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This summer, Sid is supposed to be training in L.A. with Andy, then home for a week, then L.A. to shoot some stuff, then New York for meetings, then Vegas for the awards, then Vail with the guys to train, home for a couple weeks, then Pittsburgh to shoot stuff and meetings, local promo for a week, meet some of the prospects, then camp.  The usual.  

 

But Dr. Lenz takes one look in his mouth and calls it all off.  "You've lost the gum graft we did last month, and the underlying bone graft is going as well."

 

"Uh huh.  Can't you just give me more antibiotics?" Sid says, once there are no fingers in his mouth.  It's the same thing Dr. Lenz has been saying for months, but this time there's more.

 

"We've given you everything we have, that's why you were able to play to the end of the season.  But you're going to lose that bone, and I think there's an underlying infection beneath it.  If we can't get that cleaned out, and a new graft to take, your whole jaw will be completely unstable - you'll be uninsurable.  Hockey aside, this is getting worse, not better, and the possibility of losing the entire jawbone, or contracting a serious, career ending cardiac infection is very high."

 

Sid heard nothing after 'uninsurable'.   "OK, then, what do I need to do to fix it?"

 

"No plane flights.  The change in pressure is damaging to the oxygenation of the grafts.  Soft foods only.  You're in fabulous shape, but maintaining that is a stressor on your system in itself.  No serious exercise.  At least a month here with no workouts, no work of any kind, no meetings, no press.  Nothing.  Relax, Sid.  You need to relax.”

_____

 

By the time Sid gets home, Dr. Lenz has called Mario.  He's lurking in the foyer, waiting for Sid. "I heard the doctor wants you to relax.  He says you're stressed about something.  What do you think that might be, eh?"

 

Sid scowls.  "We've had this argument before.  I'm fine."

 

"Could be better."

 

September 15th Sid is scheduled to stand in front of the ravening hockey media and announce that he's gay.  He's not sure when everyone's opinion about the wisdom, the necessity of this step changed, but it sure has.  He remembers the fraught looks and silences that were filled with weight; the long awkward drives home from midget with Dad struggling to say the right thing, to give the advice that would keep Sid safe but let him know he was fine as he was.  "Just, you know kiddo, keep it private." was the best he could do then. Sid remembers his rookie year, anxiously telling Mario and Mario's terrible, terrible advice to consider celibacy and/or a series of beards.  There had been jerking off motions and long periods of pained eye contact.  Sid still cringes when he passes that office.  

 

Sid practically feels nostalgic now for the loving homophobia - at least he wasn't forced to discuss his feelings.

 

Maybe the climate of the culture has changed, maybe the men advising him have gotten older and wiser, maybe as Mario says, they can't stand to see Sid unhappy, but something has certainly altered.  Sid's just not sure he has.  

 

Emotionally, Sid feels like a rat in a cage.  He's got a self imposed deadline staring him down, and the closer he gets to September 15, carefully chosen to allow the hysteria recede slightly during the preseason, the more his guts knot.  Sid has no idea what he should do, which way to jump.  He knows what's right;  continuing to lie and hint at his sexuality is no longer acceptable to him.  In theory.  In practice, the thought of more media attention, and months, years of speculation on his sex life makes him feel sick.  

 

He's looking for an out.  "Maybe the jaw is a sign. Like a metaphor?  I should keep my mouth shut?"

 

"I've called your dad. " Mario says.  

 

Sid writhes, but there's no recourse - Troy is the final authority and Mario knows it.

_____

 

"Look," Troy says. "I've booked the presser already.  Either we're going to go ahead with the original plan, or we can tell them about the jaw, but either way you have one job right now, to take it easy and get better.  Don't stress so much. Relax."

_____                                  

 

Sid is supposed to be relaxing, by God, and what is more relaxing than sitting in a cafe?  People do it all the time, specifically to relax.  Sid is relaxed, goddamnit.

 

Sid has a list, drawn up in desperation, of what people who are not professional athletes do on their vacations.  Movies, books, visiting cultural spots of interest, going out to eat.  Board games. Cafés.  He's exhausted everything else by Tuesday of the first week, and grouchily heads off to walk into town to sit in the first cafe he comes across and relax.

 

It turns out cafés, at least this one, Cafe Crazy Mocha, aren't very relaxing.  The wait staff consist solely of art students who speak only in mumbled whispers, the coffee is named according to some system known only to the art students, and Sid feels like his book is uncool.  He puts it flat on the table so no one can see the cover.  He can hear three separate conversations about microbreweries without trying.

 

The coffee is really good, though, but even that makes Sid feel resentful.  Still.  It's something to do, and better than sitting in his living room, where Mario keeps sticking his head around the door to check on him.

 

A new barista turns up a few minutes after Sid does, and he doesn't fit in with the art either.  He's very very skinny, and tall, but he smiles, and looks happy, and is generally bringing a completely misplaced sense of cheer to this dour cafe.  Sidney has to order his second coffee from him, and even though the barista has a heavy Russian accent, it goes a lot smoother than his first of the day, when the crabbed barista with the luxuriant handlebar mustache pretended he couldn't understand 'cappuccino' or 'latte'.

 

On Wednesday Sid returns, having on reflection realized that if they were going to pretend not to see him in the cafe, it was entirely possible their pretension would extend to never acknowledging him at all, and he could sit there unbothered.  He leaves his bottom teeth out just to be aggravating.  The same tall guy is there again and Sid orders both coffees from him.  He's wearing a name tag that says 'Eugene'.  Sid figures that has to be a joke and starts to think of him as Coffee Guy. No one speaks to Sid.  Not bad.  He decides to come back every morning - the several kilometer walk is as much exercise as he's allowed to have in a day, sitting around drinking coffee and reading fills the time and meets his relaxation brief, and most compellingly, he loves a routine.  

 

Sid feels slightly more optimistic that he will survive this thirty days of relaxation.  At least he has a plan.

 

Coffee Guy is behind the counter again on day three, his left arm in a sling.  When Sid goes up to order, Coffee Guy smiles and says " OK!  Maybe is slow a little, OK?", and gestures at his injured arm.  Sid takes an interest in injuries - anyone in his line of work does - and so he asks, before he conSiders it might not be polite: "What did you do to it?"

 

Coffee Guy's not offended.  He looks up at Sid through his eyelashes, pouts out his heavy lower lip, and says "Dislocate shoulder. Fixie bike piece of shit no brakes."  Sid winces.  

 

He's never dislocated a major joint, but he's seen others do it, and it's always held a particular horror for him.  There's something about the displacement, the obvious contortion of the body that repels him: it is viscerally wrong, arm or knee grossly out of place.  It seems worse than a clean break.  He saw Pascal dislocate his shoulder once, and during the process of cutting his gear off and reducing the shoulder, which took two doctors and three tries, Dupuis cried quite unconsciously, not wailing, just teeth gritted, breathing loudly, tears leaking down his face.  And when it was over, Pascal threw up voluminously in the dressing room.

