Haley Alverado moved in next door when I was four and she was three. She spoke funny and I liked how it sounded. Her hair was as black as my room without the nightlight, and her brown eyes were as warm as Mom’s hugs. I was captivated, but she was so weird. She would mostly say words that I knew, but once in a while there was something thrown in that didn’t register. She would refer to herself as a ‘princesa’ instead of a princess and she told me stories about where she used to live, with the servants, horses and her ‘poni’, Esteban.
Her daddy couldn’t live with them, but he was a very important man. That was sad, but it was okay. My dad became their Mr. Fix-It and my mom became best friends with Mrs. Alverado. My family sort of pulled the two of them into our orbit, and Haley and I became inseparable.
When we first met, Haley couldn’t walk and had some metal and plastic stuff on her legs. I couldn’t imagine not being able to run and play, and seeing her legs scared me. I woke a few times crying, thinking of what lay under the braces. It had to be horrible if it kept her from playing in the backyard. Maybe there were no legs and it was braces all the way through.
When we were older, both our mothers loved pulling out old photos of me sitting on her bed, reading to Haley. My mother was an elementary teacher, and I always had a huge stack of basic readers. They cautioned me time and again that I had to be careful to not jostle her. Their favorite photo was when she was lying in bed, recumbent under her Beauty and the Beast blankets, propped up on extra pillows, legs straight out, me sitting at the end of the bed, Winnie the Pooh book in hand.
I learned that she did have legs, but they just didn’t work as well as they should. The braces were the result of her second operation. After they came off, our parents had a hard time keeping track of us. At least, we thought they did.
We were Peter and Tink in the woods behind the house, or we had proper tea parties at old Mrs. Sullivan’s place. Neither of us knew that Snapple wasn’t a reasonable substitute for Harney and Sons. As we got older, we realized that our grand adventures in the 100 Acre Wood was actually well-monitored by our parents watching the dozen trees in my backyard, and the long treks to Mrs. Sullivan’s was from our porch to the next. The lonely widow lived on the other side of our house and doted on us like we were grandchildren.
When she would tell me that we were going to get married and live happily ever after, I just grunted. How do you reply when someone said something so obvious? Haley would use every crayon in the box to draw pictures of us as adults. Sometimes I was a knight, other times I was a prince or an astronaut. She was always Princesa because that’s what her daddy called her.
We weren’t isolated from the outside world. We both had plenty of other friends. She would do girly things and I played every sport possible. I knew girls who were as good or better than the boys on my teams and always tried to get Haley interested. It was a lost cause. She had very strong ideas of what boys should do and what girls should do. She wasn’t going to get smelly and dirty with a bunch of boys.
What never changed was that we were always each other’s priorities. When I broke my arm sliding into third, Haley needed more consoling than I did. In Junior High, she helped me ace Spanish. In return, I helped keep hormonal teenaged boys away from her. Okay, that was probably helping myself. Haley was the first girl whose hand I held. She was the first girl I kissed. She was my first confidant and my first love.
She was 5’3 when she was sixteen. Her doctors determined that she wasn’t going to grow any taller, and Haley underwent her final surgery on her legs. Like her with my arm, I was a wreck. I researched the surgery on my own and asked the doctors as many questions as her mother did. They were very patient with the oddly determined, questioning and overly large seventeen-year-old.
I’d get a lift home after football practice, take a quick shower and head over to her house. We’d work on the homework she’d been assigned by the tutors whom the school district paid to come by three days a week. I’d offer whatever assistance I could, but mostly spent my time staring at her. She was a younger version of her mother, radiant and beautiful. I was her thrall and she was my benevolent ruler.
She’d look up from her book, see me staring and Haley would smile, ducking her head, her thick black hair becoming a curtain covering her blush.
Helmet in hand, sweat pouring from my body, I jogged off the field and headed towards the gym. Mr. Groust saw me and nodded to the side, letting me know he wanted to talk to me. For an English teacher, he was oddly non-verbal. He was also the football coach, so I kept my opinions to myself.
“Mr. Santori, you’re friends with the Alverado girl?”
