They must think I don’t notice. They must think they’re so discreet. What a load of crap. They’re so blatantly obvious, they may as well be screaming it in my face. I think I’ve known this was coming. I think I’ve known for a while. When it started, I thought that maybe… if I tried hard enough… if I loved her enough… maybe we could pull through this. But it just wasn’t to be. There were too many distractions, too many other responsibilities. And there was him.
I look up from my musings and stare across the field at where my friends are playing street hockey—training in the off-season, I suppose. Now that our scholarships are secure, our team name safe, and our positions once again defined, everyone seems so much happier. Charlie has Linda, Luis has his cheerleader, Fulton and Dean have each other—what, surprised? Being a good hockey player means being observant. And I’d have to be truly blind to miss what those two have. I think… sometimes I envy them. Sometimes that worries me.
Julie has Scooter, or she would if she’d let him get that close, Russ has his attitude, Averman, Goldberg, and Kenny have their practical jokes, and Dwayne… Dwayne has Connie. My Connie. Even now, when they know that I’m watching… It’s all in the way that they look at each other. The way that her gaze lingers on him when he laughs… the way it used to linger on me. The way that his eyes roam all over her when he thinks she isn’t looking. The way that they seem so reluctant to let go after they collide during a particularly rough play. It tears at my heart, to see all those little things—things that used to be our things—now happening between them. It hurts.
I pull my knees a little tighter to my chest and rest my chin on them. She doesn’t even try to hide her disdain for me anymore. Whenever I try to impress her, she just gives me this look… a look that makes me feel like I’m about three inches tall. Whenever I try to be nice to her—buy her chocolates, a few roses, anything to try to make her smile at me—she accepts it like it’s a chore, as if it’s something that she’s required to do, as opposed to something that she wants to do. I’m about ready to stop trying. It hurts too much, being spurned and scorned at every possible opportunity. I don’t think I can take much more of it.
But what else can I do? For as long as I can remember, it’s always been ConnnieandGuy—an inseparable whole. Like Siamese twins, we went everywhere together, did everything together. Believe it or not, the idea to join a hockey team was originally hers, too. I don’t think I have a single original thought in my head. All of my likes and dislikes were originally hers, I just had the privilege of sharing them for a short while. The only original ideas I ever did have… well, even I have to admit they weren’t too bright. That incident with the Zamboni in LA, for example. Boy did I get chewed out for that one.
I think… I don’t know how to be “Guy Germaine”. I hear the name often enough during hockey games, but in my head it’s always been “ConnieandGuy”. And now… now I have to figure out how to be just “Guy”… and the thought scares me beyond reason. How do normal people function like this? How do they go from day to day hearing their name called by itself, not in conjunction with someone else’s? And more importantly, how will I survive when I start hearing the others say “ConnieandDwayne” the way they used to say “ConnieandGuy”?
Almost as if he senses my thoughts, Charlie calls a time out to take a breather and skates over to where I’m sitting alone on the sidelines. He drops down next to me and takes a slug of water from his bottle. He smiles energetically at me, “What’re you sitting over here for, Guy? Why don’t you come and join us?”
It’s starting already. My name sounds so small all by itself… From somewhere, I dig up a smile and paste it onto my face, “I’m just not in the mood to play today, Charlie. Sorry, man.”
Damn Charlie for being one of the other observant ones. He frowns slightly and lets his hand come to rest on my shoulder, “You OK, man? You’ve seemed kinda down lately. That’s not like you…”
Am I OK? No, I’m not OK. What kind of stupid question is that? That’s what I want to say, but that isn’t what comes out, “I’m fine, Charlie. Why don’t you go bother Banks? He’s not playing, either.”
Charlie’s not convinced, I can see that. But he also won’t press. He’ll leave me alone because that’s what I asked him to do. Hey, I said he was observant, I never said he was Sigmund Freud. But when he gets up, he just wanders back over to the game. He doesn’t go talk to our resident Gretsky. Then again, I’m not really all that surprised. They may have been best friends in the past, but this year really took its toll on Banks and Charlie’s friendship. I’m not entirely sure it will ever recover—especially not now that Charlie has someone else to spend his after-practice hours with.
I’m so deep in my musings that I almost don’t notice when Banks drops himself down next to me with a quiet, “Hey.” He sets his book-bag down on the grass and settles onto the ground beside it. Truthfully, I’m a little surprised. Banks and I have never been particularly close. We don’t talk. We don’t hang out. But I don’t really hang out with any of them. “ConnieandGuy” hung out with the Ducks… But Guy… he’s not sure how to interact with them by himself… I almost miss his next quiet words, “So, why aren’t you playing?”
Well, the surprises are never ending today. I shrug, keeping that smile pasted on my face, “Not in the mood, I guess.”
Banks isn’t buying it. I can see that already. Damn it. Not only is he observant, but he’s smart, too. He isn’t going to leave me alone until I’ve satisfied his curiosity. He tries again, “You feeling OK?”
I unwrap my arms from where they’re clasped around my knees and let myself fall back into the sun-warmed grass. I don’t really want to talk about this, and I certainly don’t want to talk to him about this. I close my eyes, roll over onto my side with my back facing my team-mate, and do my damndest to fall asleep. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll get bored and leave.
This afternoon, I eventually did fall asleep and Banks eventually did get up and leave. I probably would have missed dinner if it weren’t for Charlie coming to find me and wake me up. The other Ducks have long since finished eating. So, here I am, sitting alone at a table in the cafeteria—and Banks is heading straight for me with his tray. Damn but that boy is persistent. You’d think that if a guy goes out of his way to avoid his friends, they’d show a little courtesy and let him. But not Banks. Apparently, I’ve piqued his curiosity. Oh, lucky me.
He stops across the table from me and quietly asks, “Do you mind if I join you?”
I shrug, trying to discourage him without actually chasing him away. He doesn’t take the hint. Or maybe he does and is choosing to ignore it. What the hell is it about me that’s fascinating him so much today, anyway? It isn’t as if I’ve done anything really out of the ordinary—I just opted not to play hockey. Plenty of people do that all the time. Why the hell should he care?
It occurs to me that he hasn’t said a word to me in the ten minutes that he’s been sitting at my table, quietly eating his dinner. OK… So why does a guy come and sit with someone that they clearly have questions for and then not ask them? It occurs to me that I have a few too many questions of my own. I resolve not to be the one to talk first. I’m just gonna sit here and eat my burger and fries, drink my Coke, and then leave.
“So, why weren’t you at dinner?”
Oh shoot, was that my voice? Damn it, it was… Didn’t I just say that I wasn’t going to ask him anything? Wasn’t going to encourage him to hang around? Wasn’t going to encourage him to stick his nose any further into my business than it already is? So what the hell was with that? Just opened my mouth and blurted out conversation. Great Guy, just great. Now he’ll think you actually want him to stick around… I bury a groan of irritation in my hamburger.
When I look up to catch his expression, I nearly choke. That bastard’s smiling! It’s just a quirky little smirk, like a cat that just cornered a mouse. Somehow, that analogy does nothing to make me feel more at ease…
The smile slowly fades as he takes in my own expression. Man, it must be a prize. My emotions have been all in a jumble this week and what little facial control I had has long since been shot to hell. I must be as easy to read as a book. Whatever interesting passage he finds to read in it, he decides to answer my question, “I had some homework to finish. It took a little longer than I thought it would.”
Homework. It’s summertime, or nearly so. Does he actually expect me to buy a lie that transparent? My eyebrow slowly climbs up into my hairline, “Uh… Banks, finals ended yesterday. Why were you doing homework?”
Again that little smile. What is with this guy? His expression turns sheepish, “I thought that I’d get a jump on our summer assignments. My family is going on vacation for a month and I don’t want to get stuck doing homework when I should be enjoying myself. Since I’m not going home until Sunday, this seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Well that’s more words than I’ve ever gotten out of him at one time… Usually the only person he really talks to is Charlie, and sometimes Coach Bombay. Not the other Ducks. Not me. So why am I suddenly so blessed? This curiosity thing is gonna kill me… “Where are you going?”
I think I’m getting used to that smile or something. I don’t feel quite as strong a desire to wipe it off his face… “We’re going to visit family. In England. My family over there holds a pretty big reunion every five years.”
Somehow that figures. Not only is Banks rich, but he’s British, too. I wolf down the rest of my food and stand up. I’m not really sure how I got drawn into this surreal conversation in the first place, but I’m getting a little tired of keeping it up, “Well, I hope you have fun, Banks. I guess I’ll see you next year.”
Before he gets a chance to say anything else, I grab my tray and take off. I don’t really want to hear anything else that he might have to say. I may be staying in the dorms this summer, but most of the Ducks are leaving tomorrow, or in two days, like Banks. If I can avoid them until then, I’ll be fine. Maybe a couple of months away from all of them will give me a bit of a perspective on all of this. A thought pops unbidden into my head—that Connie and Dwayne will doubtless be an acknowledged couple by then. That thought freezes me in my tracks. I think it’s finally hit home that there’s nothing I can do about it. I just don’t have the will to fight for her anymore. And I don’t think I could, even if I tried.
I shift my course to take me to the ice rink. Maybe a few hours of skating will make me feel better… That is if I can avoid thinking about who it was that taught me to skate…
It may have been a long, lonely summer, but it still feels weird to have everyone coming back to campus. My mom stopped by to visit yesterday and brought me some souvenirs from her summer research position. She’s a professor of archaeology at the University of Minnesota, but when my dad died she had to stop going on excavations. She never said anything, but I know she really missed it. That’s why I stayed in the dorms this summer, so she wouldn’t have to feel like she had to stay home and take care of me. I’m nearly 16 years old, I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.
I wasn’t the only Duck to take advantage of the free room and board this summer. Fulton and Portman stayed, too. Somehow, I’m not all that surprised. However, I am glad I don’t live immediately next door to them. The slight heat that I feel rising in my cheeks is the only betrayal of my thoughts. Not that it bothers me… because it doesn’t. And not that I envy them… because I don’t.
It’s just… when I catch them alone together, when they think no one is watching… they’re so sweet to each other. Not goo-goo-baby-voice-sickening-nickname kinda sweet, but… sweet. It reminds me of how Connie and I used to be. She used to sit down next to me and lean into me, just pressing against me to let me know that she was there. And whenever we were standing together, her hand used to home in on mine like a little bird finding a nest. It’s all those little things that I miss. And for still having those little things… I do envy them.
I turn a corner and nearly run into just about the last person on Earth that I want to see. Dwayne Robertson. At least he doesn’t have Connie with him. He gives me that bright beaming smile of his and tips his hat to me, as if he’s still in Texas, “Howdy Guy! How’re you doin’ on this fine fall mornin’?”
I think I’m staring at him. No, I’m pretty positive. I am staring at him. How can he just walk up and start talking to me like nothing has changed? I choke out a quick, “I’m fine, Dwayne, just fine,” and turn to walk back the way I came. But I don’t get very far—my knees have turned to Jell-O. So… that’s where Connie is…
She gives me a gentle, knowing kind of smile and reaches up to give me a quick kiss on the cheek. I can’t return that little affection. Either she’s going to try to continue the charade she had going on last year, or she’s going to give me The Talk. Tell me how she hopes we can still be friends. I strongly suspect the latter. I have to fight down the urge to fall down on my knees and beg her not to do this to me. But I made my decision about this… I’m not going to fight it. I don’t have to show her how much she’s hurt me, though—that one small piece of pride, I can keep. Her voice is quiet, sincere, “Guy… we have to talk.”
I nod, my voice caught somewhere in my throat and unwilling to emerge just yet. She lets out a little sigh, “I think we both know… I think we’ve known for some time… that our relationship isn’t going to last, Guy. I don’t want to hurt you, but…”
Don’t want to hurt me? Too late, Connie. You already did. But I can’t say that. My voice still won’t cooperate. All I can manage is, “You’re… breaking up with me?” Why did that come out so surprised? I’ve known for months that this was coming. I must sound like such an idiot…
She looks over at Dwayne for support before turning back to me, “Guy… this isn’t working. I’m sorry. I do still care for you… just not that way. I’m sorry.”
Oh goody, I think my voice is ready to work. It’s quiet, low, and pain-filled, but at least I can use it, “I know. I’ve known for a while, actually. I just… I didn’t want…” I will not tell her I love her. I will not beg. I won’t. “Connie… I… I still love you.” Damn it! Why can’t I ever listen to myself??
Finally, I see it. There’s pain in her eyes. It makes me feel better, if only slightly, to know that she’s hurting, too. It occurs to me that that’s a little sick. She shakes her head, “Guy… please don’t make this harder than it has to be. I already found someone else. We’re finished, Guy. We’re over. I’m sorry.”
And then she turns and runs. I can just barely hear her crying. Why is she crying? She broke up with me. And she said it herself, she has someone else. She has Dwayne. As much as I hate him right now, I have to admit that he’ll be good to her. He’ll take care of her. But, damn it, I don’t want to hear that right now! Not even from myself. I turn to find him giving me an accusing stare. He frowns, “You made her cry.”
I want to scream at him. I made her cry?? Of course, you don’t care about what she’s done to me. I have to get out of here before I do something I’ll regret—like punch that irritating “overprotective-new-boyfriend” look off his smug Texan face. I take off at a run.
It’s been two days since the break-up. I haven’t seen Connie at all since then. I’ve seen Dwayne once or twice—mostly he’s been glaring daggers at me. Still upset at me for upsetting Connie, no doubt. I don’t know if the other Ducks know, yet. I don’t know if Connie and Dwayne have said anything to them. I don’t know if I’m ready to face them. I know I’m not ready to face Connie. But ready or not, I don’t have a choice. Our first practice is today.
I dawdled around in my room, waiting until the last possible moment before heading over to the ice rink. Somehow… I just don’t have the heart to play. I haven’t had the desire to since last year. It makes me wonder how much of my love of the game came from Connie. I still feel so empty…
When I reach the locker room, the team is already half-dressed. I walk to my locker and start opening the lock, very much aware of the utter silence that descended the moment I walked into the room. Oh, they know all right. The question is, what did Connie and Dwayne tell them? The silence is oppressive, I feel like it’s choking me. But I can’t break it. My own voice is too small, too weak. It doesn’t belong here.
My suddenly numb fingers fumble with my skates, unable to tie the laces. They won’t stop shaking… The rest of the team finishes with their gear and files out of the locker room. Not a one of them says a word to me, though Charlie stops to pat my shoulder on the way out. I’m grateful for that one gesture, it gives me the strength to finish getting myself ready. I have a feeling I’m going to take a real pounding on the ice today…
I stand up and take my helmet and stick from my locker. Banks is waiting for me at the door. I curse under my breath. I’d forgotten all about his weird behavior at the end of last year. It wigged me out something awful and I didn’t look forward to a repeat performance. But for some reason, since it’s just him, my voice isn’t choked off in my throat anymore. I even manage to make it sound halfway cheerful, “Hey, Banks. How was your vacation?”
And damn but I forgot how annoying that little smile of his is… “It was fine. We stayed at my uncle’s house in the country. I’d forgotten how much family I have, though… It seems to get larger and more daunting every time we go over there.”
And there he goes with being talkative again. This guy makes no sense. But it’s so nice to hear someone’s voice directed at me that I’m willing to overlook the strangeness of it all. I even manage a genuine smile for him, “That’s great, Banks. I’m glad you had fun.”
