“Wanna know something?” Kristina whispers next to me. “If Lexi here didn’t have a stupid crush on Diane back then, chances are we’d be one of the strongest volleyball teams around here.”
“Shut up, Kris.” Alex murmurs, wiping her sweat with a face towel.
Casey, one of Kristina’s teammates, speaks, “Yeah. It’s actually kinda funny because you can almost see the regret in Coach’s face whenever you train with us.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my team, thank you.” Alex stands up and stretches her arms. “Besides, you guys are plenty strong.”
Dating an athlete comes with its own responsibilities. The first one is to make sure you’re present in each and every one of her games. When she had asked me if I wanted to watch a volleyball game she had with Kristina, I knew the only acceptable answer was yes.
I was aware that she sometimes trains and helps out during the women’s volleyball team’s training—I see her on my way out—but I wasn’t aware that she actually plays outside the school.
They’re playing against another school’s volleyball team. Judging by the way everyone seems to be familiar with each other, I’m guessing they do this often.
A tall girl enters the court. All eyes turn to her. “Oh shit,” Kristina snickers when the girl walks towards where we’re seated. As the girl draws near, her towering height becomes more pronounced. She must be more than six feet tall.
The girl stops in front of Alex and pokes her in the stomach. “I’m going to get that kiss today.”
Alex shoots me a panicked look. “Ah, I—”
The girl walks away and heads to the opposing team on the other side of the court before she can even finish what she was saying. “Good luck.”
Kristina laughs. “Someone’s in trouble.”
“Why didn’t you tell me she’s going to be here?”
“I also didn’t know.”
I raise an eyebrow at Alex who rubs the back of her neck before explaining. “We have this little bet where if I lose against her team, I owe her a kiss.”
“Please don’t get mad.”
Alex raises her eyebrows. “Really?”
I nod. “Not yet, at least. Ask me again after you lose.”
The worry in her eyes is quickly replaced with amusement. “You think I’m gonna lose?”
Confidence really is attractive. “Maybe.”
“Okay, if we win, you owe me a kiss. Deal?”
At that, Alex beams. She stretches exaggeratedly and cracks her neck.
I purse my lips trying to hold back a smile. Surely she realizes that I’m her girlfriend and she doesn’t need to win to get a kiss, right?
Once the game starts, Alex puts her game face on. By game face, I mean a carefree smile plastered on her face like she couldn’t care less what happens to the match. The only time I ever saw her serious while playing was when she played chess with my brother the first time.
Compared to other sports, I have at least more knowledge of volleyball. Aside from the fact that the rules are easier to understand, it doesn’t involve much contact, and it’s not hard to follow what’s going on in the court.
I’ve never seen Alex play volleyball. Sure, I’ve caught a few glances of her, but I never stayed long enough to watch. Back then, I didn’t care what she does or she doesn’t. My instincts screamed trouble whenever she’s near so I stayed far away from her as much as possible. Look where it got me now.
I focus my gaze on Alex. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail. The gray Dri-fit shirt that hangs loose on her body is tucked into cycling shorts that are barely covering her butt. A knee compression sleeve wrapped tightly on her left leg is the only thing offering her cover from the thighs downward.
Alex plays as the team’s setter, which doesn’t come as a surprise. She’s smart, calm, and knows how to get through the opponent’s defense. It’s refreshing to see how her long, slender fingers touch and toss the ball gently as compared to the rough way she dribbles and shoots a basketball. Although with her powerful arms, I have no doubt she’d also be a competent spiker.
The girl who asked Alex for a kiss who I identified as Malkit thanks to the surname at the back of her jersey, is the opposing team’s middle blocker—a good one, too. Every time she completely shuts down Alex’s attackers, she shouts something to taunt their team, and whenever Alex successfully throws a dump their way, she shouts one right back. It was a good-natured banter, completely different from the one during the women’s basketball team’s championship match.
“Come on, Alex. You can do better than that,” Malkit smirks, a hand resting on her hips.
“Oh, I know. I’m just warming up. Want me to throw this first set as a handicap? Maybe I’ll even add the second if I’m feeling good.” Alex clenches and unclenches her hands as if inspecting it.
Malkit laughs, unfazed by Alex’s taunt. “Sure, I’ll take whatever I can get.”
It’s hard to tell whether Alex was bluffing. On one hand, I can see that the other team is good, especially that blocker. On the other hand, I know Alex. She’s not just blowing hot air. She may be annoyingly cocky but I know full well that that cockiness is rooted from absolute confidence in her skill. And that trust is well-placed.
