Maria could tell almost before waking that Santiago was sleeping next to her. From the street came the sound of distant sirens, a noise that had become a comfort to her by familiarity, and she felt the early morning sunlight filter through the curtains onto the bed. With a groan, she rolled onto her back and glanced to her left. There was Santiago, his suddenly long and lanky body sprawled over the white sheets, face dark and expressionless. Maria watched him breathe softly through parted lips. The sun lit up his sweaty head like an angel.
“Santi,” she whispered, shaking his shoulder. Her fingernails stood out pale against her sun-spotted skin. Maria was not used to thinking of herself as old– she wasn’t, really, only prematurely aged. “Santi,” she tried again, louder this time. She propped herself up on her elbow. “Mijito, wake up. I’ll make you coffee and bacon, OK? You don’t want to miss your very first meet.”
Santiago curled up like a roly-poly and threw his arms over his head. But at least he was awake.
Maria sat up and yawned. She blinked sleepily at the small room: her dresser, piled with jewelry and religious candles; the closet door, broken where Santiago had once batted a baseball indoors; the bathroom, which connected her room with Santiago’s. Besides the kitchen, these were the only rooms in their apartment. She stood with a sigh. “Get up when you’re ready,” she said gently.
By the time Maria had finished dressing, Santiago was already sitting bleary-eyed in the kitchen over a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Maria fussed with the little coffee pot and made one-sided small talk. “We will have to wear sunscreen today, Santi,” she said. “It’s going to be eighty-five degrees. It’s very sunny, so maybe you want to wear a rash guard under your jersey.”
“None of my friends at school drink coffee,” Santiago muttered.
Maria’s heart sank. Lately she had been afraid of Santi showing defiance. He was such a sensitive, gentle boy– a weak boy (but Maria would not acknowledge even to herself that she thought of him as weak)– he didn’t know what it would mean for him if he resisted her affection. He didn’t know, either, what it would mean for her. She loved Santiago, she adored Santiago, she sacrificed for Santiago, she would die for Santiago. No one else could ever do that for him. As for herself– there was nobody, nobody at all except Santi. Maria could not have endured it if he had turned away from her in shame.
“Mexicans always drink coffee at breakfast,” she said out loud. “Don’t forget, I’m also making bacon, your favorite.”
Maria wondered which of the other eighth graders he meant by his “friends.” Last August, when she had requested that the school move Santiago from the Special Day Class to the ordinary sections, Mr. O’Connell warned her that Santiago would have a difficult time making friends. “Students with autism can really thrive under the care of our specially qualified teachers,” the principal explained, slowly, as if Maria couldn’t speak English, or hadn’t heard these exact words a hundred times.
“But he has Asperger’s,” she argued. She was angry at how close she was to crying.
Mr. O’Connell gave her a pitying smile. “Asperger’s is on the spectrum, Ms. Martinez.”
Maria did not know how to explain to him that she already understood this, or how to articulate just what she meant. But she refused to leave until she spoke to both SDC instructors, the child psychologist, and one of the eighth grade teachers. Whether she convinced them or simply wore them out, Maria succeeded. Santiago turned out to be a B student with particularly good grades in science; Maria was tempted to show up to San Miguel Middle School herself and taunt Mr. O’Connell. “I told you so,” she'd say, in perfect English.
But Santiago also came home angry most of the time, complaining that he was being bullied or left out. Every so often, he’d have a full-blown tantrum (oh her baby, her angelito) and start throwing objects at walls and windows. The worst was the night he destroyed his snow globe, the one she’d bought him at SeaWorld. Santiago loved that snow globe– he could spend hours turning the little dolphin, mounted on the crest of a wave in perpetual leap, surrounded by a flurry of sunset-hued confetti. But he had seized his own greatest treasure with both hands and brought it down, hard, on the corner of the kitchen table. Shattered glass and glycerol flew every direction. Maria watched the shards glisten slow-motion in mid-air, then fall almost gently to the carpet in a puddle of pink glitter. Both she and Santiago cried that night. But Maria scolded herself afterwards.
“If I am not strong for him, who will be?” she asked herself.
Gradually, the bubbling coffee and sizzle of the pan cheered Santiago a little. He put on his Roadrunners uniform, a red-and-yellow jersey and shorts that were several sizes too big– he said they were more comfortable that way. Maria snuck a glance in the mirror before they left. There was no helping her hair. It had always been rough and curly like wool. Her father used to call her his “ovejita negrita,” his “little black sheep.” She’d just pull it back tight and hope most of the hairs would lie flat. She winced a little at her blue Albertsons polo, size large, envisioning the other parents scoffing at her. But Maria was annoyed with her own embarrassment; she decided to wear the shirt just to punish herself for such a thought.
Almost as soon as they got outside, while they were still waiting for the #6 bus, Maria began to sweat copiously under the thick knit cotton. She resorted to fanning herself with the track schedule. After the bus, the walk from their stop to the track was another quarter mile. Maria puffed for breath, languishing in the California heat, as she struggled to keep up with Santi. He wouldn’t hold her hand to cross the street. This surprised Maria, and made her uneasy; but she supposed it would look silly, her leading along a boy five inches taller than herself.