He smiles back, then proceeds out to the skating rink. I don’t feel quite as alone anymore… maybe that was the point. I screw up my courage, and with Adam’s smile and Charlie’s silent support firmly in my mind, I go to join my team.
It starts to go wrong from the very beginning. After warm-ups Coach Orion assigns us to teams for a brief scrimmage. It’s me, Goldberg, Fulton, Tyler, Mendoza, Banks, and Averman on one team, and Charlie, Portman, Kenny, Gaffney, Connie, and Dwayne on the other. Oh brother… This is going to be fun… I’m not on the ice more than a minute when Dwayne first checks me into the wall, not too hard, just hard enough to let me know he means business. Once the game gets moving my team gets control of the puck. Averman’s heading down the ice with it, sees me, and passes it. Mistake. I get my second check into the glass. This time I get the wind momentarily knocked out of me.
I take a quick breather under Coach Orion’s watchful eye. He’s not going to say anything, not unless it gets out of hand. Charlie’s got the puck now and he’s heading down the ice straight for our goal. Fortunately for our team, Banks gets in his way. I push myself back out onto the ice, ready to get back in the game. Seeing me in scoring position, Banks passes the puck my way. Stupid, stupid, stupid. That’s the third time in four minutes that I’m down on the ice with Robertson smirking over me. I’m getting a little sick of this.
Banks skates over to me and holds out a hand to help me up, “Are you all right?”
I can’t help a small growl of frustration, “Peachy.”
He frowns, “Dwayne really seems to have it out for you today. He isn’t usually that physical a player…”
“Yeah, well…” I feel a sudden insane urge to laugh… or cry… I’m not really sure which, “I suppose the feeling’s mutual. I’ve had about enough of falling down.” Banks claps me on the shoulder, we line up in the center of the rink, and the game starts up again.
This time I’m ready. If Robertson wants to turn this into a damned wrestling match, then so be it. The minute he has the puck I go straight down the rink at him. He doesn’t even see me coming. He goes down hard against the boards. By the time he’s up, I’ve already got the puck halfway down the rink. He’s after me in a heartbeat, fury practically radiating from him. Just in case he manages to catch me again, I pass the puck over to Russ. Dwayne sails by me in pursuit of the puck. Too late. Russ already put it in the goal. One point for our team. I give Russ a high five on the way past. I gotta learn how to do that knuckle-puck thing one of these days…
Back to the center. Charlie gets the puck and takes off with it, Mendoza in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, Luis still has trouble stopping from time to time… like when he hasn’t been practicing all summer… Before the Hispanic boy can crash into him, Charlie passes off the puck to Connie. Being the closest one to her, I move in to try to intercept the pass. At this point, I’m not even thinking about relationships, or break-ups, or vindictive new boyfriends, I’m just caught up in the game and homing in on the puck. I intercept the puck and try to take off with it… but Dwayne’s stick gets in my way. I try to break my fall and nearly break my wrist for my trouble. The dull ache lets me know, in no uncertain terms, that I’ve done a number on it—a sprain at the very least.
Coach Orion finally blows the whistle. By then I’ve pulled myself to my feet and gotten my glove off. My wrist is already starting to swell up. Tazfic. I yank off my helmet with my good hand and glare over at Dwayne. Even Connie looks a bit upset. Oh wonderful, he’ll probably blame me for that, too… Coach Orion skates over to me and examines my wrist. I can already see the anger in his face. He turns to Dwayne and says, very calmly, “Care to explain what the hell just happened here?”
Dwayne shrugs, “I’m not sure, Coach. It looked to me like Germaine tripped.”
Charlie’s the first one to protest the obvious lie, “Probably because you stuck your stick under his skate, Dwayne.”
The coach motions for them both to be quiet, “Guy, I want you to go get an ice pack for that wrist, all right? Then come back in here and take it easy for a bit.” With a pat on my shoulder, he dismisses me and turns back to berating the rest of the team.
Once I’m out of view of the others, the silence returns with a vengeance. I’m starting to feel numb again. The others may not have been out to get me like Dwayne was, but they didn’t stop him from doing it, either. And now this… I struggle out of my pads and skates and grab an ice pack, wrapping it painfully around my left wrist with an ace bandage. I cradle it in my other hand and firmly tell myself that I’m not going to cry. It’s just a sprain. It doesn’t hurt that badly and it’ll heal in a week or so. Faster if I’m careful with it.
Deep down inside, I know that isn’t what hurts so badly… What hurts is the alienation, the feeling that even among my friends, I no longer belong. What a horrible feeling… I don’t really want to go back out there, but if I don’t, someone will surely come after me. There’s no help for it. Cradling my injured wrist in my other hand I make my way back out to the rink. The others have resumed the game and I sit quietly down next to Coach Orion.
He wordlessly examines my wrist, then turns his attention back to the game. I figure that’s the end of it, until I hear his quiet voice raise in question, “So, you want to tell me your version of what happened out there? It’s not like you to be so clumsy on the ice, Germaine.”
I shrug, not really willing to talk about it, “I haven’t practiced much this summer. I guess I tripped.”
He gives me a sideways glance and frowns, “You know how I feel about people lying to me, correct? Especially members of my team.”
Hunching down over my wrist to avoid his eyes, I nod. He sighs, “Well, then whatever is going on between you and Dwayne, I hope that you can get it straightened out. You’re just lucky we don’t have a game coming up. There should be enough time for that to heal before our first one. Just be careful with it, OK?” Another nod. He smiles, claps me on the shoulder and says, “Go on. Get out of here for a while. I’ll see if I can talk to Dwayne later and find out what his problem is.”
I leave without another word. I know damned well what Dwayne’s problem is. But I’m certainly not going to tell Coach Orion. I make my way slowly back to my dorm room and flop down onto my bed. I don’t really want to do my homework. I don’t really want to do much of anything. Maybe a nap would be a good idea… Before the thought is even complete in my head, I’m fast asleep.
The knocking has been going on for quite sometime before I realize that that’s what it is. I peel my eyes open slowly and squint into the darkness of my bedroom. Man… what time is it? Another round of squinting brings my clock into focus—almost 9 PM. Damn, no wonder it’s so dark. A loud grumbling from the general vicinity of my stomach reminds me that I likely missed dinner. Damn again. I really didn’t mean to sleep that long… Another round of knocking. Oh, all right, already… “I’m coming!”
I get up, flip on the lights, and open the door. Somehow, I’m not all that surprised that it’s Banks. His tight, anxious expression relaxes when he sees me, though the smile that replaces it is slightly self-conscious, “Oh good… You’re OK. I didn’t see you after practice or at dinner and I was getting worried. Then you didn’t answer your door—I think I’ve been standing here knocking for almost ten minutes, now.” He pauses, as if he realizes how he’s been running on, then finishes quietly, as if no longer sure of his welcome, “How’s your wrist?”
Once I figure out what he’s babbling about, I’m even more confused. Why the hell has Banks been being so nice to me? It makes absolutely no sense. It didn’t last year, and it doesn’t now. I lean back against the doorframe and shrug, “It hurts, but it’s just a sprain. It won’t kill me.” It occurs to me that it’s somewhat rude to leave him standing out in the hallway, especially since he came all this way to check up on me, even though I still don’t know why. I suppose I should invite him in… but of all the company I could have, I want his the least.
“Why don’t you come in for a bit?” Damn… There I go again, letting words out without having them stop at my brain first. I have got to stop doing that… Oh well. Too late this time—like always. He’s already smiling and walking over the threshold. All of a sudden, I feel very nervous. I don’t like to feel nervous. In fact, I hate it. What right does he have to walk into my room and make me feel uncomfortable? I close the door and turn to face him, all ready to get mad… and my anger deflates in a heartbeat. Why? Because of what he’s holding in his hands.
Banks holds up the carton of milk and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich like the peace offerings that they are and again smiles that self-conscious little smile, “Since you weren’t at dinner, I figured you might be hungry.”
I let myself fall back to sit on my bed. I really don’t get it. What the hell did I do to deserve all this attention? Banks and I were never friends in the past, he never even indicated a passing interest in being friends, and now he’s acting like my long-lost brother. I don’t get it. And my traitorous mouth is busy betraying me again. Just one little word… “Why?”
His smile isn’t self-conscious anymore, just a small, happy little expression. He walks over to stand in front of me and puts the food down on the mattress next to me. His smile widens a fraction when I look up to meet his gaze, “Sometimes, Guy, people just do things because they’re the right thing to do.”
I can’t meet his eyes for very long, quickly dropping my gaze to rest on my injured wrist, “That isn’t what I meant.” Why am I whispering? Damn it, Guy, get a hold of yourself! But I can’t. This afternoon threw me a little too far off balance. I’m confused, and I’m lonely, and I don’t know what to do about it. Why do I have this weird feeling that Banks does?
I can feel the mattress settle as he sits down next to me. His voice is pretty quiet, too, now that I think about it, “I didn’t think it was.” He’s silent for a moment, thinking, probably. Eventually, he starts talking again, “With the coach gone, Charlie was really the only friend I still had on the team. And he’s so busy with Linda these days, he hardly has time for me.” That wasn’t the whole story, I knew that. Yes, Charlie had a girlfriend, but the rift between him and Banks ran deeper than that. Banks’ short stint on the Varsity team last year had really rocked Charlie’s trust in him. It would take a long time, if ever, for Banks to get it back.
His quiet voice interrupts my thoughts, “Since I never really see you hang out with anyone but Charlie and…” His voice trails off, as if hesitant to mention her name, but he eventually continues, “… Connie… I thought that maybe…” He shrugs, “Misery loves company?”
I let out a short bark of laughter, “So basically what you’re saying is that I’m pathetic and have no friends, and you’re pathetic and have no friends, so we may as well be pathetic and friendless together?”
He’s frowning, I can practically hear it in his voice, “Well… I wouldn’t have put it quite that way… but basically, yes. Is that a problem? Because if I’m really bothering you that much, I can leave…”
No. No, that’s the last thing I want. My head snaps up so I can meet his gaze again and I mutely shake my head. I can’t ask him to stay. I can’t tell him how horrible the loneliness feels. I can’t tell him how hollow and empty I am. But even in my messed-up state, I know that I don’t want him to go. Because… maybe he’s right. Just because we weren’t friends in the past, doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends now. And I think… maybe… I’m willing to give it a shot.
He smiles again, and this time it’s full of undisguised relief. Maybe he’s as scared of being alone as I am… Maybe he’s just as desperate for company. Now there’s a weird thought. But… this might just work. Somehow, maybe it can. I may have lost Connie, but that doesn’t mean that I have to spend the rest of my life in an emotional black hole.
A small smile of my own slowly creeps onto my face. I break the sandwich in half and hand half of it to Banks… to Adam. Yeah… I should probably start calling him by his first name. That’s what friends do, after all. My smile widens slightly to match the mischievous twinkle in my eye, “So, tell me, Adam… Just what did Coach Orion say to Dwayne after I left?”
He laughs, and toasts me with his half of the PBJ. You know… that may be the first time that I’ve heard him really laugh… “Well, it wasn’t so much what Coach Orion said, as what the rest of the Ducks did. I think Luis accidentally crashed into him two or three times, Fulton and Dean checked him into the boards so often that they both got put in the penalty box—”
I interrupt him, a confused look on my face, “Wasn’t Portman on Dwayne’s team?”
A mischievous smile is the only response I get to that question, “Goldberg managed to block every shot he made for the goal, and Charlie and I stole the puck out from under his nose every time he managed to get it. And Coach Orion didn’t say a word.”
Somehow, that warms my heart. It doesn’t really matter what Connie and Dwayne did or didn’t tell the others. It doesn’t really matter that I don’t feel all that close to the rest of them right now. What matters is that no matter what else happens, I’ll always get a fair judgment from my team. They know I’m not to blame, and they stuck up for me when it counted. Maybe I’m not really as alone as I thought I was. I don’t really need Connie to have friends. Adam is proof enough of that. Sure, it still hurts. I think it’s going to hurt for quite some time. But it doesn’t have to be a constant source of agony. I can do this. With a little help from my team, I can do this.
Adam smiles at me and claps a hand on my shoulder, “And with that piece of gossip delivered, I think I’ll leave you alone. You probably ought to get some sleep.”
The thought of sleep brings another thought unbidden to my mind—my unfinished homework. I let out a small groan, “Oh shoot… I never did my homework…”
Another laugh, “Well, in that case, I’d definitely better leave you alone. Have fun, Guy…”
The pillow I throw after him lands against a closed door. Bastard’s fast. Well, I’ll get him next time. I finish off my dinner and pull my bookbag up onto the bed. But, in spite of the looming homework assignments, I’m happy. Happier than I’ve been in a pretty long time. Somehow, this will all work out. I’m not sure how yet, but at least now I know that it will. It will.
Man, am I exhausted. All that damned homework took me a lot longer than I thought, and I must’ve woken myself up at least four times by rolling over on my wrist. At least I had some aspirin tucked in my gym bag. It doesn’t hurt quite so badly, now.
I slide into my seat in History and let my head fall onto my desk. I would like nothing better than to just fall asleep right here, but Mr. Corwin would probably shoot me on the spot for it. Not worth dying just to catch a little nap.
The last two days were pretty much a blur, but if I remember correctly, not many of the Ducks are in this class with me. I’m pretty sure it’s just me, Charlie, and Russ. Well, that’ll be nice at least. I don’t think I’m really ready to face them all at once, even if they did stick up for me yesterday.
Well, well—think of the devils. Charlie grabs the seat next to me and Russ the one behind him. Charlie gives me a small smile and pats my shoulder, “Hey Guy, you all right?”
I nod absently and stifle a yawn behind my good hand, “Yeah. Just tired.” I sit up, rubbing my eyes a bit before turning to face the two of them. I let a bit a smirk creep its way onto my face, “Little bird told me that Dwayne had a bit of trouble on the ice after I left.”
Russ snickers as he pulls his notebook out and gets himself set up, “Oh, did he ever.”
Charlie nods, face solemn. It’s his “Captain’s” face—the face he pulls on when he has something serious to say, something that he wants to make sure we listen to, “What he did to you wasn’t right, Guy. Any idiot could see that you’re not the one at fault.”
OK, it’s nice that they were willing to beat up on Dwayne for me to pay him back for my wrist, but I don’t want this to get out of hand. The last thing our team needs is to be divided. I shake my head, “He’s just being overprotective. He’ll get over it eventually, Charlie. Just give them a little time.”
He clearly doesn’t understand me. His mouth pulls down into a frown, “How the hell are you taking this so calmly? Guy… he stole Connie from you—the girl you’ve been dating since kindergarten! Don’t you care?” Russ puts a restraining hand on his shoulder as if to calm Charlie down, but our Captain isn’t having any of it, “Guy, you and Connie were so solid—I figured it was a given that you’d get married someday—you can’t just tell me you’re going to give her up without a fight!”
I never really realized… this has probably shaken the team up as much as it’s shaken me. We were “ConnieandGuy” long before we knew any of the Ducks. They don’t know who “Guy” is any more than I do. In spite of the pit forming in my stomach, that one thought makes me happy—I’m not the only one confused by all this, at least… I give Charlie a sad smile, “Charlie, Connie and I have been over for a while. We were just too scared to let go before now.” I swallow back a surge of emotion—somehow I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to talk about this… “She’s happy with Dwayne, Charlie. And they’ll be good for each other. Really. It’ll be OK.” I’m not sure if that last was for his benefit or mine.
