First Chapter: The Understatement of the Year
Faceoff: the start of play, in which the referee drops the puck between two opposing players.
In all my favorite movies, when something bad was going happen, the protagonist usually sensed it. He saw a sign, or felt a disturbance in the force. But that’s not how my real life worked. And I’m no action hero. So you can be sure that I didn’t see it coming.
My whole life, I never had. Not when it counted, anyway.
That afternoon was the first hockey practice of the season. We were all banging around in the locker room, feeling lucky. Our lineup looked great, too. There were a couple of enormous Canadian recruits, with thick French accents and even thicker beards. We’d known them for all of a half hour, and already one of them had earned himself the nickname Pepé, like the cartoon character Pepé le Pew. And it looked like we were just going to call the other one Frenchie. Because we’re real creative like that.
I was almost done suiting up, but my practice jersey snagged on an exposed patch of Velcro on my shoulder pad. After I struggled for a moment, someone yanked it into place from behind.
“Now you’re sorted.” Both the voice and the assistance came from my friend Bella. And when I turned to face her, she gave me her trademarked apple-cheeked grin.
“Thanks, Mom,” I teased.
She kicked me in the ass, hard enough to feel it through my pads. “Graham, you’re supposed to call me Oh Great One this year,” she said. “Why don’t you practice now? Say, ‘thank you, Oh Great One.’”
Bella was a strange bird, but in the best possible way. A rich girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she was the most rabid hockey fan I’d ever met, though her snooty parents (and I’d met them) had never seen a game, let alone the inside of a locker room. Nobody knew where Bella came by her enthusiasm for the sport.
Her lust for hockey was exceeded only by her lust for the players. There weren’t exact figures, but I was pretty sure she’d slept with 75 percent of the team. Present company included.
This would be the first season that Bella was with us in an official capacity, as our student manager. The power was definitely going to her head. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but I didn’t get the chance. Because Coach James banged the hallway door open, and we all turned to give him our attention.
“Look at this room full of hooligans! Who the fuck are you guys, anyway? Slackers, all of ya. Now, I’ve got some announcements. So shut yer yawps long enough to hear ‘em all.” His wrinkled face got serious. “First the bad news. Over the summer, Bridger McCaulley dropped hockey, citing family hardship. I yelled at him for an hour, and it didn’t change things. So it must really be true.”
An unhappy murmur traveled the room. That wasn’t good. McCaulley was a solid wing, and I’d always liked the guy.
“The good news is that we have a new player, a transfer from Saint B’s. He’s a sophomore, forward line. So, the lord taketh away wings and he also giveth them back.”
Another body appeared in the open doorway, rolling a hockey bag. And when I saw that face — those big dark eyes, looking out from under a familiar mop of shiny dark hair — I have never been caught so far off guard in my life. Seriously, the edges of my vision went a little funny. And the sound of Coach’s voice began to waver, as if I were hearing him from underwater.
It was a sudden clatter that brought me back to the surface. A moment later, Bella was handing me my helmet with a puzzled look on her face. I’d actually dropped it right onto the floor with a bang.
And then the muscle memory that I’d developed from years of covering up all kinds of reactions kicked in. I took the helmet from Bella and flipped up the cage, as if opening the clips was the most fascinating thing I’d ever done.
Coach’s voice rambled on at the front of room as he introduced the new guy. “…Good foot speed and incredible stats from his season at Saint B's. He’s a terrific addition to the room. Please welcome Johnny Rikker to the team.”
The sound of his name was like a punch to the stomach. I sat down hard on the bench behind me, bending over like someone who’d been hammered into the boards. Reaching down, I tugged my skate guards free, just to give myself a reason to cower with my head between my legs. And removing the rubber strips from my skate blades was harder than it should have been, because my hands were actually shaking.
Jesus, Graham, I ordered myself. Get a grip.
“Hartley!” Coach bellowed at our team captain. “Rikker can have McCaulley’s old locker. That okay with you?”
“Yeah,” Hartley answered, his voice rough. He and McCaulley were best friends from way back. So Hartley didn’t sound too pleased about it. “Come on over here,” he said anyway, calling the new player. The one whose eyes I was going to avoid from now until graduation.
I retied my skates, just so I’d have something to do.
Coach said, “Let’s get out there! On the ice in one minute, kids.” Then he disappeared.
“How’d you transfer, exactly?” Hartley asked Rikker. And he must not have been the only one who was curious, because the locker room stayed quiet. There were about a hundred ACAA rules against transferring. Usually, if you wanted to switch schools to play Division One hockey, you had to sit out a year.
I heard a familiar chuckle, which made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. “I don’t think we have the time right now for that story.”
God. The sound of him was like being scraped raw. The rough quality of his voice turned me inside out with memories. Both good and bad.
“…I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Over beers. It’s the kind of story that requires alcohol.”
Hartley chuffed out a laugh. “Okay. But with a buildup like that, it better be good.”
“Trust me,” Rikker muttered.
I couldn’t sit there any longer after that. Feeling like I might pop out of my skin, I stood up fast and went for the rink door. Yanking it open, I felt the cold slap of rink air on my face. I sucked down a deep, icy breath, and hurried down the chute, the rubber floor pads springing back against my steel blades. Without slowing down, I stepped over the lip, pushing off across the slick surface.
My heart was still banging around in my chest. So I bent my legs and powered forward, flying down the rink. The boards passing beside me began to blur. Skating hard would help steady me.
It would have to.
