Tuesday, December 29, 2009

14.) Conundrum

Soundtrack Song - Roses Are Red, Silver Linings

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go insane? And I don’t mean to get angry and snap and regret it later, because we’ve all done that—and we’ve all been aware that that was what we were doing, even if we couldn’t control it. I mean full-on fucking nuts.

At that moment, I felt like I was really going clinically insane. I was holding my sanity like a handful of sand, and it was slipping through my fingers. Every time I tried to tighten my grip, more grains just sifted through and floated away. I was pissed off, upset, worried, and even a little scared; but the more I tried to distance myself from those feelings, the more intense they became, in some sort of twisted, inverse ratio of emotion to rational behavior.

It was bad enough that Kris had taken me back to my high school. I couldn’t believe it; at first, I thought he had done it on purpose. That was stupid to think, because there was no way he could have known, unless he had done his research. As nosy as he was (and I wouldn’t completely put it past him), I didn’t think that he would do something like that. That would have been way too much. The fact that it was a coincidence.... Well, I was having a lot of trouble chalking everything up to mere coincidences anymore—and that was scaring the shit out of me. I like meaningless randomness and Kris was screwing with all that. I didn’t know how it was possible for one person to get under my skin in the way that only he had.

Making it worse was my dad’s car parked outside my house. I could not deal with that—him—along with everything else. He was hardly ever home, especially during the day. It didn’t make sense, but, then again, a lot of things weren’t making sense right now. Was this another suspicious coincidence? I couldn’t question it, because I couldn’t wrap my crazy mind around the circumstances.

So I asked him to keep driving. I was incredibly annoyed with Kris and his big mouth and I wanted to get away from him, but I was appreciative that he could be understanding when I needed him to be. And I really needed that now, so that’s what he did.

He was silent, and I stared out the window, watching buildings go by but not paying any attention to where we were going. I didn’t care, as long as it was far away from home. Far, far away. I was a specialist in distance—specifically in putting it between me and whatever else.

“Okay, this is it,” he said, pulling me out of my thoughts.

“Huh?” I had been so wrapped up in my thoughts that I hadn't even realized the car had stopped, so lost in my past that I felt like I had lost time.

Kris peered at me like I was crazy. I really was starting to think that I was. “My place.”

“Oh yeah,” I mumbled, vaguely remembering having agreed to that. I tried to forget about the past hour of my life. Thinking about my old life or what could have been is a waste of time, because thinking about it doesn't change anything. It doesn't affect the future, either. My only concern is the present. “You know, you didn’t have to bring me here. I don’t want to impose.”

He barely smiled and replied, “I wouldn’t have offered if I minded.”

I tried to accept his generosity without probing for a reason or explanation and instead wordlessly followed him into his barren, practically empty apartment. “Chez Kristopher,” I said as he held the door open for me. I crossed through the threshold and looked around at the white walls. At least it was clean.

“Be it ever so humble,” he sighed, dumping his wallet and keys on the counter. If a man’s home is supposed to be an insight into his personality, then this place really made Kris seem so plain, ordinary, and... boring. White bread. As distraught as I was feeling, that thought still made me laugh. When I giggled, he said, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. I can just tell that you don’t have a girlfriend.”

He gave me a puzzled look. “Really? How did you know that?”

“Well, I guess I first should have known since you invited me here. No one brings a strange girl home, because the girlfriend would rip you a new one.”

Kris laughed. “You do have a point there. You said ‘first.’ Does that mean there’s a second give-away?”

I waved my arms out at my sides. “I can just tell. No pictures, no posters, no decorations. Just a couch and a big screen TV.”

“And what else does a guy need?” he asked rhetorically, heading into the kitchen. “Would you like anything?”

His few words of kindness erased the humor I had found in the situation. If there's one thing that Kris knows how to do, it's how to bring me back to the sad reality of the world. “Not unless you’ve got liquor,” I grumbled, really feeling like I needed a drink. I took off my jacket and threw it over the back of the couch.

“Nope, sorry. I’ve got water, water, and... water.” He grabbed two bottles from the refrigerator, walked into the living room, and handed one to me as he sat down on the couch. Not knowing what to do, I sat down beside him and took a drink. When I placed the cap back on the bottle, I glanced over at Kris, and he blushed and looked away.

“What?”

“Sorry.”

“No, what?” I asked, wondering why he was looking at me like that. It both irritated and intrigued me, which was a strange combination but I wouldn't expect anything less than from Kris because that's what he does best.

He shook his head, but I stared at him and waited for an answer. “It's just that, I keep trying to figure you out. And you keep surprising me.”

I rubbed my forehead. Figure me out? That's what he was trying to do? It made me feel like I was no better than a dangling string, toying and distracting a kitten. What a jerk. I didn't understand how I could be so repulsed by someone I was also incredibly attracted to. Absolutely nothing was making sense anymore. I might as well have been in a boat, because I was lost at sea. “Well, I suppose I could say the same thing about you, Kris. I don't understand you either.”

That made him smile, and it only got on my nerves even more. He changed the subject. “So, what were you going to go to school for?”

I don't know why I answered. “Physics.”

“Sounds hard.”

“Not if you're interested in it,” I explained, allowing myself to get caught up in the way it used to make me feel. “There's nothing more fascinating than figuring out how the natural world around you works. It's like uncovering a mystery when you can use a formula to predict how something will happen or why.” The good memories flooded back: launching makeshifts rockets from the football field, building rubberband-propelled cars and racing them down the hallways, and all those fun problems and questions about how fast and how far Superman would have to fly in order to save Lois Lane. Mr. Bryant was the best teacher, and he always made his class fun.

“Excuse me for being an idiot then,” Kris said, interrupting my memories, “but then why didn’t you go? You say that you want to live in the moment and have fun. But you obviously liked it, so why change your mind?”

I was sick of Kris sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. “I told you. Everything changed. That’s all you need to know, so stop asking fucking questions, okay?”

He shrugged, looking at me with those intense and captivating brown eyes. “I told you, you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to.”

“Good,” I spat. “Because I don’t want to.”

“Okay,” he replied in a reassuring manner, staying calm.

“I mean, you can’t just ask people questions like that,” I continued, not looking at him. He made me feel like I was overreacting, even though I didn’t think I was. “And you don’t know me. You can’t talk to strangers that way.”

“It was just a question, Joanna.”

“It’s Jo, okay? Not Joanna. No one’s called me that in a long time,” I snapped. Kris was pushing my buttons—either all the wrong ones or all the right ones, because it was just enough to get me to talk. “You wanna know? Will it shut you up?” I didn’t give him time to answer me. “Because not only did I lose a brother, but it tore apart my family. My dad started drinking, and he spends most of his time out at his friend’s bar, so it’s like I lost my father, too. And then my mom couldn’t take it anymore, so she just picked up and left.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too,” I hollered. “I know she watched as her son died. But she just forgot that she still had a daughter who needed her, too.”

“It’s okay to get angry.”

“You don’t need to tell me what’s okay. And I’m not angry. I’m pissed as fuck! I know she misses him. I miss him, too. God, I miss him so much,” I repeated as sadness and grief replaced the anger. I couldn’t stop myself from talking about the things that had haunted me for so long. “James used to say that we had the world at our feet. That we could do anything we wanted. He was going to play in the NHL some day, and I... well, it doesn’t matter now. James never got that chance to show the world what he was capable of. He was going to be so great. It just goes to show you that you can’t assume that things are going to work out perfectly. We just aren’t able to have it all.” I barely managed to eke out those last words before the sensation of my eyes burning took over. I pressed my palms over my eyes and leaned forward, hoping to ease the suffocating ache and pressure in my chest.

I felt as Kris put his hand on my back and began to rub large circles over my spine. His voice was soothing, even though I couldn’t tell what he was saying. It didn’t matter, though; it was strangely comforting. This was just another instance of what a conundrum Kris was—he got under my skin and wreaked all this emotional havoc on me, yet he was a calming presence, too.

“Are you happy now?” I asked as I leaned back, furiously wiping at my face to erase the tracks of tears. “You did it. You made me cry. I hope you feel good for making a poor girl cry.”

“I don’t want you to cry, Jo,” he whispered, his hand resting on the small of my back. “I never wanted to make you cry.”

“Then why did you push me to tell you those things? You know my whole fucking life story now—didn’t you think it would upset me? Didn’t you think that there were reasons why I said I didn’t want to talk about it?”

“Jo, I know how much it hurts to lose someone,” he said, relying on his fallback explanation. I was starting to get sick of hearing that, but he continued. “It’s always going to hurt. The pain never goes away. It just gets... more manageable. As long as you manage it.”

“I was managing just fine until you showed up. You know, I’ve been working at the arena for over a year now, and up until this point, you left me alone. Why now, Kris? Huh?” I asked, pressing for answers. My heart was still racing, and my hands were shaking from being so worked up.

“I don’t know. I never noticed you before. And if I remember correctly,” he added with a smile, “you’re the one who invited us over to party with you. So I’d say it was the other way around.”

“I wasn’t even supposed to work that day,” I moaned, recalling the phone call I got that woke me up. “That’s not even in my job description. I didn’t want to go in, but I decided to. Who would have known that one decision would lead to all this,” I concluded, motioning around me. If I had told Bob to fuck off that day and had gotten fired, I never would have met Kris and the guys in the locker room. If I hadn’t met them, I wouldn’t have invited them to my home, and then Kris and I wouldn’t have started this weird relationship. Were we friends? I wasn’t sure what to call it. All I remembered was that I thought he was hot, and partying with him sounded like fun at the time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes? You never know what’s going to happen. There’s no way of telling what effect your decisions could have, on you or on others.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I sighed, thinking about the veracity of his words. It was kind of funny; we didn’t seem so different after all, but I wondered if we could ever see eye-to-eye.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

13.) Delving Deeper

Soundtrack Song - Kings of Convenience, Winning a Battle, Losing a War

This could have been a mistake. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking when I asked Jo spend the day with me. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I was sure that this would backfire on me.

The guys weren’t helping, either. Since I was concerned about how the day would unfold, I was quiet at practice. Not that I was always the most talkative guy on the team, but I must have been especially distracted, because they noticed.

“Yo, Tang, what’s up?”

“Nothing, man. What’s up?” I asked back to Staalsy.

“I don’t know. You’re kind of out of it.”

“Why? Because I’m not laughing at your lame jokes?”

Gronk snickered. “Come on. I’m hilarious. You know this.”

“Funny looking, maybe,” I quipped. “But hilarious? Not so much.”

He placed one hand over his heart and draped the other of his forehead, leaning back like he was a damsel in distress. “You’ve wounded my pride!”

