It's been two years since rising star Alex Tanguay broke Lauren's heart and fled Calgary.
Now, with a career on the verge of collapse, he's coming back to the last place where anything felt right.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chapter VII: Absolutely Still

Beth stopped in mid-chew and her mouth hung open most ungraciously. Billy had whistled in disbelief and now he could not look at me. I felt so small – one person in one chair in one cafĂ© in one city in the whole world. How could I possibly make such a big decision?

“Fuck, Lauren,” Beth managed to swallow her food enough to speak.

“What are you going to do?” Billy asked. He was not laughing and he did not look surprised. Instead he looked like a cop interrogating a suspect.  Maybe Jake had shown him how.

I once put it this way to someone trying to understand why, months after our break up, I still wasn’t over Alex: Once I would have given everything to be with this man. Now I’ve given everything, but gotten nothing in return.

“Do you love him?” Beth’s voice was quiet, like she couldn’t believe she was even asking such a thing.

“I don’t know.”

Billy put his fork down. “No, Lauren. No you do not love him. No you will not marry him, or take him back for one fucking second. I’m sorry to be the voice of reason here, but this man ruined your life. RUINED YOUR LIFE. He kicked you to the curb for some slut and they played house in your fucking home. He disrespected you every time he breathed. If you’d never caught him, then what? One, five, ten years later you catch him? You walk in the front door with your two fucking kids in tow and some whore is standing half-naked in your kitchen wondering where daddy keeps the sugar? No fucking way, Lauren.”

He wanted to storm out dramatically to finish his rant. But he didn’t move.

“Lauren, please,” he said quietly. “Please do not think so little of yourself.”

My whole face burned. I knew that every word Billy said was true, and said with love behind it. Clearly I was incapable of defending myself so Billy was going to do it for me. We sat still for a full minute while the fury of his words burned into my heart. Beth pushed her plate away.

“You do love him.” It was not a question.

I drove around slowly on residential streets. I stared at the sky, watched leaves fall, I let thoughts swim around in my head.

Lauren was right: I did still love Alex.

Billy was right: I shouldn’t.

I’d forgotten how mad I was. He’d walked right back into my life with a hundred apologies, a couple of blue shirts and a library card, and I just held the door open. When I got to my house, he was outside. I’m going to have to move, I thought to myself.

“Hey,” he said, standing on the step. “Thought I might have scared you last night, came to make sure you were okay.” He walked down toward me. “Lauren?”

“What if I hadn’t caught you?” My voice hitched as I said it. I fought back tears, knowing I would undo my own point if I cried: I needed to be angry. My words hung in the air.

Billy was right. What if I had never seen with my own eyes what Alex was doing? How easily I could have missed the biggest event in my own life. We’d have stayed together, probably married, maybe had a baby by now. He’d have dragged me all over North America, spiraling downward while I bobbed behind like a rubber duck, complete with stupid smile on my face. What if I had never known?

“What if I didn’t come home that day, Alex?” I was getting some kind of answer to this question.

“I don’t know, Lauren. That was what I needed, my wake up call. You need to hit rock bottom before you can start making your way back up. That day was my rock bottom.”

“So you wouldn’t have stopped if I didn’t catch you? You would have gone right on fucking that girl and me in the same bed?”

He tried to come near me, but I backed away. “Tell me, Alex. Would you have carried on with her? Would you still be fucking someone else, right now, if we’d stayed together all this time?”

“I hope not,” he said. “I hope I would have figured out for myself that I was making a mistake. Maybe slapped myself around instead of making you do it. But it’s all hypothetical. I want to say I would have stopped, but I won’t give myself credit for something that I didn’t do.”

His hands were in were pockets. A dark soft shell jacket flapped open across his stomach. He looked at the ground as he spoke and I could feel the pain that still existed between us. I spent so long wrapped in my own despair that I never realized Alex was doing the same thing. Every time he thought of me, he relived his own terrible mistake. Yet here he was – back in my city, waiting on my porch, wanting to spend the rest of his life with me. You have to want something pretty badly if you’re willing to suffer your own humiliation every day just to be near it.

“I’m not good enough for you, Lauren. Never was.”

Alex got in his car, thankful he’d parked on the street so he would have to look at her as he backed away. When he got to the traffic light at the end of the block, he patted the small, square outline of the box in his pocked.

“Not today,” he said out loud.

That night was the hardest since Alex returned. I wasn’t sure he’d come back, ever. The real, true end to our story that I’d been wishing for all this time might have actually been written. And I was so scared I’d chosen the wrong one.

I did something I swore I’d never do. I pulled a box out the back of my closet and tossed every photo that I hadn’t destroyed onto the bed. There weren’t many – I’d spent some very long hours cutting and tearing. But a few were so good, so precious that they’d survived the massacre. Perhaps I thought someday I’d be over him enough to look at them again. Never once had I anticipated this.

Alex and I at our first Christmas party – taken not long after we’d met. We looked so young. My hair was straight, my face a little rounder. Alex had one hand over my head holding a piece of mistletoe, smiling as wide as I’d ever seen.

With Kara and Jarome on their boat in Chestermere Lake. I’m squinting into the sun, hand over my eyes. Alex is sprawled next to me on the bench. Kara’s sitting on Jarome’s lap. One of their kids had taken the photo.

Alex shoveling snow from our driveway. We’d had a few good storms that year and I always wondered if this one was taken after he started seeing someone else. But he looked so cute – like a snowman all bundled up. He’d whipped a shovelful of snow at the window where I stood, so a white out-of-focus blob showed in the top corner.

At the bottom of the pile, my favorite photo ever – Alex sleeping. Just sleeping. He lay on his side, curled a little inward, bare shoulder visible just beyond the comforter. Early morning light spilled into the room. I don’t think he ever knew I’d taken that picture; it was the first time I’d ever woken up next to him. My eyes stung, the picture blurred. Waking up next to him. What if that’s where I was meant to be?

I went to the game the next day. I didn’t wear his jersey or stand by the glass, I just watched and ate popcorn and talked to Kara about anything else I could think of. The team was leaving for a road trip, but I didn’t say goodbye.

The next six days went by very slowly. I’d learned the hard way that libraries were not the place to keep your mind off things. Unless you were reading, you were thinking. And my job was not to read every book in the place. I watched the Flames’ three games on TV, not-so-secretly hoping to see Alex looking as distracted and fraught as I felt. The few times they showed him, including once scoring a goal, he looked fine. Maybe he doesn’t miss me anymore.

“Come on, nothing but these guys for six days is boring,” Pardy said over the phone. “Pick you up in an hour for dinner. I’m buying.” I locked up at the library and went home to change. Fifty-nine minutes later, Adam rang the bell.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” I asked as he plopped onto the couch to wait for me.

“Meeting us there.” Then he laughed. He and Jake were besties now and they really would have made a cute couple. I wondered what they’d think of Jake at the Flames’ Better Halves charity events.

Jake, and Robyn, his girlfriend Kristen, and a couple of other guys met us at the same steakhouse we always went to. I practically knew the menu by heart. We’d apparently arrived early for drinks, and I was halfway through a beer when Alex walked in.

“Did you just call him?” I asked Adam.

“Uhhh…,” he tried.

“Yes,” Jake took my beer and replaced it with a highball glass. “He did.” I tossed back the bourbon and made a face as it seared down my throat.


We watched him skirting the sunken dining room floor – he hadn’t seen us yet. He made it one step onto the hardwood floor area of the bar before someone stepped in front of him.

Holyshit. My body locked.

Miss No-Pants herself was blocking his way, cooing hello with a hand all over his arm. Alex looked surprised and his eyes darted around. I stepped behind Jake so he wouldn’t see me. From around his side, I watched as this woman laughed and tossed her hair. I couldn’t see much of his face, but hers was really animated. She wore a white collared shirt and black pants but I still hadn’t really seen her from the front. I wanted to know what she looked like now, and how she was looking at him. Adam watched at me strangely as I wheeled away and circled the far end of the dining room. I practically had to cross the dining room and stand between two tables, but I finally got a good look at her.

She smiled like a First Lady. All ‘please please believe me.’ Blond bangs swept to the side and her perky updo was sprayed into place. She wore more makeup, but she looked good. She looked the same. Shit, she looks the same. And her hand was on Alex’s arm. For his part, he looked alarmed. He was laughing tightly and trying to keep from getting too close, even backing up a step as she pretended to let someone pass behind her. Her hand slid down from toward his wrist and then I saw it: Apron.

Oh my God, she works here.

From behind me, at the hostess stand, someone called, “Pardy, table for ten!”

Alex looked toward the voice, but all he saw was me. I turned and made for the hostess.

Near the table, I grabbed Jake’s arm and pulled him into the seat next to me. Adam seemed to take the hint and sat on my other side. Everyone was laughing and chatting, still carrying drinks when they arrived. Alex took a seat across from Jake and just stared at me. No one got a word in before she arrived.

“Hi guys, I’ll be your server tonight. My name’s…,” and then she saw me. I swear time stopped as her eyes went wide as saucers. They flicked from me to Alex, then back. Calculations ran over her face: not sitting together, here with other guys, no rings on hands. She gathered herself surprisingly well.

“I’m Jackie. I see some of you have drinks, would anyone else like anything to start?” She stared at her notepad, willing someone to give her something to write down. Adam got a beer, Jake a sidecar.

Alex cleared his throat. “I’ll have a Black Label, neat.” I wonder if she knew he drank that.

“And I will have an iced tea.”

The pencil hovered above her paper for a moment too long. Then she scurried away.

The look in Alex’s eyes was terror. I couldn’t watch for more than a second and I could hardly breathe anyway. The last thing I needed was for him to start apologizing. A busboy brought bread and butter, but I pushed my plate toward Jake. Best not to have ammunition if you might start throwing things.

She’d regained her composure by the time she came back. She served me first – a big glass of iced tea with a lemon hanging from the rim. Next to it she put another glass, what looked like a mojito.

“On the house.”

I dug my nails into Jake’s thigh.

We made it through dinner. I ordered and ate, even laughed a little, and watched her as she moved around the room. Alex didn’t say much at all. When we finished and collected our stuff, I went outside first. Through the window I watched what I knew would happen – she caught up to Alex, handed him a piece of paper and twirled away.

