7. The Patriots Ch. 07-09byinspirixis1©
Ellia missed Micah so much when he was gone. There was a buzz of nervous excitement in the air at work as everyone geared up for the Tour de France, but it seemed flat to her without him. When she was in the support car watching the guys train she couldn't help but notice that it was pretty boring without a certain brown-skinned athlete pushing near the front of the pack.
Not that she thought of Micah as a black man anymore. The color of his skin was just a part of his exterior, like how he had brown eyes or how his second toe was a little bit longer than his big toe. It was just a little fact about him, not a definition.
Unfortunately not everyone saw it that way. She still heard the occasional slander from the riders on the team and Fabian, the manager, still seemed cold when he talked about him. Even when he wasn't there people still poked at him. It might have originally been because he was black, but she suspected that they continued to do it because they felt threatened by him.
At the beginning of the season she had been convinced that Micah would fail as a cyclist, but the more she got to know him the more she realized that would never eventuate. Micah was going to be a star, not because he had some physiological advantage or because he doped, but because he didn't have the ability to be anything but the best. When he trained he didn't seem to be able to coast the way the other guys did. He couldn't simply climb a mountain; he had to conquer it.
It was this attitude, this commitment that never seemed to waver, that was taking him directly to the top, and there was nothing anyone else could do about it. Fabian couldn't justify taking him out of the line up because Micah did just as he was told. When he was racing with the team he held back when he was told, he collected water from the support car when he was told, he made a break when he was told, and he protected his leader when he was told.
Micah had won the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré for Andrea, the team leader. The third day had been a huge mountain stage and he'd broke away with a small pack early and put the brakes on them as Andrea tried to catch up. Once Andrea was with the pack Micah broke away with him and practically dragged the man up the mountain. It was actually painful to watch. Andrea was so exhausted. Micah kept on looking behind him and yelling at him to keep up.
A few hundred meters before the finish line Micah peeled off and let Andrea pass him to receive the glory of a stage win. For the remaining five days he let Andrea sit in his slipstream, doing all the dirty work and protecting him so that he could parade around in the leader's jersey and pretend that he was the star.
Micah was the real star. It was Micah who was bound for glory.
She hadn't thought she would, but she ended up spending quite a bit of time at his house when he was away. It was way less convenient than staying in her apartment in Milan, but for some reason it felt so much homier to her. She liked being surrounded by reminders of him. She cooked in his spotless kitchen. She slept in his bed and hugged his pillow to her chest.
It was convenient in that he had wireless internet, so she didn't have to go to the caffé to check her email or chat with him or Laura. All day long she looked forward to the few minutes Micah spent instant messaging with her. When it was night time in Milan it was the middle of the day where he was in Nebraska and he used his phone to message her while he was at the trials.
He was doing well. He made the finals of the 100 and 200 freestyle, which put him in a strong position to get selected for a relay, even if he didn't get onto the team for an individual event.
She wanted so badly for him to win.
On the day of the 200 final he messaged her while she was cooking dinner. She heard the blip of the iChat program and her heart immediately fluttered, knowing that it could only be Micah calling her at this time in the evening. She brought her computer into his kitchen to multitask.
"Nervous?" She wrote.
"You'll be fine. Just remember to kick." It was a joke. Almost all of Micah's power in swimming came from his kick. If he forgot to kick he's be left in the dust.
"I almost forgot. I'll have to bring you next time to remind me."
Mm. She liked the sound of that. "To Nebraska?"
"Nebraska's okay. It's pretty. Not as nice as Colorado though. Wait, I'll be back in a sec..."
She took the break in the conversation to add the snow peas to the stir-fry she was making and to check on the rice. Even though Micah wasn't here she still made all of her meals gluten-free. It was just a habit now.
The chat program blipped sooner than she was expecting.
"Lucas is soooo dreamy." He'd written.
Huh? That didn't sound like something Micah would write.
"Really?" She wrote back.
"Yes. He has shoulders like boulders and arms like tree trunks."
