Imagine this: you’re seventeen years old, and you should be standing on a stage in Ottawa, shaking the hand of the Lightning’s general manager, a baseball cap stiff on your head and a new jersey pulled over your dress shirt. You should be looking out over the audience in the direction of you parents, your mother’s words of congratulations still lingering on your cheek, your father’s proud embrace still pressed into your skin. You should be answering questions about how it feels to go first overall. If you feel pressured to be as successful as your father.
Instead, you’re watching your former teammate get called to the stage, on the tiny television in your room of the rehab facility where you’ve spent the last week. Your hand, when you reach for the water glass on your bedside table, is shaking.
The rehab facility is in the Canadian Rockies, which, it was decided, was a definite plus. Fewer distractions. The mountain air would be good. Clear your head. Take some time to reevaluate yourself and your life. It’s the second treatment center you’ve tried. This time, you’re determined to get through the program.
Every day you go to therapy. Every other day there’s group therapy. Your therapist is kind, a middle-aged woman with greying hair and wire-rimmed glasses. She doesn’t know much about hockey. She knows you played; she knows your father’s name, of course; and though you’re grateful she doesn’t know everything about you the way some journalists do, sometimes you struggle to explain to her just why you do things the way you do. Why you always put on your left shoe first, and why you can hug a teammate on the ice, but struggle to tell them anything personal off it.
“You’ve never come out to anyone before me?” she asks you the day after the draft. The second thing of value you told her was that you believed you were bisexual. The first thing of value was that you were afraid of failing. Those are the two causes for your addiction that you’ve been able to isolate, both because you’re not entirely self-deluding and because you’ve been through therapy before.
“My other therapist,” you say. He had been startled. He was a former hockey player too – hard not to trip over them in Hamilton – and asked you too many probing questions about your sex life. How many girls (three), how many guys (one). If you were sure. If you were really sure.
“And no one else?”
You hesitate. “One of my teammates knew,” you say.
Your therapist is sharp; it’s one of her worst qualities. “I asked if you had told anyone before me. Did you tell him you identify as bisexual?”
“He figured it out from context clues,” you say, dry. Clues like you jerking him off in your shared hotel room, and the two of you trying to share a shower and laughing when shampoo got in your eyes.
“So only your two therapists?” When you nod, she marks something down on her clipboard. “Do you feel you have to keep it a secret?” she asks.
“Yes,” you say. “No. I like girls, too. I can just like girls, can’t I? I don’t – it was a mistake, what happened before.”
“What did happen before, Jack?” she asks.
He kissed like it mattered; that’s what you’ll always remember about him. You’d kissed other boys before, jokes, usually, sometimes a shaky-fingered assignation in a secluded place, but he was the first one to cup your face and really kiss you. The way you did with your girlfriend when you went home. You loved her too, you think, but she always sense there was something you were hiding and when she broke up with you, you weren’t all that sorry. Dating is a distraction, anyway.
You remember hiding the mark he accidentally left on your neck under a scarf when you went home for Christmas. You ducked into the bathroom during your welcome-home dinner to press your fingers to the edge where pale skin turned red. Even then you knew it was nothing, that it couldn’t be anything because you were both angling at the NHL and neither of you wanted that hanging over your head. You could fake it enough to get by if you needed.
But it was still a slap in the face when he decided he was done, and when he started bringing his new girlfriend to team events. The pills you’d been prescribed for panic attacks, lurking at the bottom of your suitcase, find their way to your hand, and that was the only way to quell the shaking of your hands and the jumping anxiety that lived inside you.
“I let myself forget what my priorities should be,” you say.
At Samwell you meet Shitty, who’s studying Gender and Sexuality and wears his hair long like he was born forty years too late. He’s funny and tall and treats you like a little brother, which is weird because you’re older than him. He knows who you are – how could he not, when you’re both on the hockey team – and he doesn’t care who your dad is or that you were in rehab. Or, more precisely, he does care, but he cares exactly as far as it affects you. He wants you to be happy; he tells you as much when he’s stoned out of his mind and crying about how beautiful Up is.
He’s the first person you tell who isn’t legally obligated to keep your secret. You’re lying on the floor of his dorm, exhausted and near-tears from a conversation with your father where you discussed your future in hockey and your current point total at Samwell. Your voice is rusty with French and anxiety when you tell Shitty, no preamble, “I’m bi.”
Shitty looks over the edge of his bed at you and says, “Dude, that’s awesome!”
You look at him and say, “No it fucking isn’t,” and Shitty’s expression sort of – crumples.
