Thursday, September 30, 2010

134.) Clarity of Morning

Soundtrack Song - Fireflight, Unbreakable

“You might not want to sit there,” Dave warned as he rifled through his dresser drawers. I was poised to plop down on his bed while he was getting me a change of clothes. I took in his subtle meaning and blushed, and Dave blushed, too. “I’ll change the sheets for you.”

“But I thought I’d be on your couch?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Well, you are a girl in a house full of guys. You’d probably appreciate the privacy of a bedroom rather than the living room.” He shrugged, pulling out a pair of basketball shorts and a black tee shirt. I was glad that he gave me real clothes rather than something like boxers and a tank. I was feeling too vulnerable, and that would have been too intimate. I wanted to be swaddled in clothes, but since it was summer, it was too warm for sweats. “Besides, it’s polite. The couch is lumpy.”

I took the clothes from him. “You’re already helping me out a lot by giving me a place to stay tonight. I can’t put you out of your bed. I mean, it’s not fair for you to be the one on the lumpy couch when you’re already doing something nice for me.”

“It’s okay. It’s one night, you know? Just let me change the sheets for you, and you can change in the bathroom while I do that. Be careful, though, ’cause sometimes the lock sticks on the door, and you have to jiggle it.”

Nodding, I took one more look at the bed. It was a full, meaning it was big enough for the both of us to be able to sleep comfortably—but I certainly wasn’t going to suggest that. Instead, I headed for the bathroom and changed into Dave’s clothes, all the while trying my best to ignore the nasty living conditions of four guys. It was pretty disgusting. I refused to sit on the toilet seat; in fact, I didn’t even want to go within a foot of that disaster area.

Dave was of average height for a guy, probably about five nine or maybe five ten on a good day, and pretty lanky. His clothes fit me better than Kris’s did, since Kris was tall and buff and thick all over. I felt a sharp pain in my heart as I thought about Kris again. I was so upset with him for disregarding my feelings, but I wished that I could have been in his bed anyway tonight. That’s what started this whole stupid thing—because he didn’t want me to be in his bed night after night, like I wanted. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to follow him to wherever next season may lead? And why would any girl in her right mind want to stay away from Kris Letang?

I dabbed some toothpaste on my index finger and swiped it across my teeth, doing my best under the circumstances to prepare for sleep. When I finished, I left the disgusting bathroom and walked across the hall to Dave’s room. I could hear Wayne and Drew, two of Dave’s roommates, talking loudly downstairs, so I half shut the door to muffle the sounds. Dave and I had sneaked in through the back door to avoid them altogether when he brought me back to his place from Primanti’s. They were arguing over whose CDs were whose, and it was getting a little heated.

Dave had fresh sheets on the bed for me, and a blanket and pillow under his arm for himself so he could take the couch—although I wasn’t sure how he planned on getting any sleep with those two in the living room. “You’re good to go,” he told me, waving at his bed.

“Dave, seriously, I can’t thank you enough for this,” I started, trying again to express my gratitude. I was a jumbled mess of different emotions, because as much as I loved Kris, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand seeing him. I never knew it was possible to feel so conflicted at once; if anyone had told me that this was how they felt, I wouldn’t have believed it.

He held up his free hand and shook his head. “What’re friends for?”

Immediately, I felt bad. Here Dave was, doing something really nice for me and going out of his way to help me out when I really needed it, and I had been a jerk to him ever since Kris had told me he had issues with my friendship with him. I felt like a total asshole—and that feeling, on top of everything that had happened, set me off. My mouth turned downward as I tried to blink away the pooling water in my eyes.

“Aw, Jo, it’s okay. Don’t cry. Tomorrow’s a new day. Whatever’s wrong, you and Kris will work through it.” He gave me a little pat in the shoulder, trying to comfort me while being a little unsure of what would be acceptable.

It made me even sadder. “How do you know that? You don’t know him,” I mumbled, wiping my face.

“I don’t need to.” He sighed. “WTAE did a story about Letang winning, since he used to be a Penguin. They showed footage of the game seven win in San José. We were all watching the news that day—me, Wayne, Carl, Drew, and even Carrie and Tiff saw.” I smiled a little, knowing that none of them could deny the fact that I wasn’t lying about who my boyfriend was. Stupid bitches. “We all saw you on the ice with him, celebrating, and well, after seeing that, there’s no denying that you guys are totally in love.”

I snorted. Love? What kind of love did we have if we were fighting over whether or not we’d be living together in a few short months? The tears fell a little harder. “Yeah, well, I’m not sure that what you saw was anything other than excitement and jubilee. Things aren’t the way I thought they’d be, and now I’m not sure what I believe.”

Dave set his blanket and pillow down on the bed and then hugged me, with his arms wrapped around my shoulders. It was a protective gesture rather than intimate. He didn’t say anything, just held onto me; this was the most contact he and I had ever had, and it felt weird and wrong. I missed Kris’s arms and strong chest, and Dave’s did not compare. Even his smell was different, which I noticed as I pressed my face against his shoulder.

The door to Dave’s room flew open with a thud, startling us. We jumped back and turned toward the sound of the loud voice. “Dude! Have you seen the packing tape—oh, I’m sorry,” Drew said, quickly grabbing for the door handle to pull the door shut again but fumbling and missing because he was trying not to look. He must have thought he had really barged in on something. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I didn’t know you had, uh... company.”

“Man, you should really fuckin’ learn to knock, all right?” Dave muttered, running a hand through his messy, loose curls as his other hand rested on his hip in a defensive posture. His voice was gruff and frustrated, but not accusing.

We were now standing a few feet apart, and I crossed my arms over myself. I was embarrassed and shocked, like I was caught with my hand in the cookie jar, but I hadn’t done anything wrong. Even though he wasn’t supposed to be intruding, Drew wasn’t very quick to leave. I could feel his eyes on me, trying to figure out what I was doing in Dave’s room if we weren’t getting down and dirty.

“Hey, Drew,” I said quietly, staring intently at the floor so maybe he couldn’t see how upset I was.

“Jo? Uh, hey,” Drew replied, now obviously confused as ever. He was looking at me, but I refused to look up at him; hadn’t I just been vindicated when they discovered that I was, in fact, dating Kris like I said? And now I was in Dave’s bedroom. He looked between the two of us before saying quickly, “I’ll, um, just see if Carl’s seen, uh, the tape. Bye.”

“Well, that was awkward,” I mumbled, shaking my head as Drew disappeared. Now everyone was going to know about my stupid ass fight with Kris, because there would be no other way to explain why I was here and wearing Dave’s clothes. It felt like I was digging myself in deeper with every ticking second of the clock.

“No, it’s cool. I’ll talk to him. Drew’ll keep his mouth shut. He’s the more discreet guy of my roommates. He’ll understand.”

I wiped my cheek again; I should have been a little more careful with Dave’s clothes and tried not to get my tears on them, but I didn’t care. “Really? But what are they gonna think when you’re sleeping on the couch tonight? They’re gonna know something’s up, and it was just one stupid fight, and I just needed a little space to be able to calm down—”

“Jo, it’s okay, I promise.” Dave put his hands on my shoulders and leaned forward to look me square in the eyes. “You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You needed a place to crash, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like I always am,” he added, a twinkle in his eye as he teased me. He always got on my case on how he always came to my rescue: first my accident, and then when I ran into the door. I have to admit, I was starting to see a pattern.

“It’s like you have Spidey sense or something,” I replied, allowing myself to giggle a little bit. I deserved a laugh.

He chuckled, too. “Lucky me. So, it’s still kind of early. Do you wanna watch a movie? Hang out for a while?”

“No thanks, Dave. As much as I’d appreciate the distraction, I’m just really tired. It’s been a long day with traveling and then, well, you know....”

“Yeah, sure, no problem, I get it. Uh, so you can lock the door if you want some privacy or if you’re worried about one of the guys barging in on you again,” he responded, pointing to the door. I shrugged, not really caring. I was generally comfortable around guys from all the time I had spent with James and his hockey team, so being in a whole house of them was no big thing to me. “You know where the bathroom is, but if you need anything, you just let me know, okay?”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I told him. “Thanks again, Dave. Really.”

“No problem at all. I’m off tomorrow, actually, so I’ll be around. Goodnight, Jo.”

“’Night,” I sighed, closing the door behind him as he left. I didn’t bother with locking it. Instead, I flicked the light switch into the off position and immediately collapsed on Dave’s rather comfortable mattress. I crashed as soon as my head hit the pillow. There wasn’t any time to be sad or to get worked up again, because I fell asleep before that could happen, and I slept straight through the night without disturbance or perturbation.

In the morning, I woke up to sunlight streaking through the Venetian blinds and birds chirping away cheerfully. I tried to pull the covers back up over my head to sleep some more, but I felt like someone had hit me in the face with a baseball bat. My head was killing me.

Reluctantly, I got out of bed, changed back into my own clothes, and slipped my now-dead phone in my pocket. It had been vibrating all night since I refused to even look at it, which had drained the battery. Then I quietly padded down the hallway and toward the stairs. Dave’s alarm clock had read a few minutes past nine, and I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to be awake this early in the day since it was summer. I knew Dave was transitioning into med school, but I didn’t know if his friends were students or graduates or working men.

Dave wasn’t on the couch; I could hear voices coming from the kitchen, indicating that he and someone else were up and probably eating breakfast. I was pretty hungry, too, but I didn’t want to impose too much. In fact, all I was interested in doing was heading over to my own apartment where Kris was, because I was already missing him like crazy—even though we had spent the past two weeks constantly together while we were in Hawaii. I could never get enough of Kris, it seemed. Hopefully, he was missing me just as much, so he would see that spending a season apart would be impossible for us to do sanely.

Before I made into the kitchen to announce my presence, I heard enough of their conversation to stop me in my tracks. Dave was talking to Drew. “Seriously, Drew, just drop it. Pretend like you didn’t see anything at all, okay?”

“Um, no. She was in your room, in your clothes, and it’s not a big deal? She was in your bed. I mean, you were on the couch during the time that she was in your bed, but what kind of man gives up his bed for some chick?”

“A friend would do that. She needed a place to stay—”

“Yeah, and are you going to explain that? What the fuck is she even doing here?”

“It’s none of my business, really, and it’s definitely not any of yours.”

