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River for the Sea

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“Oh, uh, I think that’s how we spell it in Canada.”

Nolan grinds his teeth to keep himself from rolling his eyes. 

This sloppy ass looking dude is the exact reason Nolan quit his job at the writing center last year. It’s all helping guys in sweats and snapbacks who only give a shit about their grades so they can keep playing sports try to doctor up papers they probably wrote in like ten minutes. Usually it’s these big, brawny football players acting like they’re fucking gods because they got a scholarship, sitting back and expecting Nolan to fucking work fucking magic while they stare at him all stupid. Today it’s this smaller guy, solid looking and short, who actually seems like he’s half paying attention to the long list of problems Nolan points out in his shitty ass paper. Nolan’s only, like, seventy percent as annoyed at the whole thing as he normally is until this guy tries to pretend that fucking “definately” isn’t spelled wrong. 

Nolan starts drafting his "I’m never covering your shift again I don’t care how fucking hungover you are"  text to Carter in his head and tells this guy, Travis or whatever,  “I’m Canadian,” his voice flat.

“Wait, what, holy shit!” Travis says, dropping forward in his chair, twisting sideways to look at Nolan and giving him this huge, giddy smile. “Dude, I’m from Ontario! Where are you from?”

“Winnipeg.”

“Awesome, man! You’re actually the first Canadian I’ve met here other than these two guys on my team who graduated last year.” 

“Yeah, so, wanna talk about Kraft dinner and maple leaves, or, like,” Nolan gestures back at the computer screen. 

“Dude, yeah! I need a Canadian buddy! Hey, want to come to this party tonight and hang out? You like hockey, right?” He gives Nolan this huge grin. “I play hockey.”

Nolan is about to say no--like, is literally so close to turning down this jock-ass dude, probably homophobic, definitely stupid, pretty obnoxious--just like every athelete Nolan's ever tutored--when he realizes that maybe Travis is hitting on him. 

And, like. "Okay."

 

⊹⊹⊹⊹

 

It’s not that Nolan’s, like, hugely fucking into Travis. He literally barely knows him, but obviously he’s hot, tan and athletic with nice hair and pretty eyes and this dark tattoo just dipping out from under the sleeve of his t-shirt, wrapping around the thick muscle of his bicep. And Nolan hates going to clubs; hates Grindr, so he’ll take a swing at an easy hookup with a hot little Canadian dude with some hockey ass. It’s been, like, months, so. Nolan’s not above putting on some cologne and driving to the address Travis wrote down for him--which is all the way outside of town and down this one-lane gravel road with a pothole so big and out of nowhere Nolan bounces in his seat and bangs his head up against the ceiling of his car--for the chance to maybe get some dick. 

He doesn’t actually work at the writing center, so he’s pretty sure there’s no way this is, like, unethical, and he asked Travis how old he was and found out he was 23, actually a year older than Nolan. “I played for a while out of high school and now it’s my fifth year here,” he said after Nolan barely asked him anything, his face all lit up like having someone listen to him was the best thing in the world; like he was close to telling Nolan his whole life fucking story if Nolan didn’t stop him. 

Nolan misses his turn and goes too far down the gravel; has to make a u-ey and then turn onto a bridge over a creek to get to Travis’ address, which, yep, definitely has a party at it. 

The apartment itself is pretty raggedy looking--a walkup above a garage, the half-rotted wooden stairs missing two planks right next to each other; wooden siding painted dark green and chipping--but it’s in this big clearing surrounded by thick, dusky trees, tons of yard space that’s filled with cars and camp chairs and people drinking, fucking country music thumping, making Nolan feel like he’s gone way more than two miles outside town. 

Nolan parks and heads inside, takes a huge and honestly pretty terrifying leap up over the gap in the stairs, and then pulls open a screen door and steps into a dank smelling, messy apartment. 

The living room’s right in front of the door, with the kitchen off to the right, no wall between them. There are like six couples crowded onto a fluffy couch in the living room, all pretty straight looking and all really into PDA. 

“Patrick!” a rough, high voice yells. Nolan looks over to find Travis in the corner of the kitchen, packed in behind people, arm around this chick even shorter than him who’s smiling and looks like she’s propping Travis up. 

“Hey man,” Nolan says, stepping into the house and plopping the six pack of IPAs he brought on the counter. 

“Dude, we’ve got plenty of beer,” Travis laughs. He’s fucking drunk --red face and murky eyes, huge, toothy smile. “This is Steph,” he says, waving to the girl under his arm and practically hitting himself in the face. 

He doesn’t say “my girlfriend,” but she looks up at him all sweet and patient in this way that kind of does. 

So, like, no dick for Nolan tonight, unless one of the other dudes at this jock party is somehow into it. 

Nolan’s not, like, heartbroken, obviously. And he’s not an asshole, but, being honest with himself: yeah, he probably wouldn’t have come if he’d known Travis wasn’t available. 

