The probability of separate worlds meeting is very small. The lure of it is immense. We send starships. We fall in love.
- Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries
Jeff’s mother has always been the kind of person who never throws anything out, who holds on to mementos and collages and photographs from childhood with a fervor that’s almost religious considering she has three sons and five grandchildren. The space above the mantle is crammed with decades-old art projects and bar mitzvah photographs and the rosters of teams long forgotten. More or less in the center, shoved in front of one of Jacob’s hand-made ceramic mugs from his brief but fervent interest in pottery, is a hand-drawn illustration depicting eight-year-old Jeff’s answer to the question ‘What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?’
She hasn’t thrown that one out because of it’s hilariousness, presumably, and not the accompanying illustrations.
What I Want To Be What I Grow Up, by Jeffrey Goldammer, age 8 ½
- A Starfleet captain
- A really good hockey player like Bad Bob Zimmermann. I want to win the Stanley cup and live in Canada.
By the time he was nine, he’d at least stopped telling his friends and teachers he aspired to join Starfleet, and it was clear by the time he was thirteen or fourteen that, because of his predicted height and the relative size of his brothers and father, he’d exceed the acceptable height limit for NASA astronauts (at eighteen and six-foot-four he’d been a little disappointed to read they’d extended the maximum height by a few inches). And he plays defense, though he still wouldn’t say no to Toronto or Quebec if it came up.
But there is a certain sense of irony, Jeff thinks later, to the fact that he’d idolized Bad Bob enough to write his name down on a 8x10 piece of paper that’s survived the test of time when really, if you think about it, it’s Bad Bob’s kid that would end up throwing Jeff’s entire life for a motherfucking loop.
The Aces are scheduled to play the Providence Falconers at the end of November.
The start of winter in Nevada doesn’t herald a change in season really, because the weather in Nevada ranges from warm to blistering. Jeff’s from L.A., anyway. But there is a drop in temperature, the midafternoon highs only creeping up to 70 or so, and Jeff’s noticed after two years of living here that there’s also a shift in the air. Summertime in Vegas is playtime, and then it’s nose to the grindstone-- but there’s something about late fall that feels a little off-kilter.
Usually after practice, if they’re not rushing off somewhere else, Jeff and Mulligan and Cooper down smoothies and rib each other until they all have somewhere else to be. Recently, Kent’s been coming with them. Sometimes, Mully and Cooper don’t come along and it’s just Jeff and Kent. Today it’s three of them fighting for leg space under their table and elbow space on top of it, because Jeff’s tall, and Mully’s broad, and Cooper is both. And they all stare around the table at each other, a long stunned silence.
Mully’s the kind of guy who says what he’s thinking without a lot of preamble, and he says what they’re all thinking. “Well,” he says, running a hand over his close-cropped auburn hair. “What the fuck was up with Parser today, huh?”
“I haven’t seen him blow up like that since he was a rookie,” Cooper adds. He’s been on the Aces since the Aces were the Aces.
“He’s having an off-day,” Jeff says.
“I don’t know man,” Mully says, which is a fair point. Everybody has off days, and their captain’s off-days are Jeff’s average practices.
Kent’s personal life and habits are the speculation of bored gossip columnists and curious teammates everywhere, and he’s famous for his antics, his weird sense of humor, his temper. But Jeff’s seen him drop all that as soon as he steps into the rink, usually just like that. One minute he’ll be laughing, or chirping you, or off on a rant, and the next all serious eyes and a shape to his jaw that says Bring it.
There’s a certain set of traits that get attached to characters who are designed to lead, to inspire, to make you strive to work as hard as you can no matter the circumstances. Jeff’s favorite genre has always been science fiction, and his favorite characters usually have “Captain” somewhere in their names.
And Kent’s like that. If he were to make an appearance in TNG, he’d have a red shirt on.
In the future when somebody invents a chip that they can stick in your brain to let you read minds, Jeff’s going to have to never think that thought again, that’s how ridiculous it is. But it doesn’t stop it from being true.
Watching him throw his gloves and then his stick across the ice in frustration two separate times that morning had not been particularly inspiring.
“I wonder,” Cooper says, and he frowns under his beard.
“I wonder,” he repeats, then drops his voice conspiratorially so they all lean in a little to listen, heads bent over their smoothies. “It could be about the game. You know, the Zimmermann thing.”
“Zimmer--” Mully whacks Jeff, hard, in the abdomen and he doesn’t as much shut up as he loses his breath for a minute, and he’s coughing when he looks up to see Kent walking their direction, sweats on and a smoothie in hand. He looks frazzled, off-kilter, but he fist-bumps Cooper and nudges Jeff’s shoulder with his shoulder when he sits down.
“Coaches chew you up and spit you back out?” Cooper asks, and Kent just shakes his head, grinning in a self-deprecating way.
“I’m pulling my tendons out of their teeth as we speak,” he says. “What are you gentlemen gossiping about?”
“Your sister,” Mully says. Kent’s younger sister-- 21, hilarious, blonde-- is so off limits she might as well live on the moon.
“You’ll be pulling your tendons out of her teeth,” Kent says dryly.
“And I’d thank her.”
“She’s my age!”
“Still gross. Hey, would--” Kent starts to move his chair over a little, as they’re all crowded around the table, and he puts his elbow down right on the plastic lid of his smoothie. The cup topples, turns over itself, and upends all over Kent’s front.
Green liquid drips down from the table onto the floor and they all stare at him. He takes one very deep breath.
“Motherfucker,” Kent says through gritted teeth, and he gets up, grabs the cup so hard the plastic crumbles, and storms away.
“Fuck,” Mully says. “Shitty day.” They all watch Kent's retreating back.
“I’ll, uh,” Jeff stands, abruptly. “I’ll catch you guys later, okay? See see you at home, Mully.”
Kent’s car is still in the parking lot so Jeff doubles back into the building, and he finds him in the locker room, staring at his once-white-now-green t-shirt, which is in a ball on the floor. He’s got green smoothie leftovers on one bare shoulder.
“Oh, hey Goldie,” he says, when Jeff opens the door. “Don’t mind me, I’m just wallowing in this pit of abject misery that I’ve dug myself. Thinking about having the floors redone so it’s really comfy. How do you feel about shag carpet?”
“Do you want my shirt?” Jeff says, which strikes him as a tremendously silly thing to say with no pretense as soon as it leaves his mouth.
“What?” Kent pops his head up to look at him.
“Yours got--” Jeff gestures at the squelchy pile of t-shirt. “Spit up on. I’ve got an extra, I mean, not the one I’m wearing.” Kent’s still staring at him, confused and a little green-tinged, so Jeff keeps going. “Unless it’s a ploy to make that People magazine list, walking into the parking lot without a shirt on, in which case I support you.”
“Style goals for this fall,” Kent says. “Shirtless and disheveled. No, that’d be cool. Thanks, man.”
“Yeah--” Jeff digs it out of his gym bag and tosses it in Kent’s direction, who catches it and puts it on, does up the buttons. Jeff will have to go to the drugstore in his sweats. He doesn’t mind that.
“I love looking like a child,” Kent says, holding up his hands which are engulfed in the shirt’s sleeves.
“That’s what you get for not eating your veggies.”
“Short joke? Really? Fuck off man, seriously,” Kent says, and that’s a little more natural, how things normally go. That’s enough to push Jeff into asking.
“Alright, squirt. Parser,” he says, and Kent stops in the process of scooping up his dirty shirt to look at him. “You okay?” Jeff asks, and something in Kent’s face moves in a way he can’t really pinpoint. An expression he’s not familiar with.
“Yeah, I’m good Goldie, I’m--” for a minute it seems like he’s going to leave it like that, but then he seems to change his mind. “Some stuff’s pretty shitty. You know, this game. Some other shit. Shouldn’t have brought it on the ice.”
He sounds anxious, Jeff pinpoints. They all know nerves, but this is different. Anxious in a way that belays bad news.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” Jeff says, and he means it.
“Yeah,” Kent says, and he picks up his soggy shirt as Jeff turns to go. Something in his eyes is distant and strange.
So it isn’t really a surprise when, two or three hours later as Jeff’s doing some neglected laundry and listening to Mully detail the last disappointing date he went on, he gets a text message.
what r u doing rn
Laundry, he texts back. Living it up making my mother proud
come over i have pasta for an army, Kent texts, and so Jeff does.
The thing is that Jeff does know about it. The Zimmermann thing. The story. The rumors. Everybody with an interest in hockey who was alive in the last decade knows about it-- Zimmermann and Parson, Rimouski’s rising stars heading straight for the top. Their record-breaking stats, their unstoppable streak, their championship trophy-- and what happened next.
Zimmermann went to rehab for, depending on the source, anything from a cocaine habit to a nervous breakdown to over-the-counter pill popping. And Parson went to Vegas.
Jeff remembers seeing their photo after winning the Memorial Cup, sixteen and with aspirations of his own. Teenage boys standing shoulder to shoulder with the trophy in between them, bad hair and acne, grinning, triumphant. Hockey’s golden boy, hockey’s prodigal son.
And a month later Zimmermann was going to rehab, and Parson was going to Vegas.
Jeff’s never heard Kent talk about it, not really. A few of the older guys sometimes tell stories about his first year in Vegas and how he’d been the opposite of what they’d thought he’d be. He’d had a reputation for being a party boy but he’d been surly and kind of intense, apparently, keeping to himself and working hard through the first season.
Personally, Jeff had liked him the first time he’d met him, but he’d never really thought they’d end up being friends. Sometimes things sneak up on you like that.
Jeff lets himself in the front door of Kent’s townhouse and kicks off his shoes in the entryway, pausing to pet the cat when she comes to greet him. When Kent doesn’t come into the hallway Jeff scoops the cat up and wanders in the direction of the main room.
Kent’s sitting on his couch and, true to his promise, there’s a vat of spaghetti sitting on his kitchen island. The television is playing American Ninja Warrior but Kent’s not really looking at it-- he only looks up when Jeff sets the cat down and coughs.
“Hey man,” he says. “Didn’t hear you come in, sorry.” He’s in sweats and holding a smoothie-- something obnoxious and green in color. His suit is hanging on the back of his bedroom door and Jeff can see a pile of laundry on his bed through the open doorway. “You want some of this?” Kent offers the smoothie glass.
“Not really, no,” Jeff says.
“Me neither,” Kent grimaces at it. “Don’t know why I made it. Hungry?” He gets up to dump the smoothie down the sink.
“Yeah,” Jeff opens some drawers and pulls out silverware as Kent gets bowls from a cupboard. Nice dishes that all match, different glasses for red and white wine that Kent probably hardly ever uses unless his mom’s visiting. Some of the older guys sometimes tease Kent about it-- spending money in excess, in a way that shows he’s got it. Mostly about the watches, and his expensive sneakers, and the car.
Jeff had bought a Subaru when he moved to Vegas. For no reason other than he’d always wanted a Subaru. It’s kind of the same thing.
"Don't really want this either," Kent says as he shovels pasta into his mouth. Food is a necessary requirement to keep moving forward, and Jeff rolls his eyes and flicks a noodle across the table in Kent's direction.
