Anything Less Than Everything

BOOK: Anything Less Than Everything
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anything less than everything

by

Heather Adkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Avery—

May you never compromise, in life or
in love.

Chapter 1

 

T
he closer I got to my grandmother's
house the more I dreaded getting there. Spending a Friday night with my
extended family was not my idea of a fun time, especially not when the purpose
of the gathering was to make a fuss over some second cousin twice removed that
none of us had ever met.

Only a few
weeks earlier I would have thought nothing of a Friday night family dinner.
Only a few weeks earlier, however, I was not single. When you’re part of a
couple, how you spend time on the weekends is of little consequence; when you
are not, hanging with the family seems lame. But more than that, the
circumstances surrounding my singleness could result in nothing good where my
grandmother was concerned. Nana meant well, but had a habit of saying exactly
the wrong thing in situations such as this. Not only would I have to endure the
embarrassment of her remarks, but now some poor unsuspecting relative would
also be subjected to the family drama.

 

Two months
earlier I had celebrated my twenty-third birthday. The celebration was typical:
my favorite dinner and presents at my parents' house. The next day, a Thursday,
my boyfriend of four years emailed me and asked me to dinner at a fancy place
downtown. My heart had pounded as I replied with my acceptance, and I had run immediately
to my friend's classroom, only two doors down from my own.

"You're
getting a ring," she said, the excitement for me showing on her face.
"It's about time."

"Do you
really think so? I mean, there have been so many times I thought it was coming
before..." And there had. Of the four years we had been a couple, Spencer
and I had spent three of them listening to others debate when we would get
married. It was what everyone expected, what seemed right.

"But
now," Marcie said, jerking me back to the present, "is the perfect
time. You're both done with school, you've almost survived your first year of
teaching and he has a great job. There are no more reasons to wait."

I thought
about her words all the way home. I thought about them while I hurriedly dressed
in the black and white floral sheath I had been saving for a special occasion.
I thought about it while I waited for Spencer to pick me up and then as I drove
myself to the restaurant after he called to say his last meeting had run over
and could I just meet him there. The last part messed up my perfect image of
how this momentous event should happen, but still the butterflies beat in my
stomach, the grin stayed on my face.

Spencer was
late. The maître d’ sat me at a quiet table for two and I waited. Twenty
minutes and two glasses of water later, he arrived. He looked nervous,
something I had taken as a good sign.

"I'm
sorry...another meeting," he smiled apologetically.

"It's
okay. Those things happen, right?" I had been determined not to let a
little waiting ruin the evening. As it turned out, something much worse did.

"So, how
was your day?" he asked.

"Actually,
it was great!" I gushed.  "J.C, you know, the one I told you
about with all of the potential? He shared the most amazing draft with me
today. He's turning into such a great writer. And the best part is that he's
writing on his own, outside of class. And my second period class had the best
discussion over
Gatsby
..."

"I'm
sorry," he interrupted, "what did you say? I was in another
world."

I sighed,
disappointed that my excitement wasn’t enough to keep his attention. "Um,
nothing,” I said. “Just that it was a really good day. How was yours?"

With that he
went into a play by play of his own day, recapping every meeting and phone call
in great detail. I tried to listen, but quickly started thinking ahead to what
might be coming next.

Dessert came.
We never ordered dessert, but Spencer had insisted. I moved the berries around
my plate, looked under the garnish, wondering if something sparkly was hiding underneath.
Nothing. So why was he prolonging dinner? I took a bite of my cheesecake,
savoring it. That's when he did it.

"Can we
talk?" he asked, his tone changed.

"I
thought we'd been talking all night," I answered back playfully.

"I mean
seriously."

"Sure.
What's up?"

He looked at
the remnants of his dessert, his hands, everywhere but at me. "I don't
know how to say this. I mean, there's no good way to, I guess."

"Just
say it," I prodded, anxious for him to get to it.

"I've
been thinking. A lot. About us."

"Yes?"

"Yeah,
and I think it's time..." He took a deep breath. This was it! I made
myself focus on his words, wanting to make sure I remembered everything about
this moment. "...that we move on. You know, to other people."

You could
hear my fork clanging on my plate all through the quiet restaurant. I stopped
breathing, a fact I became aware of only when I tried to speak and a rush of
air came out instead of words. Even if I could have spoken, I had no idea what
I would have said.

"Brooke?
Talk to me."

