Belong

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As the summer days got colder and nights go longer, Junior Berro’s excitement began to grow. He knew his first fall semester of college was fast approaching. He was going to be the first in his family to go achieve higher education. Due to his outstanding grades and excellence in soccer, Junior had been offered a full ride scholarship to the school with the highest ranked soccer program in the country, Stanford University.

He knew that accepting Stanford’s offer would be accepting the fact that he had to leave his family, friends, and his safety net. He had accepted the offer coming off of an unbeaten season with his high school team, the Miami Central High Tigers. His team, made up of mostly immigrant teens just arriving the country, won nationals for their school for the first time in thirty-two years. There was no doubt in Junior’s mind that he would miss Miami Central High School. It was a predominantly immigrant school filled with various kinds of students from South America and the Caribbean Islands. It was filled with families like Junior’s. Junior’s family had emigrated from Puerto Rico to the United States when Junior was five years old. Miami Central had became like a second home to Junior during the past four years.

The time for Junior’s departure came quickly. He had lost track of time attending all the going away parties his family and friends had thrown him. For immigrant communities, higher education is a big accomplishment. His mother, Rosales, a short, stubby Dominican woman, had made Junior’s favorite food for breakfast the morning of his departure.

“I made you your favorite, huevo con queso, ” she said with a smile and teary eyes.

“Thanks so much, mom,” Junior replied feeling mixed emotions. He didn’t realize leaving for college would be so hard. He never thought about what he was going to miss out on, but as he saw his mother’s eyes get teary, he realized that he wouldn’t see his mother as often.

“You’re going to do great. You’re the pride of the family. I just wish you wouldn’t have to go so far away. Who is going to help me around the house?” she added jokingly, trying to change the mood. “I’m sorry I can’t take you to the airport. I can’t risk getting into an accident. What if I get into an accident ? Who has money for those hospital bills? Not I.”

“I know Mother. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine,” Junior said understandingly.

He finished eating his food, but for some reason it did not taste the same. This was supposed to be one of the best days of his life, but he couldn’t shake the sad feeling he had deep in the pit of his stomach. He kissed his mother on the cheek and stepped outside. On his way to the airport, Junior could not stop thinking about his mother. His mother had been his hero since he could remember. She had left her family at sixteen to give Junior a better life. Ever since the death of his father, his mother had been working two jobs, but never complained. She didn’t finish grade school in Puerto Rico due to their families financial situation, but she was still one of the smartest people Junior had ever met. For him to go to college and make her proud was a dream come true in itself. As he boarded the plane, he said a little prayer, a custom his mother engraved in him since he was little.

Upon his arrival to California, Junior wasted no time calling his family. He wanted to make sure they knew he had arrived safely. Part of him, already missed them, and wished they could see the Californian beaches.

“How are things over there?” he asked right as his mother answered.

“Everything is fine, mijo,” she said tiredly, “How are you still so energetic? You just left. Have you ate already? You have to be even more energized for tomorrow.”

“What do you mea-,” Junior asked, but stopped himself as soon as he remember the time differences. It was only 11 pm in California but back home, it was already 2 am. He hadn’t realized how hard it was going to adjust. “Nevermind Mom. I’m fine. I ate at the airport, and I’m going to stay with a friend before moving in tomorrow, but I’ll let you go to sleep now. Have a good sleep. Love you.”

“I love you too, mijo. Don’t forget you can always call me when you need me,” his mother said lovingly.

Junior hung up the phone and called an Uber. He waited by a bench which sat outside the airport. Everyone around him was being greeted by family members and getting picked up. As he was scrolling through the Snapchat stories of his high school teammates, his Uber driver, Jonathan pulled up.

“Uber for Junior?” Jonathan asked without looking out the window.

“Yeah, can you take me to the nearest hotel to Stanford University?” Junior asked getting in the car.

Luckily for Junior, he was blessed with a quiet Uber driver. He hated when drivers would start asking questions and get too personal. He never liked sharing aspects of his life to anyone he didn’t trust.

The next day, Junior woke up to the sound of his alarm clock. He looked around the room, opened up his unpacked suitcase, and got dressed. He called another Uber driver and made his way towards the university.

When he arrived at Stanford’s campus, his heart started beating rapidly. He finally remembered why he was so excited to go to Stanford in the first place. The campus was beautiful. It reminded him of home. He made his way towards his dorm room once the uber drove off.

He arrived to his dorm room and notice he did not have a roommate yet. He was put in the building with the most soccer players. He knew that despite having signed for a two person dorm, he would be the only one in that room for his four years.

“The privilege of being a D1 soccer player in college,” he said with a sigh.

At the beginning of things, everything went fine for Junior. He would go to class, come back to the dorm and do his work, and later go to soccer practices. He didn’t know when it started, maybe it was the missed chances at training or maybe it was that he kept getting the answers wrong in class when called, but all he knew was that he started to feel like he didn’t belong. He would often brush his feelings away, and even stopped making calls home.

Junior hoped soccer would be his escape. Junior had been going to his practices and would stay afterwards religiously. His coach, Santiago Romo, noticed Junior’s hard work and decided to start him on the first game of the season despite not playing him at all in the preseason due to Junior’s grades. When Junior got the news, he finally had something to look forward too.

The morning of the game, Junior got up a little late and had to go straight to warmups with his team. He got dressed and started doing his workouts. Then the time came. The first half of the game was stale. Nothing really happened between the two teams. Jakesville, their opponents, didn’t have many chances but they were closer to scoring, due to the fact that Junior would often miss the chances he got to score a goal.

