“This isn’t the airport.”
“No, you’re right, it isn’t,” I reply gruffly as the Land Rover coasts to a stop right outside the backdoor of the Mellon.
“I thought that’s where we were going after...well after you pretty much threw a wad of cash at the waitress and carried me out to the car,” Mel continues, staring straight ahead, just like she has since we unceremoniously left the restaurant. She’s angry. I’m pissed. Neither of us has said so much as a single word since we got back in the vehicle. For my part, I haven’t figured out what to say. For her part, I think she’s pretty much said whatever she has to say. I mean after that last gold nugget, what else is there to say?
“Here I thought you knew me better than anyone. I mean, isn’t that what you’ve been trying to tell me all this time?” I snarl, turning off the ignition and pushing the door open. “Well don’t just sit there, c’mon.” I go around to the back of the car where my other pair of skates, my own skates that don’t have to do with practice or games are. The ones I wear when it’s just about skating, about feeling the blades cutting through the ice and hearing that sound, that ‘snick snick’ of metal meeting ice. Some people listen to whale songs to meditate. I listen to the sound of skate blades. “These are Taylor’s,” I explain, grabbing a plain black box and handing it to Mel. “I’m guessing they’ll fit.” She doesn’t ask why Taylor has a pair of skates in the back of my vehicle. We’re not as close as most siblings. Hell, for most of her life I’ve hardly been home or even around her at all, but when she visits I do my best to spend time with her. No one has to tell me that she’s got the short fucking end of the stick as far as attention from her parents goes, even though she’s actually lived with them longer than I have.
“Of course you have keys to arena. You’re the fucking crown Prince of Pittsburgh,” Mel sighs as I pull a key ring from my pocket and start to open all the locks on the back door. There’s no good answer to that. It’s true and I don’t think any of the other guys would even think to ask to come here after hours but for me, it’s a necessity. Mario has offered to put in one of those fake ice ponds in the basement for me but it isn’t the same. I have to have real ice, real cold and preferably real dark in order to think.
Once I’ve locked the door behind us, I reach for Mel’s hand to lead her through the pitch dark maze of the rabbit warren that is the underground of the arena. I could turn on the lights but it seems like such a waste of electricity, especially when I can find my way through here blindfolded, and may as well be considering the absolute pitch black beneath the stands. I feel my way, one hand on the wall, counting the corners, the turns, the doors until I know to turn right and push through the last door.
The cold hits me then. The real cold of being this near the ice, the kind of cold that makes your breath hang in misty clouds in front of your face and makes you shiver and pull your jacket closer around you. I turn on one set of lights, just enough to light the ice surface in a dim sort of grey light and then I toe off my shoes and hit the bench, dropping my skates to the concrete surface.
Even this, putting on my skates, right then left, tugging at the laces and feeling the cotton nylon blend digging into my fingers is part of the meditation. Only then does my mind start to clear and the thoughts that have been swimming around, fighting with one another, begin to fall into some kind of order and begin to make some kind of sense.
I can hear her struggling with the laces of her skates and turn to help, kneeling in front of her where I wait for her to give over the control of tying up her skates, which she does only grudgingly. Just like always.
She’s never wanted help, never wanted to be the one holding us up and she never, ever wanted to be the last one picked for a team. Not that there was much chance of that after most of the guys got to realize just how fast she could skate and how well she could pass. She was good, maybe even really good.
“Why’d you stop?” I ask, tugging the last loop before letting my hands fall to thighs. I still can’t look at her. I don’t want to see that holier than thou look on her face. “Playing I mean? Why’d you stop playing hockey?” There’s a long silence and finally I look up to see her staring up into the rafters with a reverent look on her face. I know the feeling. I do it often. Not before a game, and never during the national anthems. Then it would be too much pressure, but during practice I do, I look up there and see the history and feel its weight.
“I couldn’t be you,” she answers quietly, her gaze falling on the Stanley Cup banner that I helped put up there. My history. “What was the point if I couldn’t be you?”
“So it wasn’t your mom?” I ask and it’s only then that she turns the weight of those blue grey eyes of hers’ on me. They look mostly grey now, like they’re filled with storm clouds.
“Nothing I do has ever had anything to do with her,” she replies, her voice flat but not entirely devoid of emotion. There’s an edge of defiance and pain too when she says it and the look in her eyes dares me to contradict her and I don’t. Maybe she doesn’t know it now. Maybe she won’t ever admit to it, the way I’ve had to admit that part of my drive is to please my father. I know other people have known it but it’s taken a long time for me to admit it to myself. It makes me hate him a little more.
“Have you told her, about us I mean?” I ask quietly, pushing myself to my feet and offering her a hand up which, just as I knew she would, she refuses to take.
“If I had, she’d have already put a notice in the local and booked the church,” she replies, the first hint of a smile on her face since we left the bowling alley. “Hell I’ll probably never tell her,” she continues, her voice heavily dripping with sarcasm. “If you ever realize that you actually want to be serious, you can tell her. How about that?”
I nod, it’s a fair enough exchange and it answers one of the questions that have been plaguing me but there are still others; lots of other questions that have been keeping me awake and keeping me apart from her.
“When did it change? When did we stop being friends?” I ask, because it’s the question that she seems to know the answer to and I don’t. To me we’ve always been friends but it had to have changed some time for her and it feels wrong that I don’t know when.