He isn’t convinced. He shakes his head, “You can’t tell me you’re OK with this. Guy, I can see how upset you are. You don’t want this to happen. You can’t.”
Oh Charlie… it isn’t that simple. It doesn’t matter what I want. But I don’t have time to explain. Mr. Corwin is already staring down his nose at us, as if wondering what sort of biting comment he can deliver to break up our conversation. In an effort to discourage Charlie from continuing his line of questioning, I turn towards the front and open up my notebook, giving the teacher my full attention. I’m aware of Charlie choking back further protests to my right, but I don’t acknowledge him.
After class is over, I bolt from the room as quickly as my legs will take me from it. The next period is Math, and Adam’s the only one in that class with me. At least he won’t ask me any uncomfortable questions.
I’m sorry, Charlie… If I still can’t handle my own feelings about all this, then I definitely can’t handle yours. I’m sorry…
The rest of the day passes in a bit of a blur. I made it through math and chemistry without any problems, but Adam and Kenny were the only Ducks in either of those classes with me. My last class was a little harder. English. Not only was Charlie in that class with me, but several of the others were, too… including Connie. At least I didn’t have to deal with Dwayne at the same time. That would have been too much. I made it through the class OK, but trying to get away without running into one of my teammates was a bit more difficult. I ducked out of class in the middle of the crowd and headed outside to walk back to the dorms. And just when I was ready to congratulate myself on my great escape…
“And where exactly do you think you’re going?”
Cringe. Damn. Not good. I turn around slowly, subconsciously bracing myself for what’s to come, “Hey, Charlie. I didn’t hear you or I’d have waited. What’s up?”
It’s worse than I thought. Charlie has Russ, Averman, Goldberg, and Fulton with him. I offer everyone a small grin, my mind racing to come up with a way out of this situation. Our dear Captain doesn’t give me a chance. He walks right up to me and puts a hand on my shoulder, “You side-stepped me pretty well this morning, but I’m not going to let you do it again. This situation concerns the whole team. You can’t pretend that nothing’s changed.” The others are standing in a semi-circle behind him, nodding and murmuring in agreement.
What’s the deal here? Why on Earth are they coming down on me?? I shake Charlie’s hand off my shoulder and back up a step. I’m shaking, but not in fear… this is anger. Before Charlie can say another word, I open my mouth. Even I’m a little surprised at what comes out. It’s quiet, angry, and sounds an awful lot like a growl, “Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone?”
Oooo… point for me. I shocked everyone. Charlie looks the most surprised of all—and is that a little hurt mixed in with the shock? In the state I’m in now, I’m not only not upset by that… I’m glad. I hurt one of my only remaining friends, and I’m glad. A little voice inside me starts to whisper about how wonderful it would be to do it again—to make someone else hurt as much as I do. I clench my right hand into a fist at my side and continue, “Connie broke up with me. Not the Ducks. It isn’t your problem, it’s mine. But if you really want to know so badly how I’m doing, I’ll tell you.”
I pause to consider my words, trying for maximum impact. My voice comes out flat, hollow, and broken by unshed tears, “It hurts. One hundred times worse than anything I’ve ever felt. It feels like someone tore out my heart and left a black hole in its place. But what hurts even more than that, is that along with losing Connie, I lost my only friend. Not a single one of you stood up for me on the ice yesterday until after Dwayne nearly caused me serious injury. And not a single one of you has shown me support to my face. Not a single one of you cares how I feel. All you care about is that I shook up your lives and might hurt your team. And that just makes it worse.” Fulton looks like he’s going to speak up, doubtless to ask what they can do. But there’s nothing they can do. Not about this… “And before you ask if there’s anything you can do—there isn’t. I think you’ve done more than enough already.”
Well, if my goal was to hurt Charlie, I think I succeeded. He looks like he’d like to cry—not that he would. No, the big, strong Captain won’t cry in front of his team. Maybe later, deep in the middle of the night when no one can see… but not now. Knowing that, the anger deflates right out of me. Now I just feel sick. God, what was I thinking? I didn’t realize that I could stoop so low. I back a pace away from the five of them, then another, and another. Before my mind even has a chance to catch up with the rest of my body, I turn tail and run.
Charlie and the guys spent the next 15 minutes first trying to catch me, then just trying to find me. Then they gave up. After all, they have practice. 15 minutes… In the end, is that all I’m worth? I let my head fall back against the tree I was hiding in and close my eyes. Way to prove me wrong, guys. I sure feel loved now…
Part of me almost hopes that someone will come find me. I don’t want to be alone. Somehow, all of this seems so much worse when I’m by myself. At least, being out here, I can fool myself into thinking that I’m not alone. There are other people in the courtyard, even if none of them know me. Even if none of them look at me. Even if none of them care. If I go back to my room, however, I’ll be completely alone—without even the illusion that there are others around.
I sink down to the ground and wrap my good arm around my chest. The nights are getting cold now, and I’m really not dressed for the weather. I should at least find somewhere warmer if I’m going to sit and brood all night, but I just don’t have the will to move. Not yet. Not yet…
When I next open my eyes, it’s nearly full dark. I must have fallen asleep. I seem to be doing that a lot lately. Maybe because it’s far less painful than being awake. A quick glance down at my watch shows that it’s 8:15. Damn it all… only 15 minutes until they close the dining hall. It’ll take me that long just to get there. I bang my head back against the tree. Is it really worth it to get up and run to the dining hall? After all, what harm is one missed meal going to do me? Not much. And I don’t have the energy to run anywhere. Not even for food. Just add my stomach to the list of parts of me that are empty.
Slowly and stiffly I climb to my feet and bend to throw my bookbag back over my shoulder. I should at least head back to my room and get my homework finished…
The walk back to my dorm room is long and lonely, and it gives me far too much time to think. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to feel either. Doing either one just hurts too damned badly. I punch in the key code to the dorm and push open the door. No one is sitting there waiting for me. Not that I expected anyone to be there. I just… it would have been nice. It would have been nice to know that someone cares enough for me to sit and wait up for me.
I trudge the rest of the way down the hall to my room, black thoughts clear to read on my face. I’m at the same time grateful and unhappy that I don’t have a roommate waiting for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to deal with anyone in the mood that I’m currently in, but on the other hand… it would be nice to have someone to talk to. I’m spending too much time alone, and deep down inside, I know that that’s only making the whole situation worse.
When I reach my room, it takes me a minute to fully assimilate what it is that I’m seeing. There’s someone sitting on the floor outside of my room. What? I blink a few times, then rub my eyes to clear whatever sleep fuzz might have been left in them. No… I’m not seeing things. The lone figure chooses that moment to jump to its feet and face me, “Guy! Where have you been? Everyone’s been worried sick!”
I want to be surprised. I really do. But I’m not. I just shake my head and push past Adam to unlock my door. He follows me inside and pushes the door shut behind him. I knew it was too much to ask for that he might leave me alone. I throw my bookbag down on the desk and drop my keys down next to it. Behind me, I hear the sound of Adam settling down on my bed before he speaks up again, “Guy… I am still your friend, aren’t I?”
I turn to face him, surprise etched on my features, “Of course you are. Don’t be an idiot, Adam.”
He crosses his arms over his chest and frowns at me, “Then why the hell didn’t you come talk to me? Or if not me, then one of the others? Charlie was really upset when he showed up at practice.”
I snort and turn to start pulling my books out of my bookbag, “Yeah, so upset that he only spent 15 minutes trying to track me down before giving up.”
Whatever I was expecting him to say, what comes out of Adam’s mouth next certainly wasn’t it. He scowls at me as he begins to talk, “Well what did you expect, Guy? Our scholarships depend on us playing hockey. If we don’t play hockey, we don’t go to school here. Charlie isn’t stupid. After fighting so hard to stay here last year, do you honestly think he’s going to go carelessly throwing that away? Yes, he cares about you, Guy, but this is his entire future we’re talking about. Since you so obviously didn’t want to be found, he figured that it was best to give you the time alone that you so vehemently asked for and wait until later to talk to you. Why does it surprise you that he gave you exactly what you wanted?”
I gape at him. I can’t help it. Even around me, that’s far more than I’ve ever heard him speak at once. And… it makes sense. As much as it hurts to hear it… it makes sense. Maybe I am being selfish. After all, this isn’t the end of the world. People break up all the time. And really, how often do high school relationships become lasting ones? Much less middle school or elementary school relationships. I really should have seen this coming. I was so blind… So very blind… God, what kind of an idiot am I?
What hurts most of all, though, is that Adam is right. I did ask for this. I asked to be left alone. I pushed my friends away—I hurt them—when all they wanted to do was be there for me, like I wanted them to be deep down inside. This is my fault. The emptiness… the hollowness… it’s all my fault…
My breathing starts to feel harsh in my chest. And… the room is getting blurry. What the hell is up with my eyes? I raise a hand to rub at them and encounter wetness. Am… am I crying? No way. I told myself I wouldn’t cry. Somehow, the acknowledgement that that’s what I might be doing makes it that much more real. The tears leak out over my eyelids and start to fall down my cheeks. No matter what I do to make them stop, they just fall harder. And it hurts. It’s as if all that’s left of me is running out through my eyes along with my tears, leaving me even more empty and hollow than before.
I am vaguely aware of a gentle arm that wraps around my shoulders and urges me to sit down on the bed. Once I’m seated, the arm pulls me down to rest on someone’s shoulder. That’s… a little better. At least now I’m not alone. Adam’s soothing voice reaches me as if from a distance, “Sh… it’s OK, Guy. I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to make you feel worse. That isn’t why I was waiting outside for you. I was just worried. Oh man, I am so sorry. Please stop crying…”
I feel like such a baby. I shouldn’t even be crying in the first place. Girls cry because they break up with their boyfriends. Boys aren’t supposed to cry. Boys are supposed to be strong and stoic. We’re supposed to get through these things. We’re not supposed to cry all over our friends just because they tell us the truth. We’re supposed to be able to take it. So, believe me, Adam… I want to stop crying. I just can’t.
I think maybe he realizes that. He stops trying to get me to stop crying, just pulls me closer to him and tries to let me cry myself out. After a few minutes, a change in my sense of balance alerts me that we’ve moved, but I’m so tired I can’t make myself care. I think we’re laying down now. Maybe he got tired of supporting both our weights. But now… I feel calmer, now. I feel safer. Curling up against another person like this… it reminds me of those few times that Connie and I “slept” together. We never really did anything—we were only 13 years old, after all—it was more about the comfort of having someone next to you when you slept. And now—curled up against Adam’s side, with my head tucked under his chin—I finally start to calm down. The tears slow, then eventually stop. But in spite of that… I don’t want to move. I’m comfortable, and I’m warm, and I’m safe. For the first time in over three months, I feel at peace. I don’t want to lose that…
I think I must have dozed off for a while. My neck sure feels stiff enough to account for a couple of hours worth of unconsciousness. Adam’s breathing is slow and even under my cheek—I think he’s asleep, too. OK, now I feel stupid. I feel incredibly stupid. The sudden heat in my face can’t be anything other than an intense blush. Oh man. What the hell was I thinking? I cried all over my only real friend for God-only-knows-how-long, then fell asleep on top of him. Brilliant work, Germaine. Brilliant. What the hell am I supposed to say to Banks when he wakes up??
I bury a groan in Adam’s shoulder as I think even further about what I’ve gotten myself into. It’s the whole “morning after” problem… but without the sex. Jeez… what am I thinking? Bad analogy.
Adam stirs under me and makes a few disgruntled noises. I send up a silent prayer to whoever might be listening that he’ll stay asleep. It’s not answered. Adam’s arms tighten around me, and his eyes blink slowly open. He stares at me with one sleep-blurred eye, then lets out a deep sigh, “Guy… don’t worry about it. Just go back to sleep.” He gives me a sleepy grin, “I’ll still respect you in the morning.”
Another groan, this one more audible, “Adam… that was… that was… wrong.”
He lets out a short laugh, “I mean it. These things happen. You were letting that build since last year. Eventually, you were gonna explode, one way or another. I’m just glad I was here for you when it happened. Now stop stressing about what this does or doesn’t mean, and go back to sleep.”
One last attempt to get out of this compromising situation, “My homework…”
He lets out another sigh as he resettles himself against the pillows, “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, Guy. I sincerely doubt that you’re awake enough to do your homework any kind of justice. So just this once, I’ll let you copy mine, OK? Now go to sleep!”
All right, then. On his head be it. If he really doesn’t care… then I’m just weary enough to let him pamper me. I tuck my head back under his chin and do as Adam suggests… I go to sleep.
When I wake up, the space next to me is empty. I’m almost… disappointed. Part of me really wanted to wake up still curled up nice and safe in Adam’s arms. Not for the first time, I wonder what the hell is wrong with me. I roll over and hit the off button on my alarm clock. It’s 6 AM. Adam must have set the alarm for me before he left… I never set it that early.
I sit up and rub the sleep from my eyes. In spite of my broken sleep of the night before, I’m not as tired as I expected to be. I climb out of bed—Adam must have tucked me in before he left, too—and run my good hand through my hair. Ick. Nothing is more disgusting than the feeling of having fallen asleep in your clothes. I strip out of mine and reach into my closet for my robe. First order of business—shower. Now.
On my way past my desk I finally notice the last piece of evidence of Adam’s presence. As promised, neatly printed and stacked, is Adam’s homework, ready for me to copy. In spite of myself, I smile. There’s a note taped to the first page:
~Morning, Guy! I hope I left you enough time to copy these before you have to go to class. I didn’t want to set your alarm too early, you looked so exhausted. My first class is across the hall from yours. I’ll meet you outside class at 5 ‘til to get my homework from you. Hope you feel better.
That’s so Adam… I chuckle as I grab my towel and shower supplies. At this time of day, the bathroom will be deserted. That’s pretty much perfect. With a smile on my face and another in my heart, I head down the hall to take my shower.
Charlie didn’t try to talk to me in class this morning, and in spite of my cheerier attitude, I wasn’t quite ready to talk to him. I had yet to frame a good apology in my mind, and I wanted to make sure I had one before I talked to him. After all, I was pretty rotten to him, and with no real good reason. Adam really was right about that. I have to remember that my problems—while they seem of utmost importance to me—are not the be all and end all of my friends’ worlds.
I ate lunch with Adam—the rest of the Ducks avoided our table. I guess, in their own way, they really were trying to do what I asked them to do. At first, I felt massively awkward. I mean, what do you say to the guy in whose arms you fell asleep last night? I think it took about 10 minutes for the blush to fade. The fact that Adam had on his most insufferable smirk the whole time didn’t help either. But, in a perverse sort of way, that very smirk reassured me most of all. It was that same damned expression that got me into this crazy friendship in the first place…
The next class I had with Charlie was English. He came in so close to the bell that he nearly got detention for being late. Then, after class, he slipped out before I even had my books gathered. I guess it’s his turn to play the avoidance game, now… Well, no matter. I’ll use his trick and catch him on the way to practice. I grab my books, ignore the fact that the other Ducks in the class won’t meet my eyes, and take off after Charlie. He leads me on a merry chase before I finally catch up with him outside the skating rink.
