I made Benjamin Kakoa laugh. Several times. Hard.
This bizarre reality kept me up late last night after I got home from Jack’s and is entirely to blame for why I’m already awake at – I roll over to look at my alarm clock – oh, God, it’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve had four hours of sleep. Today is going to be rough.
Sam, sensing I’m conscious, snuggles closer to me. I know it’s him, even in the dark, because while Fred is my shadow during the day, Sam is my cuddlebug at night. I slip an arm out of the covers, toss it over him, and close my eyes, willing myself to fall back asleep.
Sheep. Think of a herd of dumb, fluffy sheep jumping over a white picket fence. I count, one, ten, eighty. The sheep start to do weird little side-kicks as they try to keep my thoughts on them instead of drifting back to –
No! Don’t think of him. Watch these sheep. You’re getting very tired watching these acrobatic sheep, Ella. Very. Tired. Look, that one did a little back flip! Isn’t it adorable? Doesn’t is just make you sooooo sleeeeepy?
No. Not even a little. Because I made Benjamin freaking Kakoa laugh. And frown. And roll his eyes. And, toward the end of the evening, I even got him to join me in teasing Jack.
It’s weird, meeting a celebrity. You have this whole persona built up in your head of who they are and how they’ll act. Take an ex-football star turned advocate. I assumed he’d be stoic, tough, with a dash of toxic masculinity added in to spice it up a bit. That had less to do with Ben’s public image and more to do with the acceptance of violence that surrounds the sport of football, both on and off the field.
Watching him throw his head back and laugh in response to Jack’s description of my murder-squirrel Christmas card kind of blew my mind. And drove home what an asshole I was for making all those assumptions about him. I haven’t been that embarrassed in years. The strength of my blush made my face feel like it was on fire. Then he kept laughing, and, well, I’m a red-blooded heterosexual woman, and holy shit that man is beautiful when he laughs. Especially since he does it so unselfconsciously. Like, throws his head way back and belly laughs. My raging embarrassment was immediately eclipsed by raging hormones that I’m not entirely sure I managed to hide.
And now my face is burning again thinking of him catching me with that look on my face when he finally stopped laughing. You know, that one. That, “Oh, yes, I will gladly climb you like a tree. Now please?” look that is utterly unmistakable.
I flip onto my back and press the heels of my hands into my forehead. “Why, God, why?” I mutter up at the ceiling.
The mattress sags on my right side, and then Fred’s hot breath is on my face. I reach blindly toward him in the darkness and grab the fur of his neck to give it a little shake. “Lilac leggings, Fred. And an olive shirt. With this hair.”
That’ll teach me to never speed dress again.
Fred lets out the low woof-yip that huskies are famous for.
“No. Wrong response, boy. Forlorn howling is far more appropriate right now.”
He woof-yips again.
“I have failed in your training.”
Sam shifts on my other side, then the mattress rises and I hear his paws padding over the hardwood as he paces toward the door. Fred pulls free from my hands to follow him out. I’m awake, which to them means it’s time to go potty.
I give up on sleep and turn the light on. It takes me an excruciatingly long time to get out of bed. My body is like, “No. What are you doing? We were warm in there. Go back to that place,” and actively attempts to sabotage my upward momentum, while my brain is all, “BENJAMIN KAKOA JUST HAPPENED. ARISE, GODDAMN YOU!”
Eventually I manage to stumble downstairs, where the dogs are waiting at the front door. I unlock it and crack it open just enough for them to slip out. The draft that sneaks in is damn near arctic, and the second Sam’s tail whips past, I shut the door again.
I complain about the dogs, but they’re really pretty well trained. My yard isn’t fenced in. The fact that I can let them outside and trust them not to take off and also bark when they’re ready to come back inside speaks volumes.
