by Bill Torgerson
Because of something that happened between Erica Baker and me, I’m surprised that she smiles when she catches me staring from fifteen rows up the balcony bleachers at a high school basketball game. I’m in town with my wife and two daughters visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. This is a road game for my old high school, played at what’s called Logansport’s Berry Bowl. Dad is down on the bench. He’s an assistant coach, and my wife is home with my mom, our kids probably just asleep. Far below, down on the court, players bounce their way through two-line lay ups, and I savor the smell of fresh popcorn. My knee bounces along to the rhythm of the pep band, and along the far wall, spectators enter through the row of silver shiny doors, stomping off Indiana’s first snow of the season as they come.
Erica walks diagonally across the bleachers towards me, and I realize it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen her. She looks good at thirty-six, dressed in flattering tight black slacks and a form fitting maroon sweater—school colors because her husband is the junior varsity coach, and she’s the cheerleading sponsor. Despite our history, when Erica gets to where I’m sitting, she appears nothing but happy to see me. “Well look who’s here,” she says, standing over me as if I’ve crashed her party, but she’s glad to see me anyway. “I always wondered if you’d ever come to a game.”
With no one looking our way, I wish Erica would just slap me hard across the face so we could be done with it. But she doesn’t hit me. I’m sure she’s never hit anyone. Erica only asks questions me about my life. Horseshoe, the town I’m from and in which Erica still lives, is a very small place—less than two thousand people—and my mom goes to the bank where Erica works. This means that Erica and I have kept up with each other, through my mother. I look to Erica’s face for signs of sarcasm or a decade’s worth of bitterness, but there’s just the same old birthmark under her left eye, a dull-red tear against her winter-white skin.
Although an apology comes to mind, I don’t want to make a scene causing Erica more embarrassment or pain than I’ve already caused. I ask her about her own family, decide to not ask her about the breast cancer I heard she beat, and after a few minutes, she tells me it was good to see me and moves off towards the concession stand. I rise for the national anthem, shortly after that the game begins, but I barely notice, lost in my memory of a party that happened the summer after I graduated from high school.
The party was at Matthew Walker’s house, a classmate of mine whose mother was divorced and often out of town on trips with her boyfriend. I had been to pool parties, parties with sports teams, and birthday parties at the bowling alley, but never one with alcohol, girls, and no supervision. During the four years I was a high school student, I held myself out of such events mostly for fear of getting caught and suspended from the basketball team, but also because I had a girlfriend, a taut and fiery beauty of a point guard named Samantha. My senior year didn’t go as planned: the game after the Logansport game I broke my wrist. Physical breaks led to emotional ones and not too long after my injury, Samantha broke up with me, something that confirmed what I’d always secretly believed: people noticed me only because I could play basketball. By the time the next summer rolled around—and by this I mean the summer of the thing that happened with Erica—I had given up the dream of college basketball and enrolled at Indiana University. For the first time since elementary school, I wasn’t on any kind of team, and so it seemed to me that on the night of Matthew’s party, the worst that could happen would be an underage drinking citation.
With visions of myself in some version of the movie Risky Business—not the part with the hookers but the scene where Tom Cruise runs around the house in his underwear—I drove to J.C. Penney’s and bought myself a pair of blue-striped Calvin Klein underwear. I thought myself ready for all possibilities.
The Walker house was in the middle of town, oddly not close to any other houses, next to the Marathon gas station and across from the Burger Dairy. It was located at one of the town’s two stoplights, a ranch with a big front porch, a back deck, and windows to the basement at ground level, through which Matthew was known to have snuck many a girl. Because I didn’t know to arrive stylishly late, there were just four people at the house when I showed up: Matthew, his girlfriend Tonya, her best friend Dawn, and Pete Ewalt. The guys went for beer as soon as I got there, and I was left to awkward silences with the girls. Tonya was a cheerleader and a state qualifier in the 400, a rare combination of intimidating beauty and explosive speed. Dawn was plump, playful, and flirty in a way that always made me uneasy, as if I were back in middle school still afraid to kiss a girl.
