I guess you could call it funny or ironic or, perhaps, life's way of kicking you in the balls. Because, after that Saturday, that was it for me and Dan. He wasn't in any of my classes other than the one I was in with Evan, Mr. McDonald's English class, and we were all doing team reports in that class. Dan had somehow gotten in a group that included his girlfriend, Linda. At least I wasn't with Evan, but I wasn't with Dan, either, and during that week after I'd realized I was falling for him, all the groups were meeting in the library, and I didn't even have a chance to talk to him.
I could see him, working with his group, smiling, laughing, Linda touching him. I could see that. But my group was talking, and I had to pay attention to what was going on. I couldn't get with Dan at all.
After school, he had football practice. After that, it was dinnertime and homework time. When were we supposed to get together? Besides which, he had Linda. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to do what he'd told me to do: go for the gold. Tell him about Evan and our disastrous date. Tell him I had feelings for him. Even if he didn't for me. Go for the gold. Sure, we could only be friends, but I wanted that much at least. I wanted to be able to spend time with him. I wanted us to be close.
But I couldn't even talk to him. It was as if we were on different planets.
He had a football game on Friday night, just as always. I'd decided to actually go to it. I wanted to see him play. And then, on Thursday while I was doing homework, my phone rang. I never got any calls. I answered.
"Hey, Jess. What's up? Haven't heard from you all week."
"I know. I kinda miss you. Oops. I'm not supposed to say that, am ? I mean, I had so much fun last Saturday. I keep thinking back on that. That's what I meant. I miss that."
"Me too. I should have called earlier, but man! Football takes way too much time when you're trying to maintain a 4.0. You know? Of course, you could have called me."
Yeah, I could have. I didn't really think I was shy. I wasn't. That wasn't why I hadn't. Really, the reason was more that I was afraid what we'd had Saturday wasn't real, and he'd act surprised and put off that I'd called him. That's why I hadn't. But I needed a good excuse, and he'd just given it to me. So I'd be lying. So what?
"I figured you wouldn't want the interruption. I'm really happy you called, though. And, good luck tomorrow!"
"Ah, they're a bunch of pussies. We'll just walk over them."
"Really? You haven't won a game all year."
"Oh, gosh, that's right! I'd forgotten." And then he laughed. Nothing bothered Dan. He was incredible.
"Well, maybe tomorrow's the night. Our first win. Anyway, that's sort of why I called. My dad goes nutso on Friday nights, and all he talks about at dinner is the game and what I need to be doing, and he gets me really nervous."
"I didn't think anything could do that," I said, surprised at even the thought of it.
"Well, I try not to let him get to me, but, well, he does, and I need your help."
"Yeah. Come eat dinner with us tomorrow night. He can't go on and on about the game if you're there. It's only polite if a guest is included in a dinner conversation, and he's always polite. So you're my ace in the hole."
"I've never been one of those before."
"So you'll come?"
"How can I turn down such a gracious offer, getting to be a stooge in order to deflect your dad?" I said, laughing.
"Well, as stooges go, you're not a bad-looking one." He laughed, sounding not a bit embarrassed. I was trying to figure out what not being bad looking and being a stooge had to do with each other. Would not being bad looking mean they'd pay more attention to me? The thing was, I wasn't good looking, which not being bad looking seemed to imply. But then I needed to forget about all that and pay attention to what he was saying, because he was continuing. "We might have time to talk tomorrow, but if not, show up at four-thirty in the afternoon. We always eat early on a game night. Hey, Mom's calling. Gotta go. And thanks!"
* * *
I couldn't believe the game. Dan was fantastic. If the coach had been planning on keeping him on the bench all year, the guy must have been crazy. Maybe the other team wasn't any good, but it didn't look that way to me. Dan was threading the needle with his passes and escaping the rush time after time, either running for good gains or staying loose long enough to hit his receivers. They not only won their first game, they did so by a lopsided score.
I also got to see Dan in his uniform. The dark-blue shirt with wide shoulders—yeah, I know, augmented by pads, but I'm talking image here—the narrow waist, the white, tight pants. He had his helmet off now and then and his raven-black hair falling over his sweaty forehead, the smudge of dirt on one cheek—man, I should have been coming to the games all along. Seeing him like this would have been worth all the abuse I'd have taken from the kids around me.