I snag his shirt sleeve just before he can slip through the door and get away from me, “Damn it, Charlie, wait!”
He stops, then slowly turns to face me. His expression is carefully neutral. He clears his throat, then drops his eyes away from mine. Charlie learned a long time ago that his eyes never fail to give away his innermost thoughts. All those emotions that are carefully erased from his face were clear as day in his eyes before he turned them away. And now I feel like a total heel. I really did hurt him yesterday… Damn. He clears his throat again, and I’m somewhat surprised that his voice comes out as strong as it does, “What is it, Guy?”
I let go of his sleeve and start fiddling with my sling. I still haven’t figured out a truly good way to apologize, but that doesn’t really matter. I can’t let one of my only friends go around feeling like crap because of something I did. My own voice is quiet, subdued, “I want to apologize.”
At that statement, Charlie’s head flies up like a startled horse’s, “What??”
I cough lightly, embarrassed, “I said I want to apologize. I was pretty awful to you yesterday, and you didn’t deserve it. I was angry and I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have. I’m really sorry, Charlie…”
A minute passes in silence as Charlie assimilates what it is that I’ve said. Then he raises a hand to grip my shoulder. I dare take a glance up to catch his eyes. They’re still stormy, but at least he’s willing to look at me, now. He smiles at me before he answers, “Apology accepted. You may have been a right bastard, but I think I understand why. I think I did then, too. I guess I was just a bit upset that you were going through all this shit and you seemed so determined to do it alone. I’m your friend, man. Friends stick by each other.”
I let out a small sigh, “I’m sorry, Charlie. You’re just going to have to be patient with me. This is all kind of hard for me. I need to come to terms with it myself before I can talk to you about it.” I can’t help but wince internally at how hypocritical that sounds. If I can talk to Adam about all this stuff… why can’t I talk to Charlie about it? But I know the answer to that. Charlie has someone, someone that he’s incredibly happy with. And I just don’t want that rubbed in my face when I’m going through a major break-up. I don’t think I could take that right now. I just can’t tell him that…
But I guess I don’t need to. Charlie gives my shoulder another squeeze, “I think I can do that. Just remember that I’m here if you need me, OK?”
I nod. Now I do know that. Whether I want them or not, my team will be here for me. I just hope I don’t abuse that again. With my acknowledgement, Charlie gives me one last smile and heads off into the locker room to get changed. I should at least put on some sweats and my skates. I may not be able to scrimmage with everyone, but I can do the basic skating drills… and I really can’t afford to get out of shape. As I follow Charlie inside, I notice a figure in the doorway. When I identify him, I can’t help but shake my head. Adam. Somehow I’m not surprised… But since he doesn’t say anything, I let him think that I didn’t catch him watching. I don’t think he wanted me to, anyway. I chuckle under my breath at the thought—Adam Banks, perpetual puzzle. Maybe someday I’ll figure him out.
It doesn’t take me long to change and get my skates on. Even in two days my wrist is a lot more mobile than it was when I injured it. That’s a relief. It means that I probably will be ready for the game next week. That’s definitely good. I’d hate to think that that stupid bickering between me and Dwayne would keep me from playing.
I’m so busy thinking about the timetable of my injury that I almost trip over Portman on the way to the ice. He’s sprawled out on the bench next to the rink, feet stretched out over the end. I curse quietly as his outstretched limbs nearly send me face first into the ice, “Jeez, Portman! Watch where you put your feet!”
He sits up slowly, a disdainful look already set on his face. I’m abruptly reminded of why, even now, no one takes Dean Portman to task for any of his wrong-doings. Well, except Fulton, that is. Not even our Captain gets away with telling him off. Heck, even Coach Orion treats Portman with kid gloves. I hastily swallow and ready an apology… which ends up being unnecessary. A sunny smile breaks out across Portman’s face when he sees who he almost tripped, “Well, well, well. I’m surprised to see you here…”
“Caught off guard”—good words, those. And definitely appropriate here. I give him a confused look, “What are you talking about? I just took yesterday off because my wrist…”
He shakes his head, smile widening further, “Not what I meant.” He snickers a little, not a very pleasant sound. I get the feeling that I’m the butt of some private joke. I don’t appreciate the feeling. At my frown, he just laughs harder.
Instinct makes me turn around just as Fulton walks up and joins us. He shakes his head at the laughing Portman, then offers me a smile, “You feeling OK, Guy?”
I nod, still confused. It’s possible that Fulton is just referring to my rather shameful display of yesterday—he was there, after all—but it’s also possible that he’s referring to whatever-the-hell set his partner off. Portman finally stops laughing and pins me with a gaze dark with malevolent humor, “Entertaining visitors awfully late yesterday, weren’t we?”
Oh. Oh… Damn it. I glance over at Fulton, who is now sharing Portman’s smirk. Of course they’d assume… I fight the urge to groan and bury my face in my hands. Shit. What the hell am I supposed to do, now? I hadn’t thought that anyone might see Adam leaving my room. And that it was these two… Damn, damn, damn. No matter how I deny it, they’ll still be convinced that something happened—and nothing did! All I can manage in response is a weak, “It’s not what you think…” Even I know how pathetic that sounds. Not only that, but it’s the classic excuse that someone gives when the act in question is exactly what the accuser thinks it is.
Fulton claps a hand on my shoulder and gives me one of his beaming smiles, “Of course it’s not, Guy. Of course it’s not.” He moves around me to push Portman off the bench, then follows his friend onto the ice. He offers me one last knowing look before he leaves, “It never is, is it?”
Now that they’re away from the immediate vicinity, I do bury my head in my hands and groan. This was definitely a scenario that I didn’t plan for, not by a long shot. Of course, Fate would choose that moment to have half the team walk up behind me. Connie and Dwayne go right past me onto the ice. Just goes to show you how distracted I am by this current crisis—I hardly even notice. Averman, Goldberg, and Kenny pause to give me funny looks, but they don’t say anything, at least. No… it’s Julie that actually stops. Somehow, I’m surprised. She and I have never been all that close. Then again, my team has been surprising me a lot this week. She looks up at me quizzically, “You OK, Guy?”
I nod, nearly too embarrassed to say anything, “I’m fine, Julie. Really.”
She frowns, “You sure? You didn’t look so hot for a second there…”
Great, another one. I laugh off her concern, “Yeah, I’m sure. I guess I just need a little more aspirin. I’ll be fine, Julie. Don’t worry, OK?”
She still doesn’t look convinced, but she isn’t stupid, either. She knows I’m not going to talk. She shrugs, steps onto the ice and skates away, “Suit yourself.”
Maybe I should get onto the ice before someone else walks up and surprises me…
After closely examining my wrist, Coach Orion let me do some basic drills with the rest of the team. He just wouldn’t let me pick up a hockey stick. When he split the team for a scrimmage, he sent me straight to the bench. Most of the team shot me sympathetic looks on the way. Huh. Somehow, in spite of Adam’s amusing story of the rest of Tuesday’s practice, I still didn’t believe that the rest of the team was supporting me. But, even now, it seems like they’re going out of their way to keep the puck away from Dwayne. The Coach has his hands full just reining in all the funny business. Well, that suits me just fine. It gives me time to think.
And wouldn’t you just know it, the first thing my mind chooses to think about is how to deal with Portman and Fulton. Neither one of them is the type to go running off at the mouth about all the juicy tidbits of gossip that they’ve heard. Not unless there’s a real pressing reason to. So I don’t think I need to worry about them telling people what they think they saw. But… every time they’ve looked at me today that knowledge was right up at the forefront of their expressions.
- Fact: They saw Adam leave my room early this morning.
- Assumption: He must have spent the night.
- Fact: Even though Connie and I dated since kindergarten, we never slept together.
- Fact: I just broke up with Connie.
- Fact: Since Connie and I broke up, Adam and I are spending a lot more time together.
- Assumption: I must be like them.
- Conclusion: Adam and I must have had sex last night.
Now that I’ve broken it down like that… I’m surprised that no one has put it together before. Except that there isn’t anything to put together because nothing is going on! It isn’t faulty logic, so I can’t knock them for that… but that doesn’t make it true! I mean, the facts are all there, yes, but their assumptions—and thus their conclusions—are wrong. But how the hell do I tell them that without looking like I’m “protesting too much”? Obviously, I can’t. So what the hell am I supposed to do about it?
I cross my arms over the rail and lean my chin on them. Damn but this is something I didn’t need. Two of my teammates thinking I’m gay. On top of all the other shit going on in my life, I sure as hell didn’t need this. Then again, I suppose I should thank my lucky stars that the two teammates who think I’m gay are gay themselves. It certainly could have been worse. Yeesh, I could just imagine what it would have been like if Averman, or God forbid, Dwayne, had been the one to see Adam leave my room this morning. I never would have been able to show my face in front of them again.
You know… I don’t know why this is bothering me so much. It really shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t care what Dean and Fulton think of my sexual preferences. It’s not like they know what goes on in my head. It’s not like they have any special perceptions or anything that would let them identify—why the hell am I even still thinking about this?
I rub at my temples with my good hand. Man, isn’t practice over yet? I look up at the arena clock just as Coach Orion blows the whistle and calls everyone over to take a knee. Finally, something I can do. I get up off the bench and skate over to join the rest of my team. Adam smiles and moves over to make room for me. Portman catches the action and smirks in my direction, an evil twinkle in his eye. He doesn’t say anything, of course… then again, he doesn’t need to. I let out a small sigh and kneel down next to Adam anyway. It’s not like I can snub him just because I’m afraid of what Dean Portman thinks—especially since he’s gonna think it no matter what I do or don’t do.
I force myself to pay attention as Coach Orion goes over our practice, listing improvements and flaws that need to be worked on. Apparently, he’s not all that thrilled with all the funny business that was going on on the ice today. Not that I can blame him. The team was a little out of control. Once he’s done chewing everyone out, he dismisses us. But before I can leave, he calls out to me, Connie, and Dwayne to stay for a moment. Confused, and rather uncertain, I skate over to the side of the rink where he’s waiting.
Connie is the first to speak, “What’s the matter, Coach?”
Coach Orion looks at each of us in turn, then shakes his head a little sadly, “I’m certainly not going to tell you how to run your personal lives. It’s not my place, it’s not my business, and it’s not my responsibility. However, this team is my responsibility. I don’t want it divided because you can’t keep your personal problems off the ice. Don’t make me bench the three of you, OK?”
I nod, more than a little surprised that he figured out what was going on. Connie looks angry. I suppose she has a right to be, but I can’t really bring myself to care. Dwayne just looks sullen. I guess he’s just pissed that he got taken to task for something like this. Coach Orion gives us a grim smile, “Well, so long as that’s understood, I’ll trust the three of you to work this out like adults. Now go get changed.”
Heading to the locker room, none of us say a word to each other. It occurs to me, for the first time, that we’re going to have to talk about this at some point. We’re going to have to find some way to be able to work together—or at least be around each other without biting each other’s heads off. It’s just as clear to me that neither of them is going to make the first move. I don’t want to, but one of us has to. “Connie, Dwayne… hold up a second.”
They both freeze in their tracks, then Connie turns and gives me The Look. If you’ve ever been around Connie, or a girl like her, you know what I mean by that. My usual reaction to The Look is to immediately cease my course of action and try to correct whatever blunder I’ve unwittingly made. Not this time. I take a step closer to them and take a deep breath before continuing, “The Coach is right. We need to talk.”
Connie frowns, “What do we need to talk about? I’d say the situation is pretty clear.”
I shake my head, “No, it isn’t. If we weren’t on a hockey team together then maybe we could get away with the backbiting that’s been going on. But, Connie, we are on a team together. If we can’t work as a team, then that hurts everyone.” At her disbelieving look, I try to clarify what I mean, “I’m not saying that we all have to be best buds. But we need to find some way to be able to be around each other—at least on the ice.”
Dwayne slowly nods his head in understanding, “He’s right, Connie.” She turns The Look on him, and inwardly I cheer as he starts to sweat. Somehow, seeing that is very… liberating. He clears his throat nervously before continuing, “We’re all Ducks, Connie. We’ll always be Ducks. And Ducks fly together.”
His brown eyes are warm and earnest when they meet mine. Damn him. Damn him for being so fair. Damn him, damn him, damn him. I don’t want to like Dwayne. Not anymore. Maybe it’s childish, but this whole thing was so much easier as long as I could hate him. But if he keeps looking at me like that… I jerk my eyes away to look at Connie. Maybe if I can focus more on what I’ve lost…
She shrugs, “Whatever.”
That’s her way of saying that she agrees but doesn’t want to admit that she’s wrong. I wonder if Dwayne knows that. I wonder if he knows so many things. Does he know how independent Connie is? Does he know how, in spite of that independence, she can be so vulnerable and insecure about the strangest little things? Does he know that she doesn’t like to be crowded, but loves to crowd others? Does he know how much she loves to be held? Does he know how to tell when she wants to be held? Why do I suddenly feel like I want to cry again?
Dwayne gives me one last smile, then they both turn to walk away. Is this a truce? I don’t know. I’m too emotionally drained to care. And here I thought that after last night, I was done with all this wishy-washy, pansy bullshit. Damn.
The gentle hand that lands on my shoulder should have startled me, but somehow it doesn’t. It’s Adam. Somehow I know that without turning around to look. His voice confirms it just a moment later, “I was all set to jump in and referee, but that seemed to go pretty well.”
Did it? Did it really? Without a word I start walking towards the locker room letting his hand slide off my shoulder as I move. I’m grateful that he’s here, but I’m afraid that if I open my mouth I’m going to start screaming. And I just know that once I start… I won’t be able to stop. He hurries to catch up as I quicken my pace. I need to get away from this. I stop in the locker room only long enough to stuff my clothes into my bookbag and exchange my skates for sneakers. Sweats will do for now. I just want to get out of here.
I ignore the confused looks that Connie and Dwayne toss my way as I go past them. I ignore Adam calling for me to slow down. I ignore a lot of things and just take off running. It seems like I’m always running—to something or away from something, I don’t know. It just makes me feel better. The slow burn that starts in my legs warns me that I should have warmed up before doing this. The faster burn in my lungs warns me to start taking in the cool evening air in greater quantities. The aching burn in my heart makes me ignore both and run faster.
I’m nearly to the edge of campus now. I don’t know what I’ll do when I reach the wall. I could climb over it and keep running… but there’s nowhere to run to. I could turn and run along it in a never-ending circle… but that would just make me feel even more like a trapped rat. I could crash into it and just stop… but even in my scattered state of mind I realize how stupid that would be. Whatever I’m going to do, I’d better figure it out fast.
Several mind-shattering seconds later, as I’m lying sprawled out on my back with a warm weight on top of me and aching in so many more places than my wrist, I have to wonder what fourth option I missed. A disembodied voice penetrates through the layer of stars floating around my head, “I… said… wait, damn it.” Some more panting. “What the… hell is the matter with you… Guy?”
The words don’t make any sense. My poor brain is still trying to figure out how I ended up on the ground. I think I have a concussion or something. After another minute, whatever was laying on top of me shifts off of me and moves to hover over me.
“Shit. Are you OK? I didn’t mean to tackle you that hard. Did you hit your head?”
