Stood next to my friends, I should know you
But given my luck, I'll run without thinking
And fall without blinking an eye
And I'm forced to bear witness
Like a fool that's just waiting in line.
( Tobin - “Who Are You” by Aquilo)
But somehow I can't believe
That anything should happen
I know where I belong
And nothing's going to happen
(Christen - “She’s So High” by Tal Bachman)
Christen felt the soccer ball slip between her legs for the third time that day and she had to stifle a groan. This was not the start to her freshman season that she’d always envisioned.
Crystal dropped her hands to her knees and burst out laughing from her place a few feet away. “Should I serenade you with some High School Musical songs to help you get your head in the game, Pressy?”
Christen rolled her eyes and retrieved the soccer ball from a few yards behind her. She kicked it back to Crystal with a little more oomph than necessary during their pre-game knock around.
“Dear Lord in Heaven, do not sing, Crystal. Please,” Megan pleaded, a horrified look on her face as she joined Crystal and Christen. “My ears have suffered enough today. I had to listen to Kelley’s whole life story on the bus ride over here.”
Crystal flicked the ball toward Megan, who trapped it with her chest and sent a volley towards Christen. Christen was quick to trap it and send it back to Megan.
“Lots of life-changing events happened in Peachtree City, Megan,” Christen teased. Almost without permission, her eyes glanced over Crystal’s shoulder toward the reason she had been so distracted before, and the reason she was once again pulled away from her friends and their pre-game passing: Penn State’s Number 17.
This girl, whoever she was, was captivating to watch. Christen hadn’t been able to look away from her for more than a few moments at a time, thus the multiple, embarrassing megs by Crystal.
The girl, or as Christen had taken to calling her “Number 17,” walked zig-zag patterns around Penn State’s half of the field, keeping the soccer ball in the air with deft, soft touches. Oversized headphones covered her ears, her head bobbing to a song only she could hear. She was completely in her own world, unbothered by the other players around her. Her hair was up in a sloppy bun, her socks were bunched around her ankles, and her shin guards were slipping to the sides of her muscular calves with each step. Her legs were strong and smooth, and Christen let herself wish for a second that her own legs were that strong. She followed the brunette’s hands as they lifted into the air, clearly moving to the beat of whatever song was playing in her headphones. Her hands were thin but strong-looking, and her nails were painted a navy blue, like the rest of her teammates. Christen couldn’t help but wonder if the player had painted her own nails or had someone else on the team do it for her. Christen moved her eyes away from Number 17’s hands and up toward her face again, a grin pulling at the corner of her mouth at the way the Penn State player was sticking her tongue out in concentration. There was something completely adorable about her carefree but still focused demeanor.
Christen’s eyes widened as the girl kicked the ball a bit higher in the air, bent over, and caught the ball between her shoulder blades. Christen watched as a goofy smile tugged on the girl’s face, and felt a matching smile threatening her own.
“Holy shiitake mushrooms, she’s good,” Megan’s comment drew Christen’s attention back to her friends.
Crystal turned around, her eyes moving toward the same player that Christen and Megan were already staring at.
“Well that’s not intimidating,” Crystal mumbled.
“She’s just showing off. Anyone can learn tricks,” Christen asserted, straightening her shoulders and passing the ball toward Megan with her left foot. She only wished that she could believe her own words.
True, anyone could learn tricks, but the girl her eyes kept drifting toward was not just showing off. It didn’t even seem like she could feel anyone watching her. She was just comfortable with the ball at her feet, safe in her own world. Christen had never felt safe or comfortable before one of her own games. She’d been anxious when her parents had taken her to her first day of soccer practice at age four, and the anxiety had only heightened with age. The stakes had simply gotten higher. She loved soccer, but she wasn’t naive enough to believe that a game didn’t have consequences. Playing well meant starting, and starting meant more opportunities to be noticed.
