I just walk away.
I can't deal with Max right now. I can't take his condescension or the ‘I told you so’ look in his eyes. Mostly I can't take that he's right.
The truth is I used to love her. It used to be like skydiving - free fall and a crash. There were stretches of time where I lost myself in the idea of her. The only things that ever blocked her out were the headaches.
That's over now, that feeling of consumption. You can only poke a wound so many times before numbness sets in. Now when she cheats or lies or just fails me, I don't feel anything. The absence is worse than the pain. The pain went away eventually, each sickening low followed by another soaring high. I chased the feeling. Now there is no hurry because there’s nowhere to go.
"How long are you gonna let this go on?"
He's behind me now. The taunting is gone from his voice, replaced by concern. Sure he thinks I'm a wimpy sack of shit, but Max would tell you I'm his sack of shit any day. It's how he cares.
I have no answer. A simple yes or no would do - I either am or I'm not. No halfways. And the fact I can't bring words to my lips speaks volumes.
"I'm worried about you, mon ami," he says. And he means it. He should be.
When I loved her, I had direction. Sometimes it was backward but there was always motion, circulating our problems like oxygen, enough to keep me barely breathing. Since it went away I feel a slow suffocation creeping in around the edges of my world.
That's what happened - whatever I felt just went away. Replaced by nothing, it made no noise as it exited my life. I could tell you now that it's been months since I felt. But during those months I swear I didn't know. Other people knew – the guys could all tell. At first I was shy about it, like her running around was somehow my fault. I tried to stop it, tried to get involved. She pulled farther away. It was when I did nothing she came closest, came back for weeks at a time even. Like a puppy nudging its owner to see if the hand that feeds it has died.
Things came out. Maybe she was trying to get a rise out of me, doing things she knew would make people talk. Hanging all over other guys at clubs, saying she'd meet a flight or make a game then just not showing up. She didn’t came too close - never made a pass at my teammates, never got caught by anyone but me. Not that it mattered.
"Hey, man. Listen. You have got to drop this and move on. You're sinking," Max went on. But I was already at the bottom.
Finally it came. I'd spent so much time wondering when it would happen that it was almost anticlimactic. No earthquake, no cyclone. Just this.
We had a game. I took a heavy hit in the first, got knocked for a loop and the trainer sent me home. I was done for the night and they didn't want me talking to the media without a real diagnosis. Word would go out in the morning.
She should have been at the game. Instead she wasn't even watching on TV. She was home - in my home - and she wasn't alone. But she sure was surprised to see me.
"Get out, Anna," I heard myself say. Maybe I didn't mean it. If she'd fought me or apologized I would have backed down. But she just rolled sadly out of our bed, barely a word to whoever was beneath her, and picked up her clothes. I went to the kitchen. The first time the front door closed it was him. The second time she was gone.
Now I'm in the guest room, wondering if she had other guys in here too. Wondering if I care. In the end I do - either pride or duty compels me - and I move to the couch in my own living room, in my own house, to sleep unwanted and alone.
"I'm proud of you, Kris," Max says the next morning. I'm lacing up for practice. This late in the season no one is a hundred percent. I'm about 60 with the hard knock last night, and that's more than enough. I grunt a reply.
Afternoon comes and I do the first thing in months that makes me feel better. I buy a new bed, pay a huge fee for same day delivery and sit on the bare mattress in my room. New sheets are in the dryer. I feel a little lighter, or at least less tired, with a clean slate holding me up.
"We should," Marc says.
"Already? Too soon," Vero replies, shaking her head.
"No, too long," Max corrects her.
"I'm having a dinner party on Thursday," Vero says, tying her sneaker. "You should come."
I screw the top shut on my water bottle. "Okay. Can I bring something?"
I wait three days, put on a cute dress and stop at the store. Vero has been in my spin class at the gym for a year. Eight months ago we went for coffee, and soon it was lunch once a week. I've met Marc a few times, found him adorable and this is the first time I'm visiting their house. I wonder who else is making up this party.
"Riley!" Vero hugs me grandly. We follow the scent of food through the foyer of a large, comfortable house and into a wide kitchen. Marc gets caught leaning over the stove, spoon in hand, and earns himself a smack.
"Give Riley the tour!" She insists.
Marc leads me into the living room and den, showing me hockey treasures and souvenirs from their travels. Finally we circle back to the dining room.
"Why are there only...," but I'm cut off by the doorbell. Marc at least manages to give me a 'busted' smile before disappearing.
"Vero, why are there only four..." I don't get that out either. Marc's voice booms through the house, as if warning everyone he's coming in.