She laughed. "Hi Lucas."
"Hey, how did you know?"
How could she not know? "Micah doesn't usually rhyme."
"No, you're right. I have to remember to tone down my coolness when I'm pretending to be him. So you're Ellia?"
"Yes. Nice to meet you."
"You're the one who is giving Micah all these pestilent ideas about beating me?"
"No. It's all his idea. I merely amended his training program."
"Hmm... Do you think you could amend mine? I want what he's got."
"What do you mean?"
"It's like he has a f-ing outboard motor or something. He is uncomfortably close to kicking my buns of steel... Shit, he's coming back. This conversation never took place."
There was a pause and then Micah wrote, "I see you met Luka."
"Lesson one: never listen to a thing Lucas has to say."
"So no buns of steel?"
"Damn." She joked.
"I've got to go warm up."
"Okay, good luck."
"Let me know ASAP."
She left her computer and finished cooking and ate her dinner. Her stomach swirled with nervousness. Half way across the world Micah was racing in what she thought was his best chance at gaining selection for swimming in the Olympics. She tried to imagine what his world looked like right now, the excitement, the smell of chlorine from the pool, the stands full of people cheering, his brothers and Lucas around him.
She wished she were there.
She had her laptop open on her lap when he finally messaged her.
"2nd place!!" He'd written.
"Holy crap!" That was only a half a second off the world record.
"Lucas -- 1:42.40."
"So you both qualified?"
"Yes. I can't believe it."
"I can. Congratulations!"
"Will you go with me?"
"To London? Of course."
Four thousand eight hundred and seventy (plus or minus twenty) miles away in Omaha, Nebraska, Micah's finger hovered over the enter key on the touchpad of his phone. He had written, 'I wish you were here,' but he hadn't sent it.
It was true, he did wish Ellia was here, but he didn't know if he should tell her that or not. There had been multiple times each day that he had wished she was with him. He just couldn't get her out of his head. He wanted her to experience this with him. He wanted to introduce her to his family and hang out together between the races. This was her victory too. He wanted to share it with her.
He stood and looked at his phone in just his swimsuit, dripping wet and caught in indecision.
He pressed send.
It was only a few seconds before she replied, "Me too."
That made him smile. It made his heart, which was still beating quickly from the race, jump with joy. Ellia wished she was here with him too.
The desire to see her didn't abate over the week he was at the swimming trials, and only got worse when he went to the track cycling trials. Lucas came with him to help. Micah had entered every event that they'd let him, including the crazy sprint one, which required someone to hold the bike for you at the start line. Lucas was as good a choice as anyone and seeing that the company he worked for didn't seem to care if he showed up for work or not he was happy to come along for the ride.
"So what's with this Ellia chic?" He asked one night when Micah was cooking dinner in the apartment he'd rented for the week.
Micah shrugged, trying to act indifferent even though he was bursting at the seams to talk about her. "She's a physical therapist for Liquigas. She found out that I was swimming and offered to help, and she kind of turned into my friend."
"Just a friend?"
"Yeah. At this point."
"Is she cute?"
Micah smiled. "She's beyond cute. She's incredibly good looking."
"Really?" Lucas had one of his big goofy grins on his face.
"Mm. You've met her."
"Yeah, but only over instant messenger, I didn't exactly get a good feeling for what she looks like."
"No, you've met her in person. She remembers you from an orienteering race in Brisbane."
"Yeah. Apparently you asked her for directions in the middle of a race."
"Do you remember her?"
"Of course. She probably saved my life. I only tried orienteering once and I remember being extremely hot and not having any clue as to where I was. There wasn't a trail or anything. They just expected you to figure out where to go on your own. Crazy sport."
He shook his head and leaned over the counter to steal some carrot pieces.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Micah asked.
"Are you and Carlie dating?"
"Ah... no. We have an agreement, but we're not dating."
"What's your agreement?"
"That we'll tell each other if we engage in any... you know... sexual activity."
