The Draftby Nicole McCourt
Jenna cocks her head at the flat screen and laughs before saying with mild surprise, “That was my high school boyfriend.”
I look up at the young man, handsome but thick-necked, smiling with tears in his eyes, as he holds up a jersey with his name on it. He’s standing in front of an ESPN backdrop.
I drag my stool closer to hers in an attempt to hear her over the college kids yelling in the booth behind us, but she narrows her eyes as if I’m trying to pull something by cutting the space between us in half.
“No, go on,” I say, throwing my hands up in mock surrender, smiling, “I just can’t hear you. Who drafted him?”
She turns her attention back to television secured to the wall behind the bar. It’s draft season, but I don’t follow football. I admire her profile instead.
I’ve been trying to get her to go out with me, to take me seriously, for a year now, but she’s always pushed me off, has stayed just beyond reach. Standing on the other side of the bar.
I’m bemused by the fact that Jenna works in a sports bar. She says she hates sports and doesn’t know why she works there either. I always stay until seven, when her shift ends, and tonight she plops down beside me and says she needs a drink.
The moment she sidled up next to me I wished I had worn a different shirt. I always dress sloppily on Saturdays, the same ratty Buzzcocks t-shirt I’ve had since the eighties. I’m usually proud of how worn it is, how comfortable I feel in it. Today all I can think about are the holes in the armpits.
“The Giants, I guess. I guess it’s good he waited to finish college. I mean, he was always good in high school, but that doesn’t really mean much, does it?”
“Well, now you know someone famous,” I mock. “You guys still in touch? Maybe he can pull some strings. Get you into clubs.”
She scowls, smiling, “Nah, we haven’t really talked much since high school. We both moved away, anyway.”
“Is that why you broke up?”
She smiles. “Lord no, it was high school. Just high school love. It was only five years ago, but it feels like it’s been a lot longer.“
I shrug. “Was he a nice guy?”
Jenna pauses. “I mean… it’s never really that simple. Is it? Can it be that simple?”
“I don’t—I don’t know what you mean—I mean, I’m hoping he wasn’t one of those jock assholes who threw kids like me in the dumpster…”
She laughs, shaking her head, “No, no, he wasn’t a bully. He was always sweet to me. He actually volunteered as a math tutor. And also with an after-school group for the Down’s syndrome kids. He did it for the colleges, but I think he really enjoyed it.”
“So, a pretty decent guy then. Who wouldn’t fall in love…” I’m grinning.I hold eye contact until she breaks it.
She has a way of doing that, of pulling me in with her eyes and then cutting away when she’s got me on the edge. She knows I’m not a sports fan, even though I’ve never told her. Sometimes, when I come in, when the bar’s slow, she changes the TV closest to me to CNN. It’s the way she looks at me, looks through me—Not through me in the sense that she’s looking at something else, just into me, looking for something deeper. We often talk while she’s working, but she’s never once asked why I come here, of all places. Sometimes I’m afraid she can read my thoughts.
She rolls her eyes. “I said ‘high school’ love. And even so, I don’t think it has to be so black and white.”
I grin at her, teasing, “Let me guess, you were prom queen?”
She throws a playful punch and smiles. “Nah, they needed a cheerleader for that. I skipped the dances and showed up for the after-party.”
“Well, you’ve got a decent head on your shoulders, for a kid. He must’ve been alright.”
She thinks on it for a moment and replies, “We used to get lost in the woods for hours together on purpose, holding hands. He was human…. I loved him for that as much as I could.”
Sometimes I can’t keep up with her. She can be clever, she plays with words like food, but it’s the energy that gets me, the unspoken challenge, the boundary left undrawn. Sometimes in the early afternoons, when it’s quiet, when I don’t have a project consuming me, I bring a book. I only pretend to read. I try, but I get caught up with thoughts of her. I imagine myself reading to her while she lies on the rug next to the sofa, next to me. I imagine myself sitting on the couch in the living room, smoking and drinking coffee on a Sunday morning when she walks out of the bedroom, her auburn hair all tangled, wearing my t-shirt and her panties.
She’s got this beauty that’s transcendent, the kind of gorgeous that could throw on a pair of jeans and a ratty band tee, three decades old, and walk out the door turning heads. I’m not sure why she’s talking to me.
She’s watching me intently, eyes darting back and forth between each of mine, and me…lost in thought. Sometimes I can’t keep up with her, but I always try.
“Well,” I drawl, gesturing for her to continue, “Enlighten me, then.”
“I mean, all right, well, here’s a story, okay? Here’s a story—I’ve never told anybody this before, but I’m gonna tell you. Stay with me; I hate it when other people tell stories. But this one’s important.”
I smile and take a sip of my beer.
“So I grew up with this kid, right? Grew up with him. I’ve known him all my life. High school sweethearts, together for all four years, the works.
“So one night—or one week actually—this chick in my grade, my senior year—she gets offered a house sitting job. But she’s gotta watch the fifteen year old daughter, whose a freshman at our high school, too. It’s informal babysitting, right? Just as long as someone over eighteen is staying at the house with her.”
