Once my nerves ease, I have a really good time at dinner. It doesn't stop me from stealing glances at Kris while his head is turned but I can't hold his gaze. His eyes are too brown, too sad even when he's laughing. Like looking through a shop window at something you could never afford.
He covers it pretty well, whatever burden he carries. Marc and Vero are obviously a source of comfort and he seems eager to forget his cares for a while. But the way his wide shoulders round protectively toward his heart says the heaviness will soon return.
Vero works us like a talk show host - sharing stories and asking us questions in turn. I learn a lot about Kris and I suppose if he cares to take note that he learns a lot about me. I am the Showcase Showdown and we all wait for Kris to spin the wheel.
After dinner we move to the living room. V and Marc have obviously calculated the maneuver. They each take an armchair, leaving us the couch. I sit close enough to know Kris smells like the woods at night, but not close enough to touch.
"Come to the game tomorrow, Riley," Vero says. Of course I agree. It's clear to me there is no chance of anything with Kris, but that doesn't mean I can't look. And there will be 18 other guys on the ice.
"I have a jersey you can borrow," Kris offers. I glance toward him just in time to see Marc's foot retreating back toward his seat - he must have nudged Kris to prompt him.
"Thanks, that would be great,” I say, wondering if there's any way in the world his jersey could smell like him.
I'm going to kill Flower. He is pushing all my buttons - dangling this girl in front of me before throwing down the gauntlet. If I don't do something soon then I will never get the chance. Riley won't last a minute with the team before Jordy and Max and Gogo are throwing elbows and dropping punches to get near her. She doesn't look at me as much as I look at her. It's not like she's mine for the taking, no matter what fateful scenario Vero is playing at. She can certainly tell I'm in rough shape and probably thinks I wouldn't be up to her standards.
Dinner was fun. Anna crept into my mind but it was mostly comparing her lackluster performance to how great Riley seemed. I am standing at the bottom of a huge slope and Riley is at the top, waving me up. Now I hope I can man up and do something about this. I'm pretty sure I can't.
I offer her my jersey in hopes of buying myself some time. Call it marking my territory. Anna never wore my number, not even in the beginning. She hated how huge the jerseys were, and even found the women’s shirts too frumpy. All the WAGs rocked their fancy designer clothes and she was damned if she was going to let them show her up.
Riley says yes immediately. I want to smile, but she probably just doesn't know any better. I make a note to ask Vero to wear one of Marc's jerseys so Riley doesn't feel like a loser in front of everyone.
As Marc drains the last of the wine bottle into his glass, I’m swept by a sudden burst of panic. It’s time to leave. Time to go back to my empty house and my empty bed and wonder whose face Anna was picturing when she laid there with me. Being around people, especially an intriguing girl, has temporarily relieved the pain.
“Thank you so much for dinner,” Riley is saying, standing up to hug Vero. V’s lips move as she whispers something, I wonder if Riley smiles. She turns to Marc next. He always looks so happy it’s tough to tell what the reason is, as if he needed one. Vero pulls me into a hug.
“You’re going to be okay,” she tells me quietly. It reminds me of how much I want what she and Marc have: the absolute certainty that someone loves you, that they’ll keep their promises and stand by you. It reminds me of how far I have to go.
Riley is there when I turn, her form describing exactly the shape that would fit against me. I have to force myself to close the distance – I want to, desperately, but I know what it will feel perfect. My heart scrambles to defend itself against the onslaught.
“It was nice to meet you,” she says. Her mouth is smiling but her eyes are sad and in that moment, she knows everything. I am a box of broken glass to be handled with care; she won’t be getting out the glue. But her arms reach up and twine around my neck. Warm and soft and safe and… shit. SHIT.
I would hug Kris even if he weren’t so beautiful. My body aches for this complete stranger like a rip tide I can’t escape. More than that he looks like he could use a good, solid squeeze just to prove he’s not going to fall apart.
Those rounded shoulders are more than wide enough to capture me to his chest. His arms fall heavy and thick across my back. That long, dark hair is as soft as I’ve been imagining all night. The muscles in his back tense for a second, like they’ve been slapped, then relax. He puts his face into my neck and draws a deep breath.
For a very long moment, he is silent. I’m overwhelmed by the urge to cry. There is such need in his embrace; terrible sadness poured over resignation and spiked with lust. It’s dark and bottomless and hypnotic. It’s the most erotic thing I’ve felt in… ever.
He finally backs away, head down slightly like he’s embarrassed. Just as well his mouth is nowhere near mine. Vero is surely watching us like a hawk so I avoid her gaze and wait for Kris to lift his face. When he finally does, I smile. Anything to help him feel better.
“We’ll all see each other tomorrow,” Marc says. We head for the door and Kris lets me go out first. Marc and V make a big show of closing the door behind us, then I bet they run to the window and peer out into the drive.
