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November 21, 2018 | Rome, Italy

Some Flak about Chelsea Burns

By | 2018-03-21T18:59:41+00:00 March 21st, 2014|"Short Fiction"|
Can a preternaturally skilled athlete also be attractive and powerful? I wrote.

Sitting sturdy on the bleacher, my reporter’s notebook on my lap, blue ballpoint pen in hand, I had a bird’s eye view of the gym. I could see the black-tape diamonds on the floor, the coaches with their hands jammed in their pockets, all typical for a girls’ game. When I turned to scan the stands behind me, I saw a plethora of fans, most of who had never been to a boys’ basketball game before. Hell, I saw students who hadn’t spent much time on the Roosevelt High School campus before. I saw miles of boys — far more males than females — who spent their nights playing Nintendo. But tonight they were here, staring at the court, smirking and laughing.

I turned back around to see what everyone was looking at… but I already knew, having covered a game or two on my way to The Ram‘s upper echelons. Just like last season, there was really only one main attraction at the girls’ basketball games: Chelsea Burns, Roosevelt High’s star forward. At 6 feet 2 inches, she towered above the other players, her golden shoulder-length hair swaying, her white teeth gleaming, her skin lightly tanned. She was our Aphrodite, our powerhouse, poised at the center of the court.

But she was more than a beauty. After the toss-up, she leapt like a leopard across the floor, and in moments she was reaching for the ball, scoring point after point while smiling and rousing her teammates. When the crowd cheered, as the Rams moved closer to the state championship, she jumped up and down on the court waving her arms. She loved her team, she loved winning, and she loved her high school, which loved her back.

When in motion, Chelsea’s uniform accented every contour of her long, toned torso. It was more than powerful biceps and shoulders. Hers was an exceptionally well-developed body. As Chelsea leapt into the air to make a shot, her muscles strained against the thin maroon-and-white sleeveless jersey, exposing every angle of her chiseled chest. Her surprisingly large breasts shook, pressing mightily against the silk fabric. Reaching up a head higher than her teammates, even her armpits glowed. I caught sight of her piercing jewelry gleaming against her tan belly. Her maroon shorts flew up, revealing, at one brief angle, some bright red panties. She simply couldn’t be contained.

On other players the Ram uniform appeared ordinary, but on Chelsea Burns it looked like lingerie. Her body dominated the court in more ways than one.

I watched the entire game, and not just for my story. This year’s winning streak was no different than last year’s, when Chelsea Burns joined varsity. I stayed to watch a legend in the making. As I studied her, spellbound, not lifting my pen, the cells in my brain rearranged themselves. I inhaled and breathed in the elixir of Chelsea Burns. Her power, beauty, and talent rushed through me, and flushed, I let it all in completely. If you really watched her, she wasn’t a Ram or even a girl or a woman. She was a goddess, a superpower. Watching her, I knew I could write anything in the world that I wanted to. Hell, I could be anyone in the world I wanted to be.

I could have left the game then, but I stayed. I stayed to watch her make boys and men care about girls’ basketball, to make cheerleaders seem commonplace, to give teeth to Title IX. It was pathetic seeing every male in the gym feasting his eyes upon her, gawking and gulping, especially when all those good Catholics running this town would never admit it that it was Chelsea, not the team’s winning streak or its strategy, they loved. But those fans in the stands didn’t take a thing away from Chelsea. She had it all, and if she enjoyed it a little, striding across the court to cheers and screams, you couldn’t tell. More power to her. I stayed to make sure I had this right.

At 4 p.m. on a Friday, it was miraculous not to see Jason Karlawish, our editor in chief, at his desk in the back of Ms. Singer’s art room, the makeshift office for The Ram.

“Caught last night’s girls‘ game,” I said to Jason from my desk beside the double sink. He didn’t look up from his copy. The room was overly warm due to its humungous industrial-style heating vents. It smelled strongly of rubber cement, and the walls were smudged with charcoal fingerprints.

“Toxic,” I said, pointing at Ms. Singer’s India-ink-stained fingernails, which she’d been chewing intensely. She quickly pulled her hand away from her mouth and stuck it into her smock pocket.

“You’re exactly right, Jennifer,” she said. I winced. Was “exactly right” any better than just “right?” Sadly, Ms. Singer, our newspaper “advisor” — and I use that term loosely — didn’t care about language. An art teacher, she presided over the design and layout of The Ram, but I never saw her read any copy. After school, while we Ram editors fiercely debated journalistic ethics, she carved fleurs-de-lis around the edges of large bowls.