“Woah, why are you getting defensive? Chill out. I’m just trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. It’s one thing if you wanna have girls over, you’re single and you can do what you want, but it’s a whole nother thing when the girl puts you out of your own bed. Especially when you shouldn’t be messin’ around with her in the first place, because that girl is someone else’s.”

“That has nothing to do with anything,” he sighed. I could tell by the sound of his voice that was frustrated. So much for Drew being understanding. And I felt bad for Dave, for having to withstand that line of questioning.

I faked it: I yawned loudly and pretending like I was coming in without having heard anything. I had already been caught eavesdropping once on Dave and his friends, and that hadn’t ended well either. The best way to avoid hearing something I shouldn’t would be to not hear it—and Drew would surely shut up if I were in the room. “Mornin’, guys.”

“Good morning,” Dave quickly replied, turning to look at me. His curls were disheveled and lopsided from being pressed against a pillow, and his eyes were drooping a little, no doubt from an uncomfortable night on the lumpy couch. “How’d you sleep?”

“Better than you, I’m guessing,” I chuckled, taking the seat next to him at the counter. “Thanks again, I really appreciate it.”

“If you thank me one more time, I swear, I’ll never let you set foot in this house again.” He cleared his throat and kept talking, probably because he was worried about what Drew would say. “So, what’s going on for you today?”

“Going back,” I told him subtly so he’d get the hint without me having to say anything in front of his roommate. “I’ll call Tubby to come get me.” Then I remembered the condition of my phone. I was destined to always mooch off of Dave, apparently. “My battery’s dead. I’m sorry. Can I borrow yours?”

“I can take you, if you want. I’m off and I need to go grocery shopping, run some errands, so I can just take you.”

“Um, okay.” It wasn’t the best solution for me, because I would have preferred Tubby’s company, but it would do—especially on short notice like this. “I really hate to be an inconvenience, but that would great.”

“Sure. Now? Just lemme go change into jeans. You can help yourself to breakfast,” Dave said, getting up from his stool and nodding toward the box of cereal he had been eating from. “Hope you like frosted flakes.”

“They’re grrrreat!” I laughed, doing my best to conjure up Tony the Tiger at nine in the morning. As Dave took the stairs two at a time, I turned to Drew and tried to be nice. “Mornin’, Drew. How’re you?”

“Good. Getting ready to move,” he explained, which made a lot of things make sense. “Tiff and I—you remember Tiff, right?—we’re getting married in October, and we just bought a house.”

“Oh, that’s great, Drew! Congratulations.”

“Thanks. Anyway, that’s why I was looking for the tape last night. You know, why I...” he faded out, but I knew what he meant. He was explaining his intrusion.

“Yeah, that’s fine. I mean, it’s not like you walked in on something.”

“So I didn’t? Because I wasn’t sure what I saw.”

I snorted. “If I was doing something I wouldn’t have wanted you to see, I would’ve made sure the door was closed and locked. Or a sock on the door knob or whatever it is you boys do to show when you wanna be left alone.”

“So if I didn’t see anything, then what’re you doing here?” he asked me bluntly.

“I needed a place to stay last night. Dave was somehow at Primanti’s when I was there, heard my predicament, and offered his couch. I never meant to kick him out of his room—he did that to be a gentleman. Dave is a really good friend of mine.”

“He’s a good friend,” Drew told me, still watching me carefully. I felt like I was under interrogation or something. “He’s a nice guy.”

“I know he is.”

“But that doesn’t explain why your boyfriend couldn’t put you up somewhere or, you know, where he is that you’re spending the night with another guy.”

My mouth dropped open, a little bit from shock and also because I was about to let something rude fly from my mouth. Dave trotted back into the kitchen, though, preventing me from doing so. I guess I couldn’t really blame Drew though; he had poor manners, but he had his friend’s best interests at heart. “So, I’m good to go. Do you need anything, Jo?”

“No. Let’s go,” I replied, abruptly getting up from my stool and following Dave out to his car. I gave him directions to get me to my apartment building. He idled while I played with my keys.

“Nervous?”

I looked over at Dave. “Um, yeah, a little. Kris and I, we don’t ever really fight like this.” I wanted to tell him that it was because it was such a sensitive topic that we both let our emotions take over. Kris and I had been deeply hurt before in losing someone close to us, so as soon as things got strained, we put our defenses back up, totally regressed, and gave up our well-adjusted coping mechanisms. Kris tried to take control, and I ran away.

In the clarity of morning, I could better understand that this was Kris being typical Kris, keeping his eye on the grand prize instead of his—and my—present happiness. For him, it was about laying down a solid foundation and securing a good future. Meanwhile, I wanted us to be together in the present, since I couldn’t bear the thought of wasting valuable time away from him. In my opinion, life was too short to postpone happiness to a later date. That later date may never come around. Those were fundamental values that Kris and I hated to stray from, but it at least made more sense to me now. Yesterday, I hadn’t wanted to be understanding or calm or rational; he had hurt me, and I had needed to back off and go lick my wounds.

Silence lingered in the air for a few more minutes, and I wasn’t budging. Finally, Dave asked, “Did you, um, want me to come up with you?”

“Uh....” If it had been, Tubby, I no doubt would have agreed instantly. As my best friend, his support would have been invaluable. But Dave didn’t really understand the situation. He didn’t know the root of our fight, and he wouldn’t get our philosophies since he didn’t know about James and how that brought me closer to Kris. Dave didn’t understand the deep history between Kris and me, both individually and together, that had cemented the bond we had.

“It looks like you need some moral support. Or a cattle prod, maybe.”

I giggled. “I just really don’t like getting my own way.”

“‘Compromise’ isn’t a dirty word, Jo,” he quipped, smirking at me.

“I know, it’s just....” How could I possibly explain it to him? If Kris was willing to give a little and take a little, I wasn’t sure what I’d be willing to do. Maybe if he was really against the idea of community college, I could possibly stay at CMU for one more semester, if it meant he’d let me transfer for the remainder of my course work. It certainly wasn’t the possible outcome I would have most wanted, but if those were terms that Kris would agree to, I could make myself be okay with it. I sighed. “Let’s go.” I decided to let Dave come up because, if I were going to have to stay, then Kris would have to get to know Dave. Kris couldn’t expect me to stay in Pittsburgh for the fall semester without any friends; I knew Kris wasn’t crazy about him, but this would give them the chance to get to know one another. Kris would also have to make some compromises if this was going to work.

Dave turned the car off, and we made our way up to the third floor. Knowing that I couldn’t just spring Dave on him, I asked my friend to wait in the hallway while I made sure my boyfriend was awake and decent before I let him in. With one last deep breath, I unlocked the apartment door and headed inside, bracing myself for possibly another battle.

But the place was quiet—too quiet. I could just tell that he wasn’t here, because I would have heard a rustling or some movement or something. I knew he wouldn’t be working out yet, since his body was still on vacation and in need of rest after the season. It worried me that I didn’t know where he was. I checked all the rooms, just to make sure.

He had cleaned. The bed was made, but the comforter looked rumpled, so I knew he had slept here last night. So where was he? As I headed back through the living room toward the door, I spotted something out of place: a stray piece of paper on the coffee table. A note. I picked it up, hoping it would clue me in to his whereabouts. It did, but it wasn’t at all what I had been expecting. It wasn’t a long note, but I couldn’t read past the words that made my eyes go blurry: Jo, I’m going back to Montréal....

Feeling deflated, I crumbled up the piece of paper in my hand and sunk onto the couch. He left. I suppose I couldn’t blame him, because I had left, too. I couldn’t stand to be in this place with him and listen to him say he cared but he didn’t want me with him. And I had said that if he didn’t change his mind.... I guess he didn’t want to change his mind. I lost it. When I gave him that ultimatum, I never thought he’d take it. After my motorcycle accident, he had walked out on me, but when we hooked back up, he told me how miserable he’d been without me. I never thought he’d want to do that again.

But I was wrong.

Dave heard me and came in; he didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I’m sure he got the idea from my tears and the crumpled paper in my hand. He tried again to comfort me, but I wasn’t paying attention to him. I was sad but angry, too. I had no clue what I was going to do without Kris, but I was resolving myself to stay together and not to fall apart. There was too much that needed to be done to spend my time crying.

Monday, September 27, 2010

133.) Retreating

Soundtrack Song - Yellowcard, Shadows and Regrets

When Jo didn’t answer my calls or return my texts, I started to go a little crazy. I had no idea where she was or where she would go. Of course, I was ninety-nine point nine percent sure that she was with Tubby, but that still didn’t mean that I had any way to make sure she was okay. I had Tubby’s number as a just-in-case precaution, but if he knew what was going on, he wouldn’t answer. We didn’t really get along all that well on the best of days, let alone knowing how well we’d get on when I had done something to upset Jo. Tubby was way too protective of Jo, and he’d wrap her up in a bubble if it meant she’d never get hurt. He’d seen her in pain for years, so this would all be a conditioned reaction for him.

That’s why it sucked to have to put my foot down. I guess it was tough love, which was something Jo wasn’t used to. She had to have known that I didn’t like the idea of having to spend the season away from her. She was my girlfriend; I wouldn’t have been in a relationship with her if I didn’t want to actively spend time with her and make her happy. I just knew that helping her reach her long-term goal would make her happier in a few years when she got her diploma instead of coddling her now and keeping her happy when it would take her that much longer to graduate.

I tried to be as patient as possible as I waited for her to come back. To pass the time between calls and texts that were never answered, I cleaned the apartment and unpacked our bags. I did everything I could to prepare the place for her, and then I even called in for Chinese because I knew Jo would like that.

If she would have just come back—or rather, never even left at all—I knew we could have talked about it. I knew that if Jo would have been able to understand where I was coming from, she would then have seen that this wasn’t as easy as her picking up her life and coming with me.

She wouldn’t just be packing a bag and coming to live me wherever I was told to go; things wouldn’t be that simple for Jo during a move. First and majorly, she’d be out of school—a good school, at least—for a year if I wasn’t extended in San José. Jo had told me all about her ambitious plans to graduate in three years since she was already behind her peer group by a year and a half, and there was no way she’d reach her goal if she went with me. I had always encouraged her to realize her dreams to make James proud, so how could I be the one who messes up her plans? That would be counterproductive to everything she had worked so hard toward after we met back in October.