Not that, like, Travis is the hottest thing Nolan’s seen or anything, but he's, like, different. Not really like the guys Nolan usually meets; more like the dudes he’d know back home. A little rough, dressed half in camo tonight, camo trucker hat pushing his long hair down, camo t-shirt a little tight against his ribs.

“So are you in a class together?” Steph asks, putting her palm flat on Travis’ stomach. 

I already got it, Nolan wants to say, but he makes himself not act like a dick. 

“No, he tutored me!” Travis says loudly. “I had to get help with my marketing paper, remember?” 

“Oh, so you’re an English major?” she asks Nolan.

“I’m a poetry MFA. I’m in grad school.” 

“I love poetry,” Steph says.  

“Hey, what do you want to drink?” Travis asks, moving on from that topic, thank God, because the worst thing in the world is getting, like, begged to read one of his poems to random people he doesn’t even know just because they think it would be fun. 

“I’ll just have one of these,” Nolan says, grabbing a bottle of beer out of his pack and twisting it open. 

“Cool, dude, hey. Come’re, I have to show you this,” Travis turns, squeezing through the crowd of people in the kitchen, gesturing for Nolan to follow, leaving Steph smiling after him. 

He follows Travis through the living room, gives the couples on the couch a judgy look, and then steps behind him into a bedroom. 

And Nolan just saw Travis with his girlfriend, probably, but he still has a little thrill of tingles down his back, thinking, maybe he’s just not out, maybe he was acting straight for his bros, maybe he’s about to shut the door and get me on my knees. 

Instead, Travis leaves the door open and leans over-- hockey ass, Nolan’s horny Canadian brain thinks, eyes sticking to Travis--to search through a suitcase that’s open in the corner of his room, for some reason. The rest of his room is a mess of dirty crumpled clothes and folded, probably clean clothes, all together on the floor. His bedside table has a tangled pair of earbuds, a huge pump-bottle of lotion, and a little wooden box that screams “there’s weed in here” so loud there’s no point in even having a box for it, and other than that, there’s basically nothing except the bed and an open window--no screen, even--facing the woods. 

Travis makes a triumphant noise from the other side of the room and stands up holding a Jets jersey. “The Jets!” he says.

“Why the fuck do you have Jets shit.” 

“It was my buddy’s and he left it here,” Travis says, then drops the jersey back down in the heap of clothes in the suitcase. “Hey, I’m, like, feelin’ it,” he says drunkly. “Will you sit with me?”

Nolan is really not following any of this. Like, if the door was closed, it would be pretty obvious that the stupid Jets jersey was just an excuse. But the door is still open and Nolan could literally turn his head and make eye contact with ten people sitting outside of it, including Travis’ maybe girlfriend.

“Do you want me to shut the door?” he asks, because, whatever, he already drove all the way out here, he might as well shoot his shot. 

“No it’s cool,” Travis says, flopping down on his mattress, his head resting on one un-cased, flattened out pillow.

Nolan eyes the bed, unmade with just dingy sheets, beige with little ducks printed on them, and a ratty quilt with a big rip in it so it shows the scraggly white filling. 

Travis doesn’t seem to notice Nolan hardcore fucking judging him, just wiggles around a little and then settles, legs spread, jeans stretching over his thighs and crotch, shirt riding up a little so Nolan can see that his abs are just as tan as his arms and face. 

Nolan lays down on the bed next to him. 

“So,” Travis says. He pulls in a big breath, and then starts talking, fast and constant and all over the place, the drone of his voice making Nolan want to just sink into the bed and stay there. “Have you ever been to hockey games here? Our team is actually pretty good. You haven’t seen them yet, but my roommates Joel and Morgan are on the team too, but they’re sophomores. Maybe you’ve heard of Jake Voracek? He’s, like, our big name player. So are you actually a Jets fan, or? I honestly don’t really watch much NHL, I’m just a big OHL guy. I play left wing, by the way.” Just this whole stream of consciousness thing, asking Nolan questions but then kind of answering them on his own, all quick and hyper, like he thinks if he pauses for one second he’s going to lose Nolan’s attention. 

Nolan tells himself, one minute, and watches the clock he can see through the bedroom door for six. Lets himself sink into Travis’ bed--which is a king, weirdly, and is actually crazy comfortable--and kind of feel the presence of Travis next to him, the way Travis’ attention feels on the side of his face. “Hey,” he says finally, cutting Travis off in the middle of a rundown of his team’s best-ever season last year, rolling off the side of the bed and standing up. Travis is wide awake and relaxed at the same time, sunk way into the bed and stopped mid-sentence, looking up at Nolan open-mouthed. “I’m gonna go grab your girl for ya, okay?”

