One of Jack’s earliest memories is as follows:
He is three or maybe four, and he is sitting on the rug in the master bedroom of his father’s rented house in Pittsburgh. He’s dressed for the game later that night: his little Pens jersey, his little stuffed penguin, his little wooden goalie stick with its Pens logo stickers running up the side. He remembers being tired because he and his mother have just landed that morning.
His parents are arguing and his mother is crying.
“You can’t take him,” his father’s saying. He says it in Quebecois because that’s how they argue. It’s how they do almost everything. They always start out in Quebecois. “You can’t take him. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do, Bob?” she cries. “I can’t not go. He was my friend.”
“I know, and I think you ought to go. Just leave him here, I’ll take care of him, he’ll have a nice night with his papa—”
“How are you going to take care of him?” Jack remembers realizing, oh. They’re arguing about me. “What’s he gonna do, sit with you on the bench?”
“Well, what are you going to do? Take him to a funeral?”
“We brought him to my aunt Margaret’s wake, and that was fine—”
“He was a baby, he didn’t know what was going on, and besides, that wasn’t—”
“It wasn’t what?” she asks. “It wasn’t AIDS?”
“You know it’s a bad idea, Al. It will be a logistical nightmare.”
“Jack.” She sits down next to him on the floor. He remembers that her eyeliner had started running when they got to the house and his father had given her the message. That’s when she’d started to cry, and Jack had never seen her perfect face begin to melt away before. He’d wanted to touch it, to run his fingers through the black streaks, to wipe them away. But he does it now and other that a sticky track, there’s nothing left to smear. They’re dried on her cheeks.
She grabs his chubby hand and pulls it away, kissing his fingers. “Jack, do you want to come on another flight with Maman, to New York? Or do you want to stay in Pittsburgh with Papa?”
It’s hard for him to make a decision, because his little mind is always racing with a million thoughts and, more to the point, he doesn’t want to leave her. But, still: “I want to see the hockey game.”
His father says, “Sure you do,” and as he lumbers past he musses Jack’s shaggy hair. “I know you do, kiddo.”
She gets up off the floor. She straightens out the sweater that falls off one shoulder and skims the waist of her leather pants. She rubs her eyes and says, “So, do you have time to give me a ride to the airport, or am I getting a cab?”
“I’ll call you a limo,” his father says. “Really, Al, I’m sorry about the timing. I’m sorry about Simon. It’s bad timing. It just sucks. This time next year we won’t have make decisions like this, okay? No more Pittsburgh. Jack will be in school full-time. It’s going to be better, okay?”
She stiffens out, releases Jack’s hand, and stands up. She straightens so that, in her heels, she’s able to look him in the eye. He tries to hug her, and she takes a step back. She takes a deep breath and says, in English: “Of course it’s not okay! Fuck you, Bob.”
“Not in front of—”
“Come on, Jack, honey.” She reaches out for him. She’s back to her joual, which wobbles through her misery. “Let’s get you a snack before I have to go.”
He looks up at his father. His father will know what to do. “Be nice to Maman,” he says. “She’s sad.”
It’s the first time Jack can really understand that they are all sad, all of them, simultaneously.
Later, he knows: it won’t be the last.
Jack is too young to know a lot of things, but he sure knows this:
He has been paying attention to gay guys on TV, not that he sees a lot of them, and none of them are ugly.
Also, none of them are fat.
He gets a copy of Out Magazine at Renaud-Bray. He doesn’t buy it, of course; everyone in Montreal knows him on sight, or so he thinks. In any case, the likelihood of being recognized is hardly obscure, so he can’t very well take the thing to the register. Instead, he slips it inside of a larger magazine—Rolling Stone is big enough—and takes it to a far corner of the store, up on the second floor. He is looking for something in this magazine that doesn’t exist. He knows he’s being cruel to himself; no matter how badly he wants this, he can’t have it. No amount of money can buy it for him. No amount of wishing will make it his.
