“You know, mister, if you don’t give me something to go on soon, I’m gonna have to take matters into my own hands.”
The lilting voice from the kitchen, raised to be heard over the water running, had that knife edge that Jack knew meant Bitty was losing patience with him. He’d been asking Jack about what he wanted to do for his birthday for over a month.
His birthday. He was turning thirty. Years old.
“I really don’t know, Bits.” Jack sighed, looking up from his reading.
“Can’t hear you!”
Jack closed his eyes. “I don’t know, Bits,” he said, a little too loud, hoping he didn’t sound the way he was feeling.
The silence from the kitchen was punctuated by the bangs of cupboards opening and closing and clean dishes being stacked away.
Jack kept his eyes steadily on the same sentence in his book until he felt the cushions’ shift to signify that Bitty had joined him on the sofa.
“There must be something that you want to do, Jack.”
Jack looked over at his husband, sitting stiff and straight with his arms crossed tight over his chest. He let his mind scramble for a moment for some idea, any idea that might make Bitty reach out and wrap those arms around him instead.
“How about dinner at the club?”
Bitty raised his eyebrows. “The club? Christ almighty, sweetpea, you’re turning thirty, not eighty.”
Jack shrugged. “It’s a nice place.”
“It’s a buffet.”
“We could play a round first. And maybe,” Jack was punting here, but he tried to make it sound convincing, “...maybe you could invite a few people. My parents. Maybe Shitty and Lardo? Tater? I don’t know.”
Bitty was quiet for a moment, so Jack looked back down at his book and read the same sentence again.
“You wouldn’t hurt yourself?” Bitty said, at last, arms still folded tight.
Jack’s chest felt hollow as he said, “Nah, docs said mild exercise will be good for me in the next few months, remember.”
Bitty was quiet for a moment, but then he clapped his hands once, decided.
“Well then, if that’s what you want, mister. Golf it is!”
Jack reached out an arm hoping Bitty might lean in for a moment, but Bitty hopped up from the sofa and headed for his phone before he noticed.
Lardo Three decades dude. Happy bday.
Shitty Light it up, baby! Zimmer-golf-venture ahead!!! See you at tee time, brah. There shall be spankin’!
Maman I’m so proud of you, Jack, for all you’ve been through this year. Here’s to a fresh start! Happy Birthday!
Tater Now you so old, Zimmboni! Soon drive Oldsmobile! Hahahahaha! (and come pick me up, got two more speeding tickets) Miss you, friend! See you at golfing!
Papa Bonne fete!
When it was time, Bitty insisted on blindfolding Jack for the drive to the club.
“Makes it a bit more fun, don’t it?” Bitty said as he led Jack by the arm out of the car.
“Yeah, sure does, Bits.” Jack tried to keep his voice light, though his body and mind had been sluggish all day, even when Bitty had woken him up with his gift (a new blue golf shirt that he was currently wearing) and breakfast in bed (eggs, bacon, and homemade biscuits). He’d been trying to pull himself together since then, to muster some sort of excitement for the day.
“You still wanna do this, Jack?” Bitty asked quietly as he took them a few steps further into the midday, August humidity.
“Yeah, of course, Bits,” Jack said to himself as much as to Bitty.
“Well, then get ready for a shock, birthday boy!” Bitty said, coming to a halt and grabbing onto Jack’s blindfold. For a moment, Jack’s heart rate accelerated; maybe this was going to be a surprise, and they weren’t actually at the club after all?
But when Bitty pulled the blindfold away and shouted, “Ta-da!”, the familiar entryway to the golf club that Jack (and Bitty, though he rarely came) had joined three years ago was before him, his father pulling open the door and waving to them in welcome.
Jack breathed in deep. He’d asked for this; he would enjoy this.
“Sorry ‘bout that, sweetpea,” Bitty said, giving Jack a little pat on his lower back after his drive off the fifth tee fell well short and bounced into the rough on the left side of the fairway.
Jack, his father, Bitty, and Shitty played as a foursome, with his mother, Lardo, and Tater following behind as a trio. So far, the day had been exactly to the letter what he had asked Bitty to plan for him. No more, no less. It was hot; Jack’s new shirt was soaked through in several places. And nothing was working in Jack’s game.
Bitty, who generally avoided golfing, stepped up after Jack and hit a gorgeous drive off the tee, straight towards the green.
“Bitty, my man!” Shitty hooted, shading his eyes as he watched Bitty’s ball roll to a stop in the middle of the fairway. It was his fifth perfect tee shot so far. “You been holding out on us with these mad skills?”
