4 years ago
Thursday, December 23, 2010
“Tonight,” Mike said, adding his Green #52 jersey to the top of a laundry pile.
“Without even talking to her? Still time to change your mind,” Eric Fehr tapped his fist against the wall like he was driving home a point.
Mike shook his head. “This is the right thing. For me.” Should not have told him, he scolded himself. But he had to tell somebody.
“Mistake,” was all Eric said before he turned to go.
Mike let himself in to Halley’s apartment. He’d always liked the place – it was small, but it was cozy. He’d taken so much care with his own condo, had so much help and so many professionals that he marveled her place felt like a home even though it was really a collection of randomness. She was in the kitchen and he could see her shadowing moving where the light spilled into the hallway.
“Hey,” she called.
He didn’t say hello. He only had one thing to say, and that was it. From the doorway, he watched her put away dishes. She wore black yoga pants and a long tank top, accentuating her toned upper arms. He thought about the time he coached her push-up technique, in the Caps training gym, and how they’d ended up making out on the floor instead. Not now.
“Sorry about the game,” she turned toward him.
They’d lost their last regular season game, but it didn’t matter – the Caps had the President’s Trophy locked in as the NHL’s most-winning team. The playoffs would start in a few days and Mike needed that short time to get his head on straight. After tonight. He’d decided that this was the best and only way to do it - clean and fast.
“Halley, there’s something we need to talk about,” he said, leaning against the fridge.
She was still for a moment. “Uh oh.”
Mike closed his eyes. He almost smiled. She could always read him, read his mind, and was always two steps ahead of him. She didn’t know this was coming but she was no fool.
“I think we should stop seeing each other.”
It was like falling through ice into a frozen lake. The air was knocked completely from her lungs with a whoosh she was sure he could hear.
“Why?” It came out strangled, barely audible.
“I need some space,” he lied.
She forced a deep breath into her body, like moving a weight from her chest. Total panic. “I never said anything about getting serious.”
That’s the problem, he thought. “I know. But we’re together every night that I’m not on the road. Every single day. I know you’re not seeing anyone else.”
“Are you?” If that’s what this is about I’ll fucking kill him, she promised herself.
“No. I haven’t been. But…”
“But you want to?” She got her feet under her a litte bit. ”Mike, you’re here every night. You’re here now. You call me every day. I don’t understand - I think you’re as serious about this as I am.”
So much more, but Mike knew he couldn’t tell her that. She liked the way it was, she was happy, but she didn’t want more. It wouldn’t solve anything to admit he was falling in love with her and freaking out. Summer was coming – he couldn’t stay and she wouldn’t want to leave. And he couldn’t be with her and go without her, he would never make it through that. The wondering, the waiting, the worry. It would only work to cut and run.
“Well I’m not. I’m not serious and I’m sorry if it came off that way.” He said it quickly, in one breath. A moment’s hesitation and he’d lose his nerve. Just get through this, he admonished himself.
Tears burned in Halley’s eyes. She willed herself not to cry, not yet, because she was not done with this conversation. “What exactly are you not serious about? Are you not serious about all your clothes in my room? About having a key to my apartment? Are you not serious about the team referring to me openly as your girlfriend? What parts of this bother you?”
“Halley, there’s no easy way to do this. I have had a great time with you, but it’s over.”
“And you can’t give me a single reason?”
No, I can’t, Mike knew, but he did anyway. He lied. “I don’t love you.”
That hit Halley like a ton of bricks. She’d never said she loved him. She knew she probably did, but calling it that would only freak everyone out. She was pretty sure he loved her too. Now he was saying something else. And for him to say it so coldly, like he was pronouncing a death sentence, was a slap in the face. And it didn’t make any sense.
“What you mean is that you never will.”
It twisted Mike’s gut to see tears spill from her eyelashes. He’d known this would happen, steeled himself for it, but his composure wavered. Her face was red with anger and shame.
“You’re a terrible liar Mike. Every word out of your mouth is bullshit, I can see it. Whatever it is, even if it’s worse than this, I want to hear it.”
Mike just shook his head. He felt like he might cry, which would completely unravel the way he had this planned. He’d done his task, now he needed to get the hell out of there. He slid her key onto the counter.
She stayed in the kitchen. As Mike reached for the doorknob, he heard her voice one last time.
Halley sat on the couch, staring into the middle distance with an uneaten plate of food on the table. The doorbell rang and she used her portable phone to buzz the person up without asking. Three minutes later, Amanda let herself in because the door wasn’t locked.
“Honey, are you okay?” Amanda sat right down and put her arms around Halley. “What happened?”
“Mike doesn’t love me and he never will, so we’re done.” It was only the third time she’d said the words and they tasted worse every time.