Christen, Crystal, and Megan passed the ball between them a few more times until their coach called them over.
“All right, ladies! Bring it in!”
Christen’s stomach tightened as she jogged over to where Coach Foudy was organizing UCLA’s players for their warm-ups. As Christen stood on the edge of the huddle, her eyes drifted once more to Number 17, noticing the stupid way that she jogged toward Penn State’s coach, nutmegging her teammates on her way, her arms bouncing up and down at her sides, as if she were laughing.
“Press, you with us?” Coach Foudy asked.
Christen felt her cheeks heat up. She whipped her head around to look at her coach, her ponytail hitting Kelley in the face.
“Jeez, tame the mane, Pressy,” Kelley grumbled. Christen ignored Kelley’s comment and met Coach Foudy’s gaze.
“Sorry, Coach. I’m here.”
“You better be. This might just be a preseason game, but I expect us to go out there and compete like it’s the flipping National Championship game. Yeah?”
She was met by a chorus of excited murmurs from the UCLA players around the huddle.
Megan, ever exuberant, threw her fist in the air and whooped, “You got it, Coach!” earning her a few chuckles and grins from the team. Even Coach Foudy cracked a smile.
The team lined up for a dynamic warm-up. Christen willed herself to focus on the grass under her feet as she lunged and ran across the field. She knew two things about today’s game: one, she was a nervous wreck about starting. Her hands hadn’t stopped shaking since Coach Foudy announced her name in the locker room before warm-ups, and she was pretty sure her pre-game granola bar was going to come up at any minute. And two, Number 17 on Penn State’s team was a distraction she couldn’t afford. Not during her first collegiate game.
Tobin slung her arm around ARod’s shoulders, her eyes sweeping over the tops of spectators’ heads. She knew her parents wouldn’t be in the stands, but she always liked to see how many people would actually choose to come to a collegiate game. Today, it was only a handful, but it was early days yet and the regular season hadn’t officially started.
Tobin felt a finger poke into her side.
“Pay attention, Tobs,” ARod hissed, her attention never leaving Coach Parlow.
Tobin tried to focus, she really did, but Coach Parlow was explaining, for the fourth time in two days, the “groundbreaking” defensive strategy she wanted to try out during today’s game. So, Tobin was finding it difficult to pay attention. She glanced down at Coach Parlow’s watch and found herself wishing she’d eaten a second bagel that morning to tide her over until after the game.
That thought about a second bagel carried Tobin through the dynamic warm-up, possession drill, and shooting practice. But as it got closer and closer to game time, as Tobin put on the Penn State jersey for the first time, her thoughts moved toward more important things: soccer and kicking some UCLA ass. Oh, and making Allie Long cry. She still needed to get Allie back for pranking her at the U.S. U-17 camp last month, and megging her during the game today seemed like the best form of revenge.
Tobin jogged towards the center circle, joining ARod, Alex, Lauren, and Moe in a small huddle. ARod looked around the group, a large smile on her face. “Baby Horse, Tobs. I know this is your first game, but don’t play scared. You both belong on this field with us. Now let’s show those Bruins what we’re made of!”
Tobin stepped out of the huddle with a grin on her face. She knew she belonged here, on this field, playing the sport she loved. Soccer was the only thing that had ever made sense to her. She was ready.
Lauren ruffled Tobin’s hair and backed away towards the other midfielders.
“Have some fun today, Tobito.”
