Spoilt 9th (#9)

It was never supposed to be this way. It never HAD been this way so what possessed me to try this year I’ll never guess. Maybe it was a last HURRAH before shit hit the fan. Maybe I wanted to try to inject some sunshine into everybody else’s shit storm and let them forget for a while.

I should have known better. But I wanted to try.

It started with a request. A simple request, as had been done every year before.

“Mom, I want a water balloon fight for my birthday.”

One year it was a cake. Just a simple chocolate cake with Neapolitan frosting colors. One year, she wanted a garden. I was so proud of my daughter for choosing unique gifts instead of bombarding me with requests for Tablets or Xbox One’s or Razor Scooters. Maybe not having cable in the house really did help.

It was still a huge deal to get ANYTHING for her birthday though since we used to be Jehovah’s Witness and thus eschewed any holiday traditions. What the kids didn’t know, they couldn’t miss and that’s the way it was. I did let them celebrate holidays at school since that was not at home. I refused to take them out of the classroom and let them believe they were being punished by not getting cupcakes. Ridiculous. Since we’ve cut ties with the good ol’ JW’s however, security had been lightened and I had no problem going back to my roots and getting my kid a small gift for the anniversary of her birth.

Water balloon fight. Cool. I can do that. It wouldn’t break the budget to get her a couple packs and maybe a little cake. She was all into Five Nights at Freddie’s so I knew the cake would have to be red and bloody and gory. It was a simple enough request so I got red and black frosting misters and a glittery red gel writer for the top.

That was it. That’s all that was supposed to happen. Then the texts started coming.

“What size clothes does she wear?” From my sister.

“What’s she into now?” From my cousin.

“Where are we having the party?” From my mom.

Wha…? Did I miss a memo somewhere? Since when was this a big ol’ thing? Okay, whatevs. I answered the first two no problem but as to the last… my house wasn’t big enough for lots of guests. I assumed from the texts that they weren’t just gonna drop off presents and bone out. So…a park.

Great.

This was right around the time that my brain shut off and my Debit card became an extension of my hand. People. Food. Decorations. Presents. PRESENTS! I couldn’t be the only adult to NOT get my kid something to unwrap! Toys ‘R’ Us. Hot Topic. Barnes and Nobles. Michael’s. WalMart for decorations. Target for wrapping paper and tape. Winco for food.

My god holidays are a media trap.

$400 later I was sequestered inside my laundry room for privacy, wrapping my first present in ten years thinking about whether I would be able to get a job fast enough to replace what I spent so we could make next month’s rent. Getting laid off was a bitch to deal with and humble pie tasted a lot like apple cider vinegar straight from the bottle.

But it would be fun, right? Worth it. Parties always were when I was growing up.

Well.

Mix one homeless and car-less sister who had suddenly become a single parent because of the death of her baby daddy with a depressed starving artist step dad, an over worked and under-appreciated mother and a hypochondriac cousin and see what you get.

Yeah. The tension was palatable. Yum.

On top of that, I was a terrible organizer. Or at least, this time I was. My plans had been blasted out of the water and I had to scramble to throw shit together. I over bought on just about everything. Way too much food for only 8 people. I didn’t even use the decorations because I didn’t get to the park in time to set up before people arrived and ran out of time to make the cake so I bought one instead, which was way bigger than it needed to be.  Great start!

The park site we got was bug infested. Black biting gnats were everywhere and no one had thought to bring citronella candles or bug spray. The kids didn’t care though. They were outside with the promise of getting wet, which was the whole point. I silently listened to the group of conversations going on around the table while I mixed dip and laid out sandwich stuff.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do about the funeral. I can’t even give him a good casket…”

“I’m on Somas and Tramadol for my pain and my doctor said I should have any ibuprofen in the mean time because of what happened during my surgery…”

“At work they just fuck around and take extra long breaks. I have to lecture them every damn time and I’m getting ready to write them up and give them an ultimatum…”

I mixed a drink for myself. Fireball whiskey and RC cola. I hadn’t had soda in months due to the new healthy diet I was on. I was slowly trying to  get myself off of sugar but I wasn’t sure I could deal with the negativity sober. Or at least without liquid happiness.

This was a bad idea.

I took the kids down to the creek and I plopped my jacket over my head to keep me from developing skin cancer. While they waded in and squealed over the moss collecting around their ankles I dipped my feet in the dirty silty creek shore and filled up the water guns one by one. I double-handed them and made the kids squeal louder with my squirting antics. So fun!

It’s all about the memories right? They’ll remember this for the rest of their life. The first time in a creek with the tadpoles and dirt and fish. I felt ashamed that this was the first time they’d been in a creek before. I practically learned how to swim in one as a kid, we were always camping and hiking. I was fearless.

We had a slew of visitors come and offer me drinks and conversation and snacks. I sat and tried not to think. This was supposed to be a bright spot in the middle of the craptacular month. I couldn’t add my woes to it so I smiled and drank and squirted until it was time to get things moving again. The bugs were getting too bad to tolerate for much longer and the sun was glaring relentlessly.

Time to get the ball rolling. Get on with getting on with this sham of a party.

Cake time! I announced. We wrapped the kids in over-sized towels and sand “Happy Birthday” for the first time in my daughter’s life. Then we ate cake and I smushed cake in her face. Bad mama. Ohhh she loved it though. It was gluey and half melted with way too much frosting but we ate.

Then it was Time. PRESENTS!

I don’t know who was more excited, me or the kids. Brightly wrapped gifts (or in this case, black and red to match the FNAF theme). Boxes and bundles of surprises, of unknown pleasures waiting to be discovered. And for me, I get to experience the opposite side of the equation now. Instead of the anticipation of getting the presents, I get to experience the joy of giving them.

With the family primed for pictures, we started. I gave her something boring first, trying to confuse her and lead her up the “Big Present.”

“Paint mom? Really?”

“Yeahh!” I said, upbeat with a big smile. “It’ll make sense in a minute.”

Chartreuse eyes looked at me skeptically but eagerly surveyed the big box on the table in speculation. The next one was a little purse with matching sunglasses that I thought she would love. She had complained that she needed new sunglasses and they were brightly colored in pink and green, her favorite colors, so I thought she would at least be thrilled with this gift. I bit my cheek when I saw her lips turn down and say not a word. She moved on to the next. Clothes. An emoji shirt (which she’d been all into with her class that year) and some pink capri pants.

