There are no almosts in hockey. There are no almosts in Beartown either, which is why Benjamin Ovich knew when he left that he was never coming back.
He doesn’t talk about it. Much. For a while he found creative answers if anyone asked him about the bear tattoo on his arm. Then he just devolved into silence and shrugs, which when it’s Benji doing it, works every time.
The only people from Beartown that he talks to are his sisters – Gaby mostly, because she rings to check on him. Katia sends him the odd text and he tries to reply when he can. He doesn’t hear from Adri, but Gaby tells him that she’s doing wonderful things with the Beartown girls’ team.
The only person he sees is Maya. He assumed he was done with her since their last meeting at the train station, but life has a funny way of showing him he’s wrong about people. She gets in touch to say she’s in town and they go for a drink. The fancy music school is working out well for her, but he can tell her edges are still a little sharp for it. Maybe they’ll wear down the longer she spends there.
‘It’s nice to be somewhere else,’ she says. Benji understands what she means. Outside of Beartown she isn’t Peter Andersson’s daughter or the girl who ruined the junior hockey team. She’s just a girl with a guitar and a tattoo of a rifle on her arm.
Benji has undergone a similar process. It is both horrifying and liberating to be somewhere where no one knows anyone and collective history doesn’t stretch further than a block or two. The only trees here are maintained by the city council, evenly spaced and pruned every year. He’s climbed them only once, in the middle of the night on the way back from a bar. It’s an entirely different experience to sit halfway up a tree and watch the red blur of brake lights as traffic goes past. It’s so much more open and exposed than the forest – but this is not Beartown, and none of the people who see him know who he is.
Maya doesn’t say much about the people they both know. Ana’s name doesn’t come up, but Benji idly wonders if he should ask after her. He told Maya to forgive her, after all. But then, Ana is presumably going to college somewhere else. She and Maya might have been joined at the hip for the last ten years, but that’s not enough when only one of them plays guitar.
Benji doesn’t have a best friend either.
‘They miss you,’ Maya says, when they say goodbye at the bus stop. Her visit is only a brief one. Benji could offer her his shitty sofa if she didn’t want to travel far, but he knows she would say no. She understands him in a way that no one else is ever going to and part of that is knowing that they aren’t that kind of friend.
He doesn’t ask who ‘they’ are. Lets it encompass all the people he tries not to think about: Amat and Bobo, Ramona, his mother and sisters. Beartown Hockey Club.
‘Maybe I should send a postcard,’ he says.
That gets a smile from Maya.
Then her bus rolls up and she gets on it, glancing back as her smile fades and he wonders if it’s the last time he’ll see her. It isn’t, but it’s the same thought he has every time he says goodbye to someone. Best to be on the safe side. You never know how a night is going to turn out.
Benji’s apartment has black mould growing on the bathroom walls and the kitchen window frame is rotted through so that in winter there’s nothing to stop all the warm air escaping. He didn’t notice for the first week of frost; the city is never as cold as Beartown. It’s only when he brings someone back to the apartment and they remark on the chill that he really picks up on it, and then, well, it just makes a warm bed all the more enticing.
He works at three bars and gets fired from each. The first is a trendy place close to the centre of town that serves drinks in glass jars and has open mic nights. He suspects that they only hire him out of aesthetic curiosity. That doesn’t last long. The second is a sports bar, which would be fine if they didn’t mainly broadcast hockey. The third is a biker bar. It’s simultaneously the place where he is most at ease and most unwelcome. The fight he gets in there reminds him of home.
He ends up at a place largely catering to students. It’s not as bad as it sounds. So long as he’s pouring drinks they don’t care if he’s not talkative and only occasionally does he hear someone mention Nietzsche.
It takes a while for him to get along with the other bartender. She’s twenty-four, studies part-time and has so many piercings that going through airport security must be a nightmare. She watches Benji with suspicion for the first few weeks, warming up to him after he stops some drunk guys from hitting on a girl who’s clearly uninterested. Funny, the friends you make by telling shitty dudes to get lost.
In the end, though, the other bartender is the first person he comes out to in the city. Well, officially, anyway. It’s not like he hasn’t taken a few guys back to his apartment, but by that point they’re usually well past pleasantries that saying anything close to I’m gay would just be met with laughter or perhaps ‘I’d fucking hope so’.