“Want something to drink?” Tonya asked. She meant alcohol, something I was known for not consuming. Tonya wore a short red miniskirt striped like a candy cane. The girls held plastic cups and were sitting on the couch. I told them I’d take a drink and so Tonya rose and poured me some Captain Morgan rum and added a little bit of Coke. I thanked her for it, and before I could take it to my lips, Dawn stopped me by putting her hand on my wrist, a touch I especially noticed because at the age of eighteen not many girls had touched me. When Samantha and I had been together, we rarely held hands or engaged in the mischievous grabbing and cupping I saw amongst my classmates. Mostly we went right to the sex part, an act which always left me feeling guilty, at least with what I had understood was guilt until the thing happened with Erica, after which I learned that a man could carry an action with him as if he’d had a weighted vest soldered to his chest.
“To friends,” Dawn said and raised her drink. Probably she was just doing what she did at a lot of parties, but I remember thinking that I could use some real friends. My break up with Samantha and the end of my basketball life had left me feeling as if I was just an ordinary person, one of the thousands of regular students who would attend Indiana University that upcoming fall. Of course this was absolutely true and not an easy realization for me, a teenager who’d grown accustomed to seeing his name on the front page of the local sports section. The girls and I tapped our plastic cups in a toast, and then I took a big drink. It tasted fantastic—like a vanilla Coke, but better.
“It’s about time,” I said. Tonya and Dawn laughed; my social clumsiness seemed to drain as fast as the drink. When I finished what was probably my third rum and Coke, Tonya introduced me to a drinking game: it was called I Never. You may have played it. The idea is that someone states what they’ve never done, and if anyone has done the deed, they have to drink. “I’ve never been to Mr. Happy Burger,” Tonya said to start the game. We’d all been there, and so we all drank. I noticed the muscles in Tonya’s thighs as she bounced her toes up and down, brimming with energy.
To keep the game going, I said something like, “I’ve never curled my hair.” This I thought to be a clever line, one sure to make the girls drink. They did, and I noticed that Tonya’s skirt had begun to ride up her legs. Surely she noticed me noticing her. The statements became more sexual: “I’ve never given a hickey,” Dawn said, and then we all took a big gulp. The girls began to use the game to reveal their sexual histories and to find more out about mine. Tonya added a rule that you could refuse a question and take a dare. The first one involved flashing your underwear from the side, something that made me glad for my purchase. The girls each had on thongs with waistbands no thicker than a shoestring, the sort of garment I’d never seen on the flesh of a woman and only glanced at out of the corner of my eye strolling through the mall.
In order to avoid confessing I’d only had one sexual partner, I refused a question under the gentlemanly guise of not wanting to kiss and tell. Tonya dared me to French kiss her, and as I previously mentioned, she was the girlfriend of the host of the party. It was Matthew’s living room in which I sat. Tonya rose from her seat and made her way towards me. Just as she knelt down—I remember that she smelled of Obsession, a potion created by the same company that produced my underpants—Matthew and Pete came home. Tonya winked at me and hurried back to her seat. The three of us tried to act as if we’d just been drinking and talking, but there must have been some aspect of my behavior that made it clear to Matthew I was drunk. When I followed him into the kitchen, he collared me.
“You better watch out, Trigger,” he said. It was his nickname for me, one that implied that I pulled the trigger of my jump shot too frequently for his taste. It was a fairly accurate moniker, and Matt always said it nasty. He resented my role on the basketball team, but since he was on his way to Purdue to play tailback, I didn’t see where it mattered much anymore.
“What?” I asked, wondering how he could know about Tonya so quickly. Of course he didn’t know anything at all; his warning was about something else, that sometimes when a man drinks a lot, he can’t get a hard on. I see now he was warning me of his problem, not mine. I had my own problems, different from Matthew’s.
After Matthew finished playing Dr. Ruth, he went back into the living room, and I stayed in the kitchen to talk to my friend “Tank,” who’d just arrived. He and I were friends, this even though he was a wrestler, a subculture that doesn’t usually mesh with basketball. We were talking sports when Tonya came through the kitchen door to a spot right between Tank and me.
I kissed her. I think she kissed me back.
Tank separated the two of us as if we were younger than him, as if we were freshman not taking one of his wrestling practices seriously. He sent Tonya back to the room from where she came and told me that a guy who kissed another guy’s girlfriend—especially when that guy was a guest at the other guy’s house—this sort of person probably deserved to get beat up. I agreed. Then Tank laughed. I could tell he was worried for me, but also proud.