She never was worried about me.

“Bar?” Pardy asked. Jake gave me a hard look, like he wanted to know what the hell was going on before he agreed to go anywhere with me. I nodded slightly.

“Tanguay, you coming?” Robin said, leading Kristen by the hand.

“I’ll catch up.” The box in his pocket felt like a lead weight.

I ran for Pardy’s car. We are not having this conversation where she can watch us through the window!

“Make it four,” I squeezed between Robyn and Jake at the bar. The bartender lined up four shots of tequila. Before the guys could get a proper toast out, I tossed one back, then than another, bit the lime and ordered a beer. They started like I’d just grown a horn out of my forehead.

“Lauren,” Jake spun me around. “What is going on?” Robyn and Adam leaned in to hear.

“The waitress at dinner? That’s the girl Alex cheated with.”

Every single one of them slowly closed their eyes. It was the only natural response to something you couldn’t bear to think about – if I don’t see you, then you’re not real. When Alex reached us, they all turned to him like a defensive line waiting for the football snap. I took my beer, then his arm and steered him away.

“You okay?” I asked. It was a little bit sarcastic.

“Lauren, I’m so sorry I had no idea she was even still here, I….”

“Did she give you her phone number?” My eyebrow arched so high I resembled The Rock.

“Yeah,” he said, digging in his pocket and holding it out to me.

I stared at it like he was holding nuclear waste. “And you kept it?”

Now he looked scared. I knew he hadn’t meant to, had just panicked, but I was going to make him sweat for it. If I could order an iced tea from that two dollar hooker then he could sure as hell try to explain why he’d taken her phone number.

“Shit. I didn’t think. I just wanted to get out of there.”

“Give it to me.”

He laid it in my palm, number side up. It was written in blue ink. I took my beer and slowly, deliberately poured the entire contents of the bottle over my open hand. The ink bled, then ran, the number disappearing into a dark smudge. A whole bottle takes a long time to pour and I watched the digits slowly dissolve. When my drink was empty, I flipped my hand and the soggy scrap fell to the floor.

“Oops, spilled my drink!” I said loudly. Then I marched to the bathroom, leaving Alex with a puddle around his shoes.

What the fucking hell do I do now? My reflection had no answers. I had seen that Alex obviously had no feelings for her – instead he was worried about me and scared that his teammates would hate him. That was something. But what do I do?

Alex took a deep breath before walking to the bar. Jake, Adam, Robyn and Kristen were staring at him – they obviously knew. Time to take another beating, Alex thought. He’d given himself so many he was practically numb. This would be bad though. Last time he’d been able to run from the team almost immediately after it happened. He wanted to stay here, wanted to like it here. It was hard to know that not a single one of these guys had his back. But he was wrong. Jake let him through and slapped him on the back.

“Well that was awkward.” And then he laughed. Alex could have kissed him, put Pardy would have knocked him out.

Alex’s laugh was a little stiff. “Not the way I pictured tonight going.” He ordered everyone a round of drinks, then raised a glass. “Don’t fuck up, people, because it never stops coming back to haunt you.”

They all drank to that. When Jake put his glass down, he leaned in to Alex.

“Don’t forget that I’m a detective. I can kill you in a way that will never be solved, and I never really did get my chance with your girlfriend.”

Girlfriend. Never before had a death threat made Alex smile.

I took a brand new beer from Alex’s outstretched hand. The tension had broken – everyone was smiling, Robyn and Kristen were kissing. Hmmm, I wonder.

“Can we talk?” Alex asked quietly. We took a nearby table and he set out an extra full beer.

“Just in case,” he smiled. “Lauren, I’m sorry about that. I guess it was bound to happen eventually, so maybe I’m glad it did now. Before you decide if you want to give me another chance.”

This conversation had been building for a long time. Maybe since I’d first heard about the trade, maybe since I’d pulled into the drive to find him sitting on my steps. Tonight he wore a tan shirt that made him seem very blonde and washed him out a little. I thought about throwing it away someday. But that would mean being in his house, our house, folding his clothes or helping him pack. We would have a life together or we would have nothing, because this maybe-friends thing was not working. There was too much back story for our characters to run parallel courses. We were going to collide, or keep colliding, until we either merged or veered apart. I’d veered once already and frankly, I hadn’t liked where the road had led.

“Okay, Alex.” That’s all I said. No promises or ultimatums, no guarantees. Just okay, and everything that came with it. I will give you another chance. Heaven help me.

I watched as the words made their way to his brain and registered like cherries on a slot machine in his eyes. He smiled, then really smiled. In a great big rush he grabbed me alongside the table and kissed me on the mouth.

The bar surely collapsed around us into a pile of rubble and dust as an earthquake tore the floor apart. Beams fell, glasses broke, unlucky faceless bystanders were squashed in the melee. The mirror shattered and crashed to the floor with the sound snow would make if it weighed enough.

But when I opened my eyes, everything still stood. Jake, Robyn, Kristen, Adam, even the busboy mopping up the beer I’d poured onto the floor – they all looked back at us, surprised and amazed. I giggled and they all laughed. Then Alex kissed me again. We left immediately – not that anyone expected us to stay. I tossed Jake my keys and practically ran from the place. Alex drove out of the parking lot and a few streets down before he pulled over on the side of the road.

“What are we doing?” I was nearly hysterical but I wasn’t about to do anything about it on the grassy shoulder.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked me. “I mean, do you really want this? Because I want this so much that if you’re not sure we should wait. I know what I did to you and that I deserve anything horrible you might do in return. But please, Lauren. I cannot go through losing you again.”

“Alex, I should not still love you, but I do. I think if we can survive all this, we can get through anything.” I felt strong, nearly invincible. All the bad things that had happened, the lost weeks I’d spent in black depression, the pictures I’d cut and the memories I’d burned – they felt swept away.

Alex pulled back onto the road and drove to my house. He leapt out and I thought he was coming around to open my door. But he went to the steps, turned around and waited for me. My porch light glowed behind him. I got close…

He came off the bottom step, knelt down at my feet and opened his hand to reveal a black velvet box. A single square diamond on a silver band stared back at me.

“Told you I would ask again,” he said, pulling the ring from the padding. “Lauren, I love you. I never want to lose you again. If you’ll do me the honor of letting me back into your life I swear that I will never, ever give you another reason to doubt me. I will spend the next hundred years making you the happiest woman on Earth.

“Will you marry me?”

It’s true that you don’t ask that question if you don’t know the answer. But it’s also true that you don’t let someone ask. And I let Alex ask.

“Yes, Alex,” I said.

He slid the ring onto my finger and I pulled him to his feet. The only one to see this kiss was the man in the moon, but I’m pretty sure he felt it too.

THE END - It was quick, but I hope you liked it!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chapter VI: Same Words, Different Situation

Kara held out a piece of paper to me. I put my drink in the cup holder of the seat in front of us, took the paper and held it. She shook her head. “You are on your own here.”

Sorry. Again. I need to think of something new to say to you. Alex’s handwriting.

“Who handwrites a note?” she rolled her eyes.

I’d spent most of the night awake, mad at myself and at Alex. Who does he think he is? Waltzing in here like suddenly he’s going to start solving problems instead of causing them? Bullshit. Not a chance. And what is he doing in my house? Why am I letting him get close?

Sleep calmed me significantly, and I woke before my alarm; my mind was not done tossing the issue around. He doesn’t know what else to do. He’s taking whatever I give him, and I gave him that chance. Part of me really enjoyed watching him fish for opportunities to treat me nicely. I got to see him squirm and in the end, got something for myself. Selfish. I am not in this for revenge. Remember what it feels like to have someone treat you badly.

“It’s okay, you sap.” I was in the hallway between the locker room and the parking lot, sitting on a table. Alex’s gray suit made his wet hair look darker. Apprehension was replaced by a smile.

“I knew the handwriting would work on you. Librarians!” he said like he’d ever known another, like he’d even met any others. With the slightest bit of hesitation, he asked, “Drink?”

I let him take me across town to a wine bar. We’d gone there quite a few times together, and I had not been back since. He looked sheepish when he realized what he’d done.

“Not many places left from two years ago. These are the only ones I know.” We slid into a booth. He opened his mouth to apologize and I held up my hand.

“Stop saying you’re sorry. Stuff like this is going to happen. Save it for when there’s something to be sorry about.” He shrugged as if he didn’t but it but was glad to be off the hook.

Deep breath, I told to myself. If he’s going to do this, then I have to do it too.

“Same goes for me. I’m sorry I overreacted about the loan,” I said. “I appreciate the offer, but I am taking care of it myself.”

“I never doubted you could take care of yourself. But the offer stands, if you change your mind.” He handed me the menu and let me pick the wine.

This had been a great place for a date, back in the day. The booths were mostly for couples – cozy with one seat on each side. Dark walls and tables, candles on the tables. It wasn’t so much romantic as it felt expensive, decadent. I thought of all the things I’d missed doing and places I’d avoided since they only reminded me of Alex. If maybe I’d be able to go back to them now.

I watched Alex over the rim of my glass. He seemed different, more grounded. I had burned most of our good memories like a brushfire, but a few remained. Even in those he was lighter, more frivolous. Maybe he really had changed in two years – I knew that I had. A bad run can do that to you.

“So tell me about your life now. What have I missed?” he asked.

Missed. I missed most of it too. In truth, little had changed on the surface. Same job, same friends, no boyfriend. But I liked all those things as they were – they had been my life raft. Those parts of my life had gotten stronger because I’d leaned on them. Not the other way around.

“Not too much,” I replied honestly. “Went to Mexico, hated it. Went to Peru and loved it. Learned a fair amount of Spanish that I’ve now forgotten. Fostered a dog for a while, that was fun.”

And now, what I really wanted to know. “And you?”

Alex studied the crimson liquid in his glass. “Nothing much either. Montreal was hard, but the summer after was pretty good. My brother got married. Then Tampa Bay, which I think could have been better except for the injuries. Concussion, a leg problem that wouldn’t heal….” He shook his head, sending the bad vibes away. “For a while I wasn’t sure what would happen. Then I got this call.”