In his thick Elvis Costello eyeglasses, poring over papers on his desk, Jason saw everything. But he couldn’t pick stories to awaken the slumbering masses at Roosevelt High, students dead to all but video games. Jason was out of touch; he was also thin and bird-like in that geeky way that had “teacher’s pet” and “debate champion” written all over it. Jason’s insistence on emulating William Buckley, combined with the rash of pimples on his tiny face, guaranteed his isolation from his readers, destroying his chances of being a journalist who would cut his teeth on any subject besides… chess matches. As a junior, Jason’s coverage of last year’s high school chess team represented the most effective journalism humanly possible on the topic. I had to give him that.

“I must say, Chief, this is your worst ever. I cannot believe you missed this story.”

The light shot back off his eyeglasses. Nothing happening behind them.

Of course Jason had ignored his own brief note in the log from the last school board meeting.”Some flak about changing the girls’ basketball team uniform,” he’d written. Apparently Mr. Mack, the coach, had requested funds for new uniforms next season.

“What kind of uniforms?” I’d asked Jason.

“More ‘professional’ is what old Mack the Mormon said. Seems he’s studied the trends, and girls’ basketball is changing. The Roosevelt Rams girls’ team deserves the upgrade,'” he droned in a deep voice, imitating the coach. “‘More professional uniforms will give the girls greater self-respect as they march toward victory in the state championship.'” Jason brandished his arm, then bowed.

“What will these new uniforms look like, exactly?”

Jason shrugged.

“Same colors. Just… well, maybe more fabric. More like the boys’ uniforms. Short-sleeved shirts instead of sleeveless jerseys. Longer shorts.” Jason chortled.”What do you expect from a Mormon? Those girls can’t look too good. On weekends he coaches the county league team, with his three little girls.”

Because there was only one thing to think of when you heard about the proposed changes to the girls’ team’s uniforms. Every student, every teacher, even every PTA member would immediately get what this proposed uniform change was all about. Everyone, that is, except Jason, our school newspaper’s editor in chief.

“When is the school board taking action on the item…. er, the girls’ basketball team item?” I asked.

Jason looked up, revealing his tiny bespectacled eyes.

“No action to take. Next meeting the board decides whether to allocate funds. Despite a school budget that dwindles by the millisecond, we all know that sports is what matters at Roosevelt High. Why, Kaplan? What’s up?”

He didn’t wait to hear my answer, collecting his papers chronicling a fictional interview with Gary Kasparov, a satire he’d been writing all month, maybe longer. Typically, he didn’t take out his prized sheaf in front of anyone, for fear they’d recognize that he was still writing the same story. I suppose it signaled a certain intimacy between us that he’d pulled it out in front of me. Either that or he hadn’t realized I was still in the building. Jason and I weren’t so dissimilar. Lacking looks, height, and any semblance of athleticism, we’d adapted as best we could, landing us squarely at The Ram.

I didn’t tell the Chief what was “up.” The information would have been wasted on him. Mack and the board couldn’t stand having a Chelsea leading the team. I couldn’t let them get away with that. I’d blow the lid off their provincial prudishness. The trick was how to expose the real reason for the uniform change.

“Same old stuff, I guess,” I muttered, as Jason left to work on Kasparov. I was grateful; I had my own piece to write.

I chose this moment to speak to Ms. Singer about my title.

“An assistant assists someone. But I don’t work for Jason. I make 40 percent of the editorial decisions myself, so I should be referred to as the ‘associate editor.'”

Unfortunately, Ms. Singer needed to think about this. Taking off her smock, she accidentally pulled up her orange silk blouse, revealing a thin leopard-print push-up bra.

“Oh my,” she murmured, tugging down her blouse. I smiled politely while trying to wipe the unhelpful information from my brain.

“So you agree that it’s a more appropriate title?” I asked. She nodded. I waited. Nothing followed. “So we’ll change the masthead tomorrow?”

“Sounds good to me,” she said, returning to her ceramic bowl.

I made a mental note to record this conversation in my notebook in the likely event that Ms. Singer forgot it completely, then turned and headed out the door into what was left of the smoggy suburban afternoon.

