Short Story Perhaps Also Broken
“This game was one in a series of battles stretching into eternity.”
My ticket for the game —Cal against Whitfield, the game that’s still in the news—was for the student section. I wasn’t a student anymore, but I still lived in Whitfield, in an apartment five blocks away from the football stadium. Three Saturdays in a row, I had stayed inside my apartment and watched day-drunks stumble on the sidewalk, mesmerized by their laughing and chants through my open windows. I longed to walk alongside them. I imagined befriending everyone in the crowd. I bought my ticket online.
A text from Sasha: I’m still alive you know.
Me: So am I.
We hadn’t spoken in two weeks. Like always, she blamed me for the silence.
The student section stretched twenty-six rows of Boschian decadence the length of the field. I felt seized by the surrounding excitement. It was as if I stood inside a maraca shaken by gods. The air smelled pleasantly of farts, vodka, Abercrombie cologne, Gatorade, and buttery popcorn. Peanut shells pressed into the soles of my shoes. On the sideline, cheerleaders performed a routine that looked like Taebo underwater; smiles were nailed to their faces. Punters punted and balls lifted invisibly into the stadium lights. I joined in with a chant, hands megaphoning my mouth: Whhiiiittt-Fiiiieeeelld-Uuuu! CRU-SAY-DERS! Fight! Fight! Fight! Across the field, students writhed en masse, their 8,000 pairs of arms wiggling like the tentacles of a giant anemone.
Bodies swarmed my assigned seat, so I snuck into the first row next to a guy named Cray. He had a softly tense face, his nose like the tip of a pickle, and he chewed a hunk of lemony gum like a cow. His eyes were as wild as mice. “Bloodbath,” he said. “Bear blood splattered all over the field.” Cal’s mascot was a bear. He pinched his shirt: Crusader maroon, BLOODBATH crossing the chest.
“Like a hecatomb,” I said. I wanted Cray to think I was smart.
“Yeah, it’s the—”
“Do you see any goats?”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“A hecatomb is the slaughter of goats ,” he said, abrasively literal.
“I was speaking figuratively.”
He scoffed. “That’s what’s wrong with our generation — figurative language.”
What did he mean? Was he joking? But Cray, I would learn, never joked. Cray was a serious man. And football was a serious game, but meaningless: serious because it was meaningless. This could not be discussed. Cray and I, we were scared of meaningless things. This fear had led us to sports. Sports insists that something destined to end, something that will be forgotten—and I have forgotten so many games—matters because it enlivens the heart. Cray, too, must have been wrecked by the speck of his life. I wanted to squeeze his face and assure him that some nights I too woke up sweating, roused by nightmares of meaningless things—money, lovers, and food—knowing that even the sweat cleaving my shirt to my back, the breaths escaping my mouth, every memory I have of my life will someday turn to ash by a fattening sun.
Sasha liked to say: The world is empty and meaningless. And that the world is empty and meaningless, that too is empty and meaningless . She delighted in nihilistic tautologies. I did not, although I wanted to very much. Instead, I was like Cray. I believed in the cosmic weight of the game. Cray and I , I told myself, we would be friends .
Sasha: Tonight, don’t disappear. Don’t be an asshole. One night’s all that I want.
Her desperation alarmed me. Though I wanted to ask what was wrong—I considered leaving the game to give her a call—I felt capable only of cracking a joke.
Me: One night’s all I can do. ☺
Sasha and I grew up puking together, at my house, on the days my mother worked late. Our shared self-destruction had brought us together. Our sickness had felt less damaging undertaken in tandem. She says she’s no longer a puker. But I know that she is. It’s not something you unlearn or blunt with a pill. Vomiting is a mindset—inexpugnable—a talent we share. It is what keeps us together: we upset modes of passive consumption. We both reject what we love.
My father called. I relished the buzz in my pocket—the rings, the missed call alert, and the voicemail. What stupid, fragile power, ignoring a call. But what more could we say to each other? We had talked the previous night. He’d told me to skip the game. “No more fun,” he had said, with a tone more vehement than sad, I am sure. “Get back to work.”
But work was the problem. After graduating from Whitfield that past spring, I interned with the state of Oregon guessing when bridges would fall. I tugged on their cables, knocked on the railings, auscultated cement and guessed: This bridge will collapse in two years, that bridge in a month. The job was highly important but boring. I wanted to build bridges—grand, impossible bridges made out of glass and ornamented cement—not catalog their deteriorations. I was promised a lucrative job if I stayed for a year. My father advised me to stay. I considered it, really, but at work every day I felt the juice leaking out of my heart, trickling over the hair of my legs and puddling inside my shoes. I quit after two months.
