It wasn’t a huge surprise when Jack Zimmermann showed up at the Regional Championship while his old school was playing. There was a brief mention of the fact that Bob and Alicia Zimmermann were there, though with it being both Jack’s and Alicia’s alma mater, it wasn’t that strange. There was no mention at all of the people sitting on Jack’s other side that night.
It was a close game, fought hard, lost well into overtime. Bob Zimmermann’s friendliness to the people sitting next to his son was not worthy of note, as his friendliness was legendary.
The media did notice the Bittles the next night, sitting next to Bitty, who sat next to Bob, cheering Jack as the Falcs smashed the Islanders. Mostly because Bob kept one-armed hugging Bitty every time Jack scored a goal. When Jack got a hatty in the third period and Bob’s one-armed hug turned into a two-armed hug for Bitty, and then Alicia, and then a high five for Coach and a handshake for Suzanne, there was a flurry of activity in the media center. Ron Gale had covered enough NCAA hockey to recognize Eric Bittle, but hadn’t paid close enough attention to the kid to say more than that he was a former teammate. But that was enough for the interns.
It was later that night, in the studio, cameras off, while they were working on the notes for the talk show the next day, that the research came back. It was a goldmine, a treasure trove of information. Well, maybe. After how hard Bad Bob had come down on them over the rumors about Kent Parson back in ‘09, it might be a just be a landmine.
“How are we gonna call this one, Ron?” Jimmy said, looking up at the sequence of clips from both games on the board. He was sitting in one of the soft interview chairs with his feet up on the small coffee table, a laptop perched on his thighs.
“How about this?” Ron said from the desk, where he sat in a dress shirt with the collar open, tie and jacket long gone, a pair of incongruously bright sweat pants and house slippers on his bottom half. He put on his camera persona. “The Falcs’ game last night was graced by the appearance of visiting hockey royalty. Jack Zimmermann has finally put on his crown, and the crown prince has been having the kind of season we always thought he could have. His father, Bad Bob Zimmermann and his mother, Alicia, were seen in the family box, but they weren’t alone. Take a look.” On the smartboard, he sequenced each of Jack’s goals, and the reaction shots.
“Sitting next to Bad Bob Zimmermann, we see one of his son’s former teammates, Eric Bittle. Bittle plays first line right wing for the Samwell Men’s Hockey team, which reached the NCAA final last year, and played to a heartbreaking loss in overtime last night at the first round of the NCAA ECAC regionals. We saw all the Zimmermanns at that game last night,” he pointed at the clips on the board from Samwell’s game, “And the couple on the other side at both games appears to be Suzanne and Eric Bittle, Senior. Bittle Senior made news in Georgia last August for spearheading a progressive diversity policy and anti-bullying program at his high school, when the Madison High School’s star quarterback came out as transgender. The program is considered a startlingly effective model for reducing bullying in a very conservative part of the country. Now, a bit more research seems to indicate that Eric Bittle, Jr., is out as gay at Samwell.”
Ron looked at Jimmy and said, “And then you’d say something like, ‘I can see why his father was willing to work so hard to make changes at his school. Now, the NHL has no out players at this point. Do you think that might change soon?’”
He continued, “And then I’d say, ‘We’ve seen a huge shift in thinking in the past few years, and the NHL has been proactive in training players and teams, but no one has made the leap yet. It is mathematically unlikely that there are no gay players in the NHL, but it’s clear that no one really wants to be the first to come out as gay.’”
Jimmy said, “So then you’d want me to say, ‘So do you think this is just good friends cheering each other on, or do you think we’ll be seeing a press release from the Falcs about this in the coming months?’ Except I’m not sure I even want to ask that question.”
“Bear with me,” Ron said. “I think we could, you know, hint, without saying or judging, and bring it around to something innocent. I mean, Bad Bob hugging a hockey kid his son played with isn’t actually that weird, in Bad Bob land. How about, ‘Well, we know there were rumors, years ago, but really nothing since then.’ Naw, scratch that. Just, 'As closely as people have been watching this rookie this year, you’d think we’d already know about something like that. Teammates have been talking about Jack’s girlfriend in the promo clips, that could be a smokescreen, but I think it’s too early to speculate. Certainly the Bittles and the Zimmermanns appear to be very good friends, and with Jack Zimmermann riding a great season, I can’t see that it would hurt him too much one way or another. Bittle and Zimmermann played on the same line for much of 2013-2015, and during the games they played together, Jack averaged a stunning 2.13 points per game, a majority of those were goals where the assists came from Bittle.”
Jimmy smiled and picked it up. “Right, and with as superstitious as hockey players get, we may just be seeing Zimmermann’s good luck charm here.”
“See?” Ron said. “Hey, Tyler,” he called to one of the interns. “See if you can spot the Bittle kid in any of the Falcs’ other home games. Then give me a point differential between games he showed up at and games he didn’t.”
Tyler—a tall, pale, thin young man with blonde hair—gestured at the other intern, Joe—a few inches shorter, with medium brown hair and medium brown skin—who was already putting it up on the smartboard. The taller kid seemed conflicted.
“We’ve already got the data,” Joe said.
“Dayam,” Jimmy said.
“Holy shit,” Ron agreed.
“Is that even possible?” Jimmy asked.
“Hey, what about that game, in Vegas?” Ron asked them. “I remember he got a hatty there, too...”
Tyler gave a dry smile, stepped forward, and popped up a picture of Eric Bittle sitting next to the Falcs’ general manager in the Aces’ arena.
“You’re telling me that Jack Zimmermann scores a hat trick every time that boy shows up at a game?” Jimmy Eckleman had seen a lot of weird superstitions in hockey, but he wondered if the Falcs even knew.
“How does that compare to the ones where the Bittle kid doesn’t go?” Ron asked.
Tyler popped the stats up on a graph, touched all the “Bittle” games to turn them red, left the other ones blue, and then stepped back.
“So he’s done an average of what, .92 points per game at the games that kid didn’t go to and he’s got a friggin’ hat trick at every game the kid is at? The Falcs need to pay that kid to go to their games.”
“May I just say, sir,” Tyler spoke for the first time, “That as a Falcs fan, I’d like to hug that kid myself every time Jack Zimmermann scores? It looks to me like Bad Bob might have figured it out before we did.”
“He figured something out,” Ron said. “Think we should reach out and ask for a comment?”
“Jesus, what are we going to say?” Jimmy said, running his hand through his greying hair. “Hey, Bob. Sorry about how we treated your kid when he was underage. Were you hugging his gay lover or is the kid just a rabbit’s foot?”
“I might be able to ask a question without getting Mr. Zimmermann involved,” Tyler said.
The TV personalities turned to the wiry intern and stared at him for a moment. “Okay, kid,” Ron finally said. “Whatcha got?”
“Bittle... has a vlog. And a Twitter. And maybe I could just... message him? And ask? He’s really nice. I mean, maybe you should have him on the show? He’s great on camera. Oh, and his dad’s thing, at the school... you really need to watch the YouTube of that assembly. I cried. It actually helped me come out to my own dad. Even if you don’t bring Jack Zimmermann into it at all, it might be a... good... conversation to have.” Tyler lapsed into silence, as he realized he’d just come out to his bosses.
“You think they’re together,” Ron said.
Tyler shot a look at Joe, then sighed and nodded. “It’s all over Eric’s social media. Not by name, but he’s... not really very subtle. If you know what to look for.”
“And you’re hesitant...” Jimmy asked.
“Because I know what it’s like,” Tyler said. “And it’s really bad to out someone when they haven’t chosen it. I mean, it looks like the kid is getting along great with his dad, which is not what his social media had implied for a long time, but clearly his dad knew, and his dad is frankly awesome, so to see them all there like that... if they weren’t together I think that they would have put them in the VIP box, not the family box.”
“How long have you been following this kid?” Ron asked.
“He plays hockey, he’s gay, he’s out, and he tweets about Jack Zimmermann,” Tyler said. “I’ve been following his Twitter for a year and a half and his vlog for a year.”
“Wait a minute... Two years ago...” Ron pulled up an old article. “Kid took a hard check and it was the only time we’ve ever seen Jack Zimmermann start a fight. I remember that. Did it go back that far?”
“Not that I can tell,” Tyler said. “The older stuff, Eric thought Jack hated him for a long time. Zimmermann used to make him practice at 4 am to get over a check phobia.”
“So what are we going to do?” Jimmy asked. “You think you can get a response before we’re filming tomorrow?”
“I’ll DM him on Twitter,” Tyler said. “What should I say?”
The other intern, Joe, said, “Why not leave Zimmermann out of it? If Bittle is out and his dad has his campaign he’s doing, why not focus on that?”
“Zimmermann’s the story,” Jimmy said.
Joe shrugged, “Yeah, but the human interest is this kid here, right? I mean, if they are together, one assumes they might not want to be in the closet forever, I mean, theoretically, and wouldn’t it be better if the conversation started with his dad’s lecture? Tyler showed it to me and dude, I nearly cried myself. Hockey’s been doing all that ‘You can play’ stuff anyway, this would just dovetail into that narrative. Give Bad Bob an out, well, so to speak, and he can make it about You Can Play and that video and not about his own kid.”
Ron pushed back in his swivel chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m too old for this shit. Call... message... whatever, this kid. Let him know what we have, that we’re not looking to out anyone who doesn’t want to be outed, but that we would really like to... support. Yeah, say support. We’d like to support his dad’s campaign, and we’d like to do a human interest piece with him and his dad on the show. We can angle it to be about the changing face of sports, yadda yadda, and paint Bad Bob as 'reaching out to his son’s classmate because he was moved by that video' if they want. We can leave Jack out of it other than the numbers, because shit, those numbers are news, and I’d look like a punk if I let that one slide. Anyway, let him know we’d like to get them on the show. And we don’t even have to make the numbers about Zimmermann... the Falcs’ scores alone are enough. Let people take it apart themselves, we don’t have to feed it to them.”
“And if he says no?” Jimmy asked.
“Then we just report it as a rabbit’s foot,” Ron said. “Leave the gay stuff out of it.”
Tyler nodded. “Thank... thank you for that.”
“Kid, I won’t pretend to understand it, but the look on your face... I don’t want to be the asshole responsible for Jack Zimmermann OD’ing again. Last time we brought up the 2009 draft, you should have seen Bad Bob’s rant in my inbox.” Ron stood up, the swivel chair spinning out behind him. “If Jack Zimmermann isn’t raping anyone or fondling kids in the bathroom, I don’t see why anyone should give a flying fuck about which consenting adult he wants to form a relationship with. Kid’s having a good year. I’d like to see what he can do.”
It was 10:30 pm when the DM came through. Bitty was curled up against Jack on one of Jack’s living room couches, Bitty on Twitter and Jack reading a book. Both were in grey sweatpants, Bitty in an oversized Falcs sweatshirt, Jack in a worn, grey Samwell t-shirt.
Bitty sat bolt upright. Jack looked over at him curiously.
“Jack…” Bitty started, and then just shoved his phone over.
Jack paled, leaned forward without taking his eyes off the screen, and handed his phone to Bitty. “Call Papa.” His hands started to shake.
Bitty unlocked Jack’s phone and got the number dialing, thumbed it to speakerphone, and set it on the coffee table. He snagged his own phone back from Jack when he heard Bad Bob’s voice.
“Papa, j'ai besoin de toi. Viens, je t'en pris,” Jack said. Then, in English, “The media just contacted Bitty.”
