Air horns, club songs and pile-ons from teammates. Confetti raining down in the drizzle, sticking to our hair and rain-spattered, grass-stained jerseys. I would never forget the moment that the F.C. Chelsea women’s soccer team won the Championship. Never, ever in my life had I felt the level of exhilaration that the men’s team must feel after the average game, because that’s how many people had jammed into Stamford Bridge stadium to watch us win—a sold-out crowd.
All around me my teammates had torn off their jerseys to trade with our opponents and were battling tears with sloppy hugs. Something magical happens at the closing whistle of a hotly competitive match that the average person never feels. The way in which your direst enemy suddenly becomes your friend, happy for you in your happiness. There is that solidarity amongst female athletes where those congratulatory moments mean something, and I’d been dreaming of this one since I was five years old.
Up in the manager’s box the entire men’s team was cheering us on. And there. Right in the middle of the crowd, if I could be bothered to look, would be my nemesis with his dirty-blond hair trapped in a messy top knot. His nice dress clothes most likely all rumpled and his sleeves rolled up to show off his massive, tattooed forearms.
His electric-blue eyes would be crackling above his stubbly, chiseled cheekbones and jawline. He was probably waving his hands theatrically, acting the fool with everyone loving on him. If he were American instead of German, I’d have bet money on his tie being wrapped around his head. Matti Shellenberg, a man I’d wished a bad case of jock itch on more times than was probably healthy.
Knowing he was up there was enough to make my blood boil. My eyes shot straight to him—like there was a magnetic force between the two of us—even at this distance. To my complete shock, he wasn’t in the mix with his teammates. Instead he was sitting all alone in a corner of the box—him, the man who was never still, never at rest, never less than one hundred percent positively on. The center of attention and master instigator. Now he sat slumped in his chair like a puppet with his strings cut, head in hands.
He’s probably pissed we’re getting all the attention.
One year later, I could still feel the mashed potatoes crusting in my eyebrows and long auburn hair, which I’d curled so carefully the night of the fundraiser for pediatric cancer patients. Those hyper-realistic plastic spiders he’d stuck on my chair that made me scream and flip my plate, launching a shower of food down on top of me and my tablemates.
I could still see him in my mind’s eye, doubled over in laughter, wiping tears of hilarity off his flushed cheeks. Could still hear his delighted slow clap and taunt. “You gonna come after me with that steak knife, Stabby Abby?” I hated nicknames, but I had to admit that ‘Stabby Abby’ was one I could get behind. That clever jerk.
The confetti storm had finally settled in colorful, sodden clumps and the team’s owner and head of operations strode through the tunnel and out onto the pitch for the trophy ceremony. I winced as I wound my way through the crowd. My bad knee was twinging like a motherfucker after a tackle from Porto’s defender that had knocked me awkwardly onto my ass. Hopefully I’d only twisted it, nothing more serious.
My co-captain, Teresa, wrapped an arm around my shoulders and started tugging me toward the hastily erected podium at midfield. The team song was still blaring through the stadium speakers and the emotions of the day were catching me. I’d won a gold medal with the U.S. Women’s National Team, but this was somehow bigger. Better, because it was unexpected. Times like this reminded me that every sacrifice I’d made to play professionally was worth it.
Tears pricked my eyes as Teresa hugged me close. “We did it, chica. Can you believe it?”
I hugged her back and we wiped each other’s tears and laughed. “You get up there first,” I encouraged. She hopped up on the stage and pulled me up behind her. Together, we walked to the podium to accept the trophy. The owner and manager were tag-teaming a self-congratulatory speech about how delightful and historic the moment was. Teresa and I exchanged a Look. This moment would have come a lot sooner if the club had bothered to invest in its women’s side the way it did in the men’s.
The owner handed us the trophy, almost bobbling it as he attempted to kiss our cheeks. The smell of whiskey flowed off of him as he leered at us. Teresa and I did our duty, ignoring the foul, smelly man as we smiled and raised that trophy high above our heads. Not even a lecher could rub the shine off of this one for us. I kissed the cool, damp metal that smelled like blood and fresh grass. That too-brief kiss was, without a doubt, the greatest in my entire history of kisses—not that that history was particularly long or interesting.
I jumped down with the Cup, wincing again as my knee protested the action, and passed it off to my teammates. Teresa and I stood back from them, arm-in-arm as we watched the celebration continue. The men’s team would be rushing the field soon because they could never handle the women’s team having the lion’s share of attention. I had no interest in being out there when Ratty Matti showed and turned to Teresa. “I’m going to the locker room, need to hit the ice baths before we have to get ready for the party. Cover for me?”
