Parser finds Jack’s soulmark about five minutes into their first time fooling around, both of them breathing heavy with the weight of being the only obvious queers in Rimouski. They’re tucked together in the back seat of Jack’s Cruiser, which he’d parked in the shadows behind the Super C just in case Parse’s eyelashes were fluttering with a doubled kind of hunger.
Jack’s hunch had been right—Parser moves his soft hands like he’s got springs for wrists not only because he’s a cocky shit but also because he’s a cocksucker. Jack is, too, or thinks he could be; he’s never had the opportunity to find out before. In any case, Jack parks behind a Super C and leans in with a question of a mouth. Parser meets him there with the answer: Yeah, sure, why not?
Then, just as things start to get a little pleasantly heavy, Parse says, “Holy shit,” and removes his mouth from Jack’s neck. One of his hands has somehow wormed its way under the hem of Jack’s T-shirt, and his fingers are resting lightly on Jack’s soulmark.
“Ugh,” Jack groans, trying to steal the shirt back away from Parse and shove it over his mark. With its rough dark edges, he knows exactly what it looks like. “It’s so embarrassing.”
“No way,” Parser says, grinning widely. “This is awesome.”
“Shut up!” Jack insists. He’s got thirty pounds on Parse and he’s trying to remember that he’s not afraid to use them, that if Parse gives him a hard time about this—if Parse lured him here to, to—then no one could blame Jack for reacting as a hot-blooded star center might be expected to. Jack can’t have been the only one to see Parse’s wrists for what they are, no?
Parse shakes his head, seemingly unaware of the potential for danger Jack feels rippling beneath his clavicles. “Absolutely not.” He lifts his own shirt. Jack starts to scramble back away from him, caught between his locker room instincts and the curious whine of desire that’s still threaded through the back of his skull. “Look, bro. Zimmermann. Babe. Calm down and look.”
Jack lets out a sigh and tries to focus, instead of saying, “‘Babe’? What the fuck?” the way he wants to. Parser lifts his own T-shirt higher, gesturing to a familiar shape next to his belly button.
“J’y crois pas,” Jack says without exactly meaning to; he usually tries to avoid French when Parse is around, because it makes Parse’s face get crumpled up and distant. But there, on Parser’s abdomen, is the same mark as on Jack’s, roughly the size of Jack’s thumb and shaped—
“Just like a foreskin,” Parse snorts, tapping the soulmark with a smug expression on his face. “I guess that means we’re both dickheads.”
Jack leans forward to inspect the mark, reaching out to brush his finger next to Parse’s. It’s got the same texture as his, rough and slightly foreign, like an ambitious birthmark went out and got a callous on it. It’s disgusting, on some level, but Jack is fascinated. He’s never touched anyone else’s soulmark, of course, other than his parents’ when he was very small.
Parser snuffles out an honest-to-god giggle as Jack brushes his fingertips along the obscene mark. “Sssh,” Jack says, frowning, which only makes Parse giggle louder. “Come on, Parse, I’m trying to—pay attention, here.”
“Oh, excuse me,” Parse says with the lisp he adopts whenever he’s trying to be funny. “I see I’m just in the way.”
Jack stifles a swelling of irritation in his throat. Parse isn’t just his liney or some guy he’s going to kiss, not even the first guy he’s going to kiss, though that’s also true. Looking back in the sudden shadow of their mutual soulmark, every interaction from the awkward moment they were introduced to one another—”Euh, ça va?”, “Do I look like I know what that means?”— seems dripping with intent. Despite his mother’s family shedding their Calvinism three generations ago, Jack with abrupt certainty understands the concept of predestination. Inevitable, really, that the two best offensive players of their generation, the wunderkind from Peoria and Bad Bob’s prodigy son, the two young geniuses who are going to change the way the world thinks about the noble sport of hockey, are connected so fundamentally. A relationship between soulmates is perfection. A pure thread. An emotion as simple and reflexive as irritation has no part in it. “I didn’t say that,” Jack says.
“I’m just fucking with you,” Parse promises, then snorts again. Jack can’t read the expression on his face, which isn’t unusual; Jack often can’t read the expressions on people’s faces, and even when he thinks something’s a no-brainer sometimes he’s wrong. Take, for example, two weeks ago when Jack accidentally walked in on Parse crying after a hideous public dressing down from the assistant coach. Jack learned as a young child, working with the specialist whom he saw after school under the vow of profound secrecy, that crying meant people were sad. “It’s memorization,” the specialist finally snapped one day, louder than Jack liked, though by then he’d learned not to cover his ears just because something hurt them. “You’re learning the times tables by heart, aren’t you?”
“144 is not a prime number,” Jack offered.
“Well, this is a lot like that,” the specialist said, her eyebrows pushed close together and her face all red. “Let’s look at the chart again.”
So when Jack nudged his way into the bathroom at Parser’s billet family’s house and got a look at Parser hunched in the corner, he saw again in his mind’s eye the cartoonish grimace labeled SAD. He walked over to Parse’s tense form and put one hand one his shoulder. “You okay, buddy?” he asked, figuring that if he copied his father’s method of showing concern, he’d come off as normal.
Parser uncurled slightly and said, sniffing, “Aw, hey, I’m fine, I’m just—I’m just so fucking mad, you know?”
Jack did not know. But he nodded.
“Like, okay, maybe you think I’m—I’m not trying hard enough, or whatever—”
“I don’t think that,” Jack said quickly.
“I know, dude, I meant DuRoy, obviously. Like, you think I’m not working up to my potential?” Parse began hiccuping, words slipping and sliding into each other until they were lost in a mush of flat American vowels and jagged consonants. Jack tried to apply an emotion word to the tone of Parse’s voice, but before he could decide on one definitively, Parse wiped his face and sighed out, “Fine. Fine! Fuck you, then, right?”
“Yeah,” Jack said, hoping Parser was still talking about DuRoy. He was very aware of the way his entire palm fit onto Parser’s muscled shoulder. He wanted to squeeze. He was afraid to squeeze.
