I can’t undo the zipper! My plan has gone terribly wrong, and now I can't breathe. It all came from me wanting to meet my idol, Lionel Messi.
My name is Leo, just like his, except he is Lionel and I am Leonard. We are just alike. His nickname is La Pulga, which is the Spanish word for what my Mom calls me, Flea. She says when I was little I bounced around and was always where she didn’t want me to be. I have to see Leo play, I have to! I didn’t have money for a ticket. But I made a plan. I live right next to the Oakland Coliseum. Or at least the fence. It's really my grandfather's apartment, but we live here, my mom and me, along with my uncle and my two older cousins. My cousins laughed at me when I told them my plan. That is OK, they laugh at me all the time anyway. I have to spend most of the day outside because the small room my mom and I share with all our stuff feels too tight. I need to have the window open when I am in there, no matter the temperature.
I first heard the rumor when I was outside playing soccer a few streets over. I didn't believe it at first, Barcelona is on the other side of the world, why would they come to Oakland? But then when Diego said it was happening this weekend, I knew it to be true. Diego was in high school and was always right. Messi's team, Barcelona FC, was going to play against the San Jose Earthquakes at the Oakland Coliseum. Messi was coming to the stadium I lived next to! The buzz inside my head made it hard to sleep that night. I have to go to that game no matter
Black people play basketball and football, not soccer. That is what my grandfather says. My family says soccer is dumb and boring. I tried to like football, I did. But football doesn't like me. Or the kids who play football on my street at least. My cousins and the rest of the boys won't play with me because they say I am too small.
When they said I had to be the referee again that day last summer, I just left. The boys a few blocks away were kicking a ball around. I stopped to watch, amazed. It was like the ball was on a string, moving quick and controlled. At first I thought they only spoke Spanish, but once I got to know them they said they did that so the boys on my street couldn't understand them. They played ‘football’ but it was different from the football that I knew about. This football was a game where you could not use your hands, only your feet or your head. What I liked was no one jumped on me or tackled me onto the street.
By the time I learned that this game is soccer, I couldn’t stop playing. It fits me better. Once I got the hang of using my feet, I could keep up with anyone. Quicker than all the boys, except for Mario, I was small enough to move into small spaces fast and shoot for the goal. I have never been good at anything before. I love to score. On real soccer fields they have large white goals with nets. On the street where we play we put our backpacks down to make small goals. My favorite part is when I am running free, I can dribble through the other team and tap it in for a goal. When Diego said I reminded him of Messi, I was sad and was about to leave. I thought it was an insult. But he laughed and showed me the Youtube videos on his phone and I understood. He was small and fast and could score too!
Diego told me when the game would start. I got there early and waited for my chance. I was wearing the Messi jersey Diego gave me. When I saw the large back gate open for the huge blue and red bus, I pushed up the small hole in the heavy wire fence and squeezed my body through, scraping my knees across the dirt. I scrambled the few steps to the broken stadium chairs and then dove behind them. I peeked out to see if any of the men in dark uniforms saw me. Even though at full height I was only as tall as the hood, I duck-walked from parked car to parked car, slowly getting closer. An image flashed in front of my eyes, last year’s certificate for Fastest Duck-Walker in 3rd Grade from Mr. Jimenez’ PE class. The single Certificate of Achievement I received. I was a few cars away from the large door to the back entrance to the stadium. My plan was working- I was going to see Messi play soccer! But I had to get into the stadium. There is a spot below the bleachers I had found when my cousins and I snuck in for the Oakland Raider game. It is football that is boring, all the stops and starts, but that experience has come in handy. Several men are at the gaping door, unloading bags off the bus onto carts. If those people would move, I can make it in.
Some players are getting off, was that one Messi? I can only see the back of the players' heads. With just a flash of black hair and a slight movement of the shoulders, I see enough to know. Yes, that has to be him, Messi! I let out a shriek before I throw my hand over my mouth. I have to be quiet. I get on my tiptoes, straining to see better. Last time I was here for the Raiders game the door was wide open and we ran easily into the stadium. The cement hallways were huge and I thought we would get lost, but we followed the noise and soon enough we were looking out onto the field from the bleachers. The players were so large in their uniforms, I felt like an ant. Packed with people yelling and cheering. I didn't stay for the game. It was too tight in the stadium and I hate football.
Something was happening at the bus. I leaned over to to see better-
Suddenly heavy boots thumped loudly behind me and a shadow moved over the car I was hiding behind. I turned back quickly and there was a guard, all in black, a huge man with his hands on his hips and silver polished glasses. I saw myself reflected in those glasses, small against the car, eyes wide, and my body frozen. I can not get caught- I have to get into the Coliseum to see Messi! I held my breath waiting for him to make the first move.
