First Chapter: The Shameless Hour

September

 

Rafe

 

It had been two hours since I blew out twenty candles on the cake Ma made for me, but my ass was still parked in a chair at Restaurante Tipico.

It was always hard for me to get away from the Dominican joint that my extended family ran. I needed to be on a train headed back to Harkness College. But here I was at table seven in the back corner, rolling silverware for the evening rush, the same way I’d done my whole life.

“One more and then I’m gone,” I said to Pablito, my sixteen-year-old cousin. “I have seven o’clock dinner reservations. If I miss the four-thirty train, I’m screwed.”

“Big date tonight?”

“Yeah, it’s actually her birthday, too.”

“No shit?” Pablito grinned as he applied yet another of the self-adhering bands we used to hold the napkin around the knife and fork. “So I’m going to sling food all night and go home smelling like the fryer. You’re getting a nice dinner, a bottle of wine and then” — he made a lewd hand motion — “some happy birthday to you.”

Jesucristo. I was not about to share the details of this evening’s plans with Pablito or anyone else. “At least you got an hour’s worth of labor out of me.” I set a silverware roll on top of his pile.

“Don’t forget your present,” he said, casting an eye on the vintage money clip my mother had given me for my birthday. It was sterling silver with an art deco design. “I know why your Ma chose that for you.”

“Yeah?” I tucked it in my pocket. It was no mystery why Ma gave it to me. I loved old things. She’d chosen well, and I’d thanked her.

“No place to hide a condom.” Pablito snickered.

I had to grin, because the kid made a good point. But looking out for a dozen younger cousins was a part of my life, so I felt obligated to add, “You’re not supposed to keep them in your wallet, anyway.”

“Eh.” He shook his head. “Like it would matter.”

Check please. I could not talk about sex with my sixteen-year-old cousin. Not today of all days. I tossed one last silverware roll onto the pile and stood. “Tengo que irme.” Gotta run.

He returned my fist bump. “Go on, then. Back to the good life. Don’t think of us, the little people.”

I cuffed him on the head, then ran into the kitchen to kiss my ma goodbye.

She wished me a happy birthday, and I thanked her for the cake and the present. “Bye. I need to go. I’m taking Alison out tonight.”

She eyed me for a few seconds. “Sé bueno,” she said finally. Be good.

Cristo. I could swear sometimes she had telepathic powers. When my mother got pregnant at nineteen, my so-called father had married her. But when I was a few months old, he’d gone back to his people in Mexico for a family funeral. And never came back.

Since then, it had been just the two of us — plus about three dozen aunts, uncles and cousins — but my mother had always impressed upon me that sex made babies and that good boys had a responsibility not to get girls in trouble.

My mother would not approve of what I had planned for tonight.

“I’m always good,” I told her. True statement. I planned to be very careful with Alison. Every single time. (I hoped there were many times.)

Before I left, my mother unleashed one last bit of Catholic guilt. She asked if I was coming home for my cousin’s christening in November. (I wasn’t sure.) She reminded me they were shorthanded at the restaurant (a familiar guilt trip, since I’d decided to go to college outside of the city) and she told me to have a happy birthday.

That last thing I could do.

I kissed her cheek one more time and ran out of there.

 

* * *

 

The Metro-North train from 125th Street wasn’t crowded, and I got a seat to myself. After watching the grit of New York transform into the green of Connecticut, I pulled out my phone to call my girlfriend.

“Hi,” she answered sounding a little breathless.

“Hi, angel. Happy birthday.”

“Happy birthday yourself!” I could hear her smile coming through the phone.

“I made the four-thirty, so we’re still good for seven o’clock.”

“I was just thinking about you,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Yeah?” I hoped she meant it in a good way.

“I love you, Rafe.”

Alison had said those words before. But there was something so serious about the way she said them now. “I love you too, Ali.”

“Tonight is going to be great.”

Warmth bloomed inside my chest. There had been too many moments during the past six months when I’d doubted Alison’s feelings for me. It was just so gratifying to hear she was looking forward to taking the next step.

“I can’t wait,” I whispered. “I hope dinner doesn’t take too long.”

She giggled. “See you soon.”

 

The train pulled into the Harkness, Connecticut station at six-fifteen. I ran the mile to campus because it saved me seven bucks, clearing the doorway of suite 307 in Beaumont House with just a half hour to get ready.

Unfortunately, both my roommates were home and bickering in the common room as usual.