He doesn’t really mean to, but it’s 4 am and they’ve both had a drink while closing. He’s asked about her weekend plans and she gives him a calculated look before saying she’ll spend it with her girlfriend.
That sort of thing would be so unsayable in Beartown that for a moment he doesn’t know how to react. Then he just shrugs. This is the city; nobody cares if you’re gay. When the summer comes around they even have a pride parade. Benji has never been and doesn’t plan on going, but at least now he has a lesbian friend. Baby steps.
‘What about you?’ the other bartender asks, when he doesn’t say anything. ‘You seeing anyone?’
He’s had enough girls come into the bar and give him their number – some discreetly, some not so much – and never called any of them for her to suspect. Maybe that’s why she asks.
It’s not any of her business; he almost tells her that. But, then, he’s had a drink and she’s gay so what’s she gonna do? If this is the sort of shit that could get him fired, she’ll be coming down with him.
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘Been for a drink with a couple of guys but nothing serious.’ He’s done a lot more, but that really isn’t her business.
She nods, thoughtful. ‘What’s your type?’
Hockey players. Anyone but hockey players.
‘Fuck if I know,’ he says, and that’s the end of the conversation. He assumes, erroneously, that now that’s out in the open they won’t need to discuss it further. He’s not really sure what there would be to say. He’s completely unprepared, then, when she confronts him a few days later.
‘Okay,’ she says. It’s a slow shift and so far the most entertainment they’ve had is chasing off the local university’s ukulele society. ‘A bunch of my friends are coming in, given that there’s fuck-all else for us to do.’
‘Okay,’ he echoes, still waiting to hear what this has to do with him.
‘You should join us,’ she says. ‘For a drink.’
She sees him hesitate, and follows up, ‘Look, Benji. Don’t take this the wrong way, or anything, but do you actually know any gay people?’
He opens his mouth to tell her just how well he knows the guy in the building across the street, but she cuts him off.
‘Not people you’ve just hooked up with. I’m talking about friends.’
‘We’re friends,’ he points out.
‘One drink. If you hate them, you can leave. I’ll lock up.’
It’s as decent a deal as he’s likely to get, so he shrugs. If her friends have half as many piercings as she does, they might be good company.
He didn’t mean to be this isolated when he got to the city. The deliciousness of being unknown swept over him and took hold and so far he hasn’t had a good enough reason to shake it. In his more sensible moments, Benji recognises it cannot and will not be forever. That’s the whole reason he left, isn’t it? So that when he woke up alongside someone in the morning, it wouldn’t be to hear how they’re sorry but they can’t stay in this fucked up little town.
The other bartender’s friends show up after half an hour; a rowdy group with ripped black skinny jeans and dyed hair. They push two tables together, spread out their stuff to claim the space and come up to the bar for drinks. They remind Benji of foxes or raccoons, scrappy urban pack animals scrambling over each other for space. A bear could demolish them in seconds, but they aren’t in Beartown.
‘That’s Benji,’ he hears the other bartender saying. ‘I’ve said he can join us, but he’s a miserable bastard.’
The others glance in his direction. Some of them take longer to look than others.
Benji starts cleaning glasses. He doesn’t go over to the table, but he watches as they talk. One of the boys has his arm draped over the back of the chair of another. One girl rocks back her chair so far that she falls over, to ensuing laughter. It’s like watching middle school kids goof off, even though they’re all older than him and drinking their way through the other bartender’s staff discount.
When he’s run out of menial tasks to keep his hands busy, Benji leaves. The bar isn’t that far from his apartment. He doesn’t go there. Instead he just walks, a sedate version of the way he used to run through the forest. There aren’t any trees on this street to punch.
This is the first time he’s missed home. That’s fucked up and he knows it. How many times did he sit in the locker room listening to homophobic jokes and slurs being tossed back and forth and made himself numb to it? How on earth could that be easier than sitting back and watching a bunch of happily queer people talk shit about their crappy landlords and underpaid jobs and how they ruined their favourite hoodie trying to tie-dye it?
