He stood before me, so proud in his new cleats, personalized jersey, and protective pads, helmet in hand. Every maternal instinct I had screamed at me to grab him, take him home, and bind him in bubble-wrap. What kind of mother was I to send my baby out to get hit and smooshed by other babies with irresponsible parents?
Okay, so my baby was actually six years old. He’d played soccer from the ages of three until five because his daddy was a fan. Even after his father died, he wanted to keep playing to make “his angel” proud. Last winter, my sweet little boy, with John’s chestnut curls and my blue eyes, came up to me at dinner and announced that he wanted to play football. When I asked why, he gave me his dad’s devilish grin (missing two front teeth) and said, “Cheerleaders.”
So there it was, the middle of July just after his sixth birthday, and Hunter ran off to join a mob of identically suited and armored little boys, to play Pee-Wee football. All around me were pumped-up daddies, holding jugs of ice water and Gatorade. Every single one of them was dressed head-to-toe in Under Armour like it was the parents’ uniform. They made my Old Navy tank top and cutoff jean shorts feel sloppy. Ugh. Why couldn’t my son have been a bookworm-homebody like his mom?
I was never athletic. That was my brother Jason. While he spent his childhood playing soccer and basketball, I sat in the bleachers reading my Babysitter’s Club books. In high school, he lettered in football, wrestling, and tennis. I took AP classes, joined the newspaper staff, and wrote adolescently romantic short stories. My twin brother was the popular jock who never went dateless on a Friday or Saturday. I was the shy, mousy girl who only had a tan because I liked to read on my chaise in the sun. I was invisible and I kind of liked it that way.
In college, I was forced out of my comfortable introverted shell. My roommate Kennedy had been the opposite of me in every way. I was short and curvy, she was tall and willowy. Her hair was a silky and sleek dark-chocolate pixie to my long blonde waves. My blue eyes were the summer sky compared to her arctic gray. She was bubbly, outgoing, popular, and determined to force me into “typical college shenanigans”.
She succeeded to a point. I got to know more people than just the ones that worked in the library or dining hall. During our senior year, Ken’s boyfriend Danny introduced us to his lacrosse teammate John Quinn and I was done for.
He’d been a good man and we married a year after graduation. Two years after that, Hunter was born. John was a good husband and incredible father, but an overconfident driver. His third love, after me and our son, was the classic Harley he’d inherited from his father. The police told me that he skidded out on the twisty backroad and was thrown into one of the massive oak trees that lined the shoulder. He hit at an angle that broke his neck on impact. He’d been gone before the car that stopped behind him could press 9-1-1.
I mourned my husband deeply, but held it together the best I could for Hunter. How does one explain death to a barely-three year old who idolized their father? My parents, Jason, and John’s sister Frannie were all helpful in their own ways, but in the end, my baby and I worked together to heal and move on with our lives.
So there I was, a thirty year-old widow, walking to the sideline of a practice field filled with other little people, cones, what looked like punching bags, and all sorts of spray-painted lines and circles on the grass. In the center of it all was the tallest man I’d ever seen in person.
Starting from the ground and working up, he had well-worn cleats and white crew socks with red Nike swooshes on the sides. Miles of tan, muscular legs went up into baggy, red workout shorts. One of the omnipresent Under Armour shirts, this one in black, clung to his lean midsection, broad chest, and strong shoulders. A welcoming smile graced his lips as deep blue eyes looked over the gaggle of kids before him. Absently, he swept shaggy, dark blond hair from his forehead with a rake of long fingers.
I set up my folding chair to watch as he told the kids to lose the pads, but keep their helmets and mouth-guards. As they suited down, I said a little prayer of thanks for my brother. Without his help, I wouldn’t have known where to start with the supply list that the league sent after registration. I cleared my head and accepted the bulky pads from Hunter then watched as the children retook the field.
Coach Eric introduced himself and the assistant coaches – Under Armour Red, Nike Blue, and Adidas Silver I named them because I’d never remember Alcide, Chow, and Khan. Eric continued to tell the boys that the team was the Reynard Parish Wolverines, but they had to work to earn the title. If they met their goals, they’d move up through squirrels, ferrets, and badgers, but they started as baby chipmunks and only when they could beat him running to the top of a hill would they “graduate”.
Considering none of the kids even reached his hips in height, I was almost certain he was kidding. Half the kids looked totally intimidated, but my son would be in the other half that looked excited to prove themselves. Coach Eric and his assistants started the boys warming up and I was soon distracted by a very pretty older woman handing me a folder full of forms.
