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When I was 11, I was the best player on my soccer team. I had been the best for a long time. I had a natural talent. I was fast. I could score. I had moves. I was confident. Tryouts were approaching, and I knew I would make the team.
We started the regular warmup. I looked around and saw the faces of my old teammates. A couple new ones too. We start drills and coaches stand around with clipboards. The new players seem decent. They’ll make the team. Coaches look at me and grin and write down the number pinned to my back.
Our first practice of the season feels exactly like what I’m used to. I’m with my old team, I’m doing pretty good. We run through familiar drills. I recognize a few of the new players from the tryout, there’s a really good new keeper. The girl who passes to me I realize I didn’t even notice before. She is one of the new ones. How did I not notice her? I watch her the first few practices. She doesn’t talk much, just blends in with the rest of the team. She isn’t very good. She’s small, quiet, shy. I learn her name is Mikayla.
The season passes quickly. In our games her touch isn’t good. Our coach yells at her. She sits on the bench, I score. Her confidence shrivels and she crawls into a shell.
I hear that over the summer her parents hired a private trainer to help her. I can tell. In our first game of the new season, I start. She sits on the bench. But something happened. My touch is off. I can’t get rid of the ball quick enough. I’m pushed off the ball. My speed has disappeared. I can’t remember the last time I felt so slow, played so awful.
“Ref, I want a sub!” My coach screams. “Nora, get off the field! Mikayla, you’re in her position.” I come off the field in shock. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been subbed out of a game. Numbly, I sit on the bench and tell myself I’m just having a bad day. I watch as Mikayla gets the ball. She pushes it out in front of her and bolts up the wing with it. Her feet are a blur, barely touching the ground. Her milk chocolate skin has a touch of copper in it. Her dark brown eyes are sparking. Her black hair flies out behind her. She’s beautiful. She’s flying. She crosses the ball perfectly to Maia, who just has to tap it in. My coach’s mouth is hanging open with surprise.
The next game, again, I can’t seem to get anything right. I’m yelled at. Pulled off the bench. I bite back tears of frustration. Mikayla flies again. She is perfect in every way.
Game after game the same thing happens. I am in a slump. I am stuck in a deep, deep hole and I don’t know how to climb out. Mikayla works her butt of. My butt warms the bench.
I find myself wishing she had some fault. I wish she was mean. Or ugly. Or rude. Or bossy. But no, besides being the team’s new best player, Mikayla is the nicest, prettiest, politest person ever.
One day, after a game, our team is saying “goodbye” and “good game”, and out of habit I say, “good game, Mikayla.” She turns to look at me, smiles, and says, “you had a good game too, Nora.” We both know this is a lie.
The seasons of soccer pass. I realize I am not in a slump. This is just the way things are. Permanent. I am not stuck in the deep hole, I live in it.
One season, I don’t make the team. Mikayla does. I console myself, saying I’m going off to college soon anyway. But it hurts. I used to be the best.
One day, I’m stuck in traffic. The cars are at a dead stop. It’s hot out, and my window is rolled down. When the cars in front of me inch forward I pull up next to a pretty nice BMW. I glance over. I don’t recognize her at first. But then I realize she looks exactly the same, her chocolate skin shines in the sun. Her long black hair is in two long french braids, framing her face. She’s taller now, stronger. I can see muscles on the arm she hangs out of the rolled down window. “Hey Mikayla. How are you doing?” She looks around until her eyes land on my face. She looks at me in surprise. “Hey, Nora! Wow, what are the odds?” She says she’s good. As we inch forward in the traffic, I learn she played soccer at Stanford for her college years and was now trying to make a career out of it. She asks how have I been and I say good. I tell her I’m still studying at UCLA. Trying to be a director or screenwriter. She asks if I’m still playing. No, I’m not. My exit is coming up now. She says we should catch up again. I agree. “See you Mikayla. I’ll look forward to seeing you in the 2020 world cup!” I say. She doesn’t have time to answer, because the cars in her lane have sped up and she has to move. I watch her BMW speed off until the car in front of me starts moving forward. I pull off the highway, she keeps going. I haven’t seen her since.