I shook my head and laughed as we began our shoot out drill. Today was Car Wash Boy, and I was not going to lose. As we stood at center ice, waiting for our turns, TK asked me, “You sure everything’s all right?”

“Yeah. You guys can all stop asking me that.”

Goli skated up next to us. “I bet he’s brooding over that chick. Hasn’t she called you? Is that why you’re sad?”

I smiled and simply said, “Nope.”

“Wait,” TK said, looking between us. “No she hasn’t called, or no that’s not why you’re sad? And who’s this chick and why haven’t I heard about this?”

“You know the girl. Uh, what’s her name? Shit, I forget,” Goose said, motioning his hand like her name was on the tip of his tongue.

“Jo,” I clarified.

“Yeah, that’s it!” he said, nodding and then slapping my shoulder. “So, what’s the deal? She call?”

I smiled again and shook my head because of their persistence, but I answered in the affirmative. “Yeah, she called.”

“And...?” Goose prompted, gesturing for me to continue. A bunch of the guys turned around, looked at me, and waited for my answer.

And...?” Staal encouraged, his eyes bugging out of his head. “Jesus Christ, I shoulda been a dentist. This is like pulling teeth!”

I was laughing as I took my turn against Flower, who easily turned aside my soft shot. I threw my head back and groaned as I skated back to where I had been standing moments before, surrounded again by several curious teammates. There was only so much avoiding I could do before they’d pin me down to the ice and force it out of me. These guys were bigger gossips than any girl I ever knew. “And we had lunch yesterday.”

“Did she get a taste of the Instant Tang?” TK asked, making everyone chuckle—including me.

“It’s not like that,” I tried to tell them. Not that they’d understand, anyway. This was a rather odd situation that I found myself in. None of them would get it. I didn’t even really get it. “We just talked and hung out for a little while.”

“So are you going to bang her, or what?”

“She totally wants it.”

“Oh yeah, she was eye-fucking you in the dressing room last week. Just go for it.”

“Whoa, guys, stop it,” I said, stopping the barrage of comments. “I said already, it’s not like that.”

“Are you saying you don’t want to hit it?”

“Dude, you know she’s gotta be a wild one.”

“Probably a biter.”

“Definitely a screamer.”

“Will you stop?” They were starting to get out of hand, and I didn’t want to hear it. My intentions were purely beneficent, so I didn’t want to detract from that by having them implant other thoughts in my head.

“What’s the problem? I mean, you like her, don’t you?” TK asked, lending a voice to every one of their thoughts.

I was saved from having to answer that, because it was my turn to go again. I swung out wide and faked a shot; Flower bit and went low, so I lifted the puck, got it over his pad, and into the back of the net. No car washing for me. I skated past the guys and smiled at them—since I had made the shot, I was free to leave practice.

Usually, I did this kind of stuff on my own. After practices, a lot of the guys would go out for a meal, maybe hang out at someone’s house and play video games or watch movies. And sometimes, I would do that. It’s not like I’m antisocial, I just have other priorities that they wouldn’t understand. They’re not jerks or stupid—that’s not what I mean. But unless you have similar experiences, you just can’t sympathize fully with another person.

Which was exactly why today was going to be such a risk. After I left the arena, I headed to the deli for lunch and got my usual. By the time I was finished, it was close to one, so I then went straight to Jo’s. When I pulled up to the curb, she was once again out the door before I had the chance to turn off the engine and walk to her door. Sometimes, it amazes me how our society has become so impatient.

She quickly ran down the pathway from her porch, dressed in a black-and-white plaid, pleated skirt, a pair of hi-top chucks that weren’t laced all the way up, and her leather jacket. As she slid into my car, I noticed that her hair was pulled back in a pair of braids, the pink and black woven together. “Hey,” she greeted, looking over at me and waiting for me to fill her in on what was happening.

“Hey.” She continued to watch me, and I had to laugh. “Seatbelt. We don’t get anywhere until you’re strapped in.”

Jo rolled her eyes but also let out a chuckle. “I forgot. You’re a safety Nazi.” As she turned to her side to buckle in, I saw the humor and amusement written on her face. When I was satisfied, I put the car back in gear. “So, are you going to tell me what’s going on today?”

“No,” I replied, keeping my face as straight as possible. Jo stared at me. “You’ll see.”

She shook her head and crossed her arms across her front. “Remind me again why I agreed to this?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “But you did. So trust me.”

Opening her mouth like she was going to say something callous, she changed her mind and clamped it shut. Then she drummed her fingers against the dashboard. “How’s your face, by the way?”

“Fine.” I smiled at her. “Can’t even tell.”

We spent the remainder of the ride in silence. It seemed odd to me that we could have such deep, philosophical conversations and talk about painful, difficult topics, but small talk eluded us. When I parked across the street from our destination, I picked up on some tension emanating from Jo. “You all right?”

“What are we doing here?” she asked, looking at the building and not at me.

“You’ll see,” I repeated, worried that if she knew she might want to blow it off.

“No, seriously, Kris. Please tell me why you brought me here.” When she glanced in my direction, I saw a strange apprehension.

“I give these talks sometimes. Today, it’s here.” I paused, patiently waiting to see what she was going to do. There was no immediate response, so I lightheartedly added, “Not to be rude, but I won’t open the door for you. I don’t want to risk injury again.” We both got out, and Jo smoothed her skirt, gnawing on her bottom lip. “Are you okay with this? I’m not trying to put you on the spot or anything. I just brought you so you could see.”

Jo looked at me intently, searching for something—either earnestness or malevolence, I’m not sure. She must have found what she was looking for, or maybe she didn’t find it; but she nodded and gave me a very weak smile, following as I headed for the main doors of the high school.

We signed in; the secretary had been expecting me, and she didn’t mind that I had brought a guest. Jo hung back, looking a little dazed and out of it as the secretary gave me directions to the room I was expected at. When we got our visitor passes, she led the way into the hall. “Are you sure you’re okay? If you really don’t feel comfortable with this—”

“You couldn’t have possibly known,” she mumbled, picking at her hands as she made a right, seemingly instinctively knowing the way. “This was my school. This place has a lot of memories for me.”

“I didn’t know.”

“I know. You couldn’t’ve. But it’s just like... what are the odds, you know?” She paused outside of room 114. “So you’re talking to the driver’s ed class.”

“Uh, yeah. You know me, I’m the Safety Nazi.” I shrugged, and she laughed a little. “But you’re okay with being here? ’Cause you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Yeah, well, you would, too. Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

I knocked on the door, and the teacher opened it and welcomed us in. Jo kept her eyes trained on the ground, and she walked to the back of the room and sat on the window sill in the back, crossing her legs, pulling her skirt toward her knees, and then watching as the teacher introduced me to the class and let me have the floor.

I don’t lecture the kids on how to be safe, but I do talk to them about the importance of being safe. About how they’ve got their entire lives ahead of them, and they can’t realize their dreams if they don’t take it seriously. It’s nothing that they haven’t heard before, but somehow they take it a little more to heart since it comes from someone like me. A pro hockey player who’s realized his dreams, but who can’t share those dreams with his best friend because of one decision.

It was hard not to feel like I was addressing Jo the entire time. That wasn’t my plan, to make her feel like I was now admonishing her in front of a room of strangers, but it made this particular lecture feel a lot more personal. Because it wasn’t just a roomful of strangers this time. It gave me a new perspective on why I was doing this in the first place.

I had invited Jo along because I wanted her to see how I could take something devastating and turn it into a positive. It still didn’t make Luc’s death okay, but I was passing along the lessons I had learned, so maybe, they would never have to go through it themselves. I knew that hers was a different situation, but it wasn’t about mirroring my actions; it was about being able to accept what happened, as unjustified and terrible as James’s death was, and move on in a positive direction instead of living in an unhealthy, stagnant way.

After I was finished, the teacher asked the students if they had any questions for me. Most of the pseudo-disillusioned youth kept quiet, but a few of them asked me about the Pens and hockey. Goodnaturedly, I answered them all, and after twenty minutes, I was excused. I nodded at Jo, and she slid off the sill and walked toward me and the door. A girl said something to her as she walked by. “Hey, Joanna.”

I didn’t know how she was going to react; she looked ready to run, but she quietly talked back. “Hey, Tara.” And then, as if pretending the exchange never happened, she shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and walked out the door.

“Who was that?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“She was a freshman when I was a senior. I tutored her in algebra.”

“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Do you, uh, wanna see something? Since we’re here?”

“Sure.”

She led me expertly through the halls, as if the last time she had navigated through them had been very recently. We stopped in front of a large glass case, full of all different kinds of trophies, medals, and pictures. “There,” she said, pointing to one photograph in particular. “That’s James, with his team.”

Knowing what I was looking for, it wasn’t hard to spot him, standing proudly with the C on his chest. He had sandy blond hair and piercing blue eyes, and with that smile on his face, I could easily see that he must have been charismatic. I wondered if Jo’s hair was that color, under all the dye. “Did his team win any of these trophies?”

“No,” she laughed. “They weren’t that good. Our goalie played like there were holes in his pads. They just keep the picture up to remember him. You know, they even established a scholarship in his honor. For athletes with good grades.” She paused. “That’s all I really wanted to show you.”

“Thanks for showing me this,” I told her, feeling so incredibly good inside. That Jo felt comfortable enough to offer this kind of information, to willingly tell me more about her brother.... It meant she was starting to trust me, even if it was just a little. I didn’t have to ask, and she wasn’t begrudging about it, either.

“Um, you’re welcome?” she said, sounding confused and unsure. “We can go now.”

“Wait. Is there anything here about you?”

“No,” she replied frankly. “Why would there be?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Did you play sports? Or what about that quiz team bowl thing you told me about?”

Jo shook her head. Before she could say anything, another voice echoed through the hallway. “Joanna Anderson?” She stiffened, cursed under her breath, and slowly turned to the source of the words. “I thought that that was you!”

She smiled meekly before glancing at me with an apologetic look. I hadn’t known her for long, but I knew that her expression wasn’t a genuine one, and that she was not happy about this encounter. “Hello, Mr. Bryant. How are you?”

“Good, good! Oh my, it’s been a long time. Just look at you. College must have really brought out another side of you. You’re attending Carnegie Mellon, if I remember correctly.”

Panic flashed through her eyes. “Uh—”

“I’m really sorry. But we have somewhere to be,” I interjected, wrapping my arm protectively around Jo’s shoulders. I felt as she relaxed a little.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Bryant.”

“Oh. Well, not a problem. I’d really love to be able to catch up sometime. You were my star pupil. For the class of 2008, of course. Don’t be a stranger. I love to hear about my students’ successes after school.”

“Sure. I’ll talk to you soon,” she replied, and I knew it was a lie. We headed back toward the main entrance, where we had come in earlier. “Thank you,” she breathed.

