Curve Ball was sparked by a comment from a good friend about her cousin who was dating (and is now married to) a MLB player. He was divorced and hesitant to pursue another relationship with a woman unless she understood the demands of a professional sports career. And not just the demands on the athlete, but on his wife and family as well. I got to thinking how an intensely private woman would handle those demands…
Cami cracked the windows and gave Petey a treat before heading into the building. At least the weather was still cool enough for him to stay in the car.
She dropped her backpack on the shelf inside the classroom door. Round tables filled the center of the room and counters lined the walls. Computers sat on one side, art supplies and sports equipment jostled for space along the other. Covering the walls were colorful posters with inspiring messages such as, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. ~ Thomas Edison.”
The faux finishes and decorative painting paid the bills, but an afternoon teaching kids to draw left her with more energy than when she started.
“Let’s keep working on your pencil drawings from the other day,” she announced to the dozen middle and high school students seated at the tables. “I want to finish up your one-point perspectives.”
“Ummm, Miss Henderson?”
“Yes, Sean?” Cami turned to the teenager who never missed a class.
“Something’s wrong with my staircase. It’s bigger at the top, but I’m supposed to be looking up the stairs.”
A glance at Sean’s pencil drawing gave her the solution. She turned his upside-down paper around and watched understanding blossom on his face. If only all problems were as easily solved.
Problems like the expectations pinned on Kyle. Her mouth twisted with compassion. Should she go by the field to watch practice and encourage him a little? No. Janis had made it plain this was none of Cami’s business. Her advice and input weren’t wanted.
But could they be needed? Kyle would excel wherever he went to college but his mother was stressing over something out of her control. Maybe Cami could tell him to relax, God is in charge and His plans are perfect. That wouldn’t be too interfering, would it? She straightened her shoulders and nodded once.
Shaking all thoughts of over-achieving students out of her head, she spent the next hour helping young artists find horizon lines and finish their staircase drawings.
After class, Cami checked the time as she packed files and supplies into her backpack. Anthony’s vocabulary cards sat on top. He would want them so he could study this weekend. Maybe she should drop by the field and give them to him. And if she happened to see Kyle, she could give him that pep talk and check off two tasks with one stop.
Cami grinned to herself. She was going to get a look at Grant Andrews after all. It would be fun to see him again, check out if he’d changed much. A lot could happen in eight years. Should she go by the house and change? She shook her head. He’d never remember her, so why bother?
And tonight at dinner with the girlfriends she’d have a great story. “Hey, guess what professional athlete I went to high school with and saw again today?” They’d get a kick out of it.
He’d been a bit of a flirt in high school and half the senior class girls had crushes on him. She’d also been susceptible to his easy smile and big green eyes. Of course that was when she’d been far too innocent. What happened two years ago took care of her vulnerabilities and she no longer flirted. Ever.
Ten minutes later, she drove into the parking lot by the baseball field and gazed at the group huddled in the outfield. The green and gold uniforms made all the high school players identical. A couple of coaches in the same colors walked the sidelines. She could just make out a tall man in the center, dressed in the blue and gray of the Orange County Coyotes. Grant.
She got out of the Tahoe and strolled across the field. Now that she’d arrived, this didn’t seem like such a good idea. Here she was getting ready to meet a famous baseball player and she wore painted-stained clothes. Maybe she should turn around and go home and change. Or just turn around and go home period.
She shook her head. She came to deliver Anthony’s cards, so she’d find Anthony, make the delivery, and forget about seeing Grant. He wouldn’t remember her and she didn’t want to remind him.
Grant looked around the field. The grounds hadn’t changed much since he’d been gone. The chain-link fencing around the home dugout still curled along the bottom edge from years of kids knocking their cleats against it. A bigger patch of Bermuda grass spread across the on-deck circle.
This clinic had been fun. He’d watched the coaches drill the kids with bunts and pop flies. He gave some occasional pointers. Now they were wrapping up a practice game.
Grant played his regular shortstop position. Seeing the kids’ delight reminded him how much he enjoyed baseball. He’d been focused on the career side of it, worrying about batting averages and if someone younger and better on the AAA team waited for him to make a mistake. A sunny spring day, a green field, a leather glove on his left hand and he was ready to take on the starting lineup.
The batter stepped to the plate, shuffling into his stance. He focused on the pitcher who had looked over his shoulder at Grant during every windup.
A crack of the bat signaled a hit. Grant caught the pop fly and tagged the player who delayed running back to second. Yells and cheers from the athletes in the field greeted the double play. Without a pause, he fired the ball to the pitcher who stuck his glove in front of it reflexively.
