On Jack Zimmermann’s 16th birthday, his parents have The Talk with him over cake and coffee.
He’s known it’s coming, of course. Everyone knows that 16 is the magic year, the year you’re finally able to watch your soulmate video. Jack is ambivalent about the milestone. He has classmates and teammates who found out right away, which just seems silly. He doesn’t know why he needs to do this now. It’s not like he’s going to marry his soulmate tomorrow. He tells his parents how he feels.
Most people don’t find out right away, they reassure him. Alicia was 22 before she watched the video that showed her scenes from the life she’d eventually have with Bob. Bob had been even older — twenty-five. “Before that, I spent most of my time thinking about hockey,” he explains with a wry smile. That makes sense to Jack. He’s never kissed anybody, never even been on a date. When he thinks about his future, the only thing he can really see — the only thing he really wants — is hockey.
Still, his parents explain what he’ll need to do when he decides he’s ready. Alicia hands him a small card with the information he’ll need when he logs onto the soulmate website — his full name, the date and time of his birth, of course, plus other identifying information. Mistakes are rare, but the site requires the name of the hospital he was born in and its geographical coordinates just in case there’s some other Jack Laurent Zimmermann out there with his exact birth date.
“You’re lucky,” she says. “When we were kids, we had to go make an appointment at a Soulmate Cinema to see our videos. And if you lived in a small town without one, you had to travel to the nearest big city. Now that everything's online, it’s so much easier.”
“It was worse than the DMV,” Bob mutters under his breath.
“It’s really so easy, honey. You don’t even have to tell us. When you’re ready to find out, you’ll be able to.”
Jack looks down at the plastic card, turns it around in his hands. It’s light blue; his information is printed on it in a neat, businesslike font. He slips it into his pocket. His parents beam at him.
“When you’re ready,” Bob reassures him.
Later, he slips the card in between two pages of a book some sports reporter wrote about his father’s first Stanley Cup win, puts the book back on his shelf, and forgets about it.
When he does think about it again, he’s 19 and things have gone sideways.
He spends most of his time at home, aside from the therapy sessions his parents force him to attend three times a week. Occasionally, they’re successful in convincing him to join them on an errand. The last time he did that, though, they were recognized in the frozen food aisle of the neighborhood supermarket. Nobody approached them, but Jack heard the whispers behind them as Alicia held a carton of Rocky Road in one hand and a pint of Cherry Garcia in the other and asked Jack to choose. Since then, he’s been a little more hesitant to leave the house. He’s more content to stay in his room, reading books or watching movies on his laptop. His therapist, Julie, recently told him he needs to stop isolating himself, that he can start by spending more time with his parents at home rather than locked up in his room.
Today, Alicia sits beside him on the living room couch, while a movie neither of them is watching plays. He leans into her like he used to when he was a toddler and they’d watch his father’s games. He’s too big for this now, but she doesn’t seem to mind. On screen, a woman is getting in a taxi, trying to make it to the airport because she’s just realized her best friend is her soulmate, and he’s about to get on a plane that will take him to a new job in London.
“Kent called today,” she says, and it’s not subtle at all.
Jack doesn’t reply.
“He just wants to know how you are. He’s your friend, Jack. He’s your friend, and he’s worried about you.”
Are they friends? Jack considers every interaction he’s had with Kenny. He guesses they were friends, but now so much of what they were to each other is obscured by competition and jealousy and having to kiss in secret. Yet he misses him. He doesn’t know if it’s his best friend he misses, or his boyfriend. Maybe he just misses him because he’s the only person who could even begin to understand the pressure he was under.
“You don’t have to talk to him right now, Jack. Just consider that despite outward appearances, this might not be easy for him. Someday you may want to be friends again, and you have to start somewhere.”
Jack wonders what he would even say to Kenny now. He has a new team and a future and everything Jack ever wanted for himself. What would he want with a fuckup like Jack?