Jack could have this magazine if he wanted. He could have the whole bookstore. But he can’t have what he really wants, so he does the next best thing. He flips through the pages until he finds the best one: a still from an underwear shoot. Here’s a smiling man in boxer-briefs, his neck thick and his body packed with solid muscle. Jack could stare at it all day trying to pick apart whether he wants to have this or be this and come away knowing less than when he started. What’s clear, though, is that if what he wants to do is find himself in this magazine, he is going to leave the store emptyhanded.
He fills up with a kind of mad fury. It consumes him, and he begins to panic. Is anyone looking? Who’s around? He’s sitting in the “spiritual” section, and the spines of the books have words like “light” and “faith” and “God” on them. Jack’s got no idea about that but It sharpens the sense of shame when he tears the page out of the magazine, folds it tightly, and slips it into his pocket. He buries the magazine between two illustrated copies of the New Testament. It’s not symbolic, he thinks; they’re just big books. As he pads out of the store he silently prays that no one calls out to him.
Someone does; it’s a girl at the register nearest the door wishing him a nice day. But he’s stunned, and feeling shaky, so when he turns to look her in the eyes and thank her, he feels like he’s going to drop dead on the spot. “Thanks,” he chokes out, really hoping she doesn’t ask him to empty out his jacket pockets.
Instead, what happens is worse: she gets that flicker of recognition. Jack would hate to cry in front of anyone, let alone a girl, let alone a pretty one. He doesn’t know any girls except the ones he goes to school with, who regard him with a mix of intrigue and disgust at the start of every autumn. This always dissolves into total disinterest by Thanksgiving when they realize he’s abominable. Anyway, Jack won’t have a breakdown in front of this girl, so he mumbles, “Thanks,” again, and flees.
His mother is getting her hair done, and in a magnanimous display of trust had let him wander around the Plateau alone for a bit. “It’ll be good for you,” she’d said, wiping her lip gloss off in the rearview mirror of her Mercedes CLK. Jack knew what she was doing because when he gets his hair cut he wipes off his chapstick, too. Getting little clippings of hair on his lips feels unsanitary. What she doesn’t get is that he is alone all of the time regardless. He would probably prefer to just sit in the chair next to her and watch her get her hair styled. He’d weighed it very carefully against the reality of the salon in general: lots of pretty people, and mirrors everywhere. He hadn’t hatched his bookstore idea until he’d been wandering the Rue Saint-Denis for a good twenty minutes.
“Right on time,” she says. She’s standing at the reception desk with her wallet open, holding the Am Ex in her hand. She’s had her nails done, too; they’re shell-pink and filed into wide, soft peaks. She doesn’t turn to look at him because she’s paying the bill. To Jack, she has two voices. There’s her sharp, articulate English, which is girly and it rings like a bell. That’s what she directs at other people. That’s her when she’s “on.” He hates that voice.
Then there’s her dusky, relaxed French: “Did you have fun?”
He can’t lie to his mother. “No.”
“Well, I’ll just be a sec. Where do you want to get lunch?”
That one’s tough because he hates to openly admit to wanting to eat or even thinking about eating. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t care. Whatever you want.”
She signs the receipt and is handed a bag full of products. “Jack, come here,” she says.
He’s been dreading this all morning.
The receptionist coos at Jack, “Look at you.” The assistants at this salon have been working there so long as Jack can remember, and yet they have seemed the same age this whole time: maybe late twenties, angled hair sweeping their collarbones, no lipstick because this is, after all, a salon. They all wear boat-neck T-shirts with boxy silhouettes. It’s elegant and sporty.
“Hi, Marie-France.” Jack knows everyone’s name here. His father has impressed it upon him: remember everyone.
“How are you doing?”
He’s good at this. He’s been schooled in it. “I’m well, and you?”
“Oh, things are all right. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you! What have you been doing with yourself?”
