Bitty was closing up shop for the evening at Bread and Buttery Bakery when he heard a small tap. Lardo smiled as she looked through the large picture window and saw who was standing on the other side.
“It’s your boy, Bitty,” she said.
He glanced and saw Jack standing outside as he waved shyly.
Chowder unlocked and opened the door. “Welcome! Come on in.”
“Thanks,” Jack said as he came in slowly, looking at Bitty with a soft smile.
Bitty closed the register and smiled in return as he walked from behind the counter toward Jack.
“Hi, Eric. Bitty.”
The two wordlessly stared at one another, smiling. Lardo, taking pity on them, cleared her throat, “Uh, Chowder, can you help me with something in back?”
Chowder frowned apparently disappointed he wasn’t going to be able to watch.
“You came,” Bitty said. “Thanks for that. Thanks for trusting me.”
“My uncle says… well, never mind, but I’m the one that should be saying thanks -- for the shortbread. It was really good.”
“Really good? I was aiming for so amazing it would make you wanna slap your mama but then again, I’m sure you love your mama, so really good will do.”
Jack laughed softly, “I do. So, are you… that is… if you’re still interested…”
“Jack, would you like to go grab something to eat?”
Jack smiled, relieved that Bitty had taken the lead.
“Yes, I’d like that.”
“Why don’t you have a seat, make yourself comfortable, and I’ll finish closing up. Give me about 15 minutes and I’ll be all yours,” Bitty said with a wink.
Jack nodded and sat in his usual armchair as Bitty and his crew made haste, mopping, sweeping, and putting up tables. Bitty finished counting the register and placed the cash in the bank bag then walked to the back office to stow it away.
Once Bitty returned, Lardo said, “Why don’t you and Jack get going, and I’ll lock up.”
“Are you sure?”
Chowder nodded vigorously, “Totes! I can help Lardo.”
“All righty, then. Jack? You all set?”
Jack got up from his chair, “Sure.”
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Lardo called out from behind the counter.
“Lards!” Chowder gasped.
“Or just do anything Chowder would. That should keep you two crazy kids respectable.”
Chowder elbowed Lardo as Bitty waved them off and said, “Okay you two, knock it off.”
He took Jack by the hand and led him to the door. Jack stared at Bitty’s hand nestled gently in his, and felt his ears burn.
The evening was a crisp one, and quite lovely for mid-October. Bitty zipped up his Samwell hoodie and then reached over to take Jack’s hand once again much to Jack’s delight.
“So, where do you want to go?” Bitty asked.
“I don’t care. Wherever you’d like to go is fine.”
“Do you like Annie’s? They have some good soups and sandwiches there. Have you been there?”
“Uh, no. I haven’t been there, but I know people like their coffee.”
Bitty smiled, “Okay, Annie’s it is.”
They walked quietly a few blocks, enjoying the comfortable silence they afforded one another. Jack was keenly aware of how at ease he felt with Bitty. It was quite a new feeling when it came to new people, to be sure.
They arrived at Annie’s and chose a table near the back of the cafe where it was more quiet. Jack smiled at Bitty, and cleared his throat.
“So, I’m afraid I forgot your dish.”
Bitty laughed, “Guess I have to see you again to get it back. Well played, Professor Zimmermann. Well, played.”
“What? No, I -- it wasn’t on purpose. I had it on my kitchen counter and forgot it there.”
“Jack, I was kidding. I know you didn’t do it on purpose.”
Jack blushed, “Ah… haha.”
Bitty took two menus from the side of the table and handed one to Jack.
“So, what are you in the mood for?”
Jack pulled out his glasses from his shirt pocket and looked at the menu.
“I don’t know. What do you recommend?”
“I like their croque monsieurs,” Bitty said as he stroked the corner of the menu.
“That was my favorite when I was kid,” Jack said with a smile. “The dish originated in French cafés, and a croque madame is basically the same thing but with a fried egg on top.”
“Really? And where exactly were you a kid?”
“Montréal. Well, a suburb of Montréal. We moved around a few times when I was a kid, but Montreal’s always been our home base so to speak.”
“How cosmopolitan,” Bitty said smiling, looking up through lowered lashes.
“You’re teasing,” Jack replied.
“No, not at all. So you speak French then?”
“Oui,” Bitty replied. “I like it!”
Jack grinned and said, “Tu faites mon coeur battre vite.”
“Aw, come on,” Bitty said with a laugh as he gently tapped Jack’s forearm. “No fair! What did you say?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Jack said softly looking into Bitty’s eyes, then turning away.
