It was disconcerting to have her watch me practice. On the practice field, there were only guys: coaches, trainers, and us football players, who sometimes wanted to be anywhere but out on the hot field getting bashed around. But one day she shows up. I get kidded by my teammates, I'm embarrassed, and after practice we have a hot argument.
"Well that was embarrassing."
"Why are you embarrassed?"
"Do you see any other girls out there watching?"
"I'm your girlfriend."
"You're not my girlfriend."
"I'm a friend who's a girl."
"Isn't there anything better to do that to stand outside in the hot August sun and watch us practice? It's not even a game. What do you get out of it? And please don't say watching me."
I looked over at her and I saw the eyes that could bore a hole into steel.
"I like to watch. I need to understand what you do and why you do it."
I was so prepared for an argument, so expecting an entirely different line of thinking... I was primed for a battle with this tough young woman. Wanted to tell her to go home and to stop bothering me. But the funny thing was, she said the one thing that made sense to me.
I was just like her. If I didn't understand a physics problem I would just stare at it. I'd read around it. I'd study problems that were close to it, but not it. It was study around the edges. I would pull at the problem from this angle and that, and one point of view would be the key that unlocked the problem.
Women were a different kind of mysterious. They were unanswered questions without a study guide. They were so alien that I had no hopes for understanding their ways. I therefore didn't apply this line of understanding to them, and in my own mind I gave up ever understanding women, and therefore connecting with them.
Andi walked into third period biology, the new kid in school, and right there, we knew things were going to change, all of us. Andi had short hair and a purposeful expression. She walked in like bottled rage.
She wasn't apologetic about being the new girl in school. It was obvious that the established girl clique would have to defer to her rather than the other way around. Well ooh fucking rah, as my old man would say. She sat next to Shirley, the most sheepish girl in our class, and that very instant, Shirley acquired the gift of self-confidence.
I didn't much care for the popular girls in my high school and they didn't like me right back. They toyed with boys and ruined girls. I liked my guy friends and the Invisibles - the girls who were good at being wall flowers. Whatever they said privately, it was always out of earshot of the popular girls.
Andi was a catalyst. You either liked her, or you didn't. The popular girls made advances, invited her onto the team. She said fuck off, in so many words. I watched and enjoyed the show.
Andi gravitated toward guys and the Invisibles too, because that was her chemistry. Dumb guys she knew how to handle with just a look. Dangerous guys steered clear. One girl tried to shove her into a locker, and she grabbed her thumb, bent it backward, and stepped on the girl's knee with her heel. One did not fuck with Andi.
I tried to avoid her, mostly because I liked her. I'd been laughed at by enough girls that I steered clear, and she was just another disaster waiting to happen. That was my line of thinking, for good or ill.
I suppose that meeting her was inevitable, and like all meetings that weren't supposed to go well, this one didn't either. We met, officially, at a science fair, although I knew who she was for a long time. I was going to the regional science fair with my panels and a small demonstration involving an air track and multiple oscillating masses, and she was going too. Hers was more mathematical than mine, which wasn't surprising. She was running through calculus like it was nothing, as a high school sophomore, so she had two years on me in math. Our booths were immediately adjacent to each others'. The science fair advisors couldn't be happier. We were both articulate in our own ways and neither had that science fair geek stink about us.
I studiously avoided her, and she me. We didn't talk. When she won the fair, I didn't think it was unfair, or that it was because she was a young girl who had an unnerving, unblinking stare that the judges loved. When she did something, it was inevitable she would win. I knew it as soon as I saw her exhibit.
So fast forward to the summer before junior year of high school. We were doing two a days. The afternoon practice sessions were the worst. We skinny boys would lose four or five pounds in that heat.
Practices were mind numbing to watch. There was nothing fun about watching teams practicing plays over and over and over again. We'd practice handoffs in the backfield: bellies, and quick throws out to running backs. The linemen were learning their blocking assignments against different defenses. Gap defenses, blitzing defenses, slant rushes, crossing linebackers, traps and counter traps. Over and over and over again. We all blew assignments, and we all heard concern from our coaches.
Practice was like washing a car. Who wants your girlfriend to watch you wash a car? Washing is nothing. Date night, and driving that gleaming car around, that was everything.
Practice was the messy guy moments. We fuck up, we get yelled at, we get abused, we do better. We look like shit at the beginning of a season, and yet when the season starts, we are a team, and we play as one. I don't like to be watched when we are in this growing-together time. The last thing you need is to perturb the heads of your teammates with outside shit. And girls are definitely outside shit.
The first day Andi showed up, I was flustered. So were the coaches, who didn't want her there. Their first question was, who are you here for? She had no brother, so there was no familial interest. She tried to watch the entire team, but mostly she watched me and my units.
She didn't stand with the trainers or the coaches. She stood by herself. A part of me admired her ability to not care if she blended in or not. She reasoned, I think, that there was no law prohibiting her from watching, and therefore she could stand anywhere she wanted. She may also have reasoned incorrectly that her presence wouldn't affect our performance. But it did. Welcome to quantum mechanics. You can watch, but you can't do so without perturbing the system.
By the third day I had stomach cramps just worrying about whether she'd be there to watch. That afternoon, after practice, I was tired, and cranky, and we were going to have the talk. I was mad as hell.
We started out the way the story opened. She surprised me with the fact that she wanted to understand. I totally got that. Football is mysterious to an outsider. Especially mysterious is why any sane young man would sign up for so much abuse. It didn't fit within her worldview.
