Like everyone else at Harkness, I have just survived my last exam, and therefore my first semester of college. For once, I’m celebrating in an unusual way.
“My butt is frozen to this bench,” my friend Nadia quizzes me during the third period of the hockey game. “Why are we here, exactly?”
“Because hockey is the great American pastime.”
“That’s baseball,” she argues.
“Oh, is it?” I just smile.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, offering me a piece of her hot pretzel. “I approve of you getting out of the house. And I think Pepe is terrific. But you shouldn’t gaze at him from afar. You should get up close and personal.”
“I’m thinking about it,” I admit.
I picked up these hockey tickets yesterday, after reading a post on YipStack that made my heart beat faster. Everyone’s favorite French Canadian hockey player is back on the market, ladies. He was last seen dancing on a coffee table at a hockey house party. It’s every girl for herself.
It’s not like I think I really have a chance with him. He’s so friendly to me, and I’ll admit it confuses me at times. Pepe is like sunshine. He shines on everyone at once.
But a girl can dream. So that’s what I’m doing now, in row G of the student section. We’re playing Brown, and we’re winning. Every time Pepe skates onto the ice, it’s like there aren’t any other players. I just watch him. He skates like he writes—more passion than grace. Each acceleration is explosive force.
Those powerful thighs. Wow. They’re going to star in my dreams tonight.
Pepe is a defenseman, according to the program I picked up. I think that’s why he skates backwards most of the time. His job seems to be getting in the other team’s way. At top speed. Backwards.
There are only four minutes left on the clock, and the score is 4-1. I don’t know much about hockey but I feel pretty good about our odds. When Pepe leaves the ice for another visit to the bench, I pull out my phone and compose a quick Yip. Who turned up the heat in the hockey rink from icy to combustible? Is it weird to get turned on by a bunch of sweaty guys skating after a rubber disc and bumping into each other? Asking for a friend.
About two seconds later I get my first comment. Oh honey me too. And they’ll all be at Capri’s Pizza after the game.
“Nadia?” I ask my roommate.
“How do you feel about a trip to Capri’s pizza?"
“Really?” she squeaks. “You know that’s the hockey hangout bar, right?”
“I’ve heard,” I say, with forced nonchalance.
A very loud buzzer sounds suddenly, signaling the end of the game. And since my hockey fandom is so new, the noise makes me jump about a foot in the air.
“Easy,” Nadia says with a smile. “You really need to leave the dorms more often.”
“You think?” I sniff, unlocking my phone again. Below us, the team is lining up to shake hands with their poor, downtrodden opponents. Then they file off one by one.
“Girl, get off YipStack,” Nadia complains.
“I am. I’m texting Pepe.” Nice job tonight! So exciting to watch you win. TIL that eloquence takes many forms.
Nadia and I are still putting on our coats when I get a reply. You saw the game??? The win was already sweet, but now it’s even sweeter, chaton.
My heart does an awkward twerk inside my chest. “I feel like a slice would be really tasty right now.”
“I’ll bet you do.” Nadia leaps to her feet. “Let’s go! I’m sleeping at Josh’s tonight. Just putting that out there.”
“When has that ever mattered to me?” I ask, following the slow line of students up the steps toward the exits.
“You never know,” Nadia insists. “Tonight could be the night.”
* * *
Forty minutes later I pay for our beer at Capri’s pizza and then look around for seats. The place is crammed with students blowing off steam as exams end and Christmas break kicks in. I lift our pitcher of unappetizing brew and hope to find a table that someone else overlooked. Someone jostles me, and I almost spill the beer.
“Sorry,” a guy wearing his baseball cap backwards says.
This is why I don’t go out. How is this fun?
A peek into the middle room reveals plenty of hockey jackets. But Pepe isn’t there, damn it. Maybe he’ll turn up soon? It’s a struggle to hold on to the scrap of optimism which brought me here tonight. And all the tables in the hockey room are taken. Of course they are.
So much for the feminine ambush I was planning.
“Here,” Nadia says, tapping my arm. “I see a place. It’s quieter back here, too.”
She leads the way into the back room, and the crowd thins. There are no hockey jackets back here, though.
Nadia puts two plastic glasses down on our table and grabs the pitcher from me. She pours, then passes me one.
I take a sip and then make a face.
“That good, huh?” She takes a sip and rolls her eyes. “Okay, so we’re actually here. And you’re wearing mascara. You never wear mascara.”
True story. “I’m really not sure why I bothered. Even if you-know-who spotted me back here, I don’t know how to be that girl.”
“The kind who goes home with the guy. I wouldn’t know what to say. And even if I did, I couldn’t deliver it with the confidence required. I’m hopeless.”
“You aren’t,” she says, the way a good friend does.
And maybe hopeless is too strong a word. But I’m bad at flirting, and I’m confused about whether I should. Lately, Pepe and I are closer than ever. Our dining hall habit has expanded to two or three nights a week. Sometimes I’ll read his essay for five or ten minutes and we spend the rest of the time just chatting. And on the days we don’t see each other, we often text. He’ll send me a photo of a page in my thesaurus. Shall I make the tacos in my essay tasty, delicious or delectable? And I’ll reply: Any of those, but now I want tacos.
Is that just friendly? Is it flirty? How does any girl know?
“We’re friends,” I tell Nadia. “But my foolish heart always wishes for more. And so here I am, hoping for a miracle. He just won a game, right? He’s in a good mood. You have to make hay while the sun shines.”
She touches her glass to mine. “You can take the girl out of Iowa, but you can’t take the Iowa out of the girl.” She glances over her shoulder. “Do you see him? I need clues so I’ll know when to quietly disappear.”
