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Adrian is standing on the football field kicking at some forgotten shoelace with the toe of his tennis shoe. The air lacks the sweaty testosterone smell typical of football fields, because it’s past midnight and the sky is a murky black and the stands are empty. Skeletal in the lonely darkness, nothing seems more uninviting than a seat upon that frigid metal. He hadn’t bothered to show up for the game, where the cheerleader’s ponytails bounced as they cheered “Go Cougars!” and mothers and fathers watched their sons punt and tackle and stand dejectedly in shoulder pads on the sidelines.
They turned off the scoreboard hours ago, but Adrian can still see dim flickers of the numbers, and some half-empty Gatorade bottles lying on the Astroturf field where the artificial blades emerge from tiny Nerd-candy pellets instead of soil. His brother Josh always trailed those pellets into the house after his football practices, never caring that the dog might eat them. At least the dog couldn’t choke on grass stains, he thought.
Adrian’s lips are dry as he lights up, even drier as they touch the contours of the joint. His eyes are dry too, like those dead fish eyes in the butcher window at the grocery store, wrinkled at the corners, raisin eyes. Maybe once he’d been to a game. He remembered faintly now, sitting on the metal stands, sharing a bag of kettle korn with some girl, with a name like Jenny or Hailey. She had naturally light brown hair, but during the summer and early September the sunlight bleached it blonde, and during the winter a box of Nice ‘N’ Easy took care of it. They might have touched hands a few times during the first quarter, when he’d made some witty remark about the opposing team’s uniform that made her giggle, eyes squinted at the corners, freckles visible under the fluorescent field-lighting. During the second quarter he might have put his arm around her, and during halftime she put her head on his shoulder, and he kissed her hair. Or did he imagine that part?
After the fourth quarter, they held hands walking out of the stadium, squeezing them like they were passing Morse code messages to each other. The last few attendees of the game milled around, going on and on about Josh Meester’s final touchdown. Suddenly stopping, Jenny pulled him back.
“Adrian,” she said. He liked the way she said his name then, didn’t he? Adrian stepped closer to her. “Kiss me?” He kissed her. They made out a little in the car, and when he dropped her off, she flashed the porch lights to let him know she’d gotten into her house. Like Morse code. Where were the messages now?
Still, he remembers driving home with a smile on his face, and going to bed with the faint smell of Pantene shampoo on his palms. But the smile vanished when Josh stomped into the house, at 2:30 in the morning, loud. He stopped by Adrian’s room, supporting himself on the doorjamb.
“Hey little bro,” Josh said, drunk.
“F**k off,” Adrian mumbled, rolling over to face the wall, quickly falling asleep.
It’s late now, Adrian knows, puffing out some smoke. But it’s not like his parents will notice. Josh comes home trashed every weekend night anyway, and, while ignorant, his parents aren’t stupid either. They know, and Adrian knows they know. Meanwhile Josh thinks he’s so subtle, so clever, as he blearily pours Wheaties, the breakfast of champions, into a bowl on Sunday mornings, cringing at the harsh sound they make against the porcelain.
When they were young, Josh and Adrian always kept each other’s secrets – Adrian told his mommy he ate an extra cookie when Josh ate it, while Josh shuffled his feet and looked guilty when Adrian forgot to let the dog out. One time in first grade when Adrian got permanent paint all over his favorite army-green sweater, Josh and Adrian spent hours in the laundry room, scrubbing and washing the sweater until it ripped.
“Boys, what’s going on in here?” Their mother asked, face flushed pink with frustration.
“Me and Josh decided to do the laundry,” Adrian lied.
“Kids, are you lying to me?” Their mother asked, though there was a slight trace of a smile on her lips, because her sons were little then, and adorable, could get away with things.
“It’s my fault,” Josh said, and neither of them was allowed to go to Andy’s birthday party that weekend.
A couple of months ago, Josh asked Adrian for help on his science homework, then repaid him by chatting with him long enough to ask, “So, you screw your girlfriend yet?”
“No,” Adrian said. They’d gotten pretty close though, curled up against the headboard.
“Are you sure, baby bro?” Josh raised his voice, wanting their mother to hear over the sound of the sink as she washed their greasy leftovers. “You sure you didn’t f**k her?” Adrian heard the faucet turn off, like his mother was thinking of asking what was going on, but decided against it.
“What about you Josh? You sure you’re not flunking out of chemistry? Ever tell mom you threw away your report card?” Adrian imagined his mother taking off her dishwashing gloves and coming into the room.
“Hey Ad, ever tell anyone you’re a virgin? You’d better get on that soon anyway, otherwise she’ll get bored of you.”
“Hey Josh, ever tell anyone you’re a fat stupid loser?”
