I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life. Which is incredible considering I spend about eighty-six percent of my time feeling out of place.
But truly, the soccer team’s party to celebrate the beginning of the season is the last place I should be tonight. I was only invited because I’m the coach’s assistant. And to be honest, I’m not sure why I came. Maybe I was trying to be brave – to expand my horizons, to push myself out of my comfort zone and finally socialize with the people that I’ve just sort of existed with for the past three years.
In my head, it all seemed so easy, but the reality is much less exciting. The reality is me sitting at the kitchen table in someone’s off campus house, picking Skittles packets out of a bowl and organizing my candy by color as I try to summon the nerve to actually start a conversation.
It shouldn’t be this hard. Technically speaking, I’ve known the six senior players at this party for years, but that doesn’t mean I have relationships with any of them. I see them at every practice and game and hand them water bottles and tell them they’re playing great, but that’s pretty much the extent of our relationship.
And I know that’s partially my fault. I really should have made more of an effort to be friendly, but the truth is, I’ve always had trouble starting conversations with people I don’t know. They were perfectly good hosts when I arrived: greeting me with nods and friendly smiles and pointing me towards the alcohol. But once I’d safely been poured my first mixed drink, I’d been left to my own devices and had no idea what to do.
An hour later and the house is now packed. Not that I’m surprised. The Ridgewood University soccer team has won the national championship for the past five years in a row, which means the players are pretty much treated like royalty.
It also means it’s hot as hell in here and I’m starting to feel a little claustrophobic. Popping the last of my Skittles into my mouth, I grabbed an unopened packet from the candy bowl on the table and decided to call it a night. Seeing as I haven’t had more than a five minute conversation with anyone in my vicinity, it’s safe to say my adventurous night out has been a complete failure. My next foray out of my comfort zone would have to be on a smaller scale.
Fishing my phone from the back pocket of my jeans, I ordered an Uber as I weaved my way through the dancing bodies and laughing groups until I reached the front door. Once outside, I breathed in the fresh air deeply, allowing the coolness to wash away my nerves. Being outside always helps me relax and I need the extra shot of calm right now because being in such a crowded space has left me exhausted and a tad stressed out.
After checking on the status of my ride home, I curl my fingers around my phone as I rip open a new packet of Skittles, only to startle at the sound of rustling from the bushes at the side of the house.
“Is someone there?” I call out before I can think the situation through. If it’s a serial killer, they’re not gonna warn me before causing me bodily harm and if it’s a non-human, I’m just going to feel stupid.
Fortunately, or not so fortunately depending on how you look at it, a fully formed human emerges from the shadows along the side of the house, a deep voice muttering, “Yeah, sorry.”
I don’t have a chance to figure out who this mystery man is because the sound of a zipper catches me off guard and as I put two and two together, I blurt out, “Were you peeing in the bushes?”
It’s too dark for me to tell whether he looks embarrassed as he slowly wanders towards me shrugging and saying, “I needed to piss and it was getting a little crowded in there.”
“Charming,” I snort, popping a red Skittle into my mouth and chewing away my rapidly rising nerves as he continues his approach.
“It’s Priya, right?”
I freeze. I’m standing near a street lamp so he can see me pretty well. And theoretically, any one of the members of the team would know my name. But it’s still weird to hear it from someone I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a full fledged conversation with before. Blinking rapidly, I swallow my candy and cautiously say, “Yeah?”, my heart rate increasing with each passing second.
And then he steps into the light beside me and my heart races for an entirely new reason.
Shoving his fingers into the front pockets of his jeans, he tilts his head to the side, smiling softly. “I’m Braden.”
What I don’t know is why those were the words I chose to say. Even if they were true. Braden Harding is a superstar striker and the captain of the soccer team. And with his graham cracker colored hair and melted chocolate eyes, he’s also the world’s most delicious dessert.
When I got my job as the assistant to the coach as a freshman, which I’ll admit I got in large part thanks to my older brother Ravi who was the team’s goalie at the time, Braden had just made the team as the second string striker. He worked his way up, and now, three years later, he’s a favorite to get drafted into the major leagues.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of him during that first boot camp. He was so focused, so motivated, so determined to do his best and willing to hear any criticism thrown his way. It was inspiring and breathtaking and as I gaze at him in the moonlight now, I’m left just as awestruck as I was back then.
“Nice to officially meet you.” His smile widens and he sways slightly in his sneakers. “You leaving the party already?”