“I’m Holly, the team mom. On the inside of that folder is my phone number and email. If your child can’t make it to a game or will miss practice, please let me know.” It sounded slightly rehearsed and I wondered how many times she’d done this. Before she could move on to the next parent, I asked.
“This is my…” she paused to think with a chuckle, “… fourth season. Cody is my youngest,” she pointed to a child only distinguishable by his fluorescent blue socks. “I was just as clueless as you seem when Marshall, my oldest, decided to play. He’s thirteen now and on the middle school team. Reid is eleven and Evan is eight. Each and every one of them, plus my husband Hoyt, are football junkies. It was five against one, so I sucked it up and learned. I love it now, and being the team mom means I get to be involved at least a little. Hoyt’s coaching Evan in the older Junior League. From July to December, this is pretty much our life,” she concluded with a slightly weary smile before moving on to the next parent.
Looking around, I noticed how few moms seemed to be in attendance. The ones that were were either raptly watching their angels perform push-ups and jumping jacks or scrolling through their phones, just waiting for practice to end. The kids started doing something the coach called “Up-Downs” and I decided to look through the multitude of forms in my possession.
“Come on, Pebbles,” I heard the coach call out and saw a child sitting defiantly in place as the other boys split up and followed Blue, Red, and Silver to various stations. “You were excited about this less than an hour ago. Up and at ‘em, Red.” There was a silent stare-down between Giant Viking Football Man and Little Helmeted Minion that concluded with the boy stalking off to join Blue’s team at the punching bags.
I tried to watch with interest, but unless Hunter’s neon green socks were part of the action, my attention wandered. After two hours, everyone on the field went to run up the hill two more times. At the end, Hunter pulled the helmet off his sweaty head with an ear-to-ear grin. He grabbed his green-flavored Gatorade from his gear bag and started chugging.
The coach was talking to the dads, making the rounds, more personally introducing himself and giving out high-fives to the ankle biters. I couldn’t help but smile: the guy seemed to have a way with the kids, pushing them without being too intimidating. When he got to me, Hunter giggled at the ridiculous difference in our heights then ran off to play with his teammates.
“It’s good to see a mom out at practice. Most either drop off their kids and come back or send the dads. Are you a fan?”
I shook my head with a small smirk. “I might know what a touchdown is, but I’m not sure I’d know one if I saw it. I think I might have to con my brother into tutoring me,” I replied, jokingly-serious.
He gave me a grin and opened his mouth to respond when a stunning young blonde approached from behind and tapped his shoulder. “You’re really doing this? Really?! Do my wishes mean nothing to you?” she hissed.
“Excuse me,” he said to me politely then turned toward her. “Not particularly, Pamela. Pebbles wants to play, so I’m letting Pebbles play. Your desires have exactly no part in that decision.”
Her perfectly-glossed lip curled up in a sneer. “And that stupid nickname…” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Her name is Jessica.” Pebbles is a girl? Playing football?
Eric grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the parking lot, so I could no longer unintentionally eavesdrop on their argument. It didn’t matter because Hunter returned to my side with another black-uniformed munchkin, but this one had the most gorgeous red hair I’d ever seen in a sweaty, messy ponytail at the crown of her head. “Pebbles is my new best friend. Can she spend the night?” my son asked excitedly. The red-head flashed me a grin and I saw she was missing the same two teeth Hunter was.
“We can’t tonight, sweetie. You have day camp in the morning and I have to work.” I checked the folder for the practice schedule. “Maybe she can come over after practice Saturday morning. Then you guys could play all day. We have to ask her mom first…” I said, purely out of habit.
“I don’t have a mommy. Pam-e-lah,” she said, spitting the syllables sarcastically, “doesn’t live with us. Coach is the one you need to ask.”
I tilted my head to look at her curiously. “You call your dad ‘Coach’?”
She nodded, swinging the red ponytail. “His rule. If the uniform is on, he’s my coach and I get treated just like every other player,” she recited firmly.
I looked toward the parking lot and see the pair gesticulating at each other, looking furious. However, only the man’s eyes flicked toward the field to check on the welfare of the adorable girl in front of me. Seeing Hunter’s gear bag packed and thrown over my shoulder and my chair folded under my arm, the tall man dismissed Pamela with a held-up hand and walked away from her, toward me. When he approached, the crests of his cheeks were flushed red; from anger or embarrassment, I didn’t know. “I’m so sorry about that. Where were we?”
