Tuesday, June 29, 2010

104.) Another Boyfriend

Work was stupid and boring, like always, but I went about it with a smile. More like a huge-ass “I just got laid” grin which was kind of a lie, but phone sex was better than nothing considering Kris and I had been a part for two weeks already. Our relationship had been founded on much more than the physical spark between us, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a big, important part of our connection either. Plus, it didn’t help that the birth control pills that I started to take were fucking with my emotions a bit, but that was neither here nor there.

So maybe Kris wasn’t incredibly eloquent when it came talking dirty, but just that he had really tried this afternoon spoke volumes. It had been awkward at first, trying to coax him into it, and then he had fumbled with his words a few times, but this was a step in the right direction; long distance relationships can’t work unless we’re both satisfied with all aspects of it. And let’s face the facts: we couldn’t not have sex for two months, and masturbating alone would only do so much to repress our sexual needs until the beginning of May. I had held off for eleven days, the span of time between his trade and my spring break, but fourteen had been pushing it and I needed that release.

Even if Kris’s phone sex capabilities had been sufficient at best, it was still amazing. I knew he thought these kinds of things because he did them when we were in bed together. He just couldn’t string the words together or say them confidently. Maybe with some practice, though, I could rectify that. Maybe eventually, he’d even say the word “pussy.” Maybe.

But that he put aside his discomfort for my sake and tried to the best of his novel abilities was what made it so great. Hands down, Kris was the most skilled lover I’d ever been with. Not only did he have the talent, but he had the patience: he always put in all the effort and he never slacked off. It was the perfect combination. Plus, it seemed like getting me off helped him get off, too. There was give and take because “giving” meant “taking.” Just like when he donned that fireman suit, he tried to give me what I wanted. And he had successfully done that—since he enjoyed it, too, it was a win-win situation.

I had one official month of my semester left. Finals week was the first full week of May, and if I were lucky, I wouldn’t have to take any finals. Comp required a final paper, which I could e-mail to my professor, and public speaking was a final speech that would be given during regular class time. Sociology had turned out to be a total cakewalk, because my professor was a total hippie who didn’t believe in taking attendance or exams, so I had done the reading and completed the assignments weeks ago when I needed to keep busy. There would probably be regular finals in my calc and physics classes that would take place during the designated finals schedule, which hadn’t yet been released. Studying-wise, I wasn’t worried about them.

After four hours of cleaning up other people’s messes, I headed back toward the locker room, where all my stuff was. I began to peel myself out of my overalls as a few other workers did the same. They were talking about what was going to happen once the new arena opened. It was strange the way we were being made to reapply for our same positions at the Consol Energy Center instead of automatically being transferred. Bob had said that this was merely a formality, that everyone employed at the Mellon would still get to work at CEC—but some of the other workers weren’t so sure.

“What do you think, Jo?” Kendra asked me. She was an older lady who worked a lot of nights and weekends, when her husband was at home with the kids. She lived right over in the Hill District, and this job made for a perfect second, supplemental income to her husband’s salary.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I mumbled, grabbing my purse and keys and preparing to leave in hopes of avoiding this conversation.

“Well, aren’t you applying to keep your job?”

“Uh, see, I was going to, but I’m planning on moving in a few months and transferring schools, so I’d have to quit at the end of summer anyway....”

“Moving on up in the world now, are ya?” she asked, giving me a little smirk. “Moving on to bigger and better things?”

There was no question that these people had seen a transformation in me over the past few months. I had gone from the crazy-haired, reclusive, angry girl to someone who appeared to have a normal, well-adjusted life. I was brunette again, probably looking healthier in general as well, smiling more easily, still socially awkward but getting better at being at least friendlier toward my coworkers, and looking like I had something going for me and something about which to care. It made a world of difference in my world, and of course it’s no wonder that it’s all thanks to one Kristopher Letang.

But none of my coworkers really knew that. There really wasn’t any contractual exclusion from dating any of the players—which now would have been null and void anyway, since Kris was a Shark now and no longer a Penguin—because we as workers were affiliated with Mellon Arena rather than the Penguins organization. There never really were any chances for the people like us janitors, were so down low on the totem pole, to meet the big, important hockey stars of Pittsburgh. How Kris and I met was just one really weird, coincidental, very circumstantial fluke.

Even so, I was quite content to keep the knowledge and disclosure of my relationship under wraps. I mean, just look at the mess it had gotten me into once Dave found out and told his friends. Since I wasn’t looking for a repeat of that, I was very vague about my future to Kendra. “It’s more like a lateral move,” I told her. Which was very true; nothing was changing but my location, because I’d still be doing everything exactly the same as I was now—except I’d be doing it in California.

“Well, whatever it is you’ve got going on, girl, good luck to you. A person your age shouldn’t be stuck in a job like this for long, because then you don’t want to get stuck for life. If you’ve got dreams, you’d better go out and live them while you’re still dreaming them.”

I smiled at her and gave her a quick nod. “And that’s exactly what I’m planning on doing.”

Upon leaving the arena, I headed straight over for Heather and Jordan’s place, the house they were renting from former Penguin Erik Christensen. The Pens had won the game against the Thrashers in overtime, so this was going to be a lot more fun now than if they had lost. It was some kind of end-of-the-season, last-chance-to-party-before-the-playoffs sort of deal, which Heather had openly invited me to. I had been very hesitant to agree because I imagined that it would be weird to see all the guys again since Kris wasn’t a part of their team anymore.

When I pulled up in front of their big house, all that I could remember was when Kris and I had come here to watch the gold medal game of the Olympics. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Parking in front, I headed toward the front door. The place was already jumping, the party fully underway. I didn’t bother knocking—I just walked right in and began to look for people I knew and wanted to hang out with.

Seemed like everyone was there. I knew that their next game wasn’t until Tuesday, because I had the next two days off, so I assumed that Sunday would be an off-day, meaning they could let a little loose today without having to worry about getting up early for practice tomorrow. Even Crosby was here to take part in the last hurrah, which I think spoke to the magnitude and importance of making a point to have a bit of fun before really having to buckle down and get serious about the second season.

I finally found Heather, so I went up to her and said hello so she would know that I made it in. I could tell that she had already had a few to drink by the way she greeted me. “Jo! You made it, I’m so happy!”

“I told you I’d be here,” I laughed, watching as she mildly stumbled in my direction.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t sure if you’d actually come or if you were just saying so to get me to shut up. Jordy does that all the time.”

Jordan’s ears must have perked up when he heard his name. “Hey! Don’t be talkin’ about me!”

“Hey! Bring me a beer!” Heather yelled back. She was pretty funny when she was tipsy, because she was usually the one in control, the ultimate hostess, making sure everyone was okay and enjoying themselves. She turned to me and said, “The boys have been grillin’ all night, there’s plenty of food still on the deck. Help yourself.”

“I definitely will,” I told her as Jordan approached, a fresh, cold bottle of beer in each hand.

“Here, you bossy, demanding woman,” he growled playfully, passing off a bottle to her. Then he noticed me, and I could see his face change markedly from a fun expression to something conveying awkward uncertainty. “Oh, hey, Jo, uh... how you doing?”

“Good,” I replied, giving him a nod and a small smile.

“Uh, here you go.” He handed me the other unopened beer; I knew that he had no intention of bringing me anything and that this was really for him, but I accepted it as the nice gesture he wanted it to be. I smiled my silent thanks and twisted off the cap to take a sip. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a beer. Since I had to drive and I certainly didn’t plan on staying out late—I wanted to be able to call Kris before it got too late out in California—I knew I’d nurse this one all night. Jordan cleared his throat and asked quietly, “How’s he doing?”

“Good,” I said, repeating myself. I didn’t need to brag, but I wondered how much any of the guys followed each other when someone was traded or left the team. “Really good,” I clarified, keeping my comments vague.

“Good.” And then he was gone.

All my exchanges with the guys were equally as awkward. It’s like they all wanted to know about Kris but they were afraid to ask. Not to mention, it was weird being a single girl—currently completely unaffiliated with the team or organization—at their little shindig. Although, there were countless girls in southwestern Pennsylvania that would have killed—and I do mean kill—to have been in this situation.

I hung out outside where a bunch of people were likewise chilling, but I hung back a little from the group and didn’t really participate in any of the discussions. True to Heather’s word, there was plenty of food, and I was feeling pretty starved so I heaped a bunch of food on a plate and began to chow down. With my mouth busy, no one would ask me any questions or expect me to talk.

My stomach’s always been smaller than my eyes give it credit for; Kris usually helped me out by eating off my plate. It always cracked me up, because he would manage to eat his entire plate as well as whatever was left on mine. He was my human garbage disposal.

Huffing as I looked down at my remaining food, I was saved by Max. He stepped beside me and ingratiated himself to my plate—in fact, he took it off me and took a huge bite of the burger I had barely gotten halfway through.

“Jo, I didn’t expect to see you here,” he mumbled around the half-masticated food in his mouth.

“You say that like you’re not happy to see me,” I replied. “How do you know I wasn’t going to eat that?”

He held the burger out in my direction, like he was offering to give it back. I shook my head and he shrugged his shoulders, taking another humongous bite. His words were barely intelligible. “Exactly. So, what are you doing here?”

I wrinkled up my face. “What’s that supposed to mean? Heather invited me, so I showed up.”

“Sorry, it’s just weird.”

Frowning when he said that, I then pressed the bottle in my hand to my lips and took a tiny, tiny sip. It was warm and disgusting, so I didn’t even take a full swallow. “If it’s so weird, then why are you over here standing by me?”

“Because you looked a little out of place. Hell, you are out of place. Whenever you and Tanger would show up for any team functions, you two never left each other’s sides. It’s weird seeing one of you and not the other.”

“We weren’t that bad,” I countered, hugging myself around the middle. Max may have come over to keep me company, but he was making me feel more lonely.

Oui, I guess you’re right. You never came into the dressing room. During games, you guys were apart.” Sid walked by as Max was talking, and he wrangled him into the conversation by slinging his arm over Crosby’s broad shoulders. “If you want to hang out with the team now, we’re just going to have to find you a new Penguins boyfriend. How about the Kid?”

