You would think, based on the fact that I’ve played varsity basketball for three years now, that I know how to score a basket.
You would be wrong.
“Zajac!” Coach screams, waving wildly at me. She’s only using my last name because she can’t remember my first name. “No more shots! Give the ball to someone else!”
It’s almost as humiliating as the air ball I lobbed up a second ago. I play shooting guard, so I’m supposed to, you know, shoot, but this is the third time I’ve taken a shot that hasn’t even touched the rim. The ball is usually so controlled in my hands, but tonight it’s like I’m chucking a giant potato through a wind tunnel.
The opposing team grabs the rebound and my ears burn as I run back to play defense on the other side of the court. I can’t bear to look at my teammates. This is technically just a preseason game, but it’s against Candlehawk Prep, our rival high school, and right now we’re trailing them by eighteen points. On our home court. If we lose this game, we won’t have the chance to redeem ourselves until we play them in the Christmas Classic, which means these dickheads will have the upper hand for the next two months.
I dig my sneakers into the court and try to focus on playing defense. We’re playing man-to-man, which is usually my strong suit, but tonight it’s tripping me up because the opponent I’m guarding happens to be my ex-teammate.
She also happens to be my ex-girlfriend.
Tally Gibson was the first and only person I ever loved. She transferred to my school at the beginning of junior year with all the airs of the big city and a drive to prove herself on and off the court. The first time we talked, she tugged on my ponytail and told me I had the prettiest red hair she’d ever seen. The first time we kissed, it was like a flash fire ripped through me.
I was, in a word, entranced.
For her part, Tally only loved two things. The first was me. The second was being noticed. Tally wanted to be somebody, but she had a hard time making that happen at our school, where the girls’ basketball team was about as significant as the knitting club. I knew she wanted more, but in my mind, more was always something that existed in the distant future, something we would eventually tackle together. I thought we were on the same page until the day she took me out to dinner and announced she was transferring again—and that she wanted to break up. The official letter welcoming her to Candlehawk Preparatory Academy was so wrinkled and worn that I could tell she’d been carrying it around for weeks.
I try not to look at Tally now as she bounds down the court in her new gold jersey, but it’s like pretending the sun doesn’t exist. She pulls her lips into her mouth like she’s trying to keep a neutral expression, but I can tell she’s thrilled with how this game is going. It validates every reason she had for transferring to a school with a better basketball program, a school where she could finally be noticed.
Tally takes her place near me at the top of the key, keeping enough distance to stay open for a pass from her new point guard. But then, almost like she can’t help it, she glances at me.
You okay? she mouths. She’s trying to look concerned, but it feels more condescending. I break the eye contact and turn away. I don’t want her pity.
The other team’s point guard has just about crossed the half-court line when the ref blows his whistle. My best friend, Danielle, has called for a time-out. Danielle is our point guard, varsity captain, and basically our makeshift coach because our official coach is clueless. She hustles over to me and speaks in an undertone before our forwards and center can join us.
“Dude.” She gives me her trademark intense stare. “You gotta focus. Ignore her.”
Danielle knows how devastated I was after Tally broke up with me, and how I’ve just barely recovered. Between that and her competitive drive, Danielle is determined to win this game at all costs, even though we’ve lost to Candlehawk the last three years in a row. We lose most of our games, but it’s never stopped Danielle from dreaming of a winning season.
“I know, I know, I hear you,” I mutter to her. “You didn’t have to call time-out.”
Danielle huffs. “It’s not all about you.” She turns to our forwards and center as they join us. “Listen, do y’all recognize this play they’re about to run?”
The rest of us stare at her. Danielle’s mind is always working overtime, picking up patterns and rhythms the rest of us never see. Every once in a while, she completely zones out when she’s thinking through something. Our friends called it Danielle Vision.
“The point guard does that hand-twirl signal when she wants the forwards to cross-swap,” she says in a hushed tone. “They’re gonna run out to the wings to pull the attention away from the top of the key—”
I’m trying to listen, but my eyes keep searching for Tally. She’s standing in a huddle with her new teammates, doing that thing where she picks up her ankle and balances on one foot. The first time I teased her about that habit, during tryouts last year, she grinned crookedly and said, Why are you watching me so closely?
I wish I could get that moment back. Tally’s arctic-blue eyes, her daring smirk, her eagerness to give this place—and me—a chance. She had yet to learn that playing for a losing girls’ basketball team in a quirky suburban town made you a nobody. I had yet to learn that being a nobody was supposed to bother me.
“—Got it?” Danielle says bracingly, smacking me on the arm. And suddenly we’re taking our positions and the ref is blowing his whistle, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.
It happens too fast: The opposing point guard makes the signal, the forwards cross-swap to the wings, and Tally runs to set a pick against Danielle. She plants her feet and crosses her arms over her chest, becoming a solid screen that Danielle can’t move around. I chase after her, trying to keep up, but she rolls easily off Danielle and zips to the free-throw line to receive her point guard’s pass.
By the time I catch up to her, Tally has already taken her shot. It sails crisply and cleanly through the basket in a perfect, nothing-but-net arc. The gold section of the crowd—which is pretty much all of it—roars with delight. One of their supporters waves a sign that reads Tally it up!!! It makes me want to vomit.
