Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Epilogue

Generally speaking, I don't like epilogues. If I'm being honest, they feel like cop-outs. I mean, just look at Harry Potter; the epilogue practically ruined the entire series. But I won't rant about that. I wasn't going to write this, because I didn't want it to take away from the themes and lessons of the story. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I knew exactly what the rest of their lives had in store for them, and you only had your imaginations. That, and I'm having a really hard time letting go of these two. After living and breathing with them for a year, they're more a part of me than any other characters. Goodbye is never an easy thing, but this time it is especially difficult. Bon voyage, mes favoris.

And for those asking about new projects, I'm taking a break from fanfic to concentrate on something different, but I do have a side project: SWK. I feel the need to promise you that it won't be nearly as good as this was, but it's something light and fun for when I need a break from the serious.



Soundtrack Song - Relient K, Give Until There’s Nothing Left

“That’s it. Keep coming. That’s good! Okay, pull back, nice and high. Now shoot!” Kris encouraged, giving direction to the hockey player in front of him. Kris stood in the crease in his full practice gear except for his helmet, coaching and directing as the other player reluctantly and slowly pulled his stick back and released an awkward, ineffective shot. The puck slid sluggishly in a direction vaguely toward the goal. However, Kris discreetly changed his body position, skated to the side, and kept his stick off the ice, allowing the puck to pass the goal line unimpeded. “You did it! You scored!”

“Yay!” Jo laughed from the bench, clapping and cheering proudly for the miniature hockey player. “Way to go, Lucas! You scored on Papa!”

Lucas merely held his hands above his head in a very basic goal celebration stance. He was only three, so he didn’t quite understand the nuances of the game or why getting the puck between the pipes was such a big deal; besides, he always scored when his father was in net.

It was an off-day, and the Letangs had stuck around after practice so Lucas could skate around with his dad. Hockey was something the whole family could bond over, even though Jo always watched from the bench and cheered without ever lacing up skates of her own. The only time Jo had stepped onto the ice was when Kris won the ultimate prize. But Lucas didn’t understand that he only got smooth skating genes from his father’s side, so he always tried to get his mother to join them—even though Jo had another, more important reason for staying off the ice. “Mommy. Skate!”

“I can’t, honey. Do you remember why?”

He nodded before turning his attention probably back to his father, but more than likely focusing solely on the puck. “Lil one.”

“Right, the little one.” Jo instinctively placed her hand over her bulging stomach. This bundle of joy had been a surprise, in contrast to the plans they had laid out for themselves.

While no one could argue that these two were in love deeper than the Marianas Trench, more than a few people had thought that they were too young to get married; however, they were old souls trapped in young bodies, and since they had lived the equivalent of a lifetime before they had met, they couldn’t wait to take that next step and fully commit themselves to one another. Their only prerequisite to getting married was Jo’s quest to obtain her degree. Both she and Kris wanted her to accomplish her big goal before moving onto that major undertaking of marriage.

Kris had been granted permission to miss practice on the day of Jo’s graduation from the University of California Santa Cruz—thank goodness there wasn’t a game that day—and he sat amongst thousands of family members and friends of other graduates to applaud as she crossed the stage and moved the tassel from the right side to the left. She could hear his whistle as she shook the Dean’s hand, and before she left the stage, she blew a kiss in his direction and shook her diploma over her head in celebration.

They went out for dinner and stayed overnight in Santa Cruz to celebrate her great accomplishment. That’s when Kris proposed. Two months later, Kris and Jo flew out with Marlene, Henrí, and Tubby to Hawaii, where they wed on the beach and honeymooned in their favorite spot on Earth. Everyone seemed a little surprised to see a big, black man give Jo away, but it worked for them.

Once they had reached that milestone, Jo and Kris had talked about what their next step was going to be. She had thought about pursuing a graduate degree at UCSC, until she saw that it was a five-year program that went all four quarters; it was a nonstop, demanding, strenuous schedule, considering it would seriously cut down on any time she could spend with her new husband. After they had mulled over the pros and cons and alternatives, they decided to start their family after spending a little time enjoying the married life. For a year, Jo enjoyed the fact that she was done with school, and she volunteered at the Lick Observatory as a tour guide. It wasn’t research, but it was still something she enjoyed doing.

They both knew that they wanted a son—and had already had the name picked out years prior—and they were lucky enough to conceive and carry a full-term, healthy baby boy on their first try. They were enjoying their new family and hadn’t mentioned the idea of having any other kids until Jo recognized the tell-tale symptoms, which she had experienced when she was carrying Lucas, a few years later. She had called Kris at practice, confessing her inkling and asking that he stop by at the drugstore on the way home so they could confirm it. Two months later, an ultrasound revealed that they’d be the parents of a baby girl in the not-too-distant future.

Kris smiled at the sweet simplicity of the moment: his wife, with child, watching on as he taught his son the game he loved. As far as he was concerned, things couldn’t get better. “One more time, bud,” he said, digging the puck out of the net and skating into the slot. He put the puck right in front of his Lucas and then glided backward into the blue paint. “Same thing, keep the puck on your stick and aim for the net.”

“Just try your best, baby,” Jo cooed, wanting to cheer on the little player without overwhelming him with expectation at such a young age. They had agreed that they wanted to instill a love of the game in him first, whether or not he’d strive to play professionally later in life. There’d be a lot of pressure on him if he wanted to play, but they didn’t want to be the source of that. Kris and Jo had agreed, once they had decided to start their family, that their home would be a safe place, full of comfort and acceptance and peace for everyone—something that their individual homes had not always been.

Lucas shot the puck, and again Kris let it by him. He skated out of the crease and into the slot, where he picked up his son and tossed him carefully over his shoulder, carrying him off the ice as he skated toward the bench. Mocking incredulity, Kris grunted, “I can’t believe it, scored on again!”

Jo chuckled as she watched their shenanigans. “I hate to break it to you, Papa, but I think you’re a minus thirty-seven now. You’re getting smoked out there.”

“We’ve got a boy with the golden touch. Every shot is a goal.”

“Looks like we’re gonna have a power forward on our hands. Such a big boy,” Jo laughed, taking Lucas from Kris and raising him high in the air. He was big for his age, at least three inches taller and a solid ten pounds heavier than the other boys in his peer group—in fact, he was often mistaken for a kindergartener rather than a preschooler. It was a struggle for Jo to keep him up in the air for long, before her arms got tired and she had to set him down on the ground.

“Forward? I don’t think so,” Kris scoffed, stepping off the ice and toward the players’ bench. He stated his following words with unmistakable certainty and a nod of his head. “He’s following in his father’s footsteps. Defenseman.”

“But that goal! It was a beauty! He’s got such offensive instincts. And everyone knows that hockey players only play defense when they’re no good at scoring goals.”

What?! No good at scoring goals? What?” Kris stammered, accepting Jo’s bait. He knew she was teasing him, because he was in his prime as a fully developed player. He had proven himself as not only a scoring threat—having tallied at least fifty points in his past three seasons—but also as the league’s top defenseman as the Norris Trophy recipient last year. Plus, Kris wasn’t just a consistent, talented defenseman for his team; he was in his second season as captain of the Sharks, having had his contract renewed for an additional four years. Still, he grabbed a hold of her and enveloped her body, gently of course, and pinched and tickled her sides to make her squeal. “You take that back!”

She yelped again and giggled, gasping for air as she cried out, “Okay, okay! I take it back!”

He relented his hold and kissed her cheek. “All right, let’s go.” Kris took Jo’s hand in his right and moved to take his son’s with his left, but he turned to find Lucas had taken to the ice again. “Lucas! It’s time to hit the showers, bud.”

“No!” he whined, continuing to skate around the net as he dug out the puck.

Jo sighed. “He is his father’s son,” she cracked, casting an amused glance at her husband. Then she called out across the ice to her petulant three-year-old. “Come on, we’re done skating for today.” He ignored her as he continued to skate. This was not an unfamiliar scene for their family, and Jo knew they were up for a battle. “Lucas James Letang! Hockey time is over. Let’s get ready to leave so we can go home and eat lunch.”

Lucas staunchly repeated himself, content to spend hours upon hours on the slippery surface; as far as he was concerned, practice had only started. “No!”

“Yes, mister! If you can’t learn to behave when we visit Papa at practices, then we’ll just have to stop coming,” she warned, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot. They had already been there for over an hour after Kris’s official practice had ended, and although she would always enjoy watching her two men play, she was cold and tired. And easily irritable, too, but since she was eight months pregnant, she felt she had every right to be.

Kris pouted and wrapped an arm around his wife, rubbing her arm soothingly. “Aww, Joey, don’t say that. I mean, can you blame him for wanting to stay? I was just like him. He just wants to play the game.”

“And I just want to go home. Will you please go get him?”

He looked at her with a pained expression; Kris hated to be the bad guy. If Kris had his way, he would never force Lucas to go to bed when he wanted to stay up and play or make him eat his vegetables or any other necessary evil of parenthood. Lucas was a sweet kid with an easy smile and usually a good temperament, but he would not be happy to be taken off the ice, and Kris knew that—and he wanted to avoid the fit that he was bound to throw. “Maybe we can just let him play for a few more minutes.”

“Part of being a good parent—and a good father—comes from being stern. You’re not being cruel or mean to him. When we tell him to do something and he doesn’t listen, we need to put our foot down and not cave to him. He’s three. You’re twenty-eight. You’re a big, professional hockey player, who checks guys on a regular basis. You can’t be bullied by a toddler.”

When Kris didn’t make a move to head out there, Jo added, “I would go out there if I could, Kris, but you know that ice and I don’t mix well, and I don’t want to fall—”

“No, it’s okay,” he said, assuring his wife. He sighed, though, none too pleased to have to effect this tantrum, but he couldn’t have his very pregnant wife slipping and sliding out there in the rink. “I’ll handle it. I’ll get him.”

Kris took a few long strides toward his son in the crease. Lucas saw him coming and immediately started crying as he slunk down to the ice, like if he wasn’t on his feet then they couldn’t make him leave. Kris’s head hung low, but he tried to make it sound positive. “Come on, bud. Hockey players stick to a routine. Practice is over, so now we change and go home.”

That did not console Lucas, who only wanted to continue to knock the puck around on the ice. He could entertain himself for hours that way, and even though his parents brought him down to play at least once a week, he couldn’t get enough of it. He howled and wailed, “No, Papa, no. Stay.”

He sighed, hating every moment of it as he tucked his kicking and thrashing son under his arm and skated back toward the bench. Jo reached out to touch Kris, wanting to reassure him, but Kris shook his head and kept going straight into the dressing room. The remaining guys were merely lingering after their showers. Kris deposited Lucas on the bench seat next to his stall and then pulled his own practice jersey over his head.

Jo followed behind and took her place in front of Lucas to help him out of his equipment. She slowly knelt and began to unlace his skates—they were always the first thing she removed, because he was an energetic, fidgety kid who couldn’t sit still for a second, and the last thing she wanted was for him to accidentally hurt himself or her with his sharp skates. Once they were off, she took off his helmet and cupped his chin. His cries were echoing off the walls, and she wanted them to stop. “Hey, you. Stop with these alligator tears, okay?”

“Alligator tears?” Logan asked, puzzled by her maternal terminology.

