We braved the morning cold and stood at the bus stop with nothing but our shorts and t-shirts. At the age of seventeen, cold was the least of our worries and furthermore the anxiety in our blood transcended the chilly dawn.
“Here it comes!” My best friend Carlos exclaimed as a white van screeched to a stop. A big man carrying a bundle of newspapers stepped out and the van drove away. “You boys are up mighty early?” The man noted as he continued to display the papers on the ground.
“Can we please see the sports section sir?” I pleaded with my eyes and the man threw us a copy of the paper. “Give it back when you are done and don’t soil it.”
We tore through the pages, settled in on the sports section and scanned the topics with expectant eyes.
“Your name is there!” I yelled at my friend. “Look here, it says Carlos Zambrano!”
Carlos laughed. “Yours is there too Vincent!”
We sighed in disbelief and sat on the cold pavement to let the news soak in. At the age of seventeen, we had just been selected to attend the Italian under-eighteen national soccer try-outs.
“Its tomorrow,” I shrieked with joy. “I can’t wait.”
My friend Carlos seemed to be in deep thought. “I can’t go,” he said sadly.
I looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean Carlos? This has been our dream since childhood. What do you mean you can’t go?”
Carlos pointed at something on the page and I was forced to take a second look. “It’s in… It’s too far and my family can’t afford the bus fare.”
“I don’t care,” I yelled in defiance. “I will walk. I have to go! I have to be there.”
We sat in silence and watched the sun rise in the east in a beautiful display of colors. “You wonna smoke?” Carlos asked.
“Sure,” I replied. We were boys, Carlos and I. Tight. We did everything together and where Carlos went, I went too.
We lived in the slums in Naples, Italy and life was no picnic. Our homes were made of wood, plastic papers and mud, or a combination of all: unauthorized constructions according to the government who threatened to evict us every year. Poverty and low incomes defined the lifestyle, which lacked in health, education, social and cultural facilities. Everybody talked about getting out and making a descent life, out there where the land was green. Very few folks ever left. Leaving the slums was as impossible as picking oneself up with one’s own bootstraps.
My dad and mum sold a local brew of alcohol for a living. The brew was their livelihood. But the brew was illegal and the city inspectors constantly raided our family business for bribes. We would make a living yes, but we would never make enough money to get out of the slump.
The following morning, I woke up at dawn for the twenty-mile trek to the stadium for the soccer try-outs. In my bag pack, I had water and an old pair of running shoes. Along the way, cars whizzed by and I saw happy faces inside gazing at me: curiosity and sympathy in their eyes. Most of them wanted to stop for me but as is the human nature, nobody did. Poor thing looks tired. The sun was warm in the overhead as I walked: a characteristic of the Mediterranean climate outlined with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.
I arrived in the beautiful Stadium San Paolo at exactly 3pm with an hour to spare before kick-off. My legs were tired and hunger was a dull ache somewhere in my body: but my zeal remained strong. In the meantime, I took the liberty to walk into the stadium and feel the turf grass on my bare feet. It felt great. I looked up at the empty seats around the stadium and imagined sixty thousand fans watching Diego Maradona play in the historic 1990 World Cup semi-final match between Italy and Argentina. I could clearly hear them chanting, Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our Homeland!
I sat on the grass in the corner of the field and tried to rest my fatigued muscles. At 3.30pm, cars begun to arrive and parents walked their kids over to the coach and introduced themselves. The parents then proceeded to sit themselves in the center stand where they could get a bird’s eyes view of the field and cheer their kids on. I realized at that moment that my mum had no idea where I was.
“Your name son?” the coach asked me when I finally approached him.
“Vincent,” I replied in a timid voice.
I watched as he checked my name off the list.
“Position, place of birth?” the coach asked.
“Midfield, Naples, Italy.”
“Well Vincent, it’s going to be tough out there. We only need twenty-two players and there are forty of you. In case you don’t make it son, I want you to know that you are already a winner. The fact that you made the list out of thousands of kids in the country means that you are a champion already. Understood?”
“Do you have soccer clits?”