“Make good choices, Lo,” Tobin fired back as she made her way to the halfway line. As the referee handed the ball to a UCLA player for kickoff, Tobin took a second to look around the field, immortalizing this moment in her mind. She’d never have a first college soccer game again, she wanted to remember everything about it. The way one of the UCLA forwards with short, spiky, pink hair seemed to ooze bravado and confidence, even if she’d forgotten to lace up her left cleat. The way her Penn State teammates jumped around in place, looking loose and relaxed and ready. The way --
All coherent thought in Tobin’s brain lapsed as her eyes landed on the UCLA player standing directly across the halfway line from her. The first thing she noticed was her green eyes. Green eyes met Tobin’s brown for what felt like minutes but in actuality were mere seconds before the UCLA forward glanced down at the grass. Her hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail, only a couple strands of baby hair resting in front of her ears and along her forehead. Tobin wished that she’d glance up again, missing the eye contact as soon as it had ended. She glanced down to her shorts and read the number 23, repeating the number over and over in her head as if she needed to memorize it before the game started and her brain focused on the ball and not the dark-haired player in front of her. She was perhaps the most beautiful person Tobin had ever seen, and Tobin wanted to take in every detail that she could. Number 23 had a sharp jaw and cheekbones, strong legs that contrasted with slim ankles and hands. Her hands were shaking, and Tobin felt an urge to walk across the field and take her hands in her own just to stop them.
The UCLA forward with shaking hands took a deep breath, her chest and shoulders rising with the intake of oxygen. She lifted her face, those green eyes meeting Tobin’s once again before they lifted up to the sky. Her face, pointed upward now, seemed to be soaking up sun rays, like some sort of plant or flower. Her eyelashes fluttered as she closed her eyes, and a smile spread out across her face. Tobin’s breath caught in her throat at the sight. She looked so peaceful, and Tobin was struck with two simultaneous desires: one, to stand rooted to her spot on the field and watch Number 23 for as long as she could, and two, to walk toward her and trace her fingers over her cheekbones and down her neck, memorizing every single thing about her.
The referee blew her whistle, jolting Tobin out of her thoughts. As quickly as Tobin had noticed her, the UCLA forward was gone, sprinting down the field past Tobin and blending into the mass of white and royal blue jerseys.
“Who are you?” Tobin mumbled to herself before sprinting after the ball.
Christen looked up at the scoreboard, contemplating taking a picture to send to her parents, but opting not to, knowing they’d probably watched the game online.
“Good game,” Penn State’s Number 3 held her hand out for Christen to shake.
“You too,” Christen smiled.
She walked across the field, shaking hands with the Penn State players she passed along the way, searching for one in particular. Not seeing Number 17 anywhere, Christen sighed and returned to the sideline. She collapsed into the grass, feeling the familiar ache in her muscles after a long game.
She’d played the whole 90 minutes, and notched two of UCLA’s four goals. It was as if she’d hit a new gear, some level she never even knew she had inside of her. Her coaches and the upperclassmen on the team had told her to feel proud about her performance today, and Christen was starting to feel like maybe she could be.
A small carton of chocolate milk landed in Christen’s lap. Christen looked up and saw Kelley dramatically throw herself down on the ground by her side. Kelley groaned, her face pressed into the grass.
“I hurt. Everywhere.”
Christen chuckled and opened the chocolate milk, taking a long drink before patting Kelley on the back.
“You did good today, Kel.”
Another long, dramatic groan.
“Thanks to that dumb left-winger, my legs are gonna fall off. I’ll never move from this spot.”
“Food’s waiting for us back at the hotel, bitches! Leggo!” the junior goalkeeper, Ashlyn, yelled.
Kelley suddenly popped up, her moaning and groaning abandoned in favor of food.
“Food?” Kelley repeated, her eyes alight with excitement.
Christen laughed once more, watching Kelley sprint after Ashlyn, her legs surprisingly recovered from their game. Christen took her time shedding her cleats and shinguards, finding solace in the quiet post-game moments. She had always loved how she felt after playing a great game. Like all of the preparation and anxiety and pressure had been worth it. Sinking into that feeling, Christen looked back up at the field.
