On Tuesday during lunchroom duty at Smoky Ordinary High School, where he teaches history, Ned feels awake. Like he’s slid into the familiar blue pool of his body, like his eyelids are fully open, like he has become a real person again—truly awake—for the first time in the four months since his father died. He’s on watch at the door for unlawful food smuggling, scanning the room, when he sees Margot.
She’s calmly eating butterscotch pudding at the teachers’ table on the other side of the cafeteria, amid the noise and catsup and restlessness of a hundred teenagers. Eating here is part of his ex-wife’s campaign as the principal of Smoky Ordinary High to tear down the boundaries between the students and staff, boundaries Ned has always rather liked.
Margot has just returned from a four-week exchange with a principal in Southern California, and she is like a freckled, happy stranger. Ned sees her now with his whole self, as if someone has peeled a film from his eyeballs, and his vision fills him all the way to his toenails. At forty-one, he understands, she is an absolute knockout—not a knockout “for her age” but a pure knockout. There are sixteen year-olds at the school, he knows, who stutter nervously when she greets them in the halls. He studies her long slender limbs, her blond hair, and that skin, exotically dappled with fresh freckles. Ned ignores the table closest to him, where two boys are hocking up mucus into each other’s carton of milk. He could punish them with detention, but he ignores them, just as he ignores the group of girls from the Thespian Society who are squealing and jumping up and down at the lunch counter, as well as the girls from the basketball team in line behind them, mocking the other girls by fake-squealing and fake-jumping.
Margot sits there with her back to the long row of rectangular metal-framed windows, her posture straight and elegant like she should be in Lexington at Churchill Downs wearing white gloves and a hat with real flowers on it. And anyone could see that when she rises from her chair she will be six feet tall, lithe as a dancer. Something about the sun-drenched color of her hands, he thinks. Or maybe it’s just the hands themselves—wide and flat with long fingers and a graceful grip around the spoon that delivers the pudding to her full lips. Something about the way she holds her fingers makes him recall the last time they made love, twenty-three months ago, after the divorce was final and just before he met his second wife Sally. He allows the memory to roll through him in cool waves. He can feel those fingers, their tender tips under his shirt on his chest, his stomach, the gentle firmness of them as they slide into his boxer shorts. That touch on his skin seems to kick-start him, like a deep breath after nearly drowning. Ned gasps silently, and he wonders if deep down he doesn’t still love Margot. He wonders if he isn’t having a moment of divine insight, like the persecuted heroes in his Heritage & Glory textbook.
Theirs was not one of those shocking divorces; no one said, “But they seemed so happy!” Ned and Margot had courted intensely at the end of college, married, had their daughter Ellie, and then proceeded with their marriage as if it were a cut-throat—but amateur—tennis match. They both had affairs, reckless shots at each other that left them off-balance, and on the rare occasions that they attended parties or dinners together, they made jokes at one another’s expense, volleying back and forth until people began leaving the room. The most surprising thing about their divorce, even to their own teen-age daughter, is that it came so late. In a literal sense, Ned hasn’t really known Margot for years, which somehow makes his ability to conjure up intimate images of her seem very wrong. But he won’t say, at this moment, that he’s sorry he can.
He watches Margot tilt her head closer to Madame Sanders, the French teacher. He imagines the smell of Margot’s neck, the tangy sweet of her apple body lotion, and he feels a cold trickle along the hairs on his arms, along his throat, his spine. He wonders if yesterday’s accident has jarred something loose, opening him to feel something hidden in himself, and he reaches toward the bandages under his slacks on his shin and thigh, the wounds that have suddenly begun to tingle, as if his whole body is waking, not just his mind.
He thinks about yesterday. It’s that time in the fall when the Virginia leaves have turned the color of the setting sun his father had always said reminded him of Ned’s mother’s hair. She had died of cancer when Ned was a toddler, and that particular shade of auburn, pointed out again and again by his father, has been one of the only ways Ned connects with her.
So yesterday, because he felt unable to stop thinking about both of his parents being gone, Ned decided to exercise alone, to take his road bike out along a long, twisting route through the woods instead of going to the weight room with Coach Mike Lester and some of his football players, as he normally does when he finishes teaching; as a veteran teacher, Ned has his prep hour the last period of the day and can leave early when he wants. On many days, when he’s had to lecture to mouthy sophomores all afternoon, his spirits get a boost from outlifting all but the strongest linemen on Mike’s varsity team.