I pulled out my old running shoes and watched the frown grow on his face. “You can’t play with those on turf,” he chided. “You are going to have to sit out until we can figure out something!” The topic was not open for discussion. His word was the law.
The boys were divided into four teams and I sat on the sideline with a long face as I watched them run drills and play two touch games. Half an hour later, and restless, I looked up and tried to get the coach’s attention but he had completely forgotten about my existence. I turned and looked up at the bleachers and saw nicely dressed men and women taking notes on their pads. I had seen some of them on TV and I knew that they were the ones who ran soccer in the whole country. I wanted to cry as I watched my dream float in front of my eyes.
A sharp whistle suddenly made me look up and I saw a boy writhing on the ground holding his head in pain. He was hurt. They carried him out of the field with a concussion and the coach grudgingly motioned for me to jump in. I needed not be told twice. My running shoes hit the grass on a full sprint.
“The rules are…” the coach started saying but I was already running towards the ball. After sitting outside for almost an hour, I knew the rules like the palm of my hand.
A boy with new soccer clits was dribbling the ball. I hard tackled the boy with my running shoes and took it from him. I span around real fast and made a pass, then quickly sprinted and called for the ball again. It came, and I controlled it with one touch and slammed it past the approaching keeper. It was the first goal of the session. The coach stopped the game and walked over towards me shaking his head in disbelief.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked with an outstretched hand.
“Vincent,” I replied between gasps, as I bowed my head in youth shyness.
“Vincent, ha.” The coach held my hand in a strong grip and stared into my face for a long time. “I will have to remember that name,” he said.
It turned out to be a good year for both my parents and I. A lot of people were happy, I don’t know why. But one thing was for certain: when people in the slums are happy, they drink more and my father’s brew sales shot through the roof. We were ecstatic, and to celebrate this great achievement, dad sent me to town to buy what would be our first TV in the house: an upgrade in our lifestyle as opposed to watching TV in the tiny wooden hall around the corner; the smell of overflowing trash drifting into our nostrils… roach colonies roaming the walls.
I bought a colored twenty-inch TV, boarded a bus and sat it possessively on my laps. I felt the eyes of the other passengers burning through me and I realized that I made quite a scene.
At home, we connected the TV and played with the antenna on the roof until the picture was crystal clear. Ours was the only antenna in the neighborhood and we were proud of this milestone achievement.
In the dead of the night, five men broke into our home and told us to lie down on the ground. They took away my parents’ money and the new TV. They called it ‘tax’, something about our debt to the community. I was furious. For so many nights I had watched my mum burn the midnight candle to get the brew ready for sale in the morning. For so many years I had watched my dad sit under the hot sun on the streets trying to woe customers into buying his drink. Taxation my foot! I had just learned my first real lesson about the decay of an unjust world.
Monday. There’s always a somberness that comes with this day and am yet to find someone who looks forward to it. The world is a quieter place on Mondays.
She found me during my break time sitting on the grass in the middle of the soccer field.
“I’ve been watching you for three years,” she said. “You always come and sit on the same spot, close your eyes and smile. Can I please sit with you?”
I nodded and watched as she balanced a lunch box to the ground. “I’m curious,” she continued. “All these years in high school and you have never broken from your routine. I said to myself that I have to talk to you one day and find out why.”
“That day is now?” I teased.
“Yes,” she laughed. “Call me Fiona.”
“My name is Vincent,” I replied. The smell of the chicken in her lunch box drifted into my nose and I felt my stomach groan. For three years in high school, I had never once had lunch.
“So Vincent…” she was waiting for my reply. I glanced casually at her short black hair and pretty face. She had dancing eyes that looked very serene and innocent. I realized that her parents had probably shielded her from the harsh realities of the world.
I turned and looked at the soccer field. “I can see them,” I said. “I can see them urging me on. I can hear them calling my name.”
“Who?” She asked as she tried to follow my gaze.
“The soccer fans… the crowds. They appear in my dreams too and tell me that am a great player.”
“Are you?” she jested.
“I would like to think that I am.”
Our lunch break was only thirty minutes and I watched as Fiona opened her lunch box and offered me a roasted chicken leg. I politely declined.