“I go to school,” says Jack. “And hockey.”
His mother puts her hand on his shoulder. “Jack is on the second line,” she says. “He had two assists last weekend,” like all of Canada doesn’t know Bob Zimmermann’s son is playing Bantam AAA hockey.
“Magnificent!” Marie-France cries. “Are you having fun?”
“It’s a great experience,” he replies. He knows what to say. “A good group of guys. I’m learning a lot.”
“Your papa must be so proud of you.”
“We’re extremely proud,” his mother says. She takes her hand from his shoulder.
“Will you go into the draft, for the Q?”
“That would be an honor,” Jack says.
His mother laughs. “He’s only thirteen! Don’t give him ideas. I’m not ready to send him away just yet.” She gets quiet and pushes some of his shaggy hair back: “He’s so grown up.”
“I know! Do you remember when your mother used to bring you with when you were a little boy? You always had your little book and your little hockey stick, and you’d sit in the chair next to hers with the book in your lap and the stick balancing across the armrests. It was the most adorable.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jack does remember that, and he wishes Marie-France didn’t.
“We’re just having a little day out,” she says, “since he’s on break this week.”
“I have practice at 4,” he says. His gear bag is in the car. “Not a break.”
“He’s off school,” she corrects. “Anyway, thank you again. Tell Jonathan it’s perfect.” She tousles her own hair. Her roots have been touched-up and it does look better. Jack nods in approval. “Oh, you think it looks good?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Well, thank god for that. All right, we’d better be going. Say goodbye, Jack.”
Marie-France giggles at that. “Bye, Jack. Congratulations, on the assists.”
“It’s how you win.” He stuffs his hands into his pockets and recoils at the bit of folded paper. His hand tightens around it as he waddles out after his mother.
Jack believes he is too young to be having a heart attack, but he feels like he is, and it’s only the first of many:
René’s mother gives him a ride home from practice, because they are let out early, and she happened to be sitting in the stands. Jack does not like it when his parents do this; they have watched him practice in the past, and he has asked them not to. “But I want to see you practice,” his father’s said. “You’re getting a little quicker on your skates. I like to watch.” Because he is not cruel he doesn’t add anything further. Jack is grateful that his parents don’t press him much, except when they express regret that he doesn’t have more fun, doesn’t make more friends, and spends his free time alone in his room with nonfiction and, sometimes, very rarely, other things. Things he wouldn’t like anyone to know about. Also, he likes to watch the History Channel.
“I like reading,” he says. It’s not a lie, so why shouldn’t they believe him? He’s good at getting his homework done, and he’s recently found that on eBay, you can look for old hockey memorabilia, and bid on it, and win. Jack likes to win, so he fantasizes about winning vintage hockey gear on eBay. He doesn’t have a credit card and is loath to ask his parents. There are other things he wants to use a credit card for online, and the temptation to do so would be too great.
Because he’s been dropped off early he wanders into the kitchen. No one’s there. The alarm didn’t go off when he went in through the side door; at least one of his parents must be home. Because the kitchen is deserted he opens the pantry and beings riffling through the boxes of cereals and crackers and cookies and things. He doesn’t know why they have some of these things in the house, because his parents don’t eat them and he shouldn’t, either. He lovingly runs his hands over the tops of various cereal boxes, their cardboard lips tucked into the slits that don’t really fasten them securely. He knows there’s cottage cheese in the fridge and if he’s really hungry he could eat that, but instead he takes a handful of cereal and inwardly cringes at how it sticks to his palm immediately. He hates that feeling. It’s so coated in sugar. He shouldn’t, he shouldn’t, but he starts counting little pieces of cereal before fixing them into his mouth. He feels like he’s taking drugs, not that he has much of a frame of reference for that. It’s sticky puffed rice, though, and it does resemble pills in some way, in shape if not much else.