When I passed them with my towel, they were arguing about politics, and when I came back freshly showered and shaved, they were arguing about tomorrow’s Giant’s game.

“You want some action on the game?” Mat asked me as I headed for my closet.

“No thanks.”

He turned his attention back to my roommate, Bickley. “Come on, fancy boy,” he taunted. “Bet me on the Giants. A hundred bucks. That’s like pocket change for you.”

“I will consider your wager,” Bickley countered, “if you shave that bit of ridiculousness off your lip.”

Alone in the bedroom I shared with Bickley, I chuckled. It’s not like I had time to witness the latest episode of The Mat and Bickley Show. But Mat’s experiment with facial hair was pretty hideous. Of course, the louder Bickley made this point, the longer Mat would keep his weird little ’stache.

“I’m not shaving it off,” Mat argued. “Tonight, when I have Devon’s balls in my mouth, I’m going to scrape it against his shaft.”

Cue a disgusted groan from the common room. “You arsehole,” Bickley spat. “No thank you for that image.”

“Then quit yapping and bet on the football game, sissy boy,” Mat said. “The spread is three and a half in favor of the Giants. I’ll even give you an extra point, okay? But only on a hundred bucks. No more.”

I rolled my eyes at this bit of salesmanship. Mat was a complete shark, and I was pretty sure that betting against Bickley was a major source of his income.

There was a silence while my roommate tried to decide whether there was a catch. Bickley was my soccer teammate, but as a Brit he didn’t have a lot of experience with American football. But he had trouble admitting that he wasn’t an expert at, well, pretty much anything.

The ego on Bickley? It was so large it had its own gravitational field. And the chip on Mat’s shoulder? It was as vast as the Grand Canyon. Between the two of them, I rarely had any peace.

“Give me the spread plus two,” Bickley countered in his clipped, aristocratic accent.

“Plus two? Forget it. I’ll call my bookie instead.”

“Well…” Bickley was about to cave. I could hear it. “Fine. Plus one on a hundred dollars. As soon as I look up the spread, you have a deal.”

“Seriously? If I tell you it’s three and a half, it’s three and a half.” Mat’s voice was full of irritation. But that was normal for him. Mat was a prickly guy. “Only a dick would lie about the point spread.”

“Trust but verify,” Bickley replied.

“You douche canoe,” Mat grumbled.

“What? You don’t want my money?” Bickley asked. “Ah. The point spread is indeed three and a half.” (His clipped British accent made it come out like hauf.)

Mat was silent for once.

A minute later, Bickley appeared in the doorway to our little room. “I feel good about this one,” he announced. With his designer jeans, polo shirt and preppy haircut, my roommate looked like a J. Crew ad come to life.

“Awesome,” I deadpanned. Not only was I sick of listening to these arguments, I had my own stuff to think about tonight.

“Where are you taking Alison?” he asked.

“The Slippery Elm.”

“Nice. Be sure to order the sweetbreads. They are a delicacy.”

“Wait — what the hell are those?” Taking dining advice from Bickley was nearly as risky as betting on football with Mat. The guy bragged about eating whale blubber in Japan and Haggis in Scotland. “Aren’t sweetbreads the calf’s balls, or something?”

“Pish. They are a gland and very buttery.” Bickley closed his eyes, smacking his lips with appreciation.

“I’ll take it under advisement.” The fancy restaurant lost its appeal all of a sudden. I was nervous enough about tonight without having to worry about which fork to use, too.

“Hopefully, I won’t see you here later,” Bickley added. “I know you bought earrings for Alison. But I hope she gives you the kind of gift that can’t be wrapped in a box.”

“I always wanted a pony,” I quipped, trying to steer Bickley away from this topic.

He flopped onto the bed, a gleam in his eye. “At brunch this morning, I heard your Ice Queen’s roommate say that she was staying away from their room tonight. This bodes well for you, sir.”

“Does it now?”

“Come on. You can tell Uncle Bickley. Are you going to finally shag that girl?”

I was, unless she’d changed her mind. “That’s none of your business, dude.”

“Very well. But I need to know if I can bring my date back here later. At least tell me that much.”

Bickley, to his sorrow, did not have our room to himself very often. Since I’d slept alone every night of my life (so far) his trysts usually happened elsewhere. When he did bring a girl home, they had to finish up at a reasonable hour. This made for the occasional awkward departure, where I kept my eyes on Bickley’s fancy television screen while he led his girlfriend-for-the-night out of the room.

