After the press conference, Jack keeps his phone turned off for the next two days. It’s not like he’s avoiding people. Everyone who deserved to know was told beforehand, and everyone who might need to contact him knows to go through Shitty. Shitty says he doesn’t mind – that Jack’s basically a practice client for him, and Jack knows him well enough by now to take him at his word.
Jack’s sure there are people who think they deserved to know before the press conference, or who think they deserve to hear Jack’s explanation. And maybe some of them are right. It’s a penalty of being famous – or maybe just a penalty of being Jack – that the circle of people who care about him is much smaller than the circle of people he cares about. Jack’s sure he left off someone important in his long list of relatives, friends, former teammates, former coaches, former mentors, former whatevers.
“Johnson says ‘haha good 4 u man’,” says Shitty, reading off his phone. He tilts back in his chair. “And your mom is sending you a care package. Ransom and Holster want you to come to New York – though why would you? Place is a fucking cesspool. Oh – and Kent Parson has called Lardo, like, three times.”
“What?” says Jack. He stops petting Shitty’s mom’s cat and stares at Shitty.
“It’s true,” calls Lardo from the kitchen. She comes out with two beers. Jack hadn’t even realized Shitty’s mom kept beer, but he guesses if anyone would be able to find it, it would be Lardo.
Lardo nods solemnly. She hands one of the beers to Shitty and then takes out her phone. She thumbs at it, and a second later, Kent’s voice crackles through, “Hey, uh, Lardo, right? It’s Kent. Kent Parson. If you get this, if you’re still in touch with Jack… can you tell him to give me a call? Thanks.”
Lardo sets her phone down on the dining room table and raises her eyebrows at Jack.
“That’s the first one. He sounds major stressed in the next two, dude.”
She and Shitty share a look like they’ve been debating whether or not to even tell Jack. Jack swallows down his anger, but just barely. He’s going to be better, he tells himself. He’s going to be better this year. It’s natural for Shitty and Lardo to be worried about him.
“How does he even have your number?” asks Jack.
His voice is tenser than he wants it to be. Shitty’s mustache does a complicated little wiggle in Lardo’s direction that means oh shit, as if Jack can’t read Shitty just as well as Lardo can.
“Probably from the Epikegster he showed up at forever ago,” says Lardo evenly. “You want me to call him back, or what?”
“No,” snarls Jack.
He gets up – Kitty Bennet leaping to the ground with a disgruntled mrow – and grabs Lardo’s phone from the table. The screen is still unlocked, and Parse’s voicemail still pulled up. He hits the call button and strides out into the hallway before either Shitty or Lardo can say anything else.
Parse picks up on the second ring.
“Lardo! Thanks for calling me back. I – ”
“What the fuck do you want, Kent?”
There’s a stunned pause, and then, “Jack?”
“Yes,” snaps Jack. “Why are you calling my friends?”
Parse laughs, short and incredulous.
“Are you kidding me? I’m fucking worried about you! You just quit – ”
“What I did is none of your business.”
“Oh. No. No, you don’t get to pull that shit with me, Zimmermann. Not after last time.”
“This is completely different from last time.”
“And how’s that, Jack?” demands Parse. “I don’t get a call from your mom at three in the morning this time? Yeah – it is different. At least I’m not in your fucking hospital room this time.”
“Fuck you,” spits Jack, and he hangs up.
He paces down the thickly-carpeted hallway of Shitty’s mom’s apartment building and yanks open the door to the stairway. He’s not sure where he’s going. He just needs to get out. To get outside. Lardo’s phone has already started ringing again. Jack turns it off. And then he nearly runs right into Shitty’s mom.
“Oh, hello, Jack,” she says, a little breathlessly. She’s holding a cloth bag of groceries in each hand.
“Ms. Kni – Beatrice,” says Jack, pulling up short, panic spiking. He could have knocked her over.
Ms. Knight looks at him vaguely from behind her thick glasses and frowns.
“Here, let me,” says Jack, ducking his head to avoid her frown. He’s been staying with Ms. Knight since his press conference, at Shitty’s insistence it was the perfect place to hide out. It’s fine. It was a good idea, but he has no idea how Ms. Knight sees him. He can’t imagine he’s made a favorable impression. He reaches for her bags.
“I could have gone while you were at work…”
“Oh, no,” says Ms. Knight firmly, but she hands Jack the bags and leaves him no choice but to follow back down the hall to her apartment. “Oh, no. Definitely not.”
Neither Shitty nor Lardo mention Jack’s outburst when he walks back in, and Lardo only gives him a concerned look when he hands back her phone. He can feel, though, the familiar creep of shame and embarrassment up his back. He ignores it and goes to the kitchen to help put up groceries.
Shitty follows him in.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” says Jack, setting apples into a bowl on the counter.
Shitty just gives him a look.
“It’s none of my business anyway,” he says.
Jack snorts. “Like that’s ever stopped you before.”
Shitty’s mustache twitches. He smiles.
“True. So what are you thinking?”
Jack takes one of the apples and looks at it.
“I think all the people I disappointed by being average at least now have something to be happy about.”
“Bro, you weren’t average. You were like fucking seventy-fifth percentile. Above average.”
If he’s being honest with himself, Shitty’s right, which is true more often than he cares to admit. He didn’t fuck up and flame out. He wasn’t Rookie of the Year – he’d lost that chance years ago. But he was okay. Even Jack himself could admit that. He led the Falconers in points both years he played, and they made it to the Conference Final last year, lost the series to the Bruins after seven games.
He got a beer with Johnson afterwards, who, in a weirder story than Jack’s, had signed for the Bruins after spending a year on the Appalachian Trail. Ransom had a theory – shared via multiple group texts – that Johnson’s long time spent away from civilization had given him the ability to slow down time and levitate.
“Cheer up,” said Johnson at the bar. “There’s always next year. And the year after that. And the one after that.”
“That’s really inspiring,” said Jack. He stared into his glass and thought about two years ago when Bitty had found him on the loading dock after that final game, when neither of them had said anything at all. He’d been ashamed then, and angry, disappointed with himself and full of self-loathing, but full of love, too, for Bitty and the team, and then beneath it all a hollowing sadness that this was it. There would be no more chances with Samwell.
All he felt now was annoyed.
“It’s the inherently Sisyphean nature of sports, dude.”
Jack looked up from his glass. It had been three years since he’d last seen Johnson – the same length of time they had actually known each other. Jack had forgotten just how weird he could be. “Excuse me?”
“You know.” Johnson’s hand went up diagonally, indicating a slope. “You play the game. You win. Or you lose. And then you play the next day. And you win or you lose. And then you play the next day. And then the season ends. Everything restarts. Boulder goes up the hill. Boulder rolls back down. Boulder goes back up.”
“Boulder goes down. There’s always next year,” finished Jack for him.
“Now you’ve got it.”
Jack looked up, at the televisions lining the hotel bar, playing sports highlights from all over the world. He saw himself for five seconds, from hours before, dashing down the ice, getting the puck from Levitz and hurtling it into the net, at an angle Johnson couldn’t have been able to see. Except suddenly Johnson was in a totally different position, like the tape had skipped, erased the intervening motions. It had been like that from Jack’s perspective on the ice as well.
“Ransom wants to know if you can slow down time.”
“Nah. Not exactly." Johnson spun his glass between his hands. "I just take a step outside the story.”