That voice again… The weight must have been a person, the voice must belong to him. Wait… I know that voice. It’s Adam’s voice. My brain slowly works its way towards coherency as I try to sort out the jumble of thoughts up there. OK… I think I get it. Adam must have tackled me while I was running. That was a damned stupid thing to do—he could have killed us both! I try to tell him so.
I must have succeeded. He laughs, a relieved sound, “Well, yelling at you to stop didn’t seem to be working. I couldn’t think of anything else to do…”
My eyes finally manage to focus. His expression turns concerned again, “Seriously, Guy, are you all right?”
I groan quietly as I push myself up into a sitting position. I turn a sour look on him, “Well, so long as this horrible pounding in my head isn’t a concussion, I should be fine.”
Wow… I’ve never seen him look so remorseful. “Jesus… Guy… I am so sorry, man.”
I let out a slightly bitter laugh, “It won’t kill me. I’ll be OK, Adam, really. I just may need some help getting back to my room.”
Without another word, he gets up, grabs my bookbag and offers me a hand up. I shake my head at him, but allow him to haul me to my feet. I hold out my hand for my bookbag but he refuses to hand it over. Unbidden, the thought of what Dean and Fulton would think of this scenario pops into my head. First Adam tackles me to the ground, then once I’m standing he walks me back to my room and carries my books for me. Oh God, I hope they’re not watching from anywhere…
In spite of the turmoil in my thoughts, I meekly follow Adam back to my room.
Tonight was our first game of the season. My wrist had healed and I was able to play. I even scored a goal. It just… it felt so empty. Always, when we were on the ice, Connie and I were a team—each supporting the other. Tonight… that magic moment when everything used to click together… it was gone. Just completely gone. She didn’t do anything deliberately to mess up my playing—after Coach Orion’s little lecture she and Dwayne have gone out of their way not to make things difficult for me on the ice… key words being “on the ice”—but it was like skating with a stranger. I couldn’t read her anymore. In the past, I used to know what she wanted from me just by looking at her—the tilt of her head, the flash in her eyes, the angle at which she held her hockey stick, they were all clues that added up into a picture that was clear as a shout to me. We didn’t need to talk on the ice, we were just that in synch with each other. But now… it’s gone. The magic, everything I loved about the game… it’s just gone.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, we still won. By a lot. Still hunted up those goose-eggs. Coach Orion was so proud. But when the team decided to go out to celebrate, I didn’t join them. It still doesn’t feel right—Guy Germaine hanging out with the Ducks. Something about that still doesn’t sit right… like a new set of pads that hasn’t quite been broken in yet and still chafes a little when you play in them. I wish I could tell them that, explain it in some way that makes sense, but I can’t. Charlie was hurt when I decided not to join them, but Linda will distract him enough that it won’t ruin his evening.
I sigh as I walk slowly back towards my dorm room. It’s only 9 o’clock, but I’m exhausted. Not just physically drained… but emotionally drained, too. Well, at least I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not doing stupid shit anymore. Now I actually think before I take off and do something dumb. Or better yet, I go find Adam and try to talk out what’s prompting me to do something stupid. Never knew that just talking could be so therapeutic. At least I know that Adam’s not going to judge me when I come and complain at him. He just sits there, all quiet and serious, then when I’m finished he gives me a sympathetic smile and tries to get my mind off whatever’s bothering me. Kid should be a shrink.
I wish he was here, actually. Not that I really want to talk to him about this… I just don’t really want to be alone right now. But Adam isn’t as alienated from the rest of the Ducks as I am, or at least he doesn’t show it. I suppose there’s a difference. Anyway, in spite of the still-wide rift between them, at least Adam and Charlie can be civil to each other. They’re nowhere near as close as they used to be, but at least they can still hang out without it turning into World War III.
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I think about Adam an awful lot these days. I mean… I suppose it makes sense, being as he’s really my only friend, but still… The only other person I ever thought about this much was Connie, and with Dean and Fulton’s teasing still fresh in my memory… OK, now I’m glad Adam’s not here, otherwise I’d have to explain the fact that I’m blushing over apparently nothing. You see, now that they have something to tease me about the two of them are merciless at it. Fulton’s all quiet smiles and knowing looks and Dean is always making comments just at the edge of my hearing—just close enough that I know he’s directing them at me, but just far enough away that if I turn around and say something it’ll make a scene.
Truthfully, I still don’t know why it bothers me so much. It could just be the annoyance of being accused of something I haven’t done… but that’s happened before and it never bugged me to this degree. Maybe it’s because I can’t really confront them about it. Deep down inside, though, I know why their teasing is getting to me so badly. It’s because way deep down inside, a small part of me has started to be afraid… afraid that there just might be a tiny grain of truth in what they say. Because every time one of them taunts me about Adam, my traitorous mind immediately reminds me of how warm, how safe, I felt when I fell asleep in Adam’s arms. The fact that that memory almost always causes me to blush a furious scarlet—damn my fair complexion anyway—just ends up fueling their teasing for another day.
So what’s the real problem? That two of my teammates think I’m gay… or that I’m afraid that they might be right? Only now am I beginning to be able to admit it to myself. And it scares me. It terrifies me. And the worst part is that there’s no one that I can talk to about it. My instinctive reaction these days is to take my problems to Adam… but I can’t talk to him about this. What would I say? “Adam, Dean and Fulton think we’re sleeping together… and I’m afraid because now that they suggested it, it doesn’t seem like it’s as bad an idea as it should be?” God, what a mess.
With a start, I realize that I’ve walked completely past the dorm. Damn it. I’m supposed to be more alert than that. I glance down at my watch. It’s nearly 10—somehow I’m not surprised. I rub a hand across my forehead and fight back a surge of frustration with myself. I’m not that far from the dorm, I must have been walking in circles around it. With a rueful smile I get myself turned in the right direction and walk back to the dorm. Before I can walk inside, a flash of gold out in the quad catches my attention. It’s hair. It’s Julie’s hair. What is she doing back here? I thought she went out with the others… Maybe I should go investigate…
I walk over to where she’s sitting on one of the benches, trying to make some noise so I don’t scare her. She’s sitting on the bench, staring up at the stars, a dreamy smile on her lips and a distant look in her eyes. Ah. Mystery solved. She must have been with Scooter. I sit down next to her and offer her a gentle smile, “Is this a private reverie, or can anyone join?”
She laughs quietly—I never noticed what a soothing laugh she has—and shakes her head, “I don’t mind. It’s a free bench.”
I settle myself, draping my arms over the back and stretching my legs out in front of me. When she continues to sit there in silence, I’m not quite sure what to do. If Connie were here, she would have just bullied Julie into telling her everything, but since it’s just me… I’m not quite sure what I should say. Unbidden, the thought comes to mind that Adam would know. He’d say something clever, she’d laugh, he’d smile, and she’d spill her guts. I’m just not that confident, I guess. Then again… I guess it doesn’t really matter what Connie would do, or even what Adam would do. What matters is what I would do, what Guy Germaine would do. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been able to say that. For some reason, the thought doesn’t hurt this time. It just makes me smile.
So… what would I do? As I sit there, it occurs to me… I don’t mind the silence. Just sitting here in quiet is… nice. Julie has her thoughts and I have mine. And it’s OK. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t saying anything, it’s just nice to have someone else there. I guess, in a way, that’s my answer. What I would do… is nothing. I never really pictured myself as the quiet type—always tagging along with Connie on her wild schemes—I never had a chance to realize how nice the silence can be. And with that realization, I do something that I haven’t done in far too long. I relax. The tension that has been zinging through me since the game started just dissipates. I lean back against the bench, tip my head back and let my mind drift as I watch the stars.
Some unknown amount of time later, a soft hand on my shoulder brings me out of the heavens and back to myself. Julie is leaning forward, another soft smile on her lips. When she sees that she has my attention, her smile widens a fraction and she says two quiet words: “Thank you.”
I have to admit, I’m genuinely confused. What have I done to be thanked for? I ask her. She just laughs again, “ You didn’t break the mood. Most of the other guys would have come rushing over here and started asking all kinds of questions. I just wanted to sit here and enjoy things. So… thank you. For letting me do it.”
Somehow, that small gratitude warms someplace deep inside me. It’s a place that has been cold for far too long. Every now and then, Adam manages to touch it, but never quite enough. But this… this is different. Everything that Adam does is colored by the fact that he seems to have taken me on as some sort of project—that’s not entirely fair, but sometimes I just get that feeling—but Julie… she has no possible ulterior motive for what she just said. I just did something for her that none of the other Ducks could have done. Me. I did it. That cold spot inside me warms a little bit more—just enough to let me feel comfortable enough to try to talk to her on my own.
I give her an answering smile and ask blandly, “Does this mean I can’t try to pump you for details?”
For a brief second as she blushes, I’m afraid I said too much or the wrong thing… but then she laughs. It’s almost a giggle, but not quite that undignified. She leans back against the bench as the blush fades a little, “Is it that obvious?”
I never realized that a conversation with a girl could be so confusing. Connie is so straightforward… I’m a little bit lost. “Is what obvious? Did something happen with Scooter?”
Her blush deepens again. The fact that she’s reacting to my questions in nearly the exact same way as I react to Dean and Fulton’s teasing about Adam is, unfortunately, not lost on me. With difficulty, I shove that problem into the back of my mind and focus on what Julie is saying. She has covered her face with her hands and is busy letting out an embarrassed little squeak—again I’m surprised, I hadn’t thought she was the squeaking type… —”Oh, it is that obvious…” After another few breaths, she calms herself and turns to face me, eyes alight with joy, “He asked me out! With roses…”
It’s only then that I notice the two long-stemmed red roses sitting on the bench next to her. Way to use those powers of observation, Guy… Covering my embarrassment with a smile I answer, “I suppose congratulations are in order then… assuming you said ‘Yes’?”
She nods vigorously, “I’ve been hoping for months that he would ask me—of course I said ‘Yes’!”
Both of us break into laughter at that. When we calm down, she turns towards me and gives me a look, half-earnest and half-smiling, and grips my hand in hers, “And you, Guy? You look a lot better than you did last week… but are you really OK?” Before I can answer, she continues, “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to… but I’ve seen how Connie treats you. Even before you broke up she treated you badly. You’ve been dealing with this a lot better than any of us thought you would, but you don’t have to carry it all alone and you don’t have to keep running away from us. We’re your friends, too, you know.”
How can she see things so clearly? She just pierced right to the heart of my entire problem—well, one of them anyway. I can’t help it, I’m staring at her. After a moment I manage to stop my poorly-timed imitation of a landed fish, “ I… Now I think I’m the one who should be saying ‘Thank you’.”
She pats my hand in reassurance, “I mean it, you know. You don’t have to say anything now, but if you want to talk… about anything… I’m here. OK?”
I nod, still amazed that she even noticed and even more amazed that she cared. I can’t… I just can’t talk to her about what I really need to, not yet, but someday… I think I just may take her up on that. The sound of footsteps on the gravel path behind me breaks the moment and Julie looks over my shoulder to see who’s coming. A mischievous little smile crosses her features as she gets up and grabs her roses, “I think that’s my cue to make myself scarce.” And then… I swear she just winked at me.
As I turn to watch Julie walk briskly off to the dorm I also see who walked up behind us. It’s Adam. The sudden surge of heat in my cheeks and up the back of my neck warns me that I’m blushing, but not in time to hide it from him. He peers a bit closer at me in the soft light of the path-lamps and one of his eyebrows climbs a little higher. His voice is smooth, amused, and unflustered… but is that a glint of disappointment in his eyes? Why? I almost miss what he has to say as I ponder.
“I’m almost afraid to ask what you two lovebirds were talking about that has you blushing so badly. The flowers were a nice touch, by the way. Roses are always a good first move.”
What on Earth is he talking about? Julie and I aren’t… I frown at him, “Adam… I didn’t give Julie the roses. Scooter did. He finally asked her out tonight and she said ‘Yes’.” I can’t explain the blush. I just can’t. I’m nowhere near ready to broach that subject with him. Hopefully he won’t notice that I never answered that part of the question…
As my words penetrate the glint of disappointment turns into relief. OK. Now I’m even more confused. What the hell is it about the night that makes everything so damned incomprehensible? A sunny smile breaks out across his face as he sits down next to me on the bench, “Oh! Well, then. I’m happy for them. She’s had quite a thing for him since last year.”
I nod absently as I stretch the kinks out of my back. Only then do I begin to wonder how long Julie and I were sitting here. It must have been quite awhile for my back to get so stiff… I glance down at my watch—oh goodness. It’s almost midnight. I rub my eyes, my weariness of earlier coming back in a rush as I notice what time it is. But… I’m not quite ready to go in yet. Just sitting here with Adam’s shoulder not quite touching mine, but still a steady warmth within easy reach… it’s nice. It’s soothing. And I feel calmer than I have in months.
I may not be ready to face the possibilities that Dean, Fulton, and my own mind are trying to throw at me every day, but I can at least admit when I’m happy and try to take it at face value. And I’m not quite ready for it to end yet. So, I answer him, in spite of the fact that he hasn’t asked a question, “Yeah. She has. I’m happy for her, too.” OK. That was lame. That was really lame. Fortunately, I think Adam realizes what I’m after, though. He falls silent and leans a little closer, just enough to turn that warmth into a real contact. We both tilt our heads skyward and turn our attention back to the stars. It isn’t that much longer until I drift off to sleep, my head resting on his shoulder.
Breakfast is always an interesting affair these days. When we first came to Eden Academy, the Ducks all sat together, wary of attacks by the Varsity. Then when that calmed down, we broke into little clusters. Julie, Kenny, Russ, Luis, and Dwayne sat together at one table. Dean and Fulton usually didn’t come to breakfast. Charlie, Averman, Goldberg, and Adam still lived at home. Connie did, too, but she always came to school early and ate with me. I hadn’t expected things to change much with the start of this year, but they did. All of the Ducks live on campus now—Goldberg’s parents finally moved to Philadelphia, Charlie was never really comfortable living at home once his mom remarried, and I guess Averman and Adam just didn’t want to be left out. With the four of them here, the seating arrangements changed. Kenny joined Averman and Goldberg at their table and Russ joined Charlie and Linda at theirs. Luis often ate with his cheerleader, Julie started eating with Scooter, and Connie stopped coming in early to eat with me. Now she comes in to eat with Dwayne. Once she started that, I stopped going to breakfast altogether. I don’t know who Adam normally sits with at breakfast, though at every other meal he usually sits with me.
Why is all of this important? That’s a good question. It’s important because for the first time in two weeks, I’m going to go eat breakfast in the cafeteria. I have as much of a right to eat there as anyone and I’m tired of having to steal food at dinner to avoid going to class hungry the next day. I don’t know why I suddenly decided to do this, but I think it had something to do with talking to Julie Saturday night. I guess it made me realize that the only reason that I’m always alone is because I’m isolating myself. Like Adam said, the others are only trying to give me the space that I asked for. If I want them to stop, I’ll have to go to them. So… breakfast.
I push open the cafeteria doors and get in line. I don’t know where everyone’s sitting, but I’ll have time to figure that out once I get my food. Unsurprisingly, the food hasn’t improved any in my absence. Oh well, cafeteria food is cafeteria food, I guess. Once my tray is full I turn around and scan the crowd. I see Connie and Dwayne right away—then again, my eyes are always drawn to Connie first whenever I walk into a room. I turn away from them and look for any other familiar faces that might be in the crowd. Ah! Julie. She’s sitting with Scooter… and is that Adam? Well, one mystery solved.
