Crap, crap, crap! I gasp awake and the dim lighting tells me it’s much later than when I laid down. I meant to relax for just a minute but obviously I fell asleep. I’m going to be late for Sunday dinner. One of my favorite things. I get to spend time with Marcus, big brother extraordinaire. We rarely get a chance to see each other during the week so it’s nice to have a designated catch-up time. Also, he always pays although I’m convinced he gets the money from Mom and Dad.
I frantically find my digital clock and see that he’s due to arrive in two minutes. Crappity crap! I jump up, do the fastest mirror check of all time and throw open my door. At the last second, I eye my team photo. I make the number one symbol with my hand, kiss the tip of my index finger, and touch the photo while chanting, “This is our year!” The team made a pact that we would use positive thinking and visualization so no matter how late I am, I can’t leave without performing this ritual. I burst out of my room and lock the door with hurried hands.
I jog through the halls of my dorm, Kippington, where it’s quiet on Sunday nights. I can hear the muffled sounds of TVs and conversations as I run like hell down the hall. Summer in the dorm is much quieter than during the year. They reserve this one for athletes so there are even fewer people because not everyone stays for summer school.
Ugh, I panic when I remember that Marcus is likely to do something highly embarrassing if I’m late. One time he yelled at the top of his lungs, “Ladies and gentlemen, my sister, the great Olivia Meadows has finally honored us with her presence! A round of applause, please!” to which he began slow clapping. Some people must have recognized him and were willing to join in. Humiliating, and grudgingly, I have to admit, it was funny too.
I pause in front of the slowest elevator of all time and decide quickly to take the stairs. I turn to my right and yank open the door. I bounce down quickly and burst into the quiet pastel and wood lobby with no one witnessing my grand entrance but the comfy chairs and empty study tables.
I push my way through the front door and immediately feel the blow back of the stifling heat. Ick. Welcome to a Texas summer where you can expect heat, heat, and more heat. My curly hair loves the humidity but me, not so much. And if I thought for a second I’d get away with my tardiness, I was sadly mistaken when I hear repetitive honking and masculine voices yelling, “There she is, Miss America! Olivia Meadows, everyone!” I inwardly groan and shake my head.
I spot Marcus in my dad’s hand-me-down Maxima with John in the front seat next to him. Oh jeez. John Hunter. He’s that guy. He’s the stuff of young girls’ dreams and I gave him up long ago by trying to turn my eyes to other guys. The way I see it, it’s like this: 1) he’s Marcus’s best friend and I have no interest in messing up their friendship; 2) he’s not an intentional player but he’s a player just the same; and 3) thank you, but I’ll skip the broken heart, please. I’ve grown up in proximity to this handsome devil for most of my life and he still manages to make my stomach drop when I see him.
It’s such a cliché to say that he’s tall, dark and handsome but clichés work for a reason—they’re inescapable kernels of truth. John is tall at a striking six feet and four inches. He’s dark with his almost-black hair and deep brown eyes. I can’t forget the handsome with his perfectly structured jaw line. Ridiculous. Just by looking at him, I can feel my adrenaline kicking in and the sweat gathering. Great.
I plaster an annoyed look on my face because that’s how we interact with each other. That’s part of our unwritten script. He plays the charming rogue and I play the cynical wallflower who is suspicious of all his kind gestures. He jumps out and does a half-bow. “Madame, your chariot,” he says as he gestures to the front seat.
“Shotgun!” I yell a bit too loudly.
“Duh,” he responds with a chuckle and an eye roll.
I get in the front seat and buckle up while John arranges himself in the back.
“We need NFL money now, dude. These cramped seats are killing my knees,” John whines from his seat.
“Soon enough, my friend,” Marcus replies with a grin and a glance in the rearview mirror.
These two. It’s true that they’re heading to the NFL if all goes well this year. They are both elite football players at a legacy university. Texas University has a long-standing and grand football tradition. They know how to turn out talented players and both John and Marcus have strategically positioned themselves to take advantage of that legacy.
I pipe up, “What are you treating me to this evening, big brother?” Before he can answer, I turn to John, “Because that’s how this works. And I’m definitely not buying with you as his plus one.” I add a little scowl to remind him that he’s the interloper here.
“I know the drill, Little Meadows. This isn’t my first rodeo, if you’ll recall,” he says soothingly. It’s rare that John joins us but he has before.
Marcus pulls away from the curb and John adds, “We had you in mind when we picked this place tonight.”
I raise my eyebrows toward Marcus and catch him eyeing John in the rearview mirror which doesn’t bode well for whatever they’ve chosen with me supposedly in mind. Yeah right.
“So, O. What’s up in your world?” John asks.
“Not much really. Same old, same old,” I answer honestly.
“How’s the team looking this year?” he returns.
“Great, actually,” I say proudly. “We too have our eye on a national championship, my dears.”
“And what about a major? Did you finally woman up?” John jokes with me.
Marcus glances back to John briefly. “I thought I told you she decided on government?”
“That’s right,” John acknowledges.