"Oh. How long since you saw her last?"
"Almost a year."
Micah nodded. "Do you... sleep with her?"
Lucas looked up at him sharply, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "Micah! How do you think Carlie would feel if I answered that question?"
"Sorry. I'm just trying to figure out what to do about Ellia. She's driving me insane, but I'm pretty sure it would be a bad idea to do anything about it."
"Because she's Australian?"
"Well they are all a pack of flaming liberals. The most conservative person in that country could probably run as a democrat over here."
"That's not what I mean. I don't care if she's a liberal."
"I know. You're afraid that she won't want to come here to live?"
"So you want to know if I think you should get involved with her, knowing what it's like with Carlie?"
Lucas shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you Micah. On the one hand I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It is so hard to be in love with someone who is so far away... All of the time I spend missing her... How much it torments me to think that she might be talking to some other guy, or worse. It would kill me if she told me that she was seeing someone else. But then on the other hand I would never swap one second I had spent with her for anything else. If you told me I could keep my memories or I could keep my leg I'd choose the memories. And to know that she feels the same way... well, it's pretty amazing."
"Thanks, that's no help whatsoever."
Lucas smiled again. "I never claimed to be an expert."
Micah continued to slice vegetables and Lucas continued to lean over the counter to steal them. The seconds ticked by, but Micah didn't want the conversation to be over.
He shook his head. "She is so amazing."
Lucas did one of his silent laughs, where his chest shook but almost no sound came out.
"I don't know what's wrong with me. I have this overpowering desire to talk about her."
"So tell me." Lucas' eyes sparkled with amusement.
He did. He told Lucas all about Ellia. He told him about the cute things she did and how much she helped him every day. He told him about the camping trip where he'd almost gotten her killed and how she'd told him about her accident. How good she was at speaking Italian. How she sat on the side of the bed and braided her hair immediately before she went to bed.
"How do you know that?" Lucas asked.
"She sleeps over sometimes."
"And you creep into her room to watch her?"
"No, she sleeps in my bed. I only have one bedroom. My whole house could probably fit into this apartment."
Lucas' mouth dropped open. "You sleep in the same bed as her? Do you enjoy torture or something?"
"No. It's not all the time, just every now and then when it gets too late for her to go home alone. It's just the way we started doing it. The first time she stayed over was a few weeks after I'd discovered the track. You know how sometimes I get a little bit obsessive?"
"That's putting it mildly."
"Well I was a bit obsessive about training at the track so I was dead tired. I mean I could hardly keep my eyes open sort of tired. It was late enough that I didn't really want her to take the train home alone but I was so tired I wouldn't have been able to drive her, so she slept in the bed with me. That time it wasn't a big deal, I was pretty much dead to the world, but after that she started cutting back my time at the velodrome so I had more energy, and then it got difficult."
"You listened to her when she told you to stop doing something you were obsessing over?"
He shrugged. "I guess."
Lucas shook his head. "You're toast."
"What do you mean?"
"I've never met anyone who can get you to stop obsessing. You're sitting here with your best friend of twenty-two years, who you haven't seen in months, and I bet you're wishing that you were with her instead."
"That's not altogether true. I don't wish you weren't here, I just wish that she was here with us."
"I don't see why you're stressing out about whether or not to start a physical relationship with her. You're obviously already in love with her."
"But don't you think having sex with her would make it a hundred times worse?"
"You are so screwed up Micah. Being in love is supposed to be a good thing. Sex is supposed to make it a hundred times better."
"You said you wouldn't wish being in love with an Australian on your worst enemy."
"It doesn't matter what anyone wishes for now, it's already done. You're already in. You might as well enjoy the time you have with her."
That conversation reverberated around Micah's head for the rest of the week. "It's already done," Lucas had said.
It was true that Micah loved Ellia. She was always in his head. Everything reminded him of her. He was constantly wondering what she was doing or feeling. When he was messaging her he felt a thrill when she replied and he could see her words on his screen. He knew that she was staying at his house and he liked it. He liked imagining Ellia safe in his kitchen, on his couch or in his bed.