"And this is Vero's friend Riley," he says.
He moves his gangly frame from the kitchen entrance and my heart stops. If I had a glass I would have dropped it. Kris Letang is behind him - shorter, thicker, darker. And not just his long hair or his scruffy beard, not even the olive burr of his skin. His eyes are a little sunken, like he's recovering from a beating. He looks at me from beneath long lashes and I slip out of contact with my senses.
He would do it. He would set me up right now, or Vero would, and not with just anyone. No puckbunnies or easy, silly, forgettable dates. The girl before me is devastating.
Her hair is auburn or russet or one of those impossible, changeable colors. Her cheeks are rosy over the fair sweep of skin that travels from her cheeks down her neck and into the hollow where collarbone disappears beneath a blue dress. Her lips are parted slightly like they're begging to be kissed.
"This is my teammate, Kris," Mark says.
I instantly know there's no one else invited. Party of four.
"Hi," I manage, feeling like I'm talking through two tin cans tied to a string.
"Hi.". She slides her hand into mine. Like a struck match, flame burns all the way up my arm.
Oh God. He looks a mess. A beautiful, perfect mess of a man. I want to hold him and whisper that everything will be okay right before I kick the shit out of whoever put that look on his face.
Vero would do this. She knows the last guy I dated was months ago. Every week she quizzes me about the prospects of online dating, listens to me slowly giving up on my options and myself. There's only so much nothing a girl can take.
I've always been alone. Sure guys have liked me, and I them. But usually in short bursts, like the hose popping free of a scuba tank. Soon it's bled dry and you're left gasping. Then you just tread water, waiting for a ship to find you out in the open ocean.
Vero hands us each a glass of wine and I'm grateful for something else to look at. Kris is too... raw, somehow. Whatever happened to him was bad and it was recent. Damn it, V. I'm going to end up liking this guy and he's probably held together with scotch tape and liquor. Doesn't she know that's worse? Wanting and not getting? In her defense, Vero has never been lonely.
Marc shoos us to the table then disappears in search of food. We sip our drinks in awkward silence. Kris' hair falls across his eye and I nearly snap the stem of my glass to keep from reaching out. "Nice game last night," I say desperately.
"Thanks." His accent is softer than Marc's, the sound of lush cloth polishing an expensive car. "How do you know Vero?"
"We take the same classes at the gym."
He asks about our workouts, I ask about their training. It's stilted at first, just small talk, but it begins to flow after a few minutes. He could talk about athletics all night. Marc comes back as Kris is talking about off-season regimens, then Vero joins us with the last dish. They are animated and funny, drawing Kris out in the well-practiced way of very close friends. My nerves subside - Vero knows me well enough to know I'm not quiet either.
"After dinner you two can show us your boxing moves," Marc says with a mouthful of steak. "I think V is jealous that Johnson had a goalie fight but not me."
Vero laughed. "I'd be embarrassed if you did - you've no idea how to throw a punch."
"Kris fights my battles for me." Kris smiles like he's done exactly that a few times. Then he goes back to looking at my plate. "Are you left-handed?"
"No," I say, though I am cutting my meat that way. "I just use my left more than normal."
"I'm leftie," he waves his knife.
"You guys can sit right next to each other and never be in the way!" Vero announces. The way she's smiling says all pretense to this setup is now gone. I'm on a blind date.
I am more quiet than usual. People tend to think I'm shy, but it's not true. I just like to think first. Tonight I lose my train of thought every time Riley laughs, leaving me mid-sentence with no words on my tongue. I don't want to look like an idiot so I just shut up. Marc covers for me anyway.
She's funny. It comes easily in jokes and one-liners as she gets more comfortable. I realize how nervous she truly was at first; she was just as surprised to see me as I was to see her. Marc and Vero beam like proud parents when I make a clever comeback. Riley shakes her head and hair falls across her shoulders.
Anna was blond. I shouldn't be thinking of her and I'm not, not really. My brain has stored a picture of her and over the last year and a half I've worn it thin with constant use. Riley seems crisp by comparison, her colors so vibrant. Everything about her is different: shape, size, smell. She's like a luxury item: sure the old one worked, but you'd rather have top of the line.
"Did you learn English in school?"
"Some, but not very good. Mostly I learned when I came here."
"Luckily a lot of the guys are French."
"And some speak French, like Sidney. Errr, Sidney Crosby," I say uselessly. She just nods. "Listening to them helps with my accent to not be so strong."
Riley puts her hand on my forearm. It's quick, friendly but it kicks like a mule. Her smile kicks me again.
"Don't ever lose your accent."
4 years ago