He looked around the bar like it was this in particular he’d been coming back to. Then he looked at me the same way. “I didn’t know if this call was a second chance or a disaster waiting to happen.”

Alex tipped his glass up, draining the last drop. “I know I’ve said it, but thanks Lauren.”

For the first time since Alex came back into my life, I really let his gratitude sink in. I was proud of the way I’d handled most of his return. Not just because I was being nice to someone who had been so horrible to me – though the moral high ground felt great. But also because I was, for the most part, generally okay with having Alex in my life. That meant I had healed and come a very, very long way from the floor of Beth’s apartment two years ago. Maybe all that suffering had actually paid off.

“I think you really are the person you say you are. I’m glad you finally got there,” I said.

He filled our glasses and clinked them together. “Finally.”

Later, as we pulled into my driveway, Alex asked, “Can I see you tomorrow?”

I almost said yes right away. Of course he could see me tomorrow. But maybe Beth was right and it’s too much, too soon without time in between to process everything. He felt compelled to cover up my hesitation.

“You’re kind of all I have here, Lauren. And I’m not really trying to find anything else.”

How can a girl say no to that?

Before lunchtime, my phone vibrated. One of the old ladies who hung around the library all the time gave me a dirty look like she worked there and I was breaking the rules. Listen lady, unless you have some good advice on ex-boyfriends then stuff it.

Alex: Dinner tonight? Wear something nice. 7 PM.

I flipped the phone shut, but Billy had already caught me. His sideways look that would have made the old lady proud.

“Lauren. What are you doing?” he asked in a voice that implied he already knew.

“I am asking myself the same thing.” I put my head down on a stack of returned books. “What am I supposed to do? He’s here. He’s everywhere, all the time. And I think that he might be serious, Billy. He might actually be the person I fell in love with, minus all the bad things.”

Billy snorted. “You fell in love before the bad things, Lauren. And they still came as a surprise.”

Something is different, I knew. “He doesn’t try to hide them. He hasn’t once denied anything, tried to shirk responsibility or change the subject. It’s like self-flagellation, actually. I think I’m some kind of penance.”

“Great, just what we need. An ex-boyfriend on a 12-step program.”

I tried on every dress in my closet. I almost decided on a blue one then realized I’d had it over two years and Alex must have seen it before. What kind of sad, dateless spinster wears a two year old dress to dinner with her ex-boyfriend? I put it aside for Goodwill. Finally I chose a deep yellow dress, almost mustard color, that I knew looked great with my dark hair. It seemed appropriate for autumn and had some killer shoes to match.

“Wow,” Alex said when I opened the door. He looked nice too – black pinstripe trousers and a bright blue shirt. Damn that shirt. He knew exactly what that color did for him, and to me.

We went to a new Italian place that I’d read about in the paper. Alex joked that he’d read it too, looking for a place we’d never been. It had a roaring fireplace to fight off the fall chill, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack behind the bar. There must have been a thousand bottles catching and throwing the recessed lighting that shone down on them. Alex ordered tonight’s bottle and we agreed to share food. Over artichoke bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes, Alex raised his glass to mine.

“What are we celebrating?” I asked. This felt like a special occasion and I was trying not to get freaked out. It was obviously a date. What I’d been thinking when I agreed was a mystery to me.

Alex clinked his glass to mine. “Nothing other than you finally agreed to have dinner with me.”

The dishes were excellent; butternut squash ravioli in cream sauce, lasagna Florentine, tiramisu. I could have curled up in the low, warm lighting. Alex’s eyes were endlessly blue. I figured I looked pretty good too – it was the kind of place that made everyone look good. By the end, I was happy and cozy and a little tired. We walked across the parking lot to the car and Alex opened my side.

I never made it to the door. Alex put his outside hand on my hip, drew me in and kissed me lightly on the mouth. So lightly there was almost no contact. The barest sliver of his lip touched mine – it was enough to replicate the blast from the atomic bomb. It went through me like ice cold water in the middle of a hot shower. Complete numbing surprise. My mind shut down my body, like it would do in a medical emergency. All auxiliary systems lost power – thinking, feeling, blinking. Even breathing was slow to respond.

“Lauren,” he said, his voice husky.

In the dim recesses of my brain, beneath the bleat of “THIS IS NOT A TEST” droning from my emergency response system, I heard him. I heard the desire in his voice. The longing. The self-control he was exerting not to kiss me again and the permission he was asking to do it anyway.

“Lauren,” he repeated more clearly.

His mouth on mine, just for a heartbeat, had shot the lock off the door holding back all the memories. Good and bad they came pouring out. Waking up next to him, waking up alone. Cheering for him, trying to cheer him up. Laughing, fighting, kissing, crying. And a very visceral, forceful physical recollection of what it was like when Alex and I made love.

I had really almost forgotten. Two years is a long time to be alone. In order to get through, I’d blocked out the best parts of what I was missing, and the sex was very near the top of that list. It had been the first memory to go into the incinerator. He’d been giving it away, to Miss No-Pants and, I assumed, some other slut in every city on the map. So what we had felt so special to me, what literally moved me like nothing before, was just some party trick he handed out like candy. Burn baby, burn.

Now the weight of that collided with the thoughts I’d been having about the new Alex. If he was really different, had really grown up and found peace, would we still be like that? Could you change two people so completely and still get the same result? Was it really ever special at all, or was I just naive and hopelessly in love with someone who didn’t give a shit about me?

“Lauren,” came again.

A small, audible breath escape my lips and I closed my eyes. I couldn’t take in anything else. My heart fluttered in my chest, probably drowning in adrenaline and hormones.

Alex went around his side of the car and got in. He could stand there and watch the history of their lives together play across her face like a movie, but there were too many things he was ashamed of, too many moments he’d kill to have back. I would do it all right this time.

Whoever said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all was full of shit
, Alex thought. I cannot lose this again.

He hadn’t meant to kiss her. Not so soon, not the very first time she agreed to go out with him. Not now, not now! He had so much work left to do, so many things still to repair. And time, he needed time to show her that he had changed. It had only been a few weeks of the season and already his game was miles ahead of last year. He was feeling it, he could do this. This place was right for him.

Alex pressed his head into the seat and took a deep breath. Please don’t let this be the end.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but Alex didn’t push. He probably needed a moment himself, unless I was doing enough freaking out for us both. Finally I inhaled slowly, the smell of the fireplace inside the restaurant bringing some calm into my body. I got in and closed the door before I looked at him.

“Wow,” I said. His beautiful eyes flashed relief and his whole body relaxed a notch. Apparently he’d been as unsure of my reaction as I was.

“Does this qualify as a time when I really have something to apologize for?” he asked, trying to bring a smile into the conversation.

I bit my lip. “I don’t know, Alex.”

Residual hysteria was rushing to the surface. Tears stung my eyes, my heart pounded. Alex took one of my hands from my lap – it was shaking. He wrapped it into his, holding it still. His touch made me feel weaker, like I was slipping through the skin where we touched and ebbing away into him.
“I love you, Lauren.”

I squeezed his hand because I couldn’t talk. He was scared and embarrassed and telling the truth. Regardless of my own feelings, whatever they might be, I appreciated his bravery. It was one of the things that had me so unglued since his return.

“I’m fully aware I have no right to love you. I lost that privilege. But no matter what I do or where I go I can’t seem to get over you. So I came back here, to the scene of my crime. You and the game are all that matter to me, in that order. If there’s any chance I could get either one back, I had to take it.”

“You really have changed a lot, Alex. You’ve given me more honesty in the last two months than in two years together.” I was still holding his hand.

“It’s easier to be honest when you have a lot to be sorry for.” He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed my fingertips where they curled between his.

“Will you think about it?” he asked with puppy dog eyes.

I couldn’t stop the little smile that came to my lips. “I have been thinking about it since the day you came back.”

Game day and I knew I was going to do it. And take some shit for it. I honked my horn in front of Jake’s house.

“Wooot,” he said with one look at me. “My detective powers are undefeated.”

I smirked at him, straightened the sleeves of my #40 Tanguay jersey and keep driving.

Kara wisely did not say anything as we sat down. She just crossed her eyes and went back to her soda. A few of the other wives and girlfriends noticed – one or two gave me sad looks, like I was tying my own noose. But a couple gave me encouraging, or at least inevitable, nods and smiles.

When the Flames took the ice for warm up skate, I hauled Jake from the chair and went right down next to the glass. Pardy and Robyn saw me first then snagged Alex as he skated past. He was already smiling. When he saw the jersey, his face lit up.

“Worth it just for that, eh?” Jake asked.

I shrugged, hoping it was.

“You are my good luck charm,” Alex said, coming into the hallway. He’d gotten a goal and an assist then spent fifteen minutes talking with the locker room media.

“You did it all by yourself,” I said. “I just make this jersey look good.”

In the parking lot, Pardy and Jake were waiting for us.

“We’re going for beers,” Pardy said.

“Bromance!” I announced. “You guys wanna be alone or can we come with?”

I didn’t give Alex the chance to ask if we should ride together, because we were certainly not leaving together. I jumped into my car and followed Pardy. This is not a lock, I reminded myself. You can wear his jersey and support him and still take this slowly. Do not get ahead of yourself here. It felt really good to give in a little to my growing feelings for Alex. He’d been going out of his way for me and I felt right reciprocating. But that didn’t mean I was going all the way.

We were at the bar two hours before I lost that fight. Two beers and two shots. Just enough to loosen his tongue.

“How long?” he asked, leaning in closely at the bar. His broad shoulders were turned toward me, one of his strong arms across the bar behind my back. Alex tilted his head down, face close to mine and spoke softly.

“How long is the appropriate amount of time before I can ask you to marry me?”

The pint glass slipped from my hand and hit the floor with a thump. It didn’t break, just splashed the last few sips of beer across the floor. No one noticed.

“At least until you’ve finished your drink,” he answered his own question, laughing quietly.

“Alex….” My heart beat irregularly, banging against my ribcage like a trapped bird.

He stepped in front, catching me between himself and the bar. His other arm went to the counter, cutting off my escape route. I had a forearm’s length space, which meant about two inches separated his body from mine. Until he leaned in.

