I blew warm air into my hands and started a boxer shuffle to get the blood flowing through my frozen limbs. The snow flakes tried to find flesh through the gaps in my clothing and I adjusted accordingly, tightening the crocheted scarf around my neck and mouth and twitching my jacket sleeves more fully over my wrists. It was frigid at best in Idaho in the winter and the stadium was already covered in a thin layer of snow. The sun was hidden behind a solid sheet of gray but I hoped it would break through later in the day. It was easier to get injured on a cold day like this. It put me on high alert. It would be a long day.
The team was warming up and tossing the ball back and forth across our half of the field. On the outskirts I saw news teams setting up equipment, looking like misshapen colored marshmallows in their puffy ski jackets and beanies. My chest tightened for a brief moment watching the cameras go up on the tripods. Live coverage today. There was a chance…no. I shouldn’t. I breathed purposefully in and out for a few moments, adverting my eyes back to the team and the tension eased. Focus. Just focus.
I noticed the seats started to fill with colorfully dressed patrons carrying blankets and coolers. Some had umbrellas to ward off the snow. It looked like some of them had even brought portable warmers and hot water bottles as well. They looked like they were in it for the long haul. God bless football fans.
The guys drilled and I paced among them, looking for proper form and calling out corrections over the coach’s whistle. The other ATs carried out their own equipment and started to set up the tents. I bent to help them, counting band-aids and rolls of tape to keep preoccupied. Tedium. Boredom. Focus. Head in the game.
“Colder than a witch’s tit out here today ain’t it Jer?”
I offered a fist for the tall man in front of me to bump and gave a crooked smile, adjusting my scarf again to blow warm air around my nose. My oldest male friend. We went through University together, completing our AT Master’s degree and graduating the same year. After a few years being assigned to various different teams we managed to come together to work with our favorite college ball team. Well, one of them anyway. We were in competition now to see who would be called into action by the NFL first. Lion Pride. But for now we were here, freezing our asses off together in the middle of another Idaho winter.
This was a concept I sometimes had to remind myself was something I had desired once. Travel with the team. See it all first hand. Get some experience and some prestige for my Alma Mater. Maybe save someone’s ball career and get eternal gratitude from my guys. All in a day’s work. But the damn winters were a bear.
“Might get some action today,” I replied in that ambiguous-but-not way guys have with each other. Be normal. Be a guy. No problems here!
Steph whipped off his sunglasses and tossed them in the air, jumping up and crowing loudly as he caught them and spiked them to the ground.
“There goes pair 16,” I noted, picking up the cracked lens and snapped arm.
He went through a lot of sunglasses. It was a running joke that for his birthday, everyone on the team bought him a pair. They would last him a season if he was careful, which he wasn’t.
“Hot damn I need some action today too, man. Need to keep my joints lubricated. Been a while.”
Ha. Athletic trainer double speak at its finest.
“Speaking of action, where’s your other half? This is the second game she’s missed. I’d rather see Jac’s cute face than your ugly mug any day.”
I shrugged, my face impassive while an invisible fist punched a hole in the middle of my chest.
“Work stuff I guess. Been busy with some restaurant menu thing I think.”
I got a stare. I ignored the stare and cast a stare of my own out over the snowy field.
“You GUESS? You THINK? Shouldn’t you KNOW? She’s your wife, man.”
The statement burned me but it was the truth.
“Close enough. Even before I met you, you were joined at the hip with Mad Jac.”
“Mad” Jac. My other half; currently missing because I’m an asshole.
I met her at the end of my junior year in high school. We were riding the same bus home and we happened to be sitting next to each other when the bus got into a crash. We had to stay in our seats for hours while the police interviewed everyone and filled out an accident report so we ended up talking the whole time. At the end she gave me her number and it took me a week to gather up the courage to call. That was the beginning of everything for me.
I looked at Stephan, at his disbelieving face, and gave a longer, even more nonchalant shrug, lifting my eyebrows in tandem to give emphasis.
“Seriously? No way man, I don’t believe it. What’s up for real?”
What could I say? That was a short list. Pretty much one or two-word noncommittal answers. I know what I couldn’t say. I couldn’t tell Steph that I dropped the “L” word on her and she flipped. I couldn’t say that I missed her presence at my side. I couldn’t say that I was hoping she would be watching the game in spite of everything and that she might be looking for my face on the TV screen. She would see I was wearing the scarf she made me. Maybe she would see that I needed her.
“She’s just busy,” I said. “Sometimes that happens. Or she needs a break from taking care of you mongrels.”
I’m a guy so I had to be a guy. Steph would get weird on me if I let anything slip about the mushy stuff. We give away nothing, especially before a game. Especially about Jac. Focus.
His blue eyes squinted at me, judging me, and I prayed my vapid disinterest in his inquiries would put him off. I gave the “are we done?” glare and he relented. He smacked me in the chest and bent to unfold one of the tables our team carried out.
“Whatever man. Tell her I’ll miss her and she owes me a box of coconut macaroons.”
I nodded. If I talked to her at all, macaroons would be the farthest thing from my mind. Steph turned to help the coaches move some equipment and I was relieved. Off the hook. Compulsion made me check my phone for the tenth time that hour. Nothing.
God I screwed up.
(To be continued…) ______________________________________________________________