Wednesday, October 12, 2011


“This place is great,” Brendan said for the tenth time.  We stood in the center of an empty living room, the smell of fresh paint tangy in the air.

“Yeah, it’s nice.”  My tone was slightly less enthusiastic.

“You can put the TV here so there’s no glare from the window, and your couch will fit right into that corner.”  He continued describing the features of the apartment as if he were selling me a mail order bride.

We’d been dating for a year.  I watched him testing the water pressure and AC vents, like he wanted my place to be perfect.  I did too.  But a part of me wondered why there had never been any discussion of making a perfect place ours - as in both of us.  Together.  We were both 25 years old and he never once said a word about moving in together.  Maybe he wasn’t ready.  Maybe I wasn’t either - but I thought we should have at least talked about it.  Instead he practically salivated at putting me in this place.

“I think you’ll be really happy here, Kara.”

I glanced around one more time.  Big, clean, airy - it had everything I needed.  At least for now.

“Okay, I’ll put in an application.”

[Six weeks later]

“Hi there, do you need a hand?”

Because I’m helping you anyway, I thought.

I was on the couch checking email when I heard a door close.  It was so close I looked at my own front door.  Then I heard it again.  It was the apartment next door, which had been empty for over a month.  I went to the balcony and looked down into the parking lot - sure enough: moving truck.  And a pair of cutoff shorts leaning into the back.  Forty seconds later I was at the bottom of the stairs.

Those shorts  and a white tank top belonged to a very pretty brunette with blue eyes, who looked over the box in her arms.  She glanced back at a U-Haul in the parking lot that was bursting with, sending long hair tossing over a bare shoulder.  

“Oh it’s okay, it’s gonna be all day.  My boyfriend’s just running late.”  She smiled confidently, dimples flashing.

Nope, not the right answer.  “I’m Steven.”

“Hi.  You really don’t....”

“I think we’re neighbors,” I took the box out of her hands before she could say no.  “It’ll go faster with two people.”  

Told you so.

Her name was Kara and her condo was right next to mine - we shared the space of two condos.  Mine was 1.5 units and hers was 0.5.  It was bright and completely empty except for a few boxes she’d already lugged up the stairs.  I carried one marked ‘bedroom’ so I set it in that room.  

“Nice place.” Her bedroom shared a wall with mine.  I immediately thought of how convenient it would be when we moved in together, since we could just knock out the wall.

“Thanks,” she called from the kitchen.  “It’s the first time I’ve ever lived by myself.  It seems so big!”

I considered that my place was three times the size and wondered if she’d hate it.  If she’d think I was some flashy high-roller because I lived alone in over two thousand square feet.  Her head popped in the door: those blue eyes were really something.  

“Wait.  You’re not gonna break in here and kill me, are you?  Since I just told you I live alone?”

“No,” I laughed.  More likely I’d break in and smell her shampoo.  “I bought my place and the value will drop like a rock if someone dies next door.”

Forty minutes later, Steve Downie and Ryan Malone pulled up in their golf gear.

“Tee time, Stammer!” Downie called as I trotted down the stairs..  and right past him to the truck.  “What are you...?”

“Oh,” Malone said from inside the car.  Kara reached the bottom of the stairs, perfect little body bouncing with her stride.  Downie lost his train of thought.

“Kara, these are my friends Steve and Ryan.  Guys, Kara’s moving in next door.”

Malone was already out.  “Lightning Movers, at your service.”

“No, you guys don’t have to!  You’re obviously...,” she took in Downie’s pulled-up plaid socks and long white shorts, polo and visor.  We always gave him shit about his golf-chic.  “... going to a cricket match.  I got this.”

Malone burst out laughing.  Downie grumbled and pulled the car into a parking spot.

“Really, my boyfriend will be here in a minute,” she said again, though as far as I knew he hadn’t even called.  That was all the challenge Downie needed - he would never leave now.  They both picked up boxes and waited for Kara to lead the way.

We stayed for hours.  Behind her back the guys made faces at me - Downie pretended to make out with himself, Malone mimed eating an ice cream cone.  I tried to hide my blushing face without missing a minute of the way her tank top rode up to reveal her lower back.  Her boyfriend finally showed up when we were having drinks to celebrate finishing.  His name was Brendan and he introduced himself skeptically to Downie and Malone, clearly not recognizing them.  I was on my knees behind the TV, hooking up her DVR.  When I stood up Brendan went white as a sheet.

“Hey, I’m Steven,” I said, trying to like the guy.  Trying to push every thought of his girlfriend’s curvy waist and round hips out of my mind.  Deleting the sight of her toned arms and shoulders flexing as she lifted a box I had offered to carry.  Erasing the fact that I’d just laid the mattress on her bed.

