Authors: Geoff Herbach
When I visited Northwestern, while we lay next to each other in the big hotel bed, Aleah said, “I like you too much, Felton. It's no good.”
I smiled and took that as a compliment and it gave me hope that we might work something out.
What Aleah actually meant when she said “I like you too much” and “no good” came to me in a phone call the week after the Not Named visit. (She'd said similar crap and had gotten weirder and weirder on Skype ever since Northwestern.)
My phone buzzed at 11 p.m. I was lying in bed, trying to read
, which Mr. Linder, my AP English teacher, had assigned.
I answered. “Hey, baby. No Skype?”
Aleah said, “Felton, I can't see your face.”
“Then Skype,” I laughed.
“No,” she said, “I mean, I don't want to see your face.”
“You don't like my face?”
“Felton, I'm sorry I'm doing this on the phone, but I don't know when I'm going to see you again and this can't go on.”
“What?” My heart pumped funny. “What can't go on?” I wheezed.
“I have two offers in Europe, Felton. I'm sorry.”
“No,” I said. “It's okay. It's fine. Europe is good,” I said. Upstairs, I could hear Jerri doing sit-ups. The floorboards squeaked. Jerri did sit-ups like two hours a day during the fall. Part of her “I'm a new human being” routine. My heart began to pound in my throat.
“No,” Aleah said. “I get an offer and I get sad because all I do is think about you and I'm not making any choices and I'm only seventeen and we don't know what's going to happen and I can't sit around my bedroom thinking about how great everything is going to be when we're marriedâ¦”
“Let's just get married,” I blurted. “We can. Next summer!”
“No, Felton,” Aleah whispered. She took a deep breath.
“Please,” I said. “No.”
Aleah went into a rehearsed speech. “I like you very much. You are a sweet, wonderful person, Felton. Unfortunately, we're too young to be making decisions based on our potential lives together. I can't spend any more time wondering where you'll be, wondering if we'll be close. My life is taking me far away and I don'tâ¦”
“Don't,” I said. “This is just your break-up speech from last year. We aren't breaking up. It didn't work last time. We're not going to break up, okay?”
“I can't think about you anymore,” Aleah said. “This is the last time I'm going to talk to you. I'm sorry, but Iâ¦” Aleah exhaled hard. “But I hope you'll be happy. I want you to be happy. You have so much to look forward to and so do I. I hope you understand.”
“I don't understand,” I said.
“Please,” Aleah cried.
My gut filled with poison. My muscles all tensed. I said some bad stuff while I kicked the shit out of my room.
“I'm sorry,” Aleah whispered. Then she hung up.
I totally cried like a small, weak, dipshit kid.
Upstairs, Jerri did her squeaky sit-ups. The floor creaked above. I knew she could hear me when I yelled on the phone. I knew she knew how broken up and stupid I was down there alone in the basement.
A million fire ants bit me in my guts.
“Why are you such a psycho?” I screamed at the ceiling.
Jerri paused for a moment. Then the floor began to creak again.
I felt like I'd blow away.
Mr. Hair Trigger
The next day, while I shuffled alone and sick and defeated through the peach hallways of Bluffton High, I saw Nolan Sauter, Abby's little brother, knock Tommy Bode's books out of his hands and onto the floor. When Tommy bent down to pick them up, Nolan kicked him in the side and Tommy slid down, face to the floor.
Without a thought, in a blink, I smashed the back of Nolan's head against a locker. I held him by his throat and stared at his stupid face. Then I let go and walked away.
“What the hell, Felton?” he called after me.
I know now that Nolan was roughed up because of his mom and dad's divorce. His dad is a giant asswipe. That's true. But you can't go around kicking the crap out of little fat boys because your parents are getting divorced. That's not right.
SomehowâI don't remember walking thereâI ended up at my next class, a lame social studies class called Current Events. All the senior jocks take it. I sat down between Abby and Cody. Cody said, “Your hand is bleeding.”
I looked over at Abby. “Your brother is a dick.”
