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Heart & Soul

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“If you put your heart and soul into something, you do it with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy.”

—Collins Dictionary

 

* * * * *

 

            It was that time of year again—and depending on who you asked, you might receive two very different answers as to what it was. For any ordinary high school student, “that time of year” meant Valentine’s Day: overpriced flowers, gourmet chocolates displayed at the front of every market, teddy bears and stuffed dogs and painfully tacky (and equally overpriced) Hallmark cards. Those who were single liked to complain about how bogus and corporate the so-called “holiday” truly was; those with boyfriends and girlfriends had no problem publicizing their relationship status all over the place, from gooey social media posts to make-out sessions in the halls between classes, to sending each other roses for a dollar a piece during the school day to make the single folk feel even lonelier.

            For Brandon Crawford, however, “that time of year” meant the first flickering gleams of the dawn of baseball season. That was far more important to him than some lame holiday.

            Pitchers and catchers were due to report in a matter of days. The San Francisco Giants were already posting teasing photos of the players and AT&T Park on Instagram. A countdown to Opening Day on Twitter was driving him mad by this point. He couldn’t wait. It wasn’t just pro ball on the horizon—the baseball season at Leighton High School would begin in just a couple of weeks, too. Brandon was itching to get back on the field at Cascade Community Park (Leighton wasn’t spacious nor funded enough to provide its own home field for the team.) The last time he and his fellow Leighton High Tigers had captured the state championships was 2016 when Brandon had been a freshman JV competitor—a nobody, really. Now he was a top-quality shortstop on the varsity team, with the honor and privilege of playing alongside his closest friends in the world.

            Time to take those titles home again.

            It was safe to say Brandon was wholly distracted during his lessons on logarithms and political parties and essays by Henry David Thoreau that day. It was stereotypical weather for February in San Francisco: gray churning skies, drizzling rain, collective gloom. Not just outside, but a low-spirited temperament that settled into his heart intermittently. Alright, so he didn’t care about Valentine’s Day as much as others did—a great deal of his classmates, really, including his own teammates—but that didn’t mean this time of year wasn’t difficult for him to tough out. It’d be nice to have somebody to spend today with, tonight with, for once…

            In seventh period economics, Leighton’s ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner plopped down at the desk in front of Brandon’s and turned around to ask him, “You goin’ to the dance tonight?”

            Brandon snorted. “Wasn’t planning on it.” Student council threw a corny Valentine’s Day-themed dance every year. It was mostly freshmen who attended, the only ones who took student council-sponsored dances seriously. “What about you?”

            Madison grinned. “Buster and I are goin’ together. Sorta.”

            “‘Sorta’?”

            “Well, he asked if I was goin’, and I said I’d be there if he’d be there, and he said he’d be there, so.”

            Brandon opened his textbook and freed a mechanical pencil from the pouch in his backpack. “Congratulations.”

            “What’s got you down, B-Craw?”

            Brandon sighed. He wasn’t usually so pessimistic. Why did this bother him so much? What was the big deal? “It’s stupid.”

“What’s stupid?” Madison pressed.

“Just bugs me to see all these couples around school, holding hands and necking in front of my locker and all the roses.”

            “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re one of those Valentine’s Day Grinches. It ain’t like you to care about something so hackneyed.”

            No, it really wasn’t. Still.

            Madison gently bumped Brandon’s chin with his fist. “I’ll buy you a rose. How ‘bout that? Would that make you feel better?”

            Brandon chuckled. “That’s alright, Bum. I appreciate the thought. I’ll get through this. Just a slump.”

            “Y’know, there’s a real easy way to get yourself out of that slump.”

            “Yeah? What’s that?”

            But the bell signaled, and Madison had to turn around and focus on the lecture just like the rest of class. Brandon divided his attention between microeconomics and daydreams about baseball. He doodled bats and smiling suns and baseballs zooming through the air for most of class. In-between notetaking, of course; if he started to slack off during class, Coach Bochy would suspend him from the team until his grades were better.