“J'm'en viens,” Bob said, and the line went dead.
Bitty hit dial on his own phone, and after the third ring, heard his mother’s sleepy voice. “Dicky?”
“Mama, can y’all come to Jack’s right away? I know it’s late…”
“Baby, I know you wouldn’t call after ten if it wasn’t an emergency—we’re already getting dressed. Text me the address while you tell me what’s going on?”
“Someone put it all together, and they want… They want to interview me, and Coach, and they… I think they know about Jack? I can’t… If they’re talking to me they must know, right?” Bitty could feel the panic rising. “I don’t… I’m… I just…” Bitty’s hands flew as he texted the address, his fingers on autopilot.
“Slow down, Dicky. You don’t need to buy trouble just because someone gave you a coupon.”
Bitty felt Jack’s hand on his shoulder and watched as Jack stood climbed up the small flight of steps to the main level.
“My laptop?” he called out, but Jack was already unplugging it from the kitchen counter. Bitty said to his mother, “I know, Mama, it’s just we talked about it and we weren’t ready…”
“I’m going to hang up now, baby. You take a deep breath and settle yourself. We’ll be there in a few minutes. Get the dough out of the fridge and we’ll make some pinwheel bow ties and sort it all out.”
“Mama, I don’t know if I can…”
“Dicky, just go roll the dough out. I’ll be there in two shakes.”
“Mama, I gotta look this up,” he started, but the line was already dead.
Jack handed him the laptop. He pulled up twitter and the wall of text from @tyfalcsday, Tyler Greene. He’d only seen the first part on his phone, but the whole thing… there were links and passwords for encrypted files and he was still staring at it all when the Zimmermanns showed up. Jack buzzed them up, and was not terribly surprised to open the door to both sets of parents.
His mother wrapped her arms around him and said, “It’s going to be all right, however this comes out—you have to know that.”
“I… it’s a really strange message, Maman. I just… I’m not sure they’re outing us at all, but someone figured it out.”
“Let’s not stand in the doorway, darling,” Alicia said, moving around Jack to hang her coat in the closet.
Bitty was still down in the living room, staring at the screen, when Bob and Coach sat down on either side of him.
He looked up, a little dazed.
“What have we got, son?” Bob asked, and Bitty scrolled back up to the top of the message, then stood up. “You should read…” he started, and then his brow furrowed and he said, “I should… Mama… Kitchen.”
Coach nodded absentmindedly as he and Bob closed ranks on the couch to read the DM together. Jack went to get his laptop from the bedroom, while Alicia came to sit next to Bob and read over his shoulder.
In the kitchen, Bitty moved on autopilot, handing a ball of pie crust dough out of the fridge to his mother. Jack, walking by, asked, “Did you just no-look the crust?”
“We’ve been baking together since he was tiny,” Suzanne said. “You go on now.” She took the butter from Bitty and said, “Don’t you have some already out?”
He blinked at her, and then wordlessly took the butter back out of her hands and put it back in the fridge, removing an egg instead. He stared into the refrigerator for a long moment, until she said, “It’s just pinwheels, Baby. Everything else should be in the cupboard.”
He turned and got down the maple sugar, flour, butter, bourbon vanilla paste, cinnamon sticks and an extremely fine grater, and lined them up on the cold, slick stone counter top, then pulled a Granny Smith out of a basket in the pantry and stared for a long moment. A marble rolling pin came out of the drawer, and then baking pans and silicone liners.
“You want to talk about it?” Suzanne asked.
“I…” He sighed. “I feel like I screwed up, Mama.”
“You get to be you, Baby. That’s not a mistake. Jack knew what he signed up for. You’ve been so careful.”
“Mama, not nearly careful enough,” he said. “If they… If he…”
“Cross that railroad track when you get to it. You don’t even know if there’s a train on the rails.”
“Son, we need you over here,” Coach called out from the living room.
Bitty looked across the countertop into the sunken living room and said, “Just a minute, Daddy.”
“You go on,” Suzanne said. “I see where you’re going with this. You can help me shape them in a little bit.” She expertly scattered flour across the clean counter, and waved him off with the other hand.
Jack had his laptop open on one couch, while his parents and Bitty’s father appeared to be watching video clips.
“Jack, I’m so sorry,” Bitty said, walking through the dining area to the living room steps closest to where Jack was sitting. “If I hadn’t… You never wanted me on Twitter.”
“Would you have gotten through high school without social media? Through your first two years at Samwell?” Jack didn’t take his eyes off his laptop, and as Bitty got closer, he could see Jack was typing into a document.
“I should have…” Bitty started.
“No,” Jack said. “It’s not fair to you… I’d never ask…”
“You shouldn’t have had to,” Bitty said, and started to sit down a few feet away.
Jack reached out before he was all the way down, wrapped an arm around Bitty’s hips without even looking, and settled him in flush against Jack’s side. Jack’s arm swung over Bitty’s head and then back down to the keyboard, and he continued typing.
Bitty leaned around Jack’s arm so he could look at the screen. Which put him at the exact wrong angle to actually read. He looked at Jack for a moment, perched on the edge of the couch, typing on the laptop on the coffee table, and climbed behind him on the large leather sofa, draped himself across Jack’s back, slid his arms around Jack’s torso, and settled his chin on Jack’s shoulder.
“Comfortable?” Jack asked.
“You need a better laptop,” Bitty said.
“This one’s fine,” Jack said.
“You’ve had it since before you started at Samwell, haven’t you?” Bitty asked.
“It works,” Jack said.
Bitty relaxed a little against Jack, and then his brain started to process the words on the page.
“You’re coming out?” He pulled up a little. “Is that going to be necessary?”
“That would be the simplest option,” Jack said.
“What have they got?” Bitty asked Bob.
“They’ve got enough to paint a convincing picture,” Bob said. “Think I’m going to call this… Taylor…”
“Tyler,” Bitty corrected automatically. “You know, he reached out to me, I should probably talk to him.”
“He sounds like a fan, Junior,” Coach said.
“I— What do you want to do, Daddy?” Bitty shifted until he was sitting on the back of the couch, his knees against Jack’s shoulders. Jack reached back and put a hand on his ankle, fondly, and then returned to typing.
“I’m willing to talk to them however you want me to,” Coach said. “I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the Safe Zone project. Probably take up all the time they have.”
“We’re here for whatever you boys need,” Alicia said. “Bob gives good interview, we just need to know how you want to approach it.”
“I hate this,” Bitty said. “We’re one of the most boringly happy couples I’ve ever known; why on earth should anyone care?”
“Someone has to be first,” Jack said.
“Yes, but does it have to be you giving a hockey robot press statement, like it’s the worst thing in the world?” Bitty’s feet started bouncing a little with the nervous energy of it, until Jack put a hand down on them.
Bitty reached up and back and wrapped his hands around the guard railing separating the dining room from the sunken living room, and pulled a little.
“Don’t do it, Bits,” Jack said, without looking. “You’ll hit your head.”
“It should be possible to do a pike back flip up over the rail,” Bitty said.
“You haven’t exercised those muscles enough yet to do it without hitting your head, and I don’t want to ever see you with another concussion.”
“Ugh,” Bitty said, letting go of the bar and flinging himself onto the couch on his stomach.
“Is he always like this?” Bob asked Coach quietly.
“Only when he’s nervous,” Coach said.
“I’m right here,” Bitty said into the pillow. “I can actually hear you.”
His legs started to bounce a little behind his boyfriend, until Jack, still without looking, in one smooth movement half-stood, grabbed Bitty’s legs, and pinned them between his back and the couch, then pulled the laptop onto his knees and leaned until Bitty’s feet stopped bouncing.
“Ow,” Bitty said into the couch, but without heat.
“You should let him go help his mother,” Coach said. “He’s no good to us until he’s baked something.”
“I’m fine,” Bitty said, turning his head. “I just… this doesn’t feel right. I should text him.”
“You need to call him,” Bob said. “Easier to get a read on the situation that way.”
“Where is this show headquartered?” Alicia asked.
“Boston,” Jack, Bitty and Bob all answered at once.
“Close enough to go there tomorrow, then,” Alicia said.
“Easily,” Jack said.
“Do you have to decide tonight?” she asked. “It’s really late.”
“Use the guest bedroom, Maman,” Jack said.
“I’m not going to be able to sleep until I have some idea of what you boys are going to do,” Suzanne said from the kitchen.
Jack shrugged, “I’m coming out.”
“Is there a reason that it’s taken you ten minutes to type, ‘I’m gay,’” Bitty’s voice came muffled by a throw pillow he appeared to be biting.
“It’s a little more than that,” Jack said.
“Why is it more than that?” Bitty asked.
“You had five index cards,” Jack said. “Front and back. Shitty told me.”
“Just front.” Bitty rolled on his side and threw the pillow at Jack’s head. “Could we just not come out?”
“You want to stay in the closet?” Jack asked, catching the pillow out of the air and tossing it gently back into place in the corner of the couch near Bitty’s head.
Bitty flipped onto his back and put the pillow over his face. They heard an odd muffled scream.
Jack turned and looked at Bitty. “What?”
Bitty sat up and folded his legs under him. “What if we didn’t come out? But we didn’t hide? What if we just… I don’t know, let Coach talk about his program. I can talk about baking. You can talk about hockey. Bob can talk about hockey and maple syrup and you. Mama can blush and look all shy and then tear the announcers to pieces, and then your mom can stomp on the pieces and they won’t even mind because it’s your mom.”
They all looked at him with bemused consternation.
“What?” he said, annoyed.
“And when they ask if Jack is gay?” Bob said.
“Then we talk about hockey, and how well the Falcs are doing.” Bitty said.
“And if they ask if you have a boyfriend?” Alicia said.
“Then I say, ‘You know, I’ve discovered that if I dredge the lattice in maple sugar, it really brings something special to an apple pie.’”
“Is that a metaphor?” Alicia asked.
“It’s none of their business,” Bitty said. “If I was a girl, there might be a mention, once, in passing, and then they’d move on, and the Falcs would do some sort of puff piece for the website and they’d all just move ON and as long as I didn’t go banging one of his teammates, they’d leave us alone.”
Alicia snorted, and then laughed, and then shook her head, and then said, “Eric, sweetie… If you knew the wringer they put me through… It wouldn’t matter. They’d do their puff piece and then they’d discuss every single part of your body as if it were a piece of meat, and then they’d criticize every steak and every pore and then you’d get the jealous ones talking about how you’re not good enough for their crush and then you’d get the nasty ones telling you what they want to do with you and yeah, it will be ugly but it’s not because you’re a man, or because I’m a woman, but because people are shitty and have no boundaries about celebrities.”
“Hey, Shitty is way better than those assholes,” Jack said, dryly.
“Sorry,” she said with a chuckle. “You know what I mean. Eric, I know this is frustrating and hard and there’s probably going to be some ugliness, but this has been part of Jack’s life since before he was born, and I think part of you knows that.”
“How do you stand it?” Bitty asked. “I adore Jack, and this… I don’t think anything in my life has been as good as being… his… and him being mine… and it hurts to think about people coming in and making it into some tawdry, ugly thing. Like somehow I’m tainting their precious hockey prince.”
“The stats help,” Coach said. “The math is pretty clear.”
“I didn’t look,” Bitty said.
“You don’t know?” Bob asked. “Really?”
“I like watching him score,” Bitty said. “I guess he scores a little more when I’m there?”