“Stop by my office before you leave. I have some prep materials for her if she still wants to take the early SATs.”
I showered at the gym, saw the coach, grabbed the four books and managed to get a ride with Smitty. He had a car, and if you were also on the offensive line, you got dibs on rides. The two of us crowded his front seat, but it was better than waiting another hour for a cramped bus.
Mom had made a bundt cake the night before. I scarfed down a piece and then grabbed one for Haley and another one for myself. I took her books and the cake next door to find the backdoor locked. I went to the front and Mrs. Alverado’s car was missing. The front door was locked. I peeked in the window and the furniture was missing.
I could feel the pulse in my throat as I banged on the door. There was no answer.
I eventually walked home, carefully cupping her slice of cake in my shaking hand. I put it on a small plate which went in the refrigerator. Mom had parent-teacher conferences and wouldn’t be home until late. I called Dad.
“Dad ... Dad, they’re gone. Dad, I, they...”
“Sam, what’s the matter? Who’s gone? Son, calm down and talk to me.”
“Haley, Mrs. Alverado, they’re gone. The car’s gone. The house is locked up. The paintings, the furniture, it’s all gone.”
Nine months went by before I let my mother throw away that piece of cake. I was destroyed. My grades plummeted, but my performance on the field made me all-county and then all-state. I was hurt, I was angry and I needed to share that with the sons of bitches who dared try to get to my quarterback.
I got my grades back on track my senior year and maintained enough anger and motivation to get serious looks from scouts from major colleges. I didn’t date, I didn’t socialize. I spent my time working out, playing, studying and doing layman’s research trying to find Haley and her mother.
It was as if they had disappeared from the face of the earth.
I had a full ride scholarship to THE Ohio State University. From the first day that I arrived on campus, I was a starting Buckeye. There were a few established players that didn’t appreciate that, but the quarterback sure as hell did. I still had a deep, dark resentment toward the world that took Haley from me.
Once again, I eschewed socializing. I went to class, played, worked out, studied and went to my dorm. The guy I replaced on the O line grew more and more frustrated as I established myself as a leader on the team. I was quiet, smart and stayed in my lane, so I had the respect of most of my teammates. He was becoming forgotten and rode the bench.
He was standing near the array of drink coolers when I walked towards them. There are people who get drinks and towels for the players, but that always made me feel uncomfortable. I could get my own Gatorade.
Staring at me as I approached, he seemed to sway a bit. As much of a dick as he was, I didn’t want anyone to pass out from heat-stroke. Cup in hand, he headed my way, unsteady on his feet. Extending the cup, I thought it was a gesture. I was right about it being a gesture, but wrong about the message.
He pretended to stumble and tossed the liquid in my face. It was deliberate. You couldn’t look at his face and not come to that conclusion.
“Oh, sorry, rook.” He was slurring his words. The asshole had been drinking.
“Fuck you, you piece of shit. Alcohol is for starters. If you’re on the bench, at least stay sober. You’re a fucking embarrassment.”
“Fuck you!” He wasn’t an intellectual powerhouse.
Stepping forward, he hit me in the head with the helmet he was holding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing mine. I was familiar with the term “minimum effective dosage,” and I knew how it translated into kinesiology and strength training. I also knew what it meant in more practical terms.
I was 6’7 and weighed right around 330. I was as strong as more than half the guys from last year’s Combine who made it to the NFL. It didn’t matter. He was also big and strong, and all he needed was enough force to break some bones and I would be the stronger guy who happened to be lying on the ground in need of surgery.
Looking through the blood streaming from my head, I saw him stepping forward again, helmet held in the air. I lurched forward and stiff armed him in the sternum. He collapsed, and I fell on my ass, suddenly dizzy. We were immediately surrounded by teammates and the coaches came running over. Time ran at an inconsistent rate. I remembered him trying to gasp in some breath. There were flashes of the team doctor standing over me with a flashlight in my eyes. The ambulance seemed to appear out of nowhere.
