On Sundays, Jeanine and I got ready for games together. We’d trade off whose apartment we met at. My apartment had the smaller bathroom, but in my bedroom was a big vanity mirror where we could smear on makeup, outline our lips and eyes with slick crayons, and watch our faces brighten and sharpen without bumping elbows. Jeanine’s apartment had the bigger bathroom, complete with two sinks where we could pile our makeup and appliances, the air growing humid and close from the heat of our curling irons and hair dryers. These were the conditions under which we worked, piling on products until we looked like we were supposed to, until we looked like Jills.
Most Sunday mornings, we were at each other’s apartments anyway because we’d gone out together the night before. It was better to get ready together. We could laugh and fret through our pre-game nerves, we could reassure each other and fix each other’s hair and exclaim about how hot we were becoming in the mirror in front of our eyes. Alone, I was more aware of the shakiness of my hands and the churn in my stomach. I’d been dancing in competitions or on football fields since I was four years old. I loved the fear, I cherished it, but I wanted to share it with someone. It was so astoundingly affirming to meet your teammate’s gaze and see your fear on their face, too. You could fall in love with someone that way; you could fall in love with yourself, with what you were about to do, by sharing the fear and knowing you were going to do it anyway.
But today, the only face in the mirror was mine. It was eleven, four hours to kickoff. I grabbed my phone. I’m driving you, right? Don’t you need my parking pass? The screen turned grainy and slick from the foundation on my fingers as I typed. I sent Jeanine a picture of my hair. Do you see this volume? The hair gods are with me today.
I squeezed into my tights and typed again: Are you at your place? Getting a ride from Bobby? Have you been struck dumb by post-coital bliss? I waited for the blue dots indicating she was typing a reply. My body was alight with pre-game adrenaline, energy searching for an emotion as an outlet—annoyance, panic, anticipation, crazed and ecstatic glee. Jeanine’s silence was making it fold and twist on itself. It didn’t know what it should be. I stalled as long as I could, checking the contents of my duffel for the third time, waiting for her to respond. After five minutes, there was nothing to do but leave.
When Jeanine went AWOL for a night or a weekend, it was usually because she was with Bobby Paladino. Bobby was—well, I hesitated to call him her boyfriend. It was the sort of word that made Jeanine wrinkle her nose with displeasure. They’d been sleeping together for almost a year and a half, so I wasn’t sure what else to call him. He had a brownstone in Park Meadows, as well as a condo down in Miami. He’d flown Jeanine down there a few times, as well as to Tulum, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Barbados. They went skiing back in February in Lake Tahoe. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d sprinted from the airport to a game or practice at the last minute.
On my way to the stadium, I stopped by her apartment. Her car wasn’t there, which meant she’d already left, or she’d been too drunk last night to drive herself home. I knocked on her door and practiced the double-turn in bar eight of our opening number. It was a damp fall morning, and the leaves pressed into the pavement smelled pleasantly of autumn and rot. Too humid—all our hair would be deflated by halftime—but cool enough to be good for dancing. After four turns, I put my ear to the door. Nothing, not even a peep from her small and skittish black cat.
I tried not to be annoyed as I ran back to the car. I tried to think it was no big deal. I almost texted her, Don’t be late, or Suzanna will murder you. The word murder, which I’d meant to be casual and flippant, stared up at me from the screen like a dare. I faltered. Probably, nothing bad had happened. Probably, Jeanine was rushing out of Bobby’s brownstone at this very moment. Or she’d swung by to pick up her uniform, and I’d just missed her.
But sometimes, bad things did happen. I knew this. You didn’t send the word murder into the cosmos. You didn’t want that word, written by your own hand, stored away in your phone after you got the news that your friend was in the hospital, or hadn’t come home, or—
I punched the button to turn on the radio and drove. I hadn’t worried like this in months, not since my sister, Laura, had left rehab. I used to think I could stave off the worst by picturing it, exactly the worst thing that could happen, in great detail and imagining exactly how I’d react and how it would feel, and what I would do to handle it. All this practice served only to make me feel complicit when something bad actually did happen. Some higher part of my consciousness understood that the worst could happen whether you thought of it or not. Still, I erased the text and drove. I just didn’t want to have sent it.