            Baseball was his compulsion, his heartbeat, his therapy. It got him through the roughest seasons of life. He couldn’t imagine how horribly dull and hollow his life would be without the sport, without teammates that were like brothers to him.

            One class to go. Instead of broaching the subject Madison had left dangling earlier on, he posed a new question as he and Brandon ambled out of the classroom. They also shared eighth period Spanish together. “So, what are you doin’ tonight, then?”

            “Probably just hanging out with Joe.”

            Brandon didn’t miss the small smile that tweaked Madison’s lips. “Oh, don’t even go there, Bum.”

            “I didn’t say nothin’.”

            “You didn’t have to say nothin’. That smirk of yours says it all.”

            “Come on, B-Craw. How can you sit here and complain about bein’ single and not havin’ anybody to spend Valentine’s Day with when you’ve got someone like Joe by your side every single day?”

            They’d had this conversation before. Not just Brandon and Madison, but Brandon and essentially every player on the team. For whatever reason, the guys didn’t just think Brandon and Joe belonged together—they anticipated it. Brandon and second baseman Joe Panik were close, sure. Best friends. Had been for some time now. But that didn’t automatically line them up as soulmates, right? If you were meant to be with someone, wouldn’t you be absolutely certain of it? No doubts or fears or hesitations to push a wonderfully healthy friendship into something more, something different?

            “Joe and I are just friends,” Brandon divulged, the same answer he gave anytime someone inquired about the two of them as a potential item. “I love him, but as my buddy. My brother. I just don’t feel that way about him.”

            “That’s a damn shame. I know how close the two of y’all are.”

            Madison and Brandon hustled through the courtyard to reach the west building before they were both drenched. “Well, if you’re gonna be stubborn about it, then my only advice to you is just to keep focused on more important things. High school’s about more than dating, y’know.”

            “You’re right. Like winning the state championships for our school for the third time in five years?”

            Madison grinned. “You know it, dude.” He made a fist, and Brandon bumped it with his own. “I can’t wait for baseball season.”

            “Neither can I. It’s driving me crazy.”

            “Hey, there’s that smile.” Madison bumped Brandon’s shoulder affectionately as they meandered into the Spanish classroom. “I like it better when you’re happy.”

            “Hey, me too. What do you know?”

            “Just keep focusing on what matters. School matters, unfortunately, at this point. Baseball matters. The boys matter, and not just Joe but the rest of us, too—”

            Brandon pressed a finger to his lips. Joe was also in this class, and he darted into the room and claimed his usual desk right behind the bell. With a sigh of relief, and shaking the rain droplets out of his trimmed chestnut-brown hair, he smiled at Brandon and said, “Made it.”

            Brandon didn’t have time to chat with his friend before class started. Once again, scribbles of stick figure ball players and championship trophies and the San Francisco Giants logo and “Beat L.A.” scrawls filled the margins and the corners of his notebook. The teacher passed out worksheets on opinion verbs for homework. She allowed the class the last few minutes of the period to get started on the assignment, yet of course nobody did. Instead, Brandon met up with Madison and Joe to discuss the upcoming baseball team tryouts.

            “I’m a little nervous,” Joe admitted, spinning a hefty ring around his pointer finger. He’d lived in San Francisco for a few years now, but his New York accent still washed his words from time to time, especially if he was upset about something. “I had kind of a rocky season last year. I’m worried Boch might replace me as a starting second baseman.”

            “Hey, you of all people have nothing to worry about,” Brandon encouraged. “You’re a stellar player. Boch knows that, and so do the rest of us. You’re not going anywhere.”

            Joe grinned at him. “Thanks, B-Craw. That means a lot.”

            Madison not-so-subtly smirked in Brandon’s direction. A flustered Crawford elected to ignore it.

