Remnants of a Quiet Summer
Disclaimer: Dude, as if I owned anything.
Summary: It's summer and Chistov looks back on a previous summer, a previous relationship, and wonders about his current one.
AN: First person present tense, switching in and out of flashbacks. I stole the style though from The Men From the Boys (Which I loved, and rec unless you don't enjoy reading sex). And I stole the "plot" from fake ljs. Thank you, Fake!Petr, Fake!Kiril, Fake!Paul handlers. Stole pancakes from Maria. Stole a whole lotta things.
Things to know: It's Kiril Koltsov/Stanislov Chistov; Chistov/Kariya. It's Chistov pov. I used the nickname Stas. Koltsov was Chistov's teammate, and the two ran away together and joined a California hockey club. They lived with the owner for two years and then went back to Russia when they were called deserters. And then, of course, the typical Russian soap opera ensues--you know..kidnapping, etc. LOL OH yeah, I also realized rather quickly that I know nothing about Russia. It's cold, and they have cool accents over there.
Thank you, Chrissy, for crackers.
- Summertime, summertime
brought me back to thinking you were mine all those times.
We laid it down and left it all behind, we were blind. - Mae, "Summertime"
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
“They want us to try out,” he says to me.
We are outside, in the hallway of our hotel by the soda and vending machines. We had told Alex and the others we were thirsty, and they had smiled under the false impression that this is some kind of little tryst.
It is, but not what they were thinking.
“What do you mean?” I ask, dropping the coins one by one into the slot of the machine, listening to them clink and echo at the bottom. I know what he means, and he knows that I know what he means, but we are fourteen going on thirty going on forever, and about to make the biggest decisions of our lives, so an extra dance step in this little waltz isn’t going to hurt us.
He grins, pushing the buttons for me. “The Stars, Stas. They want us to try out for them.”
I pick up the soda as it rolls out. I open it--the sound of the aluminum incredibly harsh and loud in my ears. When did the hallway become so unbearably quiet? It is as if the world has stopped, and the world is holding its breath with me, waiting. The orange soda is sickly sweet.
“We could make the team,” he continues. “We could stay in California, Stas. It would be so great.”
I glance up from my soda, and he is smiling so earnestly, his lips busting at the seams. He wants this. He wants to stay in California and play hockey. With me. “Together?” I ask.
I lick my lips. “What if one of us doesn’t make it?”
“That wouldn’t happen. We’re both amazing players.” He grins and steals my soda, swallowing the stuff down in large gulps. It seems to me as if he is swallowing America down with it.
“But what if one of us doesn’t?” I start slowly. “What if I don’t make it? Would you stay in California?”
He stares at me for a second, as if I’m stupid. I lick my lips self-consciously; I can still taste the sweet syrup on them. I am wishing for a moment that we really did come out here to kiss. I am almost tempted to reach across the space between us and close the gap, but he smiles, and my chest aches with the knowledge that now is not the time.
“Stas.” He places his hands on my shoulders, staring me straight in the eyes, and talking slowly as if I couldn‘t understand Russian. “We’re going to make it.”
He finishes my soda and throws it into the trashcan. It hits the bottom and echoes, sounding hollow to my ears. That seems to be the final note to our conversation.
“C’mon, Stasya.” He reaches out and grabs my wrist, motioning for me that it’s time to head back to our rooms. My hand slips through his grasp, but he doesn’t seem to notice, or to mind, because he keeps walking back to our rooms.
I can still feel his touch on my hand, and it takes me a moment, but then I am moving, and run up behind him, resting my hand on his shoulder before he opens the door. He is warm underneath his shirt. “You owe me for the soda.” My tongue is heavy and sticky in my mouth, and I stumble over the words. Am I excited at the thought of staying in California? Or staying with Kiril?
He raises his eyebrow, either at my remark or the urgency in my voice. I am flush with anticipation, and perhaps fantasies of Kiril, orange sodas, and private corners. “You drank most of it; I was just helping you finish it.”
He slips inside before I can protest. I feel slightly cheated. Out of sixty five cents among other things.
I realize later, as I nurse a soda I conned out of one of the younger boys on the team, that Kiril never answered my question.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I pad over to the refrigerator. Cracking it open I peer inside at the condiments and six packs of orange soda.
“Do you really like orange soda?” Paul asked me once when he was still in the process of trying to feel me out. Still in the process of getting to know me, and deciding if I was worth the effort.
I didn’t fault him then and I don’t fault him now. You like to learn quickly where you stand with people in the locker room. There’s no point in hem hawing around and being buddy buddy with everyone in the room. The season is long and tiring, and often you need close friends to help you through it. Friends who understand you, and who you can turn to.
“Not really,” I replied.
“You bought orange soda stock and are trying to help sales?” he cracked.
I pull out the ketchup, but think better of it, and pull out the butter instead. Toast sounds much better than a ketchup sandwich. I putter around the kitchen, pulling out a plate and knife, and whistling a tune from I don’t know where.
I closed the refrigerator door quickly, wiping the grin off Paul’s face. Remnants of it still painted the corners of his lips, but I could tell he was puzzled. But I didn’t feel like telling him why I stocked so much orange soda when I didn’t really like it. I didn’t feel like telling him about Kiril, about me, about how excited Kiril had once been about the prospect of staying in California, in America, for the rest of his life.
I open my breadbox and stare in disbelief. Untwisting the tie, I peer inside the plastic bag, in wonder, at the green thing that has shrunken and seemingly curled up into itself.
So I kissed him instead. He was shocked, perhaps, that I had been the one to make the move. I was too, but I couldn’t answer his question. Just like Kiril couldn’t answer mine.
That was the summer that began everything. Seven years ago, and a summer I can remember as if it was yesterday. And this is the summer that things finally come full circle.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
I take a shot from between the hashes and watch the twine bulge.
“Nice shot,” I hear from behind me. “But can you make that shot with defense?”
I smirk at Kiril. “Of course.” Of course. Kiril’s words echo in the back of my head. He was right; we had no problem making the Stars. They had, after all, approached us after our club had visited their facilities.
He fishes the puck out of the net and passes it back to me at the blue line. I leave the puck there and circle around, hitting the blue line with a bit of speed, picking the puck back up and cradling it around him with a nice deke before hitting the top shelf. I celebrate and throw my hands up in the air.
I lower my hands slowly. “Aw, Kiril, c’mon…” I trail off knowing that it’s no use. We’ll stay here all afternoon until he gets it right.
We run through the drill again until he’s satisfied. We hit the showers, and then dress so that we can take the bus to the local community college. The owner of the Polar Black Stars has arranged for us to go to high school in the fall, but for now we are attending classes to help our English.
He is still sitting on the bench in a towel when I’m done dressing. His eyes are closed and from experience, I know that he’s mentally mapping out the drill again, wondering if he could improve if he did something differently. He works and thinks more about hockey than anyone I have ever known; his dedication to it scares me sometimes. I want to make it; I want to make it to the NHL more than anything else in this world, and that still pales in comparison to how much he wants it. Because if I don’t make it, I could go back home to Chelyabinsk and play for Metallurg Club. Sometimes I can even see myself at home, older, playing for Russia and talking to my father about the factory.
