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the dirty work

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Catch a bright star and place it on your forehead
Say a few spells and baby, there you go
Take a black cat and sit it on your shoulder
And in the morning you'll know all you know

—from “Ride a White Swan,” T. Rex

---

I forgive you.

The morning after Isaac’s birthday party, Rebecca wakes up with the sentence in her head. At first, lying in bed as the thought nudges her awake, it feels the way most internal thoughts feel—part language, part wordless impression or subtle sense. As soon as she’s cognizant of the thought, she hears the phrase repeat in Ted’s voice. She’s run through the moment he forgave her in his office so many times, even when she doesn’t particularly want to remember it, even when the memory feels so purely merciful it actually hurts. She can’t remember it without also remembering the way she nearly didn’t believe what she’d heard him say. The way he’d placed a hand against her back as she hugged him. The way it felt that he would have been content to keep her there as long as she held onto him. And now she has to remember last night, too, the conversation on the bathroom floor—how Ted folded his own forgiveness into the reminder that she wouldn’t be able to operate as a truly forgiven person until she could offer that mercy to herself. I would forgive you every day if I thought it was gonna register, but you’ve gotta forgive yourself.

She pushes the duvet aside and stands up. Her mouth is dry, her limbs twinge with exhaustion, and a slight hangover headache solidifies in her forehead as soon as she starts to trudge to the bathroom to brush her teeth and shower as quickly as humanly possible. As pathetic as she feels, she can appreciate that it would all be so much worse if she hadn’t thrown up last night, if she hadn’t switched to water and J20s when she did.

When the shower’s running hot, she steps inside the little glass-walled room and beneath the powerful stream of water. The phrase repeats, pulsing against her scalp along with the water: I forgive you, I forgive you. It isn’t until she combs some conditioner into her hair with her fingers and dutifully waits for it to set that she realizes—the voice her brain keeps defaulting back to isn’t Ted’s. It’s her inner voice, her thought-voice, and it’s highly suspect, she thinks, because she hasn’t forgiven herself. She’d know if she had. It couldn’t have happened since last night, no matter how contemplatively sober she was when the night ended. She simply hasn’t. It’s impossible.

But against all reason, the phrase doesn’t stop. It occurs to her that if she were the type to keep a journal of her thoughts and feelings, this would be a moment worth noting in its pages. She doesn’t keep a journal. But before she turns off the water and steps out of the shower and into her day, she writes I FORGIVE YOU???? in the foggy glass across from where she stands.

When she gets back to the bedroom, she checks her phone. The towel she’s tied around her hair slides forward into her line of vision when she bends to look, and the slight change to her center of gravity reminds her of her headache.

There are two texts from Ted.

The first:

Good morning! Wanna get breakfast?

And then, sent a minute later:

Except what I actually want is American diner breakfast, so I’m going to have to cook it myself. You’re more than welcome to stop by.

It would be easy to come up with an excuse—too busy, too tired, other plans—that was believable enough, even true enough. But it doesn’t occur to her to do anything but text back and tell Ted she’ll be on her way within the hour.

*

She can’t show up empty handed, so she stops at a shop en route and brings Ted fresh-squeezed orange juice in a glass bottle. “Please don’t turn this into a mimosa,” she says with a wince as she hands it over at the front door. “At least not for me.”

Ted chuckles as he ushers her into his flat, which smells like bacon and coffee. “I feel that. And hey, thanks for the juice. Real pretty bottle.”

She’s never been to Ted’s before, but he gives her something he calls a nickel tour that lasts about thirty seconds. The only room he doesn’t lead her into is the bedroom, but she can see it through the partially open door and marvels inwardly at how small his hastily-made bed is. Before Ted’s arrival in the UK, she’d instructed Higgins to work with accounting to find a reasonably nice furnished flat, and although she hadn’t particularly cared at the time how pleased Ted was with the accommodations, she’s pretty sure even her last-season self would’ve assumed he’d get an adult-sized bed.

