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“One … two … three … NOW!” I bite down on the Altoid and a blast of ice invades my mouth and my head, the cold clearing all nervousness. The golden afternoon sun falls in sheets through the browning pine needles, making the path through the woods at the edge of the field uncomfortably warm. I stare ahead at the fifteen slicked heads, and for this moment – and the next seven minutes – they are just extensions of me.
Our instructor begins our song as we march silently onto the field. As soon as our feet hit the track, our bodies adopt the familiar performance posture: shoulders back, neck tall, head up, smiles on.
“You Are My Sunshine” echoes in our minds as we step onto the grass, sinking slightly but staying strong. The grass of our home field is recognizable. On it, we are confident and proud. However, this is something different altogether, and as we march along the painted white line toward our audience, we explore this new turf until it too seems like home and we no longer have to pretend to have steady, balanced steps.
The routine warm-up of the band behind us serenades us into a euphoric state with only one thought: the show. And as we focus on what we must do, improve, concentrate on, with precision we place the piles of red and gold flags in our arms in their opening sets, their colors hidden behind looming props or the unnaturally cold metal pit equipment that should be baking from sitting in the sun.
At last, we settle ourselves into the poses we have held on hot afternoons after school waiting for the daily run-throughs.
This is just one more run-through on our pavement at home. There are no judges in that box above us. It is just the director on our tower, gazing down, ready to count us off. There is no audience in the stands. Those are merely the volunteers who stand ready to doctor us up or fill our glasses with cool north Georgia water. These are not uniforms we are wearing. We are dressed in our routine black shorts and white shirts. I can even feel my dot book hanging from my hip.
I lift my gaze to the sky and focus for those few seconds between preparation and performance when all of the world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for that first golden note, and that moment freezes into an eternity. The constant drone of the gnats in the grass softens to a whisper, and the wind rustling through the plumes of the band’s hats is nature’s applause. The sunlight reflects blindingly but beautifully off the metal bleachers like a natural spotlight, illuminating everything.
I rub my gloved hands together quickly, and lick my artificially crimson lips as the judges address the band, asking us if we are ready.
The drum majors salute smartly and mount the podiums. Our breath synchronizes, and our hearts beat together. We are one being.
Then hands start moving, and at last, like a breath of life, the first chord rings out and I move. It seems like time stops as I flow from one movement to the next. Flags loft into the air in unison, and a catch of breath and a catch in time jerk my heart before the pole is back in my hands. Once again I am a river, flowing toward a goal of crisp winds and blue skies I have only imagined, and a salty victory that I have not yet tasted.
There’s a moment to breathe quickly between songs before we go on. From pink of heart and speech to gold of God and red of terror, the colors flash like individual spirits, entwined with us like lovers as we move together.
We are visual representations of our musical counterparts. As I dive, the trumpet line soars. As I stretch, the flutes lift into a heavenly cadence. And as I toss, the band goes silent, so that my flag itself is the instrument, and the snap-crack of the release seems like the explosion of the drum line. There is an electric connection between the guard and the band, and as I perform, I do so not for the audience or even for myself, I perform for my friends – an intimacy between those who share everything. I share a glance and a smile with my friends as I run past, my silk brushing their ankles, and I feel complete.
With a final resonating brass blast, it is over. Time comes screeching into park as we hold the last position, breathing hard. My arms now began to ache with the strain of the last seven minutes. I steal a glance behind the towering prop beside me, and see my friend of years gazing back, smiling, and suddenly, it does not matter that I haven’t taken a single remembered breath or that I may have made a mistake. I performed – for them.
I take a slow deep breath, close my eyes, and lift my head higher than seems possible. And even though my vision is short-sighted and my heavy makeup is dripping from my face in maroon and gold trails, suddenly everything is clear. I can see, even with my eyes closed, every member of the band and every person in the audience and every judge in the box high above me, and we are all as one.
I open my eyes and smile.
Barely audible, I breathe into the applause-filled air of that October afternoon: “I was perfect.”
“We were perfect,” the world breathes back.