“Old teacher?”

“Yeah. My science teacher. He was my favorite.”

“Then why did you act like that?”

We returned our passes and walked outside. When she deemed that we were a safe distance from the school, she explained, “Mr. Bryant is the reason I wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon. He made me love science. Hell, he’s probably the reason I got into CMU, because he wrote me an excellent letter of recommendation. But that was before everything happened. Things changed, and I didn’t go. But he wouldn’t have understood that.”

I felt like things were going to get more complicated, but I had to ask. “Well, why didn’t you?”

“Go?” she asked, and I nodded. She spoke so matter-of-factly. “Because I didn’t want to.” I stared at Jo, waiting for a longer explanation. “That’s it. End of story. A lot of things changed after James died. Including my mind about school. Rack up the debt? Waste my time studying so I can get stuck at a job that will suck the life out of me and stress me out? A diploma isn’t going to make me feel smarter.”

“Excuse me if I speak out of place, but I thought that James told you that you were the smart one?” Jo nodded at my question. “So he wanted you to succeed in academics, right?” Again, she nodded. “So do you think that changed just because he died?”

Jo sucked in a breath between her clenched teeth. “Well, unfortunately, I don’t know what he would want, because he’s not here to tell me.”

“Jo, that’s a lie, and you know it,” I said, knowing that I was pushing her to the edge. “I didn’t know him, but I know that he wouldn’t want this for you.”

“Kris, please just take me home,” she groaned.

“You’re angry because you know I’m right.”

She was upset. “I couldn't go back, okay?” Her words came out in a jumbled mass. “After it happened, I couldn't stand the way everyone would look at me. Everyone said how sorry they were for me, and how the girls were crying. Like they fucking knew him. And their looks of pity. It ruined it. It was a waste of my precious time. So if you don't mind, I'd really just like to go home now. Please.”

My heart went out to her, because I could hear the pain in her voice. All those memories, and I had unknowingly brought her to the place that would evoke so much emotion. “Okay, Jo.” I did as she bade me by taking her back home. That is, until we neared her house.

As I slowed the car, she looked at me and begged, “Please don’t stop here. Just keep going.”

“Why?” I asked, confused.

“I can’t be home right now. Please, I don’t care where you take me or drop me off. Just please, Kris.”

I pressed the gas pedal and we sped away. “Okay then, where to?”

Jo rested her head against the seat and cupped her face in her hands. “Anywhere else. Seriously, just not there.”

“My place?” It probably wasn’t the best move, but she looked so shaken that I just couldn’t let her out and leave her somewhere on her own.

“Sure. Okay. Whatever,” she agreed. I had a feeling that at that moment, she would have assented to any option I gave her.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

12.) Innocent Bystander

Soundtrack Song - The Used, Noises and Kisses

“So you don't depend on anyone for anything?” he asked me, his head resting on the back of the couch with the bag of ice pressed against his face.

I looked down at my hands and picked at my disgusting cuticles. Who has time for manicured nails? Not me; what a waste of energy when you pick up trash for a living. I stole a glance at him. His eyes were closed, so I allowed my gaze to linger on his face. On his freshly shaven cheek. On the way his hair flipped up from underneath his hat. I felt like an utter douche bag for hitting him. It was an accident—what the hell was he doing, anyway? No one opens car doors for people like that anymore. This isn't the fifties. Hasn't he ever heard of women's lib?

But still, he had been trying to do something nice, and I had done what I usually do when someone tries to do something nice for me: I hurt them. It was a total role reversal when I insisted on helping him and he didn't want to accept it. Funny how the guy who was touting on and on about accepting an offer of help turned out to be just as stubborn as me. “Well, not quite. I mean, there's Tubby.” I looked down at my nails again. Really, I should do something about these cuticles. I don't even know how to go about... doing whatever it is you do to cuticles. “But, he's kind of why I called you today.”

“I don't understand,” Kris replied.

I stumbled through my explanation. “Well, he got kind of, or rather, he sounded kind of upset when I was talking to him, like he was worried about me. And, you know, Tubs has been there for me through everything, the whole thing with James....” I felt just as upset talking about Tubby as I did about James, but I tried to keep it in check. “He's been a really great friend, and I don't want him to feel that way on account of me, you know? He told me I should call you, so I did.”

“So, you don't even think.... I mean, you didn't call because you wanted to at all?”

I felt exasperated. “You act like there's something wrong with me, like I'm a kid that needs to be reprimanded. I have no reason to repent. There are worse people out there in the world, doing worse things.”

“You're reckless, Jo. You're only given one life, one precious life. Please don't waste it.”

“Waste it? Who said I'm wasting it?” I suddenly realized something about something Kris had said before, but for some reason it hadn't registered at the time. “Wait a second. ‘Making other people happy.’ Is that was this is about? You want to try and fix me so your life has meaning?”

“You...” he started, leaning forward and cradling the melting bag in his hands. Kris looked up at me, a bit of blood crusted above his lip and his face pink from the cold. His stare held a bitter sadness as he looked at me with his dark, intense eyes. “You remind me of him, a little bit.”

“Of whom?” I asked, speaking reflexively. The knowledge hit me before he answered. “Oh.” I still thought it was a little weird, but I knew that if I met someone who reminded me of James, I’d probably latch onto him and never let go. I kicked my feet out from underneath me and sat a little closer to him, placing my elbow on my knee and then resting my chin in my hand. It felt like an honor to be lumped in the same category as his friend, because he had spoken so highly of him. “How?”

“How do you remind me of Luc?” I nodded in response to his question, and then he shrugged. “It’s just like, you’re full of personality. Even though you try to hide it, it still shines through.”

I couldn’t help it; I blushed. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Kris reached out, but his arm didn’t have to stretch very far. His index finger curled around a section of my pink hair. “It’s not hard to see.” He smiled. “Full of so much life, just like Luc. Larger than life, like you’re invincible.” His smiled straightened into a thin line and his hand fell to his knee.

Without having to think about it, I slid my palm over the back of his hand and laced my fingers between his. “How did it happen, Kris?”

Those brown eyes slowly met mine. His jaw jutted out for a moment before he dragged his line of sight elsewhere. Shaking his head, like he wasn’t going to answer, he remained silent.

“Please, tell me,” I encouraged him. I felt like I needed to know, like it would solve the puzzle.

“Motorcycle accident.”

My initial reaction—my gut reaction—was to feel bad for Kris, to share his pain over his loss. Accidental deaths, I knew from experience, were the worst way for a loved one to die, because you can’t be prepared for a sudden disaster. In the blink of an eye, poof! they’re gone, and you don’t get to say goodbye or hug them one last time or let them know how much you love them before you never have that chance again.

But a part of me felt angry and attacked. Did he know that I drove a bike? “I’m sorry that that happened to your friend.”

“He had called me just a few days before, and he told me about his new bike. I was excited for him, and I was going to get one, too. We made plans for a road trip. But then, one day.... And now I see you, Jo, and—”

I cut him off by groaning and then letting go of his hand, but he squeezed around my fingers which made it difficult. “Don’t say it. Just don’t, okay?” I grabbed my chain wallet from my pocket and pulled out my license. “See? Classes C and M. I'm licensed. I passed the test. And I did the motorcycle safety program. Look, I even have that card in here, too,” I told him, finding the card that denoted my completion of the safety course. Then I threw both of them at him. “So don’t talk to me needing to be safe. I know it all.”

Kris picked up my things and played with them in his hands. “The thing was, he knew all the risks, too. He knew all that, and he was careful, but it didn’t matter.”

Everything has risks, Kris. Everything.”

“But some things more than others. And every time you get on your bike, you run the chance—”

“Stop!” I closed my eyes and pressed my palms against my lids. “I told you about James, but I didn’t tell you that you can’t play hockey. I don’t tell you that you’re incredibly overbearing and way too intense, and that you need to lighten the fuck up. So don’t come into my home and push your agenda on me.”

Kris was calm when he replied, “You invited me in.”

I stared at him. As angry as I was, I couldn’t deny that he was one-hundred percent right. I had invited him. Not just into my house; when I had opened up and told him about James, I had invited him into my life. I really wanted to think that he tore away the bricks in my walls or crashed through the windows, but in reality, I had swung open the door and ushered him in willingly, of my own accord—and I couldn’t believe that I had done so. What a fool I was. “My bad.”

“Don’t say it like that,” he scolded, picking up the things I had tossed in his direction. “I’m just trying to make you see that you’re putting yourself in unnecessary danger.”

“Kris,” I began, leaning forward and making him look at me square in the face. I was so pissed that I was surprised I wasn’t screaming. “I’m sorry about Luc. But I am not him. I know that you feel bad, but telling me this isn’t going to bring him back.”

“I know that. This isn’t about him, Jo. This is about you. I can’t be an innocent bystander and watch this, because I know what could happen.”

“No, you don’t,” I half-groaned, half-sighed. “Truth of the matter is, you have no idea would could happen, today or tomorrow or a year from now. If you had asked me on this day, two years ago, if I would have thought James would die like he did or when he did, I wouldn’t’ve believed it. Something could happen tomorrow, whether I go bungee-jumping or stay in the safety of my house.”

“But don’t you think you increase your odds when you engage in that kind of behavior?”

“No! Listen, I don’t want to argue statistics or odds or chances. It’s not just about me, or what I do. My fate could depend upon any random person. Just like that kid from whatever team that boarded James. I don’t even remember his name, but he has had the biggest effect on my life. I’m forever changed because of what he did, and he didn’t mean to hurt him, you know? He was just trying to play the puck.... And whatever happened with Luc, it wasn’t on purpose. So you can’t try to plan out what’s going to happen, because you just don’t know.”

“Maybe you can’t control it, but you can make decisions that lessen the chance of something bad happening. You don’t want something bad to happen to you, do you? Because you're putting yourself in immediate danger.”

“What kind of question is that? God, you act like I have some kind of death wish. I don’t. Life is dangerous, and if anything could happen to us at any moment, we're all living in immediate danger. But I don’t care about living a long life as long as it’s a happy one. I need to make every moment count, so that’s what I do. Although right now, this seems like a waste of my afternoon,” I said, slumping against the arm of the couch and crossing my arms across my body. This was not my idea of a good time.

“Living carefree makes you happy?”

“Well, yeah. Who wants to be weighed down with the burden of responsibility?”

Kris shook his head. “It’s not a burden to have a hand in the world around you.” He paused. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Um, I don’t know. Sleeping,” I admitted, curious to what he could have up his sleeve. I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

“Come with me. Spend the day with me tomorrow.”

“What? No,” I declined, my mind coming up with so many ideas of what that would entail. What else he’d try to shove down my throat and tell me what was wrong with my life. I didn’t need that.

“Jo, please. I promise you, you’ll have a good time.”