But not Kiril. It’s the NHL or nothing. It’s America or nothing. He won’t accept failure. Sometimes I wish I could convince him that not making it wouldn’t be failure.
“Kiril,” I nudge his foot with my shoe. “We’re going to be late for class if you don’t hurry up and get dressed.”
He opens his eyes, smirking slightly. “Stasya, I only go to class because you are there,” he says slowly as if placating me. I stare at him. He seems so much older, condescending, and smarter than me, or maybe that’s only because he’s looking at me as if I’m an idiot. But it doesn’t matter--he could think I was the biggest idiot on the entire planet and I wouldn’t care, because my heart is pounding so hard at his words.
I somehow remember to breathe, and reply, “Fine, just hurry up. I don’t want to be late.” I grab my backpack and run out of the locker room and outside where the wind is blowing and I can breathe. My face is flushed and I can only hope I managed to not turn bright red in front of him. I crumple onto the bench by the sidewalk and open my backpack, fishing around for the bus pass the owner of the Stars had given me. I feel the smooth laminated rectangle and tighten my fingers around it. ‘The number fourteen bus. Six stops. Get off at Lincoln and Veteran.’ The directions are a mantra in my head and help calm my breathing.
A few minutes later Kiril joins me on the bench. He sighs and hands me a can of orange soda. “Let’s skip class.”
“And do what?”
“I don’t know. We can go to the library. We can read books on Russia in English. Anything. Anything is better than sitting in that room and repeating, ‘Hello, I am looking for the post office,’ over and over again. We could go to the park.” He smiles and takes the can of soda back, his fingers brushing over mine. He stares at me, “We could--”
My heart is beating wildly again, but he never finishes his sentence. The bus arrives noisily, drowning out our conversation and Kiril’s ideas.
We flash the driver our bus passes and take it to the community college.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I wake up the next morning, my stomach growling for something other than the stale skittles I had eaten the night before. Even a ketchup sandwich sounds good, but I remind myself that I have no bread.
I wonder briefly if I’d be in this predicament if I had just spent the night at Paul’s the night before. I’m sure he’d at least have cereal. Screw principles for cocoa puffs, right?
But then I remember that Paul doesn’t even have that. We’ve been eating out a lot; things don’t keep well when no one’s there to eat them. Our refrigerators are identical in their contents aside from the orange soda, although he’s always kept at least one six pack in there since we began dating. I think it might even be the same one--way past its expiration date. I never told him I didn’t like it. He never drank it or threw it out.
Kiril once said that when he fell in love he was going to eat at home for the rest of his life. I asked him why and he answered me with a question.
“Why would I want to go out?” He never explained further, and I never questioned further.
An image of him floats to mind: fourteen and sitting languidly on a bench in a towel. He was so small and skinny. My height, too, yet he seemed so much larger, so much older back then. He seemed to know everything. His laughter piqued my curiosity; it was as if he was hiding the world behind that laugh, and I never could find out how he knew everything, let alone what it was. All knowing. That’s what he was. He couldn’t see everything though.
I go out for breakfast. I eat pancakes and eggs at a Mom & Pop type restaurant. They have nice booths and the walls are painted a bright sunshine yellow; it just feels warm inside. Paul took me here the morning after I first kissed him. We had blueberry pancakes, and maybe, he already had my heart.
Things were so incredibly easy back then. He even ordered for me.
I choke the pancakes down. They are mealy almost as they stick to the back of my throat; my mouth too dry, and tongue suddenly too fat and thick to help. I cough and swallow more of my orange juice. It’s acidic and my eyes burn; they’re painfully dry and I wish I could squeeze them shut.
Especially when I look across the restaurant to see Paul eating blueberry pancakes with someone else.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
“I love California.”
I smile at him. We are by the side of the pool, lounging on one of the few days Kiril deems as okay to not exercise or practice.
“I love California weather,” he continues, “and California pools and California girls.”
I turn my head away and bury it in my forearm, pretending that this is a far more relaxing position.
“Stas? Stas?” he coaxes, and I lift my head. “What do you love?”
“Orange soda,” I say flatly.
He rolls his eyes, and I return to my former position.
“What?” I mumble into my arm.
“Help me put sunscreen on my back.”
I swallow and don’t respond.
“Stas! I’m white and pasty and Russian; I need sunscreen.”
I laugh despite myself at his whining. I sit up and scoot closer to his towel. He hands me the bottle and grins widely before lying on his stomach. I squeeze some on my hand and rub some on his back as quickly as possible. His skin is hot underneath my hands, but then it is over, and I’m rubbing any excess lotion onto my own arms. I exhale a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding and flop back onto my own towel.
I rest my forehead on my forearms, closing my eyes. I hear him breathing, and moving, and I can almost hear the grin on his face. When I hear the top of the sunscreen bottle snap open, I take a deeper breath and try to ignore it. Ignore him.
That becomes pretty impossible when he puts his hands on my back. I stiffen for a moment, but he makes soothing noises, or maybe he says something about me burning, or maybe I’ve stopped caring, and I relax against his touch.
He keeps his hands on my back long after I know the lotion has been rubbed in. His hands burn, and the sun feels so incredible on my back, and suddenly I am loving California weather too. His hands are so soft, and when he leans down to say something to me, his hot breath hits the back of my neck, sending shivers down my spine and warmth right to my toes.
“I love orange soda too.”
I think I’m delirious from heat stroke; my body is so hot and my brain seems to be cooking in the juices inside my skull. His hands dip to my sides, and maybe to the elastic band on my shorts, and are those his lips, soft and dry, that just kissed the back of my neck?
Then his hands are gone, and he is reciting a new list of all the things he loves in California. I am not on it, so my brain tunes him out. I am so hard that I ache, and when I go tumbling into the cool water for a respite from the heat that is cooking me from the inside out, Kiril is not at all surprised.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I don't think I've even moved, let alone breathed. He hasn't seen me, and from the looks of it, he's too entranced with the someone across from him to look up and see me, wide eyed and choking on lead pancakes.
The waitress stops and refills my orange juice, and maybe I whimper because she looks at me funny before leaving to wait on other tables. Tables without funny looking Russians choking on their hearts and memories of blueberry pancakes. I wonder what I look like, sitting here, watching Paul eating breakfast with someone else. I wonder if I look like Kiril. His eyes were so wide, and so painful to look at. He looked so sad and I wanted more than anything to say something, or do something to make him feel better, but I knew that I couldn't. Or that I wasn't allowed to anymore.
I choke that memory down along with the phantom blueberry pancakes lodged in my throat with a gulp of orange juice.
I should just leave. I should pay the waitress, leave her a nice tip, and leave.
But I don't want to. And Paul still hasn't seen me, but that is soon about to change.
My legs move at their own accord, and moments later, I'm sitting across from Paul, and next to someone with blonde hair, and green eyes, and with a face I could recognize anywhere--he is me, four months ago. He looks so confused, and Paul, he is angry or annoyed, but I imagine he wants to keep his pet happy and I can envision him reaching across the table to pat this someone-who-is-not-me on the head to appease him and keep him happy.
