Alexi Lalas doesn't understand personal space the way most people do. And by "people" Michael means no higher standard than the average, well-adjusted 42-year-old man who should have long ago come to terms with the fact that one does not go about making friends by pulling pigtails, much less other body parts. A handshake and a clap on the shoulder is par for course; a back-thumping hug, not unheard of among teammates past or present; but Lalas is the kind of person who pulls you along by the wrist and smacks your arm when it suits him and puts a hand on your knee when it suits no one at all. What might pass for friendly overtures in Lalas' emotionally-stunted sandbox is, in the real world, more appropriately termed harassment.
Or, at least, an irritation. One that he has been condemned to in this hellhole called the ESPN studio in Connecticut. No place needs that many C's in its name, especially if you're not even going to acknowledge half of them in the spoken form. Bloody English language.
And bloody English-speaking commentators, his so-called co-workers whose mission in life seems to be anything but co-work with him. Never mind Lalas; if Bob Ley throws out another "So what are your thoughts, Michael?" as a starting prompt, so help him — Michael would have trouble answering such a vague question in his native tongue, much less in this godforsaken lingua franca of their godforsaken times.
Some days he's almost grateful for Lalas' incessant need to dominate a discussion, because often as not it means he'll interrupt Michael in the middle of a sentence. And, inadvertently, save Michael from floundering through a half-formed thought in German with no English equivalent in sight.
He'd sooner die than admit it. He'd sooner lose to a Dutch team coached by John Terry and captained by Joachim Loew, should it come to that.
And that's the irritation talking. Which is ironic, because the source of his irritation never seems to do anything but talk. Chatter, is perhaps the better word. Talking implies actually imparting meaning unto the listener's ear.
"But that's just what I'm saying," Lalas declaims, his voice barging into Michael's train of thought. "You have to play to your strengths, and that's just what England did. You want—"
"But was a tactical mistake?" Bob Ley leans forward as if expecting his prompt to actually be rewarded.
Lalas blinks at him. "A tactical mistake?"
"If they had — was that their only option, playing the way they did, more defensive than attacking?"
"Look," Lalas says, something indefinably smug in his sudden long-suffering tone, "I'm just saying, and this is what I've been saying all along, that you want to play to your strengths. Simple as that. England don't have the resources to play the way a team like — Germany, which I'm sure Michael here could tell you, so they did the best they could, with what they had, and I don't know what more you could want from them. I say this was a moral win."
"But England didn't win." The other two start at his voice, as if they've forgotten he's still there. Michael spares Bob a glance, but his eyes are on Lalas when he says, "They drew."
Lalas' mouth snaps shut. And Michael would be lying if he said he didn't enjoy it.
The hotel lobby has begun to feel like something of a minefield. Returning or leaving, any hour of the day, one wrong step and—
Michael nods hello but doesn't stop walking; the elevators are in sight, and the number one rule to defusing unwanted situations is to stop them from forming in the first place.
Sadly, his least-favorite redhead in the world does not share the same view. The man practically saunters up to him. Michael heroically desists from breaking into a dead run. It's not the first time he wishes he were back on a football pitch: because in this kind of one-on-one situation, there is no alternate universe in which Michael could not beat a defender like Alexi Lalas.
"Me and the guys were gonna go shoot some hoops," Lalas says, because apparently one lifetime of sporting mediocrity is not enough for him. "Wanna come get schooled for a bit?"
"You make it very tempting," Michael returns, and somehow that makes Lalas grin. Americans are inexplicable. "But today, no. I have another commitment already."
Lalas raises an eyebrow as if commitments were something unheard of. Then he shrugs. "All right, man. We'll be there if your plans fall through."
"Of course. I will see you at the studio tomorrow."
"Same time, same place." Lalas throws a lazy salute and saunters himself out.
Michael looks back over his shoulder, just once, to make sure that Lalas isn't following him. He's just pressed the button for his floor when someone throws out a hand to stop the elevator door from closing; the panel eases back to reveal Twellman. Who seems surprised to see him.