What was one more year apart in the scheme of things? I wanted us to be together forever. As far as our careers would go, we’d find a compromise there. Maybe she could get a job in the city where I’d be that was related and do the research things in the summer when I could be the one following her. We could make it work. So one year now wouldn’t make a difference; I’d rather suffer through the separation now and be happy with her as we grew old together rather than putting it off.

But that wasn’t all. If I wasn’t in California, then she’d have a whole new place to get used to all over again. She’d have to learn to navigate a brand new city, especially if she planned on taking some kind of classes. That’s hard. It takes a long time to get used to a new place. And she’d be alone when I had to go on road trips. There would be the WAGs for whatever team I was a part of, but I knew that Jo wouldn’t easily make friends with them. Although she was getting better at it, she didn’t get along well with girls. It would be tough for her to start over completely new.

Plus, there was the constant threat of getting traded again. What if we relocated and set up camp together, only for me to get traded again? We’d have to go through another last-minute separation and teary goodbye in the airport, because she’d be taking classes. If she stayed established in Pittsburgh, then it wouldn’t matter if I got traded again because I wouldn’t be uprooting her or upsetting her routine.

Sure, Jo would miss me. And I’d miss her, too. In fact, I was the one getting the short end of the stick if she stayed here while I moved for the season. I loved having her to come home to after a road trip. Having a warm body to curl up next to in bed. Knowing she was in the stands, wearing my number, cheering for me when I was on the ice. Celebrating wins with me and consoling me through the losses. She understood me, she knew me, and having her around was good for my own mental health. Jo’s my everything. If I wanted to be selfish, I’d never let her stay, and insist that she move with me.

But that’s not how I learned to love. Mom taught me that if you really love someone, you want the best for them regardless of how it affects you. True love is selfless. This was best for her, and sometimes, the best things aren’t easy or fun. Life requires sacrifice. I’d do whatever it took in order to show her that this was what was good for her, as counterintuitive as it felt. Right now, there was too much uncertainty about the upcoming season to have her transfer. If she could just do one more year in Pittsburgh, then we’d reevaluate our circumstances in a few months and she could fill out the paperwork and apply to whatever school she wanted for the following year—and I’d pay for it all. I’d even keep her set up in this very apartment through the next year so she’d still be comfortable. I was giving her everything I could, and I hated that she saw the only negative and blew it out of proportion.

Jo knew me through and through, so couldn’t she see why I wanted this for her? Her dreams were as important to me as my own. I would champion her causes even if she didn’t want to anymore. I couldn’t let her abandon everything that she worked so hard to overcome or let that all go to waste. She worked so damn hard to get this far, but she still had miles to go.

For girls that had been with their boyfriends since juniors, they knew what the life for a professional hockey player was like as well as what it would take for them to be in a relationship with a pro player, and those girls all bought into the lifestyle. They knew what they were getting themselves into. But Jo, she didn’t know and she didn’t ask for this.

Meeting was serendipitous for the both of us; I had never expected to find someone whom I had clicked with on so many different levels in such a random way at the arena. Part of the reason we had connected was because we had both lived a lifetime in only a few decades. We were developed individuals with plans and dreams and painful experiences and heartaches, all of which were added together to make us the people we were. How could I change the fundamental aspects of the person I loved? Wouldn’t that turn her into someone else—someone other than the girl I fell in love with?

After about a million calls and a billion texts, I still wasn’t getting a response. I was getting agitated and anxious. Surely Jo knew how worried I’d be about her. I drove around Pittsburgh for a bit, checking out some of the places I knew she went, but there was no sign of her. If this was my punishment, I was feeling it. I even desperately called Tubby, but just as I had suspected, he didn’t answer either.

I stayed up as late as I could, waiting for her to come back for the night. Where else would she sleep? She was out so late that I fell asleep on the couch with the television on mute. At one point at night, I woke up and even double checked that she hadn’t snuck in while I was out, tip-toed past me, and got into bed. She hadn’t.

It made me miserable. I took care of Jo—it’s what I did. It’s what I wanted to do; taking care of her was something I loved doing. It was one of the ways that I could physically show her how I felt about her, by making sure she had everything she could ever possibly want or need. Providing for her made me feel like I had a purpose in this life, beyond what I wanted to accomplish professionally. Jo needed to be cultivated, and that was one task I took on willingly. She was like a flower that needed the right amount of water and sunshine to bloom beautifully and fully. It was my most important job to give her everything she required or desired.

With her gone, though, I couldn’t take care of her. She was out there on her own, and I had no idea about what she was doing or where she was. Hopefully at Tubby’s. Probably. But without concrete knowledge of her whereabouts, I was going to worry about her. She had just left the apartment, leaving me behind like she was so upset with me that she couldn’t stand to be in the same vicinity as me. If she were out there alone, something could have happened to her, something bad. I was a nervous wreck. I needed to know that she was okay.

In the morning, I was frustrated. She had been gone all night. She had to have known this was killing me. Even if she was still upset with me, she could have at least had the decency to send me a text to let me know she was okay, or that she wasn’t coming home. Jo knew I would have been worried, and even if she didn’t instinctively know (which, still, she should have, since she knew me so well), then all the texts and missed calls would have been a clear indication.

I picked up my phone again, ready to call again. Until it hit me that maybe she really had meant... goodbye. Maybe she really was done with me. Jo had told me to let her know if I had changed my mind. What if I had? She still wasn’t answering. Was this it? Was it over, just like that? And was it all over because of something like this?

Suddenly, I felt like the walls were caving in around me, like the floor was sinking and trying to swallow me whole. I couldn’t be in that apartment anymore—our apartment. It certainly wasn’t mine; it hadn’t been since Jo had moved in with me back in December. Even though I had rented it for the past two seasons, it’s like I couldn’t remember living there before Jo had moved in. I couldn’t stay, or I felt like I’d go crazy. Stark-raving mad.

I didn’t even shower. Instead, I began packing a bag for Montréal. Mom was already expecting me to come home, and I needed somewhere to go outside of this place. All of Pittsburgh would haunt me if I hung around. Before I left, I wrote a quick note for Jo. She’d have to come back at some point because she’d need her things. When she left, she had only grabbed her purse. Jo’d need her clothes, her cell phone charger... she had nothing. Jo would have to come back, and I knew she’d see the note.

She could stay here, and I was letting her know that. I knew she wouldn’t want to go back to her old house, and I wouldn’t put her in a position to force her back there. I wanted to facilitate her dreams and help make them come true, so I’d let her stay in this apartment as she took her summer courses. Through fall and spring, and the following two years, too. I’d do that for her. Or even if she didn’t want to stay here—which I could certainly understand, since I couldn’t stay here either—I’d set her up in another place. I’d do anything for her as long as it meant she was happy.

The only thing I asked of her in the note was that she called me. I needed to know what was going on to be able to take care of her and set things up for her. I wasn’t happy that this was what she wanted, but she obviously didn’t feel like talking about it. Maybe I was expecting more of a fight out of her, but I had apparently pushed her too far.

I couldn’t even see her one last time, because I didn’t know where she was. I didn’t know where Tubby lived to go over there to see if I could squeeze him for information. There was nothing I could do. It made me miserable, but at least I knew that she’d stay at CMU this way. After all, this was all for Jo in the first place. It didn’t matter if I was miserable as long as she stayed on the road to fulfill her dreams. I knew this was going to be hard on me, but I wasn’t prepared for this. We were supposed to have the whole rest of the summer together before I’d head off for training camp.

Dejected and hurt, I retreated to the airport. I bought a ticket to Montréal on the next flight out of the city, not bothering to call ahead and warn Mom. She was waiting for me anyway. When the cab pulled up to her house in the late afternoon, I barely had the doorknob turned in my hand before the door flew open and Mom had her arms around me.

Hé, Maman,” I sighed, letting go of my bag and hugging her back. After everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, it was nice to have a welcome reception by someone who loved me.

Kristopher! It feels like I haven’t seen you in forever. I can’t believe only a few weeks have passed. You’re so tan! How was Hawaii? Did you have fun?

I picked up my bag and followed her into the house. “Yeah. It was tons of fun.

Good. I’m glad. You deserve it, Kristopher, after this past season.” She ushered me into the living room and took my bag from me so she could set it down next to the stairs. Suddenly, she turned around and cocked her head to the side, looking at me intensely. “Where’s Jo? Wasn’t she coming, too?

Uh, well, Maman, we got into a fight...” I started, my throat feeling like it was closing up. It was the first time I had to talk about it, and I was finding it difficult to speak in general.

What happened?” she asked. When I didn’t answer her, she questioned, “Was it that bad?

I shrugged with one shoulder as I shoved my hands into my pockets and looked down at the floor. Then I nodded. “Oui. It was bad.

Mom pulled me into another embrace. “Oh, Kristopher. I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. Do you think you two will work it out?

I don’t think so,” I told her honestly, closing my eyes and leaning my forehead against her shoulder. I was trying to not let the tidal wave pull me under, the current threatening to whisk me out to sea.

Maybe it’s not as bad as you think. Maybe you two just need a little break. Some space. Time apart. Things’ll work out,” she said, trying to comfort and soothe me.

I didn’t even think you really liked her,” I mumbled, trying to shake off her sympathy; it was only making me feel worse.

I’m your mother. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to give that up or see you want to spend time away from our home—my home. I don’t think I’ll ever want that,” she sighed, cupping my face and kissing my forehead. “But I realize that you want that, because you’re not just my son. You’re a man. And if you have to grow up and find someone you’d rather spend your time with, well, then I was okay with Jo. You love her, and I know she loves you, too. A fight won’t change that.”

“But I don’t think that matters if we want different things. That’s something we can’t overcome if neither of us wants to compromise. Jo doesn’t even want to fight about it anymore. If she doesn’t wanna fight, then things aren’t looking good for us.”

“Don’t worry, Kristopher. She loves you. She won’t let you go. Just you wait and see.


I leaned my forehead against her shoulder again, wishing that things were simpler like they were years ago, when a hug from Mom could fix my boo-boos. I didn’t think anything could fix my broken heart.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

132.) One Night

Soundtrack Song - The All-American Rejects, Another Heart Calls

I ran away from the apartment building. I had to get as far away as possible, but I only got about two blocks down the street before I couldn’t go any farther. Crying and panting, I couldn’t breathe, so I slowed down when I got to a bus stop bench and collapsed on it. People were walking by and looking at me funny. With nowhere to go, I did the only thing I could think of: I called Tubby.