I had to get thirty-eight stitches and go through the concussion protocol, but I was fine. The idiot had a cracked sternum, was thrown off the team, lost his scholarship and was arrested for assault. I missed a game and we lost. I couldn’t play, and my back-up was no longer on the team. He was destroyed in the media, and the story even made it to ESPN.
The team doctors made me go to the University’s clinic every day to get checked out. They were medical professionals, so I didn’t understand why they weren’t able to do it themselves. I thought it might have something to do with blame shifting and possible lawsuits.
She was tall and had hair that shone like burnished copper. Her curves held the eyes of every man in the clinic. She had to repeat herself before I realized she was talking to me. Being attracted to a woman was so foreign to me at that point that I didn’t recognize what I was feeling.
I realized that she had been talking to me while I spaced out. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I asked if you were Samuel Santori.”
“Yes, sorry. Sam. Uh, call me Sam.”
“The doctor’s ready for you, Mr. Santori.”
I tried smiling at her and slouched down a bit. Hulking men with bushy beards don’t usually give off the ‘safety’ vibe for most women. “Sam, call me Sam. Or not. Whatever is fine. And you are... ?”
“Follow me, Mr. Santori.”
It was a pleasure watching her walk away. We arrived in an examination room and were met by the archetype of the country doctor. His white hair was thin, his glasses slid down his patrician nose and his smile was wide.
My lovely escort spoke up. “Dr. Jameson, Samuel Santori. He seemed disoriented when I approached him. I don’t know if that’s related to his injury.”
The doctor pushed his glasses up and gave her an amused smile. “Oh, I think we can attribute that to something else. Thank you, Ms. Reilly.”
I kept trying to catch a glimpse of her as we went through the check-up. It went longer than it should, as the doctor spent as much time asking me about the team and upcoming games as he did my health. She seemed to be in and out of rooms, taking files from this one, placing boxes in another. Arms full of boxes of cotton swabs and nitrile gloves, she had difficulty knocking on our open door.
“Come in!” I called out.
Dr. Jameson good-naturedly smiled. “Ahh, I believe that’s my line, Mr. Santori. Come in, Amber.”
He took my blood pressure and checked my pulse as she restocked shelves. Finally, he shook his head and stepped back. “Ms. Reilly, could you please step out and close the door behind you?”
“It’s fine. I’m not embarrassed. She can stay.” I tried smiling again, fearing I just looked like a goon.
“Ms. Reilly, please.” The doctor waved toward the door.
After she left, he turned to me. “Okay, let’s try those readings again. You’re an elite athlete, yet your blood pressure and pulse were racing.”
He seemed to be satisfied with the second results. Finishing the exam, he cleared me to go back to practice. Stopping at the door, he turned. “Her name is Amber Reilly. She likes fried chicken and she has a dog. After that, you’re on your own.”
“Did you know you’re my favorite doctor?”
“I’m sure I am. Name your first child after me. Better yet, don’t give up any sacks next week.”
It was weird. I felt ... alive.
I was very goal oriented and extremely meticulous in planning. I started reaching out to everyone that owed me favors and to the girlfriends of teammates. Within twelve hours I had some basic information. Amber Reilly was a serious student, very serious. She didn’t particularly like jocks but didn’t seem to have a problem with them either. I guessed that was a wash.
The previous year she broke up with a local guy who was much older than she was. He was in his mid-twenties and owned three laundromats. Coming from money, he did well for himself. I guess that wasn’t enough for her. Since then, she spent most of her time studying, working at the clinic, volunteering at an animal shelter or with Meredith Parker, a friend she moved in with nine months before.
I showed up the next day and immediately approached Amber. “Hi. I need some help. I sprained my thumb. I was in front of Mallory’s Home Kitchen and saw some bastard treating a dog poorly. I wasn’t going to tolerate that, and my thumb got hurt. Can you help?”
Looking at me with something bordering on disdain, she replied. “Which one?”
“Are you asking me or telling me, Mr. Santori?”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw a flash of a smile.
“Do you truly need medical assistance, or do you think you can suck this one up?”
“I guess I can walk it off. Speaking of walking, Mallory’s is only a few blocks away and they have great fried chicken. Can I buy you dinner?”