Jack feels like he’s doing something criminal, so he quietly heads for his bedroom. This involves going out through the foyer again and down a long marble hallway and up the back staircase. It would have been for the servants. The servants still use it, he guesses, though he’s always at school when the housekeeper comes. He feels crushing guilt already; he had a protein bar after practice in the locker room before dressing; as always, he’d stuffed it into his mouth before anyone could see him choke it down. He gets compliments a lot, lately, about how good he looks and how well he plays. It might be true but he also wishes no one said anything. It’s all good, it’s all positive, and yet he can barely bear to hear it.
He catches his parents’ muffled voices as he approaches their door. His room is on the other end of the hall, closest to the main staircase, but if he goes up that way someone’s liable to put together that he’s coming from the kitchen. Then again, he can’t let his parents hear him go by, because they might come out and ask why he’s home early, and what happened at practice, or how he did on his algebra quiz—aced it, actually, but he doesn’t want to talk to them right now. He’s tired and he feels rotten from eating that cereal and he doesn’t want to talk.
So he stands still and tries not to breathe too loud as he decides what to do.
Then he hears his mother say, “It’s not an option.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” his father replies. “I think it will just make him uncomfortable.”
Now Jack is intrigued, because this is certainly about him, so he starts to listen: “And you think an uncomfortable conversation with him now is worse than the alternative?”
“Yes, because kids need time to develop on their own, I think. He’s very quiet, he never talks to me anyway.” Jack is surprised that his father sounds hurt.
“Well, he’s a teenager, Bob, it isn’t that weird.”
“So why do I have to talk to him? You talk to him.”
“I just have a gut feeling that he needs you to do this.”
“He’ll be fine,” Jack’s father says. “He’ll come talk to me when he wants to.”
“Well, you would say that, but I think I know my son.” She switches to English: “No, you know what? It’s more than that—my friends died, Bob, because people wouldn’t talk about this shit.”
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he says, sticking to the French. “I hate it when you make me feel like this dumb jock and like I don’t get it or that I’d judge my own son—”
Now Jack’s heart feels like it’s being pulled in eight different directions, and like it’s going to cease beating, and like he’s going to be ill.
“No, but not having a problem with it is very different from telling him that the maid found his little stash under the bed when she was stripping the mattress pad.”
“Well, if he’s serious about following through on entering the draft he’s got to find a better hiding place!”
“Yeah, and if you’re serious about Jack not having a mental breakdown when he’s older you’d better go tell him, explicitly, that you don’t care but maybe he doesn’t quite get exactly how this thing is going to play out if he does decide he wants that!” She’s still going, her voice getting tighter and tighter: “He could end up in, fuck, he could end up in Moncton, he could end up on the far side of Nova Scotia—”
“We know, Al, we all know how it works!”
“Well, how do you think he’s going to deal with this if some shit goes down and we’re fifteen hours away on the other side of the continent?”
Now his father has switched to English, too: “I can pretty much get him on any team! I’ll just ask him where he wants to go!”
“Jesus, he’s fifteen, he doesn’t know what he freaking wants!”
“Well, apparently what he wants is a male underwear model.”
Actually, what Jack wants is to call an ambulance, because his chest feels so tight and his heart is beating so fast that it is painful. He must be having a heart attack, he figures. He is probably having a heart attack. This is what heart attacks are like, he thinks. He shouldn’t have eaten that cereal because the last way his body is going to betray him is by puking up the cereal before he dies of a heart attack. He’s going to die and he’s done it to himself.
It’s a struggle to move because he’s shaking. “Like a leaf,” they say, but it’s actually violent, like reality is warping. He’s not breathing, he can’t think, it’s like he knows he’s going to die. He’s dying, he can feel it. It feels like actual, palpable doom. He does not know how he struggles downstairs, and he does not know how he keeps his stomach from unloading its contents into the Nambe bowl that sits on their coffee table, or the crystal bowl of hockey pucks that Jack lovingly arranged there as a child and no one ever managed to remove. He should have barfed on that. He hates that it’s still sitting here. He hates it like he hates himself. He hates himself and when his parents do come downstairs, both of them looking completely drained, he hates that his mother bends over him and asks, “How’d the quiz go?” like she never said anything he just heard her saying to his father, who’s at the bar on the other side of the living room pouring himself what Jack thinks might be a glass of scotch.