The kid ducked as the ball slipped through his grasp and continued to home where the catcher scooped it up and lobbed it back.
“Pay attention to the game and the ball, not me,” Grant yelled.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Andrews.” The tone was just short of respectful.
“Don’t be sorry, be focused and be ready. Sorry is for losers,” Grant said. The pitcher probably had problems listening to his coach, too.
“Got it.” The kid turned around to face his next batter. This time he didn’t glance back and the batter swung and missed the fastball that made a hearty smack in the catcher’s mitt.
“Better,” Grant called before he noticed the pitcher’s attention move to the sidelines. Grant followed his gaze to a woman who stood watching. Probably a teacher. After two more batters struck out, coach called the players in and thanked Grant for spending his afternoon with them.
“My pleasure. I’d be glad to come again any time,” he said, a little surprised to discover it was true.
The team headed toward the gym and locker rooms. A crowd formed around Grant as some of the players produced balls and trading cards for him to sign. He never got tired of this – the acknowledgement that he’d arrived. It made the hours of practice and training a little sweeter, having this kind of impact on kids.
“Why’d you do that to me, Mr. Andrews?” The player he’d intimidated with the throwback glared, sending a frisson of unease through Grant.
He shook it off, like he would a pitcher trying to intimidate him with a fastball. “I did you a favor.”
“Didn’t seem that way to me when I dropped it.” A stare accompanied the words.
“I know. I’ve been there.” Grant kept a genial tone. “The same thing happened to me once. And I started practicing for hours and hours so I would never be caught off guard and drop it again.”
“Do you think I can make it?”
Grant shrugged. “Maybe. Don’t neglect your batting and other skills at the expense of pitching. It takes hard work and a few lucky breaks.”
“Is that how you did it?”
Grant chuckled. “I made my luck. When the others went out for pizza, I went to the gym. When they had dates, I was studying at college. When they went to parties, I went to batting practice.”
“And you were a good player.” The kid looked at him quizzically, like Grant had left something out.
“I’m good because I worked hard. And I still do.”
“So is hard work more important than talent?”
“It’s as important.” Bingo. The pitcher wanted an out, so he could kiss off extra drills and say his failure to make All-Stars was because he wasn’t good enough. “Look- what’s your name?”
“Kyle.” The kid’s brown eyes bored into Grant’s.
“Look Kyle, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it for you. To be a ball player takes sacrifice, work and sweat. Talent’s a part of it, sure. But a smaller part than you might think.”
A bigger kid stepped in front of Kyle waving a ball and Grant took it. Others soon shouldered their way in too, and soon Kyle was enveloped in the crowd.
Finally, most of the kids took off. Kyle and a couple of outfielders still stood nearby when Grant looked around again. He saw the woman from the sidelines approaching.
“Kyle!” she called. The pitcher turned around.
“Hi, Miss Henderson. Did you watch?”
“A little bit at the end. I found Anthony’s vocabulary cards and thought he might want them.”
“He’s in the locker room but I’ll give them to him.” The woman handed the kid a small bundle. “Umm, Miss Henderson?”
Something itched at Grant’s memory.
“Some of the youth group are going to Mejia’s tonight for nachos. We wondered if you’d like to come.” The kid turned red, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.
“Thanks, but I’m meeting Paige and some of our friends. Maybe next time.”
“Sure.” He seemed to be about to say something else, but she was already turning away.
“See you Sunday.” She waved and started toward the parking lot.
When Grant saw her back, he knew. He’d spent hours staring at that head of hair, trying to figure out what color it was. Auburn? Burnt Sienna? He didn’t know all the shades it could be called, only that he’d tracked the passing seasons by watching it change from the sun. Could it be…?
“Excuse me,” he called out to the woman. “Don’t I know you?”
She and the kid answered at the same time. “Yeah!” the pitcher said.
“No.” She started to shake her head, then looked at the pitcher and sighed. She walked over to Grant and extended her hand.
“Well, actually yes. I told Kyle earlier that you sat behind me in geography class. But I’m sure you don’t remember me.”
“I don’t remember your name, but I remember you.”
She flushed. “Camille Henderson.”
“Right. You were awful at geography, as I recall.” He grinned to show he was teasing.
She shrugged. “I never went anywhere, so it didn’t seem important to memorize capitals and gross domestic products.” She glanced at the kid. “Kyle, ignore that.”