In hockey, unlike other sports, there aren’t many time-outs. And that’s too bad. Because after walking into that locker room and getting a quick glimpse at Michael Graham’s face, I really could have used one.
I knew he’d be in there. I’d read the team roster before I transferred. And I thought I was prepared for it. After all, I’d had five years to get over being angry. The scars on my face had long since healed, and the broken ribs were a distant memory. I’d moved on in so many ways.
Crossing that crowded room, I’d only gotten a glimpse of him. But a glance was enough to make me understand just how hard this was going to be. Because you never really get over your first love, right?
That’s what the lyrics of pop songs tell me, anyway.
He didn’t even look the same. All this time I’d been picturing that skinny, scared teenager who’d left me bleeding on the asphalt. But version 2.0 of Graham suiting up in the corner was a big bruiser of a defenseman. I didn’t need X-ray vision to see that there was a hell of a lot of muscle underneath those pads. Dayum. But looking down from atop the new rocking bod were the same icy blue eyes, framed by the thickest blond eyelashes I ever saw on a guy.
And I’ve looked at plenty.
The sight of him was enough to give my heart a big old kick. Unfortunately, the look on his face told me that there were tough times ahead. Because the dude did not look happy to see me.
Of course he didn’t. No surprise there. If he’d wanted to remember that I existed, he might have called some time in the last five years. Or emailed. Or texted. I already knew he was as done with me as a person could be.
But damn if his scowl didn’t hurt.
There weren’t any time-outs, though. Not in life, and not in hockey. So I was just going to have to deal with that shit later. Right now it was time to skate. And to say that I’d have something to prove to this team was the understatement of the year. The new guy always does, right? Now, take that typical burden, and multiply by a hundred. That’s what it was going to take once they heard my story.
So I strapped on my pads as fast as possible. Everyone else cleared out of the locker room except for the captain. That guy — the one they called Hartley — seemed to be waiting for me. “You don’t have to be late on my account,” I said, tugging on my skate laces.
“No big thing.” He stood twirling the blade of his stick on the floor. “I’ve heard the opening day speeches before. Coach likes to quote dead presidents.”
“Yeah?” I glanced around. The locker room looked brand new. “Nice place you got here.”
“Right?” Hartley agreed with me. “It was pretty skanky before the renovation. Now there’s a new weight room. New showers. New everything.”
I stood up and crossed the room in my skates, peering around the corner at the tiled facilities in the adjacent shower room. “Maybe that’s why Coach took me on. You’ve got shower stalls with doors on ‘em.”
“How’s that?” Hartley didn’t catch my tactless joke. So that meant Coach had not given him a heads up about me.
I probably should have just shut up then. But the past year had wrung me out. So if Hartley was going to freak out on me, I’d rather just get it over with.
Looking him in the eye, I said, “My transfer came through because the ACAA took a stand on Saint B's chucking me off the team.” I picked up my stick, and so Hartley turned toward the ice door, holding it open for me.
“That’s cool. But I’m still not following you,” he said, leading the way down the chute.
“The coach at Saint B's is a hardcore Catholic. And a bigot, I guess.” Hartley didn’t turn around, so I just plunged ahead. “I’m gay, dude.”
Hartley’s back was to me as we walked toward the ice. I felt the seconds ticking by as he covered the last ten feet or so to the plexi door. Putting his glove on the handle, he finally turned to face me. His expression was a hell of a lot more thoughtful than I expected from the average jock. “Coach doesn’t bring in just anybody,” he said. “He must believe you’ll be a good fit for the team.”
“I’m sure I can be,” I said, hoping like hell that it was true.
Hartley shoved a glove under his arm and snapped his helmet shut. “The athletic department is pretty clear where it stands on this issue.”
For a second, I bristled at the idea that I was an issue. But what Hartley said was both accurate and informed. One of the reasons I’d transferred to Harkness was that they put the “liberal” in liberal arts. They had even done a campaign around inclusiveness in sports last year. It was called If You Can Play, You Should Play. On the college website, I’d watched a three-minute film of student athletes repeating that phrase, and a narrator assuring the listener that all students were welcome on sporting teams, regardless of sexual orientation.
It was the most progressive thing I’d ever seen. And I hoped like hell that they really meant it.
“I saw the video,” I told him. “Didn’t see your face in it, though.” In other words, What do you think, pal?
“Don’t read anything into that,” he chuckled. “I was laid up all of last year, and not Coach’s favorite person.” His smile was rueful. “Welcome to Harkness, man. You can play this however you want. If you need me to say something to the team for you, let me know.” His brown eyes studied me.
So far, his reaction was as good as I could have ever expected. “I haven’t decided how to play it,” I said truthfully. I’d never been out to my teammates before. And I probably wouldn’t choose to be now, if I could help it.
Hartley swung the ice door open. “Let me know. But for now, we skate.”
I went out hard. Ridiculously hard. I skated as if demons were chasing me. And they were. Because this was the last stop on the hockey train for me. Transferring from one great college hockey team to another one was just not something that happened to people. I was all kinds of lucky to be here.
If this didn’t work out, I wouldn’t get another shot on goal. And I loved this game. As a twenty-one-year-old sophomore, I was eligible to play for three seasons on this team. If they’d have me.
After a warm-up, which I skated as if there would be a quiz later, Coach set up a passing drill. And I lost myself in it. I gave every particle of my attention to the pucks flying at me. This was what had kept me sane the past five years. Hockey required absolute focus on the puck and on the other bodies flying around. If you let your mind wander, even for a split second, it all went to shit; the other guy stole the puck, or you found yourself squashed like a bug into the plexi.