“I’m glad it was you who walked in,” Parse said, flitting a quick look at Jack that seemed in some incomprehensible way incongruous with the snot smeared on his chin. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” said Jack, removing his hand to a safer distance. “Want to go get chicken nuggets?”
Parse did. Jack wonders now if Parse always wants chicken nuggets, or if this, too, was advance warning of their soulbond.
Unsurprisingly, the back seat of the car is even more cramped now that they’ve separated from their hot clinch. Jack can’t tell if he still wants to kiss Parse or whether that seems too earthy for the connection they’ve discovered. Soulbonds are higher things, or deeper, a hormonal marriage of personality and need. To scum this up with something as prosaic as a slobbering tongue seems irresponsible.
Parse either feels the same or picks up on Jack’s reluctance, because he eventually pats down the hem of Jack’s T-shirt and kisses Jack chastely on the cheek. “Maybe we should think about this,” he suggests, his voice closer to a monotone than it usually gets.
“Most same-sex soulbonds are platonic,” Jack says. The science is supposedly uncertain, but the newspapers all sound very sure when they make claims about it, and in Jack’s experience, reporters are usually right. The sports journos keep making claims about him, after all—Best Player In the League, Son Lives Up to Father’s Name—and so far they keep coming true. Jack sometimes wonders what will happen if he fails to make good on a promise some stranger has made for him, but then he gets the shakes and has to go to sleep. Mostly he tries not to think about it at all.
Parse stays quiet for a long time, long enough that Jack starts worrying he did something wrong. Before he can ask, though, Parse at last grunts, “Yeah,” and they clamber out of the car and into the Super C for good beef jerky and orange juice and those cheap, plasticky cheese sticks Parse grew up on and can’t seem to exchange for literally any other kind of protein on the planet. Jack likes food that comes in pouches and sticks as much as the next serious athlete, but he’s got to draw a line somewhere.
As the weeks spin out, it becomes clear that whatever Jack is feeling isn’t platonic. Or—it is, but then, when Parser rubs his helmet after a particularly satisfying goal or when he hands him a brimming Solo cup at a party, the feeling fizzes into something brighter than only friendship, something that fills his head with white noise and makes everything Parser does appear haloed by Jack’s own desire. Fuck. Fuck! Jack can’t tell if Parse is still haunted by their brief stint of vigorous rubbing the way Jack is, because Parse flaunts his emotions all the time, in his limp wrists and his waggling eyebrows and in the way his voice cracks, unless he doesn’t. Parse feels things in layers and layers, a dozen emotions at a time, jumping from one to the next with abandon, and if he decides something’s too embarrassing or something he just jumps into the next layer. He cries when he’s mad. He smiles when he’s mad. Jack doesn’t get it at all. And about the near miss of mutual orgasms, Parse reveals nothing.
Meanwhile Jack decides to go to the library. The Desrosiers aren’t particularly interested in him, maybe intimidated by his last name, maybe by his silences, maybe simply having housed so many billets over the years that they have grown immune to talent. In any case, he doesn’t offer them an explanation, and neither Olivier nor Claore asks for one. In many ways, it’s much easier to live with them than with his parents. They’re both native French speakers, for one thing. And they’ve never asked him to explain himself.
Rimouski has several libraries, but Bibliothèque Lisette-Morin is the biggest, and as a bonus it’s in the part of town where people either truly don’t care or pretend not to care about the Océanic. Jack looks enough like his father that he prefers to avoid hockey fans unless he’s on the ice, not least because his father likes to e-mail him links to the blog posts people make whenever they snap a candid photo of him and mistake him for Bad Bob. Mon beau fils! his father usually types. Mais pas si beau comme son père, non!? The same joke every time. The same jovial punctuation every time. It’s enough to drive Jack crazy. Luckily, no one in Lisette-Morin at 3 PM on a Sunday has interest in a Zimmermann of any variety.
Jack immediately heads towards the nonfiction section, following the Dewey Decimal posters on the wall. He wonders whether he should be frustrated that French libraries adopted an originally Anglophone system so comprehensively, then guiltily remembers his mother grew up speaking English. Jack is bilingual, technically, but he prefers French. Whenever he has to speak in English he feels drastically separated from his own thoughts. Linguistic dissociation. Books about soulbonds are filed under two separate sections according to the posters, the biological sciences and religion. Maybe he should have used the computer catalogue. Maybe he should give all this up and go home and lick Parse’s neck and wait to see what happens. On the one hand, Jack’s parents tried to help him out with God: Jack’s father offered to take him to temple, Jack’s mother had him baptized. On the other hand, Jack still wants to lick Kent Parson’s neck, and Jack still doesn’t believe in God, or rather, Jack believes that God doesn’t believe in him. Biological sciences it is.
He runs his thumb along the shelves until he finds the books, a couple jargon-riddled scientific texts that he automatically ignores, a battered copy of Your Hormones and You. Finally he unroots a middling pop sci book with a holographic cover. It looks official, but not so official it makes him nervous. He looks around cautiously, but he’s remained undetected. He rifles through he index at the back. Sex looks briefly promising, but turns up only descriptions of grunting men matching their soulmarks to tender women. He gulps and looks up Gay. Useless. Finally he hits on Homosexual by accident. Just one mention in the whole book. His stomach twists in preparatory disappointment.
Some people may find matching soulmarks on others of the same gender, the book informs him. The language is strangely neutral; Jack checks the publication date—New York, New York, 2005. Only a couple years ago. Though historically, same-sex soulmarks have been accepted as evidence of unusually deep friendship, in more recent years growing scholarship supports that same-sex soulbonds can lead to homosexual intimacy. Indeed, some outspoken figures like Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein have argued or suggested that same-sex soulbonds are inherently romantic. At the time of this publication, however, there is no scientific evidence concluding whether homosexual relationships are Mother Nature’s intended result, or whether homosexual intercourse is simply human misinterpretation of hormonal and pheromonal compatibility.