Just as I spot them, Julie raises her eyes and notices me. She stands up and waves me over, a sunny smile on her face. Just as it did the other night, that smile warms the cold place inside of me. I’m glad I came. I needed this. Seeing Julie get up, Adam turns around and spots me, too. A smaller, but equally glad, smile breaks across his face. I guess he’s glad to see me, too. I raise one hand in greeting and start making my way towards them. Someone slaps me on the back on the way past and I look down to see Charlie smiling at me. I smile and say “Good morning” as I walk past and he turns back to his food. I’m a bit surprised. Truthfully, I hadn’t even realized that I’d been missed…
Adam has already pulled out a chair for me by the time I reach the table and I sink gratefully into it. Nothing is as exhausting as trying to wade your way through a cafeteria meal crowd. Julie beams a smile at me, “Glad you could make it! We were beginning to wonder if we were ever going to see you at breakfast again.”
Only a small blush in response to that, “Talking about me behind my back, huh? I guess I’ll have to find a way to reciprocate…” I slip Scooter a wink with that statement. He looks startled, but pleased. Happy to be included, I guess.
Julie’s blush is more impressive and she has to clear her throat once or twice before speaking, “Oh… I don’t think that’s really necessary, Guy. Really.”
I just smile into my orange juice. I never realized how much fun it could be to be teased, or to tease someone else for that matter. Connie never took it all that well. I don’t think she realized that teasing could be meant in any way other than maliciously. Julie just takes it all in stride. She knows I don’t mean it that way and I know she doesn’t either. It’s between friends and it’s all in fun, so that makes it OK.
As I listen to the light banter and conversation going on around me, the cold place warms a little more. I never realized what I was missing out on by only hanging out with Connie. For all that I loved her, and for all that we had fun together, it was never this easy-going between us. Everything always seemed more intense, more serious. I never really noticed before. Julie pokes me with her fork trying to draw me out of my musing and back into the conversation. Maybe it’s time I stopped dwelling on Connie. Whether I want it to be or not, that part of my life is over. Connie has Dwayne now. I look around at the smiling faces sharing the table with me and smile. I guess this will have to be enough for me. For the first time… that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I pick up my own fork and raise it to clash with Julie’s. She looks surprised, then a slightly feral grin breaks out across her face and she starts to fence with me in earnest. Adam and Scooter shake their heads and pointedly ignore us. It takes a little work, but I finally manage to disarm Julie and send her fork tumbling off the table onto the floor. While she bends over to grab it, I claim my prize—her last tater tot. She squawks indignantly as she sits back up and reaches over to steal one of mine. I let her. After all, what are friends for?
Adam clears his throat, “Are you children done? We should get going if we want to make it to class.”
Julie and I turned equally innocent eyes to him. My mouth stretches into a wide smile, “Sure you don’t want to join us?”
Adam’s expression turns into a long-suffering one, but I can see a smile lurking just at the edges of it. Julie spares him from having to reply by standing up. She slings her bookbag over one shoulder and lifts the tray with her off hand, “Adam’s right, Guy. We do have to get to class. But I want a rematch tomorrow. Clear?” Her eyes are bright and sunny as they meet mine.
I just laugh and bow my head in response. She and Scooter then take off. Probably want some quiet time before the school day starts—we aren’t exactly running short on time. It’ll be another ten minutes before the bell rings. Adam smiles at me and lifts an eyebrow, “Walk you to class?”
I let out a short chuckle as we get up to dump our trays, “We’ve got to get you a girlfriend, Adam. With all this attention you’ve been lavishing on me lately, what’s everyone going to think?”
Something about Adam’s reaction—or lack thereof—makes me turn to look back at him. He’s standing in the aisle, the crowd of students pushing around him, with this completely unreadable expression on his face. It looks a little like surprise, a little like disappointment, a little like amusement, and a little like sadness, but not really like any of those things. I can’t figure it out at all. Just when I’m about to take a step closer and ask if he’s OK, Adam shakes himself out of it with a slightly nervous laugh, “I don’t think we need to be that drastic…” He then pushes past me, deposits his tray and heads for the door.
Now what the hell was that all about? All I said was… Wait. The strangest thought is trying to creep its way into my brain. I ignore all of the jostling going on around me and try to focus enough to let it grow. When was it that he froze up? ~All this attention you’ve been lavishing on me… What’s everyone going to think?~ Oh my God. I’m an idiot. I want to hit myself. I really do. I all but told him that he’s treating me like he would a girlfriend! I let out a quiet moan as I finally drop my tray onto the conveyor belt. What a moron. Just because I’ve been thinking all these insane things about my best friend doesn’t mean I have the right to drag him into it!
I push my way out of the cafeteria to catch up to him. He’s waiting for me just outside, a slightly unsure yet mischievous smile playing around his lips. It occurs to me to wonder just when I got so good at reading his emotions. I don’t have long to wonder. When he sees me his smile turns 100% mischievous and he holds out his arm, crooked at the elbow, “Your escort awaits.”
I gape at him for a few seconds, then smack him with my bookbag. He breaks up into laughter, claps a hand onto my shoulder and starts walking, “Come on, Guy. If we don’t get moving, we really are going to be late.” As we start walking he continues chuckling quietly, “But, man, you should have seen your face! For a second I wasn’t sure if you were going to hit me or accept my offer!”
I turn a sour look on him but keep silent. I certainly can’t tell him that for a second… just one second… I’d been unsure myself. Maybe breakfast wasn’t such a good idea…
The rest of the day was pretty unremarkable. Even the practice that we just finished wasn’t all that exciting. Coach Orion was pretty happy with how we played this weekend—apparently enough of us actually did practice in the off-season this year—so he went fairly easy on us. Adam didn’t do anything else strange, either. Of course that didn’t stop my stomach from tying itself up in knots every time we collided on the ice. If this keeps up much longer I’m going to have to have a talk with Fulton or something. The very thought makes me shudder. It sounds like I almost have myself convinced that Dean and Fulton really are right about me. But if they are… how did I manage not to notice for the eleven years that I was dating Connie?
I hung back after practice to discuss a few things with Coach Orion. In spite of the fact that he was happy with our playing, there are one or two things that I’ve noticed in my own playing that’s starting to get a little sloppy. If I’m going to keep doing this, then I’m damned well going to do it right. He was more than happy to stay and go over a few drills with me—and that gave me the added benefit of not having to share the showers with Dean and Fulton… and Adam. I am such a coward.
I heave a small sigh as I pull my street clothes back on. Just as I’m about to head out, a locker door slams somewhere behind me. I jerk my head around to see who else is there. It’s Dean. Eh-heh… Speak of the Devil, huh? His lips stretch up into an amused smile, then he just shakes his head at me and leaves. What the hell was that about? I quickly check the locker room to see if anyone else is waiting to jump out at me. No one is. With my heart still hammering just a bit too fast, I make my way back to my dorm room. I’ve got to get my homework done if I’m going to go meet Adam, Julie, and Scooter at tonight’s campus movie.
As I enter my room and close the door behind me, my brain finally catches up with that thought. Julie, Scooter, Adam and I are going to a movie together. I’ll repeat that since I clearly didn’t catch it the first few times the thought ran through my head. Julie and Scooter, and Adam and I are going to a movie. Why does that suddenly sound like the roster for a double date?
Damn it! And now my heart is racing. Why the hell is my heart racing? I drop my books onto my bed and drop myself heavily next to them. I don’t know what the hell I’m thinking these days. I really don’t. Adam and I are not dating. I don’t want us to be dating. He doesn’t want us to be dating. There was never even any suggestion that there ever might be dating between us. Why the hell am I still thinking about this?
With a soft groan I let myself fall back against my pillows and throw an arm across my eyes. This is not happening. I am nearly 16 years old and I have never questioned my sexuality before. Now, just because two of my teammates are making rude comments, I start questioning. Why now? Why, after 16 years and after a very successful, very long relationship with a girl, am I suddenly questioning? Is this just curiosity? Am I confused because Adam is the first real friend I’ve had since Connie?
Hmm… that might actually be it. I roll over so that I’m laying on my stomach with my arms under the pillows. If I think about it logically, that makes the most sense. Connie was the only person that I ever could have called my “best friend”. Since she clearly doesn’t want the job anymore, and since Adam clearly does, I must be misinterpreting what I’m feeling. After all this time, I must have gotten friendship and love confused. It’s a little silly, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to accept than the idea that I’m suddenly gay. And damn I wish that little voice would shut up. The one that keeps chirping, “Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Ignoring the voice for now I sit back up and pull my bookbag into my lap. Regardless of my mental issues, I need to do my homework so I can go to the movies. Even if this isn’t a double date—and I know it’s not—I still can’t leave Adam alone with the lovebirds. That just wouldn’t be right.
I pull out my history textbook to start reading the chapter… and something falls out of my bag into my lap. I pick it up and examine it. It’s a tube of something… it’s… Oh my God. This is not what I think it is. I drop the little tube like it’s got fangs and just bit me. I think I’m going to kill Portman. He must have planted this in my bookbag—just like he planted these damned thoughts in my head. Only Dean Portman would have the sheer brass to put a tube of… of… damn it, can’t I even think the word? Yes I can. Only Dean Portman would have put a tube of lubricant in my bookbag. Is this his idea of a subtle hint? Subtle as a ton of damn bricks.
OK, now I’m getting hysterical. I have got to calm down. Homework. I will do my homework if it kills me. I will not think about the… the… thing sitting on my bedspread. And then I will go to the movies. And I will not think about the lubricant sitting innocently on my bedspread. It occurs to me that I’ve been sitting here for nearly ten minutes now, thinking about how I will not think about the lube on my bedspread.
I groan quietly and push aside the history text that I haven’t even opened. Apparently, in spite of my best intentions, I am going to think about it. Now the big question, I guess, is what am I going to do with it? Keeping it would be stupid—after all, why the hell would I want to keep it? I will not think about the little voice that just said, “Just in case.” I will not. So, that means I have to throw it away. But I can’t… because someone might see me do it. So I can’t keep it and I can’t throw it away. What the hell am I supposed to do with it? Oh this is really not fair. Maybe I should ask Portman… he’s been so full of suggestions about everything else lately—wait a minute. That… that actually isn’t a half bad idea. Maybe I should ask Portman… or Fulton… about this. About all of it. At least I know they won’t stop being my friends if I bring up the possibility… I can’t believe I’m even considering this.
I throw the lube back into my bookbag along with my books and leave my room before I can change my mind. Portman and Fulton live just down the hall… I’m going to do this before I chicken out. At the very least, I’ve got to ask them to stop teasing me. At the very least. Oh what am I getting myself into?
Damn it, but a door can look imposing. This is my last chance to change my mind and run away. Run away… no. I’m not going to run away. I’m not a coward. I never was. I screw up my courage and slam my fist against the door. One racing heartbeat. Two racing heartbeats. Three, four, five racing heartbeats. No one’s answering. My breath streams out of me in a rush of relief. OK, I’m not a coward and I don’t have to face them. Thank you, God. I turn to go back down the hallway… and walk straight into Dean Portman’s chest. He doesn’t even “oof” like any normal person would have done. He just smiles down at me, a slow smile that makes me feel like a little lamb to his wolf, puts a hand between my shoulder blades and steers me into his and Fulton’s room, “Well, well. If it isn’t Guy Germaine. I somehow thought we might be hearing from you sooner or later. I have to admit, Fulton thought it would be later. Why don’t you come in and we can have a little chat?”
“A little chat. That sounds wonderful. Really. I can’t begin to tell you…”
Fulton looks down at me from Dean’s other side with a small smile, “Don’t worry, Guy. He doesn’t bite.” He and Portman share a smirk as Fulton finishes, “… Much.”
Somehow that last comment is less than reassuring. What on Earth have I gotten myself into?
Once we’re all inside, Portman pushes me to sit down onto one of the beds and pulls the chair up to sit caddy-corner to me. The fact that he’s now between me and the door is not lost on me. Fulton takes the other bed and sits down Indian-style on it. I clear my throat and look down at my knees. Amazingly enough, no bursts of wit or cleverness burst across my tongue. I look up at Fulton with a helpless expression. I got myself down the hall, Dean got me through the door, and now I don’t know what to do. Fortunately, Fulton takes pity on me and starts talking, “I take it you found Dean’s little present?”
I think my deep blush answered the question for me, but I nod anyway. Fulton sighs and shakes his head, a rueful smile on his face, “He always has been a little blunt…”
“A little???” The words explode past my lips before I can stop them. Almost immediately I wish I could take them back. The fact that I’m so clearly upset about it must just confirm their opinions of me.
Fulton chuckles, “Yes, a little. This last stunt was actually very subtle for him… Truthfully, I’ve been surprised by his restraint.”
Dean finally adds his own two cents, “Well I didn’t want to scare him off the idea completely.”
I drop my head into my hands and start rubbing my temples, “Yeah. God forbid he should do that.”
A hand drops onto my knee and softly pats it. When I glance up through my hair, I’m surprised to find that it’s Portman’s. He actually does look somewhat contrite. I’m not sure that I buy it. Fulton lets out a quiet sigh, “OK, Guy. The lube was just a convenient excuse. Why don’t you tell us why you really came here?”
I drop my hands down and press them in between my knees, suddenly feeling very small in the middle of all this, “I don’t know. I just… I’m so confused. I thought… maybe… you guys…”
Fulton’s smile is sad and full of sympathy now. I didn’t know a smile could look so sad. He shakes his head, “… might have all the answers?” At my quiet nod, he shakes his head again, “Sorry, Guy. We don’t. Our answers may not be the ones you’re looking for. They might even make this harder for you. But maybe if you at least got the questions out in the open…?”
He leaves the question hanging. An offer. To get it all off my chest and finally talk about it to someone that I know won’t judge me. But… I just can’t do it. I can’t do it. I jump to my feet and edge towards the door. Portman moves out of my way. Fulton just gives me another sad smile, “I understand. Just remember, the offer still stands for whenever you may want to take me up on it.”
I hardly hear it. I open the door and bolt back down the hall. It isn’t until I’m safely back in my own room with the door locked that I realize that the small, innocuous, evil little tube that started this whole mess is still in my bookbag. I sink to the floor with my knees curled tight to my chest and just start whimpering. Why me?
I’ve been arguing with myself over going to breakfast for the past 20 minutes. I don’t know if I can face Julie and Scooter after standing them up last night and I sure as hell can’t face Adam. Not with all these thoughts screaming through my head. How am I supposed to act around him? How can I get through a conversation with him without the image of that damned little tube popping into my head? How on Earth am I supposed to think straight around him? A bitter chuckle escapes me. No pun intended. I bury my head in my hands and groan. I can’t do this. I just can’t. He’s the best friend I’ve had since Connie and I just can’t face him. What am I supposed to do?
In the end my grumbling stomach decides the matter for me. I need to get something to eat. As for what I’ll do when I get there… I just don’t know.
I finish putting food on my tray and start looking around the lunchroom for my usual table. Ah—there they are. Adam, Julie, Scooter… and Dean and Fulton?? Since when do they come down to breakfast? A moment after I see them, they spot me. Fulton gets half up out of his seat, a worried frown on his face, when he sees me hesitating. That does it. I can’t face all of them at once. No way. No how. I frantically search the immediate area for someone else to sit with. My eyes land on Charlie—huh? Why is he sitting all by himself?
