It had taken four months for her love to die. Four months of watching him avoid the girl, four months of his absence while he thought about her, four months of her name in their bed. It became his obsession, this girl who he had to avoid at risk of her safety. This girl who he trained to act out on the stage the confidence and determination she lacked in herself. This girl who began to take her place in his thoughts.
He said it was innocent, it was nothing, it wasn’t what they had. And it wasn’t, not in most ways. But it was something, and innocence was a matter of degree and perspective.
Franklin was staying late. Of course, there were the play rehearsals, and those took time. But what wasn’t explained away was his focus on the girl, how he talked about her as if she was a part of their life, how he expressed his concern for her.
She’d come to school once, to surprise him, but mostly to see if he was really working. She was almost to his office when she heard a girl’s voice. She stopped. Finding a place behind the bend in the hall, she peered to the other side and watched this girl in his arms, laughing, and then their lips met.
He’d said that night they were rehearsing lines, but the love was dead by then.
So Berta decided to make everything stop.
She thought it would be the quickest way to end this, even if the girl would have to suffer. It would be a share of the suffering she herself had been feeling. The neglect, and anger, the loneliness. So she found Stephen after football practice. He was wiping the sweat away from his face, looking at her with concentration, as if he could see her eyes behind the sunglasses she wore. Dark, so he wouldn’t see her lie.
“Can I help you?” he asked her.
“I don’t know. I didn’t come here for that.”
“What did you come for, then?”
Her lips tightened. “Now listen here, you tell your little slut of a girlfriend to stay the hell away from my husband.”
She could see his smile fade like the haze of an October morning.
“What are you talking about,” he said, his voice cracking.
“I’m Mrs. Ray, and you know damn well what I’m talking about. If I ever find her lipstick on his shirt, or smell her perfume on his crotch again, I’m going to do what you should have done a long time ago.”
The words dying as they hung in the air, she turned and walked away. She didn’t give him time to respond. She knew he’d have no response anyway.
And so she couldn’t see how Stephen ripped his jersey from his chest, then the pads, and then ran inside the school.