Man, he loved Saturday mornings.
“Got it!” A five-year-old girl with long black hair ran right under the net (without having to duck) and plowed into him. Before he could react, she bounced off his legs and fell to the gym floor, her glittering purple Twinkle Toes sneakers up in the air. The white volleyball she’d been chasing rolled into the cluster of kids behind him.
Miles bent down and offered a hand. “Way to go after the ball, Caitlin!” He helped her up and guided her back to her side of the court. “Next time you gotta stay on your side, okay sport? But way to move those feet.”
Grinning, he looked over into the stands to see if Felicia was enjoying the game, but her glossy blond head was bent over her iPhone. He shrugged it off and got the kids to rotate positions for the next serve. Or roll, since the little ones couldn’t usually get it over the net.
“Everett, your serve, sport. Get closer to the net, that’s it.” Everett swung his arm like Tiger Woods at tee-off; the ball slipped out of his fingers and bounced past the stationary feet of three small children frozen in the ready-squat position. Miles had another ball ready in his hand and tossed it over. “Here you go, Everett. Now try again from right up here, dude. That’s a lot of power you’ve got in that swing.”
Everett stepped forward, swung, and the ball tripped and rolled over the top of the net into Caitlin’s waiting arms.
Miles clapped. “Way to pay attention, Caitlin!” Beaming, Caitlin hugged the ball to her chest. “Next time you go ahead and swing your arms. No need to hold on to it.”
After another five minutes attempting a game, Miles called a water break, sending off a dozen squealing kids to the fountain or to their parents. Miles strode over to Felicia who was flinching at the noise, wearing a skin-tight black and red tracksuit that showed off her long, lean body. Though she liked to meet him in Berkeley on Saturday mornings, she usually went for a run instead of sitting around the clubhouse.
“Morning, honey,” he said, stealing the Starbucks cup from her hand and taking a sip. “Didn’t expect you until ten.”
She frowned. “I’d rather you let me buy you one of your own.”
He swallowed another mouthful of coffee, handed the cup back to her. “I only wanted a sip.”
“You always say that.”
He leaned down to her ear, lightly touched her thigh. “Afraid of getting my germs?”
Her leg jerked away and he drew back to study her face. She looked cool and put-together, her straight hair sleek along the sides of her narrow face, her soft brown eyes carefully made up with mascara and something faintly shimmery. She must have skipped her run altogether, not just finished early.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Stifling his annoyance, he scanned the gym for aimless balls and children just as his watch beeped. “Got to get back.”
“Miles, we have to talk.”
The kids were starting to go wild. They liked to run up and down the bleachers to make them rattle, usually knocking over the adults’ assorted coffee containers in the process. “Sure, soon as I’m done here.” He jumped down and jogged over to the net, calling the kids back for the second half-hour of almost-volleyball.
Arms folded over her chest, Felicia scowled at him. The coffee cup sat abandoned at her feet.
He shook off his dread and got back to work. He only had to remind Caitlin six times to stop running under the net, which was progress, and by the time they were in the end-of-clinic huddle for a go-team shout, he’d almost forgotten his angry girlfriend was watching.
No, not watching. Back to her phone.
The kids scattered to their parents and grandparents and he went around the gym to collect the stray balls. Fourth through sixth grade boy’s basketball was at noon, but he had Ronnie coaching that group. He was off until Monday morning, just like corporate types, which was probably what was annoying Felicia again—how he wasn’t one.
When the last ball was locked up and the net put away, Miles stood in the middle of the gym with his hands on his hips and regarded the classic profile of the brooding blonde staring at the neon exit sign.
Marriage. Another birthday had come and gone; she was still single; it was all his fault.
He climbed up the bleachers two at a time to reach her. He sat down beside her and didn’t touch the coffee, though he was dying for it. “I’ll marry you this weekend,” he said, kissing her sweet-smelling hair, “if you agree to move into my place.” She hated his two-bedroom condo in the Mission district of San Francisco, calling the neighborhood a ghetto. He’d sunk all his savings and years of sweat equity into it and really didn’t want to give it up. He knew she’d learn to love it if she gave it a chance.
