I have never seen such a look in someone’s eyes. When I pulled Kris’ jersey over my head he looked like a kid at Christmas. I don’t know what it was about but that girl really did a number on this poor guy. I lost my composure for a minute and I had to do something. My heart felt fit to burst. When my lips brushed his cheek, all the air zipped out of my body. All I could do was turn and hurry away.
Vero spins in the hallway and throws her hands up. “You see that? Simple little thing and he’s so happy? Ugh! I want to beat that girl with Marc’s blocker when I see that look on his face.”
I just nod. It was not pretty.
“Riley, please say you’ll think about it. He needs this so much.”
I push her along the hallway. That’s what scares me – he really needs this. Everything about him is crying out for help and I don’t have the kit. But there’s no way I can stop thinking about it. We take our seats and I steer the conversation elsewhere, grateful for Kris’ jersey against the cold of the arena. Vero placed us away from the wives and girlfriends.
“Most of them knew her, the last girl. Some of them are not much nicer, but they are careful not to punch their meal ticket.”
“What was her name?”
She considers for a moment like she doesn’t want to tell me. Finally she says, “Anna.”
“Anna,” I repeat, looking down at where the cuffs of Kris’ sweater are balled into my fists. “She didn’t wear this, did she?”
It’s more of a statement than a question. This girl wouldn’t wear his jersey. Not if she wasn’t proud of him, didn’t respect him. Not if she took him for granted. It explains the look in his eyes when I put it on. There will be a thousand other girls in here with Kris’ name on their backs, but I already know that I’ll feel special all night because of it.
When the guys come out for the warm-up skate we keep our seats. I feel Vero watching me as I pretend to watch them. Of course I’m really only watching him. He’s a very powerful skater, moving with an easy grace and hard, fast strides. It makes me think about his thighs and before I know it, I’m fanning myself with the snack menu. The only thing to do is look away, which puts Jordan in my sights and I actually squeak. Max skates up next to him, laughing and my vision actually blurs. Vero pats me on the shoulder then raises her hand to catch the beer vendor’s attention.
The game is intense. I spend most of it with the sleeve of Kris’ jersey pressed to my face, alternately covering my gasps or hiding my eyes. Vero commentates colorfully on the other teams’ players and the referee’s calls. If hockey were on HBO all the time they’d hire her in a second. Halfway through the third, the Pens get the go-ahead goal. It turns out to be the game winner.
“Thank God,” she whispers, her own fingernails dug into the armrests. She leads me back toward the locker room but stops in a nearby room. It’s full of women and families. I’ve still got Kris’ jersey on but it’s the only one on anybody over fifteen. V steers me toward the snack table.
“We don’t have to wait long.”
Everyone’s eyes are on me and the number on my back. I feel self-conscious knowing they are sizing me up. I could be Anna’s replacement – maybe they liked her, maybe not. I could be some temporary puckbunny – there was no shortage of them in attendance tonight. Hell, I could be his cousin for all they know. Whatever they assume, I feel them passing judgment. Vero stays close, talking privately in the hopes that no one will interrupt us. I’m not ready to make up an explanation for why I don’t know what I’m doing here.
“Hey!“ Jordan comes through the door first. I swear even the married women catch their breath at the sight of him – ten feet tall, five feet wide and smiling like he can’t wait to peel your clothes off. Christ on a bike, he is gorgeous.
“Did you have fun?” he’s asking me. My tongue feels like the cork in a bottle so I just nod. I can see now why Vero never invited me here before. Without some kind of rudder I would spin right down the drain in this company.
Max arrives next, followed by TK. They chat with a few of the other people in the room but they don’t have significant others here. Instead they discuss options for where we’re going out. I watch TK from the corner of my eye, thinking how impossible it is that he is actually cute. Then there’s a hand on my back.
“Hi Riley.” Kris didn’t make a sound as he approached. His palm presses the 8 on the jersey, against the mesh where I can feel how big it is. Wet hair is combed back from his face and he wears a gray suit with a blue shirt and tie. The dark, woodsy smell of his cologne lays lightly over the scent of shampoo.
