We won. It’s just a conference game and it’s early in the season. But a W is a W. I’m the starting kicker on the varsity football team. And I’m the only girl.
As the guys make their way to the locker room to hit up the showers, I walk over to the fence beyond the track to chat. As the crowd files out of the stadium, I see a few familiar faces and hear a few familiar voices.
“Nice game, Sam!” yelled Mrs. Jones.
“Keep it up, Sam!” said Mr. Ward.
“That’a baby, Angel Kisses!” cheered Martha. Ever since our kindergarten meet-cute, Martha’s called me Angel or Angel Kisses or Angel K.
“Nicely done, kiddo!” my Dad said as he walked up to the fence. “3 extra points tonight, you’re going on 7/7 for the season and counting!”
“Thanks! Thank you! We did alright, we have a lot of work to do to be ready for East Hills. But we’re getting there.”
“See you at home, kiddo?” my Dad asked.
“Mr. Haskins, there’s a dance tonight. Do you mind if Sam and I hang here for a little while and then head over?” asked Martha. Dad looked at Martha and then at me.
Smiling, I nodded. I could see the look of concern rush over my dad’s face. He liked Martha but she was going through a recent wild streak and he, being a member of the Cheboygan public safety force, knew about all of her recent escapades.
“OK,” he said. “But you both better be home by 11. Got it?”
“Got it!” laughed Martha. “Got it, Dad,” I said.
It’s lonely in the locker room after a game when you’re the only girl on the team. I don’t like the feeling. It’s like when you go into the basement and turn around to go back up and you feel like there’s something or someone watching you. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but you double time it out of there just to be sure.
That’s how I am after a game. I hurry. A quick shower, a quick towel off. Jeans and a t-shirt. Hair up in a ponytail. A little bit of mascara. Lace up my converse sneakers. Organize my dirty clothes and straighten out my game pads. Done. From the moment I step into the locker room to the moment I walk out, it’s 20 minutes, tops.
Martha usually waits for me outside. She doesn’t like to come into the locker room. She says it’s “dirty and dingy and she’s not a fan of sweat smells.” She may not be wearing turquoise peplum and hot pink jellies anymore, but she’s always put together, perfumed, makeup and picture ready.
I take a final look at myself in the mirror. My freckles are as pronounced as ever. Patches of caramel spots splatter my nose and cheeks. My eyelashes look long. The mascara helps bring out my eyes. That’s what Martha says. I wipe back a few wisps of hair behind my ears. My shoulders shrug, almost involuntarily. I see this happen. I think I do this as sort of a ‘good enough’ or ‘it is what it is’ gesture. I’m telling myself “this is it, this is what you are.” I’ve tried not to, but the gesture is as much a part of me as my angel kisses. Every time I see myself shrug I shudder inside. It bugs me. I bug myself.
I can hear the music thumping through the heavy air as soon as I push open the back door of the locker room. Martha looks up from the glowing light of her phone.
“Ready?” she said.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
I don’t normally lie to my dad. And I don’t like to. I saw how difficult it was for him to give the go ahead to even attend the dance tonight. I’m sure I’d completely break his confidence if he knew I wasn’t at the dance. But he can’t know. He wouldn’t understand.
I don’t think my parents can tell or see a difference in me when I lie. But I see it. I look almost smug. There’s a constant smirk on my lips, a slight up-tick of my eyebrows. My cheeks even look flushed some of the time. I look childish. Lying is childish, so I guess that’s fitting.
Although, we only learn to lie because we are lied to. Santa Claus, wait 30 minutes to get in the pool after a meal, don’t go outside in the cold with wet hair … we’re conditioned to be outright liars. And, I’m no exception to the rule. I lie. And I’m pretty damn good at it. But just because I can get away with murder, in theory of course, doesn’t mean I feel immune to the injustice of some of my choices. I feel pretty shitty, usually.
We roll the windows down in Martha’s Mini Cooper and turn right out of the parking lot toward Cheboygan. The dance music fades as we pull away and zoom out of view.
“Can I get a light,” Martha asks with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a cigarette.
“You really should quit that you know,” I say as I thumb the lighter and the glow of the flame illuminates our faces. Martha takes a quick puff through the cigarette. I watch the smoke escape out of her nostrils and flip the lighter shut.
“I’ll quit,” she says. “But I just started. So I’ll quit someday, but not today.”
I don’t smoke. I tried it once. I hated how I looked with that white stick poking out of my mouth. It looked even worse resting between my fingers, like a rotten stem of flower. Something beautiful and natural, spoiled.
“Do you want an ice cream from Drost’s? Or maybe some fudge? Or one of those pecan clusters with dark chocolate and caramel?” I ask.
“Not really. It’s late and we really should just head right there,” Martha says. “But I thought you might say that …” she put her cigarette in her steering hand, kneed the wheel and reached around the back of her seat.
“Here,” she said. She handed me a small white box with a gold elastic bow. A Drost’s gloss sticker centered on the top. “After playing with those boys toe to toe, Angel, you deserve some chocolate.” I opened the box to find a pecan turtle, coconut bark, and a handful of dark mint meltaways. “Mmmmm!” I say as I bite into the coconut bark.
There we were, she with a cigarette, rotting her insides, her teeth, her skin and her hair and me with a box of chocolate, gnawing away, wide-eyed and both excited and nervous. This was our ritual and yet, the night felt off.
Sometimes I just sit and think. I consider. I ponder. I wonder about the world around me and how it came to be. Better yet, how it came to be the way that it is right in the very moment I sit thinking. This, and so many other thoughts nag at my brain.
Martha bought the chocolate for me because she knows I enjoy it. Where does true enjoyment come from?
All the while in my thoughts, Martha is smoking. That smoke. I can see it swirling inside the car even if she is leaning to exhale out the window. Every curl of darkened air reminds me of death. Those childish Disney movies with animated ghosts, the same sort of floating discolored air as exhaled cigarette smoke. Are smokers really sucking in and blowing out our ancestors? I mean, people die and they get buried. They get buried in the ground or their ashes are thrown to the wind, eventually settling onto the ground. And, tobacco plants grow out of the ground. So, I guess there might be some truth to that. Like all of the food we eat and liquids we drink, life and death are intertwined. We can’t escape death, but we can’t live a life without it, either.