She explained, “Can’t you see? He’s not really crying. He’s pretending, just pitching a fit because he doesn’t want to quit playing.” Lucas continued to be uncooperative as Jo began to take off his tiny Sharks uniform and pads. Kris was already stripped down and heading toward the showers. He wasn’t trying to ignore the situation or pawn their difficult son off on Jo; instead, he was trying to hurry so they could get home. No one likes to see or hear a temper tantrum. “Stand up, Lucas.”

He was losing steam and stood up without much of a fight so his mother could get his hockey pants off. She got him changed into regular clothes by the time Kris was showered and dressed. Now Lucas was rubbing his eyes, obviously tired from expending so much energy skating around and then acting out. Kris slung his son’s hockey equipment over his shoulder and then picked his son up to carry him out to the car. Jo’s belly was so big that she had trouble carrying her son around on her hip anymore, let alone for long distances.

When Kris was holding his son, it became evident how much they looked alike. Sure, he looked a little like Jo, too; he had her plump lips with the distinct Cupid’s bow, and his eyes were more of hazel like hers than a chocolate brown like Kris’s. But Lucas had his nose and brow and face shape, and the long, thick, brown hair that Kris was famous for. It fell into his eyes as he glanced sleepily around the room, his head on his father’s shoulder and his thumb in his mouth. Jo brushed that hair out of his face and tried to pull his hand away from his mouth, but Lucas shrieked so she let it go. Now that he was cranky, everything was doomed to be a production.

They lived pretty close to the Shark Tank, so Lucas didn’t have a chance to fall asleep during the ride home. Since he was so close to drifting off, Jo decided that they would give him a bath later and feed him now before he fell asleep. Jo quickly threw together a few grilled cheese sandwiches and then cut up some carrot sticks and apple slices for her special men. She poured some milk into a sippy cup for Lucas and served them at the table in the kitchen before she pulled the jar of pickles out of the fridge and picked a few slices out to munch on. When she was pregnant with Lucas, Jo craved sweet and salty constantly, and she often indulged in chocolate-covered pretzels. This time around, and oddly enough, she wanted sour, and pickles sated that craving wonderfully.

“Don’t you think you should eat something more... substantial?” Kris said carefully around the food in his mouth, not wanting to upset Jo. When she was experiencing morning sickness and he would encourage her to eat, Jo would get emotional; it wasn’t that she didn’t want to eat, and she already felt bad enough that she was sick, and with her raging hormones, she would just cry and cry about it and worry that her baby wasn’t getting enough nutrition. And once her cravings kicked in, Jo was just relieved that she wanted to eat again. Even though Kris wasn’t meaning to criticize, that’s how Jo’s pregnant mind interpreted it.

“I will. I made a sandwich for myself. I just... I want pickles with it.” Jo held onto a dill pickle slice and sucked on it, savoring the tangy vinegar taste. Then she popped the whole thing in her mouth and licked her fingers.

Kris replied soothingly, “I just wanna make sure. Pregnancy, that’s all you. I can’t really do anything, so I just want to make sure that you’re taken care of.”

“Don’t worry, babe. I’m taking care of myself. And I’m taking care of the little one, too,” she said smoothly, giving her tummy a pat. Ever since she had become aware of this pregnancy, she referred to the new baby lovingly as the little one. Jo was a confident mother. It wasn’t something that was necessarily easy, but she did have a maternal instinct that came naturally. She was especially sure of herself now that this was the second time around.

“Of course you are. You’re a good mother.” He stood up from the table, having quickly finished his meal, and kissed Jo’s flavorful lips.

“And you’re a great father. You’d be an even better father if you would carry him up and put him to bed for his nap.” Jo yawned and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “I think I need one, too, actually.”

They both looked at Lucas, whose head was bobbing as he struggled to stay awake. He hadn’t finished his lunch, but he wouldn’t when he was so tired. He’d had an exciting morning, waking up early to watch his father practice with his team before getting to go out on the ice with him and play. The fit he’d thrown had drained him.

“All right. I’ll see you upstairs then,” he replied, giving her another peck like he wouldn’t see her for hours. Kris scooped up Lucas from his booster seat and took him up to his room to tuck him in for his nap.

Jo cleaned up the kitchen quickly, putting away the lunch her son didn’t eat. She opened up her now lukewarm grilled cheese, piled pickles on it to make the sandwich palatable, and ate it quickly. Once she was finished, Jo dragged herself up the stairs and wished that she could make Kris carry her and put her to bed like he had done for their son. She padded into the bathroom, pulled her hair back into a sloppy ponytail, brushed her teeth, and then headed into the master bedroom, where Kris was sitting on the bed in just his boxers. He was still as cut and fit as he was when they first met; after six years, he looked as good as ever.

His hair was shorter than it used to be, with bangs long around his face but trimmed in the back. It still looked good on him, just more mature and grown up—befitting of a married, family man. His right arm was sporting ink now, too, with the name and birth date of his son written on his bicep. There was plenty of room to add the name and birth date of his soon-to-be-born daughter; that is, as soon as she was born, and as soon as they could pick out a name.

“You napping, too?” she asked, pulling her black sweater over her head to reveal her camisole.

He shrugged. “Dunno. I’m sore, so I think I might just lie down and rest a while. Is that okay with you?”

“More than okay,” she yawned in response. She stepped out of her maternity jeans and folded them before she threw them on the chair in the corner. Jo pulled a pair of Kris’s pajama bottoms out of the dresser and slid them on up to her hips, where she cinched the waist and tied a secure knot to keep them up. Nothing other than specially designed mom-wear was fitting over her belly at this point in the pregnancy, and Jo hated those clothes. Instead, she opted to fit into what she could, even though the pants had to hang low and the cami couldn’t stretch down over her stomach, leaving her baby belly exposed.

She examined herself in the mirror, and Kris moved off the bed and stepped behind her. He wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her stomach, kissing the back of her neck and her shoulders. “You’re so beautiful.”

“That’s sweet,” she moaned, reaching up to touch his hair as his lips worked on her skin. “I feel like a blimp.”

Jo could feel his lips curl into a smile as he replied, “But a beautiful blimp.”

“You smooth talker you.” She turned in his arms and placed a lingering kiss on his mouth. His hands roamed up her sides, gently brushing the sides of her breasts. “Take me to bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He grabbed her hand and led her to their big mattress, where they lay down together on their sides, facing each other. Kris carefully pulled Jo on top of him so she was straddling his hips. Then he reached up and pulled the elastic from her hair and released it so it flowed past her shoulders. “That’s it.”

“Seriously?” she sighed, wearing her best pout. “You’re going to make me do the work? I’m so tired, babe. You be on top.”

“But I’m sore from practice,” he returned with a smirk. “I remember when you used to demand to be on top.”

“I’m too big,” she whined, jutting her lip out even farther. “I can’t see what I’m doing over my belly, and it’s too awkward to move.” Jo leaned down over him and tried to kiss him, just to show him that with her protruding stomach, she didn’t have the mobility that she used to. Finally, she pulled out the trump card. “I’m carrying your child, Kristopher. I’m the mother of your children. You should be obliging me.”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed, allowing Jo to roll over onto her back. He couldn’t hover over her, so he stretched out beside her and kissed her slowly and thoroughly, taking his time before his tongue probed her mouth. “You taste like pickles and mint.”

“Eww,” she chuckled, stroking his arm. “Does that mean you don’t want to kiss me?”

“I always want to kiss you. It doesn’t matter what you taste like.”

Jo was about to ask him to continue with that when they heard a polite knock and a soft voice dampened by the closed door. “Mommy? Papa?”

They sighed synchronously; they had a kids-free policy about allowing Lucas to sleep in their bed at night, but they often napped together during the day on their giant, king-sized mattress. Kris peered down at Jo, waiting to see if she would grant her permission. After having to literally carry Lucas away from the rink, Kris wanted to allow him in to sleep with them rather than be forced to take him back to bed. There was only so much strict parenting he could handle in one day.

Jo sighed again and ran her fingers down his arm. “We always have tonight. It’s all right, let him in.”

Kris got up from the bed and opened the door to see Lucas rubbing his eyes with his left hand—he’d probably be a lefty, just like his dad—and clutching his stuffed shark with his right. It wasn’t an officially licensed Shark mascot, but Kris had bought it for him when he was first born and now Lucas couldn’t sleep without it. His hair was a knotted mess from tossing and turning in his lonely, big boy bed down the hall. Jo and Kris never locked their bedroom door, but they had taught Lucas the importance of knocking and asking for entrance before walking into Mommy and Papa’s room. That worked, except when he woke up from a nightmare.

“Hey, bud. You wanna nap with us?” Kris asked, not waiting for an answer. He stepped aside and let Lucas run and dive on the bed next to his mother.

“Come get under the covers,” Jo encouraged, struggling to lift her hips and simultaneously reach down to pull the comforter down. “I feel like a beached whale.” Kris chuckled and helped her before crawling in beside her on her right, while Lucas stretched out on his back on her left. Kris and Jo spooned so they were both facing their son as he quickly dozed back to sleep. The kid could sleep like a rock.

“I can’t believe it’s only a few weeks away,” Kris said with a smile. “I can’t wait to meet my daughter.”

“I’m worried about it,” Jo confessed reluctantly.

“What? Why? Are you scared I won’t be there? Coach promised to scratch me for the away game the day before your due date so I wouldn’t miss it because of traveling.”

“Oh no, it’s not that. I’m a little anxious about the delivery, but I’m more relaxed with it than I was with Lucas because now I’ve done it before. But I mean, this time it’s going to be hard with a new baby and already having Lucas. I’m worried he won’t get any attention because there will be times when you have to travel, and it’ll be just me and two kids, a toddler and a newborn in constant need of attention. I’ll be so tired, and, well, it’s just going to be so much harder this time around.”

Kris hugged his wife tightly and kissed her ear. “We can get you help for when I’m not home. I know you don’t like the idea of strangers coming into the house, so no nannies, but... I could ask my mom to come down for a while. As long as you like, until you get settled or until the season’s over.” The Sharks were already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs in the western conference, and now they were gunning for that number one spot. They were striving for the Cup again, which would be the team’s third—and Kris’s fourth.

Jo’s voice was unsure as she asked, “Do you think she’d mind?”

“Mind? Of course not,” he laughed. “You know she’d love the opportunity to spend more time with Lucas and to get to know the little one.”

“Then I think maybe you should ask her to come down—but only if she’ll come down after the little one’s born, though. I don’t want someone else in the house when I’m nesting. You know I get... particular.”

“Yeah, I remember,” he replied, thinking about the way Jo had freaked if even one thing had been moved as they approached Lucas’s due date. He’d wanted to do nice things for Jo when she was so close to giving birth, but if he cooked, then he never put anything back in the right place. And if he cleaned, he never was thorough enough. While Jo and Marlene now had a good in-law relationship, pregnant Jo wasn’t always easy to get along with. “I’ll ask, but I’m sure she’ll agree. Does that make you feel better?”

“Yes, babe. Thank you.”

Kris reached across Jo and smoothed the hair off Lucas’s forehead before he placed his hand back on Jo’s belly. He whispered in her ear, “So I was thinking. I’d really like a French name for the little one.”

