Cousins PT 1

Cause it taught me how

APRIL San Antonio TX

Alex looked out his bedroom window and in the backyard next door could see his cousin Mark lifting weights. Mark had told Alex what time he would be lifting and suggested he join him. But Alex just didn't feel like exerting anymore today.

Alex had taken his sweaty shirt off after he and Mark had gone on their bike ride and he turned from the window to look at himself in the mirror. It was because of his cousin's coaxing Alex had the little bit of definition in his chest and arms he could now see. Before Mark got him into lifting regularly, muscles would have never been in anyone's thoughts when describing him. That made him smile and feel a little guilty about hiding up here in his room. 

Alex and Mark had been born 5 days apart. Both their parents swore that nothing was planned, it just happened. Two years after they were born, Mark's parents moved next door to Alex's. He grew up understanding how close his father and Mark's dad, his father's brother, were. And it seemed both sets of parents were thrilled that the two of them had become inseparable friends also.

He looked again out the window at Mark as he lifted the dumbbells doing biceps. Mark was 6'3", 230 DSC01457croptargetpounds, and as he himself had once said, "baby, I'm cut!" Alex on the other hand was 5'7", 135 pounds. But thankfully, through the efforts of Mark, he actually could see muscles on himself for the first time. Mark was always thinking of him, and it seemed like he usually knew what was better for him than he himself did. Or so he sometimes thought.

Alex was born with a joint disease. It's probably what had caused him to not be tall like his cousin, his father, and his uncle. For sure it had caused hours and hours of pain in Alex's life.

As he was ruminating about what the disease he had to live with felt like, he saw Mark look up at his window and holler at him, "get your butt down here". Alex, in this order: laughed, flipped his cousin off, closed the window, and put on his flip-flops. He really didn't want to lift, but he also didn't want crap from Mark. Besides, being around Mark was always fun. Their friendship had begun early, and there was nothing about their two separate lives he figured would change that. 

Mark was the superstar athlete of their high school. They were a year and two months away from graduating and going on to college, but the only thing they were thinking about right now was if Mark would lead the baseball team to the state championship. Oh, and find a girlfriend before their planned summer college tour. 

He walked down the stairs carefully, as usual, and was happy to not feel any pain. He headed next-door and went through the unlocked gate. When he got in his cousin's view, Marks first question was "how you feeling?"

He couldn't remember a time when he and Mark got together that Mark didn't ask him that question. Mark knew about Alex's disease as well as he did, in fact, maybe better. Mark admitted to him one day that he had done copious research on the disease, so he knew how to make sure Alex was always healthy, and how to help him.

"Well, it didn't hurt going down the stairs, so I guess okay."

"Good, let's get started."

Alex saw that Mark had pulled their notebook out of the little container they kept their stuff in. This was the notebook Mark kept for Alex's sessions. There was a history of every workout, and Mark wanted to make certain that he didn't start Alex on a lift that would be too hard for him. Whenever Mark was sure Alex was ready to increase the weight of any exercise, he was very careful to only increase it a small amount, maybe only 2 pounds.

All of these actions in Alex's benefit caused him to trust his cousin even more than he would for any normal best friend. He was constantly amazed what Mark would do for him. For instance, Mark had had two girlfriends so far during their high school years. Both of them gorgeous, very popular, and really good people. But Mark broke up with both of them for only one reason. Each of them had said something about Alex, something not so nice. 

IMGP4517targetNow, again with Mark's help, he himself had his first girlfriend. She was cute, she was funny, and he loved to be with her. Because he was white, and she was black, they experienced  their share of whispered comments and sneaky stares. But they'd both decided to enjoy how much they made some people uncomfortable. They had also noted there were way fewer comments or funny side glances when they were with Mark. No one wanted to get that guy mad!

"Where's Jenny" Mark asked.

"Well, its Sunday, so I'd guess with her parents at church."

"They talk to you about going with them?"

"No. Wow, I never thought about that. How will I get out of that, if they do? 

"I don't know, the way you describe them, that's the #1 thing in their life, right?"

"Absolutely. But not Jenny. She hardly ever talks about it."

As they talked they continued through their exercises, with Mark helping Alex do his stretches. Part of his disease caused Alex to develop extra hard, non flexible ligaments. He had a long list of stretches to do twice daily. When he went a few days without doing them, his body revolted and there was pain everywhere when he moved. 

"I got a new letter today" Mark said off handedly while he was jotting something down in the notebook. 

"Where?" Alex asked.

Mark set down the notebook and stared at Alex, with a huge smile on his face. "UCLA!"

Alex pulled out of his stretch and raised his arms to give Mark a big double high five. "Finally, California has found Mark Sharpton! Its about time. Pacific Ocean, here we come!"

MG8220targetAbout to end their Junior years, this summer was going to be about figuring out what college they would decide on. That, of course, would involve a long road trip. As much as they loved their hometown of San Antonio, UTSA just wasn't a big enough school for a superstar like Mark. And just up the road in Austin at UT, Mark had been informed by the football coach that if he went there, playing both football and baseball was out of the question. Any of the schools that said that were immediately eliminated from their list. Most of the schools they were now considering were in the west, but before today nothing was on the coast. At the very least they wanted to be able to get to the beach on their trip, even if they eventually decided not to attend school there.