“All right then,” Bitty said just as softly.
“What about you? Where are you from?” Jack asked. “I know from the South somewhere, but I couldn’t say where exactly.”
“Madison, Georgia. It’s right between Atlanta and Augusta, and I could not wait to get out.”
Just then their waiter came with two glasses of water, “Do you need a few minutes, or?”
“Go ahead, Bitty.”
“I’ll have a BLT, a cup of the minestrone, and a glass of iced tea.”
“I’ll have the croque monsieur with fries and just water is fine, please. Thanks.”
Bitty raised an eyebrow, “Good choice.”
“Why couldn’t you wait to get out of Madison?”
“A small, gay figure skater surrounded by football, football, football?” Bitty said waving his arms. “You tell me how great that was.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said with much sincerity.
“It’s all right. I mean, now it is. I can look back at it all and say it was a growth experience but at the time… well, it sucked. You’re not supposed to be into skating and baking and boys, and be the son of Coach Bittle.”
“Coach Bittle? Your dad?”
“Yeah. Local football legend, and I’m his son. Go figure. My parents were supportive, but still.”
Jack frowned, “And people gave you a hard time for being gay?”
“Well, not directly. I wasn’t out to anyone-- my parents kind of sort of knew, but we never really spoke about it. And you know how people are. Especially in a small town. They talk, they whisper, they can be nasty.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said once again.
Bitty gave him a small smile.
“So you were a figure skater?” Jack asked pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Bitty loved that nervous tick of Jack’s. He found it adorable.
“Yep! I started skating when I was nine, and I was pretty good. Damn good, if I do say so myself. My coach Katya talked about going all the way but it was hard with all the travel and the costs. I stopped when I was in high school, and that’s when I took up hockey.”
Jack’s eyes widened, “You play hockey?”
“Yeah, I know. You can’t tell by looking at me but I do. I’m at Samwell on an athletic scholarship, if you can believe that.”
“I believe it. I’m just surprised because--”
“Because I’m so small?” Bitty said with a laugh.
Jack shook his head, “No, because it seems like hockey is just meant to follow me everywhere.”
“Really? How so?”
Jack shook his head, “We’re talking about you first. Go on.”
Bitty smirked. “To be honest, before Samwell I didn’t know much about it. I mean, I was captain of my school’s co-ed hockey team -- non-contact, of course -- and I knew how to play, but other than that, I really didn’t follow any teams or anything. My life before hockey had been consumed by skating.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Sometimes. I miss the feeling of being alone on the ice, just me and the music,” Bitty’s eyes shone and began to look far off, “Knowing that everyone there was watching me. That I could take them -- and myself -- somewhere else for three minutes. For that brief time, we could be happy together.”
Jack took in Bitty’s beaming face, and wanted desperately to just lean over the table and kiss it.
“Hockey’s great though. I love my team. I really love the game, too. It’s something else being part of a team, working together. I love it.”
The waiter came with their food, and Jack smiled as Bitty reached over to take some fries from Jack’s plate.
“Feel free to try any of my food,” Bitty said. “Really, help yourself. I don’t mind.”
“So, Jack. Why history? I can tell you love it,” Bitty said as he took one more fry. “What do you love about it?”
Jack took a fry and stared at it momentarily, then began to speak while still looking at his plate.
“When I was a little boy, about five or six, I was sick with the flu. And I remember sitting on my mother’s lap on the couch, and she let me suck on a popsicle as she put a cold washcloth on my forehead. Anyway, she put on a documentary about World War II. Nothing too violent, mainly facts and dates. And that was it for me.”
Jack pulled off his glasses, and placed them gently on the table. “From the beginning it was fascinating, not just war history but all history. Learning about people whose lives shaped yours somehow, either for better or worse but they did, it seemed almost magical to me. I wanted to read all about it, learn any and everything.”
This was probably the most Bitty had heard Jack speak about himself, and he loved it. He could hear Jack go on all night.
“It didn’t make me the most popular kid -- that’s for certain. Not many kids want to hang out with a nerdy 10-year-old who asks for a copy of The Histories of Herodotus for their birthday,” Jack shrugged.
“I think it’s sweet and lovely to fall in love like that and know what you want to do. I mean, I didn’t even declare a major until my sophomore year. Unfortunately, pastry studies wasn’t a major.”
“But I absolutely get what you mean. Even though I had the skating, and have hockey, baking was always kind of it for me. You know when I knew my love affair was real?”
