The date’s strange to begin with—not a date-date, more of a get-together, though less get-together than an obligation or an attempt to prove something undefined. In short, Kasey has been invited by her old college friend Ari to a hockey game, accompanied by Ari’s teenage son, Ben. Kasey gets the seat that Ari’s ex-fiancé should be sitting in.
The Douche, is what Ari calls him, and Kasey’s too embarrassed to admit she’s forgotten his real name. She and Ari lost touch shortly after college and have only recently reconnected (thanks, LinkedIn!), though they both migrated from the Midwest to DC’s Virginia suburbs.
Still—The Douche didn’t have to leave behind the Caps tickets for Ari after he broke off the engagement. So, there’s that. A ten-game plan, suggesting to Kasey the barest commitment compared to season tickets, so is this breakup a true surprise? Back in college, each breakup stunned Ari. Anxiety churned her social life, “What did he mean, really-really mean, when he said that-did that-looked at me that way?” If Ari wasn’t plop in the center of a conversational web she’d created, her interest evaporated.
Fifteen years later, little has changed. “Cold feet,” is how Ari explained away The Douche when Kasey reunited with her over coffee five weeks ago. “There’s a club of them, guys getting cold feet around me. A big, non-exclusive club. Why?” She stabbed a straw roughly into her iced latte. “This was supposed to be for real. I mean, seriously? What happened?”
“What do you think happened?” Kasey asked.
Ari sighed. “He’s a douche, that’s what happened.”
Okay, Kasey thought, cooing and listening it is. She reached into her purse for a mini-pack of decorative tissues. This pattern with Ari was familiar—and comfortable enough—that Kasey relished sliding back in. Her female Hill friends were uber-competitive about their competence, so finding this scrap of weakness and vulnerability was novel. How fun to win the competency contest for once.
Ben came up only at the end, when Ari said, “Plus, you know, The Douche wasn’t so keen on my son. So there’s that.”
“That’s a big thing, right?” Kasey said.
“I guess,” she said. “Of course.” A small hand flip like swatting away a fly. “You’ll have to meet him. I’m trying to throw good, strong role models at him, especially women.”
“Oh, I’m not—.”
“Just say yes,” she said. “I like us being friends again, don’t you?”
Before contacting Ari on LinkedIn, Kasey had talked to her therapist about whether she should, outlining a few tangles of their complicated friendship, that complicated time. The therapist said, “You got something from the relationship back then,” and Kasey had said, “She’s my oldest friend.”
Now, she produced the line again: “You’re my oldest friend, Ari,” and Ari nodded, saying, “Come watch hockey with us.”
The plan is to drive to Ari’s townhouse in Alexandria and metro downtown to the arena, but when she arrives, Ben’s begging Ari for an Uber because it’s raining and he’s wearing new sneakers he refuses to get wet. “Not unless you’re paying,” she says, and he huffs a non-response. Ari’s not ready, though Kasey is exactly on time, so as Ari disappears, she and Ben sit opposite each other at the kitchen island, a large bowl with two oranges between them. Everywhere that Kasey sets her hand feels sticky, so she crosses her arms. Ben’s a gawky teenager: skin stretched over toothpick-thin bones that seem too long, and a stiff, ravenous face. His dark eyes are enormous. An aura of discomfort manifests around him as eerie, near-perfect stillness. Kasey doesn’t encounter many older children; her friends with kids have competitively adorable toddlers and babies. She isn’t prepared for this reality of a fifteen-year-old boy. He’s a kid, she thinks, which is how Ari introduced him: “Here’s my kid, Ben.” As if she knew Kasey might need reminding of that fact. Kid.
