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?

 

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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 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…) ______________________________________________________________