My father did not understand the pangs of dissatisfaction. Stable, stubborn, and, in my opinion, scared, he preferred the pleasant grind of routine. He lived in New Jersey, alone. I was his only child, born by a woman he never did marry. He only loved one woman—one person, really—my stepmother. They married shortly after my birth. She died from a kidney disease when I was twenty. My father had gone bankrupt—financially, emotionally—trying to keep her alive.
After her death he remembered that I was his son. He bombarded me with a fatherly blitzkrieg: calls, letters, advice, demands. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him or appreciate the affection. But I saw the affection as one long parade of apologies. What would happen to me once the parade came to an end? Would I be alone in a street riddled with trash? And where would he be, my father, once he satisfied his desire to apologize?
Sasha: Come home.
Me: New York isn’t home.
Sasha: I need you.
Me: You’re married.
Sasha: Don’t even pretend that’s what I meant.
Sasha: Please can we talk?
Me: We’re talking right now.
Sasha: I’ve done something awful.
Me: Buy your way out of it.
Sasha was being melodramatic, I told myself. She was exaggerating. I loved that about her.
Cal was ranked #1 in the nation. They were favored to win by twenty-three points. To increase ratings, ESPN had contrived a feud between Cal’s star wide receiver, Rain Devinson, and Whitfield’s Kirk Sanders, an all-American linebacker. Sportscasters—humorless men in extravagant suits—reported that Devinson defecated on Sanders’s jersey, that Sanders threw rocks at a picture of Devinson’s face. Devinson imitated Sanders using a glassy, girlish voice. Sanders questioned the girth of Devinson’s penis.
We, Cray and I, and everyone else in the stadium, chose to believe the reports from ESPN. We internalized their enmity, we abstracted their hate, extended it centuries into the past: Cal and Whitfield had always been rivals. This game was one in a series of battles stretching into eternity.
What a blow, then, when Cal put the first points on the board. They lined up at their own twenty-five. 3rd and 8. Milliseconds after the snap, Sanders split the offensive line, charging toward the QB, who heaved a prayer of a pass into Rain Devinson’s arms. He juked a cornerback, hurdled the safety, then jogged into the end zone smiling like a fat middle finger: 7–0.
Sasha was wealthy, recently wed to a man who traded money online. She designed clothes for a living. She worked in emotion, creating sexiness, comfort, allure, all the abstractions, via cotton and leather and wool. I too needed things to create. I needed two firm edges of dirt, the gaping void in between; I needed rifts, crevices, canyons, and holes. My achievements were dependent on wounds.
Sanders flattened a Cal tight end at the Cal twenty-two. We gawked at the replay and responsibly clapped when paramedics lifted the tight end into an ambulance.
Dad stuck a note to the fridge under a Domino’s Pizza magnet. Then he plucked it, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the trash. I found it atop a cloud of balled-up tissue and bills.
At halftime, Cal led 7—6. Trying to impress Cray had made me anxious. My fingers were twitching. To calm myself down, I bought a large beer and a pretzel. I slathered the pretzel with cheese, chomped it down in four bites, then I slipped into a handicapped bathroom. I “pulled the trigger”—two fingers crammed in my mouth (one finger was a “jab”). The pretzel shot out. Brown-gold chunks slimed the water. I felt very accomplished. I pissed into the puke water, then chugged the beer and returned to the stands, burping bile into my mouth.
Me: I just threw up.
Sasha: I thought we stopped!
Me: I’ve been stressed.
Sasha: That’s all it takes for you?!
Me: So you’ve been doing it too?
Sasha: How could I not?
Four minutes into the third quarter, Sanders intercepted a pass and raced toward the end zone. Guh! Guh! Guh! Guh! Cray and I barked. At the Cal twenty, Sanders juked Devinson and nearly stepped out of bounds but righted himself and sprinted the rest of the way tipping left, right arm extended for balance, somersaulting into the end zone as the crowd broke open like an airplane ruptured mid-flight.
At the 10:01 mark in the fourth, Dad paused the game. Why would he pause it unless he planned to return? Why else would he put his open beer in the fridge?
Sasha: What’s wrong with us?
Cray said, “Who’re you texting, man? Be here!”