About seven miles from home, the brakes on his bike locked as he tried to slow down on a sharp curve. In a long, rational moment, he knew that the best action he could take would be to go into a slide, staying close to the pavement by kicking loose from his toe clips and shoving the bike away from his body, but he’d understood that instead he was going to fly over the handlebars, which is exactly what he proceeded to do, his anchored feet pulling his pedals and then the rest of the bike off the asphalt. As his body twisted in the air toward the center stripe, a car appeared in the opposite lane, a pale blue Mercedes with a metal grill, maybe an old one, 1972 or 1973. Ned’s mind produced a flitting, precise calculation: Given his trajectory and the significant mass and velocity of the Mercedes, he was about to become very flat and very dead as well. He landed on his side, his arm slightly under him, his head somehow not striking the ground. In what must have taken less than a second, sprawled there on the asphalt, he watched the car swerve; he saw the complex topography of tire tread jerk away from his head.
The driver of the car, probably terrified by what almost happened, didn’t stop, and shaking with adrenaline Ned lifted himself and his bike off the ground. He straightened his seat, which had been turned sideways by the impact, put the limp chain back on the gears, and continued cycling. He looped back on another road to his house, and only when some children stopped their games in the piles of leaves to stare did he look down and notice the raw pink spray of road scrapes that ran the length of his leg, the deep, six-inch gash above his knee, the blood in a rivulet down to his white sock, soaking it. And he felt little, hardly any pain at all. Until now, until Margot.
He glances at his slacks and then around the room to see if anyone notices that the tingling of his injuries has spread, and that he has a slight erection. It’s a worry but also a welcome surprise—he’s been having problems in this department for some time. He looks at Margot. Is she looking at him? She grins, gives a dainty wave, fingers wiggling. Her mouth goes pouty and he imagines she is about to blow him a kiss, but just then a teacher leans across the table to ask her something. Margot leans to one side and continues to smile at Ned over the teacher’s shoulder. Exhilarated, he smiles back, too much even—his cheeks hurt from grinning.
Ned looks around the teeming cafeteria for Mike Lester. Right now is the rare occasion when he feels like talking to someone, but Mike is the only person, aside from Sally, who knows what’s been happening—that he’s felt for months as if he’s been watching his life through a window, almost as if it hasn’t been his. Or maybe, he thinks now, it’s simply that he’s wished it weren’t his life, because in this life he does have, he doesn’t have Margot. It’s strange to think that until now he hasn’t realized how crucial she still is to him. The longing for her is a sensation as acute now as the long, serrated gashes on his leg.
But he can’t say any of these things to anyone, because Mike is nowhere to be seen, probably already out on the soccer field with his fourth period class, good naturedly shouting, “For the love of Christ, pick up your feet!” P.E. is the only class students care as little about as history, a state of affairs that Ned and Mike often discuss over beers at the Carlos O’Kelly happy hour. During Ned’s history classes, the students gripe that the material is irrelevant to their lives; they fidget. Mike loves to egg on the whiners in P.E., the ones who complain they have been committed to a Nazi labor camp, as if the injustice of elevating their heart rates is criminal—though in truth they read so little history that Ned often wonders if they’d recognize a Nazi in full regalia, goose-stepping around the Smoky Ordinary High School baseball diamond.
At this moment, however, Ned would tell Mike that he doesn’t mind all that. When he and Margot again lock eyes now across the room, it is enough that he, Ned Harrison, is alive.
That night, after he makes love with a pleasantly surprised Sally, Ned realizes that maybe he’s facing an entirely different problem now. In the dark, he stares at the yellow valances on the window, at the open blinds, at the very tops of the shrubs he and Sally planted along the south side of the house. His legs are still tangled with hers and with the sheets, the film of sweat on his skin just now growing cold. Her breathing has slowed to a regular rhythm. He casts his eyes along the length of the room, lets them rest on the boxes of yearbooks and trophies in the corner, things they still haven’t unpacked in the year they’ve lived in this house. Is it a sign? Maybe, he thinks, Sally has simply been serving as a Margot substitute. If he is honest with himself, he has to admit he has been picturing Margot tonight. The realization keeps him awake after Sally drifts off, her head on his chest and her arm draped over his lean abdomen—he’s not so bad himself at forty-two. He touches her thick brown hair. Maybe if he touches her head, he can connect with what’s inside it.