He answered on the second ring. “Hey, baby girl. You back in the ’Burgh yet?”

“Yes,” I cried, belying my emotional state with one word. It didn’t take long for Tubby to figure out what was wrong; it never did. He knew that there was only one person alive—one Kristopher Letang—who could get me so upset. As soon as I was able to eke out my location, he told me he was on his way to pick me up and not to move until he got there. He was pulling up by the curb in no time.

We sat in the back seat of his old Explorer. Tubby hugged me and let me scream and cry for a while before encouraging me to explain what happened.

“He doesn’t want me, Tubby. I had it all planned out. I knew he wouldn’t want me to quit school to be with him, so I found the perfect place to transfer. I didn’t even find it.... It just kinda fell into my lap. And I did all the research and planning and figured everything out. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter where he goes, because he won’t let me go with him. But it’s not just his decision!” I rambled, not caring how articulate I was being. I had to get the words out, regardless of how well he could understand them. “It’s a relationship. It’s about the both of us. Not just him. I can go to school wherever I want, and I don’t need his permission.”

Tubby, thinking he had all the answers, replied, “Then do it. Since when do you pay attention to what anyone tells you to do? You don’t, Jo-Jo. You do what you want. Just do it. Apply, and fuck whatever he says.”

“But I can’t. Not if he doesn’t want me there. I can’t move to California with him if he doesn’t want me there! I just don’t get it!”

“Well, maybe you just sprung this on him. Maybe he just needs time to adjust to the idea of you guys living together again for good.”

I exhaled and sniffled as I pressed my forehead against Tubby’s shoulder. “He should have been fuckin’ ecstatic that I wanted to be with him! That I would go with him without him having to ask. I thought that he would have wanted that. Was I wrong?” He didn’t answer me, so I added. “That wasn’t rhetorical. Was I wrong for just assuming that Kris would want me to come with him for next season?”

Tubby sighed. “No, I don’t think you were wrong for thinking that he’d want you to go with him. But I think maybe it wasn’t the best way to go about telling him your plans, or leaving him either....”

“Ugh,” I groaned. I pulled back away from him, disgusted that he wasn’t agreeing with me one hundred percent.

“Stop it. Don’t get mad at me.” Tubby slung one of his thick arms over my shoulder and yanked me back beside him. “I’m just tellin’ you like it is. Just give him some time, okay? He’ll come back. He came back last time.”

His reassurance helped to calm me down; I needed to hear those things. “Just don’t tell him to go away if you see him, all right? Not like last time. I didn’t see him for three weeks, until we just happened to run into him and the guys at that Ming Cho’s for the lunch buffet.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that you ‘just happened’ to run into him,” Tubby mumbled, not looking in my face.

“What do you mean?” I nudged him when he didn’t answer. “Preston, you tell me right now—what did you mean by that?”

When he heard me use his real first name, he knew I meant business. “It wasn’t an accident.” Tubby sighed and laid out a full explanation. “I felt bad that maybe I had scared him off, so I went to the arena one day. I was gonna try and talk to him, but I ran into someone’s girlfriend, Kelly or something—”

I cut him off to correct him. “Kelsey.”

“Uh, yeah, I guess. And she said that Kris could be pretty stubborn, and that he was certain you hated him and didn’t want anything to do with you. So we just figured that the best thing to do was to get you guys in the same room, and let things work out. Because there was no way that you guys could stay away from each other.” I felt the tears welling up in my eyes again as Tubby made me relive that day. I had chalked everything up to serendipity, but it was all due to a mastermind. “Don’t cry again. Don’t cry anymore.”

“Sorry.” I wiped at my eyes.

“Don’t be upset. Everyone in this whole world can see that he’s obviously crazy about you. He loves you, he does. Let him realize what he let walk out the door today, and then he’ll realize that he never wants to let you walk out the door again.”

I wanted to believe Tubby; truly, I did. But that Kris would even protest the idea of me going out to California permanently with him at all had me worried that it wouldn’t be so easily resolved. He should have been thrilled, euphoric. When I explained my plan for him, Kris should have whooped and hollered, hugged me, kissed me, told me that it was the best idea I ever had and that he was proud of me for thinking of it and planning it all.

But he didn’t do any of those things. He had just looked at me with this pained expression and basically told me that it wasn’t going to happen. Kris didn’t even want to talk about it or have a discussion. I was sure that if he could have sat down with me and looked at all the pros, he would have agreed with me. I shook my head and said to Tubby, “I don’t think so. I think he’s made up his mind. And you already know how stubborn he can be.”

“But I don’t get it,” he sighed, squeezing my shoulder and trying to comfort me. “I don’t see how he could possibly see this move as a bad thing. He’s nuts.”

“He doesn’t wanna pull me out of CMU. He remembers when I told him about how I wanted to go to school there and how excited I was to get accepted there, and now he’s afraid that by switching schools, I’ll be letting James down because it’s not what James knew I wanted. I knew that he would want me to stay in school. I knew that, but I didn’t think he would so adamantly think it had to be Carnegie Mellon.”

“What does it matter where you get your degree from, as long as you get the degree?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I thought. I think that he just wants for me what he has done in honor of his friend, Luc. Kris has won the Cup for his friend and accomplished their dream. So he wants me to be able to do the same for James. I mean, I get it, kind of.”

“If you get it, then what’s the big deal?”

Because. I know what I want. And I know what would make James happy, and that would be me being happy. That’s all. Since Kris makes me happy—most of the time, anyway—then I just need to be with him. I don’t want to be away from him for months on end, with only quick little visits to tide us over until summer. That’s not good enough for me!”

“Did you tell him that?”

“Yes! I told him I couldn’t do long distance again. I love him so much, but I can’t be with someone who I can’t see on a regular basis. I made sure he knew that, and he still said that he didn’t want me to leave CMU. That’s why I left. I want to be with him, and that means being with him and not just saying that we’re in a relationship. It’s too hard, and I can’t do it. Can’t. He wants to leave me alone. What boyfriend wouldn’t want his girlfriend with him? Plus, with Kris, I know that it’s more than the just the sex. We’re so connected... I don’t know why he doesn’t want to foster that instead of strain it.”

Tubby rolled his eyes at me, so I continued, “What? You think I’m wrong? Do you think there’s a reason why he wouldn’t want me to go with him to California?”

“No, that’s not it. I just want to think about you guys having sex.”

I smacked his shoulder, thankful for his stupid little joke to help lighten the mood. I needed some humor at a time like this, when everything was so serious. Seriously wrong. I should’ve been hanging out in the apartment with my boyfriend, cleaning and unpacking from our beautiful, tropical vacation and making plans for the summer and for the fall instead of sitting in the backseat of my best friend’s SUV as I cried and yelled about not getting my way.

The idea of having to stay behind in Pittsburgh while Kris left again tore me apart. I couldn’t do another airport send off. I had been under the impression that this trade was just a hiccough, and we only had to get through the rest of that season before we could be together again. Of course, there would always be his road trips, but we would live together or at least live in the same state. That was what got me through those horrible months on my own. And those two months were horrible for me, so there was no way I could do that for seven. And why would Kris even want to try?

Not to mention I had been so happy with how things were slated to pan out. I liked the idea of UCSC and the Lick Observatory. Hell, even winter in a warm climate was inviting. But even if Kris’s contract wasn’t extended by the Sharks and he was given an offer for another team, I would have followed him. To Dallas, Boston, Edmonton, Florida... wherever. And it wouldn’t have felt like a sacrifice to me, because it was something I wanted to do wholeheartedly. Just thinking about it was getting me so sad again.

Tubby sighed and hugged me once more. There wasn’t anything he could do for me except to listen to me sound off on the situation, bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball. I could see Kris’s side, I guess, and I could appreciate that he had my best interests at heart, but I hated that he was blatantly ignoring my wishes. Kris always put others before himself—especially those whom he cared for greatly. That’s what made this whole situation so hard: he was acting out of love, even though it hurt me.

“So what do you wanna do now?” Tubby asked me, bringing me back down to earth. “Do you want me to take you back to your apartment, so you guys can talk it out?”

I shrugged and then shook my head. “No. I’m still really mad, and I don’t think he’s ready to change his mind yet. I know he’s stressed about his contract and what San José’s gonna do with him, but I think that’s why he needs me and why he will need me when the season starts up. He needs me just as much as I need him, but he’s not realizing that. Maybe he’ll figure that out on his own and then tell me what a douche he’s being.”

“Are you going to at least tell him you need some space or something? I can hear your phone vibrating, and I bet that’s him.”

My phone was indicating four missed calls, but no texts. “I really don’t want to talk to him yet,” I mused aloud, shutting my phone off altogether. Part of me wanted to know what he wanted to say to me, because I was curious if he was willing to compromise on this issue at all, or this would be another instance where he would be so adamantly stubborn that I’d never get him to change his mind—but I didn’t want to actually talk to him yet. I wanted to wait for him to text so I could see what he had to say without having to verbally respond immediately.

It was weird feeling like this; I still loved Kris with all my heart and soul, but I was too furious and too hurt to care if he was worried about me. Surely he wanted to know if I was okay and where I was since I had run out of the apartment. Well, I could make him regret his actions by not easing his uncertainty about my whereabouts. It was spiteful and immature and totally bitchy of me, but I didn’t care at that moment. I hurt, so he could hurt, too; this was the consequence of his decision to tell me I couldn’t go out to California with him.

“So, then, what do you wanna do?”

“Wallow in my misery?”

He shook his head at me. “No. I’m not going to let you be upset because Kris is acting like a Summer’s Eve. He’s the one being lame, and you don’t have to suffer for it. Let’s go to Primanti’s.”

“I’m not really hungry,” I mumbled, crossing my arms over my chest. My idea of a good time at this point would have been curling up under a blanket and sleeping for a day or two—as long as I woke up to a message from Kris telling me that he’d support my decision to transfer schools.

“Since when have you ever been not hungry for a jumbo bologna? It’s your favorite.” My traitorous stomach growled, making my friend chuckle softly. “Come on, my treat.”

We got into the front seats, and Tubby drove us to the Strip District to indulge in some of Pittsburgh’s finest. I couldn’t understand why people were giving us funny looks. Once we sat down at the table, Tubby advised me, “Why don’t you go to the bathroom and wash up?”

