11. Toes On the Nose

The afternoon following my birthday party at the Country Club, I was in the driveway shooting hoops after church when I saw Cole's van pull up. I walked over and he rolled down his window. "Hey, stud," he said, greeting me with a smile and a high-five. "I guess you think you're the shit, now, huh?"

"It was awesome, Cole. Thanks for everything."

"No problem, freshman." He opened his door, got out, and went to the back of his van. "Here. This is how you can thank me." He reached in and grabbed a huge laundry bag filled with his clothes and the sheets from the mattress in the van. He stuck his face to the bag, took a whiff, then wrinkled his nose and threw it at me. "And my mom says you better pre-treat the blood stains on the sheets."

I caught the bag and stared at him with horror.  He grinned and said, "Chill, bro, I didn't tell her where it came from.  I told her I cut myself and got blood on the sheets, and I asked her how to get it out."

As I recovered from that little scare, my thoughts began to drift back to the previous night, waking my dick up in the process.

"Hey, Andy," I heard Cole say.  "You're zoning out on me."  I dragged my attention back into the moment. "Sorry," I said; "I'll have this stuff done by later tonight."  I took the laundry and set it by the garage door.

"I'll pick it up tomorrow after school," he said, and then added, eyes narrowing,  "Oh, and another thing...You left your spunked-up condom in my van.  Dude: You're welcome to entertain your women in here from time to time, but next time fuckin' pick up after yourself, okay? That was gross."

I looked for a crack in the driveway to crawl down into. "Did you throw it away?"

"No, I licked it clean! Of course I threw it away, asswipe."

I was dying of embarrassment, and Cole wasn't finished: "I hope she was worth it. You owe me, dude. I never touched somebody else's jizzed condom before."

I groaned and hung my head. I'd have turned invisible if I'd known how. "Shit. I'm really sorry, man. I didn't even realize I left it. I promise it won't happen again."

He scowled at me for a moment. I just stood there, tongue-tied. As he stared me down, I could feel the blood draining from my face. Say something, idiot, I told myself, and just at the point where I was about to stutter another apology, his expression broke into a sadistic grin and he started laughing.

"It's okay, Phillips. I'm not mad. Really. I just like messin' with your head a little bit. Dude, you should see your face!"

I smiled back awkwardly, trying to recover my dignity. "Yeah, well, anyway, thanks for everything. The booze and the van and the condoms--and thanks for coming to my party."

"Everybody had a great time. Even the upperclassmen thought you did pretty good for a freshman." He walked back toward his van and got in. "I gotta go; be coo', foo'."



As he pulled out of the driveway, I grimaced to myself and grabbed his laundry bag. Real smooth, Andy.


Stephanie and I dated for about two more months. The relationship was intense, physically, but she started getting possessive of my time and crowding my space, and I started getting resentful. On top of that, there were a lot of girls out there, and I didn't want to be tied down. We broke up the week after Homecoming. It was an ugly scene, with tears and recriminations, but I was determined to make the break, and when I did it, I was probably something of a bastard about it.

The relationship with Stephanie set the pattern for my relationships with girls for the next couple of years. I would set my mind on getting a girl to go out with me; after we'd been out a couple of times I'd push to get physically intimate, almost making a game out of seeing how soon I could get her to give it up for me. We'd have an intensely sexual relationship, then I'd get bored or annoyed and end up dumping her. In the back of my mind I wondered if I'd ever find a girl I didn't get tired of. Once in a while I considered the possibility that I was defective when it came to love, but mostly I was horny and on the prowl, and didn't spend much time philosophizing. I wrestled with some guilt about pursuing sex so casually--I knew my parents and my pastor wouldn't approve--but the urge was so strong, and my luck was pretty good. The combination was irresistible. And in any case I excused myself by noting that a lot of the jocks in my circle did exactly the same thing, and those who didn't were working overtime to be able to. That kind of rationalization isn't exactly taking the moral high road, but I never claimed to be a saint.

Throughout the fall, football and soccer occupied a lot of my time and attention. Soccer season began with the Dallas Classic League tournament in August. The Classic League was the elite league in the metropolitan area, and on the basis of that tournament, a limited number of teams were invited to participate in the league for the season. The also-rans got slotted into lower-tiered leagues.

I was nervous about Classic League tryouts because my soccer coach still had me playing forward. That's the gunslinger position. It requires you to carry the weight of the team's offensive burden on your shoulders. I never liked that spot; for one thing, I never felt quite fast enough, and for another, midfield was always home for me. I liked showing off the ball-handling skills a good midfielder needs in order to move the ball from the backfield to the waiting forwards. Not only that, midfielders get to take some longer-range shots on goal, and when one of those makes it into the net it's a high-drama moment, because the crowd isn't often expecting the midfield to score.

