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Holding My Hand Takes Me Halfway There

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Jack had always been aware of the concept of being gay.

Everyone always forgot – himself included, on occasion – that his childhood had been almost as surrounded by showbusiness as it had hockey. While his father’s friends had been gruff, grunting athletes, his mother’s had been soft, artistic and passionate. Where his father’s friends would gather in the sitting room with beers while their wives stood in the kitchen with children clinging to their legs, his mother’s gatherings would see an eclectic mix of colourful people draped across the sofas, cocktails in hand, laughing over anything and everything came to mind. To Jack, there were two kinds of couples. There was the hockey player and his wife, the picture of domestic bliss, of strength versus kindness. Then, there were the two artists, each determined to make their own way, to always be right. This second kind argued a lot more, often over the slightest thing, but even at a young age Jack knew that it was inevitable when two big personalities came together. Somehow, his own parents managed to bridge the gap between the two camps, inhabiting a middle space they’d created themselves.

Jack was eight years old when he realised that not everyone shared the same view his parents did.

He’d noticed before, of course, that his father’s and mother’s worlds rarely mixed well. He’d seen the raised eyebrows of hockey players when coerced into conversation with a scarf-clad fashion designer, the nervous glances as actors realised someone they didn’t know had suddenly found out their secret, but it had never occurred to him that it might be anything more than simply two worlds colliding.

He was used to seeing his parents’ friends’ faces on the front of newspapers and magazines. It was almost a game, laughing at the outrageous things that were said about these people who, to him, were just family friends, another Christmas card, another person who ruffled his hair while he hid behind his mother’s legs. That day, though, it was the same face splashed across all the magazines, with headlines that he barely understood.

Too gay for the catwalk!

New York Fashion Week: No Gays Allowed!

Lesbian model’s fall from grace

Top supermodel fired amid lesbian rumours

“This is discrimination”: The Other Woman speaks out

His mother had explained it to him that evening.

“You know how some boys have girlfriends and some boys have boyfriends? And some girls have boyfriends and some girls have girlfriends?” Alicia said softly, her eyes wide as she begged him to understand.

“Like Auntie Jess?” Jack piped up, confused.

“Yes, like Auntie Jess,” Alicia said sadly. “Well – you see, honey – some people… some people think that boys should only have girlfriends, and girls should only have boyfriends. And they get angry when boys have boyfriends or girls have girlfriends.”

Jack screwed up his face, trying his best to work out what Alicia was saying. “But… why?”

Alicia sighed, putting an arm around him and pulling him close. “Some people think it’s okay to be mean to people who are different, but it’s not okay. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, maman,” he said. “I like that people are different. All Papa’s friends are the same. But yours are all different.”

His mother leant down and kissed the top of his hair.

_X_

Even from a young age, Jack had known he would have to try his hardest to live up to expectations. He knew he wasn’t what people expected. Even just as a hockey player – let alone Bad Bob Zimmermann’s son – he knew that people thought him to be too sensitive, to be a weeper, to be weak. Too many games had been preceded by the coach telling him to pull himself together. He was the captain! He was thirteen, a whole two years older than the youngest kids on the team! He had to set an example. He had to be the strongest, the best out of all of them.

That didn’t mean that anyone liked him. His teammates talked about him behind his back, he knew they did, and they threw him funny looks when he wasn’t on the ice and they laughed when he tried to help any of them at anything. They found him strange. He wouldn’t call any of them friends, but that was alright. None of them were cruel to his face, and they did have some sort of respect for him, if only because of his surname.

He was surprised when, one day, one of the more popular boys came up to him in the locker room, glancing round in a way that was both cocky and nervous before perching in the stall next to him.

“Hey, Jack,” he said, with a self-assurance that only certain thirteen-year-olds had. “You’re a cool guy, you know? And I don’t want any of the guys to get the wrong idea.”

“Wrong idea about what?” Jack asked, pretending to be absorbed in untying the laces on his skates.

“You see Scott over there?” the boy stage-whispered, indicating with his head to the far corner where one of the quieter boys was changing.

Jack frowned, confused. “Yeah?”

The boy sighed. “Apparently he’s a fag or something. I thought you should know, as captain. And just – don’t go into the showers when he’s there, you know? Or the other guys might…”

Jack glanced back over to the boy, Scott, in the corner. “Sure. I mean – that, er, that makes sense.”

“Cool, man. I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.”

The following week, Scott quit the team, his father coming in and yelling at the coaches. Jack gulped as he overheard what they were saying.