My roommate had a whole lot of what everyone else called casual sex. In my head, though, those two words didn’t fit together. To me, there was nothing casual about getting naked with a girl. My sexual experiences — as limited as they were — had been intense. The first time my high school girlfriend let me touch her was an experience that was burned on my soul. The sounds she made, the heat of her body. The potent look in her eye when she…

Dios. “Casual” was not the right word at all.

I wanted all of that with Alison. And more. And the fact that I was supposed to have it all tonight? Mind-bending.

“Er, earth to Rafael.”

“Um,” I said stupidly. “You can have the room. If I come home, I’ll crash on the couch.”

“I hope it does not come to that.”

So did I.

“Do you need one of my suit jackets?”

“I’m good, thanks.” I’d rather wear my old one than borrow from Bickley. He’d probably lend me some Armani number that cost two grand, and I’d have to worry about wrinkling it. I didn’t need any extra reasons to feel jittery tonight.

The suit jacket I slipped on was the one I wore to church with my mother. It was a vintage 1940s blazer that I’d found in a Harlem thrift shop.

Funny how I was wearing my church jacket for the date where I would lose my virginity. And the next time I wore it would probably be to confession. Now there was a fun little irony.

I opened Bickley’s dorm fridge and grabbed the bottle of champagne I’d stashed there. The bottle went into a gift bag that I’d bought, along with a gift for Alison (silver earrings) and a gift for me (a box of condoms.)

With a wave to Mat and Bickley, I left.

The commute to Alison’s door took sixty seconds. Harkness College had twelve “houses.” But these were misleadingly named. Each house was a big stone or brick residence for several hundred students, with its own dining hall and library. Alison and I were both in the beautiful Beaumont House, with its gothic spires and slate flagstone walkways. As I strode across the courtyard, it impressed me, as usual, that Harkness students had been walking this path for a century. Ma had wanted me closer to home, and she meant well. But attending Harkness was an incredible opportunity, and I wasn’t about to feel guilty about it.

At Alison’s entryway door, I shivered as I peered into the little diamond-shaped pane of glass set into the oak. It was the third week of September, and we were having an early cold snap. But my chill? It was not due to the weather. Suddenly, I was nervous as hell.

Someone appeared in the entryway on the other side of the door. On a Saturday evening, there was always plenty of traffic in and out, as students returned from dining halls, libraries and coffee shops to get ready to party. So I wouldn’t have to call Alison to come down and let me in.

“Hey man.” The guy who opened Alison’s entryway door was in my French class. “Big date tonight?” He eyed the gift bag in my hand with a smirk.

“It’s her birthday,” I said quickly.

“Ah. Have fun,” he said, holding the door.

“Thanks. See you Monday,” I called as he walked away.

I stepped into the echoing stone stairway and began climbing the stairs. I loved this old stairwell, with its marble steps and its ironwork railing. Students had climbed these stairs to their rooms when jazz was still a brand new word. I didn’t hear any jazz right now, though. From behind the first door I passed came the sounds of a single-shooter video game. In the thirties, you might have heard the strains of somebody’s “wireless.” Or maybe a Victrola.

I was a bit of an antiques nut, which was kind of weird for a guy my age. But thinking about vintage audio equipment took my mind off my nerves. I was sweating just from climbing two flights up the curving stairwell. So when I reached Alison’s floor, I kept climbing. There was an odd little landing about ten steps further on. I set down my gift bag there, taking care to keep the bottle of champagne upright.

Removing my jacket, I took a deep breath. There was really no reason to be nervous around Alison. We’d been seeing each other since last spring, when we were both freshmen. We’d taken things slowly with our physical relationship. I was always ready for more, but Alison told me straightaway that she was a virgin, and when I admitted the same, she seemed enormously relieved.

I was patient with her, even though it was sometimes frustrating. There was a lot of kissing and cuddling on the couch. But she seemed to have a whole lot of sexual tripwires. One minute we’d be making out, and then suddenly she’d push me away. Not only did I always go home horny, I went home confused. And the confusion was by far the more painful condition. I didn’t like wondering what it was about me that didn’t quite do it for her.

After a couple of these awkward endings, I’d tried to get her to tell me what was wrong. But she’d just say, “I’m not comfortable,” and then change the subject.

And what kind of an asshole pressures his girlfriend for sex? I wasn’t going to be that guy.