People were staring by then. Looking like I escaped from a zoo somewhere, I was used to it. Looking the way she did, I guess she was, as well.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I can’t.”
“I’m afraid that I keep very busy here and with my studies.”
I showed up again the next day.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of sickos in this city. There I was, in front of Church’s Fried Chicken when another dog abuser came out of nowhere. I wasn’t just going to stand by. No way. He had about a hundred friends and they all had guns, but one look at that poor dog and I knew what I had to do. Anyway, the bad guys ran away, I saved the dog and the Church’s manager insisted on repaying me with chicken. I remembered how you were too busy to get out to eat, so I thought I would bring some down here. Can you take a break?”
“Mr. Santori, Sam, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but...”
A nurse called out from behind the desk. “Amber! Break time. Take an hour.” I was usually embarrassed by the special favors and attention that athletes receive. That day I was grateful.
When Amber turned towards her, I gave the nurse two thumbs up. We ate outside on the grass near a Japanese Maple. I made sure that it was a well populated area, and hopefully by the time we were done she realized that I didn’t spend my spare time up a beanstalk smelling the blood of an English man.
I let a few days go by before I stopped in again.
“I can’t stay, but Mallory’s heard about what happened with the dog and insisted I take some food. Maybe you could take it off my hands? Chicken, deep fried pickles and hushpuppies.”
It was cruel, but I sort of hoped that she was the proverbial poor college student and food would be the way to her heart. I quickly said hi to the staff I had met and left, leaving her with the food.
Two days later I was back. “Listen, someone has to do something about these marauding gangs of dog abusers. I was hoping you could join me on patrol Sunday. Maybe we could go down to the park? Keep an eye out and have a picnic? We could finalize plans on Saturday, after the game. I have two tickets, you can take Dr. Jameson. They’re really good seats.”
She said yes, and that’s how we started dating. We’d usually meet somewhere, or we’d leave from my dorm. Amber’s roommate was more than a little frosty towards me. I went out of my way to be as friendly as possible and tried to include her in conversation on the rare times we were at their apartment. It didn’t help.
Within three months, Amber sat me down and told me she wanted to be exclusive. I thought we had been exclusive, so that wasn’t a big sacrifice. Things were perfect, and I felt like I was reentering the human race. Meredith, Amber’s roommate, segued from frosty to straight up bitch. I wasn’t sure if it was something she had against athletes or me in particular, but she was condescending and aggressive. She clearly had no idea that I could have easily gotten into OSU on my grades alone and I grew tired of her supercilious attitude, especially when it became obvious that she was bent on placing a wedge between Amber and me.
She was slow to anger, but it eventually began to piss Amber off. We moved in together the following semester.
All of our boxes were moved into the apartment that morning. Moving becomes a lot easier when you have a dozen guys helping who each could body slam a Volkswagen. I had to attend a Team Leadership meeting that afternoon. Boring would be the best descriptor. Mandatory CYA maneuvering by the administration, returning players were lectured on responsible drinking, what constitutes sexual harassment and being responsible citizens. Amber stayed at the apartment, unpacking and started turning rooms that were empty twelve hours earlier into a home.
Stepping off the elevator, I smelled the rich tomato sauce, fried garlic and onions coming from our apartment. It was still so new that I reveled in thinking of it that way: our apartment. An older lady stepped out the door of the apartment across from ours. She was wearing a track suit and carrying one of those little dogs that look like they run on batteries.
“Hi! I’m Sam. My girlfriend and I just moved into 301, right across from you.”
“Amanda Behlsen. Nice to meet you. I saw all those large gentlemen this morning. Welcome to the building. I noticed your girlfriend. Lovely girl. Is she a nurse? She was here the other day in scrubs.”
“Uh, no. Amber’s going to be a surgeon. She’s actually cooking dinner. If you’re free, please stop by later. We have some wine and cheese and crackers.” I was inordinately proud of that. Amber and I were adulting. It wasn’t cheap beer and Doritos. First day in our apartment, inviting over neighbors for adult drinks and snacks. Our apartment. Where I lived with Amber. Our apartment. That phrase just rolled around in my head. I was surprised that Ms. Behlsen was being so friendly, and her dog was so docile. I must have been grinning like a goon.
