Thursday, October 20, 2011


It was nearly two in the morning when we pulled into my parent’s driveway.  I took Steven right upstairs - my brother Jason wouldn’t be in till morning so he had the room to himself.  He tossed his bag onto the far bed and looked around.  As if years had never passed, Jason’s room was still a collection of high school trophies and photos and random stuff my mom couldn’t bear to part with.  Only the people got bigger.

“What?” Steven asked quietly.  I was standing in the doorway watching him look around the time capsule, still wearing his suit from the rink.

“It’s just weird to see you here.  Every time I come back it’s like I never left, but you don’t match the scenery.”

He smiled.  “Can I see your room?”

Across the hall was like walking into my own memory, five years in the past.  The last time I’d lived at home was summer before senior year of college, and I hadn’t changed much even then.  Old pictures of high school friends were tucked in along the mirror, outdated movie and music posters on the walls.  Luckily I’d been into solid colors, so I wasn’t embarrassed by the decor.  I actually rather liked it still - green with white stripes, a little bit of purple thrown in.  

Steven put his face right to the pictures and examined them.  My bookshelf had college textbooks and random albums and knick-knacks.  Even the drawers held leftover clothes - old swimsuits, sweatshirts I still wore when I visited.  He homed right in on my senior yearbook.

“Show me.”  He held it out.

I flipped a few pages, reminding myself what had gone on that year.  Steven plopped down on the bed next to me, sitting close.  There was a photo of me on the soccer field, ponytail flying.  Senior trip to Washington, DC, my class photo with hair slightly too big and eyebrows a little too thin.  I looked about twelve years old.  Steven looked from me to the book and back.

“You’re prettier now.”  He pulled the book into his lap and kept turning, then stopped and went back a page.  The prom spread across the centerfold and there, second from the left, was me in a little crown.

“Prom Princess.  Is that like first runner-up?”

“Yup.  We like you second best behind this girl here,” I tapped the smiling face of my classmate, “who now has two kids and her husband is studying to be a heart surgeon.”

“I never liked her anyway,” Steven said with his nose in the air, closing the book.  He stayed next to me but craned his neck all around like he might be missing something.  Somewhere in the house, a floorboard creaked.  By instinct we both flinched and froze, waiting.

“Uh oh,” he said almost soundlessly.

I turned my face to look at him.  He was so wide and solid, heavy-seeming, and warm against my side.  Those sky blue eyes were looking up and away, still waiting for more noise.  Then he blinked and was suddenly looking right back at me from inches away.  For a moment, his face was unreadable.  My chest dropped and my stomach got tight, forcing out a breath that I couldn’t get back.  I felt my lips part slowly, pulling away from one another in response to his body language.  Preparing to be kissed.  

Steven’s eyes crinkled at the corners in a smile that didn’t reach his mouth.  His mouth stayed ready, just in case.  

“Are you allowed to have boys in your room?”

Not you.  Not now.  

“I never bothered to ask,” I whispered back with a wink.  My heart was pounding.  I was inviting disaster, playing cat and mouse with something much, much bigger than me.  Steven was my friend.  It didn’t stop adrenaline from thrilling through my veins.

What am I doing?

“Well,” he stood up all at once, so quickly I almost toppled into the now-empty space beside me.  “I don’t want to get kicked out before I even get to eat.”

I scrambled to my feet too.  Steven hugged me tightly and shut the door behind him.

The ceiling in Kara’s brother’s room was just like countless hotel room ceilings I stared at on our last road trip, wondering what the hell I was going to do about everything.  My hands were still shaking a little bit with the force of not having touched her.  I hugged her with my arms only, then ran from the dim closeness of her bedroom.  Once I got my hands on her I never would have stopped.

She wanted me to kiss her.

Either that or she was looking for an excuse.  An excuse to break up with Brendan would suit me fine - I’d rather be the honest reason, but I’d take the blame just as readily.  My fear was that Kara was looking for an excuse to push me away.  We went too far, we crossed the line, she can’t be around me.  And I would not let her make me into a mistake.