"You're an animal."
Jeff shrugs and licks spaghetti sauce off his fingers.
"You know how Mulligan was telling that story, when we were in Phoenix,” Kent says suddenly, as he scrapes sauce from the bottom of his bowl, “about how he got those stitches in his leg when he was nineteen?”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, because he does remember, because it had been two weeks ago. “He got weird and eloquent, for Mully. Something about scars to commemorate your really stupid decisions.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Kent says. “You know? The really stupid shit we do that we regret later. Though I bet--” He laughs suddenly, and it’s not a nice laugh. “I mean, I probably have the monopoly on that right now, huh?”
“Everyone does stupid shit.” Jeff’s got no idea where this is going.
“Well, sure, but not the kind that they really regret. Not you, man. You got all your shit lined up.”
“That’s not true,” Jeff says. He feels weird about this, doesn’t know what to say to change the subject.
“Sure is. Couldn’t even get dumped in a messy way. That was the tidiest fucking breakup I’ve ever seen-- and you just compliment her all the time. Like, what the fuck?”
“That’s not--” Jeff’s scalp prickles. “I mean, we were friends before we went out. We wanted to still be friends. It wasn’t--”
“It was weird. You weren’t even, like, mad about it. We all couldn’t figure it out.” There’s a mean-spirited look on Kent’s face, a set to his smile that rankles.
“I got dumped by the girl I was sure I was gonna marry when I was twenty,” Jeff snaps, annoyed at the implication that the other guys on the team have talked about this, annoyed that Kent won’t leave it alone. “Of course I was mad. I didn’t tell every fucking person and their mom about it but I was mad, for a while. What’s your deal, man?”
Kent snaps his mouth closed, and the smile drops right off. “Fuck,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “Fuck. I’m being an asshole.”
He is, but Jeff isn’t going to say that. He takes a deep breath and lets it go. “Kent,” he says. “What’s going on?”
Kent’s fingers rake through his hair and he doesn’t look up from the table. “Shit’s fucked,” he says, his voice muffled.
“What’s this about?”
“Do you remember,” Kent talks right over him, and Jeff’s honestly surprised. “Last winter, when we played Boston. And I went AWOL for a couple of hours the night before, with that rental car, and then came back in the middle of the night and got shitfaced. Yelled at my sister on the phone for an hour.”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, because he does. He hadn’t known what to do and had decided to do nothing-- had felt like he’d been spying on the edge of something he wasn’t supposed to be witnessing.
“It’s about that,” Kent says bitterly. “Where did I even tell you I went? I don’t remember. I drove to fucking Samwell U. It’s about Samwell. And about the game-- the one coming up. And it’s about the Q, and the draft and--” Kent looks up at him and his eyes are tired. “I really fucked some shit up. And now I gotta deal with it, and I’m freaking out.” Jeff’s trying to formulate something to say and Kent just keeps talking.
“When did you know you-- that you weren’t in love with her anymore? Beth? When did that happen?”
Conversation whiplash. “Uh,” Jeff says. There’s something in this that he’s not seeing, that he doesn’t understand. “I don’t know if there was a moment, necessarily. I just realized, I guess, that when I thought about her things weren’t the same. Neither of us were happy. Long distance was hard. Why on earth are you--”
“I’m gay,” Kent says and-- oh.
Kent’s jaw is tight and his mouth is pressed into a line, and this is so unlike him. Kent laughs things off, Kent brings his A-game. Jeff doesn’t know if he’s ever seen him be this honest. He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Kent to laugh or for the tension and desperation in his eyes to clear, and it doesn’t.
“Kent,” Jeff says.
“Nobody else knows. Well, Mom. My sister. The doctor-- because of my sexual activity or whatever. And Bad Bob, probably. Fuck. But that’s--”
“I’m not gonna tell anybody.” It feels important to say that, even though it should be implied. “Thanks. For telling me.” He pauses. He feels like he should extend his hand across the countertop, some kind of physical and concrete gesture of support. But that also feels like it's crossing a line.
“I guess that, uh-- well. It sort of puts that conversation you and Sammy had last time she came down here and I ate over, the one about, uh--” Kent smile cracks a little at the edges.
“About what?” He says, even though Jeff is sure he knows.
“The quality of dick in your sister's life,” Jeff says, and Kent does laugh for real. “It gives that some context. Some first-hand experience?”
“Fuck,” Kent wipes at his eyes. “You’re so fucking weird. Yeah, man, some firsthand experience. Jesus.” He’s still laughing, so Jeff thinks it was the right thing to say, and it gives him a second to think back on what else Kent has said. Bad Bob. Samwell. The game. The Q.
Cooper had been right, apparently. Sort of.
“So this is-- it’s about Zimmermann?” He asks after a minute, tentative. Kent looks up at him, something faraway in his eyes again.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it’s about Jack.”
Jeff has this habit.
It was born out of an overactive imagination as a kid and his mother’s tendency to bribe them into silence by promising ten-dollar bills to the brother who could sit in his room with his trap shut the longest when she had a migraine. Jeff almost always won. It had probably started off as a direct homage, as a lot of things in his childhood had, to James T. Kirk. He’d long since dropped the ‘Captain’s log’ part of the whole thing but he’s kept the every-evening internal monologue out of strange force of routine.
It was born out of an overactive imagination of a kid who never felt like he had the right thing to say, sure, and the thing about being built like a brick shithouse is nobody expects you to be able to do anything more intelligent than stop the puck or move a couch by yourself.
It goes something like this, usually:
Practice fucking sucked today, felt like I was two steps behind everyone and everything going on. Pissed. Morale is low and tensions are high. Going to go eat a burrito the size of a baby and get my ass in gear. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, ha ha ha not in the preseason. SHHHT SHHHTTTHHTHRT that’s the psycho stabbing theme song.
Was talking to Beth this afternoon and feel like we’re way better off now then we were when we were together, especially towards the end. Nice to just be friends with her. Is that the kind of thing I can tell her? Compliment? Insult? Investigate further.
PS-- Aaron’s bday in two weeks, go to Lego store.
PPS-- Buy toilet paper, protein powder, shaving cream (?) Should ask Beth if she was lying about my beard.
Hung out with the captain again this evening, don’t really know why I ever thought he was so intimidating. Wonder if it’s because he’s so good. Wonder if he does it on purpose. People always seem to talk about him that way but honestly I think he’s just kind of lonely. Am on his couch right now. Good couch. Will likely have hangover in the morning. HEY FUTURE JEFFREY…. DRINK WATER! I’m sorry that I let you do Irish carbombs. Don’t know where your wallet is, good luck with that.
He drives back home that morning at something close to 3 a.m., uncomfortably aware that he’s going to have to be up at seven to catch their flight. Vegas never really gets dark, even that early, and the wash of streetlights and pink-and-grey sky hover over him as he gets out of the car and unlocks his front door. Mully is, thankfully, asleep-- Jeff can hear him snoring in the second bedroom. He struggles out of his jeans, lies down on his unmade bed, stares at the ceiling. Closes his eyes. Opens them again.
Dear Diary, he thinks.
It’s the oldest story ever, isn’t it? Two people care about each other for a while until things go to shit. You read about it over and over and over again and it’s fine until it happens to you or somebody you know. If I was a better friend maybe I’d have an idea how to make it better. But I don’t.
He’s usually a little more eloquent than that, but sometimes there are only so many things you can say, even to yourself.
Jack Zimmermann’s tall. Probably over six feet tall. And he’s serious. Jeff can read it in the set of his shoulders, his jaw, his brows. And he’s handsome. And talented-- having a good season, better than anybody ever expected according to every single talking head in a suit on sports talkshow TV. Scoring points, taking pucks to the face.
Jeff hates him immediately.
Kent on the plane had been mean, nervous energy but they step into the rink and distant, concentrated look descends over his face. He doesn’t look like himself, Jeff thinks at first as they change-- but he does. A version of himself, one defined by calculated decision-making and overly expensive watches and thousand-watt grins at reporters and girls asking for autographs. It’s who Jeff thought Kent Parson was, when he’d first come to Vegas. Cocky and calculated, level-headed in the face of adversity, unaffected and too cool for you.
Everyone is lots of different people, sometimes all at once.
Jeff skates past Jack Zimmermann on the ice and watches Zimmermann’s eyes track Kent on the other side of the rink, then the puck, then back to Kent. Cool blue-- unsettling. Vulcan status-- except that's maybe an insult to Vulcans everywhere.
Okay, he amends. At least half the people Jack Zimmermann consists of are real assholes.
Jeff is not on the ice when Zimmermann scores-- the blue-clad fans in the stands cheer and cheer and a hot, unpleasant anger burns its way through Jeff’s stomach as he listens to it. It’s the kind of suffocating red-hot feeling that takes him back to being a teenager, when being quiet and taller than everyone else was most easily resolved with action instead of words.
Throwing down with Jack Zimmermann-- probably the worst idea he’s had this year.
What happens is Jeff gets on the ice, and he holds onto that anger, scalding and real, sitting in his stomach and creeping through his veins to his fists and behind his eyes, because he gets it. It’s something he knows. Hockey and the anger that drives it-- bodies on the ice, kinetic action and reaction. That's a role he understands. It’s following the shape of the narrative-- hockey’s golden boy, hockey’s prodigal son-- and here Jeff has no questions about where he fits in.
What happens is that someone shoves him, and he shoves back. Oldest story in the book. Gloves hit the ice and Jeff only pauses when he realizes he has to look up a little to glare at the gigantic Slavic man who slammed him into the glass.
There’s a moment of pure, primal panic, the kind that suggests he ought to just cut and run, and Jeff swallows it. He’s good at this part. He gets it. What would Captain Kirk do?
Probably not this, but he’s not Captain Kirk. That’s what Jeff thinks when he makes a grab for Alexei Mashkov’s collar.
Kent scores in the second period, and the Falconers sink a last-minute goal at the very end of the third, and that’s the game. A real shocker, the headline will read tomorrow. Aces caught offguard by surprise team from New England.
He can see Kent and Zimmermann stare at each other across the ice. When Kent grins, fierce and sharp and bright, Zimmermann smiles too.
Jeff’s beat-up knuckles smart and sting.
Mully and Niki want to commiserate-- or celebrate-- or something-- and so Jeff lets them drag him along. He’s tired and they lost but they’re all the way across the country and the alternative is going back to the hotel to sit in the unfamiliar bed by himself. So he lets them. Jeff’s surprised that Kent tags along. They go out to some bar filled with happy Falcs fans and, eventually, the Falconers themselves, and Jeff loses track of Mully and Niki in the crush of people and autographs and camera flashes going off, so he just wanders his way up to the bar in search of vodka. People are everywhere, in blue and silver and a few in Aces black. Jeff wonders where Kent vanished off to. Jeff wonders if he should be worried. Jeff wonders if Jack Zimmermann’s somewhere in the crowd.
He’s waiting in line when a giant hand descends on his shoulder. People’s hands don’t really descend on Jeff’s shoulders unless he’s at a basketball game.
“Hey there number twelve!” Someone bellows from the vicinity of the ceiling, and Jeff turns around slowly to stare up at the Russian colossus he’d gotten into a fight with two hours earlier.