I didn’t want to, but once again, I found myself letting him talk me into something I didn’t exactly feel comfortable with. “Okay. Fine. Whatever.”

Kris stood and handed me back the ice bag. “I’ll pick you up around one. Is that okay?”

Likewise, I stood, too. Even though he was taller than me, being on my feet made me feel like I was on even ground with him. I was less than thrilled at the prospect of what tomorrow would hold. Regardless, I still agreed to it. “Okay.”

“Great,” he replied with a smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Quickly, he left, as if not wanting to press his luck. Like if he lingered, I would change my mind and turn him down again. Hell, that probably would have happened if he hadn’t have suddenly left without casting another look behind him. If he had, he would have seen me with my mouth hanging open and wondering what it was about Kris that made me step outside my comfort zone and act this way.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

11.) Tough Cookie

Soundtrack Song - Switchfoot, Dare You to Move

The car ride back to Jo's was awkward. We were both silent, and I sure as hell didn't know what to say. I knew that I had the best of intentions in trying to be an outlet for her, so she'd have someone to talk to. But I was no longer so sure that I could be of service. I didn't know what to do. And I felt bad that I was clueless. I hated wanting to help, but not knowing how to.

As I drove, Jo stared out the window. Tension radiated off of her, and I could tell that she was willing herself to not cry. Her teeth were clamped on her bottom lip, her eyes were blinking furiously, her fingernails were digging into her palm, and her entire body was rigid.

I was surprised at how easily she had opened up to me and how much she told me. Sure, it took a little bit of coaxing, but only a little bit; I had expected I would have to ask lots of questions. I thought it was going to be like pulling teeth. It hadn't gone like that at all.

Then again, she had been the one that had called and took that particular step toward opening up, so maybe I shouldn't have been entirely surprised that she did. Even tough cookies get soggy when you dip them in milk.

So I was scared to push my luck and try to keep her talking. She had let me in, to a certain extent, and had reached her breaking point. Jo needed a breather, a chance to calm down; which is why I agreed when she said she wanted to leave. That was a lot of progress, I thought; but there was still a long way to go before she would completely trust me and be willing to listen to any advice, but I had the time. And I was in over my head. I needed time to digest everything she had said.

When I pulled up in front of her house, she didn't even notice. Jo was off in her own world, completely unaware of what was going on around her. To be polite, I got out and moved around to her side of the vehicle to open the door for her. I wanted to make sure she was okay before I left her by herself. She probably felt all alone, and that's exactly the time when no one should be alone. I kept my eyes trained on her, watching her through the windshield, as I walked around the front of the car. I continued to watch as she jerked, as though suddenly aware of where she was, and grabbed for the door handle. And I continued to watch as she looked to her left, where I should have been sitting, and flung her door open quickly, smacking me right in the face.

“Oh, shit!” she exclaimed, panicking as I brought my hand up to my nose.

Tears stung my eyes, but I knew it wasn't broken. “I'm okay,” I assured her, pulling my hand down so she could see for herself.

“You're bleeding,” she informed me, and I looked down at my hand and found the tell-tale red drops on my hand. “I fucking made you bleed.”

I pressed my hand back up to my nose and checked again. I wasn’t bleeding badly—just enough to need tending to. “It was an accident. I’ll live,” I joked, pressing my hand against my nostrils and glancing back up at her. “Oh, Jo. Please don’t cry.”

“First you say to let it out, and then you tell me not to?” she joked back, trying to appear like she was unfazed. However, this was the catalyst that brought about the catharsis she had been trying so hard to avoid.

The tears started cascading down her cheeks as sure as the blood dripped down my face, but I was too concerned for Jo to note the humor of the situation. “I’ve suffered a lot worse than bloody noses. I just need to clean up,” I said, prompting her into action.

“Yeah. Come on,” she replied. Jo reached out for my free arm, tugging on the sleeve of my hoodie and pulling me behind her as she headed for her front door. It was a kind gesture, besides the fact that she had a hold of the fabric of my sweatshirt and wasn’t actually touching me. I followed closely behind, and she unlocked the door and let us in.

It felt so weird to be back here, in her house where this whole thing started. Jo walked into what I knew to be the kitchen, and she quickly came back with a damp paper towel. I reached out to take it from her, but she batted my hand away and dabbed at my face. “I can do it myself,” I told her.

“Please, let me. It’s all my fault.”

“It was an accident.”

She shook her head and continued to wipe, focusing completely on what she was doing. “I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I did this to you.”

I lowered my chin to look at her better, to see if she was still upset, but she put her free hand under my jaw and pushed upwardly. “Elevated.”

“This is so embarrassing,” I mumbled, rolling my eyes. “Seriously, Jo, not a big deal.”

“Hold this here while I get an ice bag.”

“Not necessary.”

She pouted. “Please let me fix this,” Jo pleaded quietly.

I sighed dramatically and took the paper towel from her hand, holding it in place. “Since you asked so nicely,” I replied, peering down at her. She still looked upset, but being proactive and finding a way to help was making her feel better. I couldn’t say no to that.

“Elevated,” she repeated. “Go sit down. I’ll be right in.”

Like a mindless drone, I obeyed, sitting on the couch in the living room. My eyes sought out the picture I knew on the bookshelf; the very same picture I’d seen two days ago. I wanted to tell Jo that I’ve taken hits into the boards—hell, I’ve been bitten—so while being smacked in the face with a car door sucked, it was hardly the production she was making it out to be. However, I also knew that this wasn’t what this was about. It was about wanting to take control of a controllable situation. Fixing what she could fix. Placing a Band-Aid over a boo-boo and making it all better.

Besides, telling Jo that I was a hockey player (and being fully capable of taking abuse) was not going to be at all reassuring to her. I was glad that she had told me enough about her brother so I wouldn’t misspeak.

Jo walked back in, having shed her jacket, and she perched herself on her knees on the cushion beside me. She hovered over me, inspecting my face for damage, I guess. “Does it still hurt?”

“No,” I lied, wincing as she placed the bag of ice on my face.

“Men,” she sighed, humor in her red-rimmed eyes. “Always need to be macho.”

I couldn’t resist. “Not like you ever put up a front or anything.” I watched as she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at me. She let go of the ice bag so the full weight of the ice hit the sore spot on my nose, and I groaned.

“Sorry,” she apologized, not really sounding penitent at all.

Reaching up to adjust the bag and decrease the pressure, I cast another look in her direction. Jo was still really close to me, even though her head was turned away. I took in the full of sight of her, including her puffy eyes, tear-streaked cheeks, chapped lips, and even the black bra she was wearing under her white shirt. When she turned back to face me, I quickly closed my eyes and rested my head against the back of the couch.

I felt as she shifted her weight beside me, rocking back until she was sitting on her feet. The awkwardness returned as we didn’t know what to do with each other. I knew that her timidity was stemming from her vulnerability. She’d told me a lot about herself; she told me everything she’d tried to keep hidden safely below the surface. But I didn’t think she had anything to worry about. I’d wanted her to open up. That had been the whole point.

“Do you want anything? Something to eat or drink?” she offered, desperately trying to fill the uncomfortable silence with something, anything.

“I just ate,” I chuckled, opening one eye to look at her again.

“Oh yeah,” she mumbled, staring down at her hands and picking at her cuticles. We passed a few more moments in that quiet fashion: Jo, nervously fidgeting, and me, watching her squirm agitatedly. She opened her mouth to speak but then abruptly shut it again.

“What?”

“Huh?”

“You were going to say something.”

“No I wasn’t,” she replied. I raised an eyebrow questioningly, knowing that she wasn’t being honest. Jo sighed. “I keep thinking about what you said.”

When she stopped after that statement, I coaxed her into continuing. “I said a lot of things. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little more specific.”

She smirked a little and shook her head. “Are you always like this?”

I laughed. “I guess you’ll have to hang out with me more to find out.” Jo just continued to shake her head, her mind somewhere else. “Seriously. What were you going to say?”

Jo went back to picking at her nails. I was starting to notice all her nervous habits—namely, keeping her hands busy. Her voice was so low when she finally confessed. “You said.... You said that maybe, he was saving me from having to see it. But I thought about it, the whole ride over here. That can’t be. It would be nice to be able to think of it that way, but that would mean he knew it was going to happen. And if he knew, he wouldn't have let it happen.”

“So you’d rather blame it on coincidence?”

“No. I told you, it would be nice to think it happened that way for a reason—”

“Then why not believe it?”

“Because why did it have to happen at all?”

Isn’t that the question that we all ask when someone we love passes on? Why? I know I asked that question—and still ask it—repeatedly and often. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I don’t know why things like that happen. But I can only hope that they happen for a reason, even if I can’t possibly understand that reason or fathom why.”

Jo scratched her temple, ran her hand through her hair, and then placed that hand below her chin as she stared out into space. “I hate when people say that. That it happened for a reason. Or that God has His plans, and we shouldn’t question it or Him. Well, I’m fucking questioning it. We’re not given anything we can’t handle. Or what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I hate those damned canned responses.”

“That’s the purpose of trust,” I explained. “Of faith.”

“Faith in what? Trust in whom? I can’t believe in anything—or anyone—who believes something good came out of James dying.”

“So you want to think it happened for no good reason? That it was meaningless?”

“If I can’t find any positive meaning in it, does that make it meaningless?”

“Yeah, I think it does.”

“Then yes. I think it was meaningless. I don’t want to assign meaning or rationale to something so devastating. Because then I’d be saying that it was okay that he died. And it wasn’t—it isn’t—okay.”

I didn’t think Jo realized what she just said, but that seemed to be the root of her philosophy. If she, for whatever reason, found a way to deal with his death in a positive manner... if she found a way to learn from it and move on as a better person after living through that experience... then it would mean she was somehow justifying his death. And his senseless death had no justification. “Taking something from his death doesn’t mean it’s okay.”

“Is that how you dealt with losing Luc?” she asked, point blankly.

An answer to that question did not automatically come to me. Yes, that was essentially how I had dealt with it; I learned from his accident. I decided against buying the motorcycle. There was no way I could possibly ever get on one after that. That wasn’t just a conscious choice—it was a no-brainer for me. I had developed an instant aversion to the idea of ever purchasing, let alone riding, a bike.

But more than that, I had changed my perspective. When something unfortunate happened to someone else, I did my best to prevent that from ever happening to me. We as humans must constantly learn to adapt in order to survive. Luc’s death taught me that. So I suppose I did assign a meaning to it; whether I did that because I needed to was another story. But I couldn’t tell that to her, because I didn’t think she’d want to hear it.

When I didn’t answer, Jo continued. “Maybe you don’t have everything figured out. It’s easy to tell someone else what’s right and what’s wrong, but it’s more difficult when it’s your own life.”

