In The Postseason by Christopher Green
It was only an hour before the game when Ainsley clopped into the doorway from the living room, half-dressed in her little league uniform and cleats, and announced her decision to break up with her boyfriend that afternoon. It was a perfunctory statement, delivered with the same bland matter-of-factness normally deployed in statements of mild hunger or the desire to watch TV. Really, there would have been nothing especially remarkable about it at all were it not for the circumstances: one, that her father Russell hadn't been aware until that moment that she even had a boyfriend in the first place; two—and this was the real killer—that she was nine years old.
"Yeah?" Russell replied, because, well, what else did one say to that? He had been stacking bottles of water and blue Gatorade in a large ice chest on the counter, texting Ainsley’s mother to let her know when he’d be dropping their daughter back off that night, but he turned to face her now, leaning against the counter. "What’s your boyfriend’s name?"
"Logan. He's my second baseman." Ainsley was the catcher for her team, the Orioles, and had lately taken to referring to other players in the possessive, a habit her father found adorably precocious but, still, maybe worth curbing sometime in the near future. As soon as it stopped being quite so funny. "Well, Sweetie," he said, turning back to close the ice chest with an airy thmp, "I sure am sorry to hear that. That sounds very sad."
Ainsley let out a short, listless sigh. "It's okay," she said. "As long as we win the game." She crossed the waxy wooden floor of the kitchen to the refrigerator, where she leaned against the open door and perused, fingers running down the length of her ponytail. "Did you put away all the Gatorades?"
"I did. And there they shall remain until the hour of your victory-slash-defeat. I don't want to give your mom any more reason to believe I'm raising a tiny diabetic."
"Dad." He glanced at her, and saw that she had fixed him with a stern look, chin down, eyes raised. The dim specter of her fast-approaching adolescent years. "Don't say that," she warned.
"Defeat. We're totally going to win. Don't be negative."
Russell knew he should be treating the moment with the appropriate gravity, but the urge to smile was overwhelming, and he turned his back to her, pretending to wash his hands at the sink. "You're right,” he told her. “Obviously. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise."
"Whatever." She turned back, deliberating, and plucked out the Brita pitcher, tiny arm shivering a little with the weight.
"So this boyfriend. Logan. Any particular reason why you want to break up with him?”
“No. Not really.”
“Do you still like him?”
Ainsley shrugged. “Sure, he’s okay. He always brings strawberry gum to our games. Can you reach me one of the nice glasses?” With one finger she indicated the second cabinet above the counter.
“Sure thing, Cricket.” Russell reached over her head and took out a glass with its base cut into a ring of squat diamonds, quietly grateful for the fact that even as a stream of eminently unsettling words left his daughter’s mouth, the rest of her was, for the moment, still his little girl.
For most of the drive to the park they spoke of little except the game. Ainsley took most of her pursuits more seriously than other kids her age, and baseball above all else. She spent the last minutes before she took the field in a sort of intense athlete’s contemplation, psyching herself up, a process Russell had learned to recognize by the way she held her mitt to her face, eyes straight ahead, as though the pitcher were even now arcing into his windup.
But beneath the easy silence Russell was wading through a minor bout of panic. A boyfriend, he thought. Good God. He had never suspected a thing. He had never noticed her offering any particular degree of affection to any teammate, of either gender. But was that only because he wasn’t paying enough attention? Ugh. The possibility made him nervous, made him feel ill-equipped for the day when she would be dating young men with driver’s licenses and pointlessly rebellious hairstyles and older siblings to buy them beer.
And there was another problem, too: as much as he didn’t believe it, as much as he wanted to see Ainsley’s behavior as no more than a child’s harmless facsimile of real romance, Russell couldn’t help feeling that her carelessness resembled too closely that of his ex-wife. Kathryn had been sort of lackadaisical with her feelings, too, tossing off her insistence on a divorce as though they were deciding on where to eat dinner that night. Why? he had asked her, pleadingly. What was the problem, what crime had he committed? She shook her head at him and said, I just don’t feel any love for you anymore. As though love were a bad cold she had come down with for seven years, and she had only just woken up with clear nasal passages and a new lease on life. To Russell, whose career was in marriage counseling, of all things, this explanation was a maddening paradox. Perfectly fair, and perfectly ruinous.
Poor Logan, he thought. The next girl he likes will have to wonder why he’s so afraid of her.
Still, his sympathy could only extend so far. As Ainsley’s father, he wasn’t especially heartbroken to see the kid take a fucking hike. After all, he hadn’t been under the impression nine-year-olds had boyfriends, and the extra time to catch up to this development was appreciated. He looked forward to the end of the game, when he could drive away with an honest to God child in his passenger seat.
But then, a wrinkle: he was standing at the fence, fingers hooked through the links, when Ainsley came trotting back to where she’d thrown down her bag, looking for her spare water bottle. It was still warmup; the game was starting in a few minutes. “Hey, Cricket,” he said, just offhandedly, real casual, “which one’s Logan?”