In the morning, I woke to Kara knocking softly on the door.  She poked her head around the side with a huge grin.  “Are you dressed?”

I sat up, wearing a gray t-shirt, wishing I wasn’t.  But she just squeaked in excitement.

“Get up, my mom made pancakes!”

Two minutes later, I walked into the kitchen-and-dining room area downstairs and the entire place went quiet.  It was like the scene in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast comes home - the candlestick and clock and feather-duster all stop dead like the inanimate objects they really are.

“Everyone, this is Steven,” Kara rounded the counter and slipped her arm into mine.  “He’s my neighbor.”

Eight people stared back at me.  In front of the stove was a brunette woman with the same dazzling blue eyes I’ve been thinking of since October.  She could only be Kara’s mother.  Her face broke into that familiar smile.

“Holy shit, she wasn’t kidding.”  A guy about my height worked his way behind two chairs and reached out to shake my hand.  His eyes were blue too, but lighter.  “I’m Jason.  I thought Kara was lying.”

“Hey man, nice to meet you.  Thanks for letting me crash in your room.”

He introduced me around - two aunts, an uncle, the neighbors.  I tried my best to remember everyone’s name using a trick that Vinny taught me when I first came into the League.  I wanted to impress these people.  The last hand I shook was a man with short salt-and-pepper hair wearing a Buccaneers pullover.  

“This is my dad, Walt.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” I said like I’m meeting my new boss.  Can I marry your daughter?

“None of that sir stuff, you make me feel old kid!”  He gave my shoulder a smack, then glanced at Kara and pretended to whisper, “Nice game the other night.”

“Dad!” she hollered.  “You promised!”

“What?!” He put his hands up in mock surrender.  “You’re good at your job too, buttercup.”

“Buttercup?” I repeated, making a face at her.

She had one hand on her hip and pointed a ladle in my direction.  “Don’t even think about it, Stamkos!”

“Stamkos?” her uncle asked.  “I thought you looked familiar!  That must be your ride outside.”

“Oh. My. God,” Kara said and her parents and brother laughed along with me.  “I knew we should have brought the Honda.”

The rest of breakfast went like that - everyone talked at once and teased each other.  I sent up a prayer that my training coach couldn’t read minds, then put down two big plates of pancakes in under half an hour.  Kara’s uncle told the other guests about me; they nodded appreciatively and then forgot.  It was nice.  When we finished, her mother sent us outside with a huge plaster bucket full of ears of corn.

“Like this,” Kara said, pulling an entire side of the husk and silk clear in one swipe.  I tried twice before I got the idea.  We were sitting on the bottom of three steps that lead onto a large deck.  Her backyard was a square with a small in-ground pool in the middle.  The image of her laying in a sunchair wearing a bikini flashed quickly through my mind, then came right back to stay.

“This is what I remember about Thanksgiving,” she said, manhandling another ear with impressive skill.  “Me and Jason husking corn, took us forever when we were little.  And none of our cousins ever helped.”  She made a pinched face and stuck her tongue out at no one.  

“I never got to do this stuff.  There was always hockey.”

“Even when you were little?”

“On the road since I was probably ten years old.  My parents would always come to road games on holidays, so we’d do something, but there weren’t any traditions like this.”

She gave me a sarcastic eyebrow raise.  “Child labor, this is.  But still.  I guess you gave it up for something better.”

“And now I can make my own new holiday traditions.  Or just steal them from your family.”

“We’ve got some good ones,” Kara promised.

“Pounce!” I shouted, slapping my hand down on a pile of cards.  Steven was halfway underneath my arm and Jason’s elbow dug into my ribs.  I didn’t care, I won.

“Booooooooo!” My aunt Mary called, but she was smiling.  Everyone picked up their stash of cards and started counting.