Ms. Knight makes a pot of tea after Shitty and Lardo and leave and pours herself and Jack each a cup. Jack accepts his cautiously. Shitty’s mom drinks pots and pots of lapsang souchang, which tastes like a campfire if Jack is being generous or like an ashtray if he’s not. But she must be more observant than she seems, because this brew is something milder. It’s still no coffee, but Ms. Knight doesn’t have a coffee machine and seems to live solely off tea, hummus, and fruit. But Jack could stand to drink less caffeine, he thinks.
“Are you familiar with Achilles?” asks Ms. Knight. She sits down at the table and pulls a sheaf of essays from beneath her chair.
“Uh,” says Jack. “Trojan War. Achilles’ heel. Pat – Patra. Somebody named Pat.”
Ms. Knight gives him a withering look, and starts reading the first paper on her stack. The look of concentration on her face reminds him of Shitty.
“Not a Classics fan, then.”
Jack blows on his tea and sips it. It’s scalding.
“Is there a reason I should know about Achilles?” he asks politely.
Ms. Knight hums tunelessly and crosses out a whole line on the paper, then writes a tiny, exclamatory note next to it. Jack feels a brief moment of pity for whatever student she’s terrorizing.
“Well, it’s important to have a broad base of knowledge on which to stand. I tried to do that with Bertram. Of course, his father and I had our disagreements about what that meant…But, I’m losing track of my train of thought.”
She looks at Jack sharply from over her glasses. It’s a pinning stare. He’s starting to think the absent-minded professor act is purely an act. He drinks his tea, patient.
“Right, yes. His mother, Thetis. She was a Nereid. A daughter of – oh, well, you wouldn’t care. She knew a little about Achilles’ future, and she told him, he could either not go to Troy, inherit his father’s kingdom, and be forgotten. Or go to Troy and die, but be remembered forever.”
“Huh,” says Jack.
Ms. Knight strikes out another line on the paper.
“Who would take that deal?”
Jack puts his tea down, frowning.
“That’s a little dramatic.”
Two weeks after the Falconers' play offs ended, the Bruins won the series 4-2 against the Aces. So that was one Samwell alum with a Stanley Cup.
Three days later, Jack told George he wanted to break his contract.
He’d been thinking about it for a while.
He tells Shitty later about his conversation with his mom and Shitty laughs.
“Fucking typical, man,” he says, sounding fond. “Everything I did growing up she had a fucking Classics corollary for. I fell off the roof at my asshole uncle’s house on the Cape and it was Icarus this and Icarus that for months.”
Jack laughs, too. “So I shouldn’t be offended?”
“Nah. Though,” Shitty makes a brief, aggrieved noise. “It’s not even accurate, right? ‘Inherit your father’s house or go down in glory.’ You went with none of the above.”
Being a professional hockey player actually wasn’t that glamorous. Which Jack suspected he should have already known, but growing up, playing in the minor leagues, he’d been too scared of it all to really notice. But all he did his first year was eat, sleep, and play hockey or train for playing hockey. Occasionally, he also did press.
He got along well with his teammates. Made the kind of friendships that happen in the pressure cooker of sports, intense but not always lasting. And four years at Samwell had given him a facsimile of acceptable human interaction, and at least in the NHL, it was fine to only ever talk about hockey.
He read a lot of group texts and listened to a lot of podcasts. Mostly, he remembers that year passing glassily by, from an airplane seat or a bus seat, the interior lit golden and the darkness of Somewhere, America collapsing down around them. The whole year, he felt like he was on meds again at his worst, at two-removes from any emotion.
“How are you even more of a robot?” Kent had chirped on the ice, when the Falconers played in Vegas.
But he didn’t have anything smart to say later, at his place, and Jack had left in the dim morning, long before Kent would wake up.
He takes Ransom and Holster up on their offer. He goes to New York. Ransom’s starting his second year of med school at Columbia in the fall, and Holster is working in finance, which makes Shitty vibrate with repressed rage, and apparently involves a lot of sitting in a basement looking at spreadsheets.
Jack doesn’t give them an exact day he’s going to show up, let alone a time. It’s spontaneous. He’s trying to be spontaneous. He doesn’t think it through though and he gets stymied at the door to the apartment building. Neither Ransom nor Holster seem to be home, since neither responds to his buzzing. He thinks about texting them. But it’s a golden, only slightly humid afternoon. And Jack has time. He’s not used to having time, and it ripples out decadently before him. He could go for a walk.
“Jack Laurent Zimmermann,” says a voice behind him. “Is that you?”
He spins around. Bitty stands in front of him, looking tired and surprised, a cone of ice cream rapidly melting in one hand and a messenger back slung across his chest. He’s wearing salmon shorts – Ransom’s influence probably – and his calves look. His calves look good.
Jack swallows hard.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
Bitty’s eyebrows shoot up.
“What am I doing here? What are you doing here? Jack!”
And then he launches himself at Jack and hugs him, dripping ice cream all over Jack’s shirt in the process. Jack doesn’t really mind.
He untangles himself from Bitty and grins at him sheepishly.
“Ransom and Holster said I should visit, and, well, since I have so much time on my hands now…”
“You mean since you quit the NHL,” wails Bitty. He shoves at Jack’s arm with his non-ice cream holding hand. “Are you okay? How is everything going? Why did you do it? I know you told me it was happening, but I was just so busy with moving and graduation and everything… And Jack! I’m sorry. I feel like I wasn’t supportive enough. I – ”
Jack holds his hands up, begging for peace.
“A little quieter, Bittle, if you don’t mind.”
Bitty cuts off mid-word, but his eyes are huge.
“Do you have a…” Jack gestures at the door, and then frowns at Bitty. “But, really, what are you doing here?”
“I have an internship!” says Bitty. He digs into his pocket. “And a key. I’m doing a social media internship. Ransom and Holster said I should crash at their place for the summer.”
Jack absorbs this. He watches Bitty push the key into the lock, kick the bottom right corner of the door, and then shove hard with his shoulder. The door opens grudgingly.
“You’re being paid to tweet?” says Jack.
Bitty’s facing away from him, but Jack still notices his ears go bright red.
“Well, except for the part where they’re not paying me. Dad wouldn’t even have let me do the internship, except Ransom and Holster are letting me stay rent-free as long as I make them pies… But it’s good experience! Lots of companies need people to oversee their social media nowadays.”
“And you’ve graduated,” says Jack, stunned. It’s stupid to be stunned. He was at Bitty’s graduation, though briefly – there’d been play-offs. There’s even a photo somewhere of Jack with his play-off beard standing next to Bitty in his graduation cap and gown, both of them smiling. But the photo had been about as long as Jack had been able to stay, and there hadn’t been much time to speak since. It’s still hard to imagine Bitty as a college graduate. It’s hard to realize the world continues to gallop forward when he’s not looking at it. There’s a part of him, not the same part that admires Bitty’s calves, but a part, that sees Bitty as a freshman still.
Bitty makes a face at him from over his shoulder.
“Don’t remind me. I kept thinking maybe I could fail my art req and have to stay another year, but I think Lardo would actually have murdered me.”
“They’d just have made you make it up over the summer anyway,” says Jack. He clasps Bitty on the shoulder. “So are you going to show me up?”