By the time I went back into the living room, there were at least fifteen people at the party, and I Never was being played with laughter and enthusiasm. Tonya or Dawn must have started it back up again. It felt like the part of the night where I could run around the house in my underwear like Tom Cruise, but I was well ahead of the rest of the partygoers. The game began to include sexual comments about the teachers who’d taught us. I outlawed any mention of my father and mother, who both taught at the high school. Although Erica Baker must have been there, I hadn’t consciously registered her, and instead spent my night sneaking peeks at what Tonya and Matthew were doing. She sat on his lap, they danced together, and they often kissed in a way that seemed passionate to me. Some of the party goers went to the front porch to drink and smoke, but Matthew and Tonya went downstairs to where the bedrooms were. I’d been down there a couple of times; Matthew had a punching bag hanging from one of the beams. I’m not sure of my intentions, but I know I knew Matthew and Tonya had sex. In fact, it was the general consensus of our class that during the time we were eighth graders, Matthew and a girl named Angel Zimmerman had been the first in our class to do it.
When I reached the basement, I could hear laughing. The door to the first bedroom was open. Trophies and jerseys filled the walls and mostly it was consumed by a giant water bed covered with an aqua-colored comforter. No one was in there. For some reason—maybe they wanted to try a different bed—Matthew and Tonya were in the next room over. I heard footsteps on the stairs and turned around. It was Erica; she’d followed me. Now I wonder if she’d been watching me the way I’d watched Tonya.
Our lips touched, but what we did didn’t feel like kissing, more like my face was a napkin and Erica used it to blot her lipstick. I can’t remember who led who into the bedroom—I want it to have been her, but I know we went in and lay down on Matthew’s bed and began kissing and running our hands over each other’s bodies. Erica’s tongue darted like a snake’s. She kissed nothing like Samantha, but I noticed that my hard on, the one I’d had when Matthew had warned me about drinking too much, it had returned. I had Matthew’s warning on my mind when I got out of bed. Even though he was going to play sports at a Big Ten school, drove a 1970 Chevelle to my rusted Mercury Marquis, and had a girlfriend when I had none, my hard on confirmed he’d been wrong about me.
I left Erica on the bed, unzipped my pants, and barged into the next bedroom where even though they were only shadowy figures in the dark, I could I could tell Matthew was on top of Tonya. They had a revolving many-colored disco ball going in the corner; I’d seen it before at one of those Spencer stores in the mall, and neither of them bothered to cover up. My pants were open, pulled a little way down, and although I still had on my Calvin Klein underpants, the state I was in was obvious.
“You gonna tell me not to drink too much?” I said, feeling as if Matthew would be shocked and impressed at what I had been able to achieve.
“Attaboy Trigger!” he said, entertained and disappointingly not envious. “Now get the hell out of here.” Tonya giggled, and I think she said something along the lines of Oh, Lord. Even after that, I didn’t return to Erica, but took off my pants and called out to her on my way up the stairs that I’d be right back. She laughed and asked me where I thought I was going. I bounded up the stairs wearing socks, my dress shirt, and my new pinstriped underwear.
When I came tearing into the living room, REO Speedwagon was on the stereo, couples slow danced and made out. They all stopped for me. “Look at his chubby,” said Angel Zimmerman, pointing down towards my waist. Someone put on a song called “Funkytown.” It was one of my favorites. Everyone made a circle and began to clap.
I danced. A drunken dance, full of pelvic thrusts, wiggles of my rump, and free twirls with my arms over my head. I worked the room like I thought a Chippendale dancer might.
No one else took their pants off, so when the song ended, I headed back downstairs to raucous applause. Amidst calls for an encore, I heard someone yell, “Go get her, Chubby.”
I returned to the bed with Erica in it, and we began to take each other’s clothes off. Her kisses flicked into my mouth. The more we did, the more she wasn’t Samantha, who I had at least naively believed that I loved. Certainly, earlier in the evening, I’d lusted for Tonya and there was a certain worthy tradeoff for such an act for the consequences it might bring: mostly I mean sin but also pregnancy. Erica was neither of those girls. Whatever forces of magic that conspire to mix the potion of desire, the recipe of Erica and I didn’t work. What I wanted to do was preserve some sort of idea I had for being a man, something I thought I could accomplish if I got Erica off—that is, if I was able to bring her to an orgasm—then I could leave without having actual intercourse. What came next must have been the result of some of what had gone on between Samantha and me, which was that towards the end of our relationship she had asked me to talk dirty to her. Although I was willing, I could never think of anything to say. Samantha had supplied me with some lines and it was one of those that I said to Erica that night: “Do you want me to lick your cunt?”