“Hey, man.”  Brendan’s eyes were hard.  Minutes later, he was sweeping Kara away for lunch.  She hugged us each in turn, showering us with gratitude and promising to repay our kindness.  As I watched Malone and Downie each give her the full treatment, Downie even lifting her up off the floor, I knew they didn’t like this guy either.  I hugged her with my whole body and imagined she gave me a little extra too.

“You have no idea who those guys are, do you?” Brendan asked as we pulled away from my new building.

Oh here we go, I thought.  I get a good-looking neighbor and it’s time for an episode of Law & Order.  He wasn’t usually like this but I’d felt the tension since he walked into my apartment.  It serves him right for being so late to help me.  For not asking me to move in.

That’s what you get. Inside I even did a little ‘hmph.’

“My movers?” I teased.  

“They’re hockey players, Kar.  For the Lightning?  Stamkos was the only one I recognized, but the other two are Downie and Malone.”

Hmmm, okay maybe Brendan gets to be a little jealous.  But I pictured their faces - I’d never seen them before.  I would have remembered Steven at least.

“Steven, Steve and Ryan.  Okay.”

Brendan huffed.  “Steven Stamkos?  Hockey phemon?  Nothing?”

I shook my head.  The name didn’t ring any bells.  But the permanent smile and that easy laugh would be hard to forget.  It certainly explained the sculpted body that was barely hidden by the t-shirt and shorts he’d been wearing.  Not that I’d noticed.  

Professional athlete indeed.

“Well I don’t like you living next to him.  Probably other guys and trashy girls in and out of there all the time.  And they know you’re alone.”

“Hahahahahahaha,” it was out before I could stop it.  “You have got to be kidding me.  Steven looks like he leads a boy scout troop.  He’s not Dexter!”

“Well he probably has a different girl every night.  You’re gonna have to sleep with earplugs.”

“Are you serious?”  I laughed because he couldn’t possibly be.  But he is pretty fucking hot, I admitted to myself.

“Are you serious, Kara?  Running around in next to nothing and hugging everyone?  Those guys get what they want, when they want it.”

I turned in my seat, gesturing down at my shorts and tank top.  “Next to nothing?  It’s Florida!   I wear this every day.  I could be wearing a bikini and be more dressed than half the people in Tampa Bay!”

“Well I don’t like it.  Why does Stamkos even live there?  He makes like eight million a year plus endorsements.”

Woah, shit.  I looked away.  That was a lot of money.  Like elite athlete super-famous money.  How was that possible?  He seemed so... normal.  Nice.  And he’d carried my boxes.

“No wonder he wouldn’t take any money for helping me move.”

Brendan pulled into the place we were apparently headed for lunch.  It was a low slung bungalow style restaurant on the beach - it would have been romantic if I wasn’t so annoyed.  But at least Brendan had told me his concerns.  He was looking out for me, even if it was a little misguided.  He was that kind of guy.

“I just don’t want those guys coming by your apartment whenever they feel like it.”

I rolled my eyes.  “At least they’d be on time.”

That night, Kara knocked on my door.  I had been thinking about her, about what makes a girl like that go for a guy like him.  Maybe he was just a little surprised to find the Tampa Bay Lightning plugging in her electronics.  He could be cool.  Then again he could have helped her move in.

“Hi.”  She held up a six-pack of beer.  

I laughed.  I was so surprised to see her gorgeous face, smiles poking dimples deep into her cheeks.  She caught me looking at her bright blue cotton sundress.  

“Did I get the color right?”

“What do you... oh, yeah.”  She had - it was Lightning blue.

She looked around as I led her into the kitchen.  “So this is where all my space went.”

“You’re welcome to use it anytime,” I said gallantly, picturing her reading the newspaper on my couch or watching TV with her painted toenails propped up on the coffee table.  

My hands shook as I reached for the bottle opener.  Such a child, I told myself.  Kara was probably twenty-five and must do pretty well for herself to live next door.  It was a nice building,  but nothing out of reach.  I could have lived in some big mansion except I liked the company.  Especially now.  

We sat on the balcony.  October had brought an Indian summer that made the start of hockey season seem ridiculous.  The Forum always had ice problems and this year looked to be the worst yet.  But I really didn’t care at that moment.

I popped the top off two bottles and handed her one.  She held it up and looked at me, toasting silently.  Kara probably thanked the universe for sending guys to help her carry all her boxes.  

Thanks for moving her in next door, I said.

“I feel stupid for not knowing who you were before.”

“Why?  It’s not a big deal.”

