I shouldn’t have been surprised when Eli told me he wanted to play football. He mentioned it over breakfast in early June, but I’d overheard him discussing it a dozen times with Toby, his best friend.
I told him Jewish boys didn’t play football, that he would get hurt, that the risk of permanent injury was great. Besides, no one we knew played football.
“Don’t be a wuss, Mom,” Eli said, cracking his knuckles in a way he knew I found irritating. He finished his Wheaties and, bringing the bowl to his lips, gulped down the milk. He was fourteen but his neck was as thick as a man’s.
“Because you don’t know any football players doesn’t mean anything.” He shook his head, his unruly curls black and shiny as sheep’s wool, his pink cheeks round like a child’s.
We were eating in the living room, at a gateleg, mahogany table, a hand-me-down from my grandmother Elisheva, for whom Eli was named. The wood was scratched and peeling; a matchbook wedged under one leg kept it steady.
I am not a sports-minded person. Although I indiscriminately root for the New York baseball teams, I’d never been to a football game. Everything I knew about the sport was hearsay, and it all made me want to say no. But it’s not my way to say no to Eli.
Instead, I said “maybe.”
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“I need to think about it, talk to your father.”
He shrugged, but he wouldn’t look at me. I could tell he wouldn’t let it go.
* * *
“It’ll be good for him,” Dwight said. “He’s certainly built for it.” My ex-husband, Dwight, calls from Maine weekly. “A fourteen-year-old boy wanting to play football? Why am I not surprised?”
Dwight was hundreds of miles away, listening to the surf pound the shore in Ogunquit, managing a hotel. When he said “a fourteen-year-old boy” he could have been talking about anyone, not our son. I knew I was being unfair. Still, I was the one who took the subway downtown one June evening—alone—for the parents’ meeting. The high school, which Eli would attend for the first time that fall, was on Chambers Street—a modern brick building approached by a footbridge across the West Side Highway. From the footbridge, you looked right into Ground Zero, something I’d avoided thinking about when Eli passed the entrance exam. Now I stood there and took a deep breath. Nine months after September 11th, no acrid fumes remained. But my heart raced anyway.
In the auditorium, Coach Rayner, a square-jawed Robert Redford type, was on stage; his hands grasped a metal walker, the kind people use in nursing homes. Eli had been raving about Coach Rayner for days, how all the kids loved him, but hadn’t mentioned the walker. He didn’t look more than thirty-five. Had he been injured playing football? I wanted to know.
Coach (as I learned to call him) was talking about a football camp in the Hudson Highlands, near Red Hook, New York, that the incoming freshmen players attend for the last week of August. Football camp culminates in a scrimmage against another school that shares the camp facilities. The freshman parents were invited—no, required—to come up from the city on the Saturday before Labor Day to watch their sons play.
“Most of your boys have never played football,” Coach said. “I promise you one thing. To paraphrase the army, when your son leaves on the bus for football camp he’ll still be a boy, but when you see him play on Saturday, he’ll be a man. You can’t imagine how much your sons will change during one week.”
I didn’t know whether to believe Coach. I didn’t want my son to change.
* * *
“I don’t know about this football thing,” I called out as I unlocked the door to our apartment an hour later. Normally Eli would hear me come in and stick his head around the door of his bedroom, which was so small he could do this without getting off his bed. Tonight he had his eyes closed and headphones on, listening (judging by the CD case on the floor) to Aerosmith, his favorite band. It was Thursday night and the following evening, Friday, he would head up to Toby’s to stay the night.
This was a relatively new development, an unwelcome change that I was still getting used to. From age five, when the boys met in kindergarten, until last fall, Toby stayed at our place practically every Friday night. Toby Miller was an accident, a change-of-life baby whose brilliant twin sisters started at Yale the year he was born. Toby’s parents, both professors at Columbia (Victor in physics, Rose in philosophy), were glad to have the weekends to themselves. And I was happy to have this weekly addition to our little family, which had been reduced to two when Dwight left.
