By Sarah Perret-Goluboff
Jerry’s leaning against the doorframe. He has one arm crossed against his waist, the other propped up holding the phone. His face is frozen in attentiveness, a smile like a dry husk, waiting for the end of the joke. When the punchline comes from the other end, he leans off the wall with the force of his laugh. It pulls him forward into a slight angle bending at his arm, a great huff of breath forced out, his open husk smile remains.
“Alright. Great to hear from you, Steve. I’ll tell her. Alright. Okay. Bye, now.”
He makes his way back from the phone hanging on the wall, its curled white cord winding and knotting above the peeling laminate on the counter. We should get rid of the landline. We should fix the counter.
“That was Carrie and Steve,” he said. “They’ve got extra tickets to the game tonight and wanted to see if we’re interested.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, I twist the handle of the coffee mug between my two hands, first left, then right, then back again. “Say we’re busy? Maybe tell them we’re playing bridge or something; they already think we’re ancient.”
“I think we should go,” he says. “For old times’ sake.” It is odd to think we have ‘old times’ with this couple, that they somehow swam the channel of time from acquaintances to old friends. I still think of Carrie as the woman who lectured me on the right and wrong way to age whiskey hours before passing out under the coffee table. It’s all about the barrel storage. It tastes smooth and woodsy, so even just one glass is a big ol’ treat.
“It’ll be fun,” he says. “I’ll dig up the hats from the basement. Don’t you still have that jersey Nan gave you in the back of the car? We’ll get all dressed up. We can make a time of it, a whole event.”
“An event,” I say. He stills my right-hand mid pass and places his own over it, fingers across my knuckles, squeezing gently. I need to buy moisturizer.
“An event,” he says, and I loosen his arm from mine with a smile and go to pour my coffee down the sink. We are going to the game. It is an event, a Tradition. For old times.
We take the train into the city. Parking spaces at these things are few and far between. It is standing room only. One of the younger girls with the big face paint scratched across her cheeks offers me her seat. I blanch. “No, no, I’m quite fine standing, thank you,” I say, but she gets up anyway, pulling the boy in the next seat with her. Jerry meets my eyes and shrugs, taking the boy’s place. I sit down next to him, hunching my shoulders. We sit the rest of the way in silence. I watch the young woman lean into the boy when the train smooths to a stop, then draw back again, feigning accident.
Carrie and Steve meet us at the gate to deliver our tickets. Carrie is dressed all in white, a visor peeking over her eyes, the band hidden behind waves of hair. She is dressed like a woman who knows how to hide her age — the trying is the tell.
“You look nice,” I say as she pulls me to her shoulder.
“Oh! I’m a hag. Ever since Lucas started college, there’s no pretending I’m not Somebody’s Mother.”
“Not a day over 29,” Jerry says. A laugh spills out of Carrie like an upturned slinky. Her voice pops high on ‘Oh,’ followed by a string of ‘hahs.’ ‘Oh, ha hahaha.’ I follow their path with my eyes, rolling from the top of the sockets to the bottom of the sidewalk, where the final hah lands with a small coughing sound.
Carrie and Steve have good seats. We only climb one set of stairs before we reach them, perched right in front of home base so that when the ball is pitched, it feels like it’s aimed right at you.
“How is Lucas? I feel like just yesterday I was paying him a dollar to rake up the leaves in our yard.” Jerry is a better person than I am. I try to match.
“Is he still studying Philosophy?” I throw in. “The world needs more of those critical thinkers!” Yuk yuk yuk!
“No, he switched again. Now he’s focusing on Psychology, it seems. We’ll see how long it sticks,” says Steve, flagging down an attendant with a flat of beers.
“You, hush,” Carrie says, elbowing Steve in the side. “Lucas loves Psychology. Developmental Psych, he says. He’s always loved children, you know.” She says this only to Jerry. When Lucas entered high school, Carrie finally stopped telling me that ‘it’s never too late to try’ and simply stopped talking to me about children altogether.
“He’s a good kid,” Jerry replies.
As the inning ends, Jerry leans over to me and pats my leg. “This is our game,” he says, gesturing to the Jumbotron as it zooms into the crowd. I smile at him. I like the joke, the repetition. Repetition is the safeguard of waves against the vast.
“What are you kids gossiping about?” Carrie asks, leaning over Jerry. She has antennae for anything half-whispered. I flinch internally, but I am still on my best behavior.
“Oh, just an old joke,” I smile with each tooth. Each tooth rolls its eyes at me.
“Not a joke, a tradition! I can’t believe we’ve never told you this story.” Jerry leans across the seat and angles toward Carrie.
I almost say, “Oh honey, they don’t want to hear that,” but I hear the sitcom wife in this line so clearly that I bound in the other direction. I start the story myself. It’s really a sweet story.
“It was in college,” I hear myself say. “We actually weren’t even dating at the time.”
Jerry picks up the baton. “Liza and I drove all the way down from UIUC. There was supposed to be a whole group of us, but there was some big party on campus, and people dropped out one by one until it was just the two of us.”
“Fate!” Carrie interjects with a small jump in her chair.
“Just!” Jerry agrees. He glances back to me to cue, and I spin the thread, Penelope.