“Those boys have been calling my kid a fag! I mean, what kind of operation are you running here, huh? What is this, a gay team or something?”

“Mr Taylor, I don’t know what to tell you--”

“Scott did nothing wrong, but he seems to think that he’s not allowed on Zimmermann’s team? That is some nepotism crap right there, you don’t get to let my kid get bullied just because his dad’s not famous--”

“Sir, I can guarantee you that Jack Zimmermann has not been bullying your son.”

“Really, huh? And how do you plan on doing that?”

“The kid never says anything to anyone! Good or bad! He probably just sat back and let it happen. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck – and we’ll definitely be having words with the whole team – but Bad Bob Zimmermann’s kid wouldn’t hurt a fly. He doesn’t have the guts to.”

Jack sat up in bed late that night, shaking and wheezing as the coach’s words swam around his head. He was useless, he was a coward, he wasn’t brave enough to bully someone let alone stand up to them –

And what about Scott? He’d been a part of it, he knew, if only because he did nothing. All his life he’d been taught to stand up for your friends when they needed you, to not let other people be pushed around when you could do something to stop it.

Yet again, he’d failed.

_X_

In the summer of 2005, fifteen-year-old Jack went to his first same-sex wedding. It was soon followed by two more, just a few weeks apart, and another in the fall. When he’d pulled a face at the fourth invitation, his mother had huffed and sternly told him how long her friends had been waiting to get married, and that he should be grateful he’d been invited to join them on their special day. Jack didn’t want to tell her that it wasn’t that he was fed up of same-sex weddings, or even of his parents’ friends getting married. It was that the last one was in the hockey season, and one question from one of the guys in the locker room as to why he was missing practice would open a whole can of worms he was desperate to keep shut. He genuinely liked every one of his unofficial uncles and aunts, but locker rooms were locker rooms. In the end, although he hated himself for it, he lied, making up fake names and rolling his eyes with the others at being dragged off for a wedding of all things when hockey was clearly more important. Something in him twisted as he forced a smile and a laugh but he pushed it down, determinedly telling himself that it was easier than telling the truth and refusing to think about why even such a little lie hurt so much.

_X_

Turning sixteen brought with it the Q and, in turn, Kent Parson. Jack couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a friend like Kent. On and off the ice they were instantly inseparable. There were rumours about them, of course there were, started by jealous opponents and fuelled every time they hugged on a night out or Kent fell asleep with his head on Jack’s shoulder on a roadie. Kent was an escape. With Kent, Jack could feel. Kent didn’t expect him to talk about his feelings, or to always be strong and stoic, or even responsible. He knew his parents didn’t approve of all the drinking and parties but they were so glad he finally had a friend that they didn’t say anything.

Kent was far from the first person – man or woman – Jack had found attractive. He was, however, the first where Jack started to wonder what it would be like to hold his hand, or to kiss him, or to come home to him, or even –

Jack rarely let himself think that far. He was sure that thinking down that road wouldn’t end well. Only when he was in the shower, music playing loud enough that no one could hear, would he entertain those thoughts.

When his mind became too clear, he would realise the risks involved with even thinking those thoughts. What if he glanced at Kent the wrong way and someone saw? What if he whispered Kent’s name in his sleep, or lingered in a hug a little too long? There were too many things that could go wrong, and the implications of each and every one of them was overwhelming.

So Jack would take another pill, and it would all be fine.

“Zimms?” Kent asked blearily one night on a roadie, both of them lying side-by-side on the same bed in their twin room. Neither of them was sober. Jack had taken some extra pills after a stressful phone call with his Dad, and Kent had been drinking since four in the afternoon. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Yeah.”

“I mean it, Jack. It’s a huge fucking secret. You can’t tell anyone, not even your dad.”

“Like I would tell my dad your secrets.” But if Kenny was calling him Jack, not Zimms, that must mean it was really important. Somewhere through the fog of his mind, Jack registered Kent take a deep breath.

“I think… I think I might be gay.”

Jack’s brain was screaming at him to catch up, the numbness slowing down his thoughts, each of them knocking one at a time.

Kenny thought he might be gay. And Jack knew what that meant, of course he did, because he’d been thinking something not dissimilar.

‘I think’ meant ‘I am’.

Before he knew what he was doing, he’d rolled onto his side, taken Kent’s jaw in his hand, and kissed him, messy and clumsy. The kiss wasn’t returned, not at first, and in panic Jack leant back again, eyes wide as he mentally slapped himself round the back of the head.

“Wait,” Kent whispered. “Come back. And don’t – don’t say anything.”