After September 11th, Toby stopped coming to our place. He pretty much stopped going anywhere at all. He wouldn’t go more than a block or two south of 107th Street, where both his apartment and middle school were located, wouldn’t ride the subways or buses, wouldn’t let his parents drive him over the George Washington Bridge to visit relatives in New Jersey. Now Eli stayed at Toby’s on weekends. I missed their banter, their silliness, our faltering efforts to speak French at Saturday breakfast because we were, after all, eating French toast. I missed Toby. Toby had soft fair hair, acute near-sightedness (for which he wore thick rectangular frames the three of us had picked out together), and his mother’s lightly freckled, fine-boned face.
Finally, Eli took off his headphones.
“I don’t know about this football thing,” I said again.
“Are you crazy? I promised Coach.”
“You didn’t tell me he was disabled. Did it happen playing football?”
“I don’t know. What difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference.”
“What if he was injured playing football? It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to me.” Eli stabbed the air like a lawyer. “You know I’m right.” A pause. “Dad thinks it’s fine. He’s proud of me. I’ll never forgive you if you don’t let me play, I swear I won’t.”
“And I won’t forgive myself if you get hurt.”
Finally, after more arguing, I said he could start practice. “I’ll come and watch ,” I said. “Then we’ll see about camp.”
He had no choice. “There’s one thing, though,” Eli said. “You can’t tell anyone you’re my mom.”
The team practiced along the East River, not far from the law office where I work. The first afternoon, the air thick and heavy, I watched thirty-odd boys running and doing push-ups, leg stretches, relays, jogging in place. Then some of the boys ran plays, while others waited on the sidelines. Eli waited, cradling his elbow. He saw me and straightened his arm.
Another mother was there, holding a clipboard. She introduced herself as Suzy Lang, head of the Football Parents’ Association. A sturdy-looking blonde in shorts and a polo shirt, she looked like a camp counselor and was making lists: the boys and their positions, missing equipment, a helmet needing to be replaced. When she asked which player was my son, I pretended not to hear her.
* * *
“What happened to your arm?” I asked Eli over dinner. That night he walked in at 7:30, freshly showered and quiet. Tired, so tired he didn’t protest when I put Mozart on the CD player. So tired he fell asleep after dinner. So tired he forgot to hide his left arm and elbow, which were black and blue.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just a bruise.” When I touched his arm and he winced he said, “Mom, it’s supposed to hurt. That’s what it’s about.”
* * *
Eli was ecstatic when I said he could go to football camp. But the night before he left, he threw up three times. I draped a cold washcloth on his forehead.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“Sort of.” He was pale, his dark curls plastered to his skull. “I want to go, but I’m scared too.”
His honesty was so different from what people said about boys his age. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t breathe or it would disappear. Even when we argued, he’d tell me what he was thinking.
“I wish Toby was going,” he said.
“You’ll see Toby afterward.” We’d be back from Red Hook on the Sunday before Labor Day, which left three days before school started. It was a tradition for the boys to spend that weekend together. This year they’d be at Toby’s.
It was Eli who had been closer to the World Trade Center when the planes hit. He was in earth science lab at his middle school in Chelsea, twenty blocks north of the towers. From the windows, the kids could see it all. Some watched the towers burn and dissolve into great clouds of smoke; to them, the people leaping or falling to their deaths must have looked like debris at first.
But Eli turned away. “I knew if I looked I’d have nightmares forever,” he told me, a week later, when we were discussing Toby’s fears. “Well, Toby wasn’t anywhere near, but it’s like he was right there. He imagines everything. That’s the way he is. He feels everything is happening to him.”
“He’s an empathetic kid,” I said softly. Eli looked at me. “Not that you aren’t.” Maybe he knew I was wondering: how were you able to turn away? Who taught you to protect yourself that way? I didn’t think it was me. I was more like Toby. Secretly, I feared the subways, too—although I didn’t tell Eli, who took the subway to school every day.
* * *
The morning after he threw up Eli was fine. I stood with the other parents and watched the boys board the bus for camp.
“I love you,” I said to the air as they sped away to football camp.
On my way uptown, I bought Eli a magazine filled with statistics about college football players, including a section on high-school stars.