Alex’s team lost the first set. Malkit was grinning from ear to ear when they switched sides on the court, but Alex only gave her a smirk. She gathers her team in a circle. They huddle close, crouching a little as Alex talks to them while making subtle hand gestures. When they straighten up, Kristina’s face mirrors the mischievous grin that shows in Alex’s face.
Knowing that look, I watched in anticipation to find out what Alex has planned. I didn’t need to wait long. As soon as Casey received the ball, Alex went to her position. Instead of heading for the ball, she backpedals, approaches, jumps so high her chin goes past the top of the net and smashes the ball through Malkit’s block.
“Eyyy!” Kristina high-fives Alex.
“You’re absolutely insane.” Malkit shakes her head in total awe.
Alex flicks her gaze to me and winks. Despite my best efforts to keep a straight face, my lips involuntarily tug upwards. Show-off.
From that point on, Alex and Kristina switched places as a spiker and setter. After winning the next three sets and exchanging trashtalks with her friends, Alex comes to me with a splitting grin on her face. She stops in front of me, places her hands on the bench on either side of my thighs and gives me a peck on the lips. “Damn, that felt good.” She plumps herself next to me.
Ignoring the flutter in my stomach caused by the gesture, I hand over her squeeze water bottle. “Tired?”
“Nah, it was worth it.” She throws her leg over the other side of the bench so she’s fully facing me. “Wanna stay for pizza? The girls are ordering, courtesy of the losing team.”
Though normally I wouldn’t turn down pizza, I’m in no place to eat considering I didn’t contribute to the team’s win. “No, I’m good. It’s for you guys.”
“I don’t like pizza. Wanna just go home and do that math homework?”
I blink while mentally picking the words Alex just said. Did I mishear it?
“Did I just hear you exchange pizza for math homework?” Kristina’s face reflected the incredulity of her voice.
“No, I just exchanged eating junk food for alone time with my girlfriend.”
Kristina throws a ball and Alex catches it with one hand easily. “You nerd.”
“You can eat my share if it helps.”
“I would have even without your permission. You’d be eating something better anyway.” She smirks.
Alex throws the ball back at Kristina and who swats it away and hits Malkit who’s walking towards us. She eyes Alex who just finished changing into slippers. “Next time I should ask you to be my girlfriend. It’s almost fucking impossible to beat you.”
“Too late.” Alex stands up and brushes off her shorts. She gestures to me. This is my girlfriend, Alexis.”
Malkit stares at me wide-eyed as if it’s the first time she’s alerted to my presence. “Goddamn. Here I was thinking your ex was already hard to compete with and you go around and find someone even hotter than her?” She turns her attention to me and holds out a hand. “Joey. Nice to meet you, Alexis. Sorry about the kiss thing earlier. If I’d known Alex had a girlfriend I’d have asked to be a side chick instead.”
I stand up and take her outstretched hand. “If that’s the case you’d have to fall in line. I’m sure there are others in the same position.”
She laughs. “Or I can be your side chick instead.”
“Ha-ha.” Alex steps over the bench and shoulders her gym bag. She shouts her goodbyes to the girls on the other side of the court, fist bumps with everyone else, and we walk out the gym with our hands intertwined.
If I’d known I’d be meeting Alex’s parents, I would have worn something nicer than jeans and a sweater.
“It’s no big deal, really,” Alex assures me before stepping out of the car. “My mom already knows you. When she sees us come in, she’ll put two and two together and just give me a knowing look and that’s it. Pops will hear about it from her. We’re not gonna have any of that introducing the girlfriend thing.”
“Really.” She takes my hand and squeezes it gently.
Once we step inside, Percy was already waiting to pounce on Alex, his tail wagging furiously. “Hi babyyyy,” Alex greets him using the high-pitched voice every dog owner uses. She bends down and tries to kiss his snout in the middle of him licking her face.
“You’re home early.” Isa is sitting comfortably on their couch, watching TV. “Oh, hi Julia.” As Alex predicted, she raises an eyebrow, to which Alex answers with a shrug.
I give Isa a polite smile.
“We’ll be upstairs doing homework,” Alex says. She takes my hand and leads me to her room before Isa can say anything else.
Alex drops her bag on the floor. “Sorry, my room’s messy. I’m not gonna pretend it’s not whenever I know someone’s coming over. It always is.” She walks to her unmade bed where a pile of neatly folded clothes is perched. She carries them over to her desk and dumps them on the rolling chair in front of it. “You want something to eat while I freshen up?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Okay, you can explore my room, though I doubt you’d find anything interesting. I’ll be right back.” And she leaves me alone in her bedroom.
