That was not the first time Calvin and I kissed.
When we were thirteen and in eighth grade, we found ourselves at a Halloween Party playing Spin the Bottle with a group of popular kids. It was stupid, and I was scared, but I was going along with it anyway just to seem cool.
As Calvin and I walked to the party (our parents thought we were trick-or-treating), he asked me how I felt about the possibility of playing that stupid game. I told him honestly that it made me nervous. Plus I wouldn’t know what to do if I had my first kiss with some popular kid like Joey Paladino. I like-liked Joey at the time. He was a goofball, and ridiculously cute, and we played football together on the middle school team...but he had no brains at all. I was dying to kiss him. It was the only reason I was really going to this party.
“I mean, what if the bottle lands on me when he spins it, and we have to go into the closet, and it’ll be dark - I won’t know what I’m doing, and then he’ll know I don’t know what I’m doing, and he’ll think I’m a weenie!” I exclaimed, staring at my shoes as they crunched on dead leaves strewn along the sidewalk.
“Aw, kissing’s easy,” Cal said. “You’re working yourself up. All you gotta do is stand still, like this.” He stopped walking. It was night, and the only light came from sporadically placed streetlamps. I stopped, too, and turned to him.
“Next, you gotta move in real close,” he said, taking a step toward me. I took a step toward him, closing the gap further. “Now you tilt your head up, close your eyes, and pucker your lips,” he said.
“Like this?” I asked, scrunching my mouth into an awkward pout.
“Yeah,” he said. “Then you wait for it.”
I closed my eyes, lips set in an exaggerated pucker, head bent back nearly ninety degrees. I stood there, practicing my pose. Suddenly, I felt it: lips on mine. It felt like a static shock. I opened my eyes and saw Calvin’s eyes closed with his lips pressed to mine. He jumped back a few seconds later. It was over almost as soon as it happened. He jammed his hands in his pockets and looked at the ground.
“There,” he said, red splotches blooming under his cheeks. “Now you don’t have to be scared for your first kiss anymore.”
I was so shocked, I just stood there, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. I wasn’t mad. I was just surprised. I think he took it as the former, though, because he apologized and turned away. We just continued walking down the street to the party, where I never ended up getting paired with Joey Paladino. I thought I’d be disappointed, but I wasn’t. I was wonderstruck the whole evening. I didn’t know what to make of Cal’s actions or my first kiss. So I followed his lead: I pretended it never happened, and neither of us has ever mentioned it since. Sometimes I wonder if it was a dream, if it really happened.
But after our kiss at open mic night, I know it was real.
Once again, we don’t talk about it, but this time, I pretend it didn’t happen. As far as I’m concerned, we’re even. He kissed me. I kissed him. Neither of us owes the other anything.
And we continue on with our lives.
It’s a home game, and I’m dressed in my gear and uniform, on the sidelines, jogging in place to keep warm. I puff on my hands to warm them up, and under the stadium lights I can see my breath drift off in a cloud. The stands are not as full as they have been, but that’s only because it’s a weeknight game. Our Friday night and Saturday afternoon games are always packed now. I don’t want to say it’s because of me, but it probably is. We didn’t start winning until I came on the scene. Now it’s just an expectation.
Josh and Gunner stand between Cal and I. I cup my hands to my mouth and exhale on them. I glance at the scoreboard. There’s only minutes left to the game. We’re down by a field goal. And I just need to get out there so I can score, but I’m waiting on the defense.
“C’mon, boys, let’s go!” I holler at my teammates. I shift from one leg to the other, trying to keep the blood flowing. “You got ’em!”
Joey Paladino - who I thankfully no longer find attractive; he’s grown up to be a scruffy, meatheaded goon - sacks their quarterback just then, and possession finally changes. Cal, Tractor, and I hit the field with the rest of the first-string offensive players. Justin gathers us in a huddle and gives us the lowdown.
“Stephanie,” he says, his face muzzled by a cage, “I’m gonna look for you for the long pass to the right. So get open. MacIntyre, you’re her backup. If she’s not open, I’m looking to you on the left. That clear?”
“Yes,” Cal and I say in unison. We glance at each other. I nod. He returns the gesture. Poor guy. He hasn’t known how to act around me this week. Our drives to school have been silent. We’ve barely talked at lunch or practice.
“Break!” Justin and the boys shout.
Shit! I missed the rest of his instructions. Too busy thinking. My thoughts are louder than the outside world.
I hustle to my starting position, and when the ball is snapped, I do my thing - weave in and out of the defense like thread on a loom. I turn to check for the pass, and when I see the ball coming, I leap, arms outstretched. It slides into my grip. I smile. Boo-yah. Here comes the touchdown, baby.
My feet hit the ground and my legs tense, ready to spring forward and take off -
Everything goes black.
I squint open my eyes, and pain rams me like a freight train barreling full speed down the track. My skull is pulsing. Ringing overwhelms my ears. Splotches blot out my sight. I put my hand to my head, but it feels so heavy, like lifting it through syrup.
“What the...” my voice trails off. Nausea strikes me. My tongue tastes acid. I need to throw up.
I try to roll over onto my stomach and use my hands to prop me up, but it’s difficult and someone yanks at me. Off comes my helmet, and glaring lights stab my eyes. Agony shoots through them to my brain. I press my hands to my eyes. Someone peels them away.
A blurry face enters my vision.
“Are you okay?” a voice swims through the syrup to my eardrums. The face comes into focus. It’s...I don’t know who that is. Some skinny bald guy. “Are you okay?”
“What?” I say. Because I can’t think to say anything else.
“Can you walk?” Baldy asks.
