For the first time in four years, there was no game on his schedule.
He was among the walking dead and wounded on the morning after the championship. Lack of sleep combined with too much alcohol and other substances Starblind had procured were the least of it. Under his t-shirt, Quisp was bandaged thickly enough to call him mummified. Sal Phlox, Phil Loondorf, and Starblind himself were figuring out how to heft their bags without actually using their arms. Sooty Kim limped silently to the bus. Even Owen, who rarely drank to excess and seemed well-rested by comparison, had been arguing with his mom in a corner of the lobby. In three years, Schwartz had never heard him raise his voice in anything but a cheer. Presumably he was hungover and cranky too.
Schwartz had gulped down his share of the booze and had far too little sleep, getting up at dawn to visit Henry in the hospital before the bus left. Henry hadn’t eaten in weeks, had lost muscle tone and more, but Schwartz would have felt right at home in the next bed, being pumped full of nutrients and allowed to sleep for as long as it took. How many days had he been off the meds now? All of a sudden his mental calendar was blank.
Four years of moving from training session to game, always thinking ahead to the next deadline: how do I get through to Saturday, what’s the team lineup for Wednesday, is the Buddha fit to play, can we rely on Rick getting a hit? Now there was nothing there. No games and no academic deadlines ever again. Just the looming date when he and Arsch would have to move out of their rented house. Maybe if he clung to his bed and refused to go, they’d put him in jail and let him sleep off the summer.
Still, he stood by the bus door and counted everyone on: who knew what guys were out cold in another room, or had been lured out somewhere by girls and were halfway across the city by now? He tapped Owen on the arm. “Everything good?”
Owen looked at him, as innocent as could be. He’d shaved off his fuzzy stubble, which was more than Schwartz could say about the rest of the team. “Great.”
“Seen Affenlight? Is he riding with us?” The rest of the team’s supporters – parents mostly – had made their own arrangements to get to the airport and then to their various homes. The president, though, had been a last-minute arrival. And if anyone knew where he was, it would be Owen.
“Guert caught a cab to the airport already.” Owen tugged his bag higher up on his shoulder. “You saw Henry?”
Schwartz nodded. “He’s tired, but he’s going to be okay. Might be a couple of weeks, getting all his numbers in order, talking to a shrink. The doctors already contacted his parents.”
“Good. Do you have a number for him?”
He pulled a square of folded hospital notepaper from his pocket and gave it to Owen – he’d already entered the number in his phone. “But I wouldn’t try today. He needs to sleep. We all need to sleep.”
Owen gripped his shoulder companionably, and then greeted Loondorf with a broad smile, escorting him to a pair of seats and launching into an involved question about Stravinsky.
At some point they really should talk about the Affenlight issue. But it was only an issue to him as team captain, as the responsible older player who had to be concerned about one of his team sleeping with the college president. As Mike Schwartz, only two years older, not Owen’s captain and not even the boyfriend of Affenlight’s daughter, what did he care who anyone was sleeping with? He couldn’t even work up the effort to care who he was sleeping with, which was nobody.
The flight was comparatively short and a third empty, filled with snoring and sweaty baseball players. This was what victory looked like. Elation and then a return to exhaustion and pain, and to the finals and mundane realities waiting for them at home. Most of these guys would have at least a couple more seasons. Maybe Starblind wouldn’t make too bad a captain, with Henry out and Owen in Japan. Schwartz could give him a couple of good talks, try to ground him. Even if Adam was self-centered, he badly wanted to win, and perhaps that alone would make sure he drilled and motivated the team as well as he could.
Boddington was asleep in the seat next to him. In the two seats ahead, Rick and Craig Suitcase were chatting away, fuelled by caffeine. Schwartz could hardly even shut his eyes. The word “overtired” occurred to him, as if he were a petulant child. He might have sought out the calmness Owen exuded, but Owen was sitting by Loondorf, absorbed in his Kierkegaard.
A thought occurred to him, and he carefully squeezed his way along the aisle, up into business class. As he’d guessed, the seat by Affenlight – Henry’s seat – was free. “Do you mind?” he asked.
Affenlight was awake too, not even reading, staring into space. Maybe that was a kind of sleep in itself. But on realizing that Schwartz was there, his easy presidential manner returned with a smile. “Not at all. Please. Something to drink? “
“I’m good, thanks.” Possibly the flight attendant would object… But the flight wasn’t crammed, and Affenlight’s Italian suit and generally impressive bearing were probably better than a ticket if he wanted to have someone vouch for him. Pella had said her dad came from a farm, that he’d been a Westish quarterback and a Chicago bartender, that all the culture and sophistication had been something he’d acquired years later. But years later was still decades ago, and Schwartz would never have imagined Affenlight was anything but a privileged New England WASP with an Ivy League heritage. Then again, his devotion to Westish should have raised a few suspicions.
“Owen said Henry’s doing better.”
