The Pearls of Love and Loss by Mark Okuda '24
Professor Darin Ciccotelli
10 November 2020
The baseball field that I called “home” was the Aliso Niguel High School baseball field. Everyday felt like heaven being able to simply stand on that field. The infield and outfield grass were perfectly trimmed, there’s wasn’t a single bump or ditch in sight and the trees that surrounded the field were always lively. Blake Sabol, who is now on the Pittsburgh Pirates, scrolled through his phone looking for the perfect country playlist. As he puts his phone in his back pocket, which was also stuffed with hundreds of sunflower seeds, “This is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line starts blasting from the ginormous Bluetooth amp speaker behind home plate. We all covered our ears, as Blake pulled out his phone to lower the volume.
“My b, my b.” Blake screamed his apology at the top of his lungs but we only saw his lips move.
As the music reached the right volume, we went right back to shagging fly balls and taking grounders in the smooth infield, laughing off what had just happened. The pole vault team, whose mat is placed right behind the benches by the third base line rolled their eyes. For them we simply looked like a bunch of teenagers screwing around with an oversized golf ball.
My spot while shagging fly balls during batting practice was a good twenty feet from Blake in left field. But I didn’t move further away because Blake usually came by to restock his back pocket with seeds.
“Ay man, let me get some of those cracked pepper seeds you got.” One hand grasping his phone to change the song and the other tightly covered with his glove.
“You hear about what I did against San Clemente the other day?I hit a moon shot right off of their ace and gave a quick wink to the chick in the stands when I went around the bases.”
Blake said to me as he stuffed his hands with the cracked pepper seeds that I kept in hand solely for him.
“Who else but you Blake.”
I spoke. Blake was always the one to bring up some story loosely related to practice and was more focused on what song to play next then the ball that came zooming our way. The jokester and the guy who rarely took practice seriously was a USA baseball alumnus and the fifth-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. He had split personalities. Blake was without a care in the world during practice, but eyes blazing with competition and no mercy during games—his helmet was his punching bag, covered in scratches and a crack from the frustration of striking out or failing to hit a “moonshot.”
“One of the freshmen go get a box of curveballs from the shed!” yelled Coach Ralph from his everyday spot on the buggy that sat in the bullpen out in left field.
As the freshmen frantically ran to the shed that is set up behind the first base dugout, the rest of us desperately covered our laughs with our gloves. When the freshmen came back with the face of embarrassment for looking for a box that does not exist, practice came to a halt as we burst into laughter.
Every day was different at Aliso Niguel. One day we’d all be competing to see who can knock the swarm of bees down from the light pole with a softball, running as fast as we can away when Coach Ralph decided that it would be a great idea to whack at it with a bat. The next day we’d be throwing a football around in the outfield, discussing which corner of second base would be first down. The following day we beat the number one team in the nation 15-2, not surprising as we were ranked the 9th team in the nation with 6 players who ended up being drafted by an MLB team.
What never changed were the after-practice joy rides down Pacific Coast Highway.
“I got my mom’s car today so y’all can ride with me.” Trevor, my 6-foot 8 teammate said to the rest of us who don’t have cars. Ironically this guy’s dream wasn’t to play baseball, but to become a Major League Baseball umpire. It all made sense because his vertical was a solid 4 inches and he couldn’t bend down to catch a ground ball for his life. As of 2020, he is officially a professional Minor League umpire on his way to the Major Leagues.
We would all throw our bags into the trunk of a car and squeeze our sweaty bodies against one another so the next guy could fit.
“Whose got aux?” Trevor asks, wiggling the cord at us like a dog bone, his knees bent but as high as the steering wheel.
“I gotchu!” Nick yelled as he grinned. We all groan as he sat in shotgun of Trevor’s mom’s 1999 Toyota Sienna, the brown paint chipping off and the engine needing two or three tries to turn on.
“Come on man, let’s listen to something else. Did you guys hear Calvin Harris’ new album? It’s straight fire!” Brett asserted his desire from keeping Nick away from his toxic playlist.
“Nope, one of you should’ve sat in the front.” Nick would always rebuttal and we’d all give him the benefit of the doubt.
“So I put my hands up to my song and the butterflies fly away…” Nick sings along to the Miley Cyrus track he thought would be fun tradition as we would go on these drives.
The beginning of ride, we’d all be on our phones, checking the notifications we missed during practice, completely silent apart from the one-man concert by Nick. But as the ocean came into sight, we would all drop our phones in between our legs to take in the sea breeze and the orange sky as the sun sets. The breeze dried our sweaty undershirts and hair. By the time we finished the drive, we would all be bopping our heads and singing along to Miley as well.
