Saturday, October 1, 2011


“Uh, what the fuck was that about?” Emily asked.

I’d been in the backseat next to Kate for about sixty seconds when the question came.  Jordan met my eyes in the rear view mirror but his face was expressionless.  I can only imagine what they’d been saying inside while James and I were fighting outside.

I just shook my head - this was not an explanation for mixed company.  Emily wanted to ask more but Kate put a hand to her knee.  International girl sign language for ‘not now.’

Jordan drove to a restaurant I’d never been to.  Everyone piled out and headed for the door - it was Saturday morning and pretty busy.  Jordan lagged behind and waited for me.

“You okay?”

I wanted to kiss him right then.  I wanted to say fuck everything and just kiss this gorgeous man with the genuine concern on his face.  He was probably manipulating me into sleeping with him but at least I knew it.  And God damn if I didn’t want to.  Just to get the taste of James off my lips and the idea of him out of my head.

The toe of my sneaker scuffed along the pavement.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Jordan gave up, threw his arm around my shoulder and matched my slow steps.  We walked into breakfast like we were, in fact, dating.

I was still on Natalie’s lawn when she drove away with Jordan.  Her words rang inside my head like bells - loud, endless, disorienting.  Nothing could happen until the sound of his tires faded and I was left behind, just a dead body from a hit and run.

There was a lot of information to process.  She wasn’t sleeping with Jordan - I believed her despite what it looked like.  That meant she was holding him off, because no way would Jordan wait voluntarily.  There were a hundred reasons she might not want to sleep with a star player her first week on the job, but I chose to believe the only one she’s actually admitted:

Natalie wanted me.  She had wanted me for two the better part of two years.

I wanted to curl up and die.  Her lawn was a bad spot for that - Jordan would at least have to drive them home, though he was probably talking Natalie into sharing his pre-game nap and eating chocolate body paint for lunch.  So I dragged myself into the car and drove back the way I had come.

Two years.

It was one thing when I’d spent two years with Natalie on my mind.  That time had been spent building my NHL career, moving to a promising new team... I had not wasted it.  Or so I thought.  But if she’d been thinking about me all along, if the possibility of her and I had even existed during that the last two years then I had in fact wasted way too much time.

There were no answers in the driveway of my house, no matter how long I stared out the windshield.  No one was coming here to get me.  Just like everything else: if I wanted it I would have to go get it.

“Allison?” I called, walking into the living room.  No answer so I ditched my sneakers and went for the bedroom, hoping she wouldn’t still be asleep in my sheets.  I had never been good with confrontations or much use with girls.  My palms prickled with sweat as I anticipated her seeing everything on my face.

“In here.”  Her voice came from behind me.  I tracked back into the kitchen, where she was eating an apple over the newspaper.  At least she was dressed in last night’s clothes.  She looked up with puffy, tired eyes.  “I feel like ass.”

“You were having a really good time last night.”

“Fucking Kelsey’s parties always leave me with a two day hangover.”  She tossed the apple core into the trash.  “How about you?”

I leaned against the counter, hands in my pockets.  “I didn’t drink much.”

“Didn’t dance much either,” she lifted one eyebrow.  “Didn’t look like you were having fun at all, really.”

Automatically, an apology sprang to my lips.  It was always my fault when I wasn’t right up there with everyone else, doing the right thing a second before someone else did.  Not that I’d ever been the life of a party, but I’d been part of the pack.  At least as far as Allison knew.  But apologizing for last night seemed like a moot point.

“I need to tell you something.  I... I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

My words dropped like anvils on the hardwood floor.

Her eyes got wide, suddenly.  “Why?  Did I do something that night?”

“No, not at all.  It’s ....”

“What’s wrong, James?”  Her voice got soft, that made it worse.

“I’m just....”  I’m struggling, that’s what I’m doing.  “This isn’t working for me.  I’m sorry.”

Her expression hardened, her eyes tightening like someone had focused a camera lens to the perfect sharpness.  “You mean I’m not working for you.”

“That’s not it...  You’ve been so great but I can’t be great for you.  I’m not in this, Allison.  I can’t keep it up.”

“So that’s it?  For no reason at all.”

