The football field sits at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by one hundred-year-old trees scarred with the carvings of our predecessors. Peakland Episcopal is the kind of place you see in movies about private schools, where the dean has a fireplace in his office and they still hang paddles hanging proudly on the wall.
The path leading down to Tyler Field carries the heady smell of boxwoods and booze as we march down to old Tyler’s statue, singing songs written before our grandparents were freshman. There are no lights at Tyler Field, everything is played in the golden wash of dusk.
In the bleachers, we stand hunched and huddled, sometimes hopping in place to stay warm. The smell of burning leaves comes and goes, like the thermos being passed through the five rows of the tiny student section. Jen is talking about the afterparty when a whistle on the field steals our attention. Loud cheers from the visiting side as Reston Boys Academy scores again.
I shove my hands into the pockets of my corduroy jacket—Jake’s jacket—feeling the lint and grit and the debris of his day on my fingers. I bury my nose in the collar, taking in the smell of his aftershave as I gaze out to the field where our team hangs their collective heads.
Boys running into each other, falling down and jumping up, chest bumping and filthy in the patchy grass. This is my second year on campus, after being shipped off from Nebraska to start anew. My second year. In these same bleachers, hands hidden, clutching and unclutching, jostled back and forth, indistinguishable from the others, feeling alone, wishing I could be more like them. Wishing I could be happy with…this.
From the sidelines, Jake turns and finds my eyes, catching me in my thoughts. I recover late with a smile, force my hand up to give him a tinkly wave. He nods, waves back. Happy with me. The thermos comes my way and I take it with two hands, forgetting, wanting the burn, to be taken by the buzz.
“Whoa Katie, take it easy.”
I lick my lips, relinquish the thermos and its numbing contents to Jen. She gives me a look, eyebrows up with surprise. “What’s gotten into you?”
I shrug. She’s surprised with Katie from Nebraska. They think I’m good. They think this is real.
My hands go back in my pockets. Jake’s pockets. I have to be more careful. Because if they knew, if Jake knew, why I am no longer in Nebraska, that I’m dark and barren inside. That I’m not here for prestige or prep or tradition but exile, well, they would be more like my parents. They would detach themselves.
Sometimes at night, when my roommate has fallen into deep breaths, the snap and clash of her earbuds filling the room, I rub my stomach. I feel it inside of me, growing limbs, developing, even as it’s gone—been gone before any of that. But I allow myself to feel. To feel the wind in my hair, the breaths of the boy I loved. I don’t say his name because I won’t come back from it if I do, but I feel the world before it tilted. Before the wind and the breaths and dizziness of it all. Before the too quiet ride in the car.
My father’s rage. My mother’s tears. Before they took me to the doctor, across state lines, because good girls from good families don’t mess up. Or they do but they bury it. Only I can’t bury it, I can only drink cheap bourbon from a thermos, giggle into the chill of late October with pretty girls in the tiny bleachers, surrounded by colorful trees and tennis courts and a football field. I can only smile and pretend. Even when all is dead.
Jake turns back to the field, hopping in place. I wonder if one day I’ll have a husband like him. Successful and confident, satisfied with the well-placed trees and shrubs. Maybe sometimes he’ll catch me thinking about it, and I’ll catch my thoughts with a smile. I’ll swallow it down and bury it. I’ll hope he can’t see my insides.
Another whistle. Reston has scored again. The thermos makes it back to me as Jen pulls me away, down from the bleachers with the rest of them. We sing the old songs as we trudge up the path. And I follow them, because I’m Katie, the good Nebraska girl. I follow them up the path, before the dark can catch me.