“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.”
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.