Stone Lions

/ /

My workout starts the same every day. At six-thirty, in whatever weather, I am down on the field, in front of the goal, working on my saves. I set up the pads and do five minutes of dives per side, alternating, thirty minutes total. I am working on extension, full extension, the feeling of launching myself like an arrow shot from an enormous bow. Pure motion, pure geometry. Frozen in mid-air, feeling my entire self in the tips of my fingers.

I achieve this feeling maybe ten times during those twenty minutes, if I’m lucky. It is—like so many things in sports—probably arbitrary. You trick yourself into better performance with random little trials and treats. An endorphin kick every now and then, my reward for getting up in the dark and lugging shit down to the field, when everyone else in the campus dorms is still fast asleep. Or still awake: partying, playing video games, having sex—all the stuff you’re supposed to do in college.

After the saves, I move on to standard interval fare: the windsprints, the burpees, the box runs, the lunges, and the pushups, with jumping rope interspersed for maximum stress. Then, with the sun fully risen and bleary students now dotting the landscape, I haul the pads back to the equipment room, and I head to the gym for leg work. The gym opens right at eight, which is perfect, because I like it when I’m the only on in the weight room. No one clomping away on the treadmills. No gym-bros sitting in front of the long, mirrored wall doing slow curls, admiring the gross little vein worming up between their bicep and pec. Just me in the power rack, squatting heavy, up to three plates now. 315. Ducking under it and standing there, looking at the yellow page taped to the wall in front of the rack that reads, simply ATG: ass to ground. Taking a deep breath then dropping, that perfect second of nothing, the impersonal pain at the bottom of the lift, thrusting up through my heels, more perfect geometry, like pushing from the bottom of the sea and coming up for air.

I do three sets of five, in between which I deadleg sets of low boxjumps, trying to maintain form. On rest days, I alternate bench presses and boxjumps and rows and boxjumps. My vertical has doubled in the last two years to nearly thirty inches. I don’t need more than a couple of inches to protect the top of the goal—what I need is the explosion that thirty inches of vert implies, the ability to rocket myself sideways in an angling trajectory that anticipates and meets the ball before it hits the back of the net. That’s what all of this, after all, is about.


The rest of my days, after working out, are a half-remembered dream. My classes are fine, I have no grade lower than a B in any of them, but my professors look at me with suspicion and disdain. They can see I’m barely there. My presence—when I’m not working out or practicing or playing—is an absence, a person-shaped hole. Not just in my classes, either, but at lunch or doing laundry or standing around at the occasional party my roommate and teammate Carina drags me to.

She took me to one of these early in the semester, a mixer in frat court, two hundred students milling around on a patch of grass surrounded on three sides by buildings with Greek letters emblazoned on wooden plaques. There was beer on ice in a giant tin container the size and shape of a canoe, or maybe it actually was a canoe. I wasn’t drinking because we had a scrimmage the next day. And because I didn’t feel like it—looking around, it seemed so pointless: the wet dopey grins and the beer pong, and the country songs about parties exactly like this one pumping from speakers in second-floor windows. It felt like something everyone was doing because this is what we’re expected to do, and this is how it’s done. It felt like it was barely even happening.

Someone said, “Having fun?”

He was blond and my height, so around six feet. Hairless face with big, surprised eyes. Cute, like a doll a huge baby might play with. I’d seen him around campus, and we might have even had a class together. “Yes,” I said. “Lots.”

“You don’t look like it.”


“What’s your name?”

“Leigh. With a GH.”

“So, G-H-L-E-E?”


“Thanks, I’m Brandon.”

I lifted my hand in a little mock-wave and said nice to meet you. And it was nice, in the sense of not being not nice. It was fine. Fine to meet you. The streamlined quality of fineness, lightness and aerodynamic ease, is what I’m looking for in my life, when I’m not doing the thing that matters. I noticed he had been talking while I drifted, and I noticed him noticing I hadn’t been paying attention. He wandered away, and I watched him go with a little pang of regret—not regret that we hadn’t connected, but regret that I hadn’t cared enough to try.