“These are boring,” she said. “Not what I wanted at all. They’re kind of stupid.”

There was an audible snap in my brain and my rage came pouring out like liquid hot magma.

“Don’t be a spoiled brat Kate. You should be grateful you’re getting anything at all,” I whispered fiercely, bending down to her level so she could see the fury in my face. “I can take every single present back to the store and you’ll have NOTHING. Is that what you want?”

But I wanted Five Nights and Freddie’s–”

“BE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU GOT, BRAT!”

Yes, I realized later that my mother came out of my mouth just then. Her eye brows were in her hair, arched in surprise, looking at the intense scene. It’s not like she wouldn’t have done any less. Hell, she would have smacked mine and my sister’s mouths if we were ever ungrateful shits like that!

There was a hushed silence and Kate looked gobsmacked. I slammed her next present on the table in front of her, emphasizing my immense displeasure. It was a new drawing book with a beautiful pastel cover that I now figured she would probably never use and moved away from her before my fingers wrapped around her little white neck.

Somebody else took pictures. I stood back in my hateful little bubble and watched as she blew through the rest of her gifts. Clothes, drawing books, scented crayons for God’s sake! And the piece de resistance: an awesome “Spin Art” activity that my sister and I begged for as kids but we never got. It was seriously, the creme de la creme of presents in my mind. How happy I was to give her something I never got to have! And it was pushed aside without a second glance.

I was done.

I started picking up trash and packing things away, silently seething. How did I raise such an ungrateful little wretch like that? I’ve always taught her manners, to say please and thank you, to share and be generous. She painted her teacher a coffee mug when I took her to a ceramics place. She ALWAYS shares her after school snack with her sister. She loves baking cookies for her class mates and giving them out just to be a nice kid. So what happened?  THIS level of nonchalance I didn’t understand. It was so out of character for her. I wanted to take everything back and teach her a lesson. Lucky for her most of the receipts were thrown away already.

My black mood seemed to be the straw the broke the camel’s back. While the kids entertained themselves with the promised water balloon fight, everyone else gathered their stuff and boned out. I got a quick kiss and some murmured advice.

“It’s just overwhelming for her. Don’t be too harsh.”

“Her first party. It was bound to happen. She’ll come around.”

Never again. This was the first and last party I would ever throw. I plunked everything in the car and drove home, trying to find room in my fridge for all the extra food no one ate and setting the half eaten cake on the counter. Fuck it. Fuck it all.

I stayed in my room like a grumpy adult child the rest of the day, barking out orders and losing myself to my own distractions. What they said was right. Kate had been overwhelmed with everything and I was willing to forgive her for that. She was still little and it was her first party ever. But this reminded me of the reason I never wanted to start celebrating in the first place, even after we left religion behind.

People make such a huge deal out of holidays, frantically running around trying to find the perfect gifts and decorations and food. They get anxious and spend way too much money and go into debt for one perfect day. Why? For what? It was too much to take in all in one day. Too much excitement, like having nothing but sugary treats all day long and then feeling hung over by the end of the night with an achy stomach and the world spinning.

I got it. I really did. But I was never ungrateful for the stuff I got.

The next day I sat Kate down and made her draw out and write Thank you cards to everyone with her new scented crayons. I still refused to look her in the eye but I did calmly explain why her reaction made me upset and that I would like a little more appreciation from her for the things she was given.

Because I was the adult. One of us had to be.

Adulting sucks. Don’t adult.

 

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Little Dove (#8)

(A sample of writing taken from a fantasy story I’ve had to re-write because the original draft was eaten by my old computer >.<)

“Jo.”
A cool hand caressed the cheek of a sleeping girl, who moved slowly and opened brown eyes full of dreams.
“Addie?”
“Mhm.”
Jo twisted around in her already twisted blankets and opened her eyes more fully to see the woman leaning above her. It was still dark outside. The clock said 3am. Her voice was breathy from sleep.
“Did you just get in then?”
“Just now.”
“It was so long this time.”
“I know, little dove. I’m sorry. Did you do okay on your own?”
The other girl snorted and stretched, throwing an arm back over her face, settling back into her pillows.
“I don’t need a baby sitter anymore Ads. I did fine on my own. I car pooled to school and didn’t burn down the house cooking my meals.”
“Obviously.”
“Are the others here too?”
“Soon. I was the first back.”
Jo smiled, revealing an adorably crooked set of eye teeth that poked passed her top lip. She hated them and yet had refused to get braces to fix them. Contrary Jocasta, Little Dove of the Kinley household. Blonde, white, gentle and full of cooing warmth for all living things. And yet there were times, like being woken at 3 am, that she showed her more sarcastic side. Addison Kinely smiled down at her little sister and kissed her cheek.
“We’ll talk more in the morning. I only wanted you to know we were back so you didn’t freak out hearing us in the morning.”
“I wouldn’t freak out.”
“Still.”
“Mhm. Ni ni Addie.”
“Good night Dove.”
Addison walked on soft feet away from the bed and closed the door so she wouldn’t disturb Jo any further with the noises now coming from down stairs. She hurried down stairs to help load in equipment, taking what was offered to her and placing it in it’s proper place. Gun and bullet cases–tucked in the safe behind the false wall in the coat closet. Prosthetics, contacts, pass ports, finger printing kit– attached to the backside of the sink, behind the cleaning chemicals and trash bags. Delicate technology like bugs, taps, and wires were hid in a drawer in Mother’s room, third down from the top of the armoire and placed in a jewelry case then locked in place.
The other girls stealthily hid their own equipment; some in plain sight like Kat’s computer full of data cracking programs, blue prints, time tables and viruses even the Government would cringe to know existed. Mina couldn’t hide much in the house. Her Suzuki was parked in the garage next to the family Jeep and her darts, throwing daggers, and tasers were hidden in tool boxes covered purposely with old spattered paint cans, chemicals for car maintenance and dirty rags. All Mina’s domain. Last came beautiful but deadly Leilani, She needed nothing but her brain and a good cup of coffee. On a good day she would kill you 10 different ways before you even blinked while reciting your entire life to you. Female Sherlock Holmes. Scary.
“She’s okay?” Leilani asked, blue eyes sharp on Addison’s face in the dim living room light.
“She’s fine Lana. Everything went smoothly.”
“I’ll check when she wakes.”
Addie rolled her eyes. Always the same with Lana. She asked a question but no matter what answer you gave, she always had to find out the answer for herself. Mina came in, all leather and wind blown black hair, sucking on a lollipop.
“Lay off Lana. Jo’s been able to look after herself since she was like, seven.”
“We’ve never left her for so long before,” Mother said in a hushed voice, wiping a gloved hand across her forehead and displacing the brown waves fallen over her eyes from out of her pony tail.
“She’s going to have to get used to it,” Katherine pointed out, settling in her bar stool at the end of the table and opening her laptop. “It’s not getting any easier to do this now that we’re on the radar.”
“Yeah, thanks for that LANA.”
Icy eyes pierced the short Asian girl, daring her to continue. Mina rolled her lollipop between shapely lips and stared back nonchalantly.
“Min,” Mother warned.
“It’s true.”
“Whatever,” Addie interjected, ever the buffer between the two sisters. “Kat’s right though. Jo needs better protection if she’s going to be left on her own more often.”
“Or we can just bring her WITH us,” Mina said, crossing her arms.
She was met with three pair of frightful eyes, as she always did when she suggested it. She sighed and cocked a rebellious hip to the side where her gun was still sheathed in it’s holster.
“She’s not DUMB guys. She knows we’re not some hired rent-a-cop help for the rich and famous or whatever lame cover-up you gave her this time. She might even help if you gave her the skills. PLUS–” she said, raising her voice over the protestations rising like a wave around her. “She’s a fresh face.”
“Enough,” Mother said, putting a stop to the old argument before they woke Jo with their bickering. “She’s too delicate for this work. It’s why WE do it. So she doesn’t have to”
Mina rolled her black eyes and went back to sucking on her candy.
“Leave her out of it,” Lana warned. “Tomorrow, for her, we’re home and nothing else matters.”
The silence in the room was only a strained agreement between the sisters. They dispersed, hiding the remains of their gear, showering in turn and eating a quick snack before returning to their own beds for the first time in weeks.