“It’s different.”

“Is it?” she asked.

I removed the ice bag from my face and sat up. “I can’t live in chaos and think that things happen for no randomly and without excuse. That there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Whether it’s good or bad, I accept it for what it is and know that I can’t change it. And most of all, I learn from it. That’s how I deal with life.”

“Good for you. But I don’t let life happen to me, just so I can ‘learn from it,’ as you say. I can’t live in a bubble like you do. I’ve gotta grab life by the horns and live, and have fun while there’s fun to be had. Live life to the fullest, because we only get one chance to enjoy it.”

I wasn't sure that the way she was living constituted enjoying life to its fullest capacity. But I knew I was. “Are you saying that I don’t?”

Jo shrugged. “Maybe you do. I don’t know you well enough to make that kind of assumption. But I can tell you that living a cautious, safe life is not good enough for me. That’s the only thing I’ve learned from what happened to James. You gotta live like each moment’s your last. No regrets. But then again, that’s the lifestyle that’s right for me. If you don’t agree with it, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong.”

I nodded, pressed the ice bag back to my face, and leaned against the couch again. “You don’t even believe in it enough to tout the benefits of living that way.” Then I shook my head. “If you really believe in it, you’d want to tell other people. You’d want to share that secret with others—it’s just the way people are. It’s how we work. When we think we’re right, we want to say so. We want to make everyone believe it. So that means to me that you don’t even honestly believe it yourself.”

“Well, I do,” she replied stubbornly. “I truly, truly do.”

I paused before speaking next. “It sounds to me like you’re scared.”

“Scared? Pfft. I’m not scared of anything. Why would you even say that?”

“Scared to give meaning to anything. Scared to live for a bigger reason other than to have fun.”

“Well, that’s just ridiculous. There’s no other reason to live than to be happy and have fun.”

“There’s more to it than the pursuit of happiness. It’s important, of course, but it’s not all.”

“Oh yeah? So then, what else? Please, Kris, enlighten me,” she spat sarcastically.

I ignored her tone and answered her question. “It’s about making other people happy.”

Jo snorted and rolled her eyes. “That’s it? That’s your big meaning to life? I’d rather not make anyone else my responsibility and just worry about myself.”

“That’s a little selfish, don’t you think?”

“Asking someone else to make you happy is selfish.” Jo looked down at her hands as she went back to picking at them. “It’s not fair to ask that of someone else.”

“Unless that someone else wants to do it,” I explained, turning to face her. “It’s okay to rely on other people for the things you need in life. For happiness. For help. Even for advice.”

“You just listed all the things that I don’t need from anyone else.” I shook my head. And here I thought we were making progress. I closed my eyes and thought to myself that while the pieces were beginning to fall into place, I was no closer to solving the puzzle that was Jo.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

10.) Pandora's Box

Soundtrack Song - Bedlight for Blue Eyes, Michael

“Tell me about him. I told you,” Kris said, gazing at me like this conversation was supposed to be quid pro quo. Like just because he had told me about his friend Luc, I was supposed to tell him all about my brother James. That's not how stuff like this is supposed to work. I wasn't ready to talk about it yet. He squeezed my hand, and I fidgeted in my chair uncomfortably.

He let go, and I went back to playing with my sandwich. I don't even know why I ordered it, because my stomach was turning with anxiety and worry. This was going to come up; I knew that—this was, after all, the whole point of this random little get-together. But I still didn't want to talk about it. “James was my brother. What else is there to say?” I said nonchalantly, tossing more bread to the growing flock of pigeons on the ground.

I glanced up casually, and Kris gazed back at me with this look on his face... appearing sad and disappointed and let down. It made me remember Tubby's comments this morning. “We were twins,” I continued with a sigh. “Fraternal, obviously, and we didn't even look alike hardly at all. But we were as close as two siblings could be.”

I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and crossed my arms around my stomach, so that I was wrapped up in the jacket. It wasn’t mine, really; it was James’s. He got the jacket his junior year of high school, and he wore it nonstop, like James Dean. That's when I stopped calling him Jimmy. As a consequence, he always smelled of leather, and his jacket took on the scent of the Axe deodorant he always used. The two smells mingled together, creating a scent that would always be indescribably his—and that’s exactly what this jacket still smelled like. It smelled like James, and it was like my security blanket.

“It must have been cool to have a twin,” Kris mentioned casually.

“Yeah. It was. I mean, we didn’t do the whole matching-outfits thing, since we weren’t identical. But it’s like having a built-in friend for life. We did everything together. We were together constantly. Because not only were we family, but we were in the same age bracket, too. We were Jimmy and Jo-Jo, the inseparable pair,” I laughed, shaking my head.

Once I started, I just kept going. After taking the initial steps, the following ones weren’t so bad. “He was six minutes older than me, and he never let me forget it. I followed him everywhere when we were younger, and he didn’t mind one bit. James included me in everything, even when his friends bitched and whined about the ‘tag-along girl.’ He stood up for me when they complained. My eternal champion. He watched out for me and it was annoying at times, but he was always telling me that I was the smart one so I couldn’t screw it up.

“Everyone loved him. There wasn’t a person that met James who didn’t take an instant shining to him. My parents, his teachers, girls—oh man, the girls chased after him like he was Justin fucking Timberlake bringing sexy back. And he was so smart, too. Got straight B’s, and he never cracked open a book in his life. Never studied a minute. He was gonna go to Dartmouth after graduation—that’s how smart he was. He was gonna play hockey on their team.”

“Your brother played hockey?” he asked, prompting me to keep talking.

“Oh yeah. A forward. Made me strap on goalie pads plenty of times. I once took a slap shot to my shin. I think it’s still dented from the puck,” I laughed, remembering that day clearly. “But then I broke my stick over his head. So needless to say, James didn’t ever try that again. He wasn’t that stupid.”

“You broke your stick, over his head?” he chuckled. “Poor guy.”

“In my defense, he was wearing a helmet at the time. And not to mention, he totally deserved it,” I continued, unable to hold back my giggles. I can still recall vividly the look of surprise on his face when I hit him, because he thought I was bluffing. “I knew it was an accident, but I had to teach him a lesson.”

Kris shook his head and asked, “Was he any good?”

“Captain of the varsity squad,” I explained. “He wasn’t the greatest of players. He wasn’t very fast, nor did he score a lot of goals. James was more of an energy guy, who got all the other players fired up. Knew all the motivational things to say in the locker room, and always stayed after practices to work on his shot. Not afraid to drop the gloves to defend a teammate. But that’s the kind of guy he was. Dependable, reliable, always there....” I trailed off with those last two words. Always there? Not anymore.

“So you really looked up to him, huh?”

“More than anything.” I went back to picking at my sandwich. The birds were really starting to flock around our table; feeding them was probably a bad idea. “James was more than just my brother or my twin. He was my idol. Just an all-around nice guy. I couldn’t tell you one bad quality he had. Like I said,” I added with a sad shrug, “everyone loved him.” Talking about James was like playing with a ping-pong ball: bouncing up and down and every which way. Moments ago, I had been reliving happy memories, and now the sadness of missing him was overwhelming.

“It’s obvious how much you miss him,” he observed. I wanted to roll my eyes and tell him that that was a stupid thing to say, but he kept talking. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile. Like, really smile.”

I reddened and bit my lip, focusing on the birds swarming by my chair. I fed them a little more and then dug around in the bag of chips. What was I supposed to say to that? What kind of statement was that anyway? Kris didn’t know me. He didn’t know how I smiled or with what frequency. Not to mention that this was, what, the third time we’ve ever spoken to each other? I shook my head and avoided looking back at him. Kris did not bring out the best in me. I wanted to yell No shit, Sherlock!, but I tried to keep my composure. “Well, yeah, of course I miss him. We were really close.”

“Do you mind if I ask how it happened?”

“Yes, I mind,” I spat, getting increasingly upset. Hot, angry tears began to pool behind my lids. “I don’t want to talk about that. You didn’t talk about it.” I felt so foolish at that moment for allowing Kris to pick me up and bring me here. Now I was stranded, with no way to get home. I wouldn’t have agreed to this, but Tubby was standing there with me when I called him, and Tubby had been nodding at me like crazy to encourage me and just tell him yes. It flashed through my mind that I could call Tubby for a ride, but I already ask too much of him as it is. Then I remembered everything he had said this morning and remembered why I was here in the first place.

Kris nodded and reached out for my hand again. “Okay. That’s fine. We don’t have to talk about anything you’re not comfortable with,” he replied. Kris made me feel so foolish for snapping. He was keeping to his word by just listening and not offering anything I didn't want to hear. When he squeezed my hand, I looked back at him and peered into his eyes. They were dark and void of the condemnation I had expected to see for not wanting to discuss that subject just yet.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, getting lost in those brown pools. They were oddly soft and reassuring; it wasn't an odd expression, but it was weird seeing it in the eyes of someone I still didn't know very well. “It's just not an easy thing to talk about. It still hurts, because....” He nodded, moving his thumb to the pressure point of my wrist and rubbing little circles in a comforting gesture. “I was supposed to be there, but I wasn't.”

Kris tilted his head to the side, looking at me inquisitively, confused and curious. “Be where?”

I let out my breath slowly and evenly. I'd said too much already, and I didn't want to continue. All those latent, suppressed emotions were building up against the dam wall. I knew that I should just release the pressure and let it out, because purging that negative energy would initially feel good; but that same expulsion would probably also include a flood of tears—a flood that would wipe out everything in its path and cause devastating damage. A veritable Pandora's Box. Uncorking these bottled-up emotions always results in me being stuck in a depressed funk for days upon days. It's better to ignore it than to deal with it; better to stick my thumb in the dike and plug up the leak.

So I didn't want to tell him, and I thought that I had damn good reasons to want to avoid this conversation. But there was something that made it seem okay; something about Kris that made me want tell him. I couldn't put my finger on what it was that gave me that impression, though. Or maybe it wasn't him at all. Maybe I truly did want to finally let it all out. Whatever the reason, I spilled. “At the rink. At his game.”

He knit his eyebrows together in a confused expression and opened his mouth to ask something, until the realization dawned on him—that the game I had skipped out on turned out to be James's last. Kris's agape mouth formed a small circle. “Oh. He.... Oh, Jo. I'm so sorry.”

I nodded, accepting his sincerity and sympathy without question. I wasn't sure if Kris didn't know what to say, or if he expertly kept quiet in order to wait for me to continue. After a few breaths, I kept going, laying it all out there. “I stayed at quiz bowl practice with Tubby instead of going like I told him I would. It was just supposed to be an ordinary, regular-season game. I didn't think James would mind if I didn't show up to one lousy game, because he was the one who told me that I should join the stupid quiz team anyway.