“It must have been the 7th inning, right? The Jumbotron comes on with that animated heart. The Kiss Cam.”
“I was out of my gourd nervous,” Jerry says. “I wanted to kiss her, but we weren’t together at that point. What am I gonna do? So I’m sitting stock still, trying to make a joke of it: ‘What would we do if they thought we were a couple?’”
“And then it circled you?” Carrie asks. Her visor is slightly askew; her cup is empty.
“Not exactly,” I say.
I remember this part. We were all the way up in the back of the arena. It circled older couples, love hallmarked for longevity - the passage of time masquerading as durability - and young couples, plastered across the pixels like figurines of virility: America’s pastime, America’s youth, shiny and distracting.
“We’d have to do it,” Jerry had said, with mock gravity.
I was focused on the spectacle, but I knew what we looked like and what we didn’t. “They won’t pick us,” I said. Beside me, I felt his shoulders fall.
Jerry was a cute enough kid. He’d survived the Northshore finishing schools and came out with just enough left in him to enroll at a Big Ten unironically. Tall with the kind of dishwater hair that said he spent his youth blonde as a sunflower. But there was something about him, even then, the babified face, the way his lips drew back high against his gums when he smiled that cracked the mold. When his shoulders dropped, something in the back of my throat fell as well. As the next inning began, the camera faded back to player bios and team logos.
“Looks like we dodged it,” he said, a quick recovery.
I leaned over and kissed Jerry anyway.
“Once for luck,” I said. And slowly, things changed. It would be months before I realized this was an act of pity. Years still, before I regretted it.
Now, he squeezes my knee, and I smile. We were married two years out of college and must have been to hundreds of games through that time, but not once had the Jumbotron encircled us. Call it bad luck. I call it marketing.
“It’s our game,” he says again.
“Well, I think it’s sweet,” Carrie says.
“What are we talking about?” Steve, from beside her. He looks up from his phone. “Work emails,” he says apologetically. Jerry is about to start the explanation again, but I am not ready for a second performance.
“Jerry’s considering trying out for the team!” I shout.
Steve’s alight. “More like the mascot,” he says, thumping Jerry’s back. “Whadaya say, Jer? Bolster the troops?”
“I’ll do my part by getting more drinks,” Jerry says jovially. He maneuvers awkwardly past their knees and disappears into the landing above. The Jumbotron reports on player statistics, vamping through over-enthused animations. A young girl, seven or eight, in the row before us is glued to the screen. She holds one gloved hand aloft, ready to catch any fly ball even in this moment of inaction. Carrie follows my line of sight and lets out a sympathetic sigh. Before she can pat my back in consolation, I stand.
“I’ll go help Jerry! Two sets of hands may be necessary, judging by the way you all slammed that first round!” Hardy har. She smiles sadly, and fire leaps within me. She moves her knees to let me out, and I take the exit.
I find him fairly easily, despite the sea of men his age wearing the same baseball caps.
“Thought you may need a hand,” I say as I approach the counter.
“Perfect timing,” he says, handing me two beers and picking up the two remaining.
“I thought Carrie wasn’t doing carbs?” I ask, gesturing with my chin to the identical drinks.
“Huh,” he says. “Can’t imagine I’d forget something like that,” his smile is impish, and I am reminded that marriage is, in fact, a team sport.
We walk back toward Carrie and Steve and pass them their drinks. I drank half of mine in the enclosure and feel pleasantly heavy behind my eyes. Things are lightly glossed. Things are as if they might have been alright the whole time.
We’re about to scoot back over their knees to our seats when Carrie squeaks out, “Oh, look!” and points onto the field. There in the center of the animatronic heart, Jerry and I have appeared. I am slouched down, trying to listen to Carrie. Jerry is pulling on my sleeve like a toddler.
“I told you it was our year!” he says excitedly and pulls me toward his face by a fistful of my sleeve. Each of us one-handed, holding our beers, we squash together with arms outstretched. I focus on keeping the liquid level behind his back. I think about my wrist, straight up, straight down, compass rose. I think about the laundry in the basement and how today’s clothes will make for a full load. I think about replacing the landline, cleaning behind the oven, the donation pile in the entryway, and I wonder if the crowd could see, in the single moment before my face was blocked by his, the fissure behind my skull, the fleeting recognition, the resignation of my bones.
I pull away first. Jerry finishes with a flourish toward the camera. I tug at the hem of my shirt, distractedly picking at a spare thread until the sounds of the crowd assures me that the camera has moved on. The great anticipated eye of the public, the Wizard himself, has bent away, and once more, we are settled in the indifference of the public.
I wonder if this is another wave or if it is finally the flood.
The camera has panned to a young, shiny couple with a sign reading, “Circle us it’s our first anniversary.” Carrie tuts her tongue and smiles at Steve as he places his hand on her shoulder. “Young couples don’t know anything about love.”
Sarah Perret-Goluboff is an emerging writer based in Chicago, IL. Currently, she works for an educational non-profit. Her writing can be found in Bridge Eight Press and 805 Lit + Art. Most recently, her work was nominated to be featured in the Sonder Press Best Small Fictions: 2020 Anthology.
Art by Peter Frederiksen