I nod, instinctively wanting to check the ETA of my Uber driver but knowing that would look rude. Instead, I hold up my packet of skittles. “Yeah, it’s not really my scene. Want some?”
“Thanks,” he flashes me a smile, holding out his hand so I can shake some candy into his palm. I expect him to bid me goodnight, but he stays glued to his spot, picking out a green sphere and popping it in his mouth as he asks, “So then what is your scene?”
I have no clue how to answer that question. I’ve never surrounded myself with only one type of person. My friends are all varied: different majors, different points in life, different personality types. What binds us together is our unconditional love for each other. It’s undefined and that’s beautiful, but it also means I have no response. “I don’t really have one I guess.”
“Then how do you know this one’s not yours?” He studies me as though I’m a complicated puzzle he’s excited to solve and my stomach tightens as I wonder if he’ll be disappointed with what he discovers.
“That’s fair,” I concede. To be honest, I didn’t really give this party a chance. If I’d come with a friend, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so out of my element. Or if I’d thrown back some liquid courage and walked up to someone I’d never spoken to before. But the one vodka lemonade I’d nursed for the entire hour I was inside wasn’t enough to make me brave. “I guess I’ve just never been comfortable at parties. I’m a little claustrophobic.”
“Gotcha,” he nods, thankfully not trying to cure me of aversion to large social gatherings. Looking down the dark road, he asks, “You waiting for a ride?”
“I called an Uber,” I tell him. Realizing that he’s probably trying to be gentlemanly and not make stand outside in the dark by myself, I add, “You don’t have to wait with me.”
Braden’s always been the epitome of polite. At first, I thought the reason he was always the first person to every practice and every game and the last to leave was because he was named captain as a junior and was going the extra mile to prove himself worthy of the title. But then I watched him help jumpstart a crowd member’s dead battery after a game and offer to wait with them until they could get a ride home and I realized that’s just the kind of person he is: compassionate to everyone, even people he doesn’t know.
“It’s fine,” he shrugs, finishing off the last of his candy and wiping his hands down the front of his jeans before sticking his fingers back into his pockets and rocking forward on his toes. The hem of his red t-shirt rises and I see the edge of a belt buckle shaped like the Captain America shield. “To be honest, I’m not really looking forward to going back in there either.”
That’s interesting. Not that he’s ever come off as being a huge partier, but the people inside are his teammates, which means they’re bonded by something stronger than friendship. “Why?”
“There’s people I’m trying to avoid,” he replies casually.
That makes more sense. “Ex-girlfriend?”
I don’t know anything about his personal life, but considering the number of people who gush over him on a regular basis, I assume he has his pick of the litter.
“Nope,” he shakes his head, “Haven’t had one of those since high school, actually.”
It’s just surprise after surprise tonight. “How come?”
“Getting my priorities straight, I guess.” He kicks a rock on the sidewalk. It’s a nervous gesture, but he doesn’t seem nervous in the slightest. All six feet and some inches of him is standing there calm and collected while I feel as though I’m on the verge of spontaneously combusting. “Trying to focus on soccer and school.”
“And girls are a distraction?” I conclude.
He pulls a stick of gum from his back pocket, unwrapping it before folding it into his mouth and nodding. “Yep.”
“At least you have options,” I find myself saying. “I’ve never had a boyfriend before.”
I don’t know why I told him that. It’s not as though it’s some huge secret. But I hardly know the guy. Surely this is information you save for around the third week of friendship. Still, there’s something so easing about his presence. He makes me feel so comfortable, like I could tell him every secret I have and he wouldn’t judge me for it. And that’s the strangest way to feel about someone I haven’t spoken more than twenty words to before this exact moment.
I so don’t want to be wrong about being able to tell him anything, so I do my best not to look too relieved when he continues chewing, nodding towards the headlights appearing at the end of the street to indicate the arrival of my ride home, “You’re not missing much.”
Before I can stop myself, because I’m not even drunk and I have no business revealing this much of myself to anybody, let alone the university’s campus king, I end up whispering, “I’ve never even been kissed before.”
He freezes, his eyes getting wide and his lips parting in surprise. “What?”
“That’s my ride,” I gulp as the black sedan comes to a stop in front of me, deciding now is a good a time as any to learn how to shut the hell up. Quickly opening the back door before he can comment, I slide into the backseat and call out, “Thanks for waiting with me. Have a good night.”
I shut the door again before he can respond, sliding back into the car seat as I greet the driver. As the car pulls away from the curb, I watch Braden’s slowly shrinking form in the side mirror, and decide that I’ll deal with the consequences of my big mouth at a later time.