 

"How'd you do that?" Sid asks.  Coffee Guy is moving slowly through the process of making the latte one handed, and he looks up, embarrassed but still smiling shyly.  He has a remarkably still face, all broad strong features and cheek bones.  He's so thin, and his skin so pale, stretched over his almost harsh features, he doesn't seem subject to the usual rules of attractiveness.  He's not attractive.  His features are harsh, really, but he looks useful, perfectly formed, like an object. Coffee Guy looks like he's made of beautiful wood, Sid thinks, wood with  a perfect curve, like an arm muscle, like his stick.  Something organic, that's been shaped by its owner.  Sid wants to touch him, his broad cheekbones, the shifting planes of his face.  His hands are enormous and several fingers have been been poorly reset.  Sid wants to touch those too.

 

Sid is fascinated by the slow change of Coffee Guy's expression from exaggeratedly sad to laughing at his own clumsiness.  

 

"I tell you, " Coffee Guy says, "but not laugh.  Promise?"

 

"Sure."

 

"Am riding home, and idiot bus pull out from Side, and BOOM!  Is smack into me, and I almost go over, but no, because Russian balance best, and so I chase the bus -"

 

"Wait," Sid interrupts.  "You chased the bus?"

 

"Yes, OK, I just say so.  Be quiet. I chase bus, to tell driver he is idiot, and I catch because I am fastest, also red light, and I go to bang on window, but fixies - you know these?  Stupid hipster bike?"

 

Sid nods.

 

"No brakes, and I go, SMACK!, into mirror by driver and over, and dislocate.  And feet are stuck in toe straps, and I just lie there like idiot turtle.  Is worst."

 

Sid can't help it, there's no dignity in that, none at all.  He snorts, and Coffee Guy looks hurt.

 

"Asshole," he says.  "You said you wouldn't laugh."  His face moves slowly into a look of disappointment, and holds.  Coffee Guy looks grieved, like a painting of a saint, sad, not angry.  It's pretty disconcerting. He bangs the latte onto the counter, shoots Sid one more disappointed look, and turns away.  Sid over tips massively and slinks back to his table, feeling ashamed.

 

An hour later Sid returns for another coffee, and he still feels bad about laughing.  Coffee Guy is pretending not to see him at the counter.   "I almost choked to death on a mozzarella stick?" Sid says tentatively.  Coffee Guy makes a half turn, so Sid can see his face, but he just makes a moue of disinterest.  Sid panics and blurts out "I got bit on the nuts by a shithouse rat?"  

 

Coffee Guy wheels around, attention all suddenly on Sid.  "What you say about rat?  Rat is krysa?  Big mouse?"  He makes finger whiskers with his good hand and squeaks.  "OK.  Now you tell me embarrassing rat story, maybe I laugh, then we even."

 

Exchanging stories like this is common in the locker room, but it's usually the guys trying to one up each other with the most disgusting injury they'd shrugged off as nothing, not exposing their idiocy. It goes against Sid's hockey training to tell a story that exposes him as weak, or stupid, but for Coffee Guy he'll try.  He whips out his best story, slightly modified in case Coffee Guy hasn't recognized him yet.

 

"Ummm, I was camping with some guys," (lies, he was at his first Penguins training camp, on an outdoor exercise in the woods),  "and they had these shitters, and I guess a family of rats was living in one, because - "

 

" -Wait!  You sit on toilet and rat bite your yaytsa?  Ha!"

 

"Well, I don't know what a yaytsa is, but I guess so."

 

"What you do?"

 

"What do you think I did?  I shot out of there yelling, bare ass in front of everyone, and I ended up having to get a rabies shot and some stitches.

 

"Hurt?"

 

"Nah, not really.  They don't give them to you in your stomach anymore, so, not too bad."

 

Coffee Guy nods, and seems to consider Sid's offering.  "You embarrass?"

 

"Oh, very very embarrass.  I was only eighteen and the doctor was a lady the same age as my mother, and there was a lot of palpating to make sure nothing had been punctured.  And it hurt to sit for days."

 

Coffee Guy waggles his head, and looks thoughtful.  "OK.  I forgive.  Don't be asshole again, though.  Now listen, I also had rabies shot. Once I give beer to raccoon, and - "

 

Sid interrupts although he knows he shouldn't.  "You gave a beer to a raccoon?"

 

Coffee Guy fixes him with a look. "What I say before?  Be quiet and I tell you. In Russia, all raccoons have beer, they like beer.  But then..."

 

Sid leaves an hour later feeling that was the most satisfying conversation with a stranger he's ever had.

 

The next morning Sid gets up and while he is carefully, delicately brushing his teeth, he thinks about the coffee guy.  He seems nice.  In a different life, meeting him in a cafe and talking, Sid might have asked him to dinner, gone out a few times, gotten to know him.  In a really different life, they might have talked for a bit and then snuck behind the back of the cafe to the alley and...  Sid stops there.  That's a different life, not his, that's not for him.  Thinking about it is pointless.   He shrugs, spits, and gets dressed.  

 

Still, he goes back the next day, a little later in the afternoon so that he'll get there around the same time as Coffee Guy.  And the next day, and the next.  He learns that Coffee Guy's name is Evgeni.  That he's from a town called Magnitogorsk, and played soccer  - "FUTBOL, Sid!" - all through high school.  That he played hockey as a kid, but both he and his brother stopped pretty young for reasons that he seems touchy about, and that he is a recent but passionate convert to football, - "AMERICAN FOOTBALL, Sid!" - especially the Steelers.

 

That Evgeni followed a boyfriend to Pittsburgh last year and was dumped, that he's staying until he's decided what to do next.  Evgeni looks hesitant when he says this, as if he's waiting for Sid to say something rude. Sid just nods, and Evgeni looks relieved and launches into an explanation of what he plans to do next year.

 

"Maybe take art course, is place in Canada called NSCAD, get better at photography, make own prints.  Looks pretty, little colored houses."

 

Sid draws breath to explain the coloured houses are mainly in Newfoundland, thinks better of it, and shuts his mouth again.

 

"Is in Halifax, in Nova Scotia.  You know it?"

 

Sid's heard of it, yes.  What with the growing up next door, and owning a house in the same city, and being really really famous there, yes.  He doesn't say that.  He says: "Nice place, I've been there lots.  Halifax."  If this guy, for whatever reason, hasn't figured it out yet, Sid doesn't see why he should make it easier for him.  Let it continue on, blissfully stress free for as long as possible.