Like my professors, he probably thought I was stupid. Athletes have an unfair reputation for being stupid. Because we narrow our lives down to one pursuit, one sport, one set of movements, in some cases, a single motion honed to an impossible ivory shine. Because this pursuit can exclude caring about certain—maybe most—other things. Today, for example, you might see us, my team, heading out for a road game, standing in line at the airport in our sweats; you might see our blank looks, the way we adjust our AirPods, a kind of sleepwalk fidgeting, the slow shuffle in shower shoes to grab a Gatorade or Snickers bar from Hudson News. You might see us and think dumb jocks, but that’s because you don’t understand, because you don’t know what it’s like. Athletes know: what looks like laziness is really conservation of energy and tuning out everything that does not matter, which is to say: everything that is not the game we will be playing in Tallahassee, in six hours.


We lose the game. Florida State’s midfield is just too strong. They keep probing and pushing, pushing and probing. Watching this maroon tide constantly moving in, I feel a swelling, childlike—maybe just childish—frustration at the unfairness of it all. Frustration at their strikers, yes, but also at the game, the sport, life, everything. One thought over and over: get away from me. And I remember a book on my mother’s shelves, from back in Florida when I was a kid, a title that always fascinated me: That Hideous Strength. I make sixteen saves on goal, but we lose 3-0, which means I should have made nineteen saves on goal.

It’s impossible to express the feeling of the ball getting past you. It isn’t just disappointment or frustration. It is a violation. The goal box—if you’re a good goalie, which I am—is your home, your domain. For an opposing player to kick the ball into the back of the net feels like an act of, not just aggression, but sheer nerve, absolute gall. The third goal, in the eighty-fifth minute, is followed by a corny victory slide a la Brandi Chastain, and the nearby fans howl in the bliss of certain victory. I dig it out of the corner, my face flush, incandescent with rage. How fucking dare she?

In the locker room, I smash my elbow (saving my precious hands) into a locker door over and over, denting it, knocking it off its top hinge, silencing the hum of disappointed post-loss chatter. I am what’s known as an emotional player, which is strange if you know me in my normal life: calm, quiet, barely there. But then, I don’t have a normal life, not one that really matters. What matters is this, this room full of women I have committed my heart and mind and body to—this game, this thing, this hand on my back as I rub my bruised arm and sob.

“Leigh,” says Carina, putting her hand on the small of my back.


“We’ve got State coming up. Don’t break your arm.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“Stop saying you’re sorry. Listen, that sucked. But we’re still making the tournament if we finish strong okay? Move on.”


She hugs me and says it again. Move on.

Those two words are the most important in athlete psychology. Win or lose, hit or miss, the best players just move on. The yips, a phenomenon so dreaded that some players—especially in baseball, the sport where it’s most common—will not ever speak the words, basically amounts to an inability to move on. The mind becomes results-oriented, can’t leave that last failure alone and fears the next failure. It’s like that show says: be a goldfish. Something happens and you move on to the next thing, then the next. The problem is, you have to not care about the thing you spend all your time doing, the thing you care about more than anything in the world. The problem is, I am not a goldfish.


My mother wants to meet for lunch. We moved from Florida to North Carolina when I was ten, and she lives in the western foothills of the state now, a two-hour drive. I’ve put this off for three weeks claiming mid-terms, claiming game stress, claiming period problems, but the fourth time is apparently the charm, and so I agree to meet her at a Han Dynasty restaurant located on the ugly stretch of highway outside of town. I park and look at the stone lions flanking the place, and I think about all the Han Dynasties all over the country, all the stone lions that have to get manufactured to flank them. I think how there is probably a company with the sole purpose of casting and producing the Han Dynasty lions, and I think how there are probably people who work there who spend all their time thinking about how to make lighter lions and reduce costs, and so on. The things people spend their lives doing can blow your mind if you think about it, although I know some people would think the same thing about me.

My mother arrives in her Jeep Wrangler, and after a moment, she gets out and looks around, as though startled to be here. She smooths down her blouse and enters the restaurant, blond hair helmeting her head, protecting it. I follow her in. The restaurant is massive, domed. We are seated in a discreet little corner booth. She removes her sunglasses, belatedly, stowing them carefully in her Steve Madden handbag. Brushing a filament of hair away from her eyes, she says I look good, and I am about to attempt a compliment in turn when the paisley-vested waiter arrives and informs us about their new Satay Trio.

