The morning after her dad threw a bunch of clothes and a giant bottle of Listerine into his duffel bag (Adidas -- she remembered the white-on-red stripes flashing past her face as he stormed toward the door) and announced that he needed “a break from this BULLSHIT,” Annie Savoy fully expected to make her own breakfast for the first time in her life.
Usually, her mom set it out. Cheerios, half a piece of toast with butter but no sugar, and a small glass of orange juice.
On the weekends, her dad made French toast with this special thick egg bread he liked to buy at the deli. He always spelled her name in syrup on the first one and then covered the letters with a fluffy white coating of powdered sugar before they could soak in.
She guessed that wouldn’t be happening anymore.
Annie waited in her room for as long as she dared -- rearranging the three stuffed bears on her bed, fiddling with the lace cuffs on her socks, and changing the ribbon she’d picked out to tie around her ponytail. (She settled on the black one at the very back of the drawer, the one that had made her mom squish up her forehead and say, “Black isn’t a nice color on little girls. What’s wrong with the green one?”)
When she knew she’d miss the bus if she didn’t move it, she finally opened the door and braved the quiet. On the way downstairs, she used her finger to draw a long line in the dust on the bannister. She almost made a smiley face at the end -- the kind she drew in her notebooks at school or used after her name when she wrote notes to her friends -- but when she got to the bottom of the stairs she didn’t feel like it anymore.
Her mom was in the kitchen, listening to that radio station that played a lot of songs about boyfriends and beer, just like always.
And there was her breakfast, the mini-mountain of Cheerios reflected in the spoon’s silver curve.
“Hurry up and eat, honey, or you’ll be late for school.”
Annie swallowed. “Aren’t you going to-”
“I need to finish fixing this disastrous hair. I’ll be down before the bus gets here, don’t worry.”
Annie felt the pressure of a kiss on the top of her head, and then her mother, who had sat beside her during breakfast every school day of her entire life (even if only to sip coffee for a few minutes), vanished up the stairs.
Annie took three deep breaths before she began to drink her orange juice. Then she swung her legs back and forth so that they banged against the wooden chair legs, because no one was there to tell her not to.
By the time she was sixteen, Annie only saw her dad two or three times a year, when whatever mobile job he had allowed him a quick stop by the East Coast. (He’d tried tending bar on a cruise ship, selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, being a bookkeeper for Cirque du Soleil, and delivering for FedEx, and those were just the jobs she knew of.)
So she wasn’t particularly surprised when he called to cancel an hour before he was supposed to take her out for breakfast as a celebration of her fifth consecutive semester on the high honor roll.
His words ran together in her brain, a fountain of apologies and excuses. Instead of concentrating on whatever the hell her dad was saying (something about how his new boss had promised him a plane ticket), Annie stared at the keys on the bookcase near the door and thought about how her mom had given her a special dispensation to drive unaccompanied for the occasion.
When she hung up, she looked at herself in the hallway mirror and thought that maybe, with darker lipstick and a little more eyeliner, she could look eighteen.
“Who was on the phone?” her mom yelled from the kitchen.
“Jenna,” Annie lied. “She forgot the English assignment again.”
“Did you finish your homework, honey?”
“I finished yesterday, remember?” She was late with her math homework sometimes, because proofs and theorems were boring as hell, but she always did her literature assignments as soon as she got home. (She loved to curl up on the couch with the cat in her lap and her favorite pen in her hand; with books like Wuthering Heights she had to keep reminding herself to slow down so that she wouldn't miss the beautiful way the words worked together in her eagerness to find out what happened next.)
“Be careful. Take off the parking brake!” She could hear the creak of the ball bearings in her mom’s ancient rolling pin -- cookies for the Christmas party this weekend. “And remember to check your mirrors.”
“I will, Mama. Bye!”
And she checked her mirrors compulsively all the way to the diner, where she ordered a bottomless cup of coffee and blueberry pancakes with scrambled eggs and bacon. By the time she swirled the last piece of pancake in syrup, she’d already decided that her dad had officially disappointed her for the last time.
The first player she tied to her bed was Clifton “The Cliff” Banning, second baseman for the Charlotte Knights.
She picked him because he was tall and blond and funny, because of the slouchy way he leaned against the dugout with a smoldering cigarette dangling between his fingers, because she’d seen him show up at a game once with flowers for his mom.
And because he was batting .288.
Annie would have forgotten what she planned to read if she hadn’t had the whole thing planned out in advance.
Fortunately, she had set her tattered copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience right next to the vanilla-raspberry massage oil and the burgundy scarves.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t even finished the second stanza of “Laughing Song” when The Cliff cleared his throat and asked suspiciously, wrists wiggling in their restraints, “Why’re you reading about laughing grasshoppers?” His eyes flicked down to where a tight blue sweater covered her breasts. “And are you ever gonna take off any more of those clothes?”
It had been her plan to stay fully dressed until she finished reading, but she was nothing if not adaptable. She pulled the sweater over her head and tossed it on the floor, leaning forward so the guy had a better view of her bra (emerald green satin and lace -- she’d spent forty bucks on it at Victoria’s Secret).