 

Sid also learns that Evgeni's hands are perfectly formed, large and spare and careful.  Sid would like them to touch him.  Sid would like to see the rest of him, naked, to see how he is joined together,  Sid assumes that too is beautiful, exact, right, like a master craftsman assembled him.  Like Pinocchio?  No, nothing so juvenile - but is there a fairy tale about a perfect man made of wood?  If there is, Sid would like to hear it.  Sid drinks his coffee, and looks at Evgeni, and goes home.



On the fourth day, they talk about breeds of large dog they would like to own, had they enough time and land.

 

"Well, Husky best of course, is Russian, so very smart, but Dogue de Bordeaux very nice.  Also Moscow Watchdog, most fierce but likes babies, like me."

 

This guy is killing Sid.  "Russian babies best?" he says jokingly, just to avoid saying anything else.  

 

"All babies best." Evgeni says firmly.  "You have baby?"

 

Sid reels back, surprised.  "No, no baby.  Why would you think I would have a baby?"

 

"You seem like baby guy."

 

"Well, I don't.  I don't have a wife, so no babies."

 

"Hmmm." Evgeni says.  "You don't have to have wife to get baby."

 

"I guess not," Sid says, just to end this line of conversation.  "Maybe I should start with a dog first though, see how that goes?  Maybe a Newfoundland?"

 

Evgeni leans over the counter.  "What is Newfoundland?"  Sid shows him on his phone.  

 

"OH MY GOD!  So big!  So fluff!  Can hug?"  Sid agrees that he guesses you could hug a Newfoundland.  Certainly they've been pretty sluggish anytime he's seen one.  

 

Evgeni clutches Sid's forearm: "Show baby Newfoundland please."  

 

Sid does, and Evgeni makes a high pitched longing noise, slumping forward over the counter to rest his head on Sid's arm.  Sid looks down at the crown of his head and wonders what his hair feels like.

 

"What for are these dogs?  For sheep, for protect, for what they do?"

 

"They were bred to rescue fishermen in Newfoundland, that's why they have such heavy coats, because the water is so cold."

 

"Wait.  These dogs Newfoundlands because from Newfoundland?  In Halifax?  Oh my God, is best place ever.  Show me dog rescue fisherman, please."

 

Sid is genuinely concerned that anything short of a heritage fishing village staffed by Newfoundland puppies is going to be a disappointment to Evgeni if he ever gets to Halifax, but he obediently goes to YouTube and shows him water rescue trained Newfoundlands jumping out of helicopters and pulling children from pools.  Evgeni rests happily against Sid's shoulder watching the videos, and Sid notices the manager looking over at them suspiciously.  

 

"Should I be letting you get back to work?" he asks.

 

Evgeni smiles and cuts his eyes to the side.  A secret little smile just for Sid, that invites him to join in, never excludes.

 

"No, no,"  he says.  "I'm good.  You like dogs a lot, da?"  Evgeni reaches across the counter and slowly brushes the first knuckle of his pointer finger across Sid's cheekbone, holding Sid's gaze.   "You're good guy."

 

People have literally written books about what a good guy Sid is, made documentaries, screamed his name as he walks by, and none of it has touched him.  Sid is aware he doesn't know Evgeni, not really, it's only been four days, but his mild compliment hits like that of a family member.  Sid wants to turn away and aw shucks it off, but also wants Evgeni to see what he's done, so Sid keeps eye contact and gently catches Evgeni's arm.  He holds it for a moment, his fingers encircling the surprisingly fine boned wrist; then, daring, Sid twines his fingers into Evgeni's and squeezes.  

 

Evgeni squeezes back, smiles, and turns away to make another latte.

_____

 

Day five Mario catches him at the door.

 

What have you been doing every day?" Mario asks on his way out.

 

"I've been going down to Crazy Mocha, hanging out.  Talking to one of the guys that works there."

 

"Talking to a guy?"

 

Sid rolls his eyes.  "Yeah, just for something to do.  He's funny, you know?  He told me this story about a raccoon -"

 

Mario puts his hand up to stop Sid.  "Tell me later, I've gotta get out of here. But why not bring him by?"

 

"God, Mario, quit trying to set me up with people you haven't even met."

 

"Well bring him by et voila!  I'll have met him, eh?"  

 

"You know I can't."

 

"You know you could if you chose to Sid.  Your dad and I have talked to you about this, you're trying to do something nobody asked you to do."

 

"It's bad for hockey."  Sid says stubbornly.  

 

"Jesus Christ!" says Mario, rolling his eyes.  "What did any of us ever do to give you such a fixed idea that hockey is more important than you? "  He starts waving his hands around.  Mario reaches for Sids jaw with both hands but stops, remembering, and rests his hands on Sids shoulders instead, giving him a little shake.  "What would happen that would be so bad if you kissed a guy?  No -". He holds his hand up - "Tais toi.  You think about it.  Really, what's the worst that could happen?"

 

Oh God.  Sid thinks. Jinx.

 

But Sid does, unwillingly, think about it.  That night he lies in bed, thinking about the thirteen women he had really bad sex with during his rookie season, trying to comply with Mario's advice, the guarantee of increased media attention after the presser mid month, and struggles to answer Mario's question.  What is the worse that could happen?  

 

Sid lies in bed, and thinks about things, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. Introspection has never been a strength for Sid.  He reviews games, looks for patterns, corrects what needs to change, that's it.  He thinks back over those thirteen women, and the only pattern that he can see is that he was never invested, in the sex or in the brief relationships.  He doesn't want what other people think he should - he doesn't want a girl, he doesn't want a house, he wants this boy.

 

What is the worst that could happen?

 

He could lose hockey.  He could lose his health.  He could be lonely and isolated and bored.  Huh.

_____

 

Day six Sid finds himself staring moonily at the counter, watching Evgeni make coffee and argue with his coworkers. Mid first coffee he realises he's been incepted by Mario's encouragement when  "YOUR MUSTACHE IS STUPID" rings out.  Sid really doesn't know how Evgeni hasn't been fired yet, but he finds he doesn't care.  His mustache is stupid.  Sid thinks.  He's glad someone had the nerve to say it.   Evgeni notices him staring and motions him over.  

 

"Did you hear?" Evgeni demands, outraged, waving at the mustachioed co worker.  "Did you hear what he say?!  He say I am dangerous bike rider! He say I am menace! I learn to ride in Russia, am excellent driver, also bike.  Is well known Russian drivers most skilled.  Best drivers in world.  Never an accident."

 

Even through the infatuated haze Sid can recognize that this cannot possibly be correct.

 

There are no car accidents in Russia?" Sid echoes, slowly.  "None?"  He doesn't know what to say.  

 

"None." Evgeni says, in tones of complete certainty.  "Russia driver best."

 

Sid knows he'll regret going down this path, but he can't stop himself.  "What about all those Russian driving videos on YouTube?  I've seen accidents in those."