I stagger to the kitchen and make myself a strong pot of coffee, all the while thinking about Ben. Yes, I managed to get him to laugh – three times. Yes, I managed to tease him into rolling his eyes – once. And then finally coaxed him into taunting Jack with me. But that took work. I’m not used to that. Usually it only takes me five seconds to get people to relax enough around me that they’re cackling with laughter and sharing their deepest, darkest secrets.
Mom says it’s because there’s something about my face that’s inherently trustworthy. Dad says its because of my self-deprecation. My brother Jacob’s wife, Sofia, says it’s because I have a sociopath’s ability to read people, paired with a pathological need to be liked. She’s a clinical psychologist, so obviously I ignore her and go with my parents’ explanations. Because she’s just joking. I hope.
Benjamin Kakoa defied them all. Even with the hard work I put in, he remained steadfastly guarded and quiet in between those small bursts of emotion, letting Jack and I do the bulk of the talking. Whenever the conversation drifted back toward him, he managed to expertly steer it away from himself. I’m not sure if that’s because he was worried I’d somehow slip-up and reveal his fame to Jack, or if he didn’t want to tell me anything because he thought I might race home to blog about it, or if that’s just how all celebrities have to be in order to protect themselves.
Not that I could blame them. It must suck to spend your days hounded by paparazzi, unable to even go to the grocery store for yourself. Or make a new friend without the fear that they’re only using you to further themselves in some way, or are planning to sell all your secrets to the highest bidder. Then there’s the digital aspect of it, allowing both your fans and your detractors an outlet to comment on every single moment of your life, as it happens.
I read somewhere that it takes a hundred positive comments to overcome the emotional damage just a single negative one can wreak on your psyche. Honestly, I believe it. I have ten thousand followers on Instagram and get trolled at least once a week. For painting whimsical watercolors of chipmunks and racoons and moose. Like, seriously? The span of the moose’s antlers is somehow morally offensive to you? What. Even. And yet I’ve found myself looking closer at my paintings afterward, inspecting the distance between those antlers and wondering if they really are off in some way that I’m just not able to see because I created them.
That’s nothing compared to what Ben has to put up with. He has well over two million followers – I checked before going to bed last night – and posts about controversial issues like taking a knee during the National Anthem, the societal repercussions of idolizing large, violent men while denigrating any male who shows vulnerability, and the class action lawsuit that he and a slew of other former players have filed against the USFL for downplaying the dangers of the sport to those who play it. Some of the comments on his feed were so enraging that I nearly hulk-smashed my tablet. The kind of vile, racist, bigoted vitriol spewed through the filter of anonymity that makes you lose what little faith you have left in humanity.
No wonder he was so guarded.
It makes me that much more determined to get him to loosen up around me. If I ever see him again, that is. And for once, it’s not because of some pathological need of my own. It’s because of him. Because it must be terrible to feel like you can never relax. To always be worried that some small detail about your life that you accidentally let slip into conversation might appear in a celebrity gossip blog the next morning. The man deserves a break from it all.
The muffled sounds of barking pull me from my thoughts, and I pace to the door and let the boys back in. They wait patiently just inside, on the tile floor of the entryway, so that I can towel off their feet and legs before they’re allowed past.
“Good boys,” I tell them, ruffling the fur between their ears. I give them each a treat from the jar of biscuits on the upper shelf of the coat rack, then leave them to demolish them as I go in search of coffee.
My kitchen is small, like the rest of the cabin, but it doesn’t ever feel cramped thanks to the bright white of the paint and the open shelving. I eye the one containing my mismatched collection of mugs, and opt for the largest. I think it might actually be a soup bowl, but I’ve never used it for that. It has always served as my coffee version of “we’re going to need a bigger boat”. I pour it nearly to the brim and groan in pleasure when the first bitter taste touches my tongue.
Just after I swallow my second, larger sip, I hear a snuffing sound and then a low, playful growl. The dogs. Sometimes it feels like I’m raising two toddlers. Any time I hear an unfamiliar noise, I end up rushing over to them to make sure they’re not getting into trouble. This early in the morning, my rush is more like the shambling of a freshly turned zombie as I pace from the room in search of them.