Michael nods. "Hi." He presses the button for Twellman's floor as well.
The door finally closes. "I thought you'd be at the court with the rest of them," Twellman says.
Michael looks away from the slowly-incrementing floor numbers. "Pardon?"
"Alexi didn't invite you?"
It takes him a second to parse and re-piece together the conversation. "Ah. No, he did." Though, speaking of which — "You are also not going?"
"Nah, I wouldn't want to make everybody else look bad." Twellman's grin is one that invites company, like childish cohorts in shared conspiracy. "Don't tell me you used the same excuse."
Michael shrugs. "No, but — I need to think, sometimes."
Twellman makes a humming sound. "Yeah, I hear you. Alexi's not one for subtlety, is he?"
"No," Michael says slowly, because he does agree, he most certainly agrees — only, somehow, it feels like agreeing to something more than a simple observation on a certain someone's penchant for space-crowding.
Especially when the next words out of Twellman's mouth are,
"He likes you, you know."
The elevator dings before Michael can figure out the appropriate English slang for his incredulity.
Twellman gives him another smile. "See you around."
It changes nothing, except for what sleep Michael may or may not have lost that night replaying every incident and irritation of the past month. In the morning, he orders an extra shot of espresso and carries on with his job.
Lalas carries on arguing and analyzing and — yes, provoking Michael for a reaction. A rise, a protest, a vicious put-down. Exactly like a schoolboy tugging at a girl's pigtails, as much to know the soft satin of her ribbons as to see her flaring anger, attention fixed on him, even if for the wrong reason.
At least it makes for lively discussion.
He should have seen it sooner, probably. He would have, had he been looking for it. Had it been a different tournament, a different person — but wishes are for spectators, not players. (Though, he supposes, he is a spectator now.)
He does nothing about it, because there is nothing that needs doing. The summer will end and he will return home, with or without a contract extension from the faceless powers-that-be. It's not an unfamiliar feeling. Nor is he a stranger to leaving people and things behind.
Still, there's a vindictive part of him that bares its teeth when Italy beat Germany in the semifinals. It's the way those young faces crumple at the knowledge of a chance wasted, another ambition unfulfilled.
Seven and counting, Michael says to them in his mind. He doesn't know if it's warning or consolation or both.
"We're getting drinks," Lalas informs him when they've wrapped for the day. "Come on. You look like you could use a couple."
"I think I am fine—"
"Uh-uh." Lalas loops his arm around Michael's, patently ignoring the withering look he gets for his trouble. "Twellman's buying, and nobody's allowed to go easy on his wallet. I want the federal government to send him a bailout before we're done."
"I am seeing how you Americans always go into a recession."
"And I'm seeing why Germans aren't famous for diplomacy." Lalas tugs at his arm until Michael gives in. "That was a joke. But I rest my case."
Twellman does indeed buy everyone a drink. Michael buys the second. Bob gets the third, Twellman makes Lalas buy the next, and at that point Michael makes an executive decision to stop counting.
"You could've captained the team," Lalas says sometime later. He's leaning very close, close enough that his hand is nearly brushing Michael's thigh and his breath feels louder than his words. There's a strange conviction in the way he speaks, and Michael feels something uncomfortably akin to remorse.
Until Lalas adds, "I mean, you already lost like what, ten semifinals? One more and you'd be legend."
Lalas snickers at his own joke. Michael shoves him just hard enough to rebuke, not rebuff; Lalas grins at him.
"You are always like this," Michael informs his co-host.
Lalas shrugs. "Keeps things interesting."
"Is that the reason why?"
"You do this," Michael makes a sweeping gesture, unsure of his own scope. The whiskey in his glass swishes over what ice remains. "You pick me — to argue with me. People watching think we fight, you know this?"
"We don't fight. We debate." Lalas downs the rest of his beer. "Besides, I like you."
Michael opens his mouth. Closes it. Lalas watches him.
"Yes," he says finally, "I know."
Lalas laughs at whatever expression Michael's facial features might be making in that moment. He's not so sure himself. It's not a smile, but it's also not a frown, as it probably should have been. The smirk on Lalas' face also probably shouldn't look so forced.