I know because four months ago it would have made me sublimely happy.
“Who are you?” the boy asks, and is he a boy? I study him: is he older than me? Younger than me? Is that it? Am I too young, too old, too anything? His words make my chest ache and I’m tempted to lash out at him, but it’s not his fault Paul is so charming. It’s not his fault he’s already being swept away.
And I want to remain in control. For once, I want to have control over the situation. If I have it, it means Paul can’t.
Kiril always had it.
“I’m Stan,” I reply, calmly. “I’m his boyfriend.”
His jaw drops, and I glance over at Paul. Is he angry? Is he amused? I can never read his face.
“Wha-wha-what?” he stutters. He’s shell shocked and then what looks like hurt washes over his face. “You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend,” he hisses to Paul, ever aware that we’re in a public restaurant.
I have to hand it to Paul; he sure does know how to pick the ones that won’t make a scene.
“You never asked.”
I imagine the boy’s heart drops, because mine does as well. He said it so calmly, with such composure, that it almost sounds like a real excuse. I bet the boy is even running over everything they said or didn’t say the night before, wondering where he had tripped up, where he had forgotten to ask. As if it was his fault. But I can’t sit here condescendingly and pass judgment, because I too am wondering if I’m at fault. Perhaps I should have been there and told him, but that is so insanely ridiculous, and so is this situation. But somehow Paul manages to make sense of it all, while the two of us stumble along. It’s so easy; he’s so easy, and I wonder for a moment what it’s like to live inside his head.
“Do you have any plans for the day?” I ask, and it is Kiril’s voice coming out of my mouth.
The corner of his lips curl up. “No.” I can see him internally shaking his head, trying to figure me out, trying to figure out where this new Stas has come from. The new Stas who doesn’t go crying to his teammates. The new Stas, who’s not so new, but who he never met, but might have had he been in San Francisco seven years ago.
“Want to rent some movies?” He smiles back at me, and I feel my control slipping, slipping away, and I’m reminded how easily it is to slip back into things with Paul Kariya. When his eyes soften, so do mine, and my resolve with it. What had I come over here to do anyway?
“You--you two are--are--” The boy next to me interrupts our silent conversation.
“You can come too, if you want,” I say blandly, surprising myself. I sound so much like Kiril, and it makes my chest aches, but I’m in control again.
Paul grins wider. He likes the new Stas. He likes Kiril. But who didn’t? “Yeah, Stephen. You can come too.”
“No, thanks. I think I want to go home now.” He sounds like he’s five. He sounds like me two months ago when I arrived at Paul’s house too early.
“I’ll call you a cab,” Paul says smoothly.
And fifteen minutes later, the blonde Stas is gone, and I am following Paul back to his house in my car. The California sun is blazing over head, and I wonder what movies we’re going to watch.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
We leave the practice rink and get on a random bus. Well, Kiril says it’s random, but when he pulls the cord to stop the bus, and walks with confidence down the street, I know he’s planned this all out.
“Where are we?” I’m walking behind him, having been cut off by the steady flow of people on the sidewalk. I keep waiting for an opening so I can dart out and walk beside him.
“What? We can’t be in--”
“China-town,” he says, and even though I’m staring at the back of his head, I know he’s rolling his eyes.
“What are we doing here?” I see an opening and move quickly.
“I don’t know. Walking. Looking. Watching.” He glances at the stores and stands as we pass them.
Them? I furrow my brow, but he doesn’t notice. It’s then that I notice that he’s not actually looking into any of the shops. He’s staring at the tourists. We’ve stopped in front of one of the busiest stores and they’re milling around us. Kiril is looking at all them as if he’s trying to figure something out.
“Do you think they realize--” It’s as if he suddenly remembers that it’s me he’s talking to, because he stops abruptly.
“Let’s go into that store over there.” He crosses the street, and I squeeze by two or three people to break free from the crowd and follow him.
It’s quiet inside the store, and cooler too. The crowd from outside is muffled behind the panes of glass. I look around; we’re in a bookstore. Kiril heads towards the back, but I stay in the front. I leaf through a few books, but pay more attention to the tourists outside. They walk in big groups. Some have cameras, some don’t, and they’re all laughing and talking. No, a few trudge along slowly, scowling. I laugh; they are mainly little kids pouting. I study them some more, wondering what Kiril was going to say.
“Hey, Stas.” I put the book in my hand back on the shelf, and turn around. “Buy this for me.” He shoves a glossy magazine into my chest, pats me on the back, and walks outside. I glance into my hands, and a naked woman and her two very large naked breasts stare back at me. I snap my head back up, eyes widening, and see Kiril outside, smiling.
“Excuse me.” An older woman, presumably the owner, has her hands out.
I place the magazine in her hands, my face burning, and jabber out something intelligible in Russian. She cocks her head to the side and smiles, and I take that as my cue to get out of there as fast as I can.
Once outside, I expect to find Kiril laughing hysterically, but instead he’s scowling. “You didn’t get it?”
“No,” I reply, annoyed. “I’m not going to buy that for you. You can spend your own money.” Any embarrassment felt is now gone. We’re both scowling as we walk along the sidewalk. Kiril kicks at imaginary rocks on the cement. I get knocked into Kiril’s shoulder at one point because of the crowd, but other than that, we don’t acknowledge each other’s presence, until we reach the bus stop. We sit on the bench and softly, “Why did you want that anyway?”
“Why do you think I wanted it?” he snaps.
I flush as images race to my mind. Kiril, and the magazine in hand, sitting in his bedroom. Uncomfortably, I shift, remembering the night before as I laid in bed, half naked, thinking about Kiril.
A pounding at the door interrupted me, forcing me to pull up my sweatpants, and unlock the door. Kiril stood on the other side, and handed me the phone. “You can call your mom now; I just called mine.”
I thanked him, taking the phone from him with the hand that didn’t smell like sex. He stared at me for a moment, opening his mouth, before changing his mind, and closing it again. I tried to close the door, but his foot stopped me.
“My mom wasn’t as mad at me as she was before. Maybe your mom won’t be either.”
The bus comes to a halt in front of us; the brakes make a high pitch squeal.
“I wanted to see if you would do it for me,” he says. “I’m sorry.” I follow him, dumbfounded, and flash the driver my bus pass. Kiril never apologizes. We sit across from a man with no teeth. “You turn red a lot.” He laughs and hits my arm. “She was just naked,” he says as if naked women walk around all the time.
“Besides, she was just posing. It was fake, Stas. If it’s fake, it doesn’t mean anything.” He pauses and opens his duffel bag. “Open up your backpack, Stas.” I do, and he hands me a glossy magazine.
“Jesus, Kiril!” I shove the magazine into my backpack as quickly as possible and zip it up. He laughs at my reaction, and I glare at him. “That--it--how did you buy that?” I manage to spit out.
“You stole it?” I ask, trying to sound enraged, but sounding somewhere between astonishment and sick fascination.
“For you,” he says quickly. As if that makes it all right. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”
And that sentence and its implications set my heart racing, and I don’t know if I can breathe. Elation, or fear, or who knows what settles in my stomach, and we ride home in silence. My palms sweat and as I pull my backpack on as we near our stop, it feels like it’s filled with lead.