Ben’s been talking about the special sneakers for several minutes, pointing out nuances: laser-etching, unique sole, how Kayne wore a pair, the Twitter feed for this line. “Just fabulous,” Kasey enthuses often, working to respect the depth of Ben’s knowledge of minutiae. Her job requires a suit—hell, women aren’t allowed open-toed shoes in the House chamber—but if she were brave enough to move to Silicon Valley as her brother encourages, there’d be a new unspoken dress code; in DC, one glance at a woman’s sparkling flag pin and she knows without knowing how she knows whether it’s real Ann Hand or rip-off. Maybe it’s the same with sneakers. She imagines Ben tagging the tech titans by their shoes, ranking them by net worth, so perhaps she’ll learn from him. Kasey’s best or worst habit—depending on who’s asked—is seeking good qualities in unlikable people, viewing a tedious conversation as an opportunity to learn. Around the office they call her LMS, short for Little Mary Sunshine. She’s testing the market, looking to get off the Hill. That’s why she cyberstalked Ari: She’s an executive assistant at a trade association where Kasey would be a match for lobbying in the GR division. Plus, she was curious: What had Ari turned into? Her own LinkedIn profile is purposefully vague, so she doubts Ari understands how high-level she is in the Speaker’s office.
Ben’s also wearing a Kobe Bryant 24 shirt, apparently in honor of the recent helicopter crash. Since his eyes go glassy when she says, “Nice shirt,” she’ll overlook his wearing a basketball shirt to a hockey game: a perverse decision, not rebellious. Wear regular clothes if you don’t own a Caps jersey.
Their conversation feels complete, and she tries to think of a question not about school but loses him. He yanks his phone from his back pocket and stares into its oracle. If eyes could go limp, his do. One thumb flicks upwards.
Intuitively, Ari calls out, “Almost ready! I promise.” A distant toilet flushes—possibly an encouraging sign, except that Kasey remembers Ari’s tricks, how she created the suggestion of action without acting. The two were randomly assigned as dorm roommates, which pressed them into a quick intimacy. “Our arranged marriage,” Ari called it, one of those jokes that’s amusing at the time though possibly racist now. “Can you imagine me letting my mom and dad pick out my husband?” Ari said, “Such patriarchy.” Still, Kasey’s last long-term relationship was with a man she met through Date Lab, the Washington Post match-making column—most people sign up to get a free dinner at a nice restaurant paid for by the Post, but Kasey meant business and so had the male Casey. (Yes, that name thing was embarrassing; it headlined the article written about their dinner. If he’d been named Kyle, maybe they’d still be together.)
Ben glances up. “Why do all women take forever to get ready? To do anything?”
All women. Kasey bristles, a lecture forming, which she turns into a smile and a weak laugh. “But she said, ‘almost ready!’” Kasey mocks, hoping for the proper tone of detached irony.
He snickers and looks directly into her eyes. The force of his attention startles Kasey who quickly says, “She’s got the tickets, so I think we need her.”
A dismissive shrug. “I could hack her phone in like thirty seconds. Print them off.”
“Oh, sure,” she says, as if she could too. “You have her password?”
Now a grunt. “Come on,” he says. “Passwords are bullshit window dressing.”
“I’m not up on tech,” she says. Her brother in Silicon Valley is VC, a money guy. “Tell me what you’ve got and why my DC sister would give a shit,” is famously his opening line at meetings. “You’ve made me rich,” he tells her.
Ben says, “You think I couldn’t? Want to see how fast I hack into your phone?” He holds out a hand. His long fingers are slender, spidery.
Though she’s curious about how secure her work emails might be, she shakes her head. “Some other time.”
“Why did you and my mom stop being friends?” he asks. Again, that direct look drilling into her. Like he knows this is his only superpower.
“We’re friends,” she says, keeping her eyes steady on his.
“Of course we are,” Ari says, appearing at the end of a hallway. She’s wearing black jeans and an Ovechkin jersey that Kasey suspects was a gift from The Douche. Wearing it means…? She wants to prove…? “You guys ready?” Ari speaks quickly, always has. As if there’s so much to say. “What were you talking about?”