_____________________________________________________

Jo woke fully to the smell of apple cinnamon pancakes, coffee and Mina’s delicate perfume wafting from their shared bathroom. She looked through heavy lids at her clock. 6:30 am. Did they even sleep? She stumbled out of bed, her sheets tangling around her legs and dragged herself to the bathroom. Mina was still in there, applying a layer of glossy pink color to her lips and touching up her mascara.
“Welcome back,” Jo croaked and reached for her tooth brush.
“We’re back,” she said airily and fluffed her little sister’s blonde rats nest. “You really should use leave-in conditioner Jo. Your hair gets tangled because it’s too fine.”
“Murph,” Jo replied, mouth full of foam.

She watched the curvy Asian woman apply a stripe of glittery liquid silver to each lash line and then top it with a layer of black in the crease. She was going “pretty goth” that day with her pink plaid mini skirt and cutesy white screen tee that had some adorable pink haired anime character on it eating a lollipop. She had on white thigh highs held up with a garter belt and some ridiculous platform boots Jo wasn’t sure she could even walk in.
“So anything exciting happen? Have a party? Kiss a boy? Go crazy and buy some land in the Galapagos?” Mina asked.
Jo snorted and spat.
“I was promoted at work to pill pusher. Yaayyyy. And I finished planting my grafted seedlings. I’ll see in a few weeks how they came out.”
“Ohh honey we need so much more than leave-in conditioner to haul you over,” Mina sighed and gave Jo’s head a one armed hug.
“Mhm.”
“Anyway, hurry down when you’re dressed. I’ll give you a ride to school so you can avoid the Lana-nater. We’ll pick up chocolate Croissants and chai tea on the way to the Studio.”
“Sounds good,” Jo said, smiling at Mina in the mirror at their own private joke. She went back into her neat as a pin room (Lana wouldn’t have it any other way) and rummaged through her drab but comfortable wardrobe. She chose something at random while Mina clattered downstairs, making as much noise as possible and yelling “Good Morning!” at the top of her lungs. It was sure to piss off Lana and Jo gave her bed a smirk.
Lana was the oldest sister and the meanest. Mina and Jo would call her Lana-nater, after the Terminater when they got in trouble with her, which seemed like every second of every day. The older, severe looking girl with the piercing eyes ran the house like a drill Sargent and Jo was interrogated every time Lana came home from a work trip. It had been the same since she was first brought to the house. There was never any praise from Leilana, not for any of the sisters. Only criticisms and the drive for everyone to do better. Addison was and always will be the middle-woman between Lana and everyone else, smoothing everything over as best she could to keep the peace. She was the only one able to deal with Lana’s harshness.
Kat brushed it off with a cool disregard, her eyes and ears filled with nothing but numbers and static. So it had been Mina who became Jo’s self-appointed buffer from Lana’s wolfishness when, at age six, she found a tiny red-faced Jo cowering in the tool shed after a particularly harsh lecture. After that Mina insisted Jo room with her and under the pulsing tones of techno played on full blast, Jo could cry in peace on Mina’s lap and heal the wounds of disappointment in herself that Lana had instilled.
As a teenager though, Mina’s role had shifted from protector to teacher for Jo. Out of all her beloved sisters, Mina was the only one who pushed Jo to broaden her horizons, to try new things. Often it didn’t work because Jo had a quiet nature and was content with simplicity. But at least she tried and some things DID stick. Which was why every day Jo left the house an hour earlier than most for school and rode her bike to a little Kendo studio for lessons.
“You’re a wimp,” Mina said, standing with Jo in front of the studio four years ago, arms crossed and popping bubbles with her bright green bubble gum. “Kendo is a non violent form of martial arts that can build muscle and reflexes. My ex owns the studio and agreed to teach you for a couple weeks to see if you like it.”
Jocasta was scrawny and weak when she first gripped the long bamboo stick and ached all over after the first day. She’d never done anything more strenuous than pick up potting soil bags. But she came back the next day and the next, enjoying the power she gained over the Kendo sticks and the release of tension from her hectic family life. No one else knew about her lessons except Mina. Sadly, Jo knew her sisters would object to them. Why? She couldn’t even imagine. She often thought they wanted to keep her deaf and dumb the rest of her life, puttering with her herbs and flowers like a little doll. Only Mina saw more; PUSHED her to do more.
The blond girl hurried into her clothes and ran a brush through her long honey blonde hair. She took a quick glance in the mirror, saw chocolate brown eyes, a sharp chin, a dusting of freckles and two tiny indentations in her bottom lip where her crooked teeth pushed past her lips. She sighed. Plain Jane Jocasta. She started downstairs and took a fortifying breath.
“Jo darling! My little Dove!” Mother greeted, her brown hair smoothed back into a bun and sea green eyes alight with joy. “We didn’t want to wake you last night when we came in but we’re home!”
She came around from behind the stove and gave her youngest daughter a hard long hug.
“Welcome back Mom,” Jo said, feeling joy trickle through her at the warm embrace.
“I’m sorry we were gone so long,” she murmured into Jo’s ear, “I know you don’t like being alone so long.”
“It’s fine Mom,” she said. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Still….”
“Did you need any help with your homework or projects?” Kat asked, never turning from her computer. “It says here that you have a History project due next week. And a test in your Geometry class tomorrow and your grade is a low B. Did you need help prepping? We can go through sample problems after dinner.”
It was an order, not a request. It was how Kat showed she cared. Jo sighed and released her mother to go peer at Kat’s screen. It had been a request of the family that Jocasta’s teachers keep a calendar of events as well as her grades online for her family’s benefit since they traveled so much.
“That’s fine Kitty. I’d appreciate the help.”
She kissed her rumpled and distracted sister on the cheek and grabbed an apple from the bowl of fruit on the table. The whole time Jo had been in the kitchen she felt Lana’s eyes digging into her. She was leaning against the sink, arms crossed, mouth a thin line of judgment. Addison was no where to be seen. Jo’s heart start to quicken when she raised her eyes to meet Lana’s and opened her mouth to greet her when Mina came barreling through the kitchen and grabbed her roughly by the arm.
“Late. Gotta go. C’mon.”
“Jocasta!”
Jo stumbled out the door into the garage, clutching her apple as she was dragged toward Mina’s sleek motorcycle.
“My bag–”
Mina shoved a heavy back pack at her and a coat after it.
“Thanks.”
“She’s been in a mood since she got home, biting everybody’s head off.”
“Awesome.”
“Let’s go, before she has Kat hack the garage door opener.”
Mina swung a long leg over the seat of her bike and plunked the keys into the ignition. She kicked the stand up and steadied the bike as Jo shrugged on her jacket, put the apple in a pocket and mounted behind her. Jo settled the heavy bag on her shoulders and took the helmet Mina offered.
“Welcome home, by the way,” Jo said, a long-time weariness in her voice.
“Yep. Same old, same old huh?”
The blond girl set her feet on the pegs behind Mina’s and gripped her waist lightly. She lowered the visor and Jo’s world went into shadow. Mina opened the garage door and cool morning wind brought goose flesh to the girls’ skin. The Asian girl never seem to mind though. She rarely got cold. Jo, on the other hand, was already freezing.
“Giddy On up! WOO HOO!!!”
Mina roared out of the garage, upsetting the two cars parked at the front of the house owned by the family and several others parked on the street nearby. Jo smiled. Mother would be getting calls again no doubt. But no one could tame Mina. Jo preferred it that way.