She stared at me. “I know,” she said.
I held up my bleeding hand. “I got cut when I smashed him against a locker.”
“Dude, Jesus,” Cody said.
“Are you kidding?” Abby asked.
Then class started.
Even though I'd wanted to, I'd never gone after someone the way I went after Nolan. I sort of trembled and I felt a little like crying.
Also this: It felt good to crush him. I admit it.
Hi, my name is Felton Reinstein, and I'm scary.
The following Friday, I was scheduled to fly out to California to visit Stanford. The only reason I chose to do this visit in the first place, of course, was because Aleah said she might end up in San Francisco to study music composition.
Oh holy balls, I didn't want to go. I'd already seen enough college football crap. Plus, I'd texted Aleah a thousand times telling her I was still going to visit Stanford and she should still look at that school for composing because it might really be the perfect fit for her and really good for her future and if that meant it was good for our future too, then that's great! But that's not why I was texting her, I wrote. I said I just loved her and just wanted her to be okay and to succeed in lifeâ¦(ugh). And she hadn't returned a single one and I felt so sick in my guts and I couldn't eat and I slept only in ten-minute stretches and I was dizzy and heavy and the corner of my right eyelid started twitching really badly, which made me think maybe I was having a stroke and I'd die, which I didn't mind.
The only person I told about Aleah was Gus. I told him in the lunchroom.
“She did it. She let me go. She's gone,” I whispered.
“Saw that coming,” he said.
I put my head on the grimy table where we sat.
“You'll be fine. There will be other girls, man.”
“Why didn't I have sex with that pole vaulter while I ate that cheeseburger?”
“I don't know, dude. You should have done it.”
“Shit. Shit. I don't want to go to Stanford, man.”
“I hate these recruiting visits. I can barely speak.”
“All these people just remind me of middle school. They all stick out their chests and grunt and crap. Aleah said I'm not even a football player. She was right. She knows me.”
“You are. You play football. You sure look like a football player.”
“That's what I told her,” I said, lifting my head up and nodding. “I am a football player.”
“Oh shit. Why didn't I grow into a little violin-squeaking geek?”
“Stop, dude. Don't deny what you love.”
“Why don't you try to have fun when you visit Stanford? Pressure's off, man. You can just go to Wisconsin if Stanford sucks. Everybody wants you to go to Wisconsin. Enjoy whatever's offered. Aleah's done with your sorry ass anyway.”
“Who cares? It's about time you guys break up.”
I looked down at the stupid high school lunchroom floor.
“Come on, Felton. Just go and have a good time. This is a free trip to California, man. Check the place out. Maybe some blond pole vaulter will grab your wang.”
I nodded. I agreed.
“I bet if your eyes are open, you'll see stuff you really like,” Gus said. Then Gus, eighteen-year-old boy wonder, gave me some tips on how to behave. He did the job Mother Jerri hadn't.
Okay. This is true:
It is really, really beautiful in California. Hugely. That's good.
First, the driver took me around San Francisco. I'd asked to fly in there instead of Palo Alto when we'd made the visit plans because I'd hoped Aleah would go with me.
Hills and old homes and big pointy parks in the middle of these awesome neighborhoods. I got an iced tea in this coffee shop with giant old-fashioned movie posters on the wall. I think the coffee girl was actually a little man in a dress. I'd never seen anything like it.
Second, this fog rolled in while we drove to Palo Alto. I watched it curl around giant hills.
Third, Stanford. What a place.
On the campus tour, when the tour guide talked, I nodded and listened. She didn't try to grab my business. (She was very cute, but I respect the fact she didn't try to grab my business.) She took me into this giant reading room in the library, where there were old books and leather chairs. That's what I wanted to see.
When the coaches knocked on my room's door, I looked them in the eye (Gus told me to) and shook their hands. (Thanks, Gus.) This worked. They didn't squint at me. This is what I should've done at the other schools (except Not to be Named maybe).