Tally grins as her new teammates rush to high-five her. They’re now up by a whopping twenty points and my team has no chance of coming back. Danielle throws me a death glare, and I realize she must have warned me about the pick. I shrug defensively; she shakes her head and hustles to the baseline so we can pass the ball in for a new play.
It’s in that one stupid second—between picking up the ball and passing it in to Danielle—that I lose it. One of the Candlehawk players who’s hanging all over Tally cackles, “That girl didn’t even see you move! She couldn’t keep up with you!”
That girl. Like I’m some pathetic nonfactor who means nothing to Tally. She obviously didn’t think I was worth mentioning to her new teammates.
“Hey, asshole!” I shout to the Candlehawk player. She turns around, scandalized. So do the rest of her teammates, including a bewildered Tally. “My name is Scottie!”
I hurl the basketball like we’re playing dodgeball and I’m determined to take out their entire team. I feel one boiling second of satisfaction, but then—
Shrieeeeeeeeek. The ref blows his whistle and barrels toward me.
“Technical foul!” he shouts. “Unsportsmanlike conduct!”
The crowd starts booing me. The Candlehawk players throw me scathing, superior looks, except for Tally, who grimaces like I’ve become unhinged. My coach freezes where she stands, clearly unsure of what a technical foul is.
I can feel Danielle staring a hole into the side of my face, but I refuse to make eye contact with anyone as I hustle to the bench. The Candlehawk supporters are still jeering while our handful of home supporters are silent. I’m seething with anger, but there’s a hot prickle of shame running down my spine, too. I take my seat on the bench and keep my eyes fixed on the floor.
* * *
We lose by twenty-three points. I know it’s not all on my shoulders, but I can’t help feeling smaller than the tiniest ant as we line up to shake hands with the other team.
Tally meets my eyes as we file through the handshake line. There’s a look of secondhand embarrassment on her face, like she wants to recoil from me. I’ve seen that look only once before: last spring, when we went to our first real house party and the cheerleading captain had my car towed as a prank. I chased the tow truck down the street, fell and cut my knee open, and dissolved into sobs. Tally put her arm around me, but she seemed more concerned with shushing me than comforting me, especially once the crowd of onlookers grew. I remember feeling like I was both too much and not enough.
After that, I swore off the cool kids and their parties, but Tally tried harder than ever to join them. She never confirmed it, but I’m pretty sure the tow truck incident was the final straw that made her apply to Candlehawk. The humiliating nudge she needed to start over with something better.
“Scottie?” Tally calls when I’m slouching off to the locker room.
I freeze. “Yeah?”
She doesn’t quite make eye contact. “Can you wait for me outside?”
I breathe in sharply. I know it’s not a good idea, but I can’t pass up this chance for a moment alone with her. “Sure, okay.”
She nods and walks away. I continue on toward the locker room but stop in my tracks when some varsity cheerleaders swoop in from the larger gym next door. They must have just finished cheering for the boys’ game. I feel that sweeping blush the cheerleading squad has provoked in me since the towing incident last year, so I crouch down and pretend to tie my shoe until the group of them has passed me.
* * *
Outside, in the senior parking lot, I hike myself up on the retaining wall where people like to smoke weed. Tally will no doubt find me here, since the Candlehawk players insist on parking in our senior lot anytime they play us at home. In a different world, Tally would have parked in this lot every day, right next to my old green Jetta. Now she parks on the other side of town in a sea of Range Rovers and Escalades.
It’s a cool October evening. The marquee in front of the school office is lit up in shining white, spelling out a reminder that it’s Homecoming week, except someone has nicked the second o and replaced it to read HOMECUMING. Our principal will pitch a fit tomorrow, but it won’t stop people from messing with the sign. It’s just one of those things kids around here do.
I live in the town of Grandma Earl, Georgia. We’re famous for a gigantic emporium called Grandma Earl’s Christmas 365, which old Mrs. Earl opened, like, a hundred years ago to sell Christmas decorations year-round. It became such a landmark that the town was eventually named for it. It’s a little wacky, but I love this place. It’s home.
Grandma Earl High School is the home of the Fighting Reindeer, which is why I have to wear a red-and-brown jersey on the basketball court. That color scheme doesn’t look good on anyone, but especially not a fair-skinned redhead like me. That’s one good thing about the lack of fans at our games: fewer people to catch me looking like a fire hydrant. Not that I’ve ever really cared. Or at least, I didn’t used to.
Candlehawk is the town—or township, as they call it—next to ours, and they’re kind of like Grandma Earl’s douchey older brother: cool, cocky, and perpetually embarrassed to be associated with us. We share a border at the old railroad tracks, but things are much different over there: trendy, modern, full of organic coffee roasters and uppity farmers markets. The residents are low-key wealthy and high-key hipster. They show up to our rival games wearing navy beanies and $150 distressed jeans while our half dozen supporters show up in gardening shirts and cargo pants. And at halftime, no matter what the sport, their crowd taunts us about the time a Grandma Earl football player tackled his own teammate in a championship game. It’s the reason Candlehawk sings “Grandma got run over by her own reindeer” whenever we play each other.
I hate that Tally has become a Candlehawk kid, but maybe I should have seen it coming. She was always obsessed with how things looked and who was doing the looking. Dating her felt like viewing my life through a photo filter. Sometimes I was swept up by how great we looked together; other times, I felt like the photo underneath wasn’t good enough on its own.
Copyright © 2021 by Kelly Quindlen