Saturday afternoon vacuuming was interrupted by a knock on my door. I pulled it open without looking, knowing Steven would be leaning across as if it were no big deal he was the most exciting player in hockey. As if it were no big deal that he’d hugged me the other night, well past bedtime, like he wanted to keep doing it until sunrise.
“Ready for tonight?” he asked, with a blinding dose of that smile.
“I’m so excited! I’m probably going to lose my voice from screaming.”
He followed me inside, looking around at the few things I’d managed to put together and hang on the walls in the three weeks I’d lived next door. The smell of clean boy - soap and deodorant - came in with him. He’d just come from practice in jeans and a baseball cap, carrying a duffel bag.
While he was busily perusing a bookshelf, he spoke without turning toward me. “I brought you a present, but I’m kind of embarrassed.”
“Is it a life-size cardboard Steven Stamkos?” I had seen one in a local sports store.
He laughed. “No.”
“But what do I high five when you have away games?”
Steven put his bag on the arm of the couch and used his back to block my line of sight. I heard the zipper opening. It took him a long minute to arrange whatever it was before he turned around...
Holding a girl-sized #91 jersey.
“Wooooooooooot!” I lunged for it but Steven held it up over his head.
“You don’t have to wear it.” His angular face was set in a serious expression. That ever-smiling mouth turned down just a bit at the corners - almost in a frown.
“Why wouldn’t I want to wear it?!” I jumped but couldn’t reach. So I stopped and looked him right in the eye.
“I thought...,” he turned his face away. “I don’t want to get you in trouble with your boyfriend.”
Brendan hadn’t mentioned Steven in a few days. Probably because I hadn’t mentioned that I was going to the game tonight. It was a gray area for me - Steven was my friend and Brendan was my boyfriend. There was room for both of them in my life, but Brendan had made it clear he did not approve of me becoming friends with Steven.
Steven lowered his arm to within my reach, I took the jersey and pulled it over my head. It fit perfectly. He looked down at me from what suddenly seemed like too close.
“You won’t make trouble.”
I’m making it, not you.
“It’s fine,” I continued.
It’s probably not.
“I’m not bringing him tonight.”
Finally something true.
Steven tried to school his features, he really did. But the look of relief and excitement that came to his face sent an ache spearing through my heart. As I stood there studying his face, thinking about the impossibility of someone like him wanting someone like me, he reached out and slid one big hand behind my neck. I froze in a flood of adrenaline, felt my eyes go wide.
Steven paused for a long second. Then scooped my hair free of the jersey, letting it spill over my shoulders. As if covering his name on my back was any help when he was standing in front of me.
“See you tonight,” he said quietly.
When he left, I sat on the couch and ran the silky fabric of the jersey through my fingers. Steven was great. He was my friend. He was also a kid, even if he didn’t seem like one. Between the fame, the money and the pressure Steven had enough going on in his life.
And I had enough in mine. Why was it so hard to remember that when he was around?
Stop, I have to stop.
All the way to the rink I repeated that mantra to the beat of every song on the radio. I told myself I was fine around Kara. I wanted to be around her and so I would keep myself in line. But lately, every time she was within arm’s reach I was touching her. The other night I had hugged her, half-asleep, and seriously considered dragging her off to my bed. Then today I had my hands in her hair and my eyes on her mouth like I was going to...
Stop. I have to stop.
“Stammer’s big day!” Downie called as I strode into the locker room. “Got a crush on a girl, she’s coming today to see what all the fuss is about. So please, guys, try to make him look good.”
There were catcalls and comments that I’m not even sure I understood. I just knew I didn’t want them applying to Kara.
“She’s just my friend, my neighbor!” I corrected him.
“Oh, so she’s up for grabs?” Vinnie asked, raising an eyebrow. What a shit. He’d been with the same girl for like ten years. He was also stripped to the waist and flexing enough chest to put a wrestler to shame. “We should all try to impress her, eh?”
Malone came up behind me and ruffled my hair. “Aw, leave Stammer alone. He’s trying to lose his virginity here.”
“Assholes,” I mumbled, turning toward my gear.
But by the time we hit the ice, I knew the guys were behind me. It was early enough in the season that things like impressing girls were still acceptable hockey strategies. Mostly because it could only be done by winning.
We went up 3-0 over the Wild by the middle of the second period. It was a good, strong effort from our team and the chemistry was beginning to crackle along the bench. We were have having fun. The guys started passing to me on every rush.