Sid’s ears turned a little pink as he figured out what we were talking about, and I wasn’t pleased with the direction his conversation was going anyway. Even though I knew that Max was just trying to be playful and funny, the mere implication of Kris and I not being together was irksome. For Sid’s sake and my own, I tried to put an end to it. “No way that would ever happen. I’m still upset over the Olympics.” That made Crosby shrug and smile, feeling more at ease.

But that didn’t stop Max. “Okay, so, American. That really narrows it down. How about Goligoski? And you seem to have a thing for defensemen, non? He’s perfect!”

I shook my head and tried to be a little clearer without being overly mean. “Max, I have my hands full with my boyfriend as it is. I don’t need another one to complicate things, okay?”

“Yeah, Talbo, leave her alone,” Sid said, trying to back me up as he moved out of Max’s hold. Then he spoke directly to me. “Jo, they’re getting a fire started. You look a little cold. Why don’t you join us over there?” Then he held up the bag of marshmallows in his hand. “I’ve been entrusted with bringing the good stuff. We’re gonna make s’mores.”

“Sounds good,” I told him, following him out into the yard. He didn’t say anything more to me, and he probably realized that he didn’t have to. I sat next to him on a big log that had been pushed over by the fire, and I made myself comfortable. He silently passed me marshmallows, which I ate without toasting. The heat from the fire quickly made my temperature rise, and I had to take my hoodie off to compensate. As I pulled it over my head, it got stuck, and I really had to tug and pull to get it off.

I paid enough attention to the conversation around the fire to laugh at the appropriate places, but I also let the crackling and popping of the fire lull and relax me. It wasn’t totally weird to hang around with these guys in a somewhat team-related function because they were all nice people that tried to help include me in the activities. But it still wasn’t the same.

Max eventually joined us in the yard. He stepped beside me at point, but I wasn’t really paying attention to him until he bent down beside me and picked up something from the ground. “Did someone lose some jewelry? Looks like a locket,” he mused, opening up the gold charm. Everyone else around the fire quitted their conversation so the proper owner could be located. My hand immediately flew to that spot on my chest, finding nothing there and causing me to panic. Before I could tell him that it was mine, he looked at the pictures inside and deduced who it belonged to. “Jo, is this yours?”

“Yes,” I said quickly, jumping up from my post on the log and snatching the locket out of his big hands. I examined it and found that the chain had broken, probably snapping when I struggled with my hoodie. I felt like I should have immediately known that it was missing from its place around my neck, but I hadn’t—which made me sad. That locket stayed around my neck; the only time I took it off was when I showered or that one time I went swimming at the Blakes’, because I didn’t want the pictures inside to get ruined.

He was trying to be his jolly self when he began to tease me. “I thought you said you had your hands full with Tanger, eh? So why is his picture in here with another guy’s? Who’s your other boyfriend?”

Everyone’s eyes were on me. It felt worse than when I had given my speech the other day; except this time, it was personal. “It’s not another boyfriend,” I replied quietly, my hand closing around the precious gold locket. I couldn’t believe that I almost lost it. Not to mention, it was my birthday gift from Kris, given to me the night that we went stargazing at the state park—the night we had also shared our first real kiss. I would’ve been so depressed if I had found it missing when I got home after the party.

“Okay, then... who is it?” he asked, prodding for an answer. I wasn’t sure why he so badly wanted to know, unless it had something to do with still looking out for Kris—like he was keeping an eye on me while his friend was away in another state.

I wouldn’t look him in the eye as I said, “That’s my brother.”

Jordan was the next to speak. “You keep a picture of your brother in your locket? That’s kind of weird.” Heather elbowed him in the stomach, but he was only saying what everyone else was probably thinking but too afraid to say.

“It’s not weird,” I bit out at him, feeling from the way that my hair began to stand on end that I was getting defensive. I knew they weren’t attacking me, but I was hypersensitive when it came to anything about James.

That’s when Max spoke up, and I could have killed him. Honest-to-God, killed him. He said, “I thought your brother was dead?”

I had told Max that back in February when he had seen my tattoo; I don’t know why he couldn’t put two and two together and realize that that’s why I carried around his picture in the locket. If James were alive and I got to see him or talk to him on regular basis, I wouldn’t need it.

My hand tightened around the gold trinket and came up to my chest. I nodded, staring into the fire to avoid everyone’s gazes. Suddenly, my voice wouldn’t work, and it was a struggle to choke out my response and share my deepest secret with them. “He is.”

No one said anything for a while, a damper having been put on the mirth of the party. I sat back down on the log with my hand closed securely around my necklace. After a minute or two of a lull in the conversation, Sidney handed me another marshmallow, which I promptly popped into my mouth and chewed on.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

103.) Phone Call

“And you don’t care?”

“No,” I told them, shaking my head. I didn’t see what the big deal was, and I certainly didn’t think that they had any reason to get so concerned about something that didn’t affect them and something that they especially didn’t understand.

“Even though you’ve never met him? That doesn’t bother you at all?” Couture pressed, looking at me like I should have been wrapped in a straight jacket.

“Are you implying that you think my girlfriend would cheat on me?” I gave him a very stern look, waiting for his answer.

“No,” he mumbled, picking at the food on his plate. “I’ve met her. We’ve all met her. We can obviously see that she’s crazy in love with you.”

I nodded, forking some pasta into my mouth and chewing with sharp, deliberate movements. They were trying to get some kind of reaction out of me, but it wasn’t going to work. Swallowing, I asked, “Then what is it I’m supposed to care about, exactly?”

A few of the other guys around the table began to speak at once. “This Dave guy.” “People are going to start talking....” “It’s just not right.” “Guys and girls just can’t be friends.”

Answering them all in one fell swoop, I told them, “I trust Jo to be hanging around the right people. She’s not going to spend time with someone who’s going to disrespect her like that.” Jo and I had talked about this on more than one occasion, about making good decisions. One of those types of decisions involved surrounding herself with a good support system. She had the girlfriends of my former teammates, and now she had the EMT who had responded to her accident. I hadn’t met him, but I didn’t need to; a guy like that couldn’t be bad. Plus, Tubby had met him, and he was way more protective of Jo than I was. If Tubby didn’t have an issue with him, than neither did I.

McGinn chuckled. “Even if he did put the moves on her, she’d just punch him anyway.”

I scowled at him, irritated at Jamie for even bringing that up. “It’ll never even get to that point. For several reasons.” I really had to believe that. As stubborn as Jo could be, she wouldn’t put herself in another precarious situation, where she’d have to even think about punching someone for whatever reason, after the fight we had following that scene at the club. “Plus, she’d never cheat. She’d never let something like that happen. She’s more worried about girls hitting on me—”

The guys started to groan, shaking their heads and looking at me like I was stupid. Couture spoke up for the collective group. “Let me guess. She doesn’t let you go out and play with us because she’s afraid you’ll get into trouble when you’re hanging around the single guys?”

“Ahem,” Pickles cleared his throat, apparently feeling left out.

“Oh, it’s different for you,” Mitch countered, trying to put it in perspective. “Your girlfriend’s in town. You wanna get your dick wet, you just go over to her place. Letang’s girl’s across the country for another month yet, and hanging out with another dude who he doesn’t know, yet she cares about him being around other girls. Completely different scenario.”

Placing my elbow on the table and then scratching my forehead, I thought about what he said. Jo had told me on several different occasions, that I was oblivious to girls hitting on me and checking me out—and that she preferred that I not associate with girls outside of the WAGs. It didn’t really bother me, because I wasn’t looking to go hang out with other girls under the pretense of needing specifically female company; Jo was the only girl for me. I loved her so much and I needed her even if she wasn’t here, and I’d never hurt her and ruin the wonderful thing we had together.

When she told me about her plans yesterday, to go see Clash of the Titans on its release date with Dave, I didn’t care—for multiple reasons. First off, I thought it was a good thing for her to get out of the apartment and away from her books for a while. She had given that speech that she had agonized over for a whole week, even though I still don’t quite get why she got so worked up over something like that. Going out to the movies was something nice that she got to do for herself now that it was over. I had no problem with the activity or who she chose to do it with.

Second, Dave was just a guy who she would talk to in between classes, but he also was one of the guys who had responded to her accident and took care of her—so I automatically respected him. I hadn’t met him before, but I knew about him long before I had been traded. It hadn’t bothered me when I was in Pittsburgh, so it didn’t start bugging me now. The reason she had never hung out with him outside of university before now was because I was there, and she spent her non-school time with me or at work; Jo now had more free time to spend with other people now since I wasn’t there to monopolize her time.

Third, it was a movie, not a romantic dinner or something like that. They would have been a dark room, sure—but with a bunch of other people, too. Who else would she go with? I’m pretty sure none of the girls she knew would be interested in it. And lastly... like Jo would ever let me tell her she couldn’t do something, anyway. That would be sure to start a fight.

But then the theatre had been sold out, so Jo ended up going to Dave’s house, ordering a pizza, and hanging out with Dave and his roommates Drew, Wayne, and Carl. That still hadn’t bothered me. She hadn’t been alone with Dave in his bedroom or anything to give him any wrong impressions; they were a group of people hanging out. I knew that Jo only saw these guys as friends because she already had a boyfriend—and even if we weren’t conveniently in the same town, she certainly wasn’t shopping around for a new man. Plus, Jo had always been friends with tons of guys, more than she was with girls, so she was more than capable of platonic relationships with guys. Her best friend was a guy.

My teammates, however, found plenty wrong with this situation. They were all suspicious of a girl who would hang out with a guy and a bunch of said guy’s friends, when said boyfriend didn’t know said guy who was from a part of said girl’s world with which said boyfriend was relatively unfamiliar. They didn’t think Jo would cheat, but there was still some kind of impropriety that didn’t sit right with them, and it started me thinking about it.

Was it hypocritical of Jo? Yes. Absolutely. Jo, from Day One, had her jealousy rear its ugly head. She couldn’t stand to have another girl merely look at me. Of course she knew that I’d never, ever hurt her, and she even told me that she trusted me. She just didn’t trust the other girls who would flirt with me and hit on me and try to get in my pants—even though I’d never let them get that far, or even remotely close.

Did that mean that I should be distrusting of other guys hanging around Jo? If Jo were in fact right about me being oblivious to this kind of stuff and naïve and too trusting of other people, then maybe I should be more concerned about this. Sure, I trusted Jo, and I trusted her to make good decisions... but that didn’t mean I should automatically trust this Dave guy.