The meal is fine, seemingly fine—you would have to be me to understand the pain, the exquisite little tortures my mother inflicts over spring rolls and hamachi crudo and kung pao. The rapturous stories about my brother, the good child who stayed home, who just graduated firefighting school, and who has already given her a grandchild. It isn’t just what she says, it’s what she doesn’t say, as well. For instance, not once asking about our team or our games. One cursory question about my classes, and when I try to respond, she’s gesturing at our waiter for more iced tea. Not that I care—ideally, I would never see her or talk to her again. But it still hurts. It hurts to listen to her chatter, and it hurts while we sit there in silence waiting for the check. It hurts because we are not what we want each other to be: I am not the happy daughter with friends, not the child she can take shopping at the huge sprawling mall behind the restaurant where we sit, not the girlfriend who wants to get a manicure with her and talk about Bravo TV shows. And, I think, brushing my hand lightly against one of the stone lions as we walk out, she is not what I want, either.


This week, leading up to the Duke game, I work out harder than I ever have. I work on saves two hours a day. I squat 325 pounds four times, a personal record, amazing both myself and the spindly professor watching me from the leg press. I box jump thirty inches. I eat six times a day and weigh in at 190 pounds of muscle. It’s like there’s something inside of me that wants to get out.

After practice on Friday, I’m completely spent. I follow Carina around campus like a big dog, getting lunch and nodding while she talks, going with her to Target to buy a new circle light for Zoom classes, obligingly getting dressed up to go out to a bar that’s supposed to be the best in town. I put on some strappy red thing she lends me, and she applies my lipstick, smiling with approval.

“We’re gonna get you some action tonight,” she says.

“I don’t want any action,” I say.

“Too bad, come on.”

I don’t say anything, just follow her out into the hall and down the stairs to the parking garage, our heels clacking against the concrete. We teeter our way into town, across the main drag, with its ceramic painting place and bad pizzeria and bars with goldfish bowls, to a quieter side street. Here sits a French restaurant called La Residence, that following dinner service converts its tented patio into a popular drinking spot. Students, stupidly, dress up to go here, as if the proximity to French dining demands it, although the atmosphere is the usual old meat market.

This time, I do get a drink, using a fake ID passed down at least four times that I know of. Many students since the card’s issuance in 2016 have played the role of Eliza Jane Trainor. I am supposed to be twenty-five, not nineteen, but being tall helps. I am nothing if not full-grown. The bartender makes me a vodka and cran. The game is in the morning and I shouldn’t have had anything, but one won’t hurt—I won’t even feel it.

Someone taps me on the shoulder, and I almost drop the drink. It takes me a couple of seconds to recognize him, blond hair under a ballcap, wearing an ill-fitting suit that looks handed down.

He says, “Leigh with a GH, right?”

“Brandon, hi.”

“How are you?”

“Fine.” He’s looking at my eyes, really focusing on me, and it makes me focus on what I’m saying. “Actually, I hate this place.”

“Me, too. Why did you come here?”

“I don’t know. Why did you?”

“The guys wanted to.”

“If the guys wanted to jump off a bridge—”

“Yes, I would probably jump off a bridge.” He smiles, and I can’t help it, I smile back, which makes him smile even more. A couple of large boys in polos, possibly some of the guys in question, move sweatily into our conversational space, and Brandon says, “You want to get out of here for a minute?”

We go for a walk, the muggy air finally clearing a little, a feeling like the day’s tight chest is relaxing, preparing for sleep. We walk around the block, talking about where we come from, our majors. We have more in common than I would have guessed: he’s from Florida, some town called Vero Beach, and I was born in Pensacola, where my dad was stationed at the time. His parents are also divorced, his mother also a long-time state employee. We’re both here on scholarship, although his is academic. He kisses me, and it’s fine. I feel, as I have felt many times in the past, that there’s an invisible plastic shield between me and the thing I’m experiencing. I should be right here, but I’m not. Even Brandon can tell something is the matter.

“Are you okay?”

“I think I’m just tired. I practiced all day, the game is tomorrow.”

“What game? Are you on the soccer team?”