They have only been married a year. They met at a dance-a-thon that raised money for lower-income youths to go to college, and Ned has always thought that was the right kind of circumstance to meet someone solid—and most of the time since, he’s thought Sally is the most amazing person he has ever known. She works in a hospice for the terminally ill, and while she might not have the athletic habits he does, or—he admits it to himself now—the stunning body of Margot—emotionally she has the strength of an ox, something that drew him to her immediately. Ned’s father didn’t die a long, painful death like Sally’s patients; he dropped dead of a heart attack on his riding lawn mower. But somehow Sally still knew exactly how to handle everything. She mostly left Ned alone during the few days leading up to the funeral, but she gave him chores to do that occupied him a little, like cleaning the gutters and refinishing a bookcase. Then one night after the funeral, while they were watching the news about a bombing someplace far away, she took his arm and draped it over her shoulder. And even though he hadn’t ever cried in front of Margot, he had suddenly broken down with Sally. His father, who had been the football coach at Smoky Ordinary High School for thirty years, would have told him to stop being such a girl. Mike would have punched him in the shoulder and walked out of the room, embarrassed.
Ned moves his hand to Sally’s back as she sleeps, and her bones feel small and bird-like. When she’s awake she seems so much bigger than a mere three inches over five feet. He thinks now, lying on his back in the dark, staring out the window at the swollen harvest moon, that maybe he married her because she seemed, in every way, to be endless. Unlike his mother, who died when he was three. Unlike his father, who was only endless when it came to expecting excellence on the football field, who was disappointed with Ned for only making the second-team all-state squad. Unlike Margot, who had endless demands of herself when it came to her career—giving everything to her students and staff—and reserved nothing to give to him.
He concentrates on the steady rhythm of Sally’s breath and it lulls him to sleep.
By Thursday, the big gash above the knee on Ned’s right leg has become infected. The leg swells like a plump, tight sausage, and he finds himself limping through the halls between classes.
“So, whose ass did you kick?” Mike Lester says when Ned limps into the faculty lounge for lunch, his one-week stint on cafeteria patrol over.
“Mine, I think,” Ned says.
“Let me have a look at that,” Mike says.
Mike was once a physical trainer for a professional soccer team up in Baltimore, but he gave it up for the chance to return to Smoky Ordinary and coach the football team after Ned’s father retired. Mike was three years behind Ned in school, and so they had known each other only by gridiron reputation—Ned the star defensive back, punter, and coach’s son, Mike the freshman squad’s quarterback, already acknowledged as savior of the next season’s varsity team. Now he pushes up Ned’s pant leg, carefully unwraps the ace bandage, and winces when he sees the wounds that run from Ned’s shin up to his thigh, and the almost purple gash, still open, next to his knee. “Christ,” he whispers, glancing over his shoulder at Mrs. Johnson and Miss Field. He gently touches Ned’s oozing skin. “What the hell have you done to yourself?”
“Remember that bike wreck?”
“You did a horrible job cleaning it out,” Mike says. “It reeks. You need antibiotics.”
Ned feels strangely at one with his numb, misshapen leg, and he isn’t as alarmed as he knows he should be. “I know,” he says.
“With an infection like this, you can actually lose toes, or worse if you let it go long enough.” Mike rewraps the bandage and adjusts Ned’s pant leg and then he looks at Ned. “You’re all pale. You feel a little woozy?”
“No. I’m fine,” Ned says, but he’s lying. He has been a little dizzy all day, and probably running a fever, though he hasn’t necessarily correlated it to his leg. Maybe this is just the excitement of the new him, the new Ned, he’s been thinking.
“That’s good,” Mike says and he goes across the room to the sink and washes his hands. “Go to the doctor,” he says to Ned, over the heads of the two teachers at the table. “It’s more than I can deal with.”
“What time is the game tomorrow?” Ned asks, changing the subject, thinking of Margot, knowing she’ll be there to greet parents and mingle with alumni. He hasn’t told anyone about his renewed feelings for her, not even Mike. But he can’t stop thinking about the look he and Margot shared in the cafeteria on Tuesday. This week is Homecoming, and the Smoky Ordinary Blue Devils are playing their oldest rivals, the Robert E. Lee Rebels from Brilliant.