But then again, Jo had been completely honest with me about what happened last night. She told me about how the night had been really awkward when they got back to his place, explaining that she thought Dave seemed generally like an all-around nice guy but that she had overheard his friends saying previously that she was mean to him and lying to him about dating a professional hockey player. I told Jo just to show them that picture of us up on Mt Hamilton to prove that she was telling the truth, but she refused and said that she didn’t want to be friends with people who would think that she’d lie over something like that. However, Jo did say that the guys—acting like typical guys—didn’t even dare to mention it or question her about it, so they just forgot about it and just watched The Hangover and played a few games of pool before calling it a night.

Jo was open about the whole thing. She knew that secrets bugged the hell out of me, so she didn’t hold back—she told me everything. And she wasn’t going to make stuff up or lie about it. I had nothing to worry about.

The guys sitting around this table at Original Joe’s, though, were looking at me with careful eyes. If all five of them were expressing concern or uncertainty with this situation, then maybe there was something wrong with it. Besides, if Jo wanted to tell me that I should stay away from other girls, then she shouldn’t have a problem with following her own advice and staying away from other guys to appease me. After all, Jo’s said that one of her biggest pet peeves is hypocrisy.

Although, I saw the other side again and thought to myself that Dave was only acting like a friend, and that’s exactly what Jo needed: friends. As long as he continued to act like a friend to her and nothing more, then I was happy that she had one more person out there in Pittsburgh to have on her side.

But then again, what kind of guy tries to be friends with a girl who has a boyfriend? A fuckin’ prick, that’s who. She’s taken, and happily so... so what was he doing talking to her? Especially when he knew that I was Jo’s boyfriend and we were dealing with the complications of a long-distance relationship. A guy had to be doing that for a reason: to break us up.

Unless, of course, he was legitimately trying to be a friend and just a friend. I had the capacity to be just friends with girls, and I did have friends that were girls. Not many, but there was Charlene, and of course the WAGs.

Ugh, it all felt so complicated. I was bouncing back and forth between keeping my original stance where I trusted Jo to choose her friends carefully, which therefore meant I trusted that Dave was a good guy, and adopting the opinion of my teammates that something wasn’t right about Dave wanting to hang around with Jo. The boundary line between what was socially acceptable—and what wasn’t—was very blurry. I didn’t know what to think anymore.

Couture shrugged and resumed eating. “As long as it doesn’t bother you...” he started, his voice dropping off as he let his thought hang in the air. But the more the guys talked about it, the more they convinced me that maybe I should be worried. Or at least a little concerned.

Mitch shook his head. “All I know is, if my bitch was spending all her time with some guy, especially someone who I didn’t know or even met before, I’d knock him out.”

I sighed, knowing that there wasn’t a reason for me to overreact like that. I would do anything to protect Jo, but I wouldn’t take my anger out like that. Besides, it takes two people to cheat, and Jo would never; she’s not a hypocrite. “But she’s not spending time with him because she wants to. She does it because she has to, because she doesn’t have a lot of friends in Pittsburgh and I’m not there.”

McGinn snorted. He was usually so quiet, but he was particularly talkative today. “Exactly, Tanger. You’re not there. She’s probably lonely. If she needs someone to be there for her, he’s going to be there. And you won’t be. You can’t be there, because you’re thousands of miles away.”

“But she can call me. We talk all the time,” I told them, rationalizing why I felt the way I did.

“Not the same as you being there in person,” Mitch said. “She could not mean for it to happen, but he’s right there. What happens when she’s missing you and needs someone to comfort her?”

My jaw ticked as I thought of that scene. Jo could innocently want a shoulder to cry on, and maybe the girls are busy—or maybe she’s at school when she’s going through a rough period of time in dealing with our separation—so Dave is the person suddenly put in the position to soothe and console her. Putting an arm around her. Hugging her. Wiping the tears from her cheeks. No, that wasn’t okay.

Couture added, “I mean, are you assuming that she’ll never get hit on again just because she’s got a boyfriend? I know you remember what happened when we were at the club—”

“Enough,” I grumbled, dropping my fork as I lost my appetite completely. I sat back in my chair and gazed up at the ceiling. They were giving me too much to think about it, and it was impossible to digest it all. This entire conversation began after our practice, when Pickles had mentioned he wanted to go see Clash of the Titans, but I told him that Jo had wanted to go but the shows had been sold out so far for the opening weekend. One single, casual comment led to all this.

“Just tell her that she can’t hang out with him anymore. Problem solved,” Mitch said innocently.

I knew that wasn’t a solution. Not in the slightest. She wouldn’t appreciate me telling her what to do. And even though I wasn’t feeling comfortable with this anymore, I still trusted her—even though I wasn’t sure how I could reconcile those two attitudes. I wasn’t sure what to do in order to find a way to make myself be okay with this. After all, I had told Jo that I was glad for her, that she was making new friends. I couldn’t take it back now.

Stupid teammates for opening their big mouths. If they hadn’t’ve said any of that stuff, this wouldn’t bother me. Ignorance is bliss, right? But would I rather the veil be over my eyes? No, not if that meant I could get blindsided with finding out something—

I started to shake my head. No, see, that would never happen. Jo would never cheat, on me or on anyone or ever, period; I knew that as sure I knew I’d never cheat on her. Pushing away from the table, I grabbed a twenty from my wallet and threw it onto the table. No way could I sit there with them and listen to anymore of that. I didn’t even tell them I was leaving or what I was going to do; I just left. The walk back to the hotel, where I could talk to her privately, felt like it should have been short, but it took forever. There was too much to think about.

The first thing I did when I walked into my room was to open the mini-fridge and grab one of the remaining bottles of water that Jo had stocked me up with. Then I cracked it open and took a sip before I flopped down on the bed and pulled out my cell to call Jo. I had to talk to her if for no other reason than her voice would reassure me.

Her line kept ringing and ringing, almost to the point where I would have gotten her voice mail. When she finally answered, she sounded surprised to hear from me. “Kris, hey. What’s up? I figured you’d be out eating with the guys.”

“I was,” I told her gruffly, suddenly suspicious about what she doing while she thought I was too busy to call. Funny how one conversation had altered my attitude so quickly. I never thought of myself as a jealous person, but I wanted—needed—to know what she was up to and who she was with. Trying to make it not sound like I was check up on her, I asked, “So... what’s up with you?”

“I just got out of the shower. There was a one o’clock game at the arena, so I have to head over in a little bit for work and I was getting ready.”

“On a Saturday afternoon?” I asked, surprised about that. I guess all that talk over lunch had convinced me that she’d be with Dave right now.

“Yeah. I’ve been picking up shifts, and since it’s spring and the games are earlier, it’s perfect for some extra cash. Why aren’t you with the guys?”

I turned serious. “I left and came back to my room.”

“So does that mean you’re alone?” she asked, the tone of her voice changing. “For the afternoon?”

“Um, yeah.”

She chuckled and spoke huskily. “You know, I have some time before I have to leave. And guess what?”

“What?” I asked.

“I’m not wearing any clothes.” I sucked in a sharp breath as I pictured exactly what she said: Jo, naked, just out of the shower, her body wet and pink from scrubbing and washing. “I wish you were here, babe. I wish you were here to touch me.”

“Me, too,” I groaned, feeling my cock twitch in my pants. We’d been apart for a full two weeks, fourteen straight days, which was the longest we’d gone without sex since we got together.

“And where would you like to touch me? Tell me.”

I gave her an honest but nondescript answer. “Everywhere.”

“Where?” she asked again, begging me to participate. “Please, Kris. Talk to me.”

“Um....”

“This won’t work unless you talk to me.”

“I, uh, I don’t know what to say,” I confessed honestly, now having officially forgotten the reason for my calling. This was all the reassurance that I needed to know how much Jo loved me and cared for me; she’d never look elsewhere even though I couldn’t be there how either of us would like to. I was now caught up in the moment and turned on, and I missed her, too. And I missed making love to her. But I didn’t know what to do or say. I preferred to let my hands do all the talking.

“Come on, babe, please,” she pleaded. “I’m so horny, so hot for you. I just took a cold shower, but right now even the sound of your voice makes me want you. Don’t you miss being with me?”

“God, yes,” I moaned, not even noticing that I was taking the lord’s name in vain. I was getting hard just thinking about how I wanted to be in the same room with her and what we could do or would do if we were.

“Okay, then how about I start?” I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was trying to gently coax me into this and ease me into it. “I wanna suck on your cock. Mmm, I bet you’re hard for me already. Are you?”

“Uh huh,” I breathed.

“I want your pants off.” As she said that, I took her cue and reached down with my free hand to pop the button, unzip the fly, and pulled my erection out of my boxers. I curled my hand around and squeezed gently, rubbing the tip with my thumb as she talked. “I’m stroking you, up and down. You like that, don’t you?”

I started to jack myself off, just how she was describing. “Yeah.”

“I love giving you head, Kris. Kissing your big, hard dick. Licking you from your balls all the way up. Mmmm.”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have realized how stupid this was. If Jo had been here and really doing this, she wouldn’t have been able to talk. In fact, I would have probably laughed at the things she was saying. But I had missed her and missed her body, and this was the next best thing to sex with her. I pumped my hand up and down as she talked about what she was “doing” with her mouth to me, and I got lost in the fantasy that she was really here, doing all those things.

“Do you like this, babe?”

“Yes.”

“Do you wanna fuck me, Kris?”

“Yes,” I hissed, imagining her here and underneath me, squirming with anticipation as I hovered over her. Picturing myself rubbing my dick against the fleshy folds between her legs before finally stretching her open and sinking into her warm, awaiting entrance.

“Say it. Say you wanna fuck me.”

My mind was clouded and unfocused, but I somehow worked my mouth to repeat her words. “I wanna fuck you.” Jo whimpered when I said that, giving me a modicum of courage to go a step further. “I wanna be inside you so bad, Jo.”

“Yes, Kris,” she moaned, the sound music to my ears.

I wanted to know what she was doing on her end of the line. I slowed my hand movements as I asked her, “What are you doing? Are you... touching... yourself?”

“I’m rubbing my clit,” she told me between short breaths, “and pretending that it’s your tongue. Feels so good when you go down on me, babe.”

I thought about what it would be like to do that right now, and the words spilled forth of their own volition. “You taste so good.”

She squeaked and panted into the phone, and I knew she liked what she was hearing. “Keep talking.”

