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Loneliness Isn't Over Until We Begin

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There’s a wild anger brewing.

The August sun is sprawled on the bleached white pebbles, the cicadas are hard at work over their cymbals, the lakeshores are quiet with distant laughter, and there is a wild anger that smokes and boils, offbeat, out of place. Charlie hasn’t even taken off her sneakers, the better to kick small rocks around the length of beach she’s pacing. She looks like a sulking kid, and she almost doesn’t mind, because shoes on, clothes on, sweat drips down her spine and pools in every dip, and that itch is somehow right. She is itching all over.

Jaya texted her back this morning.

She said, i don’t care. Nothing more, nothing since.

She didn’t have to break her week-long silence for that, like a long week of silence needed clarifying. Jaya didn’t care to pick up the phone when Charlie called, she didn’t care for Charlie’s apologies, and — no points for guessing — she doesn’t care about the room assignments at their upcoming camp.

Charlie felt like the floor fell out from under her feet when she saw their names next to different room numbers in the latest email from Hockey Canada. They always room together. No one even bothers to ask anymore, it’s Charlie and Jaya, they room together. Or, they did, before Jaya decided she could do away with even the best-worn of their traditions.

That’s not fair, Charlie doesn’t know for sure that Jaya asked for a different roommate with only that text to go on, but it implies it enough. Charlie had sent first did you see that hc email? we’re not roommates? what should we do? Even with the fight they had, she thought —

Well, it doesn’t matter. Jaya doesn’t care, full stop. Message received.

And still, Charlie hates that they’re not talking. Everything is so fucked when they’re not talking, like having to skate on a broken foot, but it’s days of pressing down on an ache instead of minutes.

She thought about going over to the Singh’s before leaving for the lake, but she hasn’t had to listen to Rahul gently break it to her that Jaya didn’t want to come to the door since middle school, and she could do without revisiting that particular time in her life. Rahul is a kind man, he always had every regard for Charlie’s feelings and pride, but it was humiliating all the same, in part because of how much it hurt. Charlie doesn’t deal well with being ignored.

Frustrated to be literally and figuratively going round in circles, she flops down on the ground, grabbing fistfuls of pebbles at either side of her feet, and letting them trickle down between her fingers. They fall with a dull, hollow sound, but the sensation is as hypnotic as wind chimes.

Charlie and Jaya so rarely stay upset with each other that their warring ways of expressing it haven’t been a problem, which just means it’s a difference they haven’t yet managed to resolve. There’s nothing Jaya hates like Charlie’s slammed doors, Charlie can’t stand Jaya’s cold shoulder, and they know this about each other, and they remain set in their ways anyway. When they want to wound as much as they’ve been wounded, it’s too easy to use that knowledge to lash out.

Their fight, this time, it was bad. There’s no denying it. Charlie has been playing it back, trying to pinpoint the moment she let it get away from her, but they were both adding plenty of fuel to the fire. Charlie ended up saying things she regrets. She hopes Jaya regrets some of what she said as well.

Hockey isn’t everything! And you — you aren’t everything.

Charlie closes her fist around a rock that has resisted the soothing of waves and time, its edges digging into her palm until it feels close to cutting the skin, then she springs to her feet and throws the rock as far as she can, far into the water. It’s not far enough to relieve any of her pent-up anger, and her chest heaves under the weight, the breath leaving her mouth in painful gasps.

Léon startles and looks up from where he had been joyfully wading through knee-deep water, bending every so often to sift through the water with a great many splashes, inspecting the lake’s depths for anything interesting. He’s probably seen it all, but that hasn’t stopped him before.

“Charlie!” he shouts. “Everything okay?”

He’s put his hands around his mouth, his whole body drawn into the effort to amplify his words like he’s standing on the other side of the lake instead of twenty meters away, and his voice cracks a little at the end, from the unsteadiness of being fifteen. Charlie loves that kid.

She waves him away, mollified despite herself, and tries to shake the rest of the tension off her limbs. She is not going to waste her last day at the lake. Once she’s back in Montreal, she’s not stopping until next summer.

Charlie undresses down to her swimwear, and sloshes towards Léon, wetting the back of her neck out of habit.