After the tour, they return to the kitchen, where Ted offers her tea but is happy when she tells him the coffee he’s already made is fine. The coffee smells like it might vanquish the last of the hangover. Once coffee is served, they both seem to realize that everything that feels obvious at work—where to stand or sit, how to occupy one’s time—isn’t as natural here. But Rebecca pushes through the feeling, sitting down at the little breakfast nook in the kitchen to drink her coffee and watch Ted scramble eggs.

She expected the smell of bacon or sausage, potatoes frying on the stove, strong coffee, Ted’s pleasant busyness. She didn’t expect a football match (the United States women’s national team against Mexico) playing on the TV in the living room, which is visible from the kitchen.

“We’re ready to dish up,” Ted says from his place at the stove. He notices her glancing at the TV. “It’s a recording,” he says, referring to the match. “I watch four or five every Sunday. We can eat on the couch, if you want. I often do.”

It takes them three trips to bring everything for breakfast into the living room, and soon the coffee table is a mess of plates and coffee and orange juice and cloth napkins and hot sauce and a frying pan loaded with everything they didn’t put on their plates in case they want seconds. “The grease’ll soak up yesterday,” Ted says quietly as they start to eat. “It’ll just—erase everything.”

Rebecca pauses to chew. “God, this is good,” she says. After a few seconds of silence, she adds, “And I don’t want to erase everything.”

Ted grins down at his plate, the expression almost private. “Good.”

What the beige couch lacks in color it makes up in comfort. Even after they’re done eating and have cleared everything but the coffee, they linger there and watch the second half of the match.

“I love soccer,” Ted says suddenly. “I love football.”

Rebecca laughs. “I’m glad?”

“Yeah. I am too.” He picks up the remote and turns the volume down a couple notches. Rebecca wonders if he’ll notice if she scoots a little closer. It seems like a win-win, so she does it anyway, tucking her legs and sock feet beneath her. “You wanna know something I feel guilty about? I didn’t know if I’d love football when I first got here. I knew I’d love coaching the team. But I took the job without having any idea if I’d ever end up actually interested in the professional sport I was gonna coach full-time.”

“You already know I don’t regret hiring you.”

“And I appreciate that. But what I mean is, you might’ve initially hired me to bring down the team, but I’m the one who said yes. I needed to get away so badly I took a job even though I knew someone who already loved football would do it better.”

“I offered it to you. You had every right to say yes.”

Ted shrugs. “Still feel guilty sometimes.”

“All right.” She realizes then what he’s doing. He’s telling her she isn’t the only one with regrets, the only one who let something personal interfere with a professional decision. “But Jamie. That was me.”

“Yeah. But I don’t think we’re done with him, either.”

“He’s the part of my plan that worked. And, and I don’t think it makes it better if I come clean to the other coaches, but it doesn’t make me feel any better to keep it a secret, either, or to make you complicit in that secret.”

Ted nods. “You already know how I feel about it. Can’t change the past.” He picks up the remote again and rotates it a few times, his fingers like the spokes of a wheel, and sets it down without pushing any buttons. “If you decide you need to talk to Beard and Nate about any of this stuff? I’ll support whatever you decide. I don’t think it’d be the bombshell you might think it is. But, you know, give me a heads up if you do talk to ‘em? All these tied matches—everybody’s a little intense right now.”

“I’ll think about it,” Rebecca says, angling her body to face Ted. There’s a twist of guilt in her stomach. It’s the stomachache of a person who hasn’t forgiven herself. And how could she have, when the honest path forward retroactively angers people and the kindest path forward forces her misdeeds to fester?

“It’ll be okay,” Ted says. “Whatever you decide. It’s already okay.”

At first, the kiss is an echo of last night. Rebecca sits close enough that she barely has to lean over to find Ted’s cheek with her lips. And if this is all it can be—they establish that everything’s okay, somehow, Rebecca kisses Ted’s cheek, rinse and repeat—she’ll have to live with that. But when she pulls away, Ted pulls her back again and brushes his lips against Rebecca’s cheek, right at the cheekbone, a mirror of what she’s just given him. But he lingers there longer, escalating nothing until Rebecca circles an arm around his back to hold him in place. He trails kisses down her cheek to the corner of her lips, then, and when she turns her head to face him they’re already kissing on the mouth, already pressed together.