On TV, the best friends, having finally discovered their soulmate connection, are kissing in the middle of airport security.
“You know, my agent sent me the script for this,” Alicia muses as the credits begin to roll.
“You didn’t want it?” Jack asks.
“I didn’t want to do another soulmates thing. It’s rarely the way they make it look in the movies.”
That evening, before dinner, Jack finds the book on his shelf and opens it to the spot where he stuck his soulmate card so many years ago. He takes it out and marvels at how something so little has the power to change his life. When he and Kenny were together, he’d wondered, just once, and then quickly put the thought out of his mind. Hockey had to come first. Now there is no hockey.
He sits down on his bed with his laptop and carefully types in the website’s address. After creating a new username and password, he’s granted access to the full site, where he carefully copies the information on his card into the appropriate boxes.
“Welcome, Jack Laurent Zimmermann” appears on the screen in bold red letters, along with some instruction: “Please watch this brief instructional video before proceeding to your soulmate video.”
The 5-minute movie Jack is forced to watch — there’s no fast forward button — is one of the corniest things he’s ever seen. Based on the hosts’ fashion, it has to be at least 20 years old.
“Like you, I had a lot of questions before I watched my soulmate video,” the female host, Missy, says to the camera.
“Will I find out my soulmate’s name? Will I see her face?” the male host, Trevor, adds.
“What if my soulmate lives in another country? If my soulmate’s face is never shown in my video, how will I recognize him or her when we meet? Is my soulmate the person I’m dating right now?” Trevor and Missy both give exaggerated shrugs.
“The first thing you should know about the video you’re about to watch,” Trevor says, “is that it might create more questions than it answers. You aren’t going to find out the name of your soulmate today. In some rare cases, you might see your soulmate’s face, but that’s statistically unlikely. In fact, only .0003 percent of people are able to identify a face in the scenes they’re shown.”
“So how will you know your soulmate?” Missy asks. “Taken together, the three scenes you’re about to watch should be enough to point you in the right direction. Each scene is from a moment you and your soulmate will share. If you’ve already met your soulmate, one or two of these moments may actually be part of your past. Most of you, however, will be seeing these for the first time.”
Jack lets his mind wander as Trevor and Missy continue to ramble. Finally, they sign off with a high five and identical cheesy grins and a new video screen appears. Jack clicks the play button.
The first scene opens in a hockey rink. In spite of himself, Jack’s heart skips a beat. It’s enough to give him hope that he’ll get back on the ice. He has to, right? He doesn’t recognize this rink, so this can’t be a scene from his past.
Two people skate into the frame, shot from the waist down so Jack can’t see their faces. One of them is obviously him; he recognizes his own skating style even if he doesn’t recognize the clothes he’s wearing. They’re not in full gear, and nobody else seems to be on the ice, so this can’t be a game. A practice session, then? He watches as the two skaters take off and one slams the other into the boards. This happens repeatedly, even as Jack can tell the other skater’s energy is flagging.
“Last one,” he hears himself say. “One more time, then coffee’s on me.”
They take off again — Jack gives the other skater a head start — and Jack-watching-on-his-bed almost loses his breath as he watches Jack-on-screen take a hard hit into the boards. There’s laughter — Jack can identify his own laugh along with a sweet sounding giggle — so this must be something they do for fun? His skates are tangled up with his soulmate’s and they linger together a beat too long before they separate and skate off in different directions. The scene fades out.
In the next scene he’s shown, he’s in bed, wrapped around someone. The room is warm and golden-hued, like the director of this moment in Jack’s life had ordered, “More warmth!” Jack can tell this version of him is happy, even if the present version isn’t. He can’t tell if his soulmate is a man or a woman because they’re burrowed so far under the comforter that all he can see is a thatch of blond hair sticking out haphazardly like a few stray bits of straw. But that’s how he knows his soulmate isn’t Kenny, because they never slept together, not in the literal sense. Kenny was never a cuddler.