“What position do you play?”


He looks down bashfully and says, “I don’t know why I’m acting like I didn’t google you. I know what you play.”


“It’s really cool.” At the outside gate of the bar, he pauses and says, “Do you mind if I come?”

“Why would I mind if you came?”

“I don’t know. If it made you uncomfortable, or something.”

“Honestly?” I say, unable to stop myself. “I won’t even know you’re there.”


We beat Duke, which is good, but I injure one of their players, which is not good. It saves the tying goal, which is good but it involves a sliding tackle into her legs, which is not good. It isn’t her femur, which is good, but it is her shin, which is not. I’m red-carded, and even from the sideline, I can see the dark ridge of bone sticking out as she writhes in pain. The leg had gone the wrong way, and I wish I could say I feel bad about it, but I don’t feel anything. No, that’s not true: I feel good. She shouldn’t have dribbled into the goalie box.

Afterward, Coach Butler sits me down in his office. The shelves are full of trophies and framed newspaper clippings and pictures of his family. Some women’s coaches are creeps—this is something you learn pretty early on—but Butler is not. He loves coaching and he loves the girls and he loves the game, the spirit and purity of good, honest competition. And that is why disappointing him hurts so much.

He says, “Were you trying to hurt her?”

“I was going for the ball.”

“It didn’t look that way to me. It didn’t look that way to the ref.”

I shrug. “Okay.”

He says, “Is there something going on with you?”

“In what sense?”

“In the sense of is there something wrong.”

This question, the second time in two days. I never know how to answer it. No, there’s not anything wrong. Yes, there’s always something wrong. I split the difference and say, “I guess I’ve been feeling a little stressed.”

He rummages around in his desk drawer and hands me a business card, a campus therapist. “She’s good, go and see her.”


“Leigh, I’m serious. If anything like this ever happens again, you’re off the team.”


I walk out of the locker room, down the long hall that gradually leads outside, struck, as always, by the way the stadium’s insides slowly give way to piney verge. You go from one place to another without even realizing it. Someone watches me approach, and for a second, I think it’s the girl’s father. But it’s Brandon.

He says, “Did you know I was there?”

“No.” He laughs, and I say, “Sorry, just had a rough conversation.”

“You won.”

“I broke that girl’s leg.”

“Well,” he says, as we walk on to the brick path that leads through the woods and back to campus, “maybe she shouldn’t have tried to score on you.”

I stop and kiss him, and this time, I do feel it: something. His hands are on my ass, and he tastes like cigarettes and cinnamon Dentyne. He says, “You want to hang out?”

“What does that mean.”

“Go to my house, have some drinks.”


In another twenty minutes, we’ve crossed campus and entered his frat, a large building with a lot of dark wood and old photos and beer bottles on every available surface. A crew boat hangs upside down from the ceiling of the living room, where several brothers play NBA 2K. Brandon waves to them, but they barely register us as we pass and climb the stairs to the second floor. His bedroom is surprisingly clean, clean by any standards and especially clean compared with the house’s general squalor. He grabs a half-empty bottle of coconut-flavored run from the top of his dresser, and we sit on his pin-neat bed, passing it back and forth. The afternoon light filters through the window like someone looking in.

I say, “Are you trying to get me drunk?”

“Yes.” He’s unbuttoning my shirt and pulling off my pants, and I’m thankful I showered after the match. My hair is wet behind me on the pillow, and I realize I’m a little drunk, thick with the sweet rum, as though my head has been stuffed with cotton. In his underwear, kneeling before me, he says, “Do you want to do this?”


“You’re not really drunk?”

“Just a little buzzed, it’s fine.”

I wriggle out of my underwear and he takes his off, and there’s more maneuvering, more shifting of our large bodies on the too-small boy’s bed. He says, “Have you done this before?”

