I rub my spread fingers against my scalp. My hair is gone, my chances of being a winner. The water stops hitting my head. Without thinking, I open my eyes to hit the plunger and shampoo burns my eyes. I close them tightly. They tear up immediately.
My whole life has been riddled with close finishes.
* * *
We meet for what turns out to be Salisbury steak. I spy her sitting alone at a table by the window. She’s looking out on Mendel Field. I pay the cashier with cash. I’m out of meal points. I pick up the red plastic tray and walk. About halfway there, I get to see her smile at something before she turns and sees me.
“You shaved it all off!?” she says.
I’m already chewing some green beans and nod. I need to start eating before practice.
I look at her. Her blond hair and porcelain skin seem so natural — her beauty, a foregone conclusion. I probably look like Patrick Stewart to her. That’s not the worst thing that could happen. Not with her.
* * *
We edge along the grass field, trying to avoid stepping on hands or kicking over wine glasses. We only need a patch of grass, a few square feet to ourselves. We move quickly. I follow the bouncing blond pony tail like a white rabbit while Iambic Couplets echo all around me. She turns. Her skin is so bright. Even in this twilight, it seems to glow.
“There.” She points to a small unoccupied patch fifteen feet from stage left. We make our way carefully but quickly and sit. It’s only enough room for us to sit Indian-style.
She whispers, getting close. I feel her breath on the rim of my ear.
“I saw Patrick Stewart play this same role.” I turn to look at her shaking my head.
“You know, the bald space captain. He was so good.”
The air is warm and moist like her breath. I reach into my pocket and pull out a wine key. She hands me the bottle with a wink and as I cut, I try to watch a monologue. My head turns to look at her. She doesn’t see me looking. She’s smiling widely at whatever he said that just made everyone giggle.
* * *
I’m facing. That’s what my father calls it when he wants to be condescending. I reach up and pull a French Zinfandel forward to the edge of the shelf. I kneel and pull forward a cheaper one from California. The sun continues to beat through the two-story glass panes that make up the storefront. I inhale warm, dusty air while looking down the aisle. A few more patches of space between bottles, but I walk over to the counter instead. I need to leave something to do during the afternoon. I pick up my magazine and look at an ad for goggles. Maybe I should get new ones. This season is my last chance to take home gold. If I’m going to train away my last college summer, maybe some new goggles isn’t a bad idea.
The bell rings. The magazine drops from my hand to the counter to the floor. Who is this? Oh my god. She’s picking up my magazine.
“Thanks, you.” I say. “I mean, ‘thank you.’”
“Sure. Can you help me find something?” I must be losing it. She seems kind of nervous. I walk around the counter. She watches with her hands still on the counter, turning only her head. As I get closer, she turns and pushes herself up. Sitting on the counter, she says, “Here’s the thing. I’m looking for a wine to impress this guy.” Dammit.
“Go on.” I nod reassuringly.
“Well he’s a new acquaintance, really, and I’m going to invite him to see my favorite play at Western Park tonight.” Why is she smiling like that? It’s so strange.
“But I don’t know if he likes plays.”
“And it’s tonight?” She pauses.
“Yeah. And all I really know about him is — well basically I know almost nothing.” She’s almost giggling.
“Huh. So why do you want to impress him?”
“Well, I’ve seen him around before but he’s never noticed me. I always thought he looked nice…” What kind of jerk wouldn’t notice this girl!? This guy doesn’t sound like anything much.
“…And then the other day my father’s car broke down and he stopped and helped him…”
Oh whatever. So the guy changed a tire. I did that for some poor idiot just last week.
“…So umm, what kind of wine do you like?” She still has that nervous, weird grin.
“…and how do you feel about Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
* * *
“Are you watching this?” I wasn’t. But I saw her turning to me so I turned back to the stage.
“Yeah.” I take a sip of my paper cup full of Australian Shiraz. It washes over my gums.
In my peripheral vision, I see her turn back to look at the stage.
I lean back a little. I turn and watch.
The crowd giggles.
She smiles and I smile, too.
* * *
I scoop a hefty piece of Salisbury steak into my mouth and chew. It’s funny how long it takes for my stomach to stop growling.
“So can you?”
I chew and chew. Still chewing, I look into those green eyes.
“I know it’s right before you compete and if you can’t I’ll understand. Really I will. I just want you to go — if you can, I mean.”
Geez, man. Right before is actually the night before. She really wants this. She drove two hours to ask me this. Jesus, I don’t know. My throat is a knot. I’m afraid to open my mouth. How often does an understudy get to take the lead, anyway? Is it really a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’? If Coach found out I drove six hours to see a play the night before nationals, what would he do? He can’t take away my scholarship anymore. I’m already qualified. He can’t stop me from competing.
But what would he say? He’d say I ‘set myself up for failure’ and he’d say that I deserve not to win — real winners treat winning with respect. Jesus, man. What am I doing even considering this? She already said its alright if I can’t do it. I can’t. So that’s it. I’ve waited four years for this. Hell, I’ve waited my whole life for this chance.
“I’ll do my best,” I say. She smiles and my heart starts pounding.
* * *
The towel feels rough against my bare scalp. I look into my open locker at the medal. I breathe deeply. I think of my coach’s face when I came out of the pool. Shame, or maybe embarrassment. I don’t know. In four years, he’s never looked at me quite like it. I take the medal off the hook and put it in my bag.
I walk out to the pool area. When I get to the doorway, I see her leaned against a bleacher smiling. She doesn’t see me yet. She turns and stops smiling, at first. She doesn’t know how I feel about the loss.
I smile and she does, too.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
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