Jack felt his face burn upon hearing Bitty say the words love affair.
“During my sophomore year, I had to miss the campus-wide bake-off contest because we had a game against Princeton. I was more disappointed about missing that than I was excited about playing against Princeton. That’s when I really knew hockey wasn’t in my future. I love it, and I’m glad I’m doing it-- but it’s not what I want for my life. So my major ended up being American Studies with a concentration in Food Culture.”
“Nice,” Jack said.
“Why’d you pick Samwell for grad school?”
“My maman went to Samwell, and she really loved it. She wanted me to come here for undergrad but I went to Brown instead.”
“Smart and handsome,” Bitty said.
Jack blushed. Bitty excelled at making Jack blush.
“I mean, Samwell isn’t Trump University or anything but Brown is very impressive. Mmm, Brown. How was that?”
“Good. Mostly. Classes were great, but outside of class not so much. Things got better when I moved out of the dorms.” Jack gave a quick shrug, “In the end, I went with the school that had the better program for me. I’m really enjoying my time here -- and my maman is thrilled I’m at her alma mater. Eventually, though, I’d like to go back to Brown to teach.”
“I bet! That’s so great Jack.”
The two settled into a few moments of silence while they enjoyed their food. Bitty smiled as he watched Jack take a hearty bite of his sandwich, pulling long strings of cheese from his mouth.
“Got it?” Bitty teased. “Need help?”
“Maybe!” Jack laughed as he moved the sandwich away from his lips.
Bitty grabbed at the cheese and then plopped it into his mouth, and gave Jack a wink. Jack cleared his throat and grinned.
Bitty finished his BLT and soup, and took another fry from Jack’s plate.
“You could have ordered your own fries, Bitty.”
“But yours will always taste better. It’s a proven scientific fact that other people’s fries taste better.”
“Then next time I’ll be sure to ask for two orders.”
Bitty smiled noting that Jack said next time. They ordered chocolate cake for dessert to split, as Jack was hesitant to order his own.
“I really should cut down on sweets,” he said shyly.
“I’m trying to lose a couple pounds,” he said looking down at the table.
“What? No way! That’s crazy talk. Did someone say that to you?”
“Oh… no. I just… I’ve almost always been overweight, and I’m trying to get into better shape.”
“If you want to get stronger or whatever, for you, then that’s fine. But if you’re doing it because society is telling you to then, no sir! You look great, Jack.”
“You’re just… you’re just being kind.”
“Are you calling me a liar again, Zimmermann?”
“Well? Jack, I think you’re hot. Sorry for being so blunt, but it’s true. You’re gorgeous, just the way you are.”
Jack rapidly blinked, and reached for his glass of water taking a long sip.
“So cake, or not?”
“Sure,” Jack said.
Bitty beamed and waved to get the waiter’s attention and ordered a slice of cake and two coffees.
Once their cake arrived, Bitty gave Jack a fork and the two dug in.
“Why is hockey destined to follow you?”
“Oh boy, well…” he put his fork down, sighed and said, “My father is Bad Bob Zimmermann.”
Bitty looked at Jack with confusion on his face. “Uh… and my father is Silly Coach Bittle?”
Bitty stared with one eyebrow raised.
“Wait, you really don’t know who my dad is?”
Bitty shook his head.
“Or my mom?”
Bitty shook his head again.
Jack threw back his head and laughed, “Wow! You were not kidding when you said you didn’t know a lot about hockey.”
Bitty laughed, “Totally. Wanna let me in on the joke?”
“Go ahead and Google it,” Jack said and watched as he took a sip of his coffee with a grin, waiting to see Bitty’s reaction.
Bitty took out his phone and began to Google Bad Bob Zimmermann. He looked at his phone screen and his eyes grew wide.
“Holy shit,” Bitty said quietly as his fingers furiously worked the screen. Then he laughed, “Holy shit! Is that you… taking a dump in the Stanley Cup?!”
“Haha. Oh, yeah. Of course that photo would come up, damn it.”
“Aw, it’s cute. Look at your little face! Lord! So Jesus, Jack. You’re like hockey royalty. And your mom was a super model. Lord…”
“They’re great. They really are, but for a while there, there was pressure -- so much pressure -- to follow in my dad’s footsteps. From them, from scouts, from my uncles… I began ice skating before my third birthday. One of my first memories is falling down while skating with my dad. And even though I was… I was chubby, up to the age of 12 I was kind of a hockey wunderkind. I was in the minors after that. I got in shape, I was good. Really good, but it really wasn’t for me. It was… tough on me. My well being.”