“It was fine,” he says. “I got a hundred.”
“Good boy.” She pets his hair. She’s gazing at him with the saddest look on her face, and he feels sick all over again. “Was it a hard practice? You look a little tired.”
“No. We got out early.”
“How’d the quiz go?” his father asks, recapping the bottle. He comes over with his glass of whatever but he hasn’t sipped from it yet.
His mother stands up and they’re both looking down on him.
“He aced it,” Jack’s mother says.
Jack is staring up at his father, who is looking at him with—what? Some kind of pity, some kind of terror. He’s never seen his father look afraid before, ever. He looks as afraid as Jack feels.
“You’re a good kid,” he says, and he finally takes a sip of his drink. And that’s it, and they never talk about it again, and Jack never hears his parents talking about him again, ever.
He keeps having heart attacks, tough.
Finding out they aren’t heart attacks is little comfort.
The most afraid Jack had ever been, at that point in his life:
Quebec is large, it is so large, and it feels impossible that this town could be on the very same river that is just a few miles from Jack’s home. Until recently he had thought of hockey as inherent to Montreal, but now he sees that it’s more universal than that. He should have known; his father has taken him to Los Angeles (and to Anaheim), to Winnipeg, to Edmonton, to Vancouver, to Utah, to Chicago, and to Detroit to watch hockey. He sees a continuity in these places and he worries that his brain just—invented it. He worries so much about what his brain is doing, actually, that before his parents go back to the city without him, he has a phone appointment with his shrink while sitting in the back of his dad’s 3 Series Touring. He spends most of the call telling her about how they fit all of his bags in the back before the drive down, and how his parents are going to get him his own car before they go back to Montreal, now that he has a probationary license.
If Jack takes a little longer to pick out a car than is really necessary, it probably isn’t because he is terrified of being alone in this strange town without his mom and dad. His billet family seems nice enough, and they appear to have been just thrilled for Bob Zimmermann to buy them dinner and have a drink afterward in their living room.
“I’m sure you’ll make some friends,” Jack’s mother had said over dinner one night in the week before they’d left. But Jack isn’t worried about making friends. He’s never had friends. So if he can’t, then he won’t. He doesn’t know what he’s worried about, actually, or why. When his parents do leave, they leave him with a new car, a new computer, a new cellphone, a stack of new books, a new iPod and an iTunes gift card, a new wardrobe of J. Crew T-shirts and hoodies, enough white tape to last him a season, and his mother’s hands in his hair and her lips on his forehead, saying, “Please, please call.”
“I will,” he agrees, because of course, why wouldn’t he?
“Come home any time,” she presses. “It’s only five hours. Just don’t drive at night, or drive like a maniac.”
“I am not a maniacal driver.” It’s true, he’s not. But his father is, and he can’t shake the feeling that his mother won’t see past that. Several times on the way up he cut it way too close while changing lanes in front of a truck or something. Jack’s mother would scream, “For fuck’s sake, Bob! It’s not a contest! You can’t win driving! You don’t have to beat anyone there!”
To which the only correct response was, “I know what I’m doing, Al!” It’s not reassuring, but Jack thinks it’s better than, “Oh, you’re right,” and hitting the break, and slowing down.
Jack wishes he were the sort of person who could tune this out with music, but listening to music takes his attention off the road, and if he isn’t paying attention to what’s going on around them from the back seat of a station wagon, well, who knows what might happen? Jack can’t bear to think about it, just—he has to. He has to pay attention. He would have taken something but then he’d get drowsy and then he’d pass out and then his father would get them side-swept by a semi—is what Jack thinks would happen, if he weren’t paying attention.