“That was a good idea,” Dwight said on the phone that night. “Eli loves statistics.”
“Maybe I can even learn something about football before Saturday.”
“If you really want to learn the game, you could rent a video of some classic Monday night games.” I was doubtful. I could memorize the magazine, at least the parts about high school football, the same way I memorize cases before an appellate argument. But I could never learn the game.
* * *
Three days later, I walked home late from work, enjoying the summer night. But as soon as I reached my block, I saw a familiar gray station wagon. Toby’s father, Victor, stood next to his car in the driveway of my building, his arms crossed. Rose was in the front passenger seat.
“What’s wrong?” I asked Victor. “Is Toby okay?”
Victor gestured toward the lobby. Toby, looking miserable, sat on the black leatherette bench; next to him was a shopping bag and beside that, a stack of books and magazines, tied with twine.
“Eli’s at football camp,” I said.
“We know,” said Victor. He rubbed his eyes. “We came because Toby still had some of Eli’s things he needed to drop off.”
“You didn’t have to do that . . .” I began.
“I’m afraid we do,” Victor said. “We’ve been meaning to tell you for weeks now, but it never seemed the right time. We’re leaving New York—at least for now. I’ve been offered a visiting professorship in Montreal, for two years, maybe three. Toby will go to high school there. It seems like the best thing.”
“How . . . ” I began. But I faltered. I was going to say: How can you do that? But Victor kept talking, in a low, serious tone. He talked about Toby’s academic failures, about school counselors, and Ritalin, and paranoid obsessions. “He’s left us no choice. But we wanted to thank you for everything. Especially for your help with his French, which will come in very handy in Montreal.”
Our French toast breakfasts. It had been nearly a year since we’d had them. “I’m sure his French is better than mine by now,” was all I could say.
“You’d be surprised,” Victor said, his voice returning to its normal volume. “Without your help this year, he failed French. Toby will carry those things upstairs for you. We’ll wait here.”
“Come say good-bye,” Rose called out. Awkwardly, I leaned in and hugged her. “Good luck,” I said.
“Don’t be too long,” Victor called after us.
Some things about Toby I’d forgotten—how lanky he was compared to Eli, how soft and floppy his fawn-colored hair was; it came down almost to his shoulders now. His shoulders had grown broad compared to his narrow waist.
“Montreal,” I said, and he nodded. Behind the rectangular black frames his hazel eyes were glassy and red.
In the elevator, we barely spoke. I peered into the shopping bag. There was a regulation football, half-deflated; a baseball glove they’d bought on Labor Day Weekend 2001, which Victor had sworn he would return to the store; a hooded maroon sweatshirt I hadn’t noticed was missing; some CDs: Aerosmith, Oasis, Green Day, Metallica. In the stack of books and magazines I saw some Sports Illustrated, and the edges of some glossy covers that I suspected were Playboys.
In the apartment, we stood at the door to Eli’s room. “Would you like some water or OJ?”
“With or without pulp?” Toby asked, and for the first time he smiled.
“With, I’m afraid.”
“I’m not really thirsty. Can I sit in Eli’s room for a minute?”
“Your parents . . .”
“Just for a minute.”
I nodded but didn’t follow him in.
He went into Eli’s room and turned on the light.
“I could stay here,” he said.
For a moment, everything seemed simple. Victor and Rose would move to Montreal and Toby would stay with me, with us. He could go to the high school across the street, the local high school, not Eli’s high school, but an ordinary New York City high school with its metal detectors. I could help him with English, with French and social studies. It would be like the time, two or three years ago, when Toby’s parents went to the Cerromar in Puerto Rico for Rose’s birthday and another time when they had to fly down to Florida to put Victor’s mother in a nursing home.
The minutes passed in silence. Perhaps I had only imagined Toby said he could stay with us. He couldn’t, really. Two years was not two weeks. When they were small, after Dwight left, I’d wanted to create a home Eli would never leave, never want to leave, and Toby had helped me do that. Victor and Rose, too. The buzzer shrieked from the lobby. Time had run out.
“I have to go,” Toby said.
All I could do was hug him and say, “You’ll figure things out. I know you will.”
