~This story previously appeared in Arroyo Literary Review (2014).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor for Fiction
He isn’t bothering anybody. He’s just sitting in his car in the parking lot by the freshly mown soccer fields, waiting for his daughter to be done with practice. He isn’t looking at anything in particular, just gazing out in the direction of his pony-tailed daughter and her friends, running forward and back across the field, their cheeks flushed and their toothpick legs like pinwheels in their high rainbow socks.
But he isn’t really watching them, nor is he particularly aware of the pigeons squatting along the telephone wire in the distance, clumped together like old ladies gossiping, nor of the acute blue of the sky behind them, so blue it almost seems artificial. He gazes towards all of these things but he doesn’t really see them, in the way one stares off vacantly into space when deep in thought or daydreaming.
He isn’t daydreaming or deep in thought, but the opposite. His mind is blank, blissfully blank, like the clear blue bowl of a sky above them, only an occasional cloud-thought skittering past, dissipating before it wakes him from peaceful emptiness.
It is a shadow that finally rouses him, falling across his face like a summons. He glances up through the dirt-streaked windshield, expecting to see the shiny red face of his daughter, but instead he is met with the round, shapely behind of a young woman. Tight Lycra shorts grip her perfect, tan thighs. He takes in the smooth-shaven backs of her knees, her slender calves tapering down to exquisite ankles, her running shoes edged in pink trim.
Quickly he looks away, out at the blue sky, the telephone poles, the gray brick restrooms huddled in the midst of green expanse of soccer fields—but immediately his eyes itch to return to her. She is, after all, standing right in front of his car. Her curvaceous lower half directly at his eye level. Where else is he supposed to look?
She is stretching against a lamppost, still turned away from him, one leg extended far behind the other, leaning forward so her calf muscles stand out hard and tight as knots. He can’t see her upper half, her face or hair or the curve of her breasts, but he can imagine. And he does. She would be one of those young girls, still in high school or just out of it, with shiny silken hair pulled back in a high ponytail, a tan glow on her cheeks. Her breasts tight swells against the fabric of her pink sportsbra. She would have one of those smiles both knowing and unknowing. Like Bridget Fitzgerald.
He never touched her. He’d been given the opportunity and he’d wanted to, but he restrained himself. That should count for something. All he did was look, and it was only natural for a man to look.
He tried explaining that to his wife, but she was so busy fussing around, making a big show of packing her suitcase, that she wasn’t listening to anything he said. That was the last thing she told him, actually, before she took the kids and the car and left: “I don’t believe a word that comes out of your sorry rotten mouth!”
After the charges were dropped, she came back. Things were strained between them for a while—it was four months before they had sex again—but now, six years later, the whole ordeal has all but been forgotten. Or, if not forgotten, at least it is never brought up. Even when they argue she doesn’t bring it up, which he is grateful for. It all seems like a long time ago.
Bridget herself would be out of college by now. She went to college out of state—Colorado, maybe, or New Mexico—and he guesses she is still out that way. He never hears from her, and he doesn’t dare ask around. He hopes she is well. He hopes she is a veterinarian like she had wanted to be. He’d never met anyone who loved animals as much as she did. Wouldn’t even dissect a frog. He had given her an alternate assignment. That was part of the “evidence” they had against him—that he gave her special treatment. It wasn’t true, that part. He would have given anyone an alternate assignment. She was just the only student who asked.
Even after the charges were dropped, he stepped down as soccer coach so as not to cause any more problems. And they transferred Bridget out of his Biology class and into Mrs. Henderson’s fifth period. Just like that, she was out of his life. He saw her once, in early spring, when he was walking to his car after a late afternoon of grading lab reports and she was waiting for a ride home from practice. She looked down sharply at her feet and he walked straight on past as if he didn’t see her. It pained him more than he imagined it would. When he got to his car, he had to sit there for a few minutes to calm his breathing.
Outside his car window, the young woman bends over at the waist, stretching her hamstrings. Lycra stretches taut.
