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.