“Nice game,” I say stupidly. His hand falls from my back but he doesn’t move away. Instead a shy smile comes to his face.
“Were you warm enough?”
I nod, pulling the right sleeve to get the jersey off. “Let me give this back to you.”
He stops me with his hand again. “You can wear it next time.”
The look on his face is killing me. It obviously means a tremendous amount to him if someone will wear his jersey. Well maybe not just anyone, I think. But I am just anyone, I can’t be more than anyone else. His brown eyes are almost black and the sadness I saw the night before is still clearly upon him.
“We’re going out!” Max throws an arm across my shoulder and Kris narrows his eyes slightly. “Let’s get it, kids.”
We group up, but Vero has filled my seat in her car with one of the guys. She doesn’t bother to apologize, she just beams. Very subtle.
“I’m parked out back,” Kris tips his head toward the door.
I spend the game feeling like there’s a camera trained on my every move, like someone is watching. Because she is.
I don’t fool myself into thinking Riley might like me. My performance in the locker room made sure of that – she must think I’m pathetic. When she put on my jersey I looked like I’d never seen a girl before. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d won something. It’s stupid for an athlete to put so much importance on someone wearing his number. There are a thousand people in my number here tonight. But only she is really actually wearing it for me.
At least the game was a good one. If I can’t be a normal person, at least I can be a good hockey player.
The sight of her in that sweater in the lounge is even harder. All the WAGs are here, those people Anna was so desperate to fit in with and impress. Riley probably feels idiotic and hates me for making it happen, but it looks fantastic on her. She looks fantastic in it. When she tries to give it back, I can’t take it.
Then Vero pulls another trick and now Riley follows me down the hall. I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do in the silent solitude of the car, but here it is. She drops into the leather seat and leans back to buckle up.
“Oooh, seat warmers,” she purrs, relaxing heavily. They really are luxurious. I brush the hair from my face and place both hands on the wheel. Barely a foot separates us and I don’t trust myself.
“I’m glad we won tonight, since you were here,” I say carefully.
She smiles without turning toward me. “You guys lost badly the last time I came.”
Hmm, she had never mentioned if she even liked hockey or been to a game. I guess she had. I wonder what she thought of me, if she thought of me at all.
“Were you here with Vero?”
“No,” she smiled now. “I came on a date. He was even worse than the game. But it was a good excuse not to see him again.”
The cars around us rev up and I pull out as part of the caravan. Riley keeps the conversation going, relieving me of the burden of trying to sound normal when I feel so confused. Part of me wants to kick her out of the car for her own good. Part of me wants to pull over and kiss her. I could curse Vero and Marc for this, but mostly I am amazed that I feel anything at all.
We stop in a lot full of cars and she turns her whole body toward me. “Remind me to get this before I leave?” She tugs the jersey over her head then drapes it across the backseat like it’s a delicate item. The thin cotton of her t-shirt shifts and twists against the curves of her body.
The guys have chosen an Irish bar with tables and live music. Even on a busy Saturday night we can commandeer some space. Riley orders a beer and I get the same.
“Riley!” TK shouts as the band starts up its set. “How’d you like the game?”
“You mean how’d I like your goal?” she teases. He grins. “It was pretty awesome. And I thought you were gonna have a fight there in the second.”
“You should have heard what I said about his mom!”
Beers go around and Riley talks easily with the guys. I do my best to participate too, but the band is loud and I still have trouble thinking clearly when I look at her. More than once I catch Max watching me watching her. He gives me the Superstar eyebrow raise every time.
“Let’s dance!” It’s Marc and his hand is out for Riley. She is up and gone in a second, Flower towering over her. He’s all gangly arms and legs as he pretends he knows how to lead an Irish jig.
“So…,” Vero takes the chair next to me. I wonder if she was this relentless before she started spending all her time with professional athletes. I shrug. There’s nothing to say. Riley is great and I could really like her. Except that I am terrified, exhausted and I really don’t want to hurt someone because I don’t have my shit together. But I do want her; that much is clear.
“Give yourself a chance,” V says quietly. “Take your time.”