“You don’t have to answer,” his voice was low, almost a purr, with the faint warmth of whiskey on his breath. “But I promised you honesty, and I won’t break another promise. Just tell me when you’re ready. I’ll be waiting.”

He peeled himself off me and wheeled away. I almost sagged in his absence – I’d lost my footing when he said ‘marry’ and he’d been holding me up ever since. Marry me?! I quickly turned back to the bar in case anyone was watching. I definitely did not want to discuss that conversation with Robyn or Jake.

“Okay Laur?” It was Jarome. I should have known he’d see. I looked over my shoulder at him, and he gave me a ‘no-shit’ eyebrow raise. Jarome and Kara had been together since 8th grade. I loved them dearly but I wasn’t exactly going to ask them for relationship advice. They were Little House on the Prairie. Even my average love life before meeting Alex was HBO compared to theirs. Sure, I envied their happiness. But I knew my story would never be a fairy tale.

“Probably not,” I said honestly.

An hour later, I had managed to talk a little with everyone while still trying to process Alex’s words. He had not left, but he hadn’t approached me either. He appeared to have stopped drinking so he could drive and I’d done the same. No way was I relying on someone else for a ride home tonight. When everyone packed it in, I headed straight for my car. Alex caught up.

“What makes you think I want to marry you?” It came out a little angrier than I intended, but he was being awfully presumptuous.

“You don’t have to say yes, Lauren. That’s why it’s a question.”

“You don’t ask that question if you don’t know the answer,” I shot back. He shrugged, like that’s exactly what he was ready and willing to do. I saw Jarome had gotten in his car but not gone yet. I went closer to my car, opened the door and he drove off. Another car left too – maybe Robyn but it was too dark to tell.

“How can I trust you, Alex? I see that you’ve changed. But I missed it before – missed that you were lying and cheating and God knows what else. Obviously I am not a very good judge of character.”

“It’s worse that that,” he said looking at the ground. “Who knows what’s going to happen with my game? Maybe I’ll get lucky and play the next eight years here. Or I could be a free agent next summer. I might be asking you to leave here to be with me. And I know you love this place.”

I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. Once I’d been willing to go. Now I couldn’t say.

“But it doesn’t matter, Lauren. Nothing will change the reasons. I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. That’s it.”

It was that simple for him. He’d make his mistake and moved on. My mistake still lived everyday, tried to pay my bills and kiss me. My mistake wanted a new identity.

“I…,” I tried to speak but came up with nothing.

“Next time we talk about this it will be the real thing, ring and all. I won’t know the answer. But I’ll still ask.”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chapter V: Come Through

“Alex,” Jarome said. Alex turned and caught the cell phone being tossed toward him.


“Alex, it’s Kara. Lauren’s dad is in the hospital. She’s on her way home from work to head to the airport. Could you check on her? I don’t have anyone else’s number and I can’t leave the kids here.”

Alex handed Jarome back his phone. The look on Iginla’s face was unmistakable. I hate that she asked you. Fuck this up and I’ll kill you slowly.

Lauren’s car was in the in the driveway. Alex flew up to the door and knocked as he was opening it. She poked her head around the corner from her bedroom. “Oh, hi.” She’d been crying. “What are you…” and she started to sob. Her body slid down the wall. Alex was right there, wrapped around her on the floor.

“Shhhh, it’s okay. What happened?”

“My dad has to have heart surgery. They saw something they didn’t like, did a test and said he could have a heart attack any minute. They’re doing the surgery tomorrow morning. I have to get there before then, because….” More sobbing. Alex didn’t need to hear the end of her sentence. Because he might not make it.

“Do you have a flight? Are you packed?”

She shook her head. “I was just going to go there and get whatever flight was next.”

“Go pack. I’ll do the flight.” He pushed her toward her room. She still kept her computer on the desk in the living room. He searched a few sites and found a flight leaving for Vancouver in three hours. It would be there by dinnertime. The ticket was really expensive, but it wasn’t the price that made him pause.

“Do you want me to go with you?” he said softly at the door to her room.

She had a bag open on the bed and was tossing in socks. “That would really give my dad a heart attack,” she almost laughed. “And my mom.” Her face fell again.

“Sure you’ll be okay getting there?” She nodded.

He put the ticket on his card. He checked her in, printed the boarding pass and stuffed the papers into her purse. She came out with a wheelie suitcase, which he threw into the back of his car. Lauren called someone and gave them her arrival time for a ride to the house. They were two hours early for the flight. Alex pulled into short term parking and unloaded the car. Without asking, he walked into the terminal with her. She was a zombie. With an hour before she had to go through security, Alex steered her toward an empty row of seats in a quiet part of the terminal where the check-in desks were closed. He fetched a soda from the newsstand, sat down next to her and dug through her bag. He programmed his number into her phone. Her number had not changed.

“When you need to come back, will you call me?” he asked. She nodded.

He laced his fingers through hers. He knew it was wrong to feel a surge of energy from holding her hand at a time like this. But he couldn’t help it. He was doing something good, something right. He was helping instead of hurting her. And he desperately wanted everything to be okay. She leaned into him and he put an arm around her shoulders. For nearly an hour, they didn’t talk.

When it was time, he wheeled her to security. He opened her wallet, saw that she had no cash and stuffed fifty dollars into it. She put her ID in her pocket and held her arms out to him. It was like hugging a sad puppy. Her body was heavy and slow. He squeezed her tight, whispering that everything would be okay.

“Thank you, Alex,” she whispered back. She gave him a tight, tiny smile and handed her license to the security guard.

Alex welcomed the distraction of the game. He’d called after she landed to make sure she made it okay. She replied by text that she was on her way to the house. Her dad was due at the hospital at 4 AM for pre-op. Alex put his whole head into the game to keep from thinking about it. He couldn’t do anything but wait, and playing made the time fly by. He had a good game, and the coach complimented his focus. Jarome gave him a pat on the back and even a smile.

He set his alarm for 4:30 AM and texted Lauren. She called him back a few minutes later.

“Hi,” she sounded tired and sad. “He’ll be in surgery soon. There’s nothing to do here but wait like 7 hours. Sportscenter in the waiting room showed one of your plays from last night.”

Alex smiled, wished her strength and went back to sleep. Exactly six hours and forty-five minutes later, his phone rang again.

“He’s okay,” she said, then burst into tears. Alex held the phone to his ear while she cried for five full minutes. Finally, gasping, she told him they’d done a quintuple bypass, using veins from his legs, and he was still under sedation but expected to recover fully and quickly. Alex had tears in his eyes too.

“Thank you, Alex. Thank you,” she repeated.

“When are you coming back?”

“Saturday, I think.” That was six days from now. “He’ll be out of the hospital Thursday, and once he’s settled in the house I’ll come home.”

He loved that she called Calgary home, even when she was at the house she’d grown up in. He promised to take care of everything, she just needed to pick a flight.

I slept for 18 hours after my dad’s surgery. I had never been so scared in my life and it completely drained me. On Wednesday they moved him from the ICU to a regular room. That afternoon, a huge bunch of flowers turned up. “These say ‘From Lauren’,” my mom read the card.

I hadn’t told anyone. “They’re from Alex.”

My mom and sister spun to attention. The silence was deafening. Only beeps and drips echoed through the room, my dad lying knocked out on his hospital bed.

“Oh boy,” my mom said.

“I knew he was back,” Eileen said. “I was wondering if you were ever going to mention it. I thought maybe you never saw him.”

“I’m friends with the whole team, I can’t just avoid him. And he’s really, really sorry. He’s had a rough couple of years.” It sounds lame coming out.

“I remember when someone else had a rough couple of years,” my mother replied. She would show Alex little mercy. “I remember crying and screaming and some explicit death threats. I remember you disappeared for six months.”

“I remember that too, believe me. It still hurts. But he is trying his best to start over. He knows he can never make it up to me.”

Eileen looks suspicious. “He drove you to the airport, didn’t he? You called him when you needed help.”

“Actually Kara called him. He came running.”

“I’ll bet he did,” my mom scoffed.

“Look, let it go, okay? Alex is back in town. He’s not back in my bed.” They looked at each other.

“Don’t let him back in your heart,” my mom closed the subject.

Thursday morning I called Alex. He asked what flight I wanted and booked the ticket. I felt awful letting him do that, but it was a lot of money. I’d have had to ask my mom otherwise, and I didn’t know what kind of insurance we had to cover all the medical bills. No more stress for them, I thought. I could handle this on my end.

I flew home Friday and Beth picked me up at the airport. I knew Alex wanted to but I begged him off. I needed to regroup. Beth and I went for coffee and I told her everything with plenty of crying in between.

“Well I have to say that Alex did a nice thing,” she admitted. “But I don’t like him, Lauren. I don’t like him for you. And you are letting it happen.”

“Beth, I don’t know what I’m doing. He’s trying so hard and I always was a sucker for the guy. But I don’t trust him. I can’t. Every time I look at him, I see her.” Ms. No-Pants with the iced tea. My arch nemesis.

“Every time I look at him, I see you curled up in a ball on the floor of my living room for two weeks. I had to force feed you, Lauren. Good thing I’m a nurse or you would have died,” she said drily.

“You always were my best friend,” I told her.

Beth made a noise as she pulled into my drive. Alex was sitting on the steps again. I hauled my bag out, kissed her goodbye and rolled up to him.

“Okay?” He was really, honestly concerned. At least I thought so. But then again he lied to me for four months and I never saw it coming. I didn’t have much faith in my ability to read people.

“Yeah, everything’s okay,” I said.

He pulled me into a tight hug. He was warm and soft, like getting back into bed on a cold morning. It lasted just a moment then he ended it. I realized that he has already resolved to leave immediately. I was relieved.

“Thank you again, Alex. For everything.” This time, I hugged him. He put a hand into my hair and held me close.

“I was really scared for you. I’m glad it’s over,” he said. Then he left.

I felt a little bereft. So much emotion over the course of a week. The last time my heart had worked that hard I’d been cursing Alex’s name and sticking pins in his pictures. I crawled into bed and gave the pillow another 18-hour marathon session.