It’s common knowledge that I struggled to pick a major. I was undeclared until the university demanded that I choose. Metaphorically, I closed my eyes, flipped through the college catalog and chose my major based on where my finger landed. Kind of. The truth is that I had amassed so many liberal arts hours that it made sense to pick a liberal arts major so I could graduate sometime in this century. Government it was.
John reaches around the edge of my seat and squeezes my shoulder. I jump at first because hello, John Hunter is touching me. He has amazing hands and I remind myself that he has no idea how my body reacts to his touches. He’s just being his usual self. I coach my hormones to calm down, relax, and enjoy his easy touches. It kind of works but not really. I feel tingly and my stomach now feels invaded by butterflies. How does he do that so easily? How is he the only guy I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to? It’s so not fair.
I finally shake him off, “Alright, alright, perv,” to which he laughs.
I decide to poke the bears a bit. “So what about you two? Are you both taking a full class load of basket weaving this year? Being fifth year seniors must be a real burden.”
“Hey, we’re getting real degrees, Miss Snobbypants,” John pipes up.
“Yeah, sure.” I click my tongue to give them both a hard time although it’s true. They will both graduate with finance degrees and the business school is no joke. They were both redshirted as freshmen so they could bulk up and get oriented on the team. Universities like ours use that NCAA eligibility advantage to keep guys around for a fifth year. It doesn’t really happen in women’s athletics.
We ride in silence for a bit and then I glance up in time to see us pull up to Blue Star Barbecue. Great, a full on meat fest. Yeah, right, they had me in mind when they picked this place. We unfold from the car and make our way inside.
As we make our way through the cafeteria style line, they both have ridiculous piles of meat on their plates. I, on the other hand, care about my heart, and have chicken and a lovely selection of sides: potato salad, baked beans, and a green salad, the likes of which you would only find at a barbecue place (loads of iceberg lettuce).
We take our seats around a four-top table. John is across from me with Marcus between us. There really is no ideal spot for me in this situation. Being across from him means that I see him every time I look up. However, if I were next to him, I would have a hard time settling in with him so close. He has a tendency to take up a lot of space and it’s not unusual for him to lean his legs on mine. I’ve wondered if he has any idea how that tortures me.
John eyes my plate, forks a big piece of brisket into his mouth, and says, “You can share off my plate if you need some more protein. Aren’t you an elite athlete?”
I roll my eyes at him, “I am, as a matter of fact, which is why I strive to have a healthy beating heart without clogging my arteries, thank you very much.”
He laughs at me and winks, “There’s a heart in there?”
“Ha, ha,” I shake my head at him.
Marcus finally pipes up, “Kids, do I need to separate you?”
I say, “Yes,” at the same time that John says, “No.”
That makes us both laugh. John suddenly stops and says, “No, seriously. Are you dating anyone?”
Attempting to laugh it off, I respond, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
John doesn’t laugh with me. “Yeah, I would.”
I glance over at Marcus and see a slight scowl on his face. Huh. I don’t know how to interpret that look.
“Well, you’ll just have to wonder,” I say in a lame attempt to be coy. I’m not dating anyone but it feels embarrassing to admit that to John. He seems to always be hooking up with some girl or another.
John continues to give me an intense look when a dinner roll suddenly slams him on the cheek, “Hey!”
Marcus gives us both an innocent look, “What happened?”
We all crack up and the tension breaks. I look at both of them and realize that they are my two favorite men in the world—besides my dad. They feel like home even with the underlying tension I feel with John.
Oh hell yeah! I just spiked the ball across the net without a block! Sure, it’s only a practice scrimmage but a victory is a victory no matter how small! I high five my teammates and we dig in for the next serve. I look to my right and left and see my girls, Tish and Laney.
We bonded immediately when we met as freshmen. We played against each other in high school because we were all on club teams from across Texas. Of course, we were once adversaries so it felt like a comforting relief to drop all that competitiveness and turn it into friendship.
After our first practice, I was gulping a Gatorade next to Tish when Laney bounced over and whispered an invitation to Amelia’s Ice Cream which is an old Austin tradition. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and we still go to Amelia’s whenever we can. But right now is about crushing our opponents—even when they’re our own teammates. This scrimmage is underclassmen against upperclassmen.
A serve lobs over the net and I silently compliment my teammate, Michaela, for a beautiful serve. However, Tish is ready and passes it to Laney who sets it perfectly for my killer spike. As lovely as my spike might be, they were ready and blocked it in tandem. Nicely done, ladies! It’s encouraging to see so much talent in the younger group. It will take all of us to reach our ambitious goal of a national championship this year.
I catch my friends’ eyes and we all share raised eyebrows. We all feel pumped. We feel the momentum kicking in and know that we really can achieve our goals. This is a team that’s worthy.
We finish strong and we stride out of the gym. Sweet Laney interlocks our arms so our fearsome threesome exits together. “Y’all, this is our year, I can feel it!” I hum with the buzz of that declaration. It’s true—this is our year!