I was never the best player on the Aliso Niguel baseball team. Always the shortest? Yes. Being surrounded by players who would go on to play Division 1 college baseball or get drafted, there was always the pressure of being cut from the team. Day and night, I worked and worked, challenging myself to be needed and to play for the team—to reach the level that Blake and so many other were at. By my second year at Aliso Niguel, I was the second starting pitcher for the team. However, I was always hoping for something greater. More glory and more challenge. That call was from Japan.
When I visited The National High School Baseball Tournament called Koshien in Osaka, Japan one summer, it looked like the top stage for baseball players. Hundreds and thousands of people in the stands, watched regular high school players battle it out for the title of Japan national champion. In the stands, each school’s band team would be playing cheering music, louder than any country music that I’ve heard in the States. Teammates and alumni from the teams that were able to make the tournament danced and sang along to the music, cheering out each player’s name as they stepped up to the plate. The ground actually shook in the stands because of the voluminosity of the cheers. Such a tournament like Koshien didn’t exist for high school teams in the States. The uproar when the final team was crowned Japan National Champion, and the players crowding around the mound, hand held high showing number one, was something that I desperately wanted a taste of.
The day I shook hands with the coaches who wished me luck on my journey, I left the country music, my friends and family, and the after-practice joy rides in hopes to experience the elation that was sure to await me in Japan.
The countless hugs and goodbyes to the lift-off of the plane was all too quick to remember. Being the second starter for the 9th best team in the United States, I breezed through the showcase for the high school team in Japan and received a recruitment call. As for the entrance exam into the high school, I barely got through the Japanese language test—blanking on the symbols in front of me and speaking based off a script I had memorized. The only reason I passed was most likely because I was a recruited player. The recruited players were pretty much only required to do their best on the field, academics came second, or rather, didn’t matter. Even with the not so perfect start, I didn’t mind. I was sure that I was simply nervous for the exam and my language ability was nothing to worry about. More importantly, my first step towards the euphoria of standing on the mound of the Koshien Tournament, raising number one high and proud, had begun.
A year passed; I was in the corner of the outfield at a baseball field my team in Japan called “home.” The trees that surrounded the field were bare. The infield was a dark brown and the outfield spanned with hazelnut colored patch of gravel. People might have thought it was an unfinished construction site if it were not for the four bases and a pitcher’s mound. There were no laughs, no music, and no conversation through practice. The coaches simply sat on a metal folding chair, silently watching us or screaming at us for not using our hips enough to hit or for not running hard enough. Every lap I ran around my so-called new “home,” I wondered what this repetition of running and endless practices is doing for me. Every day for me was like a worthless penny that lies on the ground, no true value and meaningless. This life had become my life’s new status quo. That was the route I chose to take—to leave my home in the States, move to Japan, and pursue every Japanese high schooler’s dream to reach the National Tournament..
“Please open your textbooks to page 4.” the teacher says as she walks around each row of our classroom. “We will be reading ‘Rashomon’ a classic!” The window to the right of us students faced a dead tree and the white wall of another building. Any sunshine that had tried to make it into our classroom was blocked off by the other building. The LED lights flickered on and off, as if to mock us of our dire need of it. I enthusiastically opened my textbook, ready to immerse myself in this new culture. That enthusiasm faded as I turn the pages. The “words” on the page looked like Sanskrit to me. Mere codes, symbols, and patterns of a distant lost language. The words that came out of the teacher’s mouth also turned into gibberish and an unknown language. I stared distantly out of the window looking at the dead trees and the sunshine that extended solely away from our classroom. The teacher’s voice becomes muffled and I start to reminisce the warm touch of the California sunset, and Nick’s voice covering Miley Cyrus. Grey clouds went on to thickly cover the sun on the first day of my high school life in Japan.
The sport that I fell in love with, the dream that I chased, is something that I had no longer wished to be a part of. The California sunset and the laughter of my teammates at home became distant echoes as the alarm clock knocked me awake. My room was still dark, the three other beds beside me were still unmade but my roommates were already out, changing into their jerseys, with huge bags under their eyes, they don’t speak, not a single word of “good morning.” The beds are aligned side by side, and in the room next door, our desks for “studying” also are placed the same way. Apart from the everyday goods and a decent traditional Japanese tatami flooring, a comfortable military barrack is how I would describe the dorm. From the long rectangular window, farthest from the door to our room, we could see the dead and monotone field was still hidden by the darkness of the night. I was always reluctant to leave the warmth my blanket provided me—it was the last bit of sensation I had of my time in the States.
