I have this thing that I keep with me. I don’t talk about it. I don’t explain it. It’s outrageous. Impossible. I think it is the best part of myself. I don’t wear it on my sleeve. I never brag about it, I never boast. It’s mine. I keep it to myself. It’s invulnerable, because I protect it. A long time ago, I took it to an open field. I placed it in the ground, and sunk it deep into the earth. Now, a tree grows above it. Bark rises towards the sky. Green canopy blocks the sun. Roots reach deep into the earth below. Their fingers wrap around this thing I keep with me. Their hands make a cradle for it. . . .
My dad would never tell us when we were visiting his parents because he knew my brother and sister and I hated going. Usually, he’d dump it on Mama so that she had to deal with telling us instead. She’d get us ready, herd us into the 2011 Chevy Tahoe, and grab a biology textbook to take with her. Then we’d make the hour’s drive inland, from the glowing California shore to the roadside wasteland of Fillmore. Each time my dad said the same thing: “When we get there, make sure to say hi to everyone. And be respectful. ” The Tahoe parked. Josh and Noelle and I walked up to the carved wooden door of the Villasenor house. We pushed it open. The living room was empty; everybody must have been in the den and kitchen, where the bar was. I went first, into the house. Nana and the aunts gave high-pitched welcomes when they saw me. “Oh, there he is! There he is!” Tata and the uncles gave me half hugs. But their priority was drinking, and they resumed within seconds. My dad joined them. The Villasenors lived like the sun revolved around them. They were the “party house!” They drank in appalling excess. At the end of the night, my aunts and uncles would have to help Nana walk down the hall to her room, because she couldn’t stand on her own. She’d slur and waddle around, spilling tequila as she went. If ever she became injured, the cause was always falling from drunkenness. And when even my aunts and uncles were unable, it was up to Nathan and I, the oldest of all the cousins, to put Nana to sleep. Seeing our cousins Nathan, Andrew, and Natalie was the only silver lining to these family gatherings. Our connection to them was two-fold, interestingly; Mama’s cousin Anna married my dad’s brother Alex. Mama and Anna were glad to see each other because they could keep one another company while everyone else got piss drunk. My brother and I liked seeing our cousins because we could resume our stories. Josh and Andrew would choose video game characters. Nathan and I liked to create our own. We assumed positions and picked up where we left off.
The storyline forged itself as we went. It was like watching a movie that was simultaneously playing in each of our heads. We’d act out what we saw, and wherever we were became anywhere but there — a fantasy alien forest world, or a luminous cave of violet crystals and warm waters, or an empty and decrepit city half buried under sandy dunes — until shrill calls put us on pause, letting us know food was ready to eat. Beans and rice. Mama had made it with Anna. We went and lined up in the kitchen with our plates. “So what have you guys been up to?” Aunt Allison asked. Nathan replied, “We were playing. ” “Oh, nice! What game?” Uncle Noah asked, his voice a tinge too loud. “Well, it’s technically not… real, ” I said. “Oh. ” Noah looked confused. Perhaps I should have explained that more. My brother tried to for me: “We like drawing and making up stories. ” “What kind of thing do you guys want to do when you grow up, though?” Nana asked. Nobody says anything. So I speak. “I like writing. I want to do something with creativity. ”My dad’s family erupts in laughter. “Good luck with that!” Christian scoffed. “I liked creativity when I was a kid, ” Noah said to aunt Barbara. “Hit high school, then work. Real world kicks in. ” Someone said, “Trust me, that creativity will go away. ” I don’t know who said it. I had stopped listening. And, in the blink of an eye, they had gone back to their drinks. My cousins and I took our food to the back rooms. Mama followed us there, and she sat with me. But in my mind, I wasn’t there. I was appalled by my dad’s family’s lack of respect, and respectability. He would always ask us to greet them, and to be respectful. But I wasn’t so sure they deserved my respect. So I went to the open field. I held living imagination in my hands. I sunk it down, into the earth, so it could never go away. I promised myself that I would protect it. . . . Mama woke me up at 5:00 AM, Saturday morning. I put running shorts on, a random shirt, sweatpants, and a jacket. I filled a water bottle, grabbed something from the pantry, and she and I walked out the door. It took us four minutes to drive to Foothill. I gave her a hug when we parked and went to join my friends, who had begun gathering in a circle outside our school. The air felt cold. The color of the sky was changing in front of my eyes. Dark navy. Then lighter blue. Then sudden gold, and red, and orange. I was right on time — Coach Ken Reeves had just arrived in his 2000 Honda Odyssey. He opened his door and stepped out. “Let’s go, boys!” Reeves spoke in a perfect radio host voice. It’s why he’s the announcer for so many Cross Country meets in Southern California. He looked youthful and excited — he was the kind of man who never ran out of stories, jokes, terrible puns — and I found it impossible to believe he was nearing sixty-seven years old. We piled into his car to drive down through Ventura and Oxnard, along the Pacific Coast highway to Sycamore Canyon. I sat in the front passenger seat. Reeves got back in and started the car. “Jake is co-pilot today, huh?” “Yes, coach. ” I said. “We’re in trouble. ” He joked, a big smile on his face. I laughed. The boys behind me did too. We started driving. It was silent as we got onto the highway. I just sat back and looked out the window. “So what are we thinking about that last race?” Reeves asked me. I hesitate to answer. “I think… I liked how I raced. I just started to hold back. ”“Around that two mile mark. ” He said. I nodded. “Well, that was where you made some passes. And you jumped up with Clayton and Trey. ”“I wasn’t used to being near them. In a race, I mean. ”