When we get off, I race ahead of Kiril, sprinting back to the house. I feel like an idiot doing it, but it’s better than having to look him in the eye, or worse talk to him. Once home I race up to my room, and shove the magazine to the bottom of the hamper. I feel slightly more than overdramatic, but out of sight I can pretend that the magazine doesn’t exist, and can breathe a little easier.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I take my time getting to Paul’s house and by the time I arrive, he’s already inside. I let myself in and find him in the kitchen. He holds up a package of popcorn; he shakes it, welcoming me in.
“Look what I found. We have food.”
I smile. “I’m not hungry.”
“Not yet. But later. When we watch the movie.” He says that as if he knows that I’ll be staying that long.
I will, but he doesn’t have to sound so sure about it.
I shrug and take a seat at one of his barstools. “Did you want something to drink?” I shrug again and he sighs before opening his refrigerator. He stands there for a minute with his head inside it, and I gather he’s trying to organize his thoughts, or perhaps, practice a speech.
He slides me an orange soda across the island’s countertop and I open it. It’s flat--past its expiration date, just like I thought.
“Stan, about this morning--”
“What about this morning?” I cut him off, monotone and deliberate with my speech. If this is the end, I want to draw it out as long as possible. The slower it goes, perhaps the more composure I’ll be able to maintain.
“I, I mean, that doesn’t happen usually.”
What doesn’t, I silently ask myself. He doesn’t normally take them out to breakfast? They don’t generally spend the night? Or is he jockeying for “this was a one time thing” positioning?
I stare at him and drink more of my soda. God, I hate this stuff.
“I can’t believe you’re cool with this.”
Oh, so that’s it. He thinks I’m fine with this, with our situation. He thinks I don’t care. He looks so impressed with me, in awe almost. He’s looking at me like I once looked at Kiril.
He smiles. “This is so great. You can’t believe how relieved I am.”
I nod and feel like puking. I’m screaming inside and he can‘t hear me.
I blink, remembering Kiril, and his cries of, “And it’s like I’m screaming inside, and I, I--it’s like I’m dying inside, Stas.”
And then Paul is kissing me, and kissing any memories of mine away. His mouth covers mine and I wonder if he even noticed that I never said anything.
He leads me up to his bedroom, but I pull away at the door. “What about the movie?” I mumble.
His grin widens. “I’ve got one in here.”
Dumbly, I let him lead me to the bed, and I kick off my shoes as he shoves a video tape into the VCR. He joins me on the bed, scooting me backwards until my back hits the headboard. He kisses me lightly on the cheek and hits the play button on the remote control.
The movie wasn’t rewound completely, but not that it matters; it has no plot. Paul’s hand slips under my shirt as he ignores the two men on screen. Their moans are fake, I note, and then roll my eyes.
I recognize the tattoo on one of the guys and I nearly laugh. I’ve seen this one before. Amazing that I can even remember. I’m pretty sure the two decided to have sex because it was really hot outside and there was no lemonade in the refrigerator.
Paul’s hand slips past my waistband, and my hand joins his moments later. I close my eyes and this seems all too familiar. I’m back in San Francisco, locked inside my room, and beating off to the gay porn Kiril stole for me. Only the other hand on me isn’t imagined this time.
Paul removes his hand, and helps me pull my shirt off. He kisses me again, pulling me closer. I keep my eyes open momentarily, staring at the television screen. I can hear Kiril’s voice in the back of my head.
“If it’s fake, it doesn’t mean anything.”
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
I never thought Rice Krispies could be so loud. But they are, especially this morning as Kiril and I eat them and stare at each other from across the table.
“Why did you run away the other day?”
“No, really, tell me.”
“I didn’t know you were like that,” I say softly before shoveling more cereal in my mouth so I don’t have to say anything more. The ones near the bottom are soggy and like mush in my mouth.
I drop my spoon, and stare at him. His eyes are wide and innocent, a look I know he perfected after lying to our coaches numerous times. “Like that.”
I glare at him. Why does he have to make this so hard? “No.” The words sound harsh to my ears, but all they do is make Kiril stand up and put his bowl in the dishwasher.
“Like you?” he asks slowly, and I can hear the amusement in his voice. I can feel my cheeks redden, so I look away. He walks across the room and stands next to my chair. “But I’m not like you, Stas.”
“Why did you steal that magazine then?” My lower lip quivers and I’m not even looking at him. At this point, I refuse to, afraid of what may happen if I do.
“For you,” he breathes into my ear.
“But on the bus you said that you wanted it…”
“No, I didn’t.” I turn around, horrified and face him. How can he lie to me? I’m his best friend.
“Yes, you did!” I squeak out.
He rolls his eyes. “Oh, Stas, don’t be so melodramatic. It’s okay; you’re my best friend. You don’t disgust me like all those old perverted men we always hear about in Russia. I still like you, even if you’re different.”
But he says that one word with such disgust and vehemence, that it’s hard to believe anything he says.
“Fuck you!” I stand up and send my chair toppling. “I don’t need this. You are such a liar. I know I didn’t imagine that on the bus. And my mom doesn’t even want me out here. The only reason I’m even staying is--” I stop short; I won’t give him the satisfaction. “I’m going back to Chelyabinsk. I’ll work hard there, and get drafted, and won’t have to put up with any of your bullshit.”
I turn on my heel, but he grabs my arm, desperate. “No, wait, Stas, wait! I-I didn’t mean that. I mean, you’re different but we’re the same… I’m the same, no, I’m different, but I’m not… you can’t go, Stas! I need you.” The grip on my arm is tight, and his eyes are wide. We’ve caused a commotion downstairs and our noise has attracted the owner of the Stars. I can hear him calling out questioningly and walking down the stairs. Kiril does too, and he pulls me down so that we are crouching behind the table. “Please, Stas,” he whispers urgently in my ear. His breath is hot and this close to him, I feel lightheaded, or maybe it’s just the urgency of the situation and how we’re hiding. “Promise me you’ll stay. I need you.”
I nod, and he releases me, sighing.
We stand up, and stammer something out about knocking a chair over. We apologize and I shove my dishes in the dishwasher before we head upstairs to grab the things we’ll need at the rink.
I pull my backpack on, and when I turn around, Kiril is standing in the doorway. I don’t say anything; I don’t know what to say. He bridges the gap though and hugs me, pulling me close against his body. His lips brush against my neck as he whispers, “Please don’t ever leave me.”
I feel weighed down despite the magazine being absent from my backpack.
He pulls back and smiles. “Who would I practice hockey with? How would I improve my defensive skills?”
My chest isn’t as constricted, and I feel better as he reverts back to his former self--all jokes and condescension.
He grabs his duffel bag off the ground. “Although, I suppose, Stas, that you need me as much as I need you.”
I nearly laugh as I follow him downstairs. It’s amazing how easily he can make me forget everything. It’s amazing how easily he can make my stomach twist and my palms sweat. I smile at him at the bottom of the stairs, content. He knows how I feel and--
“I need your sixty five cents and you need me to help you finish your orange soda.” My mouth drops and he mock punches me in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, kid. When you’re older you’ll be able to finish a whole can.”