“It was a fluke. Apparently, he was battling for a puck in the corner, looked down to kick it out to a teammate, and this kid came up behind him and....” I took a breath and tried to forget about what had been relayed to me. “You need to understand that James never got caught with his head down. Ever. I don't know how it happened. It shouldn't have happened.”

“No. It shouldn't've,” he agreed, speaking up at just the right time. “Something like that should never happen. It's a shame that something like that happens in hockey at all, let alone that it happened to your brother.”

“I mean, why that game?” I asked rhetorically, ignoring what he just said. "The one home game I missed. Even worse, it was because of James that I wasn't there! I would have never joined that stupid quiz team if he hadn't have encouraged me to.”

“It's almost like he saved you from having to see it,” Kris whispered.

I stopped breathing. I had always faulted James for being the reason I wasn't there, thinking that it was a bad thing. I never before had thought to credit him with saving me from bearing witness to that. Like it was a good thing. That new line of thinking was like an existential eye-opener. “I never even considered that.”

“You didn't honestly want to see it, did you?” His thumb never stopped massaging the pulse point on my right wrist. My whole body felt numb, but I could feel that distinctly. Kris's hand was so warm.

“My parents were both there. They told me that I should be happy I wasn't there to see it happen. They told me that they wouldn't want that to be the last memory I would ever have of him.” I felt the useless tears try to escape, but I did what I could to hold them back—essentially giving myself an instant headache. “I'm glad that I wasn't there to see it, because I'm sure it would be all I'd see when I close my eyes. But part of me wants to know, wanted to see it for myself. But I missed his last few moments alive.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose with my left thumb and forefinger, the sinus pressure building up behind my eyes. It felt like I had been hit in the face with a baseball bat. Still struggling to keep my composure, I finally pulled my other hand out of his gentle grasp and covered my face. My teeth dug into my cheek as I forced myself to calm down. I was in public; I couldn't do this out here.

Kris pulled his chair around the side of the table until he was beside me instead of across from me. “It's okay to cry, Jo. Don't be afraid to let it out.”

“No advice, remember?” I said, throwing my hands into my lap and looking at him now that he was so close. My eyes were rimmed with red, and I'm sure my face was puffy. So unattractive, and yet I was sitting so close to this beautiful man. “I don't wanna cry about it. James wouldn't want it, either.”

He pursed his lips, and I knew he was holding back. I found myself being curious over what he wanted to say, but I was also glad that he wasn't saying it. Besides, I could probably figure it out anyway. Kris was watching me so intently, so intensely, and I wanted to look away but couldn't at the same time. He had me so confused.

“I think I want to go home,” I casually mentioned, wrapping up what I didn't eat—which was most of my lunch.

Kris nodded. “Okay. Let's go.” He pushed himself out of his chair, and I watched the way his body moved before standing next to him. I tossed the bundle of food into the nearby trash can and put my hands in my pockets, once again wrapping myself in James's leather jacket. I inhaled deeply and followed Kris as he led the way back to his car.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

9.) Un/Comfortable

Soundtrack Song - Kenny Chesney, Who You'd Be Today

I woke up around ten. That was pretty late for me, because I like to get up early and get in my workout before I really have to start my day. Thankfully, Sunday was an off day for the team. It's always nice to have a day to relax and take it easy.

The nice thing about my apartment was the gym in the basement. A lot of guys on the team lived here while they were establishing themselves on the team and in the area. TK lived here, and Talbo did for a while, too. They've all got places—houses—for themselves now. This is a nice fit for me, though. I don't need a lot of space, and even though I don't really talk to my neighbors, it's nice to have them around. Otherwise, it would be so isolated.

I stuck to the usual routine: bike and weights. The gym facility was empty, probably because most of the tenants were still passed out in their beds. Once I finished, I headed back up to my apartment so I could shower and get dressed. I decided that I would call some of the guys to see if they wanted to go grab a bite to eat for lunch. Chances were, they weren't doing anything anyway.

As I turned the shower on, my ringtone began to echo from the other room. So I wrapped a towel around my waist and headed into my bedroom to find it. Seems silly to cover up when I know I'm the only one here, so it's not like anyone's going to see me... but I guess I do it out of habit.

Allo?” The line was silent for a moment. “Allo?”

I was about to hang up when a voice came through the line. “Uh, Kris?”

“Hey, Charlene,” I said, a little concerned and unsure if everything with her was okay. She didn’t sound the same.

“Um, it’s Jo.”

“Oh! Sorry,” I apologized, suddenly feeling sheepish. Nothing like mistaking a person for someone else. “How are you?”

“If you’re expecting another call—”

“Oh, no. I just didn’t recognize your voice. And I wasn’t sure if you’d call.” In fact, I didn’t think she would at all. Jo seemed so put off and maybe even a little offended. I hadn’t been harboring any hope that she would, so this was a delightful surprise.

She cleared her throat. “Well, I wasn’t planning on it.”

“I’m glad you changed your mind,” I said honestly, smiling ear-to-ear although no one could see it. It was one thing to offer help, but it was another thing entirely for her to accept it. Of course I wanted to do what I could, but now I had the chance to actually do it.

“So, uh. How do you want to do this?” she asked quietly.

I could only imagine how tentative and unsure she was feeling. I did my best to be reassuring and comforting. “I was going to go out for lunch. Would you like to join me?”

Jo paused for a while on the line. “Um....”

“It'll be easier to talk in person,” I explained.

“Okay. Where would you like to meet?”

The thought of her riding her motorcycle on my account unnerved me. “I’ll just pick you up. In an hour?” She was silent, giving a voice to her hesitation. For a moment, I worried that I was being too imposing and that I was going to scare her off.

“I guess that’s okay,” she sighed, making it sound like her agreement was painful. I wondered if she could be at all warming up to me, albeit reluctantly; like she just didn’t want to look like she wanted to talk to me even though she truly did. I mean, why else would she agree, if she didn’t want to?

“All right, then. One hour.”

I felt my mood lighten. It wasn’t even that my mood wasn’t already good; now it was just exponentially higher. It’s like how volunteer work always makes you feel good. This was more than that, though; not just a chance to do something good and beneficial, but a chance to make a difference in someone’s life. Not just a good deed, something to put a smile on her face, but really a chance to make a change.

How often do we really get a chance to make that kind of impression on someone else? How often have you met a person, knowing that you could leave an indelible mark on him or her? Knowing you had that kind of power? Or, how often have you consciously thought that you could meet someone who could have that effect on you? We never think about things like this, but in reality, you never know when you could experience something world-changing or something life-altering. Today held that potential.

I went back into the bathroom to finally get that shower, which felt so good after working up a sweat. The steam and heat worked the lingering ache in my muscles, the pounding water massaging my body as I stood under the showerhead. I lost track of time and had to rinse out the conditioner from my hair with cold water.

Deciding on jeans and a hoodie, I dressed comfortably. Depending on how the day could go, comfort was my main priority, especially when the conversation would broach an uncomfortable subject. Since I was making such great time, I did a few chores around the apartment, paid a few bills, and then I grabbed my keys and my wallet.

When I pulled up in front of Jo’s house, having remembered the way because of driving here only two days before, I turned off the engine and stepped out. Common courtesy dictates that I should get out of the car and walk to her door. When I pick up the guys, I just honk and wait, but I wanted to be nice. This was a big step for her, so this was the least I could do.

Before I could make it up the walkway, her front door opened, and she stepped out with her friend, the guy that I had seen Friday night. I’m not gonna lie; he looked scary in the daylight. Fully capable of causing me bodily harm. I recalled Staalsy’s words, about him being either her boyfriend or her bodyguard, and I realized that I truly did not want to mess with him. I nodded in his direction and smiled, to show him that I meant no harm.

His eyes bore into me—not necessarily in a malicious way, but like he was definitely sizing me up. After a few brief moments, he nodded back in my direction, although he didn’t smile. I felt like I had some kind of approval, which worked for me, because I certainly didn’t want my ass kicked. Maybe I could hold my own on the ice, but this guy could no doubt do some major damage.

With his obvious consent, I focused my attention on Jo. She said something to him and squeezed his arm. I noticed that she was dressed in worn jeans and black Chucks, a plain white tee shirt underneath her beat-up leather jacket. As she walked toward me, the chain of her wallet swung at her side.

“Hey,” I greeted her, reaching out to open the door for her.

She looked at me suspiciously as she walked past. “Hey.” I closed the door behind her once she slid into the seat, and then I trotted around and got into the driver’s seat and started up the engine. She blurted out her next words. “You do realize that this is crazy of me to be doing this? Getting into the car of a complete stranger and trusting you not to murder me, dismember my body, and bury me in the woods?”

I smiled, chuckled, and shook my head. Of all the things she worried about, that was it? “Well, I promise you, I won’t lay a hand on you.”

Jo nodded and looked out the window, and then looked back at me when I didn’t put the vehicle in drive. “So where are we going?”

“There’s a deli I like to go to. Seat belt.”

“You’re serious?” she scoffed, giving me a funny look. I nodded and she strapped in like I had instructed. “You know these things aren’t life-savers, right? Seat belts have been known to decapitate people in accidents. Sometimes, people would have been better off not wearing them.”

“They’ve also been known to save lives,” I responded, putting it into gear and pulling away from the curb. I made sure to keep my hands at ten and two, carefully obeying the posted speed limit. “Everyone has to wear them when I drive.”

“Whatever,” she mumbled, looking back out the window. We rode in silence all the way into town, not even listening to the radio. It was awkward, but not really uncomfortable. After I parked, we headed into the deli. The worker remembered me and got me my usual, and Jo stepped up to the counter, ordered, and paid for herself before I had the chance to offer. She glanced back at me as we waited for our orders to be prepared. “You come here pretty often if you have a usual.”

“I guess I’m a creature of habit,” I thought out loud with a shrug. “When I find something I like, I stick with it.”

“How will you ever know if you prefer something else if you never try anything else?”

“Why should I try something else when I already know what it is that I prefer?” I asked back, a smile surely playing on my lips.

“You can’t possibly know what you prefer unless you’ve tried everything. And you can’t possibly have tried everything.” She picked up two bags of potato chips off the counter as she illustrated her point. “It’s like saying you prefer plain ole chips, but you’ve never even tried the sour cream and onion! You can’t know unless you try.”

I grabbed the bag of plain chips out of her hand. “But if I know I like plain, why bother trying the other kind, when I might not like it all? Then I’d just be mad I didn’t get the plain.”

Jo snorted. “You’re so white bread.” She tossed the bag of sour cream and onion chips back on the counter and then picked up her own bag of plain, opening it and popping one into her mouth.

“Is white bread a bad thing?” I asked, putting down the package in my hand and picking up the bag she had just dropped. “And I see you prefer plain.”