“Well,” she said as she closed the box. “If you are not eating then am not eating either.” I accepted the chicken leg and took a hefty bite. A warm smile lit her face and I felt my insides shift.
How did you know? At what moment in your relationship did you know that she was the one?
“Are you on Facebook?” I asked her.
“Yes. Are you going to stalk me?” She laughed.
“Absolutely,” I replied as I admired her beautiful white teeth.
“Can I come watch you play sometime?” Fiona asked.
“I would love that,” I replied.
So Fiona started coming to my games and every time I made a great move or scored a goal, I would look up into the bleachers and search for her. And even when I couldn’t see her, I smiled and waved knowing that someone special was up there, watching my every move and inspiring me to be better.
Fiona and I finished High school a year later and got engaged the night of the graduation party. I was from the slums and she was from a rich family. It was kind of like a Cinderella story… in reverse.
I took her to our soccer games and she became my number one fan. I worked hard and played well just so that I could listen to her sing my praises and nurse my ego. We loved each other dearly and I vowed to turn the world upside down to make her proud.
My best friend’s story however wasn’t as glamorous. Carlos had stopped caring about soccer at a very early age and I had been disappointed in him because I knew of his potential. Nevertheless, he was my friend and I loved him like a brother.
“How’s the soccer thing going?” he would ask me playfully. It was the way he said it that made me feel sorry for him. It took us back to the day when I had walked twenty miles to fight for my dream and he had not. It had been a turning point in our lives… in our friendship.
“What are you driving?” I whistled, as he pulled into our clubhouse in a lustrous black car.
“Audi,” he replied as he straightened his black designer suit. “I can get you one too if you want.”
“Really? No thanks. I’m good.” The offer was tempting.
Carlos had moved out of the slums years ago and his rise to fame had been the talk of the town. Nobody knew where he got his money from but everybody remembered his zeal as a boy to succeed in life… and to get out of poverty.
“Let me know when you want to make some real money Vincent?” Carlos said. “This soccer thing will break your legs one day and you will end up with nothing but a wheelchair.”
I laughed good heartedly and asked him if he was doing okay. He didn’t like my question because we both knew what I meant. I wanted to know that he was safe and happy, and that ticked him off and he started walking towards his car. I ran after him and tried to spin him by the shoulder to face me. That was a mistake on my part. He turned and dropped me with one punch. The ground rushed to meet me as I fell.
I sat up slowly holding my bleeding nose. We stared at each other in disbelief, stunned by the direction our friendship was taking us.
“I’m sorry Vincent,” Carlos said as he stared at his fist. “I have no idea where that came from.”
I knew, but my face hurt like hell and obstructed my thoughts. I struggled to push the pain away and stretched out my hand towards him. “Come with me Carlos,” I said. “Come play soccer with me like we used to when we were kids.”
His eyes turned watery. “I can’t,” he replied in a shaky voice. “I can’t be as good as you Vincent. This…” he pointed at the new car. “This is what I do best.”
“I can talk to the coach Carlos. He can get you to train with us until you get your rhythm back.” My voice was frantic. I was afraid and many nights I had awaken thinking that something bad had happened to him. Carlos was my age but life and work had taken a toll on him and he looked older.
He shook his head remorsefully and dropped his broad shoulders. “Goodbye Vincent. You are a good friend.” And with that, he jumped into his car and sped away.
My soccer club won one game after another. They had recruited me right after high school and due to my excellent performance, there was talk of a loan to Juventus F.C, the most successful club in Italian football and very popular around the world. My move to Juventus would come with wealth and fame and the thought of it drove a wedge into my brain and unbalanced my life. Suddenly, journalists started showing up around me and I started feeling like I was on top of the world. My behavior became erratic and I couldn’t wait to get out of my small club.
“You didn’t show up for practice yesterday,” the coach said. “Why?” We were sitting in his office.
I looked at the pictures on his mahogany desk and the ones hanging on the wall and sneered. What a dingy office this was! How come I had never noticed before? I didn’t reply his question. How dare he ask me such a question? With or without practice, I was still the best player on the team. The best they would ever have! I stormed out of the office and went home. I did not practice the whole week.