I was good at this — at surrendering my conscious mind to the game. Ninety minutes went by before I knew it. When coach blew that whistle for the last time, I was dripping sweat. When I yanked the helmet off my head, I could see steam rising up from inside it.
“Next time we’ll scrimmage, I promise,” Coach said as we filed past him, breathing heavy. “I’m not a total asshole.” Coach had a kind word for every guy as he stepped off the ice. “Good hustle,” he’d say. Or, “Bring that attitude back next time.”
I was the last one to step off, and he grabbed my forearm. “Well done, kid. You bring that foot speed with you every day, you won’t have to answer to nobody.”
“That’s the idea,” I said.
Coach chuckled. “I got a good feeling about this. You’re going to shake ‘em up a little bit, but there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll want to stay close to your Captain, okay? Hartley is a good kid. The best there is.”
“Roger that,” I said, heading for the locker room.
The lockers, I’d noticed, weren’t lockers at all. The Harkness dressing room had attractive wooden cabinets instead. They looked a little like the cubbies I remembered from preschool. Only this was a preschool for warriors. Every guy had about three feet of space, and there was room for the skates, the pads, and a shelf above for the helmet. It was more Ritz Carlton than locker room.
Everything was open to the air, which was damned smart. It would keep the good old hockey stench to a minimum. If the renovation had been done right — and I was sure that it had — this place would also have a billion-horsepower ventilation system.
There was a bench at the bottom of each guy’s space, which meant that when you sat down to unlace your skates, you were facing out. That setup made the room feel spacious, but it wasn’t ideal for me. If I was going to convince my new team that I wasn’t scary like the devil, I couldn’t be staring at them while they stripped. So I turned the other way, lifting one foot onto the rubberized bench to unlace my skates.
“Towels are around the corner,” Hartley said as he pulled off his pads. “It’s your basic setup.”
“Well, hallo!” a female voice said into my ear. I looked up to see a very attractive curly-haired girl with a clipboard smiling at me. “I’m Bella. I’m the student manager this year. So if you need anything, you come and find me.” Then she actually put her hand up to the side of my sweaty face. “Anything at all,” she added. Then she flounced away.
Beside me, Hartley began chuckling. I risked a look at him, and he grinned big. “She’s not subtle,” he said. “Let her down easy, okay? You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Bella.” Then he laughed again.
Whatever. I took my time setting up my locker area. I wrote RIKKER on the white board above my cubby, with the marker provided. Seriously, they’d thought of everything.
Hartley disappeared into the showers. When he returned, wearing only a towel, I left for my own rinse down. Stepping into the brand spanking new shower stall, I pulled the curtain closed. And I stayed in there a long time, letting the hot water beat down on me. By the time I came out, there were very few players left. Hartley was gone. And so was Graham. If I had to put money on it, I would have bet that he was the first one out of the room after practice.
Out on the ice, I’d been too wrapped up in the drills to look around much. But I did notice that each time I came face to face with another player on the lineup, that face was never Graham’s.
It’s not that I expected a warm welcome from him. Five years ago, he’d made it very clear that we were no longer friends. Or anything else. And it didn’t take a genius to see that Graham had decided that he was a straight guy now. Or at least deep in the closet.
So he was probably shitting bricks right now, wondering if I’d start any conversations with, “Guess what Graham tried out in high school?” But I would never do that. Last year at Saint B's, I’d been outed against my will, and it had been awful. Nobody deserved that. I’d never tell tales on Graham, because if I did, I’d just be sinking to their level.
He wouldn’t know that, though. And seeing me was probably a huge shock. I just hoped that Graham could pull himself together enough to at least shake my hand. Or it was going to be a really long year.
Someone had added a note to my white board. “Capri’s Pizza, 7 PM,” it read. It was signed, “H.”
Huh. That could be read either as an invitation or an order.
Stick with your captain, Coach had said.
Okay, then. I would.
Changing on the fly: the substitution of players between the ice and the bench while the clock is running.
We were sitting at Capri’s with the first pitchers of the season in front of us. Most of the team was crammed into four or five of the little old booths. And the first pizza order of the year had gone in about half an hour ago.
This was my favorite spot in the world, and with all my favorite people. I should have been relaxed.
I wasn’t. Not even a little.
My first glass of beer lasted about twenty seconds. Bella noticed, and promptly refilled it.
“You know, you’re a natural at this manager thing,” I said, looping my arm over her shoulders. “I can see that now.”
“Of course I am,” she said, lifting her own glass. “What do you have going on for the weekend?”
It was still that glorious early part of the semester, when nobody had any studying to do yet. “The usual. Tonight I really need to get wasted. And laid.”
“For you, it should really just be all one word. Because that’s how you roll.” She tipped her head toward mine, her eyes smiling. “You’re going to get… laisted. Because that sounds better than waid.”
“If you say so.” I pulled her closer to me, and tried to relax. But I felt as if a concrete block had been parked on my chest.
More beer to the rescue. I tipped my glass back and drank deep.
“We need a new win song for this year,” Hartley was saying. “What do you got?”
“‘After Midnight,’” I said quickly, just to get a rise out of Bella.
“No fucking way,” she said immediately. “Clapton may be a living legend, but the man did not write win songs. I think we should use ‘What the Hell.’” Bella wiggled her hips to try to get a little more room on the bench. The booth was a tight fit. But that was okay. Because we were tight, Bella and I. It was fair to say that she was my best friend.
“That’s a good song,” Hartley said, because he was like that — always so fucking diplomatic. “But I’m thinking the win song should probably be by an artist who has a dick.”