“Shoes,” Kasey says, pointing at Ben’s feet. “I love his.”
Ari hands them each a ticket, the official paper kind, not print-at-home. “Here’s some responsibility, hanging onto your own ticket,” she says to Ben. “And you, sir, keep out of my phone.” She smiles at Kasey, as if this is some sort of performance. Also, so that Kasey knows Ari heard everything, including Ben’s question.
It’s like a drain stopper has been yanked loose, and water’s getting sucked down.
Ben stands the entire Metro ride, spinning his body around the vertical pole like tourist children do March through August when they invade the city on school and family trips. What a relief when the train fills with hockey fans and he’s forced to stand still. Ari, in the window seat, stares at the dark, opaque glass, which—as Kasey knows from her commuting days, before being promoted and getting paid parking—is how to watch what’s going on in a window reflection without engaging or appearing to observe.
Kasey tries: “Are you thinking about him? Because you’re better off without him.”
Ari turns to face Kasey: “Ben?” Oddly, her face is placid, as if this is a reasonable assumption.
“Oh, gosh, no!” Kasey says quickly. “The Douche.”
“You’d be surprised at how hard I put a person out of my mind these days,” Ari says. “I mean, when there’s reason to.”
Kasey’s face grows warm. She feels at once clunky, overweight, and zitty; the girl who doesn’t fit in, included because she’s Ari’s roommate, because everyone likes Ari, or if they don’t like her, they’re interested in her, eager to see what she’ll do next. Kasey lacks mystery. That’s the other Casey’s break-up line: “I want to be with someone who keeps me guessing.” Such bullshit, but it stung.
“Oh, I know,” Kasey says. “You’re strong.”
“The word you want is survivor,” Ari says.
The train pulls into L’Enfant Plaza, and masses of hockey fans press in. For a minute Kasey can’t see Ben in the crowd, and Ari says, “He’ll be fine.”
“Ben. He’s just a cranky teenager. We should send them all off to an island.”
“It’s called boarding school,” Kasey says.
“Trust the rich to have the answers,” Ari says.
The train doors slide shut, and Kasey looks at Ari, and beyond her, she catches the reflection of Ben in the window, there all along.
Hockey playoffs loom, with the Caps on the bubble, so the atmosphere at the arena is amped, especially since the opponent is their arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins, architect of countless season-ending heartbreaks. Kasey knows all this because Ari fills her in on the drizzly walk from the Metro to the arena. Though she’s likely parroting the opinions of The Douche, Ari’s voice bristles as if she, too, were devastated by the overtime loss in Game 7 in 2009.
Ben lopes a few steps ahead, fixated on his phone. “I always follow,” Ari murmurs, “otherwise I’d have no idea where he is.”
Inside the arena, crowds surge in waves through the concourse. The women continue following Ben—bumping, being bumped, slowly jostling their way toward Section 114. They’re almost there, when Ari clutches Kasey’s sleeve and points to the mascot, Slapshot, an oversized eagle wearing hockey attire. He’s mugging and fist-bumping as he poses with kids. “I want a picture,” she says, shouting, “Ben! Ben!”
He stops abruptly, not turning around.
“Let’s get a picture,” Ari says.
“With the bird?” Ben says.
“Come on, honey,” Ari says. Ben death-rays her, then stomps over. She reaches to push aside a hank of his hair, and he recoils as if punched. Ari smiles.
“I’ll take it,” Kasey says, pretending to ignore the psychodrama.
“It should be all of us,” Ari says.
“Her too?” Ben says. “Oh my god.”
Ari’s smile wrenches tighter. “Apologize, Ben.”
“It’s okay.” A relief—not that she cares about the picture, but that Ben’s rudeness confirms what Ari won’t say: Ben is why The Douche left.
“It’s not okay,” Ari says. “You know, we can turn around and go home—right now.”
Ben flips his head, sending that bit of stray hair whipping backwards.