Pounce was the greatest, full contact card game ever.  Everyone had their own deck of cards, plus one in the middle.  The first card got turned and started a pile.  If it was a two of spades and you had a three of spades, you added it to the pile, and so on until the corresponding ace closed out the pile.  Anytime someone got a two in their deck, they started a new pile.  The first one with none of their own deck left won and shouted “Pounce” to end the game.  When you played with eight or ten people on a big table, the pile you needed was always too far away and someone else was reaching for it.  So you got a little physical, a little loud, and little pirate-y in your language.  All in the name of fun.

“That was intense,” Steven said, leaning back and sorting a handful of cards.  “You should play hockey.”

“She should play fair.  Her elbows are so bony!” Jason complained.  I made sure my winning score was noted and untangled myself from the table.  My mom and aunt were in the kitchen, and the smells were overwhelming.  I offered to help.

“No, entertain your friend,” she said.  Shouts rang out from the living room as another round began, Steven’s loudest of all.  He clearly didn’t need me, and was suitably occupied for her to start nosing around.

“So, Steven.”

I rolled my eyes at her.  “Just friends.”

She pursed her lips.  “Really, really good-looking friends.”

“Mom!” I hissed.

“Ooookay.  How are things with Brendan?”  My mom met Brendan a few times.  The first time I brought him home was a wedding nearly nine months ago, and he came from Jason’s college graduation in May.  When I moved, my mom asked where Brendan was living.  But she didn’t ask why we weren’t living together.

“Good,” I said quickly.  She put down the pot holder in her hand.  My aunt suddenly needed to take out the trash.  

“Things are fine.  He isn’t crazy about me hanging out with Steven or his teammates but that’s too bad.  And he’s getting better about it, really.  He wanted to be here.”

Her mom smile magically reappeared and she squeezed my arm.  “I’m glad, honey.  And I’m glad you brought Steven.  Did you see him eat those pancakes?  Is he starving down there on his own?”

That cracked me up.  “He just burns like ten thousand calories a day being Steven.”

“Being adorable,” she added.

I took a sip of the wine.  All around us, people were talking with their mouths full of second and third helpings.  I had half a plate of food left myself, but couldn’t decide between holding silverware and draping my arm over the back of Kara’s chair.

“I won’t tell anyone, but you cheated on the sweet potatoes,” she said, stealing a bite with her fork.  “You have to take the exact square footage of potatoes as marshamallows.  Because one year Jason scraped off all the marshmallows and just ate those, then got reaaaaaly sick.  It’s like Rule 211 of Thanksgiving.”

She wore a soft-looking cream colored sweater that set off the dark tones in her hair, which were the same coffee brown as her corduroy pants.  We were both sitting back in our chairs, leaning in together, while she told me family secrets about everyone at the table.

“What’s Rule 210?”

“Spike Aunt Mary’s drinks from the beginning.  She likes to give away cash when she’s drunk.”

Finally I could not eat anymore.  My portion control had been so regulated for so long that I worried I’d make myself as sick as Jason’s marshmallow binge.  We heaped dishes in the kitchen and her mom ordered us out of the way.  People started claiming couch space in front of the TV, where a football game was approaching half time.  I couldn’t sit down again or I’d never get up.

“Wanna go for a walk?”

“I have an idea.”  Kara disappeared, then came back shaking a set of keys.  I pulled on a light barn jacket over my Thanksgiving clothes - plaid button down and nice jeans - and followed her across the street.  The minute she hit the door, a dog started barking.  

“Leo!” she yelled, letting us in with the borrowed keys.  A blond pug shot across the living room at light speed and crashed right into our feet, knocking itself over.  He’d have climbed Kara’s leg if he could.  She dropped right to her knees and tackled him back.  He jumped and licked her face and she rolled him over to rub his belly. I took a knee and scratched under his chin.

“This is Leo,” she turned him back onto his feet.  

“He loves you.”  Guess she has that effect on a lot of people.

“Shouldn’t get him too excited, he might pee.”