Jack coughed. Bitty blushed. “Goals. He scores goals when I’m there.”
He thwapped Jack’s shoulder with the pillow.
Bob looked at Coach, and they both shrugged helplessly, and then Bob brought up the graphic Tyler had sent over, showing points and percentages.
Jack looked over, and said, “They missed an assist in two games.”
“You knew?” Bitty said. “I could have come to more…”
Jack cut him off. “You get to live your life, Bittle. You get to play hockey, too. You get to be a college student. If I was more on my game, I’d be able to do it when you weren’t there as well as when you are. I just play better hockey when I’m happy.”
“A really good reason why Falcs fans will love you, pretty much every other team in hockey will fear you, and why no one on this planet can say you’re hurting his game,” Bob said.
Suzanne came into the living room, and sat down in the corner of the couch nearest Coach, next to Bitty. “I think Dicky’s right. I think… You let them talk about their numbers. You let them talk about Safe Zone. You let them talk about how good you are for Jack’s game. And if you have any say in it, baby, you don’t let them ask the question, because people with good manners don’t ask people who they are sleeping with. If you ever get engaged, you announce it, because people do that. You get married, you announce that. You go to parties together, you live your lives together, and you don’t deny that. The only time you say the words is when you really want to, not because some reporter pushed a microphone at you. If you want to introduce each other as boyfriend, you do it because you want to, not because you have to. The less ashamed you are, the less they can shame you.”
“The only reason I worry about it at all,” Bitty said, “Is because I’m worried about some asshole pushing Jack through the boards because of me.”
“There might be a few who try,” Bob said. “But I’ve been working on the NHL from the inside since Jack was 16, and the consequences can be huge. I suspect Jack will get checked less often if he comes out, because they’re all afraid of getting booted for a game.”
“That was you,” Bitty said. “Because you knew…”
“I honestly didn’t think he’d be in the closet this long,” Bob said. “That Tyler kid works for Ron Gale, and I let him have it more than once for how he covered you. He’s been remarkably quiet since the last time I had to speak to him. Oh, have you called your PR department yet?”
“Um. I was going to call George in the morning…” Jack said.
“Crisse! Call her now. Call her half an hour ago,” Bob said.
“Ouais, ouais,” Jack said, picking up his phone and finding her number, and walking up out of the room.
Bitty looked around, full of nervous energy. “Something smells amazing; is the filling ready? I want to roll pinwheels.”
Suzanne laughed. “The filling is cooling. Was the blast chiller your idea or Jack’s?”
Bitty looked at Jack and said, “He watched MasterChef with me one time and the next time I was here he’d bought three more major appliances.”
“Could come in useful,” Suzanne said.
Alicia followed them up to the kitchen, where a large square of dough sat on a reusable parchment sheet.
Bitty pulled the apple filling out of the chiller, and took a handful of spoons out of the drawer. He tasted the filling, and nodded, and got a fresh spoon for Alicia.
“Is that maple?” she asked. “And spices… and vanilla?”
Bitty nodded, and started spreading the filling on the dough with an icing spatula.
“I would be tempted to just pile that on,” Alicia said.
Suzanne shook her head. “It’ll fall apart if we do. Dicky, baking sheets?”
Bitty pointed to the cabinet under the oven. “Silicone liners are in the drawer next to it, third down.”
“Jack really went all out,” Suzanne said.
“There was a shopping trip or three,” Bitty said. “I was even there for one of them.”
With the filling evenly and thinly spread across two halves of the dough, with a strip of bare dough around the edge and down the center, he rolled the dough toward the middle from one side, and then the other.
“Palmiers!” Alicia exclaimed.
“Well, sort of,” Bitty said. “I wanted to make bow ties and this was the best way to do it, but those use puff pastry and this is actually pie dough, because that’s what I had chilling. Also, I shape them a little different.”
With two long rolls connected by a single layer, he used the back of the spreader to flatten the sides of each roll, then went along with his fingers crimping the edges just enough to bring them to points. His mother handed him a sharp knife, and he neatly sliced a series of bowties off, dredging them in a sparkling mix of maple sugar crystals and cinnamon, and laying them tidily on the tray Suzanne had prepared, fixing the corners as he went.
“Those are adorable,” Alicia said.
“He’s stress baking,” Suzanne said. “Well, we both are.”
“The media is one of those evils that only sticks around when you avoid them the hardest,” Alicia said. “I hit a point when Jack was a baby where I just stopped caring, and they left us alone for a while, until he started skating. They mostly left me alone to follow him, but through his first year, I felt like I had to hide constantly.”
“What would you do?” Bitty asked.
“I’d get it over with,” Alicia said. “It’s hanging over you both like this giant axe, and as long as you’re hiding you’re going to be scared.”
“There are places he has to go that are genuinely terrifying to gay people,” Bitty said. “Every time I go home, I’m scared. Sorry, Mama. And that’s not even having been out there.”
“If you’d come home for Christmas, this past year, you might have been surprised, Dicky,” Suzanne said.
“Sorry,” Alicia said. “Now that everyone knows, we’d love to have you up for holidays, or we can come down. I urged Jack to bring Eric, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Or should I call him Dicky?”
“God, no, please,” Bitty said. “You can call me Bitty if you want. Eric is fine too.”
She laughed. “But in French, it’s the same thing.”
He looked utterly baffled, and her eyes went wide. “Oh, you… Nevermind. Eric is fine.”
Bitty was too distracted by the cookies and the stress to pick up on her reaction. As he was sliding a tray into the oven, Jack came into the kitchen and said, “Georgia’s on her way.”
Bitty closed the oven, set a timer, and then turned and wrapped his arms around Jack. “Does she already know?”
“I… I don’t think I ever told her specifically but when I said the media had contacted my boyfriend about doing an interview, she said, ‘How is Bittle handling it?’”
“We’re really bad at this whole closet thing,” Bitty said into Jack’s pectoral. Under his cheek, he felt Jack laugh.
“I just… it’s going to be such a hassle.”
“It will,” said Alicia. “And then it won’t. And I think if we handle it right, it’s going to really help some people.”
“You… They wanted pictures of you. I’m afraid someone will actually kill us,” Bitty said.
Alicia and Suzanne’s eyes met, and Suzanne said, “Sugar, every woman, every day, everywhere, is a little worried or a lot worried someone could kill her, or hurt her children, or worse. And sometimes it happens. Alicia, you want me to tell them?”
“You know the story?” Alicia asked.
“You forget, we were fans,” Suzanne said. “I’m a little younger than you, so Bob’s heyday was when my sister had his picture on the wall. We heard whatever hit the news.”
Alicia nodded. “Go ahead.” She turned and started putting dishes in the sink.
Bitty started to pull out of Jack’s arms, to tell her she didn’t have to help, and Suzanne just put up a warning hand and shook her head. “Let her have something to do with her hands, this won’t be easy. Before Jack came along, his mama had a stalker. I won’t go into it too far, but it was public enough that I heard and remembered, and it was scary, and that awful man ended up in jail, but not before he hurt someone who looked an awful lot like her, and threatened her, and threatened Bob. It was all over the news even before he was caught, and after, so don’t think for a second that Jack’s mama doesn’t know what it means to be afraid, or to have someone irrationally angry at her for not being what they wanted her to be. And she’s right.
“If you want to be with Jack, the media is going to be there. But we know you’re good for him, good for his game, too, though that’s really secondary. We know that there are other people in the public eye who have come out and after the initial frenzy… the ones with stable, quiet relationships don’t hold a whole lot of attraction for the media. You might get someone taking pictures of you on honeymoon, and you might want to avoid embarrassing yourself at a party—don’t think I don’t know you party, Dicky—because those pictures will get a lot more play once people decide you’re interesting.”
“How closely do you follow media coverage of gay celebrities?” Jack asked.
“Just about as closely as I watch Pinterest,” Suzanne said. She looked back over at the sink. “Did I about sum it up, Alicia?”
Alicia turned, and leaned against the counter. “Mostly. Your protections are stronger, now, for this, than mine were then, and the reasons people had for paying attention to me were different from why they’re paying attention to you, not that it makes the attention any easier. In part because of my case and others like it, a few years after Jack was born they strengthened the laws. They only got him because he hurt someone.” She sighed. “I don’t know quite how I feel about the fact that he didn’t last very long in prison. Apparently I had a fan in there.” She shuddered. “But they changed the law in part because people were so upset with how short the sentence he was supposed to serve was. It ended up being a death sentence after all, but when he first went in, we were terrified he’d be at it again in a year.”
“Baby, there’s gonna be a lot of people feeling really strongly about this,” Suzanne said. “But that’s not just people against you, it’s people for you as well.”
There was some activity behind them, in the dining room, and they looked over to see Coach and Bob moving the laptops to the dining room table. “Junior, is there a whiteboard?” Coach asked.
Jack let go of Bitty, and said, “I’ll go get it.”
“I like that boy,” Coach said. “Always good to have a whiteboard handy.”
“Hey, your kid comes with pie,” Bob said, clapping Coach on the shoulder.
“Makes it real challenging to stick to a diet plan,” Coach said. “Real challenging.”
“But delicious. Makes you work harder,” Bob tossed back.
Coach had a little smile on his face as he tipped his head to concede the point.
Bitty flipped on the oven light and squatted down to look at the cookies in the oven.
“Looking won’t make them cook faster,” Suzanne said.
“No, but it gives me something to pay attention to that isn’t our lives blowing up into a media circus,” Bitty said. “I should message Tyler.”
“Wait for Georgia,” Bob said. “This is part of her job.”
Jack basically says, "Papa, I need you, please come"
His dad says, approximately, "I'm coming"
Georgia arrived just as the cookies were coming out of the oven. Her hair was pulled back, and she wore a track suit, and she came in already talking but stopped when the smell of cinnamon and vanilla hit. “So Jack we’ve got—” She took a deep breath. “Are those cookies? Hi, Bittle. Or do you prefer Eric?”
Eric blinked, and Suzanne took the mitts and tray from him and started to slide the cookies over to the cooling racks.
“Bitty, Eric—anything, really.”
“Except Dicky,” Alicia supplied.
“I’ll go with Eric, it’s probably the thing you’ll want the media using anyway.”
Georgia laughed, not unkindly, and said, “Your face, kid. Look, we’ll get through this, and it’s going to be complicated and annoying for a while, but you’ll either come out of this a cooking celebrity or you’ll bore them to tears and they’ll just leave you alone.”
“Cook—what?” he said.
“Kid, look, you’re adorable. You’ve got good onscreen presence, and you have a real skill. I’ve been tasting your cooking all year, and I’ve seen your vlog, and the only thing standing between you and some real success is lack of exposure. Well, and a better kitchen to cook in, but enough exposure and you’ll have the better kitchens. I don’t know why you don’t film here. Well, I do, but you should.” She leaned over and took a deep breath over the cookies. “Yes, definitely.”
“I don’t want to just be Jack’s boyfriend,” Bitty said.
“You won’t be. Give it a couple years and he’ll be known as Eric Bittle’s boyfriend as often as it’s the other way around. Hockey players are celebrities, but they’ve got a… narrower fanbase in some ways. You’re connected to a lot of people, and since you can’t avoid the publicity, you might as well work it.”
“You think there’s no way we can avoid making a big announcement,” Jack said.