Slapshot shifts his jittery attention to the three of them, herding them close for a selfie, as he reaches a gloved hand for Ben’s phone. Ari says, “Give Slapshot your phone, Ben,” and the bird grabs it. But Ben holds on, and the bird tugs, and as Ben holds harder, the bird yanks. Kasey’s selfie smile feels clownish.
Ben sharply calls, “Jesus fucking Christ,” which snaps heads their way, and a passing dad calls, “Language, Kobe Bryant, kids are here,” and Slapshot grips the damn phone—though other kids have swarmed in, eager for photos rather than resistant. Surely Kasey imagines this, but Slapshot’s grinning beak seems suddenly malevolent, cruel—and definitely competitive, as if this bird is so over sullen teenage boys and their endless tugs of war.
The ponytailed handler drops her conversation with a man studying a clipboard and sprints over as Slapshot releases the phone, sending Ben into a backwards, off-balance stagger. He drops the phone, which Ari swoops up.
Slapshot gets steered to a family with bouncy toddlers, and the crowd swarms on, leaving Kasey to feel as if the three of them are a hard, rocky island rising out of the current.
Ari studies Ben’s phone, scrolls. As Ben reaches for it, she spins, her back to him, keeping the phone from his grasp—which heightens his efforts to snatch it back. “Mom!” he whines, dancing around her as she circles again.
“What’s this site?” she says. “Nine o’clock… I can’t even say the word,” and she thrusts the phone at Kasey as Ben yells, “Jesus fucking Christ, it’s my phone,” and the word Ari won’t say blares at Kasey: “Nazis.”
Ben’s face flushes a bruised pink. “Where’d that come from?” His awkward body shifts, like trying to fold a paper map.
Ari’s lips press into one thin line. The phone weighs heavy in Kasey’s hand, but she sneaks another peek: a line of blonde men—haircuts like Ben’s, buzzed low but long and slick on top—stand in the sunlight, looking attentive. She needs her glasses to read the fine print, or she needs to touch the screen to enlarge it, and she doesn’t want her fingerprints here.
“You swore you were done with all that,” Ari mutters.
“I am.” Ben’s earnest voice doesn’t match his skulking eyes.
People crowd them, rushing to their seats before the puck drops. Kasey should be one of them. This is Ari’s problem, not hers. Like always. Her car is at Ari’s, she realizes, and the whole thing will be awkward if they leave, if she stays, if she leaves with them. She has no way out.
Ben says, “It’s for school. This time for real.”
“Enough lies.” Ari seizes the phone, stuffs it into her clear plastic stadium purse. The screen glows, then darkens. To Kasey, she says, “It’s just a phase,” and she starts walking, slipping into the swift flow of the throng, carried away almost instantly. They couldn’t follow even if they’re supposed to—which, clearly, they aren’t.
Kasey looks at Ben who stares at his special sneakers. Made in Düsseldorf, he’d told her.
The national anthem starts, and the press of hurrying people turns urgent. “What so proudly we hailed…” and there’s Hitler’s smug face in her mind.
Ben says, “She’s going to the seats?” His voice is light but hints at anxiety, and he bites his lip.
“Sure,” Kasey says, though Ari went the opposite direction. She could be confused. “Maybe the ladies room. Let’s wait here a minute for her.”
“Fuck,” Ben says. “We’re missing everything.” He slams his arms across his chest. “And what’m I supposed to do with no phone?”
“She’ll be right back.” Kasey stays cheerful, though she doesn’t know why. She imagines Ben’s face lit by a tiki torch, screaming hate into a dark night. In a different world, she might have known him his whole life, the son of her best friend in college. She might have been his godmother, or celebrated his first birthday, or vacationed in beach houses with him and Ari, or carefully selected educational presents in museum gift shops. Instead, she’s known him for about an hour, this fucked-up teenager coming to her already finished: a fact, an almost-man. No chance to cozy up in front of a fireplace and read him picture books, no chance that he’s influenced by dear “Aunt Kasey,” who strategized for sweet liberal candidates until that churn was a hassle; who then grabbed the high-level Hill job she earned, notching experience before moving on to cash in on K Street as a lobbyist for a firm or a trade association. The familiar path everyone takes. Who makes a difference in the world anyway?