He imagines himself talking to Margot as the band plays at halftime. He sees her looking at him the way she did the other day, only better—unfettered, without interruptions. She gazes at him like he is a new and wonderful discovery—an uncharted planet or a cure for a disease. He cannot imagine what he is saying to her or what she’s saying to him, only the happy music of the marching band, and then he kisses her, and she is so limber in his arms, in a way she never was before, as if maybe they will dance, and they will both know the steps, like people in a movie. He feels a little guilty for not saying anything to Mike, and he wonders if his thoughts about Margot are transparent, if Mike and everyone else at school already know. He almost wants them to.
“The game’s at seven,” Mike says, plucking a brown paper towel from the metal dispenser on the wall and drying his hands. “Like they always are.” He stuffs the wadded paper towel into a trashcan with a swinging lid. “Why don’t you come down and watch from the sidelines?” He smiles, which extends the lines on his tan, handsome face. “It’ll keep you from getting swarmed by all the old-timers wanting to talk to you about your dad.”
“It’s my week to have Ellie. She’ll be with me,” Ned says.
“Bring her. It’ll be good for her to be around a bunch of sweaty jocks. She probably doesn’t remember what boys look like.” Since kindergarten, Ellie has attended an all-girls Catholic school, the same one Margot went to.
“That was her mother’s whole idea,” Ned jokes. He finds Ellie’s separation from boys both a relief and something to worry about.
“I hear that, brother,” Mike says and gives Ned a high five. Mike’s twin ten-year-old daughters sometimes—holding hands—sneak into the locker room after the games for a peek. Mike’s wife left without warning a few years earlier, and now he has a live-in girlfriend who’s great in the sack but not very good with children. He has to bring them to practice some days, even to Saturday-morning films with his assistant coaches. “Maybe Ellie can keep an eye on the girls,” Mike says, “keep them out of trouble.”
Ned thinks of Ellie’s almost scary knack for staying out of trouble. If kids usually rebel against their parents’ values, try to be their parents’ opposites, he wonders what Ellie’s behavior is suggesting about his life, or Margot’s life. Of course, now there are parts of Margot’s life he knows nothing about. He’s glad she’s never remarried. “Hey,” he says now to Mike, and he lets out a laugh that sounds, to his own ear, high-pitched and weird. “I’ll tell you something funny about Margot.” His heart begins to race and warmth spreads up his neck. He isn’t sure what he’s going to say.
Mike doesn’t look up. “I’ll tell you what,” Mike says, taking a bite of his apple. “She’s been looking really foxy since she got back from California. Not that it matters.” He rolls his eyes. “She’s such an ice queen.”
Ned knows Mike first took up this opinion out of loyalty to him, but now the statement leaves him breathless. His friend’s words recall the way Margot looked at him that last morning, when he’d tried to come home at 6 am. Her hair mussed, her face stoic and impenetrable, she had stood blocking the front doorway, using every inch of her height. He had thought at the time that it was disgust he saw in her eyes, and he had slunk away from her, from the marriage, without another word, letting her unspoken point carry the day. Even when they’d made love that final time after the divorce, in his car outside the lawyer’s office, she seemed distant, unaffected, like it was one more formality in the proceedings, to duck out of the rain into his car and wait for him to lean toward her. But now he wonders if maybe he was wrong that final morning. Now, he knows, in a way he hasn’t before, that people hide inside themselves and outside themselves, as if they are avoiding enemy fire, as if they are at war. He thinks how Sally, who seems so strong, sometimes cries later when she can do so privately, after the patient has died and after the family has left and after she has come home and taken a bath. That’s when she cries—alone and clean and sitting on the toilet lid.
“So what do you have to say about her? Our principal the ice queen, I mean,” Mike says, lobbing his apple core six feet into the trashcan. The swinging lid flies around in a complete circle.
Maybe, Ned thinks, Margot has never been what she seems. Maybe back then she had really been disgusted not with Ned but with herself, for loving him. Maybe what she had really wanted was for him to force his way back into the house, to care that much. Now there’s no way to know. “What do I have to tell you?” Ned says. “Oh, just the same as what you said. She looks like a new woman. She doesn’t look like your typical Smoky Ordinary woman, that’s for sure.” Ned leaves Mike at the table and throws his uneaten lunch in the trashcan; this thought—the regret—makes him feel a little sick. He tries to shake it off as he limps down the hallway, on his way back to class.