He is so incredibly infuriating. I hate him and I love him.
God, he makes things so hard.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
Paul sleeps and I roll out of bed to take a shower. The shower can’t get hot enough as I let the water hit me, sliding down my shoulders and chest, and washing away our actions. I exit the shower when my fingers are pruny and the bathroom is filled with steam.
I dry myself up and get dressed. I sit at the end of the bed, pulling on socks, and staring at Paul. He looks like a kid, blissfully ignorant and innocent. It’s amazing how vulnerable people look when they’re sleeping. They don’t have a chance to put up any of the facades that they do when they’re awake. I have the urge to kiss him, to crawl into bed and curl up next to him. I could sleep forever, lying next to him.
I pad downstairs instead though and into the kitchen. Paul left the popcorn carelessly on the edge of the island, and it has since fallen. I retrieve it and think momentarily about eating it, but think better of it and go exploring through his cabinets instead. He has large cabinets that vault way up in his large kitchen, but he has no stepstool, and he is as tall as me, so I don’t see how he gets to the top shelves if he even uses them. The counters seem a bit too precarious, and I can imagine the uproar if I were to fall and break a leg.
Lightning strikes as I stare up at the shelves, and I remember the hockey sticks in Paul’s garage. I retrieve one and then start poking around the shelves. I hit something and jerk the stick forward, thinking a second too late that perhaps that wasn’t my brightest idea.
I’m peppered with an onslaught of boxes, one of which hits my head. I blink, dumbly, and then crouch down to pick one up. It’s blue with slick cardboard, and I run my fingers over the lettering.
Condoms. Boxes and boxes of condoms, littering the floor and surrounding me. Already on my haunches, I teeter and fall. I lean backwards and slump against the island. I stare across the way and find my reflection in the black dishwasher. My hair is slick from the shower and the more I stare, the more I’m aware of how I look like I’m fourteen.
It’s how I felt that night anyways. So unsure and shaking in excitement, and being unable to breathe as Paul fumbled with the box.
No, I’m mixing memories. Paul’s hands moved surreptitiously, unwrapping the box, unwrapping the condom, unwrapping me. I breathed in relief, sighing against his body as his hands worked their way effortlessly across my body. Everything was so easy; he took care of me, and I could relax against the pillows, reveling in the moment and the feeling of him, and never having to think.
Perhaps that’s why seven weeks later, I was in Petr’s room and he was ordering room service, and rubbing my back.
“Where is he?”
Petr sighed and sat on the bed. His bed, rather, and I sat next to him, not wanting to mar the untouched one. “Are you hungry? I was going to order something anyway.”
No, he wasn’t, but I let him order two grilled cheese sandwiches. I stared at him, waiting for him to finish making the order, waiting for him and his speech, waiting for God to deliver me from the ache in my stomach. But he said nothing, and I wondered if it was something in the California air that made everyone on this team fall silent.
“Do you want to watch a movie?”
I didn’t, but we watched one anyway, and ate cheese sandwiches. I smiled and thanked him, and didn’t have the heart to tell him it didn’t make a difference what he did; he looked so pleased with himself.
I woke up the next morning in Petr’s bed, and when I saw a body in Paul’s bed I started, only to stop when I realized the dark hair belonged to Petr, not Paul.
I swallow, staring at my own hair.
“What are you doing?”
I look up and find Paul hovering over me. “I was just…” I glance down and look at my lap. I nearly laugh, but afraid that I’d only choke out something bitter, I hold back. I hold up a box instead. “I found these. We don’t have to go out.”
He smiles. “Awesome. Come back to bed. Don’t bring those though.”
As I follow him upstairs, I glance through the windows. Outside the sky is so blue, and I imagine myself walking outside in the grass. I’d walk forever, or until I reached the sandy beaches--whichever came first. Or maybe I’d just order a pizza. With pepperoni. That sounds far more appealing, and I’d open the refrigerator and pull out the remaining orange sodas and dump them down the sink. The orange liquid would swirl counter clockwise down the drain, corroding the pipes. And Paul would come downstairs and ask, “What are you doing?”
And I’d say, “Throwing out the orange soda.”
My imaginings are a little more than non sequitur, but so was the box of crackers I found in my lap. Or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe people who live in California too long always mistake boxes of crackers for boxes of condoms.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
I wake up when he opens the door. He creeps noisily across the room, stumbling over his feet. “Stas?” he calls out, and I sit up, my heart pounding. I knew he was there, but the sound of his voice alarms me. He sounds so small.
He crawls into bed next to me. “Can I sleep with you?” he whispers.
“Why?” I whisper back.
“Please, just let me.”
And because he’s Kiril, I let him. I give him an extra pillow, and I try and settle back into slumber, but can’t as he stares at me, so I turn over so I’m facing the wall.
Eventually, I must fall asleep because I’m startled when I open my eyes and can’t place the thrashing in my bed. I flip over and find Kiril, eyes wide and mouth gasping for breath.
I can barely make out his face. My eyes focus minutes later and I realize he’s biting his pillow to keep him from crying out.
“Kiril?” I say again, this time slowly pulling the pillow away from his face. He latches onto me and I swallow, unsure as what to do. His arms encircle my waist and he grips tighter as I stroke the top of his head. “Did you have a nightmare?”
“I’m too old for nightmares,” he says, indignantly.
“Okay.” I leave it at that and stare at the ceiling.
The longer we remain in this position, the less ragged his breathing becomes, and slowly he loosens his grip, until finally he is just lying on top of me with his head in the crook of my arm. We are one with the rise and fall of our chests, and I struggle, fighting against sleep. But it is too calm, too rhythmic, and even though I’d love to commit this moment, the feeling of him to memory, I can’t as I begin to drift away.
His voice breaks through as I feel sleep begin to take over. His voice isn’t loud enough to keep me awake or cognizant, but enough for me to pick up phrases as my lids become heavy.
“I don’t even want to go back… Stas… I think… and if I could… forever. But I keep… and dreaming… and they… you… and it’s like I’m screaming inside… and I… I… it’s like this… you have to… but I’m… like… dying inside… Stas? Are you… hear me?”
When I wake up the next morning he’s gone and my shoulder is sore. I dress quickly and head downstairs. Kiril is talking to the owner and his wife. I make myself some oatmeal and when I take a seat at the table, Kiril slides me sixty five cents.
“I owed you,” he shrugs.
I somehow manage to not choke on my oatmeal.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
It is July--the stickiest of months in Anaheim. August runs a close second though. I have not gone home and I continue to make excuses to my mother. I’m running out though, and I’m afraid that the next time she calls she’ll be able to con me back home. It’s not as though I don’t love Russia, but I think I would prefer to stay in Anaheim.
I’m not even sure why. My situation has grown progressively stickier, much like the weather.
It had been so easy not to say anything at first to Paul. I let him think what he did because I was too shocked to say anything at and later, maybe I thought that I could learn to live like this.
But anything easy in June has become hard in July.