Jack’s eye catches on the word misinterpretation for a long and terrible moment, but then heads back towards no scientific evidence. The jury’s out. And if the jury’s out, then—
Without addressing Jack’s brain at all, his hands close and reshelve the book, his feet turn him around, and his body marches over to the twelve ancient Dell computers that comprise the Lisette-Morin’s concession to the Information Age. He logs in as a guest, then hesitates with his mouse hovering over the Internet Explorer logo before he clicks and types, glancing over his shoulder nervously as he does so. The old lady at the table behind the computer smiles at him, so he nods just in case she’s recognized him and plans to e-mail his father’s fanmail address if he’s not polite, and whips back around to the computer screen.
He carefully pecks O-S-C-A-R W-I-L-D-E into the search bar. Wikipedia pops up, and though Jack's teachers have always warned him not to use Wikipedia as a reliable source, his hand is shaking too badly to scroll down to a .edu page. Just the picture of Wilde, with his slim calf and feminine hair, makes Jack’s heart jump up into his throat. When Jack looks at him he can tell. Can people tell when they look at Jack?
Jack skims the article; Le Portrait de Dorian Gray, na na na, l’art pour l’art, na na na, le scandale de son homosexualité—voilà. The stages of Wilde’s trial, brief, ugly, play themselves out. But what did Wilde expect? He flaunted his strangeness, his abnormal pheromones, the delicate soulmark on his and Bosie’s forearms that looked, or so he claimed, like a greenish carnation. Jack wants to lick Parse’s neck, but only in private. Their soulmarks are easily hidden. He doesn’t want to change the world, the way Wilde did; he wants to play hockey.
The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck stand up. He turns around; the old woman is looking at him again, a non-neutral but totally indecipherable look on her face. Jack wonders whether she can see his computer screen. She’s got gray hair, so she probably needs glasses, but then again his father’s gone salt and pepper and could still read the small print of Jack’s QMJHL contract without squinting. What if she’s recognized him? What if she wants to know why Jack Zimmermann, the hope of the hockey world, is looking up Oscar Wilde under an anonymous guest account at the library? Is there security footage? Of course there is; anywhere that has computers has a security camera. What if she asks to see the footage? In films and TV shows, techs blow up security footage to hundreds of times its original size in order to capture the smallest detail. What if she knows how to do that? What if she’s not some kindly old lady but in the employ of the Q, because his coaches can tell something’s off with him? What if they can tell by looking?
Jack’s breath starts coming ragged in his throat. He forces his eyes closed and opens them several times. The computer screen wavers but he manages to close everything down. He can’t seem to shut it down; oh; the library software won’t let him. He peeks under the table. Ahah, a plug. He pulls it out. The screen goes black. He stands up. It’s as if his whole body is speaking English while his brain continues yammering on in French—his hands and feet separate from his knees and spine, all of them somehow tottering together out the door without looking at the gray-haired woman or anyone else who might be associated with her. When he gets like this he can’t drive. How will he get home? By the time he gets home, will the Desrosiers know he’s a confirmed homosexual?
He climbs into the Cruiser where this whole thing started and experiences a shock of sense-memory: Parse’s hands on his stomach. It had felt wholly good, for the first few seconds. The question is, who is he supposed to trust? Himself? Jack has made it this far in his career by refusing to trust himself, by gnawing endlessly at every doubt, every lapse of skill. His father? But his father doesn’t have all the facts, and Jack can’t tell him how hot he feels when Parse smiles at him, how often he imagines a cock in his mouth, sometimes Parse’s cock in specific but sometimes any cock at all.
Who does Jack trust more than anyone else?
Jack wishes, for the first time in his short life, that he had a more extensive texting plan. He gets 25 texts per month and he uses most of them to communicate with his mother—Yes, Mom, I washed my sheets last week. No, Mom, I don’t need any money. These missives add up. He likes to keep 5 texts in reserve in case of emergencies. He hates talking on the phone. He can’t remember if Parse has a texting plan at all, and whether Parse’s phone will read texts if his mom didn’t or couldn’t shell out the extra $5 per month. Vaguely, Jack is aware that Parse grew up with a lot less money than he did, but he can rarely picture what that looks like in the particulars. Texts? No texts? Does he even have unlimited calling? Jack has never asked.
So rather than texting Parse or calling Parse or e-mailing Parse or writing Parse a letter to be delivered by carrier pigeon, Jack starts up the Cruiser and drives over to Parse’s billet family’s house. In the romantic movies Parse watches secretly, this kind of gesture always works. Jack parks haphazardly in front of the house and throws himself at the porch steps, knocking frantically. His entire body’s sensation is caught between the mark on his stomach and the portentous feeling of his hand hitting the front door. Madame Vallières opens up with her eyebrows all the way at the top of her forehead. Unlike Claire Desrosiers, who immediately asked Jack to call her by her first name, Madame Vallières has remained firmly Madame Vallières. She isn’t pleased, Jack thinks, and deepens his voice preemptively. “Bonjour, madame.” He wishes he had a hat to remove so she could see how serious he is, how respectful he feels.
“Jack,” Madame Vallières says back. “You are looking for Kent, I imagine?”
“Yes, please, is he here?”
Madame Vallières rolls her eyes towards the stairs behind her. “You hockeyeurs are so high strung,” she complains as she shuts the door. “Go on up and see if you can calm him down.”
Jack nods and hurries over to the stairs. The funny thing is that, between them, Parse is always the one panicking, even though Jack is the one who got diagnosed with anxiety last year after he locked himself in one of his parents’ bathrooms for 24 hours. Jack didn’t even feel anxious—that nervy, frenetic feeling that gathers in his joints during a power play or before a math exam; he just didn’t want to leave the bathroom or let anyone look at him. Instead he wanted to lie in the tub and let the leaky shower head drip concentric circles on the front of his T-shirt. His parents’ house has four full bathrooms, so he still thinks he was being perfectly reasonable. Parse, on the other hand, says he feels anxious all the time, shaking his knees up and down, biting the skin under his thumb nail, talking endlessly about how much money is in his account and whether he can afford to go to the Super C with Jack.