Another hard question to answer. Yes and no. No, mostly, but yes, I’ve come close. This time, I don’t say anything, just lie there while it happens. Afterward, we drink a little more rum. Brandon, in his boxers, is saying something, his voice coming in like I’m driving on some country road, just catching the edge of a radio station. Do I want to do something with him later, he’s asking. Yes and no, yes and no. I’m falling into a surprisingly sudden and intense sleep, and in that suspended moment before total unconsciousness, I’m both in Brandon’s room and in the old house in Florida. I’m ten years old again, on summer break. My mother is at work and my father is home drinking beer and watching TV—all the doors are open to circulate the muggy summer air, and I can hear the periodic clink of a bottle and shout of a game show contestant. I’m bored and restless and sweaty, staring up at the ceiling fan’s blades, doing that thing where you track one and it slows down, and someone’s weight shifts the mattress, and I look down to see Brandon lying there, asleep now, too.

I get up and silently dress, and I gently close the door so he doesn’t wake up and ask me to stay. The halls of the frat are quiet at this weird hour—the afternoon twilight could just as easily be dawn light. Or some secret, third hour we forget daily upon waking. Two brothers are engrossed in a shooting game, the other napping behind them, curled up on the couch. Outside, it’s hazy and humid, and my legs are heavy with the rum I drank, and with the thought of what just happened. So, this was my first. A dismal feeling settles in me like the haze, and thought I try to walk it off for the next hour, roaming aimlessly around the brick campus paths, it only intensifies.

I return to my dorm, hoping Carina isn’t there and then feeling distraught when she isn’t. Our stupid room, with the stupid music and motivational posters covering the white-painted brick, everything so temporary and phony. I feel so alone, and I begin to cry for the first time in I can’t even remember. I can’t stop crying, although after a while, the crying becomes so exhausting that I fall back into what feels like the same sleep as in Brandon’s room—as though the intervening time was just a little break. When I wake again, it’s dark and Carina’s in the bunk above me, snoring. I reach into my pocket for my phone and the therapist’s card comes out with it. I’m not a big believer in signs, but I take this one and make an online appointment for tomorrow. Then I lie there with my eyes closed until the sun comes up and I can go work out.


The therapist is an older woman whom I imagine gets an awful lot of mileage out of seeming like everyone’s mother. Or like everyone’s dream version of their mother: soft, gentle, sweetly solicitous, the human version of a fluffy cloud floating overhead. She asks me some carefully phrased questions about my background and childhood which I deflect, and then she gets into the thing about the girl I tackled. This whole appointment now seems like a mistake—has seemed like a mistake since I sat down in the waiting room, with its corny Ansel Adams photos and vase of fake flowers—but I remind myself once again that I am here because Coach Butler wants me to be here. This will make him happy, and the happier he is, the more secure my position of the team is, which is all that matters.

She says, “Did you meant to hurt the girl you tackled?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, or you don’t want to say?”

“I can’t put myself back in that moment. I was reacting. Did you ever play sports?”

“A little, when I was young. Basketball.”

“Well, maybe you know what I mean. You’re not, like, thinking clearly.”

She writes something on the legal pad in her lap. “Do you ever feel angry?”

“Of course, doesn’t everyone?”

“Yes, most people experience moments of anger as a reaction to things that hurt them. What I mean is, do you ever feel angry for no apparent reason? When you’re by yourself, walking to class for instance.”

I think about my mother across from me at that restaurant. I think about waiting for her and seeing her in the parking lot. I think about standing around at the party where I met Brandon, and at other parties, and then I obligingly consider her hypothetical and think about how I feel walking to class, and I realize that yes, I do feel angry. Only I call it something else: being misunderstood, or not caring.


“Can I make a suggestion, Leigh?”


“Go visit the girl you hurt. Apologize. You say you can’t go back to that moment, and obviously I can’t know what you intended. But I do know you might be feeling ashamed or at least a little guilty about it. And I think it would be a good thing to do, for both of you.”

“Okay. I will.”

I don’t want to do this, but it’s easier to just say okay and get out, than to say no and explain why, and I’m not even sure why I’d say no anyway, so I just say okay and leave. Outside, it’s hot and clear, and the rest of the day stretches out before me like a desert. I don’t feel like doing anything that I usually feel like doing. I don’t want to work out again, I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to return any of the four messages Brandon has left on my phone. I want to be in a cool, quiet, dark place for the next twenty-four hours, until we take the field to play State. That’s all I want. Walking back to the dorms, I realize that since I don’t have classes today, and since we don’t have practice because of the game tomorrow, I might as well just get it over with and visit the girl.