Then I realized why everyone must have been staring at us—me. I had been running and crying, so I probably looked like I had escaped from an insane asylum. “I’m a mess, aren’t I?”

“Kind of,” he chuckled. “I’ll order for you. Just go clean up.”

It took me a few since I really did look like a total mess, but when I got back from the bathroom, there were a few surprises waiting for me back at the table. First of all, our sandwiches were already made and delivered to our table. Second, Tubby had ordered me a beer. I didn’t know how he managed that, since he wasn’t yet twenty-one and the waitress shouldn’t have brought me one either without carding me, but Tubby was so charismatic and charming that he could pull off anything. And third and lastly, it wasn’t just Tubby sitting at our table anymore.

I wove through the tables, chairs, and other patrons, heading back toward my seat. Sitting down in front of my jumbo bologna sandwich and Miller Lite, I wondered how he had this uncanny habit of randomly showing up wherever I was. “Hey, Dave.”

“Hey!” he greeted back with a smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude, but I saw your friend here and just wanted to ask if he knew when you’d be back in town. And he said you were back already. I was here with a bunch of guys from work,” he told me, thumbing in the direction of a group of uniformed EMTs sitting at the bar. What a coincidence. “I just wanted to say ‘hey,’ see how you’re doing.”

Glancing over at Tubby, I wanted to check to see if Dave had any idea how I was doing—that is, if Tubby had somehow informed him about my fight with Kris. Tubby quickly figured out my glance and subtly shook his head, so I knew he hadn’t said anything. “I’m doing okay.” To be safe, I directed the conversation to a neutral topic. “Getting ready for my summer courses to start. Shit, I’m gonna have to buy books.”

When that thought hit me, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t have any money to buy books for school. I had quit my job months ago when I went out to San José for the rest of the postseason and didn’t have much left in the bank—certainly not enough to cover the costs of books and supplies for my upcoming classes. I hadn’t really realized how dependent I was on Kris for all of my everyday needs until that moment.

“I’m not hungry,” I sighed, pushing my sandwich away from me. However, I did take a long swig of my beer. It was bitter yet refreshing.

“You come to Primanti’s, and you’re not hungry?” Dave asked, picking up half of my sandwich and taking a huge bite. I was a bit taken aback by his forwardness, but it had been so long since we had hung out in a setting outside of school that I had forgotten what he was like. “What a waste. This is good.”

“Glad you’re enjoying it,” I muttered, looking at him enviously as he ate my sandwich. I wanted it, but I know I couldn’t stomach it. “I wanna go home.”

Tubby polished off his cheesesteak sandwich and asked me quietly, “Do you want me to take you back to your apartment?”

I turned on my phone to check for messages, hoping that Kris would already be willing to talk about this whole situation with an open mind. There were a bunch of text messages from him by this point, all with increasing worry blatant in his words. They started with where r u? and escalated to please come back. We’ll talk. I’ll make u understand. He wasn’t open to this yet, so I knew I couldn’t head back there so soon. It would seem like I was caving.

“No. I’m not sure where to go, but I can’t go back there yet.”

“Do you want me to take you to your dad’s?” Tubby asked, pressing for my plan. I had no plan; I had nowhere to go. My biggest reason for being so tentative over moving in with Kris was this exact situation. I couldn’t go crawling back to my childhood home after I had left. Shaking my head, I told him no. “I’m sorry, Jo-Jo, but I can’t bring you home with me. My mom—”

“No, it’s okay, Tubby. I don’t want to impose anyway.” I let out a deep breath. “I’ll think of something.”

“What’s up?” Dave asked around his next bite of sandwich. He was looking at me curiously.

Tubby and I exchanged glances. There was no point in lying, but I knew to be selective about what I said. “Kris and I got into a little fight. I don’t feel like seeing him right now.”

Dave cleared his throat. “Do you need a place to crash? I can offer you a couch. It’s not much, but....”

I nodded. I could see an opportunity when it presented itself, and I needed this. This meant I could spend a night away from Kris, which would hopefully make him see what next season could be like if we were constantly apart—or worse, if he still wouldn’t agree and we had to make this separation permanent. If one night away could be symbolic of a lifetime of nights away from each other, then I could make that sacrifice to prove to him that his plan for us wouldn’t work for me. Maybe this could make him see that it wouldn’t for him, either.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

131.) Forbidden Word

Soundtrack Song - The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Disconnected

Jo and I enjoyed our vacation in paradise. I had visited lots of places, especially islands where the weather was warm and the need to wear clothes was minimal, but none of those other places had compared to Hawaii with Jo. I think having Jo there was what made the difference, if I was being perfectly honest.

In Hawaii, reality had melted away like it was part of a past life. We were literally on an island, in isolation. It was just us for two whole weeks, with the occasional interruption by a waitress or a snorkeling instructor or someone like that. Everyone pretty much left us alone to our own devices, giving us privacy and space. And every night was amazing. I had never felt so close to another human being; I never wanted that to end, but we had to return to the real world. Unfortunately.

I had expected to hear from Kent Hughes with news of a contract extension, but I never heard a peep from him. Of course, Nabokov and Marleau would be the GM’s top priorities. However, the days were slowly counting down to July first, and I was getting increasingly anxious each day I didn’t get a call. Sure, I was hoping to get a pay hike and a nice, long contract—I was hoping to reap all the rewards from my years of hard work. I didn’t think it was selfish or haughty of me to expect that, because my list of accomplishments was pretty long for a twenty-three year old. My rookie contract was up, and this was my chance to cash in, and I wanted to take it. The end goal was always to be able to provide for my family in the manner that they had always deserved, and this was my opportunity for that.

But the money wasn’t all. I wanted a home, and San José was just that—my home away from my home of Montréal. I really fit in there and played some great hockey while I was in that teal sweater. Next season, I wanted to be back there. I wanted to be a Shark come October—and hopefully be a Shark for the seven to nine months to follow. I felt like I had every reason to think that the Sharks would want to keep me, but I couldn’t be one hundred percent certain, especially since I had been pretty sure that the Pens wouldn’t have traded me away for a winger.

Being back in Pittsburgh was weird. Jo and I took a taxi from the airport back toward the apartment building that had been our home for the few months before my trade. I recognized the roads; I knew the way like it was déjà vu. A left, another left, a right, and left again.

The apartment was like a distant memory, or maybe even a dream. Had it really only been four months since I had been here? March, April, May, June.... It felt like so much longer than that. I thought that it would feel like going all the way back to Wilkes-Barre, or maybe even Juniors. It was weird, and that’s the only word I could think of to describe it. The apartment was exactly the way I had remembered it, albeit it a little dusty and somewhat more cluttered than I had usually kept it, back when I was living here alone. Once we added Jo’s things, though, it felt more lived in.

“We’re going to have to clean,” she said, dropping her bag and purse on the floor by the door as she stepped into the kitchen. “We should probably make a list of everything we have to do. Grocery shop. Change the sheets.”

“And don’t forget picking up the mail. Checking out the cars.” These were things that I had been used to doing after long road trips or breaks. “What else?”

“Unpacking, laundry, then packing for Montreal. Do you know when we’re leaving?”

“No, I was going to worry about that once we got back here. No planning over vacation, remember?”

“Right,” she giggled, plopping down the couch and resting her feet on the coffee table—something that had always made me crazy when she was still wearing shoes. A cloud of dust bloomed around her, making her sneeze. “But first, I think we really need to clean. Dust and run the sweeper. I can’t live like this for an hour, let alone at least a day.”

“All right. How about you get started while I bring up the last of the bags from downstairs? I’m gonna stop down at the super’s apartment, let him know we’re back. Okay?”

“Are you just trying to get out of helping me clean?” she teased me, raising an eyebrow and smirking. “I know you don’t like it, but we’ve gotta do the whole place.”

“I’ll help, I promise. Just give me a few minutes.”

Jo nodded and I headed back down into the lobby of the building. We didn’t really have a lot of bags, but we were exhausted from traveling and also probably a little depressed from the idea of having to be back in reality, which sucked our energy from us.

I knocked on the door of apartment 1A and waited for the super to come to the door. He was a pretty nice guy. He didn’t really follow hockey, but he knew who I was and my circumstances, so he congratulated me on the win and said that he’d be sorry to be losing me as a tenant—once my lease was up, of course. He handed me two months’ worth of mail before he let me go. There was so much that it was all stuffed into a plastic Target bag. Needless to say, I was a little confounded at the sheer number of envelopes waiting for me. My bills were all paid online, everything was paperless, so all I expected was some ads and out of date coupons. As I headed back up to the third floor, I rifled through the bag.

What was inside was certainly a surprise to me. There were giant packets addressed to Jo all with California return addresses. Curiosity got the best of me, so I slid my thumb under one of the flaps of the big white envelopes and peered inside. I never went to university, but I could recognize a course book. And I could recognize the name: University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Jo?” I asked, stepping back into the apartment. She was standing in the kitchen, pulling the cleaning supplies out from underneath the sink. Her hair was tucked up underneath a bandana, ready to put in some elbow grease. “What’s this?”

“Oh!” She set the Swiffer duster on the counter and hurried over to me. Jo took the book from my hand and immediately began to flip through it excitedly. “I totally forgot I requested these! Is the application in there, too?”

“Application?” I looked in the bag in my hand, confused by everything. “An application for the University of California?”

“Yeah! Remember that observatory we went to? It’s a part of UCSC. Perfect, right?”

I felt like an idiot. “I’m sorry, but I’m not following exactly what’s going on here. You’re applying to this place? In California?” The answer was right in front of my face, but I couldn’t see it because I hadn’t been expecting this. Jo responded by nodding quickly, her smile cracking her face in half, so obviously pleased with herself. And I was still bewildered. “You didn’t tell me about this.”

“You didn’t want to talk about it,” she explained. “Remember? One thing at a time, and we had your season to get through. You didn’t wanna jinx the season by thinking about this summer or next season. And then there was the celebration and all that, and Samantha gave birth earlier than expected, and then the vacation where we promised we weren’t going to talk about anything stressful. But, well, now I guess it’s a great time to tell you that I’m gonna be applying to university in California. So we don’t have to do this God-awful long distance crap again.”

“But... what about Carnegie Mellon?” It still didn’t make any sense to me. Jo loved CMU, and if she had wanted to attend another school, I was sure she would have said something to me at some point. “You always wanted to go there, and you just started. It was your dream.”