More Than Words– part 5 (#7)

(Part 1 Here) (Part 2 here) (Part 3 here) (Part 4 here)

Shoes. Jacket. Keys. Wallet and Phone. Sunglasses. Work Badge to bypass the witches at the receptionist desk. Lock the Door. Get in the Car. Drive the car. Go FAST.

Steph. It was Steph. Almost as bad as Jer. But thank gawd it wasn’t.

The closest hospital to the stadium was about 15 minutes away from my apartment. I careened through back roads, my emergency flashers going and I shamelessly ran red lights if I saw it was safe enough.

The first text in a week and it was an SOS. It was so petty of me to run away. I saw that now. What if it HAD been Jer? How much more of an ass would I feel right now for not being there, for not seeing something might be wrong? Gawd I was so incredibly selfish.

I screeched around a corner, setting a couple of dogs off. Their ski jacket humans put their arms up in a “WHAT THE FUCK?” gesture.

“Sorry!” I yelled uselessly.

I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. I ignored it. I was half focusing on the road and half trying to crank my brain into giving me answers to a problem. Did Steph have any pre-existing conditions that I didn’t know about? Was he hung over today? Did he have a blood clot? Did he have an arrhythmia? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know because I wasn’t there. I hadn’t BEEN there. I couldn’t ask the question I needed to.

Left. Right. Light. Wait; now go. Almost there. I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. It pulled in just before me.

I squealed into the emergency parking lot of the hospital and slammed the car into park. I shoved all my junk into my over-sized jacket and kicked open the door, scanning the lot for familiar cars. Jer wasn’t there? Or did he ride with the van? I disentangled my phone from my pocket and checked messages.

Alma. Alma. Gale. Jer!

-Going to the hospital with Steph-

So he WAS here. I pressed the call button and hurried out of the biting cold into the warmth of the lobby, snowflakes instantly turning to liquid on my hot skin. I waited breathlessly by the door. Jer wasn’t picking up. Dammit! My heart beat was choking me, anxious about damn near everything. My eyes swept over all the faces waiting in the lobby. Not there.When they started to blur I pressed the heels of my hands hard against my sockets and took a deep breath. It’ll be okay. Jer’s here. It’ll be fine. Steph’s in good hands.

I waited in line at the receptions area, shifting from foot to foot. I rapidly responded to the texts blowing up my phone.

Alma: “WTF Jac?! CALL ME YOU ASSHOLE!”

Alma: “OMG!!! STEPH! UPDATE ME!”

Gale: “Just saw the TV honey. Give Steph and Jerry our prayers and love.”

“Can I help you ma’am?”

I swallowed a few times, swiping at the tears in my eyes and leaned down to the clear plastic window at the bored nurse.

“Yes, a man was just admitted into the ER. His name is Stephen and I need to see him right away—”

“Jac.”

My head whipped around at the sound of my name. And then there he was. The face I’d loved for years tense with worry and no trace of his easy smile. But it was a face more familiar than my own. The beauty mark next to his left eye. The creases around his eyes from laughing. Cinnamon brown irises that revealed everything he was feeling, but only to me. Just now they were a storm of emotions and I couldn’t keep up.

