Christmas eve had him hurrying to leave the training center before Irene left for work and T.J. went to the sitter. T.J. had called early and asked if Tank could bring his Playstation down so he and the sitter’s son, Samuel, could play with it. Traffic was mercifully light in the miserable wet weather. He was stopped at the stop sign a half block from Irene’s when reality killed his hope.
A man in a nice suit was standing at the door, an African american man with skin almost as dark as Irene’s. He was very handsome, and looked like that actor from Criminal Minds, that Shemar-something; the man Irene had jokingly said would count as all but one of her movie star free-be fives. When the door opened, his son hugged the man then dragged him inside. Tank just sat there staring in disbelief. He couldn’t move and was lucky there was not traffic behind him on the sidestreet.
The sitter’s car pulled up and honked. T.J. ran out with his backpack and jumped in with a backward wave at the man and his mother. Irene wasn’t dressed for work, her favorite boots were under his favorite cranberry sweater dress, as her long wool coat draped her. An overnight bag hung off her shoulder as she locked to door, then she took her date’s arm as they huddled under an umbrella. Tank wanted to kill the man he saw chivalrously holding her door while she got in his car. They backed out of the drive and went the opposite way.
A car horn brought Tank out of his state of shock, he quickly turned and drove to the sitter’s house. T.J. was happy to get his game console, but Tank declined the offer to stay and play, claiming he had to get a good night sleep before the game. Driving home, he sent the call from Irene to voicemail. He couldn’t talk to her. She was dating again, they hadn’t even been divorced for a year and she was dating again while he was still holding on to hope. She was dating and she hadn’t even told him. The thought and the image of her with another just kept repeating in Tank’s mind.
Sitting in his dark house, he looked out at the backyard. Three years ago, they renewed their promises to love, honor, and cherish each other till death parted them. He wanted a drink, he wanted to drink until he died. But he had a rule, nothing the night before a game. An hour later, the phone rang. He answered it, he couldn’t help the harshness in his voice as he resisted yelling at the woman he loved with all his soul. The woman who was killing him.
“What is it, Irene?”
She seemed surprise at his tone, “I... uh... I just wanted to tell you, you shouldn’t have taken that video game to T.J. at Samuel’s, if they stay up all night playing it...”
“Just add it to the list of things I can’t do right,” He interrupted angrily.
“Thomas, what’s wrong?” Irene asked softly.
“I was just standing here looking out at the backyard. It was only three years ago, you know. Three years and two hours ago that we promised till death do us part. Happy anniversary.” He grated out the words.
“Thomas, I can’t do this right now.” She sounded upset as she whispered to him, and he was glad, he was glad he hurt her.
“Of course not, sorry to disturb your evening. I hope you have a good time tonight.” He hung up on her.
Since he couldn’t drink, he worked out till he ached then he took an ice bath and laid awake until 3AM. The next morning he was the first at the stadium.
During the game, he was right about the kick returner getting stripped. He managed to scoop up the ball and twist clear of a tackle. Bull and Costco, both shouted at him to run. Tank shot down the field like a rocket. Knocking another guy aside, he just kept running and in moments, he was across the goal line and pulling up. Surrounded by teammates and cheering fans, he felt elated and grinned. Carrying the ball back to the sideline, he looked up to where the friends and families of the players sat. Irene and T.J. weren’t there. It was like the final nail in his hope's coffin.
Handing off the ball to the equipment manager, he went back out of the field. The extra point was good and when the other team tried to return, Tank was the first one down the field and dropping two defenders so Costco could get the kick returner. After the whistle blew, he held out a hand to help one of the guys up.
“Damn Tanner, no wonder they call you the Tank.”
Tank grinned, sneering, “Maybe in two weeks, you’ll stay out of my way, Watkins.”
The big linebacker who was playing jammer laughed, “Not likely. Congrats on the points, they’ll be the last you get off my team.”
Tank snorted and jogged off the field. The Texan’s defense lined up. Tank fought the urge to look over his shoulder, there was no point. Irene hadn’t brought T.J.. He could only hope his son had seen the play on tv. He played hard the rest of the game, like a man possessed. In the locker room, he gave the standard team player reply; he got the opportunity and he couldn’t have done it without his teammates. Everyone wanted to talk about the best game of his career, but he just wanted to get away and be alone with his pain.
He left out the side door to avoid more press. His ball tucked in a duffel for T.J.. Getting into his truck, he went straight home. His whole body ached and he felt like an old man as he carried ice up to his bathroom. He stopped and put T.J.’s game ball on the bed then went and dumped the ice in the tub. He pulled the false hamper out of the way and started drinking from the first whiskey bottle before the tub had filled. It was the last one upstairs, so he went out to the shed and pulled several from a box and tossed the empty whiskey pint in the recycle bin. It started raining as he stomped back to the house. Closing the glass door behind him, he stared at the festive decorations that he hated. This was his future; alone in a giant empty house with an ugly fake Christmas tree and no one to share his greatest accomplishments except the bottles in his arms.
He stripped to his underwear before picking up a second pint of tequila. He tossed the other bottles into the ice. He didn’t even bother with the gatorade in between, he wouldn’t have another game for 11 days and there were no team meetings till Monday. He knew he had just gotten over alcohol poisoning and lied about it being food poisoning or flu to Irene but he really didn’t care if he died tonight.
Irene had moved on and taken his son with her. Climbing into the ice bath, his breath hissed out as the cold burned his skin. In minutes, his teeth had stopped chattering and he was able to start his third pint, vodka, without spilling in down his chin. His mind and his body going numb at the same time but his heart hurt worse than ever. He began cursing her.