Parser isn’t crying, which is a relief; he’s lying on his bed with his sneakers on the wallpaper. Jack reaches over and removes his feet from the wall, because Madame Vallières will kill Parser if she sees any marks on her house, and then Jack will stop playing such good hockey.
“Ugh,” says Parse, tugging his feet out of Jack’s grasp and turning away from him, his face to the wall.
Jack hates when Parse gets like this. The further Parse gets from a hockey rink, the harder it is to understand him; curled up on a bed, his knees tucked into his hands, he doesn’t look like graceful or capable or ready to read Jack’s every movement. He looks like a baby. Jack sits down next to him, carefully. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Parse says.
“I was at the library.”
“Do you think my dad might have paid the old lady who was there to spy on me?”
Parse turns over and looks at Jack with a screwed-up expression.
“What?” Jack asks.
“No, I don’t think the old lady was spying on you. What the fuck, Zimms?”
“She might have been. She was watching me.”
“Your butt, probably.”
Jack feels his face reset itself in a grimace of horror. “No way,” he says.
“Yeah way,” Parse says, and starts smiling. “Yeah, she probably was imagining getting a nice, juicy hunk—”
“—of Zimmermann ass— “
“—ew, Parse, no way—”
“—to eat for dinner.”
Parse uncurls and puts on hand low, low, low on Jack’s back. “I think about it,” he says. His thumb tracks a slow circle. “A hunk of Zimms to chew on.”
“I was looking up soulmarks,” Jack blurts out.
Parse stills his hand, but, to Jack’s great relief, doesn’t remove it. “Oh yeah?”
“Do you think,” Jack starts, and then doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say. Every breath between them feels fraught. Heavy with destiny.
“Do I think,” Parse repeats. His thumb is a warm dot on Jack’s spine. Jack wants to ask, Is this platonic? but nothing happens when he opens his mouth. Parse’s face shifts into a softer version of itself; his hair is very blonde, his face almost meek. He doesn’t look like Parse, Jack’s brother in battle. He looks young. Parse’s mother calls him Kenny and Jack can see it now—who Parse used to be before the bantam hockey gossip mill identified him as top-tier athletic talent. Adult men have been making posts about Parse’s skill on niche hockey forums for nearly as long as they’ve been making posts about Jack’s ass. Parse’s eyes are hazel-gray and his eyelashes are so fair they’re almost impossible to see. Jack wants to run his palm along the bridge of Parse’s nose, to see if his eyelashes will brush against Jack’s weight-lifting calluses and catch. If his eyelashes will tangle them together like the marks on their stomachs. “Do I think,” Parse prompts again.
Jack leans forward and puts his cheek on Parse’s. Parse doesn’t hit him, or say, Don’t be gay, or do anything except match his breaths to Jack’s. Together, in. Together, out.
“Wanna kiss me?” Parse asks, low.
“Yeah,” Jack says, relieved that the choice has been taken from him.
Of the various kisses Jack has received in his life (mother; grandmothers; Tante Lise; Marie-Jeanne Tremblay and Jean-Marie Blouin, who each ambushed him one week late in grade seven; Parse, a few weeks ago), it’s easily the wettest. It’s sticky with the same kind of huffed, private humidity that builds when Jack jerks off in the shower. He didn’t think kissing could feel so erotic—he always skips over the kissing when he watches porn—but here, with Kenny’s impossible eyelashes brushing his, it feels like the most erotic thing he’s ever done.
“Car?” says Kenny when he leans back, an eye towards the door. Madame Vallières is prone to suddenly popping her head in, in case Kenny’s on coke and she catches him mid-snort.
“Yeah,” Jack agrees.
In the Cruiser, Kenny says, terse, “Listen, just because I’m—”
“What?” Jack says. Hands at ten and two. Eyes on the road. No matter how Kenny’s voice shakes, look ahead or you’ll die.
Kenny clears his throat. “Just because I’m, like, smaller than you are, I don’t want your fingers in my ass.”
“Oh,” says Jack. For a long moment, they’re both silent. In grade seven, after Jean-Marie Blouin kissed him and Jack didn’t say anything in protest, Jean-Marie called out his boys Thomas and Marcel-Pierre from around the corner. “Fifi didn’t even blink,” Jean-Marie sniggered. Jack has always been big, but before his first real growth spurt in grade nine, he looked soft, and he was too afraid of Marcel-Pierre’s wiry, barely-contained fury to do more than shuffle after them to the unsupervised bank of computers in the school library. “Is this what you want?” Jean-Marie hissed, and Marcel-Pierre pushed Jack’s face into the computer monitor, where he saw a man forcing his own anus into a pink, glistening maw.
Jack still didn’t say anything, but turned within Marcel-Pierre’s tight grip and threw up all over Thomas’s sneakers.
In the strange alchemy of adolescent respect, this proved to be the right move: no one who puked when confronted with a gay man’s most ardent desire could be a fifi, after all. Jean-Marie liked Jack after that, threw an arm around his shoulders in the hallway and pointed out other alleged homosexuals to see if he could get Jack to throw up on Thomas again. Jack ended up transferring to Shattuck-St. Mary’s for hockey in grade nine. No one bothered him there: by the time he got to Minnesota he was leading nationally in points for Boys U-18, plus he was almost six feet tall.
“I don’t want to put my fingers in—in you,” Jack manages, returning to the Cruiser, the road, Kenny’s taut body besides his.
“Fuckin’ A,” Kenny says, obviously relieved, and twenty minutes later Jack’s losing his virginity in the shadow of the Presbytère Sainte-Odile, the tall white spire appearing in the corner of his vision every time he tosses his head away from Kenny’s seeking teeth, his body curled up around the axis of their twinned soulmarks. Kenny dips his fingers in the bottle of 100% Aloe Vera he swiped from Madame Vallières’s bathroom cabinet, and he says, “Brace up, buddy,” when he reaches down between Jack’s legs. It’s not like Jack hasn’t watched this happen a hundred thousand times on Pornhub, but it’s different when he can feel Kenny’s brief hesitation, the way his fingers are trembling, the way Jack’s own thighs tense with anticipation.