I was too
shocked to speak, and quite frankly wasn't sure I wanted to say anything to him
right then. A full minute went by. Then a second. Finally I found words.
"What?" Real articulate.

"Well,
we've been growing apart for some time. I think we need space to figure out
what it is we each want."

My reply was
measured and slow. "You think...we've been...growing...apart?"

"Yeah. I
mean, don't you?"

"No...I
thought we were closer than ever." I felt like everything that was
happening was outside of me. Like it was happening to someone else. Someone
else's world was crashing down on them, not mine. I didn't know what to feel.
Anger? Sadness? Hurt? I didn't know what to do. I was lost. For four years
Spencer had been everything, the person I spent all of my time with, the one I
planned my future with in mind. In a matter of a three course meal, that world
had shattered. I had been completely blindsided. And so I had done the only
thing I could think to do: I pushed myself away from the table, stood up, and walked
away.  

"Brooke?
Brooke!" he called after me, but I kept walking, never turning back or
even pausing. I was immediately relieved we had driven separately. Maybe that
had been his plan all along. I got in the car, started it, adjusted the radio,
pulled into traffic--all of this robotically, without thinking. It wasn't until
I was home, sitting in the driveway of my house, that the gravity of what had
just happened hit me. Tears ran down my face, sobs shook my body. I cried until
there were no more tears.

 

Two months
had passed since that night, but the memory was still raw, as though it had
happened only the day before. And, yet, in some ways it seemed a lifetime ago.
I turned into Nana's driveway and consciously forced myself back into the
present. I could put on my happy face and be nice to the stranger-relative for
one night. It wasn't like I hadn't been putting on a happy face for everyone
else--my friends, my family, even my students. As far as any of them were
concerned I was just fine. Couldn't be better. I doubted that any of them
really believed me, but no one questioned my good mood.

I took a deep
breath, braced myself for the worst, hoped for the best, and walked up the
steps to face my family.

I was the
last one there, a fact made plain when I stepped through the door into a living
roomful of expectant faces: Mom and Dad; my sister, Jill; Nana, and Brad the
mystery cousin.

That's when I
saw him.

Chapter 2

 

H
im
was Aaron Davidson, the starting quarterback for the
University of Michigan. Most girls are not football fans. Most Southerners are
not fans of Michigan. I, however, am. Despite the fact that I was born and
raised just outside of Nashville, I spent every Saturday in autumn cheering on
Michigan, watching each play intently. And so, while no one else in the room
recognized Aaron, knew of his accomplishments, admired his talent, I did.

"Brooke!"
my grandmother exclaimed. "I thought you'd never get here. This is your
cousin Brad and his friend from school, Aaron."

"Hi,"
I said. It was not the most profound greeting, but I was trying to play it
cool, trying not to let my excitement of meeting my favorite college athlete
show.

Aaron stood.
"Nice to meet you," he said, extending his hand to me. A gentleman.
My eyes traveled up to meet his gaze. I knew that he was 6'6"- it was
listed at the start of every game-but it was not until he was standing two feet
from me that I really comprehended his size. His dark hair and tanned skin set
off the most crystal clear light blue eyes I’d ever seen. I had never noticed
this watching him play on TV. He was gorgeous.

My
grandmother, for once chiming in at just the right time, broke my reverie.
"Well, now that Brooke is here we can eat! I hope y'all are hungry,
boys."

We all walked
into the dining room, and I took my usual seat. Aaron ended up sitting two
seats down, out of sight. This was probably good, as staring at him through
dinner would not have made the best impression. It would, however, have been
nice to talk to him. As it turned out, my grandmother talked for all of us.

"So you
boys go to Michigan?" she asked. Something else was coming. I could feel
it.

"Yes,
ma'am," Brad replied. "That made Grandma Betty happy since that's
where she met my grandpa."

"Oh,"
she continued, "I thought they met at that other school...what's it
called? Michigan State? Brooke should have gone there, as much as she talks
about them." I saw Aaron’s eyes snap upward out of the corner of my eye.

"Michigan,
Nana," I mumbled. "It's Michigan."

"Michigan,
Michigan State. It's all the same to me. Don't know why you'd want to watch a
football team from up North play anyway when you've got a dozen teams right in
your backyard you could cheer for."

My face burned.
She had no idea, of course, that the star of the team she was insulting was
sitting right across the table from her. I glanced up from my plate to sneak a
look at him. He was smiling amusedly, the way you often do with old women who
talk too much. Nana babbled on; I tried to concentrate on my roast. Suddenly
she said something that jerked me back to her conversation.