 

* * * * *

 

            After school, Joe and Brandon finalized their plans for the evening. Joe used studying for a Spanish test on Monday as an excuse for Brandon’s visit, as if Brandon really needed an excuse to come over. “Is anyone else coming?” Brandon asked by Joe’s locker.

            “I asked around, but a lot of the guys are going to the dance.” Joe crammed a series of hefty textbooks into his backpack, struggling to draw the zipper shut around the mass. “So it’ll probably just be you and me, if that’s okay.”

            “Nah, it’s not. You’re repulsive.”

            Joe chuckled. “That’s what I thought.”

            “Not interested in going to the dance, then?”

            Joe made a face. “Are you kidding? A night mingling with awkward underclassmen who don’t know how to dance to a playlist of awful pop songs, or an evening at home with Mom’s homemade cooking and my best friend? What a tough decision.”

            Brandon laughed. “I just didn’t wanna inconvenience you if you made other plans. It is Valentine’s Day, after all.”

            “I’d rather spend it with you than anyone else, Brandon.”

            Brandon swallowed hard. He means as friends, right? Or does he? Maybe? “I’m all yours.” Wow, did I really just say that? What’s with me today?

            “Good, ‘cause you’re pretty much stuck with me.” Joe stood up, grunting as he heaved his bulky backpack onto his shoulders. “You ready?”

            Brandon shook away the musings. “Yep.”

            “Let’s roll.”

            Joe and Brandon dispensed high fives and bro hugs to any and every teammate they passed in the corridors on their way to the bus stop. Madison and Buster Posey, one of Leighton’s catchers, were standing a little too close to one another at Madison’s locker and hardly paid mind to Crawford and Panik as they said their goodbyes. I hope they end up together, Brandon thought, smiling at what a stunning couple the two handsome athletes would be. Buster’s a good guy, and so is Madison. I can see it.

            He wished he could see Joe and himself the way everyone else did.

            And, perhaps, the way Joe did…?

 

* * * * *

 

            As expected, a “study session” at Joe’s house consisted of less homework and more baseball conversations, a scrumptious dinner of homemade manicotti and salad prepared by Joe’s badass mother, white chocolate chip cookies for dessert, and a few rounds of Black Ops 4 on Joe’s PS4. Brandon never cared before that he and Joe would often recline on Joe’s bed together, rather close to one another, during these intense violent sessions of Call of Duty. But after their gossiping teammates started urging Brandon and Joe to become an item—and especially tonight, on Valentine’s Day, after Madison mentioned it yet again—somehow Brandon was beginning to feel a little squirmy.

            “Damn, you suck at this game, bro,” Joe snickered. His tongue poked through his teeth like a snake as he sniped Brandon’s virtual soldier in the head. Joe glimpsed at Brandon, who was sitting so close beside him that their forearms occasionally brushed each other. “Or are you just distracted?”

            “You could say that.”

            Joe paused the game. “Wanna talk about it?”

            “It’s nothing. Really.”

            “Come on. I can always tell when something’s bothering ya.”

            That was true. Joe knew him better than anyone. “I’m fine.”

            Joe set his controller down, drew his knees to his chest, and pouted at Brandon. “Liar. Don’t make me interrogate you.”

            “Don’t you dare.” But Brandon was smiling. He couldn’t help it. Joe just drew it out of him.

            Joe lightly poked Brandon in the side. “Talk.”

            “Never.”

            “Spill.” The poking turned faster, nudging Brandon where Joe knew he was ticklish.

            “This is a battle you cannot win, Joe. I’m warning you—”

            But Joe attacked him, anyway. He bent his fingers into claw-shapes, pinching Brandon’s ribcage, squeezing his sides. Brandon fell over, trying to squirm away from Joe’s unfair assault, giggling like a child. He was already a mess.

            “I have ways of making you talk!” Joe exclaimed.

