Deryk Engelland thought I need some more inspiration, so he challenged Kris to a playfight at practice for the second day in row. Only this time he stripped his jersey, pads and shirt off. The best moment is at 5:40, when Kris tries twice to put it back on before giving up. EPIC.
Engelland & Tanger Playground Battle
She can see my car from the lobby so I pull slowly out of the parking lot. I can’t really read the street signs and I’m color blind to the lights. For a few minute there I was alright – I said goodbye, I even touched her. Then as she stepped into my arms and pressed her body against mine, I knew there was more of that positive energy, that healing power I’d felt from her hands. My lips brushed her cheek on their own, I didn’t plan that. It left me breathless and shaken, like shock setting in.
I get home in a haze, pull into the garage and sit thinking of how she’d been there the night before. Those steps, that door. Riley had come right into my life. In four days she had done more for me than Anna had done in months.
Anna. It’s the first time I’ve thought of her all day.
It should be midnight, but it’s not even dark. I occupy myself all afternoon by turning the idea of Riley over in my mind. Her smile, her laugh: little things that seem to mean so much when you’re first learning someone. Her touch – well, I think about that too much and have to take myself to the shower before I can finish. But mostly I just roll around in the feeling of something good and positive. It feels like a warm new coat.
Around dinnertime the euphoria starts to wear off. She is all the things I’ve been thinking, deserves all the things I’ve been imagining. But as my clothes rub away the feel of her hands, I remember that I’m not the guy to give her any of that. I’m broken, damaged. A few days worth of feeling can’t make up for months of numbness. Infatuation is the easy part – by the time you get to the real stuff, I’m obviously not cut out for it. And by then it’s too late. Now I’m onto this, feeding myself a boring dinner like punishment as I argue myself back to where I belong. Then my phone buzzes. Fuck, this is a conspiracy.
Riley: How are you feeling?
Call her, I tell myself. Don’t wuss out and text, listen to her voice. If you’re going to get past the possibility of her and you, you have to man up. She’s a good person, be nice, be friends. Just friends.
“Hey Kris.” The sound of her voice makes my stomach drop. “Feeling okay?”
The massage released toxins from my cramped muscles into my bloodstream. I feel them now – unsettled, unbalanced. Her concerned tone makes me want to cry. “Oui, I am good. I feel good.”
“Well don’t forget to drink a lot of water. You had a lot going on there – if it doesn’t get out of your body it can make you sick.”
The beer I have with dinner glares at me from the counter. “You give good advice.”
“Tell me that tomorrow when you’re feeling like a new man.”
Why are you texting him? I ask as I hit the send button. Because I have been un-texting him for hours: tapping out a message, deleting it, writing another. There are only a thousand ways to ask someone how they’re doing and I’m on nine hundred ninety-nine. I have to do something or I’m going to explode.
I drifted through my last client of the day, not remembering anything about the session except the stiffness in my hands brought to mind the sense memory of Kris’ body. He was such a mess, so vulnerable, so grateful. For once I actually had really done something for him and it felt great.
I settle on the simplest version of the message and send it off. A minute later my phone rings. Aw crap.
“Oui, I am good. I feel good.” He sounds a little hesitant, or maybe he’s just tired. After all I don’t know him that well. And beyond my text I can’t think of anything to say, so I give him some lame advice about water.
“Tell me that tomorrow when you’re feeling like a new man.” I sound like a Hallmark card but he surprises me.
“Come early again, eh? Five thirty like last time? Or we won’t get to say hello before the game.”
When he’s off, I already know it is twenty-two hours until five-thirty tomorrow and they will pass with agonizing slowness. I stare at the phone and wonder what the hell I’m going to do now that I have totally fallen for this brokenhearted guy.
The time inches by – I can’t sleep long enough to make a dent, work is slow. I even finish my book and have to leave lunch early. By four o’clock I’m practically pacing my room, Kris’ jersey hung over the footboard and all my clothing strewn across the floor. Finally I settle on jeans and boots and stuff a nicer top into my bag in case we go out.
Out. In case we go out.
I’m losing it.
Vero arrives just in time to keep me from biting my nails. “Penguins taxi service!”
I don’t want to tell her that her plan has worked. I don’t want to admit how much I feel something that is obviously not going to happen. Kris has made no secrets about being hurt and fragile. This is no time to be taking advantage of someone’s weakness. I put on a calm face that lasts across town and through the locker room door.
“Riley!” TK yells. He is like a puppy that ate Pixie Stix. It makes me smile to see him so happy – he’s been playing really well lately. Jordan greets me with a hug and then Max as well, reminding me how easy it is to be friends with these guys.