Maria had never been to Buffman Charter. The school was a private junior-senior high in a slightly nicer part of the city. A tall metal fence painted blue surrounded the outdoor facilities. The buildings looked modern, mostly glass, and the lawns were so green she guessed they must feed them bottled water. The track itself was completely disorienting. Maria felt overwhelmed by crowds of middle-aged men in baseball caps and their middle-grade kids, most of whom like Santi towered over her. She thought she must look very foolish, floundering about with her face brilliantly red and sweat stains appearing at her armpits.
“Stay close to me, Santi,” she gasped, “stay close, you will get lost.” Maria impulsively clutched at his arm.
Santi pulled away from her. “Mami, I know where I’m going,” he said. “Look, there’s the Roadrunners tent”– Santi was pointing somewhere Maria couldn’t see– “and over there’s the long jump pit”– in the opposite direction. “That’s my first event.”
“Are– are you sure?” she said, stunned by his confidence. “Mijo, I don’t–”
But now it was Santiago’s turn to lead her by the hand through the maze of much more competent parents, all who looked at her with disdain (so Maria imagined). Suddenly they were standing with the San Miguel Middle School track and field team under a red-and-yellow tent, set up against the back of the outdoor bathrooms. Santiago went to check in with Coach Rasmussen as Maria, almost frightened, looked back and forth quickly between the other families and the schedule. She couldn’t make anything of it. Times, events, and names swam on the pages– there were multiple, stapled together– until she managed to find "Santiago Martinez" written in several places, clinging to them in desperation. No one tried to speak to her. Good, she thought, maybe they think I understand.
Maria waited for Santi. She grew nervous as his teammates began to disperse in all directions, but still she waited for him to come back and lead her to their next mysterious destination. She needed to make sure he had water and put on extra sunscreen, and then she would cheer him on as loudly and expertly as any of the other parents. The idea comforted her. But why wouldn’t he hurry? Maria stood for several more agonizing minutes, tortured by the sun. Only when other Roadrunners started coming back from their events, crimson and exhausted, did she realize that Santi must have gone off without her.
Maria tried not to panic. She asked the nearest sweaty kid, “Please, do you know where is Santiago? Santiago Martinez, can you help me find him?” The kid, a blond boy taller even than Santi, graciously agreed and asked to see the schedule.
“His first event is long jump, then he’ll run hurdles, the 100 and 200 meters, and then the relay at the very end,” the boy said, pointing to each instance of Santi’s name. Maria didn’t know what all this meant. “Boys’ long jump is still going. I can take you there so you can see if he’s gone yet.”
“Yes,” Maria said. “Yes… thank you…”
They arrived at the sand pit just as Santi landed his third jump. “Sixteen feet, two and a half inches.” Several onlookers clapped and nodded, impressed. Another Roadrunner offered Santi a high five, who accepted mechanically. He kept swiveling his head around, looking for something; when he caught sight of Maria he came running to her. Maria was closer to being angry with him than she had ever been in his life.
“I waited and waited for you,” she said before Santiago could say anything. It came out sounding childish, petulant. The blond boy took his leave delicately without waiting for thanks. “I did not know where you were.”
“Sorry,” Santi said, a little surprised. “I told you I was doing long jump. Did you see me?”
“I did not see you at all.” Maria’s voice shook. “Please, remember me next time.”
Maria followed Santiago to the stands overlooking the crowd. It was relatively pleasant here (at least she could see everything), but the metal seats radiated white-hot, preventing her from sitting down. Their shadows shortened and shortened until they were directly underneath them. “You can do this?” she asked, gesturing generally at the girls’ hurdles. “That looks very hard.” It looked impossible– Maria’s legs could never have moved that way, like the two hands of a clock.
“Uh-huh,” Santiago said, distracted. “I need to go down in a second.”
“I am going to stick next to you,” Maria insisted. She took the little bottle of sunscreen from her purse and poured some into her fat palm. “You need more of this, you are sweating so much.”
Santiago brushed her hand away from his face. “You can’t come onto the track,” he said. “I want you to see me run. Wait in the bleachers.”
Santi was getting upset. “You treat me like I’m a baby just like everyone else, but I’m not. I can run track by myself.”
“Santi”– Maria would not cry– “please let me follow you”– how did he know everything?– “I don’t know where to go”– and wasn’t he her baby, after all?
“These are the results for the boys’ A-Team Long Jump event,” a voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “In sixth place, Logan Abrantes from Pleasant Valley. In fifth place…”
Santi straightened up and listened hard. Maria cupped her hand behind her ear to catch the sound.
“...David McKenzie from Buffman Charter. In fourth place, John Suarez from Pleasant Valley.” Santiago gripped the railing. “In third place, Santiago Martinez from San Miguel. In second place…”
“Third place!” Santi whipped his head around, shocked. “Mami, that means I got a medal!”