All day on Saturday, my phone kept ringing. It was the soccer coach calling. He left me a dozen messages informing me about the game at 4pm and asking me to show up. Said that it was okay I didn’t practice all week, but that the team needed me for the big game. I finally turned my phone off, locked myself in the bedroom and indulged myself in one movie after another. I had bought the TV with my soccer allowances and it reminded me of the first TV that had painfully been taken away from me. Now and a few years later, technology in the slums had advanced and almost everybody, no matter how poor, had a TV and a cell phone.
At 3pm, my mum stormed into my bedroom with an angry expression. “Your teammates are outside waiting for you. What are you doing in bed? Why didn’t you tell me that you have a game?”
“The team bus is here?” I asked in astonishment. But my mum wasn’t ready for this conversation. She grabbed my backpack and soccer kits and threw them into my chest. “Get out, now!” she yelled. I had never seen her so angry before. “How can you behave like this?” a sadness crossed her eyes and I knew that I had disappointed her. I ran into the bus and sat in the very front, ashamed to look my teammates in their eyes.
The soccer game went well and we won by a single goal, which I scored. I was probably the only player smiling after the game and I felt pretty good about myself. “No practice,” I said to anybody who was listening. “No practice and I still schooled those fools!”
My teammates walked away from me and mumbled under their breath. After a hot shower at the stadium, the coach pulled me aside.
“Vincent,” he said. “You are a very good player. But am afraid we have to cut you lose.”
“Ha?” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “I just won the game for you!” I raised my voice, my words lacking in humility.
“I know Vincent. Thank you. But soccer is not just about winning. It’s a team spot and currently you are not a part of the team. You could make a great leader if you wanted to. But your ego is too big and you play for yourself. You are a bad morale for the team.” Pause. “Today when we came to your house, I couldn’t look your teammates in their eyes. Some of them have trained hard all week, and I had to bench them so that you can play.”
I shook my head arrogantly. This was a load of crap. I didn’t need this. Juventus would be calling me anytime soon and I could already see myself playing in the top flight First Division also known as Serie A. I didn’t need to be in such a small team.
“Its okay coach,” I said as I turned to leave. “I don’t need you. I don’t need to be in this team. I will find another team.” I threw my hands in the air and turned to leave.
“Vincent!” the coach called and I stopped. He walked over to me and cut off my exit. “You can be the inspiration for this team. Soccer is not just about a game; it’s also about life. If you can’t abide by the simple rules like showing up for practice, how are you going to survive out there? What are you afraid of Vincent? Why can’t you be the leader that you were born to be?”
I had heard enough. So much for winning the game for them. Let’s see how many games they win without me.
The time was 7pm as I ran to the bus stop. Traffic was thin on Saturday night as folks and dark shadows appeared behind buildings and in the alleys. I pulled out my phone and called my fiancé.
“Hi honey. Did you guys win?” She sounded tired.
“Yes. Can I come over?”
I detected something different in her voice but I was too tired to give it thought. Fiona lived in her own luxurious apartment paid for by her parents. Since High school, she had been taking classes at the University of Naples in pursuit of a medical degree. Said that she wanted to help folks and do some good in the world, I just wanted to play soccer.
Thirty minutes later, she opened the door wearing a pair of red shorts and a white teddy bear t-shirt that I had gifted her. She gave me a hug and walked me into the living room.
“I made you your favorite shake,” she said as she handed me a cold vanilla-flavored drink. I was already beginning to feel better.
“I quit the team today,” I lied.
“What?” she looked up from the magazine she was browsing. “You what?”
I cursed. “I just couldn’t take their crap any more. Can you imagine? I scored the winning goal today and the coach had the audacity to question me about practice. Practice? Really? All we ever do is run and kick the ball around. I’m way past that stuff. I’m ready for a new coach and new ideas!” I took a long sip at the shake and smiled. “This is good Fiona.”
But Fiona wasn’t smiling. She stretched out her hand and placed something on the glass table in front of me. It was the engagement ring I had bought for her.
“What are you doing?” I asked her with a shaky voice.