A pair of players, one in a white jersey and one in UCLA’s royal blue, stood in the far corner of the field. Christen realized one of them was her teammate Allie Long, a talented and hilarious sophomore with a killer shot, but the other…
Christen gasped softly when she caught sight of the “17” on the back of the white, Penn State jersey. Even though her back was turned, Christen could imagine the smile that was spreading across her face. Her messy bun was bouncing, as though she were nodding to whatever Allie was saying. Allie’s fingers were loosely intertwined with the Penn State player’s, their hands swinging softly between them. There was an intimacy, a familiarity, that made Christen feel like she should look away and give them privacy. She couldn’t. Christen’s throat felt dry, and her stomach clenched again like it was the beginning of the game, not the celebration of a win. She could hear her pulse in her ears, and her hands felt clammy against the milk carton that she was holding.
“Are you jealous? Jeez, pull it together, Press,” she thought to herself.
She’d only felt this way a few times before. First, in kindergarten when Randall Anderson had taken her favorite toy from her cubby and played with it all recess. Second, when she’d lacked the courage to ask Amanda Jackson to the sophomore dance in high school and had to watch her dance with Brian Daniels. Third, when she was fifteen and Sandra Mathis was chosen to start for their hometown soccer club, The SoCal Blues, instead of Christen. And most recently, when she’d seen her longtime friend and senior year crush, Martha Jacobs, get engaged to Harris Manes right after their high school graduation. She hadn’t felt jealous much, mostly because she was too busy to be jealous.
Number 17 was definitely not someone she wanted to feel any feelings toward, especially not jealousy. She couldn’t deny that she was impressed by the player. She also wouldn’t lie and say the player was sore on the eyes. Number 17 was fit and carefree, not put together but not sloppy, in an adorable kind of way. She looked strong and sturdy, dependable, but also sweet and- “You need to leave now. Pick up your cleats and move out,” Christen thought to herself again. She stood, barefooted, her milk in one hand, her cleats in the other, and her shin guards and socks under her arm. She walked slowly toward the locker room, willing herself to look ahead and failing miserably. She glanced back up to see Allie hug Number 17, the two embracing tightly.
“I love you, Harry!” Number 17 yelled, as Allie jogged over toward Christen.
Christen quickened her pace, hoping that Allie wouldn’t catch up, having possibly noticed her staring.
“I love you too!” she heard Allie shout before stepping out of the sunlight and into the tunnel, reaching her hand out for the locker room door.
Tobin hated the quiet that came after losing. She especially hated it when she was the reason her team lost. She’d cost them the game, and she knew it. Everyone knew it.
With a shake of her head, Tobin kicked off her slides and threw her towel onto the small table next to the ice bath. She hopped in quickly, hoping the abrupt immersion into the freezing cold water would chase away those spiraling, negative thoughts. But after flipping on some Aquilo on Spotify and shutting her eyes, Tobin knew she was shit out of luck. Those thoughts just got louder and dragged her deeper into the muck.
She’d played well today. Not great, definitely not her best. Sure, she’d scored one of their goals, and assisted the other two. But all of that meant nothing because she’d missed when her team needed her not to miss.
There had been a free-kick in the 88th minute. A UCLA defender, some hot-headed outside back Tobin thought they called Kira or Kiki, had tackled ARod at the edge of the eighteen-yard box. Thankfully ARod had been okay and had let Tobin take the kick. Free-kicks were Tobin’s bread and butter. A hundred times out of a hundred, Tobin would curl the ball into the upper ninety from that spot. She’d done it in practice, in club games, in high school. She’d done it since she first learned how to bend it like Beckham. But today, Tobin realized her one hundred out of a hundred mentality failed to factor in one thing: Number 23 on UCLA.