“I don’t expect you to get up in front of a press conference and say, ‘I’m gay’ like you’re announcing you have cancer,” Georgia said. “It would be a disaster. But let me look at what they’ve got, and we’ll figure it out.”
Bitty yawned abruptly, and Alicia said, “Oh god, don’t start.”
“Look, it’s going to take me a bit to get really up to speed,” Georgia said. “Why don’t you guys get a little bit of rest. Power nap.”
“I don’t think I can sleep,” Bitty said, but then he yawned, and Jack just shook his head.
“George, I think Papa still has the energy to walk you through what we have,” Jack said. “I’m going to make Bits go to sleep. I’ll leave the door open, you can come get us whenever you need. Suzanne, there are blankets in the hall closet if you want to nap on the couch. And Maman, please take the guest bed. It’s why I have it.”
“Well, it’s certainly not for Eric,” his mother said, pinching his cheek as she walked past him. “And I’ll take the couch, Suzanne has less practice sleeping through Bob’s ideas.”
“Chirp game strong in that one,” Bitty muttered, as Jack led him by the wrist back into the master bedroom and nudged him unceremoniously in the direction of the king-sized bed.
Bitty reached back and snagged Jack’s hand. “You come too.”
They curled up around each other on top of the covers.
“I think it might be okay,” Jack said.
“I wish—” Bitty yawned. “I don’t even know what I wish. No, I actually do. I want to already have been out for a while. That’s what. How are you so calm?”
“I want that too,” Jack said. “And this—it’s a game, and we’re in the middle of it, and you, everyone needs me on my game, and I can’t… I can’t be afraid anymore. I mean, it’s happening, and maybe every panic I’ve ever had is about this, but it’s not—I thought they’d make it into something dirty without my permission but they asked, and we’re going to control the story, and you’re going to be okay and I’m going to be okay and maybe better than okay.” He tucked a kiss onto Bitty’s head, then let himself relax onto the pillow. “I think a lot of the worry was about whether to take the trip,” he said. “And we’re standing in the station and have our tickets in hand and our luggage is packed and maybe it’s a relief to know that the train is going to come no matter what.”
At the dining room table, Coach was diagramming something onto the whiteboard, while George and Bob were using four laptops between the two of them. Georgia had both her laptop and Bitty’s in front of her, going back and forth between writing on hers and looking at Bitty’s. The only message sent back to Tyler thus far had been a short, “We are considering your request, please continue to send any materials you consider relevant.” The 14 DMs that followed included a variety of video clips, spreadsheets and an entire document of links to Bitty’s vlog and specific tweets. Bob had Jack’s, logged into Bitty’s twitter, and his own ultrabook.
She considered for a long moment, and then typed, “Still considering, you will have an answer in the morning,” and sent the DM.
A few steps down, on the couch in the living room, Alicia was lying on her back under a soft throw blanket on the wide, comfortable couch, eyes closed but not asleep. “George, Eric’s going to need media training,” she said, eyes still closed, just loud enough to be heard.
“On it,” Georgia said. “If we can get him past his nerves, I think he’ll be fine. Kid’s adorable.”
“Do we know other out LGBT athletes in NCAA hockey?” Georgia asked a few minutes later.
“Eric’s only ‘out’ because he doesn’t hide, there are probably plenty of others who do the same,” Coach said. “I mean, how many college players actually come out and say, ‘I’m straight?’ We see them with girlfriends or we don’t, but unless someone gets a picture of one kissing a girl and kissing a guy, we don’t even have an inkling of how many bi athletes there are unless they tell us. There are plenty of women who are out, really out, in both pro and college sports, both lesbian and bi, but not so many men. And a lot of guys ‘hide’ and date girls so no one questions…”
“I’ve never asked Jack flat out if he was gay,” Bob said. “I don’t even know how he identifies himself. I started talking to people at the NHL when I found him… anyway, when he was 16, it was obvious that he wasn’t straight. And all those talks were in the abstract, as in, ‘I’m helping coach local teams and there are kids coming up through the ranks who are growing up in a whole different world and some of the better players I’ve seen are being discouraged from playing because of the climate around hockey.’ I tried to make sure that Jack could see change happening, and of course he knew I knew, but we haven’t discussed it much beyond, ‘The safest thing to do is get a few seasons under your belt, but do what you need to do in order to be happy.’”
“I wish I’d been farther ahead of the ball,” Coach said.
Bob leaned over and gave him a friendly shoulder punch. “You may have been behind the ball, but you hit it out of the park when it counted. I’ve been nudging things from behind the scenes, it took real guts to get up there in front of your school and say what you said. That was a moment, sir. A real moment.”
“You’re mixing your metaphors,” George muttered.
“They should just interview the two of you,” Alicia said, putting an arm behind her head so she could look up toward the table.
“Suzanne did so much of the work,” Coach said. “People keep talking about ‘what I said’ but I know where my bread is buttered and trust me, that assembly was the easier option.”
Bob looked over at Alicia. “It’s definitely been a team effort over here too. If I go on, you need to go on.”
Georgia leaned back and crossed her arms and looked at the two dads, and then Alicia.
“You know, that might not be a bad approach. All four of you.”
“Leave the boys out of it?”
“They want something for the Sunday afternoon show,” Georgia said. “Let them do a piece about Safe Zone, and You Can Play.”
“And if they ask if the boys are gay, say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how they identify.’ If they ask if they’re together?” Coach asked.
“That’s up to them,” Bob said. “But really, haven’t you seen them together? It’s hard to miss.”
“What do you normally do as a team when one of the guys gets serious about his girl?” Alicia asked Georgia.
“Once they’ve been photographed together and acknowledge the relationship, we usually put a video up on the website, a puff piece,” Georgia said. “Just ‘Here’s who she is and what she likes to do and welcome to the Falconers’ family.’ It usually takes us a couple days to get one done though.”
“You should just have Eric do a vlog and put that up, with Jack in it,” Alicia said. “Make it normal. That’s the whole goal of You Can Play, n’est-ce pas? Make it normal? Let them bake an apple pie together, have Eric put up his recipe, and let them be their adorable selves. Let Bob bring up how well Jack plays when Eric is there, how good he is for him, and for his playing. Let Coach talk about acceptance and the fact that lives are at stake. Don’t let them interview Jack Sunday, let them do a proper job of it NOT on live television.”
“I wonder if Bitty has the outtakes from his vlog he worked on at Christmas?” Bob said.
“Has he even posted that?” Suzanne asked. “I didn’t see…”
“He tried, and Jack wouldn’t stop chirping him the whole time. He got a pie made but I don’t think he got enough clean footage to post something that wouldn’t out them.”
“I need to see that footage,” Georgia said, with a glint in her eye.
“It’s probably on his laptop,” Coach said, “but we really should ask first…”
“Better for you to ask or me?” Georgia kept looking at Bitty’s laptop with new interest, visibly fighting the urge to immediately hunt down the videos.
Coach laughed. “I’ll do it.”
He made his way past the kitchen island and down the hall to the master bedroom at the end. The door was open and a lamp cast a dim, warm light. The boys were asleep, facing each other, curled in toward each other, Jack’s cheek on Bitty’s hair, their knees touching.
“Boys,” he said too quietly. Then a little louder, “Dicky…”
Jack opened his eyes and looked at him, and then put a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits,” he said, “I think they need us.”
Bitty sighed. “My dad is looking at us, isn’t he.”
“We… Bob says you might have some footage that might be useful. From Christmas. I told her we needed to get your permission before rummaging around for videos on your laptop.”
Bitty’s eyes shot open and he sat straight up in bed. “I’m awake. I’ll make a folder she can look at.”
Coach kept his face neutral and said. “Figured you might want to pick and choose.”
Bitty’s eyes widened and he turned bright red. “Daddy! Oh my god.”
Coach just shrugged, turned and walked back to the dining room.
“Jaaaaack…” Bitty said burying his head on Jack’s shoulder. Jack’s shaking shoulder. “You are not laughing at me right now, Jack Zimmermann. My father just—he thinks… oh god.”
“I think all of those are on my laptop,” Jack said.
“There are no those, Mister. Not what my Daddy was implying. Oh god.”
“Well, there was that—”
“You did not.”
“I was on the road a lot,” Jack said. “Besides, it’s on mine.”
“I never keep anything like that on mine because I live with Ransom and Holster,” Bitty said. “Not to mention the Queen of Devious Blackmail herself. And Chowder, who would never snoop on purpose but would never be able to keep his mouth shut for a second if he saw something by accident. And your father is on yours right now.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “I’m awake.”
As they walked out of the bedroom and down the hall, Georgia’s phone was on speakerphone on the dining room table. They could hear a ring, and then a sleepy voice answered. Georgia said, “Harry got an owl and the train leaves the station at noon.”
There was swearing on the other end of the line, and the sounds of a fumbled phone, and then “On it, boss,” before the line went dead.
Georgia looked up at the dumbfounded faces around her. “What? You think we haven’t prepared for this?”
“I’m Harry?” Jack said, bemused.
“Well, you know… out of the closet, and the incoming hero returned from the muggle world…”
“PR is just a bunch of giant nerds, eh?” Jack asked.
“You caught the reference,” she said.
“I dressed up as Harry Potter three years running for Halloween,” Jack said.
“I know,” Georgia said. “I have the pap shots.”
“You need my videos?” Bitty asked.
“I’ve seen most of your vlog,” she said. “But Bob said there might be something more… friendly, from Christmas.”
“What are you suggesting?” Bitty said, his voice guarded.
“I’m suggesting, or rather, Alicia is suggesting—”
“Actually it was more Suzanne, I was just paraphrasing,” Alicia interrupted.
Georgia continued. “Your mothers think that treating things as normally as possible would be best. So what we would normally do is a PR video, where we’d have the two of you doing something Eric likes to do, something fluffy and light, and we’d toss it up on the Falcs website and the media would either report or not. But we don’t have time for an official PR vid, and we don’t really need one if you have enough good material to cut something together from existing footage. But what I’d like to do is get my team on putting the pieces together—Eric, you can also do your own cut. Then you post it to your vlog, which you’d do if Jack wasn’t in the closet, and we post our version to the Falcs website, which is normal for us. We do that before their show. Like, an hour before.”
“Please don’t make me go on live television the day we come out,” Bitty said.
“We won’t,” Georgia said. “In fact, what we want to do is have your parents, both sets, go on and talk about Safe Zone and You Can Play, since both your parents have already been working on these issues. We’ll let Ron and Jimmy talk to them, and they can ask them the questions, and I think it’s going to be a lot easier for your parents to deflect inappropriate questions on the spot because they’ve both got a lot more experience with it. Now, Jack, it might be easier for them to answer questions if they know how you identify. Your dad just said “not straight”, but we realize no one has actually asked you.”
Jack blushed. “I—It’s not really as simple as gay or bi, really. I mean, obviously I’m not straight, the guys always called me ‘Hockeysexual’ and that’s a joke but no one usually asks me and—do I really have to talk about the nitty gritty of a question I don’t really have a solid answer to? I love my boyfriend. I don’t really care if people think of me as gay, I guess, but there’s not very many human beings who… do it for me at all. Shitty claims I’m demisexual but start throwing terms like that out and… I think that goes farther into it than I’m comfortable talking about. I feel like I’d be kind of a fraud as a Big Gay Icon, but I’m not ashamed. The word that seems to fit the best is queer, but a lot of people don’t like that now? I don’t know. It just doesn’t usually come up, and the only person it really matters to is Bitty.”