When they stop kissing, they remain close, Rebecca’s knee against Ted’s thigh, their arms gripped together. They look at each other, serious and quiet for longer than comes naturally to either of them. “I have—” She doesn’t know what she’s going to say until the words form in her mouth. “I have such a long way to go.”

It feels endless, like a job nobody wants. But this oasis—

Ted exhales. “I do too.”

They kiss again, again and again, melting into it this time, the edge of newness fading away. The moment stops feeling like a first, like something to get used to. They miss the end of U.S.-Mexico, and by the time they stop kissing, Arsenal and Everton are twenty minutes into last week’s match. The corners of Ted’s mouth are wet because he hasn’t bothered to wipe the saliva away, and there’s a spot just beneath Rebecca’s right ear that burns with the ghost of the mark she could feel Ted hold himself back from leaving. Ted’s eyes are a little dazed, and Rebecca is certain hers reflect the same haziness.

If they keep going, there will be marks. They’ll take off each other’s clothes and lie here on the couch—it’s practically larger than the bed in this flat—and because it will feel good it will feel like progress. Until she goes home tonight, or tomorrow morning before work, and has to deal with the part of her that’s still alone, still festering, no matter how deep inside her Ted manages to go. The little core that’s only herself, that she has to figure out how to care about again.

Ted takes a deep breath. She expects words, but none emerge.

“Thank you for inviting me—it’s been a lovely time,” Rebecca says, and immediately cringes. ‘A lovely time’ is what she said to the water biscuit of a man who met her for coffee a month or so back, right before she deleted his number from her phone and uninstalled the dating app that had put him in her orbit in the first place. She shakes her head quickly, as if to erase the most recent words from the air. “Not just a lovely time.” She closes her eyes, steels herself for her own honesty. “What I want to do is stay here all day”—she brushes her fingertips against the stubble at his jawline—“and just...let this happen. But if I do that right now, I’ll get distracted and I won’t be able to—” To forgive myself for all the old things. To clean out all the places I’m alone.

Ted smiles with his mouth closed. He nods slowly.

“I don’t want to make you wait,” Rebecca says.

“Doesn’t feel like you are.” He finds the hand that brushes against his face and holds it in his. “I’m free next Sunday if you wanna stop by again. I always avoid making plans on Sundays—the day after a match I just want to be home, you know, with coffee and football and quiet. I’d really like you to be here too.”

“So you’re saying I don’t feel like ‘plans’?” Rebecca says with a smile.

“You’re one of the only people who doesn’t.”

A lot can happen in a week, Rebecca thinks. She stands up, squeezing his hand before letting go. “I’ll be there. I might even be ready for a mimosa by then.”

*

On Monday morning, Rebecca (restless with happiness, itchy with happiness, aching for next Sunday—it’s wonderful and miserable) shows up for work even earlier than usual, and Keeley arrives in Rebecca’s office before Ted does. She’s here to set up a photoshoot with a few of the boys; it’s nothing sponsored, just an opportunity to take a few fresh shots for the website and social media.

“Finished up my little unicorn planner last week,” Keeley says by way of hello as she approaches the desk. “Haven’t filled up a notebook that fast since I was a teenager with fourteen different crushes.” She beams. “So I got us matching ones, yeah, and I think we are just about adorable enough to pull it off.”

“Oh God,” Rebecca says, certain Keeley knows she’s only kidding with the exhausted tone. “What’re these ones, narwhals in tutus?”

“No,” Keeley says witheringly. “They’re quite grown up.”

Keeley pulls two clothbound journals from her bag and sets them down on Rebecca’s desk, scooting the one meant for Rebecca closer although the gesture really isn’t necessary. It’s obvious which one is which. Both notebooks say NOTE TO SELF on the cover, but Keeley’s has a pale pink cover and the words are embossed in metallic magenta. Rebecca’s is a rich navy blue with shimmering gold lettering.

“Thank you,” Rebecca says, a little surprised. Gold letters and a cute title aren’t what she’d have chosen for herself, but somehow it’s perfect. “Want to have tea up here later?” she asks as Keeley rushes away, thrusting the pink notebook back in her bag as she goes. There isn’t much time before the photographer arrives. “I need to tell you about Isaac’s birthday.”