I stepped back into the fence the car was parked against, trapping me in the corner. The tight space made my body vibrate. No! Without thinking I used my best Leo Messi move, feinting down to the right before launching myself to the left, running as fast as I ever had. I zig-zagged between cars in the general direction of the stadium entrance with the blue and red bus parked in front.
With the people standing nearby looking the other way, I took a chance and dove under the bus, my face in my elbow to quiet my loud breaths. The black boots of the security guard clomped past. OK, I can wait here until-
A rumbling sound started above me and then with a whooshing sound, the bus began to move.
I am going to get caught! Over to the side of the bus, bags were piled up next to a cart. The people were walking away as the bus left. One of the bags was huge, with round spheres sticking out of the black material. Scraping across the cement under the bus, I scanned the area, before reaching out and unzipping the bag. I pulled out most of the shiny-new balls, pushing them away from the other bags until they rolled and bounced across the parking lot, loose until they were caught again under the parked cars. I plunged into the bag, curling down to the bottom before reaching back and zipping it most of the way closed, carefully leaving a few inches open so I could have air to breathe and would not be trapped.
I instantly knew this was not a good plan. The dark bag wrapped all around me, tight against my head and shoulders. I could not straighten my legs! Anxiety began to build, will they even bring this bag inside? My fingers reached up to open the zipper back up, when someone stepped to the bag, grabbed the handle and snapped the zipper closed all the way. The bag was lifted quickly up, and then thrown roughly down. I felt like I was moving then, maybe on the cart. It was hard to breathe, my lungs were burning, my whole body prickled with sweat. I am going to die in this bag!
To be stuck in this bag forever bubbled in my head like the boiling water I used to make my pasta. I had no control and could not open the zipper from the inside. Stuck like when I am in the room with the window closed. The cart stopped, Spanish voices loud and joking outside the bag. I tried not to squirm but the panic jolted through me, my legs were twisted and I felt other bags pointing into my back, hard and sharp. The cart moved again and I felt it roll for what seemed like forever. I need to get out! Finally the bag was picked up and dumped one more time.
I heard voices come closer and the bag was unzipped roughly. I looked up and saw a dark brown face that matched my own. The bright eyes sparkled and the man's mouth shaped an ‘O’ of surprise.
“Quel genre de ballon de foot est-ce ?” (What kind of soccer ball is this?) Said the man in the blue and red striped jersey.
“Hey little man, come on out of there.”
I stood up but had to close my eyes, the bright lights of the stadium blinded me. I took a deep breath, filled with relief to escape the bag. Slowly I opened my eyes to see I was in the middle of a vibrant green field surrounded by the Barcelona team in their blue and red jerseys, matching my own.
I blinked several times looking around at the players. “Where is Messi?” I said.
“Oh another one!” The man laughed, his white smile broad. “His fans are everywhere, even in the football bags!” He bent down with his hands on his knees. His dark legs were thin and wiry, rippled with muscle before they entered into his knee-high blue and red socks.
“Messi doesn't come to these Friendlies over here in the States. He is back home in Barcelona while the second team puts in the work. But you get to meet me! My name is Ousmane. ”
“My name is Leo.” I looked around at the bright green grass, the stands, so full of fans and colors it was a picture, not real. The sky, only a metal fence away from the one I saw everyday, looked bigger and more blue. This was another world.
“Leo, really? Of course it is.” Ousmane smiled again, and pulled the last ball out of the bag and dropped it at his feet. “Come on, you are out here now, do you play?”
I grinned and ran forward to kick the ball from Ousmane’s feet.
“OK Leo! Show me what you got before we have to get you off the field.” Ousmane said.
“Where were you yesterday Leonard?” Grandfather said, his deep voice echoing in the small but well-kept kitchen. He was opening his newspaper like he did every morning sitting in his chair at the table.
“I was playing soccer with my friends.” I said through bites of cold cereal at the kitchen table. We always sat together on weekend mornings. Grandfather moved several items away to make space in front of him. He placed the newspaper on the table. The crinkled page had a fold through the middle of a picture. His dusty brown hand pressed the paper flat on the table.
“Your friends, you say?” Grandfather repeated with a frown. “You really like soccer?”
“I love it Grandfather! I said, putting down my spoon. “And I am good too, like my favorite player Ousmane. He is black like us, and skinny like me! He’s my idol." I nodded slowly. “We are just alike!”
Grandfather smiled. “Maybe I should talk to your mother about getting you on a real soccer team. He looked down at the newspaper on the table. “Or are you already on one?”
Confused, I followed his gaze to the newspaper on the table. In between newsprint articles was a picture of several players wearing jerseys of thick blue and red. In the corner, with a smile spread from ear to ear, was a small black boy in a matching jersey, his foot connecting with a soccer ball.