It’s 04:17 a.m. in Moscow and Alexei can’t sleep. It was a hot Friday night outside. Now it’s early Saturday, still hot because, even when the sun is gone, big cities trap heat inside the viscous asphalt melting off the pavements and roads, between tightly packed buildings that hunch over each other. There are probably throngs of people in various stages of drunkenness staggering through the streets, shouting nonsense to try to regain a sense of physicality.
None of this is what’s keeping Alexei awake. The only thing he can hear from inside his modern, expensive penthouse is the murmur of the a/c.
Alexei isn’t a believer. He didn’t even use to be, he doesn’t think. But he has a few beliefs; the triumph of mind over matter is one of them. It might be because all he’s ever heard, from a very impressionable age, is that he could do anything he put his mind to. Regardless of the why, he believes it. So this atypical insomnia is annoying, although he knows it’s pushing it a little, expecting that he could simply will sleep to come.
It’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another night, earlier in the year, and the parallels don’t stop with sleeplessness. Same causes, same effects, and it all comes down to one thing.
Julien — of course. There aren’t many things in Alexei’s life since meeting Julien that don’t trace back to him.
Then, Alexei couldn’t sleep because of the pain, his hand making him pay for ignoring his injuries, for the unwaveringly tight grip he kept on his stick. He lay awake in his house in Vancouver, trying to massage the cramps in his hand away, and listened to Julien dream. His deep and even breaths should have been soothing. It usually gave Alexei a small thrill of joy to have Julien so peaceful in his bed. But that time, Alexei was hurting, exhausted, he felt old and it didn’t help.
Retirement, a grimacing ghost, loomed smugly above his head. Alexei knew what was expected of him when he retired. He wondered about the happiness he had found by Julien’s side, and about how it’d fare, pitted against those expectations. Looking at the deceptively small shape of Julien, still weary of taking up too much space there, he thought helplessly I just want this, more of this. The desperate plea with himself didn’t win in the end. Alexei was who he was. If he’d stayed, it wouldn’t have been more of the same with Julien, it’d have been this but damaged. Tarnished.
Alexei presses the palm of his hands to his eyes, wishing he could fall asleep already instead of revisiting the past. He doesn’t kid himself. He didn’t do the right thing by leaving, it was just the thing to do. And now, alone and restless, while late Canadian sport broadcasts keep dissecting his decision days after it was announced, Alexei gets to doubt the choices he made.
He let his agent do all the work on the statement announcing he was leaving the NHL. Alexei stands by that. His agent insisted, for the statement, he said it was needed, from a PR perspective. But it was his career Alexei put on the line, his own life, and he doesn’t owe an apology, or even an explanation, to anyone. Except Julien, though if Alexei were the kind to write public statements for Julien, there’d have been no need for him to leave.
If he could change one thing, he’d make it so the statement was out earlier. All parties agreed on releasing it shortly after Alexei’s departure from Vancouver. But, at the last minute, someone took issue with a minor detail of the contract termination with the Canucks, and they were back to the bargaining table. For two weeks. Alexei wasn’t supposed to get two weeks worth of Julien leaving him messages.
The first ones were short, and progressively more pissed off, spaced every few hours. What’s going on? Call me back. Julien was angry about Alexei’s radio silence and to anyone other than Alexei, who knew he had bigger sins to answer for, it’d have been understandable. As it was, the anger seemed so disproportionate. Ridiculous, a little. Alexei regretted that delay. He had to leave, and he knew that was cruel enough. But he never set out to make a fool of Julien.
Then there was the explosion, yelling and cursing and all of Julien’s mighty wrath wrapped in one voicemail, cut off before it was over. Alexei wondered how long it had taken Julien to realise he was screaming into the void. Or maybe he'd thought that was what he'd been doing right from the beginning, that Alexei had stopped listening days ago.
Still, something has to be said for catharsis because after that, Julien stopped calling as often. When he left messages, he just sounded tired, worried. It wasn’t a better alternative.
The point is: Alexei wasn’t supposed to get hours worth of Julien’s voice, demanding all the wrong answers.
The day the news broke, Alexei cut his phone line off. Everything was blessedly silent.
A while after all was finally said, done, known, there was just one message. Julien didn’t say anything. It's ten seconds of silence then a sharp inhalation, like someone going underwater. It’s the worst sound Alexei has ever heard. He plays it so much he’s started hearing it in every quiet space.
It's the only thing on his mind at 4 a.m., when he can't sleep.
There’s no new message yet. Alexei’s glad.