The last scene takes place in a kitchen. It’s large and bright and there must be something about these videos that engages all of the senses, because Jack can feel the love in the room. And then he sees … his face. Well, an older version of his face. He looks, he realizes with a shock, the way Bob looks in pictures taken when Jack was a toddler.
If seeing himself 10 or so years in the future comes as a shock, the baby strapped to Jack’s chest in some sort of baby-wearing device is even more of a shock. The baby has giant brown eyes and is wielding a scraggly brown stuffed rabbit in one chubby hand and a wooden spoon in the other. Somebody out of frame holds a spoon of something up to Jack’s lips for him to taste. As Jack watches this domestic scene play out, he thinks, with some relief, I’m going to be okay. I get to have this.
The video ends, and Jack knows three things: He’s going to play hockey again. He’s going to have a family. His soulmate is not Kenny.
He curls into himself on his bed and, for the first time since everything happened, he cries.
That’s how Alicia finds him when she comes to get him for dinner an hour later. She takes a look at Jack, at his computer, at the blue card sitting atop the keyboard, and she knows.
“Oh, sweetie.” She carefully moves the laptop to the nightstand and sits down on the bed next to Jack.
“It’s not him,” he sobs.
“It’s not,” she agrees, even though she can’t possibly know because she hasn’t seen what Jack’s seen. “But it’s someone. And he or she will make you very happy, I promise.” Alicia pulls her legs up onto the bed and adjusts herself so Jack can put his head in her lap. “I’ve never told anybody this, not even your father, but I cried when I watched my video, too. I had just broken up with my college boyfriend and I was still so in love with him.”
Jack pulls away from his mother. “You were in love before Papa?”
Alicia sighs. “Oh, it was long before I met your father. Steve was my first love. We went to Samwell together. After graduation, we moved to New York City. I had already done some modeling jobs, and my agent thought I’d get more work if I lived in the city. We got this cheap little apartment with two other roommates and we both waited tables at a chain Italian restaurant. I booked jobs here and there, and Steve applied to law schools. We started talking about marriage.”
This is the first time Jack has ever heard this story. “Even though you didn’t know if you were soulmates?”
“We were young and in love. I didn’t think I needed to watch a video to know he was the one.”
“You were happy with Steve?”
“Oh, baby. It was wonderful and terrible in the way everything is when you’re young and in love and poor in New York City.”
“But Steve went to law school in California. He never wanted to stay on the East Coast. And I started booking jobs that took me all over. It seemed like whenever he had a break from school I was in LA, or Paris, or Tokyo. We tried for about a year and then we decided it just wasn’t working. I finally went to see my video after we broke up. Even though I knew it was over, I was still devastated when it wasn’t him. After a little while, it stopped hurting so much. I heard he was seeing a woman he’d met at school, and I met Ryan.”
Jack knows about Ryan, the pop singer his mother dated for a short while in the 80s after starring in one of his music videos. He snorts.
“Yeah, we all know he wasn’t my soulmate either. You know, it’s hard to get over your first love, but it’s harder to live without the love of your life.”
“I don’t even know if I wanted Kenny to be my soulmate,” Jack finally confesses. “I just … I don’t think anybody else can ever love me now.”
Alicia sighs and smoothes Jack’s bangs out of his face. “Oh, Jacky. You know that’s not true.”
Some rational part of Jack knows she’s right. Despite the hell he’s put his parents through, they’ve never blamed him for what happened or pushed him to move on before he’s ready. And now he knows he has a soulmate, too. Somebody on the other side of this. It’s almost too overwhelming to think about — Jack is easily overwhelmed these days — so he rolls over onto his side and curls into himself.
Alicia gets up, careful not to disturb him. “Try to get some rest, sweetie. I’ll leave a plate on the counter.”