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll check and get back to you. I need to get Atlas outside before he does his business here in the hall. Again, great to meet you.”
The aromas of Amber’s cooking washed over me as I walked in the door. “Smells great, Honey. Baked ziti?”
“Chicken cacciatore over zucchini spaghetti. You need to cut back on the starch and cheese.”
I smiled. “Amber, I’m a lineman and I’m in great shape. Some pasta’s not going to kill me. Lean isn’t what I’m going for.”
“Samuel Santori, I want you around for a long, long time. If I’m cooking, you’re eating healthy. Grab some plates and set the table.”
All of this was hitting me hard and I wasn’t sure why. I stood staring at her. She had her hair in a ponytail and was wearing a tee-shirt and yoga pants. Surprised that I was tearing up, I stepped up behind Amber and put my arms around her. We were in our apartment and she wanted me around for a long time. Checking to see that the stovetop and oven were turned off, I started kissing her neck and moved up to her ear.
She squirmed as I whispered after nibbling on her earlobe. “You know, cacciatore is one of those dishes that gets better the longer it sits.”
Amber pushed back into me, her butt into my thigh. “Spaghetti doesn’t.”
Picking her up, I headed towards the bedroom, thankful we had set up and made the bed before I left. “It’s zucchini, it’ll stay al dente.”
I gently placed her on the bed. Everything with Amber was gentle and she occasionally grew frustrated. I don’t think she knew the sort of damage I could do if I wasn’t careful, but we’d find a happy medium. As I looked down at her and helped her pull off the tee-shirt, she looked up and saw the tears waiting to fall. Once I lost Haley, I never thought I would have this. I was ... content. That seemed like such a weak word for what I was feeling.
Placing both hands on the sides of my face, she pulled me towards her, love in her eyes. “Oh, Sam, Honey...”
We kissed, and my hands roamed her body, grateful for her foresight in leaving off the bra. After a few minutes she started shimmying off the yoga pants. I was happy to help. Her panties were very damp as I pulled them from her body, inhaling her scent as they slipped down her legs.
I took my time kissing her from her calf to her so-wet center. She grabbed my head, trying to force me in deeper as my tongue licked, darted and teased. Her moaning grew louder, and I moved away from her cauldron and the honey she was generating. I kissed my way to her navel and back up to her neck, chin and full lips.
My cock slid along her opening as we kissed. Sometimes smoothly, sometimes poking and prodding as I shifted my hips. She pulled her head back to speak. “Sam ... Sam ... slow later. I need you now. Don’t ... don’t go slow, don’t go gentle.”
Taking her at her word, I effortlessly flipped Amber onto her belly. Reaching forward, I grabbed two of the pillows and slipped them under her hips. Getting back between her legs, I moved forward and lubricated my cock with her juices. As wet as she was, it was still a tight entry that must have brought her a mixture of discomfort and pleasure. After a few minutes she grew louder, moaning then yelling her pleasure.
I was much more forceful than usual. Although I loved Amber, this was about straight animal fucking. She thrust back at me, her head tilted to the side as I lifted her by the hips and pulled her to meet my every push, every ramming into her steaming tight velvet core.
Amber trembled as she reached her pinnacle the first time, and nearly convulsed as she came a second time. When I finally erupted into her, we were awash in each other’s sweat and fluids. We lay there, recovering, and I held her closely. Eventually, I picked her up and carried her to the shower. It was a little cramped, but sometimes that works. I washed her gently and carried her back to the bed.
She had some trouble walking and I had some residual guilt. Grabbing the plates and some drinks, I brought dinner into the bedroom. The plates and some of the food eventually wound up on the floor when we slowly, gently, made love.
The next morning, I found a plate of homemade cookies outside the door.
Stopped by and you sounded busy. Knocked a few times. I was young and in love once. Enjoy it and each other! Amanda Behlsen, Apt 303
Well, that was fucking embarrassing. Good cookies, though.