Dinner before the game had been fun. I don't know if it was because I was there or not, but his dad hadn't pestered Dan at all. Oh, there'd been some talk of the game, but it had been light and loose, just like Dan. No one could have guessed from watching him that he'd be in a game a couple hours later with 250-, 260-pound linemen rushing him, trying their hardest to crush him into the ground.
For once, Andrew hadn't been with Tyler. Tyler had said he'd meet him at the game; he'd also asked me to sit with them. That kid was really good for my ego.
We walked together to the game, just Dan and me. Tyler said it was way too early for him to go. On the way there, Dan was still just Dan. I didn't get it. How could he not be hyped up? But he wasn't. He just chatted about this and that, nothing special, till:
"Oh, hey, could you do me a favor?"
"Sure, if I can. What?"
"Well, there's always a party after the games. Win or lose—a party. And there's always alcohol at the parties. I don't drink. But it's difficult not to when everyone is forcing cups of beer on you. I can, and have, sipped one a little, but, well, it's just easier if I don't go. You've already helped tonight with Dad. Maybe you could be the reason for my missing the party. Easy enough to say to someone, 'We already have plans, Jess and I, so, sorry, I can't go.'"
"Couldn't you do that with Linda?"
"She doesn't come to the games. Says seeing me out there scares her. So on Friday nights she and her mom go shopping at the mall, then eat a late dinner."
I digested that, then had a thought. "Wait a sec. You're asking me to be your stooge again."
I tried to sound mad. Didn't pull it off. Laughed instead. Couldn't help it. I was really happy to help him and to be asked.
His grin kind of gave me a tingle. It was just for me, that grin. "You can come back to the house. We can play a game, Monopoly or something, with Tyler and Andrew. I know, not very exciting for a Friday night after a game, but then, that's me. If you want excitement and parties and adventure, don't hang with me."
What was he saying? I really caught an undercurrent with what he was saying. Was he talking about tonight, or other nights? Was he talking about our friendship?
"I'd be happy, more than happy, to come over after the game," I said. "I like Monopoly."
"Good. Maybe we'll have time for you to talk to me about your date with Evan. When I called you about dinner, I was afraid you'd tell me you had another date with him planned for tonight."
"Really? Afraid?" Damn. I shouldn't have said that. If he was trying to tell me something, which he very probably wasn't, but still, he might be, and if he was, he was doing it very obliquely, and I was almost forcing his hand, saying what I just had. So, I laughed, to show I was just teasing. Then I quickly followed it with, "Afraid you'd be stuck with your dad's distractions, I guess. Well, you don't have to worry and certainly not about me never being available because of Evan. That's something I still need to talk to you about. I meant to do that last Saturday, and we never had time for it. Maybe tonight, after Monopoly?"
"We don't need to do that. Sometimes Tyler likes to be alone with Andrew. And in any case, we can go up to my room. I was even thinking of a sleepover if you'd be willing. I was a little embarrassed to ask before. I know, we're kinda old, but still, I'd like to, so . . . ?"
I couldn't believe the tone of voice he was using. He was a big man on campus, the starting QB of the football team, and he sounded anxious, asking me that question. Crazy. This whole conversation was crazy. Just like I'd be crazy to turn him down.
I wasn't crazy. "Hey, I'd love that. Haven't had one in years. I don't have any stuff, though."
"No problem. I can fit you out with whatever you need. Except pajamas. I don't wear those and don't have any."
"Huh?" I said, suddenly nervous. I couldn't help but remember what had happened with Evan, what we'd done, how I'd felt. It was too recent.
He must have heard something in that 'Huh?', because he suddenly looked at me, then stopped walking. "Hey, I'm sorry. That was a joke. Obviously not a funny one. I'm sorry. I don't wear pajamas but do wear underwear to bed. Most of the time. Tonight, of course I will. I didn't mean that any other way."
"Not your fault, Dan. I'm sorry. I overreacted. Not you at all. But we do need to talk. You'll understand better then."
"We'll make time. OK?"
"Great," I said. And then we were at the school, and he told me where to meet him after the game.