“You won a medal?” Maria repeated stupidly.
“A bronze medal, in long jump, that’s third place.” Santi flapped his hands in excitement. “I’ll pick it up at the end, but I have to go, Mami, stand with Coach Rasmussen so you don’t get lost.” He pointed at the grass in the middle of the track where the coach was standing. It looked like several parents were near him, keeping a sharp eye on the hurdlers.
“OK, Santi, OK,” Maria sighed, “I’ll watch you the whole time.”
Coach Rasmussen waved as she came over. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but his smile was kind. “Hi there, Ms. Martinez,” he said. “I heard Santiago got a medal for long jump.”
“Yes,” she answered with dignity, “third place.”
“So, Ms. Martinez, what's gonna happen is that all the hurdles will go, then all the meter dashes, and relays last,” the coach explained to her. Maria was grateful that she didn't have to ask. “We'll be here for a long time. Several more hours, at least.”
Coach Rasmussen was true to his word. Maria gave up trying to understand what was happening and fell back on imitating the other San Miguel parents. She learned to cheer at any suggestion of red-and-yellow. Only after several rounds of strangers’ hurdles did she see Santiago’s heat. He didn’t do very well, losing to twin boys wearing green-and-black. She mislaid her schedule, forgot which events Santi was in, and became steadily more miserable. Santi won both his heats in the meter dashes– even Maria could tell that much– but they were over so quickly and sandwiched between so many others that she lost him almost immediately. When Coach Rasmussen wasn't running alongside the track, screaming at the sprinters, he would courteously jog over and tell her which event was next. But it didn’t matter. She didn't even notice if Santiago’s name came over the loudspeaker. Maria did not know and hardly cared where he was anymore.
That was the real agony. After fifteen years of dedicating herself solely to protecting Santi, Maria had been defeated by a silly middle school track meet. She had thought she was strong because she could endure anything, tough and silent, the way a poor mother had to endure. Endure anything– what a joke. She couldn't endure four hours in the sun. Maria accepted her suffering in humiliation and prepared to wait it out.
“Hey Ms. Martinez, you'll wanna watch this.” Coach Rasmussen nodded his head toward the track. “Last event. I think Santiago’s gonna do great.”
“This is the last one?” Maria roused herself. “I need to see. I want to–”
Then Maria saw Santiago standing nervously with three other Roadrunners. All four boys kept shifting around and wandering in circles, arms folded or hands on hips, thrusting their shoulders back and gazing upward. Santiago’s demeanor perfectly matched the others. He looked like an ordinary teenager, Maria realized with a slight pain.
“Boys’ A-Team Medley Relay, to your places!” Maria watched Santi and his teammates jog to separate corners of the track.
“The first two boys each run 100, then 200, then Santiago’s gonna run a 400 around the whole track.” Coach Rasmussen traced their paths on his hand like a map. “He's our anchor, so just watch near the finish line for him.” Maria inched closer to the track. She watched the first runner from San Miguel, a curly-headed black boy, kneel and rest his hands on the polyurethane. He closed his eyes and let out a deep, controlled breath.
Someone blew the whistle. The first boy was gone before Maria had time to process. She barely caught sight of him as he passed the baton to the blond boy, the one who had helped her earlier. He took off beyond her field of vision– she was afraid to move from her spot and miss Santi– but she kept cheering, straining to see the third runner as he came around the curve. Two other teams were ahead of him.
“Come on!” Coach Rasmussen shouted, his face purple. The runner, who had long orange hair that clashed with his uniform, stretched the baton toward Santiago, who was already picking up speed.
As soon as his cupped fingers made contact with the aluminum Santi’s feet seemed to lift from the ground. Maria saw a familiar glint in his eye– anger. She screamed sounds and not words as his legs moved like coupling rods past the boy ahead of him. Coach Rasmussen started running alongside him with clipboard in hand, waving his arms frantically above his head. Santi gritted his teeth and bowed hard into an italic stance. He was far enough from Maria now that she couldn’t make his features out exactly, but she saw him closing the gap on the boy in first, one of the green-and-black hurdlers. Santiago tore around the last corner, his long skinny fingers balled into fists. Now the whole crowd was in uproar. Maria forgot her own misery in the rush of colors and noise and adrenaline. Santi was a machine, his legs hydraulic pumps. They were tied– Santi edged in front– then the other boy– Maria was nearly hysterical– at the last moment, Santi stretched his neck out, eyes bulging, and lunged over the finish line half a step ahead.
Santiago was laughing, actually laughing. Maria, dumbfounded, watched his coach and teammates surrounding him, leaping with supernatural energy, pouring their waters out on his head. The blond boy slapped Santi on the back. Santi grinned almost bashfully with surprise, then turned and gave Maria a beautiful, radiant, gentle smile, the one she knew so well.
Maria’s knees felt very weak. She saw herself and Santi as if from above: a fat, frail old woman and a healthy, victorious young man. “Who will be strong if I am not strong? Santi will be strong. He is strong. How did I not know?”
Maria wept, but she was not ashamed.