Sports Night practices in the lobby. I watch them from the hall. They practice next to trophies from real sports. They practice, and detention lets out, and they are still practicing. Sports Night has no sports, only dance moves that require a thousand after-schools of practice. It’s a lot of practice for one night, a lot of crying. Someone’s always getting paper towels for them to cry in. I never see them be done practicing. I have to go back down the hall. I’m on Newspaper. We get out later than detention, Sports Night, Abstinence, and every real sport.
Abstinence inflates balloons for when they throw the worst party of the year. Newspaper reports on it.
“Proud virgins,” we caption them.
We are ashamed virgins. We own condoms for no reason. We get A s on our Sex Ed quizzes, the ones Abstinence is petitioning to get rid of. I pen an op-ed saying the school should keep the quizzes. While we’re taking them, I watch girls who do Sports Night remember blow jobs they gave down by the quarry, if this town even has a quarry. I don’t know where the blow jobs are. They could be anywhere.
I may not be an expert in local geography, but I do know local history. Sports Night was invented in 1948, when girls weren’t allowed to play sports. Sepia-toned girls ran relay races and dodged balls in skirts past the knee. We’d beaten the Nazis. The town needed its girls to prove they could pass a baton fast enough to birth an empire. When the daughters of those girls started competing in real sports, Sports Night became more of a pageant, but kept the name that had given the town so much joy.
Sports Night has dances. It has skits. Last year’s theme was Underwater Enchantment. The whole town came to see lip-synched ballads about mermaids who resented their fathers. Spandexed, bejeweled sophomores showed off months of choreography, flicked their hair around shell bras, lowered themselves into splits between legs coated with glitter. Every character was sexy. It wasn’t just the mermaid. They had sexy lobsters, sexy squid. They keep one character not sexy to cover up the few fat girls who don’t know they’re not supposed to audition for Sports Night.
I know I’m not supposed to audition. I don’t know how I know—nobody tells you you can’t—but there are conflicts. Newspaper, for instance, and a club where kids without friends meet with the principal to discuss how to improve the school. Why students of different races sit separately in the cafeteria is one of our concerns, as well as Abstinence being mad that the cafeteria windows get decorated every Christmas for Hanu-Kwanzaa but we leave out the infant Jesus. Sports Night gets a window too. They stand on cafeteria chairs in leggings they don’t mind getting paint on, and reveal their theme the first Monday of every December.
This year’s theme is the decade when their moms were pretty. The costume is easy if the mom kept her clothes, if she was the same size as the girl. My mom was pretty, too, then, but I’m not pretty this decade. I thought about doing a skit about it, a dance. One of the colleges I’m applying to lets you do dances about your mom for credit. It lets you do dances about the girls who did dances in your high school. That’s why I’m watching them. I’m going to need their moves later, when I’m taking Interpretative Dance II with people like me.
Somebody set off the smoke alarm and now all the clubs are waiting on the field behind the school—Chess, Newspaper, Suicide Awareness. Sports Night keeps practicing. They lunge, clutch grass. Editors nudge me, as if I made this happen. The editors look worse outside. At Newspaper, they’re in charge, ordering pizza, editing last year’s Band trip article to fit this year’s Band trip needs. Out here, they’re just a group of kids who brought their backpacks in case there was really a fire.
Chess brought their chess sets with them. During a smoke alarm last May, somebody moved a rook and disrupted a championship game. Now they bring the sets outside, balance them like pizzas while they wait on the grass. I’m impressed by Chess, the interracial makeup of its nerds. I like their little timers.
“Should we do an article about Chess?” I ask a Josh with a backpack. This Josh’s backpack has his initials on it—JAG—so he doesn’t get mistaken for any of the other nerds of his race. “They seem ignored.”
“Chess doesn’t want not to be ignored,” he says.
Textbook corners frame his initials from inside the pack. He carries all his textbooks with him at all times, as if he was never assigned a locker. I have the same textbooks—AP Physics, AP American, AP Foreign-Language-Not-Spoken-Since-Ancient-Times.
“We did a double issue for Sports Night,” I say. “We had pictures of all those lobsters. You interviewed Lindsay.”
“She was a captain,” he says.
“Well, she’s a captain again, but I’m not interviewing her,” I say. Sports Night is doing rib isolations. “Fuck it, I’m interviewing Chess.”
“We can’t put pawns on the front page!” he yells after me.
JAG’s the reason I’m not editor in chief this year. Around the time of last year’s Band trip, he and I interviewed for the same job. He wore a tie. I found my evaluation sheet after, and it said, “Leaves the pub shop during production and we don’t know where she goes.” I could have told them if they had asked. I break into the Abstinence office and spray it with contraceptive foam. I practice Sports Night moves in an empty classroom. I watch the sun set out a suicide-proof window and remain firmly inside what’s supposed to be my life.
My mom picked me up the night I found out I didn’t get chief. I was crying. I would have to be on Newspaper another year, taking orders from someone my own age with a giant backpack.
“Did you put the paper to bed?” she asked. She liked to picture me tucking the newspaper in.