There was a whole lot of good stuff between us, anyway. Alison always got my jokes, and I loved the way her face went soft when I paid her a compliment. I did that often, too. Because Alison was pretty great. She was smart and funny, as well as gorgeous. With all that fine, blond hair framing her face, when I looked at her, the word angel would pop into my head.

My mother said that Harkness College had given me an unhealthy attraction to pretty white girls. “What you need is a nice Latina,” she’d say. “Someone who will never look down on where you come from.”

Mostly I ignored my mother’s prejudice. But sometimes it was hard not to worry, or to read too much into Alison’s reluctance to get me naked. At Harkness I was surrounded by people who had a lot more money than I did, including Alison. I worried sometimes that she thought I wasn’t good enough for her.

That was probably just paranoia.

Summer vacation had separated us. I spent the month of June working in my mother’s restaurant, and trying not to die from heatstroke on the subway platform whenever she sent me on errands. At night, before I went to sleep, I’d lie on my little twin bed in our cramped apartment and talk to Alison on the phone, while the window unit blew cold(ish) air across my mostly naked body.

There was never any phone sex, of course. But I loved the sound of her soft voice in my ear, telling me all the things she put up with as an intern at the San Francisco art gallery where she worked. “I miss you, Rafe,” she’d say. “I was thinking about you when I was serving coffee to a table of old ladies. They’d asked for decaf, but I gave them all high-test by accident, because I was remembering that letter you’d written me on the old typewriter, instead of paying attention to the coffee.”

That made me laugh and miss her all the more. So I kept the old-fashioned letters coming. And the weeks flew by.

In July, Alison had called me, all excited. “Do you remember that international program in Ecuador that I applied to?”

Of course I did. After she’d been wait-listed, she’d cried a puddle onto the shoulder of my Harkness sweatshirt.

“A spot opened up! I’m leaving next week!”

“That’s awesome,” I’d said, feeling happy for her even though I knew I wouldn’t get to talk to her for six weeks. The Ecuador trip was an immersion program, and students weren’t supposed to speak to outsiders the entire time.

So that had sucked.

Needless to say, three weeks ago, when she’d finally stepped off the Connecticut Coach from LaGuardia airport to start our sophomore year, I’d been desperate to see her.

That first night back, I’d asked her to sleep in my bed for the first time. “I am not ready to let you go yet,” I’d told her. “Just stay with me. It isn’t a ploy to get your clothes off. And Bickley isn’t back until tomorrow, anyway.”

Her face had softened. “Okay, I can do that,” she’d said. I was actually stunned that she went along with it, because whenever I’d suggested she spend the night before, she’d turned me down.

But not this time. I’d given her one of my T-shirts to wear, and she’d looked sexy as hell in it. Of course, when we’d settled into my bed together, my body had gotten big ideas all its own. So I’d rolled onto my back and pulled her head onto my shoulder.

She felt terrific in my arms. I’d loved holding her, sneaking kisses here and there. “This is nice,” I’d said.

“Yes it is,” she’d agreed. We were silent for awhile before she said, “I know you’ve waited a long time for sex.”

I was so stunned she’d brought up the topic I hadn’t said anything for a moment. “S’okay,” I choked out eventually.

“We have birthdays coming up,” she continued. “Maybe that should be… a big night for us.”

Again, I was too stunned to answer. A few beats went by before I managed to agree with her. “That would be incredible,” I finally whispered.

“I think it will be.” She rubbed my chest with one hand, massaging a slow circle on my pec. Meanwhile, my dick hardened into something approximating an iron bar, just on the possibility that she was actually suggesting what I thought she was suggesting.

I slept very little that night. And for these past two weeks, whenever I kissed Alison goodnight, I became comically horny.

And now? I was hiding in a stairwell, practically splitting out of my skin with nervous anticipation.

Three and a half floors below me, the entryway door slammed. I heard footstep. Someone was jogging up the stairs.

That woke me up. I took a moment to fold my jacket over my arm and pick up the gift bag again. After giving myself the once-over, I began to quietly descend the stairs, as if it were perfectly normal for me to come from that direction. If I passed whomever was climbing, I’d give him a calm nod. Everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here. Just your average twenty year old on his way to get his V-card stamped. Carry on.

But I didn’t get the chance. The climbing footsteps stopped, and I heard a sharp rap on a wooden door. Then, the click of a door opening. “Surprise!” a guy’s voice called.

Weirdly, the guy’s voice seemed to originate from Alison’s doorway. I’m not sure why, but I took the last three or four stairs at a slow, stealthy pace. Just as Alison’s startled voice said, “Oh my God! What are you doing here?” the guy came into view.