“I’m breaking up Vincent,” she said solemnly. “My feelings towards you have been ambivalent lately and I want to concentrate on school without worrying about love.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Things were just getting better.
“Where did this come from? Did I do something wrong?” I asked with skepticism.
“No Vincent. I just don’t like the person that you have become. You’ve changed.” A chagrin look in her eyes.
“No I haven’t!”
“You have. You only care about yourself and your success. And you have turned the one thing that you love most… soccer… into a spiteful game of power. You know that you are a better player than everybody else and instead of using your gift to help others, you shove it in their faces and make them feel small.” Pause. “That’s not the man I fell in love with.” Fiona wiped the tears streaming down her face.
“But I love you Fiona. I’ve never wronged you in any way!” I was on panic mode.
“I love you too Vincent. But what makes other people deserve your love less. At what point in your life did you start choosing on who to love and who not to? ”
She had me on the ropes and I couldn’t find a counter punch.
“You have to leave now Vincent. It’s over.”
I stumbled out of Fiona’s apartment like a drunken man. My head was spinning so fast that I had to lean against a tree to find an anchor. The world does not revolve around you Vincent, she had said.
It was when I was walking towards the bus stop with my head bowed in dejection that the text came in. It was from my best friend Carlos and the message was simple: Come quick. The Eagle. I messed up. I’m sorry.
I reread the message again and again and tried to make sense of it, all thoughts of my fight with Fiona forgotten. The key to the text was The Eagle.
There was something very familiar about it. I stopped walking and closed my eyes. The Eagle. It had to mean something from way back in our childhood. Walaaaa… And then I remembered. The Eagle was an old ship that we used to see on the docks in the Port of Naples, one of the largest seaports in the Mediterranean Sea. Carlos was at the docks!
I looked around and tried to find my location in relation to the Sea. The dock was five miles down the road and at 10pm at night, I didn’t have the patience to sit tight and wait for a bus. I started running. Come quick. The Eagle. I messed up. I’m sorry.
By the time I arrived, I was dripping with sweat and my clothes were soaking heavy. I stopped and scanned the various rigs lined on the dock. The structure of the port’s shipyard consisted of three brick-built docks and four floating docks. The Eagle was the very last ship docked in the harbor, under the ominous shadows of dock number four. It looked like it had just arrived by the way it was parked. I crouched low and moved with stealth through the shadows. I scoped the rig and creepy surrounding area, but there was no sign of life anywhere.
I boarded the ship on a low crouch and walked around bales of clothes lined up ready for offload. A yellow folk lift sat quietly against a wall; the engine was still hot. Whoever had been using the machine was probably somewhere close.
The deck was old and oily as I made my way around empty barrels. The peeling floor and chipped paint on the walls defined a ship that had seen its better years. A scratching noise caught my attention and I followed it. And then I saw him and my heart turned cold. It was my best friend Carlos, sitting on the deck, back leaning against the rails, head drooped down towards the ground. I threw caution to the wind and ran over.
“Carlos?” I caught his head and raised it, my voice barely audible above a whisper. But his eyes stared vacantly at me and I knew in that instant that he was dead. “No. Noooo, Carlos! Wake up! It’s me, your friend Vincent!” But Carlos was never going to wake up again. His hands flailed around as I tried to force movement and a response from him. I sat down and hugged him and the tears fell relentlessly. “Why Carlos? Why did you leave me? We were supposed to grow old together. I was supposed to be the best man at your wedding; you were supposed to get that nice little house on top of the hill where I could come often and play with your kids. Why Carlos? Why?” I hugged him and cried for a long time.
Something creaked and suddenly all my senses went on full alert. In a quiet dark night, the noise had been out of place and my head jerked up in reaction. My back against the ship rails, I scanned every corner and door for threat, my face a mask of grim concentration. A minute turned into three and the creak came again … and this time I did not wait to see what was coming. I jumped over the rails with the agility of a monkey, plummeted down the steep wall of the ship and splashed painfully into the water. Using a froglike swimming style, I stayed under water and swarm deep into the sea, never bothering to come up for air until I had covered a good distance.