When Thursday night comes, Ned still hasn’t been to the doctor. Strange dark patches have appeared, and there’s more than a tingling now. A burning, a spiral of pulsating pain rises from just below his knee all the way up to his groin. The bad leg is nearly twice the size of the good one. But he hasn’t gone to the doctor, and in order to hide his leg from Sally, who could probably fix it up some, he’s been changing his clothes in the bathroom. He lies awake just concentrating on the leg, not because he likes the sensations there exactly, but because the pain tells him he’s still awake to his life. He’s so focused on the leg, and its connection to Margot, that he hardly touches Sally, though he notices the pang of guilt that he feels for ignoring her, like a fluttering moth in his chest. He would admit it if confronted: he has been behaving strangely.
As if she can read his thoughts, Sally rolls over to face him in the dark. “Is anything wrong?” she says. From the faint light at the windows, he can make out her brown eyes, her petite mouth, the worried wrinkles of her forehead.
“The opposite,” Ned says. “The students actually seemed to enjoy my class today—history class,” he adds. “Some of them even stayed after to talk to me.” He knows this is not what Sally was asking.
She looks at him blankly for a moment and then she smiles and puts her hand on his shoulder, rubs his arm and then his stomach, his chest. “That’s not so surprising,” she says. “You’re a good teacher.”
That tired bit of praise sounds a false note, and it angers Ned. “No I’m not,” he snaps, shrugging off her hand. “I don’t even know why I became a teacher. Maybe just because I thought it would make the old man a little bit fucking happy.” Ned is surprised by what he’s said, unsure if any of it is even true. Is he any different from the other teachers, with their cardigans and frizzy hair and uncanny knack for reducing complex subjects to the size of a worksheet? Had his dad even cared, once he had quit football, whether he became a teacher instead of a state trooper or a Microsoft executive or a gas station attendant? Has Ned hung around all these years simply because he liked to imagine his father wanted him to? And why does it feel as though it’s Sally’s fault that he’s thinking about all of this unpleasant stuff? “Why are you patronizing me?” he blurts.
He can see that she looks hurt. “Jesus Christ, Ned,” she says. “Get a grip.” She rolls over and faces the wall again. After a while, she sighs. “And once you do, would you just go to the fucking hospital?”
They don’t speak after that. Ned studies the shadows that gnaw on the walls; he tries to let the rhythm of Sally’s breath lull him to sleep. It doesn’t work.
On the way to the game on Friday, Ned stops by the hospice because Ellie wants to drop off a sandwich for Sally. Ned waits outside in his green Bronco, thinking of Margot, the engine running, his leg hot, the skin beginning to crack now from the days of swelling. He hopes Ellie hasn’t noticed that he’s been driving with his left foot. He knows she won’t ascribe his reluctance to go inside the hospice to his sore leg. Though he’s never said so out loud, Ned has always hated the hospice, and hardly ever steps across its threshold. It smells bad. He always feels incompetent there; he doesn’t know anything about sick people and can’t begin to guess what to say to their families, who camp out in the rooms and halls like refugees. There’s a part of him—though he knows this doesn’t make any sense—that feels embarrassed for them, as if dying was some kind of mistake, a failure. What makes it all worse is that Sally and Ellie always seem to know exactly what to say and how to act. Even Ellie, who never speaks, becomes this warm, gracious Princess Diana kind of person. Has she learned it from Sally in the brief time they’ve known each other? Why hasn’t he learned how to be more like that himself?
Ellie runs back to the car, her brown hair blowing back, her red pea coat flapping awkwardly, and Ned can see in her timid eyes that hint of Princess Diana, just wearing off. “So, how’s Mr. Hammond?” Ned says. He never asks about the patients, certainly not by name. He has always believed that speaking their names would bring bad luck. Sort of guilt by association.
Ellie looks at him with surprise and then adjusts her coat underneath her. “He’s not doing very well,” she says. “Some people in his family have stopped coming because they can’t handle it.”
“That’s sad,” says Ned.
“That’s people,” says Ellie. His daughter’s face sports her mother’s freckles and blue eyes, and Ned’s thin, pale lips.
“When we get there, do you want to get an ice cream? Or popcorn?” Ned says. He pretends to play with the radio for a moment as he manipulates his left foot over his rigid right leg and onto the accelerator. He finds a song on the radio that he likes, though he doesn’t know the band.
Ellie stares at him blankly. “You’re singing,” she says. “You never sing.”