He walks around until he gets lost. That’s the one thing cities and forests have in common; if you walk far enough they will swallow you up. He passes a park with a temporary ice rink installed, one of those popup ones for the holidays. It’s still relatively early in the evening and it’s busy. He doesn’t break stride, not even as he lets himself look over to see couples wobbling round holding hands and small kids colliding with each other.
Benji can’t remember what it felt like not being able to skate.
He goes on till he finds the next bar and goes in, even though it’s one he was kicked out of two months ago. The bartender is new, though, and doesn’t recognise him, so he’s well on his way to being properly wasted by the time he’s firmly escorted out.
(By and large, fights are a disappointing affair here. That’s not to say he hasn’t taken some good hits or that the people he aggravates don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s just not the same. We all believe our hometown is best at the things important to us.)
He couldn’t say exactly why or how any of the next events happen, but he’s walking home past the popup rink when the impulse takes him. It’s empty now and the lights are all out in the accompanying marquee.
It’s really ridiculously easy to break into, even for a glorified tent. He uses the light from his phone to sort through the skates till he finds a pair in his size. All of his hockey gear, jersey and skates included, he left in Beartown.
He laces them up mechanically, fingers flying, and stands up so quickly that he nearly loses his balance. Then he’s sneaking out the other side of the marquee and onto the ice.
It hasn’t been maintained very well. You can’t really blame them, the rink is less than a hundred yards long and intended for holidaymakers. It’s big enough for maybe one face-off circle. Elizabeth Zackell would probably run a full training session on it.
He skates without thinking. He’s still fairly drunk, though the cool night air is doing its best to sober him. He goes round in circles at first, like you are meant to on a rink that size. He speeds up without really meaning to, which would be fine if this was a proper rink. This ice, however, is treacherously shit, which is how he ends up checking himself into the boards at a dizzying velocity.
Benji survives. The side of the rink is not so lucky. Its constructors had optimistically anticipated that only small children would be crashing into it. It’s an honest mistake; one doesn’t typically assume that a drunk hockey player is going to try their luck.
He gets up slowly. This is, he’ll admit, on the clumsier side of break-ins. The rink’s owners aren’t likely to notice the extra wear on the ice or the footprints in the marquee, but the gaping hole in the plywood boards – plywood, what did they expect – is a bit of a giveaway.
‘Whoops,’ Benji says, to no one in particular.
In that spate of optimism that can only accompany uprooting oneself and going somewhere new, Benjamin Ovich had assumed that since hockey was integral to Beartown, that the reverse was also true. It has taken an accidental moment of wanton destruction for him to realise that that is not the case.
He doesn’t go back the next day, not out of any particular sense of self-control but because he can’t remember where the popup rink was. It doesn’t seem to have a website. He even goes as far as to ask the other bartender, who raises her eyebrows.
‘I was wondering how long it would take before you confessed to your figure skating ways,’ she says. It takes him all of ten seconds to realise it’s not a joke directed at his sexuality. Well, it is, but not in a mean way. It doesn’t count if the person saying it is gay, especially not when they follow up by flicking a dishcloth playfully in his direction.
She can’t help him, though, so on his next free afternoon – two days after the incident occurred – he tries to retrace his steps. He vaguely remembers where the bar was, so heads in that direction. He’s not really sure what he’s looking for. Maybe he just wants to confirm that it was real and he didn’t hallucinate the whole thing. Or he wants to see what kind of safety measures they’ve put up to stop small children from sliding through the gap in the boards.
When he does find it, he’s pleased to discover that they’ve gone down the cones-and-yellow-tape route. He stands there for a moment, surveying it and forgetting that the one essential element of getting away with a crime is not returning to the scene.
‘Hey,’ someone says.
Benji looks up. It’s one of the rink attendants, a guy around his own age in a black polo shirt with the company logo embroidered on it.
‘Pretty impressive, huh,’ the guy says, conversationally, looking from Benji to the damage. ‘The guys were taking bets on what happened. One of them reckons some idiot rode a motorbike into it.’
Benji makes a non-committal sound.
‘Problem with that theory, though,’ the guy continues. He’s kind of cute. Black curly hair and brown eyes. Benji’s definitely not looking. ‘Boards were broken from the inside. Someone was on the ice and hit them.’
‘Ouch,’ Benji says, fully aware at how the guy is looking at him now. Coming back was a terrible idea, especially when he’s got visible bruises that aren’t from that collision but might as well be.