But we'd lost a starting forward the previous season. Four new players made our team over the summer, and none of them seemed any more adept at filling the empty slot than I was. So that season I ended up playing forward. We made it into the Classic League, and I actually got to be a pretty decent forward, although I'd have changed back in a heartbeat if Coach had offered.

I had to admit I was glad Matt had twisted my arm into going out for football. I loved being on the football team. I felt a little like a fraud, though. I was decent enough, but my heart and my best moves really belonged out on the soccer field. For sheer love of the game, Saturday mornings at soccer put Friday night football in the shade, as far as I was concerned. But my soccer teammates weren't the tight group that the football team was. And only one of my soccer teammates went to my high school. So although I loved soccer more than football, I simply wasn't as close to the boys on that team as I was to my football teammates. I dreamed soccer at night, but it was football that set my social life.

As the time grew close for our first football game of the season, the freshman Falcons were feeling confident. We were fit, we knew our plays, and there seemed to be a lot of skill across the roster. It's all academic, of course, until you face that first opponent. Our coach continued to be tough as nails on us, but we could tell that he was feeling optimistic about our prospects for the season, and that inspired a cockiness that was infectious.

We had all the elements that make any football team formidable. Ryan, our running back, seemed to have radar for holes in the defensive line. Ruben, our fullback, was near perfect in providing run-blocking for him and pass-blocking for Matt. Matt, to no one's surprise, had a first-rate arm, and was on-the-nose accurate. Justin, the wide receiver on the other end, was quick like the wind; it would be tough for cornerbacks to stay with him, making him a great threat for the long pass. Back on my end, what I lacked in speed I made up with my ability to evade coverage, especially in short-to-medium range passing situations. Part of that came from my years of experience in soccer, where you had to keep a constant eye out for the big picture, and where evading defenders in heavy traffic was a responsibility almost every time you touched the ball.

The other part was that Matt and I had been playing with a football together since we were nine. Over the years he'd thrown me passes of every imaginable kind, into every imaginable kind of coverage. And almost as often, I'd played as his opponent, trying to anticipate his moves, stop his receivers. I knew his game.

And on top of that, Matt was my best friend.

Sure.  My best friend.  That's what it was.

I knew his game. But more to the point, I knew his head. I knew his heart. And he knew mine.

I would soon discover new depths to that knowledge, though.

By the end of September, it was clear that what we saw in the preseason was no fluke. We were 5-0, against some formidable opponents. Because of our success, we'd become the team to watch at school that fall; the varsity team was struggling. Our games were starting to be as well attended as theirs.

The sixth game of the season was an "away" game against the Hurricanes, our high school's perennial rival. My dad and my brother Danny had driven up to watch us, and there was a good-sized crowd of supporters in the visitors' stands, considering that it wasn't a home game.

We started the game cocky as usual, but it became clear early on that they'd been studying us and had game-planned us really well. The run defense seemed to have an answer for Ryan's every move.  A hotshot Hurricane cornerback named Jason McWhorter was too fast for Justin, our long threat; he was on him all night. On top of that, the 'Canes had obviously figured out that the connection between me and Matt in crucial short- and mid-yardage situations was trouble and had to be neutralized. Early in the game they put two defenders on me, and Matt was afraid to thread that needle. He was always hard on himself about interceptions and was probably more cautious than he should have been about throwing into coverage. The Hurricanes had apparently picked that up in studying us, and that night from the very beginning they'd doubled up on me. Then, since Matt wouldn't throw the ball to me, they could concentrate on containing the running back and the other receivers. As I watched Justin and Shane Moser, our tight end, drop balls and miss passes, I got more and more frustrated, and more and more angry at Matt for not having the guts to send it my way. And by halftime, having neutralized our passing game, the Hurricane defense pretty much gang-raped Ryan on run plays.

After the ass-reaming from Coach in the locker-room at halftime, we came out determined but uncertain how to meet the challenge. We went into the second half with a 7-7 tie, but as the third quarter went on, they were wearing us down with possession time. We couldn't get an offense going, and ended up with three-and-out over and over again. Our bend-but-don't-break defense was the only bright spot of the night up to that point. They'd let the Hurricane offense march down the field with first downs a good bit, but always got them stopped short of scoring. Still, with the short possession time we were putting in at offense, it was only a matter of time before our defense would tire out and the Hurricanes would break open the score.