 

"Oh, da.  Those are inostranets, foreigners, not up to Russian standard. Maybe Finnish?  Terrible drivers."

 

Sid has a vague sense that this is bullshit, but he's not quite sure why, or how to respond. He doesn't want to piss off Evgeni again. In a moment of extreme weakness, he agrees.  "Well, Russian drivers best." Evgeni nods, appeased, and shoots a triumphant look at the co worker.  Sid slinks back to his table to mull over the depths his crush has reduced him to.

 

_____

 

What's the worst that could happen?  Sid thinks.

 

Sidney needs to talk to Pascal.  Mario is a little too much like his dad, but Dupuis is more like a older brother.

 

They've hidden in Lola's room to avoid the kids, and Pascal sits down next to Sid on her bed.  He pokes him in the ribs.  "What?  What's up?  You look really...I dunno.  Shifty?  Kinda happy?  Is it a girl?  You got a girl, finally?

 

"No, a guy, he doesn't know who I am, he's from Russia..." Sid trails off, spreading his hands over his thighs. "It's a guy.  He's really nice, Duper.  I like him a lot."

 

"Un gars?"  Pascal giggles, high pitched and silly sounding, and then claps his hands over his mouth to stop himself.  "Sorry! Sorry!"

 

Sid thinks Dupuis looks like a cartoon character like this, with his big eyes comically open wide, his hands covering the rest of his face, and his head shaved.  Why is he taking advice from this idiot?  They're sitting on a princess toddler bed, a backdrop of pink tulle canopies highlighting the farcical setting.  He gets up to go, but Pascal grabs his wrist and pulls him back down.  "Okay" he says, looking straight into Sid"s eyes.  "Okay."

 

"Yeah?", Sid says.  "Okay?"

 

"Okay.  He's a guy, whatever."

 

"He's a good guy."

 

"OK, he's a guy.  I don't care, man.  You tell Mario?"

 

"Yeah, he knows.  That's... that's what the meeting on the 15th is for.  We're gonna announce that I'm... you know.  

 

"Woah." says Pascal. "That's a big step.  You sure?"

 

"Oh God, not at all."

 

"But I bet you've planned it all out, haven't you?  And now you're having second thoughts?"

 

Sid throws himself face first into the princess bed.  He can say to Pascal what he can't to Mario and his dad.  "I'm just really scared."

 

Duper puts a hand on his back and rubs up and down, long sweeps like Sid's dad did when he was sitting beside him at bedtime.  "It's scary." Pascal agrees quietly.

 

They sit on the bed in silence for a while, Pascal still patting Sid's back, until Sid musters the energy to sit up.  He turns towards Pascal: "But I really like him, Duper, I like him more than anyone I've ever met before."

 

Pascal puts his arm around Sid. "So what's he like, kiddo?  Tell me about him." And Sid does, sitting there on the tiny bed, leaning against Pascal, one of the few people he doesn't mind touching.  When he's done, Sid doesn't feel any more sure of what he should do, but he does feel happier.

_____

 

On day seven, Sid's got a meeting, and has to come in late, still wearing his suit.  The horrible counter staff shoot him looks, but don't say anything.  Evgeni leans over the counter, looking pleased.  Sid has long practice hiding his feelings in public, so he doesn't wiggle like a happy dog when he sees Evgeni, but it's a close thing.  Sid spent a totally uncharacteristic 15 minutes trying to pick the right suit, wanting to look... nice, frankly.  He wants to look nice, he wants Evgeni to think he looks nice, he wants Evgeni to maybe wonder what Sid looks like under the suit, he wants a lot of things.  Few of these things are achieved, because by Sid's reckoning, he looks bad in suits.  Too bulky.  Suits are the province of men who are leaner, more elegant, older.  Sid always feels faintly foolish, even though he wears them all the time.  At best, he thinks, he looks like a bodyguard, someone physical, pressed into a suit to pass as someone important.  It doesn't work.  Also, he never knows what goes with what, which pair of shoes he should be wearing with a blue suit, vs. grey, and so on, and he resents having to think about it, so usually he doesn't.  Too bad there wasn't time to go home and change after the meeting, but he wanted to get in before the cafe closes at seven.  

 

That cheerful train of thought running through his head, he enters the cafe and Evgeni leans forward over the counter, looking pleased to see Sid.

 

"Hi!  I think maybe you not come today!"

 

"No, just a little late.  Had a work thing, you know." Sid says, fiddling with his suit jacket.   He's been trained to put his hands in his pockets when he's not sure what to do with them, but he doesn't want to do that here.  That's a work behavior, a stranger behavior, and he doesn't want to interact with Evgeni like that.  What Sid would like to do is touch Evgeni casually, like a more socially adept man would, like an old friend, like a lover.  What he actually does is grip the bottom of his suit jacket below the pockets, which probably looks really weird.  Sid's not sure.  Evgeni doesn't seem to notice.  

 

Evgeni waggles a biscotti at him; "You look nice.  I get rid of sling.  Is good day, you want biscotti to celebrate?"

 

God, does he ever, but there's no way.  

 

"OK.  What can you eat?  Want to go get?"

 

And just that easily, they go.

_____

 

"Do you mind if I change first? "

 

"Sure."

 

"I'm staying with my boss right now, so we'd have to go back there so I can grab some other clothes - is that OK?"

 

"Sure.  You want me to come, or we meet later?"   

 

Sid doesn't want Evgeni to leave,  so he waves towards his car and Evgeni follows.

 

They arrive at Mario's house, and no one's in the front driveway practicing shots, so Sid is hopeful they might make it into his suite without meeting anybody, but he's wrong.  As they get out of the car and start down the walk, Alexa leans out the back door, yelling; "Sid!  Sid!  Dad wants to talk to you! Venez ici!"  The kids have recently decided they are going to improve Sid's french, and they won't respond unless Sid speaks to them in french, but he tries anyway.

 

"One minute!  I'm going to change."  Alexa just cocks her hand behind her ear, and yells

 

"Eh?"

 

 "I said, just a minute." Sid tries, hoping she'll feel merciful because he has a guest with him.  Denied.

 

 "Quoi?. Je ne comprends pas, Sid."

 

Jesus Christ.  "OK, OK.  Une minutes." Alexa goes back into the house, satisfied.  Sid turns to Evgeni, wounded - "It's not like they're even different in English and French, God.  Une minutes, a minute, what the hell?" but Evgeni is just laughing softly, and shrugs back at him.  Sid ushers him into the suite, and goes to change.  Lucky there's no hockey memorabilia on display in his suite, and if they stay out of the den and office in the big house, there won't be anything there either.  Sid isn't going to lie to Evgeni, but he's not going to bust himself to announce that he's a really rich and famous hockey player either.

 

When he comes back down in jeans and and a Rough Riders baseball cap, fucking Mario is sat in his living room, making chit chat with Evgeni.  