“Shattucks. Well, before you left but definitely after you came back,” she replies without hesitation, without having to think about it. “I knew you were everything before but I didn’t have the words. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t a fraternal thing I was feeling,” she continues, her voice dropping both in volume and in clarity as she turns away from me, walking to the boards where the gate is standing open and putting both hands on the top of the boards, staring down at the ice. “When you came back, you were...different. You were more...confident. You didn’t need me as your friend anymore and I didn’t want you as mine. I just...wanted you...period.”
I watch her step onto the ice without so much as a wobble, without a second’s hesitation and then she’s gliding across the ice, the wind picking her hair up from around her shoulders and sending it out behind her like a living thing, undulating and waving in the air. She looks like she belongs on the ice, like she’s completely comfortable out there and I remember the last time I saw her on skates. It was just like it is now, dark, in an arena that should have been locked, back in the Harbour. I had watched her then, from somewhere up in the stands, in the dark. I had tried to reconcile the quiet girl in the glasses I knew to the girl who flew around the ice with utter abandon. I hadn’t been able to do it then.
I was beginning to now.
Of course I knew him. I’d been doing my best to use his competitive nature to try and get him to open up. I’d failed utterly. He’d closed up like a clam.
So he’d brought me to his arena, his safety zone, his space. I’d invaded that before too, with hopes of having him see that I fit into his life. It hadn’t worked then. I didn’t know what else I could do now to make him believe me.
But it was one thing we did have in common, I thought as I stood on the edge of the concrete, looking down at the cold, white ice. This was one place we could be free, we could be whatever we wanted to be. He’d probably always thought about making his victory lap with the Cup in his arms. I’d always thought about just having him trust me enough to share this with me, his private, personal space.
Was that was this was? I couldn’t help but wonder and had to remind myself to breathe as I felt the ice beneath my feet. I dug the blades in and pushed and whispered ‘chase me’ to the wind.
This felt like ‘it’, that moment where you stood on the precipice and you either fell or flew. This was our ‘it’, the moment where either Sidney would choose me or he would choose to be without me and it made my heart – no, my entire body ache. I could barely see through the tears that blurred my vision. I could hardly hear past the pounding and rushing of my own blood through my veins mixed with sound of my skates pushing through the ice.
It sounded loud and silent all at once. The ice felt like quick sand. The wind in my face felt like a slap and a caress.
I’d done all I could do. I’d begged. I’d pleaded. I’d laid my heart in his hands and now I had to wait. It was excruciating. It seemed unfair but then I’d known it would. That had been part of the reason I’d never said a thing before. It was always going to be his decision. He was always going to have the power of life or death in this moment and I hated him for it.
Hated him, loved him. It was all the same as I waited, feeling the solid ice under my feet and the cold wind biting into my skin.
“Come get me damn you,” I hissed as I made the third corner. I shut my eyes. I couldn’t bear to make the corner and have to see him standing behind the boards watching me, considering. I didn’t want to see what it looked like to weigh my heart against the rest of his life.
How could I hope to even come out even with that?
But he’d kissed me. I held onto that little pearl of hope like it was a lifeline, like it was oxygen. He’d kissed me. I may have torn my own heart out and given it to him but he’d made the first move. He’d kissed me. Whatever happened, I’d always have that.
When he grabbed my hand I wasn’t expecting it. If I had expected it, I would have thought he’d have fallen into step beside me and that we would have just skated around together and that would have been enough. But that’s not how it happened.
He grabbed my hand and nearly pulled my shoulder out its socket as his stationary body tugged mine around, using my momentum to turn me entirely as he reeled me in until I was pressed against his body, looking up into his gold flecked eyes. The eyes of a lion, a lion that could never be full tamed, would never be fully mine.
I knew that the moment he looked down at me, his free hand gently cradling my face before he kissed me. It made my heart ache as his lips moved over mine and he whispered things I wanted to hear, had waited for so long to hear.
“I’ll be better,” he promised and I knew he meant it as he kissed his way along my jaw before pressing his lips to the shell of my ear. “After the Olympics, I’ll give you as much time and attention as I can, I promise,” he added, wrapping his arms around me and crushing me against him, lifting me off of my feet. It’s what I’d wanted to hear and my heart swelled to hear it. Swelled and broke as he gazed down into my face and I could see that he meant it and I knew he did and it didn’t change that I knew it was a lie. “You’ve been there, always been there and I know you’re just trying to make me better. I’ll be better,” he reiterated, kissing my eyelids and it made me want to cry to see his face light up from within.
“I love you,” I said and meant it. I did love him, had always loved him and I’d always thought that it would be okay if only he’d love me enough to make me second. I’d always thought it would be alright if I could only be second.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t going to be alright.
Damn it! It wasn’t fair. He had all of me and I would never have all of him.
“After the Olympics Mel...I promise. Everything will be alright then. You and I...we’ll make it work. Just...it’s just this one last thing and then this...us, this will be the most important thing, I promise.” I smiled at him and reached to cup his cheek and offered my lips to him and felt him kiss me with everything he had and I closed my eyes and felt for that spot inside that I’d always thought was waiting for him to fill it and I saw myself in that spot and it was dark and empty and he wasn’t there.