Midway through the third quarter we were at our own 40-yardline on a third-and-six. One of the Hurricanes' defensive linemen was injured, so a time-out was called. As they were getting him off the field and sending in a substitute, Coach signaled for us to pass, and we huddled up.

I couldn't handle the frustration anymore. "Matt; throw me the fuckin' ball. I can break the coverage."

"I don't know, man," he said, shaking his head.  "We gotta convert on this one. They're on you like flies on shit. I'm not throwin' into traffic."

Ruben cut in. "Goddammit, Price, throw him the ball. They got answers for everything else! Dude, if you get picked, you get picked. We won't let 'em take it for yardage; anyway, the defense is gonna hold. They've been the only thing keeping us in it all night. We gotta open up the passing game again. I can't keep their whole fuckin' defense off Ryan the whole goddam night." Everybody else mumbled his agreement.

Matt shook his head again and stared at the ground. Then he looked back up at me, scowled, and said, "Okay. Phillips, you better be there and give me a target."

It never occurred to me to doubt my ability to come through for Matt that night. "This is why you talked me into it this season," I replied. "Hand and glove, remember?"

Matt looked me in the face, smiled grimly, and nodded. I nodded back and said, "Okay, then, let's fuckin' do it." We broke huddle and lined up for the play.

I'd talked a good line, and I was confident enough for both of us, but truthfully, I don't know how I caught that pass. Double coverage was with me from the snap, and the defense was fast and agile. Competing hands were everywhere. But my mind was focused on two things: watching Matt's eyes, and squeezing out the tiniest window of advantage over my coverage.

From the snap, everything felt like it was moving in slow motion.  My body seemed to map out its moves in response to subtle signals Matt was sending.

I ran a short route and focused on him.
  As our eyes connected, it felt as though he'd put me in radar lock.  In that moment our bodies and minds began communicating at a level almost naked in its intimacy. I became an extension of him; there was never any question of failing.

As I saw Matt's arm go back, I noticed that one of the guys covering me was watching me instead of Matt.  Big mistake.  Faking a move, I got him to commit to the wrong direction, and ran past him.  Matt's eyes were fastened on me and as he released the ball, I set my focus on getting in sync with his pass. I could practically feel the remaining defender breathing on me, his coverage was so tight. He was hanging with the play and was still in position to snag it from me, but my connection to Matt was not to be denied. I saw the ball coming, put on a quick burst, moving just past my opponent to where Matt had aimed it, and grabbed the ball out of the air. The cornerback fell, and I took off downfield. I made it twenty yards, to their forty, before they brought me down.

The crowd on our side of the stands went nuts. Matt came running up, and reaching out a hand, pulled me off the ground. We hugged, high-fived, banged helmets together. He backed off and looked at me for just a second, eyes radiating wonder. I returned the look. Then we both broke out laughing like crazy men.

We scored on that drive, and for the remaining quarter-and-a-half, Matt and I made that difficult throw-and-catch into double coverage four more times. The teamwork between us was a thing of beauty to watch, observers said later.

To some extent, this was standard operating procedure between us, a product of years of experience playing football together.

But there was something else going on between us that night, something that wasn't readily visible to the observer.

As I struggled that night both to clear out the defense and to read and respond to Matt, it felt as though Matt was pouring himself into me and I was letting him in. My whole being was reaching out and connecting with him. At times, in the heat of battle, the rest of the stadium faded out of my awareness. All that was left was the reality of Matt's body and mine, whispering dimly-comprehended but deeply personal, perfectly spoken, words to each other. I could see in his eyes that we each heard those words, and felt them; what they meant was a question for some other time.

In any case, the result on the field was undeniable.

Given our success reactivating that short-yardage pass between us, the Hurricanes' coach made a fatal mistake in his game-calling. He kept the double coverage on me, even after it was clear that Matt and I had their number. Because the coverage on me only thinned their defense at other key positions, we were able to start taking advantage of that with a vengeance. Their run defense broke down, so they began tightening up on Ryan. That left Matt free to go to Justin or Shane, who had both suddenly developed hot hands. For the remainder of the night, their defense had no answer for us. Everywhere we put it, we came up with yardage. We ended up winning 34-14.

After showering and changing, we all got on the bus. Matt chose a window seat in the back and as I got on, I saw him motion to me to sit next to him. The whole team was in a mood to celebrate, and it was a noisy ride home. Matt was quiet, though, which was uncharacteristic; he was usually the ringleader in the after-game celebrations.