Being with Amber removed the pain from my heart and sapped out the bitterness and anger. Thankfully, it wasn’t the anger that fueled my success on the gridiron. The sense of loss from Haley disappearing was always with me, but love replaced much of the rest. My parents loved Amber almost as much as I did, and her parents seemed to like me but were afraid of the prospects of me getting an NFL contract.
My senior year was spent concentrating on my last college season, getting my degree, prepping for the Combine and spending as much time as possible with Amber. I was twenty-two and she was twenty-three. I was narrowing down my choices of agents and she was knee deep in med school.
Everything depended on the workouts, private and public, but I was assured by most experts that I would be picked in the first or second round. Both of us were incredibly busy and the pressure was getting to us. I flew home to see my parents and hit them up for a loan. I was reticent and embarrassed until they laughed and told me that they had saved up for my college my entire life and I never had to use a penny of it.
I flew back, made some stops and returned to the apartment. Amber was making dinner when I walked through the door. When I saw her, I realized that we hadn’t spoken in two days.
She turned when I dropped my bags, startled by the noise. I guess I can move quietly for a big guy. She raced over, and I picked her up. My eyes closed as I felt her body against mine. Emotions flooded through me. She was companionship, love, sex, and home. Amber was all things to me.
I set her down and realized that waiting served no purpose. I reached into my pocket as I got on one knee.
“Amber, I know that we’re both burning the candles at both ends.”
She stood before me, mouth wide, eyes glistening. I pulled out the box and opened it.
“And this might not be the right time, but...”
She launched herself into me. “Yes, yes, Sam. Yes. I love you. I love you so much.”
I stood, picking her up and held her closely as we both cried.
My mother flew to Columbus and spent time with Amber working on wedding plans. I attended the Combine where I made a fool of myself at the vertical jump but set records at the bench press and scored a forty-eight on the wonderlic.
My private work-outs went well, as did the interviews. I wound up being drafted seventh and went to the Dolphins. I was there for four great years, making the Pro Bowl three times. I was traded to the Cleveland Browns, so Amber and I moved back to Ohio. Those were eight of the best years of my life.
My parents moved to be near us when our son was born. I grew maudlin at times, reading him the adventures of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, and Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin. I thought of Haley, our own 100 Acre Wood and the adventures of our childhood.
My body told me that twelve years in the NFL was enough, and it was time to get out. We were set for life and could have easily lived off Amber’s income as a pediatric surgeon. We were generous with both sets of parents and they had no financial burdens. I was in my late thirties and needed to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
Nicky Tremaine was a retired Extreme Sports athlete who lived in Ohio. He had a charity that worked with athletes and supported homeless veterans. That was something I could get behind, so I reached out. Soon, I was spending twenty hours a week working with the charity while being a full-time house dad.
Mom watched Sam Jr. when Amber and I drove to Dayton to visit the VA there. We checked into our hotel and I signed a few autographs for employees who recognized my name. It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so we went to a nearby Starbucks for coffee and a muffin. Sitting down, we discussed the plans for the next day. We’d do some meet and greets with staff and then spend the day talking to as many veterans as possible, thanking them for their service and trying to get a gauge on what we could do to improve things at the grass roots level.
Amber kicked me lightly under the table. Eyebrows narrowed in minor irritation, I looked up from my coffee. She kept nodding her head slightly to the right and moving her eyes in that direction. I glanced over. Two tables away sat a man reading what must have been the current issue of something called Busty Librarians Monthly.
His phone started playing “Last Train to Clarksville”. He put down his magazine and picked up the phone. “Go for Jack.” He listened. “Uh huh. Got about another 4 or 5 thousand words. Brilliant stuff.” More listening. “You got it. Talk to you soon.” He hung up and took a swig from his coffee.
Trying not to smile too obviously, Amber and I looked at each other. Starbucks kept getting weirder.
We got back to discussing our plans for the next day and how we could import anything innovative we saw in facilities near us.
I stopped speaking for what seemed to be forever and finally noticed Amber looking up at me.