            Brandon counterattacked, rolling onto his other side and lunging at Joe’s socked feet. “Hey, no fair!” Joe cackled.

            “You started it!” Brandon shouted. Joe tried to kick him away, but Brandon secured both his friend’s feet in the crook of his elbow and tickled Joe right back. The two strong, levelheaded, dexterous athletes were reduced to tittering, playful behavior in a matter of minutes.

            “Truce?” Joe exhaled when he’d run out of breath.

            “Yeah, fine,” Brandon sighed. He was perspiring something awful.

            Joe collapsed against his pillows. Brandon reclaimed his spot beside his friend, propping his head up on his elbow.

            “Well, whatever’s wrong, or was wrong,” Joe said, peering over at Brandon. His honey-brown eyes were so warm and kind. “I hope I made you feel a little better.”

            “You always do.” How true that was. Brandon considered himself close to everyone on the team, but there was something just so…special about Joe. So exceptional. Should I just give in to what everyone’s saying about us and ask him out? What’d be the harm? But what if we didn’t end up working out? Our friendship would be so screwed, and I don’t want to lose him…

            Joe tucked a coil of Brandon’s long brown hair behind his ear. “You know I love you, right, B-Craw?”

            “That’s Valentine’s Day talking.” Brandon smiled to let Joe know he was only teasing. “Yeah, I know that. Love you, too.”

            “Oh, speaking of…” Joe rolled over to snag something from the drawer of his nightstand. It was a large heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates. “Mom left this for me this morning. But I don’t mind sharing.”

            “How thoughtful.”

            “I know, I’m a pretty thoughtful guy.”

            “I meant your mom, asshole.”

            Joe smiled. He peeled off the plastic wrap and offered Brandon the first selection. “Not such a bad Valentine’s Day after all, huh, Brandon?”

            Brandon popped the truffle in his mouth. “Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

            But eventually Brandon did have to go home, because although Joe’s mom was lenient and likely wouldn’t have minded crashing at the Panik house on a school night, Brandon’s own mother wasn’t quite as obliging. Joe borrowed his mom’s car and gave Brandon a ride home so he wouldn’t have to trek all the way there in the pouring rain. Brandon hugged him goodnight, yet left it at that. Just a hug.

            His folks and sisters were asleep when Brandon crept into the house. He slinked upstairs to his bedroom and pressed the door gently closed so not to wake anyone else. His bedroom, though small, was a shrine to his fixations in life; particularly, baseball. San Francisco Giants merchandise hung from the walls and crowded his desk and bookshelves and the top of the dresser. He also had memorabilia for his own home team, the Leighton High School Tigers: a school flag, photographs of the team, less professional selfies of his friends and himself, a newspaper the city had published the last time the varsity team won the state championships. One of his most cherished possessions was a simple photo frame on his nightstand, displaying a candid shot of Joe and him hugging with tears in their eyes after that last wonderful state win. His mom had taken it from the bleachers. It summed Brandon up quite well: he loved baseball, he loved his school, he loved his teammates, and he loved Joe.

            Brandon tumbled into bed shortly after changing into sweats and an old t-shirt. His mind was too heavy for sleep, but his body pleaded for it with heavy eyes and the nonexistence of energy. He closed his eyes and made himself a promise.

            I hate being single, I hate being lonely, but I’d never date Joe unless I liked him that way. I want to be with him if I’m supposed to, if we’re both into each other, not because everyone else says we should. He’s my best friend and I never, ever want to hurt him. I’d never push our friendship into anything more than where it should be, where we’re at. That isn’t fair to him. If I fall for him, that’d be different.

            But right now, Brandon knew in his heart he only cared for Joe as a friend. That’s just the way it was. He didn’t want anything to change, no matter how many times he questioned it due to his friends’ pressuring him.

            Brandon listened to the mild rain thumping his window, the occasional roll of distant thunder as the storm progressively retreated. It was the calm soundtrack to his eventual good night’s sleep.