“He’s in good hands. Thanks for bringing him.”
Affenlight gave a little shrug. “I should have taken him to Student Health. The hospital.”
Honestly, Schwartz should have done that weeks ago. Taken him to a shrink, just like Pella had suggested. Done anything but desert him when obviously he wasn’t himself. But Schwartz wasn’t Henry’s only friend. Was Schwartz his Skrimshander’s keeper? And of course the answer, ringing in his head, had to be yes.
“This was better for him,” Schwartz said. “Despite the concussion. He needed to win more than any of us. And to crash. He wouldn’t believe he was good enough, or bad enough, otherwise.”
He suspected that, conjured out of a weary, drug-dependent, alcohol-drowned brain, made little sense. But Affenlight was nodding, as sad and contemplative as he’d seemed in the ER waiting room while Owen was being examined. “You may be right, Michael.” He leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap, and looked over at Schwartz again. “Should I be asking you about my daughter?”
The chair was so comfy, or at least comparatively so, that Schwartz just wanted to close his eyes. Instead, he said: “Should I be asking you about Owen?”
Affenlight smiled very slowly. “There’s not much to tell.”
“Then I guess both of our relationships wouldn’t get many column inches in the Westish Bugler.”
“You’d be surprised.” For a moment, Affenlight seemed as if he might say more, but he took a breath and sipped a little from the mostly empty orange juice cup on his table. “She likes you, Mike. I was never in favor of her jumping into any kind of relationship after she ended things with David, but I’m worried about her. She’s angry with me and likely to get angrier, so…”
“You want me to babysit her.”
Affenlight smiled. “Not at all. But it’s not good to be alone. I’m realizing that more than ever now. You two like each other and, from what I understand, you broke up over nothing more than a silly argument. As someone who’s had a similar silly argument, I know I’d never forgive myself if I’d let that come between Owen and me.”
He expected the feeling of hurt and outrage to well up in him again, but nothing came. “She slept with my best friend.”
“As I understand it, they were both two consenting, single young people at the time, with more reason to apologize to Owen for so cruelly using his bed.”
Schwartz nodded. But still, it was easier to forgive from the head than from the heart. “What was your silly argument?”
That unguarded look of concern passed over Affenlight’s features again. “O wanted me to take him to dinner. So I did.”
“You could’ve lost your job.” It was hard to imagine them together, out on a date just like himself and Pella, like any couple anywhere. But then perhaps it wasn’t really more difficult than seeing them holding hands in the ER yesterday, than imagining any two people hanging out, having sex, eating breakfast together. If anything, Affenlight and Owen had far more in common than he’d ever had with a girlfriend before Pella. Maybe if Affenlight had been closer to Owen’s age, and Schwartz had known he was even halfway gay, he’d have almost expected it.
Affenlight drew his thumb over his lips, an act of consideration. “Then I would hope that it would’ve been worth it. People have done far worse in the name of love.”
He was unsure whether he actually dozed off during the remainder of the flight, but soon enough Affenlight was touching his shoulder and all the team were grabbing bags and chatting loudly on their way to the bus. It was still a long way to Westish from Milwaukee. “I’m going to ride with Guert,” Owen said quietly as they finally found fresh air. “You’re welcome to come with us.”
It was a kind offer – a shortened trip in relative peace and quiet would be very welcome – but he shook his head. “A captain can’t desert his crew on the home voyage. Take care of yourself, Buddha. I’ll see you in a day or two.”
They hugged as though this was a real goodbye, though, tight and emotional, and potentially embarrassing too. Not because Owen was gay, but because… He couldn’t articulate a good reason, which was maybe why the hug lasted. “Let me know if you hear anything about Henry,” Owen said. He saluted and walked away.
Schwartz really did half-sleep on the bus, but he woke up in enough time to get the driver to drop him off in Groome St. From there he squinted at the row of identical houses until he found the one that was probably right. There was no movement he could see past the windows. If Pella was home, she might be asleep, with all the early shifts she seemed to prefer. But he was here now, and the idea of walking to his own house seemed like an inhuman effort. He knocked.
If a door could open cautiously, this one certainly did. Pella was wearing her jeans and Harpooner hoodie. If he had any money he’d take her shopping. If she had any money she’d probably already have gone. But it was money that had got them fighting in the first place. He wondered if she still had her ring.
“Hi,” he said.
She looked him up and down. “Congrats on the championship.”
“Can I come in?” Hopefully he seemed pathetic enough to warrant it.
After a moment, she stepped aside, holding the door open. “I’d ask if you want something to eat, but we’re running kind of-”
“It’s okay.” This really wasn’t the way he’d hoped to hold up his end of the conversation. Her room, when she directed him to it, had a lovely old writing desk and not much else.
Pella stood in the bedroom doorway, hands bunched in her hoodie’s kangaroo pouch. “How’s Henry doing?”