“Someone will be glad you’re here,” Max doesn’t bother to whisper. We both look up as Kris comes in from the equipment room. He’s wearing a t-shirt over small spandex shorts. Very small. One glimpse of those thighs and the thought of my hands on them – my vision blurs.
“Bonjour, Riley.” He puts his skates down and stands in front of me. One of his hands goes into my hair and he kisses me on one cheek then the other. I stand still as a toy solider and equally open-mouthed. His breath is soft against my ear as he whispers. “Don’t tell the other guys you do massage, okay? You will never get a moment’s peace.”
“Okay.” It gives me something to do with my face: a smile. We chat with everyone for a few minutes and Marc asks me to test his pads by kicking them as hard as I can. Coach walks in while I’m wailing away on Marc’s legs like Jackie Chan.
“Interesting technique,” he says with a raised eyebrow. “You must be Riley.”
“How do you know that?” I shake his hand.
He shrugs. “Heard someone around here was wearing Tanger’s number.”
That’s our cue to leave. We wish everyone luck and I give Kris what I hope is an extra little wave. He gives me an extra smile. In the lounge, Vero throws herself down on an empty couch.
“Oh my God he loves you.”
“Oh shut up, he does not.”
She sits up very tall. “What were you two whispering about?”
Jesus, she could double as a spy satellite. She’d been all the way over talking to Crosby when that happened. And now there is absolutely no way out of telling her the truth.
“I told you I got Kris an appointment at the studio yesterday, because his neck is so messed up. Well that therapist couldn’t make it. So I did it.”
Her mouth falls open like a cartoon character, several flights of stairs down to her chin. And before she can even think of something incredulous to say she bursts out laughing. Her arms go around me and she rocks us back and forth in hysterics. I catch the giggles and we go to laughland, wheezing and gasping until we are spent.
“Oh Riley,” she wipes at her eyes. “You are too much! I bring you to dinner, you go to his house. I bring you to a game, you wear his sweater. And now you’re just doing it on your own! Girl, I feel useless!”
“No, it’s not like that. It was an accident. And it was nice, I mean, I actually did something for him. Instead of him looking all thankful when I hadn’t lifted a finger.”
“I told you, he just needs someone to take care of him a little.”
I have to shake my head at that. It would be easy to ignore it because I want to, but not fair. “I have taken it as far as I can, V. I’m trained for physical therapy, I know what I’m doing. The rest of what he needs… that part is not coming from me.”
“You’re wrong,” she says. “He doesn’t need someone with all the answers. Just someone who’s willing to try. Give him time, he’ll come around. Maybe sooner than you think.”
I look right at her because this is important. “I don’t want to hurt him again.”
“That’s why you won’t.”
That was hard. I sit in my stall and pretend to examine my skates, but I think about Riley. She was here, bright as day, wearing my jersey again like it was the easiest thing in the world. Something that used to weigh a ton is now lighter than a feather. I knew she would wear it but the sight of her made me feel ten feet tall.
I really like her. It’s too much, too soon and I’m rebounding like a basketball, but there is no denying the punch to the gut I felt when I saw her tonight. The soft scent of her skin when I kissed her cheeks – both cheeks, so greedy – and the softness of her hair in my hand. I asked her not to tell the guys because they’ll all want her touch and I can’t handle that.
I spent last night trying to figure out a way this could work, a way that I deserve to have her in my life. I couldn’t come up with any but my mind has not stopped trying. Every time I roll my shoulders and actually get 360 degrees, I feel her hands on my skin.
“Where are you sitting?” I ask Vero quietly. She cuts her eyes toward Riley, obviously knowing I don’t want her to repeat this. She tells me the seat numbers and ‘I told you so.’
The game starts well and I really feel good. We roll into a 2-0 lead, then it’s 3-0 just into the second. I glance toward their seats a few times but it’s tough to make out who’s who in the sea of bodies. Tampa Bay keeps rolling at us and I’m watching Stamkos like a hawk. They come flying down the ice on a rush, wrap it around and set up at the near point. I get into position as Lecavalier lines up a slap shot.
And that’s the last thing I see before I’m flat on my back, blinded by the overhead arena lighting.
“Tanger! Tanger!” It’s the trainer, kneeling next to me. I didn’t pass out but I am dazed. I focus on him and he sighs loudly. A stick taps my thigh: Sidney leaning over with a worried look on his face.
The trainer helps me sit up, asking me to move my head and neck. Apparently the puck deflected off a stick In front and rode up into the side of my helmet. The bounce took some of the momentum but it still knocked me off my feet. They haul me up and Sid skates me to the bench with the trainer under my other side. I get my feet in the hallway and start walking, no balance problems. But I am worried – I’ll certainly have a headache and that can easily trigger a migraine. The pulse of fear beats through my body as I waddle toward the trainer’s room. I know how bad a migraine can be and there’s nothing worse than waiting for it to arrive.