“Uh,” Jeff says, and something like fear or panic is welling in his heart. “Hello.”
“Good game!” The guy-- Mashkov-- really bellows this, and he pounds his hand on Jeff’s shoulder again. Jeff’s knees buckle. “We come through victorious but you live to fight again, yes?”
“Right, yeah, you too man,” Jeff says. It’s probably some primitive fight-or-flight response. Big fish runs away from shark. “You’re-- Mashkov, right?”
“Tater!” Mashkov-- Tater-- seizes Jeff’s hand and pumps his arm in the firmest handshake he’s ever experienced. He’s grinning ear to ear, face shiny and delighted.
“Goldie,” Jeff says. “Hey listen, uh, sorry about--”
Tater throws back his head and laughs before Jeff gets any further. “Goldie! No hard feelings, yes? Is good.” He grabs at Jeff’s hand and wraps his own fist around it and shakes. “Good strong fist!”
“You too,” Jeff wriggles his hand free, which is a herculean task. “Can we drink over it?”
“Yes! We fight, we drink. Come on, Goldie,” and Tater sledgehammers his way through the crowd towards the bar, people getting out of his way as he goes.
“You’re all out tonight, then?” Jeff says once they’ve toasted and moved out of the crowd a little. Tater nods and grins and high-fives some fans.
“Is good year,” he agrees.
“Is, uh,” and Jeff feels stupid, but he also feels drunk, and tired, and so he asks it anyway. “Zimmermann’s not out tonight?”
“Oh, Zimmboni?” Tater says, and Jeff finds that he’s warmed to him entirely. Any man who can think about Jack Zimmermann and say the word Zimmboni with no sense of irony or fear is a man who deserves to punch you in the face. “Not here. He’s like old man. You think, college, yes? Know how to party? But he doesn’t. And anyway,” and Tater leans close, like he’s got a big secret. “I know that Zimmboni’s on a phone call. You know, like date. Long distance. Some girl from school.”
“Oh,” Jeff says, and something uncrumples somewhere around his diaphragm. “Well. Good for him, then.”
“Time for a toast, yes?” Tater declares, and he wrangles his arm around Jeff’s shoulder. Jeff lets himself be dragged across the room and into a crowd of people, some he knows and some he played against earlier. And when he clinks his glass against Kent’s, then Nikinov’s, then the rest, he feels a strange sense of relief mixed in with everything else.
Jack Zimmermann’s an asshole, and really fucking talented, and unquestionably more handsome than one man has any right to be, and over six feet tall, and caught up in Kent Parson’s history in a way Jeff’s really only beginning to puzzle out, and way awkward on camera, and sporting supermodel cheekbones-- and seeing someone.
I think I’m looking for the answer to a question that I don’t really know how to ask. I don’t even really know what it is. Why’d I let Parser keep me up for another hour watching that awful romcom on Pay-per-view? Why am I lying awake at ass-o-clock in the morning thinking about the fact that we’re sleeping in the same room despite the fact that, you know, we’ve slept in the same room in every away game for two years? Why am I being so fucking overanalytical? Why did I decide it was a great idea to get into a fight with a friendly Russian behemoth with a terrible nickname who could probably bend me in half pretzel style like every masochistic middleweight boxer in a sports movie, except I'm definitely not Hilary Swank? Why does it bother me so much that Jack Zimmermann is probably a perfectly nice guy who I’ve never once spoken to in my entire life? Why can’t I go the fuck to sleep.
The problem, of course, with talking to yourself is that you only have yourself to talk to. He doesn’t get a response. If he’d been writing in a real diary he would have thrown it across the room, but he can’t even do that.
As accidental but long-running seatmates, Jeff and Kent have this competition that revolves around the window seat and the next morning Jeff wins, somehow. Kent’s practically the last person on the plane, sliding down the aisle with his phone pressed to his ear and grimacing when he sees the waiting middle seat.
Rotten egg, Jeff mouths.
Fuck you, Kent mouths back.
Out loud, he says “Hey it’s not my fault you were all over his dick swagger,” and Jeff chokes on his own spit. “No,” Kent says into the phone. “Tell him I’ll kick his ass for you. Show him that photo from last year’s Sports Illustrated-- the one where I look really buff. No, I doubt it. Yeah, bye.” He hangs up. “Sister’s gone through another boyfriend,” he says. “It’s like she’s in a competition with herself to date someone worse every time. How the fuck did you get here so fast? No, wait-- Beam me up, Jeffy!”
“Congratulations,” Jeff says. “You just referenced a television franchise that’s been around since 1966. I hope you’re tremendously proud.”
“I am, thanks. Move your giraffe legs.” Kent shoves his bag under the seat.
“Squirt,” Jeff says as he sits down, and Kent bumps his shoulder into Jeff’s.
“Respect your elders, man. Okay, this is fine actually, I really need to catch up on Cutthroat Kitchen and I guess I’ll just crane my neck around your freakishly huge shoulders to watch the clouds.”
“I was gonna go Doctor Who, but I’ll save it for next time.” The deal, settled going on two years ago, follows those rules: the loser in the middle seat gets reign over what they watch until they touch down. This gives Jeff a captive audience when the inevitable (“You’ve never seen Blade Runner? How have you never seen Blade Runner?” Ditto the Fifth Element. Ditto that animated Lord of the Rings movie from the 80’s. Ditto ‘Bad Blood’) arises, and Kent a chance to catch up on all the bad reality television that he binges. It’s a rule that should extend to long car rides and bus trips, except Kent’s got a stranglehold monopoly on DJing any situation that can’t be broken, and Jeff unironically enjoys old school Madonna too much to argue.
Today, it’s Cutthroat Kitchen. Maybe next time it’ll be Rose Tyler. That’s just how it goes.
The plane takes off, and Kent flips open his laptop when they’re at cruising altitude, sticking one earbud in his ear and handing the other to Jeff.
“Feel free to steal it back if I crash,” he says. “I got three hours of sleep last night, maybe.”
“You didn’t enjoy the last ten minutes of My Best Friend’s Wedding?”
“I hate you.”
“Shut up,” Kent says, and hits play. Jeff sticks the earbud in his left ear and looks over Kent’s shoulder to watch too. Kent has to angle the screen up a little bit and their shoulders touch and it feels comfortable, companionable, like it’s a habit. He’s thinking about that, and watching Alton Brown yell at somebody, when he nods off.
He wakes up a few hours later to an eggshell blue sky filtering underneath the window shade, with a solid floor of white clouds below the plane that obscure the ground below them. He peers out of the window for a moment, eyes watering. Being this high up in a plane gives a sense of impermanence, of possibility. Location isn’t fixed and time is malleable and you can go anywhere with enough patience and enough fuel.
“Hey Parser,” he says, nudging Kent with his shoulder without turning around, without wanting to look away from the clouds moving fast underneath them. “Take a look.” Kent doesn’t say anything so Jeff turns to get his attention. He pokes at Kent’s shoulder before he notices.
Kent’s asleep, video still playing in his lap. His head is slumped over sideways onto his right shoulder, chest slowly rising and falling.
“Shit, sorry,” Jeff says, but Kent doesn't seem to notice either way and Jeff finds himself, for some reason, staring at his sleeping face. His mouth’s open and his eyebrows are drawn down. He looks younger than he is, sharp edges and fast words relaxed and softened, his jaw and the line of his brows reminding Jeff immediately of the photographs he’d seen of Kent as an eighteen-year-old kid before Vegas and the draft and all that came with it.
He has freckles on the bridge of his nose. Why hasn’t Jeff ever noticed that before?
He’s never really looked before. Have they really always been there?
It isn’t really the kind of thing you do, stare at your captain’s freckles while he’s napping with his head practically on your shoulder, so Jeff yanks himself back around to look out the window again, face suddenly hot and hands clammy. Nobody’s paying him any attention but he feels suddenly nervous and exposed, like he’s mis-stepped in a conversation or done something really stupid on the ice.
Because it felt natural, comfortable, companionable-- looking at Kent like that. His face is so close to Jeff’s-- the fair hair of his eyelashes and the curve of his ear, the dimple above his top lip and how he sleeps with his mouth open. He's a good-looking guy, that's hard to dispute -- Parser's handsome. Kent's handsome. Jeff can't stop looking at the way his chest his rising and falling, the line of his bottom lip. His freckles.
Jeff’s heart is hammering and unsteady, his hands too big, his neck itchy.
Parser's got freckles on the shell of his ear. I just noticed the freckles on the shell of his ear. In other news, I'm quitting hockey. I'm quitting everything. I'm going to go live in the woods and eat squirrels and never speak to anybody ever again because this is the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened to me. I mean-- who has freckles there anyway? Stop looking at them!
It would be easy really, to just--
Jeff yanks the earbud out and pops the armrest down between them, and he leans against the window for the rest of the flight and doesn’t fall back asleep.
About two months ago, Jeff had met this girl-- one of Mully's friends-- and he'd taken her on a few dates and then taken her home. Katy. Nice girl, a nurse or something. Little and blonde, a good laugh. He'd taken her home and it'd been great -- the concept of hooking up still kind of a new one after the breakup. And then he'd gotten up the next morning, and gotten a text message.
Dear Diary, he'd thought in the car,
She offered me a parting blowjob and I said I was too tired. Who the fuck is too tired to get their dick sucked? I wonder if this wasn't the best idea, or the right time. It's been a year-- Anyways Kent texted me about hangover recovery breakfast. Said I have to pick up eggs on my way over so I guess I gotta go.
At the time, he had tried not to think about it too much.
Now, he's wondering if he really got some things wrong.
He doesn’t get a lot of sleep that night.
When Jeff drags himself to practice the next morning he’s convinced, for some reason, that everyone in the locker room will take a look at him-- unshaven, unwound-- and just know. It feels like there’s too much crammed into Jeff’s head for it to fit, like the next logical step is for it to end up splattered all over his face, like everybody will take one look at him and go, “Jesus, Goldilocks, maybe you should talk to somebody about having sex dreams about the captain, huh?”
But nobody does. He and Mully rehash an old Wars-versus-Trek argument in the car, and Nikonov gives him a high five when they get in, and Kent, running late, practically jogs into the locker room and starts yanking off his shirt while everyone else laughs.
“Your conversation with your mother run long, huh Parser?” Mully grins.
“It did actually, and she’s fine, thanks for asking. I see no shame in loving your mother, you fucking knuckleheads. Now get moving and let me change.”
Kent starts to untie the strings on his sweatpants and Jeff decides it’s time to leave the room. He tells himself he’s being polite. He tells himself the sweat on the back of his neck is because of the unusually warm day. His self is not convinced, even a little.
Practice goes well, despite everything, and when Jeff sinks a particularly tidy shot mid-drill someone shouts his name from across the rink.
“Hey Goldilocks!” Kent says when Jeff turns to look. “Looking good today!.”
“Yeah man,” Jeff calls before he can stop himself, “you too.”
