A ten-letter word down for the special return of a group of people.
“Coach, you won states your senior year, right?”
I looked up from my crossword to stare at Bradley Schaffer, high school junior, offensive lineman, and current student in the Precalculus class I was subbing.
“Schaffer, I really don’t understand how you asking me personal questions is going to help you finish the worksheet Mrs. Hiedman left for you to do,” I said, returning my gaze to my puzzle, still stumped.
“Well, it doesn't involve math, but I have to write an essay about something significant that’s happened in the school’s history for Mr. Hudson’s class. I want to write about football being state champs, and how now I have the honor of being coached by one of those said champs,” A sly smile spread across the teenager’s face.
“Kissing up won’t make me want to start you, Schaffer,” I said, tapping the eraser of my pencil against Mrs. Hiedman’s desk. “And yes, if you must know, I was a senior.”
“Perfect, that means I grabbed the right yearbook,” Bradley lifted a massive book with the words, “2011 Spartans” embellished on the side in cheap gold foil lettering.
Silence returned to the classroom, but only for about six minutes.
“Woah, Coach you never told the team about this!” Students from neighboring desks peered over Bradley’s shoulders to get a better look. I stood, dropping my unfinished crossword on the desk, and walked over to understand all the commotion.
There I was, on page 189 of the yearbook, fresh faced and eighteen with a wide smile on my face, a cheap crown on my head, and a very pretty girl on my arm. And there written across the top of the page was a ten-letter word down for the special return of a group of people-- homecoming.
“Matt, come on we’re going to be late,” Anita said, standing with her arms crossed at the foot of our bed.
“Just one more second, I need to finish watching this,” I said, my eyes glued to the footage from last week’s game. “We’re up against Millcreek next week, and if we don’t get this play just right we’re going to be down for.”
“We?” Anita walked from the bed over toward my vanity. “I didn’t know you were on the team still,” she said, staring at her slender frame in the mirror and struggling to put on her necklace.
“Oh come on babe, you know what I mean,” I said.
“Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I get it. Watching the game, coaching the team, being out with the boys, makes you feel like you're still playing, doesn’t it?”
I watched her grin in the reflection, her hands still failing to clasp her necklace.
“Be quiet, Anita,” I said, making note of the defensive line.
“Don’t act like I’m wrong, Matt. Coaching and subbing classes at that damn high school is just an excuse to relive the glory days, and you know it,” Anita said, finally fastening her necklace and turning to face me.
“Just because you were unpopular in high school doesn’t mean you have to insult my job,” I said, closing the laptop and getting out of bed.
Anita’s mouth curled up into a tight knot on her face. She looked as if she had eaten something sour, as if my comment had affected her so deeply it left an acidic taste on her tongue.
“S***, we’re going to be late,” were the only words I could muster as I finished getting ready.
We were silent for most of the ride there. Everything I had said was true. I’d been the star quarterback in high school, while Anita was the odd girl, without any sort of social skills. But what she lacked in charisma, she made up in intelligence. Now she was interning for one of the top psychology clinics in the state, and I was spending my days with a bunch of stupid teenagers. I pressed down hard on the gas to try to make the light, but it turned red. I slammed on the brake, and Anita and I both fell forward in our seats.
“Jesus, Matt,” Anita said, running her hand across her seat belt that tightened against her body.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said these words without looking at her, my eyes fixed on the road. I drummed my thumbs on the wheel, waiting and waiting for the light to turn green.
“Matt, breathe. It’s going to be okay.”
I felt like my heart was going to burst from my chest. It was beating to the same rhythm as my thumb taps, and I was having trouble seeing clearly.
Tap, tap, tap, whack! Anita slammed her palms across my knuckles to silence my tapping.
“Come on, let’s talk about it,” she said, still pressing down on my fingers.
The light turned green, and I gave her hands a slight nudge to get them off the wheel.
“You always want to talk about things,” I said.
“Well yeah, that’s because it’s A, my job as your girlfriend, and B, kind of my actual job,” Anita said.
Anita graduated last year, just like me. She double majored in Psychology and Biology and planned to return to medical school next fall to become a physiatrist. Ever since we started dating sophomore year, Anita had been trying to diagnose me. At first it was ADHD, then intermittent explosive disorder, and then finally half way through senior year she concluded I had a slight case of PTSD. She claimed that I developed it after my dad left.
“I guess I’m just nervous, okay” I said.
She smiled, she loved getting to play therapist every time I opened up to her.
“That completely understandable, Matthew. We’re going to your estranged father’s house for dinner.”
I couldn’t understand how she was going to make a good psychiatrist if she just repeated back facts to her patients without offering them any actual advice. But I didn’t tell her this. Instead, I just smiled and focused on driving.
I drove until I heard, “You got this Matt, and remember, if you want to leave at any time, I’m right behind you.” Anita pressed her small palm against my face. I nodded and opened the driver’s side door before walking onto my father’s front yard.