Even when I left early to avoid tailgating traffic, it took over an hour to get to Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was one hundred and twelve minutes to kickoff by the time I made it to the referee’s locker room, which was crammed full of Jills, preparing for the game. I stood up on the bench of the locker room to scan the crowd. Girls sat cross-legged on the floor with their mirrors propped up on the benches, squinting at their makeup—MAC products exclusively, which were provided at a discount from Edges Salon, one of our biggest sponsors. Jills fought over outlets to plug in hair curlers and dryers and bumped into each other while yanking on hot pants and white boots. They counted off beats and practiced choreography and fussed over hair and eyebrows and emerging zits. One of the youngest girls on the squad, Maria, had brought in some ridiculous little instrument, a recorder or a piccolo, on which she was loopily picking out the notes to our opening number. The girls around her dissolved into fits of laughter and begged her to stop, wiping at their makeup. The smell of hairspray and sweat and the shrill white noise of preparation hit me like a drug. I was so happy to be in the locker room with these girls. My unease shrank to a dull twinge and retreated.
I bumped into Lana from Group 2 as I clambered down from the bench. “Help,” she begged, fanning her face, the false eyelashes on her left eye drooping.
“Have you seen Jeanine?” I said.
“Uh-oh.” She pointed her eyes towards the ceiling while I patted her falsies back into place. “Think she’s out with whatshisname? Robbie Richboy?”
“Bobby,” I corrected as she studied her lashes in her compact mirror.
“If she’s coked up on the beach somewhere while we’re here in the chicken coop, I swear to God,” Lana said this without judgment; Jeanine knew where to get drugs of all kinds—coke, Adderall, illegal diet pills—and Lana had purchased them off of her many times. She snapped the mirror shut. “I’m sure she’s on her way. If she doesn’t show in about six minutes, Suzanna will start breathing fire.”
We jumped as Sharrice kicked open the door behind us, clutching a bag of ice, which she brandished over her head like a trophy. The room erupted with cheers. She emptied the bag into the first two urinals on the left-hand side of the room, leaving two little mountains of ice into which the girls shoved champagne, wine, and Coca-cola and beer cans.
I joined the other Group 4 girls—Sharrice, Gina, and Alicia—and took a swig from the bottle of white wine Sharrice offered me. I was overcome by the full-body nausea that preceded every game and wanted to be close to the girls I’d be dancing with. Jeanine was the final member of our sideline group.
Gina was crouched in the corner, elbows propped on her spread knees, forehead wrinkled in discomfort. “Yeast infection,” she mumbled in response to my questioning look.
Sharrice was warning Alicia, the rookie of our sideline group, about Steelers fans.
“They’re the ones you have to watch out for. They yell the worst stuff at us.”
“Like what?” said Alicia.
“Oh, like names. Or ‘take your top off.’ Dumb shit like that. They’re also more likely to throw things.”
Alicia’s eyes widened. “Like what?” she repeated.
“The usual—snowballs, beer cans,” said Sharrice. “Batteries.”
“You lost a chicken cutlet,” said Gina from her deep squat position, her head even with my hip.
She handed me the gel insert that had fallen out of my bra, and I shoved it back in. Once you made it on the squad, you got a free—meaning, mandatory—consultation with a plastic surgeon who offered you discounts on procedures. I was complimented on the slope of my nose but strongly advised to augment my breasts, which don’t quite fill a C-cup. “You’re going to want to get those done,” he’d said, “if you’re serious about progressing on the Jills,” I told him thank you but opted for gel inserts and other optical illusions to make them the appropriate size.
Sharrice turned to me, leaving Alicia to fret over Steelers fans. “Where’s Jeanine? Didn’t she drive with you?”
Gina’s head shot up. “I’m here ready to dance all day with a bum vagina, and Jeanine can’t even be bothered to show up on time?”
“Don’t strain your Kegel muscles,” said Alicia, with such earnest concern we went into fits.
“Alicia!” Sharrice shrieked, “that’s the name of the exercise; there are no Kegel muscles, oh my gosh—” Alicia covered her face, overcome with giggles, while Gina gestured weakly for us to stop, clutching her lower abdomen.
Sharrice wiped her eyes and turned her attention to her stomach, to which she was applying blush to create the illusion of bigger abs. “Poor Jeanine,” she said. “Missing out on all the fun today.”
There was the issue of incurring Suzanna’s wrath and also of irritating the girls who depended on you to show up and do your part, but what really made Jeanine’s absence mystifying was the fact that games were one of the only things we got paid for. Fifteen hours of practice a week went unpaid, as did all appearances categorized as “charity”—and they found a way to categorize many of them in this manner. By missing the game, she was giving up her chance at one hundred and fifty bucks, plus she’d be banned from dancing at the next one. In all, she was missing out on three hundred dollars—half her rent, practically.