“Have you put sunscreen on, Léonardo?” she says as she comes up to him. Léon prefers to do it at home, but their parents practically threw them out after their nap, with strict instructions to spend the rest of the afternoon out on the lake, and they’ve learned not to linger when that happens, so he didn’t get the chance.

Léon shakes his head to indicate he hasn’t done it on his own initiative while Charlie was distracted. He sighs but complies when she gives him a little push towards their beach bags and says, “Go on.”

***

Charlie feels better after a swim, in spite of all the lake water she and Léon got up their noses trying to dunk each other’s heads under the surface. It doesn’t last. The Olympic orientation camp would be a big deal, would make her nervous enough, if she was sure of Jaya, Jaya as the other half of their defense pairing, Jaya by her side. As it is, she can’t think of anything worse than getting on the road alone the next day with nothing to distract her from the worries and jitters.

She’s a big girl. Obviously, she won’t ask Marc or Dan to shorten their vacation to come with her, like she needs them to hold her hand all the way home, like she’s a selfish eleven-year-old who hasn’t learned to be happy with her fair share of attention. If she asked, they would, and that’s plenty. That’s plenty of love to feel.

It’s love like them trying to make her last evening special, Dan letting her choose the music, Marc making an effort to cook. He makes salmon with the creamy port wine sauce, Charlie’s favourite, but every bite is a chore, a struggle to swallow. She ends up pushing her food around her plate more than eating it, sorry that she can’t show more appreciation for Marc’s hard work.

She claims the washing-up to make up for it, though Marc hovers just the same, leaning against the counters to her right as she washes pans and spatulas, weary of leaving his kitchen utensils in her care ever since she ruined a cast-iron skillet, years ago.

“You can use less soap,“ he says. Then, as she refuses to acknowledge his micromanaging, “Have you started packing?“

Charlie tries really hard not to roll her yes. “Not yet,” she says.

“You shouldn’t keep it for tomorrow. If you don’t want to wake up too early, you won’t have much time, and you always forget something when you do it last minute.”

Charlie huffs, nice and dramatic. “I got it, Papa.”

“Okay, Charlotte,” is Marc’s snappy comeback. Charlie almost manages to hold on to her irritation, but the look she sends his way is mostly amused. “It’s nice to see you livelier,” he continues, “you seemed down at dinner. Are you nervous about the camp?”

Charlie says nothing for a while, head down, focusing on the movement of her hands, the soap suds glistening and rolling off them, while she orders her thoughts. “I’m…” she stops, tries again, more composed. “Sure, I’m nervous. It’s the Olympics.”

“But there’s more,” Marc says, with the usual flash of perceptiveness, damn him. She sees him cross his arms out of the corner of her eyes, expectant.

She's poised to let the whole sad affair spill out of her, Jaya's name tickling up her throat, and she wants to, is the thing, she wants to tell him, but it’s so difficult to put into words, and it’s even more impossible to let the words fall between them, out in the open. She chances a glance at Marc. His brow has gone tight with concern, and she’s tempted to give him something a little less than true, that she’d have more ease parting with, anything that wouldn’t be a rejection of his open offer to unload her burdens on him.

It's not quite a sore point between them that she played favourites for so long, because Marc would never begrudge Dan a sliver of love. At nineteen, she is just painfully aware, like she wasn't when she was seven or fourteen, that he must have been hurt when she sought Dan over him, to comfort her, to counsel her. It might be kinder to say whatever she can until she figures out how to say more, except Marc wouldn't thank her for half-lies meant to protect his feelings.

"Do you want me to get Dad?" he asks in the face of her silence, and even though nothing in his tone sounds disappointed, Charlie feels terrible. She nods, mute. He softly squeezes her shoulder once in response, then heads out of the kitchen.

“Charlie?” Dan says a moment later, as he trails in after his husband. Marc makes to leave again, but Dan catches him by the hand, wordlessly asking him to stay. Where does Charlie even start untangling for them the complicated knots along whatever ties her and Jaya together? Suddenly, she can’t look them in the eye, she isn’t ready. She turns back to the sink and scrubs the last of the dishes harder. Shit, she’s making such a mess of the whole thing.

“Hey, I think that’s clean, sweetie,” Dan says, with the gentle voice he uses to talk all of them out of their meltdowns, which should be embarrassing or vexing, she’s got it under control, but she finds she's mostly grateful for the kid gloves. He adds, entreating, “Would you please come sit down with us and tell us what’s bothering you?”