And that’s how it began.

It carried on that way for months. They were friends, nothing more, although they were even more at ease with each other than they had been before. On every roadie, and the occasional evening when one or both of them was drunk and fancied it, they’d have a messy encounter in one of their rooms or a bathroom or, on one risky occasion, in the showers at the rink.

But they never spoke.

_X_

Jack’s mother was crying.

It wasn’t unusual, not these days. It wasn’t unusual to see his father crying, either. Jack had yet to cry. He was too tired to cry.

“I just don’t understand it,” Alicia said between sobs. “What were you so afraid of? Why couldn’t you talk to us about it? That’s all I ever wanted, Jack, for you to tell us what’s going on, so you don’t end up doing something stupid like this!”

Bob took a deep breath, glancing at Jack’s therapist before putting an arm around his crying wife and turning to his son. “What your maman means is… we never wanted you to feel like you couldn’t come to us about anything. You know that, right? And I’m – I’m sorry if we didn’t make that clear. And you’re allowed your secrets, of course you are, but you don’t have to go through life alone, Jack. We love you, and if you ever have a problem we’ll do everything in our power to fix it.”

Jack clenched his fists, his gaze not meeting his father’s. “I don’t need you to fix my problems for me.”

“Then we can just listen,” Bob said earnestly. “We just want to be there for you, Jack. You can tell us anything, I hope you know that.”

Jack didn’t say anything for a while, staring at a spot on the floor.

“What are you scared of, Jack?” his therapist prompted.

“I’m scared you won’t love me anymore,” Jack whispered, his stomach twisting as he said it. Alicia let out another sob and leapt out of her seat, kneeling in front of Jack and taking his hands in hers.

“Jack, sweetheart, there is nothing you could do that would stop us from loving you. Nothing, not ever. You understand that? You’re the most precious thing in the world to me, to both of us. Nothing will ever change that.”

For the first time since That Night, as he called it in his mind, Jack felt tears prick in his eyes. “Nothing?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Not even – not even if I don’t do well in hockey?”

“You could not know one end of a hockey stick from the other and we would love you just as much.”

“Not even--” He paused, wiping furiously at the tears that now refused to hold themselves back. “Maman, what if I don’t fall in love with a girl? What if – what if I fall for a boy instead?”

Alicia sat on the arm of his chair, pulling him into a tight hug. “Then we will love you just as much.” She thought for a moment, before asking, “Is there a boy?”

Jack shook his head. “Not anymore.”

_X_

They didn’t talk about it again for a few months. It wasn’t until they were all watching TV together, a new comedy one of Alicia’s friends was in, that Jack brought it up again.

“I’m not gay,” he said as he watched a crying Kurt Hummel come out to his father on the screen. “I don’t know what I am. But I’m not gay.”

He could feel his parents glance at each other over his head, but refused to acknowledge it.

“It’s fine if you are,” Bob said eventually. “I know it might not be what you want – especially if you’re still thinking of going back into hockey – but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not like you’d be the first gay hockey player.”

“I know,” said Jack. “I just mean, I like girls too. I think. But I’m still working that out.”

Alicia wrapped an arm around him, and Jack shifted imperceptibly closer to her. “That’s fine, sweetheart. There’s no hurry. Just let us know if you ever want to talk about it, okay?”

He nodded his agreement but filed their conversation deep inside his brain and locked it away. If he liked girls even the slightest bit – which he was fairly sure he did – then that would be the path he would pursue. There was no room for boyfriends and husbands in his future, of that much he was certain.

_X_

Samwell brought with it a new kind of hockey team. He’d been offered a scholarship (of course he had) but he’d refused it; it wasn’t like his parents couldn’t afford the tuition, and he knew there would be others who needed it more. The coaches insisted on listing him as a scholarship on the website in exchange for a token $100 bursary, which he donated each semester to the theatre department at his mother’s suggestion. The team was a mixture of those with scholarship and those without, those who saw hockey as a career and those for whom it was an intense hobby but nothing more. For the first time in his hockey career, he was on a team with people for whom this wasn’t simply a stepping stone until they reached their next team.

Within the first few days he’d been adopted by a fellow freshman who, for reasons unknown to Jack, went by ‘Shitty’. At first glance, Shitty was like any other hockey bro. He drank as if he intended to kill his liver before he turned twenty-five, and when he wasn’t drunk he was high. Shitty was so straight it didn’t even occur to him that there might be something taboo about stripping off and sharing a bed with his teammates. Or, at least, that was Jack’s first impression.