I shrugged and smiled, letting him ignore the situation he just walked away from. “I don’t really remember, but Hunter is already wanting a sleep-over with… Pebbles?”
His blond head tipped back as he laughed. “It’s the hair. Her mother is a natural redhead. Just imagine a bone sticking through the base of her ponytail and a leopard-print onesie.”
I looked over at her and started giggling. “First Halloween costume?”
He nodded. “The name stuck. If she hears ‘Jessica”, she knows she’s in trouble.”
I smiled in understanding. “I get the same reaction when the middle name comes out. If he hears ‘Hunter Jonathan Quinn’, he tends to hide until the mood passes.”
The coach matched my grin. “He already has good male instincts, then. Is his dad in the picture? I like to get to know both parents whenever possible.”
Sadly, I shook my head. “John died almost three years ago. It’s just the two of us.”
For the briefest moment, pity colored his expression. It was quickly replaced with admiration. “Good for you. I know how hard it can be for a single parent.” His eyes went back to the redhead, who was comparing her blue tongue with Hunter’s green one and another boy’s vividly red one. “Honesty, Pebbles has a hard time making friends sometimes because she’s such a tomboy and doesn’t really fit in,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “Why don’t we try a Saturday play-date to see if they get along for more than an hour or so? If that goes well, maybe we can discuss sleep-overs.”
I nodded, confirmed our presence at Thursday night’s practice, and headed home. It wasn’t until I was halfway there that I realized I had a decent-length conversation with another adult that I wasn’t related to. I didn’t stutter, blush, or allow my inherent awkwardness hinder me in any way. Maybe, finally, after three years of being too bashful to get to know any parents of Hunter’s friends – that was always John’s thing – I might have made my own friend in the process.
The rest of the week was normal. Hunter loved football even more after the next practice. Coach Eric advised the kids to run around in the early evenings to get used to exerting themselves in the sticky, swampy summer heat. Not only did Hunter take his words to heart, but it showed when he was the first player to the top of the hill at the end of Thursday’s practice. He couldn’t stop gushing that he was almost a squirrel already. It was so damn cute that I almost laughed. For his pride, I managed to hold it back to a big smile and huge hug.
Eric and I also finalized some play-date details. We had a pool, so I made sure Pebbles could swim, having both the ability and permission. He assured me that she had both. There were no allergies other than shellfish; I was a little jealous that he knew that because Hunter refused to try any kind of seafood. She would certainly not encounter any allergens in my house, despite my love of a good crab cake or shrimp scampi. Both kids had grown out of midday naps, but a morning of practice and an afternoon of aquatic fun in the sun could conk one or both of them out.
Before he jogged onto the field, he said he’d pick up his daughter before dinner. I nodded and sat back to watch the practice, hoping some miraculous comprehension of the game would wash over me.
After Saturday’s practice, I headed back to my house with both kids in boosters in the back seat. After a gourmet lunch of peanut butter and jelly, chips, a banana, and grape juice, the kids changed and ran to plunge in the pool. Despite the two hours of exertion they’d had at practice, both seemed to have energy to burn.
The little patio umbrella I sat under offered the perfect amount of shade and there was a breeze to keep the midday heat and humidity from being oppressive. I sat and watched Hunter show off for his new friend, doing flips and handstands under water. She giggled and cheered, then tried to copy him.
Pebbles wore a plain red bikini top and Spiderman board shorts. As Hunter was a huge Iron Man fan, they had fun debating the pros and cons of their favorite superheroes. They agreed that Superman was stupid because he was just an alien and not a “super-human”. The redhead said that Wolverine should “totally leave the X-Men and become a free agent because he’s cooler than the rest of the mutants combined”.
I could only assume that Coach Eric encouraged his daughter’s tomboyishness. Hunter was allowed to watch most of the comic-book movies, but I tended to tune them out and read. Since his dad was gone, I knew that Uncle Jay pandered to his nephew’s desire to discuss superheroes in-depth. It was the only reason I could think of for him to be so well-spoken (for a six year old) on a topic that’d never come up between us.
I called the kids out of the water for a breather to drink some lemonade and get resprayed with sunblock. Hunter had his dad’s olive complexion and almost never burned, but Pebbles was so fair that five minutes in the midday sun without SPF50 would probably turn her skin as red as her hair.