“Damn it Stammer, put it in the net!” Marty hollered when I missed a shot. He slapped the back of my legs with his stick. “You and your girl can babysit my kids! I haven’t been on a date in five years!”
I swear he was so loud Kara could hear him from the stands.
But in the third it finally paid off. On a two-on-one break, I passed to Marty streaking wide open down the wing. He barely touched the puck before redirecting it back to me - unnecessary, but the defenseman lost any chance of picking off my shot. I went high over the goalie’s shoulder and scored.
The place went crazy - they were always so good to me. A goal is a goal, even when it has no effect on the outcome of the game. And somewhere in the arena, Kara was screaming my name.
“I’m dying,” I laughed, dropping in my seat like a sack of bricks.
“Easy killer,” my friend Lindsay said.
Steven had been trying so hard to score all night that I’d nearly given myself a heart attack. He had been close a hundred times. Everyone else was racking up points with ease - it seemed the only shots the Minnesota goalie could stop were Steven’s.
Finally he got one. The odd man rush had been so obvious you could see it from space and they were down the ice in a heartbeat. St. Louis got the puck and we were already cheering the inevitable goal. When he slid it back to Steven I froze.
Come on, baby.
What did I just call him?
Then the shot was in the net, the buzzer was honking and the crowd was going ballistic. I let the words fall right out of my mind. Lindsay tackled me and our screams were lost in twenty thousand others.
I’m going to hug him later.
Shut up, brain... oh, fuck it.
When the game ended, we headed to the designated meeting place - a bar a few miles away that I’d never been to. It had a vaguely tiki-pirate theme like every other bar in Florida. Jimmy Buffett played on the jukebox while everyone tried to hold onto the last shred of summer.
“Hurry up, I’m sweating!” I yelled at my phone when Steven texted they were on their way.
“Kara,” Lindsay leaned forward in her chair, “what is going on with you?”
She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t have to. Lindsay knew me better than anyone and when she thought a question was worth asking she was usually right.
“Nothing. He’s just my friend.”
All she did was raise an eyebrow.
“Come on, Linds! He’s my neighbor! He’s really nice and apparently is the Harry Potter of hockey. You’re going to like him a lot.”
“Of course I will,” she said. “The question is, how much do you like him?”
I don’t know why I scooted closer to answer, even though I was facing away from the front door. “You sound like Brendan. Why can’t I have friends? No one cares about Timmy or Allan or any of the guys from work. Steven happens to be Steven Stamkos, what is the big deal?”
A jolt of energy passed through the room, like a vibration before an earthquake. It didn’t get quiet or anything, but the atmosphere pulsed once and everybody felt it. I didn’t need to guess. Lindsay’s eyes were over my shoulder, watching what had just walked in.
“I think that’s the big deal,” she whispered.
I got was halfway to my feet before arms were wrapped around my stomach, lifting me off the floor. It was Downie, judging by the voice hollering in my ear. He spun me half a turn and dumped me right into Steven.
“Hi!” He caught me as I fell into his arms, crashing into his chest and grabbing on as a reflex.
Steven helped steady me - which was pretty useless because the second I looked up at him my knees nearly buckled again. He was laughing, his face scrunched up in genuine happiness. Without even flexing he had solid biceps locked around me. Tonight’s suit was light gray with a black tie and the collar of his shirt was wrinkled - he’d ironed it himself. In his apartment, next door. Without thinking I reached up and smoothed it down.
His eyes fixed on mine - sky blue, no clouds, still laughing. My hand moved itself without permission, resting two fingers along the strong line of his jaw. Another inch and I could have touched his lips.
Steven ducked his head and pressed a quick kiss to my cheek. The breath I’d been holding shuddered on its way out.
“Have fun?” he asked, still holding me.
I just nodded like an idiot.
“Kara!” Malone wrenched me away and into a bear hug of his own. Behind him I saw Lindsay making friends without my help. Ryan began introducing me to the rest of the team. When I glanced back for Steven, he was gone. I knew most of the guys on sight - I’d been studying the website. They all knew me, which made me wonder who’d been talking. I knew what Steven would say. Downie and Malone were another story.
“Our newest fan,” Vinny Lecavalier said. He was impossible to miss - Frenchman dipped in swagger and wrapped in GQ, with two assists on the night. “Did you enjoy your first game?”