Checking practice is just a part of Jack’s life now. Even when it’s clear Bittle is getting better at taking a hit, and probably doesn’t need the extra coaching, Jack finds himself looking forward to their early morning sessions. There aren’t many people he feels completely at ease with, on or off the ice, but it’s easy with Bittle. At some point in the past year and a half, he’s gone from being an annoyance to a friend to somebody Jack is pretty sure he can’t live without.
It’s not just the way they play together on the ice. Jack has played well with a lot of guys he doesn’t necessarily care to spend time with outside of hockey. With Bittle it’s the same way it is with Shitty and Lardo — somehow, he just knows he’s going to continue to be an important part of his life after Samwell.
(It’s also becoming increasingly clear that what Jack feels for Bittle isn’t quite what he feels for Shitty and Lardo. He’s never felt like pressing either of them up against the wall and making out with them, for instance. Which, lately, is what he wants to do every time he and Bittle pass each other in the hallway.)
Today’s checks have gotten progressively harder, but only because Jack knows Bittle can take it. They’re both getting tired, but each time Jack slams into him, Bittle gets up without complaint and comes back for more.
“Last one,” Jack says when he realizes it’s getting late. “One more time, then coffee’s on me.” He allows Bittle a head start and is surprised when he abruptly skates back towards him and slams him into the boards.
Even with the breath nearly knocked out of him, Jack’s first reaction is to laugh. Bittle has him pinned to the boards and he just looks so pleased with himself. He looks up at him with a little self-satisfied smile. “Ready for coffee, Mr. Zimmermann?” he asks sweetly.
“I think I owe you two coffees for that one,” Jack says.
They stand like this a beat too long, and Jack wonders why this feels different than every other time they’ve done this.
Jack is in the kitchen, rummaging in one of the overhead cabinets for the box of tea he keeps there, when Bittle whips around and sticks something in his face. “Try this, Jack,” he orders. “It needs a spice. More nutmeg?”
Jack opens his mouth and tastes what — it’s now clear it’s cookie dough — is being offered. The moment is familiar and intimate, like it’s happened a thousand times before and will happen a thousand times more.
“It’s spicy. What’s it going to be?”
“Sugar, actually. Try more sugar.”
Bittle laughs brightly. “Well, who knew, Mr. Zimmermann, that you’d be the one suggesting something needs more sugar.”
Jack shrugs and, feeling a little giddy, reaches around Bittle to steal another spoonful of cookie dough, mostly because he likes the way the laughter never quite leaves Bittle’s eyes when he pretends to be upset.
“You gonna help, or just get in my way?”
Jack shrugs and, tea forgotten, settles in next to Bittle, handing him spices and measuring spoons and watching him mix the dough. When the flavor has finally met with his approval, he hands Jack a scoop. They stand shoulder to shoulder and quickly fill two trays. When Bittle abruptly leaves his side to put the first tray in the oven, he realizes he misses the contact.
Jack knows it’s not fair to compare himself to others when he’s been given everything and still somehow managed to screw everything up, but for him, happiness has always seemed harder to come by than it does for most people. On the nights he can’t sleep, because anxiety over the current season and his thesis and signing with a team keeps him awake, he pushes out the bad thoughts by naming things that make him unequivocally happy.
Hockey. Summer afternoons spent on his parents’ deck with a book and a glass of lemonade. The way he can hear his father’s roar of pure joy over the rest of the crowd when he scores a goal. The way his mother still plays with his hair when they’re all sitting together on the couch watching a movie. Mario Kart with Ransom and Holster. Watching Lardo paint. The memory of Shitty making the local news for mocking anti-immigration protesters by staging his own naked protest with a strategically placed sign that read: “Close Our Borders to Canadian Geese, Those Motherfuckers Bite.”
Checking practice with Bittle. Getting coffee with Bittle and chirping him about the amount of calories in one of his sugary lattes. Sitting on the roof with Bittle and feeling completely at ease when he confesses that it’s only recently that he’s been able to let go of his fear that he’ll never live up to his father’s name. The way Bittle leans into him and tells him he understands. The way Bittle’s entire face lights up when he catches Jack sneaking a second slice of pie up to his room at night. The way Bittle’s ass looks in those tiny shorts he wears.