 

"You played hockey as a kid?"  Mario's saying.  

 

"Yes, but I stop when still little, age eight?  Then play football,  but now I go run, ride bike."

 

"Why'd you stop?"   Sid's curious about this too, but he's never had the nerve to ask.  Evgeni shuffles his shoulders from side to side, uncomfortable, but he answers. "In my country, there are many rules about how boys are supposed to act, and I am not so good at them, you know?  I see some big boys hurt a cat, and I am sad, so I cry.  The big boys see but do nothing that time,  then days later I wear gloves, they say are girl gloves, and I cry again.  You know how this goes - I don't fit in, they say I am baby, wimp, gay.  In Russia, is bad, dangerous then, very dangerous now to be gay.  My mama take me out from hockey when the coach tell her to, he cannot stop the boys from hitting me."

 

Mario 'tsks' sympathetically.  

 

"We think, he does not want to stop the boys from hitting me, but either way, is the same.  My brother, he doesn't want to leave, but his leg is broken by 'accident' in first game after I leave.  Then mama and papa make him go also."

 

"I remember" says Mario thoughtfully.  "That's how it was when I was a kid.  It was bad, I know.  I think it's getting a little better?"

 

"No, is much better." Evgeni says emphatically.  "In America, have legal rights.  In Russia have almost none.  In America many famous gay people, some sportsmen, like Michael Sam.  Is getting better, and will still get even better as time goes, more  people come out.  Only thing that can protect is numbers."

 

Mario can't resist.  "You think all the gay sport stars should come out?"

 

"I think so, yes, but easy for me to say."

 

Sid can see the moment Mario decides he likes this kid, only partly for falling in with Mario's agenda for Sid.  It's when Mario asks if Evgeni still follows hockey, and Evgeni looks pained, and says "No, is too sad for me and mad.  I loved it, so so much, you know?  So once it is done, it is done for ever.  No more.  I follow football now."

 

"OK" Mario says, getting up.  "You two have fun, I'm headed home.  Good to meet you."

 

Once Mario's left, Sid realises his plan to go to the Sewickley Cafe, where they'll at least be rude rather than obsequious, isn't a good idea.  Someone will inevitably recognize him.  He doesn't know how it hasn't happened already at the coffeehouse, but maybe everyone is just too cool to care.  "Do you maybe want to eat something here?" he says, rummaging in the fridge.  “I've got some stuff...when I'm here, I get some meals delivered, and they're not too bad.  Well," he says, in a burst of honesty “they're not too good, either, but you know.  Healthy?”

 

“Sure, why not?" shrugs Evgeni.

 

After they eat they sit on the couch and talk about soccer, Russia's role in WWII, the many ways the hipsters at the cafe irritate and confuse Evgeni.  When they come to a natural pause in the conversation, Evgeni turns to Sid and tells him to call him Zhenya.

 

"Is name for friend.  We are friends, yes?  Good friends?" he says, and slings an arm around Sid's shoulders.   "I like you very much Sid, I like all parts of you."

 

Touched, Sid freezes, unsure how to respond.  He likes Evgeni, Zhenya, so much - more than likes him, but he would never have dared to say so. While Sid hesitates, Zhenya leans into his Side and kisses him gently on the side of his face.  Zhenya whispers "Sid?"

 

"Yes?" Sid says, terrified and hopeful in equal measures.

 

"Sid, you know why I apply job at cafe?  Because they have gooooat on front of window."  Here he makes a terrible noise that he apparently thinks resembles a goat's bleat, right into Sid's left ear.  It's so loud it makes the bone graft vibrate and ache. Romantic.  Sid laughs, relieved.

 

Zhenya’s phone chimes at 9 pm, and he looks down at it and then up at Sid.  

 

"Must go." he says. "Bedtime in hour." Sid thinks he's kidding, but apparently he's not, because he gets up five minutes later and heads for the door.  Sid follows.

 

"OK, Sidney," Zhenya says, "was good meal, thank you very much.  You come to cafe tomorrow?"

 

"Yeah" Sid says, unsure how to convey "God, yes, can I please, please touch you?"  But Zhenya does it for him.  

 

"Good," Zhenya says, looking pleased.  "I see you then.  Can I kiss goodbye?  You kiss boys?"

 

"Yeah", Sid says again.  "Sure."

 

Zhenya's laughing, but happily, pleased at the prospect of a treat, inviting Sid to join in.  Emboldened, Sid tells him "I've never kissed a guy", and Zhenya laughs again.

 

"Never kiss, not once?  Really?"

 

"Yeah, really."

 

"OK, first time, Russian best."

 

Sid is a liar and a coward; he is a professional liar, and a talented amateur coward.  He is not going to be the one to initiate anything.  Mercifully Zhenya seems aware of this, and steps closer into Sid, chests almost touching.  “OK?” he says, and Sid nods.  Zhenya raises one hand and rests it against Sid's cheek; Sid can feel them caught together in the inevitable, as if they aren't making an active choice, but just bowing to the proper direction of their lives.  The self consciousness that burdens him in sexual situations is abruptly relieved; he laughs and leans forward.  “OK.” he says, suddenly certain that it is.  “Yeah, I'm OK.”  And he leans forward and kisses Zhenya gently.  

 

Sid reaches out to touch him, looking up at Zhenya for permission.  “OK?” he says, fingertips hovering above Zhenya's side.  Zhenya smiles, and Sid steps closer, splaying out his fingers to cover Zhenya's ribs.  Zhenya is terrifyingly thin.  He's not small boned - he's taller than Sid, and his shoulders are almost as broad - but he's narrow, with slender waist, neck, wrists, and his rib cage is starkly visible under his skin.  Sid runs his thumb down the bones slowly, feeling thick scar tissue from some unknown event under the pad of his thumb, the ribs each a separate cliff Sid feels he is jumping off.  He looks up and meets Zhenya's eyes, unsure of how to progress.  

 

Zhenya raises his other hand, cradles Sid's head and kisses back as Sid's hand slips further under Zhenya's shirt and around to his back.  Kissing a boy isn't much different from kissing a girl, but kissing Zhenya is wholly different from kissing anyone else.  He is reserved, and complete, and himself, in a way that no one else Sid has known is.  They stand by the door kissing gently for several minutes, petting each others hair, the lines of their faces,

 

It doesn't become heated because Zhenya doesn't let it, clearly enjoying himself, but always pulling back whenever they start to kiss more forcefully, tracing Sid's ear, smiling at him, running his thumbs over Sid's cheekbones again and again.  This isn't the script Sid is used to, and he's taken aback, concerned that he's done something wrong, but also excited to see what comes next, what new thing there might be.  

 

The phone beeps again, more insistent, and Zhenya sighs and pulls back.  "Bedtime.  Must go, Sid."