I slowly regained my equilibrium over the next week. My dad was recovering speedily and driving my mom crazy around the house. I started sleeping normal hours, went back to work and even watched a few Flames’ road games on TV. Alex sent me a text or two from the trip, but otherwise he seemed to sense that I needed some space after my brush with disaster.

To their credit, Beth and Billy started to lighten up a bit about him. He had come through in a pinch. I was glad to hear them speak fairly, but neither would go so far as to like him again.

Secretly, I was very glad for their honesty. My dad’s surgery was a brush with mortality and all kinds of crazy, panicked feelings still flooded my system: There’s no time to be mad at people. What if something happened, is that how you’d want it to end? I don’t want to be alone forever. Mostly what I thought was: forgive and forget.

“Someone has to be the voice of your conscience, Lauren,” Billy said, scooping a stack of books into his arms. “You can get all misty-eyed and you have the right to forgive him. But last time still happened. And I will not let you forget.”

When the team was back, I invited Alex over for dinner. It was the least I could do to thank him, though I was nervous. Part of me felt like I owed him something – at least to be nice. I cooked and he cleaned, kind of like old times. If I let myself, it was easy to laugh and talk and pretend like this wasn’t the man who’d broken my heart and temporarily ruined my life. He knew what wine I drank, he gave me the ends of the steak because I didn’t eat anything too rare. Details I never realized I knew came to the surface and it was like I could read his mind.

Over two years, some things about us had not changed. We both still watched a lot of CSI. Most of our favorite authors had new books – I’d read them all at work, Alex while on the road. There were new albums from bands we both liked and plenty of trips, birthday and events to talk about.

“The flowers you sent my dad were gorgeous,” I said. “I told everyone they were from you.”

Alex winced visibly. “And your mom threw them out the window, intentionally missing the dumpster and landing them in dog poop?”

“No. The windows didn’t open.”

“I don’t blame them for hating me. And your dad especially. He was so nice to me in the beginning, when I was really nervous around them. Turns out I was way more scared of your mom.”

We both laughed – my mom was pretty frightening.

“If it’s any consolation, my own parents were furious with me for a long time,” he said, turning serious. “I told them exactly what I had done and they said I deserved to lose you. Eventually they were happy to have me back in Montreal. But you were always there. They were worried about me coming back here.”

“And now?”

He smiled sheepishly. “I haven’t told them you’re letting me be your friend again. I’m too worried I’ll jinx it by saying it out loud.”

We moved into the living room to watch TV. It was a little weird to sit with him and not touch – I knew exactly how to curl up with him for this express purpose. Instead we sat a little stiffly, pretending it wasn’t awkward. When the show ended, I ran to the bathroom before the next episode could start. I came back to find Alex holding an envelope from the coffee table I had not cleared.

“You still have loans?”

I’d been getting that envelope every month for nearly 10 years. Alex had seen it countless times before. School in Boston had been expensive and ‘international’ students qualified for less financial aid. Still I had wanted it so badly. So a decade later I was still paying off student loans, slowly buy surely.

As I said, libraries don’t make anyone rich. The only time I’d ever made significant headway was when I lived with Alex – he paid the rent, I put that money toward my debt. When I went back to living alone, minimum payments were the best I could do. I’d often wondered, in the days right after we ended, if this kind of thing ever occurred to him – money, how he’d changed my life, what I’d have to go back to.

“Lauren, let me pay this.”

I froze. He’d never offered that when we were together, not that I would have let him. I carried that debt because I had wanted something more than I wanted money. It was the only time I’d ever made such a decision and the responsibility was important to me.

“No, Alex. It’s fine. Those loans are designed to take forever to pay.”

He did not look convinced. “It’s been two years. So you still owe them what, $10,000?” How he could possibly remember what I’d owed back then and guess what I’d been able to pay since was impossible. But he was right in the ballpark. I nodded.

“I’m not making what I used to make, but it’s still a lot of money, Laur. I know how you are about money – I am not being flippant about this. I can pay it with no trouble.”

I was shaking my head vigorously. No way, too much, no way. The offer was incredibly tempting – if I could save that money instead, it would be a small fortune. Then I could buy my own plane tickets in emergencies. But it wasn’t like I’d been going without. And letting Alex pay it… that would have been like letting him back in. For real.

“Thank you, but no. Alex, I will pay it.”

“Lauren, please. You should let me…”

“You should go,” I said abruptly. He recoiled, tried to keep talking. I repeated myself.

“I owe you, Lauren. I know that. What else can I do? I’m trying to make this up to you in any way possible. Please Lauren, let me help.”

That was it – the very heart of the problem. I had let him help me when I really needed it, but I would not rely on him unless it was an emergency. I knew from experience that such a thing did not end well.

“I don’t need your help, Alex. I can take care of myself.”

He tried to apologize but I had shut down. The bill stayed on my table when he left.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chapter IV: Strong

He looked for me in the stands during the warm-up skate. I still had the same seats – Alex had picked them out when we started dating and given them to me as a gift on our first Christmas. When he left, I bought them myself. Sort of. I paid 1/10th the actual price because Jarome got them for me. Libraries didn’t make anyone rich. Alex smiled at me and I sent him a small one back.

He played on Jarome’s line, the way he had before. I could see they were meshing. Despite it being early in the season, they had good communication and strong passing. A little of the chemistry was coming back, the familiarity of people who’ve played together before. Just what everyone had been hoping for. The Flames won 2-1. I went to the locker room with Kara.

“Shit Lauren, I didn’t know. I’m really sorry,” Adam said, pulling me aside near a pile of stinky gear. “No one told me and I ruined your date!”

I just laughed. “No worries, Pardy. It ended up being a good night.”

I congratulated a few of the other guys. Jarome and Alex were both talking to the media. Alex looked resigned – he’d spent a lot of time recently answering questions about why he was playing badly. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself about a few solid games. Just before Kara was ready to head home, I stopped by his stall.

“Nice game,” I said.

He smiled gratefully, looking more relieved about me than the game. Maybe he thought I’d meant ‘go forever’ when I sent him away at the movies.

“Did you get the flowers?”

I nodded. “They were beautiful. Thanks.” I had nothing else to say, really. “Good night.”

In the car, Kara gave me a look. “Lauren, I know that Alex is really sorry for what he did. But I didn’t know until tonight that he’s definitely still in love with you.”

I sighed and pressed my head to the seat. “I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe he just wants to make himself feel better. Maybe I’ll feel better when it’s done.”

A week of road games passed. I tried to get a last round of heirloom tomatoes from my sad little garden before fall’s grip closed in. The season was beautiful – late September and the leaves were turning. I was raking my front yard when a card pulled in. The car was new – a shiny, dark blue sport wagon. Good for the snow, I knew. Alex climbed out.

“That’s not your Tampa Bay car,” I said.

He laughed. “I had a convertible down there. Every time I drove it, I felt like having a midlife crisis.”

The team had played well on the road, ending up at just .500 but scoring a total of 10 goals in 4 games. Alex held out his hands for my rake. He still wore his suit from the flight under a black pea coat. I went to the garage for a backup rake and helped him make a big pile. We didn’t talk much. When the pile contained every last leaf in the yard, it was waist high and the size of a kiddie pool. I couldn’t resist. I backed up ten feet, ran and jumped into it. Alex landed next to me. It wasn’t too soft, but I lay there looking at the clouds drifting past. Alex plucked at a maple leaf.

“No autumn in Florida. Pretty depressing,” he said.

“But you can go to Busch Gardens,” I tried.

“Yeah. Rhino poop smells great when it’s a hundred degrees in April.” He wrinkled his nose at the apparently vivid memory. “I missed Calgary.”

I had long maintained that Calgary was the most beautiful place on Earth. I’d traveled a lot and gone to college in Boston. Even with the deep freeze of winter, I had yet to find anything to rival Calgary. The only time I’d ever imagine living somewhere else was with Alex, if he were traded. I would have gladly gone with him.

“Any chance you’d reconsider letting me take you to dinner?”

I wanted to. I also knew it was a bad idea. By now my heart new I would eventually give in and if not just be his friend, maybe give him a second chance. Maybe. He was trying really hard. But my head refused to cooperate. I couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t risk going from zero to all my old feelings in an instant. I didn’t even trust myself.

“Alex, I find it hard to be around you. There’s still too much and I’m not that strong.”

“You are,” he said, hauling himself out of the pile. “I know you.”

When he left, I lay on the leaves still watching the sky. I know you. But the me he had known was two years ago – the two longest, most difficult years of my life. Right now I hardly even knew myself.

“Hi Jake,” I answered the phone.

“Lauren, hi. Sorry our date turning into an un-date. Can I make it up to you?”

I told myself I should, but ultimately there would be no point. I was in no position to be bringing another person into this equation. I sucked at long division.

“Jake, it turns out I’m not really looking to date anyone just now. But I like you. If it’s cool, would you want to come to the game with me tonight?”

Never hurts to keep them guessing.

Alex looked up from the ice to my seats. When he saw Jake sitting next to me, his expression flashed a little dark. I smiled, reveling in the knowledge that I was being a little bitch. It felt good to regain the upper hand, if only for a while. The game was great – Calgary steamrolled Atlanta. When Alex got a goal, I was the first one out of my seat cheering. Maybe a little too enthusiastic.

“So, you and Tanguay. I take it that’s not a new thing.”

I must have looked embarrassed and shocked all at the same time.

“I am a detective, Lauren,” he added. Right, of course.

“It’s a very old thing that is not a thing anymore,” I informed him crisply. He smiled, and I knew Jake and I were now officially friends.

“Right. Also my job to know when people are lying.” He finished his hot dog. “It’s because I don’t ride the horse, isn’t it?”

Jake nearly died when I took him into the locker room. He looked like a kid – taking in the stacks of equipment, the whiteboard with a play drawn on it. The media were doing their thing, so we stood at the back until they had mostly cleared out.

“Hey Jake, good to see you,” Pardy shook his hand and gave me a strange look. I kept on smiling.

“What’s up, guys? You picked a good game to come to,” Robyn added. “Want to get a drink with us?”

I was a little surprised that Alex came to the bar. I’d been sure not to say or do anything that would make people think I was on a date. Not that it had mattered last time. But now any conclusions people made would be of their own jumping.