She twisted around, tilting her head back to look down her nose at him. “Excuse me?”
He raised his eyebrows. Managed a grin. “Kidding?”
She stood up and he had to lurch forward to grab the Starbucks cup before it tipped over. He got tired of mopping up spilled coffee under his bleachers.
“I can’t stand talking to you here.” She tromped down the stairs to the floor. “You’re so childish.”
He didn’t get up. “What’s your problem now?”
“Oh, now. As if I’m the one.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head at the ceiling. “I should have waited until we got back to the city, but I thought it might be easier for you here. See? I’m still putting you first, thinking of your needs, ignoring what would be best for me.” She pointed at her chest, drawing his attention to the swell of her breasts, the shadow of her erect nipples under the thin jacket. She moved her pointer finger higher, to her face. “Up here, buddy. This is me, not my tits.”
He got up, jumped down to the floor to close the doors and drop her coffee in the trash. The last thing his club needed was some paranoid Berkeley mother walking in on an intimate conversation. And Felicia could go from G to Mature Audiences Only in a matter of seconds—one of the things he liked about her. “You’re right. This wasn’t the place,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll meet you at your hovel. I drove over.”
He moved to stand in front of the door, his six-five, two-hundred-forty frame easily blocking her exit. “No. You started this, let’s finish it.”
She glared up at him, hands on her hips. “Yes, let’s.”
He waited, but she kept fuming in silence, and he felt the anger seep out of him. He wasn’t the one who was pissed off, after all. He was having a perfectly nice day. And it probably was a mistake to joke about getting married. “What is it, Felicia?” He softened his expression and stepped towards her. “Let’s grab breakfast somewhere. I’ll buy you another coffee. Promise I won’t touch it.”
To his horror, the tough, independent woman he was starting to think about maybe someday spending the rest of his life with began to cry. Her glossy lower lip trembling, her forehead wrinkling in pain, she sank to the floor.
For a long, stunned moment, all he could do was stare at her hunched over with her face in her hands. What was wrong with her? In all their three years together, the only time he’d seen her cry was during a sad movie or after too many glasses of wine.
“Have you been drinking?”
With a screech, she reached forward and pounded him on the shins. “You big oaf! Of course I haven’t been drinking! But if I married you I’d have to!”
Well, that wasn’t what he expected to hear. He went over to the bottom seat of the bleachers and sat down. “This isn’t about the coffee, is it?”
She buried her face in her hands and rocked back and forth.
“Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head but didn’t look up.
“I’ll just wait here, then, until you can talk.”
Her head popped up, her eyes wide with rage. “That’s all you can say?”
“What should I say?”
She rolled her eyes in disgust, swiped away her tears with her sleeve. “Forget it.” She got to her feet. “I should know better than to expect you to be serious.”
“No, it’s hopeless. You’re never serious.”
“I’m at work, Felicia.”
“Work! You call this work?” She flung her hand out dismissively. “Come to the firm sometime, I’ll show you work.”
He stood up. “That’s what’s bothering you again? My job?”
She sniffed, walked to the exit. “No,” she said sadly, shoving the door open. “You could change your job.”
Miles looked around the gym one more time before flicking off the lights and following her into the clubhouse lounge. Past the foosball table, through the glass window of their tiny office, he could see the back of Ronnie’s shiny head as he bent over the desk. Felicia circled the pool table, dragging her fingers along the felt. He flinched, having intimate knowledge of just how sharp her nails were.
The lounge was empty now but it would be filled with eleven-year-old boys in about thirty minutes. Whatever she wanted to hash out, it’d better be quick.
He bent over and picked up a ping-pong ball. “So, not just my job. What else?”
“This isn’t going to work.”
“Fine. We’ll talk on the way home. I’ll tell Ronnie—”
“No, I mean us.” She scowled at him through her tears. “I can’t marry you, Miles.”