 

Their lips meet again, gently, and then they pull apart.  Sid's heart starts beating madly - he's done it, kissed a boy.

 

_____

 

"OK" Dr. Lenz says.  "Looking good.  Keep doing whatever you're doing."  Sid grunts.  "What are you doing?" the doctor asks.  "This is a big improvement. ".

 

_____

 

The kissing gets better and better, but the time keeping gets even weirder.  Zhenya seems ruled by his phone, which he's set to go off to remind him to: take his pills, drink water, get up, go to sleep, nap in the afternoon, take more pills, eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks a day, take a bath, go to work, come home from work, make lunch the night before he goes to work, call his parents, take the garbage out, take a walk.  Sid doesn't want to ask, but he really wants to ask, and he's starting to anticipate the beeping noise.  It's making him antsy.  

 

Zhenya's phone has beeped, indicating it's two p.m. on a non work day, time for a walk, so they are walking, shoulders bumping companionably, when Sid finally asks: "What the hell is it with the phone?" and Zhenya smiles.  

 

"Oh, phone, always beeping? Is brain injury, I forget without."

 

That is... not what Sid was expecting to hear, but Zhenya seems so matter of fact about it that Sid responds in the same way.  "What happened?"

"Accident.  Long time ago, done now. Is better."



But slowly the story trickles out of him.  

 

When they are watching tv on Sid's couch and the phone beeps for nap time: "We sleep here?  For a long time after accident, my mama always sit beside me when I nap.  I wake up scared, always, and she stay, take good care." Here he wraps himself around Sid and pulls him down to lie on the couch twined together.  "But you, I think, more exciting nap buddy, hey?"

 

And days later when Sid twines his fingers with Zhenya's, thumb smoothing up and down the lump of Zhenya's poorly set knuckles: " They break my fingers on purpose.  I remember, but I don't know why they do.  I remember they stomp on them, but that is all."  This is the first hint Sid gets that the 'accident' Zhenya always refers to might have been something other than an accident.   But he doesn't ask, respecting Zhenya's clear desire to just drop these little bombs and let Sid gradually get a picture of the event.  Every time he hints Zhenya clams up, so Sid has learned to let him go at his own pace and tell the story in these disjointed fragments.

 

Gradually Sid gets a picture of what happened.  Zhenya was attacked by several local men, beaten into unconsciousness and left there to die.  He'd was in a coma for eight days, developed multiple infections, was left with brain injury and lost some intestine.  When he woke, the police declined to get involved, citing his 'moral complicity'.  One of the attackers was the son of a high up in the local Bratva who had political ambitions, and after a period of negotiation, Zhenya's family was offered a significant sum to make the problem go away.  In the absence of better options, they took it and sent Zhenya to the U.S.  

 

Zhenya's not the only one with something to tell, although Sid's much smaller.  On day eleven Zhenya reaches across the cafe counter to kiss Sid, and Sid has to catch his hand and stop him.  "Hey" he says.  "We can't do that here, and I have to tell you something."  

_____

 

"Rich?" Zhenya says.  "Rich, also famous?  Why you have no teeth then?"

 

Sid explains about the jaw.  

 

"Gross, Sid.  Why isn't it getting better?"

 

Caught out, Sid tells the truth, and in the course of his nervous babbling admits to the scheduled meeting and his worries.  

 

"Hmmmm" Zhenya says.  

 

What the hell is that supposed to mean? Sid thinks.  Sidney draws breath to explain to Zhenya, in the simplest words possible, why he can't be openly gay - how he owes it to hockey, to everyone, to stay hidden until he retires and it's only him who will be affected, but as he does, he realises he cannot.  What comes out instead is "I don't know.  I'm afraid?"  

_____

 

Sid is trying to perseverate about the rapidly approaching deadline, but Kris and Marc-Andre won't engage.  

 

Marc hashed this out with Sid months ago, and isn't interested in revisiting it.  "I already told you what I think, Sid.  But what about your boy here?"

 

"He's kinda weird?"  Kris says.  " I like him!  I like him, but he's really...vague?"  

 

"Un innocent?" Marc interrupts.

 

"Non, pas innocent, il est..."   Kris gestures with both hands, trying to find the word. "Pas debile, pas bête..."

 

"Slow." Sid says.  "The word you're looking for is slow.  He was hurt in Russia, and he doesn't like to talk about it, so don't bring it up.  I'm telling you now because he said it was OK, but don't spread it around."  All three turn to look at Evgeni running ahead with Catherine, zooming Alex into the air between them.  

 

Marc and Kris turn to look at each other, then back at Sid.  

 

"How slow?" Marc wants to know.  "Like delayed?"  

 

Sid can see what they're thinking, God. He rolls his eyes.  "No, not like that. He was in a coma for eight days, and he's got brain damage from it.  He processes some stuff slow, has trouble finding words sometimes, has some physical stuff, but basically he's just slow to get stuff. He needs it broken down in small pieces, but once he gets it, he's got it, same as us.  He needs everything in little blocks, one, then the other, you know?  Like Nealsie."

 

"Aaaah" they both say.  Neal's inability to remember more than one direction at a time had been famous.  Eventually Paul had realised anything they wanted James to remember they needed to write down.  Lists had popped up all over the dressing room and Paul's house, and things had gone much smoother.

 

"And he needs a routine, like, even more than us, or he just falls apart.  And English, of course, doesn't help."

 

Both dark heads nod.  This they can understand.  Routines are good, always, English is hard, sometimes.

 

Marc-Andre is the one to ask, because of course he is.  "What happened?  Car accident?"

 

"Oh God" Sid says. "Do not, DO NOT bring up Russian driving.  It wasn't a car accident.  He was gay bashed.  Some group of junior mafioso kids beat him up.  He ended up in a coma and his family eventually got paid off to keep quiet after the cops declined to do anything." Marc and Kris look at each other again.   Sid's whining about the coming presser takes on a new, even less flattering hue, certainly in Sid's mind and, he assumes, in theirs.  "Yeah" he says.  "I know.  I should quit my bitching, huh?"

 

"Your stuff is still valid, man." Marc says.  "But yeah.  That's rough for him."

 

"And for you." Kris says.  "I don't want to be rude, but is it worth it? "

 

"Yeah" Marc-Andre chimes in.  "You need supports, not time wasters."  Again the nodding.

 

"Yeah, I know." Sid says, and he does know.  He's been told a million times, asked himself the same question of every thing or person he's had a passing interest in: Is it a help or a hindrance?  The question is always posed in his dad's voice in his head.  "Help or hindrance, right?"  

 

But Kris busts out unexpected philosophy. "No, man, that's the wrong question, I shouldn't have asked you that. You're getting all caught up in the practical stuff: is the press going to dog you even worse, will this take the focus off the team.  But now isn't the time for practical concerns, it's time for wrestling with the big stuff.  You should be asking yourself if you are living as your most authentic self.  Am I being true to myself?"