After another hour in the water, they decided to relax in front of a movie. A year after John died, I turned the man-cave in our basement into a playroom for Hunter, keeping the original gigantic couches and TV. The kids changed into dry clothes and settled in to watch the Edited-for-Cable version of The Avengers. I had no problem letting Hunter hear PG-13 language and based on earlier conversation topic, Eric was just as lenient with his daughter, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Especially since my extroverted and highly opinionated son had found a kindred spirit and I didn’t want a mad daddy breaking that up.
Half an hour after I started the movie, I went back downstairs to see if snacks are wanted. In the flickering blue light of the television, I saw my son’s sleeping head on the armrest of the sofa. His friend was curled up next to him, her head in his lap, just as soundly asleep. I crept back up the stairs to indulge in a little “Me” time.
Despite the shade, my iced tea glass still perspired in the heat of the afternoon. I curled my legs under me on my front porch swing and let myself fall into Pre-WWII Japan. Time disappeared and I didn’t return to my rural setting until the crunch of gravel broke into my consciousness.
The red crew-cab pickup had “Northman Custom Construction” on both doors. The back seat held several grocery bags and indentations where Pebbles’ booster usually rested. Black boots hit the driveway as the tall blond sprung from the cab with more agility than I could ever hope to possess. “They crashed?” he asked as a greeting.
“Like little rocks,” I said with a grin. I marked my place in the book and offered Eric a drink. As we headed into the kitchen, I realized that he wasn’t as intimidating (to me) in faded jeans, dusty boots, and a t-shirt that’s best days were far behind it. I refilled my tea after I poured him a glass and led him out to the shadier back porch. “So… how does a little cutie like Pebbles get Daddy to let her play full-tackle football?” The curiosity had been killing me.
He rolled his eyes and grinned before sipping his tea. “She gets raised by a sports nut. She never wanted dolls, it was Transformers. It was never Disney princesses; she liked Lightning McQueen and Mr. Incredible. I raised her alone since she was two months old. I’d feed her during pregame shows and half-time highlight reels were like a lullaby. She’d whimper and whine when I’d put her in the frilly, girly dresses her grandparents would send, so I’d let her wear jeans and t-shirts because it was easier. She begged to be signed up for soccer when she was three, but that was because it was the only sport she was old enough to play. When she turned six in March, she immediately wanted me to register her for football. The rec department asked if I knew of anyone interested in coaching the littles, so I volunteered. At least this way I can keep an eye on Pebbles to make sure she’s not singled out for being a girl and that she’s not too much of a bully.”
As he sipped his tea, I tried to figure out what to say. I had so many questions that weren’t appropriate when you’re first getting to know someone. Why was he a single dad? Who was Pamela? Where was his daughter between birth and two months? I tried to think of something innocuous to ask instead. “So how old are you?” seemed harmless enough.
When he grinned, his eyes crinkled at the sides. “Thirty. I’ll be thirty-one in November. You?”
“I turned thirty at the beginning of the month. Hunter’s birthday is the day before mine, so he just turned six. He started soccer at three too, but more to make his dad happy than from any real desire to play. When John died, I’m pretty sure he kept playing because of the memories of the two of them kicking the ball back and forth in the yard.” With a wry smirk, I also summarized for Eric the reason Hunter said he wanted to play football.
When I drawled “cheerleaders”, Eric’s head tipped back and he laughed loudly. “You are going to have your hands full with that one. I’m so utterly grateful that Pebbles still thinks boys are icky as anything other than playmates. I’ve been dreading puberty since the first time she batted those big brown eyes at one of my buddies and suddenly he was incapable of saying ‘no’. He hasn’t been allowed to babysit since the ‘ice cream dinner’ incident.”
I had to smile at the idea. It occurred to me that my usual shyness had again abandoned me around this man. John had been the only other guy to make me feel at ease almost instantly and I couldn’t help but feel it was at least a little significant. I racked my brain for another conversation topic and thought back to his truck. “Custom construction… what’s that, like contracting?”
He nodded with another crooked grin. “A fancy way of saying after-market renovations. Building decks, adding on rooms, remodels… a little bit of everything. It started as a side job when things slowed down while I was doing commercial construction, but word-of-mouth grew the business until I had to make a choice. I started working for myself eight years ago and never looked back.”