“I...” I struggled to put my thoughts and desires into words, but I tried to, for her—even though I felt stupid. “I love eating you out.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “God, I need you inside me.”

My hand moved faster, needing the same thing. It never felt as good to climax unless I was surrounded by her wet heat. “Use your fingers. Put them inside you.”

“Oh, Kris, yes. Don’t stop. Fuck me.”

Hearing her voice intensified my reactions. Even though this didn’t feel nearly as good as real sex would, this was definitely better than what I had been doing solo in the shower. “Jo, are you close?”

“Almost. Keep going.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just tried to speak generally. “Go harder. Faster.” She moaned a little more, and I added, “Don’t stop fucking yourself.” Talking to her was heightening my sensations, and I knew it wouldn’t be much longer for me. I could feel my balls start to tighten; there was no holding back now.

“That’s it, babe, oh yes, I’m coming,” she eked out, but not before I shot my load all over myself. Jo breathed into the phone, and I could hear as she hummed and licked her lips. “That felt good. Did you like it?”

Keeping my eyes closed, I reached over for a handful of tissues so I could clean myself up. “Yeah. Felt great.”

“I wish I didn’t have to go into work now. I feel like we need to do some pillow talk.”

“Well, what are you doing tonight?” I asked her, hoping for some more one-on-one time.

“Heather and the girls invited me over to some party tonight. I can totally skip it though—”

“No, it’s okay,” I sighed. “With the time difference, you can still go out and we’ll talk later.”

“I don’t mind, Kris. I’d rather talk to you than go over there.”

“It’s cool. I don’t mind you hanging out with them,” I told her, holding off on having the Dave conversation with her. We had shared a close moment on the phone together, and I was feeling confident in our relationship. She loved me, I loved her, and distance or time apart wasn’t going to wreck what we had; I was sure of it. “I love you, Jo.”

“I love you, too, Kris. Thanks for the lovely conversation,” she giggled. “We’ll have to continue it later.” Then she sighed. “I miss you. Only about a month left, babe. We’re getting there.”

“It’ll be over before we know it,” I said, stripping fully out of my pants but leaving my boxers on. I was feeling tired and was ready for a nap.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

102.) Underwear

I finished with my Physics I exam, the first person to complete the test. Normally, I would hang around, maybe double check my answers, and wait until someone else made a move to hand theirs in before I’d gather my things and leave. This time, I didn’t bother. I pushed away from my seat, slinging my bag over my shoulder as I sauntered to the front of the room and handed in my exam.

A little over a week had now passed since Kris and I had last kissed in the San José airport. One week down, six or seven more to go. It felt good to have some time under our belt because it brought us closer to being together again. When every day felt like a struggle, I reminded myself that each passing day was one day less between me and him and us being together again, on a permanent basis. Well, at least a more permanent basis, because we couldn’t account for road trips.

I still missed Kris like crazy—how could I not?—but it did get a little easier as more time passed. I figured that I’d be sad until I hit the halfway mark in the beginning of April, because until then I would be concentrating on how I had to leave California to come back home. But after that midpoint, I would probably get taken over by excitement over getting to go back out to see him. It was like a climbing a mountain and having to get over the crest, and things would be downhill after the worst, hardest part was over.

To cope, I had plunged back into my schoolwork, studying and reading for hours in the library, and I had talked my boss Bob into giving me an extra shift or two per week at the Mellon to help keep me busy. Not only did those things distract me from feeling too sad or lonely, but it meant that I was around people. Even if I didn’t talk to those people—and I didn’t, because I’m not exactly the most social person on Earth—it was still better than sitting alone in a big, empty apartment.

The lounge was empty since classes were still in session at this time of day, so I plopped down on one of the couches. It wasn’t even eleven here yet, so I knew Kris would still be sleeping on the west coast. He wouldn’t get up for another half an hour, so even though I itched to call him and talk to him, I resisted. He had practice today and a game tomorrow, so he needed his rest.

The Sharks had won every game since their losing streak ended. First Minnesota, then Dallas, Vancouver, and Colorado. He’d tallied a point in each of those latter three games: an assist on the power play, an empty-netter, and another assist. Honestly, I’d lost track of his points since his trade, but it was something outrageous like fifteen. Sure, he had had a couple of off nights, but when he was on, he was on; I wasn’t sure how long this point-per-game pace would continue, but it was incredible. I could hear the relief in his voice and how much more relaxed he seemed since the team had turned it around. They were finally gearing up for the playoffs, and things were looking so promising for them. Maybe this was the year for San José. I certainly had my fingers crossed.

Kris was so much easier to handle and way more fun to talk to when his team was doing well. He wasn’t one to pay attention when I talked about the way he acted on his team or his reactions to losing, and I think it’s because I made him feel like he was lying on a therapist’s couch. Can’t say I blame him for that, because I had felt the same way when he talked about me and losing James and dealing with my grief and all that. I felt kinda stupid, having everything laid out there in the open like that, but it had helped, I guess, and I wanted to give Kris that same benefit.

The losing really wore him down and ate away at him—much more than it seemed to affect any of his teammates, past or present. No one liked to lose, but Kris had such a disdain for it. He was paid to win, and he worked really, really hard to be in such good shape; the man was pure muscle and strength.

When he didn’t win, he became so focused and determined, trying to figure out what went wrong and what he could do to fix it. That wasn’t just his attitude toward winning, either; it was his entire attitude toward life. His dad was a jerkhole assface? Fine, then he was going to be the polar opposite and treat his mother—and consequently all the women in his life—with utmost respect and love and consideration to make up for his mistakes and missteps. His best friend died? Then he was going to carry on his name in his honor in order to accomplish all the things Luc couldn’t, being sure to play it safe to avoid the same fate. Neither of those were his “problems” to fix, but when the people around him were in distress, he wanted to make things all better.

Luckily, the team was clicking and executing, and they looked like a contender. This made Kris happy, yet he was still just as focused and determined as ever. The playoffs were about two weeks away, and he was preparing for it by getting into a good place psychologically. He wanted to be ready for whatever came his way; it was all a part of his “handyman” mentality, as I liked to call his Mr. Fix-It attitude. As annoying as it was sometimes, I can’t lie and say it’s not one of the things I love about him. After all, to truly love someone, you accept the good and the bad. It wasn’t even necessarily a bad thing anyway—just a little irksome when it interfered with my whims.

I was glad that Kris was so intensely honed into that ultimate target of winning that it didn’t leave time for much else. He watched more tape, worked out harder than usual and upped his rep count, stuck steadfastly to his monotonous routines, and slept longer and sounder, which was one of the reasons I resisted the urge to call and wake him up before his alarm and pulled out my iPod to fill the silence. I had a speech to give on Friday for my public speaking class, and I was feeling kind of anxious about it; I decided to pull out my note cards and go over my bullet points again and practice in my head. Until I know someone, I’m kind of awkward and shy—and having to stand in front of a group of people and talk to them only intensified that reaction and behavior.

Since I was alone, I mumbled my speech aloud, practicing like I was going through the whole thing. When a person strolled through the hallway and took a seat on the other side of the room, I quit speaking out loud. No need to look like a nut if I didn’t have to.

Minding my own business, I ran through my entire speech. It was relatively easy now, to remember what I wanted to say, but it would be a whole nother story once I was standing in front of a room full of my peers. I really needed to try it in front of a mirror or something.

My iPod ran out of juice, and the music cut out in place of silence. Now all I could hear was the rustling of papers from the other studying student. I glanced over in that direction as I accidentally dropped my music player loudly on the table. He looked up as I peeked over at him and recognized him. I had forgotten all about Dave. After our little debacle in the bar, I put him and his stupid friends so far back in my mind that I hadn’t even thought about it once I left for San José—and then I hadn’t seen him once I got back from break.

He quietly and awkwardly nodded at me, giving me a small, sad smirk to say hello. That wasn’t the Dave I knew, who would’ve sat down right next to me just like every other time we met up in the lounge. Was he scared to talk to me? I was the one mad at him and his loser posse, so he didn’t have a reason to suddenly be so apprehensive around me.

“How was your break?” he asked me, sounding a little hesitant as he attempted to start a conversation.

“Good.” It was awkward talking to someone so far away. It’s like he was purposely keeping his distance. “Yours?”

“Good. Did you have fun in California?”

I wanted to blow up on him. I could just tell that he was implying that I didn’t go! Like he was trying to catch me in my lie. What a douche bag. My jaw ticked as I forced myself to calm down. I was wearing my Lick Observatory sweatshirt, and I could totally rub it in his face as proof of my trip, but I realized that that wouldn’t really solve the problem. All that my sweatshirt served as was proof that I went California; it didn’t prove that I was dating defenseman Kristopher Letang, former Penguin and current Shark.

So instead, I tried to take the higher road. God, it was tough. I wanted to yell, but I didn’t. I was facetious rather than shrill and angry. “Gee, Dave, it was absolutely wonderful. My boyfriend and I had such a great time. Thank you so much for asking.”

“Hey now, there’s no need for that. It was an honest question. I told you, Jo, that I believe you.”

“Oh, right. It’s just your friends who think I’m a bitch and a liar.”

He sighed and shook his head, pausing before he answered. “I apologized for them already.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t apologize for other people, Dave,” I spat out at him, making sure that I was plenty loud for him to hear, even all the way over there against the wall.

“If I can’t, then why are you holding what they said against me?” he countered gently. He wasn’t being spiteful or ignorant like me, and it made me even more angry.

“Because if you hang around with assholes, then maybe you are one, too.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I instantly regretted them. Dave had never been anything remotely like a jerk to me. In fact, he was just the opposite: really nice. He had offered to be my friend during a time when I hardly had any in this town, and I had tried to take him up on that. It just didn’t work out.

“My friends are nice people. They’re a little misguided about a lot of things, and generally just... skeptical.” That comment of his hit close to home, too. How many times had Kris said that to me about his friends, when I thought they were all bitches, too? And guess what... some of them—most of them turned out to be really nice people, who I was now leaning on to help me get through this rough patch.

I rolled my eyes. They weren’t skeptical. They thought I was lying. They could have asked to see a picture or something. Not that I would have shown them anything, because it was none of their business. But they could have confronted me with their disbelief instead of talking behind my back. Stupid bitches! I didn’t need to be around people who were going to continually doubt things about me. “Don’t sugarcoat it. Your friends think I’m lying. So why don’t you?”