The first floor is an open concept, with the kitchen leading out to the space that serves as my living room and home office. The ceiling in this part of the house vaults up at a dramatic angle, with a large bank of windows that makes the room feel bigger than it is.
I round the couch and find the source of the scuffle. The dogs are sprawled out on the rug near the fireplace, playing tug-of-war with each other over one of their favorite toys. I let out a relieved sigh. This is one of the good things about having two of them; they can entertain themselves in the mornings until my brain becomes fully functional.
I set my coffee down on a side table and cautiously step over them. Up here, you get pretty good at planning your life around the weather. Four days ago, before the storm hit, I spent nearly three hours hauling in enough wood to get me through a week without power, just in case a tree came down on a line from the weight of the snow.
I grab a few pieces of it and stack it over the kindling already laid out in the fireplace. Five minutes later, there’s a merry glow filling the room, the dogs have ended their game – Sam won – and I’m spread out on the side of the couch with the chaise lounge, sipping my coffee and searching through the internet.
Okay, cyber-stalking Ben again.
He’s still pretty active on social media, with three posts on Twitter from last night after I left Jack’s. They’re retweets. One is from a study by Johns Hopkins on TBIs in the USFL, another is from The Concussion Foundation, and another is from the New York Times on something called CTE. I click on each link and spend the next forty minutes reading through the articles. Then I spend another God-knows-how-long clicking on still more links, and falling fully down the rabbit hole of brain-related medical studies.
When I’m done, it’s light outside. I raise my head and look out the windows to see the sun glancing off the snow.
This is a lot of information to unpack.
I had known about TBIs, but CTE is a new term for me. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It’s a degenerative brain disorder associated with repeated head trauma. Like, from years of playing a contact sport like football. From what I can decipher through all the medical jargon, your brain cells basically just start dying off.
The most troubling study showed that 99% of the brains posthumously tested from former USFL players showed signs of CTE. The author cautioned that there was a bias in the study, as CTE was suspected in many of the cases. But still.
Ninety. Nine. Percent.
Another study tested a large number of ex-USFL players still living, using a combination of brain scanning technology and written and verbal tests. The results were…not great. The scans revealed that 40% had abnormal brain structures, 43% had damage to white matter in the brain – which, thanks to Google, I now know connects nerve cells between the brain’s regions – and 30% had damage to the structures that neurons communicate through. The other tests showed 45% had difficulty with memory and learning. And it didn’t even get into the behavioral aspect of CTE.
Altogether, it’s a devastating disease, one that can’t even be properly diagnosed until an autopsy is performed. Among the symptoms associated with it are mood swings, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, problems with impulse control, and violent outbursts. Then there are the headaches and seizures. Their onset can vary between just a few years after the trauma, to decades later. It’s like living with a ticking time bomb in your head.
Oh, God. Ben.
I immediately dive back into my phone and try to find out whether or not he was one of the living players that were tested. No luck. They didn’t publish names. Next, I search out interviews he’s given since Zach’s death. Again, they’re a no-go. Eventually I stumble across a quote from his mother, of all people. The journalist questioning her asked if their family had concerns about Ben.
“Of course we do,” she answered. “He’s 28 years old. God forgive us, we put the boys in the pee-wee league when they were eight. That’s twenty years of brain trauma.”
“But at the time you had no knowledge of the increased risk of CTE in players that start before the age of twelve,” the interviewer pointed out.
“We didn’t even know what CTE or TBIs were back then. You think that helps me sleep at night? You think that helps my dead son? You think that helps my still-living son deal with the thought that in five years, or ten, or twenty, he might start to lose himself to a degenerative brain disease that could have been prevented by more awareness, or stricter rules, or better protective equipment?”
I stop reading, set my phone down, walk over to Fred and Sam, who are splayed out in front of the fire, and snuggle down between them, drawing them close with my arms.