He sat down on her bed which, as it was nothing more than a mattress on the floor and his knees were nothing more than ground meat, meant half falling onto it, half lying down. He pulled his bag from his shoulder. “Henry’s going to be fine.”
“Okay. Good. Did my dad come back with you?”
“Sure.” The mattress, actually, felt pretty good. He lay back fully, stretching out and closing his eyes.
“You know, just in case he and Owen went off for a romantic weekend somewhere.”
He grunted. Really he could no longer care anything about President Affenlight and Owen. If they were smooching in a hotel somewhere, good for them. He had bigger problems. Most of which he felt could be solved by not moving from this spot for a long, long time.
Apparently, when he opened his eyes again, his wish had been granted. His dreams had been confused, but they’d been dreams. Awake and at least moderately refreshed, Pella’s mattress seemed a lot less comfortable than it had been before. He’d fallen asleep in all his clothes, his shoes… Schwartz sat up. “Pella?”
There wasn’t much of the apartment to explore, and it was clear no one was home. He contemplated taking a shower, but he had no clean clothes. Even if Henry had left a t-shirt or something, it would be nowhere close to fitting. The kitchen was a disappointment too. Presumably they all ate in the dining hall. Or not at all. He made himself coffee and unwrapped one of the dinky “protein” cereal bars. On his second visit to the pantry, he found some dusty crackers shoved behind even dustier vermicelli. He needed to visit the dining hall to eat, except it was Sunday, wasn’t it? One of his two weekly fast days. He should’ve eaten more at the hotel and on the plane.
It only occurred to him that Pella couldn’t possibly be at the dining hall when there was the sound of a car outside. And then, a minute or two later, Pella opened the door. “Hi,” she said abruptly. She was still in her hoodie, but she was smiling, cheerful, as if she’d just swapped jokes or hugs with someone. Schwartz mentally ran through the list of people he wouldn’t mind her hugging. These days, weeks since they’d touched, and now that Henry was in the hospital, his jealousy was at near-undetectable levels.
“Hi,” he said.
Pella sat down on the other chair, energy in her bearing. “I was just seeing this house my dad wants to buy.”
“With Owen. I sincerely hope they’re going home to bed, even if that is one of the things I thought I’d never say. They look almost as bad as you.”
He lifted a hand, offering an unnecessary explanation: “It’s all the flights.”
“Yeah.” She screwed up her mouth a little in uncertainty. “I’m taking you to Carapelli’s. What have you even been eating since we split up? God, does no one at this college read those nutrition pyramid pamphlets they have everywhere?”
The crackers were really nothing more than something to briefly convince his stomach he was eating. “You mean on your dad’s credit card.”
“The dining hall might not pay a living wage, but it does pay. And there’s nothing wrong with dinner on my dad once in a while.” She stood up. “Anyway, I have to tell you a shitload of pertinent stuff, and you might as well eat while I do it.” A moment of thought. “And probably have a drink. It’s not that early.”
He frowned and, amid all the issues on which he should be asking clarification, picked the one she probably intended him to just bypass altogether: “Pella.”
“Are we all right again?” It was a typically teenage inquiry. Not “have we forgiven each other?” or “am I going to need to buy more condoms?”
Pella pushed back her chair. “Compared to everyone else, you would not believe how all right we are.”
She’d already been to Carapelli’s once that day, it transpired, given Mrs. Carapelli’s reaction. Pella had had lunch with her dad, who’d apparently never set foot in the restaurant before. In Westish, the college president was as close as things came to a local celebrity who wasn’t a quarterback or shortstop. While they waited for their order of beer and pizza to be ready, Schwartz chomped on breadsticks and ran through the championship game with her play-by-play, reporting on the welfare of her dear Henry. Pella waited impatiently in a booth.
“So my dad’s been fired,” she said once Schwartz was devouring the pizza, making a good go of actually finishing it this time. And now it was all too apparent what had been going on: her attitude, Affenlight’s melancholy affect, Owen’s argument with his mom. It still didn’t minimize the shock.
“Because of Owen.”
She nodded. “I mean, ‘asked to resign,’ technically, but all that means is they want to protect the reputation of their stupid college. And of course my dad and Owen have this madcap scheme of running off to Tokyo together for a year, which is the stupidest thing I ever heard, except I can’t think of anything better.”
He should’ve stopped eating in sympathy. But he reasoned he could still be sympathetic with his mouth full. “Owen’s a good guy.”
“Mike, everyone and their dog, literally, have now told me Owen’s a good guy. I have no fucking problem with Owen. I mean, great, they’re in love, and I guess they really are, too. God knows my dad’s like a lovestruck puppy, and Owen… I think he probably is too, in his Owenish way.”
Yesterday, before Henry’s collapse – or really about a month ago, before Henry walked off the field and slept with Pella – he knew it would have hit him harder, this revelation of a Westish without Affenlight, who was half the reason he was there in the first place, and the entire reason Pella was there. But he was leaving anyway, wasn’t he? And Owen was going to Tokyo, and who knew if Henry would come back. Still, it was nice to think that home still existed in that safe way it always had, even when you left.