“I - ugh.” I lean over and dry heave.
“Someone, help me,” the guy barks. Hands slide under my armpits, and I am hoisted up.
“You have to help,” he says. Calvin. “You have to help us. You have to walk.” I do. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I keep tipping to one side or the other, but they catch me. I get let go and slump down on a bench. Baldy hands me a plastic zipper bag full of ice.
“Put it on your head,” he says, pointing to his own chrome dome. I place it where it hurts the worst, the top-right of my head. I feel drowsy. I just want to sleep. But I force myself to watch the game. There’s a voice in my head that keeps shouting, Stay awake! Don’t close your eyes! I try really hard.
The clock runs out, and the other team cheers. I watch as the rest of my teammates line up to hi-five the winners. When they’re all done, Calvin approaches me.
“C’mon,” he says, “let’s get you home.” I am complicit in following him to the truck and climbing into the cab. He tries to assist me, but I push him away.
We drive in silence, and I keep the ice pack pressed to the lump that has formed on my head. I’m still in monstrous pain.
“Got any Aspirin?” I ask him. He just looks straight ahead, his expression grim.
We pull into my driveway. My head is still throbbing.
“Thanks for the ride,” I say. I unbuckle and reach for the door handle. He swings an arm across me, barring me from leaving. I look at him. He’s really angry. I haven’t gotten that face in a while.
“We need to talk,” he growls. I squint at him. “I can’t just drop you off with a closed head injury and act like it’s fine. I have to tell your parents.”
Now I’m the one who’s angry.
“No, absolutely not!” I shout. “You can’t do that. You have no right.”
He continues to look hard at me. He shakes his head.
“I have to,” he utters. “You were knocked out for thirty fucking seconds. How can you think that it’s okay to not tell your parents? You need medical attention, like, now.”
Rage, like fire, is blazing through my body. I could exhale it like a dragon.
“If you tell them, they’ll ground me for life. They will never let me play football again!”
“If that’s what it takes to keep you alive!” he shouts back. “Stephanie, this is a man’s sport! You’re up against guys twice your size and weight, and their sole purpose is to crush you! I have to tell them. It’s just not safe.”
I shake my head. Hot, angry, confused, I-have-no-control tears spill down my cheeks.
“Don’t do it!” I sob. I am crying now. I am a shouting, sniffling wreck. “Please! I’m begging you! Don’t do it!” I can’t stop shaking my head.
“It’s for your own good,” Calvin says without a trace of emotion. He jumps out of the car, dashes to the stairs. I hop out and race after him. I slide in front of him to block him from going up the stairs, but he slips under my outstretched arm and pounds his way up.
“Calvin, please!” I cry. “Don’t do this. Please, don’t do this!” I grab at his jersey, but he wrenches away. He opens the door without knocking.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kwazazowski,” Calvin announces in a loud voice. He’s still in his sweaty, grass-stained uniform. His hair is a scraggly mess. He’s puffing his chest. At least, it looks more inflated than usual, even in his padding.
Zennen and Mom are on the couch. They turn to look at him, confusion and alarm in their eyes. His presence and tone are frightful.
I back down the staircase so they can’t see me. I put my arms on the banister and rest my head on top of them, bracing myself for what I know is about to happen. I start praying.
“I have something to tell you,” Calvin says, all authority and no sympathy. “Stephanie got a concussion from playing in tonight’s football game.”
Mom leaps to her feet.
“What was she doing, playing in tonight’s game?” Zennen growls.
“She’s been playing football this whole time, sir,” Cal says with a straight face. I bite my fist. There it is. Betrayed by my best friend. It’s like a sock in the gut.
Zennen stands now, too, and walks over to Calvin. He looks behind him, down the staircase, and sees me.
“You, get up here,” he snarls. His eyes are seething with rage. I disobeyed his direct orders not to play football. Disobedience is the worst thing I can do. In his mind, I’ve publicly disrespected him. I’m going to pay for it.
I force my legs up the stairs. I stand behind Calvin, where I know I can’t be struck.
Zennen leans in to examine me. His eyes roam my face, my head. I look away. He reeks of beer.
“Where does it hurt?” he grunts.
“Right here,” I say, pointing to the lump on my scalp. He reaches out and presses it. “Ow!” I screech and slap his hand away. Pain rocks me. I’m going to throw up again. Calvin shifts to block me.
“Stupid girl!” Zennen says, walking away. “You’re grounded for the rest of the season.”
“NO!” I scream. I can’t help it - I start sobbing hysterically. It’s over. I have no say in this. All my hard work, everything I’ve earned, is all gone. Reputation, gone. Popularity, gone. Friends, gone. I’m back to loser status, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. My world is an avalanche, and I’m being buried alive.
I can’t think straight; no words can express this anguish. I turn on Calvin. I shove him into the wall.
“WHY’D YOU HAVE TO DO THAT, HUH? WHY? WHY? WHY!” I scream. I punch him in the gut with every “why”. I know it doesn’t really hurt him. I just need to make someone feel my pain.
“I’m sorry,” he says coldly, refusing to look at me. He’s got his hands up in an I-don’t-want-to-fight way.
“Stevie, honey, come here, let me see your head,” Mom says, putting her hands on my shoulders and leading me away. “Let me get you some Tylenol.”
I look at Calvin, tears leaking down my face, shaking my head, screaming, “How could you? I trusted you! You’re supposed to be my friend!”
Only now do I see his stone-cold sobriety falter. He is in pain. His face is masking anguish, too.
“I hate you!” The words choke out between sobs and torrential tears.
“I had to do what’s best for you,” he says quietly, not meeting my eyes. Then he turns and leaves down the stairs.