‘No blood or anything on the ice,’ the guy adds. ‘We looked. Must have been a helluva person to do that and walk away.’
‘How do you know that they did?’ Benji asks, mildly.
The guy meets his eyes. ‘They stole a pair of skates.’
Ice Rink Guy’s name is Matthias, he works there because his uncle owns it and he thinks Benji’s act of demolition is the funniest thing in the world.
Benji gets all of this out of him without trying very hard. He’s not ever very seriously worried that Matthias is about to run off and report him to his superiors, because even if he did what are they going to do? They can’t prove it was him, even if they find out that his shoe size matches the missing skates. (They’re pieces of shit, why did he steal them?) And who, really, is going to look Benji in the eye and accuse him of vandalism?
So instead he stands there, hands insolently in his pockets, enjoying himself immensely until someone blows a whistle and Matthias skates effortlessly backwards to begin herding people off the ice at the end of the session.
It isn’t any kind of surprise that someone who works at a rink knows how to skate well, but the ease of the movement is immediately recognizable and Benji realises with a sinking heart that he’s just been flirting with a hockey player. Well, maybe Matthias isn’t currently a hockey player. He, too, could be on the run from a trauma-filled past that happened to involve hockey. Benji can’t be the only person to exist in that category. (He refuses to think about the other person who definitely does.)
It’s enough for his common sense to return, though, and when Matthias looks back over his shoulder after clearing the last stragglers off the ice Benji has gone.
He comes back five days later, to find that the tape around the broken boards has intensified – as though if they thought if they added enough of it no one would mind the hole.
Benji stands next to his handiwork, elbows resting on the railing. It puts him firmly in the way of anyone clinging to the edge for support, but none of them tell him to move.
It only takes Matthias three minutes to skate over.
‘You can’t do that,’ he says, by way of greeting.
‘I mean it,’ Matthias says. ‘If you don’t move then I’ll get yelled at and I could really do without that this week.’
Benji moves, obligingly. ‘Have they given you a hard time about - ’ he jerks his head to the tape.
‘Nah, but things add up.’ Matthias sticks his hands in his pockets. ‘Are you here to skate? Or just to stand there and wait for people to put the pieces together?’
‘I don’t know, man,’ Benji says. ‘I heard it was some guy on a motorbike.’
That makes Matthias smile. He is cute. Fuck.
‘I don’t know why I’m saying this when you’re clearly on a path of destruction,’ he says, glancing over his shoulder at his colleagues and then back to Benji. ‘But, well, there is a proper rink. It’s a bit further out of town, but if you’re looking for somewhere to skate properly…’
‘Security is probably better there,’ Matthias adds, somewhat pointedly. ‘Not perfect, though.’
‘Probably a two man job.’
‘I finish at nine.’
It’s Benji’s night off. He’d had some vague plans involving takeaway pizza, but breaking into an ice rink is more his style in pretty much every sense of the word. Plus, it doesn’t count as playing hockey if it’s all an elaborate way of getting a cute guy to come home with him.
‘Guess I’ll see you then.’
He takes the long way home, thinking. He almost walks into a cyclist, who swears at him. Benji swears back, reflexively. His bike is one of the things he wishes he’d thought to bring. His departure from Beartown, while premeditated, wasn’t particularly well planned. He didn’t really think about where he was headed, so long that it was far enough away. A bike would have got in the way and slowed him down – and the city does have decent public transport. Nevertheless, it would have given him a degree of autonomy in his movements. Now if he wants to move quickly under his own steam he’s got to jog, which is hideous in an urban environment. The rest of the time he gets the bus.
Maybe he’ll get a bike. For a while after he moved he did his best to avoid acquiring much in the terms of new things, so that if he wanted to move again it would be easy. This city wasn’t the first place he ended up, but he’s found himself stuck to it, like chewing gum on the sole of someone’s shoe.
Now he has a pair of stolen skates sitting in his hallway. A bicycle might be the logical next step after that.
Once home, he makes a small effort to tidy – not hard when his belongings are on the minimal side – and gets the skates out to have a proper look at them. They aren’t as shitty as he initially gave them credit for; he wouldn’t want to play hockey in them but they’re only a couple of years old and kept reasonably sharp. The only identifying label is that of the manufacturer; there’s nothing to suggest they’ve ever belonged to anyone apart from him.