A balloon rapidly blew up inside my stomach and floated up through my chest and stopped at my throat, trying to inch its way up and out. It was the same reaction I had when he told me he loved me. Was this PTSD? Panic attack?

No. This didn’t feel bad. It felt wonderful. Jer was here and he was okay.

I didn’t feel my feet hit the floor as I rushed to him. I teleported into his arms and tried to fuse him into my anatomy, burying my face into his chest. His arms went mechanically behind me in a return gesture. I clung like an adult monkey to his torso and squeezed until he grunted. My brain fought over what to say first but I still couldn’t speak. Not about what happened anyway. I was here for a reason.

“They’re doing a CT scan now,” Jer murmured in my ear. “I didn’t see what happened. I was in the locker room when he went down.”

I latched my arms behind him and was silent for a moment. I knew he was beating himself up for not being there.

“Did he tell you anything on the ride?” I managed to squeak out.

“He couldn’t really speak around the oxygen mask. I don’t know anything except he was stabilizing on the ride here.”

We stood there in the lobby wrapped around one another for a long time. Tears leaked out of my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. Tears for what Jer must be feeling and for my own sorry self. I wanted to say I was sorry for putting him through hell. I wanted to explain why I did it more than anything but I didn’t even KNOW that. I wanted to open my mouth and tell him it had been the most horrible week of my life, including pledge week for my sorority and that bad case of food poisoning I got when he tried to cook me rancid scallops.

I could only cling with all my strength. Slowly, he returned the pressure with his arms and laid his chin on my head.

“Goddammit Jer. You asshole,” I cursed softly.

“I know.”

When Jer knocked on the door to alert the nurse on the other side to open it, I was firmly gripping his other hand. He took me to a curtained stall where I saw a pile of Steph’s clothes were on the corner of the bed, neatly folded, his prized sunglasses setting on top and his yellow sneakers waiting down below.

“Do you have any suspicions?” I asked.

I looked up at the tall man and my eyes instantly went to his beauty mark. It always seemed like a bull’s eye for my lips. I would drag his face down to mine and kiss it before he left me for the day. He told me jokingly once he was going to get lip prints tattooed there since I was leaving my lip stick marks there all the time anyway. It was “Jac’s Mark”.

He looked down at me and my pulse leapt, throwing off my breathing rhythm. He probably heard the catch in my voice. Warm Tiger’s eye brown. Red brown honesty tinged with distrust and hurt.

“When we were going to the locker room after warm ups he was going on and on about a weird thing that happened at the bar. I was only half-listening but I did catch that he felt like he’d been running a marathon as soon as he stepped inside.”

“Had he been?” I wondered. This was Steph at after all. If someone dared him he would jog to the next city and back for a beer.

“I don’t know. I was distracted. I didn’t ask.”

I bit my lip and looked away. Passive-aggressive anger. I deserved it. I knew I did but it still hurt. I didn’t say anything else for a while. I stood there like a human statue, gripping Jer’s hand and refusing to let go even when he twitched to signal me to.

“You’re impossible,” Jer said.

Yes, I know, I thought.

He took his phone out and started to speak into it. Probably a mass text to let everyone one we were still waiting. I should have done the same but I didn’t reach for my phone. There was pressuring building inside me and I was focused on it. I felt it bubbling up like a geyser about to blow. What was going to come out? I didn’t even have a clue. There was a week’s worth of big things and little things I wanted to tell Jer about and I wanted to scream at him for being an idiot and ruining things. I wanted to hug him again and tell him it would be alright, that I was there even if it wasn’t.

I wanted–

“You’re in love with me?”

I felt Jer’s gaze shift to my face. It was flaming hot like a sunburn. Why the fuck did I have to start this NOW? Jesus Jac, you ridiculous moron–

“Yes, I am.”

I inhaled slowly and I felt hot warmth behind my eyes again. He squeezed my hand to try to turn my head around to look at him directly but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“Why now?”

“It was time.”

He had all the answers ready. That wasn’t fair. I still had none. There was more tense silence. I could hear my heart beat in my ears and I tried more deep breaths to calm it. What next? What could I say next that was true and honest?

“I–”

“Jac, nothing has changed for me.”

My word vomit hit the brakes. Goose flesh rose off my skin with the effort to hold it back.

“What?”

“Nothing has changed for me by admitting this to you. I’ve felt the same way for years and I’ll continue to do so for a long time. If we remain friends, I’ll still love you. If you decide you’re okay with this, I’ll love you harder and better than anyone ever has or could again. But I’m here with you, no matter what. You are my life, Jac and I will give you all the time you need to figure it out.”

“You would stay,” I asked, “Even if we can’t be more? Isn’t that kind of masochistic?”

“I’m a glutton for punishment. You’re worth it. I’m not going anywhere until you’re done with me.”

God fucking dammit. Everything rested on me now. The ball was in my court entirely and he waited patiently for an answer. He stared down at me, not asking for anything more than I was willing to give. Who DOES that? Who WAITS for someone for years, sitting on a massive secret like this and pretending everything is normal for MY sake because he knew I would flip out? He said it knowing he might lose me.

I slowly loosened my death grip on him and ran two shaky hands through my disheveled hair. Dammit, I thought. DAMMIT! I reached out, finally turning my face fully toward his and I dragged his head down to mine. My lips did not touch the beauty mark this time. They landed with irritation and desperation right on top of his and I heard his sharp intake of breath.

“I have had the most horrible week of my life,” I murmured to him, my lips brushing his while I spoke. “I hate you for putting me through it and I demand compensation.”

“And what is the price for one week of horribleness?”

His hands slid around my back and I saw his mustache elongate, parallel to his lips. He was laughing at me.

“Don’t leave.”

His eyes jumped to mine. Naturally, they were already tearing up. Why break the trend?

“I don’t have answers for you Jerry. Not good ones anyway. But I know that being away from you felt like I was going through the nine circles of Hell and I absolutely hated it.”

I paused, hearing my words and deciding I agreed with them. It wasn’t just emotion talking. It was me. I continued.

“You said you’re willing to give me time to figure it out. I’m going to hold you to that. It might be a long time though.”

