could imagine. This, you believed, was love.
The same moon was above you the night before Lex shipped off to Basic. He was going by Alexander then. He said you were both men now, now that you’d graduated. He handed you a Miller from a case he hid in the back of his truck and you sat side by side on the dugout bench, looking up. Katrina was already off in California, a full ride to Stanford. You’d agreed to split instead of trying long distance, and you hadn’t yet processed the breakup. You wouldn’t for some time. You were headed to Madison soon. You imagined several lives for yourself there, where you could be anyone, where you could be yourself. You imagined parties and intellect and new friends, relationships that came easily and a future that was bright and limitless. But what ended up happening instead was you sat in your dorm room drinking from a red Solo cup with the door open, and your roommate, who was more content to play League of Legends with his high school friends than socialize, scared off anyone from coming in, shouting into his headset in an otherwise soundless room. You heard plans of parties forming in the hallway and were too shy to insert yourself into this group that arrived the same day as you but seemed to have skipped the getting-to-know-you phase. You missed home, your parents and your friends, and you missed your baseball field. You sat alone on the pier outside your dorm and watched waves ripple across the surface of Lake Mendota.
And the park is where you come when you’re home for Lex’s funeral just a year later. Killed by friendly fire in a skirmish in Afghanistan. And you remember when you sat on the bench with him and watched the stars beam light across the galaxy, and you remember how it felt to believe that any future was possible, and that all you had to do was close your eyes and wish for things to come true, and how when you’d asked Lex why he enlisted in the Marines, he said he felt it was his only real option, that he didn’t want to get stuck in this town forever, working with his dad at the garage, and you knew then how fortunate you were and are that you could get out, and come back, and leave again, all by choice. This is your home, and it always will be, but there are other places you want to be. You remember Lex here, in this park, and you feel him sitting next to you, and that night you take Lex’s dog tags and a shovel from your father’s shed, and you sneak through Mrs. Jefferson’s backyard, and dig a little grave for Lex behind home plate, so that whenever you visit home, you’ll be visiting him too.
Cole Meyer is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Florida State University. He is the editor-in-chief at The Masters Review, and studied creative writing and classical humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His writing has been included in the Best Small Fictions anthology series and appears at Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, SAND and elsewhere. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife Emily and their dog and cat. More can be found at his website: https://cole-meyer.com/