He was tall and thin, but my attention went straight to the shiny Rolex hanging loosely on his wrist. I’m from New York City, so I could spot those at a hundred yards. Mr. Rolex was a rich boy.

“I told you I wanted to see you again. And what better time than on your birthday?” He stepped into Alison’s room, disappearing from view.

Some kind of gravitational force drew me down the last steps quickly enough to wedge my foot between the door and its frame. The view I saw next was sickening. Mr. Rolex had wrapped his arms around Alison’s waist, and was liplocked to the girl.

My girl.

“What the fuck?” I said, pushing the door open. And since the question was reverberating through my mind like a gong, I said it a second time. “What. The. Fuck?”

Alison’s arms shot out to her sides, as if she’d just received an electric jolt. Mr. Rolex let her go and turned around. “Who are you?” he asked, his eyebrows disappearing into his hundred-dollar haircut.

“Who am I? I’m the boyfriend.” I was sputtering with indignation, but I couldn’t stop talking. “The boyfriend since last April. That’s… five months ago. Almost six.” As if an accurate accounting really mattered.

Alison’s mouth kept opening and closing, like the goldfish I used to keep in a little bowl on the window sill in our apartment.

Mr. Rolex was not so quiet. And he looked almost as surprised as I felt. “The boyfriend? We were together for six weeks in Ecuador, and you never mentioned a boyfriend.”

At least I wasn’t the only one interested in getting the accounting right.

“I told you I wasn’t looking for a relationship,” she whispered in his direction.

“But you never said why. I guess that makes me an idiot.” Mr. Rolex actually had the balls to look sad about it.

Now that I’d been standing in the room for almost a minute, other little details were making themselves clear to me. Mr. Rolex had a bouquet of roses in one hand.

Flowers! I forgot flowers. To strew on the bed.

Wait. There wasn’t going to be any strewing. Or any bed. My feeble brain could barely wrap itself around the vastness of this problem. It was just so unexpected. I’d never wondered if Alison had someone on the side. Even if we’d never been naked together, we’d been together. For a long time.

I stood there, slack-jawed, my silly little gift bag in my hand, realizing I’d missed something important. “If she didn’t want a relationship from you,” I asked Mr. Rolex, “then what did she want? A Scrabble opponent?” My face began to heat as truth smoldered in my chest. “A study buddy? A foot massage?” I turned to face her directly. “Tonight was supposed to be the night we both lost our virginity, Alison.”

“Well that is not quite possible,” Mr. Rolex sputtered.

That’s when my heart really hit the deck. Alison had been saying that she wasn’t ready for sex. But she just didn’t want it with me.

My humiliation was like a many-tentacled monster — squeezing me everywhere at once. I let out one more hot breath, then spun on my heel.

“I’m sorry, Rafe,” she said as I wrenched open the door. “I’m so sorry.”

I’ll bet. Her door slammed behind me as I left. It slammed hard. Hard enough to wake the ghosts of students who had lived in Beaumont House when it was still new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bella

 

The new hockey coach had just blown the whistle, calling the third practice of the season to a close.

Now my boys were streaming back into the locker room, dropping helmets and gear all over the benches. With red faces and sweaty hair, they peeled off their layers, seconds away from heading for the showers.

I planted myself in the middle of the room, clipboard in hand. Putting two fingers in my mouth, I gave a whistle loud enough to echo off the tiles. That got their attention. “Guys, listen up! I need two minutes of your time!” It got quiet enough for me to speak normally. “First of all, unless your mother is dropping by later to clean up after you, used towels go into the hamper when you’re through.” I aimed this message at the freshmen. They always needed some schooling at the beginning of the year.

“Now,” I continued, “I only got seventeen health forms back. That means seven of you need to get that sucker back to me, or you won’t be allowed to suit up for next week’s preseason scrimmage against those punks at Quinnipiac.”

“Punks!” someone yelled, agreeing with me.

“Finally — I’m putting in our gear order tomorrow morning. So, if you have any equipment failures, I need to know ASAP.”

Davies, a senior defenseman, turned his giant, naked body in my direction. He put a hand over his bare chest in mock surprise. “Who are you accusing of equipment failures, Bella? My fragile male ego can’t take that kind of insinuation.”

I gave him an eye roll. “Your equipment is top notch, Davies. But if you come to me next week needing a new stick, it will be you who’s paying the extra coin for overnight shipping.”

