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                                                        Joanne Simon Tailele

Within Her Grasp


Mari-Rae didn’t need an alarm or coffee to be up and peeking out of her friend’s upscale D.C. condo before dawn on this beautiful Tuesday Indian summer day. Not just up, but practically vibrating excitement. It was here. Now! The beginning of a new life, the life she had dreamed about since she was ten years old. She paused for a moment in the pre-dawn hour and remembered how it all began.

The year was 1976 and she was ten-years-old. On the small television in her family room, Nadia Comãneci scored a perfect ten on the uneven bars. It was the Summer Olympics in Montreal. She vowed that someday she, Mari-Rae Sopper, would be a professional gymnast. That vision of Nadia, as sharp and vivid as when she first saw it, had been set on auto-play in her mind every day since, taunting her to make her dream come true. And now, it was.

Her new job as head women’s gymnastics coach at the University of California Santa Barbara was waiting for her. Never mind that she was taking a seventy percent cut in pay from her current position as a D.C. attorney. Never mind that they said it was only a one-year position and the program was being cut at the end of that year. That’s what they thought. She had a plan. She always had a plan. For UCSB, there would be fund raisers, alumni and booster participation, and a lot of publicity. She would save the program. It was a given. Anyone who knew Mari-Rae would agree.

She left a voice message for her friend, Jim Bailey, that she’d be ready in half an hour. Should she give a last call to her mother? No, she was probably getting ready to head out for a real estate listing appointment. One of the many things Mari-Rae had learned from her mother was perseverance.

She ran down the stairs to her own empty condo. She stepped through the door, a jumble of emotions fluttering her rapidly beating heart: sadness over leaving so many wonderful friends, jubilation about her new position.

“Seriously, Sammy?” She pinched her nose. The hardwood floors were peppered with piles of watery cat feces. “What was wrong with your litter box?” Ah, it was full, too. The medication from the vet was supposed to calm him down for the flight. Wrong. And they never mentioned this unsavory side-effect.

Her feline companion responded by a leap straight into the air from his perch on the spiral staircase, a virtual orange and white striped rocket, that took off across the empty room at a speed that would have made Coach Petrillo proud. Then he slid into the wall—thud!

Mari-Rae laughed and shook her head. “Better get your running out of your system now. You’ll be stuck in that carrier on the plane for several hours.”

Things to do rushed through her head. Shower, check. Light make-up, check. She donned a simple A-line skirt and a button down sweater. It was always chilly on planes and she was always cold. She surveyed herself in the mirror. An even hundred brush strokes. Her dark blond hair shone like the smile on her face. She slipped on a pair of simple flats; easier to maneuver through the airport concourse.

Did she have all the information on the team in her bag? Check. She’d go over them again on the flight. Not that she didn’t already know every team member by name, their statistics and where they excelled. She had always had the uncanny ability to remember names, scores and details like a flash drive in her head. Ryann was going to be great on beam. Erika only needed some good choreography to win competitions on floor.  She loved each and every one of them already.

Jim arrived on time. He beeped the horn. How did she always manage to get me to drive her to the airport? Next time he would tell her, “Us city-folk take a taxi.” He waited thirty minutes and finally let himself into her condo. Mari-Rae was still running around, ass on fire. What else was new?

He lifted her red backpack to carry to his car. “Ugh,” he groaned. “What do you have in here, rocks?” If it made it on as a carry-on, it would be a miracle.

“What?” Mari-Rae looked up from her hands and knees on the hardwood floor. “That’s my purse. Can you give me a hand here?” Mari-Rae waved a frantic hand toward the paper towels.

“If I weren’t such a good friend….” Jim started as he knelt over a pile, his nose wrinkled from the God-awful smell.

“I know, I know,” said Mari Rae as she finished up. “What do you think, Sammy? Are you ready?”

The ride through the Virginia countryside to Dulles Airport was beautiful. If Mari-Rae noticed it, she didn’t say. The sun was rising behind the Washington Monument as they crossed the Potomac River merging on to Rt. 66. For forty minutes, she expounded on the qualities of her new team, how she was going to save the program. This time, this move, would be perfect. Her dream was finally in her grasp.

Jim dropped her off at the curb for departing flights to American Airlines. She hoisted the red back-pack over the shoulder of her five-foot-two frame as he unloaded the rest of her luggage and the kitty crate. Life was going to be different without Jim around. She’d miss him. Of course there was still email and phone. They’d talk all the time, she assured herself. They hugged.

“Oh, I don’t have any ones. Help me out?” she laughed. So, shoot me, she thought. Small details like that didn’t make it into her computer brain. They didn’t register high on the “needs” list.

Jim shook his head, dug into his wallet, and handed over his only ones to tip the luggage handler. “Call me when you get to Santa Barbara,” he said.

Of course. He was one of her closest friends.

She waved as he honked and drove away. She looked up at the perfectly blue sky, not a cloud in site. Whew. This was it. Her new life. She remembered the title of the last group email she had sent to all of her family and friends, New Job, New City, New State, New Life. If joy was a drink, hers would be an orange Fizzy, like the sugary tablet she dropped into water as a child.

At airport security, she let Sammy out to get some air before the flight and placed the kitty crate on the conveyor belt to go through the scanner. He clung to her like an infant on his mother’s shoulder, digging his back claws into her chest. Her eyes began to water from too much fur close to her face. Did she remember her allergy medicine? Yes, of course.

Okay. So maybe letting Sammy out of the cage wasn’t one of her best decisions.

She started to walk through the scanner with Sammy on her shoulder.

“Ma’am,” a security guard stopped her. “You’ll have to put the cat in the carrier, while it goes through the scanner.

Getting him back into the carrier was a war of the wills. Once she pried him from her shoulder, his paws clung to the outside of the cage door, spread-eagled, Felix-the-Cat like. Two security guards had to assist in winning over Sammy’s determination to stay out of that crate. She made her way back to the front of the line and walked through the scanner alone.

Two Middle-Eastern men stood stoically behind her in line. She glanced up at them and profusely apologized for Sammy’s rude behavior. They nodded without speaking.

The alarms went off. Mari-Rae and the two gentlemen behind her were pulled aside where the security guard waved a wand over them and finally allowed to go to the gate. The rest of the passengers went straight through.

All cleared, she picked up her backpack and Sammy in the carrier, and asked for directions to the gate. The two Middle-Eastern gentlemen followed her to the same gate.

Finally, at 7:50 a.m., she was settled in her seat, American Airlines Flight 77, Dulles International to LAX, Los Angeles, California. Her seatbelt was on. The stack of papers about “her girls” tucked in the magazine compartment in front of her waiting for her review. Mari-Rae looked around at the half-empty plane. Her aisle seat was perfect for introducing herself to the fellow passengers across the aisle and in the seat next to hers. “Where are you headed? Wasn’t life wonderful?”