The anthem’s over, and the game starts. While the concourse isn’t entirely clear, wide patches of empty space have opened, and Kasey three-sixties, desperate to spot Ari. Without a phone to stare at, Ben’s ended up staring at her in that unsettling way. “I promise it’s for school. A report on hate speech.”
What school would allow that? No school. Does he think she’s dumb? She pulls out her phone and texts Ari:
When there’s no immediate answer, she adds:
Ben says, “I had a phone…once.” An extended, dramatic sigh. He flips his head, shifting that annoying clump of hair for a moment before it falls back to the place it wants to be. He needs pomade, Kasey thinks, and imagines Ari buying a jar that Ben immediately rejects. She never wanted children; the endless exhaustion seems daunting. She hears more of that, never the exhilaration of motherhood. Maybe the good stories go to other parents, protecting the feelings of the pitiable childless, like her.
Ben says, “I’m out. I’m going to the seat.”
“Wait a sec,” Kasey says, “she’ll text back.” She reaches out an arm but isn’t sure she should touch him. He’s not her kid, not related to her, not even a friend. Her hand dangles midair, and Ben glares at it with disdain, so she pulls it back, running her fingers through her hair.
“She’ll find me at the seat,” he says, “no big deal,” and off he goes, so Kasey follows. She’s the adult, right? Ari really wouldn’t leave, would she? Her own kid? Of course, she did this all the time in college—promise Kasey she’d stay at the party for an hour, then disappear. Promise spring break in Daytona then cancel the day before, leaving the group scrambling because the plan had been to drive Ari’s car. Her excuse always was something like, “Couldn’t deal.”
At the portal, the usher stops them from heading to their seats, tick-tock waving a paper stop sign on a stick, and they huddle along with a man and a teenage boy, waiting for a stoppage in play. Ben stands, arms crossed, as does the other kid; they’re mirror reflections, same pose, same scornful affect, same haircut. Another Nazi? Kasey peers at the father, white as white can be, wearing khakis and a pale pink polo-style shirt. Who needs a secret handshake? He flashes a toothy smile and says, “Feeling good. Hat trick for Ovi tonight.” Kasey stares, startled to be addressed, and he adds, “Three goals,” then raises one open palm for a high-five and Kasey embarrasses herself by giving it to him with a dull smack. The man’s son rolls his eyes and hunches deeper into himself. Ben’s narrowed eyes stay focused ahead, either on the action on the ice or on row M, the three empty seats on the aisle: Ari not there. Kasey knows what a hat trick is; he doesn’t need to explain it. But saying so now would be awkward.
Kasey looks at her phone: a phantom vibration.
The goalie gloves the puck, and the group clambers down the stairs to their seats, the father-son Nazis ending up in the very front row, which just figures, Kasey thinks.
Ben collapses into the aisle seat, jutting his folded legs out from his hips at forty-five degree angles, manspreading, leaving little room for her to squeeze next to him, so she climbs over his legs to the third seat, leaving an open space between them. “Your mom can sit there,” she says.
“If she shows,” he says, his voice neutral. He flips his hair yet again, perhaps the most annoying gesture invented.
“She will,” Kasey says.
There’s a flurry of action at the Penguins’ goal. People around them whoop, but she and Ben remain silent. The father-son duo bangs the glass. The Caps score a goal, and the arena goes raucous. Ben doesn’t react, so neither does she. “Goal scored by Alexander Ovechkin,” the announcer intones, and the noise ratchets up: “O-vi! O-vi!”
