Sunday, October 2, 2011


I couldn’t nap.  After forty minutes of staring at the ceiling and imaginary conversations with Natalie that ended, alternately, in tangled sheets or white dresses, I gave up and put on a suit.

The equipment guys were still stocking lockers when I came in, so I walked up the zamboni entrance and looked around the empty arena.  The only other places I’d ever been that was so high and silent was a church.

I wanted so badly for things to work here.  The end of last season had been erased by a good, productive summer.  I would never be Stamkos, no matter how much time I spent with the guy, but my game had come back through hard work and focus.  Confidence came with it.  The only thing I couldn’t force into being was chemistry and I might have just ruined my only chance at that.  But I’d get a chance today to skate and play and Natalie would be there - she had to watch, she couldn’t avoid my presence anymore than I could avoid hers.  

I heard the locker room door close - the equipment crew must have finished.  One last look around and I headed back.

Jordan was hanging his jacket in his stall across the semi-circle from mine.  Otherwise the room was empty.  He looked up as I came in, then carried on unbuttoning his dress shirt without a word.  I started to undress too.  I heard a zipper, then him sit down on the bench.

“Two years, eh?”

I closed my eyes and sighed - all this confrontation was really wearing me out.  But better now than later, in a room full of guys who would probably hate me too.

“Yeah, I guess so.  I never knew.”

“She didn’t know about you either.”

That made me turn.  “Know what about me?”

Jordan tilted his head like I was being deliberately dumb.  “That you liked her for a long time too.”

So Jordan knew, probably from the first second.  Knocking over all those sticks didn’t help keep my secret.  

“Did you tell her?”

“No.”  A sharp, short answer.  “I am not going to bat for you.”

“But you’ll try to take my place.”  It was out before I could think - images of that fight came to mind: Jordan knocking me out with one swing.  Oh well, I was in it now.  “You went for her and you don’t even know her!  She’s not just another thing for you to fuck Jordan.  I won’t let you make her nothing.”

“You won’t let me?” He didn’t bother to stand.  The tone of his voice was a warning.  

“No.”  I had no idea how I would back that up if it came to action.  But Jordan just shook his head.

“I can’t take your place, Neal.  Believe me, if I thought I could she’d never so much as look at you again.  I’d love to try.  But she’s... I don’t know.  Talk to her.”

I was stunned.  Jordan Staal was giving up?  On a girl?  This was the Twilight Zone.  Maybe she turned him down - the thought made my heart race.  Either way, I would only get one chance.  I spun around and rifled into my jacket for my phone.

“She’s here,” he said.  Then he looked at me, all shoulders and arms as he sat in his stall.  “I drove her in.”

I refused to think of what that meant - if she’d been napping (or not napping) with him, if he’d been with her since this morning.  It didn’t matter.  In my Under Armor and basketball shorts, I moved toward the door.

“Neal.”  Jordan’s voice was almost a growl.  I turned slowly, expecting to find him charging me like a bull.  Instead is voice had a forced evenness.  “If you fuck up, I’m taking her home.  My home.  And I’ll make sure she doesn’t even remember your name.”  

Jordan offered to pick me up on his way to the rink.  Kate and Emily would drive my car over later, after outfitting it to kidnap Kris.  I felt like I owed Jordan a few minutes alone.

I hadn’t counted on his suit - dove gray with a crisp white shirt.  Or his cologne, or the way he’d styled his hair even though he was going to put a helmet over it.  He may have backed off but he wasn’t going quietly.

We rode in easy silence, having said everything earlier.  It felt like we could be friends even after this.  Thank God, because I didn’t know anyone here but Jordan and James - and what a messed up trio we made.  I couldn’t count Kris in case he didn’t want to see me after Emily and Kate were through.  So Jordan drove and I watched and when we got to the rink, he turned to me and smiled.

“Last chance,” he said.

“For what?”

Those killer blue eyes again.  “That kiss you were after last night.”

I didn’t say anything, but he watched my gaze drop to his mouth for just a second.  No one would ever know if I kissed him.  Only I would know if it felt the same as when James kissed me.  Maybe it would tell me if I was doing the right thing or making a mistake, maybe one kiss knew everything - it certainly had up until now.