Her voice sounded concerned, but I was distracted. “Honey, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?”
Pushing aside my Starbucks cup and ignoring the chattering customers near us, Amber took my hand in both of hers, her thumb stroking my knuckles. I was trying to hold back the tears as I looked over her shoulder.
My smile was tremulous at best as I stared at the back of the woman with the long black tresses and the slight limp.
Swallowing a few times before trying to speak, I told her. “She’s here.”
“Who’s here, honey? What are ... No! She’s here?”
Not able to speak, I nodded my head.
Haley made her purchase and turned around. I stood. It’s sort of hard to miss me. She dropped her drink and purse and her hands flew to her mouth. She started crying.
She still had that adorable lilt to her voice.
“Hello, Princesa. Here for a tea party?”
Haley and I were the dreams of children, full of certitude, happiness, and simplicity, but rough and indistinct around the edges. Our love was there, and it always would be, but it was a love of youth. Amber and I had depth, passion, and understanding. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between my love for Amber and my love for Haley was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
My wife stepped away from the table, not interfering as Haley and I stared at each other. Haley stepped forward hesitantly and I stood there, uncomfortable, not knowing how to act after more than twenty years apart.
Amber spoke up. “Hug her, you idiot!”
My walls tumbled down, and I stepped around the table. I pulled Haley into me in a giant hug. She shook, sobbing, and I held her. She felt ... right. She fit. I looked over to Amber, who was wiping away her own tears. Eventually Haley pushed herself back, looked up at me smiling.
“I can’t believe you’re here!” She stepped in, hugged me again and stepped back. She tried to blot her eyes. “I must look horrible. Raccoon eyes.”
Again, my wife knew what to say. “No, you’re as beautiful as he’s always said.”
“I’m sorry. Haley, this is my wife Amber.”
“I’m so sorry, I ruined your husband’s shirt.” The women had mostly stopped crying and we laughed.
I pulled it out a bit and took a look. “I’ll throw it in the dryer. Tears don’t stain.”
“Sam, Amber, can you sit? Can we talk? I just need to use the lady’s room.”
Amber stepped to her side. “I’ll join you.” She nodded her head towards the floor with Haley’s coffee cup and purse. I got the hint.
When they came back, looking much refreshed, I had the purse, coffee refills and three bottled iced teas on the table. Amber picked up the bottle and looked at me curiously.
“In honor of Mrs. Sullivan. She hosted the tea parties that Princesa dragged me to when we were kids.”
“Hah! I would have to chase you and your giant legs to get there before you ate all the Oreos. Amber, you are ... you’re just stunning. I always knew my ... that Sam would find a beautiful woman and the two of you would conquer the world. Tell me about your lives. I know you played for the Browns, Sam. Amber, what do you do?”
“I’m a pediatric surgeon at the Wexner Center at Ohio State. I’m still new there, we moved back to Columbus after Sam left the Browns. What about you, Haley? What do you do?”
“I teach comparative literature. I’ll be starting at a new university after Thanksgiving. Well, I’ll be moving there and starting in the winter sessions. Sheesh, even that’s not correct. I guess it’s summer sessions there. I’ll be teaching in Wellington, New Zealand.”
Leaning back in my chair, I deflated. “New Zealand? That’s, it’s just so far away.”
“Yes, it is, but I needed a break. Something completely new. The pay is great, the perks are fantastic and it’s a way to start over.”
Putting my coffee down, I looked at Haley. “Can you, I mean, Haley, it killed me when you disappeared and now you want to run away again. Can you tell us what happened all those years ago?”
She looked around at the constant traffic and customers as they purchased, sat, left, drank and moved. Starbucks wasn’t conducive to deep conversations.
“This isn’t really a great place to discuss it. Do you live around here?”
“No, we live in Columbus.”
“Oh, of course, right. Where Amber works. Maybe we could find a nice, quiet restaurant for dinner and I could explain everything there?” She smiled. “Besides, after years of betting on the Browns, you owe me at least one meal.”