"Hey, no homo, man. Not like that, anyway."
"Oh." Michael's brain can't seem to catch up with this conversation. He drinks his whiskey. "Only..."
"No. It's," and he doesn't know how to finish that sentence, either. "You are a very strange person, Alexi."
"Yeah, nothing new there." Alexi stretches his arms and leans back. His arm rests lightly across Michael's shoulders.
Michael lets him.
It's all Twellman's fault, he decides around midnight. Twellman with his keen observations, Twellman with his hints dropped like dumbbells during unsuspecting elevator rides, and Twellman with his bloody generosity that sees him buying everyone yet another drink to wrap up the evening.
Michael should have said no. To all of it.
"Whoa, there." Alexi laughs when Michael nearly brains himself on the coat stand on their way out. He offers a steadying arm. "I thought you Germans could hold your liquor better than that."
"Stereotypes are not so charming," Michael mutters into his shoulder.
Twellman glances at them as he walks by. "You two want to split a cab?"
"Sure," Alexi says. "There's a Taco Bell on the way back."
"Because you haven't done enough damage to yourself with the drinking?"
"Lighten up, dude. You have to get Taco Bell after drinks. It's like, a great American tradition. Michael, you're in, right?"
Michael tries to shove Alexi away. "No, I — anyway, I am not American."
"All the more reason. It's like, cultural exchange."
"Representing the stars and stripes," Twellman says drily. "Fine, come on. I'm not leaving you two alone here."
"What, are you chaperoning us?"
"You do whatever you want, Lalas. Just do it behind closed doors."
Alexi's hand is on his back. Rather low on his back, Michael's brain amends after a moment. Or is it a minute? He's dragged outside and prodded into the back of a taxi, then smushed uncomfortably close to a window as two more people pile in after him. He shifts so he can lean against Alexi instead.
"Marriot on Hudson," he hears Twellman say.
That's the last thing he remembers before someone's shaking him awake.
"Hey, we're here." He swats futilely at the offending person. "Come on, good lookin'. Let's get you tastefully passed out on a real bed."
"Real subtle, Lalas," says another voice.
"A spade's a spade, Twellman."
And Michael groggily registers that, yes, the person helping him out of the car is indeed Alexi. No one else could carry off that unique brand of obnoxious charisma.
Twellman snorts, and Alexi laughs, "Wow, I'm flattered you think of me like that," — because apparently Michael said the last part out loud.
Twellman bids them goodnight at the elevator. The two of them get all the way back to his hotel room before Michael registers the greasy, salty smell. Alexi unwraps one of the burritos and hands it to Michael. Who stares at it.
"Eat," Alexi says, and disappears into the bathroom. He returns a minute later with a glass of water. "And that."
"What are you doing here?" Michael asks, finally. The glass is cold in his hand. He sits on the bed and feels suddenly too awake.
Alexi manages to scarf down half his burrito — but doesn't quite manage to swallow all of it — before answering, "Um, ea'in'?" A bit of black bean spews from his mouth. Alexi brushes it off with little to no regard for whatever stain it might have left on his trousers. He looks back at Michael. "Why? Do you want me to leave?"
"You would do what I ask?" It comes out a bit more sharply than he intended.
Alexi gives him a strange look. "I'm not a complete dick, you know."
"Are you not?"
"It's just how I am." Alexi wraps up what's left of his food. Shrugs. "Sorry if I, like, rubbed you the wrong way or something. Was just trying to be nice."
"Maybe," Michael says. His heart thuds, as if sensing the decision to jump before his head has even formed the thought. "But I am not like you."
"Yeah, I think that's been made clear, thanks." Alexi stuffs various wrappings and sauce packets into the plastic bag it all came in. He looks for the trash. "Sleep it off, Ballack. We still need to play nice for the cameras tomorrow."
"I am not angry at," Michael flounders for the word. He hates this language. "Not because you fight with me sometimes. It is television."
"Then, what? Sorry for trying to make sure you don't die of alcohol poisoning?"