“We are not on a date this time, he’s all yours,” I told Pardy. To his credit, when he introduced Jake around he only said ‘Lauren’s friend.’ I filled a pint glass from a pitcher and took a seat at one of the tables. Alex materialized next to me.

“Do all your dates end up like this?” he asked. Jake was deep in conversation with Robyn.

“Not a date,” I told him, sipping my beer. “Just friends.”

Alex looked at me evenly. “Why?”

That was an odd, bold question. And I had no answer. There was nothing about Jake not to like. My girl parts certainly appreciated Jake. But my brain was otherwise occupied and I was not about to admit what it was thinking about.

“No spark,” I lied. Or maybe it was true. I’d killed the electricity before that bulb could light. I imagined there would have been, and then I’d really be in trouble.

“So you’re not seeing anyone?”

Without thinking, I answered honestly. “Not since you.”

Shitfuckdamn. I hadn’t meant to tell him that. Two years is too long to be alone, especially from 28 to 30. You’re in terrible danger of becoming Bridget Jones at that point – not that you won’t find someone, but of completely psyching yourself out. The world at large thinks you’re alone because there’s something wrong with you. It’s an uphill battle when you’re not dragging the rotted corpse of a two year relationship. In my case, it’s inexcusable.

I had given it too much time. I knew that. Alex got one and a half great years and six rough months. Then, of my own accord, I’d grudgingly given him another two years as I battled against what he’d done to me. He had nothing to show for it but the scars.

“Me neither,” he said quietly.

That made me feel better and worse. I wanted our breakup to kick the shit out of him the way it had done to me. I wanted him weeping at the bottom of a dark hole. But I knew he’d suffered in other ways and whatever scrap of human decency I still possessed did not wish to see him hurt.

“I carried you around for a while.” Might as well go for it, I thought. “Then I was just really, really tired.”

“I carried you the whole time. Couldn’t forgive myself. Couldn’t get on my game either, which didn’t help.”

This is like Dr. Phil couples therapy time. I’d had two beers too many to exercise discretion.

“And to be honest, I didn’t trust anyone. Still don’t. I see what you did in the face of every guy I talk to.” I looked at Jake and thought maybe he could have been different. He certainly seemed like a nice guy. He caught my eye and raised his glass. I returned the salute, knowing I’d already written him off.

“I don’t know what to say but sorry. I think I’ve worn that out,” Alex watched me, watching Jake.

I refilled both of our glasses. “Having you here is hard, Alex. But I think I need it. If I can get by with you here, then I might really finally be better.”

I wanted that to be true. If I were really better, I’d be on a date with Jake. But it felt good to say it, to state my intentions and promise to myself that I would follow through. No matter what happened with Alex, which my head still refused to admit might be anything, I was never going to lose myself again.

When my beer was done, I said goodnight to everyone. Jake asked me if he could stay. How cute, I thought as I told him to hang out with his new friends. I just nodded to Alex on my way out. My car was two blocks away. Under the first streetlight, I heard footsteps jogging behind me. Maybe I should have been worried it was a mugger. Maybe I even recognized his footsteps.

“If there’s ever a chance you’d let me make it up to you, please know that I would. I still love you, Lauren. I never stopped.”

He stood on the street, no coat, twisting his hands. I’d hated him longer than I’d loved him. Yet the sight of him still wrung my heart like a sponge. His eyes were slightly downcast, like a guilty man awaiting judgment.

“You should have thought of that before, Alex. When I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.”

I left without looking back. The silent night air told me he was standing, watching me go.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Chapter III: This Place

“You are going and that’s final. No arguments,” Beth hung up on me.

Billy laughed. He was in on it. “This guy is really hot, Laur. And he’s a Mountie. You know you love a man in tight pants who can ride a horse.”

I had to laugh. “You two are ridiculous. Where did you find this guy?”

“He’s a friend of a friend of Beth’s. Someone from her work knows him from the children's hospital. The children's hospital! I bet he rescues kittens in his free time and carries them home in his big hat.” Billy pretended to pet the stapler.

I agreed to their blind date. Probably a good idea, I knew. Just in case. The hockey season was about to start and I’d be seeing a lot more of Alex soon. As if I hadn’t already seen enough.

Thank you, Beth! I almost sang as I climbed into Jake’s SUV. He was, as advertised, gorgeous. Dark hair, dark eyes, tan skin like he spent a lot of time outdoors saving the world. He was tall, strong and wearing something that smelled delicious.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant. Jake told me about his job – he was a detective and did not ride a horse. Damn, I laughed to myself. But I didn’t doubt that he could. He was also a volunteer at the hospital where he knew Beth’s friend and helped clear national park trails in the summer. He was funny, articulate and chose an excellent bottle of wine. After dinner, we went to the movies. Jake seemed happily surprised when I picked the big-explosion, stupid-story action movie.

“I’m like an 18-year old boy when it comes to movies,” I admitted.

“I’m an 18-year old boy when it comes to everything,” he smiled.

We stood in line for snacks. How is it that people come straight from dinner and need more food? I was lost in thought when I heard my name.

“Lauren!” I turned to see Adam Pardy squeezing through the next line over. He’d been with the Flames for two seasons and was a really nice guy. Kara wanted to set us up at one point, but I told her I’d had my fill of hockey players for a while. Robyn Regehr was close behind him.

“Hey Lauren,” Robyn said. They budged right into line with us. I think people recognized them. Jake certainly did.

“Lauren, you didn’t tell me you knew the Flames,” Jake said, introducing himself. “Nice to meet you guys, I’m a big fan.”

“You don’t talk about us? Are you ashamed? Do we embarrass you?” Robyn pulled me into his body and tried to give me a noogie. When he was close to my ear, he whispered, “Are you on a date?”

I nodded and he let go. “Come on Pards, our movie’s going to start.”

“You’re in the same one we are, you have time,” Jake said. He and Adam went back to talking hockey.

“Really, we should…,” Robyn continued. His hand was still on my arm and as he stopped talking, he squeezed. I looked up to see Alex and David Moss coming toward us.

“Hey Lauren,” Alex said, sounding a little excited. I think my mouth was open, but I wasn’t speaking.

Pardy, who’d only been around since Alex left, didn’t know a thing. “Alex, Mossy, this is Jake. Lauren’s date that we are very rudely interrupting.” He laughed. David and Jake laughed. Alex, Robyn and I were silent and still.

“Hey guys, great to meet you,” Jake shook their hands. Suddenly he sounded like Dudley Do-Right to me – overly enthusiastic and naively sincere. I wanted to run. “Why don’t you guys go get us some seats? Lauren, what did you want?”

“Uh, I’ll just have some of yours,” I stuttered and ducked away. The theater was not too full – plenty of places to sit far away from the guys. I was on a date after all.

“There’s 6 here. Let’s take these,” Pardy suggested.

“She’s on a date, I don’t think she wants to sit with us.” Alex was not looking at me.

“Ppppfffftttt. Her date definitely wants to sit with us. Sorry Lauren, you’ll have to make out with him during the next movie you go to.” Pardy angled himself to reserve what was left of the row. I quickly sat down in the last seat so I wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone but Jake. Alex went to the other end of our group.

I willed time to pass more quickly. Please get dark, I prayed. Once it did, I wished for the movie to be over. I was so uncomfortable I couldn’t have said what was happening on screen. I laughed when everyone else did, too late but at least I tried. Halfway through the movie, Jake put his arm around the back of my chair. His hand rested on my shoulder like we were teenagers on our first date. Twenty minutes later, I excused myself to the bathroom.

“Be right back,” I whispered. I made it halfway down the hall.

“Lauren,” Alex called in a soft voice. He wore a dark brown pullover with dark jeans. If I was honest with myself, he looked great. I stopped moving. “Sorry about this. Pardy doesn’t know.”

Alex stood in front of me, hands in his pockets. In that moment, I felt there was no chance for me and Jake, no chance for me and anyone ever again. I saw all the work that had gone into two years with Alex. Relationships are not easy. Especially not with professional athletes who travel endlessly, have quixotic moods and handle tons of pressure. It hadn’t been all roses with Alex, but the good times were what I remembered most. The work had been worth it. And I was still working on it when it disappeared.

Now I was doing it again. I was remembering all the good things and letting the bad memories slip away. It hurt to focus on them, to continually call them up to squash any new thoughts forming about Alex. I’d spent two years trying to get past those feelings, and I guess it had worked. Now that I needed them, they were slow to respond.

“It’s okay.” What else could I say? Doesn’t this happen in one of the Twilight books? Bella ends up at the movies with a boy and a werewolf?

“Thank you for being so nice to me. I know it can’t be easy,” he was looking down at the floor. “I didn’t want to come back here, in case it would hurt you again. But I still want to play. I still can play. It’s just that my options are limited.”

I wanted to cry. Alex had been on top of the world once – in high demand, a rising star. I had loved him them. Now he was in danger of being known as someone who never reached their potential.

“And this place, it feels right. I know that I ruined everything. But the last time my life was really good was here. With you.”

I had tears in my eyes now. He’d apologized a million times – I was numb to that. But when he brought up the good stuff, I knew how good it had really been. The pain of being cheated on, lied to, discarded had buried all those things so deeply. They’d been packed away for years. Having him back was helping me take them out, dust them off and see that not everything about my time with Alex had been a waste.

“We had problems that had nothing to do with you cheating. I’m not taking the blame off you – you were a coward and a liar and I still hate you for that. But a lot of things were broken. I was just the only one trying to fix them.”

“Those things were my fault too, Lauren. I have known that for a long time now. My game was going downhill and I tried to take you with me. Misery loves company. I took it out on you because there was nowhere else to go,” he leaned against the wall. “I finally figured it out after a few months in Montreal. I should have loved playing there, my home team. But I was miserable. Nothing helped my play and I had absolutely nothing left in my life. Tampa was more of the same, plus injuries. It was awful, on and off the ice. To be honest I am surprised the Flames took me back.”

I had been surprised too. So had the media and the fans. Alex returning to Calgary looked like a classic case of history repeating.