The house was bigger than I expected. Nicer too. Mom’s house wasn’t big or nice. Mom’s house, the house Dani and I grew up in, was old and rickety and constantly smelled like a wet dog and smoke, despite the fact that mom quit smoking when I was twelve and that we never even owned a dog. Mom’s house leaked when it rained and lacked AC when it was hot. Mom’s house had paper thin walls that let sound pass right through them like the ghosts did from the scary movies Dani and I would stay up watching as kids.
We approached the house hand in hand. Anita lead the way and rang the bell.
“Now or never,” she said, squeezing my hand.
“Now or never,” I said.
The door swung open, and I was surprised to see a familiar face.
“Hey! Look who’s here,” my little sister said, standing in the doorway. Dani hugged Anita and then me, before ushering us into the house.
“Ugh, it feels like I haven’t seen you two in forever,” Dani said. “Oh, and shoes off.”
Mom never made us take off my shoes when we came in her house, neither did I. I tried to remember if Anita’s mother had a rule about shoes, but before I could I felt a sharp nudge to my ribs from Anita’s elbow.
“Matt, Dani just asked you how working at the high school has been.”
“Oh, sorry. I kind of spaced out there, haha. Uh, the high school. Yeah, working at the high school has been great. What about you, you liking school, you college girl?” I said.
Dani smiled. “I actually love it. It feels really good to be out of the house without mom. But you know how that is and all, I was always pretty jealous of you getting to leave first.”
I frowned when he said this. I never wanted to leave. I mean sure, Mom’s house was kind of a hellhole, but I never wanted to leave because of Mom.
“Haha, not really if I’m being honest. I was pretty anxious about leaving home and graduating.”
“Oh, well that’s only because you enjoyed high school so much. You had perfected the whole big fish in a small pond thing,” Dani said.
“Oh my god, Dani, I said the exact same thing before we got here!” Anita said, her eyes getting wide with excitement. I rolled my eyes and desperately thought of a way to change the topic at hand.
“Dani, did you drive yourself or did Mom take you? Because if Mom drove you, Nita and I can give you a ride home after this,” I said.
“Oh, no I’m good. I actually am staying here,” Dani said quickly. “Here? You’re stay--’”
“Matthew!” My father’s voice echoed off the cavernous ceiling as he entered the foyer.
“I really can’t believe you’re actually here.” I stuck out my hand, but he swatted it away and instead embraced me.
“It’s been too long Matt, far too long.”
Joel looked different that I remembered him. He had gained weight and his hair had turned gray. He reminded me of sweatshirt that somehow managed both stretch and fade in the washer.
“And this must be the beautiful Anita I’ve heard so much about.” He took her hand as he said this.
“How’d you know about her?” I said.
“Oh, your sister of course. Dani’s filled us in on so many aspects of your life,” Joel said.
“I apologize again for Siobhan and the kids not being here.” Joel said stirring the wooden spoon around the circumference of the steel pan. Joel was preparing dinner as the rest of us opened a bottle of wine.
“They send their regards, but Siobhan’s parents still haven’t met the baby so they’re up in Nantucket for the week.”
“Baby?” I didn’t mean to say the word out loud, but it slipped out along with the glass in my hand.
“What the hell, Matt?” Dani said, bending down to pick up the shards.
“I really don’t get how you played in college with such butter fingers,” Anita said, getting on her knees to help Dani. “This is going to totally stain the carpet, Matt.”
The wine had seeped onto the white shag rug in Joel’s living room, looking like blood.
“Matt, will you move out of the way?” Anita feverishly attacked the stain with a spray bottle of bleach and a rag.
“Anita, darling, it really is okay. Siobhan has an excellent cleaning lady who can get rid of any stain. Trust me, keeping a house this clean with little ones isn’t a feat we do alone,” Joel said from the kitchen.
Cleaning lady. Mom didn’t have one of those. Mom also didn’t have a weird name like Siobhan. Mom’s name was Lucy. Little ones. How many kids did Joel have again? Three, right? No, five. Joel has five kids including me and Dani.
“Ah, dinner is served. Everyone wash up and come eat!” Joel said.
“This all looks delicious, Dad, ” Dani said, and grabbed a plate.
Dani called Joel Dad. Dani slept over at Joel’s place, even though she had a perfectly fine room at Mom’s. No, it was more than perfectly fine. It was her room.
“Yeah, this looks delicious. Matt never mentioned you like to cook.” Anita said, loading her own plate with fish, potatoes, and spinach.
Joel didn’t like to cook. He liked to yell, and push Mom around, and then leave. He liked to miss birthdays, and Christmas, and football games. He missed my graduation and Dani’s too. He liked to get new wives with dumb names and have children with her even though he already had two.
“Oh, it’s a new love I must admit. I never cooked much when the kids were younger,” Joel said to Anita, “And speaking of love, Dani refused to tell me how you and Matt met. She insisted I hear directly from the source.”