Benji puts them in his backpack and pulls the drawstring tight. For about five seconds he’s filled with the sudden, violent urge to throw the whole thing out of the nearest window, but then his phone pings. A text from Gaby, asking if he’s around to call her. That means it isn’t serious; if it was she’d skip the pleasantries and call him directly. There probably is time to chat if he throws together some food now and then maybe stays on the phone for the walk over, but then he’ll have to say where he’s going and that seems too much like jinxing it. His sisters know that he left his skates behind.
Tomorrow? He replies. That way, he’ll only have to tell her if there is anything to tell her. He’s not about to start supplying Gaby with the tawdry details of his love life, but this could turn into the sort of wholesome anecdote that will reassure her that her little brother hasn’t been eroded by city life.
Matthias is waiting outside the marquee, bag in hand. He’s still wearing his work clothes, but then that’s not really surprising when there’s nowhere to get changed.
‘I wasn’t sure you’d come,’ he admits, as they start walking to the bus stop. Now that they’re on even ground for the first time, it’s apparent he’s a little shorter than Benji.
‘Said I would, didn’t I?’
‘Yeah, but.’ He gives Benji a look. ‘You might have had other things to destroy.’
‘It was an accident,’ Benji says, only a little defensively. ‘Shitty ice, not my fault.’
They get the bus in a companionable silence, having reached the stage of knowing enough about each other that asking everything else – where are you from, what are you doing with your life, who are you really? – would just be awkward. So they sit there, next to each other but not touching, until the bus pulls up to a sports centre.
‘It’s been shut for an hour,’ Matthias says, as they walk towards it. ‘From my experience the cleaning staff don’t hang about, so we should be good.’
For once, fate is on Benji’s side. The lights are all off, they get inside without activating the burglar alarm and, once inside, don’t encounter anyone. Matthias leads the way down corridors and past indoor tennis courts.
‘You’ve done this before,’ Benji realises. ‘And you were giving me shit about trespassing.’
Matthias’s laugh echoes down the hallway. ‘It gets busy! And impossible to book.’
Benji can’t stay annoyed for long, because it turns out that having someone who knows where all the light switches are is extremely valuable. Not that he wouldn’t skate in pitch darkness – if anything, it would give things an exciting edge – but it wouldn’t be great for maintaining conversation and they don’t want to end up checking each other accidentally.
‘How are those skates working out for you?’ Matthias asks, glancing over as they both change out of their shoes.
‘Excellently. Best pair I’ve ever had. Already written my name on the label so they don’t get mixed up with anyone else’s.’ He hasn’t, but he might now that the thought’s occurred to him.
He ties the final knot and, without waiting, steps forward and out onto the ice.
The other night he’d been too tired and drunk to pay proper attention to what he was doing, but now he’s acutely aware of everything. It’s the first ice rink he’s been in since leaving Beartown.
Forgetting temporarily about Matthias, he skates down to the far end, circling back over the goal line. There are no nets in place; he swoops around behind the crease anyway, his hands feeling empty without a stick.
‘You’re a hockey player, right?’ Matthias asks, skating over to join him.
Benji tenses. ‘I was.’
It’s not something you can stop being. This was a stupid idea, coming here, letting himself be persuaded by a boy who’s already looking at him with open affection in his eyes.
‘A lot of shit happened,’ he says.
To his credit, Matthias doesn’t press the issue, instead saying simply, ‘Do you want to play?’
‘You got kit?’ Matthias’s bag was even smaller than his.
‘On me? No. But, well, I’m part of a club here, and I know the combination for the storeroom. So, do you want to play?’
No. Yes. There’s only one person Benji would train with, just the two of them, and even then it was more about keeping Kevin company than anything else. Then, well, everything happened, and that stopped.
The terrible part was that it wasn’t really a bad thing. The training he did with the Beartown A Team and that handful of games – they were the best and worst he’s played. After a lifetime of guarding Kevin on the ice, it was bizarre to be out there and have his primary concern be himself. Benji rose to the challenge, everything else fell apart and none of it was enough.