Erica asked me to repeat myself. I didn’t, and instead took the sides of her panties and began to pull them down. “We can do anything you want,” she said, “but just not sex.” It was a relief to hear her say it. Anything but sex; I could do that. Without speaking, I continued with her panties. She repeated the line about no sex.
“Trust me,” I said. Of course any liar who wants sex can utter those words. In fact, they’re probably the most obvious, most frequent words that liars use. I must remember to warn my daughters about this when they’re old enough.
The party had begun with the silly fun I’d imagined: drinking and running around the house in my underwear. But I hadn’t yet learned to look ahead, to see what events might naturally follow the ones I intended. And when those circumstances came along, I rode my environment—with all its expectations and perceived peer pressure and ignorant definitions of manhood—right into bed with a girl who had been nothing but sweet to me. Erica Baker deserved a man with enough character to speak the truth of his conscience and slide out of bed no matter what anyone might say. But I wasn’t that man, not yet. I inserted my finger into Erica and slid up the bed from taking her panties off so I could kiss her again.
I worked her and surprisingly she narrated the way to orgasm: “it’s happening…it’s happening…” She said this again and again with increasing intensity until it actually happened in much less time than I had grown accustomed to with Samantha. Next, I told her thank you, which I can now see was a completely humiliating thing to say. I got out of bed, picked up my clothes, and headed upstairs to get dressed. If the night had ended there, it would have been bad, but not as bad as it got.
The Walker living room—littered with plastic cups, empty beer bottles, and a few discarded pieces of burnt pizza—appeared deserted when I passed through it on my way to the bathroom to put my clothes on. Once dressed, I went into the kitchen where I found Pete Ewalt sitting on the linoleum floor swigging out of a bottle of Purple Passion. He was a crude young man who eventually carried his crudeness with him into adulthood like one of Matthew’s giant football trophies. He had a knack for attracting women with his unkindness. Of course it didn’t work every time, but he knew his strength and played it like a card up his sleeve every chance he got. Pete not only made it a point to not compliment women, he went out of his way to hurt their feelings. For reasons I’ve never completely understood, some women find this sort of behavior irresistible. Is it really so simple that some people are especially impressed with people who aren’t impressed with them?
“Did you fuck that whore?” Pete asked me between swigs of his drink. The question opened a doorway through which Pete might have been surprised I was willing to enter.
“Are you kidding?” I answered. “I wouldn’t put my dick into that stink hole.” I had a card up my own sleeve that Pete probably wouldn’t have imagined I could play. There it was, as ugly as anything I’ve ever seen.
Pete laughed at that, took another drink, and then gave me a piece of advice. “Still,” he said, “you should have got your rocks off—nothing wrong with using a bitch for that.”
“I know,” I said. Who was I, this man talking this way? “I was going to do that at least, but when I got face-to-face with that freakish birthmark of hers…” Right then Erica interrupted what I was saying. She must have come up the stairs when I was in the bathroom. Because I was on the kitchen side of the breakfast bar and couldn’t see where she’d been sitting down on a bean bag in what the Walker’s referred to as their TV room. I had no idea Erica was in the room, but now that I think of it, Pete had to have seen her come up the stairs.
“I can hear every goddamn word you’re saying,” Erica said, a girl who I don’t think I ever heard say anything stronger than gosh. I could tell from her voice that she was already crying. She rose from the floor and tore out of the room and down the stairs. I heard the door to the bedroom slam.
I didn’t chase her, which looking back is what I wish I would have done. At eighteen, I thought I had to understand my actions, be able to explain them to Erica if I was going to tell her I was sorry. But of course a man doesn’t have to understand all the philosophical underpinnings of why he has done something wrong, of why he has done something for which he should apologize. All I would have had to do was start with the words I’m sorry, and I could have figured out the rest. But instead, I found some vodka, took up a spot on the couch, and listened to whatever Pete Ewalt had to say until I drank myself to sleep. When I woke in the morning, Erica was gone. A few months after that, she went to Ball State, me to Indiana, and the few times we saw each other after that, we traded casual hellos.