Bella snorted. “You know how much I enjoy dicks, Captain. But ‘What the Hell’ is a great song. Even if it is by a girl.”
“‘Can’t Hold Us,’” somebody threw in.
“We’ve worn out Macklemore,” Bella argued. “But I’ll take it under advisement.”
“What, like you’re picking?” Hartley asked, refilling her beer.
“I have keys to the AV system in the locker room. I’m really just pretending to consider your suggestions here.”
Like I said before, the power was going to her head.
“How about ‘“Timber?’” Hartley nudged Bella. “Pitbull and Kesha. Something for everyone.”
“Not bad, Captain. Not bad.”
The loudspeaker cracked. “Forty-two! Forty-two, your pies are ready.”
“That’s us!” Bella cheered. She grabbed the ticket off the table and wiggled away from me. I gave her ass a pinch as she went. “Don’t just fondle me, chump,” she said, standing beside the table with a hand on her hip. “Do I look like I could carry two pies by myself?”
“You do, actually,” I said, sliding out to follow her. “But I’ll help. Save our seats,” I called over my shoulder. We wove through the crowd toward the ratty old counter in back. The Capri brothers, in their trademark sweat-stained white T-shirts, were slamming pizza trays down and collecting tickets.
Bella flashed her killer smile, and one of them found our order right away. “Ooh!” she said, grabbing one of the pies, her chin lifting toward the door. “Here comes the tasty new guy. Rikker.”
My stomach dropped right into my shoes. Because I thought I’d have at least tonight to get used to the idea that the worst moments of my life had come back to haunt me. But I wasn’t even going to get that. He was striding toward us, wearing a faded Vermont sweatshirt and shorts that showed off his muscular…
“You get the plates,” I told Bella, grabbing the pizza out of her hands. Because looking my problems in the eye was not the way I rolled.
What a fucking disaster. By which I meant me.
Capri’s Pizza was a hole in the wall. But it was the good kind — with oak paneling everywhere, and old wooden tables that had been varnished a few thousand times. There were names carved into every visible surface, and the smell of slightly stale beer hung in the air.
Harkness College — even the dodgier parts — gave off the aura of having been around for centuries. Because it had. I loved that about the place. I’d only been here for a week, but I already appreciated its fortitude. I liked knowing that I was just one tiny cog in the wheels of its long history. It made all my troubles feel smaller.
Passing through the front room, I didn’t see any hockey players. As I made it toward the back, I realized that Capri’s was kind of a rabbit warren. There were two other rooms veering away from the service counter. But I could call off the search. Because Graham and the curly-haired manager chick had just lifted a couple of pizzas from the counter. Even though his face was in profile, I’d know it anywhere.
Once upon a time, I’d touched every inch of that face.
The girl raised her free hand in a wave, saying something over her shoulder to Graham. And I swear to God, his body locked up when he heard her. His eyes flicked in my direction for a split second. And then his back was to me. He relieved Bella of her pizza and made a beeline into another of the cave-like rooms.
My first thought was, Fuck, I shouldn’t have come.
But screw that. Because if I shouldn’t have come to Capri’s, then I shouldn’t have come to Harkness. I could just spend my life hiding under the bed. Lord knows there were people in the world that wished I would. I didn’t come here to stake a claim, or to make a point. I came here to play hockey and to live my goddamn life. So that’s what I should do. And Michael Graham could just fuck off if he didn’t like it.
As I finished this thought, Bella came closer, a big grin on her face. “You came! We’re in there…” she nodded toward the left. Then she grabbed some paper plates and napkins off a table. Leaning over the service counter, she called out. “Hey, Tony! A glass for my new friend please.” She reached up and patted my chest possessively.
Tony flipped us a plastic glass, which I caught it before it slid off the counter. “Have a good night,” he said. And then he actually winked at me as I turned to follow her.
Bella grabbed the front pocket of my Vermont sweatshirt and actually pulled me through the din of the most crowded room, toward a table where Graham sat in a booth, across from Hartley.
Ugh. I had no idea this would be so cozy. In fact, there was nowhere for me to sit. For a second there I felt like it was seventh grade all over again, and I didn’t know where to sit in class.
That’s how I met Graham — seventh grade Spanish. We were the two runts in the back row with terrible gringo accents and no friends. The teacher always made the class pair up to practice dialogue. Graham and I were partners.
Te gusta jugar el futbol?
Sí, me gusta jugar el futbol.
The early days of middle school had been awkward. But this? So much worse.
“I’ll sit on Graham’s lap,” Bella suggested, grabbing a slice of pizza off the tray.
“Naw, let me find a chair,” I said, turning quickly into the crowd. And lo, by the grace of God, I found one in front of an ancient pay phone. Setting the chair at the end of their booth gave me some much-needed distance. Bella sat on the end, boxing Graham into the corner. Bella’s hand found its way onto my knee about two seconds after I sat down.
Someone filled my glass. “Have a slice?” Hartley offered.
“Thanks, I already ate,” I said quickly. But I sucked back some of the beer. It was pretty wimpy stuff, but I’ll bet the price was right.
“Tell us about your transfer,” Bella prompted while the others dug in. “You said you’d tell it over beers.”
Right. Too soon. “Well,” I hedged. The thing was, I’d told people I was gay many, many times. I was actually pretty good at it. But you don’t say it when you’re all trapped at a table. You have to drop the bomb when your victims are free to walk away from you. Because even the people who are going to turn right back around and be there for you often need a minute to digest the idea.