Late that afternoon when I got home, my mother, on the telephone with her boyfriend, waved to me from her chair. With a bowl of cereal, I slipped upstairs to my bedroom and sat at my desk by my window. I picked up a blue ballpoint pen. I pulled out my notebook, and I turned to a clean page in the middle. Luxuriously, I stared at — no, I petted — the thin blue lines on the page. I cleared a space for my testimony, a letter someone less objective and more passionate than I might write. Remembering the faces of the fans and the powerful contortions of our forceful forward, I drew in words a vivid picture of Chelsea Burns. I conjured the communal swooning in the gym, the bated breath, the gazing. I let myself feel it all again. Surveying the crowd in my mind, my skin tingled. I felt as excited as her fans — even the fathers who kept these feelings secret. I felt I had to go there to nail this story. I had to feel it in order to reveal it.

Then, after more than hinting at the ugliness, I pulled back and wondered aloud what Chelsea Burns represented to our suburban New Jersey high school. Where, despite the equal opportunities, no girl tried out for debate team and pretty girls were encouraged to study fashion. Where all the math and science teachers were men and students with working moms were automatically considered at risk.

“Can a preternaturally skilled athlete also be attractive and powerful?” I wrote, “or would she have to be ‘cute,’ or ‘professional,’ meaning she couldn’t make men weak with desire?” The more I wrote, the more fired up I became. “Don’t hold Chelsea Burns down because she’s powerful. Don’t cover her up because males leer. Girls like us, like Chelsea Burns, need to be free from male persecution at Roosevelt High.” Even if there wasn’t another girl in the school who had a clue what I was getting at, it was the truth. I was simply putting to words what they weren’t yet capable of saying. Yet as I wrote, I let myself get carried away — to make the letter more authentic, I felt. I made myself think less than usual — much less — and as my hand flew across the page, my fingers taut around the pen, my knuckles flat, my letters tight and fast, words I’d never used, in combinations I’d never dreamed of before, moved through me. In the dwindling dusk light, I got carried away and wielded my pen like a weapon. In my fervor, my feisty tour de force missive became a paean to adolescent girl power. “Let Chelsea Burns be,” I wrote with a flourish at the end. I signed the letter “Anonymous” and prayed I’d never meet anyone stupid enough to write and send a letter like mine to the editor. At the same, I was proud of it.

Then I put the letter in an envelope addressed to the assistant editor. I winced at the thought of my own invisibility, but then isn’t that why I became a writer? The power of the pen could compensate for so much. Besides, I had a new title, even if no one knew it yet. And with a lead to follow up, I had a story to write. I turned to a clean sheet of paper and got a head start early in the night.

Jason was a niggard about everything, but he guarded that letter more than any copy that had ever come across his desk. A day after it made the rounds from The Ram mailbox to me, then to the rest of the staff, I caught him rereading it at his desk in the back of the room, fingering the two stapled pages, licking his lips.

Even Jason must have sensed the scoop would be hot because he didn’t mention it to Alana, his lackey news editor, nor even to his crony Kevin, the sports editor. He blinked several times in a row when I handed him my story at 4 p.m. on a Friday, one day after he first saw the letter.

“Of course I can’t reveal my source, but she didn’t say anything beyond what was in her letter,” I said. “However, the interviews with Mack and the board members were classic, full of hemming and hawing.” I paused. “So, no action to take. Besides publishing the letter and my story, of course.”

“Of course,” Jason snapped back. In his bespectacled eyes I caught a glimpse of a hunger I recognized. I almost felt bad for Jason. Then I remembered how he’d made sure everyone in our last editorial meeting noted my “new and correct label” of associate editor.

“It’s official from the establishment, so let’s just get used to it, okay?” he said, smirking. I was dying to say if the “establishment” hadn’t decreed that an editor-in-chief be so for only one year — if merit was used instead to determine who was chief — I’d be in his place now, and The Ram would be winning first-place awards in the state and probably even the nationals. The only thing that consoled me was thinking about next year, when I’d be a senior and editor-in-chief.

When I walked into Ms. Singer’s room the day the galley proofs came in, Jason broke into a smile.

“Don’t you hate this place?”

Huh? It was the sort of irony-laden comment he probably thought brilliant editors made all the time, but as usual, Jason’s meaning wasn’t clear. No matter: even our out-of-touch chief must have sensed things were going to change around here. He’d try to take credit, even if he had no idea how I’d managed to make it all happen.

