Seeing Oliver AgainMadeline Graham
* * *
The only time I’d spent significant time watching anything like sports was when I was Oliver’s babysitter for a summer. He was four.
He spent the brightest summer days crawling around in a windowless basement with a hockey stick and a tennis ball. He didn’t stand, but balanced on his side on the cement floor, propped on his right elbow, one eye scrunched shut, tongue out to one side. The face of a pool player. Poised to flex, scramble, catch, and roll. Whiff — the tennis ball bounced out of Oliver’s right hand, left hand extended horizontally across the floor with the hockey stick ready to stop the tennis ball and hit it back toward himself.
Oliver scrambled on his knees to where the ball had been hit, blocked it with his foot. Announced play-by-play, high pitched but authoritative.
Edler moves in, throws the puck in front, they SCORE! Vancouver has the lead!
He imagined the sound of scraping across ice, the thrum of a crowd that’s far away. He tried to feel like every person on both teams; triumphant and defeated at once. He was center stage — camera smack on him as teammates glided into a helmet thwacking group hug, a hero. Also he was the loser, seething, wanting to check someone right into the sideboard, to hook the hero from his skates and watch him nosedive, who cares about a penalty.
He always knew what would happen next since he was orchestrating the whole game, but he also wanted to feel the gut clench, eyes-wide unknowing of any fan glued to the game.
I didn’t feel the same, but I tried to understand.
Oliver only trusted me to be the fans. I sat on a rolled up futon that smelled like mildew, feet in thin socks cold on the cement. Eyes drifting. Four year olds really like repetitive stuff.
Erhoff comes up… big rebound, oooh he misses. But then. Samuelson SCORES.
A set up by Kessler and Sedin and and and SCORES.
But then he looked at me, and I realized fuck I missed my cue. I was supposed to clap? Or? Which side am I on? Definitely clap, right? I asked him, “wait what just happened… am I supposed to boo or clap?”
He whispered, “you clap now.”
And I clapped, screamed “yeah!” pumped my fists in the air, imitated the rasping static of a huge crowd.
I was part of his game.
It was two years after that summer when I found out what happened to Oliver. They put a teddy bear and hockey stick on his coffin at the service. I stood up and said something and tried not to cry and cried more and felt bad for crying because his parents were there. I was just his babysitter for a summer. My tears were unfair.
* * *
The next time I see Oliver is eight years later. He was sitting cross legged on the floor, flipping through his hockey player cards. Pointlessly, because he already knows them all by heart.
And I am again watching sports.
Nico’s favorite sport is football. He never watches hockey. He’s not Canadian. So.
I told Nico, no one has a normal conversation when football is on in the background.
People’s eyes drift. Always scanning the giant screen just to the right. Uh huh they say but then, they are suddenly on their feet. I’m left to swivel to the screen, smile tight-awkward, pretend I understand what just happened miles away, clap, pretend I don’t remember what I was talking about. No, no, it wasn’t important. Grownups sure like some repetitive stuff.
The first football season Nico and I dated, I remember a day the Minnesota Vikings lost. I came over afterward, because I had refused to watch, and I looked at him in the gray light of the bedroom and said, you’re actually upset aren’t you.
I didn’t feel the same, but I tried to understand.
Because I love him, I promised myself the next season would be different.
Fast-paced training montage: Me leaning in close to concentrate on Football for Beginners on Youtube, mouthing along with the announcer. Nico pausing an old Vikings video to explain a play, gesticulating, spit flying with passion. Me pulling on the purple jersey, zoom in on the “Jefferson” emblazoned across the back. Doing high knees up some marble stairs because this is a training montage, damnit.
And even though I didn’t feel the same way as Nico, sometimes, sometimes, in the final minutes I had the horror movie — tell-me-when-it’s-over-I-can’t — feeling, stuck to the screen like a car crash rubber-necker and I can’t look away, Nico turning to me with that eyes-wide-unknowing-can-you-believe-this and — I was part of his game.
This is the season that I was a fan.
And the season was weird. Most articles about it expressed confusion with phrases like, “indecisive wins”, “surprising upsets,” “shocking record given point differentials.” A coworker sent me a hissing message in Slack, “vikings are fraudddddsssss.” A game still couldn’t ruin my day but I shot back a pointed, “wow. interesting take.”
And now the Vikings are playing the Giants. In a playoff game no one expected us to reach. Nico and I sit side by side on his brown leather couch. But even though I tried to climb aboard, sometimes I’m still not sure exactly what’s happening. And this is one of those times, the ball isn’t moving where I expect and I’ve lost track.
I turn to watch Nico’s face. His eyes still focused on the TV, a look like he knows something is about to happen. Like he’s reading a language I still don’t really know. “Mmm” he says, fist clenched. As though we nearly missed something big.
Past his profile I see Oliver sitting there with his cards. Brown neck sloping, dark curls getting long and puffing out over his ears.
He looks up.
Is it too dramatic to say that now I think he probably really could be the sound of scraping across ice, the thrum of a crowd that’s far away, triumph and defeat and every person on every hockey team that ever existed all at once? Probably. But that’s what I hope.
His eyes are focused, but only on me.
I look at him pleading, like, what’s happening? Am I supposed to boo or clap??
But he shrugs. He doesn’t know.
He only follows hockey. So.