Whatever he’d expected her to say, that hadn’t been it. She’d been nagging him to get married for . . . ever. “All right, we won’t.” He placed the ping-pong ball on the edge of the pool table. “I was just kidding about eloping anyway.”
Her rage flared again. “See? Oh my God! I can’t believe you!”
“What’s the matter with me?”
“That’s what I want to know!” She lowered her voice, slackened her jaw, and slurred her words. “‘I was just kidding about eloping. What’s the problem?’”
He picked up the ball and squeezed it in his fist. “That’s a great impersonation of me, Felicia. You must have spent a long time practicing that.”
“You knew from the start I wanted a family. You knew that.”
“And you knew I was afraid of screwing one up. I didn’t have the rosy home life you did. Of course I’m more cautious.”
“But three years, Miles? I’m going to be thirty-three this month. When I was twenty-nine, I thought I had time to wait for you. But now—”
“You’d risk having children without knowing for sure we’d last? You refused to move in with me—”
“Yes! And you refused to move in with me!”
“You have a studio apartment in Pacific Heights. I barely fit in the door.”
“Which is why I wanted to look for another—oh, forget it!” She threw her hands up. “I was stupid for thinking a nice guy who seemed to care about kids would be in a hurry to have some of his own.”
“‘Seem’ to care?” The ping-pong ball in his palm was now a curved lump of broken plastic. He took a deep breath and studied the frayed felt of his clubhouse’s fourth-hand pool table. “I see so many kids whose parents should’ve waited. Who divorced, or never got married, or work all the time. I can’t be that kind of parent. I promised myself—”
She made a rude noise. “Excuses, excuses. You like the kids here because they grow up and move on. You don’t really want to commit to anybody. Not them, not me. You’re immature. Emotionally stunted. Willfully obtuse.”
He squeezed the broken plastic harder, but he kept his voice soft. “Gee, if that’s true, why were you so eager to marry me?”
She let out a scream through gritted teeth and jammed her hand into the pool table’s pockets as though looking for something to hurl at him. Luckily the balls were locked up in the office with a sign-out sheet.
“Don’t you smirk at me, you giant idiot!” She snatched up an empty Dr. Pepper bottle out of the recycling bin and hurled it at his head.
He crossed his arms and let it bounce off his shoulder. He was starting to get seriously pissed.
She hurled another one, a can of Red Bull, and he had to turn his head so it only clipped him. This enraged her, like he knew it would, and she reached into the bin with both hands and started throwing wildly until Ronnie opened the office door.
“Dude, you going to clean that up when she’s done?”
Without taking his eyes off of Felicia, Miles said, “I’ll handle it.”
Their manly conversation seemed to pierce the last of her temper. She sank to a striped yellow couch, its stuffing seeping out of the cushions, and started sobbing again.
If he hadn’t been so angry he would have gone over to touch her, try to soothe her, but he wasn’t a saint. He held himself still, watching her, feeling his heart pound in his chest and finding some comfort in the fact that he wasn’t driving to Nevada this weekend.
He shoved the broken ping-pong ball into his pocket, vaguely aware of pain in his palm. “So, this is the end of everything between us?”
Swiping her hair out of her face, she got up and marched out of the building without looking at him again. He watched her tight ass swing out of sight. A minute later he doubled over the surface of the pool table to ease his throbbing skull.
Maybe she was right. He hadn’t really let her in, hadn’t tried hard enough. Three years was a long time, long enough that he should be feeling more than relief—
But damn, she’d really confirmed his worst fears. He’d been stupid to even consider marriage, however theoretical that consideration had been. The only happy marriages he’d ever seen were on TV. His father had been married four times, and not once to his own mother. And his current stepmother . . . His thoughts skated away from Heather in disgust.
No, he didn’t have a clue about women or happily ever after. He was a product of his genes and his environment, nature and nurture, and he wouldn’t forget it.
Thank God he’d found out in time.
He stood up, wiped some Dr. Pepper off his jaw, and began cleaning up the mess.