She stops to make sure I’m still listening and I nod, so she continues.
“Well, it just happens our last day of school lands in the middle of that week, and I don’t even know if the party was okayed by the fifteen year old beforehand, but that’s where it was. A whole mess of kids, eighteen and older, and this one fifteen year old getting wasted off a warm six-pack of Mickies that someone bought to keep her quiet.
“See, I wasn’t drinking that night, I wasn’t. I don’t know why. I think I had somewhere I had to be early or something, because I remember making a point to stay sober and find a room by myself to crash in, so I could set an alarm. But, well, so the room I was sleeping in was right next to her room, and I’m falling asleep, must be two or three in the morning or something, and most everybody’s just about fallen off and I hear her moaning through the wall. The fifteen year old, I mean. Moaning ‘no’ and ‘stop’—and I can hear it literally through the wall—so I cant just do nothing, and I get up and open the door to find him in there.”
“…The football player?” I ask.
She nods solemnly. “The football player. My boyfriend. And I go in and he’s laying next to her, but above the covers, with his hand on her, but she’s mostly passed out. She got ahold of something after those Mickies and she’s hardly responding to nothing. So I take him gently by the hand and I say, ‘come one, baby, come on, Imma help you find a bed, okay?’ And he immediately rolls my way and starts hugging me and mumbling ‘thank you, Jenna’—but not hugging me in a bad way—just in a drunk way. And I take him by the hand up to the attic, which had a mattress, and I tuck him in. I sit with him a while, talk to him, just til it seems like he’s asleep.
So I crawl back into my bed and within twenty minutes, guess what I’m hearing through that wall again? ‘No. Please. Stop.’”
I wince. I don’t want to hear this. I want to see her smile. I want her to flash her eyes at me, tease me the way she does when she’s working. I don’t want this. But Jenna doesn’t see that. She’s not looking at me any more, but gazing somewhere past my shoulder with hardened eyes. I can’t bring myself to stop her. I only swallow.
“So I go back in there and he’s straddling her. His clothes are off, except his boxers, and he has her arms pinned down above her head, his knees on top of her thighs. She’s stuck and whimpering. She had her name in pink wooden letters decorating the wall behind her bed…I snapped. I grabbed him by the throat and his underpants and threw him into the wall—.”
“—Please,” I say. I can’t look at her. “Please, just stop.”
She gives me a hard appraisal. It makes me feel naked. She doesn’t realize what she’s doing to me.
I shake my head, “I don’t want to hear this.”
“Nobody wants to hear this,” she says quietly. “But this is how it really is. This is what life is like.”
I give her a sad look, and I reach my hand out but she pulls her knee away as if she anticipated it. I want to save this. I want to bring her to dinner; I want to read to her while she lies on my rug, but I know that look. It’s relentless.
“…Did you ever talk to the girl about it?”
Her eyes soften for a moment—only for a moment—before any hint of emotion leaves them, and she looks down at her lap and shrugs. “What is there to say? Who knows if she even remembers…”
“I mean…you did the right thing. You helped her—I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you tell anyone?”
“Because nobody wants to hear this shit. It wouldn’t have mattered—but I didn’t do it out of some morality. I did it out of love.”
“…Love for who?”
“Love for him.”
I can’t help but give a cold laugh. She started this. I can’t help myself from mocking her. “You just said it was ‘high school love’. You’re a kid—what do you know about love?”
She nods and looks up at me. Her eyes are soft, more green than yellow today, and open a little wider than usual—vulnerable. “You’re right. I am a kid. I don’t mind you calling me that. It means you’re taking me seriously.
“And it was just high school love, but it was still love. Everything I did that night was out of love for him. I loved him until I couldn’t anymore. I put him to bed the first time, gently, out of love, and when I threw him headfirst into the wall, I did that out of love, too. I mean it. That took every ounce of love to do. And took it right out of me.
“And I didn’t keep his secret. I never kept it a secret out of love. I kept it out of fear.”
What do I say to that? What can I say to that? I look at my beer, only half drank, the bottom half still sweating condensation. I feel the energy of people lolling around me, sharing pitchers in the booths behind us, but if they’re speaking, I don’t hear them. I want to say that he must not have been a good guy after all. I want to end it there. I want to make her laugh, to find out her interests, what kind of books she likes to read. I want to see the flashing eyes that have haunted me for over a year. I wish I had never said anything.
She puts her hand on my forearm as I lift it to pick up my glass and asks softly, “Have you ever been in love like that?”
I can only match her gaze and try to keep from blinking, though I’m also battling to keep my eyes from welling.
I want to own a part of her no one else has ever had, will ever see. I want to love her like that. I take my other hand and place it over hers, delicately lifting her hand off. I bring the beer to my lips and finish it in one breath, before pushing the two twenties I had left under the glass to the inner edge of the bar. I look up to see the football player hugging his mother as the ceremony ends. Everyone is cheering. The disappointment is already sinking in. She’s still just a kid. I will never have her. I know this.
I smile at her, even though I’m sad, and I push myself up to my feet."No," I say, with the shrug ofcowardice, “I haven’t.”