I’m tired of lying and swallowing unsaid words. It’s harder to choke them down now than the questions and accusations were three months ago. Perhaps Paul is growing tired too; perhaps things are harder for him too.
I double knot my running shoes and stretch a bit before heading out for the trail behind my complex. My feet hit the ground in a steady pounding that drives my thoughts away.
I’m running along the trail through the park, but soon the trees fade away, and I am running through a familiar neighborhood in San Francisco with more than the thud of my feet and pounding of my heart to keep me company.
I followed Kiril; he took the lead, weaving us through the intricate network of houses, and when we became tired and bored, around a new network of fire hydrants, bushes, mailboxes, and little kids walking on the sidewalks.
We took a rest on a random lawn underneath a tree. The grass tickled me uncomfortably and I scratched at my skin, but was too tired to move. We laid there, talking, until our teasing prompted him to slug me, and to go running off with me chasing him. We ran until we were winded again, falling on a random lawn once more. This time a dog didn’t take too kindly to our presence, and he barked letting his opinion known. We teased him mercilessly, jumping around on the lawn, and laughing, knowing that all he could do was bark.
When the owner came out and yelled at us, we sprinted home, feeling all of fourteen with a rush of excitement and a tinge of fear.
We looked at one another and laughed until it hurt and we were gasping for air. And then his lanky arms were around me--one arm over my shoulder and around my neck. He interlocked his fingers; he had me captured in a loose headlock. I could feel his stomach jiggling and heaving against my side, and his laugh was rich and resonating in my ears. Eventually we stilled, but he remained close. We were so hot and sticky I imagined the two of us melting into one another, which only reminded me of ice cream, and in a daze I kept wishing for the ice cream truck to turn down the block. I could almost hear the jingle of the truck when I realized that we were still entwined and on the grass out front.
I wished for the sprinklers to come on. But they only came on at night, to conserve water.
“We will be friends forever, Stas.”
I nodded, staring beyond him, at the blue sky. He went inside to take a shower and I stared at the clouds.
When I arrive home Paul is inside. I forgot that I gave him a key; he never used it before. He kisses me and we take a shower together. The combination of water and Paul’s mouth drowns my voice.
Tomorrow, I promise myself. Today I allow myself the comfort of easing into something familiar and simple.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
Labor day is a month away meaning that our summer is a month away. August is an interesting month filled with orange skies, and long summer nights. Every kid on the block seems to feel the pull, knowing that their summer is coming to an end, so they stretch it to its fullest every night. After dinner they take to the streets, playing until the street lights come on and then begging to stay out longer.
Kiril watches them from the window. I flip through a magazine, munching on grapes. When Kiril sighs, I roll my eyes. “Did you want to go out or something?”
“No.” A pause. “Why? Did you?”
A few minutes later, “Because if you wanted to, we could.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Really, Stas, if you wanted to--”
“If you want to go, Kiril, I’m not stopping you.”
He shrugs, staring out the window. “They probably wouldn’t be very good at hockey anyway.”
I shake my head, turning my attention back to my magazine. Leave it to Kiril to come up with some inane excuse. We didn’t even have any roller blades, let alone a puck or nets to play street hockey with.
He sighs again. “How much longer until the season starts?”
“October. Almost two months.”
“The off season didn’t seem as long back in Russia.”
I smile. “What off season? I don’t think they have those in Russia.”
“No,” he shakes his head slowly. “They don’t have a lot of things in Russia.”
I laugh awkwardly because I made a joke, but his voice, quiet and serious, would attest to otherwise. “I guess not,” I say slowly.
“Like an NHL. They don’t have that. Or…” He mumbles off a list of things ranging from the California sun to awful candy--his voice all the while growing softer. I leave my magazine on the coffee table, joining him on the window seat. He turns his head. “Opportunity. Or you, Stas. They no longer have you.”
I shrug, not knowing what to say.
“They don’t have any of those things, Stas.” His voice drops lower. “So why do I miss it so much?”
Fourteen and homesick, I allow him to lean against my shoulder in the little alcove the bay window provides us, and we talk about our parents and our homes, and decide together that two months is a terribly long time. We decide to devote ourselves even more to our practice regiment so that we won’t notice how slowly the days go by.
He nestles his head further against my shoulder and neck. “I’m so glad I got this out of the way now, Stas,” he says softly. “That way when I’m eighteen and get drafted, I won’t miss Russia at all.”
“Of course, you won’t. Russia doesn’t import that awful candy you like to buy from the ice cream man.”
“Or your favorite orange soda.”
“They don’t have an NHL.”
“Or you.” I swallow and then he continues. “Make sure you go in the second round, Stas, that way we have a chance of being on the same team.”
I pull back and sock him. “You can go in the second round.”
He rolls his eyes. “The likelihood of that happening is next to impossible.”
“Well, the likelihood of me going in the second round is--”
“Stas,” he interrupts. The sun has gone down and only half his face is illuminated from the street lights outside. “Don’t be so cocky. That kind of thinking will get you in trouble on the ice.” He pats my knee and stands up as I stare at him, mouth gaping. He grabs my magazine and bowl of grapes from the coffee table and walks out of the room.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I tire of blueberry pancakes more quickly than expected.
This is the third time Paul and I have gone out this week for breakfast. He spent two nights at my apartment and I spent one at his, and following each morning we went out for breakfast. He orders quickly, and I lament over the menu which hasn’t changed at all. I eventually order blueberry pancakes as well because they are familiar, and though I may be tired of them, I can easily choke them down as I stare out the window at the passing cars.
I briefly wonder if I’ll become as sick of blueberry pancakes as I am of orange soda, but then I remember that I never did like orange soda. I merely tolerated it, and then it became a habit I couldn’t shake. The stomach turning sweetness becoming a staple in my diet--so much in fact that I no longer cringed at its taste, I was so used to it.
I don’t think I want to settle for blueberry pancakes. Or choke them down just because they’re there; I don’t want them to become a habit.
“Wait!” I call the waitress back. “Can I, um, have a bagel instead?” She changes my order easily, and with a smile, smudging out my old order and writing a new one in.
If only everything was that easy.
“Training camp is just around the corner--a month, a month and a half away. Can you believe it? Time flies when you’re having fun.”
I nod, letting Paul keep up a steady stream of conversation. Our food arrives and he continues to ramble, taking a breather in between topics to eat his blueberry pancakes. I’ve lost my appetite and stare enviously at his voraciousness--he tucks the blueberry pancakes away quickly and easily, and perhaps if I had ordered blueberry pancakes too I could be sitting as easily as he, happy and content with a full belly.
“Before camp begins I’m going to go back home for a week or so--maybe more.” He smiles and I raise an eyebrow, wondering what he’s up to. “I was thinking that maybe you’d like to come with me.” I stare at him, unblinking. “And meet my mom.”
“My mom wants me to come home too. I have to go home,” I blurt out. He grins widely and I want to sink into the floor; I feel like I’m ten and should be carrying a lunch box. “I mean, I should go back to Russia before camp starts.”
He reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. “Don’t worry we’ll have plenty of time. You could come up to Canada and still have time to go back to Russia. So what do you say?”