Dave shrugged. “I don’t have any reason to not believe you. You don’t seem like a liar to me.”

Blanking on a response, I sat there in silence. I wasn’t sure how to take his comments. He believed me, but he must have seen me when he came into the lounge, but he didn’t bother to sit over here by me like he wanted to talk. What was his deal? Why was he avoiding me now, if nothing had changed since before that night at the bar?

“Well, I’m not a liar,” I told him, reiterating that point to him for the billionth time. Then I paused before I said my next thought—I don’t even know why I said it. Maybe to spite him, since I still didn’t believe that he believed me. “He wants to meet you, you know.”

His voice cracked as he asked, “Kris?”

“Yeah. He wants to thank you.” My voice was low as I explained, because it was still a sensitive subject for me. “For tending to me after my accident.”

He shrugged again. “Notta big deal. It’s my job.”

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with thanking someone for doing their job.”

“Kinda hard when he’s in California.”

I had to take another deep breath to calm myself down. It sounded like a challenge. “He’s coming back. This summer, when his season’s over, he’s coming back while I take summer courses before I transfer out to California.”

Dave nodded then, turning back to his papers. Then he changed the subject, like he wanted out of the conversation. “Got a big neuroscience exam coming up at two that I have to study for.”

“Good luck cramming,” I snorted, watching as his eyes roamed quickly over the page and tried to absorb the information.

“I’ve been reviewing the material all weekend, and I still don’t get it. I’d never make it as a brain surgeon, that much is obvious.”

“I’d trade you in a heart beat,” I sighed, frowning and glancing at the cards in my hand again. “I gotta give a speech. I hate, hate, hate public speaking.”

“Sucks for you that it’s a mandatory class,” he laughed, and I scowled at him. “I’d so much rather do that than study some more. I’m seriously going cross-eyed like I can’t read anymore, but this is a big test for me. I have to pull my grade up.” He leaned his head back against the couch. “I’ll graduate with a C, but if I get a B, I’ll get honors. I’m already accepted into med school, but if I can get honors....”

Something about the way he was talking reminded me of Kris and the way he sought to be the very best—like how Kris had big dreams of winning it all again this year, Dave wanted to finish his bachelor’s with a bang. That’s probably what made me say, “I can quiz you, if you want.”

“Don’t you have your speech to go over?”

“It’s not ’til Friday, so I’ve plenty of time to review and practice.”

He tilted his head to the side, taking the time to seriously consider my offer. I didn’t know what there really was to think about, because it was a simple proposition. Finally, he answered apathetically, “I guess.”

I moved my things over to his side of the room, and I did my best to help him study. We took a few breaks along the way, like to get some food and pop out of the vending machines and when Kris called to talk. Leaving Dave in the lounge to munch on his Doritos, I headed outside in the cool spring air to talk to him with a bit more pivacy.

“Mornin’. How’d your test go?”

“I finished it super early, like, before everyone else. So I either aced it or failed.”

“Well, I’ve got my fingers crossed that you aced it, which I’m sure you did. Just like I know you’ll nail that speech on Friday.”

That made me smile. Kris remembered so much about my school and schedule. He was really an incredible boyfriend, and I let my feelings for him wash over me as I took a seat on the bench. “Thanks, babe. I’m super nervous about it.”

Kris laughed at me. “I don’t see what the big deal is with this, Jo. How hard could it be? You’re a good student, you know what you’re doing... what’s so difficult about talking in front of a few people?”

“It’s hard!” I whined. “I get all tongue-twisted and stupid when all those people are staring at me. And I’m not just talking about something or whatever, I have to say very specific things and what happens if I forget? One mistake and it screws me all up. I freeze up and blank, and it’s mortifying.” He chuckled, and I pouted even though I couldn’t see. “It’s not funny, Kristopher. Just because you don’t have to do it....”

“Yes, it is funny, and yes, I do do it. All the time, I talk in front of cameras and reporters. In English. And you’re worried about a five-minute persuasive speech on the benefits of increasing security on campus on the weekends in front of a group of people who are going to be sympathetic, since they have to do the same exact assignment. And you know when you get it over with, you’ll say it wasn’t so bad. You’re making a mountain of a molehill.”

“Well, it might be easy for you, because you’ve been prepped for interviews since juniors. I don’t like talking in front of people, seeing them all looking back at me.” I pulled my knees up to my chest and picked at the fraying hole in my jeans. I didn’t usually think of myself as a cocky person, but I knew my strengths—and my weaknesses, too. “I’m just not any good at it, and I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous. I know you can do it. That’s why it’s so funny, because you’re going to do great, Jo. Picture them in their underwear, and it’ll make things easier.”

“That doesn’t work,” I whined again, pressing my forehead against my knee. “You know it doesn’t work.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Remember when I sat there and you practiced on me?”

I laughed, forgetting my nerves temporarily as I recalled that particular afternoon. And also getting a little turned on, too, when I remembered what we did afterward. “But that’s because you were actually in just your boxers. I got all tongue-tied and distracted for a completely different reason. You can’t expect me to concentrate when you’re naked.”

“Anything I can do to help you out,” he chuckled, knowing that on that day, he didn’t help me out—he helped himself and got laid. I had still been stuck at square one when it came to giving my speech the next day, when I bumbled my way through it. “I’m almost at the arena. I’ll call you later. I just wanted to say good morning. When are you free?”

“Well, I work later, I go in at, like, nine thirty or ten or something like that. And right now I’m helping Dave study for his test, but I’m totally free this afternoon.”

“Look at you, little miss helper,” he replied, and I could hear the smile in his voice.

“You’re rubbing off on me, I guess. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” I teased.

“A good thing. Totally a good thing.” He paused, switching gears and taking on a more serious tone. “I’m really glad to hear you’ve got friends out there. It makes it a lot easier to be so far away when I know you’ve got a support system to rely on and people to hang out with.”

I wouldn’t call Dave a friend, but I got Kris’s point. It was nice to have different people to talk to or be around so I didn’t have to wallow in missing him. I’d rather hang out with Kris than any of these other people, but they made due. Better than being alone, at least. “Well, I should get back, then.”

“Okay. I love you, Jo.”

“I love you, too, Kris. I’ll call you later.”

“Yup. Talk to you soon.”

I slid my phone back in my pocket and headed back inside to where Dave was getting orange cheese flavoring all over his papers. He didn’t say anything to me when I returned, obviously ignoring the phone call I just took. We reviewed his notes some more, and at quarter to two he headed into his classroom. Since I had nothing better to do, I waited in the lounge so I could see how it went. After an hour, he reemerged, looking less than confident although he said he didn’t think he did too poorly.

“All right now, your turn,” he said, dropping his bag and sitting beside me on the couch. He used the table as a footrest, reclining and crossing his arms over his chest. “Go ahead.”

“Go ahead with what?” I asked, confused as hell. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You helped me with my test, and now it’s your turn. I’m gonna help you with your speech.”

While it was nice of him, I wasn’t about to take him up on that. More people had congregated in the lounge while he had been taking his exam, and I was not looking to practice in front of all of them. “But there are so many people here.”

“Yeah, and I bet there are more people in your actual class than there are in here right now. Besides, they’re not even paying attention to you, and they’ll think we’re talking. Just go.”

“But....” I looked around, seeing that the three other groups of people were definitely not looking at me but feeling like they would as soon as I started. “Can’t we go somewhere else? Where there’s less people?”

He chuckled at me. “Wow, you really don’t like this public speaking thing, do you?”

“No, not at all,” I groaned. “I don’t do so good around big groups, and it’s worse when I don’t know them.”

“Just picture ’em in their underwear.”

“That does not work!” I said, a little more loudly than I would have liked. A couple of the other students turned and looked at me, and I blushed and focused on a spot on the wall. Now he was really starting to sound like Kris.

“Well, now that you have everyone’s attention,” he laughed, his shoulders shaking. “Now’s your opportunity.” He continued to chuckle, adding, “Think that guy over there wears tighty whiteys?”

I looked at him and shook my head, but I couldn’t stop the tiny smile from breaking out across my face. “Ya know, that’s really not helping at all. I thought you said you wanted to help?”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Dave stood and picked up his bag, slinging it around his body and waiting for me to do the same. “I guess we can find an empty classroom or something.” He waved his arm in front of him, gesturing for me to take the lead and go ahead of him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

101.) Summer Thoughts

Soundtrack Song - blink-182, I Miss You

I was in an infinitely better mood since last night’s game against the Wild—because we won. For the first time almost two weeks, the San José Sharks won a fucking game. I notched two assists in the third, which only helped to bolster my mood. The individual points were great, but they didn’t matter to me as much as that important win for the team. It was a relief, and we hoped that it was indicative of things to come and that we had turned a page and all we had to do now was keep it up and not regress back into that loser state of mind.

Since we were on the road, it wasn’t too difficult for me to adjust to having to call Jo after a game rather than to expect to see her waiting for me. I wanted so badly to be able to walk through the doors of the dressing room and see her leaning up against the wall of the other room, hanging around with the other WAGs patiently for me to shower and change—especially since I wanted to be able to share this big W with her. She may not have been on the ice with me during the game, but she was in my head the entire time in an unconscious way. I had resolved to keep my temper and to not take any penalties.

Prior to that game, the tension and frustration in the locker room had been palpable. No one was happy about the losing streak, and I could sense the shift in attitude and demeanor of every one of my teammates. We had planned to buckle down and clean up our game, and we did. I don’t know we couldn’t have done this sooner to nip the streak in the bud, but I guess later is better than never.

We were in Minnesota for Tuesday’s game, so when I had called Jo to share my good news, I knew I wouldn’t be keeping her up too late since it was only an hour behind Pittsburgh. I was practically bursting with excitement, so I knew I would have called her anyway... but at least I didn’t have to feel guilty about her losing sleep as I talked to her. Jo had been excited for me and the team, and we talked before we had to catch the bus to the airport so we could catch the flight back to San José for our three-game home stand.

My good mood from last night carried over into this morning as I headed toward the arena for practice. I called Jo to see if she wanted to chat before class; I needed to share my happiness with someone else, and Jo was just the person. After all, her advice had kind of influenced my attitude over the past two days. Her words had replayed in my head as I had laced up my skates before the game, and her belief in me never wavered. It was almost like she had deserved that win as much as the Sharks had.