She raised one eyebrow at me, an expression I would come to know very well.  “You are a very big deal.  Read all about you on the internet.”

I shrugged, uncomfortable.  “I still carry boxes.”

“You do that well.  Thanks again for your help, without you guys I’d still be out there.”

“What about your boyfriend?”  I regretted it instantly, it seemed to petulant and obvious.  But Kara didn’t miss a step.

“He certainly knew who you were.”

I never found out what she meant by that, but I got the impression he was upset.  Probably gave her an earful for letting three strangers into her apartment, showing some random guys where she lived.  I wondered if he got on her case for making her neighbor fall in love with her on the first day.

Normally I wouldn’t drink three beers.  I was very serious about my training regimen and the season had just started.  But that night I did, just to keep Kara talking.  It was after 11PM when she finally stretched like a cat and yawned.  I walked her to the door like it was a first date - except it was my house and we were both already home.  Before I had a chance to get all awkward, Kara just hugged me again.  The skin of her upper back was smooth beneath my fingers, slightly sticking with humidity.  Anytime I rub my fingers together I can still feel that first night.

“How’s Stamkos?” Brendan asked a few days after I moved in.  We were walking toward the bowling alley, where I rocked a steady streak of losing by at least fifty points.  

“Uh, fine?  I saw him at the mailbox yesterday.”

Brendan reached out and caught my hand.  “Hey, I’m not trying to be a jerk.  I just think those guys have a warped sense of what life is like.”

“I know Bren, but you watch too much ESPN.  Not every pro athlete is Tiger Woods.  I bet Sportscenter never had a bad thing to say about Steven.”

He squeezed my hand, laughing.  “Like Sportscenter ever talks about hockey.”

I tried not to at first, telling myself I didn’t want to be the annoying neighbor.  Steven was famous, probably wanted his privacy and not some girl hanging around all the time.  But I’d see him in the hallway or parking lot and he’d always say hi, ask how I was, if I liked the new place. Brendan continued to ask in passing about Steven, and I could tell him honestly that I saw Steven as often as I saw all my neighbors.  Except none of my other neighbors popped up everywhere else - signs at bus stops and jerseys in the mall.  Finally I looked up the team website and watched some highlights, then YouTubed Steven and watched some more.  

Creepy neighbor! I told myself.  But it didn’t take much to see that Steven was something special.  

I kept my discoveries from Brendan.  He knew all about Steven even though he wasn’t a big hockey fan.  Now he’d turn a game on in the background; I swear he was waiting for me to react.  I pretended not to notice.  It would only last a little while, then he’d stop digging and settle into being his normal, fun self.  But there were a few minutes every time I saw Brendan that he made clear his discomfort still existed.

One night I told Brendan I had work to do, then stayed home and watched a Lightning game on TV.  If he was going that route so was I, though I barely knew where to start.  But sports are sports and even I could tell the Lightning were outplaying the Colorado team by a mile.  The Avalanche looked slow and old compared to the Lightning - or the “Bolts” as the commentator kept saying.  When Steven scored on a nifty little spin-around move, I actually shouted.  Later he got another goal and an even bigger reaction.

I was in the bathroom when I heard Steven’s door close.  I gave up my non-stalker act and ran right over there in my jeans and t-shirt, barefoot.

“Hey,” he said, opening the door.  That smile never left his face.

I threw a hug onto him, without even being invited inside.  He staggered backward with me around him like a giant squid assaulting a boat.  “You were so awesome!”

“You watched my game?”  He looked down at where I was unwrapping myself from his chest.

“I have been waiting all night for you to come home!”

I was still in the hallway, practically screaming.  Steven moved aside to let me in, then led me to the kitchen and handed me a beer.  His navy blue pin stripe suit and light blue tie made his ice blue eyes impossible to ignore and his blond hair look even lighter.  He poured himself a glass of milk.

“You liked it?” he asked, looking at me over the rim of the glass.  An unfamiliar, uncertain look creased his forehead.

“I didn’t know what the hell was going on but you were on fire!  Two goals, and the commentator guys talked about you like you were Hockey Jesus or something.  I think I underestimated who I live next door to!”

My enthusiasm must have been contagious, because the shadow of doubt was erased.  He drained the milk.  “Do you want to come to Saturday’s game?  I can get you really good seats.”

Not better than this seat, I wanted to say.  But instead I asked “Will you teach me the rules?”

Steven shrugged his shoulders out of his suit coat and hung it on the back of a stool at the counter.  I pretended not to watch him pull the tie open at his throat or unbutton the top of his shirt.  It was like the beginning of a ‘hot guy comes home from the office’ porn.  As if he didn’t look fit enough, he’d just chugged a glass of milk.  And I’d just been hugging him.  Next he’d take a puppy out of his bag and tell me he rescued it from a cardboard box left in the rain.