"You doing this — these things." Michael gets up, because he can't sit there while another man is standing across the room. The height difference alone gives him a headache. Certain instincts are too strong to be overcome. He looks Alexi in the eye. "You are not teasing, only. You flirt with me."
The only sound is the plastic bag rustling in Alexi's white-knuckled grip.
"Wow," Alexi says eventually, "so the rumors are true."
"You think I'm here to take advantage of your homophobic ass? Is that what you—"
"No! I am saying—"
"You think I'm for serious, with that shit? It's called being nice, and if you—"
"You are serious!" Michael practically explodes. "And so am I!"
Alexi's mouth snaps shut. Michael looks for a word and finds it, but not its English equivalent. His throat feels raw.
"I have captained that team," he says instead. "I do not need another disappointment."
Alexi puts down the plastic bag. He takes a step forward, then stops. He searches Michael's face.
"Are we actually talking about this?"
"I prefer not to talk."
Michael refuses to be the one to look away first. He watches Alexi close the distance between them, watches him hesitate on the verge of reaching for Michael's wrist.
"Okay," Alexi says. "Okay. But — are you still drunk?"
Michael closes his eyes in exasperation.
Which is why he misses seeing the grin on Alexi's face.
He feels it, though, when Alexi kisses him.
Alexi Lalas doesn't understand social nicety or personal space, nor would he know an admission of defeat if it clobbered him in the face. In a way, it reminds Michael of himself. It's the part of him that wants a fight even when he knows he cannot win. Anger flares, momentary, but its roots lie deep and dark and unextinguished.
He wants, and wanting can be worse than disappointment.
He lets Alexi practically tear off his clothes, heedless of buttons and well-crafted seams. He lets the other man push him down, mark his body with sloppy kisses and hands too eager to touch, to cling, to scratch and claw as if they could excavate the secrets that Michael has entombed within himself.
The look on Alexi's face is ugly, open want, and Michael knows, as his knees hit the carpeted floor, that he will hear this man beg.
So he lets it happen, because he knows how this ends.
He goes to the bathroom to clean himself off, and by the time he re-emerges, Alexi is already mostly dressed. Michael leans against the door and watches him for a moment.
"Enjoying the show?"
"Nothing I have not seen," Michael replies.
"Wow, ouch." Alexi grins at him. "Didn't figure you for a use 'em and lose 'em kind of guy."
Michael shifts, shrugs. "You do not know me very well."
"Well as I need to."
Alexi looks for his belt. Michael spots it under the bed and picks it up, hands it over.
"Hey, thanks." The belt buckle clinks. A pause. "You all right?"
"Hm?" Michael blinks. He'd been staring at Alexi. He moves away and starts to strip the bed of its soiled sheets. "I am fine."
"You're also a terrible liar."
"We should not do this. Again."
Michael drops a rumpled pillow to the floor. When he looks up, Alexi is watching him with an amused expression.
"Damn, Ballack. Are you actually worried about me?"
"What? I am—"
"Chill. I know." Alexi scratches his head. "I wasn't gonna say it, but you're bringing it up. I'm not looking for anything. I just really wanted to fuck you."
And Michael — really, truly needs to learn more colorful English for situations like this.
"That's why?" he asks. "That's it?"
Alexi shrugs. He looks almost chagrined. "In my defense, you're really hot?"
Michael scowls at him. "And you are easy."
"Hey, I'm not the one who blows a guy after just—"
Michael throws a pillow at him. Alexi ducks, laughing. Michael clenches his jaw against the smile threatening to usurp his frown. He doesn't altogether succeed.
"Get out of my room, Lalas."
"Yeah, yeah." Alexi slips into his shoes. "See you tomorrow."
”Sure,” Michael says, and the word is easy. “See you.”
Alexi closes the door after himself. Michael thinks about tidying up for all of two seconds, then just turns off the lights and lies down on a mattress that still smells faintly of sweat and unclaimed things.
When he sleeps, he doesn't dream; or if he does, it is of nothing certain, only dark and light, fractaling like the shapes between a football's seams.