Together, in. Together, out.
Jack prefers Xanax, but he’ll take a Klonopin or an Ativan if he can get it—easy enough; his new psychiatrist’s a lifelong Habs fan. “Whatever we need to do to get you to the draft,” he’d said, resting his hand on Jack’s during Jack’s first appointment, “that’s what we’ll do.”
“Thanks,” says Jack, by rote, the way he says almost everything these days. Like hockey, conversations have lost their edge of anxiety and suspense; he follows scripts, and everyone lets him get away with it.
“It’ll get better once the draft is over,” Kenny says the next day, three hours before the last game of the fucking season, one arm hanging out Jack’s passenger window, one hand spread over the back of Jack’s neck. They’ve already eaten their PB&Js and are supposed to be napping, but Jack couldn’t sleep and neither could Kenny, so they escaped to the Cruiser and have been hitting up a series of grocery store parking lots and isolated side streets: all the scenes of their Best Ofs.
Kenny’s fingernails are a little longer than they should be; sometimes when they’re lying together in bed during a stolen hour, with the door locked, Kenny will file and buff them. It should be embarrassing, but Kenny can get away with it: he calls himself metrosexual before anyone else can, and winks inappropriately as often as he can get away with it, which seems to convince everyone that he’s getting the most action on the team. He is, probably, considering how often Jack gives it up.
“Yeah,” Jack agrees, although he isn’t so sure. After the draft, he and Kenny will be separated, Jack almost definitely in Las Vegas and Kenny most likely back in New York, a homegrown boy made good. They’ll have most of a country and two conferences between them, not to mention a sports franchise that’s still struggling to find a face to bring in new fans now that Gretzky and Lemieux and Bad Bob have all been retired for long enough that their memory no longer sells tickets. Jack already represents an investment of thousands and thousands of dollars; he can’t imagine what it will be like once millions are on the line.
“Come on, Zimms, chill out,” Kenny says, and gives him a rough little shake. “Did you take your pill, or whatever?” Kenny doesn’t officially know what Jack’s pills are or what he takes them for, although Jack suspects his biweekly nervous breakdowns make it pretty obvious. In some ways Jack thinks they’re lucky that they don’t share each other's emotional states, the way a lot of soulmates are said to do.
“You sure? You’re still strung pretty tight, dude.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” In fact he had just taken another Ativan. They were strictly for emergencies, but at some point all of the emergencies had started bleeding one into the next. The Vallières would never forgive Kenny if Jack were to lock himself in their bathroom for any length of time, that’s very clear. They barely tolerate Jack hanging around as it is. Better to avoid the fuss. Jack isn’t sure that he should be driving with this much benzo in his system but he doesn’t want Kenny to worry, and he’s never had an accident. It will probably be fine.
They get to the rink in one piece, for better or worse. Sometimes Jack wonders if Kenny made friends with him because of the car, though he never asked again after the first time. Kenny had skimmed Jack’s arm with his fingers and asked, tears in his eyes, “How could you think—after the soulmarks—do you really—”
“No,” Jack had said, hurriedly, even if he wasn’t convinced. It was just so humiliating when Kenny cried.
Gearing up isn’t any different than it has been since Jack’s gotten to Rimouski—same stall, same Bauer gloves, same Reebok helmet in Océanic blue. It seems like the occasion should be marked, somehow, Jack’s last junior league game, the pinnacle of his life thus far, but nothing happens. It’s the same as it always is.
For a second after Jack clips on his helmet, it seems like he can see the future: years and years of this exact feeling, this combination of dread and fear and remaindered anticipation burning in the pit of his stomach 82 games a year. Dry PB&J after dry PB&J, not because it comforts him, like when he was little, but because he’s bound by everyone’s expectations of him, and bound by the inviolable rules of superstition. He doesn’t even like PB&J anymore.
A sudden, booming clap on the shoulder knocks the vision loose. “Ça va, mec?” Jack looks over at Liki, a hulking Turkish-Canadian D-man who speaks about five languages and has nerves of steel. But then Liki, whose real name is Othman Balik, has career prospects whether they win or lose tonight; he got an early acceptance to Yale back in December.
“Ouais, ouais,” Jack says, and gives him a thumb’s up through the fucking Bauer glove. “Ça va.”
Thankfully that gets Liki off his back, although everyone seems to be able to smell Jack’s fear tonight; he has to duck head rubs from Paul and Anezcar, never mind a hundred bracing arms-around-his-shoulders from assholes on four separate lines. Kenny can’t leave him alone, either, which is infuriating—of all people, Kenny should know better. Finally Jack resorts to snapping at everyone. He knows as he does it that he should be ashamed, that a captain should be supporting his teammates, not tearing them down. But he can’t help it; they won’t leave him alone; what is he supposed to do?
It works well enough that he has thirty seconds of total silence before they start scraping out onto the ice, the red-black uniforms of the Voltigeurs blurring in the corner of his vision like streaks of rust on the ice. Fine. It’s enough. It has to be: fine.
The first half zips by in a disjointed series of passes, a dozen heavy breaths, and a couple of near-collisions Jack avoids by the skin of his teeth; he shouldn’t have dry-swallowed another half a pill but it’s too late now. The Voltigeurs are playing on the edge of dirty, their checks harder than they need to be, a fight brewing underneath each pass. Jack feels like he’s playing with his head craned to look over his own shoulder; he doesn’t even realize he’s gotten four assists until Coach pats him on the shoulder and says, “Keep it up,” and Kenny looks at him, eyes wide and shining, and says, “Thanks—Jack, thanks,” in English, even though usually everyone tries to keep to French when in uniform.