She grinned and closed her eyes. “While Lucas isn’t named after Luc, he’s named in honor of him. I don’t think you get to choose the name this time around.”

“That’s not fair. I didn’t ask for that name. It was your suggestion, in fact. And besides, his middle name is James. I’d say that was a compromise.”

“I just figured—”

“I’m just saying that a French name, or a French-sounding name at least, would be nice. It’s a suggestion, nothing more.”

“Why?” Jo asked, keeping her voice low as her son slept.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m from Montréal. I mean, I speak French. I want my kids to know where they come from.”

“We’ve gone to visit your family. You speak French to Lucas when I’m not around, and to the little one, too. She kicks like crazy when you do that. They know.” She paused. “And your name isn’t even French.”

“I know, but it’s different when you’re living in Québéc. Everyone knows you’re French-Canadian up there.”

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked, lacing her fingers with his on her stomach. Jo had told Kris at the beginning of the naming process that she got to make all the final decisions, because she was the one putting in all the work of carrying the baby. But she hadn’t yet found a name that she especially liked or they could agree upon. She was starting to worry that she’d deliver the baby and still not have something picked out.

“I had an idea, but I know that this is important to you that you pick one.”

“It’s okay, Kris. Tell me.”

He quietly suggested, “Angelique.”

Jo smiled broadly, her eyes still closed. She squeezed Kris’s hand and tried to repeat it, but it didn’t come out quite as poetically as it did when Kris pronounced it in his deep, accented voice. It made her giggle. “Can I call her Angie?”

“You can call her whatever you’d like.”

“Angelique,” she repeated. “Angelique Letang. I like that. But we need a middle name.”

“What about your maiden name? Angelique Anderson Letang.” He chuckled, shaking Jo as his chest heaved with laughter. “That’s a mouthful.”

“Well, we still have a few weeks to think about it,” Jo replied, snuggling against his body heat. It wasn’t long before she was sleeping and dreaming of the little one and the day she’d join her happy family.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

140.) Jo’s End

Thanks again, everyone.

Soundtrack Song - Modest Mouse, Float On

“Do you mean it, Kris? Honestly and truly?” My heart wanted to believe him and all the things he said. I knew Kris loved me, and there wasn’t any doubt about that; it was how he showed it that created this problem. I needed him to manifest that love in a different way so I felt like an equal to him. Wanting these things for me was his way of showing how much he cared because with everything that happened because of his dad, that’s how he learned to love. So I could appreciate the gesture, but I didn’t like it.

I wanted so badly for him to mean it and follow through with his promise to change, but I tried to restrain myself until I knew that he planned on following through to the best of his abilities. Even after everything he had just said, I couldn’t let myself be certain until I heard him promise; Kris wouldn’t break a promise, because he was too honorable for that.

It was a last-ditch attempt to guard my heart. I had had a month to adjust to the notion that Kris wouldn’t be willing to compromise with me on this issue, based on the fact that he had packed up and left Pittsburgh instead of hanging around. Sure, that whole situation could have been avoided if I had just answered the damn phone, but I had been angry at the time and I can’t change the past. But if I had even allowed a slight possibility to leak into my heart that he’d be willing to take me back and accept my terms, only to find out that he either wouldn’t or couldn’t agree, I’d die.

He cupped my face in his big, strong, calloused hands, and looked me unwaveringly in the eyes. “I mean it, I swear it. When I said anything, that’s what I meant. Anything.

It was what I had wanted to hear, but I had to make sure just one more time. If I had to suffer the disappointment of not having Kris in my life again, I would lose it; just because I had told him that I didn’t need his help anymore didn’t mean that I didn’t need him. “Are you sure, Kristopher Letang? Because I’ll still want to move to California with you—but keep in mind that I missed the application deadline for the spring term at the University of California. I’m okay with a year of community college, but are you? Will you let me go with you now that that’s the case? Tell me now, straight up, so we don’t have to go through that fight again, because I can’t fight again with you. I told you, fighting hurts me too much.”

Kris sighed, taking his sweet ole time with his answer, and driving me nuts because of the wait. Finally, he flat out said, “No.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had been so cautious for this very reason, but of course I had hoped that he’d agree anyway. After a month apart, I had hoped that he’d have missed me so much that he’d agree to anything. And after everything he had confessed and gushed to me, I thought he’d want to find a way to make this work. To refuse me so definitively was... shocking, to say the least.

He took my hands in his and sandwiched them together; I watched him do that instead of look up at his face. “I’m not going to ‘let’ you do anything, because that would be me making a decision for you. And I just swore I wouldn’t do that. You can make that call, Jo, about where you want to go to school, which state and what university, and I’ll support you no matter what you decide.”

My eyes shot up and scanned his face, checking for sincerity. “You mean that?”

“Uh, yeah. I won’t lie, I don’t like it. I think you should be in a real school, a good one, but the credits will count. They’ll transfer. And it’s one more step toward your graduation. And you’ll be happy, so that works for me.”

I launched myself against him, practically jumping onto him as I wrapped my arms around his broad, strong shoulders. Burying my face into his chest and the soft cotton of his tee shirt, I released a few tears. They were happy tears, because I was ecstatic; I couldn’t ask for more at that moment in time. I had everything I wanted.

“Joey, honey, I can’t tell if this is a yes or a no,” he said, a subtle plea in his voice for a definite, vocal response. “Does this mean you’re my girlfriend again? I really want you to be.”

I nodded. “This is a yes. Holy hell, yes, yes, yes!” I pushed up on my tippy toes, tilted my head back, puckered my lips, and waited for him to kiss me. But he didn’t. I opened my eyes to see a pained expression stretched across his face. It worried me. “What? Why don’t you want to kiss me?”

“Well, I have to tell you something first. I hope it doesn’t make you mad... but if I know you, it will.” His head hung low, and he wouldn’t meet my gaze. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but... I kissed a girl.”

Billions of thoughts coursed through my head when he said that. I wasn’t mad—I was furious. How was he able to kiss someone else so quickly after what happened between us? I hadn’t been able to think about anything remotely romantic or sexual since our break up. Plus, I was jealous. My feelings for him hadn’t magically gone away just because we weren’t together. “When? Who?”

“I don’t know, two weeks ago, maybe? My neighbor, Julie. She saw me coming home from the bar—”

“Wait,” I cut him off. “You went at a bar?” Kris would never elect to go to a bar, especially not when it was the offseason. The only reason he went was to hang out with his teammates, so he had no motivation to go over the summer.

He finally looked back at me, obvious penitence in his eyes. “Yeah. Max took me out so I could get my mind off you. It didn’t help, though, and instead I got sick and threw up the beer I drank. That stuff’s seriously gross, I don’t know how anybody drinks it,” he sighed, getting off track. “But Julie saw, and she helped me get inside the house. She kissed me first, but that’s no excuse, because I did kiss her back. I stopped her once I realized it wasn’t you. But I just thought you’d like to know.”

“Well, I certainly don’t like knowing—”

He interrupted to clarify. “But I thought you deserved to know. It wouldn’t be fair to keep that from you.”

I tried to set aside my anger and jealousy so I could rationalize this in my head. “Well, we weren’t together at the time, so it’s not like you cheated.” I exhaled deeply. “And it’s not like you initiated the kiss, because I have a feeling you wouldn’t have done that.”

“No, definitely not.”

“Were you drunk? How much did you drink?”

He blushed. “Not a lot. I don’t think I was drunk, really, but it made me sick. It, uh, it wasn’t pretty.”

The thought of Kris getting sick after drinking almost brought a smile to my face. He got drunk off champagne after winning the Cup, so I could only imagine what beer did to him. Good champagne was sweet and went down easy, but beer was a totally different story. I wished that I had been there to bear witness to Kris’s first drinking binge. And I also found it to be a total role reversal that he would go to a bar and drink to cope with a break up, and I didn’t.

I decided that kissing back was just a reaction; since Kris didn’t make the first move, then I shouldn’t be so upset over it. Of course, I had warned Kris plenty of times about skanks and whores who wanted nothing more than to get into his pants, but since we weren’t an item at the time, I guess I didn’t have any right to be mad. Besides, after being apart for weeks and only now finally getting a chance to reconcile, I didn’t want to waste any time being upset with him.

“Please just kiss me now.”

Kris smiled a full smile at me, and I loved seeing that before I closed my eyes again. I felt one of his hands at the small of my back and his other at the back of my head as he leaned down and pressed his hot mouth over mine. My hands grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and held on tightly as he made my toes curl in my sandals. Of all the ways I had missed him, how could I have forgotten the way he could turn me into mush with just his lips?

I could have kissed him all night and well into next week. In fact, I would have been content to stay in this cramped and less than comfortable bathroom to continue our little make-out session, but someone knocked loudly but politely on the door. Kris pulled back and broke it off. “Une minute.” He leaned his forehead against mine. “I wish this wasn’t my party.”

Moving my hands up to the back of his neck, I twirled the ends of his hair around my fingers. “How come?”

“So I could sneak away with you. I’ve got too many obligations tonight to leave, though,” he sighed. “How long are you staying?”

“Just for a few hours. We’re leaving tonight, because I need to get back into Pittsburgh for class tomorrow,” I told him sadly.

“So soon?” He pouted. He took my hand and began to lead me out of the bathroom.

“Well, yeah. I didn’t wanna get stuck here in case things between us didn’t go well. Tubby promised to drive all night to get us back in time.”

He opened the door and went through first, pulling me behind him. While I couldn’t see who was there, I could tell by the voice. “Tanger, you’d better not have been takin’ a shit in there. It better not smell.”

“Shut up, Staalsy,” he quipped back lamely.

So I poked my head out from behind Kris and added, “Don’t act like your shit don’t stink, Jordan Staal.”

“Jo?” he asked, sounding very surprised to see me. “I didn’t expect to see you. In the bathroom. With Tanger.” Then he flashed his straight, white teeth as he grinned ear to ear. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything. I’m no cock block.”

Kris blushed while I chuckled and squeezed Kris’s hand. We moved out of the way so Jordan could maneuver himself into the bathroom on his crutches and take care of his business. We walked away from the pavilion so we could join the crowd on the grassy picnic area. “Who all did you invite? I didn’t expect to see him here.”

“Oh, we invited everyone. Sharks, Pens, and family and friends and stuff. Usually, Cup parties are few and far between for players, if they get to celebrate at all, so it’s kind of a big deal.”

I looked around and saw just that. I saw the newly retired Rob and Brandy Blake, along with their two kids as well as Samantha, little Brianna, and a face I didn’t recognize—but I knew it had to be Brian, her boyfriend and Brianna’s father. Pickles and Jamie were there, hanging around with a handful of other Sharks players. I saw Tyler Kennedy and Kelsey, Max Talbot, Marc-André Fleury and Véro, and Alex Goligoski, and other NHL players like Alex Burrows with his girlfriend Nancy. Philippe Boucher was there as his mentor when he played for the Pens. Suzanne was there, and so was Big Luc, Maryse, and Eve, representing the Bourdon clan. Of course, there was Marlene, Henrí, and Mamie. Julie was there, too, but I was trying to ignore her. Literally everyone that Kris knew was here.

“Are you worried your dad will show up?” I wondered out loud. “Or did you invite him, too?”

