Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself.
The table sags under heaping containers of salad, pasta, and rolls at our pregame party the night before the big match against our cross-town rivals Valley High. But all it takes for me to lose my appetite is one comment from team captain Megan.
“We don’t want a repeat of camp finals.”
The low rumble of conversation and the smack of full mouths immediately ceases as nearly every player on the Central High women’s soccer team looks at me. I lock my gaze on the fat meatball atop a pile of spaghetti covered with tomato sauce, which I’m sure matches the color of my face right now.
“What happened at camp?” asks Brooke. An innocent enough question, if you don’t know what happened this summer—which she doesn’t because freshmen don’t attend camp—but a terribly taboo one if you do know what happened.
Sadie comes to my rescue. “We lost in extra time to those stuck-up Valley girls, but it wasn’t Olivia’s fault.”
Finding the courage to look up from my plate, I smile at Sadie. She’s best friends with Addison Hunter, but we’ve grown a lot tighter since Hunter got hurt during preseason.
“It was my fault.” I’m the first to admit that.
I set my plate down on a TV tray and take in the eyes of all the girls in Denise’s living room. Most of them have looked away by now, but I meet Paloma’s dark brown ones, full with curiosity. She’s a sophomore, but didn’t attend camp because she’s new to the team after moving here from Spain.
“You don’t have to talk about it,” she says in a soft accent.
“No, you and Brooke should know…” Heat rises up my neck to my face, and beads of sweat form under my sports bra. “It’s just embarrassing, that’s all.”
I take a deep breath and prepare to face not only the worst moment in my soccer career but probably my love life as well. It all started on the first day of our weeklong co-ed camp at the state university campus. As both of Central High’s varsity teams piled off the school bus, I noticed Valley’s bus was right in front of ours. And one of their players was staring right at me.
He had dark brown hair, shiny with gel, and a tan face. A flash of a smile exposed a chipped top tooth, and I remember running my tongue over my own straight, smooth teeth. He wore a jersey of the Italian national team, baggy soccer shorts, and blue socks with white stripes at the top pulled all the way up to his knees. A duffel bag was slung loose over one shoulder.
He looked more like a model trying to be a soccer player than an actual player. You could tell his teammates worshipped him by the way they surrounded him. Most of them had tried to copy his style but none quite pulled it off the way he did. Everything about him screamed arrogance; not my type at all.
Busy with training sessions in the morning and scrimmages in the afternoon, I didn’t really think about him most of the week. But every once in a while in the cafeteria or at the water station, I’d catch him staring at me. I kept hearing his teammates yelling his name across the fields. “Marco, I’m open!” “Marco, check this out!” “Marco! Marco! Marco!”
He was Valley High’s star player and leading goal scorer with an ego the size of Italy—his favorite team, of course. Absolutely not my type. Yet I was fascinated by him, and his seeming fascination of me.
None of this I told Brooke and Paloma. They just needed to know the facts. So I started the story on our last night of camp. We had the evening off in preparation for finals the next morning. The competition had been fierce over the week, but our team and Valley High’s team had risen to the top in the women’s bracket. We would face off with them after the men’s final game, and the whole camp would gather to watch both matches.
Valley’s men’s team had also made it to the finals, largely thanks to spectacular play by none other than Mr. Spectacular Himself Marco. Our men’s team would sadly be watching from the sidelines after losing in the quarterfinals.
Megan called a team strategy session that droned on for forever. When we were finally released, a bunch of us had decided to hang out in the common area of the college.
It was pretty crowded, but Sadie, Hunter, and I managed to find a free love seat by the TV to squeeze into together. We were watching Bend it Like Beckham when Marco and his entourage barreled into the common room. It seemed the whole room paused to take in His Magnificence. I spared him a glance before turning back to the movie.
Like a bee to honey, he zoomed right to the three of us. He perched himself on the arm of the love seat, forcing me to move my arm. I groaned, but he didn’t seem to hear it. An assault of cologne made my eyes water.
“You’re a goalie, right?” he asked.
“Yup.” I kept my gaze glued on the screen.
“Tough bunch, you goalies.” He pinched my arm. “Wanna go for a walk? We could trade victory stories.”
I grabbed my arm and glared up at him. Oh my God, who did this guy think he was? He smiled, showing off the chipped tooth like a badge of honor. Sadie and Hunter exchanged a look and giggled. Hunter, who was closet to me, elbowed me and mouthed, “Go.”
“No way,” I mouthed back.
They collectively pushed me up and out of my spot, practically into Marco’s lap. He took my hand in his, which I was surprised to find was a little sweaty, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Please.”
I glanced back at my good-for-nothing teammates to find they had spread out to fill in my seat. Sadie raised an eyebrow at me and flicked her hand toward the door. Warmth spread across my face and I figured the fresh air would do me good.