“Are you okay?” he asked, with the sense that he should’ve asked much sooner.
She shrugged. “I guess. I’m just worried about him. He’s such a kid when it comes to this stuff. I mean, growing up he was always so alienated from relationships. He had all these girlfriends, but they were pretty interchangeable. Sex and someone to take to the opera. I always figured he was still in shock about my mom, even though that makes no sense, looking back.” She probably had more to go along that train of thought, but she cleared her throat and took a pizza slice. “Anyway. He’s an adult. They’re both adults. My dad could never rely on me. Guess it’s fair I can’t rely on him.”
Your dad’s a good guy, he wanted to say, to defend a man he regarded as a pinnacle of dedicated study and personal virtue, a man who had always seemed something like a personal friend, who always remembered his name and his major and his sports commitments, although he’d heard Affenlight talk to two dozen other students in the same way, like he carried photo flashcards in his suit pocket. Until he’d met Pella on the VAC steps that day, he’d half assumed that the 2,400 Westish students were a bachelor’s substitute for biological kids.
“So what are you going to do?” Which was the question he personally didn’t want to hear from anyone.
Pella reached for her beer. “My dad wants me to do my bachelor’s here, which I guess was always the plan, but I don’t know if they’ll let me in anymore now they’re throwing him out and he’s not going to give up Owen, so everyone’s going to know why. I guess I’ll wash dishes and maybe take my SATs and squeeze into some other school where my dad can pay my tuition if he’s not broke by then. Or I’ll wash dishes forever. Nothing wrong with that.” She gulped down a couple of mouthfuls, as if to make the point. “My dad said they offered you a job.”
“Yeah.” He silently considered how much he could actually eat without making himself sick. And if he did, would that still have some benefit? He might feel better, even if he knew that was the kind of thing people who needed psychiatric help did, even if he got absolutely no nutrition at all. He didn’t need muscle and girth after all. He wasn’t going to be hitting home runs or crushing into other footballers anymore. He could slim down, as far as his body was likely to go without serious protest. Or, fuck it, go the opposite way. “Assistant athletic director. Coaching.”
“So, basically what you do now, except you’d be getting paid. With health insurance and benefits. And you could stay here.”
He gazed at her darkly over his glass. “Why? No one else is staying here.”
“I might be. My dad’s buying a house. A really lovely house, actually, by the lake. He wants to live there with Owen and this beautiful dog he’s somehow adopted. Complete domestic fantasy, part of which is that we get back together and housesit while they’re away in Tokyo.”
“I know, right? But this is a nice place to live, if you’re thinking of just retiring and writing and banging your hot young boyfriend.”
“It’s a nice place to live anyway.” And he meant it, house full of unwashed dishes regardless.
Pella smiled. “Which is why you’re going to stay.”
He bowed his head in slight defeat and went for another slice.
“Want to make a pact for a year? We housesit, you do the coaching thing and retake the LSATs, I wash dishes and do my SATs. Next year we go off to Yale or somewhere, la la la. Lives back on track.”
It was a nice fantasy, and she had to know it, even more fantastical than her dad and Owen living happily ever after. They could have a year, and then get accepted to colleges a continent apart, if they got accepted anywhere at all with his bum thesis and her conspicuous four-year absence from both academia and employment. They were twenty-three and maybe already doomed to be the coach and cook with the highest untapped potential in the state of Wisconsin. On the other hand, bartending in Chicago wasn’t going to get him any closer to being governor either.
“I need to get some clothes from my place,” he said. “And a shower. Two showers.”
She nodded, as if she’d been too polite to mention the stink. “Let’s just go there now. Honestly, my roommates are really kind of weird.”
“Arsch’ll be sleeping.” Which meant snoring.
She smiled again. “Bet we’ll manage to drown it out.”
They bought condoms from a drugstore on the way over – Affenlight’s credit card again, because Pella was doubtless making a point – and while Schwartz was in the shower Pella somehow found clean sheets and remade the bed. She’d also, because it was as long a shower as he could take before the water went cold, started cleaning up the kitchen. She was apologizing as he dried his hair, a towel tied a little loosely around his waist, because she always seemed to think he’d take it as a personal affront rather than a favor.
He was thinking about Henry when he kissed her – not in a gay way, he was sure, but because Henry had probably kissed her last – and thinking about how it didn’t matter that he was thinking about Henry. Pella could sleep with whomever the hell she liked, the same way Affenlight and Owen could, the same way he could. But here they were, with fresh sheets and unopened condoms, and the rest of the evening, maybe the rest of the summer, to themselves.
Pella pushed the towel to the floor and let him unzip her jeans.
