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The Other Side of the Wall

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Tatiana catches him out when they’re still dating. He’s kissing her on the little blue love seat in her apartment, wetly and a little sloppy and too eager because that’s what happens to him with Tatiana, and then she pulls back and considers him with a critical eye. Finally she reaches up to oh-so-carefully brush the corner of his right eye, and she says, “You’ve got some eye shadow left on this one.”

“I—um—I—” Zdeno is flushed, sick to his stomach, everything he knew would happen when this moment came. It’s only worse that it’s Tatiana, so much prettier than he could hope to be and so bizarrely interested in him.

“You need a better makeup remover,” she tells him soberly. She quirked a smile. “I can show you mine later?”

“Okay?” he says, bewildered.

“Okay,” she says, and leans up for another kiss.

“But don’t tell anyone,” he pleads with her, although how he can do anything but kiss her back when her lips are already pursed like that is a mystery.

She strokes his arm. “Obviously not. Although—” she says, and his heart stops. “Have you—” she pauses, indecisive, and the sick feeling returns. “Have you thought about going a little brighter with the accent color? It could bring out your eyes more.”

--

So he lucks out with Tatiana, an amazing and remarkable woman with excellent taste in lipstick. (It was the lipstick that gave him away first, she confesses later. She could taste it on him.) If he hadn’t already loved her, he would have then, when she didn’t laugh.

But he knows better than to expect that of anyone else. He knows better than to expect that of hockey players. So on road trips his eyeliner pencil is tucked innocuously with his nail clippers, where no one will recognize it, and he keeps a fuchsia scarf tucked inside a rolled up sock, because at least he’ll know it’s there. He’s long since lost the match to that sock, and Tatiana knows not to wash it when it comes home.

--

Sometimes, though, he… cheats.

“I’m not sure we have anything quite long enough,” the saleswoman says dubiously. She looks him all the way up and back down again, as though he might be in doubt as to the difficulty. As though he had not done long and laborious research to find the best dress shop in LA for the vertically gifted.

“Not for me,” he says, almost smoothly, because he’s had this conversation a lot. He circles his hips with his fingers. “My wife. Her dimensions are very similar. Although her legs are a little shorter.” He adds a winning smile to that last bit, and the saleswoman smiles tentatively back.

It drops from her face a moment later, and she hmms very soberly indeed – the professional at work. “I think we have a few things that can flatter your wife very nicely. And you—you’re sure you want to try them on?”

“It works best that way, we’ve found,” he says, more confident now.

“Of course,” she says. “Of course.”

His eye catches on so many things. Some the saleswoman approves of – the strapless red satin sheath – and some she does not – the black velvet bodice with the white accordion skirt. But it’s a deep blue gown he falls for, with off-shoulder straps and a plunging back and a sprinkle of tiny rhinestones on the bodice, for sparkle.

“It’s quite deep-waisted,” the woman says – her name is Kat, he’s learned, and she knows him as David. “Too much for most women, but it ought to sit almost right on you—or on your wife, of course.”

“Of course,” he agrees. “May I?”

“Please,” she said, gesturing him to the fitting room.

He tries it on, and somehow—it fits. The hem comes far higher than its maker intended, barely even with Zdeno’s knees, but the fullness of the skirt balances out his shoulders, and the blue is… elegant. He looks elegant.

“Well, let’s have a look at you,” Kat calls from outside the door, and he steps out.

“Ahh,” she says, starting to smile. She circles him, humming every so often, and when she’s facing him again she nods and says, “Sharp. Very sharp. We can alter it of course, let the hem out some more—”

“I like it,” he interrupts. He has legs that go on forever, as they say. And this—this will show them off very nicely. Anyway he doesn’t want to leave the store without it. He can get the hem let out later, if he wants.

--

The problem is that a new dress always makes him a little giddy, secretly, in the bottom of his stomach. A new dress he loves this much overwhelms all his better judgment. He has two hours still until he’s meeting Krech and Kells for dinner; he spends it testing foundation and looking at eyeshadow, and he splurges.

He gets back to the hotel and packs all his purchases away in his suitcase, except for the dress, which he hangs in the closet. If anyone sees it and asks – well, it’s very fortunate Tatiana doesn’t mind being his excuse.

He fidgets through an excellent dinner – teriyaki, with as many kinds of meat as a man could want – and he excuses himself from drinks at a place Thorty knows nearby. “Tired,” Zdeno says. “And I want to talk to my girls before they go to bed.”