We exchanged cell phone numbers, sat and talked for a while and promised each other to call with restaurant options. Amber and I went back to the hotel. I wanted to hit their gym and think about what just happened. It was mind blowing and needed a lot of processing. It didn’t even occur to me until we got back to our room that I should call Mom and Dad.
“Hey, Dad? You’re not going to believe who Amber and I ran into at a Starbucks in Dayton. It was Haley.”
“Haley? Are you serious? Little Haley from next door?”
“Yeah, little Haley. Princesa.”
“That’s, I mean, that’s just ... wow. How is she doing? Does she have a family? How’s her mom?”
“I don’t know, Dad. It was all really weird. It was right in the middle of the Starbucks. We’re going out to dinner tonight. There’ll be more privacy and I’ll ask every question I can think of. How’s my son? Getting tired of him yet?”
“Not a chance. He is running your mom ragged though. Okay, call me tonight or tomorrow morning. This is crazy, Sam.”
“Yeah, that it is. Night, Dad.”
Hitting the gym, I listened to songs of my youth, the times when Haley had been in my life. “Spoonman” rushed through the earbuds as I pushed myself on the treadmill. I needed to make some lists. What to ask her, what was important and what wasn’t, where I wanted this to go. I learned long ago that I thought better, more logically, when I made lists. It forced mental discipline.
I signed a few more autographs on my way back up to the room. I had done some small-market commercials while playing. They were embarrassing, but lucrative, and fans had long memories. Many of them were for Starbucks. They saw me in a post-game interview saying I was heading there with my wife on the way home and thought that the dichotomy of the semi-trained gorilla (me) and the pediatric surgeon wife (Amber) going to Starbucks after a game had a unique appeal.
Amber was in one of them, it felt like I was in countless. They sponsored a number of the veterans’ events I was involved in with Nicky Tremain’s organization. We made it a point to stop at one whenever we could. It was ‘our thing’ and Amber was into romantic traditions. She was now the only employed spouse, so I wasn’t going to argue.
Soaked with sweat and needing a shower, I tried to be friendly while keeping a distance.
Amber was reading the new Journal of Pediatrics when I got into the room. She carefully kissed my cheek, avoiding the rest of me.
“C’mon, honey. Give me a big hug!”
“Ahhh! Get away from me, you sweaty beast. Go take a shower. I’ll call downstairs and ask about restaurants. Italian good?”
We got a recommendation for a good, well-reviewed Italian place, then called Haley and arranged to meet at 7:00. I spent the intervening time working on lists and organizing my thoughts. I’d look back at the paper every once in a while and realize how much time had slipped by. I couldn’t concentrate. It was Haley. She was back.
Driving, I took Amber’s hand in mine. She looked over at me and then back at the traffic.
“She’s really beautiful. I can see why you were so ... I don’t know, why she had such a hold on you.”
I squeezed her hand. “Honey, you know that she’s my past, right? I thought that she was my world, but I didn’t know what that actually meant until I met you. She’s a memory and you’re, well, you’re everything, Amber.”
She turned and smiled. “I know, Sam. I know who we are. We’re good. She really is striking, that’s all. Her hair ... I don’t know, I’m being silly.” She sounded wistful, maybe regretful.
“Okay. Love you.”
She squeezed my hand back.
Haley was waiting for us by the hostess stand, clearly trying to deflect the attentions of a wannabe Lothario. I walked in a few minutes after Amber, who I dropped off at the door before parking the car. He had his hand on my wife’s shoulder as he tried to insert his body between hers and Haley’s. Probably some alpha-male bullshit about cutting her off from the herd.
Amber’s look of amusement was turning into anger as she looked at his hand. He was dressed in a nice suit and had his greying hair slicked back with too much gel. He was fairly tall, about 6’2, and didn’t seem to mind using his height to loom over my wife in an attempt to assert dominance. Cool. As long as he established precedent, I obviously had free reign.
Approaching from the side, I walked up really close and stood there in his personal space. Lips narrowing, anger clear, he turned to me and had to look up. And up.
He found his voice. “You mind, pal?”
“No, not at all. Thanks for asking.” I leaned in.