The next morning he woke early, looked at the clock, got up to piss, and went back to bed. He wasn’t tired so much anymore, but it felt nicely rebellious to inwardly tell training and studies to just all fuck off, to get back under the covers and draw Pella back close to him. He had an erection again, morning wood or more. Probably the Viagra wouldn’t be needed for a long while. But Pella blinked her eyes open. “Oh fuck.”
She was out of bed before he could even squeeze a breast and gently suggest they rip open another wrapper.
“Dishes?” he said, sinking into the pillows.
She pulled on clothes, muttering something about showers and underwear. “Listen, I told my dad we’d have dinner with him and Owen tonight. Do some laundry. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Schwartz stayed in bed for a decadent amount of time, having truly nothing to do. He should call Henry, although Henry was probably sleeping. He could call round the team, check that everyone was okay, but they were doubtless sleeping off more hangovers too, or studying for finals, or – he cast a thought to Owen – in bed with their lovers. Eventually a thought occurred to him and, chucking his bags of laundry in the car, he went to have breakfast in the dining hall.
By the evening he was freshly shaved and showered again, wearing a laundered version of his game-day suit – shirt and tie, slacks, jacket. Pella had that nice purplish dress she’d worn when Owen’s mom had visited. In any case, they didn’t look too out of place in Maison Robert, a location largely populated by college lecturers in middle age and beyond.
“My dad,” Pella reported, having ordered some wine, “is going to be late. Unless Owen is having a drastic effect on his usual timekeeping skills.”
Schwartz wasn’t sure what qualified as drastic, but they appeared a quarter after seven, Affenlight in his usual attire – Schwartz couldn’t recall ever seeing him in anything but a suit – and Owen wearing a collared shirt and tie under a slate-gray sweater. They weren’t holding hands, but they were close enough, Affenlight leaning in to listen to Owen, that maybe they had been a moment ago. Affenlight hugged his daughter, and Owen gave Schwartz a fist-bump over the table before Affenlight thrust out a hand. “Hello Mike. Better rested, I hope.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
Affenlight pulled out Owen’s chair for him, stopped confusedly, and smiled in slight relief when Owen nudged his shoulder and sat down. “Yes, you are allowed to be typically masculine and chivalrous with me, provided you don’t react in horror when I do it with you.”
“I agree fully,” Pella said. Schwartz tried not to imagine her pulling out his own chair. Women holding doors for men was a given in a college where no one wanted a swinging door in their face. But the chair thing was admittedly a bit of an insult, whoever did it.
Affenlight smoothed down his tie. “It’s good to see you both. And to celebrate the Harpooners’ tremendous victory, in no small part due to your efforts, Mike.”
“It’s a team game, sir. We all came together when it counted. Couldn’t have done it without Owen. I still don’t know how he got a bat on that pitch.”
“I had my eyes closed,” Owen said, and stood, reaching for the bottle. “May I?”
Pella looked between Schwartz and her father. “Are you two going to talk as though you’re making official speeches all night? I think Owen and I are pretty aware of what you’re really like.”
Owen refilled her glass first, like the gentleman – or aider and abettor – he was.
“Perhaps you could call me Guert, Mike.”
“It’s always a little awkward calling parents by their first names.” Not that many girlfriends had even let on that they had parents. Owen sloshed wine into his glass.
Affenlight smiled. “Not a parent, then. Your friend’s boyfriend.”
As if that made anything less complicated. Owen laid a hand on the back of Affenlight’s neck as he poured. “One glass for you.” He cast a meaningful look at Pella. “We just got back from St. Anne’s.”
“O, you’re spoiling dinner.”
Pella ignored him. “And?”
“And the doctors are generally aghast,” Owen said, retaking his seat. “We need to wait for some bloodwork results, and they’ll likely want to do some scans. In the meantime we have what I assume are heavy-duty drugs, plus orders for healthy living that I intend to ensure he follows to the letter. Perhaps you should start training him, Mike.”
“You used to be fun,” Affenlight said, a hint of amusement in his weary sigh as he turned to the menu.
“I used to think your arteries were in much better shape. Needless to say, the cigarettes are gone, as is red meat, although vegetarianism would make our shopping a lot easier. And between Contango and myself I’m sure we can get you to exercise at a little higher intensity than strolling by a lake.”
Pella glanced over toward the entrance. “Where is the dog, by the way?”
“I asked a couple of my more responsible friends to keep an eye on him for the evening.”
The waiter, blond and earnest, appeared. It was a sobering thought that Affenlight, a former athlete and currently the apparent pinnacle of physical good looks for a man in his sixties, could have serious health problems. Sure, you could attribute it to genetics, most of it to genetics, but it made Schwartz think more deeply about his drinking, his chewing tobacco. If you couldn’t do unhealthy things in your twenties, when could you do them? But then that made it all the harder to give it up at thirty or forty, when the damage was getting worse. Could you have a midlife crisis at twenty-three? Sure, if you were going to die before you reached fifty.