After three days of what Jack was willing to label the most intense friendship of his life, Shitty started talking about feminism, and marriage equality, and intersectionality, and a hundred other long words which Jack barely understood.

He soon realised that Shitty wasn’t looking for a conversation or a debating partner, but just needed someone to listen while he vented and bounced ideas around. Shitty was the sort of friend he’d never known he needed. Their friendship was rooted in hockey, but Jack never found himself watching what he said, or worrying about how he’d be perceived. He occasionally wondered if Shitty suspected him, but after Shitty pointedly asked him if he was an ally he breathed easy. There was a certain irony, he thought. Shitty was the only reason Jack even knew the word ‘heteronormative’, and yet he’d never thought Jack might be anything but straight. It suited Jack, though, so he never bothered to correct him.

_X_

Before he knew it, sophomore year had begun, and with it came Ransom, Holster, and Lardo. While Jack liked Ransom and Holster, he found a kindred spirit with Lardo. They could sit together for hours in silence, neither of them feeling the need to make inane conversation. Lardo was the artsy friend Jack had never had. She reminded him of some of his mother’s friends, with her paint-splattered dungarees, her quiet way of relating to people, her denim jacket with its seemingly endless collection of pin badges. Sometimes he’d ask about them, and each one had a story. Some were from places she’d visited, some bore slogans about art or equality or travel.

One day, while packing their things up after an afternoon in the library, he caught his eye on one he didn’t recognise. It was three stripes – pink, yellow and blue – and though he’d never noticed it before, he could tell it had been there a while.

“What’s that one for?” he asked as they left the library, pointing to it.

“It’s the pansexual flag,” she replied.

The word rang a bell from one of Shitty’s many speeches, but Jack couldn’t have told anyone what it meant.

Lardo picked up immediately on his ignorance. “It means I’m attracted to people regardless of gender.”

Jack nodded, confused. “So, sort of like bisexual?”

“They’re different identities, but there’s an overlap,” Lardo shrugged. “Some people are definitely pan, some are definitely bi. Some people just pick whichever word they prefer.”

Jack was reminded of why Lardo was one of his favourite people when they finished walking back to the Haus in silence.

_X_

Junior year brought with it a whole new batch of freshmen. The advantage of being best friends with Shitty was that he managed to escape the social obligations of being captain, and a cursory hello was all that was required before the first practice. They were like any other group of eighteen-year-olds: scrawny, eager to please, desperate to prove themselves. There was one – Bitty, he’d been dubbed – who screamed ‘naïve’ in a way that almost made Jack uncomfortable. He soon came out of his shell, though, and after quickly being adopted by Shitty, Ransom and Holster, seemed to always be around. Within a matter of weeks and after many early morning trips to Faber, Jack had no choice but to acknowledge that they were friends.

He’d suspected for a while that Bitty might be gay. He knew he shouldn’t make assumptions, but Beyonce and baking aside, there was something about the way Bitty was which was so achingly familiar. The way he wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone in the locker room, the way he blushed when a cute barista gave him a compliment, the way he looked longingly at the posters for the various LGBTQ events being hosted on campus.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Bitty had taken to baking an inhuman number of pies in the Haus kitchen. When he didn’t have class – and sometimes when he did – he could be found in the Haus, crimping pastry and cooking apples. Jack usually stayed upstairs in his room, but the smell that particular afternoon was just too good and he’d ended up writing his essay on the kitchen table instead.

He and Bitty jumped as Ransom and Holster came thundering down the stairs, closely followed by Shitty.

“Bitty! Thank god you’re here, time is running out for Winter Screw!” Ransom slid into the seat next to Jack, opening his laptop. “So tell us, what are your criteria for the perfect woman?”

Bitty carefully laid down his rolling pin. Something about the way he was holding himself caught Jack’s attention as Bitty glanced to Shitty in a meaningful way. He didn’t miss the way Shitty nodded encouragingly.

“Well, actually…” Bitty cleared his throat. “I’m not actually interested in women. I’m – I’m gay.”

There was silence.

“That changes everything!” said Holster, not a moment too soon. “Now, we can’t have you going with any of the LAX bros, but there are plenty of fine gentlemen on the football team, and I think some on the rugby team as well. And if you wanted to branch out beyond sports I have it on good authority that there are only three straight men in the entire theatre department. They’re putting on Rent at the weekend if you’d like to scout out?”

“Oh!” Bitty’s cheeks had gone a particular shade of pink that Jack refused to think about. “That all sounds – very wonderful. I’m sure whoever you choose will be wonderful. That’s the whole tradition, isn’t it?”