Bitty laughed. “No sir, I promise you. I’ve hardly played this year.”
Jack’s father grinned. “I always dreamed I’d have a son-in-law with a great golf swing. I knew Jack would come through for me.”
Bob’s hand on Jack’s shoulder rested there like an anchor.
“Let’s keep moving,” Jack said, tossing his bag onto his shoulder and ignoring the sharp twinge in his back at the twisting motion. He felt his words thud into the cheerful atmosphere like stones.
“I think Jacko’s jealous of your shot, Bits,” Shitty teased, nudging Jack in the shoulder.
“You wanna play my ball, hon?” Bitty asked, his voice kind of sad and hopeful. “It is your birthday.”
“No, you got it, Bits,” Jack said, suddenly unaccountably cross with everyone.
He strode down the slope in the direction his ball had bounced without looking back.
After the ninth hole, the first foursome waited for the group behind to catch up so they could swap around who was playing together. Bitty had planned it so that Jack would have time with everybody in the group out on the course.
Before his first partners fell back to play as a trio themselves on the back nine, Bitty placed a tentative hand on Jack’s forearm and craned up to kiss him on the cheek.
“You sure you’re okay, hon?” he asked, his voice a level of saccharine that made Jack bristle.
“I’m fine,” he replied, pulling away.
“Okay, mister,” Bitty said, his tone suddenly cool.
Jack watched Bitty walk away, and then stepped up to the tee and hit a slice right into the sand.
It turned out Lardo had never played eighteen holes of golf before, which Jack thought Bitty probably ought to have known before inviting her to play at the club. To not completely clog up the course, she apparently needed to regularly pick up her ball and carry it to the green. She hadn’t even kept score the first nine holes.
For some reason, that pissed Jack off too.
“You could have taken some practice swings on the range,” he said, after she’d whiffed at the ball three times on the twelfth.
“I just thought I’d come out and have some fun for your birthday,” Lardo said curtly, focusing in on the ball again and taking a wild swing that managed to send it about a hundred feet from the tee.
“She’s been doing great, Jack.” His mother had been patiently instructing Lardo on form for every stroke.
“No worse than me,” Tater added with a grin, “and I hit on range one hour!”
As if to prove his point, Tater stepped up, placed his tee, and took his usual slapshot swing to the ball, chopping it only a bit further than Lardo’s. Lardo held up a hand to Tater, who met her in an enthusiastic high five.
“Sweet,” Lardo said. “We suck.”
The two of them linked arms and skipped together off the tee. Since when had they become so friendly, Jack wondered.
Jack’s mother came up beside him as he stared after them. “She’s right, hon. Papa and I didn’t come down because we wanted to play our best golf. We just wanted to have a fun day together with you.”
Jack felt his jaw clench. “We’re holding up the pace.”
His mother sighed. “Maybe a little. Does it matter?”
Everything matters, Jack thought.
“Yeah, no. It’s fine,” he said.
After a moment of quiet, she asked, “Have you seen your doctors recently?”
Jack’s gut clenched. “I see them Monday.”
“I see. That’s good.”
They stood together on the slope watching Tater try to help Lardo’s stance by gyrating his hips madly and winding up like he was planning to hit a home run. His mother gently touched Jack’s elbow, just for a moment.
“Yep, it’s good,” Jack repeated.
The party reunited at the clubhouse. By the last hole, Bitty had improved on his course best and come out ahead of both of Jack’s golf-obsessed parents, which was met with cheers and hugs by all but Jack, who tried to smile but couldn’t see past his own dismal score to celebrate.
“He eagled the fifteenth, Jack!” Shitty said, his arm draped over Lardo’s shoulder, her arms wrapped around his sweaty chest. “Eagled!”
Jack nodded, hoping that read as appreciation. Across their assembled circle, Bitty smiled over at him. Jack tried to smile back.
“Well, I got the high score,” Lardo added, her voice mocking. “Do I win something?”
“My eternal love and devotion,” Shitty replied, waggling his eyebrows and kissing her on the nose.
“Pfft, that all?”
“Y’all, I’m gonna head in and make sure they are getting our table ready for supper,” Bitty said.
“Why don’t the rest of us put away our gear and wash up,” Jack’s father suggested. “I sure could use a moment.”
“Good thinking, hockey legend Bob,” Tater said with an appreciative nod, and everyone laughed again. Jack’s chest felt tight as a drum.