“No, he wasn’t invited. I didn’t want him to be here. In this weird way, I’m who I am because of him, but he doesn’t deserve the credit. I hope he doesn’t show up. Can you imagine him seeing my mom?” Kris grunted. “I don’t know how she would be able to handle that. I think I made it clear enough to him that I don’t care about him, so I don’t think he’ll show his face.”

“Did you ever find out why he showed up at your game that day?”

He shook his head. “No. It doesn’t really matter why. It happened, and I’ve dealt with it.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t show up. I’m the party crasher,” I laughed, lightening the mood, “and I don’t really want to be shown up.”

As we made our way toward my friends, Kris asked, “So, who did you bring? Tubby, I see him, but who’s that?”

“Oh, uh,” I started, realizing that Kris probably wasn’t going to like this. However, it was important to me that this introduction happen. Kris had originally wanted to meet Dave because of his role in my life as first responder after my accident, and I wanted them to meet because I wanted Kris to see that Dave was a good guy and my friend. “Kris, I want you to meet Dave. Dave, this is Kris.”

I had interrupted Dave and Charlene’s conversation to perform the introduction. Dave smiled and extended his hand toward Kris. “Dude, Kris Letang, it’s an honor to meet you. I loved watching you play for the Pens. Congrats on winning again this year.”

“Thanks,” Kris mumbled, dropping my hand and taking Dave’s formally. Even though we were together again and supposed to be happy, I hoped that this was a humbling experience for Kris. “And thank you, for what did for Jo here and taking care of her after her accident. Really, I mean, I can’t thank you enough.”

“No problem. It was my pleasure, actually,” he replied, smiling at me. “I don’t usually get to make friends with my patients.”

“I do have bad news for you though, Dave,” I told him with a smile. “You’re going to need to put your ad for a new roomie back up on Craigslist. I’ll be moving to California at the end of the month.”

Tubby nodded like he knew this was coming, and Charlene squealed and excitedly engaged both Kris and me in a hug. I was aware that pretty much every attendee at this party was now looking over at us. When Charlene released us, Kris put his arm around me and pulled me against his side; I relished in the full-body contact. He asked me, “Hungry?” I nodded. “Wanna grab some food?”

We excused ourselves from the group and headed over toward the food table, where there was an expansive spread. Kris asked me another question. “Roomie?”

I reddened and shied away from his gaze. “I’ve been living there since our fight.”

“Living there like we lived together? Or....”

“No!” I shouted, reacting viscerally. I quieted my voice and explained, “I have my own room. I pay rent there. There’s nothing going on there.”

“Then why did he look so disappointed?”

“I don’t know, maybe because he’s sad that his friend is moving across the country? Mad that he has to go through the effort of finding someone else to occupy that room now? It doesn’t matter to me though, babe, because I’m happy to be moving with you.”

“Why didn’t you just stay in the apartment?”

“Stay there? Why would I stay there?”

“In my note, I said you could stay there. I promised to take care of you while you went to school, even if you didn’t want to be with me. Didn’t you read my note?”

“The first line, when you said you went home. After that... I didn’t need to keep reading, because none of that was important. If you couldn’t stick around, if you had no hope for us, then I didn’t either.” I sighed. “Even if I had known that, I couldn’t have stayed. It was your place first, so of course there are too many memories there. And plus, I wouldn’t have wanted to put you out like that and make you pay my way through school. I like working and taking care of myself. It’s tough, but I like knowing that I can do it.” I paused as we reached the table and we picked up Styrofoam plates. “Are you mad that I moved in at the house with him?”

Kris was silent for a moment. “I’ll admit, Jo, it doesn’t really sit right with me. I know he’s your friend, and we weren’t together, and you felt like you needed a place to stay.... If it were Tubby, I’d understand no problem. And I guess he’s a nice guy, at least I think so from just meeting him, but not having met him before, it bothers me. What’s done is done, though. What do you want to eat?”

I stepped behind him and wrapped my arms around his middle as I pressed my cheek against his back. “Do you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Maybe this is retroactive, but I’m trusting that you made a smart decision. Obviously everything’s worked out and he’s been a good friend to you, nothing more and nothing less. And Tubby gets along with him if the three of you are hanging out, so he can’t possibly be a bad guy. Otherwise, Tubby would draw the line. So we’ve got barbecue chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, and all kinds of other food. What would you like?”

“Cheeseburger,” I said, closing my eyes and soaking in the moment. I was so happy things were working out on so many fronts. “And a hot dog.”

“Both?” he asked, sounding surprised. “Are you that hungry?”

“Yes,” I told him. I kept my arms around his middle, and Kris went to work fixing my plate for me. I held it in my left hand as he grabbed a hot dog and squirted some ketchup on it, and then layered a burger for me with lettuce, pickle, and mustard—just how I liked it. He grabbed some chicken for himself, and then he piled our plates with baked beans, potato salad, fruit salad, and corn on the cob. I let go of him so we could walk to a bench and eat, making sure to grab tons of napkins.

People gathered around us, most likely wanting to spend time with the honored guest. Tubby and Dave got food, too, and Charlene joined us as well as Pickles, Jamie, Logan Couture, Talbot, and Staal. It was a fun little group, and we laughed and ate as we all caught up with each other’s lives. Kris and I were sitting next to eat other with me on his right, so we could both eat without elbowing each other. Kris plowed through his food, but I finished only about half of mine. He looked at me with raised eyebrows, to which I nodded; he proceeded to eat the rest of my hot dog and hamburger.

He got ketchup on his face, so I took one of my many napkins and wiped at his face. Kris jerked away before I could get it though. “What?”

“You have ketchup, babe,” I informed him, trying again to wipe it away. He knew that I couldn’t stand food on people’s faces.

He chuckled as he dipped his fingers in the baked beans and then covered my nose in the sauce. “Jo, you’re such a slob. You have stuff on your face. You’re so embarrassing.”

“Oh, I’m going to make you pay for that,” I growled playfully, wiping my own face now. “You’re in big trouble, mister.”

“Gag me,” Logan moaned. “Do you guys ever shut it off? Get a room.”

“Aww, someone’s jealous,” Pickles laughed.

“I think it’s cute,” Jamie purred.

Charlene chipped in, “Yeah, me too.”

“Girls,” Max sighed, shaking his head. “Only girls would think it’s ‘cute’ to smear food on someone else’s face.”

As the night progressed, Kris had to wander off to thank his departing guests for coming. The guys had plans to go out with the cup, thinking that Kris would want to go out on the town and party hard into the night with it, but I knew that he wouldn’t be doing that tonight. Maybe he would have before I showed up and crashed the party. He had every reason to be low-key tonight.

When it was time for Tyler and Kelsey to leave, the latter of the pair walked over to our group to hug me and wish me luck in my new start in California with Kris. “You should come out to Pittsburgh and visit when the Sharks come to play against the Pens. Me and Heather have missed you since you went out to California, and then we moved back home for the summer.”

“That’s so sweet. I miss you guys, too. We’ll definitely have to figure something out.”

“Nice tattoo, by the way,” she said, pointing over her should to her right shoulder blade, miming the place on my body where I had tattooed Kris’s number in French. “Now that’s love. I’m so glad you two figured everything out.”

I shrugged and smiled. “I think you never figure everything out. It’s always a progression, there’re always problems, and you constantly have to work at it.”

“Well, you guys are, like, perfect for each other. If you guys have problems, then there’s no hope for the rest of us.”

Cracking up, I had to contain myself before I could tell her, “That just goes to show you that all relationships take work. No one’s perfect.” I sighed. “You know, if someone had told me a year ago that all these things would have happened to me, that I would have met Kris and fallen in love with him, and all these different things we’d been through, I would have thought they’d lost their mind. Some were good, some were bad, but all of it was worth it. It just goes to show that you have to have faith through the bad times that the good times will come around again. You just... you never know what’s going to happen.”

Kelsey smiled at me, and we hugged one more time before she and Tyler left. I found Kris talking to someone else as they were getting ready to leave, so I intercepted Kris before someone else wanted to talk to him. I grabbed his hand, and we walked toward the Cup. “Where’s your name on this thing?” I asked him.

“They didn’t put on this year’s names yet. We get our day with it first, and then they’ll etch on the 2010 champs.”

“But your name’s on there from last year. Where?”

“Oh, just let me....” He spun the Cup around the table a little and then pointed out the area from when the Pens won last season. “Here.”

I bent down and kissed his name on the Cup. Then I stood and kissed his sweet lips. I was vaguely aware of a bright light, meaning someone had taken our picture; I hoped that I would be able to get a copy of it to add to my collection.

“Can I come with you back to Pittsburgh?” he asked, running a hand through my hair.

“You don’t have to ask my permission. And you know I’d love if you came down for my last few weeks of class.”

“No, I do need to ask your permission.... I mean, can I ride down with you guys? My car’s still in Pittsburgh, at the airport actually.”

“Oh,” I giggled. “I’ll have to check with Tubby, but I’m sure he’d be okay with that. If not, I’ll pout until he agrees.”

“When your classes are over, do you want to come out west with me? We can go apartment hunting. You should probably have a say in where we move, since you’re moving, too. And then you can look at the local colleges and apply. If that sounds okay.”

“It sounds great. How long do you have the Cup? We can leave when your time’s up.” I glanced over at where Tubby and Dave were hanging out, and I saw Charlene talking and laughing with Dave. “Maybe we can invite Charlene down, too. She said she wanted to come visit us, remember?” I nodded in their direction. “I think she might really want to now.”

He hugged me closer. “They are getting along, aren’t they?”

“Yup.” I turned my head and saw Marlene standing in the pavilion next to Henrí. He put his arm around her, and she nodded at me with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. I smiled at her, knowing that was probably the best I was going to get under the current circumstances. “I can’t wait to see what this year holds for us.”

“Me either, Joey.” I felt his chest rise and fall with a deep breath. “Me either.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

139.) Kris’s End

Yes, as you may be able to tell from the title, this will be the penultimate post of this story, and #140 will be the end. I know more than one of you had said that you wish this story could go on forever, but I’m glad to be at this point, finally. This story has turned into so much more than I had planned for it.

I know some of my wonderful readers enjoy the music, so instead of choosing between two, I linked to both of them. The former fits best with the beginning, and the latter fits with the dialogue.

Thanks to everyone who read, but most of all to those who commented and commented regularly with such kind words, praise, and encouragement; you mean the world to me. I hope you enjoy, because without you, I probably never would have even gotten to this point.


Soundtrack Songs - The Airborne Toxic Event, Sometime Around Midnight / The Script, Talk You Down

I had been thinking about this moment since I had invited Jo up to my Cup party. I’d probably asked Charlene three dozen times since she met me at the house this morning about Jo, whether she had changed her mind about coming, and when she’d show up—because Charlene had promised me that Jo was coming. As the day had progressed, I was sure that Charlene had been feeding me a lie to help me get through the day; otherwise, if Jo had refused to come, I would never have been able to make it through the planned festivities. I would have been too heartbroken.

So when she finally appeared, I felt a rush of emotions. I was relieved, yet unsure. Getting her here wasn’t the tough part—it was figuring out what to say to her now that she had agreed to be in the same place and time as me. The people around me had noticed her arrival first, and I had felt them all turn to me and watch me before I had the sudden, inexplicable urge to turn and look up toward the hill she was walking down with her company. I was only vaguely aware that she wasn’t alone, and I didn’t bother looking at them long enough to recognize them; it didn’t matter who she brought as long as she came.