Jo shrugged, a very nonchalant action for the circumstances. At least I thought so. “Well, it was. I mean, I had always wanted to go there, but things changed. Namely, you got transferred.”

“But you always said what a good school it was.”

“Well, it is. But so’s UCSC. I mean, hello, the Lick Observatory! A real research facility. A hands-on learning experience. I can’t beat that.” She lowered her voice and took a step toward me as she dropped the booklet on the coffee table, kicking up more dust. “Plus, you know, my boyfriend works out in California now.”

I clasped her now empty hands in mine and cleared my throat. “Well, that’s not really a guarantee,” I warned. With still no word from Kent, I had no idea if I’d be a Shark.

“I’m pretty certain. I mean, they’d be crazy not to sign you, Kris. Surely you can see that.”

Dropping her hands, I took a step away from her and shook my head. “I don’t know that. I hope that they’ll sign me, but there’re only a few days before the end of the month, and Kent hasn’t heard anything. I’m worried, Jo. I’m worried they’ll let me walk.”

Jo’s face went from happy and proud of herself to concerned over me and my little predicament. “We still have a few days. Maybe they’re just checking out what the cap’s gonna be, see how much they can afford to pay you.” Her eyes flitted back and forth as they looked up at me. Her tone was soft and warm, comforting. “You belong with the Sharks, Kris. And even if they’re stupid enough to let you become an RFA, I know you’ll get an amazing offer from another team. It’ll work out, babe, I promise.”

“But....” I took a deep breath. “So what if you transfer out to California, and I’m not there?”

She shook her head and smiled tenderly. “Well, I can find another university wherever you go. I mean, the NHL only has teams in major cities, so I can find a program anywhere. Maybe they won’t be as good as UCSC or CMU, but it’ll still be worth it.”

It sounded great, but there had to be a catch somewhere. It couldn’t have been that easy. “Can you transfer like that? For fall?”

“Well, no,” she reluctantly admitted, pursing her lips. “Not for fall. But that’s what community college is for.” I must have pulled a face because Jo quickly explained further, “That was the plan for California, too! It’s okay, it’s just for one semester. It’s a little sacrifice, but we’ll get to be together.”

The way she smiled at me let me know that she would do anything for me. I knew that, but that hopeful smile really sealed the deal. I loved knowing that she wanted to give this all up for me, but that’s exactly why I couldn’t ask her to. “I think you should keep attending CMU.”

Her face fell. “What? Are you serious?”

“I am.”

“You don’t want me with you? You don’t want to be together?”

“Of course I do,” I replied, placing my hands on her shoulders. “I want that more than anything. But things are still up in the air, and I can’t stand the thought of you compromising your dreams to follow me somewhere. Maybe you could just... hold off on trying to transfer. Until I find out where I’ll be permanently.”

“But you never know where you’ll be permanently,” Jo spat out. She was taking this all the wrong way, getting angry and emotional. “Next thing, you’ll be saying that you’re worried about getting traded again. You won’t have me come out at all. I don’t get it, Kris, I don’t fucking get it. I thought you loved me.”

“I do, Joey, I do,” I reassured her. I wrapped her up in my arms and pulled her into me. She had to know how much I loved her. “I love you so much. That’s why I want what’s best for you. And what’s best for you is not having me drag you around and you being out of school just because I want you with me.”

“I want to, too. I want to.”

“But it’s because of me. I can’t do that to you, Jo.”

“You’re not doing that to me!” she cried, pulling back and glaring up at me. For a second, she had me scared. “Stop talking like you’re the only one making a decision about this. I wanna do it. Doesn’t that count for something? That it’s something that I want to do?”

It took me a few seconds to think of an appropriate response that would make her understand. As much as I wanted Jo with me next season—and for all of the season, forever and always—I would feel guilty every day, every second of every day, for allowing her to give up or at least postpone her biggest dream. She would never let me quit hockey to be with her as she studied, so why was the reverse any different? Finally, I told her, “Sometimes, the things we have to do don’t line up with the things we want to do. And sometimes, we have to make these tough decisions—”

“Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit, Kristopher Letang!” She wrestled out of my hold and moved into the kitchen. Jo was upset, tears leaking from her eyes, her face red, eyes red, her mouth contorted into a painful frown. My heart stopped beating, hating to see this reaction from her. It was tearing me up, too, to think about what had to happen during the beginning of the season. But I couldn’t do that to her. Carnegie Mellon was the best place for Jo, so she needed to stay in Pittsburgh.

I tried to follow Jo into the other room, but she let out this feral grunt and pointed at me in a way that let me know that I had to keep some distance. I hadn’t seen Jo so upset or angry—especially directed at me like this—in a very, very long time.

“I’m sorry, Jo,” I said quietly, hoping she was listening and willing to hear me out. “Don’t you know why I think this is a good idea, for you to stay? And why coming with me would be bad?”

The way her voice was shaking made me feel horrible. “So you’re just going to leave me? You’re going to leave me like everyone else has? Just pick up and go and tell me to stay because it’s what’s good for me?”

“I’m not leaving you. We’ll visit. Some weekends, and whenever you have breaks—”

“I quit my job! I quit my job because I thought I’d be going with you. I didn’t register for fall courses because I wasn’t supposed to be going there anymore. I moved in with you. I trusted you. Kris, I love you. How can you do this? How can you stand there so fucking stoic and tell me you’re abandoning me if you love me back?”

I had to tell myself she wasn’t trying to attack me and I shouldn’t be feeling so hurt, because she was just lashing out. But I wasn’t trying to hurt her, either. It was just the opposite. I was looking out for her.

“I love you.” I crossed into the kitchen despite her warnings to stay away. I pulled her into my arms and kissed her hard. Then I backed off and kissed her a little more slowly, nibbling on her bottom lip and slipping my tongue into her mouth. “I love you. Let me show you how much I love you.”

Jo was sobbing, and I could feel her body shake as I laid her out on the floor. It cut to hear her accuse me of not caring about her. So I stripped her of her clothes and kissed her all over, putting every feeling into each caress and touch. If I could physically prove it to her, she couldn’t pretend that I didn’t care.

I held onto her tightly as our naked bodies rocked together. My arms were under her shoulders, holding her chest to mine as my pelvis moved. This was the most intimate thing I could think of to show her the depth of my feelings. I wanted to please her. Make her understand. She cried out my name as she wept and came, clinging onto me and digging her nails into my back. I kissed her face, dispersing her tears with my lips. I could taste the saline.

When Jo calmed down, I waited for her to speak. We were curled up on the floor, bodies entangled to form one entity. I planted my lips on her shoulder, exercising my patience as her breaths evened out. “I can’t do long distance again, Kris. I can’t. It hurts too much. It’s impossible to be in a relationship with someone I can’t see regularly. Someone I can’t hold, touch, kiss....” She struggled to inhale again.

I tried to explain it better. “It’s not for forever. I don’t want to be away from you as much as you don’t want to be. But I don’t know where I’m going to be. We can’t plan if I don’t know. I hate the uncertainty for myself, and to drag you into that... I can’t bear it.”

“But I want to be with you, no matter what it takes.” Jo grabbed my hand. We were both silent for a moment, obviously mulling over each of our thoughts. If she could just see my side, I knew she’d see that it was the best option for her for now. It wasn’t the best move for our relationship, that much was obvious; but this was about her, about Jo Anderson.

She spoke up first, her voice raw and hoarse as she put more thought into our situation. “So tell me: what happens when I graduate? No matter where, from CMU or UCSC or somewhere else. What then?”

“You get that job that you always dreamed of,” I replied. “You talk about it with this glint in your eye. It was what you were meant to do, because you want to make James proud. And I’ll encourage you through it all, support you, because that’s what you deserve, Jo.”

Shaking her head, she pressed me some more. “You know what that means, right? The research positions, they’re all in the really good observatories up in the mountains. In the middle of nowhere, where the telescopes can work the best. Not in big cities. Not in NHL cities. So what then, Kris? What happens to you and me then?”

“I....” I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t know, but I didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. I had never thought that far ahead, because I had always envisioned us being together. We were meant to be together, even though I had no idea how that was supposed to happen.

“I don’t need that job to be happy. But I do need you, Kris, to be happy. Does that change your mind?”

My jaw ticked as I thought about it. “But, it’s what you always wanted. The dream you wanted to fulfill for James.”

Jo choked out a cry as she began to remove her body from mine. “Things change. You have to be flexible. You’re always so set in stone. Please, Kris, I want to go with you. Let me be with you.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be with her and I wanted her to be with me, but I still wasn’t sure that this would be right for her. Jo was a hedonist, so she’d be willing to forsake her future in order to fuse it with mine. My job was to look out for her and give her the best in this world, and that’s what I had to do now, even if it meant tough love. “I think you should stay for the fall, and maybe we can see about you transferring in the spring.”

“Deadlines are coming up, Kris. If I miss them, I can’t register for spring. And that’s the whole season. That’s a whole year. I can’t do that. Do you understand that? Do you understand what will happen if you tell me again that you want me to stay?”

“I know it won’t be easy, Jo, and I’m not exactly looking forward to having to be apart again, but we did it once. We can do it again.”

“No. No, I can’t. And I won’t. I’m sorry, but if that’s the way you’re telling me it has to be, then I....” Jo choked up. The weight of the situation hit me as she stood up and hurried into her clothes. I couldn’t move fast enough as I tried to grab her and stop her. “Don’t touch me!” she yelled, now furious with me. Beyond furious, whatever that would be. She was red-faced again and looking pretty close to spontaneous combustion.

“Please, Jo, no—”

“If you change your mind before my deadlines, let me know. If not... goodbye, Kristopher.”

I felt like I had been run over by a freight train and flattened like a crêpe. Jo never said that word. Not to me. It was so final, and I was deflated when she bade me goodbye, the worst possible thing she could have said to me. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even move as she grabbed her purse and left her things behind as she left the apartment.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

130.) Game Plan

Soundtrack Song - Relient K, The Best Thing

Hawaii is one of those places where everyone says they wanna go, because it’s just convenient enough of a location since it’s a state, yet exotic enough to feel like someplace else. The plane ride was long and boring, and I was so excited that I had trouble sitting still in my first class seat. Then again, I always had trouble relaxing on planes—the previous times I flew, it always to go see Kris. Even though he was coming with me to this new destination, we were going there together to spend time together.