"I appreciate your trying to understand, but here's the thing: Your presence embarrasses me, and you are ruining any chance that our team is going to do well. You are a distraction."
"How am I distracting you? The team, I mean. I'm not doing anything but watching."
That was when I understood she didn't know she had an effect on people, just by being her. She was unconscious of this effect.
This shouldn't matter, in a perfect world. What I tell you next shouldn't matter, and it tells you a lot about me that I notice these things, and that she didn't. Here's how Andi looked, standing there.
She had an intense stare. That stare captured everything, and everyone. She saw coaches, players, she could see who was good, who fucked up, who blew blocking assignments. She could see everything. That was what you the observer of this scene would know.
What you saw, tho, was her face. Intense and beautiful. I can say this now, being at a distance of almost forty years, but dear god she was beautiful. Those cheekbones.
She would put her hands on her hips, and you saw the slim brown skin with silky hair. You looked at her tee shirt with the scoop top and you thought you had never seen such a beautiful shade of green before. Her cut off jeans did the same with her legs. She had perfect legs.
She stood there like a coach, and she had no idea she was breaking all of our hearts. Hands on hips. Staring intently, wanting to get to the central core of the mystery that was competitive team sports.
She was killing our squad.
I spoke bluntly. She couldn't do this. It affected our team too much. She didn't respond much. So I was even more blunt, then, hoping she'd understand.
"Andi, PLEASE. Don't come back. I love this sport. I love these guys. And when you're here, we simply can't practice effectively. Please please. I don't know you as well as I should, but I am asking you please to leave us alone when we practice. You are so welcome to watch our games, but not our practices."
She didn't come back the next day. I am not sure if she saw any of our games. It was simply a light that went out in her.
I had contemplated ending the story with that last paragraph. It was a natural ending. Perhaps your imagination has the true ending different from what actually happened. I'll tell you how it ended, because I owe it to Andi.
Our football team had had a good season that year. I did not.
Whatever joy I would have normally felt when we won was not there. After an evening game in freezing temperatures, our hot showers normally defrosted us, and we would talk excitedly about post-game parties, or dates. We warmed up, dressed, then forgot about football and spent our high spirited youth in misbegotten ways.
"Break some hearts," was what one of my linemen would always say. Old Ugly, we called him. Old Ugly was popular because he knew he was nothing to look at, and that made him uninhibited. Old Ugly was the most popular kid on our team. It puzzled him why the guys he thought would be popular weren't. Some of us had girlfriends. Some of us ... well, I just never could figure out what my problem was.
That season, after every game, I left the comfort of the locker room and walked into the cold night gloomy. Andi would never be there. I had killed something in her spirit, and I reckoned it to be an unforgivable sin.
Not only was it her loss, it was mine. She confused me too much that I could ever be comfortable around her, but I had entertained hopes we could overcome whatever that barrier to entry was that kept two alike people apart.
This didn't happen. The ends of those nights were the most bleak of my teenaged years. My team was doing great, but I was in a personal hell of my own making.
My teammates would have parties, and they'd always tell me to invite you along, Andi. I'm telling you this because I never saw you at any parties. It wasn't because you weren't invited. It was because I never extended the invitations.
I guess we both figured out how to game the scheduling system, because in our last two years in high school, we managed to avoid having each other in classes. Clever woman. You always were smarter than me.
You were our valedictorian. You sounded so confident at the podium. Mature, poised. You were going to be a success. You were a success.
A few teachers and not a few friends said we should date. What was it that kept us apart? I don't know.
I thought about you in every science class. I imagined your profile. I imagined you staring at the book and at the board, gleaning every detail, every little detail with those fierce eyes of yours.
A Belated Apology
I had to stop using third person, because the only audience this story is intended for is you. I thought perhaps a confessional would be good for my soul, but it turns out that this is cold comfort. It would really please me to know you've read this story and know it's about you.
I figured out why I was always so militantly opposed to getting close to you. Here's why:
It's because I feared losing you.
I don't mean losing as in the sense of competition, as if there were another guy, and you had to choose between us, and you chose him. Don't think that was ever the case. If there ever would have been an "us", it would have been as inevitable as Adam and Eve. There never was another for me besides you. Because you never dated anyone in high school, I may assume that there never was an option for you either.
How screwed up is that? We were so close, and yet we never let the other one in.
My fear was that we'd be together, as we seem to have meant to be, and that after years of togetherness, you'd simply vanish. As wordlessly as our high school years were. No reason, or perhaps you died... I didn't know. I knew, tho, that life after you would be impossible. So the fear of the pain of living without you made me deny myself the pleasure of being with you.
I always prided myself on being able to see the world with clear and pragmatic eyes. It's remarkable how at odds my life is with the view of myself.
Perhaps this should be a confessional. You dear reader, you who are young, who are in the edge of making similar decisions in your life - please look toward my own experiences and know how full of regrets I am - and if the circumstances are similar, I beg you to take a chance and risk heartache rather than a life of endless second guessing.
Where is my Andi now? What has she accomplished? Is she as noble and straightforward as she always was?
I've looked for her for years. She seems to have vanished.
Andi if you are out there: If I had to do it again, I'd have done it so differently. I'd have talked with you about sports from an insider's perspective. I'd have asked you questions about your own mind. Why did you decide to fixate on the things you did? What determined what was worthy of your thinking?
If I could have overcome my lockjaw fear of you, would you have talked with me? Would you have forgiven me?
What did you hope to see out on that hot football field?
I'll never be able to get those moments back with you. Not a month goes by without remembering you and the cowardly way I treated you. I am so sorry.