"...Of
course, I should say Brooke
was
a fan of that team, whichever one it is.
Now that she's not dating Spencer she won't have to spend her Saturdays
watching those silly boys hit each other. I never did understand why she
watched those games with him anyway, it..."

"Uh,
Nana? Where did you say you put the dessert plates?"

I had never
been more grateful for my little sister before in my life. Her interruption was
enough to distract my grandmother away from the embarrassing topic at hand. She
got up to find the plates that I was pretty sure my sister knew the location
of, leaving me with the guys and my parents, who were so deep into a discussion
about where to go on vacation that they might as well have been in the other
room.

"Well, I
see that grandmothers are the same down South as they are up North," Brad
said as he placed his napkin on his plate.

"What do
you mean?" I asked.

"You
know, great cooks with lousy timing."

I smiled,
relieved. My new found cousin had heard her remarks, but understood. It's not
that I really cared what these boys thought. Brad may be family, but
considering we hadn't met in the two decades we'd been alive, the possibility
of us getting together on a regular basis was slim. And Aaron, well, he was a
complete stranger to whom I had no ties other than a shared devotion for the
same football team. I'd never see him after tonight save on ESPN. And truly,
why would either of them care that I'd been dumped? My embarrassment was really
hurt. Hurt that various family members continued to throw salt in my still raw
wounds, to continually remind me that Spencer and I were no more. Not that I
ever forgot.

I hoped
Brad's comment would be the end of the discussion, but at that moment Nana came
back in carrying her homemade banana pudding, talking about how she didn't care
what Nancy Rudolph at bridge club thought, she wished I had tried harder to
make things work with Spencer.

That was more
than I could take. I stood up from the table. "I'm still full," I
said. "I think maybe I'll take a walk before dessert." I said this
like taking a walk after dinner was something I did often. In fact, I had not
walked around my grandmother's neighborhood in...ever. I had to get out of
there, though. Even if she continued to talk about me and my losses in love, I
wasn't going to sit around and listen to it. I figured I'd just walk around the
block, and maybe by then the guys would have left and Nana would have moved on
to other topics.

“Mind if I
come?"

The question
surprised me. I looked up and then around trying to figure out where it had
come from when I realized it had been Aaron. Again I was mesmerized that this
guy, a celebrity in my eyes, was talking to me.
To me
. I nodded dumbly,
too entranced to say anything.

"You
don't mind, do you Aunt Grace?”

This was
Brad, for some reason bringing Nana back into things.

"No, of
course not," she said. "But I expect you boys to eat double helpings when
you come back."

We were out
the door before she had a chance to say anything more. We headed up the
driveway and down the street going nowhere in particular, walking four-wide.
Aaron and I were on the outsides of the lie, while Brad and Jill walked next to
each other, talking about nothing. As we all kept walking and they kept
talking, they started to break away from Aaron and me, leaving us behind. Or
maybe we slowed down. I'm not sure which is was, but by the time we reached the
end of Nana's street, they were in the lead, and Aaron and I were walking side
by side.

"I have
this friend that you have to meet," Jill was saying up ahead.
"She..." I didn't hear the rest because at that moment Aaron spoke.

"So
you're a teacher."

It wasn't a
question but an acknowledgment. I nodded in reply, still not trusting my voice.
We walked in silence for several hundred feet before I realized how stupid I
was being. Walking next to me was a player on my favorite sports team. It was
the closest I would ever come to the team, and I was squandering it. Who cared
if I made an idiot of myself? It wasn't like I would ever see him after this. I
took a deep breath and began.

"Um,
what kind of team do you think y'all will have this year?" Not my most
brilliant speech, but not completely inarticulate, either.

He stopped
and looked at me, wonder touching his eyes.

"You
know about that?" he asked, curious.

"Well,
yeah. Didn't you hear my grandmother talking about my strange fascination with
Yankee football?

"I guess
I assumed she was just making conversation," he said with a shrug. I
wasn't sure how to take his reaction. Was he glad I recognized him? Or was it
weird to him that a fan would know him so out of context? I wasn't sure, and
didn't know quite what to say next. I took a deep breath and continued.

"No,"
I said slowly, thinking through my next words as I spoke. "I've followed
UM for several years now. Since my freshman year of college, actually. It's
more interesting to watch than the SEC. They don't play much defense down here."