Anita beamed. “Well, it’s actually kind of a funny story. You see Matt and I both went to Westbrook. Matt was the star football and prom king, and I was more of the quiet bookworm, you know?” Anita droned on and on.
I had heard this story a thousand times, and I always liked to imagine the first time we met happening some other way. I wished I could tell our friends, or my family, or Anita, herself, that I remembered her from high school. That she was this beautiful girl I admired from afar, but never had the courage to actually talk to, let alone ask on a date. That’s simply not the truth though. Despite growing up in the same town, going to the same high school, and even attending the same college, I never spoke to or knew the same of Anita Caspary until the second semester of my sophomore year in college.
“So, we both ended up at the same college, and once again Matt was this great football player. But, he needed a tutor to stay on the team and that’s where I came in. It’s been love ever since.” Anita concluded her story, and Dani put her hand to her heart. I think I even saw Joel wipe away a tear.
Of course, Anita was lying. We first met when a called her a stuck-up b**** after I had showed up to our first study session hung over. We couldn’t stand each other for months. I tore my ACL in the second game of junior year, and then only then did I actually start enjoying her presence. She made me feel like everything was going to be okay, or at least she used to.
We finished dinner and Dani and Anita began to help Joel clear the table.
“Is it hot in here?” I said, loosening my tie.
“Could be, Siobhan keeps this house a little toasty at time,” Joel remarked, picking up a large serving plate and bringing it to the sink, “Why don’t you go sit out on the patio to get some fresh air, son.”
“Uhh, ok,” I muttered, making my way towards the back door of house.
Joel’s backyard was beautiful. Lush green grass was encircled with a picket fence towards the back of the yard. Siobhan had a vegetable garden, and the kids had a treehouse. A pool covered the majority of the right side of the yard. The stone deck had a table surrounded by enough chairs to seat a family of five. A steep set of stairs connected the upper level to the pool deck. This was so unlike anything Dani or I had growing. Mom didn’t have a vegetable garden, and Dani and I never had a treehouse to play in. Behind our house growing up was an old alley that was always filled with trash. It wasn’t fair. I reached into my jacket pocket to retrieve a cigarette, one of the few habits my father and I shared. I lit the cigarette and took a long drag and collapsed into one of the chairs on the patio.
I suddenly heard the back-door slam, and felt Anita’s hand on my shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing? You can’t smoke here, Matt!”
“Why not?” I said, clenching the cigarette between my teeth.
“Because Joel’s kids play out here, and I really doubt he wants this place to reek of smoke.”
“He always smoked when I was growing up.”
Memories of Joel taking drags from Camel cigarettes in between yelling profanities at Mom filled my head. Our whole house used to reek of smoke when he lived there. I remember when he left, Mom scrubbed at the ceilings for days trying to get rid of the discoloration that had formed over the years. She fruitlessly tried to get rid of the stains left by the man who had successfully gotten rid of her. The first cigarette I ever even smoked was one of Joel’s. I found it in Mom’s dresser ages after he left. I was probably about twelve or thirteen then, and I lit it using a long Click-n-Flame Lighter Mom used for birthday candles. I inhaled, tried to hold the smoke in my lungs like I had seen Joel do so many times, but I ended up getting sick and throwing up on my mom’s duvet. I got better at smoking with age, and by high school I would casually at parties. It wasn’t until my injury in college that I really started going through packs, but of course, Anita helped me kick that bad habit.
Anita grabbed the cigarette from my mouth and threw it on the ground, using her sharp heel to extinguish it.
“What the hell did you do that for?” I yelled, standing to face her.
“Matt, be quiet you don’t want Dani and your dad to hear.”
“Let them hear, I couldn’t care less.”
Anita stood with tears in her eyes. It had been the second time I had made her cry today.
“One of my students found an old picture of me the other day,” I said.
Anita looked puzzled at the change in topic. “Uh, what was it of?”
“It was of me and Jessica Languish at homecoming, remember that?”
“Senior year? I didn’t go, but I guess I do recall seeing pictures of it in the school newspaper. Matt, what does this have to do with anything?”
Anita’s mascara had become two smeary lines beneath her eyes. She never wore makeup in high school that I could remember.
“Sometimes, I just miss that, you know? Actually, I know you don’t know because you hated high school. You hated me in high school,” I said.
“I didn’t hate you, specifically. I just hated being uncool. But none of that matters anymore. We’re both older and different people now.” Anita tried to grab my hand but I pulled away.
“I’m not really sure about that,” I said, turning my back to her. “Sometimes I think I’m the same.”
“What?” Anita said, her shrill voice fading away in my head.
“I have to go.” I said and headed down the steps of the patio. “Tell Joel and Dani I enjoyed dinner!”
“Matt, where the hell are you going? You can’t just leave me here!” Anita yelled, but it was too late.
Her voice became more and more distant, and after ignoring her existence for all those years as a teenager, it was very easy to start again now.