The decision would mostly be made, clearly, by what school seemed the best fit for Mark and his athletic talent. But as they were both excellent students, no schools were being considered that they didn't believe were academically superior. At one time there was even a discussion of Mark going to UCLA, assuming they started recruiting him, and Alex would go to Caltech. Alex wanted to work for NASA one day, and a doctorate from Caltech would push his chances of that way up. But that idea had fallen by the wayside, because they both agreed they wanted to room together, and UCLA and Caltech were just too far apart.

Alex was doing a bench press when he felt a twinge in his elbow. He cried out and his cousin immediately grabbed the bar. Alex spun off the bench and walked around hunched over with his elbow in his hand. The pain had been sharp, but he could feel it receding now. Mark hollered at him and he followed his cousin into the utility room where he was filling the deep sink with warm water. Warm, or even a hot water soak always seemed to make his painful joints feel better.  That's why he pretty much lived in the Jacuzzi.

Mark watched Alex massage his elbow down in the warm water. Years ago an episode like this would've made Mark very tense. Back then he was so nervous whenever Alex felt any pain, or had to stop doing something because of his joints. Something like this might even cause him to be close to tears. He could never communicate with anyone how much he loved his cousin. It was anguish to watch him suffer.

But ever since he had spent a few days digging around in the medical library at UT, researching his cousins disease and talking with other students about it, he was more calm in the face of it. He'd had years now of Alex hurting, but always recovering. And he knew if he was going to continue to be his companion, and be the best person he could be for his cousin, he needed to quit acting like the earth was going to crack open every time Alex hurt.



MAY Round Rock TX

Mark looked around, found Alex and Jenny in the stands and waved. He pointed to a table sitting behind the backstop that held the trophies. Then, thumbs up, turned and walked to the dugout.

"He's pretty confident,".

Alex was still watching Mark in the dugout when he replied, "Yea, it's always worried me." 

"Hmm, that's a switch. You worrying about Mark? I don't think I've ever heard you say anything like that before."

He looked at his girlfriend and thought about what she'd just said. "Mark has really never lost. And I don't think he's ever played for a team where he wasn't the best player.  He's always had a way of getting the rest of his teammates to rise to the occasion. If we win today that's three straight State Championships.  But if we don't win and Mark has to face a big loss like that for the first time, I'm not sure how much fun the drive back to San Antonio will be. I think we'll just let him go on the bus."

"Well, this is the first one I've been to", Jenny said, "so I am absolutely expecting them to win, you understand, I require it!"

Alex laughed at his girlfriend, he loved that take no prisoners attitude she would try on every once in a while. "You're turning me on."

"That wasn't really the idea. But still, I'm ok with that."

Jenny had been Mark's friend. Mostly because she had once dated a wide receiver on the football team that was close to Mark. But that had ended badly, hurting Mark's friendship with the receiver, but making him feel closer and more protective of Jenny.  The cousins started including Jenny in some  activities. It would be Mark and his girlfriend, Alex and Jenny. Alex would always kid Jenny that it was nice to have a '4th wheel' around to take the stigma off. 

"So, how in the world did you get your parents to let you stay here on a Sunday?"

"Oh, I didn't. I just told them I was going to be here, with you for the weekend, and I left."

"Crap! Your dad will kill me - with his bare hands!"

Jenny laughed. "Come on. You know how much my parents like you. They would never hurt you. Now, me on the other hand . . ."

The forces were not with Mark and Alex and Jenny's high school baseball team this day. Secret invisible hands weighed on Mark's bat, and other than his first at-bat when he hit a long home run to deep center, his wicked bats (Mark has a rule, he always changes to a different bat when the previous at-bat results in zero contact) never connected with the ball, not even a foul tip. And as usual, as Mark went so went the team. They lost 4 – 1.

Surprisingly, Mark was not as down as Alex expected him to be on the drive back. They stopped at a little diner they'd eaten at many times before as Mark was starving. At one point Alex sat back in the booth watching Jenny and Mark having an animated conversation where both of them were laughing, and was mostly surprised how good Mark's spirits were. The game was barely discussed. 

A few days later Mark and Alex did dissect the game while lifting weights. It was at that time Mark let out his rage, mostly on himself. 

"My teammates played great. They'd get a rally going and I snuffed it out by being invisible at the plate. Geez, probably a good thing I didn't ride back with them on the bus."

"Yes", I said. "Because certainly you had no impact on your team going undefeated in league! On scoring more runs than any high school ever has in this league! You've been a complete drag on the team all year long! I'm sure they all hate you."

Mark finally let out a little laugh, and it seemed like maybe just that short conversation took him away from the game and more into what's next. Just then Jenny drove up.

DSC01381target“You guys got something planned?”

“Yeah, her sister is getting married this week, remember? Tonight is the rehearsal dinner. Which means, I need to get dressed!”

Alex watched Mark over Jennys shoulder as they hugged. Maybe he was imagining something, but he thought he saw some sadness in Mark’s face. Was he feeling depressed because he had no girlfriend, and finally Alex did? He had been considering talking to Mark about Jenny going along on the summer road trip. It seemed to him that the three of them got along great, and he never noticed any resentment when Jenny was with them. But now he worried how that conversation would go. Should he not even bring it up?


Next: Road Trip


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