“Flower or crest?” Brian asked, thumb and forefinger resting expectantly under his fifty-cent coin.
I glanced down at my gently curving waistline and promised myself I would work out over the holidays.
“Sure,” he said, then flicked his thumb and sent the coin spinning through the air. For a moment it hung, lazily, at the apex of its climb, a silver orb glinting in the noontime sun.
I would remember this moment in the years to come because that slowly spinning coin seemed a perfect allegory for our teenage years. The years where the changing faces of our childhood spun themselves into a frenzy and it felt like we would wake up with a different one every day. The years before the gravity of obligation took hold and we still believed we could make ourselves in our own image, where it felt like every choice we made would decide which side we landed on on our way down. The years where my friends and I hung, suspended, at the crest our lives, caught between who we were and what we would become.
Brian caught the coin expertly between the back of his right hand and the palm of his left. Lifting his left hand slightly, he peered at the coin through the cracks and smiled.
“Flower. Go take your shirts off.”
I groaned, but the rules were the rules so I reluctantly shrugged my way out of my shirt and prayed my belly wouldn’t wobble too much as I ran. My classmates stripped down too and soon we were all half-naked and ready to begin the game.
Zhiming walked up to me and gave my paunch a friendly nudge.
Zhiming and I shared one of those friendships which, in hindsight, seem impossible to explain. He was good-looking, captain of the hockey team and in danger of failing most of his classes. I was the class prefect, captain of the debate team and perennially the last person to finish the long runs we did for PE. We lived in totally different worlds and yet we were seat-mates and good, maybe best, friends. I would turn a blind eye to the food under his desk, cover for him when he skipped class and occasionally let him copy my answers in Math. In return, he would sometimes sit with me at recess or lunch and tell his friends that I was “chill”. From the outside it might have looked like Zhiming was using me but I knew him and I knew that he was simply incapable of thinking that way. He could be petty and childish at times but at heart he was a straightforward, simple person. The thought of exploiting our friendship would have been as foreign to him as the algebraic notation on the few tests he deigned to take.
“Michael’s covering for Yuan Hao in midfield so we’ll need you to take his spot in defense,” he said. “Make sure to mark Brian – that guy’s a piece of shit but he’s a really good striker.”
I nodded, still unsure as to why he had asked me to play in the first place. Yuan Hao was down with the flu but there were still plenty of guys in our class who could take his place, most of whom could actually run ten meters with the ball without tripping over their own feet.
Zhiming, sensing my hesitation, gave me a reassuring wink.
“Don’t worry man, you’ll be fine. Just kick the ball out of bounds every time Brian comes near it – imagine you’re kicking Mr. Chan in the face.”
I snickered. Mr. Chan was our physics teacher and was universally reviled for having no sense of humor and a predilection for giving brutal pop quizzes in class.
“Yeah man, remember that quiz he gave last week? I swear 80% of the questions weren’t even on the sylla-“
But Zhiming had already moved on to the next player, offering words of advice and encouragement as he expertly marshaled our team.
Muthali, my partner in defense, shook his head skeptically. “Look, try not to fuck up too badly, alright?”
I gulped. “Yeah… I’ll try.”
Preparations complete, Zhiming gave the thumbs up to Michael, who passed the ball out of the center circle. The game was on.
As far plans go, Zhiming’s was a good one. But he had failed to account for youth’s belief in its own invincibility – deep down inside, we thought that we could win the game all by ourselves, if only we had the ball. So those players that found themselves in possession would overelaborate with mazy dribbles and ludicrous shots, while others assigned to stationary roles would watch discontentedly and scream, arms raised, for the ball. Soon, most players on both sides had abandoned their nominal roles and collectively attacked the ball with adolescent élan. Together they formed a seething, swearing mass of humanity, half bare-chested and half in white, thundering across the pitch in an affront to organized football.
I was not immune to the heady adventurism that infected my fellows, and early on I made several forays into midfield in an attempt to win the ball. However, each time I did so I left Brian unattended, and when the man in possession invariably found a way to beat me Brian would be open and clean through on goal. The selfishness of his teammates and the heroics of our keeper did much to reduce his danger, but even so he had put his side two-nil up by the time my repeated failures and the cursing of my teammates forced me to accept that there would be no miracles today.