“Shhhh,” Amanda said. “I’m sure he’s just freaking out because of the playoffs coming and they’re all under so much pressure. He will be back. Anyone can tell that he’s crazy about you.”
“That’s what I thought - apparently we’re all wrong,” Halley felt herself getting angry again. She’d been like this all day. After Mike left she’d cried herself to sleep in a mess of confusion and shock. This morning, she’d woken up feeling betrayed. The two extremes continued to fight for control.
Amanda looked down with a vaguely panicked expression. Brooks and Mike were best friends and the four of them hung out all the time. Only Brooks and Amanda had a label, Halley and Mike didn’t. Amanda knew she’d pushed the issue... and now she wished she’d never said anything. If Mike could just leave then she really had this whole thing wrong.
“I can’t believe it. I’ve gotta call Brooks.” She went into Halley’s bedroom and shut the door.
Brooks answered on the second ring. “I don’t know why he did it,” he said without a hello. “He didn’t say a word through the whole practice.”
“What the fuck? Call him right now and find out what is going on.”
“I can do you one better. I’m on my way to his house.”
Brooks parked outside Mike’s garage and rang the doorbell. He was uninvited and unannounced, but he knew Mike was home. “Come on, Greener. I’m not leaving,” he shouted. Feet thumped on the stairs and Mike pulled the door open. Without stopping he went right back inside, leaving Brooks to follow. A bottle of whiskey was open on the counter with a half-full highball glass next to it. Mike had a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a wrinkled t-shirt and jeans. He sat down and polished off his drink in the same movement. “Want one?”
Brooks took a glass and a seat. “What did you do?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Mike said. Not to you, which is the same as talking to Radio Amanda.
“Too fucking bad, bro. Because Amanda is there right now and I’m never gonna hear the end of it. So give me something.”
Mike looked up and Brooks saw the dark circles under his eyes. “I can’t stay with her.” He didn’t continue.
“Why the hell not? You’re fucking crazy about her. Everyone can tell.”
“I can’t concentrate with Halley around. She takes up everything – I can’t get my head in the game when I’m always thinking about her. When I’m always with her.” He poured another measure of amber liquor.
“Bullshit. If I’m not mistaken, you’re one point ahead of your production from last season. Which was twenty points above the season before. Mike, Halley is not fucking with your game. You’re playing great. We’re playing great.”
“But what if we don’t?” Mike stood up sharply. “It’s the fucking post-season, Brooks. We won the President’s Trophy and now what? We can’t go out in the second round like last year. That was just winning the division and it was months before the bitching stopped. People expect us to win this year. We have to win.”
Brooks took a sip of his own drink, feeling now like he needed it. “Buddy. You are freaking out. None of this has anything to do with Halley.”
Mike sank back into his seat. “It does. I can’t worry about her. I can’t worry about what we’re going to do in the off-season, if we’ll be together or I’ll be home and she can’t just pack up for the summer and… there’s no way around this. At the end of the season, I go and she stays. It could be two weeks or two months - regardless. So if it’s just going to happen then, why fucking wait? Why not do it now and get my head clear so we don’t go out like clowns this year?”
Brooks looked around Mike’s new kitchen, all granite counter tops and brass fittings. This was Mike - expensive, flashy, smooth. Across the table was someone he didn’t know. From the guy who had it all to the guy who felt like he couldn’t handle anything in under 60 seconds.
“Did you ask her? Did you ever talk to her about the summer? Maybe she wants to go with you, maybe she’ll just wait here. It’s not like you can’t afford to visit.”
“I’m not stupid, Brooks. We’re not even officially a couple – she doesn’t want to go with me. If she did, she’d push. Amanda pushed you, remember? All or nothing? Halley has never once said that. I can’t ask her to give up everything for me if I’m not the only thing she wants.”
“And what do you want?” Brooks asked.
“I want to win.” And he did. More than almost anything.
“You are a douche,” Erskine said the moment Mike sat down on the stationary bike next to him.
“Shut up, John,” Mike grumbled. “I’m not explaining myself to you.”
“Don’t think it’s me you have to worry about.” They both looked up as Alex Ovechkin stalked into the gym. Only an inch taller, Alex had 30-plus pounds on Mike and moved like it was 60. He was solid and quick , almost predatory and he just walked on by.
“Fuck,” Mike said under his breath as he cranked up his iPod and rode.
Half an hour later Mike was in the gym doing squats. He’d succeeded in piling on enough weight to stop thinking about Halley, to stop wondering if he’d done the right thing and if it would work. For the first time in two days, he was lifting something other than doubt. When he saw Alex, he racked the weight and stretched. Alex started bench pressing without a word and Mike knew he was in trouble. He got up to leave.
“Where are you going, Mike?” Alex asked, not even breathing hard despite lifting well over half his body weight.