And the fact that Graham was sitting three feet away, staring at his slice of pizza as if it might reveal the secrets of the universe, made this a particularly bad time. I didn’t want to look vulnerable in front of him. I’d tried that before in my life, and it ended badly. Very badly.
“Thing is, I haven’t had enough beer yet to tell it.”
“There you go with the buildup again,” Bella said, nibbling on a slice.
“Yeah? Well my stories don’t usually disappoint.” That was a bit of pointless bravado. But it was probably true.
I happened to glance toward Graham then. And even in the low light of the pizza place, I saw him freeze. And I realized just how far a little smack talk about stories I might tell would freak him out. I hadn’t meant it like that. But the effect on him was instant and powerful. His jaw went hard and his fist clenched on the table.
Easy, boy. “Tell me about the practice schedule,” I said to change the topic.
Hartley obliged, explaining the afternoon routine, including weight room, dry land training and ice time.
In the corner, Graham drained his glass and then emptied the pitcher into it.
I pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of my back pocket and put it on the table. “I’ll buy the next round.”
“I’ll go get it,” Bella said, sliding out of the booth.
“No,” Graham said quickly. “I will.” It was the first time I’d heard his voice in five years. Without a glance at either one of us, he slid that muscular body out of the booth, stepped around Bella and my chair, and headed for the counter.
He left my twenty on the table.
“So you’re a sophomore,” Bella said, her fingers sliding into my hair.
This was three beers later. I’d been occupying myself at a different table for a while, chatting with the goalies. But Bella had found me, and she was stepping up her game. I needed a strategy for discouraging her. And fast.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, shifting in my chair to buy myself a little more space. But that didn’t stop her. Because she just leaned in closer. “I should be a junior. But I took a post-grad year to play on the US development team.”
“Sweet,” one of the goalies said.
“Sweet,” Bella whispered, her fingers wandering down my ribcage.
It’s not like she was the first girl to ever hit on me. But I had to tread carefully, because I was going to see a lot of Bella this season. And she was a great girl. Smart, fun, and obviously a huge hockey fan. She had all the right stuff. She just didn’t have all the right stuff for me.
I took Bella’s hand and stood up. “Can you come with me for a minute? I could use your help with something.”
One of the goalies gave an amused snort as I led her away, toward the dark little alcove where the old pay phone was. She came with me, chin up, a happy look on her face. I got the feeling that Bella never did anything for the benefit of the way it looked to others. She gave off a vibe of being 100 percent genuine, all the time. I could think of a few people who could stand to take lessons from her. Like maybe Graham.
The second we stepped into the relative privacy of the little space, she put her hands on my waist. “What did you need?” she asked, a grin playing at her lips.
I caught her prowling fingers in mine. One at a time, I kissed her hands, which made her beam. “Listen, Bella. There’s something I need to tell you, and probably the team, too. Somehow. Because it’s going to get out.” Her face took on a more serious expression, but she didn’t look away. The calm look in her blue eyes gave me the courage to keep talking. “The truth is that I like dick just as much as you do. Maybe even more.”
Now, I’d had a certain amount of practice at delivering this news to people. It never got easy. Yet by this point, I’d seen every possible reaction to it. Bella looked momentarily confused, as people often do. But then I could almost see the synapses firing behind her eyes. Then her lips twitched. And finally, she tipped her head back and laughed. “Oh my God. You’re serious aren’t you?”
I was still holding her hands, and I gave them both a squeeze. “Would I lie about a thing like that?”
Bella took her hands back, but only to reach up to cup my face. “You are adorable. And honestly, I don’t know why this hasn’t happened sooner.”
“Rikker, hockey players are hot. The hottest. And it’s weird that other hockey players never noticed that before. Now I have to worry that you’re going to cut in on my action.”
I let out a bark of surprised laughter. “Somehow I think you’ll be okay.”
“Also, this is going to mess up a near perfect streak for me.”
“Whenever you streak, I’m sure it’s perfect,” I quipped.
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to throw me compliments. I’m a big girl.” She stood back, folding her arms. “Does this have anything to do with leaving Saint B's?”
“Hell yes. When word about me got, um, out, Coach lost his shit and threw me off the team.”
Her eyes went wide. “Why? That’s against the ACAA rules.”
“Ding, ding! That’s how I got here. My uncle is a lawyer. He wanted to sue Saint B's, but I asked him to tackle the transfer rules instead.”
She blinked up at me. “You’d rather play more hockey than stand in a courtroom.”
Bella gave my arm a little punch. “I knew I liked you. And Coach James knows this story?”
“Of course. When my uncle started calling other teams for me, he told them right off why I’d been kicked off Saint B's. And today I dropped this little bomb on Hartley, too.”
“Okay, let me think…” she looked up at the ceiling. “Coach isn’t a judgmental guy. He likes to win, and he likes single malt scotch. In that order. So I can see him taking you on. And Hartley likes everybody, so that’s easy. How can I help?”
See? I knew this girl was awesome. “All I need is advice. I used to think that I could keep my private life private. But that blew up in my face last year. There’s probably somebody on the Harkness team that’s pals with someone at Saint B's, right?”
Bella nodded. “So this will get out.”
“So to speak.”
“Right. And maybe you’d rather that the team heard it from you, and not the rumor mill.”
“It’s a good idea in principal. But I don’t have a strategy.”
She made another thoughtful face. “If you made a big announcement, that would imply that this is a big deal. And you don’t want it to be a big deal.”