The meal passed in good humor, Affenlight a man accustomed to making conversation at dinner parties with even particularly intractable attendees. Neither he nor Owen inquired about the current status of his relationship with Pella, and Schwartz was almost relieved they took it as a given, which was what Pella was doing too. He needed something to hold onto, and Pella, Pella being here, gave him a way to hold onto Westish as well.
“Shall we talk business?” Affenlight said eventually, when their dishes were cleared away, coffee all round. Owen’s hand was laid over his on the table, and Schwartz, half fascinated, tried not to stare.
“Let’s.” Pella edged her chair a little closer. “I filled Mike in, by the way.”
“Mm. Well, I submitted my resignation to Bruce Gibbs. Doubtless it will be public knowledge tomorrow. Given that only a small number of people know the circumstances, present company plus Bruce and Dean Melkin-”
“And Henry and Genevieve,” Owen said.
“Yes, and obviously the parents who saw us at the motel… Bruce thinks the best thing to preserve the school’s good name is indeed to play it out as if I decided to fall on my own sword, that I fell in love with Mr. Dunne here, and wished to continue that relationship while also realizing I could not simultaneously remain as president. It’s not perfect, but it’s plausible.”
“And the parents?” Pella asked.
“Genevieve’s main concern has nothing to do with Westish, per se,” Owen said. “And the other parents will be assured Guert spoke to the trustees about resigning before they even began to investigate. With luck we can all avoid too much negative publicity.”
It felt like a private family discussion, or an official college meeting, wherein Schwartz was an awkward interloper. Owen and Affenlight had obviously developed some sort of serious commitment to each other in what had to have been only a few months. In lieu of commitment, he and Pella had a box and a half of prophylactics.
“Bruce has given me assurances that you will be able to enroll for next semester, Pella. My good name might be tarnished, but the trustees should have no objection to you being there.”
“But free of charge?”
Affenlight’s characteristically easy demeanor was just a little lacking now. “So I believe. In any case, I’ll ensure the fee issue is resolved.”
“Dad, you’re buying a house. You’re going to Tokyo. You don’t have limitless funds.”
“You’re my daughter. Your education and future are more important to me than anything.”
Schwartz could more or less hear Pella’s objection: If that were true, you wouldn’t have been at a skanky motel with your student boyfriend. But she kept her mouth shut and nodded. “Okay,” she said softly. “But don’t let me catch you washing dishes for Chef Spirodocus.”
Pella stayed over at his place that night, with no danger of her dad being pissed at her for coming home late, or not at all. Arsch was up and around by the time they came back from dinner, nodding and grunting appreciatively at all the clean dishes.
“I’ve never had a family before,” Pella said, undressing by the bed. “Not that we are, really, but people who all care about each other. My dad and Owen, you and Henry. If we go to live in this house, by next year we could basically be in a crazy sitcom. Maybe you can knock me up for added hilarity.”
Schwartz raised his eyebrows.
“Which I say entirely for comedic effect.” She dropped down beside him. “Are you sweating? You look all… bright.” A swipe of a finger confirmed that he was indeed faintly damp.
“I’m a sweaty guy.”
Pella was frowning at her fingertip. “I have seen you naked before, you know. Did going to dinner freak you out that much?”
“You want me to take another shower?”
“It’s fine, seriously. I’m just worried you’re running a fever.”
She clapped a hand to his brow and he pushed it away. Couples had to get good at not talking about things, he figured. You couldn’t deal with it all, every issue, everything that threatened to tear you apart. You had to be able to roll over and go to sleep, and get up the next morning like the question had never been asked.
“It’s my knees,” he said.
Pella looked down the bed, to where his knees were covered by blankets. “Your knees?”
“They’re always hurting.” He smeared sweat from his forehead. “My doctor won’t give me any more pain meds.”
He expected maybe ten rounds of questions before she got it, unable to just tell her. Sometimes he forgot that she was Pella Affenlight. Other times he forgot the night she’d bit her lip and told him about her depression, her anxiety, her sky-blue pill. “Oh,” she said.
That Oh hung in the air, refracting meanings, everything from “I sympathize completely” to “I’ll get my things, then.” Schwartz waited.
Pella cleared her throat. “Okay, so what does the doctor want you to do?”
“Stop playing baseball and football. Have surgery, eventually.”
“Shit.” She fiddled with a strand of hair that kept falling in front of her eyes. “I mean, good. If it helps. And you can’t play anyway, the way they are. Not even with painkillers.”
“So… take the job, have the surgery. You can coach on crutches, right? Or in a wheelchair, I don’t even know how they do these things. Probably good for building upper body strength, those things. Those guys who race in them are incredible. Is the stadium even wheelchair accessible?”
“I think there’s a ramp round back.”
“Uh huh.” She ran her fingers back through her hair. “Do we need to get you into rehab or something? There’s counselors at the school. Or I bet my dad knows someone. My dad knows everyone.”