I shove my bagel in my mouth, hoping he doesn’t notice its stalling purpose.
“You want to meet my family, don’t you?”
I use one of Kiril’s tactics: answering a question with a question. “Do you want me to meet your family?”
Of course. Why does that phrase always ring so loudly in my head?
I find myself nodding my head, and as easily as I decided to run away from my hockey club, I decide to go to Canada with Paul to meet his mother.
“And maybe,” he follows up with a wide grin, “afterwards I can go with you to Russia. And meet your family.”
I am without bagel, and now more than ever, I’m desperately wishing I had ordered blueberry pancakes. Without them I am only left with the truth, and a silence that stretches across an ocean and a wooden table in a mom and pop restaurant. The table separates us and I am grateful when Paul asks for the check and not for an answer.
San Francisco, Summer, 1996
We take the bus to the card shop downtown, and split the cost to a pack of hockey cards. I pay the clerk and Kiril carries the pack in his pocket. He buys me an orange soda and we ride back home on the bus together. It is nearly time for school and this will be the last time we’ll have the freedom to go down to the card shop whenever we want during the day.
We make ourselves sandwiches and take them up to my room, where we stretch out on the floor and open up the pack and split the cards. Since I paid, I get first pick. Kiril chooses, and then I, until the pack is split up evenly.
We eat and stare at our glossy pieces of cardboard. We imagine what our own cards will look like, and boast about who got the better cards. I pull a shoebox out from underneath my bed and add the cards from the day to the pile inside. Kiril throws his in as well, haphazardly.
“Don’t,” I rebuke. “You’ll mix our two piles up.”
He throws the lid on and shakes the shoebox, smiling. “Oops.”
I glare at him and open the shoebox, dumping its contents on the carpet and sorting them. I stare at Ron Francis trying to remember if he belongs to me or Kiril.
“We’re best friends, Stas.”
I nod. Brett Hull. Kiril’s?
“More than best friends.”
“Is this one yours?” I ask, holding up Mario Lemieux.
He puts his hand over mine, lowering it. “You can keep it.” He keeps his hand on mine, and licks his lips. And he’s breathing differently, I can see it--faster or slower? I think faster, but everything moves slowly as he leans in closer to me.
“Kiril?” I squeak out, and embarrassed, I flush, lowering my eyes and chin, staring at Mario Lemieux through our fingers.
He moves forward anyways, catching the side of my mouth in an awkward kiss that leaves both of us red. I am aware now more than ever that he’s fourteen, just like me, and older only by a few months, and not a few years. And I like that we’re the same age; it takes away some of the mystery, and leaves me with the brush of his chapped lips against the corner of my lips. He exhales and then leans backwards, picking up the cards and beginning to sort them as well.
“Do-do you remember which ones are yours?” I say, finding my voice, moments later, still shaky and nervous.
“I remember everything,” he sighs, as if it is a burden and he truly does have to carry the weight of the world, and remember everything about that world.
It makes me want to laugh as he reverts back to his usual condescending self. I hold back though, and manage to say, “Oh you do, do you?” without laughing.
He smirks. “Of course.”
He does remember which cards are his though, and we sort them fairly easily, although I’m pretty sure that he took a few cards that were mine. He passes the cards through his hands, as if weighing them, or as if he really is trying to remember everything about each one--when we had bought it, where we had bought it, what we had been wearing that day--before deciding whether they are mine or his.
I place my cards on one side of the box and place his on the other. He puts the lid on and shoves the box harshly under my bed. I can hear the cards slipping and sliding, and shuffling themselves together. He smirks again, begging me to say something. But I don’t, merely picking up my plate and glass from the ground instead.
Kiril does too, beating me to the door. When I reach the frame he turns around, pecking me lightly on the lips, and then smiling widely. I smile too. “What are we doing?” I whisper.
“I don’t know. But I like it.”
We go downstairs and put our dishes away. We find a box of cookies in the back of the pantry and camp out on the couch, watching a movie.
We spend the rest of the day sporadically exchanging kisses. Most of which are initiated by Kiril, but all of which I equally return. By the time night falls we still aren’t sure what we’re doing, but we decide we both like it.
Anaheim, Summer, 2003
I arrive at the airport early; after I packed I didn’t have much else to do but wait, and figured waiting at the airport would be just as entertaining as waiting at home. Perhaps more so because I could sit and watch the people milling around.
I check my bags, and get my boarding pass, and then make my way towards my gate. There’s no rush, really, but I do it anyway. I sit in one of the black plastic chairs that faces the window, watching the planes take off, and thinking about the previous week.
I thought meeting Paul’s mother would be the most awkward experience of my life.
But it wasn’t. Not even close. More comforting than anything. I met his brother and spent a week in Western Canada, lounging around pools and eating meals in the backyard. It was by far the most enjoyable week out of the summer so far. I felt like I was a part of their family, and Paul kept reassuring me that I was. He made it seem as if this could be a regular occurrence, but according to Steve, he’d never brought anyone home before. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, and further, didn’t know if I should even make anything of it.
I had been in only one real relationship before Paul. One summer afternoon Kiril kissed me, and neither of us knew what we were doing and where it was headed, or even what to do. But it didn’t matter. So we dated, or perhaps we didn’t… but whatever we were, we were it together. Perhaps things were different because we had been friends before, or perhaps because I had been in love with him for as long as I could remember, or perhaps because we were both fourteen and nervous, and everything was a learning process, and neither one of us had an older brother around to talk to. We had each other and distant memories of stories from Russia, and a stolen magazine. Neither of which offered us any advice or help to any of the questions we really wanted answered. They counseled us on sex--not love or relationships--and even then, they came up short.
Whatever we did, we did it for only a year. I think we were happy, or at least I knew I was, and if I think about it hard enough, I know he was too. Everything was so much better when we were together, but the following summer things would fall apart between us. We continued to play for the Stars, but I was lonely and, for once, homesick. I wanted to go home and then after the season ended they called us deserters, making my decision to go home even easier to clear up any accusations.
“Now boarding, Alaska Airlines, flight number 1667: Los Angeles to San Francisco,” the intercom blares, and I stand up, taking my place in line and waiting to be loaded in like cattle onto the plane.
I allow myself the luxury of a brief nap, knowing all the while that it will screw me up and ruin me for my longer flight, but not caring and wanting my time on the plane to pass quickly and without incident. Or rather to keep me from arousing any more memories.
Once in San Francisco I manage to amuse myself for three hours, eating lunch and watching a baseball game that drags on for far too long and is still going on when I have to board my flight to Moscow. As soon as we are in the air, I recline my seat and stare up at the ceiling. Already the memories begin to flow, and I give up, letting the dam burst and allowing them to flood towards me.
We had been fighting over something trivial. I forget what, but it was enough to piss Kiril off. He didn’t talk to me for the rest of our time at the rink, and when we left the ice, he still wouldn’t talk to me. I took a shower and changed, waiting for him to say something, anything--even make a joke--but he didn’t. We rode the bus home in silence, and then spent the better part of the day at home in silence. At first I didn’t notice; I had called my mom and watched a movie, and it was only after dinner that I realized that he had been avoiding me.