I wasn’t sure I had a choice in the matter. But even after a few beers, Bella was proving herself to be very perceptive. “That’s exactly right.”
“Telling people one at a time would be more casual.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Except these aren’t people I’ve ever met.” Except for one. And he already knows.
She chewed her lip. “Yeah, in the movies, the athlete wins the big game, right? And then he cries at the press conference and reveals to the world that he’s gay.” She put a hand over her heart. “And the team is, like, ‘we love you just the way you are!’”
“I’m pretty sure that movie hasn’t been made yet.”
She crossed her arms. “I’m just pointing out that being the new guy makes this harder.”
She gave me another playful punch. But then her face became serious. “Maybe it’s something that ought to come from their manager.”
That was a generous offer, with one major flaw. When you’re the queer guy in the locker room, it’s a bad idea to ever show fear. “I can’t make it to look like I was too afraid to tell them myself.”
“It wouldn’t. Because the message they need to hear isn’t that Rikker likes dudes. The message they need to hear is that, by the way, Rikker was forced to leave the Saint B's team because he is gay. But at Harkness, that’s no concern of ours.”
Well, damn. That did sound smart.
“…And, if anybody has a problem with that, feel free to talk to Coach. Or play a different sport.”
I put my hands on her shoulders. “Manager, you are a genius. And a total babe.”
“New Guy, I know that already,” she said. “Both things.” And then she moved closer to me, stood up on her tiptoes, and kissed me. And it wasn’t just a peck. She took her time, molding her lips to mine, drawing it out. She nibbled my bottom lip. And I kissed her back, at least up to a point. Because just standing there like a statue seemed like an asshole thing to do.
Finally, she stood back. “That,” she said, “was because I have a reputation to uphold.”
“I will take care of this. After I run it by Coach.” She squeezed my arm and walked away, smiling as she went.
And that was my cue to go home to the little dorm room I’d been assigned, and call it a night. There’s only so much drama a guy can take in one day.
I drank my sixth, seventh, and eighth beers while Bella and Rikker were having their private little chat. My stories don’t disappoint, he’d said. God only knows what he was telling Bella. Was it the version of events where we used to be more than friends? Or was it the blow-by-blow of the day we stopped being friends?
At least if he told her that story, it would be a short story: there was an alley. Four rednecks gave chase, while yelling, “Get the faggots!” I ran away, and Rikker spent the next week in a hospital. I didn’t visit him, and I never even called. Then he left the state.
You know that cliché about time healing all wounds? Time had scabbed this one over pretty well. But Rikker showing up had ripped that sucker right off. And I felt sure that anyone looking at me right now would be able to see the bleeding.
Before tonight, I didn’t know that you could be both drunk and literally twitching with anxiety at the same time.
Bella and Rikker were in there a long time, hidden just from my view except for her elbow, for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she rose up to hug him. Or maybe kiss him. (Because we’re talking about Bella, here.) Then she came back into view, a cheery smile on her face.
And Rikker went the other direction, leaving the bar.
And I drank yet another beer, feeling nothing but dread.
Bella didn’t come back to sit by me for quite a while after that. At least I think it took a while. The details began to get pretty fuzzy.
I opened my eyes, and Bella was shaking me. “What?” Somehow I was still sitting in a booth at Capri’s.
“Wake up, Sweetie. Are you okay?”
“‘Course,” I tried to say, although my throat was thick.
Bella laughed. “How did you get so wasted on Capri’s pitchers? You’d have to drink a whole barrel of this swill.”
“You have to really want it,” I mumbled.
“Come on. Let’s get you home.” She led me out the back door and down College Street toward Beaumont House.
“Wait a second.” It came out “shecond.” We were passing one of the secret societies’ crypts. I ducked behind the elegantly-pruned shrubberies and unzipped. Secret societies were a bunch of elitists who probably wanted nothing to do with me. So whenever I needed to take a piss on the way home from the bar, I favored their walls with my business.
I heard a deep sigh from Bella where she waited on the sidewalk. “We lead a glamorous life, you know?”
At a drunk’s pace, I followed Bella to my entryway door. “I can make it from here,” I slurred.
“Don’t argue. I haven’t seen your room yet, anyway.”
“S’good to have a single,” I said, trying to hold up my end of the conversation.
When we’d climbed the stairs to my room, I fumbled with the key for so long that Bella grabbed it out of my hand and unlocked the door herself. Inside, she gave a low whistle. “Nice. Where did you get a second bed?”
Instead of one regulation twin, I had two of them hitched up next to each other. “You know Donovan?”
“The tight end?” Bella kicked off her shoes.
“Yeah. He bought a waterbed, so I took his.”
She giggled. “Seriously? How did he fill it up?”
“Not my problem,” I said, yanking down the comforter on my giant bed. “I had to buy king-sized stuff, so I hope he doesn’t change his mind.” I dropped my jeans and fumbled my shirt over my head. That brought me down to just boxers. I climbed all the way into the bed, making room for Bella.
I closed my eyes, as if I didn’t really care whether she sat down next to me or not. But the truth was, I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to know where my mind would take me tonight if I was left to myself. Nowhere good.
After a few moments’ hesitation, I felt Bella sink down onto the bed. She flopped back onto my second pillow, her arms folded behind her head. “It was a strange evening,” she said.
Tell me about it.
“I’m going to like working for the hockey team. Even if people are going to give me shit for it.”
“What kind of shit?” I mumbled.
“The same kind I always get. They’ll say I might as well ride the bus. Because I’m already riding the players.”