The drive to Duke takes twenty-five minutes. My legs burn from my short morning workout, during which I cleaned 135 pounds ten times. Drinking the day before did not help, and I silently vow to not touch alcohol again until the season is over. I try to listen to an audiobook, but I can’t follow along, so I just put on a lo-fi beats mix and let the bleeps and bloops soundtrack me to my destination. The girl’s dorm is a faux-gothic cathedral, like all the other buildings at this stupid fucking school. I park illegally, mentally daring some ghostly parking attendant to ticket me. I know that a therapist, like the one I went to earlier or like the one my mother sent me to years ago, would say this is sublimation or transference or something. Turning my discomfort about this visit into anger at someone I don’t know and will never see. It seems to me that, in a way, this is what most of life is: taking anger from this basket and putting it in that basket; taking disappointment from that basket and putting it in this basket. A shell game to get things done, to keep yourself sane, to keep yourself going.

The lobby requires a keycard, so I hang around outside pretending to talk on my phone, until a girl is leaving and I walk in behind her. The elevator requires a keycard, too, so I sit in the lobby on a couch that smells of disinfectant, and when the elevator opens, I slip in behind the girl who leaves and push five. It takes me up and dings discreetly, and I walk the long anonymous corridor to 512, the girl’s suite, information I gathered on the drive via two minutes of Googling and one phone call. Before I can think too hard and get tempted to turn around, I knock. No one comes to the door, and I’m about to leave, but finally a small voice calls just a minute, and a minute later, the girl appears.

She stands awkwardly in the door, using her right crutch to hold it open, while leaning heavily on the left one. Her eyes are funny, unfocused, and I understand she’s been sleeping and is probably on pain meds. It takes longer than it should for her to recognize me, but it’s clear when she does. Her face twists up like I’ve just tackled her again.

“I’m Leigh,” I say.

“I know who you are. How did you get in here?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

She looks at me, her eyes welling. I want to wipe them for her, but instead, I watch as she cranes her neck to her shoulder and wipes them on her T-shirt sleeve. She says, “I’m out the rest of the season. Maybe into next year.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well that fixes everything.”

“I was going for the ball.”

“Fuck you.” I think she’s going to slam the door, but she just stands there hating me, and I feel a wave of respect for her. She says, “What’s wrong with you?”

I don’t know what to say, so I say, “I don’t know.”

“Maybe you should figure that out.”

Then she does slam the door. I walk back down the corridor, as though swept along by the anger cresting inside me, anger I’m probably aware of right now thanks to the therapist. But it isn’t just anger, it’s something else I have a hard time naming as I jog down the stairwell, aware of and grateful for my two strong, unbroken legs. On the wall beside the lobby entrance, there’s a small red rectangular fire alarm, and I pull it. It begins shrieking as I exit into the hot day, and I can hear it going all the way through the parking lot. Students are pouring out of the building as I pull away, but I don’t see the girl.


On the drive home, I call my mother. Like pulling the fire alarm, this is pure instinct, and I’m hearing her voice before I’ve thought why I’m calling.

“Leigh, hello?” She says.

“Are you there?” She says.

“I’m here.”

“Is everything all right?”

“Why wouldn’t everything be all right?”

“I just couldn’t hear you.”

“I know.”

She takes a sip of something and says, “Well. How are you?”

“I broke a girl’s leg last game.”

“Oh, that’s horrible.”

“Yeah, it is. The bone was sticking out.”

“Oh, God. Please don’t tell me any more.”

“There’s nothing else to tell. They took her to the hospital. We won the game three to two.”

“Well. That’s a bright spot, I guess.”

“It was great.”

I’m approaching a freeway cloverleaf, and it looks the way our conversations always feel. The one road on top and below that everything all knotted up, all the things we don’t want to say. And I’m not an idiot, I know what that stuff is, and so does she. So, does that make it better or worse that we don’t talk about it? On the concrete stanchion someone has spraypainted Fuck Da World, which also yes.

“When was the last time you talked to dad?”

A very long pause, followed by an extremely wary, “Why?”

“I’ve been thinking about him lately.”


“I don’t know. Just wondering you ever talk.”