You too? What the fuck is wrong with you, Goldie, huh? Who says that? I am similarly impressed with your athleticism in a strictly professional way because we are colleagues who rely on each others’ skills to win, man! Really smooth. Should I-- is this the kind of statement that requires an unconditional ‘No homo,’ should I stick that on there--
But across the ice, Kent just laughs. He’s got his helmet off, hair sticking up in every direction, and he grins and winks before sliding it back on his head. Something inside of Jeff’s chest burns and flickers, like dropping a torch down a cavern shaft, something shaped like the arc of Kent Parson’s smile.
Las Vegas is a strange city to live in full-time, and anything enjoyable about the Strip wears off pretty quickly when you drive past it every day, but sometimes there’s still a sense of excitement and over-the-top ridiculous fulfillment in its nightlife, especially when you’re out with half the hockey team. It is, Jeff suspects, a little bit of what college probably feels like-- the real swing of it, beyond the one year he waded through before making a different choice. They make a lot of noise and occupy entire booths and take turns buying drinks and irritate everyone around them.
Jeff doesn’t usually get recognized unless he’s with the entire team, but he is and so he does. It’s one in the morning, and they’re in the Red Square and they’ve all had unquestionably too much vodka, and someone in the crowd goes “Oh my God! Kent Parson!” and then Kent’s dragging Jeff and their goalie into a photograph. He gives a girl a high five. Pretty girl, with a blonde bob, the kind of girl he might have, last month, bought a drink.
“Goldie, right?” She’s grinning, drunk and happy. She looks like this encounter has made her year. “Crazy good assist last game. My roommates and I cheered so loud! Can we get a photo?”
“Thanks,” Jeff says, and they all shuffle through the crowded bar to stand in a line.
Kent’s hand rests against the middle of Jeff’s back and he drops his hand on Kent’s shoulder before he can think about it, because it’s the natural thing to do. Jeff grins at the camera and thinks, somewhat fuzzily, that his mother will send him a passive aggressive text message if these photos end up online. He thinks, somewhat fuzzily, that Kent’s runaway hair gives him a little more of an edge but he really only comes up to Jeff’s shoulder. He wonders, definitely fuzzily, if it’s a good photograph and what they look like standing next to each other and if it’s apparent on his face that he’s thinking fifteen different things at once.
“Yeah you bet,” Kent says. He’s grinning, all up in the right corner of his mouth, and looking the girl who asked for the photo in the eye. It’s the kind of easy, confident interaction Jeff’s never been good at. Flirty without being sleazy. An act, and the fact that Jeff can tell as much is strange, personal knowledge. “You’re welcome. You all have a nice night, okay? Take a shot and think of me.” Kent lets the girl hug him, he winks, he smiles again.
When the girl and her friends turn to head back towards the dance floor he sighs, pulls off his hat and runs his hands through his hair before putting it back on again. “They’re not gonna remember that in the morning,” he says. “If the smell of tequila’s anything to go by. Nice surprise when she checks her phone.”
“Sure will be. I gave you bunny ears,” Jeff says.
“Good. I’m a sexy bunny.” Kent says. He smiles up in Jeff’s direction, and it’s still caught in the corner of his mouth. His face and the floor seem very far away. Good teeth. His hair’s untidy under the strap on his hat. He leans one arm on the edge of the bar in a way that feels very deliberate and the room is packed but it feels like it’s just the two of them standing there. “You want another drink, man? I’m about out, I’ll grab you something.”
“Uh,” Jeff says. “Water. A thousand onion rings?”
“You offering to buy me a milkshake?”
“A milkshake’s a drink. One that is not dietitian approved, Parser.”
“Fuck the dietitian,” Kent says, all mischief.
“I’ll tell her you said that, Captain. And anyway,” Jeff doesn’t really mean to say it but he thinks it and then he wants to, just like that, “didn’t really think she was your type.”
And then Kent really does grin, all the way across his face, and his eyebrows shoot out of position and his eyes light up. There’s a marked difference between this expression and the one he’d directed at the girl asking for the photo, something less put together about his face. The expression isn’t for anybody else but the two of them.
“You’re right,” Kent says, “she’s not.” He stands there for another half a second, arm braced against the bar counter, and then he nudges Jeff’s shoulder and turns. “Gonna go close out. You think a cab will take us through the Sonic drive-thru?”
“Let’s find out,” Jeff says, and he watches as Kent turns towards the bar and dig his wallet out of his pocket. He feels strange, untethered, watching Kent hand the bartender his card-- the line of his shoulders, the back of his neck. Like he’s staring at something and not understanding it, too close or too far away. A set of instructions written in a language he has no idea how to read, directions he’s not sure how to follow.
“Hey man,” Kent says, reappearing at Jeff’s elbow. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, and he follows him out.
It turns out their cab drive is not excited about driving them up to the fast food window at one in the morning, so Jeff makes an executive decision and just opens the cab door in order to pull the kind of stunt he used to be incredibly amused by in high school. When they walk up to the window the woman working, nineteen or twenty and exhausted-looking, rolls her eyes, then pauses.
“Hey,” she says. “I’ve seen your face on a billboard or something. For sports? Do you play basketball?”
“Yeah,” Kent says blithely, grinning. He has to look up a little to be able to see into the drive-thru window. Jeff doesn’t. “Basketball. Blake Griffin won’t follow him on Twitter, it’s a whole beef.”
“Seems like you should be able to afford a ride,” the girl says, and Jeff stifles a laugh in his elbow, Kent jabbing him hard in the ribs.
“You’re my hero,” he tells the girl when she hands them their milkshakes. “And Blake Griffin’s gonna follow me before he follows him. For the record.”
“I slam dunk by riding around on his shoulders,” Kent says.
“What’s gonna work?” Jeff asks.
“Teamwork!” Kent replies, and they high five, and the girl at the window’s giving them a really weird look so Jeff grabs at his shoulder and pulls him away from the parking lot before they really get recognized, or arrested for public drunkenness or something.
“Where the fuck are we, anyway?” Kent asks, looking around. Jeff has a clear recollection of asking their cab driver to get them to the fast food joint closest to Kent’s place, so he thinks he might have a general idea of which direction they need to go. A general one. The sky is flat and grey and away from the strip it goes on forever, fading into lines of buildings and asphalt and desert mountains further off. Jeff’s used to orienting himself around the ocean, until he moved here.
“We can call a cab again,” he offers. “But you live in-- like-- that direction.”
“Let’s walk,” Kent says. “I can do anything. I can play basketball.”
“On stilts,” Jeff says.
“While bending over backwards,” Kent says. “That’s not a sex thing. Well, one time.”
“You hooked up with a basketball player.”
“Cirque de Soleil,” Kent says, his grin sharp and self-satisfied, looking for a reaction. Jeff coughs on his milkshake. “Are you sure my house is in this direction?”
“Pretty sure. That’s east, anyway.”
“You were a Boyscout, weren’t you? With the shorts and the pocketknife?” Jeff shakes his head. “No? No archery badge? Yellow handkerchief? I’ve got a good visual image.”
“Of me in shorts?”
“Yeah, in uniform.”
“I dropped Boyscouts when I was nine or something for hockey.” Jeff neglects to mention the Starfleet uniform hanging in his close that he wore to Comic-Con last year. There has to be a better time to bring that up. They jaywalk across a street because the road is empty.
“But you know which direction’s east.”
Jeff slurps at the dregs of his milkshake, which is cold on his tongue. It’s almost a little chilly, early morning hour stillness settling down over the city as they walk. They cut through a side street lined with square suburban houses, not xeriscaped for the desert.
“Well, we used to all camp a lot,” he says. “Dad took us, when I was really little.” He feels effervescently drunk and content with it, the way you only can when you’re walking down a street holding a milkshake at an hour of the morning where nobody else is awake. He doesn’t usually talk about this kind of thing, because it carries so many stipulations, but there’s nobody else around and Kent’s looking at him sideways with an expression on his face that Jeff doesn’t recognize.
“Your family’s so fucking wholesome,” he says.
“We’d do all the national parks, you know, Big Sur and Yosemite and the Redwoods-- Joshua Tree one spring break. We’d do all that together when I was really little, but Dad was really enthusiastic about it. But this one summer-- I was eleven. The twins were teenagers, seniors in high school I guess, they had girlfriends and jobs and they didn’t want to come with. So Dad and I went-- two weeks in Utah, the two of us.”
“What the fuck is in Utah? Other than a lot of Latter Day Saints.”
“Nothing,” Jeff says. “That’s kinda the point. There’s, like, weird small towns with a bunch of churches, and a lot of sandstone and old ruins, and good Mexican food. And then at night, you know, we’d do a fire and make dinner and Dad would drink beer, we’d play cards with whoever else was staying in our campsite and he’d always let me win. Or if it was just us-- he had this book where you could chart out where the stars are, depending on the time of year. In the desert in the summer the sky just goes on forever and it feels like you’re the only people for a thousand miles.”
He’s realized how long he’s been talking and stops, awkward and a little embarrassed. Kent hasn’t said anything. The sky above them is muggy and grey streaked with grey, light pollution from a city that never really shuts down. Not like those nights-- blue-black skies and constellations so clear that it’s easy to imagine how someone might look up and see a lion or a bear or a warrior up there.
“Anyway,” Jeff says hurriedly. “Old habits, or whatever. It’s a winter sky, where’s the North Star, go from there. I never forgot it. Also, you know, my phone has GPS.”
Kent’s looking at him, his head turned as they walk, and Jeff feels colossally silly. “Do you still do stuff like that? Your family?”
Jeff blinks. “We stopped, after Dad,” he says. “I did it some, with friends in high school. Senior skip day and stuff. And Jordy and Jake have taken the kids-- I went with them last summer to Big Sur.” And they’d all spent time thinking about how much their dad would’ve loved it, five grandkids scrambling in and out of tents and up and down rocks, but Jeff doesn’t say that out loud.
“We never did shit like that when I was a kid,” Kent says. His building is in sight, and he starts digging around in his pocket for his keys. “Mom’s time off was like gold, right, and if I’d suggested we spend it outdoors around bugs and stuff I’d have been out on my ass.” He laughs. “Though honestly maybe I should’ve spent more time camping and less time partying when I was seventeen.”
“That’s a headline,” Jeff says. Kent is unlocking his front door, fumbling the key into the lock. “Aces captain Kent Parson encounters an insect, lives to tell about it.”
Kent laughs, swinging the door open, catches his cat by the collar before she can slip outside and sets her on the kitchen counter. Jeff shuts the front door, puts his elbows down heavily on the kitchen island. Kit stares at him. He stares back.
“Aces captain Kent Parson’s top five experiences sleeping in a tent,” Kent says, knocking around in his kitchen cabinets until he finds glasses. Jeff watches him fill them up with water, somewhat clumsily, and set them down. “Eat your heart out, Buzzfeed.”
“Sleeping or sleeping,” Jeff asks. “Because I can’t recommend tent sex, at least not when anybody else is around. There’s no way to disguise that.”
“And you would know--” Kent’s eyes are bright over the top of his water glass.
“I did say senior skip day, right? Beth’s friends teased me mercilessly for weeks.”