And, yes, I went to a party with players. It was right after their game with Cal-Berkeley, and they'd won and people were pretty psyched. There was a lot of high-fiving and fist-bumping, which I enjoyed. We had a lot of beer. Actually, they had a lot of beer. I had a little, which I hadn't done at the other schools. It tasted terrible, but it definitely calmed me down a lot immediately (unwound me), which turns out not to be a good thing for me to know about beer. And when I talked about stuff I like, I found some people.
A few players didn't just fist-bump me but had actual things to say. I got into a long conversation about comedy and Louis C.K. with the second-string kicker, Sean McDermott. He said the show
on FX is an anti-narrative version of
Here's my brain:
Whuh? Anti-narrative? WHUT THUH FUG?
But I nodded and thought,
Smarty pants like Gus. This guy is the
And then there's completely awesome: the next morning, I played Frisbee with a couple of real students on this big green lawn. I'd asked to stay on campus (again, Gus's suggestionâ“No hotel TV, dickhead”) instead of in a hotel, and I stayed in this ivy-covered guest house and the Sunday morning was blue-skied and beautiful and I wandered out onto the grounds, which were awesomeâ¦And the Frisbee dudes! Incredible! They did these wicked, jumping catches, and they told me that there were three different Ultimate Frisbee leagues on campus.
Then, after they told me I'm awesome (I am a good Frisbee thrower and catcher, and I have a great deal of speed, of course), they said they were going to have some beers and lie out in the sun and asked me to come with, which I couldn't do because I had some more meetings. But, man, I liked these guys. I love Ultimate Frisbee. These dudes hugged me when they took off. I seriously thought I'd cry tears of happiness, but I didn't, which is probably good because that would've been weird.
I love the Stanford campus. It was really, really good.
Okay, yes, in the afternoon, I met with the running back coach, who looked a lot like the other coaches at other schools because he wore those gut-buster coach shorts pulled halfway up his stomach and a white polo shirt with a Stanford tree on his boob and he asked me about my football goals.
“Do you want to play pro ball?” he asked.
I shrugged and I could tell he was sort of confused by me, but I don't think he wanted to punch my face.
Several people, including the cute tour guide (who showed up wearing these big, plastic smart-girl glasses) and Sean McDermott and the head coach, were there when the driver picked me up for the airport. They all shook hands with me.
Sean said, “Total pleasure to meet you, man.” I believed him.
“Yeah. Awesome to meet you. Awesome. Thank you,” I said.
Leaving campus in the cab, I felt so light and excellent and I could breathe and there was no tweak in my stomach.
I could picture my future away from high school for the first time.
thoughts. No basement bed. Beautiful Frisbees. Blue skies and mountains.
Off we rolled. The buildings at Stanford are this white brick and they have these Spanish red roofs that I really like (mostly from seeing them on
). And I thought about that Frisbee and smart people and green, green lawns, and you know what? The beer was pretty tasty if you like goat pee that makes you relaxâbecause holy balls, the only way I can usually relax is to run my ass off for like an hour straight.
I called Gus from the airport.
“Good times?” he asked.
“Shit, man,” I said. “Thanks for the help.”
“I'm your top advisor. Remember that when you get your NFL contract. I want a full-length leather coat to wear in your entourage.”
“Maybe some big gold chains?”
“Yes,” Gus said. “Old school bling please. A bejeweled grill.”
“Okay,” I said. I meant it. I would get him those things if I ever could. And I would make him wear them.
But I couldn't tell anyone (other than Gus, of course). I had to wait until February 1, even though I made my decision that day in November.
This had seemed like sort of a cool deal early in the fall, when everything was easy and sweet and I imagined Aleah there smiling behind me. A producer from ESPN asked me to make my college announcement live on National Signing Day. Part of the deal was that I had to keep it secret. “You can tell no one. Do you understand?” the producer said. “We'll break the news.”
“Awesome,” I said.
Awesome? Really? Not for a dumbass like me.
Back home, I texted Aleah:
I won't even tell you I'm going to Stanford.
She didn't text back.