I laughed, although being very drunk made that difficult. I rolled onto my side, which made my head swim. Bella was right there. So I pulled her closer to me and gave her what was probably a pretty sloppy kiss. She went with it, though, wrapping her arms around me. And when I dove into her soft mouth, she met me stroke for stroke. I hadn’t planned to do this tonight. But suddenly it seemed like a great way to keep my head on straight. Losing myself in Bella.
But then she pulled back. “You’re so drunk,” she whispered. There was accusation in her voice.
“I’m always drunk,” I argued. “Never stopped you before.”
Now her voice had an edge to it. “You stopped me before,” she hissed. “You said that we weren’t going to do this anymore.”
“I changed my mind.”
As drunk as I was, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. And Bella confirmed that by giving my chest a rough shove. “Don’t treat me like a slut, Graham.”
Shit. With great effort, I propped myself up on an elbow to squint down into her pissed-off face. “I would never call you that, Bells. I don’t think that way.” It wasn’t an eloquent apology, but it was true. Bella was the greatest. She never apologized for what she wanted. She just owned it.
The way I never could.
Pulling my sloppy thoughts together, I tried to do even better. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone there. I’m just a train wreck tonight.”
Having said my piece, I slid back down onto the pillow, rolling onto my back. Making a move on Bella had been very, very stupid. Not only was she mad at me now, but it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. There was a window of drunkenness that I had to hit in order to get it up for a girl. I had to be drunk enough for the whole thing to seem like a good idea. And drunk enough to claim whiskey dick if it didn’t work out. But I couldn’t be too sloppy. Because I needed to concentrate to pull it off.
And right now, my eyes were too heavy to stay open. But I curled one hand around Bella’s, and she let me.
I was just drifting off when Bella got up off the bed. There was some rustling of clothing. I heard her belt hit the floor. And then my dresser drawer opened and shut, probably as Bella helped herself to one of my T-shirts. A minute later she came back into the bed. She put her head on my chest, and one knee over mine. Her arm snaked around my waist as she curled into me. She’d always been a cuddler.
Tucking a hand over her smooth knee, I fell asleep.
There were pros and cons to signing on at a new college the July before your sophomore year. In the plus column, I’d lucked into a single. But they didn’t have room for me in Turner House where I was assigned. So my room was in a little overflow dorm called McHerrin. There were two other rooms on my floor, both housing exchange students from China. McHerrin wasn’t exactly the party dorm. But I was okay with that.
After a stop in the shared bathroom to pee and brush my teeth, I let myself into my little habitat. Last year I’d made the effort to hang stuff on the walls, and make the place my own. But this year, I didn’t bother. I was jaded, I guess. Before, I’d thought that once you chose a college, you were there for four years. You could go ahead and hang the felt pennant over your bed.
I’d jumped the gun on that one.
So my little room looked like monastic living quarters. Or a prison cell. I got into bed and shut off the light, but sleep didn’t come for me right away. I was too amped up by everything that had happened today.
In the positive column, I knew I’d done well on the ice. And both Coach and Hartley had been good to me. Bella had been great. But that was only a start. There were still a thousand ways this could all go south.
And then there was Graham, who’d looked as cheerful as a mushroom cloud tonight. I knew things about him that he didn’t want others to know. After he got over the shock of seeing me, I hoped he would just call me and say that. If he did, I’d tell him not to worry. I’d never out anybody, because I knew how much that sucked.
Even someone who’d been as lousy a friend as Graham.
But if he wanted that assurance from me, he’d have to actually acknowledge that we knew each other. And when we’d been seated three feet apart at Capri’s, he hadn’t even been able to manage eye contact.
Hell, it was trippy. It had been Graham right there. But also not. It had felt a little like keeping company with a ghost.
I lay there in the dark, thinking about him. And it wasn’t the first time I’d done that. When I’d signed on to come to Harkness six weeks ago, the memories had begun to roll over me. Before the bad ending, there had been a whole lot of good. Call it nostalgia. Call it idiocy. But my subconscious preferred the memory of Graham’s embrace to the memory of his rejection.
Also, we were fifteen then. Everything I shared with Graham had been so vivid and new. No wonder that shit was still projected on the inside my skull in Technicolor.
Though I hadn’t been near there in five years, I could picture Graham’s house so clearly in my mind. We always did our fooling around there, because he had the basement lair, complete with a tattered old sofa and an XBox. During middle school, we were all about the XBox.
Ninth grade, we were all about the sofa.
Whenever I looked back on that time, it was hard to pinpoint the moment I realized how I felt about him. We were two dorky teenage guys, not exactly big on talking about our feelings. Even after we’d started fooling around, we never had a conversation about it. Not even, “Do you like girls?” “Not really!” “Me neither!” For all I knew, maybe Graham did like girls now. I wasn’t going to ask.
But five years ago, he liked me.
We were best friends first. Together we survived middle school. We played hockey on a club team, and we went to the same Christian school. In fact, Christianity was a big deal in the corner of Michigan where we grew up. Kids on the playground would ask each other, “Which church do you go to?” Because that’s how our parents looked at the world.
My parents were more religious than Graham’s, though. I knew this because at Graham’s house, nobody cared if we played video games on Sunday. And I’d heard Graham’s dad mock some of the things that our classmates’ parents thought. “If I take you to the Harry Potter movie, you won’t start worshiping the devil, right, guys? I didn’t think so.”
Nobody found it unusual that Graham and I were so close. Including me. During middle school, I never let myself think about him that way. But even then, I was always incredibly aware of him. When he walked into a room, I knew it without looking. By the time we turned fifteen, his voice was already deep and smoky. And the sound of it resonated inside me like no one else’s.