“I’m not talking about this!” Mike snapped. He’d been talking to himself non-stop and was sick of it already.
Alex dropped the weight onto its hooks and sat up. “Nothing to talk about. You dump Halley. What I can say?”
Mike was confused – Alex loved Halley. They had clicked early on and were hilarious together. They spent 99% of their free time making fun of Mike, sometimes so badly Halley felt compelled to make up for it after Alex left. It wasn’t like they spent every day together, but Halley definitely hung out with the guys and with Alex most of all.
“You’re not mad?”
“Didn’t say that,” Alex shook his head. When he wanted to be a dick, he pretended to speak less English than he really did. “But is your decision.”
Mike’s shoulders dropped. He had expected a beat down from Ovechkin, had been waiting for it as if it were something he deserved, something to survive before he could move on and put this, put Halley, behind him. Now it wasn’t coming and it left him feeling untested with his arguments and defenses molding away in his mind.
“Yes, it’s my decision. It’s for my game,” Mike said as if Alex had disagreed with him.
Alex shrugged and lay back down on the bench. As he reached for the barbell, Mike turned to leave. “Mike,” he said without looking over, “you better play really good.” His voice was even and controlled, but the hair on the back of Mike’s neck stood up.
Halley put her head down in her lap. She was in a luxury box with some of her coworkers, sitting in the last seat of the front row and not talking to anyone. Jeremy, her desk-neighbor, sat quietly next to her so no one else could. The Caps had just lost Game 1 of the first round of playoffs to Montreal 3-2 in overtime.
It had been four days since Mike announced they were through. She’d kept it mostly together at work, except for the brief moment the morning after when someone asked her how Mike was doing. She cursed, shut it off and then dashed into the bathroom. When she came back, Jeremy was sitting in her chair.
“Drinks at lunch?” he asked. She told him the whole story over two glasses of wine and gone back to the office feeling a little better. That had lasted a few hours.
Amanda had come over that night. She’d been furious at Mike, but the explanation Mike gave Brooks never made it back to Halley. Amanda wasn't going to help Mike for a second - if he wanted to explain, he’d have to man up and do it himself. So Halley got through the next two days hiding in her cubicle. She ran into the building at 9 and out right at 6 pm. She didn’t even want to come to the game. But in the end, she had to know that he was there, even if seeing him skate and play like it was any old day made her blood boil.
She tried so hard, but she couldn’t root for the Caps to lose. Almost every name and number on the ice was her friend and this meant everything to them. Instead she secretly hoped someone would knock Mike on his ass or drop their gloves – not really hurt him, just give him the beating she felt like dishing out herself. Instead Mike blocked a bunch of shots, causing Halley to nearly climb out of her skin every time he went to the ice in front of a puck. It was agony. In the end they lost 3-2 in overtime and she was wiped.
An hour later, she was home on her couch doing the same thing she’d done every night – staring into the middle distance, the survival part of her brain thinking about dinner. Her phone rang, this time a default AT&T ring.
“How are you?” The voice was gruff and heavy: Alex. He’d be distraught and furious about the loss.
“Probably feel like you do,” she said. All the guys were too competitive, but Alex was the worst.
“Mmm,” he grunted. “We go out. Ten minutes.” And he hung up.
Halley flopped her head back on the couch. He hadn’t even waited for an answer – that’s the Alex she knew: hilarious and ridiculous, he was also a total show-off; a million times more arrogant than Mike and with no apologies. But somehow it worked for Alex, the swagger and bravado – he wasn’t faking it, like Mike had. He really was that confident, that flashy. It was hard to swallow but it was honest. Halley had sometimes thought she liked Mike more because he seemed so normal next to Alex. With an exaggerated sigh, she changed out of her work clothes.
Alex wore a suit straight from the rink and a baseball cap pulled low. They barely exchanged hellos. He drove to one of their favorite post-game bars, a little dive off the beaten path where no one would bother them. And none of their friends would be out after tonight’s loss. Alex parked his SUV on a side street then opened the back door. Halley came around toward the road, where Alex handed her his suit coat. He unlaced his tie, unbuttoned his shirt and stripped it off till he was standing shirtless on the side of the road. Halley blinked and looked around in surprise. Alex grabbed a long-sleeve shirt from the back seat and pulled it over his head. Baseball cap back on, he put his hand on her back and jaywalked her across.
Alex nodded to the bartender and went straight to the back corner. He was right behind them with four shots of vodka and two beers. Halley picked up one shot glass.
“Today was shit,” Alex said as a toast, tapping the table and draining the shot. Halley followed suit and chased it with her beer. “Mike play okay tonight.”
