I turned to look behind me but I was the last player on the bench; this unfamiliar young man with the friendly face appeared to be talking to me.
“Uh, thank you,” I said, returning my eyes to the ice and uncomfortably shifting my grip on my stick.
“I mean it,” he assured me. “You are very fast, especially for, you know, a – Hey!”
The exclamation caught my attention more than the unfinished remark. I turned again and saw another young man sitting beside this one, elbow out as if he’d just used it to nudge his friend into silence.
“For a what?” I said shrewdly, watching in amusement as my neighbor struggled to solicit a polite response out of an apparently unresponsive brain. “For a woman? Or perhaps you meant for an older woman?” I concluded, putting extra emphasis on the “older.” At thirty-seven I was hardly ancient, but there was no doubt in my mind that these fellows were a good ten years my junior, a fact that gave me the indisputable right to tease them mercilessly.
His face, already beet-red from the exertion, flushed scarlet. “I wouldn’t say older!” he fibbed unconvincingly. “You’re what, like twenty-eight, twenty-nine?”
“Don’t mind my friend,” the other fellow said, leaning across him towards me and grinning. “He’s really a nice guy. Sometimes just a bit of a dumbass.”
“It was a compliment!” the nearer man stuttered before being abruptly rescued from his consternation by the return of the other left wing. He stumbled over the boards and onto the ice and his buddy slid over next to me.
“I’m Jim,” he said, extending his arm in my direction. “And that’s Sam.”
“Kathy,” I replied, bumping my glove against his by way of a handshake.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” he said. But before I could answer, I saw the one of the defensemen hurtling towards the boards and sprang to my feet to take his place. Jim followed hard on my heels to replace the other wing, who had just lurched, panting, over to the bench.
I hadn’t even noticed them before – possibly because I’d been too busy trying not to embarrass myself my first time on the ice in my latest new town. But now I couldn’t stop watching them skating around in front of me; two of my nameless, faceless teammates had turned into people. Of course, meeting people wasn’t always as great as it sounded, as I’d discovered in the course of my many travels. You don’t worry so much about making a good impression when you’re an unknown member of an anonymous crowd. I pondered that as I forced my legs to an inhuman effort in chasing down the next breakaway when it came. I didn’t want to lose my newly established reputation for speed, after all.
“Nice job,” Sam said when I flung my body back over the boards a minute later, fresh sweat trickling coolly down my spine.
“Thanks,” I gasped, plunking my butt down on the bench and taking a deep swig of my water. My partner for the day was still nowhere in sight and I wished he’d hurry up and finish dressing; it was exhausting playing with only three D.
The guy named Jim leaned over again. “So are you new here?” he said, picking up our conversation right where we’d left off. It’s customary for hockey players to chat in fragmented one-minute intervals.
“Just moved to town,” I nodded, starting to catch my breath. “I was in a women’s league the last place I lived, but there isn’t one in town here. Thought I’d give this group a try, if it’s not too tough.”
“You’re tough enough!” Sam exclaimed. “I’ve seen the way you skate.”
“Trust me, I have no skills,” I countered, pleased in spite of myself. I wasn’t being modest; I was a poor puck-handler and had no shot to speak of, and it had already become apparent that my rather abundant apportionment of feminine muscle wasn’t quite as useful among these men, most of whom were younger and a lot bigger than me. And apart from my speed, I had few real skills as a skater, and already I was struggling a lot harder to keep up than I had in my last league. Ever heard the expression “tripping-over-your-tongue-tired?” That was me.
“Pshaw!” he answered, dismissing my critical assessment with a wave of his glove. I turned to look more closely at my new acquaintance. Along with that broad, boyish face and welcoming eye went the kind of personality that could use an expression that went out with the previous century without an iota of shame.
“Pshaw?” Jim echoed, making a motion as if scratching his helmet with his padded glove.
“Pshaw!” Sam repeated, unabashed.
“Okay,” Jim said, clearing his throat audibly and leaning towards me again. “So where are you from?”
“Um, well… New England, originally. Most recently, California,” I answered. “Up north, near San Francisco.”
Sam laughed. “So what the hell are you doing here? Sick of the beautiful weather?”
“Something like that,” I chuckled back. I wasn’t about to try to tell my life story to two strangers in the ten seconds before I had to be on the ice again.
“Well, welcome to Minnesota, eh?” Jim replied in a heavy and decidedly phony accent. I looked askance at him. He had the agreeable look of a young man who hasn’t quite reached his prime; I guessed he would be downright handsome about five years down the line. Slimmer, more serious-looking than Sam, with dark hair and deep brown eyes and a neatly trimmed beard that ran the length of his chin.
“Yeah, you’re welcome, eh?” Sam agreed.
“We don’t actually talk like that,” Jim assured me. “It’s just an affectation put on for outsiders, so they’ll think they’re in Canada or something.”
“You’d better start working on yours, too,” Sam said seriously. “Here, I’ll teach you,” he began, but fortunately I was rescued from a lesson in Northern American linguistics by the return of the entire forward line, which sent my new acquaintances scurrying for their positions.
