It is the Christmas Eve in New York. Bright lights, busy people, something like holiday spirit in the air, Julien thinks, if you look for it.
He’s alone, just passing through. Was meant to be on his way to Europe already, where he’s supposed to attend the World Juniors. He would be flying over the Atlantic right now, if it wasn’t for a late flight and a missed connection, leaving him stranded in New York. He could have stayed at the airport, wouldn't have had to wait for more than a few hours, but it's Christmas, and New York, so instead Julien decided to stay at the city over night.
He does have acquaintances in New York, yes, but not anyone he could call, just drop by. Julien feels more comfortable by himself, walking around, no clear direction in mind.
There’s no snow in the city, but it’s still cold enough to eventually drive him inside. He selects a bar at random, because it looks inviting, cozy, not too crowded. Inside the lights are dim, with fairy lights twinkling, and music not too loud. Julien breaths in the warm air, starts removing his hat and jacket, takes it all in. And that’s when the world stops.
There, off to the left side of the room, sitting at a table alone.
His face is turned down and his hairline has receded, he has gone a little soft in the middle, gotten old. And still, Julien recognizes him. Still, the sight of him makes Julien’s hands go suddenly numb and for a moment he is frozen in place, as if there was a spell cast over him.
Alexei next to Julien in the locker room, on the bench, on planes and cars. In beds, turning to look towards Julien, smiling, making Julien’s poor, poor heart stutter and stop over and over again.
Julien cannot get out of there fast enough.
The cold air hits him like a punch in the gut, his hat in his hand, his jacket open. He forces himself to breathe, to concentrate on the mechanics of his lungs working. Air going in, coming out. The blood in his veins continues to circulate, the people walking past him to talk and laugh and live, and the world continues to turn.
Julien thinks: he is inside, and I must go to him. And then: I must leave, now, before I take one more look at him, before I am turned to stone.
There’s the sound of the door behind him, then a touch on his shoulder. Julien knows, even before turning around, who it is.
This is the first time in almost six years that Alexei has touched Julien. That Julien has been touched by these hands.
Julien turns around, because it’s the only thing he can do.
(Alyosha’s eyes have not changed. Julien is not proud of this being his first thought.)
Alexei says: ”Julien.” Breaths in, and again: ”Julien-”, the name cutting off abruptly, his jaw tightening, almost as if he meant to say something more, or something else, but stopped himself at the last second.
(Julien is sure that Alyosha did not see him walk in. Julien didn’t take, couldn’t take, his eyes off of Alyosha until he made himself turn his back on him, and Julien is sure that Alyosha did not notice him in that moment.
Did Alyosha recognize his back, the set of his shoulders? Did Alyosha feel a change in the air of the place, did he feel a tug in his heart? In his soul? Did he raise his head and look right up to Julien leaving through the front door?
And isn’t it funny, tragically comic, how after all these years, all this distance, turning his back on Alyosha was still an inhuman act of strength, going against all of Julien’s instincts, his very nature?
Had it been easier for Alyosha, back then?)
There’s a certain pattern to these meetings of old teammates. It goes like this: you shake hands, or clap backs, or both. There’s good-natured, exaggerated chirping about receding hairlines, soft bellies, current jobs, or golf courses. There’s reminiscing of old times, lots of it: that overtime goal, that win, that fight. More often than not there’re pictures of families, and the old question for Julien to dodge, to make a joke of: ”Where’s your wife, kids, family?”
It’s like a play on ice that he has long since performed: a tic-tac-toe, puck to the net, easy as that.
It’s not easy with Alexei.
(It used to be easy:
Him and Alyosha, perfectly in sync on the ice, off the ice. Crisp passes tape to tape, not looking but simply knowing where the other was, where he would be in a couple of seconds, ready to shoot, to make it look easy.
Easy understanding between them, despite not having a shared language, other than the one they created together. A language made of silences, as much as of words. Shared looks, gestures. The slightest of smiles curling up the side of Alyosha’s mouth, an eyebrow raised by Julien. A connection that felt like a blessing, until later. Until Julien could do nothing but reflect on the fact that maybe, maybe it would have been better to have more words between them, maybe that would have made a difference.
Maybe it would have only made things harder.
Julien has had a lot of time to think about this.)
It’s not easy, because there’s so much to say, and no words for it. Because Julien has imagined this moment countless times over the years, written scripts for it in his head. Because years ago he used up all his words already, on phone calls that never got picked up, on voicemails he doubts Alexei ever listened to. Words shouted, sobbed, slurred.
His mouth is dry. He could really go for a drink.
Instead of an accusation, or a plead, or a confession, Julien says: ”Merry Christmas, Alexei,” in a voice too rough. There are no other words left.
They spent so many Christmases together. Sometimes on the road, sometimes in Vancouver, home.
Alexei didn’t celebrate Christmas like his North American teammates, or the other Europeans. Growing up in the Soviet Union, he told Julien, New Year was the bigger holiday for him.
Still, Julien thinks Alexei enjoyed Christmas, or at least, tolerated it. Usually the guys on the team who couldn’t make it home to their loved ones would have dinner together, or drinks. It wasn’t a big celebration, not a Christmas meal surrounded by family, exactly, but it was joyful.
But more than those team dinners Julien remembers little parts of Christmas days with just him and Alexei: waking up before the rest of their city, going for a jog or a walk when it was still quiet, holing up to watch movies together, that one year they drove out of Vancouver and up to the mountains.
They were never big on gifts for each other: perhaps those would have felt too much like confessions.
Julien tries not to believe in miracles.
Once, him and Alyosha had been something like a miracle together. Miraculous how they had ended up in that same place, at the same time, in circumstances that had made it so easy to become everything to each other. Miraculous that they had ever kissed, ever held each other.
He tells himself that meeting Alexei like this is not fate, no higher powers at play. And even if it was more than a coincidence, it would be something more like a curse than a miracle.
It’s not too late to make an excuse, to feign hurry, rush off.
(He wants to touch Alyosha again. Just one more time, he tells himself.)
Alexei shifts his weight from one foot to another, a nervous-looking gesture that pulls at Julien’s heart, painful. He wants to believe that this is a gift, a chance, a Christmas miracle.
So when Alexei looks him straight into the eyes, a resolute look Julien remembers all too well, and asks: ”Drinks together, one more time?” Julien doesn’t really have a chance.
It’s a terrible idea. But he really needs a drink, really needs to keep looking at Alexei, really needs to touch him. Julien has never been very good at resisting any of these things.
With desperate hope in his chest, and a feeling of impending doom in his gut, Julien follows Alyosha inside.