He’s behind me and has to walk past my car. I don’t know why I turn but I can’t stop myself. He stops too, maybe even before I do. We stand there for a second looking at each other in the near darkness. I want to hug him again but there’s no reason, no excuse without admitting the hundred half-formed thoughts in my mind. He hesitates like there’s something he wants to say. His soft bottom lip slides between his teeth as he bites down, swallowing the words. He’s an arm’s length away but it feels like a mile.
“See you tomorrow, Riley,” he finally says.
“What am I doing?” I ask out loud to my empty car. From the rearview mirror I watch her back out of Flower’s driveway and go in the other direction. My fingers are white against the wheel fighting the desire to turn and follow.
I shouldn’t have hugged her. I knew what it was going to feel like: aloe on a burn, the pull of sleep, weightlessness. Now there’s only a hollow space between my chest and arms, to match the one inside my heart.
“Riley.” I say aloud. It’s going to be a long night.
Only the sound of the closing door greets me at home. I’ve thought of replacing everything, of selling the place and moving. Or I could just face the fact that it’s no fault of the couch or coffee table I hadn’t loved Anna for a long time. It is only my fault for staying and clinging to something that had long since disappeared.
The new sheets on my new bed are very crisp. Sliding into the softness gives me a moment’s feeling of hope that things could improve, if only a little at a time. Then I close my eyes and think of Riley and everything I won’t have again anytime soon. If expensive linen is the best I can do I may not make it after all.
I don’t dream – I haven’t in ages. Sleep does come eventually to draw the curtain on the picture of her face in my mind.
The tiny flicker of hope visits in the morning, after I wake but before I open my eyes. The moment I recognize it, it’s gone. Sunlight slips around the curtains of my room to soften the scene of so many crimes.
It’s an hour before Vero calls. Her voice is strained and I know she’s been dying to question me since last night. Marc must have forced her to wait. The idea of her pacing the kitchen while Marc holds her phone hostage nearly makes me laugh out loud.
“What did you think?!” She’s practically shouting.
“Vero, I know you’re worried. But I’m not…,” I try to be cheery but there’s no point in lying. She knows better. “I’m not ready. I’m a mess. It’s not fair to lay all of this one someone.”
“She made you happy, I could tell.”
“She’s great, which is exactly why I can’t. You wouldn’t want someone like me with your friend.”
She sighs. “You are my friend, Kris. It kills me to see you so unhappy. And it’s been months – don’t deny it – since way before the end. You deserve something good Kris, you deserve to be happy.”
I want to say yes, tell her she’s right and then drive right to Riley’s house and pound down her front door. But that wouldn’t be fair to Riley. Maybe that’s how I know I like her, because I care more about what it would do to her than what it would do for me. I don’t even know her. The ripple of energy that jolts my body every time I think of her must be a reflex, a gut reaction to any spark of pleasure in such a nightmare.
“She’s coming tonight.”
“I’ll drop off a jersey on my way in.”
Vero’s voice gets stern. “No. You’ll give it to her when we get there.” And she hangs up.
I lay in bed still amazed all that really happened. Sleep takes a long time to come as I go back over every detail of the night. It’s impossible not to think of him as somehow the darkness of my room seems to evoke the sullen weight of his body as it leaned into mine.
I wake late to exactly the same train of thought. Before I can even get up, my phone rings.
“Morning!” Vero must be bouncing around her house.
“Morning, sunshine,” I laugh.
“So… did you have fun last night?”
I roll over. “You are evil. A total setup and not so much as a word of warning – what kind of friend are you?”
“Did you like him?”
Of course, I want to say. But I temper it. “What happened to him?”
She takes a deep breath and her voice evens out, after which she doesn’t even really need to explain. “He had a girlfriend for a while – she was awful. It just ended. But I swear his heart wasn’t in it for a long time. He’s just too sweet and she really put him through the wringer. So he’s a little beaten up but I swear, Riley, he’s the most amazing guy ever. He just needs something to remind him what it feels like to be happy.”
I could have guessed the story. It had been all over his perfect face. Still hearing it triggers the same response as it had the night before – I want to help him and I want to teach some bitch a lesson. But it’s a big job and I just don’t have the resume.
“I don’t know, V. I trust you and I could tell that he’s really great but… I’m not the person to put someone back together. I have zero experience with relationships. I fully expect to fuck up a lot and I don’t think that Kris can handle that. Plus, would he even like me? He’s… well, he’s perfect, Vero. I can only imagine what this other girl was like. I’m so… average.”
“You are not.” She is emphatic. No wonder everyone loves her, she really sees the best in people. And she’s very kind.
“What time is the game tonight?” I try to change the subject.
“We’re going early, so we can visit the locker room. I’ll pick you up at five-thirty.”