“And I was a military brat. I’d been all over, so history and geography were the only classes I aced. That and sports.”
“I forgot your family was military. Navy?”
“Yep. We moved here when I was a sophomore. And now you’re a teacher?”
“A painter. Can’t you tell?” She motioned to her shoes, covered with blue and green splotches. She seemed about to say something else, but looked over at Kyle again.
Grant followed her gaze, noting the kid’s obvious interest in their conversation. “You did great,” Grant told him. “Keep working on your stance and grip and you’ll be able to hit those sliders. It was good to meet you.”
“Yeah, thanks. You too.” From the expression on his face, Grant knew Kyle felt dismissed. He sauntered away, stopping after a few feet to retie his cleats. Finally he picked up some gear and headed to the gym.
Camille smiled. “Thanks. I felt a little awkward talking about our high school years in front of him.” But her eyes followed the kid, almost like she was wishing she could escape too.
“Why don’t we have coffee and finish catching up? I’d like to hear what you’ve been doing since graduation.”
“Oh.” A look of …panic? No, but something like fear flashed across her face. “Thanks, but I have plans. For dinner. With friends. Old friends. Well, not old old. We’ve been friends for a long time. That kind of old.”
Grant held up his hand to stop the flow. “That’s okay, another time then.” He scooped up his duffel bag of equipment and slung it over his shoulder. “It was good seeing you again, Camille. Take care.”
He walked to his car, lost in thought. Was she really afraid? Of him? Why?
“It was awful. I stood there opening and closing my pie hole like some largemouth bass he’d hooked. Umm, my bait hole, I mean.” Cami forced a grin. “Thank goodness I’ll never see him again.” Her story about seeing Grant Andrews lacked the breezy panache she’d imagined when she decided to return Anthony’s cards to him at the baseball diamond.
“What is wrong with you, Cami?” Kennie asked, sipping her iced tea. “Women don’t turn down dates with Grant Andrews.”
“I can’t go out with a baseball player,” Cami said, her hand frozen over the breadbasket.
“Why not?” This from Paige, her friend with a new question for every answer.
“I just can’t.” Didn’t they see how absurd Grant’s offer was? “First of all, I don’t date. And B, I really don’t date guys who have agents and publicists. I’m not a groupie. I’ve got my own life, thank you very much, and I’m busy with work and … and work.”
“And having dinner with a bunch of other career-obsessed, dating-challenged women,” Paige said.
“That’s not fair,” Cami protested. “We haven’t seen each other in a month and you’re my best friends.”
“I know.” Kennie reached out and squeezed Cami’s hand. “But you could have said you were busy tonight, how about tomorrow? It would be good for you to get out more, date a little. I know you have a life, but it should include men, not just your dog and us.” Kennie smiled to take out any sting in her words, picked up her fork and twirled it in her fettuccine.
Cami’s stomach knotted. They were supposed to be supportive, not badgering her to date. He could be an axe murderer or… or the serial rapist. They didn’t know him. Her throat tightened and tears stung her eyes.
“You all know why I won’t go out with him. Or anyone else.”
Paige leaned across Kennie to look Cami in the eye. “We’re saying maybe it’s time. You know Grant. He would be a safe first date.”
“I’ve had other dates!” Cami objected. Her abdominal muscles tightened, resisting the lasagna on her plate.
“I’m sorry, but going to the movies with us doesn’t count. Neither do singles activities at church,” Paige said.
“Or beach trips with family,” added Autumn, turning her attention from the other conversation across the table. Meredith and Randa continued arguing the merits of clone versus name brand golf clubs.
“Aha!” Cami pointed a triumphant finger at Autumn. “She doesn’t date either and you’re not getting all over her.”
“Her husband left her almost bankrupt with a daughter. She doesn’t have time,” Paige said, flashing a smile at Autumn. “However, her turn will come.”
“Autumn, I’m sorry.” Cami’s shoulders fell. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out. Forgive me?”
Autumn smiled. “It’s okay. If they’re all focused on harassing you, I’m off the hook for tonight.”
Laughter broke the tension and everyone continued to eat and chat. Cami looked around the table, anger gone and gratitude taking its place. She was blessed to be here with friends who loved her. Even if they showed it by nagging.
Cami’s best friend since second grade, Paige was direct and often spoke before she leaped. Or something like that. She had seen through Cami’s shyness at seven years old and ever since pushed her to be more daring.
They had taken a continuing education class for self-employed businesswomen in Huntington Beach three years ago where they met the other four women. As they learned tax laws and marketing, they discovered other things they had in common.