“Sounds like you were asking for it.” Kent drains the glass and sets it in the sink, then leans his hip up against the counter. He takes his hat off too, chucks it in the direction of his bedroom door. Jeff watches it sail through the air and then drop a few feet short of its destination. “We should go sometime,” Kent says, and Jeff almost drops the glass, finger suddenly scrambling and clumsy and heart unsteady and uneven.
“Huh?” he manages. His tongue feels heavy.
“Camping,” Kent says, and he smiles. “Never done it. You could bring your star chart thing and we’ll track down Orion’s girtle or whatever.”
“Yeah, his belt.”
“Okay,” Jeff says. “Sure.” He feels too big for his body, awkward and out of step and not quite sure what to say, wanting to say the right thing-- seventeen and nervous, not twenty-three. He feels too drunk for the way Kent is smiling in his direction, or not drunk enough.
As if she’s decided to take pity on him, Kit suddenly scratches on Kent’s bedroom door.
“Alright, you diva, alright,” Kent says, and he turns and walks through the living room to let the cat in.
Jeff lets out a breath and closes his eyes, Kent’s smile caught under his lids. The difference between Kent’s smile when directed towards the girl from the bar and the expression he turned towards Jeff suddenly seems so stupidly obvious that Jeff’s stomach turns over.
Jeff’s seen him flirt with girls in clubs before, a joke or, he suspects now, a deflection. But he’s never seen Kent flirt with a man before. Maybe he has, of course, and just didn’t realize it. Didn’t even know what he was looking for.
He thinks he might be looking at it now. It might have just happened to him.
That's something, anyway.
Jeff lays on Kent’s couch, darkened ceiling swimming unsteadily over his head as he stares up at it. He lays there long after the triangle of light under Kent’s bedroom door switches off, an oddly firm reminder of the familiarity of this moment. They’ve done this a lot, in the two years they’ve really been friends. This is just like every other time, and yet it isn’t. Not at all.
The space between being ready and being afraid is more like a cataclysmic gulf. Mount Doom. Jeff’s life, right now, is a jumble of puzzle pieces slotting together in ways that don’t make sense, or a map with a key he has no idea how to read.
He’s thinking about that when he falls asleep, and he dreams about opening the door.
The strange thing about life is the way that it just keeps going, even when you feel like it should be crashing down around you. Jeff plays hockey, he works out, he rewatches Deep Space Nine, he drinks smoothies, he hangs out with Mully and Coops, he dreams, he plays hockey, he thinks about Kent Parson’s shoulders, he plays hockey, he dreams. Things feel the same. Things don’t feel the same at all.
In fiction, things align reveal things to you, to point you in the right direction or build up to inevitable peril. Things foreshadow, things narrate and bookend and prophecy and suggest. In fiction, the universe notices when something big and earth-shattering happens to you, when you’re the main character of your story.
That’s not how it works in real life. In real life, things just keep going. Someone dies, or overdoses, or you move to a new state, or you break up, or win a Stanley Cup or fall in love, and things just keep going. Things keep going on as they were, except they’re not the same at all.
One person realizes something, and isn’t entirely the same person on the other side of it. That’s one thing fiction gets real spot on.
A month goes by, and winter sets in and living with it feels like switching to a new pair of glasses with your prescription a couple of years old-- you can get around fine as you are but then you put on the new pair and everything’s thrown so sharply into focus that you have a headache.
There’s a part of him that keeps repeating he ought to just wait until it goes away-- the sensible part, that has long and logical conversation about the logistics of breaking up and that bought a Subaru when he moved to Vegas and that feels good about living with a roommate. But there’s another part that keep asking, insistently and several times a day, what would Captain Kirk do?
(He does feel obligated to argue the specifics of it-- TOS Kirk or Reboot Kirk? If it’s something you can theoretically see J.J. Abrams writing into a movie plotline do you really think it’s good life advice? Why did J.J. Abrams do that to Lost? And how the fuck did The Force Awakens end up being so good, anyway? But that’s not the point)
The point is-- the point is that he's poised with his hands on the thrusters, and he doesn't know if the right thing to do is hit the gas or slam on the brake, and the world spins on around him.
What would Ben Sisko do, maybe. Sisko was always his dad's favorite captain.
It's not a great metaphor. And life goes on -- and it builds to this.
Cooper has this giant white dog and Jeff volunteered to walk it ages ago because doglessness doesn’t suit him but Mully’s allergic to almost everything with hair. Kent complains a lot about not being a dog person but he’ll usually agree to run the dog around some park or something if it’s under about 90 degrees. Winter in Vegas is nice for that reason-- no snow.
They’re out doing that-- Jeff and Kent and the dog happily bounding in between them-- a January Saturday morning with the rest of the day mostly free. Fifty degrees means long sleeves in Vegas, but the dog’s happy, and they jog three miles in companionable silence without seeing anybody else.
Jeff’s not paying attention, fighting with the music player on his phone which has been in the habit of glitching right when it hits the song he’s in the mood to listen to, when Kent reaches out and grabs at his hand. Jeff freezes, right as Kent yanks backwards, and he steps backwards onto the toe of Kent’s sneaker. Kent stumbles a little, his hand still around Jeff’s wrist-- and then the dog decides to take off in the opposite direction. Her leash is around Jeff’s other arm and she yanks him backwards so hard and unexpectedly that he falls. Because Kent’s knees are all but tangled up in his, Kent falls too. Jeff lands butt-first in some slightly damp grass, Kent trapped somewhere under his left arm.
“Oh my God,” a woman’s voice says from above them. Jeff looks up to see a lady with a stroller looking at them-- undoubtedly what Kent had tried to warn him about. The dog bounces around her feet, excited to meet somebody new. “Are you alright?”
“Just soggy,” Jeff manages. “Stay, Cindy! Sit!” Cindy does not sit.
“And squashed,” Kent wheezes, and the knowledge that he's practically laying on top of Kent hits Jeff all at once, a hit flood of embarrassment and something else. He rolls awkwardly onto his knees and stands up, the woman behind them still apologizing even though all she'd done was walk down the same pathway they were on.
“Really, don't worry about it,” Jeff waves her off and picks up Cindy’s leash again, and then turns to look at Kent, who is lying in the grass. His hat fell off somewhere and his cowlick’s up at 90 degrees. “Thanks, Parser. Really.”
“Absolutely no problem,” Kent says. “Give me a hand, Goldie, my ass is soaked.”
He extends his hand and Jeff takes it, fingers over thumb over wrist. Kent’s fingers are warm and strong, his hands callused. The moment goes on a second too long but neither of them says anything about it, and Jeff pulls Kent back to his feet.
“My life flashed before my eyes,” Kent says, picking his hat up. He inspects the damp elbows of his hoodie. “And you know that the sport we play-- men like three times my size, sliding at me on knives.”
“And you’re breathing your last breath on somebody’s lawn before 10 a.m.,” Jeff says. He flexes his hand. “I am not three times your size. Squirt. You make me sound like I’m fucking-- Hagrid on ice or something.”
“Goldie,” Kent says. “I said this the other day, when we were watching that tape. There were those two guys in front of you and you just-- you went through them. There was no way through and you made a through.”
“They were in my way,” Jeff says, somewhat defensively. When you’re tall all people do is point out how tall you are.
“Okay,” Kent says, somehow sensing that edge. “To be fair, I used to pray every night to a few more inches and I’m still five-ten. That’s how I know God hates me. I’m gay and short.” He grins, laughing at himself.
“Save the sob story for your memoir,” Jeff says.
“Oh, you’ll read it?”
“Only if you mention me.”
“A whole chapter. Race you back to the car, man. C’mon, Cindy!”
Jeff beats him, barely. Cindy beats both of them, and she tries to steal the front seat. Jeff looks out the window as they drive back to Cooper’s place to drop her off, listens to Kent’s really awful mix of mid-90’s pop music until he caves and shout-sings along to Cascada, and he flexes his hand against his knee. The one he’d helped Kent to his feet with.
Kent’s drumming his hands on the steering wheel as he sings, and the early morning air feels static. Hot and bright. It would be easy, Jeff thinks, to reach out and touch him. To recreate that feeling of finger and thumb over wrist but in a way that’s intentional, purposeful.
Doing that would bring this into focus-- from something dreamed to something real. Jeff thinks he wants to. Jeff thinks he’s never thought of anything harder.
“You are really killing ‘Everytime We Touch,’ man,” Kent grins over at him from the driver’s seat.
“Shut up,” Jeff says. “It’s a good song.”
Jeff’s dad had been tall-- that’s what most people remarked about him. Basketball player tall. He’d been one, for a while, had needed to leave a promising college basketball career behind when he blew out his left knee beyond repair. He ended up an engineer instead, moving West, getting married, cheering on his kids at basketball and hockey practice and always walking with a bit of a limp.
When Jeff thinks about his dad he thinks about him being impossibly tall and bearded, how he had to fold himself up to fit in chairs and how they’d trip over his legs if he stretched them out in front of him, how tiny their mom looked standing next to him and how he’d make her laugh by picking her up. Jordan is six foot, and Jacob six two, and Jeff had hit both those numbers and just kept growing. It had felt like pride, stretching up one extra inch when he turned twenty, because it meant he was the closest to their dad’s six-five.
Sometimes people would remember how good Jeff’s dad had been on the court, and ask about it, and Jeff’s dad would shrug.
“Sometimes life does that,” he’d say. “Sometimes you make the decisions, and sometimes it makes them for you, and either way you end up somewhere you didn’t think you’d be. Doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing.”
When he was eighteen, Jeff had this idea of where he wanted his life to go-- which hadn’t really accounted for Vegas. When he was twenty that idea had crystallized into a sense of certainty, a vision of the future. Jeff at twenty was going to stick it out in Vegas for a few years, wait for Beth to graduate, get married, buy a house, play hockey, get a dog.
Jeff at twenty hadn’t accounted for a lot of things-- the job market for girlfriends who are graduated teachers, how much he liked Vegas, falling out of love with the person he thought he was destined to be with at eighteen, the team’s success.
Sometimes you make the decisions, and sometimes it makes them for you. Sometimes you have a choice between being one person and being another
That’s what Jeff thinks about, as he lies in bed and contemplates the logistics of kissing Kent Parson. That thought wouldn’t have ever been something he’d dream of considering a year ago. But he is.
Maybe that's what he wants-- to be the version of Jeff who wants to kiss Kent Parson. He thinks it is.
Of course, that comes with the assumption that it's just going to work out like that. And it doesn't.
Dear Diary, he thinks later,
I'm a parody. Not only of myself but of all of humanity. I'm like Icarus flying too close to the sun-- the sun apparently being my desire to make out with Kent Parson. Ruined by my own hubris.
"What are the rules for this ridiculous game again?" Kent asks. He's holding a Malibu pineapple in his hand and looking at Jeff with a really skeptical expression.
"So you drink when there's a closeup of Harry's scar," Jeff repeats, "or somebody says Voldemort, or a staircase moves. Or if Quirrell stutters. Then you chug at the end when Harry saves the day."
"We're gonna die," Kent says as the intro credits roll on his enormous flatscreen.
"That's not very Gryffindor of you." Jeff leans back against Kent's couch cushions and lifts his beer, and Kent begrudgingly knocks his own glass against it. "And this is the easy version. The twins and I have a Star Wars one that really fucks you up."