My defensive partner finally arrived, plopping his enormous body down next to mine and effectively cutting me off from further conversational efforts with Sam and Jim. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should be sorry about that. But as the game continued, I watched them weaving in tandem along the ice, passing the puck to one another seemingly without effort, to all appearances like two balls on the ends of the same chain. They must have been teammates for a long time, I thought; they made such a good wing pair. I wouldn’t have said that they were great athletes; I mean, they were both obviously competent, but not spectacular in any way. But there was something in the way they played together that made them better, much better than their skill levels alone would have suggested. Almost as if they knew each other so well that one was an extension of the other; two minds and bodies separated only by twenty feet of ice.
Following the closing handshakes, I was surprised to find them both skating beside me back to the bench.
“Okay, so we know you’re not a native, but do you drink beer?” Sam inquired, as if it were a beverage endemic only to Milwaukee and cities of similar latitude.
“Of course!” I answered. I was actually very fond of beer, although I’d found, as I often did, that the styles that were popular in Minnesota weren’t the same as those that dominated other markets.
“Good,” Jim replied. “We usually go out for a beer after the game, and we think you should come.”
I was taken aback. They seemed like nice enough fellows and all, but I really saw no point in going overboard with the acquaintance. Sure, I was a little lonely. It’s never easy being the new kid in town, no matter how old you are, and I hadn’t exactly been a ball of social fire in any of the many places I’d lived in the wandering course of my adult life. But really, what besides hockey could I, a relatively mature woman, possibly have in common with two twenty-something-year-olds? Boys, practically, to my mind.
I guess my lack of enthusiasm showed, because while I hesitated in answering I heard Sam saying, “I don’t think she likes us, Jim.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have made that comment about her skating like a, ‘you know,’ ” Jim replied, shaking his head dolefully.
“Please just come have a beer with us!” Sam pleaded. “Otherwise Jim will never let me hear the end of it.”
“Unless you really don’t like us,” Jim said, narrowing his dark brows at me. I wasn’t short, especially with my skates on, but standing up he still towered a good six inches over me, and I might have been intimidated had he not had such an indisputably gentle face.
“We wouldn’t blame you much,” Sam chimed in. “We are kind of obnoxious.”
I looked from one to the other. There was something refreshingly youthful in their earnestness and a part of me was touched. It was sweet, really, the way they’d taken pity on me. After all, I probably seemed as old to them as they seemed young to me.
“It’s not that,” I answered finally, weighing my words carefully. “I was just surprised that you’re old enough to drink.”
“Oh-ho, she got you back, Sam!” Jim said with a laugh.
“Says you!” he shot back. “Jim’s just jealous because I’m more mature.”
“You’re only six months older than me!” Jim said. “And older does not mean more mature!”
That was certainly the truth. Here I was in my late thirties, with no husband or children and no particular desire for either yet. In a new city with a new job that I wasn’t even sure I was going to like because I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. Plus I was living in a one-room apartment with cardboard-box furniture and a mattress on the floor. What did I know about mature? Maybe my mistake all along had been in trying to meet people my own age: settled, adult, grown-up people. I’d be right at home with these guys.
“Twenty-six is mature!” Sam retorted. “Isn’t it, Kathy?”
“Hmm, sorry, I can’t remember back that far,” I joked. “It’s been a long decade.”
We retreated to the locker room to undress. As usual I kept my head down so I could pretend not to notice those few bold fellows who stripped down to their bare asses before changing into clean clothes. Me, I never bothered. I was always way too sweaty after a game to even think about forcing fresh pants on over my sticky thighs. I did wonder, though, how the other players would react if one day I, too, decided to strip down naked and wander around the locker room with all my goods hanging out like it was no big deal.
That was one way to make an impression, I thought. I’d never been what you’d call beautiful, even when I was younger, but I wasn’t bad to look at, either, especially since hockey had sculpted my once-flabby form into a passably pleasing shape. I hoped that having a decent figure helped to distract the interested observer from my other physical flaws, which weren’t too tough to overlook if you didn’t look too closely. I had very plain brown hair that I wore cut to the shoulders, and kind of a square face that was rescued from dullness by deep dimples, rosy cheeks, and big green eyes that I simply adored. Most days I didn’t mind not being gorgeous. It was much easier to blend into the background when you were average-looking, and I’d spent most of my adulthood trying not to be noticed. And I could still clean up pretty cute when I wanted to, although I knew those days were rapidly drawing to an end. Hmm, I thought as I glanced around the room full of strangers and contemplated the cold and lonely bed waiting for me at my apartment. Maybe I should flaunt it while I still had it.
I hauled my gear out to my car and then, with some trepidation, headed upstairs to the sports pub. Sam and Jim were waiting for me in the doorway and that relieved me somewhat; I always felt hopelessly awkward walking into a place alone. I nonchalantly looked them over. Unlike me, who was twice my normal size with gear on, they didn’t look that different without it. Sam, I saw now, had golden blond hair that he wore in a buzz-cut all over his rather round head; it added to the general impression of constant cheerfulness that he radiated like sunbeams off of every edge of his person. He had a solid, stocky build and was several inches shorter than Jim. With his fair skin and bright smile, I’d describe him as cute more than handsome; he seemed to ooze a boyish sort of charm that made him appear pleasant and harmless. Jim, by contrast, had a darker, almost olive complexion, and seemed the quieter of the two; something in the set of his jaw suggested a level of reserve his friend seemed to lack. He had a narrow face that went well with his lean form, and seeing him in his street-clothes, I would have sworn he didn’t have an ounce of fat on him; only lithe, long muscles that ran like thick wires over his elongated limbs.