I turn and walk towards him. He looks surprised when I put my tray down on his table and mildly ask if I can join him. He nods, still looking confused. I just smile and start eating. After all, I can’t let my Captain sit alone, can I? And whatever’s up, he’ll tell me if he wants to. If not… well, at least I’ve wormed my way out of that awkward situation with Adam and Fulton.
After a few minutes of silence, Charlie finally breaks, “So what are you doing over here? Don’t you usually sit with them?” He jerks his head in the direction of Adam and Julie’s table.
I shrug, “Who said these seating arrangements were set in stone? I saw you sitting all by yourself, so I thought you might want some company.”
He smiles. Even to my eyes that smile looks a little bitter, “I appreciate it. Linda and I… we had a fight last night. She didn’t want to talk to me after that.” He looks around the cafeteria and sighs, “I guess she didn’t come to breakfast. That seems to be standard procedure when you break up with someone around here.”
I can’t help my indrawn breath. It’s only been a few weeks since my own break-up and I have to admit that that one hurt. But what hurts even more is that I remember thinking that I couldn’t confide in Charlie because he was involved in a happy relationship with the girl of his dreams… and I didn’t want that shoved in my face. Talk about a guilt trip. I put a hand on his shoulder and grip it tightly, “I’m sorry, man. But, hey… one fight doesn’t always end a relationship. Especially not if you really care for each other. Don’t give up until you’re sure it’s really over.”
He shakes my hand off, “Somehow, coming from you, that’s a little hard to take, Guy. Maybe you should have listened to your own advice.”
I stare at him, not quite comprehending what he just said. It takes a little while for it to penetrate. Oh… I see. From his perspective, that’s probably exactly what it looks like I did. Gave up on the girl I really cared about after the first bump in the road. That isn’t what really happened, but since I haven’t been talking to him, he has no way of knowing that. The one thing I do understand, though, is why he felt the need to say it. I start gathering up my belongings as I speak, my voice quiet, “You’re upset. Believe it or not, I get that. You’re lashing out at me because I’m a convenient target. I get that, too. But your situation and mine are a little different and you know it. When you’re ready to talk without biting my head off, you know where to find me.”
I toss my bookbag over my shoulder, dump my tray in the nearest garbage, and head outside. I can feel Charlie’s eyes on me as I leave. I bet I can even predict what he’s feeling—guilt, remorse, and a vague sense of satisfaction for having been able to get rid of some of the pain. For his sake, I hope I’m right. He and Linda were a pretty solid item, so unless he did something really stupid, I’ll bet they can still fix it. At least I hope they can.
I hear the sound of running footsteps behind me and turn to look. I wouldn’t have thought that Charlie would come after me that—that’s not Charlie. That’s Adam. Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn. I look around frantically for somewhere to hide, but I was heading straight across the middle of the quad to get to my class and there’s nowhere to go. I brace myself to talk to the last person on Earth I want to face.
When Adam reaches me, he gives me a slightly unsure smile, “We missed you last night. You feeling OK?”
I shrug, trying to fight the blush that’s creeping it’s way up my neck, “I’m sorry I didn’t call you. That Chemistry homework was a little harder than I thought it would be.” At his concerned look, I can feel my cheeks start to heat up. With any luck he’ll assume it’s because I’m embarrassed about having trouble with my homework.
His smile firms. Oh good, one thing going in my favor this week… He throws an arm around my shoulders as we start walking again, “No harm done. You missed a good movie, though.” All I can do is shrug in response. I know I missed a good movie. I’ve been wanting to see MI:2 since the first previews came out. Now I’ll have to go alone or wait until it’s out on video. Damn.
Adam takes pity on me, as usual, and changes the subject, “So how’s our brave Captain doing? Charlie looked kinda down…”
His tone is teasing, but I can hear the concern underneath. He and Charlie were once best friends, after all. They do still care about each other, but the rift between them is wide enough that they can’t show it openly. Not for the first time, I feel a sudden desire to bash their heads together for their stubbornness. I move out from under his arm and shrug, “He and Linda had a fight.”
He winces in sympathy, “There seems to be a case of that going around…” Almost immediately after the words come out of his mouth, he freezes, eyes wide, “I am so sorry, Guy. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded…”
I just shake my head. What’s that method the shrinks use for getting you over phobias? Just immerse you in what you’re afraid of over and over again until you develop immunity? Maybe it works for emotional trauma, too. This time that didn’t hurt so much. Maybe that should worry me… “No sweat, Adam. I was thinking the same thing. I guess I’m starting to get over it a little.”
That earns me a genuine smile and another arm around my shoulders—this time with companionable squeeze. For the first time, I notice how often Adam does that, puts an arm around my shoulders, pats my back, grips my arm… he’s always touching me. He’s never been that touchy-feely with anyone else. So, what gives? Great. One more mystery to throw onto the pile. Maybe I should have a bonfire and torch them all.
The rest of the walk to class is in silence, and a very uncomfortable one on my part. I’m so confused, I don’t even know which end is up anymore. The worst part is… sometimes I don’t even think I care.
It’s been a long couple of weeks. You’d think that on a campus as large as this one is, I’d have a little less trouble avoiding one or two people. But, no, it seems like no matter how hard I try to avoid them, I’m practically tripping over Fulton and Dean. As for Adam… he’s been trailing me like a puppy dog. And whenever I tell him that I’m too busy to hang out or that something came up, he looks at me like a puppy dog, too. Like a kicked one. It makes me feel pretty horrible, but what else can I do? I can’t be alone with him until I sort out how I feel. That’s gonna take time. A lot of time. Two weeks isn’t going to do it. Two months might not even do it. What I really need is some time away from him so I can think for awhile without his presence muddling me up. I need to get away from here for a few days. And Thanksgiving is so far off…
For now the best I can do is try not to be in places where he’ll think to look for me. Today’s choice is the library. After all, who would hole up in the library on a bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon on the weekend right after our first round of tests is over with? No one but me, apparently. So, I curled up in one of the big armchairs by the bay windows on the third floor and let my mind drift for a while. The truth is, it’s kind of peaceful in here. I never really realized how soothing a library could be. Maybe I should spend more time in them…
Right outside the window is a perfect view of the quad. Some of the Ducks are out there. I think they’re playing Frisbee. Well… some of them are playing Frisbee, the others are playing chase the Frisbee. I can’t help but chuckle as I watch them. Julie and Goldberg are pretty good. I’m not really all that surprised—they’re used to fielding wild shots during games and this can’t be all that different. Kenny’s also not too bad, in spite of the coordination problems he’s been having since his growth spurt. Every time he jumps to catch a high throw he looks surprised when he catches it.
The only other decent player on the field is Connie. I’ve been watching her for the better part of this last hour. The joy on her face every time she catches the Frisbee, the way her hair flies out behind her when she spins to throw it to the next person, the way her eyes twinkle when she bounces the Frisbee off Averman’s head… She’s so beautiful, so full of life… so untouchable. I still wonder how I’m supposed to live without her sometimes. How I’m supposed to get by, knowing that all of her smiles are for somebody else. Every time I think I’ve finally managed to drag my mind out of that depressing track of thinking, I backslide right back into it. It really makes me wonder about people who break up with their girlfriends just to find someone new the next day.
Caught up in my own thoughts, I barely notice as Charlie approaches the field and pulls Adam aside. They talk for a few minutes—surprising in and of itself—and then Adam nods and points up towards my window. I nearly bolt out of my chair in shock. He knew I was up here? How the hell did he know I was up here? And why didn’t he come up if he knew? I start shaking. Just when I think I’ve got the rules figured out, Adam goes and upends the game board. Clearly we’re no longer playing the game I thought we were… maybe we never were. Somehow that’s not very reassuring.
Just as my brain kicks enough into gear to tell me that that I should probably leave before I get caught, Charlie reaches the top of the stairs. He looks around the room and finally spots me over by the window. He gives me a small smile, then walks over and settles down into the chair across from me. He looks out the window and waves. Adam waves back, then starts as the Frisbee goes flying past him and he has to chase after it. I try my damndest to sink through the cushion and into the floor. I still can’t believe he knew where I was this whole time…
Charlie turns back to me and smiles again, “You’re a hard man to find, lately.”
I shrug, still embarrassed at having been discovered—and with the help of the person I’ve been hiding from, no less! “I’ve had a lot on my mind, Charlie. I didn’t mean to disappear.”
He settles back in his chair, “No problem. We all have times when he don’t want to be bothered with everyone else. We’re only human.” He pauses for a moment, then continues, “But that’s not what I came here to talk about. I just wanted to tell you… you were right. Linda and I are OK, now. We talked it over and we made up. I thought you’d like to know. Especially since you’re the only one that noticed that anything was wrong.”
Oh… that’s what this is about. I finally relax, “I’m glad.” At his disbelieving look, I let out a small chuckle, “No really. I am. Just because I lost my girlfriend doesn’t mean that I want everyone else to be miserable.” I ignore the little voice that’s telling me that just a month ago that was exactly what I wanted. That same little voice has gotten me into nothing but trouble. I’m learning to ignore it. So far it’s been slow going.
Charlie gives me a sympathetic look, “So… is it really over? You and Connie? For good?”
He looks so lost. Poor Charlie. For the first time I really stop to think about how badly this must be affecting everyone else. Mine and Connie’s relationship was one of the team’s Constants. Bombay was another one. They lost the one and that nearly destroyed them. Now they’re losing the other. Now I feel like a heel again. I force myself to answer him, “Yeah. We’re really over. In spite of what it looked like, we’ve actually been over for almost a year, Charlie. Just… neither of us had the courage to say it until something more was at stake.”
Understanding dawns, “Dwayne.”
I nod, “Dwayne. Until him, Connie didn’t have a reason to break up with me, and I certainly didn’t have a reason to break up with her. But once Dwayne was in the picture, it wasn’t worth it for her to stay in a dead-end relationship. And try as I did, I couldn’t even hate him. I mean, I did for a while… but it was a short while. None of this is his fault. He just fell in love.” Why does it sound so much like I’m rationalizing?
Apparently Charlie doesn’t notice, “Still… that’s gotta suck. To lose your girl to someone you have to work with every day… That can’t be easy, man.”
Go on, Charlie. Tell me how hard it is. As if I haven’t figured it out from first-hand experience, “Yeah, well… you live and you move on with your life. That’s really all you can do. If you can’t deal with the penalties, you don’t play the game, you know?”
He laughs, “Yeah. I know. It’s good to see that you’re taking it so well, though. For a while there, the team was pretty worried about you.” Charlie stands up and gives me a wide grin, “Guess we didn’t need to be.”
I return my Captain’s smile, “It’s nice to know that you were worried, though. I’ll remember that in the future.”
“See that you do!” With a gentle slap on the back, Charlie heads back outside. I breathe a sigh of relief. As glad as I am that he and Linda made up, I’m still not that eager to have happy couples shoved in my face. That’s why I’m hiding. Well, it’s one of the reason I’m hiding. I’m also doing a fair bit of mental hiding, avoiding even thinking about Adam if I can help it. Much to my dismay, I generally can’t.
Downstairs, Charlie emerges from the library. To my surprise, he pulls Adam aside to talk. That’s twice in one hour. What prompted this? Not that I’m not happy about it, I just can’t help wondering, “Why now?” They’ve hardly spoken at all (voluntarily, that is) since Adam’s stint on Varsity and suddenly they’re all buddy-buddy. It’s a bit curious…
In response to something Charlie said, Adam looks directly up at me, pauses, then shakes his head and says something to Charlie. Dam, I wish I could read lips… After a few more exchanges Charlie heads back the way he came and Adam goes back to playing Frisbee. I watch him for a few moments, marveling at how he can be so skilled at hockey… and suck so horrendously at Frisbee. The thought brings a smile to my face.
After a few moments of watching, I realize that Connie isn’t on the field anymore. She’s standing off to the side and taking a drink of water. A feeling of melancholy reaches up from the depths of my mind and tries to drag me under. Angrily, I kick it aside. I’m tired of turning into a pile of sobbing mush whenever I look at her. I’m stronger than that, I’m better than that, and damn it, I don’t need Connie to be happy.
With a slight shock, I realize that I’m on my feet with my fists clenched. Well… this is new. I relax my hands and shake them out. It feels strange to be angry—I’ve gotten so used to being upset—but that surge of anger made me feel stronger, somehow. Strong enough to stop hiding. This may be a mistake… but if it is, it’s long since time I made it. Before I can change my mind I head for the stairs and start running down them. By the time I reach the bottom, I’m taking them two at a time. I pause, catch my breath, steel my shoulders and walk out to where my teammates are gathered.
I don’t know if Adam saw me coming, or if he’s just that bad at Frisbee, but his next toss to Connie goes wide and heads straight for me. I pluck the Frisbee out of the air with ease, despite the unexpectedness of its arrival—did I mention that I’m pretty good at Frisbee?—and still manage to hold out an arm to catch Connie as she all but trips over me. I guess she didn’t notice I was there.
When she first lands in my arms she relaxes against me, her weight resting on my arm as she uses my support to get her feet under her. It’s not the first time we’ve pulled a move like that. By now, it’s almost instinct. Once she’s upright, I let go and we both step back.
She already has a “Thank you” on her lips as she turns to face me, but it gets strangled when her brain finally catches up with her body. She gapes at me for a moment before speaking, “… Guy?”
I can’t help but smile at her obvious confusion. It’s cute… and it’s been so long since I’ve had the upper hand when talking to her. Leaving that gentle smile on my face, I pat her on the shoulder, “Don’t mention it, Connie. You OK?” At her bemused nod, I turn to the other Frisbee players, “You guys mind if I join you?”
Goldberg groans and Averman starts to laugh. You see… it’s been a long time since we’ve all played Frisbee—I think it may even have been before Adam joined the Ducks—so all the “newer” Ducks don’t get the joke. I smirk. They will soon.
Julie looks like she’s ready to start up a good long lecture. Can’t have that. When I send the Frisbee whizzing Julie’s way—and she only barely catches it before it takes her head off—the light of understanding slowly begins to shine. At my side, I can almost feel it as Connie’s expression turns into a smirk that matches mine. You see… she may have taught me to skate, but I taught her to play Frisbee. I flick my gaze towards her and raise an eyebrow. With a barely perceptible nod she lets me know that she’s game. I allow my smirk to widen into a mischievous smile as I turn to face the others, “You guys ever play Ultimate Frisbee?”
One exhausting hour later, we’re all sprawled out on the grass passing around the water bottles and catching our breath. Connie is sprawled out next to me, her shoulder lightly touching mine. It feels… strange. We haven’t been this easy around each other in over a year. I don’t think I realized how strained things were between us until now. For the first time, I begin to think that our break-up might not have been a bad thing. It’s a traitorous thought and my first instinct is to shoot it down… but I don’t. I let it settle in and start to unpack. Maybe I can deal with Connie not being my girlfriend, so long as she’s still willing to be my friend…
Averman, as usual, is the first to recover his energy. He props himself up on his elbows and offers a semi—disgruntled look in mine and Connie’s direction, “You know… I had finally managed to forget how brutal the two of you are with a Frisbee. I didn’t really need a reminder.” Harsh words, maybe, except for the tremendous grin which spreads over his face immediately after he utters them.
