Jessica turned the water to the hottest setting she could tolerate. She needed thrumming heat and wanted noise to temporarily fill her ears with new sounds. Shrieks of victory, like their own forty-eight hours before, seeped through the ductwork from their opponents’ dressing room.
“And that’s it, folks. An incredible shot to end the Tech ladies’ Cinderella hopes …..”
The announcers would have said something like that. Jessica hadn’t been able to distinguish their words in the bedlam as she desperately leapt to deflect the ball already spinning on the inner rim. One point. One point in a game where the lead changed every few minutes. One point that closed a dynamic season with the coveted Final Four in sight.
Jessica rubbed shampoo into her palms, then massaged it hard into her scalp, glad she didn’t have to manage the mass of thick curls that Caitlin, their team captain, kept pulled back in a braid.
“Damn ball couldn’t have spun out, could it?” She’d wiped sweat from her forehead as Jessica had leaned forward, hands on her thighs, gulping air, whoops within the stadium clashing with the band’s frenzied fight song. “Good game though Jess, and a hell of a run this season.”
Jessica faced the thin white shower curtain, blurred figures beyond her. She allowed water to gush over her hair and run down her back. It had been a great season, but for her there was no comfort of, “wait until next year” that bubbled forth from the sophomore point guard. May’s graduation events were entered into various calendars, finals not a source of anxiety. Less than two months and no more college days.
Steam curled around Jessica’s slitted eyes. Even for her male counterparts, hopes of a professional basketball career were nothing more than refusal to acknowledge reality. One, perhaps two, had narrow chances that would more likely collapse in the light of hard competition.
Coach Redding, who witnessed the birth of women’s professional ball, had balanced honesty and kindness when Jessica thrilled fans with her eighty-two percent free throw average the beginning of her junior year. Faint stirrings of what ifs edged into her thoughts. Was she on her way to a spectacular year? What if just one scout, what if someone who just knew a scout…..
“You’ve got talent, you work hard and you love the game, but it’s not enough.” Coach’s advice had come late one evening in a similar dressing room of silent, sticky, sweat-soaked air. She daubed antibacterial ointment on an abrasion on Jessica’s forearm.
“If I thought you had a chance, I’d help you every way I could,” she continued, her full mouth, rarely touched by lipstick, slightly pursed. “You haven’t said anything, but it’s probably on your mind.”
“Some pros aren’t much taller than me and I’m quick.”
Coach Redding shook her head, tight black curls not moving. “I’ll give you the list of why not, if you want me to.”
Jessica remembered the pause, Coach waiting, Jessica knowing she was right; knowing it was a pleasant fantasy that she could either stubbornly cling to or allow to settle into the place where such dreams belonged.
“Did you try to make it to the pros? You must have had a shot.”
“I was past my prime when the first team was put together.” Her voice was unusually soft. “Look, I want you to make the most of your next two years. I predict they’ll be good ones for you, for the team. It would be better if you didn’t try to kid yourself.”
Jessica had straightened, her five feet eight height not matching Coach’s three inches on her. “Then it will be over for me.”
Coach barked a short laugh, not unkindly. “Go into coaching. Change your major to Phys Ed or Rec Services and stick around an extra year. I’ll be glad to play you.”
Jessica remembered grinning at the suggestion. Oh hell, she knew her limitations. Why try and bluff about it? “I saw the grief my high school coach had to take from some of the parents. I’ll stick to physical therapy.”
How could it have been two seasons with a summer in between since that conversation? An even better question was what had happened to the years since she’d been teased about a gangly growth spurt that sent her towering above other fourth graders? That miserable spring when her father pried the basketball loose from her older brother and gave him money to go to the movies. She held the ball hesitantly, surprised at the tactile sensation. Her father spent the entire afternoon explaining the game, showing her moves, encouraging her to the unforgettable moment when bad form or not, the ball swished through the net. The feeling was irrevocably hers, technique yet to be established, countless hours yet to be spent on polished hardwood or asphalt courts.
How could time have dissolved like the suds around her toes? Jessica pivoted slowly, blasted herself in the face and relinquished her liquid barrier with a twist of the handle.
“’Bout damn time, Sorenson,” Caitlin called out and snatched the curtain aside. She threw a towel that Jessica caught one-handed. “Your ass is dragging. Get dressed and meet us at Gardsky’s. Screw the Final Four – we set a new school record. Besides, Brad is waiting for you. He’s sent two messages in already.”
Brad! Oh God, of course he was waiting. He’d waved from center court bleachers when the buzzer sounded and she hadn’t had the energy to push through the crowd toward him.