Halley nodded sadly. He had played well, though he hated not being on the scoreboard when they lost a close game. Mike prided himself almost obsessively on helping his team at both ends of the ice. He be pacing his condo right now, kitchen to living room his favorite path, reliving the details of a play he didn’t like. She’d listened to him for hours. Now she wondered if he was already talking to someone else.
“He leave you for the game,” Alex said, breaking her train of thought.
“Mike leave you because he worried about game. He worried he don’t play well in playoffs, too much pressure and he think he play better without you.”
“Oh,” Halley said softly, voice catching in her throat. Better without me. Hot tears burned in her eyes and she sat, frozen. Don’t cry, please don’t cry.
Alex saw her face fall and backtracked. “Wait, wait, I not say exactly right. Mike think if he doesn’t think about you, his game better. If he focus only on game. Is stupid, I know.” He silently wished his English weren’t a problem, that he could always say what he wanted in a nice way. Instead of getting it just a little wrong, just enough to be misunderstood. Especially now.
Halley almost laughed. Alex’s explanation was crude, but it was pretty much what she’d figured out herself. Even if what Mike said was true, that he didn’t love her and never would, she knew that his entire life right now was the playoffs. So anything else he claimed to be thinking about was bullshit, and he was certainly not thinking about her. Guess he got what he wished for, she said to herself.
“Mike make mistake. He realize in a little time,” Alex downed his second shot of vodka.
“Good luck to him then, because I won’t be around.”
Alex sat forward. “Where you go?”
“No, I’m not leaving. I’m just not going to wait around for Mike to change his mind. He doesn’t want me, fine. Then he doesn’t get me.” Alex looked impressed. Fucking superstar athletes, Halley thought. Fucking center of the fucking universe.
“Did you think I would wait for him?” she asked.
“Maybe. You like him, yes? He nice to you, take care of you. He have lot of money, nice house, maybe you wait to see if he change his mind.”
There was one shot of vodka left, three-quarters of the way across the table toward Alex’s side. Halley snatched it up and threw it down her throat. “Fuck that! I’m not gonna wait around so Mike can take care of me. He can shove the money up his ass. Is that why you think I went out with him?”
Alex signaled for another round. “No, Halley. You don’t go out with him for that. I know this. But sometimes, is nice extra. Sometimes, is worth a little extra.”
“What kind of extra? You mean the wives who pretend they don’t know their husbands cheat? They stick around because it’s a cushy life and they don’t have to work, instead they put up with some puckbunnies?” Halley had this conversation a million times in her head. I’m not that person.
Alex shrugged. “Mike not sleeping with other girls. Not on road, I would know.”
The tears were back, brimming. She knew he wasn’t, but she needed something concrete to be mad about. Something she could throw, rather than something she couldn’t even explain. “Please don’t defend him, Alex.”
Alex took a fresh shot, savoring it for a moment before speaking. “I don’t defend Mike. He is wrong, he make a mistake. He is asshole for dumping you. But he scared.”
“Losing,” Alex said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, worth throwing away relationships and possibilities. Halley knew that to these guys, it was. But not to her. She glanced around the bar at other people, whose lives didn’t hinge on a game, who could tell you today what kind of person they’d be tonight. Most hockey players couldn’t do that.
“It doesn’t matter now. He can do whatever he wants. And so can I.”
“So what you want now?”
Halley didn’t know. She kept hoping to wake up and find the last few days had never happened. “I want to talk about something else.”
So they did. She had one more shot, one more beer and they talked about anything but Mike and the game. Alex always wanted to talk about other things with Halley. At first, she’d thought he didn’t appreciate her knowledge of hockey, didn’t think she could talk about it. Finally she realized it was all he ever talked about with most of the people in his life. They were his teammates, his coworkers or they were people who wanted something from him – women, fans, agents, sponsors. So when he wanted to talk about music and movies and Russia, he talked to Halley. Halley was non-threatening when she was with Mike, she was somebody else’s girl. Rarely did a woman around Alex let that stop them from making a move. She wondered how many unspoken things like that she’d lose now that she’d lost Mike.
Alex drove her home, parked in the same loading zone spot Mike always used. He came around to her side of the car, surprising her a little, and wrapped her up in the definition of a bear hug. She smiled sadly – it couldn’t be easy for him to feel caught between her and Mike. She promised herself she’d never make him choose.
“You never tell me what you want, now that you can do whatever you want,” he said with his arms still around her waist.
“I don’t know what I want,” she admitted. She was about to elaborate, saying she hadn’t even begun to think about it, but she never got the chance. Alex leaned down and softly kissed her on the lips. She froze completely, not even breathing, for the few seconds his mouth was pressed gently to hers. When he opened his eyes, he looked at her questioningly.
“Option.” He kissed her again, quickly on the forehead, and got in his car. Her brain was so blank she stupidly wondered if that was his English word of the day.
Posted by juliet falls... at 10:33 AM