“Sure,” Jack says, and barely manages not to hit himself in the face, the way he used to in elementary school before. Assists? What good are fucking assists, even with the no-look passes he and Kenny have been working on? The Aces are watching; he’s got to score.
They start the second half 4-3, a good lead but not a comfortable one. Coach cycles them through their lines without any give or take, the Voltigeurs’ gritty play style keeping them just abreast of the Océanic’s clear advantage in terms of talent—namely, Jack and Kenny, though Liki and Gagnon could both probably make it to the minors at least. The extra half-pill has made the inside of Jack’s head feel echoing and eerily silent. He can still follow the plays, still predict through a combination of body language and strategy where the puck is going, but for once he almost misses his constant running internal commentary.
He nearly stays on the ice for too long during his second time out, Coach screaming at him by the time he makes it back to the bench. He ignores Coach; he ignores Kenny’s concerned glances; he chews on his mouth guard and watches the minutes tick down. Ten minutes left. Seems like forever. Then five, and the Voltigeurs’ tricky left-winger sneaks in a goal past Anezcar.
“Câlisse,” Coach hisses, and frantically waves Jack’s line over the boards as soon as he can. The play is rougher than it has been so far. It feels like every one of the Voltigeurs’ D-men is a thousand feet tall, and all of them are gunning for Jack. He tries to shake his head to clear it, but all it does is start the low throb of a headache underneath his right eye. Normally this would be cause for irritation, but the Ativan has suppressed that, too. He dekes around a Voltigeur brute and suddenly notices Kenny in the corner of his eye; he passes. Kenny’s stick becomes a blur around the dark round of the puck. Even Jack’s instinct seems muffled. By pure muscle memory, he speeds forward. The Voltigeurs have caught on, by now, and one starts plowing towards Kenny, but Kenny’s so fast it doesn’t matter: he’s already hit the puck to Jack by the time the Voltigeur checks him, and all Jack has to do is feint left, then tap it past the goalie’s ineffective right glove.
Jack fakes his way through a celly, tolerates Kenny’s too-long helmet caress without making a spectacle, and hurries back onto the bench. The headache is starting to blossom beyond the confines of his eye, so he downs some Gatorade and tries to unclench his teeth from his mouth guard, watching the time tick once again. The Voltigeurs are fighting their worst, but they just don’t have it, and when the final whistles blow, Océanic’s won 5-4.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” Kenny screeches, his voice higher than he usually lets it get in public. Jack swallows down his automatic desire to snap, “Stop talking like that!” and just smiles at Kenny, then at the rest of the team. A slow, elated wave of emotion is crashing over them, as they all realize it’s over, they’ve done it: the President’s Cup is theirs.
As they pass the Cup around, taking group photo after group photo, Jack again starts seeing in double vision. Past and present and future meld together—his father and the Stanley Cup, Jack and the President’s Cup, Jack and the Stanley, spending the next twenty years chasing this moment again and again, unchanging except as his body starts to fail and his team stops trusting his skill. Jack will never admit it to anyone, but as he smiles, his arm tight around Kenny, he starts to wonder what the point is, seeking goal after assist after goal. To what purpose does he spend so many of his waking hours thinking about a rubber disc? At least when he thinks about other stuff—his school work, Kenny’s cock, very occasionally his mother—things actually happen in the real world; he gets an A, he gets Kenny’s come on his eyelashes, he calls his mother. When he gets another goal in hockey, what happens? A scoreboard, not even LED, flickers from one number into the next.
The last two and half months of senior year just fade into party after party. The Océanic boys are celebrities among teachers and other students alike, and Jack realizes, taking his textbook out to study for a calc test out of some ancient sense of discipline, that he’s getting drafted into the NHL at the end of June and he never needs to pass another math exam. He considers the page in front of him. Fuck limits, he decides, and puts the book away.
It doesn’t seem to matter what he does, how much he drinks, whether he studies or tells the Desrosiers he’s coming home late or pulls Kenny into his lap at a party in front of the other Océanic players. His psychiatrist smiles at him and writes his scripts. He passes his math tests even when he gets the answers wrong. The Desrosiers smile at him indulgently and let Kenny sleep over. No one wants him to answer for anything; they are all so, so proud, and the draft is in six weeks, three weeks, seven days—
The graduation ceremony at École Paul-Hubert is held in the red velour auditorium, where Jack, crushed between Estelle Ziminksi and Rémy Zullo, is separated from everyone he knows by virtue of his last name. Their entire 250-person class is crammed onto the stage on folding chairs, looking out at a sea of family and friends looking bored out of their minds. Jack’s parents aren’t here; he didn’t want them to come. They fought on Skype about it for weeks until, finally, with a large glass of vinho verde in her hand, his mother coldly said, “It’s your graduation, Jack,” and hung up on him. They haven’t talked since, which is fine by Jack. Tomorrow he and Kenny will drive down to Montréal and stay at Jack’s parents’ house for a night before heading downtown to make hockey history. Just thinking about sneaking in through the garage door with Kenny hanging onto him, trying to avoid talking to anyone for as long as possible before they all head to the Bell Center, makes him want to throw up. When Kenny grabs Jack by the shoulder, both of them clutching their empty embossed folders—Paul-Hubert will send their diplomas to Jack’s parnts’ house and Kenny’s mother’s apartment back in New York—Jack follows him blindly.
They end up in someone’s cavernous basement, some buddy of Anezcar’s whose parents aren’t home or don’t care or who think their son’s friends will be more responsible if they only drink in 50 yards of a maternal figure, or something. Whatever; Jack doesn’t care. He’s just glad when Kenny pushes a Solo cup into his hand, secretly runs his thumb over Jack’s soulmark and promises to meet him in the bathroom later for some blow, if anyone here has any.
“And maybe another kind of blow, too,” Kenny whispers, his tongue practically inside Jack’s ear canal. It shouldn’t be sexy. And it isn’t, although it does make Jack remember all of the other places Kenny’s tongue has been, which is kind of sexy as long as Jack doesn’t think about the bacteria that lurk in the human body or pay any attention to the fact that they’re surrounded by at least a dozen 180-pound, aggressively heterosexual semi-professional athletes.