“Yeah, yeah, I still need to get some clothes on,” she said as Caitlin stood, hands on her hips. They were sometimes mistaken for sisters with similar build and coloring, although Jessica’s honey gold hair was a shade darker.
Caitlin also deepened her green eyes with tinted contact lenses to enhance her Celtic imagery. “Skip the makeup and don’t take too long. Come on, the bright side is we get to drink and not worry about practice tomorrow.”
Jessica rubbed wet streaks dry and wrapped the towel around her. “Why am I not surprised that’s what you thought of?” She padded to her locker and lifted out the bag bulging with compact hair dryer and toiletries. “I won’t be far behind. Tell Brad, will you?”
“Leave off your underwear and make him a happy man,” Caitlin suggested with a wicked grin, flipped her hand and followed the last two players out the door.
; Jessica wiped steam from one of the mirrors and tried a smile. It stayed in place and looked remarkably real. Maybe Brad was what she should have been thinking of in the shower. She wasn’t about to leave off bra and panties, but she did have a new lavender satin set she’d found on sale.
Brad, Caitlin’s brother’s roommate’s cousin. It had been one of those, wait-til-you-meet-this-guy products of last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day bash. Early enough in the party to be sober, yet two or three beers into mellow. Attractive, a little under six feet, a cross-country runner who understood competing demands of academics and sports. He’d been fun without being pushy, paced his drinking enough to stay coherent and only waited two days to call her for a real date.
; Jessica quickly spread a combination foundation and powder on her flushed face. Hair next – eye makeup was going to be too much trouble and the last thing she needed tonight was blusher. Brad’s preference for girls who didn’t obsess about appearances was one of many things going for him. She switched on the dryer and lifted sections of hair with the round, natural bristle brush. She didn’t have the kind of experience with boys Caitlin did and in a way, she’d been grateful that Brad seemed almost as awkward as she felt when they found themselves in an empty apartment during summer school. He hadn’t rushed her and it had been far more satisfying than her previous embarrassing venture with an inebriated upper classman. They held off on I love you’s until Christmas break and when he gave her a silver heart pendant with a diamond chip, she claimed it as her lucky piece.
; She stared into the mirror, damp strands plumping dry with a healthy sheen. Basketball over, graduation fast approaching, and the almost certain offer of internship at an established sports medicine clinic. Brad wouldn’t graduate until the end of August, but he wouldn’t have any problem getting a job and he hadn’t mentioned looking out of town for work. Should they be talking about what would happen next? Was she ready to?
; The team was evenly split as to whether Brad was going to propose to her before the end of the summer. It was an impossible debate to contain and she tried to nonchalantly deflect well-meaning intrusion into her personal life. Of course she discussed it with Caitlin, who not unexpectedly recommended a long period of shopping around before settling down with anyone.
; Jessica heard movement behind her when she switched off the dryer.
; “How you doing?” Coach Redding was sitting on the bench. She’d changed into a pair of crimson slacks and a red and green-flecked cream, square-necked sweater. She rarely managed by shouting, preferring to channel her intensity into rapid-fire instructions and high-energy pacing. The shirt she’d worn beneath her suit would have been mottled with damp stains. The best antiperspirant on the market wouldn’t have held up to the evening’s level of stress.
; Jessica dropped items into her bag and walked gingerly to her locker, keeping her eyes on Coach. “I’m not sure.” She dropped the towel and stepped into the French cut panties. “How about you?”
; Coach Redding shrugged. “I’ve had the carriage turn into a pumpkin at midnight and watched the glass slipper shatter before. We had a fantastic season and you did well.”
; Jessica worked knee-high stockings over her feet and calves. “I guess I’m okay, but I can’t help thinking that if I had been a fraction of a second quicker….”
; “Or if Caitlin hadn’t missed the last free throw, or if the girl had double-dribbled on the way down court, or if a hundred other things had happened. That one play wasn’t the whole game. We did good, Jess. The school has never been this close and it will be a strong team next year.”
; “Without Caitlin and me.” She looked around the room, surprised to feel less teary than she had in the shower.
; “Yep.” Coach stood and tilted her head. “For you and thousands of other seniors. Not to mention some pros and a couple of future Hall of Famers.”
; Jessica fastened a pair of purple silk-blend pants and reached for the matching long-sleeve, Merino wool tunic. Her mother had given her the outfit for her twenty-second birthday. “I’m going to miss it, you know? The teamwork, the crowds, hell, even laps ‘til I thought I’d puke.”
