“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.