“Hey,” she answered, sounding a little breathless. “How ya doing?”

“Really good. What are you doing? Why do you sound like you’ve just run a marathon?”

Her voice crackled over the line, and I missed being able to hear it in person. “Stop exaggerating. I’m just walking to my car.”

“Are you leaving for class already?”

“No, I had a doctor’s appointment this morning.”

I didn’t know she was going in to the see the doctor, and I instantly started to worry that something was wrong that she didn’t tell me about. “What? Why? Are you okay?”

“Calm down, Kris,” she giggled. “God, sometimes you need to take a chill pill. Remember when I told you I made an appointment at the clinic?”

“Oh,” I replied quickly, trying to cover up the fact that I had, in fact, forgotten. Then suddenly I recalled that day I came back from Montréal and our little... scare. “Oooooh. Yeah, okay, yeah now I remember.”

She laughed again. “I had actually originally made it for last week, but because of my spring break I had to reschedule it.”

“So? Are you going to tell me how it went?”

“Geez, what do you wanna know about my pelvic exam? First, the doctor felt me up and then had me spread my legs and put my feet up in those damn stirrups while—”

“Okay, no need to get so graphic.”

Her smile was audible. She delighted in torturing me sometimes. “Hey, you asked.”

“But I mean, how did it go? You’re okay?”

Jo snorted. “It was just a basic, routine appointment to get checked out and put on the pill. It was really nothing to write home about, babe. The doctor asked about contraception methods, and I told him about, well, you know, our close call and how I had been sick for those few days while we drove up to Shippagan. He said that it was probably a mixture of things, from stress from meeting your mom and Luc’s birthday and being carsick and eating too much and being a nervous wreck about everything. I got some samples, and the doctor said that I should be fine, but if I get sick like that again, then I should get checked, but that was, like, a whole month ago and I’ve been fine since then.”

“Your doctor was a guy?” I asked her, not sure what I was imagining in my head but not liking that she had been checked out down there by a man. That he had looked at her and touched her, even under the pretense of medicine.

“Really? Out of everything I just said, that’s what you choose to focus on? There was a nurse in the room the entire time, as if it weren’t already humiliating enough to have to get examined like that. But when the doc’s a guy, they insist on it. Whatever. But the exam itself was fine. I mean, I’ve been examined by male doctors and female doctors, and guys are always more gentle with you. It’s like they have a reverence for pussy, so they’re more, like, considerate and well, just gentle. But no need to worry your pretty little head. It was very standard and clinical.”

I sighed. “I still don’t like the idea of it. If it’s okay with you, I’d rather not even talk about it anymore.”

“Fine by me. Besides, it’s over and done with it, and I’ve got six months’ worth of samples.” Then she changed the subject. “What’s up with you? Let me guess.... Practice?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, gladly going along with the new topic of discussion. “I’m not dreading going into the arena today, and it’s a good feeling. You know, in Pittsburgh, we never went on a losing streak all season. The losses were always broken up by wins. We never got really long winning streaks going either, but this was tough to deal with. Really tough.”

“But you got through it, Kris. Smashingly.”

“I guess so. It’s over, and we somehow got through it, so if that’s what passes as ‘smashingly,’ then I guess.”

“But it is. I mean, problems come up, right? It’s about facing them head on.” Her voice got a little quieter. “I mean, that’s what you’ve taught me. You can’t try to cover up or focus on something else, because it doesn’t fix the problem. And that’s what you had to do here. How did you do it?”

“I told you yesterday about my two assists.”

“Yup, you did. But I mean, did you lead by example, or did you say something to the guys before the game? How did you contribute to the team? Not the score sheet.”

Jo was trying to be encouraging, but it made me foolish to say this out loud. “I didn’t do anything. I just focused on playing my game. Kept my feet moving, defended aggressively, and some crisp and clean passes.”

“Just what I figured. You’re a doer, Kris, and not much of a talker.”

Teasing her, I said, “I thought I was talking to you right now?”

“You know what I mean,” she groaned, hiding her laugh. “So obstinate. I just mean that you’d rather do whatever it takes to win than be the one to offer a few words to the room. I know that because it’s the way you approach all things. When there’s a problem, you wanna fix it, not talk about it. Unless talking fixes it.”

It felt so weird and a little disconcerting to hear Jo talk about me like this. I knew that Jo knew a lot about me—everything, in fact—but it still caught me a little off guard that she had me analyzed psychologically. Well, I guess it’s something we do automatically; to hear it put into words, though, was almost like an out of body experience as I was forced to look at myself in a new light.

Now feeling a little self-conscious, I mumbled, “Yeah, well, sitting around and moaning about it doesn’t fix it like finding a solution does.”

“I’m not criticizing you,” she replied, the line crackling for a split second as I made my way into the bowels of the arena. Reception wasn’t great in the Shark tank in certain corridors. “I kind of like it, actually. It’s totally sexy, that take-charge attitude, because it never crosses the line into being controlling.” Her words lightened up the mood of our conversation.

“Well, I am pretty sexy,” I laughed.

“Mmhmm. The sexiest.”

“And as much as I’d like to keep talking about how sexy I am, I’ve gotta start getting ready for practice. I’ll call you later?”

“Anytime.” She quickly and quietly threw the next two words at me. “Miss you.”

Even though I told her three days ago that I didn’t like to hear those words—because it hurt that she had to be far away enough to make her miss me—a part of me felt calm and sated by that sentiment. I missed her, too. Like crazy. And I had to know that she felt the same way as well. Of course I knew, but to hear it expressed was a reassuring reminder. “Miss you, too, Jo.”

“Love ya, Kris. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“And I love you, too. Talk soon.”

We hung up, and I pushed open the heavy door into the lounge as I continued and made my way into the dressing room. I was early but not too early, which would nicely allow me to have some time to sit in my stall and just think about things for a while. Right now, I had plenty to think about, between the playoffs coming up and the summer and an uncertain future.

There were so many questions in my head that needed to be answered. How would the team perform down the stretch? Did we have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup? Could we win it all? Would we? Would my summer be a fun and happy one like last summer was, full of celebration and my very own day with the Cup?

I had been on both sides of winning and losing. My previous offseason had been absolutely incredible. Every day had been like a party, even as I trained for this season and began to defend our championship status. My special day with the Cup had been bittersweet without my best friend there to share it with, but I knew that Luc would have wanted me to have fun with it so that’s exactly what I did. For him, in his honor.

However, the offseason before that one had been miserable. My friend was gone, and each day dawned with a struggle to get out of bed and face the world. It hadn’t been so bad when I was up in Shippagan with Suzanne and Charlene and helping them deal with their grief; that task had allowed me to put my own turmoil aside and focus on them. Helping them gave me a purpose, which I desperately needed in order to make it from one day to the next—from one minute to the next. But once I finally had to confront my grief regarding his death, I found that it required a great effort, which I wasn’t sure I had in me. And then, to make it worse, the team had lost the Cup, and I was torn apart by the “what if” game. What if I wouldn’t have been too devastated to lace up my skates? Luc would have ribbed me mercilessly for letting something keep me from helping my team win—especially if he knew it was because of him. He would never have wanted to hold me back or be the reason I couldn’t find the energy to face the Red Wings.

So, which kind of summer would I be having? A good one, celebrating a win with my supportive girlfriend and family as well as a brand new group of guys? Or a bad one, confronting my mistakes and forcing myself to live with my failures until I could have another chance to rectify them with the coming season?

If that already weren’t enough to worry about, I had to throw another person into that mix: Jo. Joanna Rachelle Anderson, my girlfriend. Whichever extreme I would be faced with this summer, I had to factor her into it. She’d either be reveling in the big win with me, or ruminating and ruing the loss with me. Beyond her support, though, she’d have her own worries and concerns to deal with: namely, all the summer courses she wanted to take to earn more credits, so she could reach her ultimate goal in a timely manner.

Jo was a trooper though all this, dealing with me and all my stupid anxieties and troubles about my future and what that would mean for us. I mean, she wasn’t even scheduling her classes until she knew when my season would be over. Of course, I had insisted multiple times that she do what was best for her—which would be to take classes regardless of the outcome of my year. But Jo said that she would wait, because the longer my season went, the more she wanted to be here with me in San José to observe it, share it with me, and support me through it.

None of that was fair to her, but she didn’t care. Jo didn’t seem to mind at all, in fact. She assured me that she’d cram in her classes some way or another, but the most important thing about this summer was going to be all the time we could spend together. Since I wouldn’t be going on road trips, all our nights could be spent together. And all that was going to be great, at least until the next season was going to begin, when our schedules and locations would be changing again.

All of this was going to cause premature worry. Right now, I had to focus on winning the next game. Not even that—I had to focus on having a good practice so I could be prepared for the next game and in the best possible position to win that next game, against the Stars. They had embarrassed us the last time we had played them, and we had something to prove.

I sat on the bench in my stall, my elbows on my knees and my head in hands as I calmed myself down and began to meditate and get my head right. This is what I do before every practice, morning skate, and game. Bowlby walked in at some point, and I didn’t even notice at first. Eventually, the cacophony he was orchestrating began to break through my concentration.

“Hey, man,” I said tentatively, a little uncertain about why he was making so much noise. “Uh, what’s up?”

He shook his head, obviously reluctant to talk at first. Finally, he replied, “It’s my niece.”

“Samantha,” I thought aloud, but then I made sure to shut my mouth. There were things I wasn’t supposed to know, and I was legitimately afraid of any repercussions that would erupt from any slip from me.

“If it’s possible, I think she’s worse now than she was before. She misses your girlfriend. Sam says that the only person she had to talk to—the only person that would listen to her—is gone now, and she’s more belligerent than before.”

“I’m sure Jo wouldn’t mind at all if Samantha called her, even while she’s back in Pittsburgh. Jo was glad to have helped, in any way.” Okay, I wasn’t sure if that were completely true, because Jo had seemed a little annoyed with Samantha when she had called on her last night in town with me. But then again, that could have had everything to do with the fact that it was her last night here.

“It’s not just that she’s not in town, but that Sammy can’t invite her over and see her to break up the monotony of the day. That’s what I think, anyway.”