He doesn’t push; doesn’t pry; doesn’t prod you into explaining what that means. He gives you a hug and doesn’t make sly remarks about hot guys or nudge you when he sees your eyes lingering on the arms of one of the rowers. You’re grateful; you also sometimes wish he would challenge you.
Her name is Larisa, not that anyone would remember that. She’s quiet, but not in a shy way. She just usually doesn’t think people are worth her words, not unless it’s necessary or she likes them a whole lot. You study together without saying a word, and it’s the best thing you could have asked for. She paints you, once, and the finished product doesn’t look much like you but you think you see something in the pale blue, something that’s like your eyes. Shitty thinks it’s amazing; but then he thinks everything Lardo does is amazing.
You tell her in a text because you’re a coward. You still can’t believe you ever worked up the nerve to tell Shitty, and sometimes you wake from dreams where you’re telling your father and when you sit up your hands are shaking and your heart is pounding. You wait anxiously to get it back and when it comes – all it says is I’m with you.
To your surprise, it helps.
Eric Bittle scares the shit out of you.
It isn’t love at first sight, not at all. But he’s so – he’s so what he is, and he’s proud of it. He’s happy to be himself and that terrifies you. When Ransom drops the news that Bittle is gay and to be cool, you nod and go back to studying, and it isn’t until later that you really think about it. Bittle is open about being gay and no one has said a word about it. You’re pretty sure the coaches know, and even they only seem to care about the fact that Bittle’s scared to take a hit.
You work with him, and you discover that he’s funny and sassy and brings that out in you too. You’ve never chirped anyone as much as you chirp him, telling him to dedicate as much time to reps as he does to Twitter, playing dumber than you are about pop music from time to time just to watch his face turn red in suppressed disbelief. You grow to appreciate those hours early in the morning when it’s just the two of you on the ice, listening to his sarcastic drawl as you teach him to throw off checks as easily as he throws off double axels.
Maybe it’s the pie, or maybe it’s the cookies he puts in your bag for Christmas. Maybe it’s the little friendly reminders he sends to the other members of the team about taking care of themselves. Maybe it’s the slightly drunken call you get on Christmas Eve, Bitty’s accent stronger than ever as he giggles and tells you to have a merry Christmas. Your voice is softer than you mean it to be when you reply, “Joyeux Noel, Bitty,” and it’s after you hang up that you realize you used his nickname again.
He scares you because you like him, like him a lot and think about him, worry about him the way you don’t about anyone else. You know rationally that he’s an adult and he can take care of himself, but that doesn’t stop you from glaring when he brings around that guy Ransom and Holster set him up with. It sets your teeth on edge, seeing them together, and you try not to let on how much it bothers you. There’s nothing that can come of it, anyway. In a year you’ll be in the AHL, or maybe the NHL, and you can’t have someone like Bittle at your side. Not if you want people to stop seeing you as Jack Zimmermann the son of Bob. Jack Zimmermann the fuck-up. Jack Zimmermann the queer.
So it’s no use. There’s no point at all.
And then you kiss him, late one night after a game where you combined for three points and he’s fairly glowing with pride. He’s laughing at something Shitty said earlier, face flushed with alcohol and happiness, and you’re the only two people standing in the upstairs hall. He’s beautiful, you think, staring down at him, and you wonder if his cheeks would be hot to the touch.
He falls abruptly quiet when you touch his jaw, fingers grazing the curve of his cheek. “Jack?” he asks, looking up at you, and you forget everything else but the way his eyes gleam in the dim light and the soft curve of his mouth. When you kiss him, he gasps, then pushes up into you, throwing his arms around your neck. You could lift him, you think hazily, you could carry him into his room if you wanted. Your hands steal down his back, pulling him closer, and he sighs, turning his face to your neck.
“I’ve been hoping you’d do that all year,” he confesses in your ear, and you feel a hot flash of pride. Good, you think.
“Papa, Maman,” you say, breath catching in your throat. “J’ai quelque chose à vous dire.”
Imagine this: you’re twenty-four, older than any of the others at rookie camp, but better than them too. You should be a veteran on the team by now, someone they look up to. That’s five years you could have been playing, should have been playing. But you’re on an NHL team, and that’s all you’ve ever wanted.
You’re not your father. You know now you never will be. You have Eric’s kiss like a blessing on your lips, and you’ve just been told that you’ll be on the team come the start of the season. You haven’t taken an anxiety pill in two years, and you haven’t felt like you’ve needed one for sixteen months. You’re twenty-four, and it’s time to face yourself for who you are.
“Je suis bisexuel,” you say, and your voice doesn’t shake. “Et je sors avec un garcon.”