“I didn’t realize you were in New York for the summer,” he says, once Bitty’s shown him up. It’s a small apartment. With a futon that Bitty’s clearly been sleeping on and a large TV in the living room, and two doors that lead to the bathroom and Ransom and Holster’s room. There’s a tiny kitchen set off to the side of the living room, with maybe two total square feet of counterspace. Ransom and Holster have a coffee table – littered with beer bottles – but no dining table. So Bitty’s set up an ironing board as a makeshift workspace. It makes Jack feel sort of terrible and lonely, and he’s sure it’s driving Bitty nuts.
“I feel like we’ve already established that,” says Bitty.
“I know. I’m saying, how come I didn’t know?”
“Oh.” Bitty looks flustered. His hands flutter around for a moment before reaching into a cabinet and pulling out a mixing bowl that he carries back into the living room and sets on the ironing board. “I guess it just happened so fast. I didn’t know for sure until the middle of May, and we had play-offs and then there were finals and graduation, and you had play-offs and then your whole thing, and I guess there was just never a good time to bring it up.”
Jack nods, uneasy. It’s not like he’s entitled to know everything about Bitty’s life. But he considers him a close friend. He hasn't been good at keeping in touch.
He doesn’t have long to reflect on the feeling. Ransom and Holster show up in a mini-avalanche of delighted cries and hugs and pounds on the back, summoned by Bitty’s text.
“Zimmermann, you fuckface,” says Holster, clasping Jack’s shoulders and shaking him. “It’s great to see you.”
The rest of the afternoon and evening unspools easily. They drink beer and eat pie and Ransom and Holster order take-out from their favorite Indian place. Jack starts doing the math in his head – how much time he’ll have to spend at the gym to work this off, and then brings himself up short. He doesn’t need to do this math any more, doesn’t have a nutritionist. He’ll still go for a run in the morning, but it’s nice to not have to worry about hitting his macros. Freeing.
They catch up and talk shit and play ‘Guess the Celebrity’. Jack manages to keep a straight face for all of five seconds when he says Beyoncé is Michelle Obama, but finally has to laugh at the mingled expressions of horror, pity, and shock on his friends’ faces. It’s the loudest and the longest he’s laughed in a long time, and when he’s done, Ransom punches him in the shoulder.
“I’m not that awful at this,” he says. “And Bitty had a poster of her in his room."
“You really are that awful at this,” says Holster grimly, and he pulls up the image of yet another young blonde woman on his phone.
“Taylor Swift,” says Jack, for the third time, and, at the sound of the groans, knows it’s still not her.
“So,” says Ransom, when the night starts to wind down. He eyes the futon. “When me and Holster invited you, we kinda forgot, we popped the air mattress.”
Holster nods solemnly. “RIP SS Henrietta. You were a worthy vessel.”
He and Ransom knock the necks of their beers together and then drain them. Bitty catches Jack’s eye, his mouth twitching, and it’s all Jack can do to suppress a smile of his own. He’s amused, and morbidly curious, but he spent the better part of four years adamantly not encouraging Ransom and Holster’s shenanigans, and he has no intention of starting now.
“I can just sleep on the floor,” he says. “I brought my sleeping bag.”
He’s immediately overridden by three dissenting voices, and after five minutes of quick conversation in which Jack is not allowed to take part (he spends it clearing the coffee table and shoving leftovers between cases of beer and pie ingredients in the fridge), it’s decided: he and Bitty can share the futon.
It’s less awkward than Jack expected. Biity doesn’t take up much room, and seems insistent on clinging to the far edge of the futon. Which, actually, once Jack starts thinking about it, is kind of awkward.”
“Are you awake?”
“Yes,” says Jack. New York’s louder than Providence. He shifts so he’s lying on his other side, facing Bitty. Bitty’s looking up at the ceiling, face striped orange with the light leaking through the window blinds.
“What’s going on?”
Bitty shifts – squirms, really. Jack waits.
“Are you doing okay?” asks Bitty, finally. “With everything that’s going on?”
“Yeah,” says Jack, taken aback slightly. “I mean… It’s what I want. So, yeah.”
He waits for the next question – for the why. To have to justify his decision. But it doesn’t come. Instead, Bitty smiles, genuinely pleased.
“Good! Good. I’m really happy for you, Jack. You seem really… Much more at peace.” He chances a quick, fleeting glance at Jack and laughs. “Though, I used to be so jealous of how sure you were about what your next step was. And now, well…”
Jack grins. “And now I’m a bum sleeping on Ransom and Holster’s futon.”
“Yeah, well.” Bitty scrunches up his face and looks away again. “You’re not the only one.”
Jack considers that, and then he asks, “Are you doing okay?”
Bitty does seem kind of stressed, he thinks.
“Oh! Yeah. I’m great. I’m really – New York is just such a,” and then Bitty deflates with a sigh. He must know that Jack knows he’s full of shit.
“Bittle,” says Jack patiently. “Bitty,” he adds softly.
Bitty’s mouth twists.
“I think I’m just having some trouble right now.”
“What kind of trouble?” asks Jack, keeping his voice neutral. Bitty laughs – a tiny puff of air. He must recognize the tone.
“I just don’t think I know what I’m doing.” He pauses, and Jack lets the silence take shape between them. He’s good at silences. He wasn’t always.
“I don’t even know what my company does,” says Bitty, when he realizes Jack isn’t going to say anything. "Not really. Marketing consulting! What even is that? Is that really something people need? Does it make anybody happy?”
“What do you want to do?” asks Jack, which isn’t a fair question. It’s not one he could answer. Not anymore.
“That’s the thing,” says Bitty. “I don’t know.”
He covers his face with his pillow and his voice comes out muffled, flat. “I thought the end of high school was hard. But at least I knew what the next step was – apply to college. And then at Samwell… Well, I always had the next game or the next test. And now what? I don’t know what the next step is. I just have to keep figuring it out. Forever.”
Jack listens. He understands, or he does now. But he knows, too, that his money makes the difference. He has two years of savings from an NHL salary and his father’s money to fall back on.
“You’ll figure it out,” says Jack, and then, because that feels trite and Bitty doesn’t respond, adds, “I’m serious. You have a lot of valuable qualities. You’re hard-working, you’re charismatic, you’re enthusiastic.”
Bitty laughs quietly. “I think your pep talks have gotten better.”
Jack pokes him in the shoulder. “Don’t chirp me, Bittle.”
“I’m not chirping!” protests Bitty. He finally removes the pillow from his face and grins wickedly, giving the lie to his words. Jack’s heart does a double-skip and he almost-flinches. He’s known about this for a long time, but has set this particular longing aside, something for another season.
But there’s no reason to pull away now, he thinks, no longer any reason to deny himself this.
“Jack?” says Bitty uncertainly, when Jack’s gone too long without saying anything, spent too long fixed on Bitty’s face.
Jack rolls onto his back. Bitty’s vulnerable right now, he reminds himself. And Jack doesn’t know how Bitty would react if Jack made a move – Jack doesn’t want to make a move, really. Not on Ransom and Holster’s suspiciously stained futon at two in the morning.
“You could always move in with me,” he says, still avoiding Bitty’s eyes. “If you really needed to.”
Bitty’s quiet for so long, Jack thinks he may have fallen asleep, but finally Bitty says, faintly, “Goodness. That’s very kind of you.”
“No problem. Someone has to be around to tell me who Taylor Swift is.”
His second year – last year – he finally found some breathing room. It wasn’t like he had hours and hours of free time, but his sleep schedule adjusted. He didn’t feel the need to spend as much time killing himself in the gym. He Skyped Lardo a lot to watch history documentaries together in silence, while Shitty wandered in and out of the background, making comments. He managed to visit Samwell twice, excluding graduation. He read three actual books.