“I am not the person I used to be, Lauren. When things fell apart with you I was new to all this – not playing well, not getting what I wanted, being scared. I obviously didn’t handle it well. But now I’ve had plenty of practice at not being the player I want to be. In two years you can get used to almost anything.”

He stopped short, realizing what he was saying.

“Two years has not made me used to what you did to me,” I said quietly. “You humiliated me. You made the time we spent together a joke. There’s no getting used to knowing someone could throw you away like a piece of trash.”

Alex wanted to hug me. We’d been together so long I recognized every move his body made. Like watching a favorite movie from years ago, you remember things you forgot you ever knew. His shoulders rounded, hands came out of pockets. I felt like a deer in the headlights – I didn’t know what my reaction would be if he moved.

And he did. He took three steps toward me, folded his arms around my back and pulled me in. The second my face touched his chest I started to cry. It was like one of those trust falls, where you’re not really sure someone is going to catch you before you hit the ground. His embrace was the same, exactly what I had craved and coveted for so long. Exactly what I had scrubbed and picked and peeled away for months after we ended. A time machine could not have done a better job. These were the same arms that held me a million times before.

“Losing you was the worst mistake I ever made. If I never play another game, it was worth it to come here and say that to you.”

I sobbed quietly a few times before I could pull myself together. He’d caught my arms in near my body, so I wiped my eyes without breaking away.

“You were the best and worst thing that ever happened to me,” I told him honestly. “And now I think you should go.”

With a kiss to the forehead, Alex left. I sat for a few minutes, regaining my composure, and went back to my seat. “Long line,” I whispered to Jake as I settled in. I didn’t hear or see anything for the rest of the film.

I invited the guys for a drink after the movie. I explained that I’d seen Alex in the hall and he hadn’t felt well. They looked surprised that I would invite them on our date, but Jake seemed fine. And I wanted them around – this date was already ruined and I couldn’t be alone with him just then.

Jake was genuinely a great guy and they all hit it off. Shots and beers turned our once-date into a night of pretty big drinking. I held off a bit, and when everyone else was pretty well sauced, Robyn came around the far side of my chair.

“You were gone a long time,” he drained his beer. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s really sorry Laur. He apologized to me for the way he left last time. I think he’s apologized to everyone who was around. Even Jarome. Let’s just say Alex won’t be pulling any shit this season.”

The next day, an arrangement of wildflowers was delivered to the library. Billy rolled his eyes without asking who sent them. The card was in Alex’s handwriting:

Someday, if you’ll let me, I owe you a movie.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chapter II: Homecoming

“What are you going to do?” Beth asked. I’d been quiet on the phone for some time.

“Nothing. He gets nothing. I will do nothing,” I hoped that because I said the words, they were true.

After Alex was traded, some of the guys I’d been friends with came out of the woodwork. Maybe they’d known about his cheating, maybe not. I decided to give them a free pass. After all, Alex was gone and couldn’t hurt me anymore. I still loved hockey. I took them up on tickets and special events, kept in touch with the wives and girlfriends I had liked. They felt bad for me, like I should be lost without my NHL boyfriend. If anything, I was better. I was back to being me.

It didn’t hurt that Alex had two awful seasons – injuries, low production, media scrutiny. Not that I wished him ill. But karma is a bitch. The last call I got on the day of Alex’s trade was from Kara, Jarome Iginla’s wife.

“Jarome’s worried about you,” she said. “I told him he should be worried about Alex. You could kick his ass if necessary. Jarome wants to know if you still want those season tickets.”

“Thanks Kara. Tell him I’m fine. And I still want the tickets.”

I almost forgot about it for the summer. July brought Stampede to town and with it some of my closest friends. Then I went to my parents’ in BC for a wedding, and in early August I made an annual girls’ trip to a spa at Banff. I pulled into my driveway late in the afternoon, straight from the airport. Alex was sitting on my steps.

He looked older – two bad seasons could do that. Hell, we were thirty now. Seeing him after so long made me fully realize something that I’d told myself a million times: we weren’t ready. It seemed like we’d been just kids back then, though we were 27 when we met. A lot had changed in the time since. I didn’t hate him. The rage had burned off long ago. Disappointment still lingered, knowing I’d spent almost two years with someone who didn’t really care about me in the end. But now I mostly felt bad for Alex: he was less than what he’d been with me. I actually hoped he’d do well back in Calgary. It was nearly time for training camp to begin.

“Welcome home,” I said, getting out of the Jeep.

He stood, hands in his pockets. Something about him was still the adorable guy in the library.

“Hi,” he shifted his weight. I couldn’t go into the house until he came down, so I waited. “I wasn’t sure if you still lived here.”

“Where do you live now?”

“The team got me a place. It’s actually right down the road.”

Great, I thought. But I said, “That’s nice of them.”

“It’s nice to be back. Nice to go someplace I know the city, know a few people.” He’d played the last year in Tampa Bay – not exactly a hockey town. “Lauren, I….”

I put my hands up. The gesture was part stop and part surrender.

“Please…,” he kept going. “I have spent the last two years thinking about what I ruined here with you. I won’t ask you to forgive me because I don’t deserve it. But I am sorry.”

This was my chance to take it or leave it. To be awkward all season or just bite the bullet and move on. He was walking tentatively toward me.

“I forgive you, Alex. It was a long time ago and I’m past it.” I don’t know if he thought he’d get a hug or something. I sidestepped him and climbed the stairs. We turned and looked at each other at the same time. I smiled.

“I hope you’ll have a good season here.” And I went inside.

See, I can do this. I can be nice. If only because it makes me a better person than he was. But the truth was, I saw him and I just felt sad. I didn’t hate Alex, not anymore. I pitied him.

The first semi-open practice of the year was a fun tradition. Season ticket holders were invited, but I’d been coming since before then as a friend of the team. It will be fine, I told myself as I pulled on a sweater. A lot of the guys who’d known me with Alex were gone. I just hoped he’d gel with the new guys and get into the team’s rhythm. Listen to yourself. You really want him to do well. I was pretty proud of myself for being diplomatic.

Kara picked me up and we used the player’s entrance to the arena. I still got goose bumps in the bowels of the building – I felt like a VIP. We stuck our heads into the locker room to say hello and I realized I knew more people here than Alex did.

“Hey,” I said, coming up behind him. Jarome and a few of the other guys were watching us.

“Hi.” He looked genuinely surprised. I realized he’d never seen me around the arena except when I was there for him.

Daymond Langkow to the rescue. “Lauren! Good summer?” He gave me a hug. We chatted for a minute, including Alex in some talk about the summer. I said hello to some of the staff, wives and girlfriends I knew.

“You know more people here than I do,” Alex said when Daymond left.

I shrugged. “Won’t take you long. Have fun.”

“See you out there,” he said to my back.

“Is it weird?” Kara asked.

I watched Alex skate through some drills. If no one wore numbers and I couldn’t see their faces, I’d still know which was one he was by the way he moved. He seemed to fit in well enough, but practice was easy. It was still early.

“Not as weird as I expected,” I said honestly.

“Uh oh,” Billy said, coming into my office. “He’s here.”

I glanced out to see Alex standing at the circulation desk. Just like that day four years ago. He was wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt. I knew his eyes would be impossibly bright against that color. His arms were tan from the summer sun and something about his watch always made his forearms look really sexy. He had a paper coffee cup in one hand and a book in the other.

“You’ll need a library card this time,” I said, coming across the room. It was worse than I thought with his eyes – they were the color of the sky. His smile traveled all the way up to the lines at the corners of his baby blues.

“It’s too warm for hot chocolate, so I brought you lemonade.” He held out the cup.

My internal debate engine revved as I took the drink. He’s not buying his way back into your good graces. He’s not getting in anywhere. You can be nice. But you’ll not be bribed. Next he handed me a bill with his new address on it. As I entered it into the computer, I saw it was less than a mile from my house.

“You really are close.”

“Sorry. Not my choice,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I brushed it off. “You’ll be a convincing addition to the neighborhood watch.” I gave him his bill, library card and book. Another James Patterson. I wondered if he remembered what he’d borrowed that first day.

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance you’d let me take you to dinner,” he said then quickly added, “Just as friends. I don’t know that many people here anymore.”

Draw the line, my brain told me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Alex. Sorry.”

He stepped back and I instantly reconsidered. But he’d already started taking it away. “Right, you’re right. Sorry. I’ll, uh… I’ll see you around.”

Three days later, he came back. Two blue shirts in a row is not a coincidence, I knew.

“You really have nothing do to, eh? Done with that already?”

He laid the book on the counter. “Just practice. Going pretty well, I think. I hope. But no, not much else going on. Guess I’ll get another book.”

Don’t. Don’t! My brain warned. Aw hell.

“I’m having a barbeque tomorrow if you want to come.” Then I hesitated. “But there will be some people there who still don’t like you.”

Alex shook his head with a small laugh. “Like Beth? And Billy?” He looked around. “Billy nearly called the cops the other day when I came in here.”

“Well it’s my barbeque, so I can invite you. I just can’t make any promises about the peanut gallery. But Jarome and Kara will be there, and Daymond. Maybe Mikka and a few of the other guys. Do you still make that pasta salad you used to make? The multicolored one?”

Alex smiled, dimples and all. “What time?”

“I cannot believe it. You are either a saint or a glutton for punishment. I hope you get drunk and run him through with that massive grill fork,” Billy said, piling beers into the fridge. “Then we can all help you bury him in the yard. Best party ever.”

Beth called from outside where she was laying a plastic table cloth over the borrowed picnic table. “I think it’s nice. Lauren’s being the adult here.” She came into the kitchen. “Should we get someone to pretend to be your boyfriend? How well does Jarome know Sidney Crosby?”

Alex arrived at exactly the time Lauren had told him. Good thing she’d told him half an hour late. A bunch of people were already working on drinks and snacks in the yard.

“Alex,” Beth said, shaking his hand. “Lauren says I should say it’s nice to see you. So I will. Welcome back.”

It’s the best I can hope for, Alex knew.

“Alex,” Billy was tight-lipped. “Feels like I just saw you yesterday. Wait, I did.”

Billy and Beth went toward the kitchen, so Alex went outside. Some of his teammates were there. Kids were running around the grass. Lauren was turning burgers on the grill with a huge spatula. When she saw him, she smiled.