So, he pays attention. Always.
His father hugs him, kisses his forehead, takes Jack’s face between his hands and says, “You’re going to do great.”
It’s hard for Jack to get this out, but he has to: “What if I don’t?”
“Then just have fun,” says his mother, off to the side, in the softest voice Jack has ever heard, like she’s pleading.
He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just says “good bye” and “thank you” and stands next to his car on the dead-end street in front of his new home in this lazy river town, biting his lip as hard as he can so that he won’t burst into tears until his parents have turned the corner and the car is out of view.
The most fun Jack had ever had, up to that point in his life:
At first when his parents started buying him all this stuff he wasn’t sure what they were doing, but then he put it together: he’s never going to college, so this is it, it’s like, his college. His mother tells him all the time about Samwell this and Samwell that and Jack has been dragged along to enough alumni weekends in mid-May that he sort of gets it, but also, he never really got it until he found himself living in what he imagines is kind of like a dorm situation and exceling at Major Junior hockey. Every time someone barks at him, “Nice one, Zimmermann,” it feels like acing an exam or winning the housing lottery or getting the girl, or something. Actually, most of that isn’t even theoretical, since he aces his exams pretty much always, and gets a little thrill out of showing up at practice with his homework already completed.
He can drive around town without worrying whether people will notice him, which is a great relief. For the first time, he goes to a concert, a bluegrass band at the Coop du Paradis. The bartender recognizes him, but it’s not for the reasons Jack has always dreaded. The guy says, “Oh, you’re one of the new forwards,” and Jack is just beaming. It’s a hockey town, and Jack thrills a little, because Jack is a hockey boy.
“I saw the game against Le Titan,” he continues, and he gives Jack a Stella without carding him, or charging him. Everyone else is watching the music, but Jack would rather stay here with the bartender. He feels bad about not paying for the drink. “You were the center, right? You were doing the face-offs.”
“That was me. I remember that game. I wouldn’t forget because I had a dissection in lab that morning, actually.” He taps his fingers on the counter. He’s drinking this beer a little too fast.
The bartender whisks his cup away and tops it up, putting a finger to his lips with a “shhh” and a wink. “You were a maniac, you and that other guy—Parson.”
“Yeah.” Jack’s brow furrows. He’s tensing up so he takes a big gulp of the Stella and leans into the counter a little more. A woman approaches but she’s helped by the lady bartender on the far end. “He’s also new.”
“How do you like the town?”
“It’s okay! Actually, I really like it.”
“I haven’t seen you out before.”
“I’ve never been out before.”
“Hmm. Yeah, I suppose you haven’t. Well, all right.” He tops Jack’s drink off a second time. While Jack is drinking deeply and foam is sloshing over his fingers, the bartender grabs a napkin from the stack by the drink stirs and maraschino cherries.
Jack assumes it’s for the beer he’s spilling, but the bartender scribbles something onto the napkin, and slides it across the bar. “If you want to go out again. There are some other places.”
Choking on his drink, Jack has no idea what to say. He gets the sense memory of stuffing something he didn’t want anyone to see into his pocket. He does that with the napkin, balling it up and shoving it into his back pocket, next to his phone.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m seventeen,” Jack somehow manages.
“Oh my god,” says the bartender. His face goes pink. It’s not reassuring to Jack that he looks ashamed, regretful. “I’m sorry. You look older! I probably shouldn’t have given you so much beer. Though maybe you would have gotten it somewhere else if I hadn’t. Shit.”
“I have to go.” Jack doesn’t finish the beer and he doesn’t wait for the band to finish their set.
Two full years later, Jack is playing so well that he is having even more fun. He is having so much fun that when Kent says, “But you never tell me anything, how is that fair?” Jack tells him this story, about the Paradis, and that bartender.