Jo was wearing this white, flowy sun dress that was new to me. I had always loved her in white; not only did it make her look tan and healthy, but it also made her look angelic and pure. After the hell she’d been dragged through, I thought it made her look more like the person I knew she was inside. The breeze kicked up, making the skirt dance around her legs as her hair whipped around her face. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was parted as she stared back at me, looking like a vision from my dreams.

Until she said something to Char, looked away, and started to walk toward the pavilion—which was in the opposite direction from me. She was walking away from me. Again. And just as quickly as before, like a trot. While I knew that this wasn’t going to be easy, I also knew that avoiding it wasn’t going to make it any easier. I wanted to talk to her, see her, feel her, be close to her... so I followed her to wherever she was going. I wasn’t going to let her get away so easily this time.

It was like she had been in a whole nother world, because she looked shocked when I caught up to her in the pavilion’s restroom. Her eyes flitted to my arm as I held the door open and prevented her from shutting it so I could enter with her. At least we’d have some privacy to hash this out. The way her chest rose and fell quickly as she breathed in shallowly let me know that she was just as nervous or scared or anxious about seeing me as I was about seeing her. We greeted each other, but after that, I had no idea what to say next; there was too much that I needed her to know.

“I’m just... I’m so glad you were able to make the trip up,” I finally said, breaking the silence. I stepped closer to her and reached out to touch her face, her pretty face, her beautiful face.

But she flinched and turned away from me, like she was afraid that I would hurt her. It was discouraging and disheartening, especially when she returned, “I have to pee, Kris. Get out.”

“No you don’t,” I told her flatly. I knew it was a lie; she had hurried away from me because she had wanted to put more distance between us or prolong the inevitable. She raised her eyebrows as if to challenge me—after all, how would I know? But I could read Jo well enough to know that she was looking for an excuse to get some distance. She didn’t argue with me, though, so I cleared my throat and tried to change the subject to something more neutral in order to build up to the big, important topics. “So, how are your classes?”

“Fine.”

“And you said you’re working? Where?”

She rolled her eyes and looked down at her inwardly-turned feet. “Sheetz.”

“Oh. Do you like it?”

“It’s okay, I guess. I mean, it’s tough, working and studying, but I have to do it.”

“Why do you have to?”

Jo gave me a very pointed glance. “How do you expect me to support myself? To afford a place to live? To buy food to eat?”

“Why aren’t you at the apartment? Didn’t you get my note?”

“Oh, yeah,” she snorted. “I got your note. I come back to talk to you and find that you’ve gone home. I couldn’t believe that. Do you know how bad it hurt to see that you up and moved back here?”

“Do you know how bad it hurt when you walked out on me?”

“What did you want me to do, Kris? Stand there and let you tell me what to do? Let you dictate my life and make all these decisions for me, without taking my opinion or wants into mind?”

Speaking softly, I tried again to make her understand that morning’s point of view. “Well, no. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to be able to explain my reasoning and make you see that I really just wanted what would be easiest for you.”

Jo’s eyes began to well with tears as she looked up at me. “Easiest for me? If you thought that keeping me locked up in Pittsburgh would be ‘easiest’ then you’re sadly mistaken.” She wiped at her cheeks and then stood straight up with her shoulders pushed back. “Don’t you see, Kris? I’m not the same girl you met a year ago. I’m different. I’m better. When we fought, when I left, I thought I was going crazy. Everything was wrong, and I hated it, and I wanted to close my eyes and never open them again. It hurt so bad. So bad.”

I pursed my lips together, trying to hold my emotions in. I wanted to apologize, scream it, yell it, do anything to show her that I meant it. Never in a million years did I want to be the person who hurt her; I wanted to be the one person she could depend on more than anyone else in this world, the only one who she could lean on without worrying that I'd do something to cause her any pain. That had been the point of wanting her to stay in Pittsburgh, to avoid the highs and lows and brutal uncertainty of my contractual destiny. But the things I had said and done with good intentions had hurt nonetheless. And even though I wanted to tell her all that, I kept it inside so I could let her say what it was she wanted me to know.

“But I didn’t do that. I got up, every day. I made myself do the things I needed to do each day. I pushed forward, even when it felt like an impossible task. It was hard to do even the simplest things, to shower, to eat, to get my ass to class and pay attention as the professor droned on and on. But I did it anyway—and I did it without you watching over me and pulling the strings to make things ‘easy’ for me.” Jo chuckled in a sad way. “And it’s the craziest thing, because if you would’ve seen me, Kris, you would have been so proud of me for that. It's such a contradiction, because if you hadn’t’ve left, I wouldn’t have been tested, but I wouldn’t have had a reason to make you proud.”

“I’ll always be so proud of you. Jo, I can’t tell you... I can’t possibly show you how sorry I am that I hurt you. I hate that I put you through that, that I made things so difficult for you when really I did have good intentions to make it easier for you. It hurts to know that I did that to you.”

“You don’t have to apologize. I’m kind of glad it happened? I don’t know....” Her voice faded out and she looked away, her mind obviously somewhere else.

“Glad? But you're crying.” I wiped her cheek with the pad of my thumb. It was the first I got to touch her in a month, and I was wiping away tears that I had caused. It made me feel terrible.

She took my hand in hers and squeezed as she offered me a sad smile. “I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. It still hurts. I still can’t figure out why you’d think being away from you would be best for me when all I ever wanted was to be with you. You’re my whole life, you know? Being apart from you only made me realize how much you were a part of me. And I’m okay with that, because I only feel like myself when I’m around you. I’m the person I am today because of you, which means you’ll always be a part of me.” Jo sighed. “I just wish that I could’ve meant that much to you.”

“What do you mean? You... you’re everything to me. My world revolves around you.”

“I know, but.... Ugh, how do I explain it to you? You came into my life when I was in a bad place. I needed you, I needed what you did for me and the things you said to me. You helped me move on from a really bad place. And I changed. I got better. I would have liked to have been able to help you, too, like you had done for me. But you didn’t change. You stayed the same, and I don’t need that Kris anymore. I don’t need the Kris who looked after me and cared for me. Now I’m capable of making decisions for myself—and good choices, too. I mean, your opinion is valued because I view it in high esteem, and relationships require input from both people... but ultimately, my life is my decision. I don’t need you to point me in the right direction anymore.”

I hung my head low. She was basically telling me that she didn’t need me in her life any more. I shouldn’t have been so hurt, because I had done exactly what I had wanted to do from the get-go: help out someone who was hurting, just like I had hurt. I had accomplished my goal, so I should have been happy. But I wasn’t. My heart was breaking in my chest. “You know I want only the best for you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I just....” I exhaled. “I wish that none of this had ever happened. This isn't how I pictured this summer, at all.”

“And since when have things ever turned out how you wanted them to, Kris?” she asked me quietly, caressing my cheek with the backs of her fingers like she was comforting me. I turned to look at her, and she responded by twirling a section of my hair around her index finger. “Your family. What happened to Luc. Even getting traded. You didn’t want to go to San Jose, but look how that turned out. You fit in so well, you played some great hockey as a Shark, and won a Cup there. It’s not what you wanted, but it still turned out great. And they even matched that contract offer so they could keep you.”

“So you saw that?” I asked her sheepishly. I felt like a fool for making this big deal about not knowing where I was going to end but, only to find myself in San José with a nice five-year contract. Although, to be fair, they had let me enter the market and let someone make an offer for me before they decided to make the move to keep me.

Jo diverted her eyes so she was looking at her finger in my hair rather than my face, avoiding eye contact while making her next statement. “Of course I did. I was mad at you... that didn’t mean I stopped loving you.”

I grabbed her hand and held it between mine, suddenly filled with a bit of hope. “Do you still love me?”

“Kris, you know I’ll always love you. No matter whatever happens, you’ll always mean so, so much to me.”

That answer wasn't good enough. “But are you still in love with me?” I looked at her carefully, wanting to tell her how important she was to me. “Because I still love you. I’d do anything to be with you again. I love you, I want you, I need you.” I knew I was practically begging, but what else was there left for me to do? I said I was sorry, I let her know that I still cared about her, and I wanted her back. I’d beg if it would help my cause.

She closed her eyes. “I can’t go through that again. Every time we fight—and I mean really fight—and break up, it ruins me. After my accident, I barely left my house. And this time, I still kept going, but God, it hurt. It wrecks me, it tears me apart. I love you so much Kris. I love you so hard, with every part of me, because you affect every part of me. I love you, and that’s why I need you. Not because I need you to make decisions about me for me, because I'm not incapable.”

“I know you’re not. I know. You’re a different person now. You said that, and I can see it.”

“So I need you to be different, too.” She opened her eyes and watched me carefully, waiting for some kind of reaction.

“I am,” I told her. “I’m not the same guy you met, either. I told you things about me, Jo, things I’ve never told anyone else. Well, other than Luc. That wasn’t easy for me. I really had to take a leap there. And when I couldn’t talk to you this summer, I realized I don’t really tell a lot of things to many people. And talking, well, it really does help. You taught me that, that it’s okay to be open. It’s not weakness. So I talked to Charlene, and it really made me feel better.”

Jo tilted her head to the side and smiled softly. “I’m glad, Kris. I’m proud of you for that. You’ve come a long way, in your own way. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You’re overprotective, overbearing—you’re over. It’s too much. I don’t need you to be those things for me.”

“But I care about you. So much. I was just trying to watch out for you.” I let out an exhale. “I don’t know what’s so wrong about that.”

“It’s not ‘wrong’ that you want the best for me. I appreciate that, and I love you for it, and I don’t want that to change—but just because you want good things for me doesn’t mean that you know better than me. You know, Charlene said something to me once: that I needed to trust you before I could love you. And that you needed to love me before you could trust me. So, you say you love me, Kris—”

“I do!”

“—but do you trust me?”

Taking a breath, I thought about all the things that Jo and I had been through. I thought about her pregnancy scare and finding out that she didn't tell me about, and how I felt betrayed because of that; then I thought about how she punched that drunken guy in the club before I could get to her side and protect her like the dutiful boyfriend I should have been. And I thought about seeing my dad in the hallway after game three of the Finals and the way she pulled me away to safety, and how I knew that she was acting and doing the right thing for me when I was stunned and practically catatonic. Plus, there were all those times when I had opened up and told her what was bothering me, and she listened and talked me through everything and I felt so much better after the fact. She had been the one to encourage me to confront my dad, and even though it didn’t make up for the past, I did feel better about the future. Life was better with Jo in my corner, and I needed her there with me for the upcoming rounds. I knew she had my back.

“Yeah, Joey. I trust you.”

She smiled. “Okay then. That means you’ve got to trust me to make good decisions for me, for us. And you’ve gotta be more flexible about accepting those decisions without second guessing me or treating me like I don’t know better. You can’t be such a control freak anymore. Realize things change, and adapt with them. Don’t fight it so much. I wanna see you happy, and I wanna be the one who makes you happy, but I can’t do it at my expense. I really just want you to understand that.

“You know, bridges, they're made to bend and move to absorb the forces of the cars and people on them. Bridges that don’t are so much more unstable. It’s physics, you see. It’s not just that I don’t want you to dictate my life, but that it’s not healthy for you.”