Jack knocks lightly on Bittle’s door. He had to miss class today to meet with his parents and his agent, and Bittle had told him he’d share his notes. “Bits? You in there?”
The door flies open. “Jack! I suppose you’re here for those notes?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Sure thing. But I want to hear how that meeting went. If you feel like it, I mean. ”
“Sure. Coffee at Annie’s”
Bittle looks surprised at first and then his features smooth out into a smile. “Let me just grab my hoodie and find those notes; I know I put my notebook down somewhere around here . . . ”
Jack rolls his eyes fondly at Bittle as he digs through a stack of papers on the floor. When it becomes apparent the notebook isn’t in that stack, Jack picks up a stack of papers on the bed. Instead of unearthing the notebook, however, he pulls out a soft brown rabbit.
Jack knows this rabbit. It’s older, more loved on, but this is a dead ringer for the rabbit he remembers from his soulmate video. “Bittle?” he asks, and he can hear the way his voice cracks.
Bittle whips his head around. “Yes, I do have a stuffed animal, Jack. No chirping. That’s Señor Bun”
“Where did you get this?”
Bittle’s still looking like him like he’s lost it. “Well, I’ve had him since I was a baby. Why, Jack?”
Jack sits down on the bed, hard. “Can you still buy these?”
“Señor Bun is one of a kind,” he says loftily. “My Moomaw made him for me when I was born. I guess if I ever have kids of my own I’ll fix him up and pass him down but for now he stays with me.”
“Huh,” Jack says.
Now it all makes sense. The checking into the boards. The rabbit. The baby with — he’s sure of this now — Bittle’s eyes. Good lord. And maybe it’s because he’s spent the last month thinking about all of the places in the Haus he’d like to kiss Bittle, if only he’d allow himself, but he’s surprisingly okay with all of this.
It’s all he can do to stop himself from announcing to Bittle that someday they’re going to have a kid together because now he’s one hundred percent sure the future he saw so many years ago was one with this boy. This boy who, it must be said, is currently sitting on a pile of unfolded laundry while dumping the contents of his hockey duffel onto the floor.
“Do you want to have kids?”
Bittle looks up. “Maybe? I like kids. I always thought I would have a couple of my own but lord, Jack, I’m 19 and I can barely keep track of my class notes. Can you imagine me with a kid?”
Yes, Jack wants to say. I’ve seen it.
“I think I do,” he says instead. “One or two, probably. Not soon but eventually. That sounds good, right?”
Bittle smiles placatingly. “I’m sure you’ll be a great dad, Jack.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t want to do it alone. That would be difficult.”
“I know things are moving a little fast for you right now, but you know you don’t have to figure everything out today, right?”
But maybe I have figured it out, Jack wants to say. Instead, he says, “For what it’s worth, I think you’ll be a great dad, too.”
By now Bittle has completely abandoned his search and is just staring at Jack, eyes full of concern.
“Are you okay, Jack?”
The realization hits him hard: Bittle has no idea.
Jack puts his hand down on the bed to brace himself and it lands on something square and smooth. He picks up the blue notebook he recognizes from class. “Is this it?” he asks.
“Wow. It was right there all along. Who knew?”
Jack is sure, now, but a part of him is afraid to say something, afraid he’s wrong, afraid he’ll ruin this tentative thing that he and Bittle have. If it even is a thing. He wants it to be a thing, but he has no idea if Bittle feels the same way. He tests the waters one night on the roof: “Do you ever think about your soulmate?”
Bittle huffs out a little laugh. “I think about it. The year before I came to Samwell, I thought about it all the time. But —”
“I was afraid.”
“What were you afraid of?”
“Afraid of what I’d see. Jack, I was a closeted gay kid in small town Georgia. A part of me always knew that, but at 17 I wasn’t ready to accept that.”