As I run errands during the day, I can’t help but play the night before to a new soundtrack. Vero’s words ring in my head about the way Kris has been treated and what he’s gone through. The more I think about it the more there’s no way I’m the right person for him. Sure I’ve had my share of sadness but I have never been really hurt or betrayed by someone I care about. It makes me feel naive and foolish – I could never help him if I don’t understand.
Still I take my time getting ready for the game – maybe there will be someone there less intimidating. At least I could look ready. I wear skinny jeans with riding boots and a long-sleeved t-shirt, hoping Kris will remember the jersey he promised. When I climb into Vero’s car she gives me an approving look.
I keep my eyes on the road and try not to be nervous. It doesn’t work. The closer we get the harder my heart beats. As we pull into the arena parking structure butterflies are banging against my ribs. Like a kid on her first day of school, I follow clumsily behind Vero as she breezes through the player’s entrance.
Where the hell are they?
I am clockwatching. It isn’t ticking. That makes me even more impatient and drives me to small busybody tasks hoping when I glance up again it will be five-thirty. How can the day be passing so slowly?
Then all at once it’s five-thirty-five. A clean jersey is folded on the shelf in my locker. It looks alternately like a gift and like the flag at a funeral. That pretty much sums up my riot of emotions for the day.
I feel the door open before I hear it. Vero struts in like a woman on a mission and she isn’t looking for Marc. Her eyes zero in on me as a victorious smile spreads across her face. Then she steps aside and Riley is right behind her.
She looks a little unsure, a little worried. And completely fucking perfect.
“Kris!” Vero comes right over. Riley shuffles behind, her eyes lifted and scanning the room. Guys are getting ready and talking to reporters and trainers, taping sticks and fixing equipment. V’s presence is nothing new and it will take a moment before anyone realizes there’s fresh meat on the table.
“Hey V, hi Riley,” I say after clearing my throat. Believe it or not I have been rehearsing that tragically lame greeting all day.
“Hi,” Riley says, finally straightening up and rolling her shoulders back. Her dark hair is straightened and falls over her shoulders, tiny pieces catching around her cheeks. In dark slim jeans and plain white long sleeves, she is simple perfection. Her eyes are lighter than I remember and slowly her smile reaches them.
“I, uh… here’s that jersey,” I stammer. Then I hold it out, ticking like a time bomb.
“Thanks,” she shakes it out and examines it. It’s huge but the best I can do. Inside I cringe – Anna would have handed it right back to me with a scoff. Riley turns it in her hands and rubs the fabric between her long fingers. When she finally looks up, the tension is gone from her face. “I’ll be nice and warm in this.”
I open my mouth to speak, but my time has run out.
“Vero!” Max shouts. He’s like the ringleader in a circus, calling everyone to attention. “Who’s your friend?” He saunters over, half-clad in pads and the other half in spandex, already giving Riley his best come hither stare.
“This is Riley,” Vero says. “And this is Max. Don’t be unchaperoned around him, I cannot guarantee your safety. And this is Jordan.” The huge blond rolls up like an avalanche. He actually nudges Max out of the way and extends his hand. Riley introduces herself and then to Duper, who’s come to see what mess the boys are making. Flower turns up at the right moment, draping one arm over Riley’s shoulder and the other around Vero.
“Easy boys, leave the girl alone. She didn’t come here so you could breathe all over her.”
Max is close enough to do that. He playfully makes a show of rolling his gaze slowly up her body. “You’re gonna be cold in that shirt, ma petit.”
Riley lifts one hand. “I’ve got a sweater.”
The boys’ heads all snap in my direction, looking equally surprised and impressed. Jordan reaches out a giant paw and ruffles my hair. “How cute, they gave you the smallest jersey we have,” he says.
Not to be defeated, they stand around talking to Riley and Vero for a while longer. Max makes her laugh. Gogo and TK make her promise to come out with us after the game. Apparently we have plans. I can’t think of anything to say, once again the sight of her face makes me lose my train of thought. Before I know it they have to leave.
“Good luck,” Riley says, stepping in closer to me. Then she does the best and worst thing outside of kissing me. She slides her arms into my jersey and pulls it over her head. One hand pulls her hair free from the collar. It hangs on her frame, past her fingers and well below her hips. She looks down at herself.
Vero tugs her arm. I am just staring, my mouth open like a fish. Riley flashes me a smile, then leans in and brushes my cheek with her lips. The last thing I see is an oversized 58 walking out the door.
“You little shit!” Jordan bellows from his stall across the room. Duper whistles. I turn and hide my face, as much to cover the blushing as the smile that I can’t stop. My cheek flares where her kiss barely touched me. Good thing my entire head fits in my locker.
“Fuck you, Flower! Holding out on us!” Max yells. “When I said you should set him up, I didn’t mean with someone I’d want for myself!” He throws something that hits the wall above my head and follows it over. Now he’s quieter. “You okay, Tanger?” I nod, face still hot. I’m not okay at all but I’m asking him to believe the lie. Then maybe I can.
“You can do this,” he says.
4 years ago