Not to mention: dancing at games was the best part. It was the point.
Fifty minutes to kick off, Suzanna clapped her hands, and the locker room went silent. “I’m not seeing that,” she said, pointing to Sharrice, who hid her now-empty wine bottle behind her back.
Behind Suzanna was Terry Fitzsimmons, the lanky, balding man who owned the broadcasting company who owned the Jills. He surveyed us happily, as though we had all been arranged according to his specifications.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t all be so decent,” he said and waited patiently for us to laugh. “I wanted to say go break a leg out there, ladies. You all are the glue holding the Bills community together. I think I speak for all of us when I say—being a Bills fan is special. When I think about football…”
He paused gravely and we all went still, gripping our hair and makeup products, wondering how long this was going to take. I was fond of the Bills but football was, for me, more of an accessory to cheerleading rather than the other way around. My dad, before he died, was as neurotic a fan as any. He’d drag me and my little sister Laura to games, rant to us about Jim Kelly’s stats, explain Marv Levy’s strategies in excruciating detail, and send himself into conniptions over each failed attempt at a down. He even tried to get us tickets to the Bill’s fourth attempt at the Super Bowl in 1993. Uninterested in these minor details, I spent games watching the Jills through a pair of binoculars, trying to memorize the dance moves. Now, I memorized flashcards of facts about the current players and stats from the previous game so I could talk about them at Jill’s appearances.
“When I think about football,” Terry went on, “I can’t help but think about evolution. Thousands of years have gone into making this team of men in top physical condition. Each generation perfecting on the mistakes of the past, to bring us here today. Football is men doing exceptional feats. And cheerleading—that’s women doing their own exceptional feats. In this stadium, we have gathered together the best men and women Buffalo has to offer. And sometimes I think, my god, this is not just the best of Buffalo I have here in front of me. This may be the best goddamn group of girls I’ve ever seen.”
Suzanna stood next to him, arms folded. She was incredibly thin, the curve from her chin to her collarbone as deep as a cave. Even in her forties, she kept her hair platinum blonde and sky-high over her forehead, with her cleavage propped up beneath a well-moisturized collarbone. Her white tracksuit practically gleamed. Her face, as always, was beautifully made up. Currently, it was arranged in a look of rapidly diminishing tolerance.
Terry finished, “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m proud to be a Bills fan, and I’m proud to root for the Jills, too. Go Bills!”
We shouted “Go Bills!” back at him and launched into applause before he could start talking again. Terry backed out of the room, clapping for himself.
I found Suzanna with Sara, the squad captain, huddled over the giant three-ring binder where Suzanna kept track of all our faults. I broke the news swiftly: “Jeanine isn’t here.”
Suzanna lifted her gaze from the binder. From the way her eyes darted, she seemed to be making a set of rapid calculations. Over Suzanna’s shoulder, Sara clenched her teeth in terror and ran her index finger across her throat. There was a terrible silence, which I tried to endure with poise. I was our sideline group leader. It was my job to keep us organized. For a member of my group to not show up for a game without warning was a betrayal of the highest order and partially my responsibility.
Suzanna announced the end of her mental calculations by snapping her fingers at Sophie, a rookie on the Ambassador squad who normally didn’t dance at games.
“You. Sophie. You’re covering for Jeanine in Group 4. She’s number five, back right, second row. You know the steps?”
Sophie leaped to attention. She was a lean and muscular girl and Korean American—the only Asian girl on the squad. Every time Suzanna spoke to her, her eyes automatically filled with tears.
“Yes!” she gasped. “I know them all! Thank you, Suzanna. I won’t let you down.”
“Go over the routines with her,” said Suzanna to me. “We’ll talk about Jeanine later.”
She turned back to Sara and the three-ring binder before I could answer. I led Sophie, who was gripping her face and chanting, “Oh my God, oh my God,” back to our corner.
Then there was no time to think except for preparing Sophie for the game and checking our hair and makeup, and trying not to pass out.
We lined up in the walkway of the Miller Highlife VIP area and waved to all the people who had purchased the right to stand in this little concrete thoroughfare and watch us and the football players go past. People filmed us on their phones, and we shook our pompoms at them good-naturedly. Though the room was air-conditioned to an arctic chill, pinpricks of sweat began to burst along my bra line.