Kenny lets out a groan from where he’s laying flat on his back in the grass, “You could have warned us, Averman.”
Averman just laughs and shakes his head.
Goldberg jumps into the conversation with, “Playing Ultimate Frisbee with Connie and Guy is something you have to experience without prior warning.” Connie answers that by throwing a water bottle at him. Unphased, he continues, “… Otherwise no one would ever play with them!” That one earns him a Frisbee tossed at his head. Fortunately, our goalie—even tired—can catch a Frisbee.
As a playful, far less violent Frisbee-tossing match ensues I pick myself up and move away from the group. Connie, caught up in play once again, doesn’t notice. Adam does. Somehow, I’m not surprised. He walks over to join me, sitting down next to me but not quite close enough to touch.
“Guy? You OK?”
I just shake my head. I’m not OK. I was just fine… until Averman opened his big, fat mouth. It’s been so many months… That “ConnieandGuy” was like a slap in the face. We’re not “ConnieandGuy” anymore. We’re not even friends for crying out loud!
The gentle hand that Adam places on my shoulder rouses me from my thoughts. “Talk to me.” That’s the closest he’s come to calling me on my recent withdrawal. But what does he want me to say?
He continues, “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.” He removes his hand and leans away, “If you want me to go, at least tell me that.” At my continued silence, Adam lets out a sigh, “That’s what I thought.”
He starts gathering himself to get up and leave. That’s about when it hits me, exactly what I’m doing. I’m driving him away again. Damn it. Reaching up, I grab his wrist and pull him back down next to me.
“Adam, just be quiet a second, OK? I don’t want you to leave, I’d have told you if I did. I just want some time to get my thoughts together before I talk to you. Can you give me that?”
Though bemused, Adam nods. Good. I don’t need him to understand, I just need him to do it. Once he settles down, I turn my thoughts back inward, back to “ConnieandGuy”. That shouldn’t have hit me as hard as it did. So why did it? I’m finally getting used to being “Guy”, being myself—Wait a minute. Maybe that’s it. I think back to my initial reaction to hearing Averman say “ConnieandGuy”. It wasn’t sadness. It wasn’t grief or loneliness. It was something else entirely.
I turn to look at Adam and in short, clipped tones, explain, “I’m angry.”
That clearly wasn’t what he was expecting me to say. The expression on his face is pretty comical, actually… A deep sigh works its way out of my chest, “It’s as if everyone wants to ignore that we aren’t a couple. They still think of us as a single entity, and we’re not. I’m a person, complete in myself, and just when I’ve finally decided that I like it that way, I find out that no one’s even noticed the change.” I stop, somewhat shocked at the vehemence of that outpouring.
Adam’s laughing. I’m gonna hit him.
Before I can suit actions to thoughts, Adam turns to me and offers me a wide grin, eyes dancing, “I was beginning to think there was no hope for you!”
I cross my arms over my chest and grumble a bit, “You’re no help, you know that?”
And there he goes again. Ingrate. Complains and complains that I don’t talk to him, then when I do, he laughs at me. I give him a moment to calm down on his own, and when he fails to take it, I finally do suit actions to thoughts and land a solid punch on his upper arm. He winces at the impact, but finally stops laughing. Now if only he’d wipe that damned smirk off his face…
I’m so preoccupied with Adam’s bout of minor hysterics that I don’t even notice the sound of footfalls carrying someone else into our vicinity. I do, however, notice the throat-clearing. It’s a sound I know all too well. I turn my eyes slowly to the left to find Connie standing a few feet away as if she’s unsure of her welcome. She offers me a small smile—it’s her “I probably shouldn’t be here but I’m gonna barge in anyway” smile. After a few moments of treating us to that expression she clears her throat again and stuffs her hands into her pockets—that’s her sign that she’s just realized to what extent she doesn’t belong where she’s ended up.
I finally take pity on her and return her smile. Her own widens in response and she pulls her hands half out of her pockets to hook her thumbs through her belt loops. A faint hint of nostalgia creeps into my expression—she picked up that particular habit from me. I suppose it’s nice to know that I wasn’t the only one changed by our relationship. The silence makes me aware that the others are waiting for me to say something. Unable to think of anything fantastically impressive to say, I just nod and say, “Connie.”
She dimples, the picture of calm, “Guy.”
The silence descends again. At first it seems a little baffling, that we apparently have so little to say to each other, but the more I think about it, the more I get a clue as to what’s happening. That game of Frisbee forced a certain camaraderie on us that we weren’t quite ready for. It’s too soon for us to forge a friendship. There are still too many expectations, too much baggage, left over from our previous relationship. And it would be too easy to fall back into the patterns from our old relationship rather than create new ones to suit the change. That wouldn’t be good for either of us and somehow… I don’t think Connie sees that. All she sees is that we weren’t getting along and now we are, so we should be able to pick up with being as close as we were before all this started. As much as part of me yearns for it, I can’t let her do that to me. She has Dwayne to mold into being her lapdog, now. She doesn’t need me, too.
I stand up and brush off my pants. Out of the corner of my eye I see Adam do the same. I meet Connie’s eyes, hoping she’ll understand why I’m about to brush her off and knowing at the same time that she never will, “Good game, Connie. Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything I taught you.” I smile, “We should do it again sometime.”
Yup. Just as I thought. She completely doesn’t get it. She’s never really been interested in analyzing her relationships with others—though to be fair, until recently, neither have I—and all she understands is that I just snubbed her offer of friendship. She does recognize a brush-off when she sees one. She gives me a brusque nod, crosses her arms over her chest, and tosses her hair—I’m offended and I don’t need you, so there.—before answering me, “Yeah, no sweat.” She flicks her eyes to my right, “Adam,” and walks away, back stiff.
Adam puts a hand on my arm and turns me to face his confused and concerned expression, “Guy? Is this OK?”
Apparently he doesn’t understand either. I try to paint a reassuring expression on my face as I explain, “ We’re not ready to be friends, Adam. It’s too soon. But she’ll never get that.” Though I was hoping that Adam might…
He “tsks” at me, “That’s not what I asked.”
It isn’t? I hate this feeling. The feeling I sometimes get in the middle of a conversation, like I’m suddenly not sure if I and my conversing partner are engaged in the same one. Then I catch the look in Adam’s eyes and I begin to see what he meant. His eyes are still stacked with concern and still worried—probably about whether or not I’m going to fall apart now that I’ve barred Connie from my life. Somehow, though… I think I won’t. I turn my eyes away from his and take a deep breath, “I miss her. Every day. Whenever something happens, my first instinct is to tell her. Whenever I’m uncertain, my first instinct is to ask her opinion. When we play, my instincts only want to recognize her as my partner.”
I pause, trying to think of a better way to explain, one that won’t make me sound like such a broken-down wuss. “I need her—that’s what my instincts keep trying to tell me. But it’s a lie. I don’t have her now, but I’m still here. It hurts sometimes, but I’m still breathing. I miss her, but I can still have fun without her. So what you’re asking… I don’t have an answer. I want to say that it’s not OK, but I don’t think that’s really true.” I stop, frustrated and run my hands through my hair, tugging on it, “Am I making any sense?”
Adam has the oddest look on his face. It’s the look a child wears when his parents say that he can have a puppy after years of telling him he can’t—hopeful… but afraid to be so. It reminds me of that day a few weeks ago at breakfast when he was looking at me as if I held the key to all the answers in the universe and he didn’t know how to ask for them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, being the sole recipient of that look. And for the first time I begin to wonder why.
That morning at breakfast, I’d been so full of my own confusion—thanks to Dean and Fulton’s constant teasing—that I’d let slip the fact that Adam was maybe stepping beyond the bounds of friendship. I couldn’t really figure out his expression that day, but looking back on it, for some reason I think I understand it a little better now. There had been an emotion there that I couldn’t place. He didn’t look shocked or offended… He looked like he’d just gotten caught at something he hadn’t expected to get caught at. And then there was that night with Julie… again, another puzzle piece falls into place. Adam was disappointed when he thought I’d asked Julie out. He hid it well, but it was there. And when he found out that I hadn’t there had been a definite flush of relief in his eyes. I know he doesn’t have a thing for Julie—they’d have been together long before now if that were true, because I know Julie was interested in him at one point—so that only leaves one other possibility.
My suspicions finally crystallize into one large, blazing certainty and my thoughts come to a screeching halt. I get it. I get why Adam’s been acting like a kicked puppy whenever I avoid him. I get why he’s been hanging on my heels since the break-up. I get why the fight he had with Charlie blew so damned far out of proportion. I get it. And I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. In retrospect, it’s bleeding obvious. To think that I’ve been tying myself up in knots at the idea that I might be falling for my best friend and the whole time he’s been dropping enough subconscious hints that I could have tripped over them!
However, as much as it helps to finally realize that I’m not as alone in this as I thought, it doesn’t really change anything. Because I’m not ready. I was just thrown out of a ten year relationship. I need some firm closure on that before I can even think about getting involved in another one. Then… I think I’ll need to be myself for awhile. As I was just telling Adam, I’m only just getting used to being “Guy”, I’m not ready to give that up to be “andGuy” again just yet. And then there’s the small issue of: I haven’t even figured out if I’m gay, yet! OK, not so small. Freaking huge is more like it.
Assuming that I get all of that sorted out—and it’s going to take time—I still don’t know if doing this with Adam, of all people, would be a good idea. I fell in love with my best friend once, and—I can admit it, now—it was a mistake. Because when that relationship ended, I was left with nothing. I don’t want to make that mistake twice.
As I’m frantically thinking through this, I pointedly ignore the tiny voice that’s caroling in the back of my head, “He likes me! He likes me!” As I mentioned before, that voice has only ever gotten me into trouble.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand. How on Earth do you tell your best friend that you’ve just figured out that he’s in love with you? I don’t remember this ever being covered in Health class… Hell, I took Psych last year and I don’t remember this being covered. And let’s not forget how horrifically embarrassing it would be if I was wrong…
The gentle hands that land on my shoulders finally break my paralysis. Physical contact is so not a good idea right now. I back up, letting Adam’s hands fall away and again I drop my gaze. I can say this, I can, I just can’t look at him while I do it. I don’t want to see whatever will be in his eyes… “Adam, I can’t do this.”
OK, masochist that I am, I look up at the last minute. Just in time to catch the shock, fear, and dawning horror vying for control over his expression, “Wh-what do you mean?”
Damn it. Adam stammering is a bad sign. It means he feels like he’s lost whatever handle he might have had on the situation—and that loss of control is terrifying him. I pause a moment before answering, to wonder when I learned that. Have we gotten that close in such a short time? That thought is a sobering one, and it helps me figure out how to respond, “I can’t act like I don’t know what’s going on here.” I clarify, “Between us.”
The fear finally wins and marches triumphantly across his face, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Oh Adam… De Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, you know. “I think you do. You’re not stupid, Adam. Though considering how long it took me to figure this out, I may very well be.” I meet his gaze squarely, “I need to know, Adam… how long?”
Horror, now, and maybe a touch of shame and guilt. This time it’s Adam who drops his gaze, “I don’t think I want to tell you.”
Sorry Adam, I’m too stubborn for that. I’m going to keep pushing until you tell me. “Before my break up with Connie?”
A reluctant nod.
“Before your fight with Charlie?”
“Before Eden Academy?”
Some shoulder hunching.
“The Goodwill Games?”
A cracked whisper, “Before.”
Incredulous staring, “How much before, Adam??”
Whimper, “Not that much.” He pauses, a faint blush crossing his cheeks before he continues, “Since the day you, Fulton, and Jesse crashed the Zamboni through the ice rink wall.” He doesn’t say why, and I’m too shell-shocked to ask. Later. I’ll ask later.
Adam finally meets my eyes, a pathetic, broken look in his, “Now you see why I didn’t want to tell you.”
“Shit, Adam… had we even hit puberty then?”
Embarrassed shuffling, “We were 13, Guy, not 6.”
Silence. I can’t believe this has been going on so long and I didn’t even see it. Then again, how could I have? I didn’t socialize with Adam, well, with anyone, really. It was always me and Connie. But this… how do you miss the fact that your teammate has been in love with you for three years?
Adam breaks into my thoughts, a note of hopelessness in his voice that grabs my heart and squeezes, “If you want me to go away, I’ll understand. If you want me to stay away… I’ll understand that, too.”
I finally find my voice. And what I hear in it surprises me just as much as my anger did earlier: exasperation… and amusement. Where did that come from? Well, it’s better than any of the alternatives… I turn the full force of that exasperation on Adam as I speak, “I didn’t say that. Adam, you’ve gotta stop jumping to conclusions. It’s going to get you into trouble some day.”
The look on his face is priceless, “You… You don’t mind?”
I shake my head, “Did I say I minded?” The amusement is growing stronger, and I think I know why. This whole situation is so ridiculously absurd. Until today, I’d been wondering how I was going to break the news to my best friend that I might be falling in love with him. I never planned for the contingency that he might also be trying to figure out how to break the very same news to me! If this confrontation had held off for a few weeks more, our positions would have been reversed. I let my amusement stretch my mouth into a wide grin. Now that I, at least, have a clear handle on the situation—and the stress of keeping this all to myself is finally gone—I’m starting to have a bit of fun with it. I turn that grin on Adam, “All else aside… I’m actually kind of flattered.”
“You are?” Poor Adam. He looks like he needs a good, stiff—drink. I can’t believe I almost thought that. My subconscious must have accepted this a long time ago if it’s already trying to offer up horrendous gutter-worthy jokes…
I pat him on the shoulder, “Yeah. If you think about it, this is the highest compliment you could have paid me, Adam. Though I’m probably a little unusual in that I’d think so.”
A speculative gleam lights Adam’s eyes as he hears what I didn’t say, “Most people wouldn’t…” The gleam transfers to the rest of his face and his mouth splits into a grin to rival mine. He gives my shoulder a good, hard shove, “You complete jerk! You know, I’d been wondering about some of the things you’ve been saying and some of the ways you were responding to my more obvious overtures… you like me, too!” He pins me with a stare, “Don’t you?”
That’s when I lose control of the blush I’ve been fighting. It races across my skin like wildfire and Adam smiles triumphantly in response. I nearly growl in frustration, “Adam… it’s not what you think. I… Yes, some of the things you were doing and saying were starting to seriously make me wonder about my sexuality, but I haven’t even begun to answer that question yet—much less the one that specifically pertains to my feelings about you. And then there’s the fact that I did just get out of a relationship, not even a month ago, Adam. I’m not ready to jump into another one just yet. I need time.”
Despite the bucket of water I just dumped all over his excitement, Adam looks positively happy with that pronouncement. Like the cat that just got the proverbial cream. He smiles widely at me, “I can live with that.”
I clear my throat to prevent the squeaking that my growing embarrassment seems to want to induce, “OK, then. We’ll just leave it at that for now, OK? I’ll let you know if anything changes. Deal?”
I hold out my hand and Adam shakes it, a slightly predatory look, that I’m not altogether comfortable with, shining in his eyes, “Deal. Now how about I buy you dinner?”
What…? He just completely missed the point… I take another look at those gleeful eyes and pale underneath my blush. No, he didn’t miss the point. He didn’t miss it at all. I missed it. I just gave him permission to help “convince” me over to his opinion. In other words… the fox just declared to the hound…
~Let the chase begin.~