As the party broke up in different directions for the moment, Bitty caught Jack’s eye, his look painfully pinched. Jack didn’t know what to do with that, so he looked away.
“I’ll get our clubs to the car, Bits. Where did you park?”
“Just over by the little shed, Jack.”
“Hey, Jack?” Bitty said, his voice suddenly quite loud.
“Yeah?” Jack looked back over at Bitty.
Bitty’s expression, briefly unguarded, was hard and angry. But then he breathed out and his face softened again, and Jack hoped he had just imagined it.
“They have the pot roast tonight. With au jus.”
“Oh,” Jack said. “Great.”
As Jack walked away, his back screaming at him for carrying two golf bags at once, he heard Bitty mutter, “Just the way you like it, Jack.”
After depositing the bags in their car, Jack wandered out onto the empty patio to stand in the shade of a poor tree drooping from the humidity. He got a sudden urge for a cigarette.
He and Kenny had experimented with smoking for several months back in juniors. Now, in the stifling heat, knowing that on Monday three doctors would be checking his every vital sign and that a sea of fans were counting on him as a paragon of fitness, the rebellion of it, the utter wrongness, sent a craving through Jack’s skin. He bit at the inside of his lip for a moment.
“Jack.” Lardo had sidled up beside him so quietly that he hadn’t heard her coming.
“Table’s almost ready.”
Lardo folded her arms and leaned against the trunk of the tree, staring out at the course. Jack looked out as well; neither of them had ever been much for small talk.
After a minute, however, Lardo cleared her throat pointedly.
“So--” Lardo paused for so long Jack had to look over to make sure she was still there, “-- how much longer do you plan to be an asshole?”
Jack’s pulse suddenly jumped. “Huh?”
“Asshole. You being one. Is it just special for today? Or is it more of a trend? Because this is some shit I thought you’d left far behind.”
Lardo’s words landed like punches, and Jack felt his hand instinctively curl into a fist to protect himself.
“I...” He couldn’t speak. He didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t fucking make up shit, Zimmermann. What’s going on?”
Jack’s chest was tight, like he was being squeezed by a giant fist.
“It’s been hard,” he finally managed.
“Yeah, no shit, asshole. You’ve been sidelined for eight months.” Lardo’s arms were still firmly crossed.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to play hockey anymore.” Jack hadn’t let himself say that out loud to anyone yet, not even Bitty. Not even himself. “I think this week they’re gonna tell me.”
And now he was thirty. Thirty.
“Hm,” Lardo huffed, nodding skeptically. “That sucks, Jack, and I really want to be there for you. But right now? Guess what? I don’t care.”
Lardo went on, her voice blunt. “So you got hurt. So what? You’ve had a magical career, your family loves you, you own two homes, your friends put up with you far more than you deserve, you’re a goddamn queer icon, and you have the most caring, understanding, selfless, and patient husband on the planet. You have the resources to take care of yourself, and you obviously are not, and that’s bullshit, Jack. You got shit to deal with? Deal with it.”
Jack couldn’t look at her. He couldn’t even muster the energy to contradict a thing she was saying. He’d fractured two vertebrae mid-season. Nothing had been right since: not his marriage, not his friendships, not his golf game. Nothing.
“It’s not that easy,” he said.
“You on your meds?”
Jack shook his head. He’d had to go off his antidepressants to be on the massive amount of painkillers he’d required for daily existence. He’d never bothered to go back on.
“You being honest with your docs?”
Jack shook his head again.
“You talking to Bitty about all this?”
Jack shook his head once more. He was enough of a burden on his husband. He didn’t need to overwhelm him with his shit, not when Bitty’s career was taking off so successfully.
Lardo sighed. “Shits and I drew straws just now to decide who got to come out here and chew you out. We love you, but damn. Time to grow up, Jack.”
With that, she turned on her heel and strode off back towards the restaurant.
Jack stood in the shade of the tree for several minutes, feeling the truth in Lardo’s every stinging word.
“Grow up,” he finally said out loud through clenched teeth. Wiping his eyes and nose on his new shirt, he looked back towards the clubhouse and knew what he needed to do.
The rest of the party had gathered by the hostess station, looking refreshed in the restaurant’s air conditioned chill. As a distance, Jack could see the easy banter passing between them all, his family members, real and chosen. Bitty was at the center of it all, his beautiful face lively and hopeful, smiling and joking with Tater and Shitty, like nothing at all was amiss.
