“Hi,” I whispered. I was hiding under my covers again.
He didn’t say anything for a few seconds.
“I really thought you weren’t going to call me,” he finally said. “Like, ever again.”
“Is it because I kissed you?” he said, and his voice was strained. “Was that—should I not have done that?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. This conversation was already doing things to my nerves. “Ocean,” I said. “The kiss was amazing.” I could hear him breathing. I could hear the way his breathing changed as I spoke. “The kiss was perfect,” I said. “Kind of blew my mind.”
He still didn’t say anything.
“Why didn’t you call me?” he whispered, and he sounded suddenly broken.
I knew then that this was it. Here it was. Here was the moment and I had to say it. In all likelihood it would kill me, but I had to say it.
“Because,” I said. “I don’t want to do this.”
I heard the breath go out of him. I heard him turn away from the phone and swear and he said, “Is this because of the idiots at school? Because people saw us together?”
“That has a lot to do with it, yeah.”
He swore again.
And then, quietly, I said, “I didn’t know you were a basketball player.”
It felt like a stupid thing to say, like it shouldn’t have mattered what sport he played in his free time, but it had also begun to feel like a blatant omission on his end. He wasn’t an average kid who’d decided to take up basketball in his spare time. He was a star player on the team. He’d apparently scored a lot of goals for someone his age. Baskets. Whatever. I’d looked it up online when I finally mustered the courage to lock myself in my room. There were articles about him in the local papers. Colleges were already circling him, talking about scholarships, talking about his potential, his future. I came across a few blogs and school-sponsored webcasts that were pretty illuminating, but when I dug deeper I discovered an anonymous LiveJournal account devoted only to him and his statistics over the years—a ton of numbers I couldn’t understand about points and rebounds and steals—and I was suddenly confused.
Basketball was clearly a huge part of Ocean’s life; it was obvious it had been for some time. And it had just occurred to me that, while yes, there was some fault on my end for not asking him more questions about himself, his omission was also strange. He’d never even casually mentioned basketball, not in a single one of our conversations.
So when he said, “I really wish you’d never found out,” the whole thing began to make a little more sense to me.
And then—well, then he kind of broke open.
He said he started playing basketball after his parents split up, because his mom’s new boyfriend was a youth basketball coach. He said he did it only because spending time with the new boyfriend seemed to make his mom happy. He played well, which made the boyfriend happy. Which made the mom happy. Which made him happy.
When his mom and the boyfriend split, Ocean was twelve. He tried to quit basketball, but his mom wouldn’t let him. She said it was good for him. She said it made her happy to see him play so well. And then horribly, unexpectedly, his mom’s parents died, he said, in this really tragic car accident, both of them at the same time, and his mom kind of lost her mind. But it was awful in two ways, he said. He said his mom was reeling from the emotional hit, but that she also, suddenly, didn’t have to go to work anymore. Her parents had left everything to her—land, investments, all kinds of stuff—and he said it was all the money that eventually ruined his life.
He said he spent the next few years trying to keep his mom from crying all the time and that, eventually, they switched roles; one day he’d become the responsible one while she sort of collapsed inward and lost track of everyone but herself. When his mom finally pushed through the darkness, she became entirely about her social obligations. He said she became obsessed with finding another husband, and that it was awful and painful to watch.
“She never even notices when I’m not home,” he said to me. “She’s always out, always doing things with her friends or dating some new guy I have no interest in meeting. She’s so convinced I’m going to be fine—she’s always telling me I’m a good kid—and then she just disappears. She leaves money on the table and then, I don’t know, I never know when I’m going to hear from her. She comes and goes. No schedule. Never commits to anything. She never even comes to my games. I left home for a week, once, just to see what would happen, and she didn’t even call me. When I finally came home she seemed surprised to see me. She said she’d assumed I was away at basketball camp or something.” He hesitated. “But it was the middle of the school year.”
He said he kept playing basketball because his team had become a substitute for his family. It was the only one he had.
“But there’s so much pressure,” he said. “There’s so much pressure to perform—and I’m really beginning to hate it. All of it. My coach is killing me every day, stressing me out about scouts and stats and these stupid awards and I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like I don’t even know why I’m doing it anymore. I never played basketball because I loved it. It just became this thing that took over my entire life. It’s like a parasite. And everyone is so obsessed with it,” he said, anger bleeding into his voice. “It’s like they can’t even think about anything else. People only ever want to talk to me about basketball,” he said. “Like it’s all I am. Like it’s everything I am. And it’s not.”
“Of course it’s not,” I said, but my voice was quiet. Sad. I understood too well what it was like to feel like you were defined by one superficial thing—to feel like you would never escape the box people had put you in.
It felt like you were going to explode.
“Ocean,” I said, “I’m so sorry about your mom.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all of this sooner.”
“It’s really okay,” I said. “I get it.”
He sighed. “This is going to sound weird, I know—and really dumb—but I just—I loved how you never seemed to give a shit about who I was. You didn’t know me. You didn’t know anything about me. Like—not just that first day,” he said, “but, like, for the next couple of months. I kept waiting for you to find out—I thought maybe you’d see me at a pep rally or show up to an event or something, I don’t know, but you never did. You never even saw me after school.”
“After school?” I said. But then I remembered, with a sudden moment of clarity, discovering him in the doorway of our dance room. And later, for a split second, leaving the gym. “What do you do after school?”
Ocean laughed. “See? This is exactly what I mean. I’ve been going to practice,” he said. “We’re always in the gym. I’d see you disappear into the dance room with those other guys and I always thought you’d, like”—he laughed again—“I don’t know, I guess I thought maybe one day you’d walk by? See me in my basketball uniform? But it never happened. And I got so comfortable talking to you like this. Without the noise. It was like you actually wanted to get to know me.”
“I did want to get to know you,” I said. “I still do.”
He sighed. “Then why walk away? Why throw this all away?”
“We don’t have to throw anything away. We can just go back to being friends. We can still talk to each other,” I said. “But we can have space, too. From each other.”
“I don’t want space,” he said. “I’ve never wanted less space.”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart was hurting.
“Do you?” he said, and his voice was suddenly strained again. “Do you really want space from me? Honestly?”
“Of course not,” I whispered.
He was quiet for a second or two. And when he next spoke, his words were soft. So sweet. He said, “Baby, please don’t do this.”