As women, they sustained each other personally. As business owners, they supported each other professionally. As Christians, they kept each other accountable spiritually. They had started gathering for a weekly marketing and networking group but as they grew more successful it got harder to schedule meetings.
The waitress brought the dessert tray and they picked out three different selections to share: a slice of strawberry pie crowned with a dollop of whipped cream, a layered chocolate cake with thick chocolate shavings on top, and a wedge of carrot cake. The last was so they could scrape off the cream cheese frosting and pretend they were eating wholesomely. Paige handed out the six forks and started the desserts around the table as she moved the conversation back to their previous topic.
“Cami, you know we love you and will support you in anything. We want to see you happy and we think it’s time you left the past there and started to date. Just once in a while. Dinner and a movie maybe. In public.”
“I’m too busy,” Cami said. “I’ve got sample boards to paint and a dog to walk.”
“There’s an exciting Saturday night begging to happen!” Paige’s sarcasm could be razor sharp but Cami heard the concern behind the words.
Cami sighed. She was going to have to tell them what they wanted to hear, if only to move on to another subject.
“Okay. If I’m asked. By someone I know. If I consider him safe. Then I’ll think about it.”
The others laughed. “As long as you’re open to the possibility!” Kennie said.
“But why are you all so concerned about my love life?” Cami asked. “I don’t see any of you with full dance cards. Except Kennie. How is Austin, by the way?”
“Don’t try to distract us,” Paige said. “It’s Pick On Cami night. After we get you out in the social world, we’ll start on someone else. Maybe Autumn. Kennie will never have a problem getting dates, if the number of men turning to stare at her legs is any indication.”
“Hey, I work in the music industry. I have an image to project,” Kennie protested.
“You shouldn’t have to wear anything so short it looks like it was designed for a twelve-year old to project your ‘image,’” Paige said. “But only one of us at a time can have issues. Tonight, it’s Cami. Now pass the offering plate because I’m done preaching.”
Cami turned her Tahoe into the driveway of her California Bungalow home. Instead of pulling into the garage, she parked in the driveway, close to the front door. Hopping out of the SUV, she clicked the remote to lock it behind her and set the alarm. Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, she carried pepper spray in her left hand, keys in her right. In a few steps she was through the gate into her little fenced yard and standing on her front porch. With a practiced hand she tapped out her code onto the keypad by the door. Once inside, the door locked and bolted and the alarm set, she breathed deeply, calming her nerves.
“Petey, I’m home,” she called, listening for the scramble of paws on the linoleum. She kept the dog confined to the kitchen and laundry room when she was gone. He had a pet door that gave him access to the backyard, maybe he was outside.
“Petey?” Cami took down the gate between the dining room and kitchen and flipped on the light. He was on his bed, tail thumping behind him, but didn’t get up.
“Hi, Mister. What have you been doing?” Hands on her hips, Cami approached and saw something nestled between his paws. She wrestled him for the item, and then held up the prize to examine it.
“Ugh.” She dropped the baseball mitt he had been gnawing. “Where did you get this?” A lump of fear lodged in her throat. She didn’t own any baseball equipment. Her nephew was too little and her neighbors too… well, beyond the age for it to belong to them.
Petey’s tail wagged as he looked up at her. She returned his innocent look, considering.
She went to the back door and looked out. She lived on the inland side of the thoroughfare that bisected Agua Vida down the middle. Her cottage sat on a large corner lot with the house close to the street and a long driveway to the garage at the rear of the property. The backyard was spacious with orange and lemon trees and plenty of room for Petey to run. Some kids might have been on the sidewalk outside, tossing balls and mitts and one had gotten an extra hard heave and sailed over the fence. But wouldn’t they do something to get it back? Climb over? Leave a note?
She shooed Petey outside for a little perimeter patrol. Maybe he’d find something else, a clue to where the mitt came from. While she waited for the dog, she brewed a cup of tea and recalled the dinner discussion. Was it time to leave the past? Although she had only said she would consider dating in order to get everyone to quit nagging her, the prospect intrigued her. If she picked her dates carefully, it might not be too bad.
Cami raised her eyebrows. She had just been asked out for the first time in over a year, and now she envisioned lines of prospective dates forming behind signs in the front yard: Queue Forms Here and Please Wait For The Next Available Neurotic Painter.
Shaking some flakes into the fish tank, Cami chuckled at her own foibles. She whistled for Petey, locked the pet door behind him, then headed upstairs to bed with her mug of Sleepytime tea.