Ned grins. He lunges to her side of the car and kisses her forehead, leaving behind a glistening wet spot. “Everything is fantastic!” he says. Just then, a car sporting Smoky Ordinary flags speeds past on the road. Ned rolls down the window, thrusts his fist into the air and yells, “Whoooo!” His voice spirals into the cold air like a siren, and even the cows, just specks on the other side of the road, turn to look. The car honks in acknowledgment. He can see people smiling inside it and he laughs.
But Ellie is leaning toward her door as if the noise has hurt her, or as if he might try to kiss her again. She gives him a puzzled half smile. As Ned organizes his feet on the pedals and begins to pull away, Ellie waves at an old man standing by the hospice’s front door. “Oh, I forgot,” she says. “Sally told me to tell you that you’re an idiot.” Ellie says this as if it’s a question, as if Ned will be able to explain the message. When he doesn’t, she shakes her head and sighs like she is disappointed about the whole affair. After a moment, she looks at Ned and raises her own fist half-heartedly. “Go Devils,” she says. “Are we even going to make it to the game?”
Near half-time, the Smoky Ordinary Blue Devils are down by seven, lucky they aren’t down twenty-one, and tempers are running high. There are so many alumni at the game that the bleachers are full and people are standing all along the chain link fence that separates the bleachers from the field; fights have broken out with some of the more boisterous Lee Rebels fans. After one play, when the Rebels block a field-goal attempt, a cornerback’s father calls Mike a “wuss” and throws a beer bottle. He resists security, flailing and yelling Mike’s name when they hustle him out. Mike asks an assistant coach to stand behind him and watch the crowd so that he won’t give the man’s sympathizers the satisfaction of booing him to his face.
Ned has watched these games from the sidelines from the time he was seven until he was fifteen, but never saw anyone do anything like that to his father. Those were different times. People looked at Ned’s father as if he were more than human, as if, even when he was losing, he did so to fulfill a plan for the future of Smoky Ordinary football that transcended their understanding. When was it that people stopped having that kind of faith in the things they loved? Ned can picture his father’s stocky form, his red ball cap, the clipboard he held during games, though no one knew that the paper on it was always blank. He can still see the stern way his father chewed gum when he was concentrating and the small modest smile he gave Bobby Rhimes, the local TV news reporter, when they stood together in the bright artificial lights after the players had jogged off to the locker room. But most of all he can still feel his own childhood awe of the man, like the feeling you have looking off a giant cliff or at a wild animal that you try to edge closer and closer to, awe that remained even when Ned had grown almost to manhood, when he had become part of the story, and Bobby Rhimes was interviewing him, too.
At half-time, while the marching band does several numbers from Cats, Mike’s twins dance up and down the sidelines under Ellie’s watch. Ned leaves them there and walks toward the end zone so that he can get to the other side of the fence and double back to the cinderblock concessions stand in the gravel lot behind the bleachers. He cuts through the line of rumbling Corvette convertibles that waits to enter the stadium, each car sporting a Homecoming Queen candidate in a glittering strapless dress and a swept-up hairdo. The girls aren’t smiling; no one can see them yet. Jessica Abernathy, one of Ned’s best students, has her hand down the front of her dress and is shifting things around. Kristi Seymour, Jessica’s less-brainy friend, is leaning over the door of her car and spitting into the grass. Ned doesn’t say hello to either of them.
He knows that by now Margot will be buying snacks from the booster club running concessions, maybe a snow cone or cotton candy, something festive and celebratory. He tries to walk as if there aren’t bright tentacles of pain gripping his leg, shooting up into his torso, and he looks into the stands at the familiar faces of his students and the older, worn faces of their parents, people he went to school with, the people they married. No one’s really a stranger, and he wonders if they can tell what he’s experiencing, wonders if they’re hiding something, too, and wonders what it might be.
As he approaches the concessions stand line, the colorful snake of blue and white, he searches furtively for Margot, hurrying past shuffling retirees, stepping around clumps of students. He is no different from the lost, wandering teenagers trying to find each other—hoping for what? For a glance or, best of all, an intentional touch touch—something to prove the two of them both exist, aren’t just more things that seem real but aren’t, like the immortality of parents or themselves. Ned doesn’t remember having any of this juvenile angst when he was actually with Margot. But then he supposes, feelings haven’t really been his strong suit.