The gorgeous, green-eyed striker had been placed in the wall the UCLA goalkeeper set up between Tobin and the goal. Her green eyes had burned with intensity, and for a moment, Tobin had thought about those eyes, staring at her with that same intensity, just in a very very different scenario. She’d shaken her head quickly, trying to shake away any thoughts of the dark-haired forward underneath her, her hair spread out across Tobin’s pillow -
“Shit. Focus,” Tobin had chastised herself before placing the ball on the spot designated by the referee and taking a few steps back. She’d taken a deep breath, one that she hadn’t needed since she was seven years old and taking her first free-kick during a game. Number 23’s eyes narrowed, her forehead shining with sweat and her jersey clinging slightly to her stomach. Her shorts were pulled up on her right thigh and -
“Tobin Powell Heath, we didn’t make it all the way here to objectify an opponent!” Tobin turned around and swung her arms back and forth, needing to look away from Number 23, causing ARod to stare at her in obvious confusion. Tobin gave ARod a thumbs up before taking her place behind the ball and looking toward the goal. She probably would have fared better if she’d looked at the ground while trying to score. Instead of aiming for the goal, Tobin’s line of sight was interrupted by the dark-haired UCLA player and the soft smile that graced her lips. The ball flew acres above the goal, not even coming close to hitting its mark. “Was that a smirk?” Tobin thought to herself as Number 23 jogged past her across the field.
“Rotten luck, dude,” Lauren squeezed Tobin’s shoulders, a sad smile on her lips.
It wasn’t rotten luck, though, and Tobin knew that. Lauren was just trying to comfort her. She knew she’d messed up. She was the reason that UCLA was still up by a goal. The last time she’d completely sent a ball skyward was during a club game when she was eleven years old, in the middle of a growth spurt, and completely confused about her body’s new proportions. She was nineteen now, and apparently easily distracted by a pretty girl.
Tobin was brought out of her thoughts by the timer on her phone going off. Ten minutes submerged in the ice bath passed quickly when she spent it reliving her costly mistake. Tobin lingered for a moment in the water, letting the numbness in her legs and hips spread through the rest of her body.
“You’re better than what happened today. Don’t get distracted again.”
With that reminder for herself, Tobin got out of the ice bath, ready to put Number 23 out of her mind and move on.
“What did I do?” Crystal asked from her seat against the bus window.
“Nothing. I just want to sit with Allie on the way to the hotel. Team bonding or whatever. Plus this way, Pinoe can get away from Kelley and sit with you instead,” Christen shrugged, gathering her hoodie, headphones, and book from her original bus seat.
“YES!” Megan shouted from her seat, scrambling away from Kelley and slipping in next to Crystal.
“All of you suck!” Kelley grumbled, popcorn falling out of her mouth and onto her lap.
Christen laughed and trudged down the aisle toward Allie’s empty seat. No one sat with Allie that morning, leaving the sophomore with two seats to stretch across, and Christen was determined to grab the extra seat and talk to Allie. She wasn’t entirely sure what kind of information she’d get out of her, but she couldn’t help but feel curious about Number 17 and Allie’s relationship with her. Christen slipped past the aisle seat and settled in against the window, making herself busy with her phone while she waited for the rest of her teammates to get on the bus.
“Well, well well, hey there new bus buddy,” Allie grinned down at Christen, immediately collapsing into her seat, her hair still wet from a quick shower.
“Hey,” Christen replied, all of a sudden feeling nervous about having any kind of conversation with the blonde. She considered chickening out, returning to the safety of Crystal, or even opting to suffer beside Kelley and her aggressive popcorn eating, but Allie had her boxed in. There was no escape now.
“You better watch out. If you sit here and mess with the mojo on the bus, you might be stuck with me for the rest of the year,” Allie teased. She pulled a package of gummy bears out of her backpack and opened her phone to look at a few texts that she’d gotten during the game. “You did really well today, Press,” she mumbled through a mouthful of gummies.
“Thanks. You too,” Christen blushed.
“Want one?” Allie offered, tilting the bag of gummy bears toward Christen.
“No thanks.” Christen started to fidget, drumming her fingertips along her thighs. Her nerves were out of control now. Pretty soon, they would take over and cause her to do something drastic -
“Do you know people on the Penn State team?” Christen blurted, fighting off an embarrassed blush. Drastic, it seemed, was an understatement.