Part of me envied that freedom. It sounded far more interesting than sitting in a windowless cubicle, entering financial data for the multi-state medical conglomerate that hired me right after graduation. The pay was great, the benefits were amazing, the hours were steady and reliable, but the actual work was repetitive and mind-numbing.
Before we could continue the conversation, two sleepy munchkins appeared, rubbing their eyes and yawning. “Mommy, can Pebbles and Coach Eric stay for supper?” my son asked in a drowsy slur. “We can grill burgers and play in the pool some more.”
I looked at Eric and shrugged. “It’s fine with me. The kids are getting along so well, why not? Unless you have to go? I saw groceries…”
“Nothing that’ll go bad in a few hours. But I insist on helping. Cooking with fire is an instinctual male ability and a right bestowed upon Man by the Gods of Grill.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at his chest-thumping proclamation. “All right there, Captain Caveman. I’ll have you know that I’m perfectly capable of grilling without having a Y chromosome. But I’ll accept your assistance. You watch the little buggers while I prep the burgers and salads, then I’ll take over while you cook.”
The kids squealed and ran inside to change back into their swimsuits; I headed to the kitchen with Eric following. A bag of tater tots got tossed out of the freezer before I pulled the beef from the fridge with shredded cheese and a jar of jalapenos. “Spicy or no for you and Pebbles?” I asked, already knowing Hunter’s preference.
“Mild for her,” he said as the kids streaked back by out to the pool. “As spicy as you can get for me. I love hot food.”
Just like Hunter… and John. I was somewhere in the middle. I used my hands to shoo him back to the pool before I started finely dicing the peppers. After I mixed the peppers into the ground beef patties, I used my tried-and-true secret method of stuffing the middle of the burgers with cheese. Finally, I used little colored toothpicks to mark the spiciness: red for Eric and Hunter, yellow for me, and green for Pebbles. I set those to the side, stepped out to start the grill to get it pre-heated, made a simple garden salad, and put the tots on a cookie sheet for the oven.
With dinner prepped, I took the plate of burgers to the giant on my deck. I watched for a few moments, enjoying the children trying to do the goofiest jumps from the diving board. When Hunter managed to do a somersault in the air by accident, his look of shock as he sputter to the surface made me laugh out loud. Eric turned with a grin and took the plate, heading for the grill.
The meal was cooked and eaten with lively conversation on both sides of the picnic table. After a rousing game of UNO, Eric and I were suckered by our adorable darlings into allowing a bit more swim time before the sun fully set. We let them splash until the only light was the orange and pink horizon reflecting off the surface of the water. Despite the disappointed groans from the waterlogged munchkins, once the floodlights over the deck automatically switched on, they knew playtime was over. Eric sent Pebbles in to change back into dry clothes while Hunter did the same. “Well… it looks like the play-date was a success,” I said in an attempt to ward off an awkward silence.
He chucked and nodded. “Pebbles is usually more of a handful. Boys underestimate her and girls don’t understand her. A lot of it is my fault, but I figure if she were really into Barbies and princesses, no amount of College Gameday or March Madness would turn her off, right?”
I had to stop myself from “aww”ing at the sweet note of desperation in his voice. Giving him validation, I responded, “Only if the reverse is true. ESPN hasn’t been turned on in this house in three years and I still have a sports nut on my hands. I know it frustrates him when I have to refer him to his uncle whenever he has questions. If you want to know about Rowling, King, or common grammatical errors, I’m your gal. But I never got into playing or watching any sports.”
He cocked his head in sympathy and gave me a grin. “Single parenting is hard. I really am dreading puberty. I‘m about as equipped to handle periods and training bras as you are for free throws and pass fakes.”
I had to nod, fully understanding his comparison. “I’ll make a deal with you. Since you’re already coaching Hunt and answering his athletically related questions, feel free to refer Pebbles to me for girly stuff when the time comes.” I winced when he grimaced. “Unless that’s a mom-type thing and I’d be stepping on toes. It just sounded like…”
“Her mother’s not in the picture,” he said harshly. “In reality, she was no more than a womb.” He took a deep breath and wiped the sneer from his face when the kids came in and in an instant, he returned to the affable, easy-going guy I was introduced to.
They said their good-nights and headed home. Hunter was about to pass-out where he stood, so I led him to his bed. As he curled up under his Iron Man sheets, he gave me a tired smile. “Thanks for letting me play with Pebbles, Mommy. She’s going to be my best friend forever.”