Summer Before Ninth Grade
"Come on, man, it will be a good way to stay in shape over the summer," Cap encourages when I whine about joining the summer intramural volleyball league. It's coed, so I can't imagine how competitive it will be. Nothing against female athletes, but now that we're about to enter high school, a lot of the guys have already hit our growth spurts, and I just don't see how girls will be able to compete at the net physically. I’m starting to think Dave had the right idea when he bailed on us to go to the beach.
"Whatever," I give him the same response I did the last time he tried to get me more enthusiastic about the whole thing. With my summer job and now this, I'm finding my time more scheduled than ever. But now that it's just me and my mom, I feel like I need to contribute in some way, especially after everything we've been through.
The league isn't really an official league. It's run by Phil Lohman, an incoming senior and captain of our high school's varsity volleyball team. I've always liked the sport, but it interferes with lacrosse season, so neither Cap nor I have ever had the chance to play in any organized way.
"Damn…" Cap murmurs when we enter the high school gym. There are a lot of people here. I knew the league had gotten popular over the past couple of summers, but I didn't realize quite how many people would be trying out. Phil only makes four teams of ten, so half of the eighty or so people here won't actually get to play.
But that won't be me or Cap. Even if we are only freshmen, we are known athletes, and more than likely Phil will hoard the both of us for his own team.
Open palms smack ball after ball, the sound reverberating in an endless echo through the sprawling gymnasium. The kids who play on one of the school's teams are decked in volleyball sneakers and knee pads, but mostly everyone is in regular gym clothes. There are even a few girls dressed in tiny cotton shorts and tight fitted tank tops, and I doubt they're here for any other reason than to get a little attention. Not that I'm complaining. But my eyes are automatically drawn to one perfectly athletic, slim body, dressed in actual volleyball shorts and a plain white t-shirt that’s being rhythmically whipped by her flying blond ponytail.
My pulse quickens. I knew Carleigh played volleyball. I knew she was on the team in middle school and that she was good. But for some reason I hadn't considered she'd be here. Girls rarely make the league, and I would assume those who do are older, not incoming freshmen like Carleigh. But she's a setter. Her job is to control the plays and set the ball up nice and high so a hitter like me can slam it down onto the opponent's side of the court, so height doesn't really matter as much for her position.
She passes a ball back and forth with an older girl I kind of recognize but don't actually know. They're good. Better than a lot of the guys, actually. The older girl bumps, Carleigh sets it in a beautifully designed arch, and her partner smacks it back in her direction in a perfect forty five degree spike. But Carleigh flies forward and down onto her waiting knee pads and bumps it right back up before it can touch the ground, aiming it perfectly back as if she'd had all the time in the world to calculate the move.
I'm utterly hypnotized. Not just by her skill, but by the way she moves. The way her calves flex and her thighs tighten as she bends into a ready position. The way her ass stretches those shorts.
"Dude, you here to play or watch the show?" Cap laughs.
But I'm glad for the distraction, because I'm already fighting off wood and my gym shorts aren’t exactly hard-on-friendly.
Cap holds up a ball he must have grabbed while I was busy drooling over Carleigh.
We pass and hit back and forth until a bunch of guys form a spiking drill at the net. It isn't formal or anything, but still, no one invites any of the girls. Phil and some other kid who’s probably on the school team with him walk around with clipboards like they're pro scouts or something, observing and taking notes.
I roll my eyes. It's all a little pretentious for a just-for-fun summer league, but whatever.
I’m waiting my turn when I’m attacked from behind without warning, small fingers digging into my sides, where I'm regrettably, exceptionally ticklish. I bark out an insuppressible guffaw and jump around to face my assailant. Carleigh is smiling up at me, green eyes bright and promising like freshly cut grass.
"Well, hi there, Princess," I grin like I didn't already know she was here.
"I didn't know you'd be here," she says, obviously pleased at the development, and every reservation I had about joining this stupid league vanishes instantly.