“Not so much, actually,” Bitty said. “I mean, yeah, I care because it’s about you, but as long as you’re attracted to me, that’s all that really matters to me.”
“So I mean, if it really matters I guess people can call me gay, I mean, Bits is it for me, so it’s not like I’m going to go out and test my sexual responses to various subsets of humanity just to find out if I’m really The Big Gay or not.”
He looked around the room, all of them were staring at him. “What?”
He suddenly found himself with an arm full of Bitty. A very sniffly Bitty sobbing into his t-shirt. Coach walked over, clapped him on the shoulder without a word, and went into the kitchen to to get a cookie. He disappeared a moment later into the guest bedroom.
Bob looked a little choked. “That’s quite a declaration, son.”
“You proposed to Maman after two months,” Jack said.
“Knew I was going to ask her after two days,” Bob said.
Jack shrugged, and raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t you dare propose to me right now, Jack Zimmermann,” Bitty said into his now-damp shirt.
“Of course not,” Jack said. “You have to graduate first.”
Bitty made a small muffled scream into Jack’s shirt and swatted him feebly with a fist on the chest, laughing and crying at the same time.
Georgia looked extremely amused. “Jack Zimmermann, you may be the most clueless dingbat I’ve ever had the privilege of managing, and you know what I have to work with. Let that boy breathe and stop talking for a little while.”
“Why is my son crying?” Suzanne said sleepily from the hallway.
Alicia came up and said, “Come out onto the balcony and I’ll explain.”
Bitty had almost calmed down when they heard a small, distant squeal and the balcony door flew open, and they found themselves both wrapped in a hug by Suzanne. She didn’t hold on very long, and then immediately went into the kitchen and started rummaging in the cabinets.
“You said you had some video?” Georgia asked. “My staff will be arriving at the office shortly and I’ve already sent over the clips they sent us, but the sooner we can get something from you, the more likely that some of us will actually get some sleep tonight.”
Bitty took a deep breath and pulled out of Jack’s arms, saying, “I can’t even look at you right now if I’m going to get anything done. Go… go over there, sweetheart. No, go where I can’t see you.”
Georgia moved aside so he could sit in front of his laptop, and his fingers flew.
He ended up bringing in outtakes from more than a dozen vlogs, piecing them together carefully with some of Jack’s stills and his own selfies, sending on the longer clips to Georgia’s staff, and then finally, when he was as calm as he was going to get, locking himself in the guest room long enough to record a voiceover.
“Hey y’all! So, format’s a little different this time. Life’s gonna be a little different now, I’m sure, but we decided we wanted to make things as normal as possible and if we’d not been so worried about other people’s poor behavior, you probably would have seen most of these clips during the videos they were shot in. So what you’re seeing here is one of the first pictures my boyfriend ever let me take with him.”
The view slipped from the selfie to a clip of Jack coming up behind Bitty, baking in the Haus, a mischievous look on his face, and sliding his arms around Bitty’s waist from behind to make Bitty jump. In the clip, Bitty said, “Oh, you! I’m going to have to edit that,” and then turned, and kissed Jack.
As it faded out and another selfie faded in, Bitty said, “That was while most of the Haus was out raiding a study break, this past fall. This picture is from last year, on one of our roadies for Samwell Hockey, after I’d figured it out and before Jack had. Yes, this is Jack, Jack Zimmermann, who I talked about endlessly for two years, and will probably talk about for the rest of my existence.”
A longer clip came on, Bitty trying over and over again to start his vlog in the Zimmermanns’ kitchen at Christmas, decorations everywhere, cookies on every surface in the kitchen, dough rolled out in front of him, and Jack playfully chirping him, waiting until he got three sentences out and then hugging him, and continually swiping cookies until Bitty was laughing helplessly on the screen. Then another, similar clip, and Bitty said in voiceover, “He never did let me finish that vlog, but it was totally worth it. We haven’t had that much time together this year, between his NHL schedule and my school and the Samwell team, so Christmas was precious, and it was silly of me to even try to do a vlog with him around and try to keep it a secret.
“We’re apparently not very good at keeping secrets, but thankfully our parents are all amazingly supportive. I know I said I was afraid to come out to my folks for a long time, but y’all, my daddy—my mama—I thought maybe they’d say they love me but… But there was no ‘but’ in it. Mama says Rule Number One is Mama Loves You, and Daddy apparently feels the same way, because he’s been going to the mat to stop bullying in my old high school, and you need, need to click on the link here to his talk to them. Because it is saving lives, and I could not be more proud.”
The clip that is playing has devolved into a full scale flour fight, and cuts off as two dusty boys kiss in a Christmas kitchen. A series of Jack’s photos come up, and Bitty says, “Jack took these pictures of me last year, and if I’d seen all of them then, in sequence, I might have figured out that he wasn’t as straight as I thought he was. Or maybe that’s hindsight, but it doesn’t matter now. I love this boy, and he loves me, and as soon as I calm down enough to film again, I have a recipe for y’all that you’re gonna love, for pinwheel bowtie apple pie cookies. They’re adorable and easy, and use leftover dough, filling or jam, almost any filling, really, but they look real fancy. We made them tonight while we were deciding what to do about the fact that someone in the media apparently thinks that two people falling in love is a newsworthy event. We decided to do what couples do when they want to share with the world that they’ve found someone wonderful.”
Then a series of short, silly outtakes played, including Jack bellowing during first year, with Bitty looking alarmed, then Jack waving into the camera during Bitty’s sophomore year. And then several in a row where Jack would sneak in and kiss Bitty on the cheek. There Bitty said on voiceover, “He does that a lot. I always pretend it annoys me, but I actually love it. And I’m not editing them out from now on. A wise mama once said to me, ‘There is nothing shameful in loving someone, and they can’t shame you if you don’t act like it’s wrong.’ And I never have been ashamed of my relationship with Jack, not once. What I have been, is afraid. Because there are people out there who apparently have nothing better to do than sit in judgment of other people’s lives. And people like us have been hurt, or killed in the past for bein’ too uppity and forward about these things. But our world is changing, and if my church-going, football-playing, truck-driving Daddy can embrace having a gay son, then maybe there’s hope for the rest of the world. I understand if this isn’t your thing. I’m not trying to make anyone gay here, that’s not how it works. You don’t like that, well, bless your heart, you just feel free to unsubscribe and go watch Martha. I’ve always been gay, that hasn’t changed, never will change. Just, now, I get to be happy, too. Thank y’all for watching.”
The fadeout was a picture Bob had taken at Christmas, them sitting cozy together in front of the tree, looking at each other, smiling.
He finalized the video and then took the laptop back out to the dining room, where Georgia and Bob were both typing. It was 3 am and Jack was sitting next to his father, watching words flow onto the screen. Suzanne and Coach were leaning on each other with their eyes closed on one couch, and Alicia was curled up on the other couch.
Bitty set the laptop down next to Georgia and hit play. Everyone woke up then.
They all gathered round, and when it finished, Georgia asked, “Are you happy with it?”
He said, “If I had all the time in the world I’d do something new from scratch, but I think this says what needs to be said.”
“I love it,” Jack said.
“I do too,” Georgia said. “If I could get that guy in front of the cameras every game, I could probably land four new sponsors this year alone.” She shot Jack a look. He looked terrified. “Oh, relax. Short of getting Bitty here for every press section to keep you smiling, I can’t expect you to respond to our cameras the way you respond to his. Or how he responds to yours, for that matter.”
Bob said, “I think I have all I’m going to get written tonight, and I think the Bittles are shot. Do we have our plan in place?”
Georgia nodded. “I’ve got your number, I’ll text you as soon as I know the details about where you need to be, and when. You should get some sleep…”
“I think I’ll drive us all back,” Bob said. “We all need it. I’m way too old for this shit.”
“Papa, I think you have more energy than the rest of us put together,” Jack said.
“I’m going to schedule this to post,” Bitty said. “What time?”
“Noon,” Georgia said. “We’ll post ours at the exact same time. Then I think if we all tweet the video links at once, we’ll have our Dumbledore.”
“By all you mean me and the Falcs’ official Twitter, and…” Bitty asked.
“And You Can Play, and the Safe Zone project, and Jack’s official twitter, which he never uses but which we run,” Georgia filled in.
“And mine, and Alicia’s,” Bob said. "She can put it on Facebook."
“I’m putting it on my Pinterest,” Suzanne said. “Gonna link to a lot of your vlog posts from now on, so you just keep it clean, will you?”
“It is what it is, Mama,” Bitty said, grinning.
“I am still going to pin it.”
The next day, they all met for brunch, with Suzanne and Bitty being immediately overruled on their offer to cook.
“Calm before the storm, boys,” Alicia said, as they tucked into a very high quality buffet.
“George wants y’all in Boston at 12:30,” Jack said.
Bob and Alicia looked at each other and then at Jack.
“What?” Jack said.
“It’s probably better that you’re coming out now, Jack, before you pick up too much more of Bitty’s slang,” Bob said.
“It’s a sensible word,” Jack said. “Bits is taking French, you know. It’s a linguistic exchange.”
“I’m not so much taking it as murdering it. Even I know it sounds ridiculous with a Southern accent,” Bitty said.
“Are you coming with us?” Coach asked.
“No,” Jack said. “We’re holing up for the duration. I’m renting a car and getting a hotel near Samwell after we leave here, so I can drop Bits off in the morning for practice, and hopefully we’ll avoid the media until tomorrow.”
“We should call the Haus at noon,” Bitty said.
“You still haven’t—” Alicia said.
“We’re pretty sure Lardo knows,” Bitty said. “Which might mean Shitty knows but I don’t think he’d have kept it quiet. The rest of the guys are pretty oblivious.”
At quarter to eleven, Bitty and Jack said goodbye to their parents, and drove back to Jack’s apartment, where they were met by the pick up service for the rental company.
In the car half an hour later, driving towards Samwell, they called Shitty, who just laughed at them for five minutes straight and then got really serious when they told him what was about to happen. “Where are you?” he said. “Where are you going to be? I mean, brah, Jack, this is SERIOUS shit going down, and you should have your family with you.”
“I just spent a couple days with my family, Shitty,” Jack said.
They could almost hear his eyes rolling on the other end of the line. “Bro, not that family, your FAMILY. You need your bros. Tell me where you’re gonna be. I want to come.”
“Take a rental, Shits,” Jack said. “I’m serious. I don’t want to deal with the media today, they’re going to be like sharks.”
“Hey Bits,” Shitty said. “How’s dat ass?”
“SHITTY!” Bitty said. “I’m going to hang up now. I’ll text you the address. And I am not discussing my sex life.”
“Oh, come on, we figured this out forever ago, and I didn’t say anything. I need DEETS—” Bitty thumbed the call off, and texted the hotel information over.
“Are they all going to be like that?” Bitty asked Jack.
“Probably,” Jack said.
“Should we just invite the boys to meet us at the hotel and tell them all in person?” Bitty asked.
Jack shrugged, and then nodded. “Tell Lardo, she’ll wrangle them all there.”
Lardo just said, “Yep. And?” and then was all business, getting the information down.
“Not even a chirp?” Bitty finally asked her.
“Bro, with the media shitstorm headed your way, last thing you need is chirping. And it’s not like I didn’t figure it out two years ago.”
“Lardo, we weren’t dating two years ago.”
“Dating, schmating,” she said. “I figured Jack was gonna marry you someday, oh, spring of my sophomore year.”