Talking to Affenlight about being an inadvertent prescription drug addict was the last thing he needed. He didn’t even want to mention it to Owen. “I’ll be fine. I’ve been off them for a few weeks already. Just… sweaty and sleepless nights and being a pain in the ass. But maybe that’s more the fact my knees and back really do hurt, withdrawal or not.”
“I can deal with that.” Pella got up again and switched off the light, slipping under the covers nude. “Just tell me anything I can do, okay?”
“Yeah.” He bunched up a pillow under his head, almost certain they wouldn’t be having sex. Moments passed. “And if you… I know you’re doing okay. I think you’re doing okay. But if you’re ever not…”
She laughed. “Based on past performance? I’m not exactly subtle about it.”
Used to rising early, he took to spending time in the VAC’s hot tub while Pella was working, walking around the practice fields to keep up some kind of exercise, and sitting on the empty bleachers looking through the Bugler for apartment ads, in the event Affenlight’s grand plans fell through. He’d talked to Duane Jenkins about taking the job. They were still sorting out some minor details, but otherwise it was a done deal. Security for a year. What happened after that year seemed fuzzy now, but no longer terrifying.
One morning, the day after the MLB draft was announced, Owen came to the field with the dog he’d heard about but never seen: a one-eyed, pure white husky. “Hey…” He’d never had a dog, but this one was friendly enough, nosing his hand before wandering off to sedately explore the field.
Owen sat down next to him on the clanging metal. “Hi.”
“How’s it going?”
In the past three years, Owen had been the only team member, the only friend, he could really rely upon for companionable silence. And indeed, now, Owen managed to pull a notepad from some pocket or other, fold back the cover, and start writing. Schwartz watched the dog – Contango, was it? odd name – make a slow circuit of the stadium. A dog would’ve been good company for Henry on all those mornings.
“You saw the draft?” he said eventually.
Owen closed his notebook and straightened his glasses. “Indeed.”
“Good for Starblind.”
“He deserves it. Magnificent arm.”
“Magnificent a lot of things.” Schwartz scratched between his eyebrows. “Talked to Henry yet?”
“I sent him an e-mail. I’m not sure if he can check it from the hospital, but I didn’t want to disturb his recovery.”
An e-mail. Schwartz hadn’t been aware that Henry had an account. Perhaps even Henry wasn’t aware he had an account. “Do you think he should accept?”
“It could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Owen said levelly. “He could use the money. And at worst I imagine it would be a year of structure, with trainers and nutritionists and sports psychologists.”
“And then what?”
Owen cocked his head. “You don’t think he should accept?”
“I don’t think I can give him advice one way or the other. I’d be happier if he finished his degree.”
Owen smiled. “I’m not sure I can see Henry working in a physics lab. But then by that reasoning, Guert’s a biologist.”
“How’s Affy… Guert. How’s Guert doing?”
“Better than expected. He’s very busy. I think he probably needs to be, moving out and then moving in. He wants to repaint, throw up some bookshelves. He could spend the whole summer doing that. I’m only worried about what happens when he’s given time to think. He’s not... He’s a lot more fragile than people think, underneath all that presidential charm and stoic Midwestern masculinity.”
“Most of us are,” Schwartz said.
Owen nodded slowly. “The situation isn’t too bad. Perhaps some people are avoiding him. There have been some angry e-mails, so I’ve asked Mrs. McCallister to take over his official account. But Professor Eglantine and Dr. Sobel and others have been very supportive. Basically everyone who knows Guert isn’t a pervert and I’m not a dumb blond gold-digger, both of which are baseless stereotypes, needless to say, given the history of western romantic relationships. In any case, the house is all arranged. Likely we’ll be on top of some of the Bremens’ things for a few days, but we’ll have a place to sleep. I’m not sure if you should be carrying any boxes, but we could still use your help.”
Schwartz smoothed back his hair. “Have you been talking to Pella?”
“Naturally. She’s worried about her father.”
“I can carry boxes, Buddha.” Better than Owen, Pella, or Affenlight with his potential heart trouble, at least. “Just don’t expect me to squat any wardrobes.”
Contango was back, rubbing along their shins, letting Owen pet him. “We need to get Henry back,” Owen said.
Schwartz was nodding before he could stop himself. “If he wants to come. His parents probably want to keep him at home for the summer.”
“He doesn’t have to stay. A week, or two. Officially I still have my room over the summer because I’m teaching, even though I’m staying with Guert. We’re not going to make him play or train. He just needs to be here. To think about it. About staying, or going. I know what it’s like being home, Mike. It’s nice. Henry’s sister and mom are nice enough. But it’s like being a kid again. You just want to wrap yourself in a blanket and never get up.”
“So you’ll call him?”
“You should call.” Owen got to his feet, Contango pawing at his knees. “But tomorrow, perhaps.” He patted Schwartz’s shoulder reassuringly.