He looks at Matthias. Benji is quite accustomed to getting people to do what he wants, but this guy seems invested to a degree he hadn’t anticipated.
‘Why not,’ he hears himself say. ‘We’re already here.’
He loses control over the evening as soon as Matthias hands him a stick. They forego any other kit – an irresponsible decision of which Benji approves wholeheartedly – and head back to the ice.
‘Just be careful,’ Matthias says. ‘I’m meant to be seeing my grandmother this weekend and she’ll be heartbroken if I show up without teeth.’
Benji grins. There had been a hideous moment when they opened the storeroom and he realised he didn’t know if he’d played against this club in the junior league. But, as Matthias cheerfully informs him, they’re more of a community hockey type deal. Other, more accomplished teams use the rink, but he doesn’t name them.
Benji has avoided saying too much about his own hockey experience – it’s a fairly large can of worms for what is otherwise a pleasant evening – but once they get going, it’s impossible to avoid.
‘You’re good,’ Matthias says, as Benji sends a practiced shot against the boards. ‘Where did you play?’
‘Junior league,’ he says. ‘A Team, for a bit.’
‘Shit, we got a hotshot over here.’
‘Just the community team. Now and then we goad the other clubs into playing us, because we’re locals and they should be able to crush us easily.’
‘Oh, they absolutely crush us, but we don’t make it easy.’ He speaks so lightly, as if winning has no real consequence. In some places the economy of a whole town doesn’t rest on the shoulders of seventeen-year-olds.
They play for a while longer, against each other or the boards. Matthias isn’t incredible, but his movements are easy and fluid and he doesn’t seem to be trying to hard. He can skate better than Bobo, not that it’s a high bar.
Benji is out of practice, which somehow becomes more apparent the longer they keep going. It’s far less important than the way he’s skating and flirting at the same time, which isn’t a combination he’s had a chance to explore properly. Teaching the bass player doesn’t count, the instructional element meant they weren’t skating together in the way that he and Matthias are now.
‘Thanks,’ he says, when they finally call it quits for the evening. ‘This was … yeah.’ He hesitates. ‘Maybe we can do it again?’
He sounds like a teenager at the end of their first date. It’s ridiculous.
‘Yeah,’ Matthias says easily, putting him out of his misery. ‘It might be easier, though, if…’
‘You could come to a club session instead of breaking in.’ He holds up a hand. ‘I’m not trying to like, pry into whatever you have going on with hockey, but you’re obviously good at it, and maybe the guys could learn something from you.’
Benji stares at him. He had been fairly sure up until this point that whatever they had been doing qualified the evening as a date, only to be hit with the world’s most chill recruitment pitch.
‘Elise brings cookies, sometimes,’ Matthias adds. ‘Like I said, no pressure, but it might sort out your hockey fix or whatever it was that brought you to the popup rink after hours.’
A lot of vodka is the answer to that. But maybe he is onto something.
‘I… I’ll think about it,’ Benji says. It’s the best he can manage.
‘We don’t have to say how we met,’ Matthias continues. ‘We can just say you kept coming to my work and I taught you to skate.’
Benji laughs. The sound reverberates around the empty rink. ‘Yeah, okay.’
David would have an aneurysm if he knew that Benji is even considering it. What’s the point of hockey if you aren’t trying to win?
The night bus carries him back across the city. Matthias’s number is saved in his contact list. Swapping phones to exchange numbers is the closest they came to touching at the end of the night. There was a moment when they were standing there and Benji could feel Matthias’s eyes on him, and he nearly made a move. It would have been so easy to reach out and touch him and then a simple matter of convincing Matthias to come home with him.
He will spend the next forty-eight hours trying to figure out why he didn’t.
Benji tells Gaby a selective version of events, mostly because he knows it will cheer her up to hear he’s making friends. He remembers, too late, that he could tell her about the other bartender too, though he’s not sure how to go about that. It’s not nearly as homophobic here as it is in Beartown – my coworker is a lesbian ! She’s encouraging, though, and after a while she puts the kids on the phone and he talks to them for an hour.
It’s refreshingly normal, as much as anything is these days. There’s an awkward patch when one of them asks when they’re going to see him again and his mouth goes dry.
‘I, uh…’ he says, because it would be easy to fob them off with soon, only he can’t promise anything and he doesn’t want to lie to them.