I smiled and chuckled, despite the serious nature of the conversation. Only Jo would use science to back up her side of the argument. She was definitely a physics major at heart. I decided to tell her what I had been up to this summer, to show her just how flexible I could be. “I talked to my dad.”

“Your.... Oh my God, Kris, tell me.” She stood closer to me in the already cramped space and tilted her head upward so she could see me more clearly. “Did you go see him? What did you say? What did he say?”

“Yeah, I went to see him. It was sad. His house was bare. It felt like a prison. And he had this... this scrapbook of me. Paper clippings and photographs from the paper as well as some pictures that he had taken, too. It was tough to believe that he had been there so much, so often, and I never knew. And he knew everything about my new contract, too. Ugh, I mean, he followed my career. My life.

“And it was like his life revolved around me, but he had nothing for himself. He said that he got to finish his dream and graduate, but that it meant nothing to him in the end because he didn’t have his family. He missed me, and my mom. And I learned a lot from him that day, and it just reaffirmed that I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want my life to turn out like his did. The way I treated you was wrong—I know that now. So you see, I can learn to change. If it means being with you, keeping you, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything. But does that mean you’ll have me?”

Monday, October 11, 2010

138.) Party Time

Soundtrack Song - Rise Against, Audience of One

“Thanks for going with me, Tubby,” I said, heading into my house. Carl was home, which I could tell because his car was here, but Wayne and Dave were apparently both gone. Carl’s room was down in the basement because it was a three-bedroom home, and he was usually anti-social enough that I didn’t see him when he wasn’t up in the kitchen or hanging out with the other boys in the living room. It was like Tubby and I had the whole house to ourselves.

“No prob, baby girl. I figured you’d want someone there with you.” He headed into the kitchen as I plopped on the couch. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Um, no,” I told him. I adjusted my position on the couch. The new weight in my back pocket was noticeable and made me feel off balance, but I liked it. Tubby had picked me up from my morning shift at Sheetz, and together we had gone to the leatherworker’s, from which we had just returned.

I hadn’t had plans to get James’s jacket converted just yet, simply because I didn’t have the money to do so, but Tubby had insisted that he’d pay for it. His excuse was that he would be in Philly in the fall and this would be my birthday present, since he wouldn’t be around in October to celebrate it with me, but really I think he just wanted to do something to try and make me feel better.

My new wallet was a reminder of James, just like his jacket had been; I couldn’t wrap myself up in it, but I could feel it all the same. It reminded me vaguely of the way I felt heavier after his death. With time, I probably wouldn’t even notice the extra ounces of weight or the bulge, and it would feel like a part of me, like another appendage. Just like how the loss of my brother would always be a part of me now.

Reaching into my back pocket, I pulled out my wallet and played with it in my hands. I opened it, closed it, turned it over, and examined it for the fiftieth time since the shop owner had handed it to me. Then I ran my fingers over the initials that had been stamped into it, the initials that James and I shared: JRA. With the wallet in my left hand, my right reached up to the locket around my neck. The locket held James’s picture and was just another piece of him that I liked to carry around with me.

The locket, of course, was also a reminder of Kris. This had been his present for me for my birthday last year, and I had slipped his picture into the side opposite of James’s picture. They were my two special men in my life, and it helped a lot to have Kris’s picture with me there when he had been traded out to California. I liked having these pieces with me at all times, because I liked physical things to go along with my memories. In fact, I didn’t even need to open the locket and look at the pictures; it was enough to know they were in there. And knowing Kris’s picture was in there made me sad.

He called in from the kitchen, “You did okay today, kiddo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” he said, sauntering in from the kitchen and joining me on the couch, “I thought you were going to be sadder than what you were. You know, officially not having James’s jacket anymore. But you really handled it surprisingly well, Jo.”

His entrance startled me enough that I dropped the locket around my neck and began to play with the wallet again. I gave him a sassy smirk. “Did you think I was going to dissolve into a puddle of tears?”

Tubby smiled back at me as he opened the can in his hand. “Well, I mean... maybe. It was just really nice to see the way you walked in there and held yourself together. I’m proud of you.”

I reddened involuntarily. “Thanks.” I glanced down at the wallet in my hands, thinking about the journey this past year had taken me on, and how this piece of leather in my hands was a symbol of that, kinda. It was a jacket, my brother’s jacket, something very special and dear to me. Even though my accident wasn’t deadly, this leather had protected me from worse damage and road rash. And now, it was something else entirely.

“This Mountain Dew tastes funny,” Tubby remarked, looking at the can.

I threw my legs over his lap, hoping he’d catch the hint and rub them since they were sore from being on them and working all morning, and explained, “Well, it’s out of date.”

He scrunched up his face. “Ew! Why did you let me drink this?”

“It won’t kill you,” I laughed. “I got it for free at work since it’s expired.”

“I’m pouring it out. You almost killed me with old, nasty pop.” Tubby pushed my legs away and stood up, heading back into the kitchen.

“Don’t! That’s wasting it!”

“It’s not like you paid for it,” he called over his shoulder, dumping out the contents of the can down the sink drain.

“That doesn’t matter,” I sighed, pouting but not getting up. My feet were killing me; since I had quit my job at Mellon Arena, I hadn’t been on my feet for such long periods of time, and I definitely wasn’t used to it. “I would have drunk it.”

“But it’s gross. Why would you even wanna drink gross pop?” he asked, stepping back into the living room and resuming his place on the couch.

“Dunno.” I placed my feet back in his lap, and he finally understood what I wanted. He began to push the pads of his thumbs into the balls of my left foot. “Thank you.”

Tubby worked silently for a while. My breathing got a little heavy as I relaxed and closed my eyes. After a few minutes, he switched to my right foot, lavishing the same attention on it. I was moments from falling asleep when Tubby started to talk. “So... you gonna talk to me?”

“Mmm,” I moaned, opening an eye to look at him. “You wanna talk now? When I’m half asleep?”

“I’m just wondering if you plan on talking to me at all.”

“About what?”

He gave me an intense look. “You know, Jo-Jo.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” I crossed my arms over my chest and closed my eye again, ready to let the subject drop and take a nap.

“But you haven’t talked about it at all. Not since the day you called me from the bus stop and I came to get you. I know you’re still sad about him, but it’s been over a month now.”

“So?”

“So?” he repeated, mocking me. Tubby then sighed and dropped my foot. “I don’t like seeing you so sad, especially over Kris if he’s going to act like a dick. Let’s do something tonight. Let’s go out. You and me, and a few drinks, and a good time. You still have your fake I.D., don’t you?”

I made an unsure sound. “I don’t really feel like doing anything tonight, Tubs. I’m tired, my feet hurt, and I have homework to do. Plus, I have to work tomorrow.”

“What time do you work?”

“Two to ten.”

“Oh, come on, Joanna,” he grumbled. I knew I was in trouble when he used my whole first name. “You work in the afternoon, you could totally come out. You just wanna sit here and be miserable over a stupid boy—”

“Don’t talk about him that way, Tubby!”

“—who doesn’t deserve the wasted energy.”

“Seriously, Tub, don’t. I don’t want to be miserable. No one wants that.”

“Then can you try to be happy? And I mean really try. Because I don’t see an effort, so I think that you just wanna go through the motions and stay here and be miserable.”

“How do you ‘try’ to be happy, Tubby? Happy is something you feel, not something you do.”

“You go out! You go out and be around people and do the fun things that you used to love doing.”

I pouted. I couldn’t do the things that I once loved, because they involved Kris and being around him. He had been fully incorporated into my life, and it was a serious adjustment to get used to the fact that he wasn’t actively in it anymore.

“So, come on. What do you say? Let’s go out.”

When Tubby got like this, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I knew that, but I still didn’t want to relent. Luckily, I didn’t have to, because my phone in my pocket began to ring. “Saved by the bell,” I muttered, fishing it out to answer it; the name and accompanying picture on the screen, however, made me freeze. It rang for a second time.

“Are you going to answer that, or not?” Tubby asked, looking at me curiously.

Did he know that we had been talking about him? “It’s....”

“Answer it.”

“I don’t think I can.”

Ring.


“Do it, Jo. I think you need to.” Ring. I still didn’t move. “Fine, give it to me. I’ll talk to him,” he stated firmly.

Immediately, I knew that Tubby talking to Kris on the phone would be a bad idea. A horribly bad idea. He tried to grab the phone from my hands, but I reacted quickly and tried to stop him. “No, Tubby, don’t. Don’t!” We fought over the small hunk of metal in my hands until, in the struggle, one of our fingers pressed the button to accept his call.

My eyes went wide, scared to make another move. I had two options: one was to just hang up the phone and not speak to Kris, and the other was to, well, speak to him. Tubby threw his hands in the air in surrender, like now he was willing to yield and let me have my way, and all I could do was stare at my friend and hope that he would take control; I’d gladly relinquish it now.

“Jo?” Kris’s voice crackled through the phone, filling the empty room with his voice. I hadn’t heard it in a month, and the distinct accent and sound of it cut through me like a machete.

Tubby nodded at me and looked at me expectantly. My arm felt numb as I moved and pressed the phone against my ear—against my better judgment. It took me three tries before I eked out, “Hi.”

Kris let out a sigh of relief. “I didn’t think you were going to answer.”

Since I was always honest with him, I replied, “Well, I wasn’t sure I was going to either.”

His voice was so soft, so gentle, so hopeful when he said, “I’m really glad that you did. I’ve missed being able to talk to you.”

The tears started. If he had missed being able to talk to me after a month of separation, what did he expect would happen if we had to be apart for his upcoming season? Why was it so easy to say he missed me, but then again be able to say that I should stay in Pittsburgh to attend university while he went out to play in California? I missed him, too, but I couldn’t bear to tell him that. Not when my emotions were choking me up and overwhelming me. I had worked really hard on being strong, but this reconnection with Kris was threatening all that I worked toward; he always knew how to tear down my defenses, from Day One of our relationship.

Instead of confessing my feelings, I tried to hold it all together one last time. Today had been too emotional already to let that go to waste. “Is there something that you wanted, ba—Kris?” I almost called him by my pet name for him.

He was silent for a few moments, and I almost said his name again to make sure that we hadn’t been disconnected. “Well, I, uh.... I’m having my Cup party soon. The fifth of August. And I was wondering, um, if you might be interested in, well, coming up to celebrate.”

I was in disbelief. “Really?”

The timidity in his voice was evident. “Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t have won if it hadn’t been for you. I think you deserve to celebrate just as much as me.” He always had been thoughtful, considerate, and generous; I didn’t have any reason to expect him to be any different after a break up.

It was my turn to sigh. “I don’t know if I can make it, what with class and work and everything. Montreal’s a little out of the way from Pittsburgh.”

“Oh. I didn’t really think about that.” He truly did sound disappointed.

Which was what made me add, “I can try, though. If it really means that much to you.”

“I’d like that a lot, Jo. I’d really, really like that.” He paused for a moment. “And you can bring, like, Tubby if you want, or any other friends if he can’t make it. You don’t have to come alone. I don’t know exactly what’s happening, since Charlene’s actually keeping track of it all. But I’ll make sure you get the details.” Kris paused again. “I’m just glad to get a chance to see you again.”

