1. The Back-to-School Physical The Back-to-School Physical
When you saw him you would think: this kid can’t play ball.… He’s too fragile, too small. But immediately you’d realize that he was born different, that he was a phenomenon and that he was going to be impressive.
—ADRIÁN CORIA ON HIS FIRST IMPRESSION OF TWELVE-YEAR-OLD LIONEL MESSI, SOCCER PHENOM
Every time Lionel Messi scores a goal, there’s literally a small earthquake, an actual seismic shift. The crowd loves him so much that when he scores, they go completely nuts. They scream, stomp, and jump so hard that the earth actually moves under their feet. Some people call it a footquake, but I like Messiquake better.
When I dream, I become like my idol. The crowd loves me that much. Golden, Golden, Golden! Lucy passes me the ball, her blond hair flying. Benny sprints to the corner flag just in case I need him, giving me the assist. The ball is at my feet. I’m the dribbling maestro, faking out three defenders (it’s sick, man). Three seconds on the clock. Left foot plants, right leg swings. Like a rocket, my shot spirals forward, the ball soaring above the goalie’s fingertips. The crowd is on their feet, leaning forward, ready to shake the world. Time slows. Just before the ball hits the back of the net…
… a small chattering squirrel pounces on me.
I open my eyes to see the jaws of death—well, minus the two front teeth—a mere two inches from my face.
“Your breath smells like a dragon,” the squirrel says.
“Get off, Roma!”
“Golden!” Mom yells from downstairs. “Let’s go!”
My family has yet to recognize the greatness in their midst.
When my six-year-old sister doesn’t move, I push past her and stumble down the stairs, consoling myself that even Messi, greatest soccer player in the world, probably has to have a yearly physical.
My last year of middle school officially starts with the annual visit to Dr. Arun. Which is fine except for shots and the whole let’s-see-what’s-going-on-down-there part. And of course that Mom and my two little sisters—Whitney and Roma—aka the Squirrels, are with me.
“Oooh, I like your dress,” Roma says admiringly.
“It’s a gown,” I say before realizing that doesn’t sound much better.
I’m wearing a small hospital gown printed with trains, the same one I’ve been wearing for every physical since age three. It has one useless tie in back that doesn’t stop it from showcasing my bony spine and underwear.
Dr. Arun is a train fanatic. He’s built a suspended track that travels the perimeter of the room, while an actual train chugs around the ceiling on it. When I was little, I couldn’t wait to visit Dr. Arun because it was the coolest thing.
Actually, it’s still the coolest thing, but when the nurse comes in to take my temperature and blood pressure, I pretend I wasn’t looking at it and put a bored face on.
My older sister, Jaimes, says that everything for me is broken down into two categories: cool and uncool. For instance:
Cool: I’m starting eighth grade, so I’m finally gonna be THE MAN.
Uncool: Smallest boy in eighth grade. BY FAR.
Cool: I’m getting bigger stronger faster.
Uncool: Yesterday Jaimes called me a small furry rodent.
Cool: My comeback—“Your legs look like a small furry rodent!”
Oh, get wrecked, Jaimes!
“Mom,” I say. “I’m going to ask Dr. Arun a question today and I need you to not interrupt.”
“What is it?” Whitney asks.
“How intriguing,” Mom says, raising an eyebrow and turning a page of her book.
“Mom, for real.”
The door opens, the Squirrels exit to the waiting room for stickers and coloring, and in walks Dr. Arun. He’s followed by a woman wearing a white doctor’s jacket and a stethoscope around her neck like a boss.
“This is Hazel, a med student,” Dr. Arun says. “Mind if she shadows me today?”
Hazel is so pretty that I find myself turning red and starting to sweat. Super uncool. To cover, I cough and pound on my chest as if I swallowed wrong.
“That’s fine.” My voice cracks. Uncool again. I start praying that Dr. Arun will not utter the words “Let’s see what’s going on down there” until Hazel is gone. Like, in a galaxy far, far away gone.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?” he asks, listening to my heart.
He laughs. “Favorite sport?”
I can’t help but grin. “Soccer is why I’m living and breathing on planet Earth.”
Mom smiles as Dr. Arun continues.
“Favorite player?” he asks, checking my ears.
“Uh, Messi, of course.”
Which reminds me. I give Mom a warning look to not talk.
I clear my throat. “Could I get a… growth hormone prescription?”
Mom mouths WHAT?
“Messi took it as a kid,” I continue. “?’Cause he was small too.”
Hazel smiles at me, showing straight white teeth, while Dr. Arun laughs again and tells me to stand.
I take that as a no.
“Touch your toes.” Dr. Arun turns me around so he can trace my spine with his gloved finger.
“You don’t need growth hormone,” Dr. Arun says, motioning for me to stand up straight. He glances at my chart. “Your growth is following a normal—and upward—trajectory. Besides, even with growth hormone Messi was always small and underrated, but look what he did anyway!”
“True,” I say, brightening. “People used to call him a dwarf, said he was too fragile and small to play.”
“And then?” Dr. Arun prods, feeling my lymph nodes.
“And then you’d watch him and know he was born to be the greatest of all time!”
“There you go,” Dr. Arun says. “So don’t worry. You’ll grow. And your parents have some height. How tall is your dad?”
I glance at Mom.
“Five-ten,” she answers, sounding totally normal.
“What position do you play?” Dr. Arun asks, and pats the table for me to sit.
“Ah, you must be fast.”
I shrug like it’s no big deal, like I haven’t been training like crazy to be Messi fast.
“You like your coach?”
“He adores her,” Mom says with a wave of her hand.
“You’re eating fruits and vegetables?” Dr. Arun asks, switching back to boring health stuff.
“Yep.” In addition to being a soccer fanatic, Mom’s also become a vegetable freak.
“How’s your dad doing? Everything all right?”
The silence that follows feels loud in my ears.
“He’s good!” I say too loudly to fill it.
“All right then!” Dr. Arun says, turning to make a note. I’m filled with relief, no mortifying finale. Megacool.
Hazel takes over, asking Mom questions.
Anyone smoke? No.
Screen time limited to less than two hours a day? Yes.
Does Golden wear a helmet? Yes.
I accidentally laugh out loud. The three adults look at me strangely.
If Dad was here, we would discuss the word “irony.” All these safety questions, all these things we do to prevent bad things from happening, when Dad always wore a helmet. He ate fruits and vegetables. He never smoked. He’s, like, the biggest, strongest, fastest, healthiest person I know. He can do 111 push-ups in less than three minutes—that’s in the extraordinary category. And, well…
“Any changes in the household this past year?” Hazel continues.
“You could say that,” Mom says. What she could have said: Changes? More like a massive upheaval, thanks for asking.
Dr. Arun nods, claps a hand on my shoulder, and shakes my hand for the first time.
I stand up straighter, puffing out my chest slightly.
“All set. Good luck, Golden.”
“Thank you,” I say, looking him right in the eye like Dad taught me.
The odds might not look like they’re in my favor, but actually? Destiny is about to deliver the best year of my life. I’m sure of it.
Dr. Arun turns to go.
“Uh… Doctor?” Hazel asks, pointing to something on my chart.
“Oh, right,” he says. “Last thing. Can you drop your drawers?”
Drawers? For a second I look around the room for a dresser.
“We’ll take a look down there.”
I feel my face grow hot.
Hazel doesn’t move to leave and geez, nothing about today is cool.