Ainsley straightened, scanned the outfield where the other kids were paired off, throwing and catching in that clumsy, overeager way that little leaguers did. “There,” she said, pointing. Russell tried to follow the line of her finger and saw this one boy, toward the middle of the lineup, with black curly hair and a halfway decent arm. A shock went through him—Jesus Christ, that kid? He knew that kid. That was Logan Peralta. Jocie Peralta’s son. She and Russell had met at the team’s last clubhouse party. After every game, whichever team won would get the park clubhouse for ninety minutes, to celebrate its victory in style (“style”, for their income bracket, was a beige concrete bunker with Salvation Army furniture). While the kids mingled over boxes of pizza, the parents engaged in an elaborate and wincingly awkward dance of pretending like they knew each other, grasping at conversation. Most drank punch; the more surreptitious, like Jocie, filled their plastic cups with beer.
She was a woman who got your attention. What Russell’s slightly toxic housemates in college would have referred to as a firecracker. Long dark hair, brown eyes you could fall into like a pit trap. An unerring sense of herself. She approached him as he stood by the checkered tablecloth, idly scrolling through Instagram, and said, “You look as bored as I feel.” He glanced up and nearly dropped the phone.
The whole time they talked she kept her eyes squarely on him. In the pocket of her shirt he could see the lid on a pack of Marlboro Reds, subtle but dangerous, like the handle of a switchblade. He wanted to ask for her number, but chickened out, promising himself he would get to it at the next party, the next time the team won a game. That had been two months ago—the Orioles were the worst in their division. He was not entirely convinced, now, that she would even remember talking to him.
Ainsley was still standing there, taking small, careful sips from her bottle. Russell glanced down at her, debating, for a moment, whether he was actually going to do this. Then he crouched low at the base of the fence beside her and asked, “Hey, Ainsley, honey. What would you say is the biggest issue between you and Logan?”
Ainsley brought the bottle down from her lips again, fixed him with a skeptical frown. “Huh?”
“Well, like what’s the source of the discontent? Would you say it’s a phase?”
“I dunno. What’s a phase?”
“It means do you think you’ll go back to wanting to be his girlfriend, or did you decide you wanted to break up and that’s it forever?”
“How long were you together?” he asked.
Russell grunted. “Sounds like you’ve been reading from my sister’s dating playbook.”
Then her coach was calling her back, and Ainsley took one last gulp, fingers crinkling the plastic inward toward the bottom, and tossed it back down as she sprinted for the bullpen, slipping on her glove. Russell watched her, feeling an oily unease bubble up in his gut. Then he looked over at Jocie, hopping up the steps of the bleachers with all the confident grace of a bird, and tightened his fingers around the fence’s wire until it bit into the flesh of the knuckles.
The game moved briskly, except when the visiting team was batting, at which point the Orioles really struggled to tally up those three outs. Russell had hoped they might have a chance at winning this; it was the last game of the regular season and, ergo, the last chance at a post-game clubhouse party. But it was already 9-1 by the sixth inning, and that particular scenario was looking increasingly remote.
At the other end of the stands, Jocie sat with a bottle of root beer and a bag of Cheetos (something about a beautiful woman with junk food struck Russell as strangely and distressingly elegant). She was dressed for the June heat: low-necked blouse, lowcut jeans. Her eyes, sadly, were veiled by a pair of large black sunglasses, the lenses of which might as well have been manhole covers for as much of her as they allowed him to get a glimpse at.
“Would you say,” he asked Ainsley, after she’d come in from the field in the middle of an inning, “that you and Logan have trouble communicating?”
She indicated that the question hadn’t occurred to her.
“Do you think you or he is willing to change in order to improve things?”
This one she just found baffling.
“What are your expectations for him? That is, what do you want him to be able to do for you?”
Ainsley shrugged. “I dunno. He brings gum, and we look at his Monster cards.”
Russell didn’t know what that meant, but figured it was the sort of thing that could be deferred for later.
Unsurprisingly, relationship counseling proved a challenge to him when the client was pre-pre-pubescent. He simply didn’t have the vocabulary to ask her what he needed to know, and she didn’t seem to know how to answer him. The game wore on, the visiting team piled up the runs. Jocie flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave a few half-hearted claps when someone’s kid got a good shot off in the eighth, a grand fly ball to the outfield’s dead zone that got her all the way to second base. Russell had to look twice at the back of her helmet to realize, no, it wasn’t someone’s kid—it was his kid.
At one point, just before the end of the game, as he was in the midst of another probing question, Ainsley turned to him through the grid of links and cocked her head. “Dad,” she asked, “are you mad that I have a boyfriend?”
Russell stopped in mid-sentence. “What? No, Cricket, of course I’m not mad.”
“Are you mad at us for breaking up?”
“So how come you have so many questions?”