Nolan knows he’s being so fucking thirsty. He’s basically got nothing except a fucked up first impression telling him Travis is into him. And even if Travis was, he’s too drunk for them to do anything about it now. But he’s still being a dumbass, giving Travis one more chance to tell him, “oh no, we’re not together, I’m into guys.

“Oh,” Travis says, sounding, like, actually fucking bummed. Then, sitting up on his hands, “Yeah man, you should go talk to Joel, too, you’ll love him.” 

 

Nolan finds Steph still in the kitchen where they left her, sends her in to deal with her drunk boyfriend, watches her close the door behind herself. Why the fuck are you still wondering, he thinks. He’s not going down this stupid fucking road of reading into some straight guy he doesn’t even know’s signals.

He does eventually stumble into conversations with Travis’ two roommates, who are both, like, a hundred times quieter than Travis is, but maybe that’s just because they’re clearly high out of their fucking minds. 

The whole party is pretty bro-y, just like Nolan would’ve expected a hockey player's party to be. There’s tons to drink and basically no food, a huge bonfire out in the yard, a beer pong tournament that’s way too competitive for Nolan to get involved in, even though he’s positive he could fucking smoke the guys playing.

Basically, he just wanders around. Drinks three beers and people watches a bit, ignoring the still shut door of Travis’ room. Chats with a few girls about their majors, just because they’re nice and it’s easy. Leaves a group of guys in the kitchen just starting in on the topic “what’s the worst smell you ever smelled,” stops off in the living room where all the couples on the couch are now talking about the results of their DNA test kits in exhausting detail, and finally hops down the gap in the stairs and goes to stand by the creek, surrounded by trees screaming with cicadas and smelling like rot and home. It’s muggy and clear and beautiful and rural in a way Nolan misses every single day he spends downtown.

Nolan just kind of stares into the dark of the water and listens to it trickle by. He lets himself get homesick for a while, and then jerks out of it as he hears a gag and a splash upstream and looks up to see Travis, hunched over, propping himself up with one hand on a tree while he pukes into the creek.

Steph’s nowhere he can see, so Nolan wanders over. Watches Travis wipe the back of his hand across his mouth and then take a few steps back before sitting heavily down on the soft, marshy ground. 

“I always get hungry for Harvey’s when I’m drunk,” he says, because, whatever, sometimes it does suck to talk to people who don’t get half your references and for some stupid reason think that everything Canadian is, like, hilarious. 

“Dude,” Travis says, sounding perfectly happy and not at all like he was just throwing up, twisting around to face Nolan, smiling. “I would kill for Harvey’s right now.” 

Nolan sits down in the moss next to Travis and they get into a whole thing about Swiss Chalet, and how A&Ws in Canada are so much better than ones in the U.S., and how apparently Travis has never heard of Salisbury House because apparently it’s just a Winnipeg thing, and how Boston Pizza sucks, because all pizza sucks. 

“You don’t like pizza?” Travis is asking, voice like his whole life has been ruined, when Nolan sees Steph, out of the little dress she was wearing earlier and now just wearing a huge hoodie, start wandering over in their general direction, head arched and searching like she can’t see them yet through the dark.

“TK?” she calls.

Travis turns his head towards the light spilling out of the firepit, blinking and quiet for a second that Nolan thinks is a little too long to be normal, and then yells, “I’m over here!” 

He turns back to Nolan. “You have to add me on Snap,” he says, all drunk and sincere.

“Yeah, okay,” Nolan says as Steph crosses the yard and finds them. She leans a hand on Travis’ shoulder, smiling fondly down at him.

“Looks like a party over here,” she says. 

Travis grins up at her and says, “It is,” his voice low and flirty for her. He’s still looking up at her as he hands Nolan his phone--an old cracked-screen Samsung that doesn’t have a passcode apparently, so Nolan just swipes up and goes through like six pages of apps before he finds Snapchat; types his name into the box and adds himself. 

Nolan gives the phone back and Travis pockets it, then gets onto his knees, off-balance so he ends up falling forward onto one hand, bringing his face right up to Nolan’s, practically banging their noses together. “Whoops,” he says easily, then hefts himself the rest of the way up. 

“Let’s get you back in bed,” Steph laughs, wrapping a skinny arm around Travis’ waist. Travis puts his arm over her shoulder and lets her take some of his weight, start to turn him and lead him inside.

“Bye bud,” he calls to Nolan, grinning, sloppy. “See you later!” 

Nolan watches him go for a second, looks back up at the sky. The stars always makes him feel like he’s in the middle of a poem without having to write it. 

He stands up, grass wet and cold between his toes, and heads back to his car. 

 

Travis wakes up with his face smashed against Steph’s ribs, body sticky with sweat, the conversation he had with Nolan last night already in his head like it’s just carry over from a dream or something. 

He gives himself a second to lay in bed. Checks his phone, makes sure that Nolan actually did add himself on Snap and sees that, duh, he hasn’t messaged Travis yet, and neither has anyone else between last night and this morning. 

