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.

6 comments:

  1. Loved this chapter! It was so interesting to read more about who Jo was in her past and the idea of Kris giving a safety talk is just plain adorable because of how responsible he is. Sue me, I love responsible men. :)


    "Did she get a taste of the Instant Tang?” < That quote was hilarious and I re-read it at least 5 times.

    As for the ending, I hope that they don't do anything stupid just because Jo is emotional right now. I feel like something big is going to happen soon.

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  2. Wow, that was really intense, and the fact that Kris took her to her old school without him knowing it just blew me away! Awesome, awesome, awesome!

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  3. dude
    just found this story today, read it all. so proud of myself
    i reallyyyyy like it
    it's totally different from all the lovey dovey stuff i have been reading, and i will admit, writing lately, reallllly well written!
    you should post more very very very soon, i didn't want to stop!

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  4. When you told me about this story I couldn't believe I didn't know about it haha. Does that make sense?

    I just read it all. Amazing. Period.

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  5. Wow, Jay. This chapter was full of so much emotion I don't even know what to do with myself. My heart breaks for Jo. I can't even begin to imagine what she's going through right now with all of the memories of the life she could have had coming back to her.

    I'm really excited for the next chapter to see how she connects with Kris.<3

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  6. I know I'm totally late to comment, but I really like this chapter, the part where they talk about Jo.
    Plus I love learning new words, and I love "eye-fucking", now I just need the right situation to use that one. Probably not at the family dinner table.

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