He looked at her, staring up at him with those curious eyes, not hurt, exactly, but getting there. Sighing, he squatted down and reached his fingers through the fence, covering hers. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “I’ll stop being so curious. It’s just—well, there are some other really silly reasons that we probably don’t need to get into right this second. But also, Sweetie, the kind of thing you’ve got going with Logan, you don’t get to have that forever. That butterflies feeling. It kind of goes away when you get to be my age. I just want you to be happy, while you can still feel that way. But you do whatever you think is right. If this makes you happy right now, you go ahead and do it, definitely.”
It was clear from Ainsley’s face that she understood more or less none of this. She was about to say something when the press box boomed NUMBER 37—GALLO, MICHAEL, and the coach yelled, “Blackwell! You’re on deck!” She turned away, then gave Russell one last glance, as if to apologize, and ran off to take up her bat.
The Orioles lost, 14-2. Ainsley had a hand in both of those runs, which was all that Russell could ask for. He had to admit, losing both of his best chances at seeing Jocie again, that was its own sort of defeat. But mending the rift in his daughter’s love life just to score a date was maybe a victory he didn’t particularly need on his record, anyway.
He stood at the base of the bleachers, holding her equipment bag, watching as she and Logan stood at the edge of the treeline, just beyond the outfield gate, talking it through. Ainsley stuffed her hands in her pockets, pawing at the grass with her foot. Logan nodded, seeming relatively unbothered by the whole thing. Good for you, kid, Russell thought. Stay strong. This won’t be the last time.
“It’s weird, huh.” He turned, and there was Jocie Peralta, standing beside him with her arms crossed, holding Logan’s glove. “I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, watching this.”
Russell nodded, trying to quell the sudden blossoming of his nerves. “Yeah,” he replied. “It’s all moving a little fast for me. I didn’t even know any of this was a thing til today.”
“Did she tell you how it happened?”
He shook his head.
“Well,” Jocie said, laughing, “Logan somehow got it in his head that relationships are this short-term contract that good friends draw up together. Like, just this gesture of mutual platonic affection. You just hang out extra often and share more of your stuff, or something, I’m still not clear on the terms. I think he got it from school somehow. But anyway, he told her about this. They got together three weeks ago, shook on it. Now the contract’s up.”
“Wait.” Russell turned to her, heart thumping now. “So they’re not like—I mean this isn’t real?”
“Jesus, no!” She laughed again, and this time her hand appeared at his shoulder, gripping the cotton. Russell’s hand clenched around the handle of the bag. “Oh my God. Russell. Honey. They’re nine years old.”
“I know. I’ve been wringing my hands about it all day.”
He turned, and she was smiling at him, not just politely, but affectionately. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “You’ve got a few more years to wallow in denial.”
“Believe me, I’m digging that trench twice as deep after today.”
They watched the two for a few moments longer, and sure enough, they soon reached out their hands and shook. Voila—singles again. But then something happened that seemed to surprise Jocie as much as it did Russell: Logan leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Ainsley’s shoulders, pulled her in. Ainsley’s eyes bugged, as though he’d reached out and yanked her legs from under her.
“Maybe,” Russell said, again very casual, “we should schedule a playdate, now that the season’s over? I’d hate to keep them apart all the way to next spring.”
Jocie glanced at him sidelong; I’m onto you, that look said, but, perhaps, not in a bad way. A sly smile lifted the corner of her mouth, and she slid her purse around in front of her, began rummaging. “Let me give you my number,” she said.
That night, after Ainsley had been deposited at her mother’s, after three beers and a protracted bout in which Cleveland got trounced by Detroit, 6-1, Russell sat in his darkened living room, bottle resting on the cushion between his legs, and imagined Jocie as she had been that afternoon. Sun on the V of her collar bone. Pull of the fabric against her hips when she lifted her arms to cheer. It was the wrong thing to think, but he couldn’t unthink it: the last time he had looked at a woman this way had been Kathryn.
In bed, with the beer swimming through him, weighing him down like lead shoes, he imagined the other days still not yet lived, days when he would see Jocie again, not just for a few minutes but for hours, vast expanses of time they could stretch out in together. He marveled at how even the most decisive losses could still end in a certain sort of win. And in the last moments before sleep, it occurred to him—the word for what it was that she inspired in him. That day, standing beside each other, watching their children make this first giddy step to adulthood hand-in-hand, together, what she had made him feel could be described by no term so accurate or complete as butterflies.
© Christopher Green, 2015
Christopher is a New York transplant from Cincinnati, currently residing in Brooklyn with three roommates and at least five mice. He holds both a BA and MA in English, helping him to reach his ultimate goal of raising underemployment to an art form. His stories have appeared in several journals and magazines such as Burner, The MacGuffin, and The Ampersand Review. He is currently seeking publication for two novels, one of which is sort of about vampires but not really and it's kind of a whole big thing and maybe he just shouldn't have brought it up.
In the Postseason was read by Seth James on 1st April 2015 for Kiss & Breakup