When it was nearly time for us to stream into the tunnel that would bring us into the stadium, Sara called for us to huddle up. We squeezed into a circle, poms propped together in front of our hearts, and Sara prayed. She prayed for our safety and the safety of the players out on the field, thanked God for our chance to be here and do what we love, and asked him to fill the hearts of all the fans with love and goodwill. She prayed that we may dance as well as we can, in the glory of Jesus’ name, amen.
We headed into the tunnel to wait for our opening number, surrounded by the echo of voices and the snap of photographers. Handlers and people with headsets streamed left and right. We prepared for the yawn of the stadium ahead, the eardrum-bursting roar, the vast expanse of field it was our job to fill with our twenty-eight compact female bodies. Even in my second year of cheering, I felt like I was being deployed for combat. Like my abs and mouth and butt, all had to get as hard and tight as possible lest my guts and vomit go spilling out all over the place. Like my body wanted to jump out of itself. We gripped hands and panted as though our lives were on the line.
The fog machine at the tunnel’s exit into the stadium began to billow, and my stomach tried to escape out through my belly button. Sharrice and I bared our teeth at each other to make sure there was no lipstick on them. Then we began to march out on tempo, a steady one-two step with a pompom flick on the second beat. We streamed into formation on the fifty-yard line while the announcer, an incomprehensible voice that emerged from deep in the echoing shell of the stadium, introduced us.
A lump formed in my throat as an almost physiological reaction to the swell of cheers that greeted us. Actually, it was a little sentimental. Tens of thousands of people, all simultaneously caring about the same thing. And every set of eyes was on us, waiting for us to dance. This was the best you could hope for, right here. An audience of upwards of sixty thousand people, all screaming with anticipation. A mass of shifting colors all forming into a single entity, one heart, all those cheers droning out the same note. We were all here, caring our guts out. Who wouldn’t want to weep at the sight?
The music began and swallowed me up. A dull sweeping roar engulfed the stadium, my body merely obeying the rhythms, submitting joyfully to the punch and drive of each beat. I moved as one being with the girls around me; our boots pounded into the turf in unison, we panted to the same tempo, our fists, and elbows swung into the air in one motion. This was not the part you skipped. Jeanine would never willingly miss this.
Outside the stadium, where my phone once again had reception, I waited for the buzz of a text or a voicemail alert. But there was nothing.
On the walk to my car, I ran into Ray, a superfan who often hovered outside the stadium to say goodbye to the Jills. Everyone on the squad knew Ray—we were always running into him in the grocery store, or while out to dinner, or running errands, leading some of the girls to fret that he knew our addresses and kept track of our movements. He seemed to like me especially; on my birthday, he’d sent me flowers, using the Jill’s fan mail address, with a handwritten note: Virginia, you are EVERYTHING the world spins so you can DANCE, you bring everyone JOY, and when I see you I feel I could be UNDERSTOOD. Twice he’d sent me a painting of myself in my uniform, painstakingly done—the paper dented from pencil lines erased over and over until the perfect, stiff outline of my form was achieved, with my breasts considerably bigger than they were in real life. I’d found him waiting by my car once after Jill’s practice—it was late, and dark, and I had no idea how he knew which car was mine—and I had to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he was not allowed to do this. He was horrified that his actions had upset me and now waited thirty to fifty feet outside the stadium entrance.
“I didn’t see Jeanine come in today,” he said. “Is she sick?”
“Actually, Ray, I don’t know where she is.”
He blinked slowly, eyes widened. I wondered, not for the first time, how old he was. He had a moony face cratered by teenage acne. He could be anywhere between nineteen and forty-five.
“That’s very unusual. I’ve always considered Jeanine to be a bit of an irreverent character, but she’s very punctual.”
“Well…you have to be on time, or you get in trouble,” I said.
“Now, Ashlee has a habit of being late. As does Madison. For Madison, she seems to stay up late partying, while Ashlee seems to have a casual relationship with the idea of time. In all cases, the punctuality does not always directly correlate to the level of commitment, necessarily. But I do tend to respect it more when the girls are motivated by their inner sense of joy and duty, rather than a fear of punishment.”
Yes, Ray had extensive and detailed theories about each of us. He spent large swaths of his time collecting photos of us from across the Internet, rewatching our videos on the Jill’s YouTube page, liking every status update on the Jill’s Facebook, and reading the Cheer Blog on Jill’s site, thinking he had some special insight.
“It’s not like Jeanine not to show,” I agreed shortly.
