Maverick rises to his full height, which is miles above me. I might come up to his chin if I were wearing shoes, but barefoot as I am, I’m at eye level with the small divot beneath his Adam’s apple. I watch the muscles in his throat work as he swallows hard. Then, he whispers, “He’s dead.”
His words are a punch to the gut. I wandered in here all, “Pity Party, table for one,” and never stopped to consider I’m not the only one with baggage. And Maverick’s baggage is some heavy stuff. I’m trucking around with a tiny carry-on, and here he is lugging a trunk the size of a dead brother.
Part of me wants to tuck my tail and run from the room. Still, another part of me wants to know more, as much as Maverick will tell me. But I can’t ask him. I’m not that insensitive. I back away slowly, putting several feet between us one step at a time until I’m close enough to the wall to lean against it. Maverick stays where he is for several long seconds after, then moves back to the game. He leans over the table with his back to me. I avert my gaze, looking anywhere and everywhere except at him until he’s finished with his shot.
“He almost made it,” Maverick says as I push off the wall to take my turn. “He got all the way to the last round before… washing out.” His voice drops on the last words so they’re barely audible.
I have a hundred questions, a million maybe. But they all lead back to the most important one: How did he die? The one question I can’t ask. So I don’t say anything except, “I’m sorry.”
His only response is a sad smile.
“Do you play a lot?” I indicate the table with the end of my cue. Maybe I can take the conversation in a lighter direction.
“Some. There’s not a lot to do back home except go to the pool hall.” His answer is casual, but there’s something missing from it, like he’s disconnected from his own words.
“Small town?” I ask, partly because I want to know and partly because I want to check his answer, see if his tone still doesn’t match his story.
“One-stoplight, one-screen-theater small. The kind of town you either outgrow before you’re grown or get stuck in your whole life.” This time, a bitter quality to his answer belies the truth in it.
“I can’t imagine.” Because I come from a city that’s 30 percent suburban sprawl and 70 percent miniature NYC. Urban decay, gentrification, arts districts, and microcosms of world cultures all married in one location. My bustling, never-sleeping, ever-expanding world is likely the antithesis to his sleepy, suck-you-in-until-you-die small town. But I don’t tell him that. Instead, I say, “I’m from the city.”
He nods as if he already knew. And maybe he did. Maybe my city upbringing is obvious; maybe it radiates off me the way he exudes grace and power. Do I walk like a city girl the same way he moves like an agile athlete?
I’m almost as disappointed as I am relieved. If other recruits think I’m nothing more than a city girl, they will underestimate me. But I don’t want Maverick to underestimate me.