That's when I started listening to the baseball game every night. The team became my only reliable companions: Wade the handsome pitcher and Mike the supercool shortstop and Jim the catcher, who was always being thrown out of the game for arguing strike calls. I liked it when they dived hard for balls that were almost impossible to catch, and I liked the fact they were all friends who hung out together, and I liked listening to them being interviewed on the postgame show so I could see if they were smart or had a sense of humor. That whole summer I thought about baseball, I listened to baseball, and there were baseball players in my dreams.
My best friend Berty came back from California in early September, after the team was out of the pennant race and Wade had been injured and I had a pretty steady temp job, so my enthusiasm for baseball had waned a bit. Berty was all glowing from his first small role in a film, and besides, he had a new boyfriend.
I never ended up meeting the boyfriend, who was working on a detective series out in L.A., but I'm sure he looked just like Berty, all thin and square-jawed and energetic. Berty always went out with guys who looked just like him. In the five years we've been out of acting school, Berty's met a lot of people because he's auditioned all over the place for any role that was open, whereas I've had the luxury of waiting because, unlike Berty, I can type well enough to make a living at it.
Berty and I ate dinner together almost every night, talking about the theater and about Berty's wonderful boyfriend. We went out sometimes, too, although I felt kind of stupid going to clubs and parties where everyone else was a gay guy looking to meet other gay guys. I usually went as Berty's date, because his boyfriend was always out of town. In a way we were a couple; we had a crazy kind of intimacy. But Berty seemed to assume that he'd always be the one with the boyfriend, and I'd always be the one listening to the stories.
At one point we got so close I thought could tell him how I felt about baseball.
"I like this guy Wade," I said, not mentioning that I had never met him.
"Wade?" he said, and laughed. "Don't come to me with problems about a Wade. I mean, Wade. You should have known as soon as you found out his name. That was probably the first thing he said to you."
"Well, I haven't met him yet," I said. "He's a baseball player."
"Good, then, don't," he said, and kissed my cheek. "If you don't meet them, they can't do you any harm."
After dinner, I'd go home and dream about Wade, strange dreams. We were lovers, of course, but whether we were walking through the woods, or dining by candelight, or reclining passionately in bed, Wade always turned up wearing his baseball uniform.
So when Wade got off the disabled list, I took to going to games all by myself. I'd set the video before I went - I wanted to have some games stored up for the winter, the same way kids stored snowballs for summer - and I'd carefully arrive just a little bit late, so scalpers would be desperate to get rid of their box seats. Then I'd just sit and watch Wade. It was ecstasy, it really was, watching every movement of his broad shoulders, his long legs, his curvy hips. And I wasn't alone. There seemed to be a lot of women there to see Wade instead of the game. I'm surprised he could pitch with all that lust going on just a few feet away.
Usually, after the game I could calm down, but one night I just couldn't. It was probably loneliness again: Berty was rehearsing some dinner theater and his boyfriend was in town, so I'd had no one to talk to for days. When you're alone so much, unreal things can take root in your head. That one night, it really seemed possible that if I could only speak to Wade for a moment we'd fall in love. Or maybe not. Anyway, I needed to see how he looked in everyday clothing. For my dreams, you know.
I had to wait by the players' exit until he came out, wait along with a lot of surly security guards and kids who'd caught foul balls, wait as fat outfielders and bald catchers filed past and got into their too-big cars. Wade came out last, walking alone, his hair blow-dried.
I couldn't go near him. I just stood there, clutching my stupid Bic pen, while the other women rushed past me. I was standing alone on the pavement, hating myself for being so insane and horny and afraid, and wishing I could live and wishing I could die, all choked up with excitement and desire, when I noticed someone standing beside me.
I looked over and saw a pleasant-looking guy in a team jacket. He was standing in the parking lot with his uniform hat still on.
"Want my autograph?" he said.
I didn't know what to say, so I handed him my pen and paper, and he signed.
"This is my first major-league autograph," he said, handing it back to me.
I looked at the signature, but it was too dark for me to decipher the name. The other women were forming a dense circle around Wade. I could only see the top of his head.
"I just got called up today," the jacket guy said. "Did you see me pinch-run in the eighth?"
"Oh, yes," I said, lying. I hadn't paid attention to the bottom of the innings, except for trying to see Wade in the dugout.
"Say, do you like water?" he asked me. "I'm from South Carolina, and down there, we're big fans of water."
"What?" I said.
"Water, beaches," he said. "Are there beaches around here?"
"Sure," I said. Security guards were starting to drag the women away, now.
"How do I get there?" the jacket guy asked.
"To the beach? Where do you live?"
"I don't know where I live," he said, cheerfully. "Somewhere around here. I just got here today."
That's when I looked at him, actually looked at him, for the first time. He was kind of handsome, if a little confused.
"Give me your number," he said. "I'll call you tomorrow when I find out where I live."
I gave him my phone number just to avoid an argument, because I was watching Wade's convertible pull out of the lot onto the expressway. I took the subway home and watched the entire game again on videotape. I did notice the guy I'd been talking to, pigeon-toed and a little pudgy, standing insecurely on second base.