I was a little nervous. I'd have preferred to goof around and celebrate with my other teammates, but Matt obviously wasn't having any of it; he wanted me in the seat next to him.

I wasn't sure what was going on with him. We'd just won the hardest-fought game of the season, and he and I by ourselves had succeeded in opening up our offense. But the experience, as exhilarating as it was, had unnerved me a little, and given my own state of mind, I wondered what he could be thinking. I had an uneasy feeling that it wasn't directly about football.

We rode in silence for a while. Finally I couldn't stand it. "You're pretty deep in thought for a dumb guy," I said, testing the waters.

Matt looked at me with that same wondering expression I'd seen after our first completion of the night, then stared out the window. Finally he looked me in the eye and said, "Andy, did that seem kinda...I don't know, kinda weird to you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Dude, I don't know...it was almost like we were one person or something out there. Five times we did that."

"I told you we'd do it."

"I know," he said. "But I felt...I felt..." He paused and looked out the window again, then continued. "I don't know, man. It was like there was this thing between us. It's almost like I never really knew you before tonight. Or...shit, that's just stupid. I don't know what I mean. But something was happening out there, man. What was it?"

"I don't know," I hedged, and fell silent. Here it was again. Only this time it wasn't confined to the space inside my head; Matt had gotten caught up in it too. What had happened on the field between us was just another uncomfortable element in the swirling mix of emotions and realities that characterized my feelings about Matt over the last month or so, and I didn't want to think about that right now. I didn't know how to think about it. And there was no way in hell I was going to talk about it with him. So I smiled a perfect lie of a smile, and suggested, "I guess all that kamikaze football on the lawn finally paid off."

He looked at me with an exasperated expression. He knew a deflection when it slugged him in the face. I felt his eyes drill into mine again, and for some crazy reason I thought of being caught on a railroad track as an oncoming train, off in the distance, sped toward me. At one moment, as I stared back into his eyes, I saw them grow suddenly wider, and I felt a flicker of mutual recognition pass between us. Fear rose in me like the mercury in a thermometer on a Dallas summer afternoon.

But almost before I could register it mentally, his eyes lost that momentary look of shock and understanding. He shook his head and laughed, a little dismissively, and said, "Yeah, I guess. Anyway, I won't be afraid to throw at you in coverage any more, that's for sure."

I closed my eyes and let the relief wash over me.

"Well, let's not make it an every-game thing, okay?"

"All depends on how the teams defend us, right? We know we can do it."

"Yeah," I answered. "But it's a fuckin' risky move. We can't get it right every time."

He looked at me without saying anything for a minute.  Then he replied, "I don't know about that," and with that cryptic remark he turned his face toward the window again.

He was silent the rest of the way home. I laid my head against the back of the seat and closed my eyes. It was pretty clear that neither of us was thinking about football, and that neither of us had words for the topic the conversation was really about.

Finally the bus pulled into the parking lot outside our high school gym. I saw my brother Danny waiting outside with my dad. Dan was grinning from ear to ear. Jesus, I thought; I'm gonna have to give him a play-by-play. That's all I need tonight.

I stood up, looked at Matt, and mumbled, "Later." He gave me a perfunctory slap on the shoulder and a half-hearted thumbs-up, and remained silent.

On the way back to the house, stretched out in the back seat of our car, I kept seeing Matt's eyes lock onto mine as he fired a pass into my waiting hands. I replayed the feeling of wonder that arose in both of us as we executed an impossible pass play five times. I thought about the bewilderment that spilled out between us on the bus when we should have been clowning it up and celebrating with the rest of our team. And I felt trapped by the unnamed feelings that clearly gripped us both.

Danny interrupted my brooding. "Andy?"


"Dude, y'all were so awesome! What made y'all decide on passing in tight coverage? Did your coach send that in? I wanna hear all about it."

In spite of my earlier irritation thinking about just this scenario, I was grateful for the distraction, so I began to break down the game for him. As I made my way through the recap, I realized I was actually enjoying my post-game analysis of our play, and Danny was obviously entertained.

At the same time, a piece of my attention never quite let go of its sense of dread.

Something massive was bearing down on me in the dark, and I couldn't get away from it, and it was getting closer and more difficult to ignore.

I finished my commentary and sat quietly. Gradually, steadily, my unease began to rise again.

In the distance a train whistle blew.


Copyright 2004 by Adam Phillips.  Emails are always welcome.  You can reach me at aaptx28@yahoo.com