She rolled her eyes. “But at least I know I’ve tried sour cream and onion. And as for being white bread, well....” Her voice floated off without finishing her answer as she shrugged. I was curious about what she meant, but I didn’t press her to complete her sentence or her thought. When our sandwiches were made, we carried them to a table outside as if by unspoken consensus. The weather was still nice for mid-October, and we were taking full advantage of it.

Jo picked at the bun of her sandwich, nibbling on it here and there but not really eating. I could feel her watching me as I ate. “Is it okay?” I asked, pointing to her food. I figured she didn’t like it and didn’t want to eat it; that’s why it’s a good idea to find what you like and stick to it.

“Tell me about what happened,” she said, throwing a piece of bread on the sidewalk for a straggling pigeon to attack.

“Pardon?” I was so confused. Was I missing something?

“You said you lost someone.” Jo looked up at me. “Who?” I paused for a moment, not sure of what to say. I had offered to be there in case she ever wanted to talk; I hadn’t expected this. She tossed another piece of bread to the ground. “You told me you understand. That you had experience. How do I know if you can possibly understand unless I know what happened?”

I swallowed the last bit of food in my mouth. She had a point. “My best friend, Luc. He was my greatest friend and a really great guy.” I smiled as some of the memories flooded my consciousness. “We played in junior together, in Val-d’Or. We were more than just teammates, we were roommates, too. We played on the national team, too, and won gold together. We were both drafted the same year. He went in the first round. Luc was such a good player. He was only beginning to come into his own.”

Jo listened carefully and quietly as I shared some of my fondest memories of him. She nodded as she took it in and hummed encouragement as I retold my stories of nights in hotel rooms and away trips and summer visits and talked about how determined he was. I told her about everything that he had to overcome in his life to get the opportunities he had, the arthritis and the injuries; he had the world in front of him, only to have it all taken away.

I never talked about his death with her; I only talked about my favorite times that I shared with him—only the happy things. I didn't want to broach the subject of how he died, because I didn't want to sound accusatory; I promised Jo that I wouldn't give any advice, so I didn't want to give her that impression. I left out the sadness and his accident and the road trip that Luc and I had planned, and how what happened to him made me change my mind. She was like a caged animal: frightened, scared, and ready to lash out in fear and self-preservation. It was best to avoid anything that could be misconstrued as an attack.

It had been a long since I had had to tell the story of his life like this. Either most other people knew about him, or they knew me enough to not ask. But it was nice to not have to concentrate on the painful subject of his death, and just remember the fun we used to have together. I wanted Jo to know how much he meant to me and still means to me, so she knew that I was okay to trust.

“He sounded like a great guy,” she said finally, smiling sadly as I finished.

I mirrored her expression. “He was. Luc donated money to the local minor hockey club, so kids whose families couldn’t afford gear could still play. He was always thinking about other people first. Not just a great guy, but a great person.” I shook my head. It still doesn’t seem fair, even after all this time. I tried to banish away the thoughts creeping into my head. I was here to offer help, not to ponder the what ifs circling like vultures in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered sympathetically, reaching out and placing her hand on my arm across the table and locking eyes with me. “It’s never fair when young people with so much potential are the ones to go. I’m not saying that anyone deserves to die before their time, but especially the good ones. The world needs more people like that, not less....”

Her voice faded out again, but instead of letting it slide, I pushed for clarification. “Like your brother?”

“Like my brother,” she agreed meekly, looking away and retracting her hand.

I used my hockey reflexes to catch her hand in mine. “Tell me about him,” I softly asked, so it sounded like a demand. Jo looked at me with sad eyes, as if still unsure. “I told you,” I implored, reminding her of our deal. I squeezed her hand, and she squirmed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

8.) Saint Versus Sinner

Soundtrack Song - Billy Talent, This Suffering

It nagged at me like a jigsaw puzzle that was missing its final piece. It was one thing to ponder Kris's intentions as I finished my shift at the Mellon, when I had nothing else to think about; after all, picking up after a bunch of slobs isn't exactly rocket science. But when I was finished for the night and stripped out of my uniform, I reached into the pockets of my coveralls. That crumbled piece of paper was there to remind me of his so-called magnanimous gesture.

A part of me wanted to throw it away with all the other garbage I had cleaned up that night, but for some odd reason, I didn't do that. Instead, I shoved it into the pocket of my jeans and took it home with me. I thought about it still as I drove back to my house. That small piece of paper with printed ink felt like a boulder in my pocket. It's like I needed to know, even if I didn't care. He was like a fucking Jehovah's Witness, and he was going to keep knocking on my door until I answered it.

It's not like no one ever told me I should have been doing more with myself or with my life before. I’ve heard it often enough that you'd think I'd start listening to them just to shut them up. But those were all people who had known me before James died. They told me that I was giving up; but really, I was just changing my priorities. It didn't make sense to go to college. Why waste four-plus years locked away in a library? First of all, these were supposed to be the best years of my life, so I want to live them up. And second, who needs a piece of paper tacked on the wall to feel smart? Especially if you don't know where you'll be in four years. What if I went off to university, only to never get to use that degree I would have earned? No point in it.

But to hear it from a stranger, someone I didn't know and someone who didn't know me.... It bothered me. I was irritated by his unwelcome attempts to pull me up from the depths of my personal hell. Because it wasn't hell to me; sure, it wasn't paradise, but it's what I chose for myself, and for good reason. I shouldn't have to explain that to him—especially if he had the misfortune to lose a loved one. If he decided to lock himself away in a padded room and try to live risk-free, then that's his prerogative. Life is a risk, and an unavoidable one at that.

Besides, Kris plays hockey. A sport in which a bunch of burly guys strap sharp metal blades to their feet and skate around at high speeds with sticks in their hands, slapping at a small black disk of frozen rubber. If that's not dangerous, then I don't know what is. What a hypocrite.

When I got home, I removed the paper from my pocket and placed it under a magnet on the fridge. I wasn’t sure what to do with it yet. I didn’t want to call and subject myself to his preaching, yet… my interest was piqued. It nagged at me that I didn’t know why he was so damn interested in helping me or even thinking that I needed his help. But it would be masochist to call, because I would only be opening myself up to his ridicule.

I opened the refrigerator door and then promptly shut it. There was still all that beer in there; merely thinking about beer disgusted me, so looking at those full bottles repulsed me and left me feeling revolted. My stomach somersaulted at the idea of drinking. No alcohol for me tonight. Nope, tonight would have to be spent sober.

I pulled out my cell and called Tubby. I really didn’t want to be alone. As it rung, my eye caught sight of the number under the magnet. Why would I call Kris if I had Tubby? He picked up after a few rings. “Hello?”

“Hey. What are you doing?”

“Sleeping,” he answered. “Why? What’s up?”

“Oh, uh, nothing,” I replied. It was three a.m. on a Saturday night—or rather, Sunday morning. I didn’t think he’d be wasting it sleeping. “I just wanted to see if you wanted to hang out, but, um, I guess we can do it some other time....” My voice faded out, and I felt disappointed and upset.

“Gimme ten. I’ll be right over.”

I sighed with relief, so happy to hear that. “Thanks, Tub. I mean it.”

“I know,” he said before he hung up. I set my phone down on the countertop and headed up to get ready for bed. I first slipped out of my clothes and tossed on a baggy tee shirt to sleep in, and then I washed my face and brushed my teeth. Tubby, having let himself in as was his usual routine, walked in as I was lying down in bed and pulling up the covers. Instead of giving me a proper greeting, he blurted out, “What the fuck did you do to your hair?”

“Dyed it,” I responded, running a hand through it. “Don’t you like it?”

He was dressed in a sweatpants and a tank top, having crawled right out of his bed in order to cross town and get into mine. “You did a good job I guess, but, Jo, I just don’t get it.”

I rolled my eyes as he lay down beside me. “Whatever. I just got sick of looking at myself.” My eyes got wide. “I mean looking at my hair—”

“Freudian slip if I ever heard one,” he sighed. “Girl, you know I love you. Which is why I have to say this: changing the external doesn’t fix the internal.”

“Tubby, really, I don’t need this from you right now,” I groaned, rolling onto my side so I didn’t have to look at him. “I expect that psycho-babble from other people, but not from you.”

“Don’t get mad, Jo,” he added.

“I’m not mad.”

“Yes, you are. I’m sorry. You know I’m not trying to change you or fix you—”

“Good. Because I don’t need fixed. It makes me sound like I’m broken. I’m not broken.” I felt like an elephant sat on my chest. My heart couldn’t beat and my lungs couldn’t breathe. “Kris was bad enough, a fucking stranger, and now you, too? Et tu, Tubby?”

“Who's Kris?”

I groaned. “That guy at the party yesterday. I saw him at work today—”

“What did he do?” I could feel the tension in the room pick up. “I told you, I'll kick his ass—”

“Stop being all macho.” I tried to think of a way to explain that wouldn't sound ridiculous; however, the nature of the situation prevented that. “He, uh, gave me his phone number.”

Tubby started laughing. “I thought you liked him? What's the problem?”

“He's some kinda saint. A goody two-shoes or something.”

“You used to be a goody two-shoes, too. Never out past ten on a school night. Remember that?”

“I was such a stick in the mud,” I laughed, rolling back to face him.

“No, not a stick in the mud. You were always fun, Jo. Full of personality. Things were just different back then. Maybe you should call him. He could be good for you.”

“You don't know what's good for me,” I mumbled, not wanting to listen. Why couldn't everyone just let me live in peace?

“Yeah, Jo, actually I do. I know James would want you to be happy.”

“James would want to not be dead. I'm trying to have fun with my life.”

“Having fun and being happy aren't mutually exclusive. Partying to have fun is one thing, but when you do it to mask—”

“Sweet Jesus. You and Kris should write a fucking book together.”

“What?”

“Seriously. Twice in two days I hear it from two people. That's why he gave me his number. To call him to talk about my feelings or whatever I'm sure. He thinks because someone in his life died, too, that he can point me toward the light. Who fucking tells a stranger that? Fuck that shit.”

“You really do need to call him. I've tried to be there for you, Jo. But... obviously it's not enough. You sure as hell don't listen to me, no matter what I say or how I say it. And maybe he can help you in a way that I can't.”

I ignored what he said and how he said it. “Don't you think it's weird that he doesn't know me, yet he wants to be my saving grace?”

“I don't care why. So much as he can make good on his offer. Listen, we can talk about it in the morning. Right now I'm exhausted, though, and I'd like to get back to sleep. Come here.”

Tubby opened his arms, and I curled up against him. I just let him hold me as he practically instantly fell asleep. I hated being alone with my thoughts. Tubby was supposed to get my mind off everything Kris had said, but he instead fed fuel to the fire. I wanted that nagging to go away, but it lingered.