“But you did,” Jack says carefully. “And you still don’t know?”
“I’m still afraid.”
“Because now I know what I want and I don’t know if I’m ready to find out I’ll never have it.”
“I get that.”
“I watched my video when ... after my overdose. I don’t really think I cared about seeing my soulmate. I think I mostly wanted to know I’d be okay. That if I saw a future with someone, it would mean I have a future. But I had been with someone, before, and even though I knew it was over, when I saw my soulmate was someone else ... it hurt.”
“Well, Jack.” Bittle squeezes his hand. “I’d say you’re more than okay now.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I am.”
They stay out there on the roof, silent, until the lights in other houses on the street begin to go out.
Shitty, Lardo, and Bittle are all in Jack’s room, ostensibly studying. Suddenly, Shitty’s eye catches the blue Post-it hanging on the corner of Jack’s laptop screen.
“What’s this?” he asks, ripping it off and thrusting it toward Jack.
Lardo peers at it. “Looks like some sort of tally.”
“What are you counting, Jackabelle?”
“Number of times people have asked you who you’re going to sign with?” Lardo guesses.
“Number of chicken tenders he’s eaten this year.”
“Number of times he’s told Bits to put his phone away.”
“Hey! Number of times he’s had to tell you to get out of his bed and put some clothes on.”
“Good one.” Lardo and Bittle high five.
“Number of times he’s gotten up before dawn to run.”
“Something like that,” Jack mumbles. Because he’s never going to tell them he’s keeping track of the number of times he’s almost told Bittle they’re soulmates.
Epikegster happens, and Jack returns home for winter break without saying goodbye to Bittle. He spends most of the plane ride home going over the conversation he had with Kenny, who’d shown up uninvited right about the time he thought something might be about to happen with Bittle. He was allegedly there to try to talk Jack into signing with the Aces, but it became apparent there was a secondary reason for the visit.
“I miss you.”
“You’re not my soulmate.”
“I - I know, Zimms. I watched my video the day I turned sixteen. Doesn’t mean we can’t have fun now. ”
“Yes. It does. You should leave, Kenny. Whatever we were to each other then is in the past.”
“You’ve met yours.”
“I’m still just trying to figure all of this out. But yeah. I know he’s it for me.”
“You know, for a while I thought it could still turn out to be you? I recognized this crappy old house the first time I visited. Took me a while, then I finally remembered it’s because I’d seen this place before.”
“It’s not me.”
“Nah, I know. I watched mine again. Whoever it is, he’s taller than you.”
Jack’s phone is strangely silent his first three days in Montreal. He’s become accustomed to the the ‘ping’ of incoming text messages he receives from Bittle throughout the day, but there’s nothing.
“What do you do if you think you’ve met your soulmate but they don’t know it yet?” Jack asks his mother on Christmas Eve. They’re sitting on the couch drinking hot cocoa spiked with Baileys, having been kicked out of the kitchen by Bob.
“Do you think, or do you know?” Alicia asks, carefully.
“I’m pretty sure.”
Alicia is silent for a long time. Jack can hear Bob opening and closing cupboards and mixing things in the kitchen. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend he’s back in the Haus, that it’s Bittle clattering around in the kitchen.
“How do you feel about that?”
It takes Jack a minute to come up with the right word, and when he does it’s surprisingly simple. “Happy. I feel happy, Mama.”
Alicia presses a kiss to the top of his head. “Well then, I’m happy for you. I hope someday you’ll feel comfortable telling me more about them.”
“Him. It’s him, Mama. It’s Bittle, from the team.”
If Alicia is surprised, she doesn’t show it. “I should have guessed, you talk about him all the time.”
“I don’t,” Jack tries to protest.
“You do. And the way you smile when you talk about him . . . Love looks good on you, sweetie.”
Jack groans. “He doesn’t know. And I think I’ve ruined everything.”