He laughed
softly. "You are absolutely right on that one," he answered. "So
you prefer defense to offense, then?"

I knew where
he was going with this, that he was baiting me to make a comment about
quarterbacks, and I decided to play along. "Well, most of my favorite
players are linebackers," I glanced at him to see his reaction. He raised
his eyebrows, clearly impressed that I seemed to know something about his
sport. "But offense is important, too, obviously."

"Obviously,"
he said, a smile twitching on his lips.

My courage
was building; I could see he was a good sport. "I mean, no offense or
anything, I just think quarterbacks get a lot of credit for things other
players actually do. No offense."

"None
taken." He was smiling full on now, a good sign. "It doesn't matter
how great a passer I am if my receiver can't catch it, or if my line doesn't
give me time to get the play off."

"Yeah,
that's what I'm talking about. The left tackle never gets his name in the box
score." He laughed and shook his head. "What?" I asked.

"Nothing.
It's just I've never met a girl who actually knew what she was talking about
when it comes to football. Some will watch it, but can't discuss it. It's
weird. I mean, it's great, just unusual."

"Yeah,
well." I didn't really know what to say next, so we just walked for a
while in silence. "So," I said finally. "When are y'all heading
to the beach?"

"
We're
not," he said. "Brad is, and he's meeting up with some other guys
down there. He's leaving sometime Sunday."

"Why are
you here, then?" My confusion sounded more like rudeness, but he answered
before I had a chance to recover, unfazed by what I'd said.

"Quarterback
camp. I was invited to attend one here this year. It keeps me in shape over the
summer and is good for networking. Lots of pro scouts. Brad was coming through
anyway to meet up with his friends, so I offered to ride down with him."

"And so
here you are."

"Here I
am." He looked at me as he said that, and I couldn't help but think he
meant something more, like that he was here
for me
. This, of course, was
just wishful thinking; it had been a while since anyone had offered a shoulder
to me. Friends tried to help initially but didn't know what to, say so they
stopped saying anything, afraid of upsetting me. Aaron was a stranger, someone
who would be gone from my life in a couple more hours, making any deeper intent
all but irrelevant, but still, the thought of it was nice.

Up ahead my
sister was babbling on and on, too loud. I rolled my eyes as she bemoaned her
lack of closet space, something I was pretty sure Brad had no interest in.
Aaron smiled.

"Is she
older or younger?" he asked.

"Younger.
But just by eighteen months. By listening to her you'd think it was eighteen
years, though."

"Yeah, I
know how sisters are. I have two of them."

“Older?"

"Younger.
Sara is sixteen; Maggie just turned five."

"Wow,
those are some big gaps in age. Are you close to them?"

"Yeah.
We're far enough apart in age that they never really got on my nerves. It's
hard though; I mean, Maggie was born just a couple of months before I left for
school, which was kind of weird. Since then I've really only been around her
during holidays and some in the summer. Sara's old enough now that she'll call
and we'll talk about life, you know, school, girl drama, all that.”

"They're
in Wisconsin, right?" As soon as I said it I blushed, embarrassed by my
admission of how much I knew about him. But Aaron just smiled. I noticed how
easy his smile was, how genuine.

"This is
really not fair, Brooke," he said, still smiling. "You already know
everything about me."

"No, I
don't. I only know what they flash on the screen at the start of the games.
Height...weight...completion percentage. That's not who you are." I was
surprised at how easily these words flowed from me, without thought, without hesitation.
This was not typical me behavior.

He nodded
slowly, thinking, it seemed. "You're probably the first person who's ever
said that," he said.

"What?"

"That
facts and stats don't make me me. Most seem to think they do."

"Well,
it probably makes you popular," I said.

"Or not.
Being the quarterback at a school known for quarterbacks is not as glamorous as
you might think." We walked on a few yards before he continued. "I
have to take a lot of criticism, a lot of comparisons. It's part of the job,
but it gets old. It's distracting."

I was
thinking about this, this difference between what things seemed to be and what
things were, something I had learned way too much about recently, when Jill's
screech interrupted my thinking.

"Brooke!"
Jill had turned and was rushing back toward us. "Guess what just occurred
to me?!"

"There
is no telling," I replied as I glanced back at Aaron. A reply to her, a
warning to him. Jill was known, famous even, for her schemes. They usually
involved setting people up, and so I searched my brain to try to figure out
whom might be her next victim...er...project.

BOOK: Anything Less Than Everything
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