“No,” I said softly, after a minute.

He pursed his lips like he’d expected nothing less.  “I’ll save it, just in case.”

Jordan went to the locker room and I went to my office.  It was still early, the place quiet.  I closed my office door and thought about nothing.  Not even ten minutes passed before someone knocked.

“Jordan, you...,” I stopped.

“Hi,” James said.  He put one strong hand flat on the door, in case I tried to slam it in his face.  But I was too close, we were both in the way.  Words of all kinds caught in my throat.  For once, the quiet kid had more to say than I did.  He took a quick breath, steadying himself; he’d been practicing whatever came next.

“Every day, since the first day I saw you, I have meant to kiss you.”

James stopped.  The words floated like leaves to the floor between our feet - we just stared at each other while they fell.  

“Every day,” he finally said again.

“You never....”

“You never either.”  And he was right.  He stepped in closer by half.  Tall and broad in his own right, James was surprisingly big even compared to my recent company.  It had the same effect - my body ached to be held, supported, absorbed.  

So I highlighted everything in my brain and hit delete.  The page went blank.  I threw my mouth against James’ and kissed him hard.  His hands wasted no time finding my back and those solid arms closed around my sides.  He opened his mouth beneath my insistence and the soft burr of his tongue dragged over mine.  Every nerve ending in my body lit up like a runway; he followed it to land, coming to rest against every part of my body.  James held me up and I kissed him for everything I was worth.  

Finally, gasping, he took his lips just centimeters from mine.  “It’s over.  And I’m so sorry,” he promised.  I didn’t need to hear her name.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen.”  I had stormed in and tossed his life around like a burglar.  Things were emptied and broken and missing.

“I don’t care,” he whispered.  Another inch erased between us.  “It can’t be worse than before.  Not with you here.”

There it was, that kick to the stomach I’d felt every time James shot and didn’t score last season.  Every shift he didn’t shoot, every penalty he took out of frustration.  A vicious cycle dragging him down.

“It will be better, I promise.”  And I meant it.

He smile that dazzling, butterfly-inducing, sigh-wringing smile that changed his whole face and threatened to break my heart.  The smile I’d worked so hard to get in Dallas.

“You never knew?” I couldn’t help but ask.  James had one side of my waist in each hand, his fingers touching across the small of my back.

He shook his head.  “Never would have believed it.”

I lifted up onto my top toes and as I leaned in, James leaned in too.  No more one person kissing the other.  This time his lips met mine in the middle, gave in at the same and gave us something shared right down the middle.

Why are preseason games so long?  Can’t we play seven innings instead of nine, like tee ball?  I had an assist, we were winning by three and there were places I’d rather be.

Natalie and I spent half an hour making out on the couch in her office.  The moment I realized this was actually happening I was so afraid to mess it up that I didn’t want to say another word.  I pulled her down onto the loveseat, drew her legs across my lap, leaned her back and kissed her.  It didn’t quite make up for two years but it was a good start.

Noises in the hall had probably been going for some time before we heard them.  People were rolling carts and calling out while we were running out of ways to kiss that involved keeping all our clothes on.  Natalie slid her hand up the back of my neck, into my hair, and turned those incredible green eyes on me.

“I love you,” I said instantly, like she’s hypnotized me into telling the truth.

She smiled shyly.  “I’m scared.  What if I’m not as good as you think I am?”

My hand was beneath her lower back, her body deep in my arms.  With a flick of my wrist, I got it underneath her shirt and pressed to her smooth, warm skin.

“You can’t be any worse than I just was.”

Natalie brought her lips to mine again, softly enough to seem hesitant.  She really was worried.

“Natalie Crawford, I have been in love with you for two years.  You’re that good.”

She shook her head slightly.  “I love you too, James Neal.”

I could have thrown her into the air like a cheerleader, but instead I squeeze as tightly as I could around her and kissed the lips that had just spoken.    

“And I’m scared too,” I admitted.  “Of a lot of things.  But mostly telling your dad.”

Natalie barked a laugh that caught us both by surprise.  She threw her head back and I put mine right to her chest, ear to her heart, and laughed at the idea of breaking the one rule that had dictated our separate lives.  