“You got it. Guess we all need some extra time to look our best tonight after this, huh?” She winked at me.
“Ugh, totally. But if I don’t get in an ice bath soon, I’m not going to be able to stand in high heels.” My tone was rueful and she slugged me in the shoulder, jerking her head in the direction of the locker room.
I took one last mental picture of my still-celebrating teammates, and the fans who hadn’t stopped singing our song, and started for the bench to scoop my kit. As I maneuvered around the celebrants and the men’s team clattering up from the tunnel, I glanced back at the owner’s box and got one hell of a shock. Matti was still there, not down with the rest of his team trying to steal our glory. No, he was still in his seat with his head in his hands. Curiouser and curiouser.
The locker room was empty, but the training staff were there and ready with congratulations and help getting the tape off from the brace around my knee. I’d suffered an ACL tear not too long ago and coming back had been an excruciating journey.
The physio helped me into the tub and one of his assistants started dumping in the ice. The cold burn of an ice bath was something that athletes supposedly got addicted to. Me, though, I was dreaming about tropical beaches and a solitary walk on white sand with the ocean curling in to tickle my toes as I shivered uncontrollably while buried in the tiny cubes.
“McKinnon, your mobile’s ringin’, darlin’! Says ‘Sylvie’. That’s your agent, right?” The head physio shook my shoulder as he showed me the screen of my phone.
I sank back into the tub and managed to get out through my chattering teeth, “It can wait till I’m done here, probably a congratulations.”
“I dunno, darlin’, this is the third time she’s called in five minutes. You’re about done, let’s get you out of there and you can take the call.” He hadn’t even really congratulated me. Nor had he asked me if I was okay, given the slight limp I knew he’d seen with his laser-like focus on all of our working extremities. My stomach hollowed out and my shivers got bigger and stronger as I accepted his hand and let him haul me out of the tub.
What does he know?
I grabbed my phone and headed back to the locker room with a newfound sense of foreboding and sent a quick text to Sylvie that I’d call when I was out of the shower. I resolutely ignored the immediate buzz of a reply and the repeated chimes that indicated an incoming call. All I needed was one more moment to bask in the feeling of winning, of being a winner, of finally, finally achieving my dream before the real world could intrude again.
The water speared into me and I could barely hear the shouts and laughter of my teammates finally coming off the pitch over its spray. Our ancient locker room was about to turn into a pre-party while we all got ready for the huge end-of-season shindig thrown by the club’s owners.
A bunch of us—me included—wanted nothing more than to go home, but one simply did not skip this event. No matter how tired, no matter how injured. You went, you gladhanded the shit out of everyone, and you pretended to have the best time. Every year, I dreaded it. This year, though, things would be different. We were winners and I was trying to shake my salty reputation—my contract was up for renewal in the off-season. I cranked the water to cold to rinse out the last of my conditioner and practiced my biggest, most pleasant smile. My cheeks hurt already.
With my team all around me, their chatter echoing off the cinderblocks that needed a new coat of paint, I felt like I was in my safe space. Safe enough, at any rate, to call Sylvie back. The insulation of their enthusiasm made a little bubble around me as I waited for her to pick up. I snorted when her voicemail kicked in. That was so Sylvie, harass me for hours, then pout when I finally did what she wanted—probably thought she was teaching me a lesson.
Joke was on her, though. I’d grown up in the most passively aggressive toxic home with a mother who knew how to wield silence as a weapon as easily as a backhanded compliment. In a small Midwestern town in southern Wisconsin where everyone knew you and your business.
Shoving thoughts of Sylvie aside, I forced my attention to making myself up to appear as photogenic and approachable as possible. Most of the other girls had completed their transition from sweaty athlete to debutante and were starting to file out to the hired cars that would take us to the Fairmont Hotel for the celebration while I was still winding a final section of hair around my curling iron.
“Want me to make sure there’s a car for you when you finally finish?” Teresa asked with a small smile as she appeared in the mirror behind me. She knew how much I hated the schmoozing that went along with our captain’s badges.
I waved my curling iron at her and pointed at my freshly made-up face. “Nah, no big deal. Just need to make sure Sam’s makeover wasn’t in vain. If I miss the last car, I’ll cab it.”