Kenny separates from Jack after that, giving Jack a giggly pat on the ass and hopping over to a ring of dudes in a corner who are definitely smoking something. Kenny isn’t like Jack: he’ll happily take a hit or a line if it’s offered, and he routinely sneaks liquor into his room at the Vallières, kissing Jack with the leftover heat of vodka behind his teeth, but he never seems to think about that kind of stuff otherwise. Jack has done coke exactly once and has never let himself do it again, although he’s pretended to, swiping $20 lines onto the floor at a pop; the hours that followed his first couple bumps were so blissful that he scared himself. If even his prescription medication can’t calm the gnawing in his chest, he doesn’t think he should trust some anonymous white powder that Google tells him is routinely cut with Boric acid.
He’s thinking about it tonight, though. The party is wild, everyone newly minted adults and eager to prove it. There are girls in tight dresses, clutching sparkly purses to their hips, and one reaches up to tweak one of Jack’s nipples with her long purple nails before he manages to separate himself. “No, no,” he says, wishing he could say, I have a soulmate, not daring to. “No thanks.”
“Fine, asshole,” the girl says, and clumps away on her dangerous heels.
He wanders through the party. Time has begun to stretch out in odd colors and shapes; Jack doesn’t know how many drinks he’s had or even what the liquid in his cup is. He hasn’t refilled it once, but he hasn’t needed to: Anezcar’s pal runs a generous party, apparently. Jack fiddles with the bottle in his pocket. He’d grabbed his Xanax this morning out of habit—he knew he’d need at least two to get through the ceremony. The Xanax is the only bottle within the small pharmacy in his bedside table that he’s picked the label off of. He regrets that, now; he’s jumping out of his skin, and playing with the stupid label on his habitually-pocketed prescription bottles is better than scratching off his pimples or pulling out his eyebrow hair.
He can’t see Kenny anywhere, and people keep hitting into him, sloshing his drink onto his shoes or their shirts. It’s awful. No one here cares if they’re dirty or rude or what. They just want to make out and snort coke off of each other. Sometimes that sounds appealing to Jack, too, but right now it makes him want to sink under a table and chew on his hands until everyone recedes the extra half-inch that Xanax usually provides. His latest dose must be wearing off. Fuck. The bathroom is sounding better and better, whether Kenny comes in behind him or not.
Eventually Jack manages to weave his way through the smoky crowd long enough to find a door. It’s locked, storage or a garage or something, but he runs his fingers along the wall as he wanders the perimeter of the room, refusing to allow anyone to separate him from the sheet rock’s physical anchor. After a few minutes he finds another door, unlocked this time. He opens it; it’s a bathroom, all right, though there’s a girl heaving into the toilet and another a couple going at it in the shower stall.
“Get out,” Jack says, walking straight past the vomiting girl and rapping on the glass sliding door of the shower. “Get the fuck out!”
“Oh my god, you get out,” the guy says, hips still pistoning, but Jack’s got about thirty pounds of muscle on him and eventually he and the chick he’s dealing leave for a more private space.
“I’m not leaving,” says the girl on the floor.
“Who asked you to?” Jack grumbles, and climbs into the shower stall, sliding the door shut behind him. He takes the shower head off of the stand and turns on the cold water to a gentle spray, cupping his hand around the head and collecting a palmful of water. It’s awkward, holding the dripping head in one hand and fumbling the Xanax out of his pocket, but he manages to pop off the cap. Two should do it, but he adds an extra just in case—then one more, to make it even. It’s only half a milligram per pill, anyway. What difference can another half a milligram make?
Jack chases the pills down with his handful of water, then finds himself sitting with the shower head still swaddled in his arms. He wonders if his father ever found himself, at eighteen or any time after, huddling in a shower while some girl with her ass out sticks a finger down her throat to facilitate her pre-blackout vomit session. The strange double vision arrests him again, the future marching out once again in an inevitable series: all the bathrooms Jack has ever locked himself in, all the bathrooms Jack will continue to lock himself in, forever and ever, Afuckingmen. What happens when he gets to Vegas and goes on his first roadie? The future obligingly shows itself; he freaks out on his roommate and ends up hiding under the bed. Career over. Or he manages to keep his cool until he gets the C, then he crumbles under the pressure and they find him in the woods partially eaten by raccoons. Career over. Or someone finds out about Parse and him, gets photos or their private e-mail exchanges. Career over. Or he handles the pressure until he’s traded for the first time, then flips out and beats up a cab driver. Career over. Or he manages to get through the whole thing, until he’s 35 or 40, and suddenly his hip gives out and there’s no hockey at all, no Kenny, no nothing, the rest of his life moving by in aching slow loneliness compared to the zipping team camaraderie of the first eighteen.
“Fuck,” Jack says, or tries to say. His teeth feel softer than they should.
“Fuck,” says the girl at the toilet muzzily.
Or maybe it’s Jack who’s muzzy—everything feels very far away, very strange. His stomach hurts. He wants to go to sleep, although the reflection off the shower head feels so bright that he isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to. What time is it? Where is Kenny? He rubs the soulmark, but it doesn’t soothe him as it usually does. It just—
“Zimms? You in here?”
“—Zimms, oh my god, Zimms, fuck, Zimms—”
“—No, no, I’m sorry, I don’t know what he took, he was drinking, maybe he did some coke, I don’t know, I don’t know what was being passed around—”
“—Come on, come on, come on—”
“—Has anyone called his parents?—”
“—Zimms, sweetheart, Jack—”
“—Don’t you die on me—”
Jack opens his eyes. His head hurts. He’s lying down. He turns his head; his mother is dozing in a chair. He’s got a saline drip or something in his hand. What?
“Maman?” he says.
She startles awake. She looks awful: her eyes are huge and pale, and they have eerie dark streaks under them; she’s always been thin, but in the shade-drawn hospital room—hospital room?—she looks like she’s been hastily constructed from bone and clay and little else. “Jack,” she says, her eyes welling.