I lean all the way to the side and squint into the other room. Like that’s not as brazen as wearing a sandwich board reading Scoping Out The Hockey Team. “Nope.”
She takes another sip of her beer and then grimaces. “How did he get the name Pepe, anyway. Is he Italian?”
“His grandfather was. He’s French Canadian.”
Nadia grins. “You know his grandfather’s name? Someone is a little obsessed.”
“I’ve read his whole life story by now. Come on. I’m just a good tutor.”
She smirks. “How long are we sticking with this man hunt? Do I get a slice of pizza out of it?”
“I’ll buy us some,” I say, standing. It will give me an excuse to case the other room again.
I head over to the pizza counter and ask for two slices. One of the Capri brothers slaps them onto thin paper plates, and I pay the five bucks I owe.
“Chaton,” a low voice says into my ear, and I actually jump. When I turn, he is there. Pepe’s hair is damp from the shower, and he wears a checked flannel shirt. A whorl of chest hair is visible just below his throat, and my eyes get stuck there, wondering what the rest of him looks like. “You come to Capri’s?” he asks, looking gleeful. “Need a beer?”
“I have one…” I start to say.
“…Right here,” Nadia finishes, appearing suddenly. “Here—trade you.” She hands me my glass and takes her slice of pizza. Then she’s gone before I can even thank her. Who knew Nadia was such a great wingman? I file that away to think about later.
Then I take a sip of beer, and my distaste must not be well hidden, because Pepe laughs. “That good, noh?” He waves at the Capri brother on duty. “Bon. Three slices and two glasses of your auntie’s hooch.”
Two small wine goblets appear on the bar, and a second later they are filled with a dark red wine from a brown jug. Pepe smacks a twenty onto the counter and smiles at me. “Drink up, Jhosephin.” He hands me a wine glass. “To English grammar and homemade Italian wine.”
“And to beating Brown. Cheers,” I say, caught in his delectable smile. I take a sip, and the wine is spicy and a hundred percent more appealing than the beer. “I’ve never seen wine at Capri’s before.”
“Mario takes care of me.” He cocks his head toward the pizza ovens. “His grandparents are Italian, too.”
And now I’m more in awe than usual.
“Come, chaton.” He gestures toward the room where the hockey players are gathered. “Unless you need to go back to your friend?”
“Well…” I look at our table in the back, and Nadia is already gone. “Lead on.”
And just like that, I’m hanging out with Pepe at Capri’s. Achievement unlocked.
* * *
Ninety minutes later I am tipsy, and having a blast.
Even if I never have Pepe the way I want him, this evening with him is everything. He’s an attentive companion, introducing me to dozens of teammates. I wait for him to tire of babysitting me. Instead, he tucks me against his side and introduces me around.
“Trevi! Jhosephine is my super patient tutor!” And, “Rikker! Stop staring at your boyfriend a minute I have to introduce you to zhe smartest girl at Harkness.”
And so on.
His arm around my shoulder makes my heart beat faster. So does the attention. The big Canadian has good looks and a mean slap shot, and manners. Every time he smiles at me I felt a little more warmth blooming in my chest.
The wine doesn’t hurt, either. I drink a second glass, and then a third. Good thing they’re small, because I have the tolerance of a flea. A nerd girl flea. If that’s a thing.
But the best moments are when Pepe and I end up alone in a booth, our elbows on the table, talking about nothing and everything. He tells me about how quiet the campus was over Thanksgiving, when only the hockey team was here practicing, and I tell him about my mom’s silly Christmas rituals, and about a second semester English seminar I’m excited for.
“No more essay class next term,” he says. “I’m so relieved.”
“Yeah?” I’m not relieved because next term he won’t need me as much.
“Oui. I can’t wait for New Year’s.”
“Fun plans?” I ask.
“Noh.” He shakes his big head. “It will be a quiet night at home, seeing as I now have one less friend and no girlfriend. But I want the next year to hurry up. This past one wasn’t so great.” He touches his wine glass to mine. “To better times, chaton.” His gaze is like a warm bath, his smile bright. Maybe every girl gets the same treatment, but I spend a happy hour or two pretending that it’s all just for me.
Eventually the party begins to wind down. I don’t know if it’s the hockey victory or the fact that exams are over, but it looks like a big night for hookups. I watch couple after couple maneuver out of the room together, lip-locked and grappling each other like a pair of police academy recruits practicing their frisking techniques.
I’m fascinated and also jealous. I want to be the kind of girl who can just give Pepe a knowing smile and invite him back to my room. But while I excel at English grammar, I know very little about seduction.
And it’s getting late. “I’d better get home,” I say as yet another couple stumbles out together. “And you have a plane to catch in the morning, right?”
“Oui.” Pepe props his chin in his hand and studies me. “Do you wish me to walk you home?”
The question catches me completely off guard. “Well it’s not that far,” I babble. And that’s not an answer at all. I want to say Yes! Walk me home! But I can’t make my mouth say the words, because then he will walk me home and I won’t know what to say when we get to my door. I’ll probably go with, Have a great holiday! Because I won’t know how to close the deal.
I will never know how to close the deal. I’m going to die a virgin.
“Just tell me this.” Pepe pulls his phone out of his pocket. He unlocks the phone and then opens…
“This is you?” I watch with growing horror as he turns the phone around to show me the yip I wrote during the hockey game. The one where I admit to being turned on by hockey players. The one where the first comment tells me that Capri’s is the place to go after the game.
“Yipstack is an-anonymous,” I stammer.
“The word combustible is not,” he says.