“Ugh, I don’t feel so good.” I pretended to cough and groan as I tried to process another excuse to get out of going to practice, something I had never done when I was at Aliso. “I think it might be the flu. (Shoot I already used that excuse last week).”
“Get up. We don’t care.” My roommate blatantly said to me.
For another 350 days, this continued.
As I stood in the corner of the outfield at my new “home”, out of breath, watching the stopwatch count down, I wondered what my life had become. I questioned my very existence. “What am I doing here?” The stopwatch reached the 20 second mark. My heavy breathing wasn’t getting better. My breath turned into fog and I could see the steam rise up from my body. The running isn’t doing any good to battle the shivering cold. I found my pale white breath and the steam coming from my body to be the most amusing thing. I wondered what temperature my sweat and breath must be to turn into this gaseous state. I was jealous. I thought to myself why I couldn’t be like my breath and sweat, rise up and disappear into the clouds, away from reality. I thought to myself what I could be doing instead of running day after day, month after month. I had trouble remembering the sounds of my true teammates in the States. The stopwatch reached the 10 second mark. I forgot my curiosity of the steam, and lined up against the chalky foul line in left field, getting ready to run yet another lap. The glorious stage of the National Tournament was nowhere to be in sight, a goal that I realized was too distance for the team I joined. The stopwatch started counting down, faster than I imagined. Every second that passed, I could hear my heartbeat as if it was the bass at an EDM concert. 5 seconds. I realized I couldn’t breathe. 4 seconds. The feeling of someone pushing their fingers against my Adam’s apple, choking me. 3 seconds. Before I dropped to the ground, I hid behind huge electrical box that is placed 5 feet from the foul line. It was perfectly placed so no one in the infield nor the rest of the outfield could see me. 2 seconds. I was on my knees, begging for a grasp of air. My hands clenched a handful of the hazelnut gravel, not that it would alleviate any pain I was going through. 1 second. I was gagging on the ground unable to catch a breath and I laid there as the stopwatch continued to beep at me to get up and go. I gagged and gagged. In that moment I felt the fear that I would die. But I think to myself, “Get up, don’t be a baby. You asked for this.” While still having the feeling that my life had been sucked out, or rather pulled out by some lifeless figure. I once again lined up on the foul line, my heart beating frantically, stopwatch counting down faster than I thought. I gave myself 30 seconds to recompose. 20 seconds. The chokehold disappeared a little, but there was still the slightest feeling that someone or something had their fingers up against my neck ready to strike again. 10 seconds. I am able to take my hands of my knees. 5 seconds. I brushed off the dirt that stuck to my hands. 3, 2, 1 I was off to run yet another lap. At that moment I did not know that was the start of my anxiety attacks.
The passion I had for playing baseball hide died out. I ran out of excuses to going to practice and even the thought of having to practice at the lifeless field was a nightmare. Practices started 20 minutes after 6th period. Though I began to be able to read the gibberish that was printed in front of me, I would still spend my days looking into the blank space of the whiteboard in front of me. As the clock ticked second by second, I could feel my heartbeat getting louder and louder as the clock inches towards the time that indicates the end of class. Every minute that passed by, the more my daydreams of my past life in the States faded and was overcome with the thought of having to dress and head towards the barren wasteland I must enter every day. The gagging and the life being sucked out of me all took over me as the bell rang. My classmates would give a sigh of relief, closing their books and packing up their backpack.
“I’m thinking of going to the new boba place in town, you wanna come with?”
“Yeah, that sounds awesome! Did you see the new episode yesterday? OMG, we have to talk about it.” My classmates conversed, smiling and let go from the stress of long day of school.
I would sit at my desk, head down jacket covering my body, hiding the fear and panic that rushed through me. Unable to come up with excuses to alleviate me from the trauma that will once again hit me in 20 minutes, I hid. The barren wasteland my team called home and the red seamed ball that awaited me, I could no longer bare to see.
When the pandemic hit, it was nothing that I was worried about. I never thought I would get it and seeing the countless people frantically looking for an extra roll of toilet paper made me laugh. A young woman was standing in line at the cash register when she merely cleared her throat to speak to her child who stood next to her. As if this woman was holding a grenade, shoppers around her ran in all directions, crashing their carts into one another like bumper cars, desperately hoping for another inch, other feet away from this woman. Many pulled out their liter sized hand sanitizers and drenched their hands. The store was in an all-out frenzy. Only if people had the same awareness to those who are struggling, I wondered how amazing our world would be.
