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The Basketball Player
“How is he?” I ask, coming in from the rain. Mrs. V just looks at me and shakes her head, pointing toward the back door. I’m going to say something else, try and comfort her, but she goes back to her cooking and doesn’t look up again. I sigh and pull my coat back on, going to the back door and pushing it open. Outside I can hear him: dribble, dribble, shoot, swoosh. Just like that, every time. There’s no deviation to his rhythm. It’s steady, just like the beat of a heart.
I make my way down the back steps, onto the blacktop that constitutes the yard and there he is, soaked to the skin, basketball in his hands, eyes focused on the goal. He doesn’t look at me when I come out, he just puts the ball up, effortlessly, and watches it as it falls through the rim, leaving the net virtually undisturbed.
“Go away,” he says, still not looking at me. He stops the ball as it tries to roll past, scoops it up with a practiced motion, and shoots it after two quick dribbles.
“Don’t be like that. I can help,” I say, holding my arms out wide, trying to sound as caring as I can. I know there’s not a lot I can do to help him, but he’s my friend, and I have to at least try.
“No. You can’t,” he says, putting up another perfect shot.
“I really can,” I reply.
“How?” He asks, catching the ball as it bounces back toward him. The rain’s getting worse, thunder and lightning now, not just the drizzle it had been.
“You should go inside. You’re going to get sick,” I tell him, because I don’t have an answer to his question.
“So?” He asks.
Because you’re not the only one who’s hurting,I want to say, but I don’t. I just stand there and watch him shoot perfect shots.
“She’s in a better place,” I say to him, and for the first time he hesitates. He looks over at me, and I see that his eyes are red and raw, and that he’s crying. I don’t know what to say. I’m taken aback. I’ve never seen him like this, never known him to get emotional about anything. I take a step forward, and he backs away, eyes going back to the goal.
“Just get out of here,” he says, shooting again.
“What kind of friend would I be if I just left you out here to get sick?” I ask, taking another step forward. He doesn’t back away this time, but he doesn’t look my way again either. He’s back in the zone.
“Please…just go away. I don’t need your sympathy. I don’t want to talk. I just want to be left alone,” he says. I take other step closer, arms still wide. He looks over at me, tears streaming down his face, and shakes his head. I ignore it, and wrap him up in a tight embrace, and I can feel his tears on my shoulder, burning hot in the rain.
“Tell me this is a dream,” he begs. “Tell me that I’m going to wake up and that everything’s going to be okay.”
I don’t know what to say. I can’t just lie to him; tell him that everything’s going to be okay when I know perfectly well that it’s not. I just hold him closer and he sobs on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else to say, anything better, anything to make him stop hurting. “I know how you feel.”
His reaction is immediate. He tears himself out of my arms and shoves me backwards, and I go to the ground, slipping on the rain-soaked asphalt.
“Don’t you ever say that! You don’t have a clue how I feel!” He screams.
“I was her friend too!” I scream back, standing up and brushing myself off. Up above, the storm is raging in earnest.
My words fall on deaf ears. He’s back to shooting hoops, breathing heavily, face red with rage. I take a step toward him, hoping to repair the damage, but he moves away.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I just want you happy again,” I say. He ignores me. “Did you hear me?” I ask, taking a step closer. He doesn’t move this time. He just holds the ball in his hands, squeezing it so hard I’m surprised it doesn’t pop. I open my mouth to say something else, but he stops me.
“I appreciate it. I really do. I’m sorry I shoved you. I’m just…I loved her, you know? And now she’s gone, and there’s nothing that you or me or anyone else can do about it. So, if you really value our friendship, if you really want me to be happy, just leave me alone for a little while. I’ll be okay,” he says.
“You’re not going to do anything crazy if I leave are you?” I ask.
“No. I’m just going to think for a little while,” he answers.
“Promise?” I ask. He nods, and I give him a quick smile.
“Now get out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. I turn to leave, but when I reach the stairs, something makes me turn back. He looks over at me through the rain and smiles. I watch as he puts up another perfect shot before I go back inside, and on my way out the front door, I realize something.
I’m never going to see him again.