It was the eighty-eighth minute when Stanford was building up a play. It started with their goalkeeper, Eduardo, who had kicked the ball halfway up the field from his post. The ball landed perfectly at the feet of their star center midfielder, John, and he marched down the rest of the field. He crossed one of the defenders over. Then another. He zoomed past the last one and ran towards the corner post. Meanwhile, Junior was making a run towards the center of the box waiting for John’s cross. John looked up for a second, noticed Junior, and crossed the ball directly towards him. This was his chance, he had to prove himself, not only to his coach but to himself. He wanted to soccer the winning goal and finally have a sense of achievement. Junior leaped into the air to meet the ball. The ball had a sudden drop, and Junior connected the ball with his forehead. It went wide. The final whistle blew. Junior kicked the turf and marched towards the locker room, ignoring his teammate’s negative comments and disappointed looks.

That night, Junior could not sleep. He could not stop thinking about how he had abandoned his mother. Part of him wanted to call her at the moment, but part of him remembered the outcome of the game and his lackluster grades, and would not let him.

“Twelve a.m., too late,” he said out loud. He partially knew it was too late to call but he was also too afraid. He didn’t want to disappoint her especially since she would always work hard and there he was slacking in his classes, and missing wide open goal opportunities.

The next day at practice, Coach Romo wanted to have a word with Junior in his office. He called Junior down during one of the drills.

“What is going on with you, son” Romo said.

“Nothing, I’m just not feeling it lately,” Junior said without looking at his coach.

“Stop lying to me and to yourself. You and I both know what it is. Stop denying the fact that you need help and own up to it,” the coach said.

“What would I possibly need help with? I’ve done everything I’ve accomplished by myself and I don’t see why I can’t keep doing it my way. I’ll be fine,” Junior replied.

“You know what? You’re probably right, but let me tell you I’ve been in your shoes. I got to this country when I was sixteen. I didn’t have any type of family here but here I am with a psychology degree and directing a soccer team,” Santiago replied getting serious. I don’t expect you to open up to me. We both know you’re not like that. I do want you to know that you’re not alone. I came from a low place just like you and look at me now. I’ve felt like I didn’t belong all my life, but now I’m living my best life. You can do it too if you just seek help and talk to someone. Have you told your mom about your situation?”.

“Like I said, thank you but no thank you,” Junior replied as he got up and stormed out of the office. He walked to his room and laid on his bed thinking about the words of his coach.

He never thought about seeking help. He always thought that he was the only one that felt the way he had been feeling. Then he thought once again about his mother. He picked up the phone not checking his clock and let it ring.

“What a miracle, my son. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time? What happened? Is everything okay? Why haven’t you called?” his mother asked with a sad tone.

“I’m not sure, Mom. I haven’t been feeling myself lately. I don’t know why I can’t get it right in class or in soccer. Yesterday, I missed the winning goal. I don’t know what to do anymore,” he replied finally saying the truth.

“Oh my gosh, Junior. You know mistakes can happen but remember how hard you worked to get there,” his mother said.

“I know that. I just don’t know if college is actually for me. Maybe I should go back home and work at your brother’s mechanic shop. I’d be closer to home and everything,” Junior suggested.

“You had to work twice as hard to get to the school. You and I both know that,” his mother said

“Maybe. It’s just that people here are miles ahead. I also don’t want to leave you guys abandoned. I feel like I haven’t seen anybody in ages. Who has been helping you out?” replied Junior.

“Don’t worry about me,” replied Junior’s mom.

“I just want to make you guys proud,” replied Junior, with a teary voice.

“Oh, Junior, you’ve already made me proud. I know your father is watching over you proud. You need to stop doubting yourself and get back on track,” his mother said.

“Thank you so much Mom. I don’t know what I would do without you. I can’t wait to get back there and be with everyone again,” he replied with a tears rolling down his face. He had finally received the approval he desired. He spent all day talking with his mother about how things were back home. He wanted to know about everyone he was representing. They ended the call when his mother had to go to afternoon mass.

“I have to go, Junior. Call me whenever you need me, no matter the time. I have to go thank the Lord for your call. Call me again whenever you are free. Don’t forget about everything we talked about,” she said while ending the call,

The next morning, Junior went to his Romo’s department building. He knocked on his door and waited for someone to respond.

“Come in,” Romo said loudly.

“I apologize for what happened yesterday. I don’t know what has gotten into me. I called my mother like you suggested and everything went well. I need help with my classes though. Do you know anyone that could help?” Junior asked without meeting Romo’s eyes.

“First of all, son, let me tell you I truly understand. There is nothing to apologize for. We all have our moments. And let it be known that I didn’t tell you to call your mother. That was your own conscious decision. You wanted to seek help after our talk so you called her. That is a good sign. I’m willing to help you. I meant what I said; you truly do remind me of myself,” Romo said approvingly.

Junior thanked him and walked out of the office. He was finally turning his life around after a tough patch. He was more excited than how he felt when he arrived to Stanford.

The rest of the school year went fine for Junior. He had raised his GPA, and although he was no longer the sole star on his soccer team he was beginning to adjust to their style of play. He finally realized how important it was to seek help when it was needed. As he boarded the airplane to go home for the summer, he thought about the importance of the words of his coach at the beginning of the season. He could never be grateful enough for his help.

At his arrival to the airport, he was surprised to be greeted by his friends. They had made the drive all the way to the airport to pick him up. They drove Junior to his mother’s house and were greeted by a big feast. At the table, they all talked about how their first years of college had gone.There were no words that could explain Junior’s happiness.