When Ned finds her near the front of the line, she’s wearing a blue fleece sweatshirt and a “Go Devils!” pin. Margot has always looked good in blue, as though the school colors had been designed for her administration, and Ned stares at her wavy chin-length blond hair and those blue eyes, like Ellie’s. Her cheeks are flushed from the cold nip of October.
“Ned!” she says, waving. She’s smiling that big smile at him again. Then, she points to his limp. “What happened?”
“Old age,” he says. “Have you seen my cane?” He stuffs his hands in his pockets; he is strangely excited that she has noticed. “Actually, a little bike wreck.”
“It’s nothing serious, I hope,” says Margot.
“Just injured pride,” Ned says. “It turned out the road was rougher around the edges than I was.”
Margot laughs. It is then that Ned notices the man slightly behind Margot, who for a moment puts his hand to her back—he is handsome, dark-haired, in his mid-thirties. Ned tries to scrutinize him further, make sense of his expensively casual clothes, but there’s a sudden, sharp stab in his abdomen, and he begins to sway and he can’t quite lock his eyes on the guy.
Margot notices either Ned’s pain or his confusion. “Oh,” she says. “Ned, this is Travis.” She pulls the man forward and gazes at him for a moment, as if she is amazed herself by his presence. She grins. “I met Travis on that exchange in California.”
Travis shakes Ned’s hand. The man’s palm and fingers are supple, like Margot’s used to be after a manicure. Ned squints, wills himself to focus.
“Margot was so inspiring, the way she talked about life in rural Virginia, I had to see this place for myself,” Travis says, grinning back at Margot. He’s got straight, unnaturally white teeth, like he’s a celebrity advocate for some kind of good cause—The Society for the Prevention of Corns or something equally vapid. He has green eyes and a mole on his cheek, like Marilyn Monroe. “Some game, huh?” says Travis. It appears that Travis has no idea what Ned’s tie to Margot is.
While Margot orders her food, Ned stands still, trying to make it clear to both of them that he’s waiting to speak to her. He offers Travis a polite smile every now and then to fill the pointed silence. Who the hell is this guy?
After Margot finishes, she tries to give Travis the change from the cashier. He refuses, but takes the nachos, cotton candy, and drinks. “I’ll take this stuff back to our seats,” he says to her. He nods to Ned. “I love your town, buddy.”
Ned smiles, and then looks at the ground. Something about the cotton candy sets him off. Does this guy actually think he knows Margot, that he is qualified to buy snacks with her?
“I’ll be right there,” she says.
“No hurry,” Travis says, flashing that smile again. “You know where to find me.” He strolls away like he’s on a boardwalk.
“Okay, what’s up, Ned?” Margot says.
“Don’t you think he’s a little young for you?” Strange spots hover like insects in the periphery of Ned’s vision.
Margot stares at him for a long moment. “You’re jealous?” she says.
Ned says nothing. Now his leg is cold and his stomach feels hot.
Margot is grinning at him in just the same lingering way as she did in the cafeteria, her lips red and her lovely teeth straight and white. She is in love, but the object of her affection is Travis, Ned now realizes, not him. “You know, Ned, this is good. It’s payback for—what was her name?—Tiffany? Only, Travis has a lot more money than that little girl.” She turns and waves to the parent of an honor roll student, who is walking back to the bleachers with an armful of Smoky Ordinary Blue Devils sweatshirts. “Hey Tom!” she says. He smiles back, waves one of the sweatshirts in the air. Then she brings her attention back to Ned. She has a breezy air about her, arms folded, one hip jutting out, like it’s just an old joke, like none of it really matters. But they have never spoken about Tiffany before.
“Mike’s right,” he hears himself tell her. “You are a complete ice queen.” Normally, when they are together, they laugh. They punch each other on the arm, ignoring, basically, their shared history. But this doesn’t seem funny to Ned. Tiffany had been that final straw in their marriage. She was a twenty-four-year-old temp in the main office, and Ned had slept with her because, he thinks now, he thought it could hurt Margot. In retaliation for what? For making him feel vulnerable?
He had never understood how permanent it would be when Margot was gone. He thinks there is a part of him that has continued to think that he could in some way affect Margot still, that she remains partially his, and he realizes now that this isn’t true, any more than his father is still his. Or was ever his. And suddenly he realizes that the two of them, Margot and his father, have always been bound together in his mind, both larger than life, both so far away, even when he has been at his best.