That smile, he thought. The years didn’t seem to have touched her. If anything, Lauren looked better now. She was fit and healthy, more slender than he remembered. Her long dark hair was left naturally curly, something she never did when they were together. He recalled her straightening that dark mass with some contraption that took ages and looked like a torture device. The curls suited her better.

“I’m glad you came,” she said. But she didn’t hug him, didn’t put her down her work.

Baby steps, Alex reminded himself.

Instead she handed him the grill tongs. “Would you mind? I really have to pee.”

He looked grateful for something to do. I felt sympathetic.

“Can we kill him now?” Billy asked as I came from the bathroom.

“No killing. Leave him alone. He’s trying to be nice.” I can’t believe I’m defending him.

“He’s trying to get back in your pants, you mean,” Beth chimed in.

I laughed off her comment and went outside. Alex was serving burgers to some of my newer friends, people he didn’t know. He was being outgoing, which I knew was a bit of an effort. It made me both happy and sad to see him trying so hard. It was also weird to watch him working the grill. If I had a boyfriend, he’d be doing that. Beth’s suggestion of Sidney Crosby came to mind. I brought Alex a beer.

“Thanks, Alex,” I said. And I meant it.

He handed me a plate – cheeseburger just the way I liked it. “No problem.”

I saw Alex mixing with his new and old teammates throughout the day. The party was a great time, but I never quite got him off my mind. My new friends all liked him. My old friends kept their opinions to themselves, mostly.

“Making himself at home,” Jarome said, standing next to me at the cooler. Alex was helping the kids drive a horseshoe spike into the ground. “Sure this is okay?”

Jarome and Kara had borne the brunt of our breakup. Kara freaked out, thinking Jarome had known about Alex’s side dish and said nothing. He eventually convinced her that he hadn’t known. Then Alex asked for a trade. Jarome was the captain and Alex wanted off the ship – it was akin to being a deserter. Two years seemed to have softened his ire, but I knew that Jarome was serious when it came to his team. Alex would not rock the boat again, not on his watch.

“I’m okay, but thanks. He’s just another guy on the team,” I gestured toward a few of the younger guys, doing shots at the picnic table.

“If you say so.” But Jarome did not look convinced.

Alex carried the last of the plates inside and sorted them into the compost and trash. Nearly everyone was gone and the yard was mostly cleaned. I turned the dishwasher.

“Did you walk here?” Billy asked him suspiciously. True, I noted only Beth and Billy’s cars were left in the driveway.

“Yup,” Alex said. “Can I borrow a flashlight? I didn’t realize these streets have no lights. Has it always been that way?”

“Yes,” Billy and Beth answered at the same time. I dug around under the sink and came up with a flashlight. Checking the batteries, I gave it to Alex. They both made faces while I followed him from the room.

“Thanks, Lauren. I had fun.” Standing inside my front door, Alex looked like he’d never left. Like he belonged there. So much of my heart was occupied with the idea of him – him while we were together, all the time I’d spent on him after we’d ended. This felt like an alternate reality where we’d gone back in time.

“I don’t deserve it, but you are a better person than I am.” He leaned in a kissed my cheek. I didn’t say a word, just stood rooted to the spot as he let himself out.

Nonono, my brain told my body. But his skin had been warm from the sun. And soft. He smelled like sunshine and green grass. The door closed and jarred me back to the present.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chapter I: Blackout

“Did you see?” Beth asked over the phone.

“I saw.” How could I not? Eight people had called, texted or emailed. And Billy had even stopped by the library on his day off. Every one of them with the same story: Alex Tanguay returns to Calgary Flames.


I could blame everything on the spectacularly bad Alberta winter of 2006-2007. Power was going out all over town, even in the nicest neighborhoods.

“Can I help you?” I asked the thousandth person that day. I didn’t recognize him at first, hat pulled down and jacket collar turned up. Then I saw his bright blue eyes and there was no mistaking Alex Tanguay.

“Can I use the internet here?”

If he thought I was pretty or nice, if he even saw me at all, he didn’t show it. The library was full of people using the computers, hanging out in the electricity and warmth. None of the internet terminals were free, but hey. I’m a hockey fan.

“You can use the one in my office,” I said, leading him around the side of the main circulation desk. I said “my office” so he’d know I was doing him a favor. It didn’t register. He plopped down at my desk with a cursory thank you and went to work. I closed the door behind myself.

An hour later, he came out to the desk. “Thanks for letting me use your office,” he said, actually looking at me this time. He was paying attention now. “I was going to get a coffee. Can I come back and finish? Can I bring you something?”

“Umm, sure. I’d love a hot chocolate.” Surprise probably rang in my voice.

He came back fifteen minutes later, hands gratefully wrapped around the warm cups. I watched him stomp his boots in the entry way to knock the snow off. That’s nice. Most people don’t do that.

In fact, most people treated the library like a barn. Forget the rule about talking – that’s an old wives’ tale. But people yell, kids run, books are left everywhere but where they belong. And everyone touches everything, which is really gross when you think about it. An old man at the nearest computer blew is his nose as Alex handed me the cup. The honking lasted a good thirty seconds before the man wadded his soggy handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket.

Alex shuddered. “Really, thanks for letting me use your office.”

Thirty minutes later, the sheriff stopped in and announced the power had been restored to most of the area. I knocked on my door and told Alex. A few minutes later he came to all bundled up. He passed me a book – the new James Patterson novel – to sign out.

“Uh, I don’t have a library card. I didn’t think of that.”

“I can sign you up for one,” I almost laughed. “Or you can just borrow it. It’s not like we don’t know where to find you.”

He looked surprised. “Oh. Yeah. I guess. Well…” he stopped in mid-sentence. “I was only getting it so I’d have an excuse to ask you out anyway. If I borrow it, you have to give me your phone number or you might never get it back.”

Now I was really surprised. He’d barely looked at me twice. But he had brought me a treat. I should put all the cute guys in my office, I thought. I wrote my number on the back of a neon green bookmark and stuck it inside the front cover. I held it out to him, but didn’t let go.

“How will you call me if you don’t know my name?”

He pulled the book from my hand. “Call you later, Lauren.”

He’d called. We’d gone out. Instead of looking at me, Alex had looked at the photos in my office – there were many. And he’d seen my name on a million things lying on my desk. Still, I thought he was pretty clever.

That first season was magic. We were crazy about each other. Alex hit a career high in points. The playoffs were short-lived: the Flames went in seeded 8th and were knocked out in the first round. Alex took it hard, but all the guys did. We spent a lot of his off-season together – he stayed in Calgary for much of it, and I visited him in Quebec a few times. In August, he was back for good and we were strongly together. I’d missed him over the summer, and apparently he’d missed me too. I moved in with him two days before the 2008-2009 season began. Just before the first game, he told me he loved me.

Maybe we got in over our heads. Alex’s season started fine, but soon the games without points were piling up. He worked harder, as if laziness were keeping him off the board. He got moody. When he scored or had a good run of assists, we were like we’d been before. When he didn’t, he seemed to resent my presence in his house. I tried to operate like things were normal, but soon I was wishing for road trips. I began to resent the wives-and-girlfriends commitment, it was keeping me from my job at the library and it diminished me as a person. I was expected to have nothing to do but be his girl. Everything else was supposed to take a back seat to his job. At first, I found that exciting. When things started to fall apart, I didn’t even have myself to fall back on.

In March it became obvious the Flames were going into the playoffs with a low seed. Alex’s point production had been questioned all season, but now the media were turning up the heat. The harder he tried the less he scored. The harder I tried to be there for him, the more he pushed me away. At the end of March, I went to my parents’ house in BC for a week just to get away before the playoffs. I came back for the last home game of the regular season.

Alex should have been at the morning skate. I didn’t know it was optional. So I walked into the house and right into a nightmare.

“Who the fuck are you?” I asked. She was blonde, petite and in my kitchen with no pants on.

“Shit,” she said. “Alex!”

Then she continued to pour herself an iced tea. She opened the cabinet and got the sugar. She even put it away when she was done. I stood, silent and open-mouthed, while this half-naked stranger made herself a drink. He came out of the bathroom in boxer shorts, toweling off his hair. His eyes met mine and he froze.

I’m pretty sure I saw what a soldier sees in battle. Nothing but the blackness. I probably wasn’t fully conscious. A functioning person would have murdered them both with the nearest fork. Instead, I was oddly calm.

“Why does she know exactly where the sugar is in our kitchen?” My voice was completely devoid of emotion.

He just stared. She fucking sipped her drink.

“How long?” I asked her, not him.

“Since Christmas,” she answered. Her expression wasn’t gleeful, but it wasn’t scared. Four months. They were practically dating. And she certainly wasn’t worried about me.

I hadn’t even put my bag down. So I carried it right back out.

He chased me to the car. At least he did that. Maybe he called my name. Maybe he had something to say. I unlocked it with the remote, got in and peeled out without so much as a pause.

“He’s been here like 50 times,” Billy told me at work a week later. I didn’t care. He’d left a hundred voicemails and I hadn’t listened to one. The voicemail was full, so he just called and called, letting it ring endlessly. When I left the library that afternoon, he was sitting on the bumper of my car. The Flames were down 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs and just back from the trip to San Jose.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You are a lot of things, Alex. Sorry barely even makes the list.” I didn’t approach the car. I knew he wouldn’t leave until he’d had his say. Better to get it over with and never have to see him again.

“I made a huge mistake. The whole season got to me so much, I fucked up. I love you. Please come home.” He looked sad and small, begging. He had beautiful eyes. But I was really over that.

“Are you kidding? Someplace where you sleep with another woman for four months is not my home. I will never set foot in that house again. I’d rather see it burned to the ground.”

“Lauren, please…”

“Too late, Alex. Way too late.”

When the team was in San Jose, I had Beth use my key to collect my stuff. She left it on his counter when she was done. Calgary got knocked out in seven games. Alex called another hundred times to no answer. I assume he went home for the summer. He asked for a trade and on June 8, the Flames sent him to Montreal. I drove by his house and saw a For Sale sign in the yard.

That was two years ago.