Stop it, I told myself.  Creepy neighbor red alert.

“Of course. I was going to watch the Washington game from tonight.”

“Oh... we don’t have to do it right now.  Aren’t you tired?  You skated like a hundred miles an hour all night.”

His tie hung loose now, fully open, and he had half his shirt undone to reveal a white t-shirt beneath.  “Let me change, be right back.”

If only I’d gotten a hat trick, I laughed to myself as I dug through a drawer.  Oh well, after I teach her the rules she’ll appreciate it more.

Kara was on the couch when I came back, feet tucked underneath her.  I’d chosen a white shirt and some running pants - a perfectly normal outfit for having the hot girl next door over to learn about hockey.


I fast-forwarded through the pre-game and started with the opening faceoff, explaining the positions and the way the benches worked.  She’d figured out line changes, whistles for things like the puck going out of play or the net coming loose.  She even got the offsides rule.  Icing confused her at first, but the Caps helped by doing it five times in ten minutes.  It was actually a pretty slow, methodical game that made it easy to point out elements.  By the end of the first period, she was getting more comfortable.  I was trying to do the same around a girl who I already knew was getting too close.

“So we don’t like the Capitals, right?” she asked.  “They’re in your division.”

“Very good.”

She smiled.  “Google, baby.”

During the intermission report, I let it play and printed out a grid of the Eastern Conference teams.  She watched the scores ticker and we discussed who had won and lost.  

“It’s only October,” I told her.  “You picked a good time to start watching, now you have all season.”

All season to come over and watch games, to see us play live.  To cheer for me.  To hug me like that every time we win a game.

Late in the game replay, I thought I had a pretty good idea about how hockey worked.  I was watching how much a player could hook someone before getting a whistle when Steven’s feet stretched out and pushed against my thigh.  He’d fallen asleep in the far corner of the couch, body turned forward and his head against the armrest.  He was searching for six feet of space but I was in the way.

I shifted away from him, giggling.  He looked about five years old, sleeping with his mouth slightly open.   Poor guy was exhausted from the game and still trying to teach me how to play along.  I squeezed his calf, which took a whole hand, and three squeezes later he cracked an eyelid.

“We pay people a lot of money to do that,” he smiled, putting his socked foot right in my lap.

“You cannot afford me, Stamkos.  I checked your salary online.”

He rolled onto his back and stretched, taking his feet away.  “I could get another endorsement deal.  I saw Cheerios in your kitchen.  How about a lifetime supply?”

I turned the game off and collected the glasses from the table.  “Aw Steven, you would give me all your Cheerios?”

He shrugged.  “Not really into cereal.”

I stopped, halfway to the kitchen.  “Oh well, it was never gonna work out between us anyway.”

Steven walked me to the door and I ordered him to bed.  When I turned to leave Steven caught my arm and pulled me into a big, sleepy hug.  He was intensely warm and his hair was soft against my cheek.  There was a lot of thick, hard muscle wrapped around me.

“Thanks for watching my game, Kar,” he mumbled.  

A joke got caught halfway off my tongue.  Steven was stronger than he was heavy, and as he leaned all his body weight onto me it was more comforting than a burden.  It made me sleepy too, it made me want to curl up and cuddle with him.

What am I doing?! I squeezed him quickly and stepped away, suddenly aware that I was much too close.  Luckily Steven was too sleepy to notice the change in my posture.  I said goodnight and quickly took myself home.

Get a grip, Kara.  

Kara left and I laid right down on the floor inside the door.  I’d never let myself sleep there, but I needed a minute.  That hug had been more than I intended: more contact, more emotion, more revealing.  Crushing on Kara was one thing, letting her know was something else.  It just felt so good to hold her even for a second.  I was painfully aware she could be scared away just as quickly.

She has a boyfriend.  She is not interested in me.  She is my friend, and my neighbor.  Careful, Stammer.  Be careful.


  1. What a nice surprise to find to when I'm not feeling well (home for the rest of the week Dr's orders).
    I love the chemistry between these two already.
    You have a remarkable way of making me want to see her break up with her boyfriend........ and fall for the hot neighbor.
    Might I add who wouldn't wait up for Steven to come home just to hug him????
    Can't wait to see where you take this one......

  2. Lovely, lovely, lovely, as usual...can't wait for more!

  3. I love this. I love this story and even though I'm not a Lightning fan, you'll probably convert me anyway. One thing, what is going on with his hair at the moment???