Teresa shrugged and gave me a tiny finger wave as she pushed through the swinging doors. “Your funeral if you miss it.”
“I’ll be there, don’t worry.”
After much overspraying, the last section of my stick-straight dark-auburn hair was obediently wrapped around the hot iron. The big pin curls were fantastic in contrast with my pale, freckled skin and gray eyes. I looked like a dolled-up gladiator in my dark green dress with the black lace overlay and admired the way it hugged the smooth muscles I’d sacrificed so much to build and hone. I was taking a last dab at a slightly overcolored spot on my top lip when my phone finally rang.
And like every time it rang without me immediately being able to see who was calling, my brain shouted hopefully, “Mom?” I castigated myself for still believing in the impossible. She hadn’t come around to my profession or my love for the game in twenty-three years. There was no starting now. I flipped my phone over and saw my agent’s face with her badass shark grin and tapped the screen.
“Sylvie,” I said without further greeting. Sylvie hated what she called “perfunctory nonsense.”
“Abigail Jean,” she returned grandly. Never mind that that wasn’t my middle name. First- and middle-naming me was the way she showed her affection and Sylvie changed it up every time.
I rolled my eyes. “What’s up?”
“Did I feel you rolling your eyes at me, young lady? Because I got a distinct vibe from that—”
“Sylvie, cut the crap. What’s going on that you had to blow me up like this tonight of all nights?” I asked impatiently.
“My dear, I know. I know. While I would love to let you rest on your laurels, I unfortunately can’t.” She sighed and my stomach knotted again as she continued, laying it out bluntly and with no sugary sweetness to cushion the blow. “The team has decided that they’d like to go a different direction next season. They have some kid from South Korea on scout who is basically you pre-ACL tear on performance-enhancing drugs.”
I couldn’t speak or breathe. Now? After six years and a championship. Had they seen me limp around after my knee got torqued to hell?
“I know, dear, this is a lot to take in and it feels like it’s out of nowhere,” she said with no small amount of sympathy. “I was shocked too. Completely taken by surprise. Between you and Matti, Chelsea is—”
“Matti? What happened to Matti?” I asked, my voice higher-pitched than I would have thought possible. Sylvie managed both of us and he was a recent sign for her after his last agent cut him loose. And that had gone down in a spectacular, flaming ball of shame when yet another of his infamous house parties had turned into a drug-and-alcohol-fueled orgy. Management hadn’t been fond of those photos when they appeared online.
“He’s being cut. Only the team had the grace to actually tell him in person, unlike this fiasco.”
“When did you find out about us?” I asked, wondering if they’d already decided they wanted someone else before they’d seen me win the game for the team, before they might have spotted the slight limp.
“Well,” she prevaricated. “Here’s the thing, they called me right at kick-off. Matti was told at your half-time. I don’t want you to worry. There are going to be a lot of teams interested in you after today’s win and Matti is always bankable. I’ve already had a few calls for each of you.”
She paused and I could tell she’d popped in a square of nicotine gum as I heard the aggressive chewing noise. “I know how you feel about him, but I need you to do me a favor and keep an eye on him tonight. He’s not answering his phone and when he drinks, bad things tend to follow. I need you two to be on your best behavior while I negotiate.”
“Sylvie, I’m not his keeper and tonight’s going to be crappy enough. You know how badly he embarrassed me back at that fundraiser,” I responded through a clenched jaw.
“You don’t have to talk to him—although maybe it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if you could pull that stick out of your ass and drop the grudge. I’ve always thought the two of you would make such a cute couple.” She muttered the last part and sighed heavily, like I was the one who made her life difficult and not the eternal man-child. Who, yes, was super hot, but oh my god was he an awful person.
“Please, Abby, get him in a cab if he gets too unruly, I’ll text you his address,” she begged.
I groaned and felt a headache start to form behind my eyes. “Fine, but I want a cut from his signing bonus for doing you this favor.”
Sylvie ignored my sarcastic comment. “I’m flying out from La Guardia tonight, will be at Heathrow tomorrow morning. We’ll meet then and can start talking about your options.”
I sighed and slumped back onto the bench, feeling completely unmoored. My options. Six years, the peak of my career as an athlete, and they’d “decided to go a different direction.” The pendulum had swung back and the price I’d already paid to play the sport that I loved, the only thing that had ever mattered to me, now seemed indecently high. Fuck this beautiful fucking game.
Who even am I without soccer to define me?