“Huh?” Allie asked, her eyes leaving her phone screen and focusing on Christen.
“Oh, um...all of the upperclassmen just seem to know everyone who plays soccer, even at other schools. I was just wondering if you knew any of the people we just beat?” Christen replied, her words coming out in a hurried rush.
“I mean we know a lot of people at other schools, just from playing against them last year. It isn’t like we’re best friends or anything. We just know of them.”
That was a good answer. A clear answer. Christen should have just left it at that. But she couldn't. She wanted to know more. She needed to.
“How do you know Number 17?” Christen asked, cringing at her straightforwardness. There was nothing subtle about this question either. Thankfully, Allie seemed unfazed.
“Oh, that’s Harry. I mean Tobin. She’s a good friend.”
“Tobin. Tobin. Tobin.” Christen thought to herself, letting Tobin’s name roll around in her mouth and rest against her tongue.
“We met at U-14 camp when we were little dorks.” Allie’s face completely lit up when she spoke about Tobin, and Christen couldn’t help but wonder what kind of relationship Allie really had with Tobin, whether they were more than just good friends. The thought caused a white-hot flicker of jealousy to flame in Christen’s chest.
“Why do you ask?” Allie questioned, her head tilting and her eyebrow quirking up.
Christen’s eyes widened as she racked her brain for a reason, any reason at all, why she’d peppered Allie with these kinds of questions. Something that would explain her curiosity, but throw Allie off the scent of her intrigue. The last thing she needed was for Allie to know about her...interest in Tobin. Interest that stemmed from professional admiration, of course. Nothing more.
“Oh…right…” Christen began, willing herself to come up with something. Anything.
Suddenly, Christen found exactly what she was looking for. With a hopefully convincing smile, she added, “Kelley said that Number 17, I mean, Tobin made her legs feel like they were gonna fall off. So I just wanted to know who exactly I needed to thank for tiring Kelley out for the rest of the night.”
Allie laughed and looked back down at her phone, seeming to have bought Christen’s lie. Christen sighed, leaning back into her seat.
“Harry, Harry, Harry. She’s a good egg,” Allie mumbled before shoving a few more gummy bears into her mouth.
Christen looked out the window, deciding not to open that can of worms and question the name Harry.
“Tobin… Tobin what?” Christen thought to herself. “There can’t be that many Tobins in the world, let alone Tobins who went to the U-14 camp with Allie. Thank God for Google,” Christen sighed, resigning herself to Googling Tobin in the safety of her own dorm room when the team got back to UCLA the next night.
The bus hummed to a start, the engine vibrating against the bottom of Christen’s sneakers. She twisted in her seat when she heard a group of girls laughing, worrying for a moment that a couple of her teammates had been left behind. Instead, outside the bus, she saw Tobin sandwiched between two of her teammates. The three girls were laughing, dressed in only sports bras and towels, having presumably soaked in an ice bath after the game.
Christen’s mouth ran dry as she watched Tobin’s abs clench with every laugh she let out. She shouldn’t have been staring, she really shouldn’t have. But she couldn’t stop herself. Christen’s eyes traveled across previously-covered tanned skin, inadvertently dropping to where the towel sat low on her hips.
Christen subconsciously wet her lips and looked to Tobin’s face, which was a mistake, of course, because now Tobin’s hair was down and framing her face perfectly. Her soft waves looked effortless, and Christen’s fingers itched to reach out and brush a few strands behind her ear.
Much too soon, the bus started to pull out of the parking lot and away from Tobin. The brunette disappeared from Christen’s view when the bus turned a corner, and Christen felt a sigh escape her. She knew she was going to have trouble getting Tobin out of her mind after the game, but now...she was going to have to get a shirtless, six-pack-owning Tobin out of her mind too.
Christen had an inkling that forgetting Tobin was going to be impossible.