Schwartz looked up at him, into the sun. “Does it ever occur to you that we’re far too young to be making these decisions? Jobs? Relationships? Saving our friends from themselves?”
Owen had adopted that serene, knowing expression that had gained him his nickname in the first place. “If not now,” he said, “when?”
He called Starblind that afternoon, although it was likely his words of congratulation and encouragement fell on largely deaf ears. Starblind was on another level now, soaring away from college and Division III, his eyes on the Show and an even healthier bank account. And, needless to say, an even hotter set of girlfriends. Schwartz, by comparison, was a has-been. Never mind the Minors, he might never play flag football in the park. Might have to sit on the sidelines and watch some kid of his play Little League (any position but catcher, anything). At least he could teach him or her to hit well.
Walking through the Large Quad in the evening, giving himself something to do while Pella was learning how to make soufflés or ratatouille or whatever with Chef Spirodocus, he laughed at himself. He barely had a job, a place to stay, and a girlfriend, all of which might expire in a year. Heck, if he and Pella broke up he’d only have the job. But he was already imagining some determined little girl in a baseball shirt, or a boy gritting baby teeth and jumping to catch a football. Or the other way around.
Well, shit. He was twenty-three. Some people had a couple of kids or more by that age. And if girls could happily write down the names of their future children in notebooks, he could daydream about some random possibility of being a dad in the next fifteen years. Obviously, he thought, the boy would be named Marcus.
A light was on in the president’s office when he crossed into the Small Quad – Affenlight’s desk lamp most likely. Schwartz tried the public entrance, found it unlocked, and ventured into the hall. He rapped softly on the door, just in case Affenlight and Owen were doing more than packing boxes.
Schwartz opened the door. The room, normally orderly, was now composed almost entirely of boxes, with swathes of shelves emptied of books. Affenlight himself was sitting on one of these book stacks, silver hair mussed, the front of his white t-shirt smeared with dust and dirt. Suit pants and polished loafers aside, it was the least presidential Schwartz had ever seen him. “Mike! Good to see you. Come in, if you can get past my castle walls.”
“Owen’s not with you?”
Affenlight pointed upward. “Working on lesson plans. His playwriting classes begin on Monday. What’s on your mind?”
“Just saw the light. Wondered if I could help.”
“I’d love some assistance, if you don’t mind.” Affenlight stood up, wiping his palms on his thighs. He nodded toward the cabinet where a couple of scotch bottles and glasses were aligned. “Drink?”
Schwartz edged past the first wall of boxes, looking at the books and papers waiting to be packed away. “I’m not sure it’s good for me these days.”
“Strictly speaking it’s not good for anyone.” Affenlight poured them each a measure anyway, both without water, and held one out. “Except perhaps the soul. Cheers.”
The glasses clinked. On Affenlight’s arm, below the hem of his t-shirt, black ink protruded in a pattern that might have been waves. Pella had told him about her father’s tattoo when Schwartz had asked about hers, but he’d never seen it, had half assumed she’d imagined the whole thing. Bit by bit, the president was becoming human before his eyes.
“I took the job,” Schwartz said, although he must have already known that from Jenkins, or Pella, or Owen via Pella. He wasn’t sure if he wanted a surrogate father’s approval, or was offering consolation that even if Affenlight had to go, Schwartz and Pella would remain.
Affenlight, drinking, nodded. “I heard. Oh-” He reached backward, lifting a smallish box marked SPEAKING from the corner of his muddled desk. “I thought this might be of some use to you.”
Schwartz opened it up. The box contained a row of 4x6 cards, all marked in what Schwartz assumed to be Affenlight’s precise, explicitly readable handwriting: quotes, jokes, advice.
“I doubt I’ll be making many speeches in the near future. Maybe it’ll help your team pep talks.”
That seemed unlikely, but even if all Schwartz did was read them, it was still a privilege. “Thank you.”
Affenlight sat back down on a stack. It wasn’t so late, but he seemed tired, had maybe gone through a long, rough day of meetings and physical labor. “I never imagined I might leave,” he said, and now Schwartz understood what Owen had meant. But weary and vulnerable as he might be, Affenlight didn’t seem old, didn’t even seem to be his actual age. He seemed, impossible as it might be, younger than Schwartz, a boy struggling with his place in the world.
“Then again, I never imagined becoming a professor, having a child, falling in love with anyone, let alone a man. The world seems destined to blindside me, and perhaps this change will turn out to be just as good. If they’d fired me last year for budget reasons, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of really knowing any of you. And none of you would be here to help me now. Not even Pella.”
Schwartz sat on the stack opposite him. It wobbled a little under his weight, sloshing scotch against his lips. The whisky was rich and peaty, smooth down his throat. The last few months, the last few years, stretched out in his memory like a lifetime. He inhaled, exhaled, and took another sip. “Been one hell of a semester, Guert.”
Affenlight laughed and raised his glass. “Here’s to next year.”