“We haven’t talked in ten years, sweetie.”

“Do you even know his number any more? Is he still alive?”

Another long pause. “Leigh, I don’t know or care where your father is or what he’s doing. I will never talk to him again, and I will never forgive him.”

“Maybe you should.”

She’s silent, and I can hear her thinking, and I know that I’m waiting for her to say something, although I’m not sure what it is. An apology? A promise? I definitely don’t care if she talks to my father. But she just clears her throat and says, “Well, your brother is coming by for dinner tonight with the baby—”

I say, “I’m sorry, I actually have to go. Big game tomorrow.”

She begins to say something, but her croaking hitch of protest is drowned out by a crotch-rocket motorcycle whizzing by me on the left going a hundred, and I hang up. Because I’m tired of talking to her, because there’s nothing she could say now that I’d want to hear.


Brandon texts three more times that evening, but polite emojis are all I can handle. I want to focus on the game tomorrow. I go down for a late dinner at the dining hall. At nine o’clock, the cavernous building, usually jam-packed at meal times, is nearly empty, populated by a skeleton crew of Subway and Chick-Fil-A employees horsing around and looking at their phones. From the Mediterranean place, I get a big protein-dense kebab salad that I eat mechanically without tasting. What is wrong with you? Is this a question I’ve asked too much or not enough? In one sense, I know what’s wrong with me: when I was ten, my drunk, unemployed father attacked me in my room, and although I managed to get away, I never really got away. And although we moved shortly thereafter, and I haven’t seen him or spoken to him since, he is still there. He is there between my mother and me, between Brandon and me. Maybe he is even that invisible thing between my life and me.

So that’s what’s wrong with me, yes, but the idea of one single day a decade ago having total explanatory power seems too convenient. More than that, it makes me mad to think of that way, as though my life could be shaped by one thing, one moment, one stupid person. I reject that. A bird flutters against the window, and I see that my plate is empty, and the last person has left the room, and the lights have been dimmed, and it’s time to leave. I bus my tray and walk out into the yellow pools of campus streetlight, knowing I will wander aimlessly around until I feel like I can sleep. My mind goes to the girl I hurt, the look on her face as she clutched her ruined shin, then to the Florida State girl who scored twice, who did the knee slide. These things are everything in the moment, which is why the sport is played and which is also why we love sports, the way they whittle existence down to the single second that matters. But sports are not life.


They’re better. That’s what I’m thinking the next day, watching the ref place the ball for State’s opening kick. In the stands, amid the couple thousand fans in attendance, I’ve actually spotted Brandon. He waves, and I lift a gloved hand. I’m glad he’s here. It’s a beautiful crisp day, the first day that feels like Fall and the sky is that kind of brilliant blue where you almost feel like you’re seeing the air. Taking it all in, wanting to hold onto that moment before the action starts, I notice at the distant edge of the seats, a woman who looks like my mother. Of course, many women around here look like her: the generic momwear, the country cowl of stiff blond hair. It might not be her, but something about this woman causes me to tense. Then the ball is in motion and the game has begun. Their right midfielder places a perfect cross to the left striker, and I’m controlling my breath and clapping my hands together and patrolling the box saying no, no, no.

I understand now what I was feeling as I left that girl’s dorm, when I pulled the fire alarm: I was saying no. No to the girl, no to the therapist, and no to Coach, and my mother, and probably Brandon, as well. No to anyone who that thinks that this—the emerald field, the girls battling over the ball, the ref jogging alongside them, the grunts and gasps and grimaces of exertion, the sweat pooling in the small of my back, the spectators spectating, the bright and blameless day—is beside the point. No to the idea that this perfection is somehow a substitute for the real thing: for real relationships, personal growth, amicable mother-daughter lunches, pleasure at social gatherings. That all of these things I can’t enjoy have been denied me by some brokenness that must be healed like that girl’s leg, and that in the healing, this game will become less important.

No. This game is the point. This is all there is. My whole life has led me to this place, a place that is better than life. I feel this truth in every muscle of my body, tensed as I am, crouching before the goal, watching their striker break free and bear down on my domain, and she’s kicking the ball, and I’m leaping.

There is nothing wrong with me.