“Say good-bye to Eli for me.”
“Oh,” I said. “You’ll see each other much sooner than you think.”
But he looked as if he didn’t believe me.
* * *
Two days later I took the 6:30 a.m. train from Grand Central to Red Hook. The Hudson River glimmered outside my window as I imagined telling Eli about Toby’s departure. The conversation would have to wait until after the game, perhaps over dinner at the Red Hook Inn, where we would stay Saturday night
My anxiety grew. I turned the pages of the football magazine—studying it, the way I told Dwight I would. The young men profiled in Street & Smith’s 2002 High School All-American Team were a revelation. Mostly juniors and seniors, they came from small towns hundreds of miles from New York City. They were the heroes in towns where high school football games were played before huge crowds on Friday nights, instead of forty parents on a Saturday morning.
I imagined discussing each player in the magazine with Eli. “Texas has this quarterback named Tate,” I’d say. Then I’d quote the magazine: “He’s rewriting the record books with his prolific aerial attack.” After Eli and I had exhausted the pros and cons of Drew Tate’s record, I’d bring up Brodie Overstreet and Dante Whitner. “Brodie’s a two-way standout at Boyle County High,” I’d tell Eli, “and Dante opened eyes in summer camp workouts—same thing you’re doing,” I’d add. Best of all was a linebacker from Garland, Texas. His name was TaTa Thompson.
I loved these names, loved these boys, imagined their mothers loving them, too. Mrs. Tate and Mrs. Overstreet and Mrs. Whitner were mothers who knew how to hold on and how to let go. I was sure of it. Particularly Mrs. Whitner, who had seen fit to name her son Dante. The immortal words at the beginning of the Inferno, “Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,” must have stuck with Mrs. Whitner since high school English, as they had stayed with me.
* * *
From the parking lot, where a taxi from the train station dropped me off, I followed a trail of parents, past the flagpole with the American flag flapping in the hot August wind, through the dining hall with the whining screen door, past the weathered picnic tables where the parents, players and coaches would have lunch after the game. There were white bunks with green porches, and a grove of trees flanked by a soft, pine-needle carpet that we padded through. Along the edge of the field, lawn chairs were set up for the parents.
There were no cheerleaders, only six girls, sleek and pretty fifteen- and sixteen-year-old “trainers” in white shorts and tank tops. The trainers chatted among themselves. These were the same girls Eli might bring home in a year or two. “All I know is I’m putting on my bug spray,” one girl said. I could relate to that. Then another girl—black-haired and intensely pretty despite a smattering of pimples—said, in response to a question I didn’t hear, “Take it from me. If it gives you head, it’s the good stuff.” What was that about? “Katie, you’re too much,” another girl said, shaking her head. The girls leaned into each other, barely stifling their laughter.
I tried to follow the game. But it was hard figuring out which player was Eli. From where I sat, and with the boys’ helmets on, I couldn’t distinguish him from the others. Any number of jerseys might have said “30.” Once I thought I had picked out Eli by the shape of his calves, his stance, and the way his socks fell down. When the play was over, I realized I’d been rooting for number 50, whose calves were a shade darker than Eli’s.
I had a bottle of Eli’s favorite sports drink with me and during halftime, I wandered over to where the boys were doing leg stretches. Eli’s helmet was off but he didn’t acknowledge me. Nonetheless, I stayed close enough to hear Coach’s pep talk.
“If Coach Baggio and I think you can pull this off, then you can. What are the three words that describe what we want? Anybody? No static situations! I’ll say it again. No static situations! If you’re not moving then you’re preparing your next move. Prepare, prepare, prepare!”
* * *
When the second half started, I daydreamed, my mind barely on the game. I was thinking about our stay at the Red Hook Inn. Over dinner, I would tell Eli about Toby’s departure. I’d reassure him that we’d manage to see Toby during the fall.
A shout attracted my attention. First the words, “the running back is down, number 30” and then, “Is there a doctor?” and then, from one of the trainers, Katie, the dark-haired one, slightly hysterical, “He’s still not getting up.” That’s when I stood. I stared at the field. Eli was on the ground with Coach and Assistant Coach Baggio and an emergency medical technician standing over him.