One part of him wanted to let his feelings have full reign. He wanted to tell her that she was the most special person in the world. He wanted to kiss and touch her and make her feel all of the wonderful things he felt when he was with her.
But another part of him believed that it would never work, and that he would just be torturing both of them by letting himself slip further into this bright, frighteningly exciting, unfamiliar territory. He didn't want an agreement with someone half way across the world. He wanted stability. He wanted someone who would always be there, who he could share his life with and build a family with. He didn't see the point in starting something with her just to enjoy the time they had together.
The problem was, he couldn't see himself with anyone but her. He used to look at women with interest, but now they might as well have been guys. Even when girls tried to flirt with him at the pool or the track he didn't feel the slightest inclination to flirt back, let alone do anything else with them. And these were more appropriate women for him. They were US citizens. There was one girl who was from Wyoming, driving distance from his parents' house. She was smart and sporty and pretty and she seemed to be interested in him. She would have been ideal, except that she wasn't Ellia.
When all of the racing was said and done, he and Lucas packed up and went to the airport to go their separate ways.
"So are you excited to get back to see her?" Lucas asked as they returned the rental car.
"I don't know Luka. I'm still not convinced it's a good idea. I don't want to get in the position you're in with Carlie."
"Yeah. The law makes it really difficult. Basically the only way she could come to live in the States is if I married her, and how can you commit the rest of your life to someone you've never lived with? We've never even lived in the same country as adults."
"She can't get some sort of working visa?"
"I don't think so. We looked into it but it's really hard. She'd have to already have an employer to sponsor her and the employer would have to demonstrate that she is the best-qualified person for the job. Being that she is a journalist, which is a tough field, and that she's in her first year out of college, that's a difficult thing to prove."
Micah signed the paperwork for the rental car and they waited at the bus shelter for the shuttle to their terminals.
Lucas was thinking out loud. "It might not be as hard for Ellia to get a job in the States. There have to be a lot of physical therapy jobs around, and she has some pretty specialized experience having worked for a pro. cycling team. Gracie probably has some contacts."
"She moved all the way to Italy so she must be somewhat adventurous. Maybe she would like to try living here?"
He hadn't considered that moving to the US would be something that Ellia might actually like. Maybe he would try bringing it up with her. Maybe there was a way forward after all.
Ellia waited nervously in the international arrivals lounge. She didn't know why she had such a bad case of butterflies in the stomach. According to the arrivals monitor Micah's flight had arrived fifteen minutes ago, so he should be coming out of customs and immigration any time now.
She watched each person come around the frosted glass separator, dismissing them quickly and looking behind them to see if he was next.
And then she saw him, and the strangest warmth bloomed in her chest. Her fingers tingled and she couldn't help the huge grin she knew was plastered on her face. She felt strange, like she was high, like that feeling of blissful weightlessness you get when you take a narcotic pain killer.
Micah was smiling too. His lips were spread into one of those big grins he did where you could see both rows of teeth. He was wheeling a trolley with his backpack and the hard-sided case his bike fit in and he walked directly to her and encased her in a hug.
His long arms wrapped around her and squeezed her tightly to his firm body. She squeezed him back while she breathed him in.
"Hey," he said while they were still hugging.
"I missed you."
She closed her eyes and squeezed him tighter. "I missed you too."
As she was driving him home he told her all about the races. He'd qualified for the 200 freestyle and come in fourth place in the 100 free, which didn't qualify him to race it as an individual event, but he hoped it would be good enough to get him in a relay. He'd clearly had a good time racing his bike on the track. He couldn't stop raving about it. He'd competed in the sprint, which was the one where you compete side by side with your opponent.
"It is so whackey," he said. "For three quarters of the race you are just trying to force the other person to take the lead, so your going so slowly you feel like you're about to fall off, then it's a mad sprint to the line. Obviously I sucked at it. I got eliminated on the second round."