“My stick is in fine working order,” he smirked.

“Nice. You can give me a demonstration sometime.”

“Wait.” He stuck a hand in the air. “Can you get some more of those extra-wide skate laces?”

“Not a problem,” I said, making a note of it.

I scanned the room, looking for anyone else who might be trying to get my attention. My gaze came to rest on the freshmen whom I’d housed together at lockers in one corner of the room. One in particular was sneaking looks in my direction. “Guys, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, okay? Better to let me know before it’s too late.”

“Mouth guards?” asked the newb I’d caught watching me over his shoulder. His name was O’Hane, and he had a baby face and a sprinkling of freckles across his nose. He’d turned only his head in my direction, keeping his private parts facing the locker.

“We stock the basic ones in the supply closet, but if you want something special you have to tell me which model.”

“Okay, thanks,” he said. “And…” I waited for him to spit it out, but instead he turned toward his locker, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. Then he came over, arms crossed protectively. “Is there a sporting goods store nearby?”

“Well…” Harkness was not a big town, and the shopping options within walking distance were limited. “There’s nowhere to buy gear, if that’s what you mean. Not unless you have access to a car.” And most of us didn’t, because parking was scarce here, too. “Shoes and sweats are easy to find, though. What are you looking for?”

His cheeks pinked up. “Gear. Can I see the catalog?”

“Of course.” I handed it over, tapping a toe while he flipped through the pages.

He stopped near the back of the book, a frown furrowing his youthful brow.

“Problem?” I asked.

Nervous eyes flickered up to mine. “I need,” he dropped his voice so low I almost didn’t hear the last part. “A cup.”

“Oh, honey, that’s easy.” He might not know it, but dicks were one of my specialties. I took the catalog from his hands. “Which brand are you used to?”

His face reddened further. “Can’t remember,” he said, studying the floor. “I accidentally brought my, um, little brother’s instead of mine.”

Ah, freshmen. They weren’t used to taking care of themselves. “The one you have doesn’t fit? Your cup runneth over?”

He barked out a nervous laugh. “Yeah. But the ones in the catalog don’t look the same.”

“Eh. It’s not rocket science. Are you wearing it in compression shorts or in a jock?”

“Shorts.”

“Do you want your dangler to point down, or are you used to tucking it up at the top.”

“Down,” he said to the floor.

I cuffed his shoulder. “No problem, O’Hane. I’ve got you covered, so to speak. I’ll order it for you.”

“Thanks,” he said in a strangled voice, then headed for the showers.

Our new coach was next to walk by. “Coach Canning!” I called, halting him.

“Yeah?” The new guy was a lot younger than our retired coach. He had a sort of grumpy edge to him that I did not appreciate. Some people don’t realize that gruffness wasn’t necessary to earn respect.

I gave him a friendly smile nonetheless. “I’m putting in my equipment order first thing tomorrow. If you need to add anything, you can email me tonight.”

“Thanks,” he said, snapping his gum. “Hey, should you be in the locker room?”

“Um,” I checked my watch. The barbecue didn’t start for another half hour. And I wasn’t in charge of the party. That was sissy work. “Is there somewhere else I’m supposed to be right now?”

He frowned. “No, I meant… the guys don’t mind?”

That just made me stare at him. Seriously? “Coach Canning, the players are in the locker room. I can’t get them what they need if I’m not here, too.”

“Yeah. That’s true,” he said, an unreadable expression on his stupid, grumpy face.

“Don’t forget,” I said slowly, “female journalists have been permitted in locker rooms since before I was born. Including this locker room.”

He stared me down for a long beat. And then he walked off without another word.

I stood there for a minute wondering what had just happened. As the student manager for our kick-ass men’s hockey team, I solved the players’ problems, and I moved people from point A to point B on schedule. I was good at it. Sure, it was a job that was usually held by a guy. But there was no reason it had to be a guy. All that was required was a good attitude and an all-consuming love of hockey. That was me. Surely Coach Canning would realize sooner or later that I lived for this job.

Anyway, it was time for the annual barbecue.

Though for the first time, I didn’t quite feel the level of excitement that usually came with the rush of hockey season. These were my closest friends. In a few weeks’ time, we’d spend every weekend traveling the Eastern Seaboard together, playing teams from Maine to Newark. I’d get to watch every game from the bench, which was just about the coolest thing in the world.

Even so, tonight I felt… down. Hopefully a beer and a pulled-pork sandwich could fix it.