It happened on a blustery day in late October. Bridget stayed late after practice, helping him pick up cones. She said her mom was sick with the flu and asked him for a ride home. As they headed to his car, she walked so close beside him their arms brushed. He could smell the musky sweat of her. The sun plunged behind the mountains, casting the clouds with soft pink light. “It’s so beautiful,” she said, smiling up at him with that knowing yet unknowing smile. “Don’t you think?” He just nodded, wondering if his face gave away his desire. He grabbed the cones from her and said, “I’ll meet you in the car. It’s unlocked.”
When he opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat, she had taken off her
T-shirt and sports bra. Her breasts were pale and full in the gathering dark. The moment felt ripe with inevitability. All he had to do was reach out towards her. They were parked in the empty back lot, tucked away behind the fields. He sat there, silent, taking her in. All he had to do was reach out and touch her face and he knew his restraint would leave him.
“Coach Blake,” she said, and she was no longer a woman at all but a girl, eyes wide and cheeks flushed, goosepimples covering her naked arms.
He turned away, ashamed. “Bridget, put your clothes back on. I’m taking you home.” When he started the car the air conditioner whooshed to life. He didn’t reach over to turn it down because he didn’t trust himself. Bridget cried quietly the entire drive, knees pulled up like a shield for her now-covered breasts. When he stopped the car in front of her house, she wiped her face and met his eyes. “I thought you liked me,” she said.
“Bridget, you’re my student. Nothing more.”
She got out and slammed the car door. His hands shook on the steering wheel.
A week later, Principal Jones called him in and the questioning began. It was only his word against hers. If she hadn’t dropped the charges, he would have surely lost his job. And his family. Maybe even gone to jail. As it was, Principal Jones seemed relieved when he left at the end of the school year to “pursue other interests.” His wife was relieved, too. She was the one who signed him up for online classes. Now he worked as a lab technician. Picked his daughter up from soccer practice and cheered her on at games. His son played ice hockey, which he didn’t know much about, but he went to all those games, too. Both his kids had been too young to understand what was going on during the whole mess. They probably barely remembered it. Just thought their parents went through a rocky time. Lots of parents did nowadays. They hadn’t gotten divorced, that was what really mattered.
The last time he saw Bridget Fitzgerald was on graduation day. Her light blonde hair glowed against the black of her robes. She was resplendent. He only saw her from a distance, one face in the wide sea of graduating faces, but during the entire ceremony she was the one he watched. When she walked across the stage to get her diploma, he applauded. He applauded for all the graduates.
Outside his windshield, the young woman finishes stretching and walks away from him, towards the other end of the parking lot. She is wearing a baggy T-shirt and her hair is light brown, hanging in one long braid down her back. He watches her walk farther and farther away.
“Dad! Dad!” His daughter knocks her fist against the passenger window. The door is locked. He fumbles to unlock it. His daughter opens the door and plops down into the seat. The hair around her face is darkened with sweat and there is a streak of dirt on her forehead.
“Did you have a good practice?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I almost scored a goal during the scrimmage.”
“Wow!” He notices goosepimples rising up on her arms. He reaches over to turn up the heater. “Here,” he says, handing her a sweatshirt from the backseat. “Put this on. You don’t want to catch cold.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
During the year after I graduated from college and before I moved to Indiana for graduate school, I moved back to my California hometown and lived with my parents. Down the street from their house there’s a big sports park with a huge grassy field, and I would often run loops around the circumference. Afterwards, I would stretch against a lamppost by the parking lot. One day, after I finished stretching, I noticed there was a man in what I thought had been an empty car parked right behind me. He was watching me; when our eyes met, he looked away quickly. It was an experience that lingered with me and I decided to write an imagined story of that man. At the same time, a family friend was graduating from high school, and at her graduation party I was struck by the tightrope she walked: both a girl and a woman, innocent yet also sophisticated. When I wrote this story, as a 22-year-old, I didn’t see myself that way; but now, looking back on it from the vantage point of my 30s, I see that I was walking that same tightrope. Perhaps I still am; perhaps we all are.
ABOUT DALLAS WOODBURN
Dallas Woodburn was a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University and received her MFA in Fiction from Purdue University. She has published work in Zyzzyva, Fourth River, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, North Dakota Quarterly, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org.