It was breathtakingly beautiful, from the moment we got off the plane. The air was warm, fragrant, and soothing. I felt more relaxed than I had for a very long time. Kris and I had made a pact on the plane: we weren’t going to talk about anything that would be stressful or serious. There were two exceptions to that rule, one for each of us. Kris would be allowed to field calls from his agent in case there came word about a contract extension, and I was allowed to talk to Samantha if she needed someone to talk to.

The whole point of this vacation was to take it easy and to enjoy each other’s company like we hadn’t been able to do for months. It was just going to be me and Kris and absolutely nothing else. No intruding thoughts or worries. No plan-making or in-depth discussions. The biggest decisions we wanted to make during these two weeks were going to be about whether we wanted to go snorkeling or fishing or just laze around on the golden sands drinking something with an umbrella in it.

When we were checking into the hotel, we were mistaken for a couple either here to get married or to celebrate our honeymoon. We couldn’t take our hands off each other, but it wasn’t a sexy or inappropriate thing; there was no groping or otherwise improper actions. But we held hands, our fingers intertwined. When we weren’t doing that, we were somehow touching: his arm around my shoulders, me touching his arm, standing close enough so that our hips bumped together. Plus, we were all smiles, high on love and drunk on this fresh air.

“What do you wanna do first?” Kris asked as the bellhop left, a crisp twenty dollar tip in his pocket for the meager task of pushing our bags into our room for us.

“I don’t know!” I laughed, taking in our new surroundings. We had been spending so much time in hotels lately, and I couldn’t wait for us to share a real home again. But that was one of those off-limit topics. Nothing stressful, so no talk about where we might find ourselves living at the start of the next season. “I want to go surfing, I want to sit on the beach, I want to nap, I want to eat—I want to do everything at once!”

Kris chuckled, walking straight up to me and putting his hands on either side of my waist. I felt his body heat emanating from his body, warming me up and making me hot under the proverbial collar. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I could tell that he was thinking the exact same thing. “I was thinking of taking a shower.”

My voice didn’t want to work, so I had to force the words from my mouth. “I could do that.”

His hands were under my shirt, working off my clothes for me. It felt like so long since we had done this at our leisure, an act done purely for making the other person happy and satisfying each other primarily over ourselves, and the promise of what was going to happen turned me into jelly. I fell into him and slung my arms around his neck, kissing his smooth, shaven face from ear to ear—something I hadn’t done since March. It felt so good to be able to do that again without having to worry about chapping my lips.

We stumbled into the bathroom, stripped, and stepped into a lukewarm shower. Foreplay involved shampooing each other’s hair, making out, and cleaning each other’s bodies and private, special areas—with the intent to get sweaty and wet, just to need another shower. By the time the grime from traveling had been washed away, Kris was hard and standing at full mast and I felt like I would die if I did not get him inside me pronto. He made a move to shut off the water, but I grabbed his hand and put it back around me instead.

“Do me here, now,” I begged, reaching around and grabbing his ass. I dug my nails in and stood on my tippy ties so his erection could slip into the vee between my legs. The water pouring over us made it easy for him to move in and out, even though he wasn’t yet inside me. The simulation pushed him to the brink of his arousal. When he was so turned on, he lost his ability to hold back and take his cues from me; you’d think that I’d enjoy the sex more when he was being caring and attentive, but I thought it was hot when he was impulsive and hedonistic. Something got me off when I knew he was using me for his own pleasure rather than trying to pleasure me first and foremost.

With one swift move, he pulled back and grasped the back of my thighs. He lifted me right off my feet and held me up against the shower wall. I did my part by guiding his dick between my folds as he stepped forward, sliding home like he had just rounded all the bases. It certainly felt like a home run.

We each came once in the shower and then rinsed off again. I never realized that that was partly why shower sex was so much fun: it was as equally convenient as pleasurable. Once we were clean again, we relocated onto the bed. We were soaking wet, but we wanted to save our energy so we didn’t bother toweling off. Instead, we recuperated and waited it out until round two.

That first night was spent in bed. We made love, had sex, fucked—we did it all, until we were ridiculously exhausted and couldn’t do anything else. I climaxed so many times that, by the end of our session, I shuddered every time he touched me. It was almost painful, but so deliciously wonderful at the same time. “I wanna do that every night this summer with you.”

Kris moaned. “I don’t think I can. I’m supposed to be recovering after the season.”

“Wimp,” I giggled, poking him in the ribs.

“Wimp? I’m not a wimp,” he jokingly retorted, snatching my hand and kissing my palm. “I think I just worked harder than I have during a regular season game. I need to be taking it easy.”

“Aww,” I cooed, running a hand through his hair. It was still a little damp and knotted. I kissed his mouth and then his forehead. “I’ll take it easy on you, babe. Promise. I’ll take care of you.”

He pulled my leg up over his hip and slid his thigh between my legs as I burrowed my face into the crook of his neck. Kris held onto me as I curled up against his hard, strong chest. I could feel his breath puff through my hair like subtle gusts of wind. My body moved in sync with his inhales and exhales, which lulled me into a deep slumber. I only had one last thought before I fell asleep: I can’t believe that we only have twelve more nights like this. This vacation’s already flying by.

The next morning, we decided to start our touristy and fun activities. Kris donned his black board shorts and a white tee shirt that stretched nicely across his broad chest, and I put on my bikini and a white sundress. All I planned on wearing during this vacation were swimsuits and light, airy dresses—and going barefoot as much as possible.

We walked around and explored the section of Maui by our hotel. We went down to the beach for a little bit, too. I dug my toes into the wet sand and breathed in the salty air before Kris and I shed our clothes and ran into the cold ocean. It was a temperature shock at first, but once we got used to it, we were comfortable enough to stay in for a while and relax. I hung off of Kris, wrapped around him as the waves rolled in around us. After all, I had promised Kris that I wouldn’t let him out of my sight during our vacation. I never wanted to let go of him.

By early evening, we were tired. I was sunburned, so Kris helped me out by smearing aloe vera lotion on my back and shoulders. We went to a pig roast that night and watched some hula dancers perform. There were even fire eaters there, too. It was a lot of fun.

While we were in Maui, we went out every day and did something fun: fishing, snorkeling, and even a trip up to a volcano. Then we headed for Molokai, another Hawaiian island. Kris had rented out a little cottage right on the coast, with a private beach, for a whole week. It was the most amazing week of my life. I pretty much didn’t even bother wearing clothes. First of all, it was hot. Second, we had the beach all to ourselves, and we didn’t see another human being while we hung out in the cottage. Third, Kris and I were constantly in a semi-state of arousal. We’d have sex and feel normal, but it didn’t take long before we were making eyes at each other again.

We tried having sex on the beach; I’ll never figure out what the allure of that is. Sand got into the most uncomfortable of places, and Kris and I were showering constantly, trying to get rid of that discomfort. We were finding sand for days.

On the peaceful quiet of the beach, Kris and I were watching the sunset one night. I was sitting between his legs, my head resting against his shoulder as the sun crept beneath the horizon and the stars came out to play. I knew that this was my chance to talk to him about something very important.

“So, Kris, we’re going to go back to Pittsburgh after this, right? And then to Montreal?”

“Yes,” he replied. He gripped me tight around my middle. “But why do you wanna talk about that? Aren’t you having fun?”

I sighed in total bliss. “The most fun ever.” I put my arms around his and savored this moment. “If I could stop time, I would, so I would never have to leave Hawaii and we could stay here forever together.” Then I cleared my throat, slowly inching closer toward the eventual destination of this conversation. “I just wanna make sure that I know what the game plan is.”

“Well, that’s it. We’ll drop everything of ours off at the apartment in Pittsburgh, pick up our mail, make sure our cars work and all that, and then up north for a week or two. Before your classes start.”

“So, what are we going to do while we’re visiting your mom?”

I felt Kris shrug. “Just hang out. Usually, I’d be home all summer before it’s time to be in Pittsburgh to train. But since we’ll be in Pittsburgh, so you can take your summer classes, I won’t get to spend as much time with my mom and Mamie like I usually would. I mean, we’ll do the Cup thing in Montreal, but that’ll be later in the summer.”

“You know what I was thinking about us doing in Montreal?”

“Hmm?”

“I thought that we could go... visit your dad.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt him tense up behind me. It was the reaction I had been expecting, but I still wished this could’ve gone a little easier. The words began to fly out of my mouth as I tried to convince him what a good idea this would be, and how good it would be for him to do this. “I’ll go with you, Kris. And I’m not saying that you have to reconcile or even get along or anything like that—at all—I’m just thinking that maybe it would be good for you to confront him, really confront him.”

“But I don’t ever want to see him again.” He paused for a moment before he emphasized, “Ever.”

Turning around, I looked into his vulnerable eyes. Kris wanted to appear strong and determined, but I could see right through that. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t want to push his buttons or stress him out, especially since this was supposed to be a stress-free vacation, but I wanted to make sure that he had enough time to digest the idea and come to terms with it before it happened. Kris liked to think about things. So I pushed. “So what happens then? What happens when you go home? You look over your shoulder constantly, wondering if he’ll show up again? Try to avoid him, without knowing how to do it?”

He pulled a face because he knew I was right—he just didn’t want to admit it. “What would I even say to him?”

“Well, that part’s up to you.” I cupped his face. “Maybe you just wanna tell him to fuck off and that you never wanna see him again, so he should stay away.” I paused before suggesting, “Or maybe you could ask him for his side of the story. It’s up to you, and you know that I will support you no matter what you choose. But either way, I think that it will be so good for you to face him. Let him know that he fucked up. I think it’ll do a world of good for you.”

“But....” Kris let out a deep breath as he peered out to the horizon over the ocean. It was starting to get dark, and the edge of the sea blended in with the sky. “I don’t know. I want him to know how good me and my mom are doing now, without him, and that we did all without his help. I want to be able to rub that all in his face. But when I saw him, I was so, I don’t know, shocked, I guess? I froze.”

“That’s why you’re doing it on your terms now, not his. You’re going to see him, so you’ll be prepared. You can figure out exactly what you wanna say, and you’ll tell him. And if you want me there, then I’ll be there to back you up.” Then I tried to back-step, just in case I was inserting myself into an aspect of his life that he wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with me—after all, it had taken him forever before he could even fill me on his life. “Or you can do it on your own. Whatever you want.”