In fact, it was a great idea—Cap is a freaking genius.
"You're really good," I tell her, gesturing to where she'd been practicing earlier, even though it gives away the fact that I absolutely did notice her before now.
"Thanks. I hope I get to play. There are a lot more people here than I expected. And I don't think they take a lot of girls, if any."
I shrug. "I wouldn't worry about it, Princess. You're better than a lot of the guys, too." It's true. A lot of the guys here have height and bulk, but no skill, and a good, precise setter is more valuable than a bunch of sloppy, powerful hitters. "Why don't you go set for us?" I nod toward the net. That way she can show off to everyone at once.
Carl looks uncertainly over to where the one setter who has been working the drill for the past twenty minutes taps ball after ball up in the air with just the tips of his fingers. The other guy with the clipboard—not Phil—is only a few feet away, so I call out to him. "Hey, you should let Carleigh set for a bit. She's sick," I tell him.
Carleigh doesn't blush at the compliment; she just smiles, owning her talent, and it makes me grin.
Clipboard guy stutters for a moment before glancing over at Phil, who's preoccupied with jotting down notes. "Uh, after Steve, I guess." But he doesn't seem particularly excited by the prospect. In fact, I doubt he has any intention of letting her set for us at all.
Only a few more minutes pass when Phil blows a whistle—an actual whistle—and calls for everyone to line up on either side of the court to serve. Carleigh did not have a chance to set for the drill. But if she's annoyed by it, it doesn't show. She simply grabs a ball, goes to the back of the court, and serves it over the net with a strength her petite body doesn't actually look capable of.
We continue this for a while, and then a few minutes later Phil announces that he's got what he needs, and that he'll post the team lists in an hour or so.
I squeeze Carleigh's shoulder and head to the boys locker room to get some water from my gym bag. A few of the older guys are in there bullshitting, collaborating over the clipboards but not looking at them, including Phil and Clipboard Guy.
Cap goes over to them to talk to a kid we played football with in middle school and I join him.
"You guys don't have to stick around if you don't want," Phil says. "You're both on my team. Team 1."
"Cool," Cap murmurs, no more surprised than I am.
"How do you choose who makes it?" I ask.
"We've been scoring everyone based on skill. Highest scores are in," Clipboard Guy says.
"Well..." Phil says, smirking conspiratorially and it rubs me the wrong way.
Clipboard Guy rolls his eyes. "Right, well then we obviously cross off the girl names, if any of them mistakenly scored high enough to make a team."
"Why is it a mistake if they scored high?" I ask, confused.
Another eye roll, this time from Phil. "Because even if they're good, you know, for a girl, it doesn't mean they can hold their own on our court, and no one wants someone holding their team back."
It’s complete bullshit.
I admit that for some positions that may be true—after all, girls' regulation nets are set lower than guys'—but for a setter it just doesn't fucking matter. Someone with a soft touch and precise aim doesn't necessarily need height.
But what am I going to do? Start a fight about it? I'm an incoming fucking freshman. I can't exactly complain to the athletics board since this isn't even a school league, even if it is being played on school grounds.
I glance at Cap. He doesn't like it either, I can tell, but he doesn't feel like he can do anything about it, either, and neither of us says another word about it.
"We're going to play a scrimmage for a little if you guys want. Just for fun, you know," Phil offers.
I thought this whole thing was supposed to be just for fun.
Cap looks at me.
"Nah," I say. I would like to play, but right now, I don't really want to play with them.
“You want to do a few laps around the track?" Cap asks me instead. Running tends to calm us both down, so I agree.
We run in the hot late-June sun until we're both sweating far more than we were from a few volleyball drills, and though I do feel a little better physically, I'm still feeling irritable.
I know it probably isn’t as big a deal as I’m making it in my head. But I keep picturing Carleigh's pretty mouth curve up into that smile when I said how good she was, and her disappointment when she doubted she'd make a team. And I told her not to worry. But the thing that pisses me off is that she deserves to make a team.