We harnessed and leashed Leo up.  He tried to take off outside the door, just to choke himself when he went too far.  After that he circled back and started sniffing around our feet.  It was pretty cold out, with a crisp wind.  I thought Florida would be all sunny days and balmy nights but it got frosty at times, especially inland.  If not for the palm trees it would almost have felt like autumn at home.  Still, we wore an extra layer each and that cozy, curled up feeling was in the air.  Leo took us around the block and down another side road.  Kara told me stories about the people who live in these houses.

“Here’s where I fell off my scooter when I was nine.  Had to go to the emergency room and everything, but I only got a butterfly bandage.  No stitches.”  She stopped, lifts her hair  and pointed to a non-existent line along her forehead.  I examined nothing closely and nodded.  She smelled like cranberries.  Leo trotted around us twice and tied us up in his leash, making Kara lean the front of her body all over me as she tried to get her foot free.  I held the top of her arms and thanked him.

Good one, little buddy.

I think he winked at me.  Our conversation turned to being kids and school and places we used to live.  She had an excellent memory for details and conversations, or she was making it all up.  Compared to her I seemed so dull.

“I’m sorry, I’m so boring.  Every story I tell is about hockey!”

“You are not boring,” she insisted.  Just as Leo squats and poops at the edge of the sidewalk.  The look on his squished little face said he disagreed.  She did an inside-out bag trick and had it cleaned up in a second.

“Tell me one story with no hockey in it.  The first time you stayed out all night, you first date, something like that.  First ever off day in Tampa.”

“Ummmm....”  We walked slowly, not rushing Leo’s expedition into every bush and tree.  I felt better already, digesting the massive heap of food I ate.  And just being with Kara, alone and relaxed.  “My first date.  You’re gonna want to go out with me after this,” I promised.

She smirked.  “My dad says no dating till I’m forty.”

“Her name was Amy.  We were both sixteen.  We went to the movies and saw Cars.  Then we walked to the bowling alley and I bowled like a fifty or something.  We had terrible bowling alley pizza, but at the end she still kissed me.”

Kara smiled so hard it looked like her cheeks hurt.  “You stud!  Cartoon cars?  Bowling?”

“We were sixteen!  She wanted to see Cars.  It is my least favorite Pixar movie.  But I’m much better now at bowling.”  I bumped her side.  Leo tried to take off, choked himself, came back panting.

“She kissed me.”

Kara just shook her head, still laughing.  “I bet she did.”

I was exhausted by ten o’clock at night.  My mom, Jason, Steven and I were sprawled out on various pieces of furniture watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on TV.  The guys took turns yelling Short Round’s lines at each other.  My mom watched Steven from the corner of her eye and I pretended not to notice.  He did look awfully comfortable stretched out on that couch.  There was room for me right in front of him, if he’d hold me on.

Oh shut up.

Steven and I had a great day.  Everyone did.  Minimal family drama, overeating, quality time with pets - it had everything.  Even our walk around the neighborhood had been especially relaxing; no one to recognize him, no one for me to hide from.  It confirmed my belief that away from everything, Steven was a totally normal and nice person.  It made me like him even more, if that was possible.  His single-day guest appearance would be the talk of the family for the next ten years.  Now I needed to sleep and not on the armchair.

“I’m going to bed.  We have to drive back kinda early tomorrow.  Steven has practice at one.”

Steven pushed himself up to sitting and made to get up too.  I tried to protest but he had the same reasons.  I changed and brushed my teeth; when I was done he was leaning against the wall in the hallway.

“Night, Steven,” I gave him a quick hug.  I was drowsy and full and in no shape to be near warm, strong boys.  The bathroom door closed and water ran.  My bed smelled like sunshine, some laundry witchcraft my mother practiced that I could never replicate.  I crawled under the blanket and sank into the mattress, my eyes already closed.

Two minutes later, Steven came in and sat on the edge of my bed.  I looked up at him in the almost-dark and he just looked back at me.  One hand reached out and brushed the hair from my forehead before he leaned down and kissed me on the temple.  Then he left without a word.

What does it mean that he did that?  What does it mean that I wanted it?  It took me two hours to fall asleep, long after I’d run out of things to remind me of Brendan.

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