Marleau and Nabby walked in, too, and we each acknowledged them with a nod but Blake and I kept talking. “Why don’t you bring her here sometimes? You can keep an eye on her if she’s at the rink.”

“Yeah, and so can everyone else. No, I think she’s better off with Brandy at home.”

More people continued to slowly but steadily trickle in, so Rob and I put a halt on our conversation. He made it very clear that this wasn’t anyone else’s business but his—and I had, and would, keep my mouth shut about it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

100.) Back Home

Okay, I know I said before that this story was going to go at least one hundred posts, thinking that it would bring me somewhat closer to the end. Now that I've reached this number, I can't say that I know how many more this story will run... but probably a lot. It seems unfair to give you another estimate, because I honestly don't know and don't want to lead you on. Once I start writing, it always seems to end up being a lot longer than I plan for, so I won't estimate again because it feels like a lie. So I will tell you that the plot, as the story stands right now, will run through August or September, and I will write as many updates as it takes to get us there. (*Note: that is the plot of the story; I'm not estimating that that is when I'll finish the story... what I'm trying to say is, I have no clue about length.) So the story's nowhere near finished yet. We've still got "months" to go. Long, I know, but please bear with me.

Also, I want to say a big huge overwhelming thank you to all of you who've stuck with me along the way. 100! This story has been written with my blood, sweat, and tears (okay, so not literally), and to have people read it and like it too is beyond amazing. So to my readers and commenters, thank you a million billion trillion times over. I can't tell you how much it means to me.
Every comment brings a smile to my face and motivates me to try and hurry to get the next post to you that much faster. Hope you like this one, too.

Soundtrack Song - Theory of a Deadman, Wait for Me (thanks msd, for the suggestion!)

I got lost in the airport. I must’ve misread one of the signs or something, because I ended up on the opposite side of the whole airport and had to run to reach my gate in time. They were paging me over the speaker system and everything, and I was the very last person to board. As soon as I stepped foot in the cabin, the impatient flight attendant closed the door and pointed me in the direction of my seat in coach. It was, after all, the only empty seat on the plane at this point.

Since I was the last one, all the overhead space was all taken. My backpack wouldn’t fit, and I struggled with it as the plane began to taxi toward the runway.

“Miss, you need to take your seat,” I was told by the same bitchy stewardess who had pointed me toward my seat.

“It won’t fit,” I said, pounding my fist against my bag before I futilely tried to close the door. I pushed again, struggling with my backpack; then, when I still couldn’t get it to work, I did the only thing I could think of to do: I cried. Everything was too much, and I was feeling overwhelmed and unable to hold anything inside anymore. This whole morning sucked balls: waking up late, rushing to get to the airport and through security so I had no time to spend with Kris in the morning of my last day, I almost completely missed my flight, and I now couldn’t even get my bag to fit in the damn overhead. “Why won’t it fit?”

The stewardess looked at me like I had lost my fucking marbles; all the other passengers did, too. She told me to take my seat, and she readjusted some of the other bags so mine fit well enough that the door for the overhead compartment could be closed. Maybe I was just too wound up to think clearly, so I couldn’t have done that for myself—but that was just another thing to be upset about, my inability to control my emotions. I used to never cry, and now it seemed like I was doing it all the time.

I fumbled with my seatbelt, strapping in and tightening it. The passenger beside me handed me a tissue, and I took it without a word of thanks. Instead, I used it to absorb the salty water on my cheeks.

“You all right, dearie?” the old lady next to me asked. “Scared to go where you’re going, or sad to leave where you’re coming from?”

“Both?” I squeaked, a mess of different emotions. I didn’t want to leave Kris. I didn’t want to leave San José. I really liked it out there. I had made some friends—albeit they were Kris’s friends already, but it was easy to laugh and get along with some of those people. Brandy was super nice, and so was Jamie. His teammates were typical jocks, and I could handle getting along with them. Samantha and that whole situation was something else, but it felt good to try and contribute something and help out someone who I could identify with. To give back, like I had been given to. I mean, I felt bad for Samantha. A couple of different decisions, and I could have been in her shoes.

As much as I didn’t want to leave Kris and California, I didn’t want to go back to Pittsburgh, either. Not after that amazing week. Pennsylvania seemed boring and lame in comparison to all that excitement and fun and friends and potential that Cali had offered. And what did Pittsburgh offer me? Classes. Work. An empty apartment. Who would want to return to that? It just seemed so bleak and held no appeal for me without Kris there.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to be around Kris. That had a lot to do with it, yes, but it wasn’t the whole story. I loved him so much, and I needed to be close to him. He was one of the few people on this Earth who understood me and didn’t judge me. He took the time, for some crazy reason, and saw underneath the façade to the person I really was—even now, when I looked like just a normal, regular girl, he saw me as someone special. I needed him for those reasons, beyond the love I felt for him. That’s why it sucked so much to be away from him, because he was my everything. We could make it through, and we would... but I wished we didn’t have to be tested like this.

But even as much as I didn’t want to go, I had to. For me, because I had to finish this semester and get this under my belt, to complete the credits and mark my official start of earning that degree; for him, because it would make him happy and make him proud of me. But it gave me a quicker goal to work for, rather than just my diploma. As soon as I was finished, I could go to him. I needed the focus to keep me going.

This was my thing. Even between me and James, school was the one thing I was good at. I’d miss it if I gave it up to spend the next few months in California with him, because then I wouldn’t have something to distract me when he had away games. I wouldn’t have something of my own.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. Things always work out for the best,” the old lady told me, leaning back in her seat and pulling me out of my thoughts. “If the boy really loves you, then it’ll work out.”

“Boy?”

She chuckled. “I’m an old woman. I know that the only reason girls get so upset is because a boy’s somehow involved.”

I fished my iPod out of my purse so I didn’t have to listen to her canned, irritating words. She meant well, I guess, but since when did old people have to act like know-it-alls? “I’m not worried about the boy,” I informed her smugly. “He loves me. He loves me a lot, and he’ll never do anything to hurt me. But he had to stay here, and I had to leave. That’s why I’m upset.”

Turning on the music and closing my eyes, I settled in for the first leg of my trip. Maybe it was sad of me, but I missed him already. I missed being next to him and feeling his body heat. I missed his smile and his lips, in general. I missed the way his eyes sparkled when he looked at me. I was crazy about him, and I knew that this was only going to get harder as our separation dragged on.

I didn’t think that I was a clingy person, or at least overly clingy. But when you know firsthand how good things never seem to last, why waste time being apart from the ones you love? And besides, this is love we’re talking about. I didn’t feel complete without him. Since we’d met in October, through the arguments and misunderstandings and struggles, and through the awkward moments and infatuation and myriad of “firsts” with each other, we’d become a part of each other. We were two people that had fused into one entity, one couple, and it hurt every time I was ripped away from him.

Maybe our week together was a little crazier than we would have liked, but just like Kris had said when he told me that he had loved every second, so had I. Because it was time with him. That’s all that really mattered in the end anyway. Sure, I would always want things to go as well as possible, but we were determined to get through all the bad stuff, too... and with such dedication, there was no way we’d not make it. We were going to make it through this and everything else life was going to throw at us.

All in all, it took eight hours for me to get from San José to Pittsburgh between the two flights and the long layover in Detroit; once the time different was factored in, it was seven at night in the Burgh. Kris had a game tonight at seven thirty, so I knew he’d just about be waking up from his nap. I sent him a text message to let him know that I was safely in Pittsburgh, and then I called Kelsey. Anyone who was anyone to me knew that I had spent the week with Kris in California, so they had ignored me and let me had my fun in peace. Needless to say, Kelsey was surprised to hear from me.

“Hey, Jo! What’s up? How was your week? Are you back yet?”

“Yeah, actually I’m at the airport now. Um, and I was wondering if it would be okay if maybe you could come, uh, pick me up?”

“Oh,” she said, an obviously surprised hint to her tone.

“I’m really sorry to impose, it’s okay, I’ll just get a cab,” I mumbled quickly, feeling like a jerk. Only bitches called people spur of the moment and asked for a ride. She was probably busy.

“No, it’s okay. Actually, the guys are on a road trip right now, and Heather and Véro and Erin were going to come over for some girl time. Do you wanna join us?”

My gut reaction was to say no. Spending the evening with a bunch of girls sounded less than fun, especially with Kris’s former teammates’ girlfriends. But before I could turn her down, I seriously thought about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. First of all, where else did I have to go? The apartment I had been away from for the past eight days? I wasn’t sure if I could stomach going back there yet. It would surely remind me of Kris, and I already missed him. That would only make me feel even lonelier.

And besides, I had just spent the week with him and got to see firsthand how well he was doing out in California on his new team. So maybe hanging out with the WAGs of some of the Penguins players wouldn’t be so bad or leave such a bitter taste in my mouth. And fuck, I needed friends out here in Pittsburgh. I had just been complaining about not having anyone to miss me while I was gone. Maybe I wasn’t planning on staying out in Pennsylvania for much longer, until I could transfer out west, but that shouldn’t stop me from making friends while I was here.

“Yeah, sure, Kels. That sounds great.”

“Okay, cool. I’ll come out to get you, and I should be there in about fifteen. We can catch up and eat some junk food. I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”

We hung up, and I waited outside the arrivals exit for Kelsey to pull up. It was chilly outside, so I dug around in my bag and pulled out my new green sweatshirt. It was slightly hideous, but it was now my favorite possession. Kris had bought it for me, so it had that value of being a thoughtful present from my boyfriend. Also, it was from Lick Observatory, which had been a totally fun experience for me and a great time to share with Kris. That afternoon had been like letting him into a piece of my life that maybe he didn’t fully understand previously. And third, it kind of felt like this was a symbol of everything California held for us and especially for me.

Kris called while I waited. Just seeing his name on my phone screen made me sad. It meant we were restricted to only phone calls for the next two months. I answered. “Kris, I miss you already.”

“Please don’t say that,” he sighed into the mouthpiece. “I miss you, too, Jo, and I know you miss me, but....”

“I know,” I told him. It felt like a knife through my heart to hear him say that he likewise missed me. When he said those words, it made me want to rush out there and be with him again, hold him so he’d never have to say those cruel words ever again. Never have to miss me again.

“So, you made it back okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Barely made it to the plane, but it’s all good. Kelsey’s on her way to pick me up now, and then we’re going to hang out for a little while.”