“I can’t wait.  Let’s call him now.”  I reached for my phone.

“What?  Are you crazy?  He’s going to kill you.”

“Not me, you.”  I still had his number in my phone - probably saved it just in case this moment ever came.  I hit send and pressed the phone to Natalie’s ear.

“Uh, hi Dad,” she wrinkled her nose like she was going to wring my neck when she finished.  “Good, how are you?  I don’t know if that’s a good score in golf.  Oh, nice!  I’m very proud of you.  Hey listen... uh, good.  Pittsburgh is really good.  In fact, I called to tell you something.  You know James Neal plays here.”  

Natalie gave me a stare that dared me to do something, anything.  Then she hit the speakerphone button.

“Dad, you’re on speaker.  James is here.”

“Hi Coach.”  I hoped my voice sounded manly.

“James, hello. How’s the team treating you?”

“It’s, uh, it’s looking better for this year.  Especially now that Natalie’s here.”

Her father’s voice got sarcastic, a tone we’d known so well as his players.  “Uh oh.”

“Coach,” I could never think of him as anything else, “I’m in love with your daughter.”

Natalie smiled so widely that I had to kiss her, just a quick one I hoped he couldn’t hear.  Her eyes were glittering with tears and I wished to go back in time and do exactly this a year or more ago.  I had missed so much.  In my mind, this was always the part where Coach told me I was traded to the Islanders, don’t let the door hit me in the ass.  But he surprised me too.

“You always were, Neal.”

“What?!” Natalie shrieked.

“I suppose since you’re calling me together, that Natalie finally told you the same thing?”

“Uh, yes sir,” I stammered.  

“WHAT?!” Natalie yelled again, her face incredulous.  “You knew all along?  And you didn’t tell me?  What kind of father are you?”  She was laughing now.

He was laughing too.  “Nat, honey, if you think I’d ever tell you that some twenty-one year old guy looks at you like I look at your mother, you’re out of your mind.  Don’t get me wrong, James is a nice guy....”

“Thanks Coach,” I said uselessly.

“... but I think you should be a nun or a feminist or something.  I guess there’s no chance of that now?”

“I’m telling mom you held out on me.  You’re in so much trouble!”

“Neal, you sure you want to do this?  They gang up on you, that’s how they work.  It’s like the Broadstreet Bullies.”

We were all laughing now, the adrenaline easing out of our systems.

“Did Natalie tell you about the night you were traded?  She called me up screaming that I always trade away the best looking guys?  I thought she was going to ask for your address and beat down your door.”

Natalie covered her face.  “Oh my God, Dad!”

“Well Coach, I almost called you for her address that night.”

Pause.  “Yeah, that would not have been a good idea,” he agreed.  We laughed again.

“Listen.  James you’re a great kid and a fantastic hockey player.  I knew Natalie would end up with one of you guys sooner or later, and I’m glad it’s you.”  Natalie put her head against my shoulder as he spoke.  “And I’m glad it’s not my team so I don’t have to worry about it.  Now go give Bylsma a heart attack for a change.  And Natalie... I love you, honey.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

“Bye coach.”

We both stared at the phone, screen blank in her hand.  How different things could have been if one person had said one thing all that time ago.  But would they be better?  Too many circumstances to consider.  I put my arm around Natalie’s shoulders and pulled her into my side.

“We can wait to tell them,” I said, meaning the team.  Meaning Jordan.  I knew Natalie might like a moment to tell him herself and I owed them both that.

So I was on the bench, waiting for both my next shift and the final buzzer.  For the first pre-season game, with a handful of guys out and some brand new faces around, we were clicking pretty nicely.  It was all experimentation at this point, but I was on a line with Malkin and that was the kind of science project I wanted to be this season.  The dangerous kind.

The game wasn’t perfect, but when it was over we had won by two goals.  An auspicious start.  Everyone was happy and joking.

“Hey man, you okay?” TK asked, dumping his sweater into the hamper.  “Got your message.”

“Yeah, thanks.  Did uh, Kelsey say anything?”