If I can make it,” I clarified, making sure to keep my options open. I’d have to skip some classes and give away some shifts at work or swap them. Going would really be problematic for me, since I’d need to change my plans, but I kind of wanted to go, badly.

“Right. If.” He cleared his throat. “It was nice talking to you.”

“You, too. Bye.” I hung up and dropped my phone, and then I leaned toward Tubby. He caught me in his arms and pulled me in for a warm, big bear hug. “Oh my God.”

“He invited you to Montreal, didn’t he? That’s so dumb. Why doesn’t he come here? That’s just rude and inconvenient.”

“It’s for his Cup party, which I already would have made arrangements to go to.” I let out a breath. “I do want to go. He deserves to celebrate, with all he accomplished this season, and I want to see him happy about it.”

“Does that mean you’re going?” he asked, giving me a squeeze and rubbing my arm.

“Well, he said I didn’t have to go alone. You could come. In fact, I don’t think I could go without you. I’ll need your support. I might lose it if I go alone.”

“Whatever you need, baby girl. I’m there for you.”

“Thanks, Tubs. I appreciate it.” I pulled back. “So can you go back to rubbing my feet now?”

He chuckled and held out his hands for me, so I lay back down on the couch and gave him my aching feet. My hand instinctively went to the locket around my neck, and I twisted the chain around my fingers in an unconscious soothing action. I was upset, so it took me a while to relax again; soon, Tubby’s methodical ministrations began to lull me into a tired state again—only to be disrupted by the screen door slamming shut.

Dave clomped into the living room, obviously drained from another twelve-hour shift as an EMT. “Jo! You’re home. For once,” he snickered, collapsing on the chair. He kicked off his work boots and crossed his feet on the coffee table, making a show of wiggling his toes in his worn-out socks. “Tubby, am I next?”

“In your dreams, pal,” he said in his gruff, manly voice. Any insinuation of any action that could even remotely be construed as homosexual turned Tubby into the manliest of men. It made me giggle.

“Jo, I have something for you,” Dave told me. He reluctantly got onto his feet and headed outside, presumably to his car. He came back with a huge white box that was a few feet cubed in volume. “I hope you like it.”

“Dave, you shouldn’t have. I don’t know what it is, but really... you didn’t have to.”

He shrugged. “I wanted to.” Pause. “Well, aren’t you going to open it?”

I was grinning ear-to-ear; I love surprises, and surprise gifts are even better. My fingers dug under the lip of the box and opened the lid. Inside was a shiny, new, black, full-face helmet. I pulled it out and sat it in my lap. Helmets weren’t cheap; this was an expensive present from a friend that I had only known for a little while, in the scheme of things. “Dave, you got me a new helmet.”

“I hope you like it. I know your old one was black and got all scratched up. I figured you wouldn’t want to ride around with a messed up helmet. It’s time to put your accident behind you. Time to move on.”

His statement didn’t sit well with me. I missed riding just like I missed a lot of things in my life, but I was still in a state of limbo. Riding again didn’t feel right yet, because I was still scared. Moving on didn’t feel right. Just because I was adjusting to the changes around me didn’t mean that I was ready to accept those changes and move forward. Worst of all was not knowing what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back on my motorcycle, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Kris again after our break up.

I put the helmet on like I was trying it on to make sure it fit properly, but really I did it to cover my face. Tubby could tell by my body language that something wasn’t right. He flipped up the visor to see my face. “What is it, Jo-Jo?”

“I’m sorry,” I cried, trying to wipe at my cheeks around the bulky helmet. This was the first time I had cried in the light of day; usually, I could contain until it was time to go to bed, and then I would cry myself to sleep.

“It’s okay. Let it out,” he cooed, rubbing my leg as I sniffled and struggled to compose myself.

“But I don’t want to. I hate crying.”

“You do it every night, Jo,” Dave said quietly. “The walls are paper thin. I can hear you.”

I wanted to tell Dave that thin walls also meant I could hear when he whacked off, but I kept quiet about that for the sake of tact—something I usually didn’t care about. Instead, I bit back, “It’s none of your business.”

“I’m your friend, and I just want to see you happy. Not sad like this.”

Tubby joined into the conversation. “What are you going to say when you see him?”

“You’re seeing him?” Dave asked.

I nodded. I took off the heavy helmet and set it on the coffee table. “Yeah. For his Cup party.”

“Oh. That sounds cool,” he mused aloud. I could tell by the look on his face that he was imagining all the NHL players that would be there, Kris’s teammates, and the Stanley Cup at this big bash and lavish all-day party.

His idealism about it, along with the fact that I would need as much support as I could get, made me ask him if he wanted to come along, too. “You know, he told me I could bring some friends. You should come, too, Dave.”

“Really?” He was visibly excited about it.

“Yeah. It can be us three. I’d feel more comfortable going with a group.”

The days flew by as I made preparations to go. I had e-mailed my professors to let them know of my absence, and I had bribed a few people to cover the shifts of work that I’d miss during my travels northward. It was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be to make arrangements. Before I knew it, the three of us piled into Tubby’s SUV and we were heading north to Quebec.

Because I had wanted to see Kris celebrating, but I wanted to avoid a lot of the awkwardness that would come from being around Kris, I had called Charlene and decided to show up for the barbecue dinner party. He had a full day scheduled, with the charity fundraisers in the morning and early afternoon. He had a few hours to relax in the late afternoon, and then this big dinner at a pavilion out at a park. Charlene had provided me with directions after saying over and over again how excited she would be to see me again.

When we finally found the place in the park, we had to get past security before we could park and make our way to the pavilion. Music was blaring, the air was filled with the aromas of burgers and hot dogs and all kinds of food. I could hear English and French mingled together; there were so many different kinds of people there. Obviously there were a lot of big hockey players, but there people that had to have been friends and family.

I was feeling so overwhelmed by the prospect of making my way in there, and the guys I came with recognized that. They linked arms with me, providing me with the support I knew I had needed.

Charlene saw me before I could recognize anyone, and she squealed and ran right over to me. “Jo! You’re here! I was starting to think you wouldn’t show!” She gave me a great big hug, which I returned.

“It was a long drive. It’s good to see you again.”

“You, too. I’m so glad you’re here,” she replied, now taking a step back. “Who are your friends?”

“Oh! Sorry, how rude of me. Charlene, this is Tubby, and this is Dave. Dave and Tubby, this is Charlene, Kris’s friend. Actually, Char, Dave is starting med school in a month, so you two have a lot in common,” I said, doing my best to introduce them properly.

She shook their hands politely. “If you’re looking for the man of the hour, he’s over by the grill,” she said pointing him out. As soon as she gave me a direction to focus my attention, I spotted him. Kris stood out over everyone else. In a second’s time, I noticed everything about him: how long his hair had gotten, that he looked a little leaner in the face but bulkier from training hard over the summer.

As I looked at him, he turned and found me. I felt the hair on my arms and neck stand on end as goosebumps broke out across my skin. “Uh, actually, can you tell me where the bathroom is?” I asked her, dragging my eyes away from Kris. It took so much effort to not look at him. My voice was shaky and nervous, and I crossed my arms so they wouldn’t have to see my hands shake. “I need to, uh, freshen up. I just... please, I need to—”

“It’s okay. You need a minute,” she replied softly, gesturing. “On the other side of the pavilion.”

“Thanks. I’ll be right back.”

I hurried to the bathroom as quickly as I could, completely focused on my destination. So focused, in fact, that I didn’t notice that someone was following me all the way. As I skittered into the one-person bathroom and tried to close the door behind me, I suddenly became aware of that fact once a strong arm held the door open, barring me from closing it. Instead, he slipped in behind me and then closed the door, facing me with dark, intense eyes.

“Joey. You came.”

“Hi, Kris,” I breathed, feeling more put on the spot than I felt equipped to handle.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

137.) Man on a Mission

Soundtrack Song - The Classic Crime, The Beginning (A Simple Seed)

Today, I was on a mission. Nothing could distract me from accomplishing it. It took a lot of planning and preparation, and even a few trial runs, but now I was ready.

I left the house and headed toward Mom’s car in the driveway. She was back from work, and I told her that I was going to see Yannick down at Kasüal. Mom was very excited that I was taking some initiative to get out of the house for something other than training; I didn’t tell her that I had Googled the name Marcel Letang two weeks ago and did some internet research. It’s amazing, the things you can find about people online—including their addresses.

Trotting down the steps, I stayed focused on the task at hand. Even though I had already been there twice before (once just to drive by, the other to stake out the place and make sure he really lived there), I had a map printed in my hands. Just in case I got sp nervous that I forgot the way.

Then I heard the familiar voice of my neighbor echo across my front yard, stopping me in my tracks. “Kris!”

“Hey, Julie,”
I called over. That’s all I wanted to say to her; I had been avoiding the neighbors like the plague since that embarrassing night I came home. Technically, I was single, so I could do anything without having to report back to anyone—but even though I wasn’t still dating Jo, I wanted to be. Therefore, I should have been loyal to her regardless of our official status. What I had done was wrong, and I had no excuses for my actions.

She stood up from the wicker bench on her porch, stretched out her long legs, and flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder. She looked like she had been sitting there for a while, probably waiting for me to appear. Fuck, I just wanted to get to the car so I could drive out and complete my mission. I definitely did not need this unwanted interruption in my schedule. “Heading out again? Seems like you’re always going somewhere anymore. I haven’t seen you in weeks.”

I cleared my throat and spun the key ring around my fingers. “Uh, yeah, I’ve got some things I need to take care of.”

“Because I was getting the impression that you were avoiding me. I kept thinking that I did something wrong.”


Julie hadn’t been the one to do anything wrong. Sure, she had kissed me first, but I had kissed her back. I had probably given her the wrong idea about me by letting her bring me inside. She had been being nice to me by helping me get into the house, helping me get ready for bed, and actually helping me get into bed. Julie had pulled back the covers, urged me to lie down, and then leaned over me. Then she had asked if I was okay and if I needed anything, to which I told her no. Then she had asked if I wanted anything, to which I didn’t get a chance to answer. Her lips were against mine, surprising me and catching me off guard.

When she had kissed me and I had closed my eyes... it had felt good. Nice. Simply going through the motions of moving my mouth over hers had been comforting and pleasurable. But when we had broken apart and I had started to say her name, I had to stop myself. I got to “J—” before reality slammed into me. Either I was going to say Jo’s name, which would have mortified me and probably Julie as well; or I was going to say Julie’s name, and my mind jolted awake and realized that I didn’t want to say Julie’s name. I really wanted to say Jo’s, to Jo, and not to someone else.

That’s when I had unceremoniously pushed Julie away from me and off my bed. I had told her that I still wasn’t feeling well and that she needed to leave; the room had been dark so I couldn’t see her face, but she promised to lock up on her way out, and I pressed the pillow over my face. I felt so guilty doing that, and I still did.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I told her, “but I think you should know that I just got out of a pretty serious relationship.”

“That girl I saw with you during the Finals?”
She looked a little skeptical, like she wasn’t sure what this meant or why I was telling her this. I nodded. “So you loved her?”