"Every time there's a lightsaber noise?"
They don't die-- but they do drink themselves silly. Friday night nonsense kind of silly-- Kent's very bad fake British accent. Neither of them had been able to think of anything better to do with their evening and the thought of being alone with Kent keeps propelling Jeff into either euphoria or panic, but here they are anyway.
"Am I a Gryffindor?" Kent asks very intently, three quarters of the way through the movie.
"I don't know," Jeff says. "Maybe? You can take the quiz online."
"You're a fucking nerd."
"Nerds are, like, in, Parser. Jocks are out. I've got it figured out. It's hip to be square." Kent's couch isn't really deep enough for Jeff to sit on it comfortably, so he's got his feet propped up on the coffee table. Kent's leaning sideways on the couch cushions to frown at him. They're sitting closer than they should be, maybe. Kent's arm, on the back of the couch, is almost touching Jeff's shoulder and Jeff's so aware of that fact that it hurts.
"So you're saying I'm not hip."
"What I get for not going to college. Wait," Kent pokes a finger into Jeff's chest. "Is this why you keep riding my ass about watching that Captain America movie?"
"It's only like the most seminal superhero film ever created," Jeff says, ignoring Kent's turn of phrase. "And you are, like, Captain America status."
"My middle name isn't really victory."
"You're blonde, you're hot, you were born on the fourth of July," Jeff says, and then realizes that this was extremely unwise.
"Unless you're not a natural blonde," Jeff tries, and his tongue feels heavy and unwieldy.
"Fuck you, of course I am," Kent says. "That's not what I meant."
It would be easy to laugh it off-- too easy. Everyone knows how good-looking you are, Parser, even People magazine. But the back of Kent's hand is touching Jeff's shoulder, and they're too close together on the couch, and there's a version of Jeff that wants kiss Kent Parson. Most versions of him, right now.
There's hardly any space between their faces, and it takes almost no effort to lean across it. Jeff wants to kiss him-- alcohol-hot and fuzzy and bold with the knowledge that it can be done. And so he does.
They're frozen there, for a long, taut moment. Kent's mouth is hot and Jeff can tell he's got stubble on his chin and his pulse races, races.
And then Kent jerks backwards so fast he topples sideways onto the floor, his shoulder missing the coffee table by inches.
"Jesus--" he gasps, and starts to scramble to his feet, and so Jeff stands up too. His foot does make contact with the coffee table and he rises a little unsteadily.
"You okay-- here--"
"What the fuck--" Kent's face is scarlet and blotchy and it takes Jeff a moment to pinpoint that expression. It's anger. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Huh?" Jeff manages. He doesn't understand what's happening, why Kent's eyebrows are moving like that. There's nothing put-together or cool about it. They're each standing on one side of the coffee table, which is slightly askew, and it feels like being position at the opposite ends of the rink. Like a faceoff.
"Real funny joke," Kent snaps. "I'm laughing my fucking ass off, really, you just--"
"What?" It feels like someone's got a fist around his windpipe. "It's not--"
"What?" Kent barks back.
"You think that's a joke? You think I'd--"
"What the fuck else would it be, huh?"
"Exactly what it was-- I -- I thought--"
"You're serious." Kent scrubs his hands through his hair so it stands on end. He looks deranged.
"I think so, I--"
"I'm not gonna be your-- your gay experiment--" Kent splutters. "That's what fucking Grindr is for, fuck, you think that just because I told you and you know that I'll just-- fool around with some straight guy so he's got a good story to tell his bros later?"
"That's not what it is," Jeff shouts this, trying to talk through him. Kent snaps his jaw closed. "I don't-- that's not. I don't think I am," he finishes lamely, because it feels so much stranger to say it out loud.
"That. Straight. I--" Jeff doesn't know how to say this. Hasn't even thought about how to approach it. He stares helplessly at Kent across the coffee table. Kind of late in life to be having some big bisexual meltdown, Goldammer.
"You--" Kent's mouth is working and no sound is coming out.
"It wasn't a joke, I did it because I wanted to, because--"
"No," Kent says. "No. No you don't." Something on his face is shattered, awful and adrift. Jeff doesn't understand any of this.
"Yes," Jeff says. "Yeah. I do."
"I'm drunk," Kent says. "And you're drunk. Man, you're not gonna-- you're not gonna want this to have happened tomorrow."
"You don't know that."
"Thought you were supposed to be a bright guy," Kent says. "Cause this is the stupidest thing you've ever done."
"This!" Kent waves a hand at the space between them. "This-- whatever this is!"
"What-- falling for you?" Jeff says, and Kent blanches, and his heart plummets. "I thought that-- that you--"
"That's the problem," Kent says. "Jeff. You really should just get out of here."
"What is? What's the problem?"
"What kind of freak factory did you grow up in?" Kent snaps, and he makes another motion at the distance between their bodies. "How can you-- you wanna talk about this? How can you want to talk about this?"
"Cause it's what you do," Jeff says, stung. "It's what I know how to do."
Kent goggles at him, red in the face. "It's-- because-- the problem is that I like you too much to do this to you. That this is-- man-- I'm shit at this. I will be. I--" He runs his hands through his hair again, smoothing back his cowlick. A nervous reflex. "You're, like, the best friend I've got. I'm kind of short on friends right now and it wouldn't--"
Jeff wants to say, You don't know that. Jeff wants to say, You're wrong. Jeff wants to tell him that he's in this far enough that he's not about to cut and run, and if Kent is saying what it seems like he's saying there are ways through it, and that he's not sure if he's ever going to be able to forget it-- Kent's mouth on his mouth. That isn't something you come back from-- like a heart attack, or a Stanley Cup.
"I'm sorry," he says. His voice sounds hollow and slurred and his head hurts. In the background, the movie is wrapping up. Dumbledore's giving Gryffindor the House Cup.
"Just get out of here," Kent says. He turns away and Jeff can't see his face.
So Jeff does.
It would be narrative fitting or more romantic to say that this was followed by some kind of eloquent epiphany or moving plea, that someone runs after someone else's plane before it departs, that there's a boom box in a parking lot or a last-minute change of heart.
But real life is messy, and rarely romantic. Jeff walks out the front door and he goes home and nobody comes after him.
It's a Friday night. No practice until Monday. Jeff has two days to contemplate the best way to quit the team. That would be the logical thing to do, a mature and well-adjusted plan to deal with the fact that he attempted to feel up the captain-- the captain -- and got turned down.
But he doesn't do that. He can't even bring himself to think about it. He lays on the floor and watches season nine of the X Files.
He doesn't even like season nine.
In fiction, things are supposed to make sense. Even the bad things. In real life, things just happen.
Maybe, Jeff thinks, his life is more like a season of the X Files. He’s the revival season. He’s the weremonster. What’s the point of big revelations if they end like this?
Fuck you, Chris Carter.
They should watch that episode tog-- oh. Right.
In bed on Saturday night, Jeff can feel the weight of Kent's mouth against his, and see the expression on his face. He can't get rid of it.
“Man,” Mully says when he comes home Sunday morning to see Jeff lying prone on the couch. He's moved on to I Want to Believe which is, really, a nonverbal cry for help. “What happened? You didn't act like this when Beth dumped you and you guys were together for, like, years.”
“Nothing,” Jeff says into the couch cushions.
“Kinda freaking me out, Gold. I will call your Mom.”
“I really, truly fucked something up,” Jeff says. “And I don't know what to to do about it.”
Mully considers him. He’s the kind of genial and boneheaded everyman’s athlete Jeff never thought he’d get along with but does, freckled and ginger and good-natured. An accidental and complete friendship bonded together by proximity, by hockey, by the first season of Arrested Development.
“Can you unfuck it?” He asks.
“I don’t know,” Jeff says, miserably. “It’s the kind of fuck that can’t be unfucked.”
“I feel that,” Mully says. “Sometimes there are some fucks you just gotta live with.” He nudges Jeff’s shoulder with his elbow in a gesture of solidarity. It’s, weirdly, touching, and reminds Jeff of his brothers.
Jeff sits bolt upright suddenly, making Mully jump. “I’m an idiot,” he says.
“That really wasn’t that profound, man--”
“I have to talk to my-- I gotta call home,” Jeff says. “Right now. Turn off that fucking movie, will you?”
“You got it,” Mully says, and Jeff hears him sit down on the couch as he seizes his phone and books it into his bedroom. Mully doesn’t turn off the movie.
Jeff really hates that fucking movie.
The phone rings out a few times and Jeff almost thinks nobody is going to pick up, which inspires something between panic and relief, but then it stops ringing and he hears a voice down the other line.
“Goldammer residence, you kill it we chill it!”
Jeff thinks about his mother’s face and the word role models and swallows his laughter. “Robbie, it’s Uncle Jeff. Get your dad would you? Why are you answer his phone anyway?” Robbie, seven, is the middle kid, athletic and gangly and funny as hell.
“Because he wasn’t paying attention and I took it out of his pocket,” Robbie says matter-of-factly, and Jeff hears the sound of feet as he, presumably, gets up and walks through the house. “DAD,” he yells, without taking his face away from the phone, “UNCLE JEFF IS ON THE PHONE.”
“COMING,” Jacob bellows from somewhere in the house, and there are more footsteps, and some more shouting and some laughter, and Jeff misses them all very deeply and solidly.
“He’s turning into a real pickpocket,” Jacob says into the phone, “Go on, Rob, go bust your arm on a tree or something please-- I didn’t expect you to call, what’s up?”
“Um,” Jeff adjusts the pillows under his head, feeling suddenly very self conscious and uncertain. “I can call back later if you’re busy, it sounds like you’ve got stuff going on--”
“Oh, they’re just trying to wash the dog and it isn’t going very well, I honestly think I should stay out of it. My new shoes were collateral damage already. You sound a little--” Jacob pauses and Jeff can picture him, sitting on the couch in his cluttered living room despairing about his shoes. He’s got a beard, Jordan doesn’t. Jacob is two inches taller and five minutes younger, and Jeff would never want or even try to choose between them but Jacob’s a little more thoughtful, a little easier to talk to when you have a real problem. You go to Jordan for decision, for action, for planning, and to Jacob for advice.
“Yeah, I am a little-- uh. Something. Okay.” Jeff drags a hand down his face and takes a very deep breath. “It’s a relationship thing, actually. That I didn’t handle very well.”
“I didn’t know you were seeing anyone,” Jacob says casually, which somehow doesn’t help this at all. Seeing someone. Seeing Kent Parson. Jeff’s palms are suddenly twice as sweaty as they were before and he moves the phone to his other hand.
“I’m not. Well, not really. I’m uh. Jesus. I’m into someone and-- fuck--” He switches his phone back to his right hand, then back to his left, then wipes it on his shorts.
“I wanna know why none of you ever told me that it’s conceivable to like guys and girls at the same time because I’m processing a lot of shit right now and it feels like my head’s gonna explode which would, you know, really fuck up the rest of the season and the rest of my life, really,” Jeff says, all in a rush, like someone’s seized him around the diaphragm and squeezed hard. The half a second of silence afterwards feels deafening and heavy and full of the few hundred miles between Vegas and California. He can’t see the set of his brother’s jaw, or the look on his face.