He barely used his camera at all.
He still loved being on the ice. He still loved playing, the fierce joy and sense that he was flying. That never changed.
He still loved hockey. But he missed the life he’d built around it.
He calls his dad the next morning. He hasn’t been avoiding his parents. They talked before his announcement, had that argument then to no one’s satisfaction, and he’s texted his mom a few times since. She’s apparently been able to talk Bob into giving him some space. But he knows he’ll have to have this conversation eventually. And he feels up to it now, full of pie for breakfast, and sitting on the fire escape in the drenching summer sun, smelling asphalt and exhaust, the city steaming in vivid life around him.
His dad picks up quickly, and Jack takes a deep breath.
“Jack!” says his father. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
“I’m in New York. I’m just traveling. I’m seeing friends.”
Bob digests that.
“Traveling?” he says.
“Like I said, just to New York, to see friends,” says Jack, already starting to feel annoyed. It’s not like he fucked off to Europe.
His father grumbles, a sort of hrrrm noise. Jack tries to visualize where he is. Probably the den. Their whole gigantic home and his father could usually be found in the same three rooms.
“I just – I thought you were over this whole finding yourself thing,” says Bob eventually. Jack realizes this is Bob trying to be diplomatic, but still, he freezes.
“This whole ‘finding myself’ thing?”
“Don’t give me that tone, Jacky,” snaps his father. “You know what I mean. The coaching. College.”
“College wasn’t finding myself!” Jack’s voice pitches high and he experiences a familiar pall of dread. He’s disappointed his dad.
But Jack knew going in, he reminds himself, that what Jack was doing would disappoint him.
Bob changes tack.
“I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. I just don’t understand why you’re doing this. I thought you wanted to play hockey.”
Jack closes his eyes. It’s almost word for word what Bob had said to him after the overdose – I don’t understand why you did this.
What had been terrifying, after the overdose, was that it was the first time he could really explain his reasons for doing something, but that no one had understood him. He was paralyzed with fear – had been drowning in his fear for months - that he would fuck up, that everyone would realize he was a fraud, that he was never going to be as good as his dad - and taking the pills had seemed like a logical response to that fear. He hadn’t wanted to die – hadn’t expected to – but it had been a way to hold the future at bay, his inevitable failure, for at least a little longer.
But he had never needed to justify to anyone why he wanted to play pro hockey. It was always self-evident that he would want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He had been an embarrassing baby, a fat and awkward child. Being on the ice had been the first thing he had been good at. And he had been great. So of course he had wanted to play pro hockey. Who wouldn’t?
“Jack,” says his father, and Jack realizes he’s gone too long without saying anything. “I’m worried about you. Your mother’s worried about you. We think you should come home. Are you taking your medication?”
“Dad, I love you. But I don’t want to come visit you yet. You can come see me while I’m here,” says Jack. He takes a deep breath. Lets it out. Watches a woman walk her dog down the street. The dog tries to nose at some interesting garbage, but quickly gets tugged away.
“All right, Jack,” says Bob, very tight. Jack’s surprised. He expected more of an argument, suspects it’s his mom’s influence at work again – don’t fight with him, Bob, you’ll only push him away.
Jack’s throat catches. He loves his parents. They’re good people. They’re good parents. Sometimes, he thinks it would be easier if they weren’t. He knows it wouldn’t, that it would just be hard in different, maybe even worse, ways. But it means he can’t blame them, not in any meaningful way. It’s not their fault for assuming the same things everyone else had, for assuming what Jack himself had. Of course he wanted to follow in Bob’s footsteps.
It wasn’t his father’s fault for casting such a large shadow.
“Dad. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” says Bob, wary.
“Why is it so important to you I play hockey?”
“It’s not,” says Bob, bewildered. “Jack, your mother and I just want you to be happy.”
Talking to his parents on the phone had been a nightmare the past two years. Bob was proud. Bob wanted to talk stats. He had advice. He’d heard from one of the guys, and they thought Jack was doing great, eh?
And Jack would sit there, stomach crawling with both shame and pride, and fight with himself over pulling up his father’s stats from his first few years playing. It wouldn’t be meaningful, not this many years apart and their situations so different.
Usually, he managed to succeed. But when he didn’t, he’d pull up both their stats and stare at them until he either had to Google any number of analyses on how he was stacking up against his father, or call Shitty to talk him down instead.
“You need to get a dog, Jack,” Shitty had told him once, though kindly.
“I don’t think a dog would be as good a deterrent as you.”
“Not a fucking problem. We’ll get you one that bites.”
He goes for a long run after his phone call, tries to figure out how he’s feeling. He wonders if this is how it is for other people. If they have to treat their body like an oracle, full of signs and portents, or if they can just know what they’re feeling and why. He’s upset, he decides, but not without reason and not unreasonably so. And the run helps calm him down.
He keeps running. He’s pretty sure he’s recognized, but no one chases him down, and he goes down enough side streets that he figures out quickly no one is following him.
He spends the rest of the day cleaning. It’s not something he actually has much experience doing. His personal spaces have always tended towards sparseness and organization on their own, and he left the common areas of the Haus to their own fluctuating cycles of chaos and order.
But it’s calming work to do the dishes and collect old beer cans and fold the sheets on the futon. Bitty finds him doing just that.
“I had no idea you were this domestic,” says Bitty.
“Hey, now,” says Jack cheerfully.
“You’re a man of hidden depths,” says Bitty innocently. He drops his messenger bag and goes to the closet-sized kitchen.
“More pie?” asks Jack, slightly nauseated by the idea. Bitty made close to a pie a day in the Haus. But there’d been over a dozen college athletes and their friends to spread that out among.
“I make more than just pie,” says Bitty.
Jack hums, skeptical. Bitty sticks out his tongue.
“How was work?” asks Jack.
“Oh, you know,” says Bitty vaguely.
He hunches over the potato he’s peeling. Jack eyes him. It’s the same kind of response Bitty used to give about his grades. But he doesn’t press.
“They loved the mini-pies I brought in last week,” supplies Bitty. Jack nods. He’s not surprised.
“Bittle, if you’re not happy...”
Bitty laughs, loud and a little sharp. He turns to face Jack, hands on his hips.
“Honestly, Jack, it’s just the summer. I’ll figure out the rest.”
Jack looks at him for a long moment. He likes to think he’s pretty good at reading Bitty by now.
He nods. “Okay.” And then he lowers his voice and changes the subject. He cocks his head in the direction of Ransom and Holster’s door. “So are they…”
Bitty giggles. “I can’t tell,” he says, voice equally hushed. “They don’t act any differently from how they did in the Haus. I kind of wonder if they just have a bunk bed in there.”
Jack and Bitty both eye the closed bedroom door speculatively.
“We could find out pretty easily,” says Jack.
Bitty hesitates. “We could. But… I don’t think we should pry. If they wanted us to know, they would tell us. Besides.” He raises his eyebrows in the direction of the unmade futon. “It’s not like sharing a bed is any indication of being a couple.”
“Fair enough,” he says, conceding the point. “Can I help you with anything?”
“Hmm,” says Bitty. He’s managed to find room in the tiny kitchen to dance while cooking. Jack doesn’t know the song he’s playing – it is, in fact, indistinguishable from any number of pop songs Bitty has forced on him. But he likes it, though maybe not on its own merits.
“I think you can just sit back and relax and not get in my way,” Bitty decides.