Kasey watches players skate and snap the puck, as she ponders the ethics of offering to go buy popcorn but not returning. Why should she get stuck babysitting a Nazi? (The word’s a needle of pain jabbing deep.) Still, she knows why. She was there that night at the bar, with Ari. Whether Ari remembers or not. Whether Ari believes her or not.
She tried to stop the guy. She tried to stop Ari.
He was a basketball player—a Turkish walk-on, but still. That was senior year, the winter Ari had a thing for basketball players, mostly because the team had a shot at March Madness. So she had to find which bar the basketball players hung out at. She had to sashay around enough until one took a little notice. She had to win at beer pong. She had to drunk-fuck the guy in the bathroom. And she had to get pregnant.
Kasey was expected to prevent all that? “Blow job only,” Ari announced as she stumbled off with the guy.
The team lost in a double OT buzzer beater and didn’t make the tournament.
Looking back, it was all such a sad waste.
Over the summer Ari stopped returning Kasey’s emails and calls. Birthday cards came back stamped “return to sender,” then “addressee unknown.” And now, fifteen years later, Kasey’s facing baby boy Nazi.
Ben says, “I already know why you and my mom stopped being friends.” He cocks his head, smirks. Another burst at the net, but he’s watching her.
“Do you even like hockey?” she asks.
He shrugs. “The guy bought the tickets like it was such this big thing, so my mom made me go. She thinks hockey’s violent and stupid. But I wasn’t supposed to say so.”
“Did you like him?”
“I don’t much like anybody,” he says. “I’m a misanthrope,” which he mispronounces, mis-an-thrawp-ee.
“You’re pretty young to have given up on the world already,” she says.
“You don’t know anything about me.” He slouches further down his chair, knees banging the shoulders of the man seated in the row ahead, who spins and glowers at Ben until he slides his knees back. After the man turns, Ben flips him off. “Like, see?” he says. “The world pretty much sucks, especially all the people in it.”
“Is that why…the website?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Probably just to get at my mom.”
“Get at her why?” Kasey asks.
Again with the shrug and the hair. “Why not?” A moment later he adds, “Didn’t you ever just hate everything about everyone?”
She speaks immediately so she won’t think about the question: “No.”
“Aren’t you special.”
There’s a roughing penalty against the Caps, and the arena groans as the team goes short-handed, four against five.
He says, “You don’t have to stay with me. She’ll show up. Worst case is I metro home.”
“She does this a lot?”
“Let’s just say I can take care of myself.” His words are boastful, but Kasey doesn’t know whether to believe them. Really, she just wants to watch the game. Hockey tickets are hard to come by. Like Nazi-Dad, she’d be thrilled to see a hat trick.
They’re silent as the Caps kill the two-minute penalty. Again, everyone cheers, as Ben stews in a sullen fog. His fingers twist and fiddle, seeking the soothing presence of a phone.
“Want popcorn?” she asks. She probably won’t abandon him. But she could look for Ari on the concourse. Or just get away and breathe.
“Whatever. I’d eat some or not.” Then he turns toward her, his face contorted by an uncomfortable grimace. “You told my mom to get an abortion. That’s why.”
That hard-smack landing deep in her soft gut.
“She told you that?”
“Yeah,” he says. “She got pregnant in college, and you said she should abort me. If she listened to you, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“Let’s go, Caps!” the crowd chants, and the rhythmic call of the three words buries Kasey in noise. Players slash the ice up and down, side to side; they rattle round the back of the net. She’s watching this game. She’s cheering mindlessly like everyone else, frantic for a goal.
But Ben says, “Well?”
Kasey says, “Okay, yes. That’s advice I gave when she asked me. But it’s not like I—” She breaks off. I said I’d drive her, is what Kasey could tell Ben, I offered to pay so her parents wouldn’t know. I begged her not to let one mistake change her life forever. You sound just like my nagging mother would, Ari shouted, I never should’ve told you, and for sure I’m not telling her until it’s too late. Then she left school. And suddenly here we are, fifteen years later. What Kasey forces herself to say is, “I’m glad she didn’t listen to me. Right? I’m an idiot.”