“If he’s your soulmate, honey, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
On Christmas morning, Jack wakes up at 5:30 a.m., unable to sleep even though he has nowhere to be. He stretches in his bed and looks around his room, thinks about how a year from now, he’ll be in a different bed in a different city. He hasn’t properly lived at home in years, but once he graduates and signs with a team, he’ll have his own place. This home he grew up in will become a place he visits a few times a year, at most.
And the Haus? Well, he hopes he’ll still visit, will still be allowed to call it home. Staying close to Samwell has become more of a priority than he’d ever admit to his parents, even though he knows they’ll support him if he tells them he’s more interested in being close to his soulmate than he is in receiving a large signing bonus or joining a team that guarantees him lots of ice time.
When he finally takes a look at his phone on the nightstand, he sees a text from Bittle. The time stamp is 2:16 a.m.
Merry Christmas, Jack. Can we talk when you see this?
Jack is calling him before he’s even fully awake, before he considers that the text was sent just over three hours ago and Bittle’s probably asleep.
“Jack?” Bittle sounds awake and surprised, and for a second Jack wonders if he misread the text.
“Bits. Bittle. I just saw your message. You wanted to talk.”
“Hang on, Jack. No, Mama, it’s just Jack callin’ to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Can you put that in the oven for me? Sorry Jack, we’re up early, trying to get these pies made before everyone comes over for dinner this afternoon — ” Jack hears background noise, a door closing, and guesses Bittle’s moved to his room. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Jack says. “Merry Christmas.”
There’s a long silence, and Jack wonders if the call has dropped. Finally, Bittle responds. “Last night we spent Christmas Eve with all of Coach’s family. After church, my cousin Jamie had a big announcement for everyone. She found her soulmate.”
“That’s … I don’t know your cousin, but that’s great, Bits.”
“Yeah, it was. But then everyone got to talking about soulmates, and how they found their soulmates, and everyone wanted to know if I’d found mine and I had to tell them I didn’t know.”
“Right. I played it off as a joke, you know? Said I wanted to date a lot of people in college and didn’t want to worry about meeting my soulmate quite yet.”
“You know that’s not true. You know I haven’t dated a whole lot.”
Jack doesn’t reply. He gets the sense he’s just supposed to be listening right now. He closes his eyes and lets Bittle’s voice surround him.
“We all laughed about it. Uncle Jim teased me about all the girls I must be getting ‘cause I’m an athlete. Shitty’d have had some words to say to him for the language he used.”
“This isn’t funny, Jack,” Bittle says quietly.
“We got home pretty late, but I couldn’t sleep. Not like when I was little and I couldn’t sleep because I was excited to see what Santa brought me. I couldn’t sleep because I was sad. It felt like everyone felt sorry for me because I hadn’t found my soulmate. So I decided it was time to find out.”
“Do you know what I saw?”
Jack can guess, but he’s not entirely sure what Bittle’s video would have revealed, so he doesn’t reply.
“How long have you known?” Bittle’s voice breaks a little, which makes Jack’s heart break a little.
“I wasn’t lying when I told you I watched my video after my overdose. I’ve known about my soulmate since I was nineteen. I started to guess a few months ago. I wasn’t sure until that day in your room with the stuffed rabbit.”
“Señor Bun was in my video.”
“And why was Señor Bun in your soulmate video?”
“I think you know, Bits.” There’s another long silence. “That’s when I knew for sure. I tried to bring it up that one time, on the roof, but you said you weren’t ready and I didn’t want to push. I wanted you to have the chance to see for yourself.”
“So you’ve known for, what, a month or two? Jack, are you in love with me?”
“Yes.” Jack doesn’t even have to think about it.
“Did you … have feelings for me before you realized I was your soulmate?”
“Jesus, Bittle, you’re a thousand miles away and it’s way too early to be talking about this.”
“Can you answer the question?”