“Oh yeah, it’s the little one’s birthday tomorrow, isn’t it?” Krech asks.

“Yes,” Zdeno says warmly, momentarily distracted by the thought of his little girl. “She’ll be three. So.” He nods to them both, rises, and goes to pay his check.

She’ll be three tomorrow, yes, but the rest of it, the Facetime call – that’s a lie. A girlhood friend of Tatiana’s is in Boston on business, and they’re out enjoying cocktails. The babysitter has probably already put his daughter to sleep.

He closes the door behind him, he takes a deep breath, and he goes to the closet. The dress is still there, hanging in its plastic wrap. The wrap crinkles as he runs his fingers over it, and he can’t—he can’t not try it on one more time, just to see. He checks the time; Kells won’t be back for hours yet.

Except once the dress is on him and he’s done a turn in the full-length mirror, it’s not enough. He strips it back off temporarily, and he takes out the day’s makeup purchases – enough to do his whole face, in a pinch. He’s gotten better at this, over the years, with tips from Tatiana he’d never have dared to ask anyone about, that his mother certainly never taught him the way she taught his sisters.

He shaves his five o’clock shadow, first of all. Foundation, then blush. A base eyeshadow, something lighter to highlight, then eyeliner. It’s soothing, like his pregame routines – one thing, then another, then another. Linear. He gives himself a last look, purses his lips, and then he goes and finds the gown again. He slips it on. Gives his legs a rueful look – he’d never get away with shaving during the season. Then he returns to the mirror.

He’s… stunning. He turns a full three-sixty, craning his neck to admire the plunge in the back, nearly to his waist. And his shoulders – they’re broader than is fashionable on a woman, but they’re one of his favorite features, and the off-shoulder straps do them wonders.

The room door beeps. Zdeno just manages to spin, barefooted, to face the door, when Kells pushes it open.

“…oh,” Kells says. Another face appears in the doorway. Then another. Bergy and Thorty and Marchy and Krech, all blinking at him, each trying to pause but getting crowded from behind, until half Zdeno’s hockey team has spilled into his hotel room, staring at him, while the other half is out in the hall, asking what the holdup is.

Zdeno’s breath is caught in his throat. He tries to speak, but it comes out in a tiny, choked gasp.

“So that’s where you disappeared today,” Kells says finally. “I should have known.”

“You should?” Zdeno says hoarsely.

“Hey, it sparkles!” Marchy says, peering closely. “A-plus, dude.”

“Thank you?”

A dozen hockey players standing there, and none them look disgusted or disapproving. Or surprised, even. “You didn’t think it was a secret, did you?” Kells asks, eyeing Zdeno carefully. “You keep eyeliner in your toiletry bag, man.”

“I’ve never seen Tatiana wear any of those scarfs you buy,” Bergy adds.

“You played dress up with Addie when you babysat that time, and her makeup actually looked good when you were finished,” Thorty says.

“Oh,” Zdeno says, blankly. There’s nothing in his head but white noise and the distant knowledge that a hair low on his back is caught in the zipper.

Kells slaps his arm kindly. “We actually all came to sing happy birthday to the little one.” He looks around, but Zdeno’s phone is nowhere in sight. Obviously. “Already in bed?”

“Yes,” Zdeno says. If they’re willing to still buy that part of the lie, then he’ll play along. “Yes.”

“Tomorrow, eh? Or have Tatiana bring her after we get back, and we’ll all sing.”

“That sounds nice,” Zdeno says, because it did.

“All right, boys” Thorty calls. “Singalong postponed.” He herds, and Kells helps him, and soon enough only Zdeno and Bergy are left.

Zdeno doesn’t know how to read that look in Bergy’s eye. “The blue’s a good color for you, I think,” Bergy says finally. He reaches out and gives Zdeno’s arm a squeeze. “You know you’re always our captain, right?”

Zdeno swallows around an unexpected lump. “Thank you,” he says, as sincerely as he knows how.

--

In the locker room, the first home practice after the roadie, Thorty whistles. “Damn, Z.”

Zdeno runs his hand over his leg, baby-smooth. It’d taken him forty minutes and two razor blades to get that way. As Kat the saleswoman said, he has a lot of leg. “I hate when my socks pull on the little hairs.”

“I fucking hate that, too,” Marchy says, two stalls down.

Zdeno shrugs. “There is a fix for that.”

“Mm,” Marchy says thoughtfully. “Might be worth a try.”

[end]