Thankfully Gaby overhears and says something in the background. He doesn’t quite catch what, but it’s enough to distract the kids onto a different topic.
Maybe they can visit him, someday. When he’s made the flat hospitable and got a job that qualifies as doing something with his life and started doing yoga, or some shit like that. There’s plenty of things for kids to do in a city, they’d like it here.
He texts Matthias over the weekend, just hey at first and then it stretches out into a conversation. Complaining about work, mostly. The other bartender makes a show of noticing how much Benji is on his phone during his shift, but doesn’t say anything.
Talking to Matthias is just so horrifyingly easy – made more so by the fact that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder before sending a text. Secrecy is so drummed into Benji that he keeps forgetting that he doesn’t have to cover his tracks.
Matthias doesn’t mention the community hockey team again for a few days – just long enough for Benji to half hope he’d forgotten. (As soon as he does, though, Benji feels an odd wave of relief, as if he’d been waiting for it.)
so, training is on tuesday, Matthias texts, on Sunday evening. as I said u don’t have to come, but I was a zombie at work the day after our last break-in so I don’t think we can replicate that anytime soon
Benji hesitates a moment before replying. what’s the team like?
v chill. “training” is an optimistic word, really. Probs gonna fuck around for a bit until the children show up to intimidate us
Benji frowns. What?
The u12 team, Matthias clarifies. They’re ambitious little shits.
so you see we could really use some manpower.
someone, say, who is destructively good.
You’re just using me to get revenge on some 11 y/os, Benji types, amused despite himself.
The reply comes through almost instantly.
Sure. What time ?
Despite all Matthias has told him about the team over the weekend – which is a fair amount – Benji still isn’t sure what to expect. It doesn’t turn out to matter, though, because even his wilder estimations are off.
Some of them are okay, for people who don’t take it seriously and don’t train very much. It’s not technically a co-ed team but there are two girls in it, Elise and Linnéa. Elise is their goalie and she’s okay when she’s paying attention, which unfortunately is only about thirty percent of the time. Linnéa is built like a tank and is delighted when Benji shows up because she wants to practice checking and none of her other teammates will let her.
‘He’s excellent at checking,’ Matthias says, grinning. He’s too cute for Benji to be properly annoyed.
They’re fun to skate with, even if he can see how a dedicated U12 team could wipe the floor with them. Matthias actually plays worse than he did the other night, when it was just the two of them. Halfway through the session a younger teenager shows up and joins in, unannounced. He looks about fourteen, but Linnéa just introduces him as another player and Benji doesn’t question it.
It’s weird, though, being the best player on the ice by such a wide margin. The problem – the whole fucking problem, really – is that he misses the junior team. He and Kevin played so seamlessly together and even after Kevin left, Benji and Amat were neatly in sync. Amat, what a speedy bastard. Hope he’s doing all right.
On the other hand, it’s almost gratifying how impressed this group are with him. Benji has spent so long as part of an underdog team that it’s nice to be good without trying. On the other hand, that’s only because he’s managed to find a group of even bigger underdogs.
The U12s show up in the last ten minutes of the session, filing onto the bench and watching the community team play with an insolence that reminds Benji of the Hed junior team. They’re going places. He’s surprised to realise that he doesn’t resent them for it.
‘Don’t they have a coach?’ Benji asks Linnéa. As far as he can see, the kids are unsupervised. They aren’t actually saying anything, just watching with a razor focus that zeroes in on the slightest mistake. It must be fun: to be eleven years old and know that you’re better than all the adults on the ice.
‘They always show up early,’ she says. ‘Fuckers.’
He shrugs, and skates off towards the net. Elise is daydreaming when he takes the first shot, but the sight of a puck whizzing past her shoulder wakes her up. She still misses his next three.
‘Bro,’ the fourteen-year-old says to Matthias. ‘Who is this guy? Is he gonna play with us?’
Matthias just shrugs. ‘That’s up to him.’
‘I can’t,’ Benji says to Matthias, much later. He’d lingered as everyone packed up and now it’s just the two of them, walking out of the locker room. ‘Play for you guys, I mean.’
‘I don’t… not want to,’ Benji says, and means it. ‘It’s complicated.’