I silenced my phone. Cray clapped my shoulder. Together, rattled and tense, cursing at all the Cal players, we watched Cal score on an eight minute drive. They led 14—13. 4:47 remaining.
Dad carried the bottle of Seagram’s down to his truck. The sky held imminent rain like a satchel of eggs. He toppled a stranger’s mailbox as he drove out of town, then put his last ten bucks in the box. He tried writing a note, but his hands were tender with sweat; where he scribbled I’m sorry on the back of a Home Depot receipt, his pencil tore through the paper.
3:02 remaining. 14—13. Whitfield at the Cal thirty-one.
Whitfield’s kicker, Kristopholous Clowney, lined up to attempt a 48-yard field goal. Cray elbowed my stomach. It took me a second to understand what he wanted: I locked elbows with Cray and Cray locked elbows with the guy to his left and on and on down the row, forming a chain of bodies holding their breaths as Clowney prepared to kick.
Sasha: Please answer. Why won’t you answer?
My father parked in the lot of a restaurant called Dalton’s. He reclined his seat. The roof’s shoddy upholstery hung in a cat belly bulge. He flicked it. He turned up the radio.
Clowney’s kick dinged the left upright and spun over the crossbar. 16—14. 2:55 remaining.
We squeezed an hour of cheering into a minute. Then we gagged our anticipation. Nobody said, “We might beat the number one team in the nation.” Nothing like, “Cal’s going down.” Not one “Bears suck dick.” But we didn’t avoid the topic. We cautiously emphasized pronouns. “We might do it ,” Cray said. “ It’s gonna happen.” It meant storming the field. I leaned over the railing, testing the height of the jump. I grew giddy imagining running across the field, shaking Sanders’s hand, shimmying up the goal posts.
I wrote back to Sasha: If you were really in trouble you’d call.
Cal got the ball at their twenty-yard line. 2:31 remaining. Students rushed to our row like pigs escaping a cage. Cray and I leaned over the wall, our balls squished uselessly between it and our thighs.
“You gonna do it?” Cray asked.
“That’s why I’m here,” I said.
Cal at the fifty. 1:35 remaining.
Dad stepped out of his truck. The air, larded by the scent of a grease trap, spurred a memory of being a boy, living above a diner in Paterson, and he paused to step into that feeling, slipping it on like a suit. He walked. Crickets cricketed; bullfrogs inflated their necks. He didn’t know that Cal had just completed a pass to Whitfield’s thirty-nine—first down—nor did he know that on the next play, Sanders sacked the QB.
Sasha: Nobody calls anyone anymore.
Cal timeout. 00:47.
In the south end zone, police in riot gear guarded the goalpost. Six more cops marched toward the north end zone.
Dad stepped onto a pedestrian bridge. The moon’s reflection wobbled in the Delaware River. The railing chilled his slippery hands.
Cal’s running back hauled in a pass, in bounds, at the 33. 00:23.
The P.A. announcer reminded everyone that the entire Crusaders organization encourages fans to act with the utmost sportsmanship and respect.
Cal lined up with five wide-receivers. 00:12. 00:08.
Sanders hit the QB three steps into his drop back, knocking the ball backwards, into the air, into the arms of Rain Devinson running a timely reverse. The students spilled over the walls, sprinting toward Sanders, who chased Devinson as he navigated through tackles, chased by Sanders as we chased Sanders, swarming him at the ten, Devinson at the five, clearly tiring, you can see in the replays, which show us, the bloody anemone, tackling Sanders as Devinson stumbled into the end zone.
Perhaps my father lifted one knee to the railing, trying to stretch—stupidly, stupidly—when his weight whisked him over the edge. Perhaps he bent over the railing trying to spy his reflection when his weight . . . perhaps he perched on the edge and leapt, screaming his peace into the . . . what I mean is, perhaps he was pushed. Or perhaps the railing, rusted to rot, collapsed at the touch of his hands.
My father struck the foot of a pillar. His chest buckled like a box stomped by a boot. He lay there, blood coloring the river as the current dragged him into the water.
Students spilled over the walls. My phone buzzed. I held it before me, trying to text, when somebody shoved me, knocking the phone from my hands. I lost it. Please kindly exit the field replayed through the speakers, the message suppressed by chants of FUCK THE BEARS! The floodlights cut out. Cell phone blues illuminated the field. Students climbing the goal post wriggled and humped. The structure fell with a rusted, primitive yawn. A gunshot silenced our chanting. A collective gasp, then screams.