“I haven’t asked him yet,” Jack said.
“I didn’t even know for sure he didn’t hate me then!” Bitty said.
They could practically hear her shrugging. “Whatever, dudes. It was obvious. Just glad you finally got it figured out. ‘Ts’hopeful.”
Jack had Bitty call the hotel and bump them up to the full presidential suite, thankful that most of the spring break travelers would already be checking out. When the hotel said the room wouldn’t be ready until three, Jack asked how much they would have to pay in order to get it sooner, and the hotel offered to comp them a private lounge near the bar if they would be ordering food.
When they arrived, they made their way through the restaurant and into the private lounge. The carpet was hotel chic and hideously ugly, with swirls of red and gold and a discordant shade of herbal green, with blue spots. The lighting was all gold-tone cylinders hung sparkling from the ceiling, casting pools of light on the two billiard tables and the large low table in the corner room, and each of the smaller tables along the dark paneled walls. A giant TV screen sat over the small bar opposite the large horseshoe-shaped lounge seating in the corner, and Bitty and Jack were handed the remote by a waiter before they sat down to await the arrival of their friends.
Bitty put his laptop out on the low table and sat down on the plush curved bench. He sighed, frowned, and logged in. It was 11:50, and Jack was sitting beside him, arm around his shoulder, when half the hockey team descended on them en masse.
Ransom and Holster were the first through the door, and they stopped cold the moment they saw Bitty and Jack, looked at each other, and said, in unison, “Fucking finally. ”
“Does this mean we get to chirp them now?” Holster asked.
“No!” Bitty and Jack said, also in unison.
The rest came in, and Chowder said, “Jack!” with obvious delight, and then, “Bitty!” and then, “So why are we here?”
Bitty looked at Jack, who smiled and shrugged, and then said, “In about… five minutes, two videos are going live. One on Bitty’s vlog, and one on the Falc’s website. They’re basically a… statement, that we’re together. Hopefully not quite that boring. Hopefully not interesting enough to create too much of a media buzz.”
“Wait, together?” Chowder said.
“Dating. In love.” Bitty said.
Chowder clapped his hands to his mouth and squeaked.
“None of the rest of you look surprised,” Jack said, looking at each of them.
“None of my business,” Whiskey said. “I figured it out last fall and—” He shrugged. “No one was talking about it, so what would I say?”
“I—Holster said it was silly, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t,” Tango said. “Is it going to be scary once people know?”
“Maybe, sugar,” Bitty said. “That’s why we’re here, and not at the Haus. There’s going to be media, and we just don’t—Our parents are talking to a show today, and we’re just going to try to lay low until they decide we’re boring.”
Dex said, “It’s brave.”
“We didn’t have a lot of choice,” Bitty said. “Not if we wanted to have the story break mostly on our own terms.”
“Is it weird to have your life be a news story?” Tango asked.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever known what it was like for my life not to be a news story,” Jack said.
“So Jack’s going to be the first out gay player in the NHL?” Nursey asked.
Bitty looked at Jack, and he sighed. “Close enough.”
“Oh, are you bi?” Nursey asked.
“More… demi? Ish?” Jack said. “We’re not going to fight the word ‘gay’ because it’s going to be enough of a battle to get people to wrap their minds around that. Explaining the nuances of my sexuality is just not going to happen with anyone who isn’t actually sleeping with me. Gay is close enough for now, and I don’t want to act like I’m remotely ashamed to be in love with a man. Because I’m not. I’ll take a little inaccuracy at the moment and wait for a more nuanced discussion when things have calmed down. I’m definitely not straight, but getting into the full granularity of my sexual identity just doesn’t feel like anyone’s business but my own.”
“You have learned well, padawan,” Shitty said at the door.
“And Bitty’s business?” Chowder asked, and then shuddered. “No, don’t answer that.”
Ransom leaned over and said, “He just came to the realization that Mom and Dad are actually having sex.”
“Not here we’re not,” Bitty said. “Not right now. ”
“It’s time,” Jack said, looking at his watch.
Bitty handed the remote to Lardo, and pulled up Youtube, copied the link over, and tweeted it with the hashtags #jackzimmermann and #youcanplay.
It was immediately retweeted by Bob and the Falcs’ official account.
“Mute your phones,” Jack said. “Everyone. And don’t answer.”
Three of them were ringing before they could get the volume turned off. Jack turned his off completely when it kept vibrating.
Shitty climbed over Holster and Ransom to drape himself across Jack’s other side. “We got you, bro.”
“I’m okay,” Jack said.
“I need a drink,” Bitty said. “Or a rubber mallet to the head. I don’t think I can feel my feet right now.”
“Don’t drink until we’re upstairs,” Jack said. “Lardo, you can order whatever for the group, it’s on my tab. And no, I’m not buying any booze for you young’uns, not today, not in a hotel. Get food.”
“100,” Bitty said.
“Views?” Holster asked.
“Retweets. It’s going to be a little while before YouTube metrics catch up.”
“Want me to put it on Tumblr?” Holster asked. “I’ve got a hockey fandom sideblog.”
“Oh god,” Bitty said. “There’s going to be—”
“FANFIC,” Ransom and Holster said together with an unholy amount of glee which suddenly diminished when they saw the look Bitty was shooting at them.
Bitty put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “Jack, what have we done.”
“Old news,” Jack said.
“Too late, it’s already on Tumblr,” Holster said. “Someone beat me to it. How is that possible? Hey, you guys are fucking adorable together. Tumblr agrees.”
“Tumblr is a strange and frightening place,” Shitty said. “Like, really enlightened most of the time? And then wildly inappropriate?”
“Sounds like your natural habitat,” Jack chirped.
“I don’t understand Tumblr,” Nursey said. “I try to, because it seems like there’s a lot of good new poetry there, but…”
“No one understands Tumblr,” Ransom said.
Holster added, “It’s literally true. Not even the people who run it understand it. It just is. Ever changing and never changing and really, really poorly designed. But my god is it good at getting information out. Tumblr’s up to 5k reblogs, and has it even been out long enough for anyone to watch it front to back?”
“Just,” Bitty said, and clicked over to the Providence website, pulled up their vid, and tweeted it.
“I haven’t watched this one through,” Jack said.
“You let them put it up without your final say-so?” Lardo sounded shocked.
“Bits watched. Hell, he gave them half the clips.”
“Hush, I want to see this.” Bitty maximized the video and boosted the resolution to max, and clicked play.
The lead in logo faded to a graphic that said, “The Providence Falconers would like to welcome Eric Bittle to the Falcs family,” and then one of Jack’s pictures of Bitty. This moved into game footage of Bitty and Jack playing in Samwell colors, with the voiceover, “This Falcs’ Family video is a little different, in part because we didn’t film it, and in part because our newest family member is the first boyfriend we’re welcoming to the club. Eric met Jack Zimmermann, our top rookie this year, when they played NCAA hockey together for two memorable seasons with the Samwell Wellies. We noticed way back then that Jack and Bitty, as his teammates call him, scored a whole lot of points together, but we didn’t realize quite how good Bitty was for Jack’s game until we did some math, comparing games where Bitty was present to the games where he wasn’t.” The footage shifts to a series of assists and goals, including a celly or two where Jack wrapped entirely around Bitty. “And that only got more obvious to us after they started dating. You may have noticed Jack scoring a lot of hat tricks this year, but what you probably didn’t realize was that every game where that happened was also a game where Eric Bittle was in the stands.”
Playing under this was a series of goals, and audience reaction shots.
“We weren’t the only ones who noticed. Clearly Jack’s dad, the legendary Bad Bob Zimmermann, is also pleased with how much Eric improves Jack's stats.” A clip played of their parents with Bitty at Jack’s game.
“Eric’s parents are pretty happy with Jack, too,” the voiceover continued, as a clip played of Jack being clapped on the back by Coach at the Friday game.
“So who is Eric ‘Bitty’ Bittle? He’s a former junior champion figure skater. He was captain of his high school hockey team and has gone to college playoffs twice and the NCAA final once. And he’s got a good following for his baking vlog, which we can tell you from personal experience is because, as good as this kid is on the ice and in the stands, he’s phenomenal in the kitchen. When Jack isn’t running interference.”
A series of clips ran of Jack and Bitty in the kitchen, and the team chirped mercilessly as they played.
“So from the top of our scoreboard to the bottom of our bellies, we are thrilled to welcome Jack’s sweetheart to our family.” And it closed with a picture neither Jack nor Bitty had seen before.
“Is that this morning?” Bitty asked.
“It must be,” Jack said. “I had no idea she was taking it.”
“I want it framed,” Bitty said.
In the picture, they were standing in Jack’s kitchen, in front of the oven, with Bitty wrapped in Jack’s arms. Both of them had their eyes closed, with Jack’s head bent over Bitty’s, and Bitty’s hands up flat on Jack’s back.
Bitty looked around. “Chowder, are you crying?”
“Don’t chirp me, Bitty,” Chowder said. “I can’t take it right now.”
“That was a thing of beauty, man.” Shitty said.
“I hope the team takes it that well.” Jack said. “And I hope that Tater isn’t mad. Oh god, I should call him.“
“Text him,” Bitty said. “You can tell him where we are if you want. He’ll shout your ear off even if you can get through.”
Jack turned his phone back on and and it immediately started vibrating. He dismissed the call and unlocked it, and it was already vibrating again. It took several more dismissed calls from unknown numbers before Bitty pulled the phone out of his hands, blocked all unknown numbers, and then handed it back.
“I’m not telling him where we are,” Jack said, and then he said, “Oh. I already have a message…”
Tater: Not to worry, Is okay, I get it. George explain this morning to whole team. We got your back. Turn phone off, media is stupid. We talk at practice, yes?
Tater: Oh, and tell your Bitty baker boy that I want to come to dinner with you both.
Jack sent a quick, Thank you , and thumbed his phone back off.
“Both #youcanplay and #jackzimmermann are trending on Twitter, as well as #NHL, #hockey and #jackzimmerman with one ‘n’,” Bitty said.
“Those monsters,” Shitty said. “How dare. One ‘n’.”
“Tumblr, too, plus #hockeygays and #zimbits.” Holster filled in.
“We couldn’t have gotten Bittlemann?” Jack said.
“Or Jitty?” Chowder said.
“No,” four people said at once.
“Back?” Shitty asked.
“If you break up it would be ‘Bittermann,’” Lardo said. “Or maybe ‘Bittermen,’ if you were both mad.”
“Let’s not and then that never has to happen,” Bitty said, frowning at her.
“How many things are under the #hockeygays tag?” Bitty asked.
“It’s mostly fanfic. A good chunk of it is Jack and—” Holster fell silent.
“No,” Jack said. “You don’t get to ask.”
“Jack…” Bitty said, tugging at his arm and then pointing at the screen. “Jack—the retweets…”
There were hundreds of retweets of both vidoes. One person had retweeted the Falcs’ video with the addition of “JackZ comes out. #metoo” Four other people had retweeted with similar additions, but not identical.
@KentParsonOfficial posted “H/T to the better man. Congrats. #metoo”
“Jesus,” Ransom said, half-lying on both Shitty and Holster to see the screen. “Did he just—”
“Whelp, guess you don’t get to be the only out player in the NHL for long,” Lardo said, and pointed at the muted big screen television as ESPN ran a scroll along the bottom saying, “NHL Falconers Jack Zimmermann comes out, five other players follow, more at the hour.”