“Oh,” is what Kent says at the end of it. His fingertips are resting, as they do, on Jack’s thigh. Jack feels it when Kent’s hand clenches into a fist, even though he is staring across the room at the Sabres pennant which is the only thing Kent’s hung on his wall other than a family portrait. It’s very formal. They all have stiff smiles and skinny, rat-tailed child Kent looks very uncomfortable in his navy suit. The Zimmermanns would never pose for a photo like that. Jack is mystified by it.
“You hassle me, but all I get out of you is ‘oh,’ eh? I see how it is.”
“Well, what do you want me to say to that story, Zimms? Congrats on getting some bartender’s number? Or, congrats you almost got molested by some guy? That’s some Catholic Church shit right there.”
“I want you to say—” Jack cuts himself off because he really doesn’t know.
“What, should I be jealous?”
“Not jealous,” says Jack.
They don’t talk for a few moments, which is weird, because Kent is incapable of shutting up. Jack is not a talker, and he appreciates that Kent can fill in the gaps so that Jack’s brain doesn’t go ahead and run amok all over any awkward silence. On the other hand, he wishes Kent would say anything right now, because he’s always pleading with Jack to talk more, and now Jack’s told this story and he doesn’t know what he was hoping for, but—something. So this is just torture.
Finally, Kent clears his throat. “I think it’s cool he noticed you and me.”
Jack seizes up, because that’s alarming. He’s never made that connection, which is weird, because now that it’s stuck in his head it seems obvious, essential, clear as day.
Whatever change in demeanor Jack gives off, Kent picks up on it. “No, Zimms. I mean, on the ice. We’re the best together. Out there. When we play.” Kent’s fingers sneak under the hem of Jack’s shirt. It’s quite baggy; his mother can’t buy him new clothes fast enough.
Instantly Jack’s hands snap to Kent’s, and he pushes them away: “Don’t.”
“You’re really—I just want to see.”
“Stop. I’m not—I’m not there yet.”
“Zimms,” says Kent. “You’re there.” His fingers tangle in Jack’s shaggy hair. He’s looking Jack in the eyes. It’s slightly disconcerting. “You’re there. It’s one thing to be, like, the hottest guy on the team? And yet, totally fucking frustrating that you can’t, I dunno, accept that. That guy hit on you because you’re hot, stupid. You were hot two years ago, too. Get over it. Stop, like, telling yourself you aren’t.”
“Shutup.” Jack sits up. He pushes Kent away and crosses his arms over his stomach, saying, “I think I’ll drive home.” He gets up off the bed, stiffly, and listens to make sure no one’s scuffling along the carpeted hallway outside the door. Kent’s billet parents would never ask him to keep the door open when Jack comes over; it would never occur to them that two boys would get up to anything
His though—they’d notice.
Jack takes two extra pills to get to sleep that night so he can be fresh for his history seminar Monday morning. He shakes the bottle, sighing, because he’ll have to call his shrink. He is having so much fun, finally, that he only calls her for refills now.
This is when Jack realizes that he’s dug his own grave:
It’s almost bedtime—a quarter to ten. Jack is staring at himself in the mirror when Shitty barges in. Jack has just finished brushing his teeth a few moments ago and the toothbrush is still loose in his grip. He’s looking at himself because he’s been trying and trying, but he doesn’t recognize his own face. This is him, he knows he’s this guy, but it’s jarring: he can see his cheekbones. They cast shadows under the harsh vanity light. They play off the generous slope of his nose. They bolster his deep, sunken eyes. His bone structure is holding his whole face up. He has no idea who this person is. He looks—he looks like his mom.
Shitty says, “Hey, handsome,” and there’s some weight to it, like he wants to talk. It stings, partly because this is the first time Jack’s realized that, well, he is. Sometime while he was busy doing college hockey, this happened. He’s been staring at himself in the mirror like this each night since—since that Yale game a few weeks ago, actually. Since Jack’s father took him out for dinner and said, plainly, after they’d ordered, “Why are you having a tantrum about that one little goal? This is the best you’ve played since Rimouski. It’s the best you’ve looked, ever.”