I tried sneaking into his room later that night, but his door was locked. The following morning, after the Stars’ owner had left, leaving us an empty house and privacy, I confronted him.
Or he confronted me; semantics are lost on me now. Even his voice is marred; all of it is blurred in my memory. I remember only the gist of his speech, but I’d never forget the way he looked that morning.
His eyes were so wide, and so painful to look at. I forced myself to look at him as he spoke, though. He was tired, and lost. Lost, yes, I remember that word distinctly. He was lost and confused, and needed to find himself. Did he say that before or after he admitted to being jealous of me? He told me it was too hard to be my boyfriend and my teammate. That every time he looked at me, he felt the lines between those two relationships blurring. He found himself resenting me, resenting my talent, and he wouldn’t let himself fall into that trap--into hating me, because he loved me. He needed to take a step back--to figure out who he was, and I couldn’t be a part of that picture, despite how much he loved me.
And he kept looking at me and telling me how much he loved me, but in the same breath saying that he needed space and time. He was only fifteen, but he sounded so old, and I didn’t want him to sound like that anymore. I wanted him to sound fifteen, and happy and carefree, like he was two months earlier at my birthday party. And I wanted more than anything to say something, or do something to make him feel better, but I knew that I couldn't. Or that I wasn't allowed to anymore.
So I told him I understood and let him go.
He kissed me and we cried, and then I went upstairs and separated our hockey cards from my shoebox. He wouldn’t take them, though, but I couldn’t bear to have them underneath my bed, so I gave them to the kid down the block.
“Please return your seats to their upright positions and fasten your safety belts as we begin our descent, ladies and gentleman,” the p.a. system blares once again. I comply, jostling myself out of the last remnants of sleep in the process, and wait for the rocky landing.
It is another four hours before I find my luggage, and find transportation that takes me home. My mom starts crying when she sees me, and makes me eat a full meal before she lets me talk to her.
I check the messages on my cell phone afterwards, finding one from Paul. I sigh and then crawl into my old bed, falling asleep easily.
The next morning, or really, afternoon my relatives, friends, and neighbors begin to filter into the house, offering me congratulations. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when I look up and see a familiar face that makes my heart race. The years melt away and he isn’t the man I played with, or the teenager I was in the army with; he is fourteen years old again, with an impish smile hiding behind the bravado of a condescending smirk.
“Kiril,” I breathe, and I feel as if things have finally come full circle, and I’m more at peace now than I was all summer.
“Stas.” He smiles and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkle. “Congratulations on your great season.” His voice is soft, but old, which only reminds me that he isn’t fourteen anymore. He changed at fifteen, and he changed when we joined the army, and he changed yet again when I was drafted and he wasn’t. He isn’t fourteen anymore, anxious to play in the United States. He isn’t fourteen anymore, dedicated and willing to do anything to make it into the NHL. He isn’t fourteen anymore, bleeding hockey, only satisfied with perfection.
He is nineteen, going on thirty, and just recently drafted by the Vancouver Canucks. He is nineteen, just drafted, because he forgot to file the necessary papers for the career he’s been dreaming about since he was four. He is nineteen and playing in Russia for a team club because he hasn’t shown Vancouver that he is willing to put forth a decent work effort. He is nineteen and caught up in political battles that continually thwart his chances to play internationally.
And I realize, now, that he was only fifteen then; I was only fifteen. And what was amazing and wonderful then, might not be now. Especially since we are no longer fifteen. We’ve changed, and even I can no longer go back and fit the mold inside my head.
We’ve grown up.
My cell phone vibrates in my pocket, and I know it’s Paul. I think momentarily about picking it up; my fingers itch and I want to invite him out to Russia to meet my family. But then I am hugging Kiril, and he feels new, yet oddly familiar underneath my fingertips.
I don’t to make another mistake. I don’t want to regret anything. I don’t want to create memories that’ll blur and mar from emotion, and not from time. I’ve always loved Kiril, but who is this man I’m holding in my arms right now? And I thought I loved Paul, and I thought I couldn’t survive in a relationship that wasn’t completely monogamous. But maybe I was wrong, and maybe Paul can change.
I’m nineteen years old and not ready to make a decision. Not ready to let go of my past, or embrace my future. I want to be a kid again, but I also want to be an adult. I’m simply floating in the abyss that is nineteen, and I fear what twenty might bring.
The end of summer is nearing, and as I think about summer ending, and turning to fall, I’m reminded of the way that one season flows into another. There is not a jarring ending--just the soft blurring between seasons as one fades into the other. A decision now isn’t the end of the world; there are certain things in this world that you cannot undo, but right now, I don’t think this is one of those things.
And if it is…it is only one summer. Of considerable impact, maybe, but still only one. And there are many more to come.
And I learned that from Kiril. Like I did so many things.
Trepidation builds in my stomach despite these reassurances, but I smile anyway, and talk to Kiril. We spend the day catching up, and the smiles come easier as day eases into night. He was my best friend for so long, and it’s so easy to slip back into things. We hug as we part for the night, and warm and happy, I swallow back most of my emotion and give a quick wave from the door frame and watch him take off in his car.
With the feeling of him still under my fingertips I lay in bed and think about him, those summers so long ago, and Paul. He’s real--no longer a memory, no longer my best friend-maybe-something-more always in the back of my head. He is the man I’ve dedicated so much of my time to despite his absence and Paul’s presence in my life. For so long I had been caught up in Paul--in his affairs, his trysts on the side. Yet at the same time never acknowledging my own indiscretions. An emotional affair is surely just as strong as a physical one, right? Perhaps more so. You can stop yourself from dropping your pants quite easily; it’s a bit harder to erase someone from your mind.
I had felt like such a fool for the better part of the season--a child being played. His indiscretions had seemed so great at the time, yet he had never hid them, and why I had continued to put up with it always stumped me. Perhaps this was why. Because of my own inability to attach myself to our relationship.
Neither of us were willing to take that step--step to monogamy, step to a real relationship, step in either direction to anything. Comfortable in our old patterns and past--he with his numerous sexual partners, and me with my memories.
Yet when was the last time he had cheated on me? It is harder to remember the date, and all I can recall is the last month, our sticky closeness, and the visit to Vancouver. A visit he had always made on his own until this summer.
Is Paul moving forward? Taking a risk as I lay here, still caught up in the past? Nineteen and content to float in the abyss of indecision--
I stop and mull that thought over. Nineteen. Nineteen.
I laugh. Too caught up in the past to remember my own birthday. I’m twenty.
Despite the parties generally held, you do not turn one year older on your birthday. You turn one day older. The day marks only the culmination of 365 other days of slow change. So the change seems slower--less drastic--and you slip into twenty as easily as summer eases into fall.
Not all change is slow, however, and with this realization, I think I’m ready to move forward--accept the past for what it is, but dwell on it no longer. I’m twenty and despite not being old enough to drink in the United States, I’m no longer a teenager. Old enough to know I have much to learn, especially from those older than me, but young enough to recklessly throw myself into something. To blindly take a step forward and take that risk.
I reach for the cell phone in my pants. I dial Paul and invite him to Russia.