He means that, too. He hadn’t realised until he was shooting against an actual goalie and outperforming everyone at drills that he doesn’t know how not to take hockey seriously. Which is fine when he’s letting Linnéa check him, but not so great when he instinctively moved to check her in return and realised ten seconds in advance that he was going to hit her way too hard. The ensuing swerve had sent him sliding across the ice in a manner that made everyone laugh, which was a good distraction from what had actually happened. He’d gotten up, dusted himself off and laughed along with them.
‘You’d obliterate them,’ Matthias says, somehow knowing what he means. ‘I mean, we don’t play a lot of games anyway – mostly the other community teams – but we’d definitely get accused of recruiting a professional if you played for us.’
Benji nods, as they step out of the building and into the evening air. How to explain that Beartown had to claw its way to every victory? In this context it would feel absurd to convey David’s standards or any of the crazy things Zackell made them to. Hockey is just hockey here.
‘You’re still welcome to come, though,’ Matthias adds, hastily. ‘If you want to.’
‘Yeah,’ Benji says. It feels good to be decisive. ‘I’d like that.’
Matthias grins, and all of a sudden Benji knows he will explain Beartown to him properly someday. The realisation should be terrifying. It isn’t.
They walk on, to the bus stop.
‘You said you worked at a bar, right?’ Matthias asks suddenly.
‘Well,’ he says, losing the momentum of the initial question and floundering slightly, ‘given that you’ve come to bother me at work, I was thinking maybe I could return the favour sometime.’
‘My employee discount is shit,’ Benji warns him.
‘That’s not a no,’ Matthias points out. ‘Or, I mean, we could go somewhere else. For a drink.’
He meets Benji’s eyes, his usual assurance faltering. Benji’s used to people finding him attractive – it’s not arrogance, it just happens a lot – but he’s entirely unprepared for one of those people to be a cheerful boy who plays hockey for fun once a week. Matthias usually acts with the easygoing confidence of someone who always expects everything to work out okay, which means that he thinks that this will be okay. Going for a drink.
‘Yeah,’ Benji says. ‘Okay.’
Relief cuts through the uncertainty on Matthias’s face. He’s so buoyant and cute and happy that Benji doesn’t think about what he does next, just steps forward and kisses him.
Maybe he should have waited until after they’d had an actual date, or till he’s revealed the details of his fucked-up backstory or something else like that. From the way Matthias responds to being kissed, it doesn’t seem like it matters that much.
Five minutes later, the bus comes and they break apart.
‘Well, okay, we can always do that,’ Matthias says. ‘Skip the drink part entirely.’
They get on the bus and sit near the back. Matthias takes Benji’s hand, deliberately casual, and when they take their seats there’s very little space between them.
Benji glances out of the window, but it’s so dark that he just sees the two of them reflected back. It’s hard not to picture what Beartown would think of him. Playing with a community hockey team, sitting on a bus holding hands with a boy.
For once, the thought is satisfying.
Matthias’s apartment is much nicer than Benji’s. Admittedly, the bar isn’t a high one, and Matthias has the advantage of having lived there for two years, but still. He has IKEA bookcases and potted plants on the windowsill.
Benji lived closer, but his kitchen window is still broken and he hasn’t got round to buying mould killer yet. He’s got to sort that out before subjecting Matthias to the horror that is the lumpy sofa and the mismatched furniture.
They wake up late. Matthias takes one look at the clock and groans, he was supposed to be at work an hour ago. Benji convinces him to call in sick. It doesn’t take much.
‘You’re a terrible influence,’ Matthias tells him. From the tone of his voice it sounds like a compliment. ‘Think of all those people having horrible skating accidents because I’m not there to supervise them.’
Benji shrugs. ‘You’re welcome.’
‘Don’t you have anything important to do today?’
‘My shift doesn’t start till four.’
‘Oh, fuck you.’ Matthias flops back down onto his bed, his curly hair falling in his eyes. Benji, who hadn’t got up to begin with, reaches over and brushes it out of his face.
‘I meant to ask,’ Matthias says, his eyes landing on the tattoo on Benji’s arm. ‘Why a bear?’
Benji looks down at the guy who might be his boyfriend. They haven’t had that conversation yet, but he gets the feeling they will. ‘I’m from Beartown.’