Colleen O'Brien

Someone on my team catches the ball, so I start jogging down court, my eyes fixed on the spot where I'm supposed to be: under the basket. I'm almost there when the ball slams into the side of my head and ricochets out of bounds. I smell the pain - it smells like a hospital - and I hear the mean blare of the buzzer. Subs in, me out. I start jogging for the bench before I hear my name.

"You're playing basketball out there, Shannon," says my coach. "Try to keep that in mind."

"Can I get a drink of water?" I ask. The ref blows his whistle and I hear my friend Bridget yell "Red!" which is the big defensive strategy we memorized yesterday. I glance at the court and think the girls who's in for me is running the wrong way, until she steals the ball, a neat little catch for a neat little person. She's a sixth grader and she'd be a starter instead of me if she weren't four feet six. "Sit down," says my coach. "Set it up, girls!"

"You just stand there wringing your hands," says my mother in the car on the way home. "Maybe if you weren't so scared someone would pass you the ball."

"I'm not scared," I say. I squeeze the ring finger on my left hand, which I jammed rebounding lay ups during half time. It's starting to turn purple.

"Well, I'm not driving all the way out here again, just to watch you sit on the bench."

I stare out the window at the thick Saturday morning traffic heading back to the city. Good, I think.


I write my coach a letter telling him I quit because he favors people too much. Since all Bridget thinks about is basketball, I don't see her as much, and she starts becoming better friends with Natalie W.

"Get your hair out of your face," says my mother as she packs my lunch one morning.

"I don't need a lunch," I tell her. "I'm not going to school today."

"Oh yes, you are." She doesn't look up.

"Oh no, I'm NOT!" I scream, and I grab a little plastic container of Motts' applesauce off the counter and hurl it at the wall. I take off down the hallway but can't run on the wood floor in my socks, and it takes her about two seconds to catch up to me. She grabs me by the arm, hard, and yells, "I don't like your attitude."

When we pull up in front of school, she calls, "I love you!" and I slam the door.

She sits there for a second, watching me take out my ponytail.


An hour into the high school entrance exam, I realize I'm filling in the answer to question fifty-six in the Scantron bubbles next to number fifty-eight. I get up to tell the proctor and she shushes me and pushes me out into the hall, where she says she can't give me a new Scantron sheet. I spend the last ten minutes of the test erasing till there are holes in the paper, and I'm crying a little when the lady says, "Pencils down."

I really start crying in the car on the way home. "How'd you do that?" my mother asks me. "Didn't you check the numbers every time?

I'm crying too hard to answer.

"You have to check the numbers every time."

My nose is running and there are no more tissues in the box under the seat.

"Here." Mom opens the glove compartment and pulls out a Caribou Coffee napkin. "I'll call the school."


Freshman year, there is a rumor that my mother paid a lot of money to get me into school. I don't get put in honors math or French because I had to retake the other exam during the placement tests. Nobody thinks I'm smart except Bridget, who copies all my homework.

"You're wearing that?" my mother says the morning of play try-outs. I'm wearing cords and a regular sweater because I don't want to look like I'm trying too hard.

I don't get a part.

"You did it on purpose," she says at dinner. "You didn't even try to get noticed."

"Yeah, Mom, that makes a lot of sense." I got stoned after school and don't even care that she's an idiot. I take more mashed potatoes.

"I mean it, Shannon. You don't try at anything."

Maybe she's right. I hope she's right.

"What's the point?" I say.


I get so drunk I let somebody's cousin go down my pants in a laundry room. Oh well. Bridget gives her boyfriend blowjobs.

I quit keeping a diary. *

Mom gets a boyfriend for a while. He's not too good-looking, but he cooks. He promises he can get me tickets to a sold-out show, but it ends up he can't. He says he's sorry so many times, I feel bad for bringing it up. I tell him it's okay, but I know it kills him to disappoint Mom.

The next time he's over for dinner, he gives me two tickets to a dorky concert and says he's sorry again.

"Maybe you could bring a date," Mom says.

After dinner, I hear them talking as they do the dishes. Mom tells her boyfriend he should maybe get his teeth fixed. *

"Who was that?" Mom asks when Bridget's boyfriend calls to ask me if Bridget is mad at him.


"Nobody sounds cute," she teases, sitting down on my bed.

"Could you get out of my room?"


I'm too embarrassed to even try to sell the concert tickets, but I tell my mom I'm going so I can stay out late. Bridget's in Lake Geneva for the weekend with some girls from the volleyball team and I feel stupid going to parties alone, so I take the bus downtown by myself.