“Shall we?” Sam said, extending an arm as if to offer it to me with old-fashioned courtesy. When I hesitated, he seemed to think better of the idea and hurriedly retracted it. I pretended not to notice.
I followed them inside. A few of the other guys from the team were up there and nodded to Sam and Jim. Then I caught them looking bemusedly at me and I blushed. Self-consciously I raised my hands to my head and felt my hair all utterly disheveled into sweaty locks, as it always was after hockey. I’d never gotten in the habit of showering after a game, either. I figured since I was always going straight home afterwards, what was the point in enduring the fungus-ridden locker room shower?
This is why you don’t have a boyfriend, I thought as I plunked myself down at the small, circular table Sam selected while Jim went up to the bar to buy us a pitcher.
“So why did you move here, Kathy? Was it for work?” Sam asked as Jim poured our beers and I slipped him a five for my share. He pushed it back across the table with a pleading little wave of his hand. I shoved it back towards him with a bigger, more insistent wave. His eye caught mine and I watched it crinkle in amusement. Then he nodded and, conceding defeat, tucked the bill into his pocket. It was very rare that I lost the battle over going dutch with men. I hadn’t been independent all these years for nothing, after all.
“Was it for work?” Sam was repeating.
“Oh! Well, sort of,” I answered, jerking my attention back to the conversation at hand. “Not really.”
I took a sip of my beer while he stared at me as if expecting me to continue talking. Jim was peering at me keenly through narrow-rimmed glasses he had not been wearing during the game. I liked them. They did something for the shape of his face.
“No shutting her up, is there?” Sam said at last into the silence.
“So are you naturally not very talkative, or do you just have a lot to hide?” Jim inquired.
I chuckled. “A little from Column A…”
“Well, what do you do? For work, I mean?” Jim said.
“Oh,” I hedged. “This and that.”
They looked at one another.
“Wait right here,” Sam said. “I left my good dental extractor in the car and I think we’re gonna need the big one if we want to get any information out of this girl.” His voice was husky, and a little edgy, as if he spent a lot of time joking around; it rather pleasantly complemented Jim’s deep, gravelly rumble.
I laughed. “Really, there’s not much to tell. I have a Bachelor’s in Film Studies, which, as you might imagine, is pretty close to worthless.”
“Film Studies?” Jim interrupted. “That sounds interesting!”
“It was!” I answered enthusiastically. “Oh, I really enjoyed it. It’s not what people think, criticism and all that, it’s more like a sociological study, looking at the culture behind movies and so on. You do a lot of reading on the history of the time and write a lot of papers – it was really fun. Kind of useless in the real world, though. There wasn’t much I could do with it except get a doctorate and then teach, and I don’t really have the personality for that. It looks good on my resume, though; proves I was smart enough to finish college.”
“Why’d you choose it, then, if you didn’t want to make a career out of it?” Sam inquired.
“I dunno,” I answered vaguely. “There wasn’t really anything else I wanted to do, I guess.”
“Huh,” Jim replied, resting his head on his hand as if seriously considering the meaning of what I had said.
I gave up attempting to describe what was obviously a foreign concept and hurried on with my speech. “Anyway,” I said, “I haven’t got what you’d call a career. I’ve done all kinds of work: office jobs, waitressing, copyediting… I was even an online retailer of out-of-print videos for a while. Right now I’m working as a bank teller.”
“Well, that’s cool!” Sam said without much enthusiasm.
I shrugged. “I like math,” I said. “It’s one of the better jobs I’ve had. I actually did it once before, back in New Jersey, but then I got promoted to New Accounts and I didn’t like it as much. Dealing with people… It can be really irritating, you know. And when I moved to North Carolina, I decided to try something else so I never advanced any further in banking.”
“Why did you move to North Carolina?” Jim inquired, his eyebrows raised as if he thought it a strange destination.
I shrugged again and let out an awkward laugh. “No real reason, I guess. Just felt like a change.”
“How many places have you lived exactly?” Sam asked, furrowing his brow. It forced his forehead into shallow, barely perceptible wrinkles that made mine look like the walls of the Grand Canyon but without all the pretty colors.
I smoothed my wet hair down over my forehead uneasily. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess on average I move every couple of years.”
“Every couple of years?” Sam replied, astonished, drawing back to peek underneath the table at my lower half. “No moss grows beneath your feet, I see.”
“I guess we shouldn’t get too attached, eh, Sam?” Jim said.
“Why so often?” Sam asked me.
“I can’t stand cleaning,” I said seriously. “It’s easier just to move when the apartment gets dirty.”
***These are the first ten pages of my latest novel. Comments are welcome!