I pulled my hand from Marco’s and muttered, “Fine,” as I headed toward the exit. He followed close behind. We walked around campus in silence for awhile. Finally we ended up on one of the grass practice fields.
Marco tried to take my hand again, but I tucked them under my armpits. He walked to the goal line, bent down, and kissed the white line. Then he lay on his back with his feet in the goal and his head on the field.
He extended his neck to look at me and a patted the goal line next to him before tucking his hands behind his head. “Come on. I'm not going to kick you. Though I've done that to my fair share of goalies.”
Reluctantly I sat down next to him. There was no way I was laying down next to this guy.
“Being a goal scorer isn’t much different than being a goalie.” His eyes were closed as he quietly talked. “We both spend a lot of time thinking about this line we’re on. You want to keep the ball from crossing it, and I want to push it past. We take lots of risks in our positions. Our teams depend on us. We can make or break a game—a season—with one heroic move…or one mistake.” He stared up at me. “It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?”
I shrugged, unnerved by his intense honesty. “I guess.” When I play, I try not to think of the pressure, stay in the moment.
“I admire goalies,” he said. “I admire you, the way you play. You’re confident, but not in a showy way. I don’t know how to be like that. If I don’t strut my stuff on and off the field, I don’t have it…the confidence.”
My mouth suddenly turned very dry and I swallowed. “You’re a star with or without the strut.”
He sat and scooted right next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder. We were facing opposite directions but our mouths were lined up perfectly.
“I wish I could be more like you with your natural confidence.” I felt his breath on my lips as he talked. The cologne wasn’t so assaulting out there in the open. He leaned in. Just as our lips touched, a hissing sound filled my ears, and then we were getting soaked. The sprinklers had turned on!
I jumped to my feet and squealed. Marco let out a booming laugh. He took my hand and we ran around the field, jumping in the water like little kids. He walked me back to my dorm. I shivered in the night air and he rubbed the goose bumps off my arms.
Acting like a gentleman, he gave me peck on the cheek. I turned into his lips and grabbed the back of his head, pulling him in for a real kiss. After, he smiled, and for the first time, I found his chipped tooth enduring instead of irritating.
“Good luck tomorrow,” he said.
“You too.” I squeezed his hand and headed back to my room.
All of these memories come to me in a moment, but all I say to the girls is that Marco and I went for walk and got to know each other.
“They kissed!” Sadie giggles. I throw a pillow at her, almost knocking her plate of food on the floor.
“Lot of good it did me,” I say as my thoughts turn to the next morning. “They won their final game, Marco and Valley High. Then him and his teammates stayed to watch our game. They cheered for the Valley women’s team, naturally.”
Though Marco was more subdued than I had ever seen him. I had forced myself to focus on the game and thought no more of him.
“We were in extra time, tied 1-1. The Valley center midfielder kicked a ball over our defense. I ran out to get it. One of their forwards was racing towards me. Just before I reached the ball, I heard a familiar shout—“ my voice breaks off. My face burns with mortification.
It was Marco, cheering for her, not me. Not that I ever expected him to cheer for me over his school, but it was a shock to hear him rooting for them so exuberantly.
“What happened?” Brooke’s eyes are wide.
All I say is, “We lost.” What happened was I hesitated. The Valley forward got a foot on the ball and scored. The whistle blew. The game was over.
“And it wasn’t just Olivia’s fault,” says Sadie, and I love her for coming to my defense. “That player and the ball had to get past the rest of us before they got to you.”
Megan cuts in, “Olivia lost her concentration. That’s what happened. But it won’t happen again, right?”
I shake my head. But I’m not convincing anyone, certainly not myself. I haven’t seen Marco since camp. He tried to talk to me as we waited to board the bus, but I huddled into the cocoon of my teammates.
Marco’s urgent voice reached me from behind their shoulders. “I just want a minute to talk.”
Sadie and Hunter shielded me, wouldn’t let him get close. I was able to avoid him then, but tomorrow I’m sure he’ll be at the game. I don’t know how I’ll react when I see him, and I can’t afford to lose my concentration again.
Stay tuned next month to find out how Olivia and the Central High women's team fares against cross-town rivals Valley High! Plus, don't miss all the other Tales From the Field.
Katie L. Carroll is a mother, writer, editor, and soccer player. She began writing at a very sad time in her life after her 16-year-old sister, Kylene, unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote her YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the picture app THE BEDTIME KNIGHT and a contributor to THE GREAT CT CAPER, a serialized mystery for young readers. She lives not too far from the beach in a small Connecticut city with her husband and sons. For more about Katie, visit her website at www.katielcarroll.com.