“It was great. You were great.”
He laughed like women told him that every day. “They say you never forget your first time.”
While Vinny entertained Kara, I took a minute to lean against the bar, sip my beer and look at her standing there, wearing my number, talking to my friends. Like she was part of my life instead of just visiting.
There were a lot of girls around hockey, but it was rare I found one I really liked, or even got the chance to know. More often than not the number on my back felt like a target. Guys like Downie loved it and worked it. Guys like Marty had found someone early and stuck with them. I was not alone in being single, but sometimes I was the only one not playing the field. My teammates ragged me for it, not understanding what was at stake. I kept my distance from most girls for one reason: I always fell hard - and quickly. My brief love life was like a chick flick. So few girls had any real presence or spent any real time that when one came around, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“So, that’s Kara.”
If my life were a TV show, Marty would be the narrator. He knew everything, sometimes pointed out the obvious, and generally popped up when a wise or pithy remark was needed. Marty was my closest friend because he was the best guy on the team.
We watched as Kara pulled off the Jersey and hung it over a chair. Guys were shedding their jackets and ties, rolling up their sleeves. God I loved Florida. Kara wore a simple t-shirt underneath - which made my life anything but simple.
“What’s wrong with her?”
We were looking right at her, she was obviously perfect. He drained his beer. Sometimes, right before he saw right through me, I thought his hair looked especially gray at the temples.
“Which is why she has a boyfriend,” he guessed. When I didn’t correct him he just patted me on the back. “Well done, Stammer.”
I circulated among everyone, trying not to look too eager. Kara and her friend did just fine without me anyway. I felt like the whole room was waiting for me to approach her and I wanted to give them time to get bored and distracted. I lasted all of twenty minutes, until she stepped away to get a drink.
“Hey,” she said as I set my elbows next to her on the bar. There was a long pause when I didn’t trust myself to say anything. “Thanks again for the game, we had a really great time.”
I blushed like it was grade nine. “The guys wanted to make sure I scored you a goal.”
“Yeah, they told me,” she laughed.
Oh God. As if I weren’t blushing badly enough. The things these guys would tell her - both true and untrue... I couldn’t even think about it. “They always try to embarrass me.”
Kara turned her head partway and looked at me from the corner of her dark blue eyes. She tried to fight a smile, but those dimples gave her away.
God I want to kiss her.
She leaned in a fraction of an inch, as if reading my mind. But all she did was whisper.
“I think it’s working.”
Guys started dropping of after an hour. By then they were all in love with Kara and Lindsay anyway. Every one of them insisted the girls come to more games and offered better outfits than the jersey I’d provided. Matt Gilroy, one of the newer guys, even got Lindsay’s number. I went to get Kara to see if she needed a ride home.
She was at the corner of the patio, talking on the phone. The cool breeze whipped her long hair. Judging by her posture and the fact it was after midnight, I guessed she was talking to Brendan. Three steps ahead, turn, three steps back the other way as she paced. I slid back inside and closed the door.
Downie came up behind me, put his face to the window. “Boyfriend?”
“And you’re just gonna creep on her through the window without saying anything.”
I didn’t bother to move. “Yup.”
The surf lapped at the dark beach a hundred yards away, the noise still audible despite the music from the bar. I wondered how this place survived the hurricanes that blew through every year. It looked so peaceful at the moment.
“So you’re out with him now?” Brendan asked though he already knew the answer.
“Yup. Whole team.” I’d been giving short answers for a while.
“What the hell, Kar? You know I’m not okay with that.”
“Well you need to get okay with it. Lindsay is here, and ten other people. It’s not a date, Brendan. We’re friends. We’re all friends now.” I turned around, as if looking at them would emphasize my point, and caught Steven watching me through the window. He looked caught out at first, then relaxed.
“Okay?” he mouthed. I nodded.
It wasn’t necessary, but I did it anyway. “Brendan, I have to go. My ride is leaving.”
Ten minutes later we were in the car, silent as a tomb. Most of the group had been gone so goodbyes were quick. Steven was still looking at me like he had through the window.
I weighed whether or not Steven needed to know about my predicament against the chance that he was already well aware. Once I brought it up, it would always be there - anytime I was with him, it would hang over us. Maybe it already did, but that wasn’t Steven’s problem.
“Just tired,” I said. “Hockey takes a lot out of me.”