Charlie straightens the rack, dries her hands on the towel, squares her shoulder. “Fine. Let’s go,” she says.

***

This is what happened.

Over a week ago, Jaya and Charlie were on Charlie’s bike, on the way back from training. The drowsy air of the late afternoon sweeped hot over their skin, carrying to Charlie’s nose a faint smell of sweat their speedy showers hadn’t completely washed off. Jaya was driving, hands relaxed on the handlebars, Charlie was rambling about their workout program in the back, one arm in a casual hold around Jaya’s waist.

“–and a week at the lake can’t set us back too much,” Charlie said. “There’s the gym equipment, plus, long distance swimming might do us good. I want to work on our VO2Max more intensively, I feel like that’s what we need to get to the next level. Since Myriam usually trains forwards, she–”

“Hold on,” Jaya interrupted. “What’s this about a week at the lake?”

“Ah. I guess I forgot to mention it.” Charlie patted Jaya’s hip in apology. “We’re leaving for the lake cabin the day after tomorrow. Papa wants to get out of the city, you know how he is with the heat.”

Usually, Jaya would have made fun of Charlie for glossing over her own intense dislike of heatwaves, but she said only, “And I’m coming?” Her back had tensed, every muscle locked in place. The half of her profile Charlie could see looked upset.

Charlie frowned. “Of course, you’re coming.” Jaya had been to the lake plenty of times before, and she had a standing invitation besides to spend as much time as she wanted anywhere the Riley Lapointes happened to be.

“How am I supposed–” Jaya cut herself off, breathing sharply through her nose like she does every time she needs to stop herself from raising her voice. “You can’t drop this on me with barely a two days’ notice. I’m not going.”

Charlie didn’t understand. “You didn’t say you had other plans.”

“I don’t!” Jaya’s fingers were making the plastic cover of the handles squeak from gripping them too hard. “Let’s stop here.”

“What?”

Jaya had already signalled a turn, rolling to a stop in a side street, a good ten minutes away from Charlie’s home. She climbed off the bike, turning to be face to face with Charlie who had to scramble not to overbalance. “A week, Charlie!” Jaya pushed a strand of hair that had escaped its clip back behind her ear with a nervous hand. “I can’t.”

“But why?” Charlie said. “I told you, we’ll manage our training together. A week’s not that long, we’ll be fine for camp.”

Jaya’s face closed right off. It had been the wrong thing to say but Charlie couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be.

“And it has to be about hockey, right?” Jaya said freezingly.

That made Charlie’s hackles rise. “What are you even talking about?” she said, always quick to shift to the defensive. “The Olympics are in four fucking months, I should hope so!”

Jaya did raise her voice then. “I know! Can you just — shut up for a second about the Olympics!” Her neck and shoulders were pulled taut, and she visibly strained to calm down, veins slowly melting back under her skin. “You don’t get it.” She repeated, more defeated. “You don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?” Charlie snapped.

Jaya shook her head, exasperated. “That hockey isn’t everything! And you–” she wavered, bit her lips, then pushed on– “aren’t everything.”

Charlie took the hit. She could take it. She had to.

“I mean, not everything is about what you want,” Jaya finished more quietly.

She hadn’t said that Charlie was nothing, Charlie took pains to remind herself, only that she wasn’t everything. That made sense, that was reasonable. Really, very reasonable, Jaya was right. Charlie shouldn’t want to be her everything. Shouldn’t didn’t stop the hollow feeling in her chest from growing. So, of course, she retaliated.

“Yeah, no, I got that already. We wasted–” Charlie spat the word viciously– “an entire year of development, all because you wanted to play at being a university student more than you care about playing professional hockey.”

Jaya had been witness to Charlie’s mean streak more times than either of them could count, but she had almost never been on its receiving hand. She was livid. “We didn’t waste anything, and I’m not ‘playing’ the university student, and I fucking care. You know none of that is true, why would you say that?” Her eyes turned almost pleading. “What are you saying? We both wanted McGill.”

“No,” Charlie corrected her with a sneer. “No, I wanted to play with you, and you wanted McGill.”