; Coach waited until Jessica slipped the tunic on and smoothed it over her flat belly and lean hips. She crossed the concrete floor and laid her hand lightly on Jessica’s shoulder. Her faintly slanted dark brown eyes glinted sympathetic humor. “There’s no way I’m going to say something like ‘You’re young and have your whole life ahead of you’, but guess what?”
; It was going to be hard to hold onto self-pity. “I’m young and have my whole life ahead of me? Oh yeah, and a really cool guy who says he loves me.”
; “And somebody called the other day about an internship that I agreed you’d be perfect for.”
; “Gee, it sounds like I ought to quit moaning and get my butt moving.”
Coach Redding dropped her hand as their laughter mingled, echoing off metal lockers. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. Come on, you’ve kept Brad waiting long enough and Caitlin is probably three drinks ahead of you by now.”
Jessica grabbed her purse in one hand and clutched her gym bag in the other. “Caitlin would be three drinks ahead of me if I was sitting next to her.”
Coach Redding tossed her keys in the palm of her hand as they walked down a short hall, clanks and calls of the clean up crew audible from the stadium.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. And speaking of good enough to eat, there’s your fellow. Hi, Brad. We were wrapping up some loose ends.”
Jessica looked at his profile as he leaned against the wall near the side door, his tall frame comfortably slouched. He straightened, smiled and strode toward them.
“Hey, Coach. Caitlin told me you two had a couple of things to take care of. Good game baby, you fought it to the end.”
Jessica nodded, her breath catching at the sight of him. His cobalt blue sweater was her favorite with the way the color emphasized his eyes. A thick curl of brown hair fell across his forehead as it did unless it was cut close to his scalp. God, he looked good!
He and Coach shook hands and she winked at Jessica before she exited the building.
Brad kissed her quickly on the mouth, took the gym bag from her and held the door open. “I couldn’t park very close. You okay walking?”
“Sure, I need to stretch. Sorry to have taken so long.”
“No sweat. Want to talk about the game?”
She matched his pace and felt more relaxed than she expected to. “Not really. I’ve been concentrating so much on the tournaments I don’t hardly know what’s been going on with you.”
He grinned. “Now that you mention it, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you about. You remember my uncle who opened the new Sports Zone store?” They dodged a drunken trio of boys debating about where to go to continue partying. Jessica hoped they planned on walking to wherever it was.
“His assistant manager is going back to grad school in the fall and he told me that if I’m willing to come into the store as a clerk and don’t screw it up, he’ll hire me on when the guy leaves in August. I’m only taking nine hours this summer and can schedule around it.” He pointed toward the aisle where he was parked.
“That’s super. It’s a great chain.”
He fished keys from his yellow nylon wind jacket pocket. “Yeah and they have a nice compensation package. Plenty of room to grow, but the policy is that you start at the bottom so you understand how the business works.”
His red Jetta chirped in response to the remote and he tossed Jessica’s bag onto the back seat. When they were buckled in the car, he leaned over for a long kiss, the kind she melted into without thinking.
“Oh, I needed that,” she murmured when they pulled apart. “You want to skip Gardsky’s? I didn’t even think to ask.”
She couldn’t see him well in the dim light, but heard amusement in his voice. “Caitlin will kill me if we don’t show. Besides, you should celebrate. New school record, remember? First time to make the Sweet Sixteen, let alone the Elite Eight.”
“Yeah, I’m trying to keep that in mind.” Jessica wondered how long it would be before the mental picture faded of her fingertips brushing air instead of the ball as it bounced onto the rim.
It wasn’t far to Gardsky’s, a sports bar and grill Caitlin had discovered close to the hotel where the team was booked. She declared it to be a suitable substitute for their home territory hangout, O’Malley’s. It was less expensive than the hotel restaurant and they served cheese sticks coated with a spicy breadcrumb mixture that Jessica especially liked. Caitlin’s view was, with eighteen beers on tap, she didn’t care about cheese sticks.
Brad claimed one of the few empty parking spaces and they swapped greetings with a cluster of band members near the doorway.
Great season, get ’em next year, tough break….
Their boozy exuberance followed Brad and Jessica into the brick-walled bar area where boisterous exchanges hardly sounded like complaints of a losing school. Servers moving deftly with laden trays seemed nonplussed by the din. Caitlin signaled enthusiastically from the far side of the room where two long tables were shoved together.
The hostess waved them forward at the shout and people shifted around to let Brad and Jessica sit side-by-side. Coach Redding was at the head of the table and beckoned to a waitress when she saw them.
Sara Middleton stood halfway up from her chair and looked at Brad. “Hey, did she…..”
Brad shook his head rapidly and Caitlin threw a wadded paper napkin at her. She sat down and raised a beer mug to her mouth.