 

Both Marc and Sid look at Kris judgmentally.  

 

"Was that supposed to be deep?" Marc says.  "Because it wasn't.  It was kind of stupid."  

 

Kris punches him in the upper arm, but fairly gently.  "Ehhh," he says.  " OK.  It was stupid.  But it's also true."

 

The thing, Sid thinks later, is that he's not wrong.  

_____

 

"You ready for next week?" Mario says, coming into the kitchen.  Sid winces.  He's got a plan, made with Natalie months ago, but it doesn't seem adequate right now as he contemplates the looming date.

 

The plan is this: he's going back to Mario's after the conference, and he's going to sit with the kids and eat his way through two bags of mini sized Coffee Crisp bars sent special from Canada by his mum, and then he and Mario are going to drink some beers, and then Sid will let Nathalie put him to bed in the guest room, bossing him like an older sister.  And then he's going to sleep in, knowing when he gets up in the morning, he's done.  He's told everyone, it's over.

 

It's not really over, he knows that.  It's never over for him, not as long as he's still playing.  If he'd called a conference to announce he had a boil on his ass, there'd still be three weeks of follow up questions and a 1 hour special on The National to deal with.  

 

"I guess." Sid says.  "I dunno.  Maybe?"

 

"Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Mario says.  "How's the jaw?"

 

"Better, for sure.  Dr. Lenz says he doesn't think we're going to have anything to announce at the press conference, it's looking so good."

 

Mario makes a sly face: "Oh, I imagine we'll still have a little something to tell them, eh?"  

 

Sid looks pained, rubbing his hands over the granite countertop.  "Are you sure we're doing the right thing here?  Maybe we should rethink it, hold off for a couple years."  

 

Mario is pissed.  "I'm not revisiting this Sid.  You made this decision a year ago; your dad, Pat and I all told you what we think.  It's done.  You want to call it off, that's your prerogative, but I'm not going to stand here and talk you into it."

 

"I wasn't asking you to talk me into it, I just think maybe we need more time.  I'm not sure the public mood is right for this, you know?"  

 

"No, Sid, I don't know."  Mario wheels on Sid and points at him.  "I don't give two shits about the 'public mood', and you know it.  You wanna discuss that, call Brisson.  You're just being a chickenshit, but this needs to end.  You're isolated, you're sick, you're lonely; something needs to change."

 

"Well what do you want me to do?" Sid whines.

 

"Wrong question." Mario says, and leaves.

_____

 

Sid has decided - he's calling the whole thing off.   Fuck his responsibility as a role model, fuck the right thing, fuck it all.  He's getting up on that podium next week, talking about nothing but his rapidly improving jaw, and getting out.  

 

Mario is sitting at his enormous, ostentatious desk, rolling a ceremonial baseball from some throwing out ceremony or another between his palm and the desktop, nodding occasionally as Sid explains this.

 

"If I do this, I'm always going to be remembered as the gay one.  Not the Next Great One, the First Gay One. “

 

“Eh, maybe that asshole Cherry's head will explode. “

 

“Probably not, but he might say something so awful he'll finally get fired.”  

 

They both pause to consider this pleasing thought.  

 

"Anyway," Sid begins again, "Anyway.  I've decided the right thing to do is just keep quiet, maybe come out some time in the future, after I'm done playing.  There's no reason to do this right now - I'm not responsible to advance the cause.  I don't have any responsibility to anyone but myself.  And hockey.  And my endorsements.  Mainly to the narrative we've developed about me and hockey.  OK, that sounds a lot stupider when I say it out loud."

 

Mario looks untroubled, but asks "How about Evgeni?  Do you have any responsibility to him?  You've only been able to get to know him because you're planning to announce.  What're you going to do about him?  Dump him?  What are you really saying?"

 

"I have to be perfect." Sid says, looking away.  "And perfect is straight."

 

"You can't be perfect" Mario answers.  "It's not possible.  And if you won't listen to me, listen to your body.  Why do you think you're sick all the time, and your jaw won't get better?  You're under too much pressure, and you're doing to yourself.  You need to aim for good enough, not perfect. "

 

Suddenly Sid is angry, really angry.  He can't take one more piece of well meaning advice. That Mario, of all people, should sit there advocating 'good enough'.  He's up and yelling, and Mario's shouting back.

 

"I'm not even good enough!  Look at this!  I haven't been able to train for a month!"

 

"Because you've made yourself sick with your bullshit 'straight is perfect' thinking!  This past month is the best I've seen you in years, and you want to crap out on it now?  It's not like you to just do what people tell you."

 

Where does Mario get off? Sid thinks.  Mario's not the one being asked to rip his guts open in public.  Without thinking Sid snatches the baseball away and before he's even aware of his own intent, throws it violently out the office window.  Through the office window.  Shit.  

 

Mario has owned a hockey club for many years - he's seen much worse, but not from Sid.  He's staring at the window, looking more impressed than anything else.

 

Natalie appears in the doorway; "What the hell was that?"

 

Mario can't resist. "That was Sid aiming for perfection."

 

Sid stomps off to find Zhenya and get some sympathy.

_____

 

An hour later Mario knocks on the door to Sid's suite and walks directly in without waiting.  "Hey", he says, and pauses.  

 

They're lying on the couch, kissing, the afternoon sunlight pouring through the windows, warming Sid's bare back.  His front is pressed against Zhenya's.  

 

This is the easiest thing Sid has ever done.  As easy and obvious as hockey. Sid's never dated anyone in his life.  He's been on dates, oh Jesus, yes, many, many arranged 'dates' his agent has arranged that he take to various award ceremonies, and been to team events to find that the guys have arranged a single woman be there to couple him up with, but dated?  Met, asked out, gone out with, returned home, made out with, called again the next day, repeated?  No.  He was busy.  

 

He turns towards Mario and gives him a look.  Mario crosses his arms and gives it right back.  Sid gets up and puts on a shirt. He can't deal with Mario being judgemental while he's half naked, but he's wrong about why Mario's here.  He's come to make peace.

 

"OK", he says, and leans forward to hug Sid.  "Not the choice I would have made, but I respect yours."  

 

Sid gives him the side eye this very tepid support deserves, and Mario laughs.  "No, kid, really.  You make your choices for yourself now, and you're right.  You don't have any responsibility to be a hero.  You need to do what's right for you."  

 

This seems surprisingly open minded for Mario, who was the captain of a hockey team of aggressive, persistent men for a long time for good reason. It's not like him to let something go so easily.

 

"But I don't know why you'd want to hide what looks like love to me." he says, and there it is.  Sid knew he wasn't going to let it go.

 

Mario, having made his point, shakes Evgeni's hand, says "Nice to meet you again", and leaves.