Having come to my senses, I marked Brian till he grew frustrated and joined the pack chasing the ball. I wanted to join them but I now knew my limits, so I hung back and watched with no small amount of envy. The game dragged on and Zhiming eventually pegged one back with a stunning volley from some distance out. Our teammates mobbed him in celebration while I, far from the action, exchanged high-fives with Muthali by way of vicariously sharing in the glory.
As our opponents returned the ball to the center circle, Zhiming motioned Muthali forward with a wave of his hand and dropped back to take his place in defense.
“Good goal,” I said, flashing him a thumbs up.
“Thanks man. You did a good job yourself marking Brian.”
“Not really… I let him score two goals.”
“Yeah, well, shit happens. Listen, I’m pretty worn out from running. Mind if I play center-back with you for a while?”
“Sure. You’re not going to see much of the ball though.” I pointed up field where our teammates were attacking the opposing goal. “I get a feeling its going to stay up there for a bit.”
“That’s fine. You know, I actually I gotta tell you something.”
“Well, I don’t know how to put this but –“
“Watch out!” A clearance from our opponent’s backline came bouncing our way and uncharacteristically, I was the first to react. Remembering Zhiming’s advice and my disastrous play earlier in the game, I hoofed the ball straight back towards the opposing goal. To my disbelief, the ball took an awkward bounce that beat two defenders, then fell to Michael who bundled it past the keeper and into goal.
“Did you see that? Did you see that!” I exclaimed, clapping Zhiming on the shoulder as our team exploded into celebration. “I actually did something useful! Bet you don’t regret picking me now, eh?”
I was about to comment on my friend’s strange lack of enthusiasm when Michael came sprinting over and caught me in a sweaty embrace. Lifting me off the ground, he spun me in a circle and clapped me on the back.
“Thanks! It was a fluke really…”
“It doesn’t matter – we can win this thing now! C’mon Zhiming, we need you up front! Nick here can manage by himself for a while.”
Zhiming opened his mouth as if to say something, then sighed and seemed to change his mind. Our opponents kicked off and he ran up field to join the attack.
Michael’s equalizing goal had only changed the tide of the game further in our favor, and my teammates kept our opponents penned back in their half, launching attack after attack to try and break the deadlock. Reduced to merely spectating, I watched the game from my position in defense, slowing growing drowsy with heat and fatigue.
The school clock chimed twice, and with a start I remembered that I had to be at tuition in half an hour. For a moment, I considered skipping tuition to see out the game. But then I remembered that my tuition teacher had a nasty habit of calling up my mother when I didn’t show up and decided that I wasn’t helping the team much with my presence anyway.
Waving goodbye to my friends, I picked up my shirt and bag from where I had left them, using the former as a makeshift towel to wipe off my sweat. I put my uniform back on, then headed to the canteen to get a drink before going to tuition. To my surprise, Zhiming broke off from the game to join me.
“Whoa dude, shouldn’t you be playing?”
“Don’t worry. They can manage without me for a while and I need a drink,” he said. “This one’s on me. Lemon tea again?”
“Yeah,” I said. No one really knew how the “lemon tea” in our canteen was made, but the general consensus was that it involved some kind of industrial waste, copious amounts of sugar, and if we were lucky, a little bit of lemon. And yet us students still bought it by the gallon – exactly why we liked it was one of those mysteries no one could explain.
“I don’t know how you can drink that crap. It tastes like plastic.”
I shrugged my shoulders helplessly in reply and Zhiming laughed, but bought himself a cup too. Desperately thirsty, we carried our drinks to a nearby table and sat down, drinking them in silence.
We were about halfway done with our drinks when Zhiming put down his cup. Sensing he had something to say, I paused mid-drink to listen.
“You remember Janice?”
“My ex? Yeah, why?” Still thirsty, I gulped down another mouthful of the artificial orange liquid.
“We’re going out.”
I put down my drink. For a split second, I could see myself getting up and hitting Zhiming in the face, then the moment was over and I turned away.
“Whatever. I’m over her.”
For a long moment, nothing was said.
“It was a good pass, just now.”
We sipped our drinks in the midday sun and watched the others play, feeling within them and within ourselves the strength and the pain of being young.