“What’s going on?” Jessica snagged a mozzarella stick from the platter someone passed their way. The scent of grilling hamburgers and mountainous nachos being delivered to the next table awakened a compelling hunger.
Caitlin raised her voice to overcome a burst of cheering from the bar. “You know Sara’s a lightweight drinker – she’s just running at the mouth. They have a fried shrimp and Cajun chicken special, so we ordered for you both. That okay?”
Jessica lifted her eyebrows to Brad who shrugged genially and they took icy mugs of draft that appeared in front of them. “Sure.” Good, she wouldn’t have to make choices.
“To Coach, to Coach!” The cry came from a neighboring table and Jessica joined the salute to the woman who tried to quiet the escalating racket.
Arrival of the food helped subdue the chatter and Jessica decided not to count drinks. Hell, everyone was right – if this was going to be her last night as a member of the team, she might as well have fun.
Multiple conversations swirled around bites and slurps. Several of the girls seem to be casting strange glances at Brad and Jessica wondered briefly if they were trying to flirt with him. No, that was silly; it was the beer and fatigue from the game. Her teammates wouldn’t do that to her.
The wait crew began to clear the table as a hearty few vowed they could handle apple crisp a la mode and five-layer chocolate cake. Coach Redding shot an odd look at Brad who nodded and she whispered something to the waitress.
Jessica dropped her voice. “Am I more tired than I thought or is something weird going on? You’re getting an awful lot of attention.”
Brad extended his hand and brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “Look, everyone knows this was your last game and they’re a little concerned with how you’re doing.”
Her eyes stung and she sniffed as quietly as she could to prevent an embarrassing trickle. “Oh. I’m okay, really. Coach and I talked already.”
“That’s what I figured was going on and that’s why I haven’t said anything. I thought we’d talk about it later if you want to.”
Jesus, how much sweeter a guy could she ask for? She squeezed his hand and excused herself for a trip to the ladies room. Maybe she should move next to Caitlin to let some of her lack of sentimentality rub off.
When she returned to the table, she was surprised to see the waitress filling champagne flutes set among the coffee cups. School record or not, they did lose the game in case everyone had forgotten.
She slide back into her chair and leaned forward when Coach Redding stood and tapped her glass. The surrounding tables toned down a bit as if to be a part of what she was going to say.
“Okay, even though we got stopped short tonight, it was a season to be proud of.”
Jessica was warming to the idea. It did sound better than continuing to beat herself up.
“However, there are other things to think about and I’m going to turn it over to Brad now.”
What on earth was she talking about? Jessica twisted her position as Brad shoved away from the table and reached into a pocket of the windbreaker draped on the back of his chair. He opened a black velvet covered ring box and Jessica gasped when she saw the diamond.
He lifted her chin and stared into her eyes, the crowd suddenly faded from focus.
“If you say yes to marrying me, I’ll feel like I won the championship.”
Oh my God! Jessica saw his lips move, heard him and felt her fingertips pressing against her mouth. She was certain everyone was staring, but her world had compressed to the face in front of her.
“Are you sure?” She whispered the words around her hand and watched him nod vigorously.
He gently pulled her hand from her mouth, slid the ring to the knuckle and stopped. It was a glittering Marquis solitaire on a gold band. “Should I kneel instead?”
“No,” she said softly. “I mean, yes, yes, I’ll marry you.” He slipped the ring to a perfect fit as applause erupted throughout the room.
“To the happy couple!” Caitlin made the toast and Jessica gripped the edge of the table with her free hand to regain her composure. She wasn’t paying attention to who grabbed her left hand, admiring the stone.
“You knew? Everyone knew? That’s what all the funny looks were about?” Caitlin and Coach laughed in delight and Brad bobbed his head sheepishly.
“I asked Coach to help me pick it out. I was going to give it to you after the last regular game, but I didn’t want to distract you going into the play-offs.”
Sara cleared her throat and peeked around Brad. “My roommate works at the jewelry store part time. So, okay, maybe I mentioned it to a couple of people. You’re not sore, are you?”
“And since we were all anxious, I told Brad he should ask you here instead of taking you off somewhere private,” Caitlin said before Jessica could reassure Sara. “Come on, you have to admit that it’s a perfect ending to the night.”
Brad put his hand on Jessica’s shoulder, but edged back to let the girls across the table have a good look at the ring.
“Wrong term,” Coach said over exclamations and fired questions about setting a date. “It’s a great beginning.”
Jessica flashed a thumbs up, determined to keep her voice from squeaking with excitement. “You’re right, as always, Coach. You’re right as always.”
Copyright © 2001-2017, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.