“I know. You’re pretty thick in the head when it comes to this kind of thing.”

I pursed my lips at him and he finally gave me his crooked lazy grin. A tiny bit of pressure eased in my chest. There he is. At last.

“Shaddup! That’s the compensation I demand. Give me time.”

“So it’s not a no?”

The hope in his voice sent a fresh wave of goose-flesh down my body.

“It’s not a no.”

“Then I demand compensation as well.”

I raised my eyebrows at him, daring him to be ridiculous. He didn’t say another word. He rushed in and covered my mouth with his in a passionate, rough kiss. He punished me with tenderness and pressure, sliding his hands up to my face to keep me immobile while he nibbled my bottom lip and rolled the tip of his tongue across it to ease the dull ache. He demanded entrance into my mouth and I gave it, too surprised and lost to think about what this meant.

He gave me a week’s worth of frustration and sorrow when he crushed my mouth to his. There was an apology within his kiss when he brushed me so softly it felt like butterfly wings. And there was promise when he drew me close and lined his body up with mine, warming me down to my toes with pleasure.

Goddammit.

My lips felt tingly and bruised when he finally pulled away. I tried to focus disoriented eyes on him and frowned when I saw his smirk.

“You asshole!”

“That was my compensation. And maybe a little persuasion. A taste of what you could have.”

I turned away from him, face burning again, eyes bulging. My hand came up to cup my mouth holding the feeling of his promise against them. My other hand reached back toward him and he took it. We stayed like that until the curtain was drawn open and a harried looking doctor walked in holding a clip board. He looked at us and blinked. I wasn’t sure what he saw but he managed to keep his composure.

“Jeremiah?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“The patient said I should relay everything to you so you can alert his family.”

I took a step back so I was shoulder to shoulder with Jer, giving him strength as his best friend to hear whatever news came. We held tight.

“It turns out that the patient has been diagnosed with WPW, or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.”

I looked up at Jer, who nodded. He knew what it was. He also looked relieved which allowed me to finally take a deep breath.

“He doesn’t require surgery then?”

“No, not yet. We’ll try medication and Vagal Maneuvers first and work up from there.”

“I can work on it with him. Thank you Doctor. Is he free to be discharged?”

“It’ll take a bit of paper work on my end but he can go home today, yes. Make sure he rests.”

The doctor exited the curtained stall and I immediately shifted around to hug Jer.

“Relief!” I said, sighing.

“In more than one way.”

I blushed and smiled into his chest.

“There’s one more thing though,” Jer said and I felt my shoulders sag. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Steph said when I talked to you again you owe him a box of coconut macaroons.”

I burst out laughing.

“He can have all the macaroons he wants! Idiot man. He might get a poisoned one though for what he put us through.”

“Maybe lace it with a laxative. It’s what he deserves after all.”

I laughed until my abs ached. This was Us. This was how life was supposed to be. Side by side with our lives stretched out before us. Who knew that it took something more than words to make me figure out it was what I wanted all along?

 

More than Words– Part 4 (#7)

Part 1 HERE  Part 2 HERE  Part 3 HERE

5 minutes till game time. My kitchen was clean, the trash was taken out and I took a record breaking short shower. 12 texts from Alma, demanding to know why she hadn’t been informed of my sickness. 1 text from Gale, making sure I really didn’t need anything. Nothing else on my phone though. Even though it had been with me in the bathroom where I could hear it clearly, I still checked. Dammit.

I sat back on the sofa, brushing my hair, the TV remote in my lap. My blanket would be done by half time. Rather, the blanket I stole from Jer would be done. It was the blanket that started me on the path to being an Registered Dietitian for a sports team. It was a “lucky” blanket now, forever immortalized in my mind and forever on the “do not throw away” list (much to Jer’s relief I imagine. It WAS his favorite after all.)

I was not a football fan by any means growing up. My mother was a die hard Packers fan. She had the Farve jersey, the cheese head and everything. While she hollered and screamed at the refs, I would hibernate in my room with head phones in, blasting music whenever a game was on, happily oblivious. I only came out for snacks. The first thing I said when I stepped foot in my dorm room at college was “THANK GAWD NO MORE FOOTBALL!”

Jer laughed at me hearing this. I didn’t know it was a sadistic laugh until later.

He figured out early on in the friendship that I would basically do anything for food. Every time a game would come on he wanted to watch he would try to convince me to watch too. Always it started out being a firm “NO” with me. I would rather do Calculus than watch grown men chase after an elongated brown ball and I despised math. My mustachioed friend would try to bribe me or threaten me sometimes but he knew he could always get me to agree with a good snack platter. Food was my downfall. So shameful.

Plus, it was Jer. Being with him was second nature.

In the early days, it was awful watching football on his little TV and being completely oblivious. Nothing made sense to me, no matter how much Jerry tried to explain. But he was a die-hard fan and so I became an honorary fan by extension as his best friend. He made me wear the fleece Lion’s blanket every game to mask my “unhealthy dislike of his future career prospects”. He thought I might absorb some football appreciation from it or something. He had some weird superstitions.

One day before a game while wrapped in his stinky blanket we were talking about his career and he had mentioned possibly getting a minor in Nutrition.

I laughed at him.

“Seriously Jer? You cook vegetable soup every night for dinner. EVERY night unless I cook for you. Your team would hate you.”

The look on his face made me laugh. It was sad puppy mixed with indignant playful man. I swear only he could pull it off and be handsome and adorable at the same time.

“Leave my soup alone! It’s healthy and satisfying.”

“Whatever you say, darling.” I tried to keep the smirk off my lips and failed. He sighed dramatically for my benefit.

“It’s NUTRITIOUS Jac and it’s tasty.”

“Kale is NOT tasty.”

He ignored me.

“Career-wise it never hurts to have more knowledge. I need to take care of my future team on and off the field and learning to keep them on track with their diet helps achieve this goal. Besides, I would just be advising, not actually cooking. Leave that to a dietitian.”

I gave him a sarcastic look and watched him flick more chili lime popcorn into his mouth. He raised his eyebrows at me, waiting for my rebuttal.

“Plumber has a leaky faucet. Nutritionist has a limited diet?”

“Impossible woman.”

He tossed a kernel at me and I snorted, feeling I had won the battle and grinning accordingly.

