Preseason, and Nick takes a brutal hit. When he clambers to his knees he sees black specks, a beige blur where his tackler’s face should be.
“Dude,” Nick says, lurching to the sidelines for a concussion check.
“Brain rest,” his trainer says.
Four years later, Nick feels like his brain is still at rest. Headaches, insomnia, blurred vision, the essay he turned in calling Holden Caulfield Golden Caulfield, the night he made out with the sorority girl and pushed her too hard against the wall. And sadness—not art-kid sadness, but blue, you know? Plus Minnesota winters, meetings with the dean, the shower’s leaking, he feels fat, he flies home too much. When he calls for a ride from baggage claim, his dad says, “Take an Uber.”
He calls Rosario and she picks him up. She’s happy to do so. She says children should be collected at the airport by people who love them. Plus she wants to see how Nick looks, to know if she should take him to her place to shower or to the Supercuts at the mall before bringing him home.
“Is my dad mad?” Nick asks once they’re in the car.
Rosario, who hasn’t spoken to his father, says, “He’s happy you’re safe.”
“Can I tell you something?” Nick asks, as they exit the freeway and turn onto Oakland’s tree-lined avenues, the overhanging branches heavy with purple blossoms.
“Always,” Rosario says.
She’s the Silvermans’ babysitter—has been since Nick and Peyton were babies. The children are young adults now and she teaches full-time at a preschool in Oakland, but she retains the title and sees the Silvermans for occasional dinners, or when they pay her to walk their golden retriever Buster while they’re out of town.
“I’m not going back,” Nick says. “I packed up my room and everything.”
The first time Nick came home he didn’t call ahead. He took a cab from his dorm room to the airport, swiped the family’s emergency Visa, and took another cab home. He was sitting on the wooden steps when Steph emerged from her office out back. She stood, one hand on the wooden gate, and drank him in, this giant person she’d made. In his track pants and stained shirt he seemed like a stranger, dangerous almost, with his huge football-catching hands.
That night she called a family meeting in the living room. Peyton, Nick’s younger sister, sat perched on a lambskin rocking chair, a computer on her lap. Art stood beside the fireplace, one pair of reading glasses on his nose and a second on his head. Steph was still in her gym clothes, though she’d exercised midday. Nick sat at the foot of the pink leather couch, Buster’s golden head splayed across his lap. Steph thought Nick looked young, as if he were aging in reverse. Behind him, the windows were rimmed with scaffolding, the walls painted with squares of red and plum.
Nick said he couldn’t do school anymore. His classes were hard. His concussion meant he wasn’t cleared for practice. His dorm was the furthest from the dining hall. And his roommate: a gamer who drank Red Bull and shouted at his monitors until three in the morning.
“Who could live with that?” Steph said. Her voice sounded strange to her, waterlogged. “Screen time is ruining kids. You should see some of the spine damage my patients have.”
“We’re not talking about your patients,” Art said.
“God forbid we talk about my work,” Steph said.
“It’s been like this since you left,” Peyton said, touching the top of Nick’s foot.
Steph and Art let Nick take the rest of the year off: bum around the house, play video games, make breakfasts of waffles and bacon at two p.m. When family friends came by they said, “Freshman year is hard,” and, “Plenty of people take gap years.” They talked about Nick as if he weren’t there. “Why doesn’t he transfer?” they asked his parents. “Try somewhere closer.”
But Nick wanted to go back to Macalester. Or Art wanted Nick to go back to Macalester so much that Nick convinced himself he wanted that, too. Either way, Nick planned to return. Art felt proud. He’d stumbled as a kid, too. Dropped out of art school and ended up teaching at Oakland Tech. He bought Nick a new Macalester sweatshirt and sent him on his way.
“No more football,” Steph said, when she dropped Nick at the airport.
“No more football,” Nick promised, letting her stand on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
But soon pictures appeared on Facebook of him at practice, making tackles and lifting weights. Steph circulated these at the dinner table.
“You can’t worry about him so much,” Art said.
“He looks sad,” Steph said.
“He looks like Nick,” Peyton said.
No one’s home when Rosario and Nick pull into the driveway. Steph and Art are visiting Peyton at Bowdoin. Steph’s Instagram, which she insisted Rosario follow, is mostly devoted to Peyton: rubbing a concrete polar bear’s paw, or glaring while Art talks with another Bowdoin dad, or sprinting downfield, legs endless in her field-hockey skirt.
Nick shoulders his duffel bag, then produces a key from his sweatshirt pocket. Rosario wonders if he’s always ready to unlock his parents’ front door. She’s never been to Minnesota, but when Nick was recruited to Macalester she spent hours Google-imaging the campus: the dock overlooking the lake, an empty bench on the snow-covered quad, the neon-lit football field. She imagines Nick tucking the key beneath his pads before jogging onto the field, waving up at the hollering fans.
“Thanks for getting me,” he says, moving away from the Jeep.
“I love you,” Rosario says.