“You’re damn right it is!” Holster punched the air. “Don’t worry, Bitty – we will find you your knight in shining armor.”

Jack took the opportunity of the distraction to slip off back to his room. Yes, Bitty was unlikely to ever pass as straight, but to be so open and for the team to just be…

He’d known Samwell would be different. It was why he came here in the first place. But to see it in action hurt. To know that he could have everything, if he wanted, but it could only last for two more years. That if he ever wanted to see the ice after graduation, he couldn’t even mention it.

He tried to distract himself with his essay up in his room, but it wouldn’t work. Eventually – many hours later, by the clock on his dresser – there was a knock at the door.

“Hey Jack.” Ransom pushed the door open, leaning against the doorframe with his laptop in his hand. “Do you know any gay guys? Or bi guys? Or… is there another one? I don’t know.” Jack felt panic flash through him. “Me and Holster have run through most of the ones we know but none of them are free for Winter Screw.”

Oh, of course. They wanted to know because of Bitty, not him. His secret was safe.

“If I think of anyone I’ll let you know.”

“Cool, thanks man. And – Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re cool with Bitty, right? Only you kind of ran off earlier, and I don’t want him to think he’s not welcome on the team.” He said it with concern, but there was clearly an undertone of warning in his voice.

Jack nodded. “Yeah. I’ll text him.”

“Good.”

He opened his phone as the door swung shut, drafting a message.

Dear Bittle,

Too formal.

Hi Bittle, well done for earlier, that was really brave of you. If anyone gives you any shit, let me know. You’re part of the team. If you ever need someone to talk to

No. That was too much. Maybe…

He thought back to when he was a much younger captain of a much younger team. It didn’t take much to stand up for someone.

Bittle – I’ve always got your back

He pressed send before he could think much more of it.

_X_

He’d been aware, somewhere midway through the fall of senior year, that Bittle had broken through into his closest group of friends. At some point over the last three and a half years of friendship with Shitty he’d stopped worrying about physical contact with friends, but it was still a shock when his subconscious thought loud and clear over coffee one morning, Wouldn’t it be nice to hold his hand?

He didn’t even entertain the thought. He’d dated a few girls at college, and liked all of them, and if he was being honest with himself he would acknowledge that the reason he hadn’t gotten serious with any of them was that there was this huge fucking secret of his sexuality which was so intertwined with everything that he couldn’t ignore it without losing this whole other side of himself. If he could turn off the part of him that liked men, he would but, as Shitty had drunkenly explained many times, it wasn’t a case of being half-gay and half-straight. You can’t repress the gay side. You can only repress the whole damn thing.

It was a lot to run through his mind in the split second it took to notice Bittle’s hand lying casually on the table.

He refused to think about why he was going to his first kegster in years, or why he was spending the whole thing chirping Bittle, and he definitely wasn’t thinking about how chirping and flirting were essentially the same thing.

And then Kent.

It took a few days and a flight back to Montreal to process what had happened. Kent hadn’t moved on. Kent was still living in their glory days, even though these should be his glory days.

Jack wondered if Kent had ever been on a date, or come out to anyone who wasn’t a one-night stand.

Maybe hiding wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

_X_

In the end, it had been surprisingly easy. There was no existential crisis. There was no big revelation, or intense self-examination, or inner turmoil.

There was just Bittle.

_X_

Bitty had decided not to come to the parade.

“Sweetpea, it’s for you,” he’d said as he kissed Jack goodbye that morning. “You and the team. I’m going to lay low for a while. I’ll watch from the balcony, and I’ll blow you a kiss. Now go, or you’ll be late!”

He’d never admit it but it was easier, without Bittle there. Being out was new – very, very new – and the one time they’d so much as gone to the grocery store together they’d been spotted half a dozen times. This was hockey time. This was something he knew.

“Jack! Jack Zimmermann! Selfie? We made you a flag!”

It was a Falcs logo on a Pride flag, clearly hastily sewn together the night before, but it was striking nonetheless. He grinned despite himself, leaning over the barrier, and allowed himself to be pulled into the picture. It wasn’t a publicity stunt or a statement; it was a celebration. He allowed himself to be pulled into the sheer joy of it all, that they’d worked hard and won, and not just the Cup.

He looked up to the balcony of his apartment where Bitty was leaning over the rail. He was too far aware to see his expression, but he couldn’t miss the hand that Bitty pressed to his lips and flung across the crowd.

Yes. This was good.