Keeley turns around, eyes sparkling. “I’ll be back the moment the shoot’s done.”

Ted arrives so soon after that he and Keeley must have met in the corridor. “Hey, boss,” he says as he walks up and sets down her biscuits. For once, it doesn’t sound like he has the next words prepped. He’s normally bursting with an anecdote or a question or a request or an idea or a compliment, always spoken in that tone that suggests he was put on earth to say this specific thing. Today he’s open, like Rebecca could string together any combination of words under the sun and he’d do his best not to feel surprised.

“Hi, Ted,” Rebecca says, a bit warily. He’s open, but what if he’s decided since last afternoon that she isn’t?

His eyes are far away for a minute, and he flashes a half smile at whatever he sees before focusing on her again. Just like that, he has something to say again. He sits down on the chair at the other side of her desk. “You know what I was thinkin’ about last night for the first time in about twenty years?”

“What?”

“Church camp. It was—it was right after my dad passed, and for the first time ever, my mom said I could go off to camp with my real religious Baptist friend who asked me every year. I was just excited because I wanted to shoot a bow and arrow, but on the last night we had—well I guess you’d call it an altar call, and it came on pretty strong recommendation from the pastor and all the kids and everybody that I ought to go up and ask Jesus into my heart. Said he’d take on all my sins as his own, and walk with me for life. At that point my sins were pretty much just asking Danny Walker’s older brother to buy me beer and taking the lord’s name in vain every time I went fishing, but it didn’t seem like the worst idea at the time, and everybody was real into it, so I went with it. I’m pretty sure I muttered it under my breath, something like ‘I, Ted Lasso, would like to invite you, Jesus Christ, into my heart,’ like I was marryin’ the guy or something. And you know what?”

Rebecca raises her eyebrows. She hasn’t opened the biscuits yet. It’s got to be a record.

“Nothing happened. I didn’t feel a dang thing. Other than how sad I was about my dad and how much I couldn’t wait to get home and take a fungus-free shower and hug my mom and see my other friends. But you know what, all the people at that stupid camp were real relieved that I’d gotten Jesus taken care of. One-time thing. Coupon for life.”

Not unlike a coupon he’d once offered her. The part of her that feels uncomfortable wants to make a joke, wants to ask who’s supposed to be the Jesus in this situation. Their forgiveness situation. But she edits out the joke before she says it. “I’d like to hear more about your dad sometime.”

“Sure. Sometime.”

“Why do you think your mum let you go?”

“Honestly? I think she just needed to be alone for a little while.” There’s pain on his face. For a split second, he’s still sixteen.

Rebecca nods. “I’m sure she was glad when you came back, though.”

“Yeah. I think she was.” He smiles, the expression still sad. “I guess I was thinking about all the conversations it sounds like you’re having with yourself. Doesn’t really matter how much any of the rest of us want you to have them. Not unless your own heart’s in it.”

“It matters.”

He looks into her then, and nods just briefly. “You feel it when you feel it, I think.”

“Have dinner with me tonight?” Rebecca asks. “Just at the pub, or takeout at mine—”

“Absolutely.”

“Not as a replacement for Sunday, just as—”

“Absolutely,” he repeats. “Oh hey, new notebook?” He taps an index finger against the cover, runs it along the golden letters. “Hope you put something nice in there.”

She smiles at him. “Maybe I will.”

“Gotta get to training.”

When he’s gone, Rebecca spreads her new notebook open on her desk. Grabs the nearest pen. Just to see how it feels, she writes the words in a tinier-than-usual version of her handwriting, omitting at least a couple of the question marks she’d needed in the shower.

I forgive you??

She looks down at the sentence scrawled in sticky blue ballpoint ink. The ink is all wrong for the creamy page. If anything, she’s got more to forgive herself for now that she’s committed such a crime against good paper. The words are not true. Not even close. But the voice is there with her, the voice that sounds like Ted sometimes and sometimes sounds like her. It’s okay for this to take a while. It’s okay. She doesn’t have to rush.