It seems we’d gone for shock value, with a big bold headline emblazoned across page one: “Letter Alleges Misogyny Directed at Star Athlete.” Not too bad, but the managing editor had littered the phrase “secret source” throughout my story for no good reason. Then, reading the proofs, I found an entire editorial I’d never seen before. Another last-minute, high-drama affair that almost didn’t get out in time. Actually, all I read was the first, characteristically convoluted Jason sentence: “No matter what you think about the relatively minor issue of the girls’ basketball team uniform, a previously invisible drama is unfolding, laying bare the gigantic rift between the sexes at Roosevelt High.”

“What the hell is this?” I demanded, cornering him near his desk. From the sink, her hands coated in paint, Ms. Singer looked over and smiled weakly.

“There was a story there all right, Kaplan. But the way I saw it, not so much the one you wrote,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“That letter is amazing. It came from a demographic that never speaks up, never gets involved in school issues. It’s full of passion and anger. The letter’s the real story here.”

“My daughter’s a born fighter,” Ms. Singer piped up from across the room, “but she could never write a letter that good.”

I watched Ms. Singer carefully. She didn’t seem to have a clue about what I’d done. Which didn’t exactly surprise me. What really bugged me loop was that Rick had put my story on page four, with just a tiny lead-in on the front page.

Did anyone care what the board eventually decided? Instead of exposing sexism, The Ram had turned the story into an exposé about a posse of radical feminists thriving at Roosevelt. Obviously The Ram editors couldn’t care less what the school board decided about the uniforms.

But after I calmed down and reread the letter, I decided I’d done well. I’d contributed to improving the climate at Roosevelt High by exposing Mr. Mack’s stupid effort to contain adolescent females. And if I’d done something to boost the self-esteem of those other girls I’d invented, other potential victims just dying to be accepted while busting out of their clothes, so be it. What mattered most was that because of my story, finally, Roosevelt High School students would pick up and possibly read The Ram.

Then Ms. Singer had to wonder aloud about the story’s effect on Chelsea Burns.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “After playing her heart out all this time, Chelsea must have really been looking forward to her senior year.”

“Huh?” I said.

“I wonder what she’ll do. After all this.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, thoroughly puzzled.

“Well, I certainly don’t imagine her on the court with everybody thinking about her —” Ms. Singer stammered, her nails moving toward her mouth, ” — her body.”

“But that was already the case,” I said.

“Sure, but no one had pointed it out before.”

I caught her glance at Jason. He was studying me hard, thinking I’d lost my objectivity in some sort of adolescent girl swoon. Like a crush or something. My blood started to boil.

“Of course, I guess that’s what journalism is all about, right?” said Ms. Singer, trying to fill the silence. “You guys just tell the facts. You can’t worry about one girl’s feelings, right?” She looked back and forth from me to him to me again. Then her gaze lingered, waiting for my answer.

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s not Chelsea Burns’ story. It’s much bigger than that.”

“Right,” said Ms. Singer with a huge sigh of relief. “At least the story’s out now.” She smiled. “I’m so glad you experts are here to remind me of these things.”

“Wait a minute,” said Jason in a low voice. “Hold on now.” His mouth got a little twisted, even more than his usual Buckley smirk, and a dull glow of panic burned in his eyes. “Kaplan, didn’t Rick have you talk to Chelsea about this story?”

“No,” I said, waving him off. “What do you think she would have said? ‘Is that so?’ I mean, don’t you get this story isn’t about her?”

He shook his head, then blinked several times, as if a wild bird were trying to break free from behind his glasses. “Didn’t you think this would cause a problem?”

“Obviously Rick didn’t think so. You know as well as anyone it’s the editor’s job to give a clear directive, not the reporter’s.”

Jason brought his hand down hard on the copy we were about to send to press.

“You are the queen of protocol!” he shouted. “In every situation, you’re practically racing me to see who cites the journalist’s code first. How could you…. forget?” he practically screeched.

“It wasn’t that I …” I stammered. “I didn’t forget. I didn’t feel we needed her approval.”

A sound somewhere between a grunt and a howl erupted from Jason’s mouth.

“That’s not the point!” he shouted.