I raced to the sidelines but couldn’t make the eight-foot leap into the stands. A girl beside me scraped the wall, scratching the nails off her fingers and sobbing. I boosted her over the ledge. Arms reaching out from the stands into the glow of the phones appeared monstrous and lacustrine. Hands gripping my hands yanked me into the stands.
Outside the stadium, flashing lights purpled the road. Gnats dotted the night. iPhones streamed Kanye, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Slayer, and Drake. Tailgaters frantically packing their tents resembled extras in disaster movies. Their horror seemed so generic.
I spun through strangers’ tangled arms, looking for Cray. At the center of campus I mindlessly joined a mass of students hurling rocks against the student union. I shivered with pleasure as rocks thudded the building. Why did we throw? I never asked. We threw without purpose or cause. We had no idea what we wanted but we wanted nevertheless: unadulterated desire, desire without an objective. But my wants, I discovered, were different. I wanted material things. I wanted my phone. I wanted a bed. I wanted a sleeve of Oreos to cram in my mouth. I wanted to talk to Sasha.
My father’s body floated downriver with a calm he’d never known when alive. The current nudged him onto the shore. Minnows suckled his toes. Everything he ever was and never would be fled the misshapen hole in his chest like steam escaping a kettle.
Cray was kicking a bicycle rack. I ran to him. “Just like Chicago,” he said. “After the Stanley Cup, see?” He held out his phone to show me clips of fans setting fire to pharmacies. “Come on,” he said. “There’s a party someplace.”
I stiffened. This was what I had wanted: an invitation, befriending a stranger. But the prospect of hanging out with Cray and knowing him better disturbed me. I wanted for us to think we were friends but to never hang out. I wanted a life safely imagined. Sasha, for instance. I loved the Sasha I kept in my phone, the woman I could tease and evade. The real Sasha, the Sasha in pain, was an alien, frightening figure whom I didn’t yet know how to love.
I told Cray I had somewhere to go. I lost him in the mess of the crowd.
The discrete iterations of property damage blended together. A man hammered a bench with a parking meter. Six Delta Gammas slam-danced a hobo in the bed of pickup truck. Somebody drop-kicked the mirrors off an Elantra. A girl kissed me hard on the mouth. When I asked for her name she said, “Frank,” then laughed and scrambled away. I raided an unguarded tailgate for cupcakes, stuffing three in my mouth before spitting them up. “Hey!” A rotund man hugging a cooler demanded to know what the hell I was doing. I crammed two more cupcakes into my pocket then scampered back to the street. I turned toward my apartment. Behind me the crowd chugged like an enormous worm absorbing whatever it touched.
At home I called Sasha—my cable television plan came with a landline. “What happened?” I asked.
“Joachim is leaving,” she said.
“Men come back.”
“I’ve had an affair.”
“Without telling me?” I was hurt. How low did I rank in Sasha’s life? How many other people, I wondered, how many friends in New York had Sasha already told?
“An affair of the heart,” she said.
“Like a crush?”
“Affairs of the heart are much more invasive.”
“But remember,” I said, very proud of myself, “everything is empty and meaningless.”
She laughed. “Talk to me, Dyson. I’ve missed the sound of your voice.”
How easy, I think now, how painless it was being for her a familiar voice on the phone. How much pleasure it gave me as well, hearing, in Sasha, proof that I was loved. Her voice was a warm house after sledding, a mug of cocoa heating the hand. Would it have made any difference if I had answered his calls? Probably not, I tell myself, though of course I know that it would have. How tired I am of learning from my mistakes.
I recounted my night. The game came first, then the riot, and through the telling I shook, buzzed by the joy of destruction, the adolescent bliss of damaging things, but the more I talked the emptier everything sounded, so I continued to talk—as if more emptiness could create the illusion of substance—repeating myself, exaggerating, trying to entertain Sasha, to make her think I had something to say. When I finished, I was crying. I apologized.
“For what?” she asked. I didn’t know.
Sasha said: “A musician ended my marriage.” She went on to describe in elegant detail the calamitous surge of her heart. “What a pity it beats,” she said. I called her melodramatic. We laughed at ourselves. We talked through the night—the night before her husband kicked her out of the house, before two waiters discovered my father—within the din of screaming and crashing, our conversation protecting us, like a cellar in which we hid from a tornado, never wanting to leave. We knew that when we emerged nothing would be as it was.