“Thank god,” Jack said, and wrapped his arms around Bitty, burying his face in Bitty’s hair and just breathing.
At the studio, in the green room, Ron Gale and Georgia Martin were having a shouting match.
“We wanted an exclusive interview,” he said. “You said we would have an exclusive—”
“You have an interview, and no one else does,” Georgia said. “Which is more than I’d personally have chosen to give you, going behind my back and directly to the kid. But you guys got that as a courtesy in exchange for permission to use your clips and graphics.”
“This story—” Ron started, and she cut him off again.
“It is not your story. You have the privilege of getting to talk to Bob and Alicia Zimmermann on the day their son came out. You have the opportunity to talk to Coach Bittle and Suzanne, who are very quiet, private people who happened to take a necessary and risky stand on a difficult subject in a terrifyingly conservative part of the country. You have one chance here to actually create some good in this world by asking the right questions and not airing your asshole on national television. But this is the Zimmermanns’ story, and the Bittles’ story, and we will respect that or you will never speak to another of my players or their families ever again. Now, will you quit whining about these kids deciding they wanted to be in charge of their lives and pull up your big boy pants and go act like a human being and ask those people some polite questions, or should I take this up to the Today show? Because they called about three minutes after the video dropped.”
He stared at her for a long moment, and then said, “This list of acceptable topics—”
“If you go off topic, you’re going to have four angry parents sitting there on set and a whole lot of nothing being answered.”
“He’s going to get those questions, you know he will.”
“And we will deal with those reporters in a way I’m fairly certain you do not want me to deal with you.”
“Their son just came out as the first gay hockey player in the NHL, and I’m not supposed to ask them how they feel about that?”
“They’ll tell you how they feel about their kids. You just have to give them room to do it. Pretend you’re Barbara Walters for ten minutes, and not a snake.”
“Hey, I could have broken this last night,” he said.
“And you would have lost your job,” she shot back. “And set back the progress we’ve made in pulling hockey out of the Neolithic by another three years. Your instincts said wait, and you were right. Jack decided to come out. He didn’t have to do that. He did it in the most low-key, non-dramatic way we could think of, because he desperately wants this to not be a big deal. The story here is how this culture is changing. How people like them are changing it, and why. Why don’t you ask Coach about why he chose to take the stand he took when he took it? Why don’t you ask Bob Zimmermann about how long he’s been working on making the NHL a more welcoming place, and why he’s been working so hard? Open the door. They’ll talk your ear off and give you a goddamn Pulitzer if you don’t piss them off.”
He threw up his hands. “Fine. They give me what I need, I won’t ask how they feel about having gay sons, about being the first. Their story. Check. But if they clam up…”
“Trust me, you’re going to have a hard time shutting them up,” Georgia said.
She turned and walked out, and found the Zimmermanns and Bittles in the hallway. “He agreed,” she said.
“It’s gone big on Twitter,” Bob said. “Huge.”
“I’ve been deleting the negative comments on Youtube as fast as they come in,” Suzanne said with a frown. “But the positives outnumber the negatives five to one.”
Georgia’s assistant put a tablet in her hands. She looked down, and smiled, and then said to Bob, “You were right. We’re up to seven players… including Parson.”
“Already retweeted it,” Bob said.
“I should call him,” Alicia said.
“He’ll have his phone off,” Georgia said.
“How were they all watching when it dropped that they’re responding so quickly?” Coach asked.
“This morning my staff was on the phone to every GM in the NHL,” Georgia said. “I basically told them, ‘If your players want to keep this news cycle as short and sweet as possible, they should consider this a narrow window of opportunity to swamp the media with potential targets.’”
“There are about 700 players in the NHL right now,” Bob said. “The lowest plausible estimate is 1%. The more likely is 3-5%. It could be as high as 10% who do not identify as completely straight, easily. If it’s 1%, then they all just came out. If it’s 5%, then 7 out of 35 just came out. It is theoretically possible that up to 70 players in the NHL are gay, bi and/or trans. That means somewhere between a line and three teams worth of players weighing their options right now.”
“Good, use that,” Georgia said.
While they were talking, Tyler Greene came up to Coach, with a worried look on his face. “Mr. Bittle?”
“Call me Coach. Can I help you, son?”
“I’m Tyler… I sent the thing last night, I… I’m so sorry. I tried to keep it from them, but once they were asking— and I have to say—” He stopped, and sighed.
“What is it, son?” Coach asked. “You know this was going to come out whether you said anything or not, and it could have been much, much worse.”
“I know, it’s just—you helped me come out to my dad, and I owe you so much because seeing you, it made it easier for him, and I don’t know if you know, but you’ve helped a lot of us, and I can’t stand the thought that I made it harder on your kid. Or on Jack.”
“Never you mind,” Coach said. “I daresay you were the difference between this being a breaking report on the 11 o’clock news and us having enough time to control the story a bit. And if I helped you and your dad get on the same page, well, that’s what I’m here for.” He reached over and gave Tyler a firm pat on the shoulder.
Next to him, Suzanne said, “Your mama take it all right?”
Tyler nodded. “She just hugged me and laughed at me and said, ‘You think I didn’t already know?’”
“Good,” Suzanne said with a nod. “As it should be.”
Several production assistants came up and started micing all five of them.
“Are you going to be there for the interview?” Suzanne asked Georgia.
“No, I’m giving him a shot at me, after,” Georgia said.
“Damage control if we mess up?” Bob asked dryly.
She laughed. “More like a chance to tidy up loose ends and set the tone for future interviews. Follow that young woman over there, she’s going to set you up for the interview.”
A few minutes later, they were all seated at an oval table normally used for discussion panels. Alicia was seated closest to the interview chair, then Bob, then Coach and Suzanne on the very end. Suzanne put a hand on the arm of the young woman who’d led them there and asked, “Can we raise this seat up? I’m afraid I feel like a three year old next to these giants.”
The young woman laughed, and said, “Sure, just reach down here, and then lift up…”
Suzanne let it bring her up until her toes were just touching the floor, and then smiled. “Thank you, honey, that was so helpful. What’s your name?”
“I’m Emma,” the intern said. “We’re glad to have you here today. I’ll be right back with water.”
Suzanne smiled and the girl hurried off.
Ron sat down closest to Alicia and Jimmy pulled a chair down to the other end.
Jimmy said, “Okay, folks, we’ve got about ten minutes before we start rolling cameras over here. They’re running the videos and some pre-recorded commentary and footage now. Now we’ve gone over George’s list, and before we get started, we thought we’d touch base with you to see if you would like to go over what you’d like to talk about. Mrs. Zimmermann? What’s the most important thing you want to say today?”
“I’d like to address the damage that media pressure can do to young people, and how fear of public and media attention can profoundly affect how willing people are to share their lives.” She said all of this while looking at Ron, her face unsettlingly pleasant.
Ron coughed. “I’ll try not to take that personally.”
“Oh, no, go right ahead,” she said, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
“And you, Bob?” Jimmy asked. “What’s your focus here?”
“I’d like to talk about You Can Play and the importance of creating not just a tolerant atmosphere, but a welcoming culture. Our goal isn’t that people ‘come out’ so that we can know who’s gay, we want people to feel like coming out doesn’t require a press conference and doesn’t mean a lot of discussion about the morality of who they are, that they can choose to share important parts of their life without worrying that it will make them a target on and off the ice.”
“I see you don’t want to talk about how your son’s sexuality affected your choice to become an activist within the NHL,” Ron said. “Is there a reason for that?”
“Seriously, what parent actually wants to spend time thinking about their kid’s sex life?” Bob said, laughing. “I mean, are you kidding me? I wouldn’t want to do that if he was straight. I don’t think my kid wants to think about it, himself, and he certainly doesn’t want me talking about it on national television. He’s a great man and one of the best hockey players I’ve ever seen, and he deserves to be able to play hockey and be happy. He plays better hockey when he’s happy, so for the love of the sport alone I want to see less stress in his life. For the love of him? I want to make a world where people like you don’t even begin to think it’s okay to ask a question like that.”
“How about you, Mr. Bittle?” Jimmy said.
“Call me Coach,” he said, “Everyone does. Even my wife.” Coach cracked a genuine grin at Suzanne, who blushed.
“Okay, Coach. What’s your focus?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, I’ve been working real hard on our high school for most of the past year, to put in a comprehensive approach to bullying prevention. I don’t really want to get into the nitty gritty, I said what I needed to say in that talk I gave and I know that’s up on Youtube. But I’d like to talk about why places that have so deeply entrenched the idea that it is okay for us to judge each other need to wake up and change.”
“You don’t want to talk about your son?” Ron asked.
“I love talking about my boy,” Coach said. “Kid’s amazing. He’s a skating, singing, dancing, baking ray of sunshine and the other light of my life, after Suzie here. And he’s got an awesome boyfriend who makes him real happy, and that makes me happy. You see your kid hurt long enough by people who think they’re doing God’s work, and then you see him go out into the world and light it up like a Christmas tree with joy the minute he gets away from their claws, and you start to wonder what God those people are worshiping. And I’ll talk about those things all day long. But I’m not going to talk about what it’s like to “deal” with having a gay son, because frankly, my only trouble with having a gay son comes from dealing with the assholes who are so obsessed with something they don’t understand that they can’t see anything about him but ‘sinner.’ And they’ve been like that since before the boy had his first kiss. I don’t have to ‘deal’ with having a gay son. I love my son, I love everything about him. Well, I could maybe do with less Beyoncé in the kitchen when he’s baking in the middle of the night, but I’d rather put up with a little pop music at 1 am and have my son in my life than miss out on everything that’s important to him because he’s afraid I might judge him unworthy. As if I could.”
Suzanne leaned in and said, “You go ahead and ask him that question, Mr. Gale. And honey, you answer it just like that, but without the swear.”
Jimmy coughed and pressed his lips together, and then, eyes sparkling, said, “And you, Suzie?”
“Oh, you can call me Mrs. Bittle,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Bless your heart.”
He paled, and said automatically, with a perfect Georgia accent, “Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed. “Better.”
“Mrs. Bittle,” he said, falling back into his TV voice, “What’s your priority here?”
“I have a lot of rules in my house. Wipe your feet. Wash your hands. Use your manners. Show gratitude. Help as much as you know how and make everything you touch better than you found it. But for my child, there is really one rule above all others, and that is, ‘Mama loves you.’ And that is my priority.” She turned and looked down at Ron at the other end. “And I’m not going to talk about anything else, so just don’t you even bother. Sir.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ron echoed. Then he addressed all of them. “We’re going to start with Bob, and then Alicia, and then Coach, and then Mrs. Bittle. I know you can probably all talk for a while about the things that are important to you, but this is live and we’d like to give you each a chance to speak. Try to keep things as… succinct as you can, and we might talk a little more after and throw it up on the website if we don’t get to everything in the segment.”
“Thirty,” the producer said.
Ron said, “Okay, we’re coming up on our mark. I really am on your side, folks, your kids are great, and I’m not gonna torpedo them. You ready?”
The producer counted down the last five seconds, and Ron turned to the camera.