The next day, my regular temp agency couldn't get me a job. I sat at home for a while, waiting for a call, trying to figure out how I'd have enough money to get through the weekend. I usually wait until 10 or so before I'll accept that I'm not getting anything and go out for breakfast. It was 10:30, and I had the door open and was holding a bag of garbage when the phone finally rang.
"Hi. It's Dwight," said a Southern voice.
I tried to remember if anyone from the temp agencies was named Dwight.
"You met me last night at the ballpark," he said.
"Oh, yeah," I said.
"I found out where I live," he said. "I live in Hackensack."
"Good," I said.
"Tell me where you live and I'll come get you and we'll go to the beach," he said. "I have to be at batting practice by three, so we have to hurry."
I only said yes because I knew I was having dinner with Berty that night, and I thought it would be a good story to tell him.
Dwight must have had a very good sense of direction. He was outside of my house within fifteen minutes, honking the horn of a silver Jeep with very big wheels. We got to the lake by following the signs. The beach was calm and nearly deserted on a weekday. We spread out our towels right next to the water. I saw he was watching me as I took off my T-shirt.
"You're real pretty," he said.
"Thanks," I said. It was weird, being with someone who found me attractive, who was interested in my body. I was so used to being irrelevant, unnoticed, like the dummy in bridge.
I lay back and watched the sun through my sunglasses. It was still bright and gloriously warm, for fall.
"What's Wade like?" I asked.
"I dunno. He doesn't talk much," Dwight said. "He sits on the other end of the bench from me, and he kind of sits up on the backrest, a little higher than everyone else, so it's hard to talk to him."
I nodded, and turned over on my stomach. It was good to feel the sun on my back and in my hair. During that whole miserable summer, I'd hardly gone out at all.
"No, I'm an actress," I said.
"I guess I thought for some reason you were a waitress," said Dwight.
"I'm an trained actress," I told him. "I trained specifically for Shakespeare, but now I'm willing to do other things."
"You get training for it?"
"Sure, you do," I said. "There's technique involved."
"That's like baseball," he said.
We had to leave by two, which was okay, because kids who had finished school for the day were starting to run down the beach and bother us. I felt good, and Dwight seemed happy too.
As we got back into the Jeep, something occurred to me. "If you've only been in the major leagues one day," I said, "how did you buy this car?"
"Oh, I got a big signing bonus when I was drafted. If I keep my average up there's more where that came from." He started up the car. "All gravy and biscuits," he said.
He dropped me at my door and kissed me, and as he drove away, I realized I hadn't been kissed in more than a year.
Berty and I had dinner that night. He bought all the vegetables at the gourmet store, which made me silently kind of pissed off, because we always split the tab and I had only twenty dollars to last the weekend. I certainly hadn't budgeted for gourmet vegetables.
We cooked in the kitchen, with the baseball game turned up loud on the living room TV. Wade wasn't pitching, but I was happy to see Dwight in the starting lineup, even at the bottom of the order. I kept stepping out of the kitchen with my chopping knife, trying to catch a glimpse of him. We were nearly finished cooking before I saw him walking up to the batters' box. I had to laugh, he was so incredibly pigeon-toed.
"That's him?" Berty asked, coming into the room. "He's got a cute little rump."
I didn't much like Berty saying that, but I couldn't tell him to shut up. Dwight hit a line drive straight to the other team's center fielder. They showed him on the way back to the dugout, taking off his batting helmet, and you could see the disappointment in his face.
"His haircut's dreadful," Berty said. "But that's proof he's straight and that he doesn't have another girlfriend. Otherwise he'd look more presentable."
"I think his hair's just pressed down by his batting helmet," I said.
Berty was still standing, watching, holding his spatula from grilling the peppers. I wished he'd go back in the kitchen, but he was still there when the inning was over and Dwight jogged onto the field.
"Look at his stomach!" Berty said. "He's like the Pillsbury Doughboy. How could you like someone that fat? He must have looked awful in a swimsuit."
Actually, I hadn't much noticed his body. I was too busy noticing that he'd noticed mine.
I let Berty cook the rest of the dinner by himself. Someone from the Royals had hit a grounder to Dwight, and he'd help turn a perfect double play. "He has all the instincts," said the announcer, "of a superstar second baseman."
I couldn't help thinking how much money a superstar second baseman would make.
"I thought you'd forgotten me," I said, kind of teasing.
"No way," he said. "But it's crazy in the big leagues. Gotta work on your swing. Can't swear when you talk on the radio. Can't do backflips in the hotel, might injure yourself."
"It's okay, about not calling me," I said.
"I think about you, though. You gotta believe me."
He seemed really sincere, and that made me happy. "Aren't there a lot of girls after you when you're on the road?" I asked, teasing.
"Not the kind of girl you want to get hooked by. No one with any heart," he said.
"That's the most important thing," I told him.