“Damn,” he said, glancing up at the scarves that bound his hands. “I guess that’s worth a few minutes of weird poems.” He paused. “We are gonna do it, right?”
“Only if you behave yourself,” she replied, flirty, trying to shake off the unsettled thoughts that jittered in the back of her mind and made it hard to focus on Blake’s perfect words. She should at least finish the poem, she figured.
To his credit, the guy didn’t leave while she was sleeping.
He stayed through half an awkward cup of coffee, then disappeared in a cloud of exhaust from his ‘66 Charger after muttering something about making sure his uniform was clean.
Annie drank the rest of his coffee (wondering what kind of guy used that much cream and sugar) and then her own, slowly.
She thought about leverage and control and power, about making a man wait when he didn’t want to.
And if there was a tiny voice, somewhere, whispering that maybe she’d enjoyed all those things just a little too much, she turned up the radio until Elvis sang ‘Way Down’ so loudly that she couldn’t hear anything else at all.
The Saturday after Crash left, Annie snapped awake to a ringing phone and a piercing headache. (The late-night pity party with Johnnie Walker as her date had, in retrospect, probably been a bad plan.)
“Hello?” Her mouth tasted like locker rooms smelled; she visualized the minty sting of Listerine on her tongue.
“Annie, shit. Did I wake you up? It’s ten-thirty!”
She shrugged away her disappointment at the sound of a female voice. “Morning, Millie. You didn’t wake me up. I was just restin’.”
“Stop lying and come have breakfast with me. Jimmy’s on a road trip, so it’ll be just the two of us.”
Annie sat up, popping the top on the bottle of Advil by her bed and tipping it into her mouth. When it felt like she had three or four in there, she stuck the bottle back on the table and swallowed them dry, shivering a little. “Honey, I know you’re trying to help and you’re the sweetest, but I need to get my ass out of this bed and do some reading for my interview.”
“That’s not ‘til Monday!”
“There’s lots of reading.”
“There’s nothin’ I can do to convince you?” Millie sounded as pathetic as a toddler begging for ice cream, but Annie couldn’t bring herself to face tales of wedded bliss over cheap waffles and a killer hangover.
“How about next week?”
“Okay, okay. Call me after the interview. You’ll be great!”
Annie took the longest, hottest shower she could stand, and then, instead of waffles, she curled up into the corner of her couch with a bag of Fritos and an icy Diet Coke.
Before she dug in, she made a mental list of the things she was absolutely not going to think about while reading:
1. Crash Davis
2. Baseball, period
4. Why the people doing laundry in commercials were always women
5. How bad she’d feel if she didn’t get this promotion to full-time teaching
The middle three turned out to be cake.
The first and last ones were harder.
A lot harder.
Crash woke her up at 6:30 (which was early given how late it had been when they finally fell asleep) the morning after she found him on her swing, warm kisses on her bare shoulder while his hand stroked down her back. “Come on, get up. I made you breakfast.”
She rolled over and rubbed her eyes. “You . . . what?”
He laughed and said over his shoulder as he headed towards the kitchen, “It’s getting cold!”
Annie took a second to appreciate how nice his ass looked in dark green boxers before she got up and pulled her favorite fleece robe off its hook.
When she walked into the kitchen, Crash was pouring coffee that smelled like heaven, deep and dark. Two candles glowed in the center of the table, and in between them was a vase holding three freshly-cut tiger lilies.
A perfect half-circle omelet covered the center of her plate, evenly dotted with salsa, bright green cilantro garnish in the middle. “Damn,” she said, cinching her robe a little tighter before she sat down.
Crash set a glass of cranberry juice in front of her. “Well, taste it! If it’s awful I’ll take you out to that fancy French place over on East Chapel.”
She bit into the mixture of eggs, cheese, pepper, and scallions and smiled up at Crash before she had the chance to swallow. “This is fantastic,” she mumbled, cutting off another bite. “I didn’t even know I had any scallions.” She took a sip of coffee. “Or that you could cook.”
“I try not to be predictable. It’s boring.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I think you’ve got unpredictability covered.”
“You should know.”
Annie smirked and tapped her foot on the table leg while she watched Crash put the finishing touches on his own omelet -- salt and pepper and a skilled flip at exactly the right moment. He was humming, softly, something that might have been Clapton. She’d had a decent number of men in her kitchen, but none of them had ever looked so relaxed, so unconcerned about what she might do next.
He sat down and picked up his fork, then paused. “What, do I have cilantro on my chin or something?”
She shook her head. “You just look really nice in my kitchen.”
"I like your kitchen." He poured a dangerous-looking amount of salsa on his omelet and glanced out the window. "You wanna get dressed when we're done and drive to the beach? I'll buy you caramel corn."
She watched his eyes for a minute, noticing that he didn't get shifty or edgy or look away as she studied him. "The beach sounds great. I haven't been in ages!"
Under the table, she put her bare foot against his leg. He caught her ankle between his and held it, warm and solid.