Three years since I decided to step away from baseball, my anxiety attacks ceased to exist. The occasional lump in my throat was common and I never bothered to care and I honestly enjoyed the time I had away from people brought on by the pandemic. Not having to fake a smile or answer all the questions of “How’s Japan? What’s it like? Any girlfriends? Is it as bad as it is over here? I remember you were in China in the winter did you already have corona?” was a relief. No longer having to make up excuses to not have to hang out with people was a dream come true. Never did I think that it was a big mistake.
Being stuck at home with three other siblings was the definition of chaotic. My younger sister would be sitting on the L shaped black couch that is too big for the house and too small for a six-person family. She sat there staring at her iPhone for hours, the different colors of images reflecting off her face. My youngest brother would be bouncing around on the couch and crawling under the long rectangular dining room table swinging around his blue plastic sword, fighting the imaginary enemy that run rampant in our house. My other brother who has reached his tween age, is always cooped up in his room playing Fortnite and calling his friends about the latest drama surrounding his school life. The only time I was at peace with myself and sound serenity was in the middle of the night. The weather is always around the 60-degree mark. I like to prop open the window and wrap myself around a blanket to escape the chilliness. I never did sleep when I got into bed however. To make up the time I had lost during the day, dealing with my siblings and running around doing chores, I stayed up as last or early as possible. I would think to myself, “Finally peace to myself.” Apart from the annoying cricket that fails to quite crying for the entire night, I am alone. As I look back now, I should have just slept.
Laying down in bed, I would simply be scrolling through my Instagram feed when I saw a post that one of my old teammates in Japan had posted. The picture was of the lifeless baseball field and the younger classmen gathered in front of it. The picture was filtered, the sky looked bluer than usual and the construction site looking ground looked like a clean sandy beach. The lies that hid behind the filtered post and the darkness and loneliness of the night matched up all too well. I was once again in that outfield, heartbeat too loud, and breathing too much. I was left alone with my thoughts—nothing could take my mind off the trauma. The smiles on the faces of the lower classmen left me wondering if I had made the right decision to quit the team. “Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed on the team? Is the path I chose to take now the right one?” No longer could I hear the cricket that chirped outside the window. The thumping of my heart rang throughout my body. I was once again on the ground grasping at the carpet, ironically, the same hazelnut color of the ground in the outfield.
I had my mom drop me off in front of Scott’s house. It was Mid-August and I finally thought it would be okay for me to take a step outside. It was Zach’s last day before he headed off for Arizona and we were all saying our goodbyes, I had to ask him one question.
We all sat in the backyard surrounding a small firepit. The ten of us fought over who got to sit in on the cushioned chairs and who sat on the foldables. An intense game of rock paper scissors gave me the best seat in the house— the wind would always blow the fire pit’s smoke away from me. We passed around the bag of Now or Later candy I brought and the stories we’ve had together start flowing.
“Remember in Home Arts, when we all got rolled hiding behind the kitchen the entire period? Or when we dumped the entire container of food coloring in to the batter? How did Ms. Vu not notice us?” Scott laughed as the rest of us played with the fire giving each other looks of embarrassment.
“Dude, we all got detentions for a week cuz of that. I can’t believe you guys got me to go along with it.” I laughed along, realizing it had been months since I’ve genuinely laughed about something. I’ve been with these guys since kindergarten and I found a sense of guilt for finding pleasure being away from them.
As the fire grew dimmer, the stories died down and we all moved inside into the living room. Scott played the Bee Movie for some odd reason and we squeezed into the couch.
I sat next to Zach at the corner, and I handed him a bag of candy for his trip to Arizona. “That’s for you my dude. Don’t eat it all.”
“Thanks Mark! I really appreciate it man.” I dabbed him up and gave him a quick hug.
“Hey, Zach I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Yeah man go for it.” Zach said cheerfully.
“When you got your anxiety attacks, did you feel like nothing would go your way. That everything is just always negative?” I asked. He looked at me surprised as I was when he first told me he was diagnosed with it. He’s always been the crazy one in our group. After an 11-hour day at Knotts Berry Farm a few years back, every single one of us was absolutely exhausted from a day of waiting in never-ending lines and the motion sickness we overcame from riding the Silver Bullet rollercoaster one too many times. Zach thought it would be a great idea to shotgun three cans of Monster Energy and proceeded to dance around the neighborhood to the song Sweet Dreams from the Deadpool movie. There was never a dull moment when you were with him, so when he first told me he had anxiety I didn’t know what to say and now I was in his shoes.