The last time I’d been here, I was too tired to take in my surroundings. I stare at the massive collection of achievements in front of me. It’s not the first time I’m seeing Alex’s trophies and yet they still give me goosebumps. I wonder what it must feel like to wake up every day to something like this.
I walk over to Alex’s cluttered desk that held more litter than things. Only a laptop and hand grippers are recognizable amidst the papers stacked on it. Beside her bed, a foldable table stands to hold a worn-out chess mat. The pieces are placed in a way that makes me think the players are interrupted in the middle of a game. Alex’s math notebook is laid in the middle of the board on the space where there are no pieces. What a bizarre place to put a math notebook in.
I pluck the notebook carefully, making sure no pieces are disturbed. Sitting on her bed, I flip through her notes—which thankfully are recognizable—and look for the problems we needed to solve. I get to the latest page of her notes only to end up with the lesson and not the assignment. I flip through a couple more empty pages just in case she put it somewhere else but still came up empty.
Then I remember how she always used to use the back of her notebook to take notes. I flip to the last page. What I saw weren’t equations and solutions but... a log? I stare at the columns of numbers and letters for a few seconds, shaking my memory of where I’ve seen them before. D4, nf6, c4, e6. A lightbulb in my brain lights up. Chess notations.
I’ve seen Jimmy read chess books like crazy when he was younger. I flip through the pages backward to see more of the same stuff scribbled, mixed along with solutions to math problems. I was so engrossed in the contents of her notebook that I didn’t realize how much time had passed until I heard the door open.
Alex comes in wearing nothing but a towel. Scrambling to turn around, I accidentally hit the table leg. The table crashes on the floor along with the carefully placed chess pieces. “Shit, sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“But the board was arranged. I—I ruined it.” I kneel on the floor, gathering the scattered pieces. How am I going to put them back together? I don’t remember how the board was arranged. What if it’s an important game and I ruined it?
Alex grabs my wrist as I was reaching for a rook. “Chill. I remember the arrangement. It’s no big deal.”
I let out a breath of relief. “Are you sure?” I ask, biting my lower lip.
“Positive,” she assures me by planting a kiss on my hair.
Now that the panic has worn off, I’m suddenly aware of how close and naked Alex is. Heat creeps up my cheeks as I avert my gaze from her. “You can put on clothes now.”
“How are we gonna take things further if you get flustered at the sight of a little skin showing?”
I snap my head back at her only to come face-to-face with twinkling sea-green eyes. She pecks me on the lips. “Gotcha.”
Alex makes her way towards the wardrobe. She starts to strip off her towel without a care if I was watching her or not. I turn around and busy myself picking up the chess pieces on the floor, but not before catching a glimpse of that strong, muscular back. She has a lot of moles.
When the rustle of clothes ceases, Alex bends down to help me fix the mess I made. She’s wearing a loose tank top—for men, of course—and boxer shorts. Her hair is down, still damp from her shower. She returned the pieces to the exact way they were before like it was the most natural thing.
“Why don’t you have a copy of our homework on your notebook?” I hand her the notebook once she was done.
Her smile turns sheepish. “Busted. Well, you’re probably already done with it so it’s fine.”
It’s true. I already finished all twenty problems the day it was given. “When are you planning to do yours? Those aren’t easy, you know.”
She shrugs. “At school before classes start?”
“And the questions?”
Alex climbs on her bed. She lays the pillows against the headboard and rests her back on them. “I was gonna ask around for them.” She pats the space next to her.
“You are so lax. I have no idea how you manage to pass our classes.” I crawl over to her side, settling over her outstretched arms. “So, what were you really planning on doing?”
Alex starts playing with my hair. “Spend time with you. Make out. The usual.”
“Were you playing with someone before you went out?” I gesture to the table.
“I was playing by myself.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Mhmm. I do it as some sort of brain training. Just to make sure I still know how to play.” She stares at the trophies in front of us, her expression suddenly clouded.
I rest my hand on her stomach. “Why don’t you go back to playing competitively? I can see how much you love playing chess.”
Alex tenses under my fingers. The hands playing with my hair stop. “I can’t.”
“There’s no point.” Her flat tone made it clear she’s done talking about the subject. She shakes her head as if clearing the bad thoughts out of it. “You hungry?” She asks, her voice back with its normal enthusiasm. “Or you want coffee?”
My ears perk up. “Okay, you had me at coffee.”
She kisses my temple. “Be right back.”
Just being able to play doesn’t cut it. I used to mop the floor with grandmasters thrice my age. I want to feel a sense of accomplishment with every game I win.