“It’s been an interesting day today, folks, and we’re preempting our usual format to focus on the day’s biggest news. If you’re on social media, you know that a number of players in the NHL came out today, the charge led by the Providence Falconers’ rookie and rising star Jack Zimmermann. Now Zimmermann didn’t call a press conference, and he didn’t really address the public at all, he simply allowed his boyfriend and his team to do what they would normally do for any significant other. His boyfriend, Eric Bittle, Junior, has a baking vlog, which was updated with a frankly adorable video of the two of them, and the Falcs added an edited version to their website alongside many similar videos of wives and girlfriends of other players. We just showed you those videos. We’ve seen athletes from other sports come out or be outed in a variety of ways, ranging from dramatic press conferences to spontaneous comments in airports or outings on social media. This was exceptional only in that it was so ordinary as to make me feel frankly foolish for calling it news.
“Don’t get me wrong. This is an extraordinary day, for an extraordinary player. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing more in the days to come from other players and their families. And you might think I would want to chase Jack Zimmermann down and ask him questions, but honestly? I think we’re going to have a better conversation right now, given how little that man likes cameras—” At that, Bob pressed his lips together and gave an amused little snort. “—with some people here who have a lot to say about how we talk about this subject. Sitting next to me we have Alicia and Bob Zimmermann, and next to Jimmy we have Coach Eric Bittle, Senior, and his wife, Suzanne.”
He turned to Bob, and said, “Now Bob, I know you were pretty vocal behind the scenes starting in 2007 about changing the culture of the NHL to be less homophobic. In 2009, a referee came out as gay, and you were one of his key supporters, then. In 2012 he died, and his brother started You Can Play, and we’ve seen you and your old teammates all throwing your weight behind that organization. Tell us about that.”
Bob gave a friendly-looking nod and looked at the camera. “I was doing a lot of coaching and outreach to young people in those days, and I was seeing a sea-change in how the kids were interacting with each other and with their world. On the one hand, they had an inherited culture my boy’s friends would call “bro” and “no homo” and on the other hand, their easy access to social media was changing, and changing rapidly, the attitudes in the world around them. In my day we went from the sexual revolution to the AIDS crisis, and it really twisted the dialogue around issues of sexual orientation and gender. And the upshot was that hockey has been a fundamental bonding point for my entire country, in a very homosocial way, while simultaneously shutting down any possibility of homosexual relationships being tolerated, let alone accepted. No one wanted to come out, because coming out might get you killed on the ice. This sport is dangerous. We strap knives to our feet and go out and fight, and we’re paid enormous amounts of money to get out there and put on an amazing show. But the last thing you want is to be a target, and I know that I speak for a lot of parents when I say that the idea of my kid being a target out there for something so completely unrelated to the game is, frankly, terrifying.”
“You’re scared for your son?” Ron asked, getting a slight warning look from Alicia.
But Bob continued, “Less now than I ever have been. We’ve been working for eight years to educate teams and bring this sport into the 21st century. During that time, gay marriage became legal in every state, and it was already legal in Canada. We’ve had top Olympic athletes come out as trans and LGBT athletes in almost every sport at almost every level. Hockey is where You Can Play started and it’s been almost embarrassing that we didn’t have anyone out these past few years, but absolutely no one wanted to be first. We know there could theoretically be as many as 70 players in the league who are not “totally” straight, and likely at least a dozen who currently identify as gay or bi. We want all our players to be able to play without fear.”
“Let’s talk about that,” Ron said. “Alicia? Would you like to address that?”
She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’d love to. First, jumping into the media circus as the partner of a top athlete is never easy.” Bob wrapped his arm around the back of her chair, and she gave him a fond smile and rolled her eyes.
“This lump next to me is a fantastic husband and a great dad, but we’ve always had this third wheel in our relationship, and that’s the media. But it’s one thing to have the media following you around taking pictures, and it’s another thing to have people who believe fervently in their right to bear arms holding picket signs outside your house telling you you’re going to hell simply because you fell in love with a person they think is ‘wrong’.
“I never understood why people cared so much about me as his wife, rather than for my own career, or him as my husband, rather than for his career. I’ve seen that pressure grind people into the ground. I’ve seen it knock talented players into a tailspin. People need to stop, and think, and take a step back. Enjoy the game. Accept what we share willingly. Stop sucking us dry to the point where we feel hunted. Stop making the ‘game’ of tracking our lives so lucrative and socially acceptable. If a hockey player puts up a video of him and his boyfriend? Watch the video. He doesn’t owe you more. These boys pour their lives into making great hockey. They dedicate many hours off the ice to making it fun for the fans. But they’re people, too, and they’re going to do a better job at hockey, and be more giving with their fans, if they’re allowed to have some time when they are not on camera, and not on demand. And they especially don’t need anyone getting in their faces and telling them they’re somehow wrong in this world. They’re not.”
“Strong words,” Ron said. “Coach Bittle, you’ve been fighting that battle in Georgia. For our viewers, he coaches Division I high school football in a rural county in Georgia. Last summer Coach Bittle made the news when one of his players came out as transgender, and he helped spearhead a complete overhaul of school policy, sports policy and school culture to help his star quarterback be safe at school and on the football field. He gave a moving speech to his entire school at an assembly late last August, and we’ll have a link on our website to that talk. It’s worth seeing in its entirely, partly because of his moving words, but also from the show of support coming from the varsity athletes who formed the pilot group for the new program. Coach, you want to tell us a bit about what’s been changing in your little corner of Georgia?”
Coach pulled himself up and took a breath. “Well, I’m usually a pretty quiet guy, off the field. But I’ve been seeing things my whole life that just didn’t make sense to me. Spent every Sunday going to Sunday school and church service, and every Wednesday night in Bible study, and I read the good book front to back a couple times, and listened to the sermons, and then I’d go out into the world and people would talk about it and what they were saying just wasn’t what I was reading.
"I read about our Lord taking care of the poor and the infirm. Sitting down with people others thought were sinful or wrong or just unpleasant. Reaching out to help anyone who needed it. He wasn’t just helping the big guys, and He had no use for the comfortable and the rich. He loved, and loved with all his heart, the people who everyone else said were flawed, and he didn’t seem to ask much of them other than that they have faith and love him and do their best in the world. He might heal the sick but he didn’t tell them they were wrong for being sick, you know? And even when someone went against God’s law, he stopped people from judging, from killing. He threw out most of the old rules, and told us to love each other and be kind to one another. So I don’t understand how people can run around with so much hate in their hearts and say that it is for Jesus, because that’s not what I read, when I read the Bible.
“So when I saw kids dying—young kids, who should have had their whole lives to figure out who they were and how they were going to be in this world, and dying because they lost hope or someone told them they were sinners for something they couldn’t help or didn’t even know was true— When I saw my own child beaten because he might be gay, locked in closets by people whose only claim to moral superiority lay in that they happened to be born with bigger muscles and less kindness, long before he’d ever kissed a boy, let alone done anything anyone ever could remotely call ‘sin’, well… I started studying ways that we might fight it. And it took me longer than it should have for me to really start doing something about it. My boy helped himself. He got out. He took himself out of the God-fearing South and its 'polite' bigotry, and went up to the heathen Yankees and found himself a home where they actually treat him with more Christian kindness and welcoming than he ever had in eighteen years in Georgia. So when I had a chance to make it better for the next batch of kids coming up? I took it. And it has been getting better. We’re not just telling the kids to be nice, we’re training them to be active allies. It works better to ask people to do the right thing than it does to tell them not to do the wrong thing.”
“What would you say to someone who says they believe that homosexuality is wrong?” Jimmy asked. “I don’t think that, but I’m just curious what you’d say.”
Coach looked at him. “Well, it’s simple. If God is perfect, and God is all powerful, do they somehow think God made a mistake when he made my boy? Because I don’t. I watched that child from the day he was born, and he is just as he was made. He’s full of energy, and life, and love. He’s a gentle, nurturing soul, a great athlete, and he has a talent for bringing good people into his life. Everything he touches, he makes better. That’s a blessing. And I’m not going to look at him, going out and doing what God put him on this earth to do, and say, ‘You’re perfect, and I know you’re madly in love with an amazing person who makes you happier than I’ve ever seen you, but could you please just stop because I think it’s icky for men to have sex.’
"Frankly, I don’t want to think about my kid having sex with anyone. No parent does. That’s really just between him and the person he’s with, and none of my business. But I’m thrilled to see him bring the person he loves home. I’m overjoyed to see them both happy. And it doesn’t bother me a bit that he’s in love with a man. Hell, I’m just impressed that he managed to catch a pro athlete. I’d be jealous if I wasn’t madly in love with my wife, because that boy can talk sports for days.”
Ron coughed and took a drink of water, and Alicia and Bob both chuckled. Suzanne blushed and Jimmy looked completely nonplussed. Ron took a breath and said, “And you, Mrs. Bittle?”
She gathered herself and said, “I love my boys. All of them. I think as parents if we don’t start at rule number one, we can’t get anywhere.”
“And what is rule number one?” Jimmy prompted.
“Mama loves you,” she said. “That’s it. We can’t go out into this world telling people, ‘You’re only worthy of love if you do things my way.’ That’s just not how it works. I know there are some parents who think that they’re ‘honoring God’ when they tell their kids that they can either walk the straight and narrow-minded path or get out, but they’re wrong. If a parent is so taken in by deceivers who tell them that God is hate and that their children were born broken and flawed that they would rather listen to a hate-monger than love their own child, they don’t deserve to have that child. And they won’t, because their child is going to internalize that hate and be someone they weren’t meant to be, or they’re going to go out into the world and leave their parents far behind, because they think their parents don’t want them flawed, or they’re going to die of a broken heart or a broken body because they don’t think they’re worth being alive.
“The biggest gift we can give our children is to let them know that they are loved, no matter what. And the biggest gift we can give the world is children who are know what it is to be loved unconditionally, because then they will have that to give out into the world their own selves.
“Now, I taught my boy manners, and I taught him to bake and cook because he liked it and was good at it, and I taught him to wipe his feet and put the toilet seat down because that’s just common decency, and I taught him to be respectful and kind. I encouraged him to do the things that made him happy, even if they weren’t the things everyone expected him to do. But he also learned to hide, and because I forgot to remind him enough, he forgot that there is nothing in this world that will make me not love him. So we had some rough times for a while where he was pulling away, and I couldn’t find the words to bring him back. But I did find them. Eventually. And it is just that simple. I told him, ‘Mama loves you. No matter what. That’s rule number one. And don’t you ever forget it.’”
The table was silent for a moment, and Ron said, “We’re going to break now, we’ll be back after these messages to talk to a representative of the Providence Falconers. Thank you all.”
Chapter 7: Epilogue
In the hotel near Samwell, in the private lounge, there was dead silence, the commercial muted.
Finally Shitty said, “You bros might just be the luckiest motherfuckers on the planet in the whole parent lottery.”
“Pretty much,” Lardo agreed.
Bitty leaned forward, pulled the laptop up onto his knees, clicked in the browser and tweeted, “We are blessed. #rulenumberone”
He put the laptop down, and then buried his face against Jack’s shoulder until Jack lifted his arm and shifted to let Bitty up onto his lap. Bitty leaned his forehead against Jack’s ear and sighed.
Jack met Shitty’s eyes and then handed him a phone, with the camera app up. Shitty handed the camera to Lardo, who scooted around until she liked the angle, and then snapped a shot of Bitty and Jack together and handed the phone back to Jack.
He brought up the picture and handed the phone to Bitty and said, “Do the thing.”
“Tweet, or Instagram?” Bitty said, straightening enough to thumb his way over to apps that Jack almost never used.
“Rule number two: Live.”