Jack laughs and accepts the decision. He watches Bitty cook.
The first time he said out loud that he might quit, he was on Skype with Shitty. It was a sleeting February and he’d finally gotten home after four games away. They’d won two, lost two, not great, but not bad for what was probably going to be their hardest stretch of games until play-offs. He'd felt gray with exhaustion, mumbled stock replies to Shitty until finally, it had come out.
“I’ve been thinking about doing something else.”
“Something else?” Shitty’s eyebrows disappeared into his flow. “Like, going to a different team?”
“Like quitting the NHL.”
“Dude,” breathed out Shitty. “Is this about… You know. Hockey’s suffocating gender norms and toxic masculinity?”
Jack made a face.
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“So what’s it about?” Shitty leaned back, face furrowed with concern.
Jack shifted uneasily.
It might have just been his expectations inevitably failing to live up to reality. He had been moving toward this point his entire life, disregarding one half-thought-out attempt to delay it. How could actually being in the NHL ever compare to all the time he’d spent wishing he was already playing there? He’d expected to be happy, but instead, he just alternated between rote numbness, annoyance, and dread.
Some of that must have shown on his face, because Shitty said, “Shit, man, you’re really fucking serious about this?”
Jack nodded. Shitty sat there, for once in his friendship with Jack, at a loss for words.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” said Shitty. “I’m just…processing it. You’re, like, the best fucking hockey guy.”
Jack smiled, but the smile didn’t linger.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
“But, yeah. I guess it would be cool if you could be someone else.”
“Do I need to give you the self-care talk again?”
Shitty laughed, and then turned serious again.
“You know,” he said, after another uncharacteristic pause, and with more delicacy than he usually willingly exhibited, “that’s a symptom of depression, not enjoying stuff you used to enjoy.”
“I’ve never been in the NHL before,” Jack pointed out. Samwell had been Samwell and in the juniors he’d had Parse. “And I still love playing. The rest…”
“The rest is bullshit.”
He stays in New York for ten days. Time used to be what stressed him out the most. He could feel it pressing down on him. There was never enough of it. But it’s all he has now. Glorious, unfilled time. Holster’s hours are punishing, and Ransom has both a summer class and lab time. Bitty’s internship is forty hours a week, theoretically, but in practice, it’s often more.
He takes his camera and wanders the city, keeps a ball cap tugged low and wears a large pair of sunglasses and goes, for the most part, unacknowledged. He even experiments with growing a mustache, which Bitty regards with a kind of hypnotized horror and on which Shitty demands evening and morning updates, which Ransom and Holster are only too happy to oblige.
He loves using his camera again.
“I don’t understand why you don’t take pictures with your phone,” Bitty says to him one evening when he’s gotten home first. “It’s so much faster.”
Jack shrugs, and goes back to chopping onions and carrots, while Bitty rolls out dough on the now beer bottle free and sanitized coffee table. Bitty’s branching out. He’s making savory pies now.
“That’s kind of the point. It’s not about the speed. Or, it is about the speed.” He pauses, stops to collect his thoughts, because this is important.
“When everything gets recorded, uh, it’s sort of like, none of the moments have value any more. And you’re just… Uh, you’re basically just recording stuff as it happens. It’s constant. But with this.” He gestures at his camera. “I can step away from everything. I can take the moment and make it stay, live in it for a while.”
He likes to bring the moment back, framed, controlled, stilled.
Bitty scrunches his face. “Well, I can’t say I understood all that… But. It does sound nice.” He pats Jack on the arm and grins, “But have you ever taken a selfie with it.”
“Oh. No.” Jack blinks, and then he smiles tentatively. “But I guess we could try.”
Bitty was the second person he told he was thinking about quitting. He drove up to Samwell in April during a bye-week to see the team play and got coffee with Bitty the day before the game. He hadn’t even meant to say anything, but Bitty was one of those people Jack couldn’t always keep his shields up around.
“I don’t know if it’s what I want to be doing,” he’d said when Bitty asked how things were going. Maybe it was just that his conversation with Shitty was so fresh in his mind.
“Jack,” Bitty said, eyes wide. “If you’re not happy, you should do something different.”
“There’s more to life than being happy, Bitty.”
Jack looked into his coffee cup rather than look at Bitty. There wasn’t a good way to explain that happiness – sustained happiness – was a foreign land to him, that there was what would make him happy and what would make him whole. And he had spent the better part of six years following a map towards redemption only to find he wasn’t sure he wanted it. He didn’t have any landmarks now.
Bitty touched his hand, and Jack looked up.
“Maybe, Jack. But there’s no reason to make yourself unhappy either.”
Jack said nothing, and Bitty pulled his hand away. He fidgeted, turning his head to look out the window of the coffee shop. Jack watched his profile. He shouldn’t have dumped this on Bitty, he thought. He hadn’t been a good friend to him the last two years. And that had been excusable in some ways – he hadn’t been a very good friend to anyone. He hadn’t had the energy. But he had wanted especially to spend more time with Bitty, to talk to Bitty more. But he hadn’t because he hadn’t trusted himself, and he couldn’t ask for anything more than friendship from Bitty while he was in the NHL.
And yet here he was, asking Bitty to solve his existential angst for him.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Bitty laughed, once, short. “Yes. I’m just thinking about how much I’ll miss it.”
“I miss it, too,” said Jack, with a depth of feeling that startled himself. Was he thinking about quitting because he wanted life to still be like Samwell?
“Did I ever tell you I almost went to UGA?” said Bitty, contemplative. ”It would have been a lot cheaper. I would have been a lot closer to home.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“Because I needed to be somewhere else. I couldn’t do high school all over again.”
“I’m glad you came here,” said Jack.
Bitty smiled brilliantly. “So am I.”
They both fell silent. Jack finished his drink.
Bitty touched his hand again and squeezed gently. “If you quit, all of your friends will still be your friends. What you’re doing doesn’t say anything about who you are.”
He second-guessed himself the whole drive back. This was the kind of thing he was supposed to talk about with a therapist. Did he really want to do it? Or was he just scared of his success? Of failing again? It was impossible to really tell, to dig out his reasoning from the murky depths of why.
But he wasn’t a failure, he told himself, the sun casting red in his eyes as he turned the car towards Providence. He was a damn good hockey player. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it. He’d shown that.
He was just no longer sure he wanted to.
After New York, he goes back to Boston. He doesn’t really have a plan. But he’s not ready to be back in Providence. Or, worse, Montreal. He stays with Shitty and Lardo and their nudist roommate this time.
“I thought when you said nudist roommate, you were referring to each other…”
“Arthur’s cool,” says Shitty. ”And he keeps to himself.”
“And he’s promised to wear pants while you’re here,” adds Lardo.
“Hey!” says Shitty, affronted. “I was gonna make Jack squirm some more.”
Jack smiles. “I’m pretty sure you were naked when I met you, Shitty. There’s nothing left that can scar me that badly.”
Lardo howls with laughter.
He lets Shitty shave his mustache – “Sorry, Jack, but it’s a fucking abomination.” – and spends a lot of time with Lardo while Shitty has his own internship. She’s working on some pieces for an art show for a collective she’s in.
“There’s going to be a dance troupe, too,” says Lardo one afternoon. “Since this exhibit is all about the construction of meaning vis-à-vis the human body.”
They’re in an artist working space she has a room in, and Jack tagged along with his camera and to look at one of their darkrooms. His photo class mostly didn’t use one, but he’s fascinated by the space anyway.
