PE. The one academics-related thing at Thornton I found mindnumblingly uninteresting and difficult.
“Kick the ball, Ward!” Coach McKay, the burly, beefy soccer instructor, yelled at me the Monday morning after Chocolate Hearts.
I stood there on the grass, staring apprehensively at the black-and-white soccer ball in front of me. I dreaded PE – I didn’t know what had possessed me to pick soccer as my mandatory team sport, except for the fact that it sounded better than lacrosse, which I hadn’t even heard of at WHS, and running for the track team, which I was sure to be even worse at.
“Kick, Goddammit!” Coach McKay bellowed.
I shot my foot out in a wild arc and missed the ball by a good six inches. At the other athletic, well-groomed girls in my class sniggered, I sprinted – or walked, actually – back to the edge of the field, trying to maintain an impassive expression. On the bright side, my turn at humiliation on the soccer field was over for the day.
“Hey,” Chris, who was luckily the only member of the Champagne Gang in my PE class, said, with a sympathetic look. “Did you get home all right Saturday night?”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Did Roxanne?”
“She got home,” Chris said. A bit grimly, I thought.
“Fitzgerald!” Coach McKay hollered. “Show me a good drop-kick!”
Chris, who was on the soccer team, flashed me a smile and ran easily and confidently over to the ball. I watched him enviously for a moment before heading inside to shower, careful to look out for any booby traps Roxanne might have forced her minions to plant for me around the building. After her attempt to get Nathan away from me on Saturday night had failed, I expected her to have something disastrous planned.
But the day went by without incident, probably because I ate lunch in the bathroom and slunk out through the back door after the dismissal bell rang so as to avoid running into Nathan or Roxanne, both of whom I wasn’t ready to face yet. Nathan did try to talk to me in homeroom, but fortunately for me, the bell rang just as he leaned over from his seat and I made my escape.
After work, I walked home through the park again, and I came across Chris by the swings.
He was kicking a ball around, brows furrowed in concentration. I didn’t want to talk to him, but I stopped to watch because I wanted to gather a few pointers for my next PE class. I didn’t like the way I kept humiliating myself in front of all the vacuous Roxanne-wannabes in it.
Chris saw me and stopped, giving me a welcoming smile. “Summer, hey! What are you doing here?”
“Walking,” I said shortly, wishing he hadn’t stopped.
“Want to play?” he offered, kicking the ball to me.
I stared at it as it rolled to a half before my left leg. Then I stared at Chris. “Not particularly.”
His face fell almost imperceptibly. Feeling bad, I hastened to say, “I’m just not very good at soccer.”
Chris shrugged. “That’s okay. I’m not very good at art, but I like drawing anyway.” He gave me an encouraging smile. “Come on, kick it over.” When I hesitated, he added, “I promise I won’t laugh if you miss. It’s fun!”
I kicked. Once again, my foot was wide off the mark. I looked at Chris, cheeks burning.
“That was pretty powerful, you know.” Chris jogged closer, positioning himself in front of the ball. His cheeks were flushed, his curly brown hair tousled, his eyes shining. I felt a wave of affection towards him. It wasn’t the kind of stomach-churning attraction I felt for Nathan, but it was the kind of feeling that made me think that, in an alternate universe, Chris and I could have been friends. “Okay, all you’ve got to do is focus on one round spot of the ball. Can you do that?”
I complied, fixing my eyes on one black spot.
“Good!” Chris called encouragingly. “Now cleanse your mind of your thoughts. Don’t think about missing or anything. Just concentrate on your foot and that spot, don’t be afraid of kicking, and – go!”
I kicked. This time, my foot connected with the ball, sending it rolling gently over to the swings. Chris burst into applause and, startled out of my carefully-maintained reserve, I shot him a no-holds-barred smile before I could stop myself.
“You did it!” Chris cheered, holding up his hand for a high-five. After a moment’s hesitation, I slapped his palm. Chris smiled. “You’re going to wow McKay in class tomorrow. Be prepared.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling genuinely grateful to him. “I should probably, um, go now.”
Chris nodded, still smiling his friendly smile. “See you tomorrow.”
As I went on my way, I realized what the new, strange feeling in my stomach was. Relief. I was relieved, and not just because I had learned to kick a ball. I was relieved that for just a moment, I’d been able to let down the guard I had kept poker-stiff throughout my time at Linbury and just been a normal fifteen-year-old for a change.