Our soccer preseason had always included floating in the swimming pool for hours holding bricks in our hands and I was not new to the world of many waters. I swam until I could see the shore no more, and then I stopped and started floating… praying that whoever it was that had killed my friend, did not have a boat, hot in pursuit.
Half an hour later and frozen to the bone, I threw myself in front of the waves and allowed them to carry me to the far shore. I trudged on the sand and lay on my back staring at the diamond sky of Italy, my breathing labored, my muscles convulsing and threatening to pull.
My mind was blank as I walked down the dark streets. I had no idea where I was going and my brain was incapable of any particular thought at the moment. I walked for hours and the cool night breeze carried the water away from my wet clothes, leaving them dump. I didn’t care. My best friend was dead! An enigmatic case of a drug deal gone wrong. Carlos had been in too deep. How deep was anybody’s guess. How had it come to this? How had I let this happen? We were boys. I should have been there for him! The guilt made me shudder.
I walked all night like a zombie and at 6am found myself standing in front of a door. I knocked hard and a few minutes later, the door creaked open to reveal the suspicious sleepy face of a man. It was my soccer coach.
“Vincent?” The coach looked over my shoulders to see if there was anybody else. “Vincent. What are you doing here? You are bleeding!” It wasn’t my blood.
“They killed him coach. They killed him,” I said with a stutter.
“Who? Who did they kill?” The door flew wide open.
“We were just talking yesterday and I mean… how is it possible that he’s dead?”
“Come inside Vincent. We can talk in the house.” He reached out for my hand.
“You don’t understand coach. I want to come to back to the team. I will do anything you tell me to!” My hands trembled.
“It’s okay Vincent. We can talk about that later.”
But I was delirious. “I want to come back coach. Soccer is the only thing I know in life. Soccer is who I was born to be. What do I have to do to come back?” Bottled up emotions flooded out and I started crying and the coach grabbed me and pulled me into his arms.
“Shshhh…,” he coed into my ears. “I’ve got you now Vincent. You are back with the team. You belong with us.”
He led me into the house and I cried in his arms like a baby. I cried for the loss of my best friend and my inability to save him. I cried over my failures against my soccer teammates and the ego that had consumed me over the past days. I cried over my broken relationship and the man I had become. What gave me the right to tarnish a God given gift into a weapon into which I could manipulate my way through life? Fiona was right. I had changed.
We buried my best friend a week later at the Naples’ CityCemetery and a lot of people from the slums showed up to pay their last respect. It vexed me though after the ceremony when folks started talking about going back to work, school and generally their lives. I couldn’t imagine that Carlos wasn’t coming back with us. I sat by his grave and cried as the rain soaked my body. Eventually, my dad came and took me home: tried to explain to me about the circle of life. I did not understand.
On Monday evening, the soccer coach stood me in front of the soccer team and continued to invite me back. Are you sure that you are ready to come back? He has asked me.
I’m sure coach. Soccer is the only thing that can help me heal.
“Vincent is now back with the team,” the coach said. “He will be leading us in training today, so give him your cooperation.”
One by one the boys walked over and hugged me. “Sorry about your friend and welcome back,” they said and by the time I had been hugged fifteen times, my eyes were moist with emotion. And then I looked up towards the gate and saw her.
It was like watching the first ray of sunlight rising in the east. It was Fiona, my girl. I turned and looked at the coach in surprise and he smiled at me. “I called her,” he said.
I wanted to hug him but restrained myself. He gave me the nod and I ran hard towards her, my heart pounding with joy, my hands anxious to hold her again. She saw me and started running too.
We met at the edge of the field, where I slowed down and waited for her to crush into my arms. She felt good. It felt great!
“I’m sorry Fiona. I’m sorry for failing you and falling away from my principles.”
“It’s okay Vincent. You are back again. Promise me that you will never leave.” Her eyes were wet with tears. I knew that she was referring to my change in character and not the physical aspect of my exit.
“I promise you Fiona. I promise to be that kid who walked for twenty miles to achieve his dream.”
If you have a dream, go for it, period. Other people who have tried and failed will try and discourage you. Don’t listen to them. (Pursuit of Happyness. Will Smith)
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...