My chest felt like it was splitting open, but it wasn’t my heart breaking.  My stomach roiled because I was doing something shitty to someone who didn’t deserve it.  Because I was hurting someone on purpose to benefit myself.  I wanted to tell her that last night I did the opposite and it got fucked up too.  Everything was wrong and this was the only way out.  I sighed in defeat.

“I just want something else.”

Allison heaved a handful of hair back from her face.  Like a jolt of adrenaline, my surprise announcement had made her dangerously alert.  All traces of that hangover were gone.  We both knew there was in fact a reason, but only I knew what it was.  She was guessing.

“Something else, huh?  Maybe someONE else?  You think you can do better, because this season you’re going to be a big time goal scorer.”

“I didn’t mean....” But I did mean someone else.  The rest was irrelevant.  Now she was on a roll.

“NHL superstar James Neal?  Finally fulfilling all that promise, making his trade worthwhile.  You’re going to be a big fucking deal and there’s no room for anything but your once-in-a-lifetime hockey talent?”

I let her fire all guns.  At least I looked her in the eye.

“You’re just waiting for Crosby to come back,” she said.  “All these people talking you up, you’re going to be a top line winger magician’s assistant when Crosby comes back.  When Crosby comes back you’re going to the Finals.  When Crosby comes back you’ll win the Cup.”

“Just go, Allison.”

She got to her feet.

“Well James,” she spat my name, “when Crosby comes back, you’d better hope he sends you his leftovers.  Because that’s the only fucking you’ll do besides fucking disappointing people.”

If she’d punched me if couldn’t have hurt worse.  But then again I wasn’t exactly fighting fair.  There were no rules of engagement.  Allison’s words kicked me in the balls because I was so afraid of them being true.

She rammed the chair in under the table and ran from the room.  Her purse was the only thing of hers in my house.  With as much force as possible, she shoved it over her shoulder, stomped out the door and slammed it as hard as she could.  A picture she’d picked out - a line sketch of a maple leaf I’d always thought was really pretty - slipped off it’s nail and shattered on the floor.

For the second time that morning, I wanted to lay down and cry.  Allison’s fury filled the house like poison gas and I felt woozy.  Suffocation would come quickly.  So I grabbed a baseball cap and headed out, walking in the opposite direction she had gone, with my phone.

“TK, it’s Neal.  Hey, sorry you’re probably still sleeping.  I uh, I wanted to tell you that I broke up with Allison.  Just so... you know.  Yeah.  Okay, see you later.”

Thank God for his voicemail.  Kelsey was probably still with him and Allison would be screaming down the phone and cursing my name.  At least I could warn the guy, maybe buy myself some points in the team-bonding department.  Because I was thinking about that too.  

“Asshole,” I said out loud to myself.

I tried my best to participate in the social event that became our breakfast.  Kris and the girls were cracking each other up.  A few people approached for autographs - I was used to it from traveling with the Stars but it make Emily and Kate feel really special to be seen out in such company.  Jordan did a better job of being in the conversation, but still kept a watchful eye on me.  My french toast got the worst of it.

It was after eleven when Jordan claimed the same parking space in front of my building.  The girls had been sharing looks and were out of the car the moment we stopped.  Kris leaped out after them, leaving me and Jordan alone.  He turned his huge body as much as possible toward where I sat behind the passenger seat.  His gorgeous blue eyes studied me as he put the side of his head against the headrest.

“Want to tell me what happened?”

I sighed.  I did want to tell him.  It wasn’t protecting James anymore; showing up at my house kind of tipped his hand.  And Jordan’s imagination was probably a lot more active than my real life.

“The night James got traded here, before he left Dallas, I kissed him.”

Jordan said nothing.

“Out of nowhere, in the middle of Target.”

It sounded so childish, I waited for Jordan to ask what else had happened.  But instead he asked the million-dollar question.


I looked away, a coward even now.  “Because I had a crush on him for a year and a half.  The whole time I was in Dallas.”  

“Wow.  He never knew.”  It wasn’t a question.

“No, and I never even talked to him after that.  Until three days ago at the rink.”

Jordan knew I was holding something back.  All this story was kindling but there had to be a spark, something to light the fuse now ticking toward an explosion.  He waited for me to continue.

“Then this Thursday, also out of nowhere, James kissed me.”