I’d liked the feeling.
Michael was in the living room when I got home, as it was his day off. “Hey,” I said cautiously, depositing my bag on the couch between us, unsure if I was disturbing him. He raised a hand in stoic, silent greeting just as Hadley burst into the room, striding towards the door. Ann trailed behind her miserably.
“Honey, please at least tell me where you’re going,” Ann pleaded, in a weak attempt at discipline. She was obviously in one of her more lucid moods.
“Out,” said Hadley furiously. She was in one of her more lucid moods, too – but lucidity for her also meant an extra proportion of anger and unhappiness.
“Hadley, I’m your mother – “
“Get a life!” Hadley shouted, slamming the door shut silent behind her.
Ann crawled slowly upstairs again. Michael and I looked at each other.
“Poor Ann,” said Michael quietly.
I sighed. It felt weird to be sitting with Michael, but what other options did I have? “Yeah,” I agreed. “Poor Hadley, too.”
Michael looked at me expressionlessly. “She’s being difficult. She doesn’t deserve pity.”
I bit my lip. My brother had more defined ideas of right and wrong than I did. To Michael, everything was absolutely clear-cut. “I guess,” I said reluctantly.
Michael got to his feet. “You’re good with Ann. It’s mature of you.”
I looked at him. “Thanks,” I said, surprised. Then, struck by a desire to be completely honest, I said softly, “Sometimes…I think it’s because…it didn’t affect me as much as it affected the others. I mean,” I added quickly, “I was crazy about him, Michael, you know that, we all were, how could we not be, – but I – I don’t feel torn apart. I’m not falling to pieces. I still feel like me. It’s everything that’s happened afterwards that I really, really hate.”
Michael nodded. “Me, too.”
It felt strange to be the one talking; normally I was the listener, the girl people turned to for getting an agreement with their opinions. “Or maybe it’s just because I didn’t see it happening – “
Michael’s expression didn’t change, but something flickered in his eyes. “It’s over and done.”
I felt alone again. For a moment, I’d thought Michael would be the one I could talk to about everything that had happened. My imagination had turned him into the wise older brother who magically solved my problems. But he wasn’t – he was just a quiet guy who was just as clueless as I was, and he didn’t particularly want me to confide in him. And yet he’d told me I was mature; there wasn’t anyone in the world who was closer to me at the moment than Michael was, because he was the only person around whom I didn’t have to exert watchfulness and mistrust.
“If you want to talk about it, try Dad,” said Michael suddenly.
I looked at him and nodded. I was tired of my Dad’s silence, tired of not being able to express my opinions to an adult who should have been responsible for the things I was – I was just tired.
Accordingly, when my father entered at midnight, I was waiting for him in the living room, watching a documentary on gazelles and drinking Gatorade.
“Sum?” Dad’s voice was hoarse and foggy and exhausted. “What on earth are you doing up?”
“I’m up at this time every night.” I put down my Gatorade and made place for him on the couch. “I just, you know. Stay in my room and do homework.”
“I see,” said Dad. He shrugged off his coat and leaned back against the couch, rubbing his temples tiredly. “Well, is something wrong tonight, darling?”
I shook my head. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
Frank gave me a strained smile. “I’m sorry, Summer, but I’m too tired to talk much.”
I bit my lip, disappointed. I couldn’t just ask him why he preferred acting distant and strange to sitting with his daughter. He could get angry and refuse to talk to me. I decided to start out on a light note. “Um. Thornton is a – it’s pretty different from what I’m used to.”
“But you like it,” said Dad, giving me a sharp look that left no scope for disagreement. His tone was more commanding than questioning.
“Oh, yeah,” I said hastily. “It’s nice, Dad.”
Dad nodded. “I’m paying a lot more for it than I’ve ever paid for Wodehouse, even though you’re on scholarship.” He smiled at me. “Do you know why? Because I have faith in you, sweetheart. I know you’ll do well if I invest even a little in your future. You’ve always been so responsible. I’m glad to see that hasn’t changed with this move. I know you’ll work hard.”
I chewed my bottom lip, unable to decide whether to feel proud of the compliment or angry that he wasn’t picking up on what was between the lines. Wasn’t that what parents were good at? “I’ll try, Dad.”
He nodded again, then got to his feet. “Well. Goodnight, Sum. You should get your homework done and go to bed.”
I watched him walk to the stairs, massaging a crick in his neck. “Dad,” I called.