Tyler shrugged.  “Probably.  But if it’s not right it’s not right, right?”

The media started filing in.  We both looked back toward the door until the pack had entered, and Natalie was right behind them.  She wore a black pants suit for her first game, and looked like she could have any guy in the place.  Then her eyes caught mine and she smiled.

“Dude, I knew you were lying,” TK laughed, watching me get all mooney at Natalie’s glance.  “You two good?  What about Staal?”

I clapped him on the shoulder like we were best friends, comfortable enough to let things roll off our backs.  “It’s good man, I’m good.”

The post-game locker room was an assault on the sense.  Heaven to the eyes - half-naked professional athletes everywhere, breathing hard and glistening.  Hell to the nose - if gym socks took a shit, that shit would smell like a locker room full of gear.  I would never get used to it.

So I looked for James, only to find him and TK watching me.  My heart did a little pirouette and he smiled, blushing.  TK rolled his eyes like he had been right all along.  Guess we were fine on that front.

Then I turned toward Jordan’s locker.  He’d scored two goals with bursts of speed and a couple punishing hits.  It was obvious he couldn’t wait to get back to hockeyt.  Like a big, hyperactive puppy, he needed lots of space to run.

When the media started wrapping up, I retreated to the hallway.  Guys nodded to me and said hi as they left.  Kris stopped, wet hair pushed back from his face, and grinned.

“Emily and Kate are across the street, if you want to meet us.”

Jordan was a minute later.  He didn’t stop, just took my elbow and steered me into a nearby empty office.  From up so high, his blue eyes looked like they already knew all the answers.  And he was a little sad about them.

“Jordan, you are....”

He moved so quickly that his mouth was pressed to mine before I realized he was going to kiss me.  One big hand held my neck and his soft lips moved, asking permission.  Without a thought I let him in, his tongue twisting into mine urgently.  My hands fought for a place to hold on.  It was a toe-curling, pulse-racing complete surprise of a kiss.  After what would not have been long enough in any other circumstance, Jordan barely broke the kiss.

“Just so you know,” he said quietly, “what you’re missing.”

I smiled back, feeling weak and woozy but also relieved that he already knew about me and James.  And this was not a desperate last-ditch effort.  It was a promise that he’d be here if I needed him.

“Just so I know that you are really good at it,” I managed to reply.

Jordan kissed my forehead and let go of me.  We both waited a second to see if I would collapse.  Then his eyes narrowed.

“The new girls always have boyfriends.” He mocked the words Tyler had used right after James and I saw each other, as he spilled all the equipment.  I guess TK had been right all along.

James was waiting in the hall.  This time he didn’t look worried that Jordan was following me out from behind closed doors.  He just nodded to his bigger, blonder teammate.  Jordan squeezed my arm, then fist-bumped James on the shoulder.

“See you tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away.  Just like that.

James and I were alone in the hall.  “Kris and the girls are across the street.  Want to get a drink with them?”

He smiled down at me.  “Actually most of the team is there.  Kris invited everyone.”

I thought about walking in there with James’ arm around my shoulders or his hand in mine.  How easy it would be to let everyone know we were together, and how this early in the season was the perfect time to do it.  

We walked from the rink, fingers twisted together, talking about the game.  It felt like practice for the way we might leave the same place a hundred more times this season.  Through the window, the bar was crowded and happy noise spilled onto the sidewalk.  James slowed.

“What did Jordan say?”

“He said the new girls always have boyfriends.”

“Smart guy.”

James pulled me into his chest and kissed me.  It was a sweet, easy kiss full of promise and apology.  It wasn’t an epic kiss - but we didn’t need those so much anymore.  We could have any kind of kiss any time we wanted.  That was epic.

“An hour,” I said.  I wanted people to see us, and I wanted to see my friends, but more importantly I wanted to be alone with James for the first real time ever and unwrap this present we’d just bought for each other.

“I was thinking forty minutes,” James replied, his face close to mine.  The full billion-watts of his smile turned on all at once and I nearly swooned.

“I won’t make it thirty minutes,” I confessed.

James slid his hand down my back and squeezed a handful of my ass.  I squeaked.

“One drink,” he declared.  We hurried inside.

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