 

* * *

 

A few hours later, I stood in our retired coach’s backyard, still feeling strangely wistful. All the rituals of Coach’s annual barbecue had held up tonight. Vast quantities of meat were eaten. Potato salad and coleslaw were consumed. Beers were drunk. This year there were two coaching speeches—one by our retiring Coach (in which he quoted several dead presidents,) and one by the new guy. And, as always, there were cupcakes for dessert, because Coach’s wife liked them.

But I was still chased by an unexpected sadness.

In the first place, there was an undeniable hole in my heart where last year’s seniors had been. I could hardly believe we were starting the season without Hartley and Groucho and Smitty. That just seemed wrong.

Not only did I miss them, but the progression was suddenly terrifying. Because this was my last year. How was that even possible?

I glanced around Coach’s darkened yard with fresh eyes. A year from now, most of these players would be standing here again, celebrating the start of yet another season. But where would I be?

The truth was that I had no clue. None at all. Until now, I hadn’t let it bother me. Four years had always seemed like a long time. So whenever my family prodded me with questions about my lack of plans after graduation, I’d found it easy to brush them off.

Rather than worry about the future, I’d immersed myself in a fun major (psychology) the best sport in the world (ice hockey) and my favorite people (hockey players). But now I felt as though an excellent book was coming to an end, and the slim stack of remaining pages in my right hand felt entirely insufficient.

With the party easing towards its conclusion, I wound up standing with the dates. There was Amy, our new captain Trevi’s girlfriend, and also our goalie Orsen’s date, whose name I had not caught.

“Who are you here with?” Orsen’s new little friend asked me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that question. I opened my mouth to explain that I wasn’t with anyone, but catty Amy beat me to the punch. “She’s here with everyone,” she snickered.

Lovely. Amy was one of the girlfriends who’d never liked me. “I’m the team manager,” I explained. I wouldn’t dignify Amy’s cattiness by getting irritated.

“Oh,” the newcomer said. “That must be exciting.”

“I hear that it is,” Amy practically hissed.

I tried not to roll my eyes. A lot of the girlfriends didn’t know what to do with me. They didn’t like how often I saw their boyfriends naked. They didn’t like wondering if I’d ever been naked with their boyfriends. The price of being me was that my reputation often preceded me. As a matter of fact I had hooked up with Trevi once, before he’d met Amy. But it was so long ago I didn’t even remember the details.

The Amys of the world pissed me off sometimes. But tonight I kept my cool, because you can’t let the mean girls win. “It’s a great job. The bench is the best seat in the house for the games,” I said. If anything should bother the girlfriends, it was my game-day privileges. Because hockey was awesome and they were missing out.

A few feet away, Trevi and Orsen were deep into an argument about the Bruins’ prospects this year. “You can’t say that there’s a hole in their lineup,” Orsen argued.

“You’re right.” Trevi chuckled. “It’s more like a gaping void.”

“Boys,” I jumped in. “The gaping void is here.” I held up my empty beer bottle. “Who wants another?”

“I’ll get ’em,” Orsen said. “Coach’ll probably kick us out soon, anyway. It’s almost ten.” He strode off toward the beer table.

“What’s shakin’ Bella?” Trevi asked, draining his beer in preparation for the next round.

“The usual. Trying to get the freshmen settled in. Trying to pick a topic for my senior thesis. How about you? Is it true that the Blackhawks are taking a look at you?”

Trevi grinned. “They’re lookin’. Doesn’t mean they’ll kneel down and pop the question.”

“I’ve got a good feeling about it,” I told him with a friendly squeeze of his arm. Amy’s face contorted, as if she’d swallowed something bitter. But I was excited about his prospects whether she liked it or not. There were several scouts circling the team. My guys had made a lot of headlines last year, finishing the season in the number-two slot in the country. The NHL was definitely going to be snapping up some of them.

See? Everyone had a plan but me. Or, if not a plan, at least they had a dream.

“Hey guys!”

I turned my head to see one of my former dreams walking into Coach’s yard. Michael Graham was the second guy I had ever really fallen for. And — because I had a perfect record for romantic disaster — the second one to break my heart.

“We missed you at practice today,” Trevi said, speaking aloud what I had been thinking. “Don’t know why you had to take up sports writing when I could use you on the blue line.”

My favorite ex-defenseman just grinned. “I had a blast today.”

“Doing what?” I stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss on the cheek, careful not to lean in too far. I didn’t want to get trapped in a memory. The feel of his skin against mine was a craving I’d struggled to overcome.