Girls never affected me like that. Some of them were nice, and fun to talk to. But they just weren’t Graham. I noticed that he never seemed to pay much attention to them either. We went to the middle school dances with a group of our friends, where we all danced to the fast songs. But Graham never pulled me aside to ask, “Do you think she likes me?”
Meanwhile, we played video games in Graham’s basement like it was our job. And there was a different way that we looked at each other when we were alone. Graham has always blushed easily. In time I realized how easy it was to make him do that. All I had to do was hold his eyes a little longer than necessary, and pink spots would appear on his cheekbones.
I liked that. So I did it all the time.
The long looks — and sitting a little closer than necessary while we watched movies — that went on for two years. And then one Friday night during our first month of high school, we were tussling over the remote control. In order to win the fight, Graham put his knee across my thighs to hold me down. And then he stretched his long body toward my arm, where I was dangling the remote as far from him as I could. It was then that I realized Graham was on top of me. Finally. And without thinking, I put my free hand on his chest.
I’ll never forget the wild jerk that his body made under my hand. And then he was staring down at me, cheeks flushed, breath coming fast. I lifted my chin an inch, and that’s all it took. Graham dropped his mouth onto mine.
Our first kiss was hot and sloppy, and it lit my body up like a flare.
Yes. This. Yes. Yes. Yes. It was all shock and awe for maybe two minutes. And then Graham’s mom called down from the top of the basement stairs. “Hey, Guys? Do you want popcorn?”
Graham jerked back onto his own end of the sofa. “Uh, sure,” he called.
Then he got up and switched the TV over to video games. And we played Call of Duty until the popcorn was ready.
We didn’t speak about it after that. Not one word. But the following week, I thought of almost nothing else, and wore a perpetual boner every time I saw him. And the next time I went to Graham’s, my hands sweat through two rounds of whatever video game we were playing. Then Graham’s mom yelled down that she was going to the grocery store, and could Graham think of anything they needed?
“Nope,” he called up to her.
We heard the sound of shoes clicking a couple of times across the kitchen floor. Then the door to the garage, and finally the sound of her car’s engine backing out and driving away.
There was a beat of silence in the basement. “So…” we both said at exactly the same time.
“Jinx,” I said.
Graham gave a nervous laugh. “The jinx machine is out of order. Please put in another quarter.” He wore a lopsided smile, and his cheeks were flushed red.
Two seconds after that, Graham had tackled me, pushing me down on the couch. He moaned on the first kiss, and I felt that sound everywhere.
There is nothing so explosive as two horny, fifteen-year-old boys finally getting a taste of something they both crave. As we made out, Graham rode me with his hips. The motion, and the feel of his hard body pressing down on me was better than any of the fantasies I’d cooked up every half hour since our first kiss.
It was probably only five minutes later when Graham closed his eyes and gasped twice. And just the look on his face took me there, too. I locked my arms around him and hauled him down for one more kiss — wet and dirty and more satisfying than I’d ever dreamed.
And by then, I’d dreamed plenty.
Forty minutes later, Graham’s mom came home to find us playing a round of Realstix hockey on the XBox. She would never have noticed that a couple of paper towels were newly buried in the bottom of the family garbage bin.
So it began.
Our make-out sessions were always fast and frantic, because privacy was scarce. There was never any nudity involved, because that would have been far too risky. But there were athletic pants, with their handy elastic waistbands. And I didn’t need more, not with the sublime feel of his long fingers sliding down my stomach and onto my groin. He was sometimes slow and teasing, and often fast and rough. I wanted all of it. All the time.
We were exceedingly careful. Looking back on it, I’m amazed at our discipline. Fifteen year-old boys aren’t known for their caution or diligence. That same year, I probably lost three pairs of gloves and locked myself out of my own house once a week. But Graham and I never touched each other if another person was inside his house, or scheduled to be there within the hour. And even then, we learned to make out and listen at the same time, often leaping apart at the smallest sound. We were never, ever caught.
Until one awful day in August, before the start of our sophomore year, just after I got my driver’s license. Freedom was our downfall.
We’d driven to a seedy part of town to find a comic book shop we’d heard of. But that was really just an excuse to be alone together. After I parked the car, Graham put his hand on my leg, just because he could. We were together, and we were out in the world in a car. Two huge freedoms in one afternoon. So after a cursory glance out the car windows, I leaned across the gearshift and kissed him.
Smiling, he grabbed my face in both hands and licked into my mouth. We were probably only there for ninety seconds. Maybe even less. But immediately after we stepped out of the car, everything went very, very wrong.
There was shouting, and the pounding of feet behind us. We both ran. I thought we were going to get away. But then I looked over my shoulder to count our pursuers.
That mistake that changed my life.
I tripped. And then came the horror of pitching toward the asphalt, and the terror of those feet pounding closer. A second later, the first kick landed at my ribs. The second one nailed me in the cheekbone, and I heard my own scream.
Curling up into a protective ball was my last conscious act.
Much of the next few hours were lost to me. I woke up in a hospital room with my arm in a sling, stitches on my face and a snug bandage around my chest. My mother was crying, and my father was on the phone.
“Where’s Graham?” was the first thing I tried to say.
“Why?” my mother sobbed.
Telling her the truth turned out to be my second big mistake.
For the next five days, I would lay in that hospital bed wondering what had happened to him. Every time someone walked past my room, my eyes would flick to the doorway. Each time I expected to see Graham.
He never came.