“You f*****,” Josh spat, pushing Adrian against the wall. He wondered briefly if his mother had heard the muffled sound of bumping against the wall, and dismissed it as a stray kick or trip. Or if she just pretended not to hear, because admonishing them or not letting them go to Andy’s birthday party wouldn’t work anymore. “This is pure muscle, baby bro. I could take you out.”
“Take me out? For dinner? Aw, you’re sweet,” Adrian deadpanned. Josh punched him in the nose, which burned, deeply, and stung, as blood trickled from his left nostril. Adrian struggled under Josh’s grip. “Don’t ever, ever, even consider asking me for homework help ever again. Let go of me.” Adrian paused on the way out of his brother’s room. “I’m f**king tired of you, man.”
But he still went to every single one of his brother’s games. “Do it for your family,” was his parent’s logical reasoning. “He’d do it for you.” He can remember now, going to games, sitting in the stands with his parents, where Josh’s girls, friends, friend’s parents and teachers came up and said, “Hi Mr. and Mrs. Meester, so nice to see you. Josh sure is doing well, isn’t he?” They might even add an obligatory, “Oh, hey, Adrian.”
Sometimes, afterwards, Josh would drag Adrian to after-parties as Designated Driver under the guise of brotherly bonding time. Not that he ignored Adrian at parties, on the contrary, he paid more attention to him as he got progressively drunker, questioning every move Adrian made for the sheer purpose of humiliating him.
“Lay off the brownie, Adrian,” “You ever smoked before?” “Are you aware that you’re breaking the law? Better say goodbye to Harvard, baby brother,” and his personal favorite anecdotes about Adrian’s potty-training experiences.
At parties that ranked too highly on the social ladder, Josh didn’t invite him and instead Adrian went home, or to the bookstore with his mom. There he could sit quietly and read without having to listen to his brother and his dad watch game tapes, screaming enthusiastically and groaning like cavemen.
“Tell me about your week,” His mother would say in the car. Or, “How’s your girlfriend?” Only outside of the house did she make genuine attempts to talk to her younger son. Drinking coffee at the bookstore, she told Adrian about the more interesting cases she’d seen at her social working job that week. When she did this at home, Josh and his father’s random interjections of, “Arizona State versus Wisconsin,” and “Manning made how many interceptions?” interrupted the conversation.
Sometimes after the games when he and Jenny were still together they’d go to a movie, fool around, or a little of both. When Jenny hung out at his house after school, Josh went out of his way to embarrass Adrian. He’d tell Jenny more hilarious potty training tales, or make awkward sexual comments she never seemed to understand.
He remembers going to games with friends, too, who threw kettle korn at old ladies and oohed and ahhed over high school football star Josh Meester. “He’s not that cool, really,” Adrian attempted over the din after Josh made a touchdown, but none of his friends listened, as Adrian remembered being tackled over and over again as a kid when they played together in the back yard. “I tripped, Mommy,” he’d explained when she asked about the bruises and dirt on his knees.
When did they stop covering for each other? When did it turn into going out of their way to humiliate each other? Was it after Adrian brought home A’s and Josh brought home C after C after C? Was it when Josh grew to six foot two, muscular, while Adrian stayed five foot ten, scrawny? Was it because Adrian sent his grandparents Christmas cards and Josh always forgot? Was it Josh’s disappointing SAT scores? Adrian can’t place it now, and he’s almost done with his joint, pungent and satisfying – he’s really starting to feel its effects. Maybe he’ll leave this field, go to the midnight movie, or maybe he’ll just stay here all night, sleep on the Astroturf. No, it’s too late. Maybe he’ll go swimming in the school pool. Maybe he’ll move out of the state. Maybe he’ll move to bloody Canada. Hell, if he just left this town, who would give a sh**?
Suddenly his cell phone rings, and Adrian knows he’s not going to do any of those things. He’s so shocked by the shrill beeps that he almost trips as he fishes it out of his pocket. “Hello?” It’s Josh.
“Hey man, I need a ride.”
“I can’t give you a ride.”
“Yeah sure you are, high off what, cotton candy?” Josh laughs at his own witty wisecrack. “Come on man, I’ll make you up for it.”
“Why the f**k not?”
“I don’t feel like it, that’s why.” He hangs up. He knows why he didn’t go to the game tonight.
He looks down and realizes he’s still kicking the shoelace, and that the Astroturf beneath it has dislocated from the ground. And staring at the infinite spider web patterns in the sky, the clouds distort any constellations he might otherwise see. He flicks some smoke away, inhaling the last drag of weed.
Adrian knows Josh is at a party, and that his parents are watching late-night TV, and that Jenny is at home, asleep in plaid pajamas. He’s not sure where his friends are. Where the hell is he, Adrian, really?
Adrian is standing alone in the middle of an empty football field. His arms feel oddly heavy, his fingers cold, the insides of his pockets full of candy wrappers that he and Josh stole from the retirement home when they last visited their grandparents. Maybe he should have gone to the game after all.
Maybe he should head home.