Phil and his lackeys are still playing their scrimmage when we head back inside the empty locker room, and the corrupt clipboards are just sitting there on a bench, taunting me with their injustice.
I decide to take a peek, skimming through the scores. Just as I suspected, Carleigh is in the top forty, and if she were a guy, she'd make a team. But they're just going to cross out her name.
Well, fuck that.
I grab the pencil at the top of the clipboard, thankful these assholes didn't use pen.
"What are you doing?" Cap asks.
"Just righting a wrong." I smile wryly as I carefully erase the l-e-i-g-h from Carleigh’s name, leaving her as Carl Stanger, and then I head to the showers.
When I'm clean and dressed, the volleyball scrimmage is over and the upperclassmen are preparing the team list.
I chew on the inside of my cheek to stifle my smirk when I see that Carl Stanger is on ours.
Phil is going to be pissed as all hell when he realizes that not only did he unwittingly allow a girl into the league, but that he assigned her to his own team. But by then it will be too late. I doubt he's stupid enough to announce his sexist selection methods. Asshole.
Cap looks at me, eyes smiling, and gives me a subtle, approving nod. Belatedly I consider the two other girls who scored high enough to earn a spot—the one’s whose names I didn't masculinize… But then, I never claimed to be a damn saint. The truth of it is, this was never really about trying to correct an injustice—or at least it wasn’t my primary motivation. I was just looking out for my friend, the girl I'd do practically anything for, including risk pissing off a couple of douchey seniors.
Phil posts the lists and people line up to look for their names. There's a mixed chorus of disappointment and enthusiasm, but I just stand by the water fountain and wait. I don't have to listen for her voice to hear her excited squeal. It pierces the air and finds my eardrums all on its own, and then she's standing in front of me with a beautiful, self-satisfied smile. I return it, though she'd never guess the reason for my self-satisfaction. Instead, it just reflects my pride.
"We're on the same team," she gloats.
I grin wider.
"Even though they wrote my name as Carl," she grumbles.
I sigh with mock annoyance. "Damn, so I have to see your face twice a week now? All summer?" I tease.
She smacks me lightly on the bicep. "Shut up." But she's still grinning.
Phil calls for his team to meet in the gym for a minute, so we walk back through the double doors. I catch the moment he sees Carleigh, and his puzzled expression. He consults his stupid clipboard, but finds no answers.
He tells everyone he's going to do a roll call so we can get to know each other's names, and I wonder if this was planned or if he's just doing it to weed out the girl he obviously thinks is a confused interloper.
Name after name is called, hands raise, and guys are accounted for.
"Carl Stanger," Phil calls, and he's definitely not looking at Carleigh, but she raises her hand and smiles confidently.
Phil's brow furrows and he looks at her with bemusement.
"But it's Carleigh, not Carl," she corrects.
Phil's eyes widen, and then they narrow as he realizes he's been played, but his accusatory gaze suggests he suspects Carleigh was behind it herself.
"I can't imagine why it says Carl here, unless you wrote it that way on the sign-in..." Phil wants to say more, but he can't, not without saying: If I knew you were a girl, you'd have been cut.
Carleigh blinks at him for a second. "I—"
"She always goes by Carl," I announce, cutting her off. "Since we were kids."
Carleigh stares at me, but she doesn't ask questions. She's smart enough to get it, and she gets it fast. "Yeah," she agrees. "My full name is Carleigh, but everyone calls me Carl."
Phil's displeasure is obvious to me, but given no other choice, he moves on. Carleigh, or Carl now, I guess, peeks at me out of the corner of her eye. She knows exactly what I did and why, and she's not sure how she feels about it. She's not the kind of girl who appreciates having a guy come to her rescue. She's the kind of girl who can rescue herself. But then, I'm not looking for a thanks. I get as much out of this as she does. Because now I get to see her—in those little shorts—at least twice a week, all summer.