It wasn’t. But if I had spoken to Chelsea and she didn’t get what these guys were feeling when they cheered for her — or worse, if she didn’t care — I’d be crushed. Sure, it would still be a killer story, but so sad. So damn sad I wasn’t sure I’d want to hold it up for the world to see. And if she pretended to get it, just to shut me up — me the geeky, unpopular, chunky girl I am — I’d hate her. Just like that. I’d hate her for having so much and wasting it. Not even getting it. And then I’d never be able to write or even think about her, or anyone like her, with that same fire. I wasn’t ready to let go, or test my text against the real world of Roosevelt High.

“Would everyone please stop worrying about Chelsea Burns?” I shouted.

“Let’s try to calm down,” said Ms. Singer, clueless about the ethics but concerned a teacher might hear the commotion.

“We have to calm down. It’s too late,” said Jason. “What are we going to do: not go to print? We just have to hope her father isn’t a lawyer, and her family doesn’t have many lawyer friends.”

He was starting at the ground. This bugged him, and I could see why. He was bigger than this; he was into the ethics.

“Trust me,” I said, “Chelsea will be fine — better than fine. That story saved her life, even if she doesn’t know it. And hey, I can report back on the reaction first thing tomorrow morning, since I’m covering tonight’s game for Kevin.”

Looking down, I realized I was biting my nails.

“Toxic,” Ms. Singer whispered, smiling kindly and pointing to the ink staining my fingers.

Kevin, the sports editor, raised his eyebrows when I offered to cover the next girls’ basketball game.

“You sure, Kaplan?” he asked, and though I’d pegged him as a dullard, his eyes shined keenly, as if he were thinking hard about what to say next.

“What?” I demanded.

“Well, if people see you?”

“What do you mean? Who?”

“Mack, for one.” He wouldn’t look at me.

“Are journalists supposed to be afraid now? He got to tell his side of the story.”

“True,” said Kevin. “It just might be a hard night.”

That evening when I walked into the gym from the cold outside, the warmth of so many bodies felt like a breath against my face. I wended my way past the basketball hoop, amazed at the tremendous crowd filling every spot on every bleacher, at the fans spilling off in front of the doors and lined up in two, maybe three rows along the walls. Never had so many packed the gym for any basketball game. This time I didn’t see more males than females. Parents and students stood together. Boyfriends and girlfriends held hands. I saw naked curiosity in their faces, and because the band was about to start playing, I knew what they were waiting for.

As the Roosevelt High School fight song started playing, the team jogged out in a thin winding line toward the center of the court. The crowd cheered.

“I love those uniforms,” a woman behind me cried.

Chelsea Burns would be at the end, her face wide open and innocent, or perhaps daring and determined. My skin tingled. I took up my pen.

But instead of Chelsea, an alternate player appeared at the end of the line, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face somber, her thin arms jutting out from the sleeveless jersey. And though the band kept playing, I heard the gasp, as if everyone inhaled at the same time. When the music stopped and the team stood lined up before us, nobody in the gymnasium moved.

“I can’t believe she really quit,” whispered a girl beside me, close to tears. Huh? I scanned the courts. I studied every door. Stunned by Chelsea’s absence, I tried to steady myself, to keep from shaking. But the disappointment washed over me in waves that wouldn’t stop.

Then I looked out at the stands. Every single person, even the dim-witted students of Roosevelt High, rose to their feet court in total silence. No one shouted a slogan or cried for Chelsea, which made their collective action more powerful and eloquent than any prose I’d ever written in my life. I stared at them, amazed. My high schools peers as one big wave, with no flopping of their arms now, no wasted movement or sound. Despite their collective mediocrity, their banal thoughts and time-wasting activities, all together as one, they delivered a strong and compelling statement. This was politics in action.

The guy on my right turned to me. “You’re that reporter for The Ram, aren’t you?” He stepped back; people nearby looked over. “Congratulations,” he said, “for ruining ruined everything.” He pointed, and suddenly the crowd was looking in my direction.

I stared down at my ink-stained hands, and when I raised my head to watch the game, I couldn’t focus. I sat on the bleacher. I tried to hold my pen steady against the shattering inside. I found I had no words for all that I’d loved and all that had been taken from me.

Jacqueline Raphael is a Portland, Oregon-based writer who occasionally teaches high school and college students. She loves cross-genre forms such as flash fiction and has published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Apostophe, and Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City (Lit Star Press, 2009). Currently she is at work on a novel about the relationship between humans and animals.

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