He gave my back a friendly pat before continuing. “I spent four hours on the river with the crew team. I thought I was just there to watch, but one of the heavyweights had a knee that was bothering him. So the captain said, ‘Dude, get in here. We’ll show you what crew is all about.’” Chuckling, Graham grabbed his stomach. “Fuck. Rowing is hard. My abs will never be the same.”

Not too long ago I would have offered to kiss it and make it better. Unfortunately, somebody else had that honor these days. I plastered a smile on my face. But my heart gave a little swerve, because the guy just looked so freaking happy.

Gone was the broody Graham I used to love. He’d been replaced by this lighthearted creature who was almost unrecognizable to me but for the familiar bulky muscles and his icy blue eyes. The Graham I’d known hadn’t smiled at everything that moved. He was dark and a little jaded, like me. But these days he was practically glowing.

Was there nobody else in the world who was confused about life?

“How does your D-squad look this year?” Graham asked Trevi.

“Is this on the record?”

“No, asshole,” Graham said with a chuckle. “Just some friendly conversation.”

Trevi grinned. “They’re young but scrappy. I like these freshmen. I really do.”

We all turned to glance over at O’Hane and the other frosh, who had gathered near the beer table. “They have good foot speed,” I remarked. “I especially liked that kid Hopper at practice today.”

“Wait,” came a new voice. “Who does Bella like? I need this intel for the season-opening bets.” Big-D, a senior defenseman, lumbered up to our circle and put his hands on his hips. “There’s a pool going on which freshman Bella goes home with first.”

Trevi’s girlfriend tittered, then slapped a palm over her mouth.

Lovely.

Again, I kept my bravado, even though his comment grated on me. It was true that I’d had a lot of sex with hockey players. (One at a time, usually.) But the players weren’t saints, either. And nobody was starting a betting pool about any of them.

Double standard, much?

I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like Big-D or his comments. Beside me, I sensed a spike in Graham’s blood pressure. “You ass,” he hissed. “Don’t start that shit or I’ll—”

“No you won’t.” I planted a hand on Graham’s chest. “Let it go, man. Everybody knows that Big-D only talks smack about me because I won’t take him home again. Once was plenty.”

Big-D’s mouth hardened, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I let go of Graham and gave Big-D an evil grin. “You should know better than to offend the team manager. You might get the shittiest hotel rooms on every road trip from now until April. Your skate blades might not get sharpened, and your meal vouchers could get lost.”

“I was just teasing, Bella.” He gave me a self-conscious smile. “You wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Try me.

“Tough crowd here for a Saturday.” Big-D shook his enormous head, as if we were all just a little too touchy. Then he turned and ambled toward the house.

“I hate that fucking guy,” Graham said after Big-D had gone.

“He’s just really insecure,” I said. It was true, too. Big-D wasn’t a pretty boy like Graham, or witty, like Trevi. And he didn’t have Orsen’s natural warmth. He was harder to love, and he knew it. As a result, he lashed out, making himself into an even bigger ass.

Did I mention that I was a psych major?

The truth was that people were always going to talk smack about me because I didn’t hide the fact that I’d had more than a few sexual partners. Girls who played the field got called names. I knew the drill.

Also, while we’re being honest, I had been scoping out the rookies earlier, pondering the fresh offerings. Last year I went home with a freshman from this very event. Proximity to the hottest athletes at Harkness was an important perk of my job.

“What do you think of the football team this year?” Trevi asked Graham, changing the subject. Because a good captain knows when to defuse.

Graham began to talk about quarterbacks. I wasn’t much of a football fan myself. So I tuned him out, tipping my chin toward the sky to look for stars. Harkness was located in a rather industrial part of Connecticut, and usually there’s too much light pollution to see them.

Not for the first time tonight, I felt my attitude sag. The temperature was dropping fast, hinting at winter’s approach. The chill seeped into my core. I stepped closer to Graham, who draped an arm around my shoulder. I appreciated the gesture, but it didn’t really solve the problem. The empty feeling I was working tonight was bigger than a friendly hug or the beers I’d drunk.

The caterers began to take down the beer table, signifying the end of the season-opening barbecue.

My last season-opening barbecue.

The year stretched before me felt like that giant hourglass in the Wizard of Oz, ticking down while Dorothy panics.

Behind me, a group of hockey players began to laugh hard over some joke I’d missed. Their jolly voices echoed into the night, making me feel more alone.

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