He loved Bitty so much. He’d be better off without you dragging him down, Jack’s broken brain announced, but Jack managed to drown that thought out with Lardo’s sharp, “Time to grow up.”
Jack approached the group.
“There’s the man of the hour!” his father said by way of greeting.
“Hey, I need to talk to Bits for a minute, if you don’t mind,” Jack said to the group, his eyes on Bitty.
Bitty quirked his head to the side, then nodded and followed Jack. As they walked away from the circle, Jack caught Lardo’s gaze. She raised an eyebrow at him.
Jack wasn’t exactly sure where to go for some privacy, so he kept walking until he found an open door to an empty private banquet room. Bitty followed him in and Jack shut the door behind them.
“Jack, what is going on? I thought this was what you wanted…”
Jack didn’t let Bitty get any farther. He stepped up and cupped Bitty’s grumpy, gorgeous face in his hands, leaned in, and kissed him, gently, on the lips. It was so reminiscent of the first time they’d kissed, Jack felt tears spring to his eyes. He realized that they hadn’t kissed once today, not even when he’d opened his gift or finished his biscuits.
Bitty didn’t kiss him back right away. His lips remained stiff and unyielding. Jack pulled back a bit, resting his forehead against Bitty’s tousled hair.
“Bits, I’m sorry. Crisse, I’m so sorry.”
Jack could see Bitty’s chest rising and falling in the silence.
“I thought this was what you wanted for your birthday, Jack,” he said at last.
“I know. You’ve done so much. You’re so good to me, Bits.”
Bitty pulled back. “Are you upset because I beat you at golf?”
Jack marveled at the depths to which he had fucked this up.
“No, Bits. Golf is stupid. I don’t know if I even like golf. I just play it. I don’t know why I said this was what I wanted. I think…” Honesty was hard work when he’d spent so much effort hiding the truth. “...I think I’m scared.”
Bitty’s hands came to rest softly on Jack’s hips, and Jack almost choked at the relief he felt at his touch.
“I’ve never really let myself think past my hockey career, Bits. I... never thought I would make it this far.”
“Jack, you’re turning thirty. It’s not the end of the world.”
Jack swallowed hard. “The doctors’ news is all bad and I haven’t been taking my meds, and I’ve been holding you at arms’ length for months so that you don’t get dragged down with me.” Saying it aloud felt like jumping off a cliff with only a hope that there were no rocks below.
Bitty leaned in then and kissed Jack, his lips soft. “I know, sweetheart.”
“I don’t want to do that to you anymore.”
“Well, that’s good to hear, cause I wasn’t gonna put up with it much longer.”
Bitty smiled and kissed him again, but Jack heard the terrifying truth in his words.
He’d hit, but so far the water was deep enough. He would get himself back on track this week, call his therapist, talk honestly to his doctors. He had to. A new decade, a fresh start.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now, Bits. The last time I thought I’d have to face life without hockey, it… didn’t go well.”
“You silly man, you don’t have to figure that out all on your own you know. You have me. You have all of us.”
“I know, bud. I guess I forgot.”
Bitty tightened his grip on Jack’s waist and rolled his eyes fondly at him. Lardo was right, Jack thought, about how much he did not deserve his friends.
Fighting more tears, Jack kissed Bitty again, and this time Bitty let his lips soften and open into a deep kiss, his arms circling Jack’s back and bringing their bodies close in a way they had not for months, not since before Jack’s injury.
After a long and heated moment, Jack pulled back, remembering where they were.
“Lord, Jack.” Bitty’s cheeks were flushed. “Now I’m in a state.”
Jack smiled, something he hadn’t done all day. Maybe in months. “I’m so sorry I told you that this was what I wanted for my birthday, Bits. I know you hate golf. It’s ninety-five degrees out. You hate pot roast.”
“Do you think I wanted to buy you a golf shirt as a gift? Jack, it’s been horrible.”
Jack started making a list in his head of all of the ways he was going to make this up to Bitty, starting right now.
“Let’s go. Let’s get everyone else, and go home and turn up the AC and order some pizzas.”
“I can make a pie!”
Jack felt his eyes welling again. “I’d love that.”
“Lord, I hope we have candles in the drawer so we can sing properly.”
Jack laughed, the weight of the last eight months easing from his shoulders. Not gone, but lightened enough to carry.
“You really want Shitty to sing?”
“It’s Tater I’d be worried about,” Bitty said with a grin.
As they walked back to their guests, Bitty reached out for Jack’s hand and Jack held on, for better or for worse, and squeezed.