Jack narrows his eyes at Lardo. He’s sitting on an old washing machine that takes up most of Lardo’s workspace and which will probably end up in a sculpture. “Did you just say vis-à-vis?”
Lardo smirks at him and flings a bit of paint at him. It falls just short and splatters the front of the washing machine instead. Lardo doesn’t seem to mind.
“Do you really have to talk about it like that?”
Lardo laughs. “Yeah, kinda. It’s part of the whole starving artist thing. That, and starving.”
Jack looks at his camera. What could he even say about his own photos?
“I just like taking nice pictures,” he says.
Lardo laughs. “But you’re not supposed to just say that.”
“Okay,” says Jack. He points at the canvas. “So how would you talk about that?”
Lardo smirks again and waves her hand at the canvas in front of her, twice her size and, as near as Jack can tell, a man’s back. Probably Shitty’s. Though it could be Arthur’s, he guesses. He wonders if Shitty and Lardo got a nudist roommate so Lardo could have another model to use.
“Okay, so this. I paint shit like that because I think bodies are interesting. I think dudes’ bodies are interesting. And there are a lot of dudes in art, but there aren’t a lot of naked dudes in art. There’s some, obviously, especially in sculpture. But I just wanted more paintings of dudes’ muscles. But I have to talk about it, like, oh, ‘I’m deconstructing gender and by zooming in I simultaneously de-emphasize the individual and remove the person from their societal context’ or whatever. And that’s all true, kinda. But it’s not true. It’s bullshit.”
It’s more words than Jack has ever heard Lardo say at once. He stares up at the painting. He holds his camera a little closer to his chest.
“Is it worth it?” he asks.
Lardo seems taken aback, but she considers the question.
“It’s hard,” she says thoughtfully. “And it’s a lot of bullshit. It’s a lot of fucking bullshit. But, yeah. Otherwise, why do it?”
He spends another week in Boston, and by then, it’s been over a fortnight since he made his announcement. It’s probably safe to return to Providence without being mobbed by the media on his front step.
He’s there three nights, and then Parse shows up on the fourth.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, when he gets the door and finds Parse standing there. Parse looks good – tan, hair long, scraggly play-off beard gone. There’s a rental in Jack’s driveway, something flashy and bright yellow.
Parse doesn’t say anything, just shoves past him and into the house, and it’s half in Jack’s mouth to threaten to call the cops. But even if he were willing to do it, he knows Parse wouldn’t care. Parse has never cared about the press or the attention and that’s what makes him untouchable.
He takes in Jack’s living room with two sharp jerks of his head and barks a laugh.
“Jesus Christ, Zimmermann,” he says, turning to face Jack. “You live like a fucking serial killer.”
Jack takes a slow look around the space. There’s a couch, black leather and brand new when he bought it, an overlarge TV perched awkwardly on a too small stand, a bookcase with his college books, and a Canadian flag tacked askew to the far wall. Ransom had put it up once when he had visited.
Then he looks at Parse, arms over his chest, chin out, eyebrows raised, mouth a defiant smirk. He could be Parse at eighteen. Jack could let the decade collapse between them.
“Serial killers keep trophies,” he says, inflectionless. “And I don’t have any.”
Parse laughs again, but it’s startled this time, and honest.
“You really are a robot,” he mutters, and he crosses to the couch and flops backwards onto it, his legs hanging over the arm. He scrubs at his face.
Jack lets himself smile while Parse isn’t looking at him.
“I should call the cops on you,” he says, looming over Parse.
Parse flips his baseball cap off his head and throws it at Jack in a smooth motion. It bounces off Jack’s chest. Parse flips him off.
“You’re in a good mood,” say Parse, when Jack doesn’t react at all. “You decided you can stand my presence, or what?”
“I decided it’s not worth being in the papers because I called the cops on Aces’ captain Kent Parson.”
“Don’t forget Corn Smythe award winner,” adds Parse. He grins, delighted. “But, yeah, press would fucking love that shit. And they’d play up the ‘former teammates’ angle like crazy.”
He yawns, jaw-crackingly wide and full-body stretches like a cat. Jack keeps his eyes trained on Parse’s face. He knows this trick, how Parse short-circuits the painful process of relationship-building with enforced intimacy. At sixteen, he had walked right past Jack’s guards like they didn’t exist, made allies of Jack’s parents, spent vacations sleeping on Jack’s floor, been the only person Jack could be touched by without tensing. And Jack at sixteen – friendless, nervous, silent – had been floored with gratitude.
“What do you want, Kenny?”
Parse’s eyes glitter. Jack wonders what Parse he’s going to get – angry Parse, flippant Parse, honest Parse?
“I want you to finally fucking talk to me.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“Bullshit!” cries Parse and he flings himself off the couch and gets right into Jack’s space, never seemed to notice or mind that Jack got a lot taller than him.
Jack looks down at him and shoves. Parse grabs his shirt and pulls Jack with him – he always fought dirty. And he stumbles back – Jack suspects on purpose – falling onto the couch and dragging Jack on top of him. And then he kisses him.
He wakes up around three. Kent’s sound asleep next to him. It had been like this the first time Jack saw him in Vegas. Jack hadn’t expected to sleep with him then, had wanted nothing to do with him. Sitting in the taxi afterwards, apparently – thankfully – unrecognized by the driver had been the first time he’d had a panic attack since going pro.
He’s not panicking now, but he doesn’t feel great about it. He’s never been sure what he owes to Parse and what he owes to himself, and every time they do something like this, it just confuses the issue more. He finds his jeans and his phone in his bedroom doorway. He pulls his jeans on and walks outside, phone his hand. He spent a lot of time in his backyard during the off-season last summer, sitting on his porch and reading and thinking vaguely he should invite people over for a barbeque, unsure of the logistics of that.
He sits down on the porch now and calls Bitty. He doesn’t think about it. It’s just a need.
“Jack,” says Bitty, groggy, picking up almost immediately. “It’s three in the morning.”
“Sorry,” says Jack. He remembers their late night conversation his first night in New York, how badly he had wanted to kiss Bitty then. He thinks about Kent in his bed now. What the hell is Jack doing?
“I just wanted to check up on you,” he says, and winces, because it’s a transparent lie.
Bitty, gracious as he is, doesn’t call him on it.
“I’m okay. I have work in the morning.”
“How is work?” asks Jack, and then he blurts out. “I’ve been thinking about that actually.”
And he has. He’s been thinking a lot about Bitty’s unhappiness, and it’s a strange sensation. He’s used to worrying about his teammates – are they getting enough protein? Enough rest? Are they getting along? How are they doing in practice? But he’s not used to actively worrying about anyone’s happiness. He wants his friends to be happy, of course. But that’s nothing like the sharp spike of nauseating anxiety he gets whenever he thinks of Bitty feeling trapped or sad or alone.
“What have you been thinking?”
“That you’d be great doing front office work for an NHL team,” says Jack honestly.
It’s clearly not what Bitty expected to hear. He lets out a sharp, excited noise and then breathes in. “Really?” he squeaks.
Jack nods. “Really. I could put you in contact with some people if you like…”
He thinks about George. She was the first person Jack had told, officially, about quitting. She’d been disappointed, but, Jack thought, not surprised. She doesn’t owe him in any favors, but he thinks she might do him one anyway. And, besides, Bitty’d be a good fit for the front office. He could stand on his own merit.
Bitty makes a low, amused sound.
