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.”