Ben nods. “In the end, I’m alive. Though I’ll never have a father.”
“If it helps any, that guy was a jerk.”
“I’m not talking about that douchey asshole,” he says. “My real father. Her college boyfriend. The musician.”
Kasey’s mouth hangs open as she waits for her mind to catch up. Luckily, the Caps score again, and everyone around them leaps up, and she does too, elevating herself above Ben’s penetrating gaze. But he stands, asking, “Did you know him? What was he like? Where’s he now? My mom said his band was awesome.”
Your mom’s a liar, she thinks, grinding her fingernails into the flesh of both palms to keep that statement buried. Why is Kasey so furious? She’s done nothing wrong. She says, “He was Jewish. Exactly who your Nazi pals hate.”
Ben’s turn for the gaping fish-mouth.
“I’m getting popcorn,” Kasey says. Her heart beats way too hard. She’s lying. To a kid. But parents lie to their children all the time, she reminds herself, as she climbs over Ben’s long legs to reach the aisle.
Out on the concourse, she almost expects that Ari will be standing right there. All she sees are clusters of fans carrying beer or whisking into the bathroom, people going about their lives.
There’s a line at the popcorn stand because the credit card reader was just fixed, and waiting’s a relief: precious minutes alone. She breathes in, breathes out, inhales the greasy smell of popcorn and calms herself.
The Sunday after, Ari barely left bed. She spoke about two words all day, skipped mimosa brunch because she couldn’t deal, ignored her history of Russia paper due Monday, let every call dump to voice mail, didn’t turn on her computer. The only thing she did was take a long shower that hogged all the hot water, and then leave wet, crumpled towels on the floor.
Kasey knew she was supposed to ask what was wrong, was Ari sick, did Ari need anything, should she go downtown to Baskin Robbins for a pint of Rocky Road, all the usual. But she already knew what was wrong: Ari regretted the basketball player. Ari regretted getting drunk. Ari regretted so many things lately: this college, her major, signing a lease on an apartment without parking, the too-short haircut last week. Kasey just didn’t want to hear about one more thing. She didn’t want to know. Was that a sin?
“You should have stopped me,” Ari had said that night as Kasey unlocked the door to their apartment on College Street.
“I tried,” Kasey said.
“Next time try harder,” Ari snapped. She beelined to her bedroom and slammed the door. Kasey slammed her bedroom door in response. “You’re not my responsibility,” she shouted through the silence, at the wall between their bedrooms. “Don’t have a ‘next time,’ how bout that?”
Now, here she is wasting nine bucks on “bottomless popcorn” for Ari’s kid. Blame LinkedIn for this mess. When she reaches in her pocket for her twenty-dollar bill, her fingertips brush the rounded corners of her metro card.
Let Ben imagine himself Jewish for a little while longer. If she goes back to the seat too soon, she’s sure to say more—too much—and she feels herself getting angry, eager to blow up the sadly desperate story about the musician and his “awesome” band. Honestly! Ari scorned musicians: “too full of themselves.” Kasey was the one mooning forever over a locally famous bar band guitarist who was an expert at stringing her (and others) along, and now she’s infuriated, realizing that Ari has stolen her heartbreak, turning her guy into Ben’s so-called father.
Still, she marches back to Section 114, waits behind the usher’s paper stop sign. Nazi-Dad’s also there, holding beer and Aquafina. He nods in recognition at Kasey and says, “Ovi’s killing it out there.”
She says, “Hat trick,” with enthusiasm, but what she hears in her head is Ari’s long-ago, shaky voice: “You’re saying kill it? You want me to kill it?” Her own voice answering, “It’s nothing yet. Don’t think it’s something. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t throw away everything over one mistake.”