I could hear the theme from Sesame Street playing from a TV in the background.
"Season's almost over," I said, and I realized I was even starting to talk like him. "What are you going to do then?"
"Dunno," he said. "I've got a couple week's rest, before winter ball."
It took me a while, but I got up my courage and asked him to my parent's vacation house in New Jersey. He accepted and I felt very good. But that's when I had to go, because Berty had turned up on the call waiting, eager to tell me about his new part on a soap opera.
By the time we left, Dwight really needed a vacation. He'd improved his batting average but he was exhausted, not the least from talking to the reporters about being a future superstar second baseman. We loaded up his Jeep with food and got on the highway. It was nice, driving with the windows open and the stereo going. We didn't have to say anything at all.
If we'd had the radio on we might have known about the big storm coming up, but we didn't. It wasn't until we got there that the neighbors told us a small hurricane was supposed to hit later in the day. Talking about it, though, we decided to stay on. The house was strong, we had enough food, though it was defrosted from the trip, and it was only the start of our vacation.
When the phone rang, I thought it was my mother calling to worry, but it wasn't. It was Berty, almost in tears.
"It's all over between Michael and I," he said, his voice very high. "He's had a lover all this time in Los Angeles. Can you believe it? All I was his East Coast stopover."
"That's too bad," I said, and I did feel bad.
"Annie, I'm going to come down to the shore to stay with you," he said. "I need to be with friends right now."
I couldn't tell him no, because he'd been so kind to me, but I also hadn't told him Dwight was with me. I didn't tell Dwight, either, that Berty was coming. The whole thing would have been too difficult to explain. I just brought him a glass of warm orange juice, and he liked it, and in a minute we were back in bed again.
When we woke up the electricity was out, and Dwight was mad because he couldn't watch the National League playoffs. It was already getting dark in the daytime, and that was kind of romantic. We went up to the roof and watched the birds try to fly through the hostile air currents, and Dwight held my waist to keep me from blowing away.
From the roof, I saw Berty arriving in a taxi. "Oh," I said, "there's my friend Berty. He's coming to stay here, too."
"You've got another guy?" Dwight said.
"No, Berty's not like that. He's just my friend," I said, but I could see Dwight didn't believe me.
"He likes other guys," I said.
"Oh," Dwight said.
Berty was standing all alone in the driveway looking confused. I ran into the house and down the stairs to meet him.
"I thought you'd come get me at the bus station," he said when I hugged him.
"I was going to, but Dwight wanted to watch the playoffs," I said.
"Dwight? The baseball player?" Berty set down his suitcase. "I didn't know you were up here with him," he said.
It was starting to rain, so we all went inside. The storm was really something to watch. From the window we could see leaves shooting down the street like bullets, and rain sliding across the sky at a really weird angle. The buds of our neighbors' roses were being lifted right off their stems.
"Yeah," said Dwight, on the sofa.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. It was a strange contrast, the two of them sitting across from each other, Dwight big and slumping, and Berty so thin, with perfect square shoulders. I pretended to look at my fingernails.
"I can't say I've ever met a baseball player before," Berty said. He said it in a really mean way.
"It's okay. I've never met one of you guys either," Dwight said.
Berty touched the crease in his pants. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I've heard things about some of your pitchers."
Immediately I thought of Wade, but I kept my mouth shut.
"I don't know why you're hanging around her anyway," Dwight said. "I'd suppose you'd want to be hanging around guys."
"I'm her friend," said Berty, very crisply. "I've known her a long time. I'm not going to give her a disease."
Dwight leaned forward. "Not unless you sleep with her," he said, "and you don't want to sleep with her."
"Which is all you want, I suppose," said Berty.
The storm went on for a long time, until the steady noise of the wind got dull. Dwight fell asleep, snoring, on the couch. Late in the afternoon, the rain slowed to a sprinkle, and birds came out and there was a rainbow. Berty and I went for a walk outside.
"He's a pig, you know. Do you know that?" Berty told me. "He's got no manners at all."
"I like him," I said, not looking at Berty.
"Well, he doesn't like me. You can see that. He's completely intolerant."
Berty was walking faster than me, and it was hard to talk to his back. "If we got married," I tried to explain, "I wouldn't have to do any more temp work."
"You'd marry him?" Berty stopped and looked at me.
"I don't know," I said, but I did know.
We walked quietly for a while. On the beach we passed a man with a cooler full of sodas. I bought two cans of Coke and we sat on a wet bench to drink them.
"So that's what you want," Berty said, finally. "You want sex and money. That's what he can give you. If that's what you want."
I didn't know what to say. There were bees all around us, buzzing around our heads. I didn't know what was wrong with sex or money.
"You can't even understand what I'm talking about," he said, and walked away towards the house.
I let him go. I just sat there, fanning a bee away from my Coca-Cola can.
When I came back, the door to Berty's room was closed. For a long time, I looked out the window alone, watching ducks fly south across the purple sky. Dwight was still asleep, and I went over and put my head on his stomach, just as the storm drew its last breaths.