“Have you checked her apartment? Would you like help?”
“I would not like help. I’m sure everything is fine,” I said. “You know what you could do, Ray? Send out good thoughts for us, like always.”
“I only have good thoughts for you. There’s no other type of thought,” he said happily. He called as I retreated away, “Did you know you were on the jumbo screen for a moment today? I always get the feeling when I catch sight of you that everything’s going to be okay.”
Ray was harmless, probably, but I didn’t love having him behind me, out of my line of sight, while I walked across a darkening and dwindlingly populated parking lot. It brought to mind the threat of real stalkers, which some of us had. Last season Mackenzie had a stalker who sent her Barbie dolls with the limbs and heads removed. The police told her they couldn’t press charges or file a restraining order until he actually attacked her, so she spent the year waiting around for this to happen. But he’d been arrested, finally, for beating up his girlfriend half to death and was now waiting in a jail cell for his court date.
I drove straight from the stadium to Jeanine’s apartment. This time I dug out the key buried in my purse. She’d given it to me a few months ago, to make it easier for me to cat-sit for her whenever she ran off with Bobby or went to Rochester to visit her mother on short notice.
The windows of her apartment were as dim and silent as they had been a few hours before, now reflecting the dim orange streetlights from her complex’s parking lot. I noticed her mailbox was stuffed with envelopes and crinkled coupon ads. On instinct, I emptied it for her, shoving the stack of mail under my arm.
She’d be in there, I told myself as I inserted my key into the lock. Bobby had taken her on a surprise trip to a beach resort in Tulum. They’d gotten delayed at customs, they’d had mechanical issues on his rented jet. She was inside right this second, unpacking her skimpy bathing suits, smelling of sunscreen and the metallic scent of cocaine left in your pores, laughing: “Does everyone on the squad want to kill me now?”
The door swung open to her darkened living room. There, on the threshold, was her little black cat. It mewed and swiped at my ankles, then went careening under the couch. I flipped on the light. The living room was still, as if it had been frozen in place in the middle of a normal day. There was a stack of clean dishes balanced on the dish drain in the closet-sized alcove kitchen. The sofa was gently rumpled, the chairs of the small table askew. And Jeanine’s scent—the cigarettes she smoked on and off, her Victoria’s Secret perfume—hung everywhere.
“Jeanine?” I called. “Are you home?”
I searched for an additional scent to hers, the scent of an intruder or of fear. The cat crept back out and tried to get in front of my feet as I padded across the beige carpet deeper into the apartment. It meowed at regular, unceasing intervals. “Don’t, don’t!” it seemed to be yelling. Or, “Help! Help!” The light in the bathroom had been left on, and it spilled a strip of light into the dark hallway.
Her bedroom was empty, the bed half made, a pair of jeans and heels scattered on the carpet as though someone had run straight out of them. The dress she’d worn on Friday night when I last saw her, hung on the edge of her hamper.
Once I was in the bedroom, I became convinced there was some presence in the living room. I hurried back out and circled the gray carpet, taking in the full and total emptiness of the apartment. The windows were black and silent. The presence, whatever it was, seemed to be always just over my shoulder.
Inside the bathroom, the litter box emitted the ammonia stench of urine. It hadn’t been cleaned in at least a couple of days. Her toothbrush was in the cup by the sink. On the mirror, she’d taped a few old photos of her and her ex-boyfriend, Landon Maher. I’d met Landon several times; he was a likable low-level pot dealer whose only ambition was to be in love with Jeanine. In the pictures, they grinned wildly or stared into the camera with the intensity of doomed lovers. In one, a teenaged Jeanine wore a choker and Landon’s hoodie, her heavily made-up eyes closed while Landon kissed her cheek. In another, taken a couple of years later, they sat on the steps in front of a neon-lit bar, beers in their hands and cigarettes balanced in their fingers, looking mournful and ruined and sexy. I’d done my makeup a hundred times in this mirror and never noticed the frantic and ominous quality of these pictures. Like death waited for them in the black, grainy backgrounds beyond their crazed, overlit faces.
I picked up the cat, slung it over my elbow, and hurried out of the apartment, still filled with the sensation there was someone right behind me.
Halfway to my car, I stumbled as the mail I’d taken from Jeanine’s mailbox, still clamped under my elbow, began to slip out of my grasp. The cat yowled in protest as I bent to grab the envelopes I’d dropped. I tossed the whole mess, cat and crumpled mail, into the backseat of my car and drove.