It's freezing cold but there's no snow yet this year. I sit in the front of the bus. This really old lady gets on and I can't stop staring at the gray, oval-shaped mole that sits right between her right eye and the side of her nose. I wonder if it blocks her vision, and if it's always been there, or if it started appearing, little by little, over the past few years. She looks right at me and says, "Young lady, these are senior priority seats," in a throaty masculine voice that sends a little adrenaline shock through me, tightening my scalp. I hop up and stammer, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm really sorry. I forgot, I'm sorry." She doesn't say it's okay, but after she sits down she gives me a short, calm nod.

I stand up for the rest of the ride and stare out the huge front windshield. The street seems like it's getting sucked under the bus floor and for a minute all I can think is, forward, forward, forward. It starts to make me dizzy and I get off before my stop.

It's dark, but Michigan Avenue is lit up by lampposts and stoplights and storefronts and cars, all kinds of blue and gold glow stretched next to the black lake. The cars are rushing by and there are so many people on the sidewalks, I feel like I'm walking in slow motion. I squint at the street signs to make sure I'm still going the right way. There's a short, skinny man on the corner ahead, waving a newspaper in one hand and clutching a bundle of them under the other arm. "How bout you, pretty lady?" he says to me when I pass, and I think of the old lady on the bus and uncrumble a dollar from my jeans pocket.

I pass the Artist's Cafè, the diner on the first floor of the Fine Arts Building. I had a babysitter when I was nine or ten who used to bring me there during the Thursday flute lessons, and I'd sit and do my homework and watch the waitresses with their hair dyed weird colors. A group of dancers always filtered in just before my babysitter's lesson ended. They wore black leotards under their sweaters, and some of them kept their hair up in nets, and some had just let it down, so it fell in big, smooth waves. They would have tea and cigarettes and I would half hope they would see me and think I was at least twelve.

I walk past the restaurant to the proper door of the building. There is only one movie playing in the theater. I buy a full-price ticket and take the creaky gilded elevator, instead of the stairs, to the second floor.

The movie turns out to be in Spanish, and I don't think about it very much as I'm watching. Still, I don't get bored. The main character is a woman and she seems to have a lot of men in love with her. They make her yell things, wild-eyed, and then she'll be alone for a whole scene, putting white powder on her face or looking at a picture of her son. The movie ends just when I'm starting to think I know what's going to happen.

On my way out of the building, somebody calls, "Hey lady!" after me, and I see the janitor standing in the doorway, holding out my earmuffs.


"Explain this to me again. A right turn from the left lane?"

I've stopped crying. She's not mad, but she wants to talk about it. "I didn't know there were two lanes," I say.

"Didn't know? What street were you on?" She looks at the police report. "North Avenue. You didn't know there were two lanes?"

There were no white lines. I thought it was just a really wide street. She always says I drive too close to the curb.

"Did you look before you made your turn? Did you check behind you?"

"I think so."

She looks at me for a long time.

"I'm sorry."

She takes off her reading glasses and looks at me some more.

"I'm worried about you," she says.


I write an essay about how hard it was growing up without my father and it gets me into a really good college. Somehow, word gets around school and a bunch of teachers congratulate me. I can tell they think it's a miracle. For one day, the entire world seems completely fair.


My first summer job is at a bread shop and my boss thinks I'm a riot because I put a loaf of cinnamon raisin in the slicer with the plastic still on it.

"Where do you go to school again?" he jokes as I try not to cut myself, picking little pieces of cellophane off the serrated blades. He gets a little out-of-breath when he tries to be funny, and he starts to cough without covering his mouth.

Later, my boss takes a piece of bologna out of the deli station and sticks it to my bare shoulder. "Gross!" I squeal, and watch him start laughing and coughing again.


Bridget breaks up with her boyfriend and starts going out a lot and doesn't always invite me. I tell Mom I don't want a graduation party.


Right before September, Mom gets a new boyfriend. Before I meet him, she warns me that he is almost ten years younger than she is. When she introduces me she says my name first and the name of the college I'm going to second.

"Wow," he says. He is shorter than Mom, but kind of good-looking. "Boy, you could really write your ticket."

"Yeah," I say. I don't know what he means exactly, and I hope that they're leaving soon.

I've been packing for a few days, and after I lock the door behind Mom, I drag my suitcases downstairs and line them up.

Set it up, girls.

I try to imagine college, but I can't. What I can imagine, vivid as a dream, is the big, gray airport.

© Colleen O'Brien

Colleen O'Brien is originally from Chicago. She currently lives and works in San Francisco.

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