We watch Marc and Riley whirl around laughing. He wheels her out then winds her in with one arm, crashing their sides together. She might be having more fun than he is. She might be more fun than he is. I cannot take that from her.
I think I wish I’d met all these guys before Kris. They’re fun and friendly and ridiculously attractive almost across the board. For someone as deprived as I have been, they are an embarrassment of riches. Yet Kris is the most attractive. Maybe it’s because he’s brooding and wounded. I’ve always heard that girls like the emo guys, the ones they want to save. Never before has it known it to be true. On top of that, he is spectacularly beautiful in a way that almost breaks my heart.
Marc finishes dish-ragging me around the dance floor and hauls me back to the table. Kris ordered me a fresh beer which I accept gratefully. As I’m about to take my seat, the opening cords of a slow U2 song start.
“Dance?” Kris stands. It’s not fair – he’s so wide, so strong. I just nod.
We step into the crowd and he puts one arm across my lower back. With the other he takes my hand, holding it where his chest and shoulder meet. Just like the night before I fit right into him and he puts his face down toward my neck. We take tiny steps and say nothing. By the middle of the song, I feel myself melting like chocolate against him.
He lifts his head, dragging that now-dry silky hair across my cheek. His mouth passes close and every muscle in my body clenches in restraint. The darkest eyes I’ve ever seen stare right into mine from dangerously close proximity.
I want to kiss him. It would mean my lack of experience doesn’t matter. I want him to kiss me. It would mean that whatever he’s dealing with is something we can handle. A pipedream, a delusion. But I’m wishing with every fiber of my being as Kris puts his forehead to mine and closes his eyes. He doesn’t look at me again until the song ends. The band dives right into another jig but it takes us a moment to recover, nearly still amid the dancing bodies. Finally he leads me clear. The moment is broken.
I take a spot between Vero and Max, catching my breath. She sips her cocktail like everything is going according to plan. We last a few more hours. The guys are wiped from the game but happy to be basking in a win. They’re very friendly, full of raucous humor and crazy stories. More than once, I get asked when I’m coming out with them again. Each time my answer gets more assured.
“Vero, can I come to the game on Tuesday?” Before she can answer, four people say they’ll take care of it. I want to know if they’re doing it for Kris, if they can see what Vero’s trying to do. As close-knit as they seem I’m sure they’d look out for their boy.
“I could give you a better jersey to wear, a prime number,” Jordan offers.
“Or an even number,” TK tries.
I give Kris what I hope is an easy smile. “I’m all set.”
Vero catches my eye as we’re getting ready to leave, asking if I want to take Riley home. I do, though I’m not sure we’d make it past my house. I’m not sure of anything right now except that I probably should not have asked her to dance.
I didn’t believe my memory of last night. There was simply no way Riley could have fit into me like that. It seemed best to test it in a room full of people, where there was safety in numbers. Then she moved close and the crowd disappeared. It hurt to hold her even as I wanted to so badly. Even as I knew I couldn’t do it right.
I could have kissed her, though. If I were just looking to get laid I would have kissed her on that dance floor. Vero’s words rang in my head: “Take it slow.” I should go so slow that I stop completely, but that’s not what she meant. Riley seemed uncertain too, probably unsure what to do when someone who’s been stabbed starts bleeding all over you. She didn’t run away though. Damn her for not running away.
I shake my head at Vero. I cannot be alone with Riley again tonight.
Everyone heads for the door. The guys fist bump and handshake, Vero gives me a quick hug. Then Riley heads for my car. “I’m not…,” I start to say. I’m such an asshole. If she wanted a ride would I really say no? But I realize too late that’s not what she’s after.
“Jersey,” she says, pointing toward the backseat. I’d completely forgotten. The door beeps open and she leans in, one knee on the seat. Her shirt rides up to reveal a perfectly fair triangle of skin that I know is the width of my hand. Then she’s standing in front of me again.
“See you Monday.” She wears a mixed expression – half the worried look from the dance floor, half the happy look from table. Another quick duck of her head and before I can react, she’s kissed my cheek and is walking away again. For the second time today, I see number 58 attached to the perfect girl as she’s walking away.
4 years ago