And as I ran, something even more frightening happened. As if on command, both teams—all the boys—dropped silently, solemnly, to one knee. As if they knew something terrible about Eli’s fate. As if it was so serious they had to pray for him.
When I reached him, his chest was moving. He looked different to me, as if Coach’s warning had come true and he really had undergone a transformation in the week he’d been away. His face flushed red, not just his cheeks but his chin and forehead, too, and his eyes were half shut, the skin under them marked with black. Assistant Coach Baggio was holding his helmet. Coach, leaning heavily on his walker, looked at Eli gravely.
“I’m the mother,” I said.
“That’s good,” said Coach.
I was hoping he’d say, “It’s nothing, you can relax.”
The EMT probed Eli’s groin. No one spoke. Eli winced, his forehead dripping with sweat. “It’s a dead leg,” the technician said. “One of those Hornets banged into your thigh with his helmet, right?”
“Right,” Eli said, gasping.
“You’re going to be fine.”
“Katie!” shouted Assistant Coach Baggio. “Ice!”
Katie had silently slipped into the circle around Eli. Now she raced to the sidelines and bounded back, carrying a bucket filled with ice, draped with ace bandages and white dishtowels. Katie wrapped some ice in a white cloth towel and pressed it to Eli’s temples.
Eli opened his eyes wider. And then he seemed for the first time to realize I was there. “I’m okay, Mom,” he said haltingly. He didn’t say, “Go away!” or “Why are you here?”
A week before he’d been throwing up into a bucket at the mere thought of football camp, telling me his fears. Now he was lying on the field, number 30. I reached out and brushed the sweat from his hairline above the white cloth, felt his wet hair.
Coach wielded his walker like a shield, his face kind. “It’s good you came out. It’s fine.” There was an unspoken message: You can go now.
But the boys were still on their knees, I wanted to say. I walked slowly back to the lawn chairs. It was only after I got there that the boys rose and I realized it was because Eli had risen, too. He hobbled to the sidelines with his arms draped around the shoulders of Katie on one side and the EMT on the other.
When I sat again in my lawn chair, a dog—a collie—bounded over and began licking my hand. “Harold,” the dog’s master shouted and then, to me, “Sorry!” I began to laugh, mostly because I was so relieved about Eli but also because of the dog’s name.
A skinny man with a goatee settled on the grass next to me. “Eli all right?”
I was surprised he knew Eli’s name.
Then he said; “I’m Katie and Nick’s father, Joseph Rasmussen.”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you for asking. It was a dead leg.” I paused. “I’m Lenore.”
He turned to watch the game and rose to his feet. “Way to go, Nick!” he shouted. After a few minutes, in which Harold nestled closer to me, Joseph Rasmussen leaped up and yelled, “Hold them, defense. Hold them.” I stood up, too, not caring anymore what the other players were doing, instead searching out Eli’s figure across the field.
After a few minutes, Joseph Rasmussen shook his head. “Well, it was a good try. They made some good plays, just didn’t get it all together. The defense needs work.”
“Yes,” I replied. “They surely do.”
Two trainers, one of them Katie, brushed past. Like me, they seemed oblivious to the results. “When I’m drunk,” Katie was saying, “I’ll say anything, do anything.” I’d seen the way the girl looked at Eli when she ran out to him. I wanted to say something to her father, but what?
A hand touched my shoulder. “Our Nick and your Eli have become friends,” Joseph Rasmussen said. Then he winked. “Not to mention our older one, Katie. My wife Sandra and I”—here, he gestured at a woman in a flowered dress, who raised her hand in greeting—“we were wondering if Eli could drive home with us. You’d be welcome, too, of course. Except with Harold, it’s all we can do to jam three humans in the back seat.” I began shaking my head, before I even knew what I was going to say—or what Joseph Rasmussen was going to say next. He continued, “There’s a few days before school starts. Eli is welcome to stay with us in Brooklyn for two nights or even three.”
“Let me ask Eli,” I said, “at lunch.”
