Everyone wanted to be number five—Johnny Bench. But it was the doctor’s kid who always got it, even though he was only the second-string catcher and never really even played the position because he had trouble standing up while wearing the gear. He mostly just rehearsed, freezing with perfect posture after making pretend throws down to second, his face grimacing theatrically. When given an actual baseball however, he rarely got it all the way to second base and our pitchers had developed the reflex of jumping instead of ducking when he was making his throws during practice. Pobrecitos.
The doctor’s kid batted ahead of me even though he almost never made contact with the ball and ridiculed me for batting last, but I didn’t mind because Cesar Geronimo batted last. I was only too happy to be there, at the end, and often worried after I had a particularly good game that I would be moved up in the order. The truth was that I wasn’t a good hitter but ran faster than everyone and sometimes got lucky. The other boys had private coaches, or at least their dads, who worked with them on hitting and training tees at their houses. I didn’t have a tee or the expensive light-weight bats the other boys had and my dad had only been to one practice. It was the first time I had seen him in a few years and a ball was hit right in front of me. I misfielded it and then had to chase it all the way to the parking lot. When I finally got the ball back in, my dad was on the ground and the coach’s wife was running to call an ambulance. El Corazón.
I wasn’t Johnny Bench. Or Pete Rose. Or Joe Morgan. I was number twenty—Cesar Geronimo. I didn’t choose number twenty because I played centerfield like him or because I batted last like him or because twenty was the only number left and nobody else wanted to be him. I chose number twenty because Cesar Geronimo had brown skin like my mother and, to a lesser degree, like me. I read on the back of his baseball card that he was from a place called Dominican Republic and then told everybody that my mother and I were also from Dominican Republic. This went on for years until one day she sat me down and told me that she was from Peru and I was from Oklahoma. I let her talk, but she just didn’t understand. I was Cesar Geronimo. Flaco.
The doctor’s kid invited me to his house once. I knew that he had a swimming pool as well as a tennis court in his back yard so I arrived with my suit. La piscina. But we never went anywhere beyond his room. He said he wanted to see my baseball cards, for which I was famous, so I put them all out for him and then he started talking about buying them. I had never sold any of them before and really had never even thought of selling them, but there was something in the way he was talking that made me feel helpless and I ended up selling him almost all the best ones, including all three Pete Roses with the sunglasses up, and an action card of Johnny Bench tagging out a runner at the plate, all for change. He kept telling me that the price for a pack of cards was a quarter and that he couldn’t possibly give me more than half that for any one card, talking as if selling the cards had been my idea and he was doing me a favor. I think I finally said yes just to stop everything that was happening and then he told me he needed to do something with his dad and that I should leave. Hasta nunca.
It wasn’t the first time that someone had invited me to their house or to a party and it wasn’t the first time I had felt ashamed of myself afterwards. Once I had gone to an air show with a group of kids and they had started making fun of me inside the van, laughing about the size of my lips and the color of my skin, calling me Pancho because there was a television program that had a Mexican motorcycle cop named Pancho. Each time I asked them to stop, they did it more, until they were interrupting one another to insult me and going so quickly that they spit on me several times even though I don’t think that was their intention. It was an hour coming coming back home and the mother driving never said a word to them, never tried to help me. When I left the doctor’s kid’s house with my dry swimsuit, walking past the mansions that lined both sides of that street, I thought about the time I had spent in that van. No me escupas por favor.
I imagined that I was an astronaut stranded on a foreign planet. Even though I had been born there and had lived my whole life there, somehow I didn’t belong there and never would. It didn’t matter how hard I tried or even if I tried. But one day I would fire my rockets and escape the gravity of it, and I would be happy. Until then, I would wait. I thought about the Spanish word for this and that as I walked, practicing so that I would be ready when my chance finally came. I knew it might be a long time but I could take it. I could wait forever if I had to wait forever. Algún día. I crossed the bridge that separated the doctor’s kid’s street from the rest of the neighborhood and threw the change he had paid me into the creek. Anyway, my name wasn’t Pancho. I was Cesar Geronimo.
Nicolas is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA Program at Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in many publications and is collected here. He is a high-school dropout (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches physics in Peru.