“I don’t know if I want to do this,” he started, “but if I did it, I think I’d like you there. I’d show him that he taught me exactly who not to be. Even if he wasn’t who I thought he was, he still wasn’t right.”

“We still have some time. I just thought you’d like to think about it. Figure it out before we go back up to Montreal. If you don’t want to, or if you don’t want to enough that you think you can’t, then I understand. This is a big, major thing. But I think you’ll feel so much better if you do this. I’m not trying to pressure you, I don’t want you to be stressed about it, but like I said... I think you’ll feel like the world will be off your shoulders.”

“Hmm. Well, I’ll at least think about it,” he sighed, pressing a hand against my far cheek and putting just enough pressure against it to bring me closer to his lips. He kissed my temple and then let me curl up against him again. Then he moved his hand to my back and rubbed over my spine. It was so soothing. Kris changed the subject. “Show me something.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about: the night sky. We hadn’t done this for a while, especially since his schedule had been so hectic until just recently. I looked up and picked out the most easily recognizable object in the sky. “See that bright thing? Right there?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s Venus.”

“Really?” he asked, the tone of his voice belying his surprise. Everyone was always a little surprised to find out that planets shone so brightly in the night sky since they weren’t like stars that produced their own light; they merely reflected the sun.

“Yup,” I told him, snuggling a little closer against him, finding it interesting that something so far away could make us feel so close here on Earth.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

129.) A Little Closer

I was scared. First of all, Jo’s orders had scared the shit out of me. When she said “emergency,” I had no idea what she meant. I didn’t know what had happened, but I was worried; something could’ve been wrong with her or Samantha, or any number of other things. I panicked.

I was still worried. Admittedly, I don’t know much about giving birth or babies, but I knew that Samantha wasn’t full term. While Samantha had been wheeled back to a room and Brandy dutifully followed as her legal guardian, Jo, Rob, and I stood and listened to the doctor explain that while thirty-two weeks was less than ideal, there was a ninety-five percent survival rate for the fetus. For Brianna. That made me feel a little better. I hoped that they could have given her something to stop her from going into labor, but apparently it was too late once her water broke. At that point, there’s no going back.

Everyone was so worried that they didn’t even notice I was there, or at least they didn’t care. Rob paced the floor and talked on his cell. The hospital staff was giving him angry looks, but he was far too absorbed in what he was doing. I could piece together what was going on well enough to know that he was talking to someone back home about contacting the baby’s father. Rob kept saying that he should be there, since they didn’t know what was going to happen—that he deserved the right to know what was going on.

While he took care of that, I sat on the uncomfortable lounge furniture with Jo. She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest and her foot tapping sporadically. It was obvious how concerned she was. I put an arm around her and pulled her against me. It drove me nuts that I couldn’t do anything to help. All I could do was rub her back and say, “Don’t worry. The doctors will take care of her.”

Jo took a deep breath, pressing her face against my chest as she inhaled. Then she set her chin against me and looked up at my face. “What if something bad happens to the baby?”

“You can’t think like that,” I told her. “You’ve gotta be positive.”

There were tears in her eyes, threatening to spill over. “But, Kris, what if? That baby is more than just a baby to her. It’s her one tie to her boyfriend. It’ll devastate her. It’ll break her heart, and I can’t even imagine how she’ll be able to deal with it.”

“No, Jo, don’t think that.” I kissed her forehead and then her nose. She was so deeply worried about Samantha and Brianna, and it moved me. All I could think about was the Jo that I had met so many months ago—the girl who didn’t seem to have any bonds with anyone.

Jo felt things very intensely. It’s like her emotions were ten times stronger than whatever anyone else felt. She was fun and carefree and spirited, but her heart was so big. That’s why she had self-medicated herself with alcohol and drugs after her brother had died; it had hurt her so much that she couldn’t all that pain. Drinking was a coping mechanism because it numbed her.

Even now, when this crisis had nothing to do with her, she empathized with Samantha so much that she didn’t know how to handle her feelings. Now, since she didn’t turn to a substance for comfort, I had to try and help her through this. Once again, I felt helpless and impotent as I tried to soothe and calm her down—just like I had during so many painful times we had experienced together. I had I hugged her against my body as she sobbed, scared for the worst.

The time passed so slowly, dragging on and on as we waited for news. And we waited for hours. She exhausted herself with crying and fell asleep leaning against me; I couldn’t help but follow suit and nap, too. It was dark outside when we were finally woken up with the news that Samantha had to have an emergency C-section. Rob stopped his pacing, his face falling to the floor. If he had been worried before, that was nothing compared to what he was feeling now. Jo had tensed beside me, and I held onto her a little tighter as we were given the low-down.

Everything that the nurse was saying went right over my head. Something about the position of the baby, distress, but so far everything looked promising. Samantha was being stitched up while Brianna—who they only referred to as Baby Thompson—was taken to the NICU, whatever that was. Level two care. Three and a half pounds, which sounded so tiny to me, but the nurse said was big for that gestational age.

I really had no idea what was going on. Jo nodded as she soaked up the information. Rob looked a little relieved and asked immediately if he could see his niece. The nurse said that he could, just as soon as she was brought up from the operating room. She did tell us that we could look in at the NICU to see Baby Thompson.

That in itself was full of strange emotions. The special care nursery was scary. Babies were tied to machines and placed in incubators. The babies themselves were scary looking, because they didn’t look like typical, normal babies. They looked like aliens. Brianna had a little pink hat on, lying on a small, heated isolette. I wouldn’t have been able to pick her out except for the last name printed out above her station.

Jo was the first to speak out of the three of us. She put her fingers against the window glass and whispered, “So tiny.”

“I’m gonna go find Brandy,” Rob mumbled, heading away from the NICU. He had two kids of his own, but I guess it wasn’t an easy sight for even a seasoned father to see.

I stood behind Jo and wrapped my arms around her as she looked into the room. She was taking this really hard. I knew she was compassionate, but even this seemed a little extreme for her. “Are you okay?”

“I bet this isn’t how Samantha imagined her life going at all. You know? Pregnant at seventeen. Moved away from her home to live with family in another country. Separated from the father, the man she loved. And now this. I bet she can’t even hold her baby. If that were me, I....” Jo stopped and took a deep breath. Her fingers traced over my arms, which were still tightly around her. “Remember our, uh, ‘scare’?”

Clearing my throat, I answered only her question. I was over the lie and cover up, but it had been an emotional day for us and very raw. We had learned a lot about each other that day, but that didn’t mean I looked back upon it fondly. “Yeah, I remember.”

“For a few hours, I lived with the possibility that maybe I was... you know. And I couldn’t help but think about what was going to happen if, and I thought about all the different outcomes, you know, just in case. But never this. Nobody ever thinks about this.”

“No one ever wants to think about anything bad happening to their children. Especially during the pregnancy, because it’s such a special time.”

“How is she supposed to deal with this? She’s only seventeen still. I know I wouldn’t be able to handle it if anything like this would happen to Lucas James.”

For a moment, I stopped breathing. “Lucas James?”

“That’s what I would have wanted to name him.” She pulled away so she could turn and look up at me. “I just figured a boy, and well, I thought it might be weird for you to just call him ‘Luc,’ because I know I wouldn’t want to have another James. So that’s what I thought of.”

“I like it,” I replied, leaning down to kiss her. Even though I hadn’t imagined today going like this, at all, it felt like things were falling into place. The fog surrounding our future was starting to lift. There were things we were going to need to discuss, but those things could wait. Crises like this brought people together, and right now I was happy to be this close to my girlfriend. We had big plans together.

We hung around the hospital a little bit longer. Jo went in to see Samantha and find out how she was doing, and I lingered out in the lobby with Rob. He didn’t even seem to notice or care that I had been there at all—even though he had been so secretive and protective of Samantha and his family before. He never would have wanted any of this information to get out, but now he didn’t seem too worried about it. In fact, Bowlby may even have been a little relieved.

“It took a lot of arguing and fighting, but Brian’s flying down tomorrow,” he sighed. His eyes were bloodshot and tired looking. “The father.”

I didn’t say anything. What was I supposed to say anyway? Not only was I not supposed to know any of us this, but my opinion of how they handled this was very different than what had actually been done. He was my captain, though, and therefore unquestionable.

“I trust that you won’t say anything,” he finally added. It probably should have been a question, but I knew he wasn’t asking. “You know, with the parade tomorrow.”

“Of course.”

It was his turn to nod at me then. When Jo came out of the hospital room, she was followed by a nurse obviously shooing her out. Visiting times must have been ending; at this point, I had no idea what time it was, and my eyes couldn’t focus on the hands on my watch. Rob explained, “Brandy’s staying overnight, since Sam’s still considered a minor. I’ll take you guys back to your hotel. We have the clean out tomorrow morning before the parade.”

Bowlby dropped us off as promised, and Jo and I once again collapsed into bed, fully dressed, too exhausted to bother to do anything to get prepared for sleep. I curled up around Jo and she nestled into me, and we didn’t bother saying a word before mutually drifting off for our first real night of sleep in days.

The next day was just as hectic. The guys reconvened in the Shark Tank one last time. We got into our gear so we could take our formal team photo with the Cup. As quickly as we dressed in full equipment and uniform for one measly picture, we shucked off all our things and packed our equipment. We’d need it this summer to train on our own. I had to be very careful to make sure I truly had all my things, just in case I wouldn’t be back here the following season. I had every reason to think that the Sharks would like to keep me around, but I couldn’t be certain. I used to be certain that the Pens wouldn’t trade me.

There were a lot of year-end interviews, too. The questions were all the same, how it felt to win again, what I had planned for the summer, what I was going to do for my day with the Cup, how I felt about my RFA status.... I answered them all as politely as I could, acting each time like it was the first time I had been asked that.

After that came the parade. Parades are always fun. This one was different from what I had experienced in Pittsburgh, though. I didn’t get to ride in the car with Jo, like I had expected from last year’s celebratory march; instead, there was a roped-off section by the stage where friends and family got to sit while we were driven along the two-mile stretch of downtown.

Once the parade was over, my obligations in San José were finished. Now, it was time to leave behind all the stress had that accrued during my season and Jo’s semester. It was officially time to vacation and relax in a picturesque paradise.