It had been a long day, but once we got home from the wedding and changed our clothes we were still hungry, so we walked a few blocks to Little Italy to grab a slice. The only people in the joint were the guys working behind the counter. It was nearly midnight, and the heat from the oven cut through the cool air from the outside. It smelled like tomatoes, garlic and charred dough, an aroma New Yorkers immediately recognize as something unalterably good.
My girlfriend told me to order for myself as she went to the rest room, so I did, then sat at a table away from the front door. I looked up at the TV hanging from the corner of the room and there was Rickey Henderson, the guy I’d patterned my swing after in high school. He was a Blue Jay now, playing against the Phillies in the 1993 World Series. It had been four years since he had been on the Yankees, but it felt like longer.
It took a moment to figure out the situation, but when I did -- bottom of the ninth, Jays down by a run in the sixth game of the Series -- I was alert.
I’d missed the entire Series, and large parts of the three before that having drifted away from the game. In high school I was a second basemen filled with self-doubt while playing on a lousy team. I quit my senior year in favor of a part in a school play. And George Steinbrenner had almost singled-handedly choked the enthusiasm out of following the Yankees. The game I’d loved as a kid had become exhausting.
My girlfriend sat down and dabbed her slice with napkins to absorb the oil. We ate our pizza like we’d spent most of the day, in silence.
That afternoon, we’d been to the wedding of two of our classmates, the first in our circle of friends to get married. Like everyone else at that age -- I was 22, she was 21 -- we thought we were older than we were. Both of our parents had been divorced so we considered marriage gauche at best. In spite of that and everything that had happened between her and I, that afternoon I had found myself dreaming it was us walking down the aisle.
My girlfriend and I met our sophomore year of college in a literature class. She was a Manhattan girl, sophisticated, and her aloofness made me want to be close to her. She’d traveled, knew how to dress and radiated composure. Later on she told me of the anguish that preceded this appearance, how she’d been overweight and doubted her looks, and how she felt dumb compared to everyone around her. In return, my devotion to books and painting and movies suggested an intellectual curiosity that made her want to get next to me.
We’d been a couple for more than a year when she’d gone to visit her nomad father in Europe for the summer, first in Paris and then in Greece. For six weeks, I handwrote long, romantic letters. For a while, she wrote back. When her replies came less frequently, I doubled down, sending her mix tapes, and drawings, and photocopied pages from Nabokov and Anais Nin. By August I busied myself preparing for her return, buying books, a necklace, a silk nightgown.
My brother and I picked her up at the airport. She was deeply tanned and something had changed about her. I felt small looking at her as I pictured everything she’d seen while I’d remained in New York. She sat in the front seat as we drove into Manhattan. My brother angled the rear-view mirror to avoid looking at me.
That night, she confessed to having had an affair. I wanted to know everything and she obliged me with the truth, telling me all about the French guy who had pursued her and followed her to Greece. She insisted that she never meant to hurt me. It made sense, a young woman alone in Europe, of course she’d have a fling. I got it, but as I looked out of her bedroom window at the water towers on the nearby rooftops and I clenched my jaw and thought, Oh, why did he have to be French?
And so we returned to college and entered the slow, drawn-out cycle of fighting and making up that precedes the end. Neither of us had the nerve to break it off. So I dug the knuckles of my right hand into the cement one day until I drew blood, just to show her how much she’d hurt me, and I told the story of betrayal to anyone who’d listen. It’s hard to remember when I bottomed out but it was probably when I dragged a friend to a Nora Ephron movie. He took pity on me as I acted like Johnny Fontane in “The Godfather”, waiting for someone to slap me in the face and tell me to act like a man.
* * *
As I sat there in the pizzeria with her, I knew the distance between us was widening. I welcomed the distraction on the TV, relieved that I didn’t have to stare at her.
Rickey gave the Phillies’ closer, Mitch Williams, agita before he threw the first pitch. He stepped out of the batter’s box and Williams didn’t notice until he was halfway through his windup. He held onto the ball and fell to the ground. Then he threw four straight balls and walked Henderson. This was a familiar scene. Rickey on first, toying with the pitcher. Williams retired Devon White, but it took eight pitches and four throws to first.
Paul Molitor was next. He was another guy I remembered well from my childhood, his wide-legged stance and flat-footed swing as recognizable as Rickey’s strut. He lined the 1-1 pitch to center for a single.
I was still hungry and got another piece of pizza. I didn’t want to talk and didn’t want to leave. I was unaware of my girlfriend when Joe Carter yanked a 2-2 pitch toward left field. I lost sight of the ball as soon as he hit it and guessed that it would hook foul. But in an instant the ball cleared the wall in left field, the Blue Jays ran out of the dugout and fireworks popped above the field.
I dropped my slice on the plate, pushed my chair back from the table, and started to laugh and slap the table with my hand. That startled my girlfriend who picked up her soda so it wouldn’t spill, smiled courteously then looked out of the window. The moment was all mine; she couldn’t touch it. It didn’t even register on her, but as I looked back at the TV and saw Carter mobbed at home plate it dawned on me what I was seeing.
That guy just hit a home run to win the World Series.
It was trivial. After months of being a broken-hearted kid overwhelmed by self-pity, I understood trivial. And I was elated.
The replay showed Carter as he ran toward first base. He jumped in the air -- once, twice, three times -- going higher each time. He looked like he was going to lose his balance like a hyperactive kid on a trampoline. As if to right himself, he threw his fist in the air. He finally touched down on home plate and for the first time in months, my feet were on solid ground.