Jordan closed his eyes for a second, as if replaying what had happened since Thursday.  Which was everything.  How could two days seem so damned long?

“It wasn’t out of nowhere, Natalie.  He liked you from the first second.  He drooled at you that entire meeting.”  

I shook my head.  I had been way too caught up in my own reaction to really notice James’.  Maybe boys saw things girls didn’t.  I knew he looked at me with desire, maybe even hunger, in his eyes.  Anything else I saw was my wishful thinking.

“But he has a girlfriend!  What is wrong with you people?” My voice was too loud in the confines of the car.  “How can he like me if he likes someone else?  Someone who knows everyone and gets along great and... it’s stupid.  I’m stupid.  I thought he was this poor lost cause and he’s been just fucking fine.”

“He wasn’t.”  Jordan paused like he wasn’t sure he wanted to correct me.  But he went on anyway.  “James had a really hard time last year.  Even worse than it looked.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  Hot tears pricked at my eyes to know James had gone through all of that - damn it, why was I still worried about him?  I looked at my hands, twisting together in my lap.  I didn’t want to cry like some pathetic Disney princess whose prince turned out to be a frog.

“Why are you defending him?”

Jordan leaned forward, out of his seat belt, and got as close to me as the car would allow.  I was grateful it wasn’t an closer: there was already a lot going on that I couldn’t handle.  If he got his arms around me...

“I’m not defending him.  But he’s my teammate, Natalie.  We have a long way to go this season and we need James to fit in.”  Jordan reached out and put his hand over mine, making them still.  I had to look at him.  “I had to know why he was here.  Now it seems like a pretty good reason.”  

His eyes sparkled over that crooked half-smile.  His long, thick fingers worked their way into my hands and held on.  “You asked how he can like you if he likes someone else.  It’s easy - he likes you more than her.  Same way you like James more than me.”

My heart skipped a beat, dropping my body temperature violently and sending a shudder coursing after it.  “Jordan, I....”

“Stop.” He squeezed my fist.  “You suck at lying.”

I closed both of my hands around his - it was so warm, I had to push out thoughts of it running over the rest of my body.  Hearing him say it hurt.  Knowing it was true hurt even worse.  But Jordan seemed sure he was right.

“How do you know he likes me?”

Jordan twisted his perfectly kissable mouth into a tight little line and thought for a moment.  Then he straightened up.  “Get out.”


But he was already outside, shutting his door and opening mine.  I slid across the seat, climbed dow.  Every one of Jordan’s six-feet-four-inches was planted before me.  He was like a sponge - strength leeched out of my body, I wanted to fold myself into him and let him do the holding up.  Instead I set my arm into the space between his wrist and where his hand was in his pocket, like a little shelf.  Jordan got closer, leaned against the car and smiled.

“I gotta have some kind of advantage here.”

I laughed weakly and settled my side to the car too. Jordan certainly knew what he was doing.  He brushed a piece of hair from my face - a gentle touch that made my knees wobble.

“Nat, you’re killing me.  I’m not supposed to be helping some other guy get what I want.  But I don’t want to be a jerk when I’ve only known you for three days.  I hear you hate guys who do that.”

Stop, I thought.  Stop making this so hard.

“Listen.  James came here this morning after a fight.  He tracked down your address and just showed up - what kind of creepy stalker does that?”  Jordan paused so I could try not to laugh.  “And he must have thought I had ruined you for all other men.  Because I would.”

Jordan touched my face again, punctuating his joke that wasn’t a joke at all because it was probably true.  My body throbbed at the idea.

“But he stayed.  He must have really thought there was something worth fighting for here.  I wouldn’t have stayed, Natalie.”  Now his giant warm hand was at the back of my neck.  “I’m a pretty shitty boyfriend, to be honest.”

I met his eyes sharply.  “I would trust you.”  I did trust him, needed to trust him for this to be true.  And because he wasn’t going anywhere.

Jordan leaned in and kissed my forehead.  “Don’t tell anyone, but you may have found the one thing that James is better at.”

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. Jordan is just breaking my heart and James... you have a wonderful ability to give life to characters. They're all three-dimensional and real. You'd probably make an incredible actress. Please never stop writing! And keep the regular updates up! :)