“Bittle! I don’t know what to tell you. One day I was annoyed about having to get up for checking practice because you were this little frog who couldn’t take a check, and the next day I was looking forward to it. One day I could walk past you in the hall without thinking about kissing you and the next I couldn’t stop thinking about kissing you.”
“That’s kind of a lot of information to take in at 5:45 in the morning.”
“Yeah, I always assumed we’d have this conversation in person.”
“‘Cause you know, I’ve had the biggest crush on you for the longest time, and I could just kick myself knowing we could have been making out all semester.”
“We could,” Jack says, an idea beginning to take shape.
“Have this conversation in person. Give me a couple hours, okay?”
“Bits, I promise. Give me a couple of hours and we can do this the right way. Keep your phone on.”
“When is my phone not on?”
“I’ll text you.”
“You better not be thinking of doing anything crazy, Mister.”
“I’ll text you.”
“I need a ride to the airport.” Bob is at the stove making pancakes and eggs, Alicia is pouring coffee, and neither seems prepared to see a fully-dressed Jack in their kitchen this early.
“What, did Santa forget to bring you what you wanted?” Bob teases.
“Something like that,” Jack mumbles.
Bob flips a pancake from the griddle to a plate with a flourish. “Remember when you were four, and you cried because you were sure Santa was going to bring you a baby brother or sister and you got a wooden train set and a Power Wheel instead?”
“He wanted someone to play goalie, if I recall correctly,” Alicia reminisces. They both chuckle at the memory.
“I spent every Saturday for a month customizing that damn Jeep to turn it into a Zamboni.”
“I need a ride to the airport,” Jack repeats. “My flight leaves in less than three hours.”
Alicia looks at Jack, takes in the duffel over his shoulder and the determined set to his jaw, and seems to understand. “He’s serious, Bobby. You stay put and finish; I can take him. We can eat when I get back. Let me just grab my shoes.”
“Only you, Jack,” Alicia says as she backs the car out of the driveway.
“Huh?” Jack doesn’t look up from his phone; he wants to get his flight information to Bittle as soon as possible.
“I remember watching that soulmates movie with you years ago, and telling you it’s never the way it is in the movies.”
“And here you are, making a grand, over the top gesture, just like in the movies.”
“Is that ... bad? Do you think it’s too much?” Jack really hasn’t thought this through; he’d been operating on autopilot as he searched airline schedules and bought his ticket. He hasn’t even considered what he’ll do after he gets to Georgia. Rent a car? He needs to do that. Will Bittle’s parents let him stay in their home? Maybe if they know it’s a soulmates thing? Maybe he should book a hotel.
Alicia drops him off at his terminal and leans over to kiss his cheek as he’s getting out of the car. “I love you, Jack. And I know we’ll love him, too. Call when you get there.”
“Any time, sweetie.”
Jack pays for Wi-Fi so he can text Bittle from the air.
My flight lands at noon. Can you send me directions to your house?
The wait for Bittle’s reply seems interminable.
You silly boy. I’ll pick you up.
What about Christmas with your family? Is that okay with your parents?
I think they’ll be fine with it. I told them I’m meeting my soulmate.
In lieu of flowers, which were not readily available in an airport gift shop on Christmas day, Jack holds a makeshift bouquet of beef jerky, mixed nuts, and a protein bar out to Bittle, who breaks into giddy laughter.
“Protein, Jack? Really?”
Jack shrugs. “It’s been working for you.”
Bittle offers him a small smile. “You’re ridiculous. Come here.” Jack allows himself to relax into the hug Bittle’s offering and, for the first time in months, he feels like he can breathe. He feels his solid weight against him, the softness of his hair, and all of the missing pieces slot into place.
Bittle must feel it too. “I saw this, you know,” he says as he pulls away to look at him. “This moment was in mine.”
“I saw checking practice.”
“Of course you did. What else did you see?”
Jack wants to tell him everything, but there will be time for details later, a whole lifetime for details, so he settles for the simplest version of the truth.
“I saw us, and we were happy.”