“Well,” Jacob says, after a half a second that feels like a millenia. “To be honest I can’t say that you ever brought it up before and Mom would’ve given you, I don’t know, a pamphlet or something equally mortifying.”
“Oh my god, don’t-- don’t even go down that road I’m already imagining the diagrams illustrating where to find the prostate.” The image is horrifying and it’s frankly pushing him towards the edge of hysteria.
“You got the second round of her sex education, man, we bore the brunt of it. Be thankful. So you-- you’re serious? You haven’t developed some douchebag personality without our noticing it and suddenly consider this kind of thing a really hilarious joke?”
“No,” Jeff says, and he knows it was meant to be funny but he feels like he’s being strangled. “I’m talking out of my fucking asshole right now, some kind of hilarious thought experiment! Okay! I’m hanging up now that’s over with!”
“Wait wait-- Jeff,” he can hear Jacob scrambling around with the phone and he resists the urge to hang up, which is childish and petty and almost overwhelming. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, it’s okay,” Jeff says, because it is. Because it is a fair question. “What-- what if I was? Being serious?”
There is another long silence and Jeff can feel his heartbeat up against his soft palate, and in the palms of his hands, and along his ribcage. He’s got a good handle on his body, he has to, and he knows the feeling of adrenaline and excitement and fear, and this feels nothing like that. He feels sick.
Then Jacob clears his throat, a sound that transforms him into Mr. Goldammer, M.Ed. “Jeff,” he says, and clears his throat again. “I think it’s incredibly important for you to understand that we-- I mean I-- but I do mean we because it’s all of us though of course I’m just speaking for myself-- uh, we feel incredibly honored by the-- uh-- okay--”
“Oh my God,” Jeff manages.
“We have a plan for this,” Jacob says, sounding less like a middle-school English teacher and much more flustered by the second, “but we really didn’t think we’d have to use it for another four or five years at least so I haven’t practiced it at all. But I mean, five kids between the two of us, the probability that one of them is gay is pretty high. But just hold on a second and I’ll--”
“Stop, oh my God, stop, stop, please, I’ll pay you to stop,” Jeff says, and he wants to laugh and cry at the same time and it comes out in frantic, hysterical laughter. “Do not Dad me right now.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jacob says, hushed, horrified. “I was going to close with ‘It’s okay to be gay!’”
“I don’t know if I am,” Jeff says, “Gay, I mean. I mean, maybe I am? I think I’m kind of in the middle, in the sense that I can objectively say I find both Dana Scully and Fox Mulder good-looking, but at the moment it’s less like that and more like there’s someone, and I kissed him. I kissed a dude, Jake.”
“Jeffy,” Jacob says, and he doesn’t sound like someone’s Dad, or someone’s teacher. He sounds like Jeff’s big brother. “You’re having a crisis.”
“Yeah,” Jeff stares at the ceiling. He breathes out. “I watched season nine, Jake. Voluntarily.”
“I’m having a crisis.”
“You want to tell me what happened?”
“Yeah,” Jeff says. His heart hammers. He’s giving it more of a workout this week than the last decade of hockey-playing. “He’s a friend of mine. A really good friend. And I had this revelation, I guess. About him, about me.”
“That you-- you had some kind of big bisexual awakening?”
“That I wasted a lot of time not being attracted to Oscar Isaac, yeah. Maybe Star Wars should’ve clued me in, talking about things that are prototypically my type-- but that’s not the point. The point is that-- it’s that I was so sure and I just--” His brother’s silent on the other end and Jeff takes another deep breath. “I wanted to Captain Kirk it, you know? But I think it was more like Malcolm Reynolds.”
“Ill-timed and inconsiderate. I didn’t think it through, I just--”
“You kissed him.”
“I carped the diem. Unsuccessfully. Day not seized. Day dropped butter-side down. Just call me Captain Friendship Ruiner.”
“Okay,” Jacob says. Jeff can tell he’s thinking, trying to put words together. “Was it a good kiss?”
“What? Uh, yeah,” Jeff says. “I mean, until it got complicated.”
“I mean, we’re-- friends. And this guy’s kinda complicated. Not in a bad way, just in a-- I crossed a line that I didn’t know was there. And I think that he--” Even as he says this it’s starting to make more sense. “He told me this story about how he fell for a friend of his, and it went really badly.”
“I hate to, um, ask the obvious question,” Jacob says, “and be Dad-y, but I am a dad. Have you talked to him about it? Since this happened?”
Jeff doesn’t say anything.
“Jeffrey,” Jacob sighs into the phone.
“I-- I watched season nine.”
“Jeffrey,” Jacob says again.
“And I Want to Believe.”
“You’re a monster.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“Yeah, kiddo. You do.”
“They didn’t dole out the smarts evenly, did they?” Something inside Jeff’s chest has settled. He doesn’t know how else to explain it. He knows what he has to do and it feels hard, feels daunting. But people do hard things all the time.
“You do okay,” Jacob says. Jeff can tell he’s smiling down the phone. “You gotta Janeway it. Or Picard it, maybe. Say something profound and apologetic.”
“Make it so,” Jeff says.
“Never give up, never surrender.”
“I’m removing myself from this family. What is wrong with you? Why did you just say that? Galaxy Quest? ”
“Says the man who’s favorite X Files episode is the one with the cockroaches.”
“That’s Jordan, you fucknut.”
“Love you, Jeffy. Go shower.”
“Fuck you,” Jeff says, and he does.
It’s the one about space travel, for the record. The astronauts, the face on the moon. He'd always wanted to unlock the doors of the universe.
He holds onto that sense of clarity for as long as he can, but he gets to practice on Monday and it flies out the window. Kent gets there late, snaps out some hellos. He looks exhausted and unshaven, and Jeff feels guilty and nervous, and they don’t speak. They’ve got a game in two days, and Jeff plays like shit.
This is the longest they’ve gone without speaking since last summer, probably. And it’s been long enough. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to fix this, but he’s at least going to give it a try.
They’re packing up after practice and Jeff makes himself walk across the locker room when it starts to clear out.
“Parser,” he says, and Kent whirls so fast he knocks his shoulder into the wall. His face is guarded and strained. Two days ago they were laughing on his couch. “Can I talk to you?” Jeff grits out. “In a minute?”
“Whatever,” Kent says, as close to acknowledgement as Jeff’s going to get right now, and so Jeff walks back across the room with his breath stuck in his throat.
Kent does wait, and when the room has emptied out Jeff turns to look over at him. He’s standing with his gym bag on his shoulder and his hat on. Jeff feels faint.
“So--” Kent starts, and Jeff decides he can’t stand this a second longer.
"Listen--" he starts.
"I'm gonna get traded," Kent says, and Jeff shuts up.
"What?" He can't have just heard that. His knees wobble ominously. "To who?"
"Not yet," Kent says. "It's just the plan. I mean, somewhere that can afford me, but I was thinking New York-- it'd be nice to see Mom and Sam--"
"Don't-- don't get traded."
"Alright," Kent continues, and Jeff doesn't know what to do with this. "Then I'm gonna retire. I mean, you've won a few cups you've won 'em all, huh? I'll buy some beachfront property in Jamaica."
"I like the beach," Jeff volunteers.
"Like, to become a hermit."
"I don't think you'd be a very good hermit."
"Man, I already bought the fucking island. You gotta tell me this stuff beforehand, yeah?"
"You bought an island?"
"No-- I just-- I'm just--" And Jeff decides that he has to put a stop to this. For real.
“There’s something I need to say, okay, before you say anything or do anything or go buy an island--” Jeff says this all at a really uncontrollable volume but he can’t really help it.
“Go for it,” Kent says. His eyes are clouded and his voice is almost sarcastic. Go on then. It’s an act. He crosses his arms in front of his chest.
Jeff takes a very deep breath.
“Remember when you said that stuff about having a monopoly on doing stupid shit you regret later-- you didn’t think I’d ever been there.”
“That was kind of a joke, man--” Kent’s hands tighten around his own arms and his mouth constricts, then opens again. He’s going to laugh it off, a joke or a line.
“I was fourteen when Dad died,” Jeff says, and Kent shuts his mouth just like that.
“It was one of those things where-- it was six months. But when I look back on it-- one day he was fine and the next he was hospitalized. Brain tumor, you know. There wasn’t anything anybody could’ve done, no way to catch it. He was healthy, then he wasn’t. I look back and know that now, and the twins-- they were in their twenties, and Mom-- I’ve come to terms with it. Now. But at the time--” Jeff can see Kent’s face shift a little, like he’s trying to come up with something to say, and another time Jeff might take pity on him and cut it off but he’s thought a lot about how he wants to say this. And Kent’s eyes are locked on Jeff’s-- he hasn’t looked away, even though maybe he ought to.
“I was mad,” Jeff says.”At myself, at Mom, at doctors, and God or whatever. At Dad. Like it was his fault. I spent years being angry. Taking it out on other people-- my family. Teammates. Got good at fighting though. I remember--” and he pauses, because this is the weird part of the story, the part he doesn’t tell other people. Grief is a weird, many-headed monster. It would be nice to think it’s all weeping over caskets and eulogies and fond memories but it’s hazier than that, and meaner, and stranger.
At fourteen he hadn’t understood why nobody else was angry. At twenty-three, he gets that they all were.
Maybe that’s something that Kent gets, too.
“So Dad was a real sci-fi junkie,” Jeff continues, and Kent is staring at him, and his eyes are green. “Collected books. And there was this really old Tolkien compendium-- I know, don’t roll your eyes-- that he gave to me specifically before he died. It was his uncle’s, the whole nine yards. A couple weeks after the funeral I threw them out. Getting them was a sign that he knew there wasn’t any other way, and I felt betrayed by that. So I chucked them. Just like that. Broke Mom’s heart.”
“You were fourteen, man,” Kent says quietly. “And your dad just died.”
“And Jacob dug around in the trash before they were lost for good and saved them, and I still have them. But I get it.” Kent doesn’t say anything, and his eyes are green. “But that’s not really what I’m trying to say,” Jeff finishes. “I just wanted to tell you that. But what I want to say-- about the other night--”
He braces himself and takes a long breath, holds steady. Never give up, never surrender. He’s going to murder Jacob. Sergeant Goldammer, the little hand says it’s time to rock and roll.
Bring the noise.
“Ever since-- I’ve started thinking about things in the context of-- Okay. If I were to develop a brain tumor and die in six months, would I regret not doing something? I’m sorry I went about it the way I did, and that I didn’t talk to you, and that I sort of hurled our friendship into the fire. But I don’t regret it. Maybe we can’t come back from that-- and you can never talk to me again if you don’t want to. But I don’t regret it.”
He has some other stuff to say but he never gets it out. Because Kent drops his gym bag onto the floor with a definitive sound, and grabs the neck of Jeff’s t-shirt with one hand, and kisses him.
It’s a hard, awkward, determined kiss. The kind that says something. It leaves them both breathless and staring when Jeff pulls back.