Bitty listened attentively.
“I guess I was expected to follow in the family business, but early on I decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to follow. I mean, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should be doing it.”
“I agree 100%.”
“So I told my parents I didn’t want hockey to be my life. I stopped working out obsessively, I didn’t have to panic about what I could eat, what I couldn’t. I finished high school and got into Brown. In short, I was happy.”
Bitty smiled, and let Jack continue.
“It was hard on my dad at first. He had plans, he had dreams… but so did I. I told him it was my life, and not a reflection on him at all."
“It takes a lot of courage to be who you want to be, and not who you are expected to be,” Bitty said putting his hand on top of Jack’s.
“Thanks for dinner, Jack. You really didn’t have to pay. Technically, I invited you out to dinner.”
The two walked down River Street, holding hands.
“I don’t mind.”
“Such a gentleman,” Bitty said, swinging his arm, hand in hand with Jack.
“Well, you made me a shortbread. So let’s say we’re even.”
Bitty smiled, amazed at how low key, humble and genuine Jack Zimmermann was, considering he obviously came from money. This simple fact made Bitty fall for Jack even more.
“How long have you lived in the frat house?”
“Since my sophomore year. I love it.”
“And you’re out to your team and everyone at the house?”
“Of course. I vowed I wouldn’t hide who I was.”
Jack glanced quickly at Bitty and couldn’t believe how amazing and confident he was.
“My housemates are total goofballs. You’ve meet some of them already at the bakery. Lardo is our team manager, Chowder is goalie, Ransom and Holster are our faithful D-men.”
“And you all get along?”
“Yeah, for the most part. We’re like a little family,” Bitty said kicking a tiny pebble on the sidewalk.
“I can’t imagine living with that many people,” Jack said.
“So where did you live when you moved out of the dorms?”
“I looked for a roommate on Craigslist of all places and found the funniest ad. I’ll never forget it. I have it memorized. It said, ‘Looking for a most beauteous beaut to share a flat with. Must be okay with a studious sports-minded gentleman who enjoys occasional platonic cuddles, anti-heteronormativity. Must like cats.’ And that’s how I met my best friend, Shitty.”
“Shitty?!” Bitty asked wide eyed.
Bitty laughed, “Let me guess? Hockey player?”
Jack joined Bitty in laughter, “Yes! He was third line winger on Brown’s team. See? Hockey. It follows me everywhere. We lived in a tiny apartment just outside campus. It was great. Some of the best years of my life.”
“Well I hope I get to meet this fabulous Mr. Shitty one day.”
“You will. He’s up at Harvard Law right now, but we see each other quite a bit.”
They walked past the East Quad, turned right on Elm and arrived at Fraternity Row on Jason Street. Bitty’s hand felt as if it had always belonged in Jack’s -- as if it was meant to always be there. They finally made their way to number 151.
“Well, this is where I live,” Bitty said, giving a spokesmodel hand flourish toward the Haus.
“Oh, you’re in the location where the Seymour House once stood. It was one of the older frat houses on campus. Built in 1899, but then a fire broke out in 1972. This current house was built in 1985. Somewhat shoddily, some people say.”
“That sounds on par with how broken down our beloved dump is. It has power problems, leaky pipes and holes in the walls, but it’s home,” Bitty laughed.
Jack stood facing the Haus and Bitty climbed up two steps and stood face to face with him. He looked at Jack with eyes shining.
“I had a really nice time tonight, Jack. And I’m glad you came.”
Bitty bit his lower lip and nodded, “Uh huh.”
Jack looked at Bitty’s lips, then swallowed and gathered courage.
“So, Eric. Bitty. Can I kiss you?”
Jack took a step closer to Bitty, and Bitty watched him approach gingerly. He tilted his head and shut his eyes.
Jack leaned in and pressed his lips to Bitty’s, who in turn took Jack’s hands into his. As Bitty parted his lips slightly, Jack’s lower lip was enveloped by the warmth of it all. Their kiss remained mostly chaste, their lips merely pressing together gently.
Bitty pulled back slowly, and opened his eyes in time to see Jack smiling.
Bitty smiled in return and said, “Thanks again for dinner, Jack.”
“You’re welcome again, Bitty.”
With that, Bitty turned and walked in toward the Haus. He opened the door, smiled and waved, then went inside.
“Tu faites mon coeur battre vite,” Jack whispered to himself as he smiled and turned to make his way back to his place.