Before I had gone to Scott’s house, I had cautiously googled my symptoms, which were getting worse over the year. I could simply be doing my homework on the 13-inch MacBook Air I now stare at for a majority of my day, when my hands start shaking. My heart felt like it is being squished and pulled out of me. The trigger was a simple worry I had for anything. My heartbeat overpowers my hearing. I lose control, my hands feel lighter and my legs felt like if I stood up, I would drop to the ground.
“Did I submit my assignment on time? Did I reply too apathetically to the message? Why isn’t he replying? Did I say something to offend him?”
The gagging followed, taking away minute after minute of my day. Being alone, not conversing with anyone face to face, left me not to be calm within myself, but to rethink of all my faults and the mistake I have made and could make. Being alone was no longer peace for me, but a trap that dragged me into a midst of darkness and self-degrading.
As I press on the symptoms I had onto my iPhone, the diagnoses start to cancel out and WebMD diagnosed me with anxiety attacks but I knew better than to trust the site that also told me I had diabetes when I became dizzy after eating too many Hot Cheetos.
“Mark I never told you my exact symptoms…” Zach pondered on my intuitions.
“Does your heart feel heavy and light at the same time? Insomnia? Trouble breathing? Not wanting to see anyone or talk to anyone?” I bombarded him with question.
“Yeah… why? How did you-”
“Zach, I’ve been having the same problems. Am I, do I?”
“I can’t exactly tell you if you have it or not but I think you should probably see someone.” Zach talked a little quieter as to not let the rest of the guys hear. I wasn’t worried, as they were fully immersed in the Bee Movie as if they had gone back to the elementary school days. The view brought me back in time, because ten years ago, it would have been the same view except we’d be smaller and we wouldn’t have been so squeezed in—a time when things were simpler.
“Yeah. I thought so but you know, you never think you’d be the one to get it right?”
“I totally understand what you’re going through Mark. And I get it, it’s pretty scary.”
His sincere care for me brought about greater guilt about myself avoiding them over the past months.
“Thanks man.” The only two words that could come out of my mouth without shedding a tear.
“The worst thing you can do is be alone and with your thoughts. You have time to think and that’s what usually gets you worried about thing ya know. Just be with people, be with us so you don’t have to think about things. Like the saying goes, ‘Don’t worry be happy’.”
Zach was completely right. Not once since I had hung out with these guys had I worried, felt the lump in my throat, or heard the drum of my heart. To be alone for me was not to be at peace with my thoughts, but to continuously devalue myself and deem the actions I have taken and will take, to be failures.
What began as the heartbreak in losing my love and passion for baseball, then to being put immediately into a time of total anxiety for society itself, resurrected the anxiety attack that laid dormant inside of me. I did as Zach had told me and I now take a 25-milligram pill before I sleep every night, if I do get sleep. I don’t know how to get over it and being left alone at times is inevitable in the times we are in now.
Though I’m back in California, I fear that the sea breeze and the orange sunset will once again fade from my life. I realized that what brought me joy and kept me from the darkness was not the cool breeze against my sweaty undershirt or the sunset that stretched its colors to everything it touched. What brought me joy and peace was the endless laughs from the Aliso Niguel baseball team, all of us cramming into a minivan and singing along to Miley Cyrus and Nick, together. What alleviated me from the darkness was not the simple act of not trying to worry, but the people who let me forget the negativity inside me.
Midnight, I open the door in my kitchen that leads to the void of darkness. I step outside into my garage. The small windows of the garage door to the left of me faintly allow the night lamp’s light in. The concrete is cold on touch. The outline of objects in the garage are faint but I know the steps and what is placed where. The cricket that chirps in the night can no longer be heard. My heartbeat and the hum of the fridge is all that I hear. The box that I have avoided for the past 5 years sits in the corner by the garage door. I flip a switch and the light inside the garage turns on, almost being overpowered by the darkness of the night, it barely lightens its surroundings. I inch closer and closer to the box. I pull off the countless pool toys, boogie boards, and basketballs that lay on top of the box. I dust of the box and pull the lid off. Countless 9-inch “pearls” which I call them, show their faces. Even in the dim light, they glisten. I fear that my heartbeat with grow louder and the gagging will come. I have no gravel or carpet to hold on to. For a brief second, I simply stare and hesitate to reach for them. I pick up the baseball and match the red seams to my middle and index finger. The sound of my heartbeat stays quiet and the lump in my throat is not there. “I want to play baseball.”