The trainer knows too. He checks me out quickly: light to the eyes, moving my head around. All things I won’t be able to bear if a migraine comes. Dehydration is a trigger, and by this time in a game I am always fighting it. He gives me a full water bottle, two pills and tells me to stay still. The pills are strong migraine paid medication that often cause my muscles to spasm. Obviously I can’t play like that, so I almost never take them.
I have played with headaches before; all but the worst and I can endure. It seems a lousy reason to let the team down, because it can’t be explained or controlled. I sit quietly and feel one building. My helmet is gone but my pads and sweater stay on – if it’s not that bad, I’ll go back out.
The first thing is my neck starts to cramp. They warned me I’d have whiplash from the shot to the head. It twitches then coils, winding itself down. Behind my eyes a little point of pain begins to form. It could still go either way. The trainer comes back in and I know exactly what I need.
“Can you get my friend Riley? She’s in 118, Row K seat 2. With Vero.”
Kris goes down like a bag of bricks. I nearly jump out of my boots. Vero wraps her hand in mind and holds fast until he is on his feet and skating toward the bench. Just knocked for a loop, we assure each other. Saying “concussion” out loud is worse than telling an actor good luck before he goes on stage. I know that trauma can trigger a migraine and hope the hit was looked worse than it felt. The game goes on and I fail to concentrate. Ten minutes later, a hand appears on my shoulder.
“Riley?” It’s a man in a Pens coaching staff uniform. “He’s okay. But could you come with me?”
I give Vero a look and follow the man up the stairs.
My neck already hurts like a bitch but that white spot of pain hasn’t grown into a flare. The lights are out anyway, they can trigger an episode just as easily as the pain. As it is, the migraine won’t be too bad. I know because the sharp tapping sound moving down the hallway doesn’t stab me like a knife. It’s Riley and, bless her heart, she’s running.
“Close your eyes,” she whispers as she slides in and shuts the door. It’s near complete darkness. “Where are you?”
“Ten steps left.”
I can picture her short-stepping with her hands stretched out in front. She shuffles and giggles. “Sorry.” I reach out and hit her arm then grab it and pull her over.
“Hi,” she whispers, feeling around. I make a little room for her to sit on the edge. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I don’t think a bad one is coming. But my neck hurts. Do you think you could….”
“Roll onto your side.”
She feels her way up to my neck and I know that I’m a sweaty mess. My hair is soaked but it doesn’t stop her, she presses her thumbs into the points at the base of my skull that feel like stones. I make a pathetic noise. Her hands move down over the inflamed tendons. It’s actually painful but I know it’s better than waking up stiff as a board tomorrow. That will definitely give me a migraine. I hiss as she digs below the collar of my jersey.
“Shhh,” she says absentmindedly. She’s busy working, finding the spots that need the most help. “Is the trainer jealous you wouldn’t let him do this?”
I almost laugh. “I told you, they’re mean. It hurts enough already.”
As if I were asking her to stop, she simply holds her hand over the back of my neck. It’s a simple thing and very effective. My injured muscles throb but the rest of me begins to relax. Then she puts her other hand on my cheek and runs it up through my hair.
“I’m so sweaty,” I say sheepishly.
“You were playing a great game.”
“I think I’m okay.” I start to sit up on the table, giving her more room near my bent knees. The next test is to turn on a light but not yet. She’s so close to me, touching my bare skin in the dark. In here I can be anyone, I can be healed and ready and brave. She came running when I needed her – that is beyond any caring I have known in a long time.
“Should I try a light?”
“One second,” I say. I need to decide right now.
“Wait till you’re ready.” Riley has no idea what question she is answering. Her hand slides from the back of my neck as I get into a sitting position. We’re facing each other but I’m not sure where she is. I catch her hand as it moves down my sweater, pull her close in the complete darkness, and kiss her.
I’m scared. Vero’s seen a thousand hockey games and a million minor injuries but I heal people for a living. The idea of someone I care about hurt gives me stomach pains. When the guy came for me, I was so relieved to have something to do.
Kris is alone in the dark – I imagine it’s a metaphor for what his life has felt like. But maybe not anymore. He makes room for me and I feel the angry, swollen muscles in his neck pulsing with blood that tries desperately to minimize the damage. Hisses and curses sneak from his lips as I try my best not to hurt him any worse. That’s what I’m really afraid of after all.
He’s a trooper. He wants to go out and play, pain or no. Kris is resilient in a way that doesn’t apply to normal people and I think maybe, maybe he’s got it in him to bounce back from his broken relationship. If he wants to.
And I guess he does. Because in that dark room, on the little bench wearing his soaked hockey gear, Kris pulls me close and kisses me.
3 years ago