The noise of a door slamming behind me made me look over my shoulder. It was my mom, stepping out on the porch, watching the exchange between Julie and me. I couldn’t help but notice the hopeful look on her face; she had always encouraged a romantic association between us even though we hadn’t really talked since I had left for juniors. Monsieur Martin traveled a lot, so my mom and Julie’s mom worked out a carpool system while Julie and I went to the same school. We played together as kids, but I hadn’t really seen her once hockey really took over my life.

Mom thought Julie Martin was a sweet girl; she often came over to spend time with my mom because Julie loved to bake and so did my mom. To keep busy while I was away playing in Val d’Or, Mom used to help with the bake sales at the school which Julie organized as student body president—and ever since, Mom couldn’t say enough about her. That, plus she lived next door.

I cleared my throat and ignored my mother’s presence, keeping my voice low. She didn’t need to hear this if she had hopes that I was ready to put this behind me—because I definitely wasn’t. “I still love her. So I’m not looking for anything else right now. I’m really sorry if I led you on, Julie, and I really hope you understand.”

Julie didn’t say anything to that. She looked down at her feet and crossed her arms across her chest in a defensive stance. I felt bad, so I apologized again. “Je suis désolé.” Without another word from her, she spun around and walked steadily toward her house. I tried to be firm while also being nice, but I had still been too hard on her. Mom was not going to be happy with me over this, but I had cheated on Jo, considering I still felt wholly devoted to her.

Without looking back to see my mother’s reaction, I hurried to her car and got into the driver’s side. I could not afford any distractions, because I needed to do this while I still had the guts. Normally, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a coward, but nothing in my life seemed as scary as this very moment. I navigated through the streets from memory and wound up in front of Marcel’s house. It was a plain, red brick house, and very generic looking. Anyone could have lived there, because there were no identifying markers on it. No shoes on the front porch, no name above the mailbox, and no flowers or landscaping in the front yard.

I got out of the car and leaned against it as I gazed up at the house. Taking a few breaths, I tried to work up the courage to walk up the stairs and knock on the front door. Still unsure of myself, I stared down at the pavement and made sure to inhale through my nose and out through my mouth. My hands were shaking, so I shoved them in my pocket. I felt just as queasy as I had on that night with Max at the club; just the thought of my dad was enough to provoke this kind of reaction from me.

Before I could think that this was a bad idea, I looked up and saw that Marcel was now standing on his porch and looking right back at me. Of course he recognized me. He knew who I was. And he probably knew why I was here: to see him. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been standing outside of his house. There was no backing out now, not after he had spotted me. I wouldn’t let him see how riled up he made me, because he didn’t deserve that.

He descended the stairs from his porch and made his way across the street toward me, where I was still leaning against the passenger side of the car. I was immobile and totally incapable of moving even if I had wanted to; I could only watch as he approached me, like suspecting prey observing the predator’s every move.

When he was in front of me, he stopped a few feet away. He nodded his head in greeting, very formal and not at all intimate, since he was keeping his distance. “Kristopher.”

“Marcel,”
I replied, echoing his name back to him. He winced, like he was expecting me to openly acknowledge him as my father and call him by that revered title. Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

“You came to see me,” he stated. Maybe he was double-checking that I wasn’t here by accident and that I was actually here to see him. After twenty years, it was weird that I had showed up out of the blue like this—especially since my prior philosophy was pretending like he didn’t exist.

I needed answers, and I knew I couldn’t be shy about this. If I wanted to know, I had to ask and make my intentions clear regarding my visit. You came to see me. Why?”

“Would you like to come inside?”
He jerked his head toward the house. I hesitated, not sure if I could handle that. I already felt like I was asphyxiating outside in the fresh, summer air; going into the house would surely suffocate me. But I agreed, because I felt like we were too exposed outside to be able to properly hash out everything.

The house’s interior was just as plain as the façade. The walls were white and plain, with no personal touches. No photos or pictures hanging anywhere, and nothing decorating the mantle. It looked so cold and unfriendly. Marcel gestured to the couch, so I sat; he offered me something to drink, but I declined. He leaned against the wall opposite me, still staying away like he was afraid to get too close. He had a stoic appearance, until finally it cracked.

“I’m very glad you came here. I’m happy to have my son in my house.” It was my turn to wince. I guess it was easy for him to make that association with me because he would have remembered the three years that the Letangs were a family, whereas I didn’t, at least not really. Most of what I could recall wasn’t pleasant. He kept explaining as he made a move to the bookshelf in the living room and returning with a thick scrapbook. “I’ve followed you. Your whole career. Boston offered you a great contract this summer, but I’m not surprised that the Sharks decided to match it. It would have been a stupid move on their part, to not sign you, when the only reason they managed to win and not choke was because they traded for you in the first place. Five years, twenty-five million,” he chuckled. “I always knew you had the potential. Could tell it from the moment you first had on a pair of skates, that you’d be destined to make it all the way. And now you’ve already got two Cups under your belt, that’s impressive. Congratulations.”

It made me sick to hear him talk about me like that. It was like he was proud of me, but how could he possibly be proud of me? I ruined his life. In his opinion, I shouldn’t have been born. So why did he expend so much of his energy paying attention to my career?

Marcel placed the book in my open hands and hovered over me, flipping the pages and pointing out different newspaper clippings and photographs that he had obviously taken himself. “I’ve been to a lot of your games, especially in juniors. It’s much harder now, since you’ve been drafted into the NHL, but I know someone with season tickets for the Habs.”

I wanted to ask him how he felt going to my games, and how he explained his relation to me. Did he say that he was my estranged father? But even if I had had the balls to ask, I didn’t have the quickness to get the question out. Marcel kept talking about the different pictures. “This is you in bantam, when you were still playing offense. Well, I guess you still play ‘offense,’ but I meant when you still played as a forward.” He flipped a page. “In this one, you were in juniors, paired up on defense with your friend, Lu—”

Slamming the book shut, I shook my head. I didn’t want to hear him talk about Luc, who had been such a good person, practically the antithesis of my father. That was something I couldn’t stomach. “Why bother?

“Why bother... with what?”

“With this?”
I held the book up and waved it around. “Why act like you cared, when you didn’t?”

“I care. I’m your father. You’re my son. And maybe I wasn’t there for you, but—”


I shook my head. What a crock of shit. “Not there? What an understatement. You may have ‘fathered’ me, but you weren’t my father. You didn’t want me. You didn’t want your family, so stop pretending that you did,” I spat out, standing and shoving the scrapbook at him. “You knew how to find me, and you never did. Not for twenty years. You never called, showed up, apologized, tried to make amends, nothing. Not that we needed you. Maman and I were fine without you.”

“Kristopher, please, sit,”
he asked, pointing back to the couch. “Let me explain.”

I shouldn’t have sat down. I should have left, because I had said what I had originally wanted to say. He shouldn’t have been allowed to think that he had a negative effect on my family—that if by hanging around, we would have been better off. He had to know that he was a bad person for what he did, and it didn’t matter what his reasons were. But for some reason, I sat down and waited to hear his reasons.

“I am not proud of how I acted. And I won’t make excuses for myself. I was stubborn and unprepared, and unwilling to change. When your mother left, I... I was relieved. I feel awful about that now, but back then, I was happy about that. There was so much less pressure on me when I didn’t have to be a husband and a father and a provider for my family. I could do what I wanted.

“So I did what I had always wanted to do. I had always wanted to be a lawyer, and now that I didn’t have to work so hard, I went back to school and graduated. I got a job at a well-respected firm, and I was so excited to be living my dream. But when I came home from my first day at work, there wasn’t anyone else home. Marlene wasn’t waiting for me to ask me how my day was, to eat dinner with, to spend time with. I didn’t get to pick you up and sneak you cookies before dinner. I didn’t have the family that I had wanted to have. Because I did want my family... my wife and son... I just didn’t realize that at the time.

“I was a fool. I finally had everything that I thought I had wanted, only to find out that it wasn’t what I really wanted at all. The worst part is knowing that now. Just because things didn’t happen the way I had planned them didn’t mean that I should have wasted what I had—when I had such a good thing, too. I thought I was doing what was best for my family when, in reality, I was doing everything I possibly could to ruin it. I was so selfish. I’ve kicked myself every day over what I had done, but by the time I had realized all that, I knew it was too late.”

“Non. It wouldn’t have been too late. When you love someone, it’s never too late.”

“It had been years. You had grown up so much, and your mother, well, Marlene would have been a fool to forgive me.”
Marcel sighed. He looked so pitiful, and if I hadn’t’ve hated him so much, I would have felt sorry for him. “That would have been asking too much of her.”

“Then you really are a fool. She loved you more than anything, and you already asked too much of her by treating her the way you did and forcing her into leaving.”
It was only after I had said those words that I had realized exactly what I had said. I shook my head, now feeling completely overwhelmed. I had to get out of there. I stood up and headed for the door. And I never looked back.

I couldn’t go home because I was feeling agitated, and I didn’t want to run the risk of seeing Julie again or letting Mom see me like this. Once again, I found myself wishing that I could talk to Luc. Jo would have understood, but she never answered my calls or tried calling me. The only other person I could think of was Charlene. She had been staying in Montréal and acting as my go-to contact for planning my day with the Cup. She met me out at a local park, and we sat on a bench overlooking a group of kids playing street hockey.

Pulling my cap low over my face, I spilled my guts to Charlene. I told her about going to see my father, meaning I had to tell her all about my family and history. There was just too much for me to take in and digest to keep it all to myself, so I had to share it. One thing I had learned from my time with Jo was how sometimes, it felt good just to get it all out in the open and out of your system even if that didn’t help you come any closer to a solution. I still didn’t like talking about things like this, but talking was better than holding it all in. Otherwise, I probably would have exploded.

When I finished, Charlene nodded with finality and then looked out toward the horizon. “Wow, Kris.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her, shaking my head. “I know that was a lot to hear all at once, but, I don’t know, I just needed to get it out.”

“You can’t keep all that in,” she replied. “It’s not healthy.” Charlene crossed her arms across her chest and let silence fall between us for a few moments. And then she asked, “You know who really needs to hear all this?”

“My mom?”

“Jo.”

I couldn’t believe she said that. Yes, Jo was the reason I had gone to see my father in the first place, and I should have been taking my own implied advice, considering what I had learned about my behavior and what I had said to Marcel. But still, I couldn’t handle the thought of calling Jo and having to hear the phone ring and ring and ring again. I hated that she didn’t want to talk to me. It was much easier to harbor hope that maybe things could work out between us if I didn’t try to initiate contact that she would blatantly brush aside like she didn’t care about me at all.

“Yes, Kris, I think you should call her. Even if you guys were having problems or whatever, I know that she would be proud of you for confronting him. She’d like to hear about it. Call her. Better yet, call her and invite her to your party. I think you guys need to see each other, and you obviously aren’t making any plans to head to Pittsburgh anytime soon.”

Pulling my phone out of my pocket, at least to appease Charlene, I looked down at it carefully. “I know she won’t answer.”

“Then leave her a voicemail.” Charlene placed her hand on my arm, but I felt so numb that I didn’t feel it; I only knew it was there because I looked down. “Try, Kris. Or be prepared to always live with the regret.”

I nodded at her. Some part of me knew that I should. She stood up and walked under the shade of a nearby tree, giving me the privacy to make one of the most important phone calls of my life.