I didn’t have to. The first thing Eli said when he limped into the dining room, his hair wet from his shower, in a clean red jersey with 30 on it in bright white letters, was, “Mom, can I go home with the Rasmussens? This is my friend, Nick.” The boy beside him was short and compact compared to Eli, with shiny dark hair and smooth olive skin and adorable dimples when he smiled.
“They have this great dog.” Eli was breathless with excitement. “Have you seen it? It’s a collie, like Lad a Dog.” This was a book I used to read to Eli and Toby. “They say I can stay over through Monday afternoon.” It was then that Katie came and stood next to Eli, so close their hips were touching. She touched his arm. “Oh, right, and this is Katie, Nick’s sister.”
“Older sister,” she added. “By one year and eight months.”
“Hi,” I said, to no one in particular. And then: “What about your leg?” Turning to Katie, I added, “Thanks for your help out there.”
“I’m okay. I’m really okay.” Eli said. “Coach says so too.”
Eli didn’t ask about Toby. Or about the Red Hook Inn, where I’d mentioned—just in passing, it was true, so I couldn’t really blame him for having forgotten—we’d be staying over Saturday night.
I could never say no to Eli. Isn’t that what Victor and Rose said? I liked being the lenient one, the one about whom the six-year-old Toby, playing a raucous game of Robin Hood in Eli’s room, jumping on Eli’s bed, had said, so I overheard, “Your mom’s so nice.” I had liked it when Victor had put his foot down about something and Eli and Toby had come complaining to me about it.
But now it seemed I couldn’t say no even if I wanted to.
Instead I said, “Toby—”
But Eli cut me off. “I know, Mom.” He reached out and touched my shoulder, letting his hand rest there for a moment. “Coach called me to the phone in the office last night to take Toby’s call. I know about it.” He looked at me grimly, sadly.
“Okay,” I said, and he knew I meant he could accept the Rasmussens’ invitation.
Eli said “Yes!” and hugged me.
Minutes later, having telephoned the taxi driver to take me back to the Red Hook Inn, I stood in the parking lot watching the Rasmussens leave football camp with my son. They were right about how crowded it was in their red Honda Accord: Sandra took the front passenger seat, and Joseph, Nick, Eli and Harold jammed into the back. Katie slid gracefully behind the wheel.
I ran to the car. The windows were down. Eli was the only one in the back wearing a seat belt. Joseph held up his hand. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But Katie got her learner’s permit almost a year ago. She’s a better driver than I am. Your son is in good hands.” The wheels spun as they drove off. Eli turned to wave good-bye from the back seat.
* * *
Back at the Red Hook Inn, I dressed and went into the restaurant where I’d planned to take Eli. “Are you alone?” the maitre d’ asked.
“Yes,” I said. But I wasn’t really alone. I had Mrs. Overstreet and Mrs. Tate and Mrs. Thompson as my companions.
After the waiter left with my order, I kept the football magazine open in front of me, but I didn’t read. I thought again about Toby, on his way to Montreal. And Eli crowded in the back of the Rasmussens’ Accord. It is in the nature of things that sons leave their mothers. I knew that from the moment Eli was born, when they told me he was a boy. To bring the point home, Eli’s first act was not to screw up his wizened red face and cry, and not to flail his tiny arms and legs, but to pee in an impressively wide arc. Dwight looked up from cutting the umbilical cord and whistled appreciatively.
As if to cover up my son’s first indiscretion, right there in the delivery room I began speaking quietly to him. “You look like someone I know,” I said, staring into newborn Eli’s midnight-blue eyes, memorizing every pale eyelash, every shading of his irises, before moving on to study every whorl of his ear and curve and shadow of his cheek. I told him he looked like his grandmother Elisheva, for whom he was named.
His perfect hands curled and uncurled, making fists.
I continued to speak softly, beginning a story I wanted never to end.
Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Fish Anthology, and elsewhere, and new stories are forthcoming in New Orleans Review and KYSO Flash. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (published in Literal Latte) was recognized in Best American Essays 2014 and her story “First Night” (published in River Styx) will appear in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a brave survivor of the storm for which he is named.