He turned and raised his eyebrows questioningly, looking so tired that I almost backed down. Almost. “Could I please talk to you for a while?” I asked.
Dad sighed. “Sweetheart, it’s really late. Can’t it wait?”
“Sure,” I said automatically, because that was what I did. Then I shook my head. It wouldn’t kill me to be assertive, just this once. “Actually, no.”
I’d feared his reaction, but he simply squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. “All right. Come up to my room and talk to me while I get something to eat.”
Amazed at how easy it had been – he hadn’t lost his temper or his patience – I followed him. I knew he and Ann slept in different bedrooms now, but I couldn’t resist asking innocently, “Won’t I wake Ann up, though?”
Frank looked at me, his eyes crinkling as he frowned. “We don’t sleep in the same room anymore, Summer.”
“Why not?” I asked, tentatively. I was connecting, wasn’t I? I was asking questions, trying to search my father’s soul. And now that I was, I realized that, deep down, I really, really did want answers.
Dad stopped on the stairs and crossed his arms over his chest. “Why are you interrogating me, Summer? You know perfectly well what our sleeping situations have been for a long time.”
I bit my tongue, feeling my cheeks flush. Disappointment sucked. “Sorry,” I murmured. Dad turned to continue on his way upstairs, and once again, I gathered up my courage for another go. “Actually, Dad? I know what they are. I just don’t know why.”
My father’s expression was frightening, but I rushed on. “Is it because of – you know – Neil? Because I don’t know – “
“Summer,” said Dad. His voice was soft, but it had a forbidding quality that stopped me in my tracks. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. I would appreciate it if you followed suit.”
I sighed and watched him walk up the stairs.
I remembered the day he’d told me they were moving to Linbury. I’d been sitting in my room when Dad had stuck his head through the door and asked, “Can I talk to you?”
I had agreed automatically, and he had walked in, taking a seat on my cluttered bed. “Is everything all right?” I’d questioned, noticing that he looked gaunt and exhausted, his chin unshaved, the hair around his ears graying prematurely.
“I think they’re getting better,” he’d informed me, with a smile that resembled a grimace. And then he’d told me. Abruptly, without waiting for me to ask why, he’d told me, “The hospital offered me a transfer.” He’d been a doctor at Blake Hospital, working fourteen hours a day with the hospital constantly paging him the remaining ten. “To Linbury.”
The rational part of my brain had told me that the proper thing to do would be to break into an exuberant song-and-dance, congratulate my father, and immediately demand a Powerbook computer. It had been too bad that my body had refused to obey the rational part of my brain. “What?” I’d said instead, idiotically, hoping that I’d understood wrong, that he’d refused, that he’d just called me there to tell me to bear tightening our belts even further…
“We’re moving to Linbury.” Dad had looked deeply unhappy, but he’d confirmed my fears firmly.
“We’re rich?” I had said, too stunned to consider anything else.
“I’m afraid not.” For a second, Dad had looked as if he wanted to smile again. “We’re going to have to start out with the tiniest, cheapest house in town. But it’s a house, and it has six separate bedrooms. And you and Michael can start private school, too. We can get a car. A Volvo, maybe. And we can pay tuition at Yale or Princeton instead of Hunter College or UConn.”
I had touched my forehead with a benumbed palm. “Wow.”
Dad had buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry, Summer. I’m doing a horrible job of pretending that we’ll be happy leaving Manhattan.”
“It’s just a place, Manhattan.” I had forced the words out. It had been the right thing to do. What had I even had to lose? I’d lost so much this year that losing Manhattan had felt like it would probably be a relief. I hadn’t been sure if Curtis and I had a relationship, or if Rachael and I were on speaking terms. “You’re right, Dad. It’s a great opportunity.”
He’d looked marginally happier. “Yes, it is.” He’d looked away from me, studying the worn poster of Elvis Presley that Eric had set up out of spite on the wall. “And…maybe we can start over, kiddo.”
I had placed my hand over his. “Maybe we can.” Then, wanting to talk about why exactly we had to start over, I’d said hestitantly, “Dad, do you ever miss –”
“Well, then, that’s settled.” My father had cut me off loudly. “We’re moving to Linbury. It’ll be good, won’t it? Getting away from all this…”
We hadn’t talked for a long time after that. Not until now, in fact. And yet, he still wasn’t ready to face anything.
So much for expressing my feelings.