“Someone to talk to.... Experience.... Quick to judge.... You can call anytime.... The option’s yours....”

I kept likening him to a saint, and myself as the sinner. Although, I hated that comparison; despite what others may think, there's nothing wrong with the way I live. I do it for fun, and it never gets out of hand. No one ever has to call an ambulance for me so I can get my stomach pumped. I never smoke anything harder than weed. I only want to have a good time. Sure, sometimes I get down. Who doesn't? At least I have a legitimate reason. Not like the stupid fuckers who have to pop a Prozac for no goddamned reason. I've experienced true sadness and grief, and it's made me see the importance of living life like there's no tomorrow. I don't have time to deal with sadness.

Kris and I are two people on opposite ends of the spectrum. What could we possibly have to talk about, except to reminisce about our dead loved ones? I still love James, and I miss him like crazy even after all this time, but why would I want to talk about him to a stranger? Kris didn’t know him, so he wouldn’t understand. And I didn’t really feel like making him understand, either.

But I felt bad for Tubby, most of all. The way he sounded so sad when he was talking to me. I didn’t think that he felt that way. I thought we were having fun together! Tubby didn’t party like me, but we had good times when we hung out together, whether drinking and/or smoking was involved or not. Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t know him. And it hurt.

I didn’t sleep much for the rest of the night, because I felt horribly about it. Tubby was my best friend, and I never wanted to be the one responsible for his distress. I never want to hurt anyone. But, here I was, doing just that.

Tubby woke up early; I could feel it as he shifted beside me. “You up? You sleep at all?”

“Not really. I just kept thinking.”

“I thought I smelled smoke,” he joked. But I didn’t laugh. “Are you still upset about last night?”

“I never realized you felt that way.”

“Jo, you know I don’t mean anything bad by it. You know I just want you to be happy. But this guy, whoever he is, he obviously said something to you that stuck with you, and it’s festering. So, yeah, I think you should call him, at least to hear what he has to say. But that’s only my opinion. The choice is yours to do whatever.”

I closed my eyes and leaned my forehead against his chest again. Why was everyone telling me that this was up to me? So many things in life happen to you, regardless of whether you want them to happen or not. So why was I all of a sudden getting a say in the matter?

“Okay, Tubs. I’ll call.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

7.) Offer

Soundtrack Song - Acceptance, The Letter

I went about my business the following day as I always would. It was a game day, against the Bolts, and I had yet to score a goal this season. Sure, I'm a defenseman, but I'm an offensive defenseman. I needed to show the Penguins organization that I was worth resigning. And I needed to have a good start to the season in order to do that. I wanted more than ten goals this year. Over thirty-five points. Those were my goals for myself.

Before every game, I sit by myself for little bit and reflect. Always about the same things. Luc. How I'm lucky to be here, in the NHL, playing the game I love. I enjoy playing, but I do it for him.

My thoughts strayed. I wasn't sure why all of a sudden, I was thinking about her with such high frequency. It's not like I never met people who could have been making better decisions in their lives. It was stupid, but I still couldn't banish her from my mind.

So I guess it was because I was distracted that I played a less than impressive game against Tampa Bay. We won, but I put up no points. Not even plus or minus. That was probably why Coach only played me seventeen minutes. I wasn't playing my best game, and he knew it.

Needless to say, I was frustrated with myself. It was time for me to step up and show them what I could do, and I was failing miserably. I was taking Sarge's place on the left point on the power play, so there was a level of expectation there. The longer it took me to score that first goal, the more pressure I added. I kept telling myself, Next game. I'll get that goal next game.

Every player—at least, every player who looks to score goals—goes through it. It's a relief to get that first one of the season. Once you get it, you can focus less on scoring and more on playing your game, which should then lead to scoring more goals.

We won, and our next game wasn't until Tuesday. Everyone was going out tonight. Even Crosby. The mood in the dressing room was light after the game as guys talked to the media and we showered and changed. Since my playing had been less than stellar, no reporters or cameras hovered around my stall, so I finished dressing before the others. I knew the routine: everyone would drive to their respective homes, and then I would be going around and picking up some of the guys. The rest of them were going to be drawing straws to see who would get stuck as the other designated drivers tonight.

I had a head start on everyone else, so I had some time to kill. I headed out to my car and spotted Jo's telltale motorcycle in the parking lot. She was here, somewhere. Should I go find her? I wasn't sure if that was a good idea. Maybe she would need more time to cool off. If she was still mad.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that now was the most opportune time; we didn't have a game for a few days, so who knew when I'd get the chance again? Besides, I had the time to spare. Since the moment arose, I might as well have taken advantage of it.

I went back into the arena and checked the laundry areas for her first. When I didn't automatically find her, I started to ask some of the other employees around me if they'd seen a purple-headed girl around. Strange enough, every one of them shook their heads and told me no. The Mellon's a big place to have to find someone in, but at least she would stick out like a sore thumb. You can't miss a girl like Jo.

Navigating my way through the maze of hallways, I walked out on the main concourse and checked around the sections of seats, scanning them for her distinctly colored head. As I spun around and searched, I found her up in C2. Although, she didn't have her purple hair anymore. It was black in the back and pink in the front. It was different, but it was also kind of cute, actually, the color framing the features of her face. Her cheeks looked rosier. Her hazel eyes looked brighter.

Afraid to say something and see how she would react, I headed in her direction without announcing my presence. Instead, I waited for her to spot me. I watched as she she made faces while she picked up the spilled beers cups and wet programs and hand-outs. This definitely wasn't the most fun job in the world, and I suddenly wished that the fans would have been a little more courteous so she wouldn't have had to do this. Even though it's what she got paid to do.

"This is so fucking disgusting," she groaned as she picked up a beer-soaked pamphlet, which promptly disintegrated in her hand and fell back to the floor. "Stupid shitheads need to learn to pick up after themselves."

"Or not spill their beer," I said, not even thinking that I told myself not to say anything.

Jo jumped and placed her hand over her heart. "Fuck, Kris. Don't scare me like that."

"Sorry," I chuckled. I didn't say anything else right away. I wanted to wait for her to make the first move or be the first to really speak, so I would know what I was up against. She didn't freak out right away, which was a good sign, I supposed. But she just kind of stared at me, so I spoke up again, trying to keep the topic neutral. "I like your hair."

As if by reflex, her right hand reached up and touched the pink sections of her hair hanging by her cheek. "Oh. Uh, thanks." Then she shoved her hands into the pockets of her uniform. "So, um, did you... want... something?"

"Yeah. I wanted to give you something," I began, reaching into my own pocket for the scrap of paper I'd put there.

"More advice?" she quipped with an angry smirk. "Because you can keep it."

"No, actually. You see, I don't usually do this. In fact, I never give out my phone number to people. Especially to girls I don't really know."

"You're giving me your number? What makes you think I want it?" she snapped, fire igniting in her eyes. "You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?"

"Well, it's up to you whether you want to call or not. I won't give you any advice unless you ask me. I just figured you could use someone to talk to. About, well, you know."

"And I'm supposed to want to talk to you? A judgmental asshole who can't keep his arrogant opinions to himself? I'm supposed to open up to you?" She kept her volume low, but her tone was caustic.

"Uh, yeah," I answered, as if it were obvious.

Jo snorted and folded her arms over her chest, one leg jutting out. "What qualificiations do you possibly have to help me out? You're a hockey player, not a goddamned therapist."

"Experience. Simple as that."

It seemed that with every answer I gave Jo, her anger increased. Her words hissed as she spit them between her teeth. "How could you possibly know what I've been through? How could you even think I could possibly relate to you? And who says I even need anybody's help? You're such a self-righteous prick."

I smiled. "And you're a little quick to judge, too, wouldn't you say?" She frowned and narrowed her eyes at me, her response only to purse her lips; she knew I was right. "I guess you'll just have to call if you want to find out, now won't you?" I held out my hand with the number offered. "Just take it. Do what you want with it, but I hope you'll call."

Jo reached out and took the paper, not even looking at the digits before she crumbled it in her hand and shoved it into her pocket. "Maybe I'll give it to some of the skanks that are hanging around by the gate. I'm sure I can sell it for a couple bucks."

For a moment, I looked at her, hoping to tell if she was kidding. There was a glint in her eye, but I didn't know her well enough to know if she just playing around. Before I could ask, Goose appeared across the ice in the runway and yelled out, "Yo, Instant Tang! Let's go!"

"Coming!" I hollered back, the word echoing as I talked quietly to Jo. "I really, really hope you don't do that. You can call anytime," I said, making my offer one last time.

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do you have this bizarre fascination with trying to help me? Like I'm some kind of sinner in need of redemption?" she asked, looking at me with an intense expression and trying to discern my intentions.

I shrugged, not knowing how to explain without freaking her out. Jo would know doubt jump to conclusions and assume I'm being judgmental again. It's not being judgmental if you know from experience. "I told you, I know what it's like. No, I don't know what it's like to be in your shoes. But, if you ever need someone to commiserate with, or just someone to listen to you—"

"I have friends for that. I have great friends, as a matter of fact. And I'm fine. I don't need you."

Trying my best to bite my tongue, I ignored that I thought her friends were all enabling her and ergo not helping her. And people like that don't make good friends. Not sure what to say, I said nothing. Gogo called out again from across the arena. "Tanger! Come on! We're leaving!"

"Your boyfriend's calling," she said with a smile. "You'd better go."

"Funny," I replied sarcastically. "Do whatever you want, but know the option's yours." I walked away, not wanting to say anything else and not wanting to hear anything more. Being antagonistic wasn't going to help either one of us. I had done what I had set out to deal. My conscience could be clear now, regardless of whether she called. The ball was in her court, and I could be cleared of any responsibility because I had done the most I could, given the circumstances.

I made my way back to the concourse before heading into the parking lot to meet up with Goli, who was acting so impatiently. "You're picking up me, Gronk, Heather, and Talbo."

"Okay," I replied, spinning my key ring around my index finger.

"Who were you talking to?" he asked, pestering me for information. "I couldn't see from the runway."

"Uh, Jo." I waited for the backlash.

"The party chick? She was actually talking to you?"

"Kinda." Words were exchanged, and they weren't yelled. That counted as talking, right? "So let's go."

"What about?" Like a bulldog with his teeth in a juicy steak, he wouldn't let it go.

It wasn't worth it to lie. "I gave her my number."

Gogo laughed and clapped his hand on my shoulder. "Are you serious? And she took it?" I shrugged and nodded. "Good for you, man. Way to put some spice in your bland-ass life." He let go and walked away, leaving me to wonder why everyone seemed to think I wasn't having fun. I was happy; that was enough for me.