“That’s good. I’m glad to hear that,” he told me, and I could hear his smile through the phone. I know he was relieved to know that I wasn’t going to be alone out here.

“What are you up to?” I knew exactly what his day held for him, but I was desperate to keep him on the line with me. We’d spoken this morning, but it felt like a lot longer than that now that I was transitioning back into my boring, regular life in the Burgh.

“Eh, just woke up,” he said, listing the mundane activities of his day to appease me. Anything to make me happy. “Getting dressed and getting ready to head over to the Shark Tank. I thought I had a bottle of water, though. I can’t seem to find it. Do you remember seeing it?”

“I think so. Check your fridge.”

“But I don’t use that thing, so I wouldn’t have put it in there.”

Giggling, I told him, “Why don’t you just check? You might be surprised to find what’s in there.”

He didn’t respond right away, and I could hear rustling and the suction sound from the seal breaking on the refrigerator door as it opened. Then there was a pause. “Okay, when did you do this?”

I laughed. “When you were in Vancouver, I stopped at the store and stocked you up on water, Gatorade, and some fruit juice, too. I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I just got an assortment. I hope that’s okay?”

“Jo, that’s great. I can’t believe you did this, and I didn’t even realize it.”

“Well, not problem. I mean, you paid for it anyway. The money you left me, I didn’t have to spend it on a cab or food since I spent so much time with Brandy and Samantha.” I thought a little more and then added, “And maybe you’d have realized if you actually looked inside the fridge once in a while. Maybe now you’ll actually use it, you know, like a normal person.”

“Very funny. Thank you, though. You know just how to take care of me.”

“You’re welcome,” I whispered in the phone, fighting back another round of tears. I wanted to take care of him, especially as his hockey season was coming to an end and he was revving himself up for the playoffs. I would be able to do a better job of that if I were there with him, to cheer him on at his games and tell him what a good game he played and kiss him in the lounge after. God, I missed him.

Kris made me stay on the line with him until Kelsey showed up; he didn’t say why, but I knew it was because he didn’t like the thought of me standing outside the airport alone. That was fine with me, though. Usually, it was a little annoying when he acted so overprotective, but I wanted to be comforted by the sound of his voice. My week-long visit with him had been like a taste of something sweet, a preview of what we could have in California next season... and now I was forced to wait to get that back.

When Kelsey finally pulled up, I wished Kris good luck for his game and hung up, and then I slipped into the passenger seat. Kelsey surprised me by swinging her arms wide and leaning across the center console to hug me. I froze for a second, not expecting that reaction at all from her, but I quickly recovered and did the same.

“Hey, Jo! You look good, a little tanner. California must suit you.”

“It was nice,” I told her, pulling back so she could put the car back in drive. “I had a lot of fun, and honestly, it sucks to be back.”

She laughed and pulled back onto the road, and we left the airport and headed back toward the city. “Well, it’ll be fun to hang out again.” Kelsey paused as she merged onto the highway, concentrating on the flow of traffic before she asked quietly, “How’s he doing out there?”

I smiled. It was considerate of her to ask, and although it was a little sad to think about, I’d never get sick of talking about him—especially when that meant bragging. “Kris is doing so great, Kels. So great. Ten points in the past three weeks, since he got traded. Two of which are goals. Two! I mean, he only had three during his season in Pittsburgh. For being on a brand new team, he’s doing a great job fitting in and playing his role.”

“Wow,” she giggled, smiling widely at me. “Don’t you sound like a mother hen, so proud.”

“I am proud. He’s really been focusing, so determined to make a name for himself and prove his worth on the team out there. Like, he either really wants to show the Sharks that he was worth trading for, or he really wants to prove to the Pens that they shouldn’t have given him up. Whatever the reason, it’s working for him, because he’s been on fire and I think they’re impressed with him.”

“I’m glad. I mean, not glad about the trade obviously, because I did like Kris. He was one of the nice guys, you know?” She quickly shook her head and tried to make up for that offhand comment—it sounded like she was putting down the rest of the team. “I just meant that he’s especially nice. Easy to talk to, always giving out boyfriend advice when we’d ask. I can’t tell you how many times I got angry at Tyler and I called Kris to talk to about it.”

That made me smile. That was my Kris, a great helper. And he was an excellent boyfriend, so he was the perfect guy to be doling out advice to girls in relationships with more oblivious fellas. “He’s got a whole new group of guys who need help now.”

We chatted and caught up on the rest of the ride, and soon after, we were at her place with the rest of the girls. I changed into more comfortable clothes—since I conveniently had my backpack with me, of course—and we ordered a pizza, watched movies, and laughed and talked. It certainly didn’t erase the sadness in my heart, but it let me put it on the backburner and relax. They were loud girls with tons to say, so I had to pay attention to them instead of wallow in my self-pity or misery.

By the time we had calmed down and stopped laughing, it was one in the morning; the get-together then turned into an impromptu slumber party. I hadn’t slept over another girl’s house since, like, the second grade. Mariah Brown had every girl in our class over for her eighth birthday, and I was the one girl who had cried and begged Mrs. Brown to call my mother to come get me. Despite all the fun we had painting our toes, I missed my brother and couldn’t spend the night without him. It had been our first night apart since birth, and I couldn’t stand it. Mom had secretly told me that James had been crying at home, too, asking when I was coming home—but as soon as I showed up, he pretended like he didn’t care.

But this time, it was different. I still wasn’t ready to go home to that empty apartment, so the sleepover sounded great to me. The cherry on the sundae was that I had everything I needed in my backpack: my toothbrush, a hair scrunchie, and socks for my cold feet. By one thirty, we had all curled up on various pieces of furniture.

The girls passed out quickly enough, but I stayed awake. By two thirty, Kris was calling. I tiptoed into the kitchen and sat on the cold marble counter to answer my phone. “Hey, babe. I was hoping you’d call.”

“I wasn’t sure if I should or not, because I figured you’d be sleeping. You’ve got class tomorrow.”

“On Monday’s, though, I only have class in the afternoon. I’m on west coast time, though, so I’m not tired yet. Besides, I wanted to hear from you.”

“Well, then I’m happy to oblige,” he replied, but his tone was humorless. He answered my question before I had the chance to ask it. “Lost again.”

“What was the score?”

“Five to one. Against the Oilers!”

“One goal? Ouch. Whose?” It probably didn’t matter, but I still wanted to know. He didn’t respond, though, and that’s when I knew. “Kris! Congra—”

“But we still lost. One fucking mercy goal in the third to make it look like we were trying. It’s embarrassing. Six losses in a row.”

I couldn’t blame him for his frustration. “How many penalties did you take tonight?”

“Two, and before you even say it, I know. But I couldn’t help it, Jo. We’re supposed to be a winning team. Emphasis on winning. And right now, all we’re doing is sucking.”

The words left my mouth before I thought it through. “That’s what she said.”

At first he groaned, but then he chuckled very softly. “Not funny.”

“I thought so.” I swung my feet as I sat on the counter. “You guys are winners. The Sharks were a good team before you joined, and they’re even better now that they have you on the roster. Whatever chinks are in the system, you guys will work through them and figure it out. But only if you stop letting frustration blind your judgment on the ice. When’s your next game?”

“Tuesday. We’re playing up in Minnesota.”

“Practice tomorrow?”

“Oh hell yeah. Coach McLellan didn’t even say anything else to us other than, ‘Practice. Tomorrow. Ten.’ I just, I don’t know. I can’t believe it. Six in a fucking row!”

“Then don’t make it seven,” I said quietly. “Go in tomorrow full of determination, and show your teammates the right attitude to have in a situation like this. With the firm resolve to put an end to this losing streak. Show them what it takes to win in the face of adversity.”

“They don’t know how to win. That’s the problem with the Sharks,” he grunted, his temper getting the best of him. Kris hardly ever got this angry or frustrated. It was unsettling. “They choke. It’s what they do.”

“I thought you just said this was a winning team?”

“It’s supposed to be a winning team.”

“Well, Kris, if you’re not helping the team win, then you’re helping the team lose.” I don’t even know where that came from. “This isn’t a ‘me versus you’ thing. You’re a fucking Shark now, and you need to start acting like it. It’s your team now, so stop calling ‘them’ chokers! Give them the fucking Heimlich or whatever it takes to wake them up. Otherwise, you’ll be playing golf before your birthday, and no one wants that.” I softened my voice. “That’s why you’re there, babe.”

I paused and waited for him to say something back. It wasn’t my intention to be rude, but his team wasn’t the only one needing a wake-up. “Don’t be mad, Kris.”

“I’m not mad,” he mumbled. He breathed out loudly. “I’m just so fucking frustrated.”

“I know, babe. I know it. And I’m glad that you’re upset that your team is losing. If you were complacent about it, then I’d be really worried. You’re invested in this, and it shows. But you need to funnel that dissatisfaction in a constructive way. Towards winning.”

“Listen, Jo, I know you wanna help, but please don’t make me talk about this.”

“I won’t,” I promised. I tilted my head to the side and tried to think of a better topic of conversation so I could distract him. It wouldn’t solve the issue at hand, but it would help Kris because that’s what he wanted. He was all wound up, and he needed to calm down. “Kelsey misses you.”

“What?”

“She misses you. All the girls do, apparently.” I sighed, thinking that I should have been jealous, but I wasn’t. They didn’t want Kris, per se; they just wanted the boyfriends they already had to be more like him.

We continued to talk about silly little nothings until he finally seemed calm enough. He had called on his walk back from the arena, and now he was in his room and in bed. “Thank you, Jo. I feel better now.”

“Ready for bed?” I asked him. He hummed a positive response. “I love you, Kris.”

“I love you, too, Jo,” he sighed.

I searched for something reassuring to say. “Just two months. We can do this.”

He likewise tried to do the same. “Of course we can. We can wait it out. It won’t be that bad.”

“Tonight’s the hardest, and it’s a cake walk after that. I’ll talk to you soon, right?”

“Of course. I’ll call you tomorrow, when I know you’re out of class. Sweet dreams, Jo.”

“Good night, Kris,” I whispered, hanging up and ending our call. I tucked my phone away and then tiptoed back into the living room, where the girls were all still sleeping. I took my spot back on the La-Z-Boy and pulled the fleece blanket up to my chin, allowing Kris’s melodic voice and soft accent to echo in my ears and lull me into a fitful sleep.