“Did you just call me at three in the morning to say you might be able to get me a job?”
Jack laughs, chagrined.
“No,” he says. “I guess… I just realized that I don’t know what I’m doing either.”
He hears movement, Bitty sitting up he guesses, and a shift in Bitty’s breathing, like he’s more awake now.
“Are you having second thoughts?” asks Bitty carefully.
“No,” says Jack. And then nothing. He’s not sure what he wants to say to Bitty, only that he wants to talk to him. Maybe he should examine why Bitty is the first person he goes to after sleeping with the closest thing he has to an ex.
“I’ll talk to you later,” he promises. “Sorry for waking you.”
“Oh, well, that’s comforting,” says Bitty, but Jack’s already hanging up. He stays outside, chin on his hand, thinking.
A few minutes later, he hears the sliding door open behind him and someone step onto the porch. Parse.
“Jack? What the hell are you doing out here?”
“I was calling a friend,” says Jack, without turning to look at Parse. “Sorry. Did I wake you up?”
“It’s your house. Don’t apologize.”
Jack nods and Parse sits down next to him. Neither says anything.
“Why did you come?” asks Jack, once the silence has stretched and he’s realized, for once, Parse isn’t going to volunteer anything.
“Because I wanted to actually talk to you.” Parse’s voice breaks. “I’ve been in – I’ve been your fucking friend since we were sixteen and you don’t ever fucking talk to me.”
Jack winces. He’s not a cruel person. Not anymore. It took him a long time to untangle his cruelty from his anxiety. He used his anxiety as an excuse, and he had to realize it took more than not being anxious to be kind.
But he’s still not sure how to be kind to Parse.
“I’m sorry,” he says, which he knows isn’t enough, but at least it’s honest.
“Whatever,” says Parse. He tilts his head back and looks up.
They sit in silence. It’s one of those summer nights that feel temperatureless, and the sky is soft and black and rich with stars, Jack’s backyard secluded enough from other light sources that he gets more of the night sky than most of Providence. A couple of fireflies blink and wave in lazy curlicues, and Jack watches them for a while. The air smells like grass and loamy earth. He sifts through his feelings, walking through practices he learned in therapy.
He’s surprised. Even with Parse sharp and hurting next to him, even after what they did, he feels all right. He feels calm.
"Was it my fault?" asks Parse.
"Your." Parse waves his hand around. "Your overdose."
"No," says Jack, after a moment. "It wasn't anyone's fault. Other than my own."
Parse snorts. "Your therapist know you talk like that?"
Jack sighs. "I was jealous. And you were kind of an asshole. You were an asshole. And you really did not get it."
Parse doesn't say anything. Jack turns his head and looks at him. Parse's mouth is tight and his throat is working. Startled, Jack thinks he might be about to cry.
“Come on,” he says, standing up. “I want to show you something.”
He keeps a portfolio of his photography in his desk in his room and he takes it to the kitchen to spread it out on the table. Parse stands next to him, unreadable, watchful.
“I did a lot more in college than play on that ‘shitty team’.”
“You need to get over that,” mutters Parse. He reaches out and touches some of the photos carefully, moves them around.
Jack ignores him.
“It was nice, actually, to be good at something besides hockey.”
Parsse makes a dismissive noise. His fingers linger on a picture Jack took at the Haus. Bitty’s holding a pie in the center of the composition, light coloring him rose and gold, surrounded by frogs – rising seniors now, Jack realizes with horror. Parse’s fingers move on, brush past more pictures of the Haus, pictures of Samwell. With the benefit of two years, Jack can regard them with a more critical eye. They’re mundane, but pleasantly so. Not worth hanging in a gallery anywhere, but pleasant to look at, full of light and warmth. He’d liked having the camera with him, using it as a way to distance himself from events, but using it as well to capture the warmth and light and treasure it.
“You know you can’t go back,” says Parse, head bowed. “I get that it was fun and safe, but you’ve graduated.”
“There are a lot of things we can’t go back to,” says Jack evenly.
Parse looks at him, mouth twisting unhappily.
“Guess so.” He picks up a print. “I like this one.”
It's the pond at Samwell in mid-January, one of the first photos Jack took for his photography class. He’s surprised Parse likes it. There’s more stillness to it than he’s used to associating with Parse. He took it early in the morning, and the sky is still pink streaked behind the bare trees. The pond itself has an opalescent quality, the shadows at its banks are blue and dark. He remembers taking that picture, how peaceful he had felt, how struck he had been by all the colors – once he’d noticed them – on what should have been a colorless mid-winter day.
"You can have it, if you want," says Jack.
"You sure?" Parse frowns at the print. He's holding it delicately, just by the edges, apparently afraid he'll smudge or damage it.
Jack nods. He still has the negative somewhere, if he ever needs it. But...he wants Parse to have the print.
Parse laughs and passes the print to Jack.
"All right. Thanks. But you have to sign it. If I'm not gonna have Jack Zimmermann the famous hockey player's autograph, I'm gonna get Jack Zimmermann the famous photographer's."
Jack makes a face and Parse rolls his eyes at him before he can speak.
"You take photos. You're famous. Close enough."
“Fine,” says Jack. He finds a pen and signs it, feeling ridiculous. And then the ridiculousness fades and they’re both left standing in his kitchen at a dead hour of the night, awkward and at ends.
“I can leave,” says Parse, for once, uncertain.
Jack rubs his face. “It’s fine.”
Parse leaving might attract more attention than it was worth. And besides, he thinks, he’s not sure he wants to kick Parse out.
He ends up pulling out the couch and Parse sleeps there. Jack takes a picture of him when he goes – Parse, leaning against his stupid yellow rental, smirking and smudge-eyed in the morning light, two fingers held up in a V, by all appearances, an unbroken line between him and who he was at sixteen. But Jack's no longer sure if that's true.
After Parse leaves, Jack buys a plane ticket to Montreal for late in the summer and forwards the information to his parents, adds a note: “I’ll be there for a week.” He’s still trying to figure this out, how to set boundaries without forcing everyone out. He texts Bitty a quick, “Sorry. I’m ok,” in response to a string of worried texts.
Then, he turns his phone and his laptop off and he thinks.
Parse calls him that night. After a second’s hesitation, he picks up. He’s not sure where they stand now, if it’s worth figuring it out. But he figures the least he can do is pick up.
“Okay,” says Parse. “Why’d you quit? It doesn’t seem like you’re having a breakdown, so what’s up?”
“How was your flight?” asks Jack dryly. He can almost hear Parse roll his eyes.
“I’m serious,” says Parse.
“I know you are,” says Jack. He considers adding, ‘What makes you think you have the right to know?’ But he’s trying not to be deliberately hurtful.
“So?” prods Parse.
“So after I lost in the conference final, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go home.”
“That’s natural,” says Parse. “Everyone feels that way right after they lose.”
A memory rises suddenly, the obtrusive kind, like sleeping on the ground with a stone in your back, the first time Parse had ever really gotten mad at Jack, after their first really big loss. Jack had gone to their hotel room to sulk and after an hour of trying to wheedle him out of his bad mood, Parse had snapped.
“Fuck you!” he’d said. “You’re not the only fucking guy on the team, Zimmermann!”
Parse had always seemed to take it as a personal insult that Jack blamed himself for losses, like Jack didn’t think anyone else on the team could play if he was having an off day.