The words landed with dead leaden weight on the pavement between them, and Jaya crumbled, looking briefly devastated. Then in a blink it was iced over, the coldest expression she had ever aimed at Charlie ironing out her features, propping up her ramrod straight back.

“Drop out, then,” she said, and strode away without a second glance.

Charlie reeled back. The bike clattered at her feet. She barely noticed. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t go after Jaya, she couldn’t even understand how everything had fallen apart so quickly.

Charlie hadn’t lied. She came to McGill for Jaya. She had spent the two years they weren’t playing on the same team constantly looking over her shoulder for a partner that wasn’t on the ice, knocking shoulders on the bench with empty space. It was exhausting. They’d agreed, both of them, to reunite as fast as possible. That had been Charlie’s first priority in deciding where to go after high school, if not Jaya’s.

For Charlie, it was a given that the best part of going to university was that they’d get to go together. She wasn’t smart like Jaya — in fact, she often thought the only thing on Earth she was good at was hockey — but Marc and Dan hadn’t let her slip for one second below the grades necessary for university admission. And her hockey had done the rest. She didn’t want McGill, but oh, McGill wanted her hockey.

It didn’t want much else from Charlie.

Jaya was a different story. Jaya had received a scholarship, she was serious about university. She did the readings, and raised her hand in class, and studied in the library, and did well on all her exams. Jaya loved it there. Charlie didn’t.

She didn’t love the classes, she didn’t love the hockey. The best part of her week was still the time she spent on the ice, but that wasn’t saying much. The Olympics were just around the corner and sometimes, during practice, when Charlie looked around at her team, how they gossiped about course load, teachers and house parties between drills, like this was still Junior A, she would feel so scared that she was falling behind that her stomach would sink all the way down, and stay curled up there.

Being selected for the U20 tournament for the second year in a row, making the first pairing with Jaya, had tasted nothing like relief. It was more pressure to prove that the national team would need her to win gold at the Olympics. By the end of the tournament, Charlie had been voted best player of the game once, Jaya twice, they were the scoring leaders among defenders, and that wasn’t enough, not for Charlie. The Junior Championships were one thing, when it came to the Olympics, Hockey Canada wouldn’t care how good she was for her age. They cared that she was the best.

At McGill, she didn’t feel like the best. She was too slow and unfocused for her professors, she was too obsessed with hockey for everyone, including her teammates. Get your head out of the rink, Pointer. Live a little, Pointer. Surely, it was alright for Charlie to love hockey like she always had. She didn’t need movie-perfect college adventures, she honestly had just wanted more time to play with Jaya.

It wouldn't have been too bad if Jaya had felt the same way, at least a little bit, if she had sometimes said yes to staying on after practice with Charlie, if she hadn’t kept bolting out of the rink like she couldn’t wait to be done. It had been a lonely year. Charlie had missed her family so bad.

She pretends she doesn’t give a shit what people think of her, and never has, but it had been hard enough not to care when she was sixteen and suddenly unsure who she was if not for people’s eyes on her. It was all the harder at eighteen when everybody else seemed to have magically figured it out, and had tired in the meantime of waiting for her to catch up.

She was proud that Jaya was doing well, she was happy for her, but she could feel Jaya drifting a little further away with each passing day, like it was as obvious to her as it was to Charlie that Charlie didn’t belong anywhere in her shiny new university life. Jaya took her seat, in the locker room, in the lecture hall, and made it look easy. At times, Charlie felt like she didn't have it in her to get through the door.

Charlie had tried to explain how it felt to Jaya, the burning inadequacy and the fear gnawing at her heels, but she hadn’t explained it right. She blundered, Jaya’s ease coming up too often in opposition to Charlie’s own problems, as if she was dismissing the sweat and tears Jaya shed to look effortless. Jaya hadn’t liked that. By her assessment, Charlie had sounded like an entitled brat who never had to worry about money in her life turning her nose up at university.

Every time Jaya’s aim had some truth, it did an awful lot of damage.

They had a fight about it, another one. Jaya and Charlie didn’t use to have many fights before McGill.

All year along, Charlie had missed Jaya and how they used to be, she had missed her the most when she was right there, and she had clung to the idea of summer. It was supposed to be better, come summer, when school was out. She was supposed to get Jaya back. But here was summer, and she was still left standing alone.