“Hold on,” he manages, and his voice cracks a little which is embarrassingly prepubescent. Kent looks up at him, opens his mouth, so Jeff talks over him. “Me telling you I’m having some kind of sexuality crisis because of your triceps doesn’t work but that story about my dead dad does?”
“Um,” Kent says, and he looks embarrassed. His hand is still holding the neck of Jeff’s t-shirt. “Well, I couldn’t find a good place to cut you off. And I didn’t really know where you were going with that. My triceps?”
“And Oscar Isaac in The Force Awakens but that’s not the point--”
“You plan that speech out? To-- to apologize? To--”
“Well I didn’t really think you-- I thought it was gonna have the opposite impact, actually--” Jeff starts laughing, some kind of buildup of nerves and adrenaline. Kent had kissed him. He’s wrapping his head around that idea, the wild wonder of it.
“You are such a freak,” Kent says, and his eyes are bright. “Shut up, Jesus Christ-- hold still you fucking giraffe--”
Jeff does the next best thing. He slides his hand over Kent’s shoulder and through the hair at the back of his neck, and he watches the way Kent’s watching his face for a half a second, intent and nervous and sweet under all the bluster. And then he kisses him, as softly as he knows how.
They stay like that for a few minutes maybe, Jeff’s hands in Kent’s hair, but it feels a lot longer than that. Like six months into the future. Like the rest of Jeff’s life.
“I gotta go to that meeting, man,” Kent says after a minute. He says it right against Jeff’s mouth, and that gives the innocuous sentence more meaning. Jeff wants him to say something else boring and inconvenient, just to feel it.
“Yeah,” Jeff says. “Sure.”
“You have, like, wildly questionable timing,” Kent says. “I have to go sit with the fucking coaches and talk about, you know, strategy. Shit.” He presses his mouth to Jeff’s again and it sends a thrill right through him then turns suddenly towards the door. Jeff feels his absence right away. He’s been kissing Kent Parson for five minutes and he’s not sure he wants to do anything else ever again. “Fuck you, man.” Kent says as he goes, turning around to look back at him.
“Thought you said you had a meeting,” Jeff says, just to say it. Kent’s whole face lights up, and he takes three steps back into the room and grabs at Jeff’s shirt collar again. It’s hardly a kiss because Jeff grins through it.
“I seriously gotta-- fuck,” Kent says, and he turns again back towards the door. And stops, again. “Um,” he says, and his face is flushed and smiling. “Come over later,” he says, all nerves and bravado, and Jeff’s heart has a jetpack on it.
“Yeah,” he says, and Kent runs out of the room. Jeff stands there for a long time afterwards, and he touches his thumb to the corner of his mouth.
Spacewalks, he thinks, have to feel something like this. The sense of scale, of possibility, of weightlessness. A view of the whole damn world.
He listens to Cascada on his drive home.
Fuck Galaxy Quest.
"Dude," Kent says, when Jeff knocks on his front door a few hours later. He knocks because it feels weird, suddenly, to just walk in. "Did-- you brought a bottle of wine?"
"I got nervous," Jeff says, and proffers the bottle. He doesn't really know anything about wine but it was a medium-priced red and it had felt weird to show up empty-handed. It feels weird anyway.
"Goldie." Kent's mouth curves into a smile.
"Shut up," Jeff snaps, scratches the back of his neck. He feels immediately silly. He'd gone home and screamed in the shower for about twenty minutes, and then he'd started to get nervous. The sense of weightlessness had plummeted into a feeling of grounded shock, an unwillingness to believe this was real. It was real. He'd even put on a nice shirt. Kent's wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a snapback, watch on his wrist. He looks like himself.
It's been four hours since they kissed in the locker room and it's felt like a month.
"Get in here," Kent says, and he steps out of the way to let Jeff in the door. "I'm not really a wine drinker. Are you a wine drinker?"
"Not really," Jeff kicks off his shoes. Kent's house looks like it looked the last time he was over here. Three days ago. It feels like it's been years. Like he's gone to the moon and back again.
"Well," Kent shuts the door and leans against the back of it, still holding the bottle. "It'll go with, uh," he pauses. "French toast."
"No it won't." Jeff swallows his laughter. "You made breakfast?" Jeff says. "For dinner?"
"I got nervous," the corner of Kent's mouth twists up and Jeff can't look away from it. He doesn't quite know where the line is here, if they should talk about it, if he can just go for it. Jeff is tired of hovering around the edges.
As if he's reading his mind, Kent's smile takes on a mischievous cast. Jeff can't stop looking at it. The knowledge that he's making Kent's face move like that is intoxicating.
"You just gonna stand there?" Kent asks.
"No," Jeff says. He takes the bottle out of Kent's hands, and sets it on the floor, and closes the space between them. He can feel Kent's eyes on him, and it's a novel feeling, one he wants to savor. So he does. Jeff braces one arm against the back of the door to the left of Kent's shoulder, and then his second hand on the right so Kent's looking up at him from between his hands. When he kisses him, Kent leans his head back against the door and presses his hand against Jeff's chest.
This is a whole new set of motions to learn, to work through. A new navigation of the space between them. Kent's hands, strong fingers and callused palms, and his shoulders, and the press of his chest against Jeff's. The slide of his tongue along the crease of Jeff's mouth, the weight of teeth under his upper lip and the smell of his aftershave. He'd shaved since that morning.
"Your French toast is gonna burn," Jeff says after a minute.
"Let it," Kent says. His eyes are bright, pupils blown out. Because of Jeff. He can't stop thinking about it. Jeff wants to know everything about this all at once and that knowledge is overwhelming. His mouth on the underside of Kent's jaw. The number of freckles on his shoulders. What he sounds like when he's getting off. "If the oven catches fire I can always buy a new house."
Somewhere in between them, Kent's stomach makes an audible noise.
"Okay, fine," he says. "Cmon, Goldie, move your giant-- your self."
"Make me," Jeff says, and he presses his mouth to the spot right underneath Kent's ear. Kent grabs at his hips and shoves him backwards, playfully, catching his shoulder to kiss him again before pushing him in the direction of the kitchen.
"These were worth it," Jeff says a few minutes later, through a mouthful of French toast.
"I'm not completely shit at this," Kent says.
"At cooking? No. You're a lot better than me."
"Well at--" Kent waves his hand between them, like before. They're sitting side by side on stools at his kitchen island and there's a lot less space to cover. Jeff's getting syrup all over his fingers, which is always what happens when he eats breakfast food. "That."
"No," Jeff says. "It's working so far, and you haven't talked about any dead parents."
"He sounds cool. Your dad."
"Yeah," Jeff says. "He would've liked you."
"Mine probably would hate you. But he's a shithead, so that's a compliment. So, uh." Kent sets down his fork and frowns. Like he's going to ask something important. Jeff thinks that maybe they've asked themselves more important things in the last three days than they ever have before.
"What?" He asks, wondering if he should feel nervous.
"Oscar Isaac?" Kent asks, and shakes his head. Jeff gets what he's asking. "And my triceps?"
"My brother tried to give me an 'It's okay to be gay' speech. It was-- uncomfortable. But well-meaning. They're probably Googling the Kinsey scale together right now."
"It's fly to be bi," Kent says.
"Going alright so far." Kent rolls his eyes across the strawberries. "So can I ask--"
"Is this a sex question? Because we can have that convo, but maybe it should wait until you don't have maple syrup all over your fingers--"
"What? No, I-- you are such a dickhead," Jeff finishes, when Kent starts laughing. "You're the one who used to live in Canada, fuck off."
"Is it a joint Halloween costume question? Because that's a different story."
"Comic Con," Jeff says. "I was thinking Captain America and Bucky Barnes, personally."
"Who? No-- no Goldie I'm still fucking with you-- I just wanted to see you make that face--" Kent manages as Jeff makes to stand up and launch into the rant that he's sure Kent has heard before.
"The best superhero movie ever made, man. That's not even a joke."
"Okay," Kent holds up his hands in surrender. "What were you really gonna say?"
Jeff pauses, looks at him. There's a version of Jeff who never got to this moment, one who gave up on Friday night, one who became a biologist or something, one who didn't drink as much milk as a kid and stayed below six-four and became an astronaut.
He's not jealous of any of them right now.
"Why'd you change your mind?" he asks.
Kent blinks at him. "Really didn't want to get traded," he says.
"Parser." Jeff shakes his head. "Island would've gotten lonely?"
"Jeffrey. You are a Jeffrey, right? Jeffrey, Jacob and Jordan. That's a fucking mouthful." Jeff thinks he's going to drop it and he pauses in the process of shoveling more toast in his mouth when Kent keeps talking. "I don't know, man," Kent says, and he tugs on his bottom lip with his teeth. "I was pretty mad at myself, for kicking you out. It seemed like the easier thing to do but--"
"I've been a mess," Kent is frowning, like this is hard to say. It probably is. Something about this feels important, and honest. Jeff's figuring out that Kent isn't, always, for a lot of reasons. Because it was easier not to be. "For a while. Not with the team-- that's been the best part of all this. And I used to think it wouldn't ever matter how good I was, or the team was. Maybe it does. I'm tired of being angry about stuff, man. About Zimms, about-- about everything else. I wasn't sure I was going to but then you said that stuff--"
"Yeah," Jeff says, feeling embarrassed about it already. He doesn't usually talk about it.
"I've done some shitty stuff, when I'm angry. I've always been good at it."
"You're good at a lot of other stuff too, Parser."
I'm really good at fucking things up. Like, spectacular at it. Gold medal."
"No, okay. I am. I'll probably fuck this up. But-- I don't know. I woke up this morning and I thought-- I thought 'what if I don't?'"
His face is defiant, a little, and also determined-- and Jeff's done in. He's a goner. That's that. Rocketship to the moon.
"And you didn't want to get traded," he adds, because it feels like the right thing to add.
"Well, I finally got this place set up how it should be."
"I'd go visit, you know. Even if you got sent to Florida. If you'd go to the Kennedy Space Center with me."
"That's really flattering, Goldie. Thanks." Kent smiles, joking but soft at the corners. "You want to go to a science museum. And make out?"
"Maybe," Jeff says. "Can we come back to that sex question? I felt like you had something you wanted to say there."
"Yeah," Kent says, and he leans across their empty plates. Jeff likes this look on him-- amused, confident in a way that isn't for show, delighted by it. "Take back everything I just said, because that part I really got down. You, however, gotta buy a handbook."
"Well, they might mail it to you. The gay agenda handbook. You didn't check the mail this morning?"
"No," Jeff says. His heart rate is up there, from something else other than nerves. From possibility. He's not positive what's going to happen next, and he doesn't care. "I didn't know I'd be needing it, I guess."
"What kind of date do you think I am?" Kent says, smiling. Jeff can see the pulse jumping in his throat.
"Well," he says, "I was gonna ask you if you wanted to watch that X Files episode about outer space, but--"
"Shut up," Kent says, and he kisses him.
Jeff probably gets strawberry jelly in his hair when he leans over to catch Kent by the face, but he doesn't care. He kisses him anyway, elbows on the counter and knees knocking together, and it feels right, feels how it should be.
Just like that.