He gets up, leaving Steph tangled in the sheets in just her underwear, grabs his wallet, and goes for a run. 

He dry heaves a half a mile down the road, then actually pukes into a ditch a little bit later. Ends up walking through the McDonald’s drive-through since he forgot to bring a shirt with him; gets himself a box of greasy, perfect little potato rounds and a bacon egg and cheese biscuit, plus a huge cup of Diet Coke, which he downs so desperate it spills down his chest, cool and sticky. 

He eats his food standing in the parking lot next to the trash can, then shoves his cup and napkins in and runs back home, feeling half-better and half-worse. 

 

He sends Nolan a snap before he gets in the shower; a mirror selfie of Travis sweaty, hair fucking nuts, face all pale and wrung out.

In the shower with nothing to focus on but his body and the dingy grout of the tile wall, Travis always gets moody. Starts thinking about G and Sean and Laughts, all the dudes on the team who Travis was best friends with last year and hasn’t heard barely a word from since they graduated in the fall.  

Travis doesn’t get what’s so wrong with him that he’s had eight different best friends in his life and now the only one he still talks to is Law. And really only sometimes; when Travis texts him first, mostly, or once in a while when Law messages him to say “I miss you” but nothing else. 

Joel and Morgan are chill, and Steph is awesome, always down to hang out. But really, right now, with all the guys he spent four years playing with graduated, his only real solid thing is his family, who he still calls all the time, who still even have a fucking landline, so that when he gets really lonely he can call and even if his parents are at work or sleeping or something, he can leave a message and at least know the house he grew up in is hearing it. 

He really needs a best friend, though. Someone who will listen to him and get what he’s saying; make him laugh; wrestle him and work out with him and shit when Travis gets antsy. Like Law or Laughts, or Nolan, kind of, even though he’d been so quiet most of the night Travis hadn’t really gotten a feel for him beyond grumpy and Canadian and patient, because he’d laid down next to Travis in bed and listened to him ramble.

Last night, Nolan’s body in his bed made him feel steady and solid in this weird way. It’s not like he hasn’t been close to other people recently. He hugs and messes around with his teammates all the time, with and without pads, and, in a totally different category, he has sex with and also cuddles with Steph pretty often, too.

Maybe it was the fact that they weren’t touching at all, but that Nolan was still so close that Travis could feel the heat of him. Like how dating his middle school girlfriend had been so hot because they could sit next to each other to watch a movie; even share a blanket, but they couldn’t actually touch, because their families were always right there in the room with them. 

Except, not like that, because Nolan’s a dude; blech. 

When Travis gets out of the shower he has a “yikes” text from Nolan. He smiles at his phone and sends back a funny Canadian meme he's had saved for like two months. Goes into his room to find Steph half-naked and yawning, and gets on his stomach between her legs. 

 

⊹⊹⊹⊹

 

Even with a full 24 hours to recover from his hangover, practice on Monday is brutal. 

Travis runs drills feeling sore and slow and sweaty; misses fucking sitters like he hasn’t done in years. When they scrimmage he falls about forty times, slipping around on the ice like a six-year-old and fucking up so many goals for his team that Jake loses his patience and screams at him across the ice, “Stop skating like a fucking fag!” 

It doesn’t bother him or anything. Hockey is macho and bro-y, but it’s got nothing on the way it gets out on the water or sitting in a blind in the woods the way Travis has been doing since he was a kid; Travis’ brother and dad and uncles all getting pissed if someone messes up their shot or misses their fish with the net; getting all intense about who shoots the most birds, talking shit to each other and then getting so focused they’re all dead quiet for fucking hours; coming back to the house and showing off whatever they killed that day like they’re cavemen providing for their tribe.

Travis likes it. Like, he loves it. He can clean a fish and gut a deer without thinking, easy and slick; scales and guts and nothing else.

And yeah, like Chase always fucking brings up, he cried ten years ago when he gutted his first doe and found a little pink fetus spilled out on the ground underneath her, but he’s not a fucking baby anymore.

He can look at blood and then just look away; can get yelled at and called all kinds of shit, whatever. It just makes him stronger.

 

Longing, because when I was born I was choking, and when they cleared my throat, a minnow flopped out.

Waves drag them up. Smooth between their legs, smelling like fish. Long hair cut off and tied on in slipknots so when fishermen grab at it they can slide away and back into the lake. They keep coming, so the priest catches them in nets; brings them into the church basement to give them last rites while he watches them drown on damp air.

Dad calls them scourge and sin; the fishermen say curse and cloud. I found one one morning and it grabbed my ankle gently, running its finger over the round of bone there, chin in the sand. I was young, and I didn’t know what to call them then but wrong, and now they’re pulled off the beach before I can see, so I decide on longing.