“They can burn in hell,” I said.
“Just being on the masthead of a respected weekly is enough,” she said. “You can still put Argus on your applications without the headache of being in charge.”
“I would have taken the paper in a new direction,” I said.
“Maybe people like the old direction,” she said. “Why don’t you drive home?”
Her offer let me know she was sorry. My driving skills were not getting me into college. I had crept up many curbs practicing my K turns, had gone down one-way streets in a new direction. My parents took turns not taking me out.
Now I drive fine. Not everyone on Newspaper can say the same. Some of their moms still pick them up on Production Night, though they hold the title of chief.
“Lindsay,” I ask Lindsay, with Newspaper’s tape recorder, “how are you deciding team costumes this year in the absence of clear characters like enchanted fish and turtles?”
“We have characters,” she says. “From that decade.”
“You mean famous people? Like Valerie Solanas?”
“We’re not doing her,” says Lindsay. “Mrs. Spumondi says it has to be inclusive for everyone. The whole town comes.”
“Yes, the whole town came last year. Male attendance was especially high. How did you feel about your friends’ fathers and the guy from the post office seeing you in those sexy lobster costumes?” This is my hardball.
“We’re proud of our bodies,” she says.
I hadn’t thought of that, but Lindsay is well versed in defending Sports Night from a short-lived club that formed in opposition to Sports Night. Nobody remembers them now. Abstinence came and stole their thunder by being opposed to sex overall.
“Okay, Lindsay. Thank you for your time.”
“Thanks for watching us practice.” She smiles at me like I’m one of the male teachers who also watches them practice.
“I need to watch for the article.”
The truth is that I’m not sure I would have passed Driver’s Ed last year if Mr. Hinkle and I hadn’t spent so much time together watching Sports Night practice in the lobby.
“No DUI fatalities this weekend,” I’d say, disappointed. You needed to hand in thirty fatalities from local newspapers in order to pass the class.
“How do they kick so high?” he’d wonder.
“Maybe I’m not looking in the right papers.”
“Someone will drink and drive soon,” promised Hinkle. “Birds gotta swim. Are you thinking of trying out for this?”
I kicked to show him that my heel hardly cleared the floor, forcing the reluctant, throat-driven laugh of a man who must occasionally use an emergency brake. Mrs. Spumondi told us we were free to leave if we didn’t respect the practice. Mrs. Spumondi’s not a teacher or anybody’s mother. She’s old. She just runs Sports Night. She may have invented Sports Night.
She at least kept it going, long after we had girls dribbling balls, swinging bats, and kicking something other than the air. Now Mrs. Spumondi delegates. She selects the teacher-judges, assigns formerly hot moms to a committee that decides if the basketball hoop is a decent place to hang balloons.
Newspaper wants me to find out what else the mom committee does, but I tell the editors I’m busy with suicide now. I’m quitting Newspaper. They don’t know yet, but my article on Suicide Awareness will be my last—in effect, my suicide note. I’ve realized I don’t like reporting on the school.
The school shouldn’t blame itself. It’s just a school, the kind that bans glue sticks and hats. I’m tired of having opinions about the bans. I never sniffed a glue stick. I never wore a hat. I tried to sniff a glue stick once and nothing happened. Maybe you need to eat them.
Also, the acceptance letters from colleges should be here any day now, the decal for my mother’s car. So she doesn’t get mistaken for the other moms of her race.
This year Hinkle acts like he doesn’t know me anymore. Kids come out of detention, hug him, go back in detention. He’s kind of their mascot. It has to do with the fact that the kids who get detention are also the best drivers. I’ve ridden in the backs of the Ed cars when they’re at the helm, and the ride is smooth. Hinkle never uses the brake with them, never says, “Pull over immediately, or I will have no choice but to use the emergency brake.” They hand in fifteen fatalities, and he’s fine with it. He lets them smoke in the cars.
Sports Night girls take smoke breaks. They crouch in their leggings on the concrete steps, stretch their hamstrings, gossip, cry.
I go out there and find Lindsay in tears. “What’s the problem?”
“People are abusing their power.” She lights a cigarette with one of her old bat mitzvah matches.
“I thought you were a captain,” I say.
“Who are you again?”
“I interviewed you for The Argus .”
“That Josh guy interviewed me, too,” she says, coughs.
“He said he needed to ask me some stuff you’d forgotten.”
“He always does this. He undermines my relationships with my sources. I’m quitting.”
“I’m quitting, too.”
We sit on the steps and quit for a while. Lindsay’s matches say, i shopped till i dropped at lindsay’s bat! Her bat mitzvah theme was shopping. Guests were assigned to sit at tables labeled Bloomingdale’s, the mall, the Gap. Everyone got a little credit card with their name on it. I wasn’t invited, but I remember teachers confiscating the Lindsay cards at school, in case they paid for things in a junior high black market.
“I hate Sports Night,” she says. “At this point, I actually hate it.”
“We could switch places,” I say. I picture myself ablaze with blush in the gym on Sports Night, cat-crawling across the volleyball court, telling a reporter I’m just proud of my body.