“What’s happening?” He can tell he’s speaking French, though he usually speaks English with his mother, but he can’t seem to switch. His brain feels very soft, very quiet, like it’s wrapped in cotton balls. “Why am I here?”
“You don’t remember?” she says in English, and before Jack can snap, Obviously not, she continues, straightening her shoulders and furrowing her blonde-dyed brows: “You OD’d, honey.” Then, again, in her awkward French: “Tu as fait une overdose.”
“I did not,” Jack says, indignant.
“You did,” she insists, “tu l’as fait,” and when she grabs his hand and smiles down at him, eyes still huge, smile trembling, Jack knows everything has changed.
“Did I miss the draft?”
But he hasn’t; it’s tomorrow. “No one has to know,” he says, “the press doesn’t know yet, right? I can still—I can—Maman, please,” he begs, because he can see in her face that she’s not going to let him, and although she’s allowed him to make his own choices since he got accepted into the Océanic, this time is going to be different. But he has to try. “Maman, come on, you can’t stop me from—this is what I’m meant to do—”
“Jack,” she finally says, her voice harsh. “What kind of mother would I be, if I let you walk out of here and walk straight into the, the fucking lion’s den?”
Jack is shocked into silence; he has never heard his mother swear before.
“They told me you had four and a half milligrams of Xanax in your system, Jack, not to mention alcohol, Ecstasy, and cocaine,” she continues. “I knew you might find yourself in some situations. Who doesn’t have fun when they’re young? But I never imagined—Ecstasy! Coke!”
“I didn’t take those on purpose. Someone must have slipped them into my drink.”
“You really expect me to believe that?” his mother says in a hideous, rasping whisper, and Jack can’t argue back because he doesn’t remember anything clearly after Kenny stuck his tongue in his ear; maybe he did snort a line, or accept a tab from one of the dozens of laughing, sparkly girls. “Jack, you can’t—you can’t really believe I would allow you to just leave and go down to Montréal tonight like nothing happened.”
Jack doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. He settles back into the pillows and stares straight ahead. His mother rubs her thumb on his palm; he tucks his hand closer into his side.
“Oh, so this is how it’s going to be, is it?” his mother says. “Fine, Jack. If this is how you want to play it, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me. You’ll be headed to rehab as soon as we get you discharged.”
She retracts her own hand from the bed and turns away, which is lucky since Jack’s whole face goes hot and tight and itchy with humiliation as she does. He holds himself tense in the fear that she’ll look at him before she leaves, but she doesn’t; she just pulls the curtain in front of the door aside and heads out into the hallway.
He drifts for a little while after that. He wants to raise the shade, but he’s scared to leave the bed. What if he pulls out the saline drip, or someone comes in and sees his ass, or he tries to get up and falls over? His body doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it feels weakened. Atrophied.
The door clicks as it opens.
“Maman,” he says in protest, but it isn’t his mother; it’s Kenny, looking tiny in a hoodie that he had to have stolen from someone at the party. “Oh.”
“Hey, Zimms,” Kenny says. “How are you doing?”
Jack has to really concentrate to answer in English, but he manages to say, “I’ve been better,” and offer Kenny his best shot at a smile. It feels shaky and nervous, fragile, but the muscles in his face still work.
“Yeah, me too.”
Kenny comes down and sits on the bed, grabbing for Jack’s hand. He strokes the skin underneath the bandage that’s hiding where the saline drip is connected to Jack’s veins. “Zimms,” he says, his voice choked up.
“I know I’m not going to be able to be there with you tomorrow,” Jack says quickly, trying to tug the band-aid off quickly. “But—you’ll always have my support, obviously, and I guess the Aces will like you—”
“Zimms,” Kenny says again, and starts crying as he says, “I want to break up.”
“—What?” Jack asks. The aches in his body multiply, like Kenny’s given him whiplash. “You want to—what?”
“I can’t do this anymore,” Kenny sobs. “I can’t—I can’t feel like this anymore, I can’t take on your shit anymore—”
“I never asked you take on anything,” Jack says, furious in a way he’s been furious very few times in his life. “I’ve never asked you for one thing.”
Kenny chokes out, “I know, but—” and then he has to let go of Jack’s hand to hide his face. “I didn’t want to do this when you’re still in a hospital bed but I have to leave in like half an hour so I get down to Montreal in time. I have to meet with the Aces before the, before the draft.”
“Oh yeah? Like your future’s even worth anything without me?” Jack says, as meanly as he can manage.
Kenny wipes his face with his palms and looks up again. “I love you,” he says, very clearly, looking Jack straight in the eye. He’s still crying, the tears tracking down his face in the paths of their predecessors. “I know you’re hurting. But I can’t feel what you’re feeling anymore, Jack. I can’t take that on. I can’t—if we weren’t soulmates, maybe it’d be different, but I can’t do it anymore.”
“We don’t feel each other's feelings,” Jack says, baffled. “Empathy’s never been part of our bond.”
Kenny’s face goes white and stricken underneath the red splotches from crying. “It’s always been part of mine,” he says, his voice very low. Very angry, Jack thinks. Kenny looks at his watch. “Fuck, I have to go.”
“Wait, Kenny,” Jack says, but Kenny follows in his mother’s wake, not looking back at Jack either, like seeing him one more time will just be too painful to bear. “Wait!”
“I’ll text you,” Kenny says from the hallway, and Jack listens to his receding footsteps, except maybe they’re not even Kenny’s footsteps; it’s the middle of the afternoon, after all. They could be anyone's footsteps, nurses or cancer patients or Jack’s mother coming back up from drinking shitty coffee in the cafeteria. A headache starts up at the very base of his neck. He wants a Xanax. He wants Kenny. He wants hockey.
He curls up in his uncomfortable hospital bed, one hand on his soulmark, rubbing it for comfort as he has since he was a toddler. But nothing changes; no one comes in; no psychic double vision descends. His stomach just keeps hurting.