“Is this some kind of fling you’re having?” Ned whispers, and he can feel the anger bubbling in his stomach. “A fling with the toy boy? The plastic West Coast asshole? He doesn’t belong here.”
She slowly comprehends that it isn’t a joke. “As a matter of fact, yes,” she says with a frozen smile, as if he’d asked her something else, like whether or not she parked in the faculty lot. Then her voice drops. “It is a fling. A very nice one.”
Pictures of the two of them fill his head, Travis’s tan hands on her gorgeous skin, on her curves, her full breasts. He blinks hard as if to erase them, and only feels more light-headed. “What about me?” he says, his voice too loud. The anger is in his throat. “Oh no, wait. It’s too late, isn’t it?” He turns to a wide-eyed family that’s at the front of the line. “I’m completely and utterly screwed!” he says to them.
Margot stares at him, her lips pressed firmly together. She straightens. “Mr. Harrison,” she says loudly, with all of her principal’s authority, “don’t make a scene.” She turns her back and walks away.
Ned catches up to her in a shadowy space near the end of the stands. He grabs her wrist.
“Stop it,” she says, trying to shake him off, but he grips her tighter. She turns her head to look for students and parents, but somehow, for just a moment, they are alone. In response to the P.A. announcer, one of the Corvettes on the field starts to honk its horn, and the crowd gives a roar. Margot puts her mouth in Ned’s ear. “I don’t know what your problem is, but you’re making a fool of yourself. I’m going to kick you in your hurt knee. I’m not bluffing. Let go of me.”
Her hot breath in his ear sends a shiver along the length of his body. Ned grabs her other forearm and tries to hold her. He wants to throw her to the ground and make love to her—he’s filled with love and hate. They sway for a moment, her feet raising gray dust from the gravel. He can feel the tendons under her skin, elastic and hard as she pushes against him. He presses her arms back, until they are behind her waist and he has her in a bear hug. He wants to keep squeezing until they both stop breathing, until they are both dead, as dead as his father.
He thinks for a moment that he won’t let her go—that this time he will have her forever.
“Ned?” Margot says, her voice as small as a little girl’s. “What’s the matter with you?” She sounds like Ellie.
And then Ned feels his shoulders shaking. His arms loosen, and then he is crying, his face buried in her neck. But it doesn’t seem like grief that he’s feeling; it is almost a physical collapse, like something has failed inside of him.
“Just keeping you on your toes,” he says, his hands still clasped around her, his voice muffled in her neck. “Not trying to hurt you.” He takes in the apple smell of her skin and he wishes one big thing. He wishes he could say what he never did when they were together—that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known, and it frightened him, and he had hidden that fear, pretended that she wasn’t enough for him, which wasn’t true and which drove her away. It was the cruelest, most foolish thing he could have done. And even though he has married again and he loves Sally, he does so as a different sort of man, a man of deepest regret, who knows he could have loved Margot better.
He wants to touch Margot’s face. But he doesn’t.
“You’re white as a sheet,” Margot says, managing to free a hand and press it against his chest, creating space between them. “And you’re sweating terribly. You’re not well, Ned.” She extricates herself the rest of the way and smiles weakly at a trio of women who are approaching. “Everything’s fine,” she says, waving at them. She shrugs in an exaggerated, theatrical way. But Ned can hardly see them—as if they are only memories, people who exist in another time. “Just keeping you on your toes,” he says again. “I bet I gotcha.”
Margot smiles more broadly now, almost like in the cafeteria. “You’re sure a kidder,” she says as she steps further back, her hands hovering in front of her, as if even in this apparent dénouement Ned might lunge out again.
But he turns away, doesn’t wave at her over his shoulder, just limps back toward the open end of the fence. He can see her in his mind’s eye getting smaller behind him, a beautiful blond girl in blue. It’s done. He wipes at the sweat in his eyes, and he fumbles in his pocket for his cell phone. “I’m going to the hospital,” he says to Sally’s voicemail. “You were right, I’m not feeling too good.” He tries to laugh. “You must be, like, a professional or something.” Sally will meet him and Ellie there, he knows. She will be mad at him for being so stupid, for risking his health inexplicably, and later she’ll forgive him, because she and Ned are too old not to forgive.
But for now, the crowd is cheering the return of the football team, as if the boys Mike Lester coaches are as great as any Ned’s father drove to excellence, as if everything is new again, as if there is no score on the board.