“I love you both,” I tell them. “So much.”
Sam licks my face, and for once I don’t pull away.
Last week I sobbed for a solid half an hour after accidentally stepping on Fred’s paw hard enough to make him cry out. Part of it was because I felt so bad for hurting him, while the other part was because I realized I could never be fully sure that he knew it was an accident and that I was so, so sorry for it.
The dogs are like my children, but I know that there’s a difference between them and actual children. I can only imagine how Ben’s parents must feel. How Ben must feel, every day, not knowing what the future holds for him.
My face begins to burn with embarrassment again. There I was last night, ogling his good looks and trying to get him to lighten up because of my own stupid need to feel liked.
I immediately abandon my earlier plan to put him at ease around me and instead adopt the much better plan to leave him the hell alone. I’ll also need to talk to Jack. He all but forced my number on the poor guy before we left last night, repeating that he should have me over to give my opinion on design options for the reno. What I’ll say to get Jack to lay off of it without giving too much away, I have no idea. Maybe I can pretend I just don’t like Ben or want to hang out with him. I suddenly wish I was a more practiced liar.
In the interim, if for some reason Ben does call, I’m going to let him decide everything. I’m not going to invite myself over or him here to check out the cabin. I’m going to drop the full-blown charm offensive I went on last night and try my hardest to treat him like I would anyone else.
He came out here to get away, he said. It’s easy enough to guess from what. The media, the trolls. Maybe he needed the space and time to deal with the death of his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, and to come to terms with his own risk of CTE and what it might or might not do to him.
I hope he’s able to. I try to think about it from my own perspective, like if it was me dealing with all of that. I’m honestly not sure how I would react, or how long it would take me to process through everything.
My phone rings from the couch, and I stand to get it. My sister Megan’s name is on the caller ID.
I swipe right to answer. “Hey, Megan.”
“Hi, Ella,” Stacey’s voice greets me. I’d be worried something happened to Megan if not for the fact that she and her wife are forever calling me on each other’s phones.
“Hey, Stace. What’s up?”
“We’re supposed to get a Nor’easter on the twenty third, and want to get the hell out of Boston before it hits. Is it okay if we get there a day early?”
They’re staying with me through Christmas, because with Anabel still in high school, Charlie home from college, and Jacob and his crew all crashing at my parents’, the house will be pretty packed. Megan is enough of an introvert that crowding in with everyone else is a non-starter. Staying at Jane’s is out, too, because they’ve never really progressed out of the antagonistic stage of their sisterhood. I’m the perfect option. Megan and I have always been pretty close, and because I’m so good at reading people, I can recognize when she needs to be left alone for a few hours.
I put Stacey on speaker and pull up my phone’s calendar. “So, you’ll be here Friday?”
“Yes,” she says.
I look down at my unswept floor just in time to watch a tumbleweed of dog hair roll by my feet, then raise my focus back up to look around my house. I wouldn’t call it a disaster zone, but…
“Yup! That’s great!” I say. Hopefully my cheeriness doesn’t sound as false over the phone as it does to my own ears. “What time are you going to get here?”
“Meg, when do you want to leave Friday?” Stacey asks my sister.
“I don’t know. Noon?” is her muffled response.
“We should be there by six or seven,” Stacey says. “Depending on traffic. We’ll call you along the way and give you updates.”
“Okay, talk to you later.”
“Love you guys.”
“Love you too,” she says, then hangs up.
Friday. That should give me plenty of time between now and then to finish up printing all my open orders, get to the post office, psycho-clean my house, set up the spare bedroom, wrap all my Christmas presents, and drive over to Walmart to stock up on all the tofu and vegetables I can find. I eat a mostly plant-based diet to begin with, but Megan and Stacey are full-on vegan, and I would hate for them to feel like they didn’t have enough options while staying with me.
Right, first I need to make a list.
My stomach rumbles, as if to say, “No, first you need food, woman.”
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.