For years I told myself an apology would be the selfish thing to do and reasoned that since Erica joined a sorority in college, she must have likely gone on to live many other nights like the one we’d experienced at Matthew’s house. Probably worse. If I brought up what happened, I’d only hurt her with hopes of alleviating my own guilt. I’d gone over that train of thinking so many times that I almost believed it, but sitting there in the bleachers of Logansport’s Berry Bowl, I knew I was wrong. When I was in high school, I was just a kid afraid of getting caught doing something his parents thought was wrong, but on the night of Matthew’s party, I became a coward who caved to pressure from a guy I know used to bury cats up to their necks and run over them with his lawnmower. How could I have cared what Pete Ewalt thought? It wouldn’t have even been a brave thing to separate myself from him. It would have only been logical. From my spot halfway up the balcony bleachers, my face reddens with shame.
I rise from my seat and head straight for Erica, who stands at the corner of the gym looking down on her cheerleaders as they perform during a timeout. She doesn’t see me coming, and when I reach her, I ask softly, “Can I talk to you?” From the way she responds, I can tell she has always remembered the night at the Walker house. She’d probably just gone over the events of that night herself. She doesn’t ask, About what? Her smile from before is gone. I take her hand—in the small community where I grew up, it’s a dangerous thing to do—but I lead her away from the crowded concession stand and down a hall where the classroom part of the school begins. We make two turns and enter a hallway lit only by the lights that shine on photographs of teams from the past.
After I ask her if she remembers the party, she nods her head yes,then looks at the cold tile of the hallway. “That night in the kitchen,” I say, “I said something about you that wasn’t true.” Her head shoots up to my face. The sprinkle of her birthmark glows like the ember of a fire.
“Then why did you say it?” she asks. I can see that for her, there couldn’t have been any reason for my words other than that they had been true. All those years ago, I didn’t know what to say, but now I can at least begin.
“I’m sorry. I was a coward. I felt like girls liked Pete Ewalt and Matthew Walker better than me. I put you down because I thought I was nothing.”
“But why didn’t you want to sleep with me?” she asks. It’s a question that surprises me because she seems not to remember that she asked me not to. What must have stayed with her is the essence of how I made her feel about herself.
“Because I was afraid of sex,” I answer. “Afraid that you might get pregnant. Afraid that I might not get to go to college, and afraid of telling you that I was afraid.”
“You called me a stink hole,” Erica says. “How could you say that? I’d only been with one other person.” There are real tears on her face now. Stinkhole, where had I even heard it?
“None of what I said was true.”
“Then why did you say it?” she repeated. “You had to have thought it.”
“You were a beautiful girl,” I said. “You’re a beautiful woman now. I lied to look good in front of Pete, and I didn’t even like Pete. I failed you. I failed myself.”
“All those years,” she said. “I thought I was unattractive, so disgusting that you wouldn’t even have sex with me. You made me feel like a freak.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling as if I want to put my hands on her shoulders. “I was sorry as soon as the words came out of my mouth, but I didn’t know how to take them back.”
“You can’t,” Erica says. “How can you be such a nice man and do such a terrible thing?”
“I’m sorry,” I say again, knowing I will never be able to say it enough. “You’re right; it was terrible. I have always regretted saying it. I will always regret every word I said.”
“You should,” Erica says. “This doesn’t help, but I’m glad you at least said it.” The emotion lifts from her face, as if she’s spent enough time talking to the likes of me. Erica turns away abruptly and walks quickly from the hall, back towards the bright lights of the gym. I hear a buzzer and the chants of Erica’s cheerleaders, as if they mean to urge her on as she marches away from me. After she disappears around the corner, I follow the same path, moving slowly so she can get well ahead of me. Looking into the trophy cases as I go, yellowed photographs curling around the edges, I see my name is printed on a card slid into a slot for the most points scored in the gymnasium, a night I’d once pinned my hopes upon. When I reach the bright lights of the gym, a whistle blows, the players break from their huddles, and move out onto the court to resume the game. Erica has chosen a seat on the other end of the gym, right next to her mother, who I didn’t realize was at the game—possibly she saw us and knows the whole story. Erica doesn’t look towards me. She stares at the court watching the game while her mother puts her arm around her and squeezes.
The apology wasn’t for me. My chest feels like a deflated basketball. It is how I will always feel when I remember Erica Baker. The apology was for her, something she has always needed and deserved.