I was in Dan's room, alone with him. For some reason, it'd gotten so being alone with him made me nervous. Well, sort of uncomfortable. Not a bad uncomfortable. Sort of a nervous, uncomfortable awkwardness. Like I didn't know what to do with my hands, which was nuts; I never worried about my hands. They just did what they did, and I never even had to think about them. Alone with Dan, I did and didn't even know why.
OK, now I'm lying. I can't even tell the truth to myself. I did know why. And I did know why my hands made me uncomfortable. It was because I was always needing to keep from reaching out to touch him. Why would my hands want to touch him? Crazy, right? He was right there. No need to reach over and touch him.
But those hands seemed to want to. That ratcheted up the nervous, excited part.
"So," he said. He was picking things up from his desk and putting them in his backpack but had turned so he could look at me. He didn't seem to be worrying about his hands. But then, he was using them to do something. I didn't have anything for my hands to do. "You were going to tell me about your date with Evan. That's why you agreed to come over. To keep anyone from thinking you were my stooge." He grinned. I wished he wouldn't do that. Not when we were alone together in his room.
He paused then, gave me an unreadable look, and finished with, "You said. About Evan . . ."
That pause told me he questioned my reason. I didn't blame him. I hadn't sounded very convincing when I'd used it for a reason. Even if it were true. But I could see why he'd doubt my veracity. What possible reason could I have for telling him about my date?
I wasn't very good at subterfuge. But then, I'd never needed to be before. Before Dan, I realized.
I was sitting on the bed. I was too nervous to stay there. I stood up. Then I figured I needed to have had a reason to stand up so took a couple of steps toward his bookcase so I could see what was there. A quick glance told me they were the same books that were always there.
We'd come home from the game, and Tyler and Andrew had come with us. But Tyler wanted to take Andrew outside to explore the woods at night. He said there were all sorts of things to see at night you couldn't during the day. I had no idea why Dan rolled his eyes. But I was glad; it meant I could be alone with Dan.
But now I was, and Dan's ambiguous remarks from before had come back. Dan was in a great mood because of the game. But he wasn't all that much different even so. His dad and mom had seemed similarly happy and low-key when I met them. Dan probably had inherited his equanimity from them.
I wasn't very good at this. I took a quick glance at Dan's face. He wasn't showing anything at all. I guessed he was waiting for me to tell him about the date. Maybe I should just do that.
"All right," I said. "I did want to tell you about my date. Not all of it, but some. You'll understand when I do."
I sat on the bed again, looking at him, but away, too. "We were to go to the movies," I began. "First, the plan was to get something to eat. He was already there when I got there. I was nervous anyway, and he looked so good, it just made me even more so. I was feeling funny. This was the first time I'd been out on a date. Boy or girl. First time. And Evan was acting kind of weird. Kind of flirty. First date, you're supposed to get to know each other, right? That's what I thought, at least, and I didn't know him at all. Other than finding his looks appealing. Well, more than appealing. A lot more."
I stopped, realizing I was babbling. But if I stopped altogether, why was I here? It was to tell him about my date. I'd said so.
So I went on, feeling even more unsettled as I went. "He was sitting at a table when I walked in but stood up. I thought we'd both sit down and talk. We would do that so we could get to know each other. That was the main purpose of this date, at least in my mind. So we'd eat something and talk. We'd converse. The two of us. I found out really quickly that wasn't what he was thinking about. He laid his hand on my arm, and that really made me nervous. Boys don't usually do that when they're just standing there, talking. Especially when they don't really know each other. Why'd he do that?"
Dan recognized a rhetorical question when he heard one. He remained silent.
I continued. "He felt me react. I didn't pull away but wondered about that. Maybe I flinched or something because he grinned. Evan doesn't lack self-confidence! Anyway, then we talked a little, and I can't even remember what all was said. It was flirty, I remember that. But very quickly, he suggested he wasn't hungry and we should skip eating, skip the movie and go to his house. That's what we did."
I stopped, wondering just how much of this could I tell Dan? That Evan had wanted to go back to his house with me so we could do things there, and that I'd gone along with it? Dan already knew I'd been crushing on Evan. He had to know what it was like when you're 15 and crushing on someone and he's suddenly making himself available. Did I need to spell this out for Dan?
Well, if I didn't, he wouldn't know why I was still so upset thinking about it. Well, why shouldn't I tell him? He'd made me feel better ever since I'd known him. He probably could now, too.
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