“Yeah, but you put yourself in a pecking order. There’s no reason you can’t be up with the big dogs. It’s your senior year in high school. It’s where you go from there in terms of your mindset. ” He paused. He was remembering something. I could see his mind working. “When I first started out, I was a soccer coach at Nordhoff. The cross country coach had told me he was stepping down. One day, I go into the teacher’s lounge and the athletic director is sitting there talking about the position to coach cross country. So I mention the coach had said something to me, and I might be interested. And he goes, ‘Give me a break. Good luck. ’ This guy didn’t think I could do the job. After that I decided I was definitely gonna go for it it. Turns out I was the only one who applied for the position, so the athletic director had to take me. No choice. ”
“And then you guys won State, right?” I asked. I knew his answer, but I wanted to hear him say it. “Nobody believed me. But nobody had to. Once the State meet came around, boys and girls combined: 11 State Championship titles. But it starts with the mindset, Jake. I learned not to put myself in a pecking order. Sometimes it’s more about how you mentally approach something, than anything else. ” He can say that outrageous thing about himself because he made it a reality. As unrealistic and impossible as it sounds, it’s real. That’s why I never boast or brag and rarely talk about the best part of myself — it isn’t real yet. I haven’t forged dream into reality yet. And I’m afraid to give my answer to the question my family asked me: What do I want to do when I grow up? I had the true answer then, just as I do now. I took my answer and I sunk it into that beautiful open field, along with my imagination, where I could make them invulnerable amongst my roots. I’m afraid nobody would believe my answer. But that’s okay — nobody has to. It’s mine. It isn’t for anyone else. . . . “Do you remember that?”
Mama didn’t hesitate to respond. “Yeah. I remember you telling me about it after. It was fuckin’ depressing. ” I had reminded her of the time the Villasenor’s told me creativity would go away. Mama took a sip of her coffee and looked at it. She kept her eyes on the road. “I remember my family… I never saw them drink alcohol. Never saw my dad drink either. He’d put us to bed if they ever did, because he didn’t want us to see it. ” I nodded. I never saw Mama drink alcohol. Very rarely, and never too much. She didn’t need it. I shifted in the passenger seat. We were driving in Mama’s car along the Pacific Coast Highway. It was 11:35, nighttime. The stars of night reign supreme over the swirling icy ocean currents.
“The color of the old Chevy Tahoe was ice blue, right?” Mama recoiled. “Ugh. Yeah, something like that. Your dad totaled it, apparently. “What? Really?” I asked, surprised. “Yeah, I found out. I don’t remember when but it was after he left. ” I hadn’t spoken to my dad in years. “I remember he would tell us to be respectful to the Villasenors. He’d say that every time we saw them. I just think the way they acted towards people wasn’t deserving of respect. ” I said.
Mama replied, “Respect is earned. If you don’t deserve it, you don’t get it. ” She paused for a moment, before she asked me, “Do you know why the Villasenors said that to you?”“I don’t think they meant anything by it. I knew I’d be able to keep my imagination with me. It’s my favorite part about me. ”She nodded. “Exactly. But you cultivated that. Over the all the years of your life, every day, week, month. That’s been your favorite part yourself. When you don’t take care of something, an attribute or a skill, your brain literally prunes the synapses it thinks it doesn’t need. And that might be the reason they feel that way. But you’ve kept those neural pathways in use. You’d write, draw, jump around and play. As long as you kept doing those things, your imagination was never going to die. ” I thought my imagination into permanence. I cultivated a neural tree — that is what grows tall in the open field — strong enough to stand the winds of outrageousness and the disbelief of those around me. It is my mind. Deep underneath it lies my imagination, and the dream I believe I can achieve. I am the only one who has to believe in it. Perhaps one day, others might. But I haven’t forged the dream into reality yet.
Relentlessness forms my roots. They are my intent. They cradle my imagination. They were my promise to myself. They make the best of myself invulnerable. . . . I don’t have many memories of my dad happy. Truly happy. I don’t think he was. Maybe he got close. He took me to the beach once. It was too cold to go into the water, so we sat in the car. He just looked out at the ocean. There was a faint smile on his face. Looking out at something as gargantuan as the ocean puts your life into perspective. Wading out into the waves shows you your true size. You can feel something greater stirring around you. I know I’m not the only one with imagination. I’m no savior, no seer, no pioneer or visionary. But I am still happy and lucky that I understand the various aspects of myself. I think I’m lucky I have direction. I’m lucky I have strength in my roots, so that my tree stands unwavering, forever protecting the best of me, no matter what comes to pass. I hope as much for everyone.