Nazi-Dad jostles his drinks to offer another high-five, and Kasey shifts the popcorn and slaps his palm with a satisfying, energetic whack.
At the TV timeout the usher lets them pass through, and Nazi-Dad sprints down the stairs like he’s running bleachers for a high school coach. Kasey moves slowly, watching each step. When she looks up, there’s Ari, sitting next to Ben, and as Kasey reaches row M, the announcer says, “And now we ask that you please stand for a moment of silence as we honor the loss of one of the NBA’s greatest heroes on and off the court, Number 24, Kobe Bryant; his 13-year-old daughter Gianna; and the other victims of last weekend’s helicopter crash.” She’s standing in the aisle, holding the giant bag of popcorn, and Ben leaps up, as does Ari. An arena is never exactly silent, but it’s pretty damn quiet as the big screen shows a montage of Kobe in his Lakers uniform. Ben bows his head and clutches one hand over his heart, as if this is the national anthem. Ari gently reaches along his back, hooking her hand across his far shoulder, and Kasey braces for the angry shake-off, but Ben allows it. In fact, he leans closer, cocooning in, tilting his head so his cheek rests on the top of her hair. His eyes are closed, the lashes long like a baby’s.
Kasey watches. Maybe he’s thinking about basketball or musicians or Nazis or the scent of his mother, and maybe this is what a moment of silence does, stills the collected thoughts of twenty thousand fans as quiet builds, billows. A moment to be at once all the things we are, good and awful, vulnerable and tough, a moment to marvel at how rare it is to mesh into anything shared, even something as simple as this moment of silence—
A man’s loud voice booms: “Alleged rapist!” It’s Nazi-Dad, twisted backwards in the front row, hands cupping his mouth for maximum amplification, his face blotching red from the exertion of that bellowing reminder. The entire length of Ben’s body twitches and jerks, as if words could taser, and Ari’s hand slides down his back, rubbing away the tension.
The moment’s gone; the announcer says, “Thank you,” and the ice crew skates out to shovel away the snowy ice shavings. Ari wraps Ben into a real, hard hug, her arms tightening around him, tiptoeing up to kiss his gaunt cheek, and she just holds him, nudging in closer, pressing him tighter. Maybe they speak, or maybe they don’t have to.
Kasey waits, clutching her ridiculous bag of popcorn. She carefully narrows her focus to Nazi-Dad, the sad goofiness of his being such a stickler for the law that he tacked on “alleged.” True, the case against Kobe was dropped, but to be so legally precise when shouting into a moment of silence, is…something. Nazi-Dad’s got to be a K Street lawyer, and this must be the most “only in DC” moment Kasey has ever witnessed. It can be a funny story to open the staff meeting.
But this is the DC moment, right? Imagining that labeling something “only in DC” offers real, actual, safe distance. That distance means never letting yourself ache over the disappointment of imagining you’ll save the world and seeing that the world doesn’t need you or your smart advice.
Maybe there’s not a DC moment. Maybe there’s just, finally, silence. And maybe silence is complicated, too.
The Caps win, 5-3, and yes, there’s a hat trick, but it’s not notched by Alexander Ovechkin, the team’s superstar, but by T.J. Oshie. After the game, Ben and Ari wait as Kasey buys his number 77 jersey in the team store. Outside, the night’s clear now, and she slips Oshie’s shirt over her head, over her jacket, and the three of them walk to the Metro. It’s silly: a simple shirt offers no skills on the ice or the court. But she’s happy wearing it, feeling part of something bigger. “Let’s go, Caps,” she shouts to a passing group of Ovechkins. Ben calls her a fangirl, and she and Ari laugh. As they step onto the escalator taking them down to the trains, she says to Ari, “I’m sorry,” and she waits for Ari to ask what for. Instead Ari says, “Thank you,” and everything feels lighter now, brighter, like fresh ice.
Photo courtesy of Mark Mauno; view more of his work on Flickr