It had taken Jack’s first year at Samwell and several lectures by Shitty – delivered by him sitting mostly naked on Jack’s back while Jack tried to study – to realize that maybe Parse was right.
“But I’d been thinking about it before that,” says Jack. He feels himself slipping into cliché. It’s hard. Sometimes, in his more unfair moments, it seems to him like sports clichés are the only thing Parse understands. Or maybe it's just the only shared language they actually have. “My heart just wasn’t in it anymore.”
“So you didn’t have an irrationally emotional reaction to losing, and that’s telling you you should quit hockey?”
“No, it’s more than that. It just… It didn’t seem worth it.”
“Worth the pressure,” says Jack. “Worth hiding. Worth having everyone constantly try to judge or know what you’re doing.”
His stomach is turning over, his neck tensing. He remembers trying to have this conversation years ago. Ten days before the draft, the two of them in Jack’s bed and Parse’s hand on Jack’s stomach.
Parse had looked at him in complete incomprehension then. How could Jack think of not going to the draft? And Jack could barely believe he’d had the thought himself.
“You’re just psyching yourself out, Zimmermann,” Parse had said then. “Everyone knows you’re going to go first.”
Jack hadn’t been able to explain the overdose either, not in a way Parse could understand. And he hadn’t been able to stomach Parse going on without him. If they couldn’t talk without Parse miscomprehending and Jack shriveling with shame and jealousy, Jack had figured maybe they shouldn’t talk at all.
In the present, Parse says, “Is this because you’re gay? Because if you get the press on your side, they don’t fucking give a shit. They’ll cover for you.”
“I shouldn’t have to get the press to cover for me. It shouldn’t be relevant. But that’s not – ” He breathes out, frustrated. “It’s not just that.”
“Okay, but if you weren’t gay, would you still be playing?”
Jack doesn’t answer.
“I don’t want another kid quitting because of that.”
“That’s not why I…” starts Jack again, but he goes quiet. He doesn’t know if it’s true. It’s not the immediate cause. But it was part of the whole snarl of fear and anxiety that unmoored him at seventeen. He presses the heel of his hand into his eye. He realizes he’s thinking about Bitty again, the envy that had nearly ruined their relationship before it began. It had seemed so easy for Bitty to be who he was.
“It’s complicated,” he says finally.
“Well, I’m gonna uncomplicate it,” says Parse.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m gonna come out,” says Parse, with maddening calm. “I’m the best fucking hockey player there is. And it’s the off-season, so no one can say shit about me distracting the team or whatever.”
“Jesus Christ, Parse. I don’t fucking want you to do that!”
“It’s not about you any more, Zimmermann. Like I said, I don’t want another kid… going through all that shit. So maybe I can help.”
Jack takes a deep breath. “When are you even going to do this?”
“Next week sometime,” says Parse, practically airy. “I’m hammering out the details.”
Of course he’s going to do this, thinks Jack, a bit in awe. He probably spent the whole plane ride thinking about it, and nothing would be able to derail him now. It used to be he thought he and Parse were both perpetual motion machines, only Parse kept moving forward and Jack kept moving in circles. Now, he’s not sure they were ever on the same plane at all.
“Do you want me to be there?” asks Jack, resigned. “To support you?”
There’s a long silence. Jack thinks for a second that the call has dropped, but then Parse sighs.
“No,” he says. “I wish we could have done this together, Jack. I wish we could have done a lot of things together.”
Parse laughs, harsh and sad. Jack remembers that laugh, from years ago, in Jack’s hospital room – Parse pale and incredulous and still in the ill-fitting suit he wore at the draft, looking over Jack and saying, “Wow, Zimmermann, you really fucking blew it.”
Jack doesn’t know any more if that’s true.
“It’s cool. We’re cool, Zimms. Look me up if you’re ever in Las Vegas.”
And he hangs up. Jack doesn’t expect to hear from him again. Not any time soon.
Two days later, Jack drives to New York City and plays Johnny Cash the whole way. It’s a four hour drive, and by the time he finds a garage to park his car at, he’s talked himself in and out of his plan half a dozen times.
But, finally, he arrives at Ransom and Holster’s apartment. It's the middle of the afternoon and a Friday. There's no one in. Jack sits on the stoop, paces the block, gets a few curious looks, and hears one shocked, muttered, "Jack Zimmermann?" He ignores it and steps into a coffee shop, nerves jangling like he hasn't felt in a long time. He gets peppermint tea instead of anything with caffeine in it and doesn't drink it or read more than a few sentences of the biography he brought with him. Then, a little after five, he sees a familiar, golden head walk past the coffee shop on the other side of the street, headphones in, eyes glued to his phone. Jack dumps his tea into the trash and leaves.
Bitty doesn't see him, and he's half a block ahead by the time Jack makes it across the street. He jogs forward and touches Bitty lightly on the shoulder, and Bitty leaps nearly a foot into the air.
"That's a great vertical," says Jack, once Bitty's turned to face him.
"Jack!" says Bitty, in shock, clutching his chest, eyes huge. He smacks his arm. "You nearly gave me a heart attack! Goodness! What are you even doing here?"
Jack, to his own surprise, blushes.
"I wanted to ask you something," he says. He touches Bitty's arm and gently steers him around, back towards the apartment.
"And you drove all the way here? Jack, I know you hate texting, but..."
"Ha ha," says Jack. He takes the key from Bitty and opens the door for him, remembers to kick the corner and shoulder it open. "But really."
He takes a deep breath. Bitty looks at him with mild, watchful concern. He must still have Jack's 3am phone call on his mind.
"Do you want to go skating?" Jack asks. “I’ve, uh, rented out a skating rink.”
"What? Now? Should we wait for Ransom and Holster? You rented out a skating rink? In Manhattan?"
"I think technically it's in Queens. But I have a car. And us. Just us. Just the two of us."
"Oh!" says Bitty. "Oh." His mouth softens, turns down. "Jack, what are you doing?"
The floor of the foyer is a little sticky and smells faintly of cigarette smoke and cat litter. A couple packages are stacked haphazardly beneath the mailboxes. Someone could walk in on them any second. It's not private, it's not romantic, it's not dramatic. But Bitty's looking at him, hope and doubt on his face bright as new metal.
"I'm asking you out on a date," says Jack.
Bitty breathes in sharply and goes still all over.
"Bittle?" says Jack, barely able to get the words out himself. "Bitty?"
"Yes," says Bitty, mechanical, eyes a thousand miles away, look on his face like a seismic event is rattling through his brain. "I would love to go on a date with you."
Jack's shoulders relax, and he laughs softly.
Bitty finally breathes out. He blinks a few times, though he stills looks dazed.
"I'm sorry I wasn't around more often," says Jack, trying to read the source of Bitty's shock. He's always kind of felt like his crush on Bitty was obvious. "I guess this is unexpected."
Bitty takes his hand and looks at him, expression suddenly serious. "It's okay. I understand."
Bitty waves his free hand, dismissing the sentiment. He smiles shyly, rubs his thumb against Jack's palm and Jack's chest tightens. "But, you know you can't make me work on my checking anymore?"
Jack laughs, surprised, delighted. "Right. So maybe you can teach me something."
“Okay,” says Bitty. He smiles wider. His cheeks are pink, and Jack feels an odd, swinging elation. It's a half-step forward, into a life he wants, into a life he'll have to figure out for himself. He has time to figure out the rest. For now, he can be content with this.
Bitty squeezes his hand, and links their fingers together.
“Maybe I can teach you how to spin.”