During the game while he was engrossed, I researched careers in nutrition and educated myself on earning the Dietitian degree. It was supposed to be for Jer’s sake but my interest was more than just peaked by the end. I was enraptured by the possibilities.

“It would be kinda cool to be an RD,” I admitted a loud, over Jer’s mumbling about flags and unnecessary roughness. “For you and I to be on the same team with our careers. Athletic trainer and Dietitian Besties. We would see each other every day!”

“We already do,” he said, only half listening while he watched. I nudged him with my foot and demanded his attention. I got a half glance for three seconds.

“But we could travel together. We could wrangle gorilla men like people from the circus! Crack the whips. I like being bossy. It might be fun.”

He made affirmative noises and then started absently massaging my foot, absorbed in the tv. I sighed and pursed my lips. Impossible indeed.

“In the off season, I can consult with restaurants on their menus and teach children about health and proper diet. It sounds pretty amazing.”

“Yep. Sure does. Go for it Jacquie.”

I was already learning to become a chef anyway. It was what I was going to school for. This made my career choice broaden quite a bit and it sounded so appealing. I could take my job anywhere and didn’t have to be stuck behind a counter at a restaurant. I could educate people and cook and travel. So much win.

I talked to my counselor that week and we made a plan to alter my major and that was that. Why wouldn’t I follow Jer into a sport I disliked and cook for a bunch of stinky, ball toting behemoth lug heads? Duh.

Of course I would.

Why?

3 minutes.

With an irritated sigh I powered on the TV. I had no discipline. My heart tapped an erratic rhythm against my ribs while the commentators rambled on about team updates and player bios. My eyes were glued to the screen. I couldn’t seem to help it. I scoured the snippets of field shots they showed, backing up my DVR to see if I could see him. AT’s don’t usually get much air time unless there was an injury but Jer always said he would try to wave at me from the field if there was live coverage.

My head grew annoyed at my heart for being ridiculous and my heart railed at my head for being so…well, pig-headed. I leaned against the cushions and huffed at myself. Impossible.

“And here’s the coin toss–!”

_______________________________________________________________

More than Words – (Part 3) #7

(Part #1 HERE) (Part #2 HERE)

In the very beginning of our friendship, that first summer in fact, Jac put a muzzle on me. She told me that if I were to ever fall in love with her that I had to keep it to myself. She couldn’t know about it or everything would be ruined. I was taken aback by her sudden request. Who even says that kind of thing? I was alarmed until she followed it with a cheeky smile and I raspberried her, waved her off, sure it would never come to that.

What I didn’t know until later was that it had happened before. A good friend of hers had confessed his love for her but she didn’t feel the same way. She thought he would be able to deal with her rejection and be cool. Turned out not to be the case. The friendship became strained and they couldn’t talk anymore without fighting. Eventually the relationship died out. She muzzled me as a precaution, afraid it would happen again, but neither of us really thought it would need to be employed.

Until I fell in love with her of course.

It was around the time she was dating a guy she was pretty serious about. We were freshmen in college then, young and free from parental control and she had a long queue of guys after her. I didn’t understand then the burning feeling in my chest was jealousy. My experience with girls until Jac had been pitifully short. I ignored the ache because I knew Jac would always be with me, no matter what fool tried to take her away. #Bestiesforlife. That’s just how close we were.

Once I realized what was going on though, I felt that I didn’t have enough romantic influence over her to make her leave her boyfriend for me. Friend-zoned for the win. It became a painful cross to bear when she came to me sobbing because of her break up one night. There was nothing I could do though in the face of her tears. Words wouldn’t work. So I hugged her and bought her pints of ice cream and a box of tissues. It’s what best friends did.

“You know, I’m an Athletic Trainer, technically. I know a body’s weak points. Wouldn’t be to much trouble to debilitate him and make it look like natural causes.”

She laughed weakly and wiped her nose again, giving me a pathetic, watery smile.

“I could poison him with Belladonna and you could hide the body.”

“There you go. Team work!”

I could have told Jac that night. I could have made her forget that her heart had ever been hurt over the mongrel. “I LOVE YOU.” That’s all it would take. But it would have been a hollow victory. I wouldn’t do that to her on the heels of a bad break up. Plus such a declaration would most certainly push her away from me and that was the last thing I wanted. So I remained muzzled.

I stroked her hair as she curled beside me under our favorite fleece Detroit Lions blanket and let her soak my shirt with her tears, holding my tongue. She didn’t see it but my heart bled all over her that day and stained her. She had it all now. My blood, sweat, tears and now my heart. She had become, in so short a time, my life’s purpose. Whatever else happened to me, I had to keep this woman by my side.

“I’m sorry Jerry,” she sighed, on the verge of sleep with her puffy eyes and chapped lips. “I love you. What would I do without you?”

She never had to find out. Not for the next 5 years. I was there for everything, internalizing my agony over every new boyfriend and suppressing my jealousy with my own attempts at dating. It never ended well because Jac was still #1 for me. No woman likes to be told she’s second best. So I made the decision to be alone and focus on my career, being content as the best friend. Until now. I don’t know why I did it now. Maybe I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Maybe I thought the risk of losing her was worth her finally knowing.

I turned my face up to the iron skies above the stadium and let the snow flakes sting my skin. What are you doing without me now Jac? It was strange not to know. Between us there were hundred of texts a day when we weren’t together. Small things like what we had for breakfast to what we thought about global warming. The radio silence from her was killing me. But I couldn’t think about it too often; my anxiety would flare. Staying busy was my only sanctuary.

“Ready champ?”

Steph set a hand against my shoulder and pushed, breaking my day dream and my balance.

I saw the team and coaches start to head to the locker room to dress and I nodded, trying to get my head into the game. I jogged along beside Steph, half listening to his story about his crazy night at the bar last week while I made a mental list of injuries I needed to ice and rub out.

In the locker room I set my phone in my locker and snapped the lock in place. There. Then I turned to the fridge and started to dole out ice packs and do my job. Focus. Focus…

More than Words– Part 2 (#7)

–Part 1 HERE

I’d been staring at a black TV screen for the last half hour, wrapped in a ratty fleece blanket with a pint of chocolate ice cream melting in my hand. It was a puddle now. I didn’t notice. Half an hour till game time.

“Jac, I’m in love with you.”