Irene and T.J. sat patiently in the friends and family waiting room outside the locker room with the others. Soon everyone had left except the head coach’s wife and son. He looked at her oddly when he entered and told her Thomas had left over an hour ago. To hid her anger from her son, she laughed and said she must have missed him. When she texted Thomas he didn’t respond, nor did he pick up the house phone. T.J. chatted excitedly about how well his father played and how happy he was to have a real NFL ball that was used in a real game and had scored a real touchdown.
His truck was in the driveway but Thomas didn’t answer the door. Inside there was a smell that made Irene’s skin crawl.
“T.J. baby, wait in the car.”
“But mom, dad said I could have the game ball,” T.J. whined.
“Just go back to the car, or no more video games for a month,” Irene snapped.
The house smelled like a bar. There was a broken tequila bottle by the back door, like it had been dropped and left. Upstairs she could hear the jacuzzi running and incoherent shouting. She crept up the stairs cautiously as all the terror of her childhood came back. She heard glass break and pushed open the bedroom door, forcing herself to walk to the bathroom door. Thomas was in the giant tub, with his head back. He was muttering except when he lifted his head to drink.
“I did it... I did it all for that ungrateful bi*tch and she couldn’t even bring my son to see me play. Gawd I hate her, I hate her as much as she hates me.” He lifted the bottle and drained it. “I hope he fu*cks her and leaves her the way she left me.” He slung the bottle into the tiled shower and it exploded. “Mike was right, they’re all just whores.”
She realized the tub was full of ice when he lifted out another bottle. He opened another bottle and held it up, like he was toasting, and shouted, “To my Irene, the heartless bi*tch and her new man. Hope he doesn’t fall in love.”
“What are you doing, Thomas?!?” She demanded angrily.
“Oh heeeyyy, Irene. Did you come to get another present, more money? Sorry babe, all I got is T.J.’s football. It’s on his bed.” He slurred his words as he stood up and almost fell getting out of the tub, then he glared at her. “Did he fu*ck you good last night? Did he pay well? Is that why you lied and said you went to work?” He staggered toward her and she backed up.
“What are you talking about? I worked a ten hour shift and came straight to the game.” She yelled at him.
“You’re a liar, Irene.” He threw back his head and laughed drunkenly, suddenly she was very afraid. Whenever her father had laughed like that he had begin hitting them. Thomas stalked toward her, dripping water on the carpet. His eyes shined with something she had never seen before, hatred. “I know what you did last night and what you didn’t do today.”
“I worked. We were at the game, we saw your touchdown.” She insisted.
The bottle in his hand exploded against the wall behind her. “Liar! Whore! I saw you fu*cking leaving with your new boyfriend last night. It was our fu*cking anniversary and you slept over. Hell, you even used the overnight bag I bought you.” She shook her head as he sneered, “Good job, you found a black man prettier than me. Your sisters will be so happy. Where you were glad when Mike tricked me into cheating? I bet you’ve been cheating on me the whole time, just waiting for the chance to leave.”
“Thomas, it-it’s n-not what you thi-think,” She stammered.
“Did you fu*ck Mike?” he asked, tipping his head as he stared at her drunkenly as if trying to figure something out. “Because I finally remembered who I screwed on his boat, and damn, she looked just like you, smelled just like you, felt just like you. She could have been your twin. So either Mike got lucky finding her, or he fu*cked you and knew what to look for.” Thomas accused viciously.
“I never screwed him. I haven’t dated anyone since you. I went to the hospital Christmas party before my shift with my friend and his boyfriend. We carpooled and...” Irene tried to explain.
“Whoa, two of them? Did you get paid double?” He snarled staggering back to the bathroom and returning with a bottle of whiskey, while she sputtered indignantly.
“Are... are you even listening to yourself, or... or listening to me?”
“You wouldn’t listen to me, why should I listen to you? We’re both cheaters.” He narrowed his eyes hatefully. “I loved you and you just saw an easy mark. Tell me, is T.J. even mine, or was I just the easiest one to pawn him off on because your mom liked me? Every guy I knew had his eye on you. How many others were there, Irene? How many of my friends did you fu*ck before you stuck me with your bas*tard?”
She slapped him then, screeching, “You bas*tard! How dare y...”
“Mommy? Daddy?” They both froze. T.J. was standing in the door holding a football, the one from the game. Tears were running down his face. “Am I a bat turd too?”
Irene rushed over to him, and hugged him, “No,honey. Thomas is your daddy, he’s... he’s just sick right now and not thinking straight. Go back to the car.” She walked him out and down to the door before coming back.
Thomas had his hand over his forehead, his fingertips bruising his temples. “Irene, I’m sorry. I was just so angry when I saw you going out on a date last night and then you didn’t show up at the game... I’m sorry.”
“You are sorry,” she snapped. “I went in early for the Christmas eve party with my gay friends, I took my uniform with me. That's what was in my overnight bag. We were at the game. We were just coming back from getting a hot dog and pretzel when you scored. T.J. shouted at you for the rest of the game and you never even looked at him. Then you left us in the waiting room and when we get here, you’re drunk. Were you really sick the other day or were you hungover?” He just looked at her helplessly.
She shook her head and laughed, but there was nothing happy about the sound, “You know, I thought you were different than him. That you really wanted to make things right, but you don’t. If there is one thing I learned growing up with my father, it’s when to know when an alcoholic is telling the truth or telling a lie. Now, I know how you really feel about me and your son. Goodbye, Thomas. Have a good life.”
“What about my visitation?” He demanded harshly.
“You can see your son when you get sober,” She shouted back at him, and moments later the front door slammed.