Coach’s favorite words are “grit” and “toughness.” After the homecoming game, when I broke the school record for sacks, he said I was “gutsy” and he liked my “tenacity.”
I’m not sure what he’d say if he knew.
He’d probably take it all back. No way would he think I’m tough if he knew how close I come to melting when you look at me. How soft my chest feels when you touch me, or how tender your groan sounds in between our kisses.
You adjust my shoulder pads. I hand you your helmet. We go, together, to the line.
We’re put in the same heat for the hundred meter dash, like always, but for the first time he’s assigned the lane right next to mine.
“Jesus fuck, it’s cold,” he mumbles, half towards me. He rubs his bare arms and shakes them out. I’m transfixed by the graceful shoulders, the ripple in his jersey. He’s grown since last year.
“Yeah,” I say lamely, my cheeks heating. “Meets in March suck.”
The official blows his whistle and points to our line. We crouch, our fingers pressing the asphalt, so close. I hear his breath. The gun cracks, and we fly.
Rooster got his nickname in basic, when his cowlick wouldn’t lay down no matter how much he wet it. He’s got twenty-two confirmed kills, highest in the squad. He shifts into murder gear with music, the pounding, screeching beat of dark metal defining the soulless, thousand-yard stare that keeps everyone away.
Everyone except me. I’ve seen that harrowing blankness on the daily. But I’ve seen him come back into himself after lights-out, when he’s just Josh. His eyes get glittery and soft, then, and he melts, reaching for me, whispering tender things, humming Mariah or Taylor Swift against my skin.
What the best man is supposed to do: Make sure the groom shows up, sober and on time. Keep track of the rings. Make sure the groomsmen are ready, dressed, and behaving.
What the best man is absolutely not supposed to do: Mess up the groom’s tie just so he can straighten it again. Adjust the groom’s pocket square so he can rest his hand on the groom’s chest. Definitely not supposed to stare into the groom’s eyes, whisper in his ear, cling too long in one last hug.
Inside my pocket, I slip the ring on my finger.
Chris walks out of the convenience store toward the truck with a coffee in each hand. I’m tired (hungover, if you must know), but there’s something about his walk, his denim-clad thighs, his steel-toed boots that wakes me right up.
It’s just easier to carpool to the job site, I’d told him, and he’d agreed.
I push the passenger door open from the inside, and he steps up and in, a freshly showered, woodsy smell wafting in with him. Goddamn.
“Morning,” he says, as our fingers touch briefly around my cup.
We sit, sipping. The air between us hums.
“Yeah? Fuck you too, Erika.” I spin, heading for the door on wobbly legs.
“What’s his problem?” Someone asks, but music drowns out any replies.
The backyard is crowded, with everyone dancing and drinking around the pool. For fucks sake. I grab another beer and push through, leaving the noise behind.
Dribble, dribble, clang, bounce. Dribble, dribble, clang, bounce.
Alone in the driveway is—shit, that’s Matt Fowler. Basketball phenom, full ride to Iowa, three years ahead of me. I take a second to stare. Everyone crushed on Matt Fowler. Including me.
“Hey,” he calls between dribbles. “Want to play?”
“Want to watch a movie?” I close my algebra book and grab the remote.
“Yeah, I can stay ’til nine.”
He scoots closer, pulling the crocheted blanket my grandma made from the back of the couch. It’s ugly as hell (navy blue with pink flowers) but she died, so my mom can’t get rid of it. He doesn’t mind, I guess, because he spreads it over our laps.
When I lean back, his arm is around me. I wonder what Gram would say if she could see us. If it would bother her that her roses are keeping us warm.
There’s this guy in my French class, quiet, dark hair, fucking dreamy. Smart, too. He sits in the back and answers Mme. Devlin perfectly every time. Even his accent is pretty.
He came to pick up food at the restaurant tonight. Beef with broccoli, eight egg rolls, hot and sour soup, and enough mu shu pork to feed the offensive line. Pop didn’t see me slip a dozen extra fortune cookies into the bag.
I picture him picking one from the pile. He cracks it and smiles, reading the message from me to him, all the words I’ll never say.
Tell your mom not to worry.
I’ll have you back by sundown.
It will be hot, but
I’ve got lemonade in the cooler,
And there’s a shady spot at the edge of the field.
We’ll take the tractor.
Put your hands on the wheel, and I’ll work the pedals.
It’s loud, I know, but I can still hear
The music of your throat,
The pulse in your palm against my hip.
Let me lift you over the mud puddles,
Boost you over the fence.
You can wear my hat, if you want.
I’ll take your handkerchief,
Secretly, from your pocket.
We’re tucked in the corner of the dugout, the cooler between us. I could kiss him, we’re so close, but the team is on the other side of the fence. And there’s the fact that I promised him I’d never do that again.
Dumbass, I think to myself.
My fingers are about to freeze off from the ice I’ve been holding against his forehead. I pull it away to look at the bruise, now blooming an angry purple and blue.
“Gorgeous,” I say.
He doesn’t reply. Instead, with a half-smile, he traces the trail of water dripping down my arm.