In my mind’s eye I saw his lips form the words. I saw the curve of his thin mustache rise and fall in sync with his top lip. I watched his teeth briefly scrape his fuller lower lip when he said the word “love”. I watched his eyes, seeing the truth there in the depths of the brown and red streaks. So steady. So sure he knew exactly what he was saying, which is exactly how Jerry was so I knew it to be absolute truth. His pupils dilated and I felt him tense, waiting for me to say something. Anything.

What could I say? The words that wanted to come out log jammed in my throat, which had clogged with tears. I started and stopped for a minute, my eyes flitting to the buttons on his shirt,  the stubble on his rounded chin, his slightly pink earlobe, the pulse throbbing in his neck; anywhere but his eyes. Not those honest as a prayer eyes. 7 years together, oblivious, and he tells me this NOW? WHY now? My head exploded. I ran away, leaving him standing there without an answer.

It had been radio silence between us for the past week and I still haven’t glued the pieces of my mind back together.

It was killing me.

I felt ridiculous, acting like I had broken up with a boyfriend; ice cream binges and all. I was crying my eyes out. Eating everything my nutrition professors said was the devil. My chest was a mess, tightening painfully whenever I head the NFL theme (which was also Jer’s text tone) and then feeling hollow when I realize it was just the TV. RIDICULOUS! I tried to tell myself. You weren’t even dating! Why the hell are you freaking out?

I kept staring into the black abyss of the TV screen, wanting answers to float across like some psychic news headline.

Jacqueline Maden, best friend to Jeremy Owens, your heart is conflicted because you’re an idiot and can’t handle sudden changes. Mercury is also in retrograde, inhibiting your communication skills and because your sign is Cancer you find it difficult to face conflict head on…”

Ha. Definitely true but I suspected it was only a small part of the problem.

Why WAS I freaking out? My brain recoiled from the possibilities, refusing to pony up the truth. Instead, my treacherous heart ruled my body now and made me an utter mess. I hadn’t showered in three days. Yeah.

The phone rang behind me and I jumped out of my skin, dropping the ice cream and cursing out loud. I scrambled out of my nest, knocked my foot into the coffee table with another loud curse and lunged for the handset on the side table. I didn’t look at the caller ID, I just pressed “talk”.

“Hello?” I jammed a fist into my chest, willing the inflating balloon inside to stop and desist.

“Jacquie honey, where are you? The wives are all here and we’re sure missing you and your yummy treats!”

“Oh.” My response fell flat. “Hey Gale.”

I didn’t bother masking the disappointment in my voice. The chest balloon shriveled instantly. My second mother, who also happened to birth my best friend, was sweet as can be but a little insensitive and self-absorbed. She didn’t wonder where I’d been all week or why I hadn’t called or come by. She only cared that I wasn’t at her party and I hadn’t brought anything to munch on. I closed my eyes took a deep breath as an ugly ball of ire started tap dance along my ribs and make it’s way up to my mouth. This really was getting to be a problem.

“Get yer cute curvy ass over here Jac! Yer gonna miss it! Got a berry margie waiting for ya!” I heard someone yell in the background. There was a chorus of cat calls and greetings for me as well.

Ughhhhh…

Traditionally, the wives/girlfriends attached to the team would all try to get together for “girl time” and make margaritas whenever there was a game on that we wanted to see. It was usually a twice a month thing, barring schedules. Some women would skype call and video chat and we’d have a grand ol’ time hollering and cussing at the coaches as badly as any rabid male sports fan. I wasn’t often a part of these since I traveled with Jer’s and my team as their registered Dietitian.  It was my saving grace. God love Alma and Gale but there was a reason I traveled with a gaggle of sweating hulking gorilla neanderthals. They were less complicated. At least I assumed they were until recently.

I sighed into the phone and sniffled dramatically, deliberately clogging my nose to make it sound stuffed up.

“I’m sorry Gale, I’m sick. I haven’t been to work in a few days and I feel gross.”

It wasn’t really far off from the truth. I just wasn’t physically sick. My heart ached like it had been vomiting for a week though. Which it had.

“Aw, honey that’s terrible. Did you need anything? Some OJ or hankies? I can have them delivered to you.”

How very Gale. She lived across town from my apartment and she was going to have groceries delivered. Bless her germophobic southern heart.

“Nope. I’m gonna nap right now and try to sleep it off. Thanks though. Love ya. Kisses to the girls.”

In other words, don’t call me again unless you’re dying. I clicked off, not feeling regretful at all. Alma would blow up my phone as soon as the news hit her ears and I was tempted to turn it off. But I just couldn’t. Just in case. I cleaned up the puddle of chocolate from the blanket and then threw it in the washer. 25 minutes till game time.

The guys would be getting ready now, hydrating and horsing around, helping each other into their gear in that gawd awful smelly locker room. Jer would be there, icing  injuries and massaging out muscle strains with his long cat paw fingers. I’d always told him he had acupressure hands and he couldn’t massage my back without me giggling like mad.

“You NEED it. If it tickles, the muscles are too tight.”

“I’m FINNNNEEEEEE. Nothing a hot shower and a shot of whiskey can’t cure. I’ll let you massage my feet though.”

And he always did. He would attempt to tickle me and I would attempt to kick him in retaliation. If he had time he would do my calves as well. If there wasn’t a game I would commute to colleges and schools to lecture about healthy food and give cooking demonstrations. Often, heels were required since I had to impress school boards and big wig money makers. My calves became tight in an un-sexy way and more often than not I was driving barefoot home and limping to my apartment. In return for his massage services, I would make Jer his favorite lemon cookies. “The Healthy Kind” of course.

I sighed and flopped back on the couch, flinging an arm over my face. I let the phone onto the floor and the clatter was cathartic. I hadn’t resorted to flinging things across the room in frustration yet but if answers weren’t forthcoming I might start.

Why did you have to change things? I demanded in my head to the ghostly image of Jer that haunted me like a shadow. Why couldn’t you have let it BE?

I missed his presence in my apartment, his tea pot whistling on the stove, the comfort of his thigh against mine as we read on the couch. It was all fine the way it was. Now my rose colored glasses had been cracked and I couldn’t repair or replace them. Ever.

What the hell was I going to do?

More than Words– Part 1 (#7)

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?”

“Yo Stephan!”

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.”

“Not actually.”

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…) ______________________________________________________________