“So I would have to be on the school newspaper? Nobody reads that.”
“That’s not why we do it. We do it for college.”
“That’s not why you do it,” she says. Before I can find out why I do it, detention comes out of the building and turns the steps into a skateboard ramp, a dangerous, bumpy thing.
My mom won’t let me quit. She says we’re not a family of quitters. She shows me her yearbook to prove she was on committees. A committee to plant flowers, a committee to end the war.
“Didn’t you basically want the U.S. to quit the war?” I say. “Quitting is powerful.”
“ The Argus is not a war,” she says.
“They both exploit the young,” I say.
“You sound like Alan,” she says. My father works late and my mom likes to turn me into him when he’s not home. When he is home, my parents talk about things I’m not interested in, like homeowners’ insurance, or how much it will cost to fix the scratch I put on the car. They have no extracurriculars anymore. It’s hard for them to see what they could give to this town.
When Sports Night arrives, it’s Lindsay I follow. I follow her through several songs gay men used to dance to before the virus, and a skit about the yo-yo. I take notes for Newspaper. They’re not just doing dances from that time. They’re doing dances from now: pops and locks, the Dougie, the Butterfly. They lip-synch their songs. They lip-synch their skits. Spumondi takes notes on a clipboard. It’s unclear what decade we’re in.
Balloons hang all around. Boys pop them with pencils, get threatened with detention.
“But it’s Saturday,” a popper argues. “You can’t get detention on Saturday.”
He’s right. We’re in the school, but we’re not in school. The bans don’t apply Saturday. Kids wear hats. Teachers wear jeans. Kids run around saying, “Mr. Hinkle’s wearing jeans.” JAG doesn’t have his backpack on and looks like a dismembered turtle. He looks good.
“Make sure to write down the order of the dances,” he says.
“You’re micromanaging me, Josh.”
JAG’s notebooks all say Joshua Aaron Geller in block letters on the front.
“In your suicide article,” he says, “you left out the name of the girl who committed suicide.”
“I thought we had to protect her privacy. You know, she did Sports Night last year? But they made her be a swordfish.”
“Fact-check that,” says Josh.
A group of boys starts throwing pencils at us, or maybe we’re just in the way of what they’re aiming at. Josh picks up a pencil gently, like it’s a gift.
“I wonder who’s going to be traumatized this year,” he says. I think about Lindsay on the steps, but Lindsay’s not crying now. She’s smiling through her eye shadow, inexplicably dressed as a French maid, crawling across the floor near a pile of balloons. We’re both traitors to quitting. I got my college acceptance letters last week, but I’m still here, reporting from a laminated bleacher on a Saturday. The guy from the post office is here, too. He comes every year.
Lindsay straddles her feather duster. I still can’t figure out how this costume fits into the theme. Maybe there’s a sitcom about a maid from that decade? Or maybe she’s the housewife on the show where the witchy wife controls her husband with her appliances? She twitches her nose at a girl dressed as an ad executive. Boys from the school start chanting, “Ride that broom! Ride that broom!” and soon men from the town join in.
“This theme is disturbing,” says Josh.
“She’s just confident in her sexuality,” I say.
He eyes me like he can’t believe I made the honor roll.
“No, really,” I say. “What are we doing that’s so much more important than what she’s doing?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Preparing for our futures?”
“Our bright futures in journalism?” I say. I fight with boys instead of dancing for them. “Are we going to be Woodward and Bernstein? You said in Debate practice that you wanted to be a prosecutor.”
This isn’t fair. We lie in applications. We lie in interviews. We lie everywhere but on top of each other. The town’s men are screaming around Josh, a boy who became a man by memorizing United States currency fluctuations in the decades before girls were allowed to play sports. Josh sits up straighter, unable to look at Lindsay on the floor now, like if he studies her any longer he will memorize her.
“It’s all good practice,” he says. “You know that.”
But they practice, too. It’s paid off. The whole thing looks like a never-ending halftime show, a sluttier version of a tumultuous time. The next dance number is even sexier than Lindsay’s, but the team burns a bra during their skit and gets disqualified for creating a fire hazard. Now girls I haven’t interviewed are crying. Their captain tells Spumondi to go fuck herself. Parents around me take sides, with some pledging allegiance to their daughters’ teams, and some saying Sports Night has gotten out of control.
The principal runs down the bleacher steps and announces that Sports Night is canceled. Every girl on the floor starts crying. People boo. I’m taking notes. The teachers turn into teachers again and start telling everyone they have to go home.
“See you Monday!” they say, as though we have a choice.
“See you Monday!” says Josh. He takes his cues from those in power.
“Wait, I think we have our headline,” I say. For once, I’m breaking new news. “Sports Nights Celebrates Past, but Future Hangs in the Balance.”
“What future?” he says.
“Its future. The event’s future.”
“Yes!” he says.
We slap five, the kiss of nerds.
“This is going to be a great issue.”
Rebecca Schiff’s fiction-writing workshop begins on May 4. Apply now.
The story is taken from The Bed Moved , published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.