“On the ice?” Jack asked. He hates how he sat up for the answer, like an attention-starved pet.
“Well,” his father had said, with a soft smile, “and off.” And Jack had looked around, confused, and his father had laughed at him softly. “You don’t need to be a looker to work the Zimmermann charm. But, well—the looks do help. I bet all the boys are lining up to—”
“Shutup,” was all Jack needed to say, and his father dropped it.
But, anyway, here’s Shitty with his casual compliments, which Jack can never fully place as either mocking or sincere. It’s a tease, a fucking tease. That’s what he wants, he wants it so badly. It’s close, but he can’t have it. A hand on the small of his back, lips against his ear: Hey, handsome. Someplace other than the Haus bathroom, someone other than his straight best friend, sometime other than the night he’d had to text a mystery girl’s number about what he’ll be wearing to the Winter Screw.
Shitty closes the door between his room and the bathroom. If it were anyone else, Jack would get anxious. He does not.
“I’m telling you this in confidence. You have to promise me you will not repeat this to anyone. Far be it for me to go around outing people, because I don’t mean to rob people of the opportunity to do that for themselves, it’s not cool of me to take that away from anyone, but I know there’s some friction between you guys, and you aren’t the most sensitive, so—”
“Cut the preamble, Shits,” Jack says. “Just say it.” Jack puts the toothbrush back in the medicine cabinet and winces at his own impatience.
“Bitty—” That’s all Shitty needs to say.
Jack interrupts him. “Yeah. I’m aware.”
“Oh, you are?”
Jack wants to say a lot of things. His brain is full to bursting. Instead, he shrugs. “It’s evident,” is all he manages.
“Well, that’s pretty essentialist of you!” Shitty snaps. “Not cool, bro, just assuming.”
“As if I don’t know what it’s like to have people make assumptions about me,” Jack says, though of course no one even tries to guess at the thing he really hopes people don’t know. “Besides, not all assumptions are wrong.”
“Hm,” is all Shitty says. “Hmmmmm.”
“Hm indeed,” says Jack. He starts looking around for his razor. He’s too drained. He’ll do it in the morning.
“Poor kid,” Shitty continues, as Jack rests his ass against the ledge of the sink. “He’s screwed, you know.”
“I’m sure Rans and Birkholtz will find him someone adequate.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Shitty takes a moment to think. Then he says, “Why would anyone like that want to play hockey?” From the look on his face, Jack sees that it’s not judgment—it’s concern. Still, because Jack doesn’t reply immediately—maybe because he has an odd look on his face—Shitty immediately locks into defensive mode. “I mean, not that he shouldn’t. Just, why would he want to? You hear some of the stuff these guys say on the ice, man, like we’re his bros, and we’ve got his back, but—I gotta worry about the little dude. Why would anyone want that?”
Jack is very quiet. He is staring at himself in the mirror. He is twenty-three, and a junior at college, and he lives in a frat house and shares a disgusting bathroom with his best friend, who smells like stale smoke and crystal deodorant. Which means he smells vaguely like sweat, and when Jack first met Shitty that smell had reminded Jack of hockey and always turned him on a little bit, because it smells like the prime physical exertion of twenty-odd men settling in together, and Jack had always liked that. Now the thrill has worn off a little and it’s just one of many things that smells like home to him: the late-August funk coming off the Pond during pre-season; the brittle leaves and stiff leather bindings of old admin rolls he can special-order for his papers from the Politics and Government librarian; sugar-butter syrup caramelizing inside the shell of an apple pie as it wafts upstairs while Jack is Skyping with his parents.
“Shits,” he says, still looking at himself in the mirror. He needs to shave. He’ll do that next. His voice sounds hollow: “I really, really don’t know.”