 

Sid looks over at Zhenya, feeling awkward.  Mario really didn't need to bring love into the conversation.

 

Zhenya looks back at him, obviously feeling unsure too.  His face is closed off, and Sid doesn't like it.  One of the best things about Zhenya is the way his emotions appear on his face and stay, giving Sid time to respond to each one.  Even unsure is compelling on Zhenya.  He's looking down, and his eyelashes are casting shadows on his cheeks.

 

Sid wants to return to the ease of earlier in the afternoon.  He wants Zhenya to understand that Sid doesn't love him, would never use that word so early or casually, has never used that word at all to a sexual partner, but he thinks he could love Zhenya, that Zhenya is the only person he's ever met that he's thought this of.  That Sid would like to find out if Zhenya could love him.  And he'd like to do so on the schedule that they set, not Mario's.  He doesn't know how to say any of this.  

 

Zhenya is perfect like always though, gives Sid time to make it right, makes it easy.  He holds out his hand, palm up, until Sid reaches over and takes it.  Zhenya looks up at Sid and says “I really like you.”

 

"I think we could fit together," Sid says.  "I think we're made to fit perfectly together.

_____

 

The tension is still there next morning when Natalie pops her head into the garage before he can get in his car and orders them to come to dinner that night.  Sid winces, pained at her tone, but Zhenya seems genuinely pleased.  He stays pleased all the way through the several courses of a company dinner and the paired wines, but it puts Sid's teeth on edge.  Dinner with Mario is normally family style, because they are a family, and this is too much, marks Zhenya as an outsider.

 

Mario drinks enough to get tipsy, and he's got that look he gets when he's going to offer unwanted advice.  

 

As he often does, he connects his opinions - in this case, on Sid's hesitance to come out - to Gretzky's failings.  Sid sighs - he knows what's coming.

 

"That Wayne!  If you ever want to take the easy way, you just look at him and his choices!  Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, that fucking idiot, being lead around by his cock.  Do you hear me?  You fuck who you like, but you give it a long, serious think before you love anyone, you think about where you want to end up, and you think about Gretzky's kids, out there in Los Angeles, being blond and stupid and wasteful when you think about who you want to be with."

 

Now he's moved onto Gretzky's kids.  “None of them play hockey!  None of them play any sports seriously!  That oldest girl, she wants to be an actress, but she doesn't want to, you know, learn how to act, or anything, and their Christmas cards!  Calisse!  They're like that Paris Hilton.  And you know whose fault that is?”

 

Sid nods - yes, he does know whose fault it is, because Mario has told him before, many many times - no one dares to bring up Gretzky at home, because Mario embarks on the same rant every time - “It's Wayne's fault, that's whose fault it is!  And do you know why?”

 

Sid nods again, because he knows why, too.

 

"He took the easy way, a pretty girl who told him what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to hear.  I'm telling you what you need to hear, Sid, are you listening?"

 

Mario's draped over Nathalie's shoulders now, shaking his finger in the air to emphasize his points, and Nathalie is just rolling her eyes as he goes on.  She's heard it all many times before too.

 

“You choose someone like ma blonde here, she's a good girl, stayed with me when I was sick, she's good to my parents, tough with the kids, she's so cheap, tells me when I'm being an idiot - ah, ah, ah!"  Here Mario puts his palm over Nathalie's mouth as she draws breath to respond to this litany of not terribly overwhelming virtues, but she ignores him and pulls his hand away.  

 

“Yeah, Sid” she says, laughing “ You're a romantic guy, like Mario, here.  A real sweet talker, eh?"

 

“But you are cheap, and you are the best, and you never make me look like an idiot."

 

“No, you take care of that all by yourself, M. Ivre.

 

Sid looks over at Zhenya, and he is laughing along with everyone else at the table, but he is also smiling at Sid gently.  He looks happy, at ease.  He looks like a good choice.

 

_____

 

"This is great." says Dr. Lenz, gloved hands rummaging around in Sid's mouth.  "What an enormous improvement in four weeks.  You keep this up, and in two, three weeks you'll be good to go.  Whatever you're doing, don't change a thing."

_____

 

The evening of September 14 Sid goes to talk to the guy he should have been talking to the whole time.  

 

"What's the worst that could happen?"

 

"I don't know." Zhenya says, wry.  "Beaten into coma?"  Sid winces.

 

"Hard question, Sid.  Russia is not how it should be, and there is no one to speak for us, no big voice.  It was better, a little, a few years ago, but now with the new laws, getting even worse, and if no one speaks against it nothing will change.  But I could not hide." Zhenya says.  "You can.  If I could have hide, I would have.  I would be in Russia, safe, maybe still play hockey, who knows?  Safe with my family, silent but maybe happy, maybe not, I don't know.  Maybe I play with you, maybe I would be unhappy, hiding. Maybe, maybe maybe."  He shrugs.  "Now I am done with maybe, I have no stomach for it.  You do what you think is right."  He smiles sweetly at Sid and pats his cheek.  

 

Later they are lying in bed: Zhenya keeps talking, and tells Sid more than he's ever been willing to say.  "I was coming back from football.  Or, you know, that is what my mama tell me.  I remember the morning before.  We had cornflakes for breakfast, something unusual, so I remember, and I remember I was going to football - I had my shoes by door - but that is all.  Nothing else left in my head for this time, just two weeks later, I wake up in hospital, remember nothing."

 

He pauses and shrugs. "They say is probably better not to remember, but not sure.  Maybe is?  They say I was kicked many times, everywhere, stomach, head."

 

"Why you?"

 

Zhenya makes a face of condescending disbelief.  "Why?  Why?  Sid, come on.  They do this because one of them is very rich, and I am not, because I am there by chance that morning,  because they still drunk from night before,  but mostly because I am gay.   This is how it is in Russia."  He levers himself sharply out of bed and stomps away, obviously distressed by the conversation, and Sid hurries to catch up to him in the kitchen.  

 

"Hey"  he says, putting one hand tentatively on Zhenya's bare shoulder.  "I didn't mean to upset you.  I'm sorry that happened to you."  

Zhenya turns, upset gone lightening quick like always, and hugs Sid, burying his face in Sid's neck.  "Is OK, is nothing, I am remembering and I don't like to remember, but is not you."

 

Sid hugs back, hands on Zhenya's shoulder and waist.  He can feel the raised scars where they excised the postsplenectomy infection.  Even to Sid's unintrospective mind the contrast between his own years long fearful silence and Zhenya's ability to articulate what Sid cannot in the face of having experienced the worst possible outcome is stark.  

 

Zhenya can hear him thinking, evidently, because he hugs tighter and croons into Sid's ear.  "Will be OK, Sid.  Tomorrow comes, and is done, and is gone.  Then you are free."

 

This is so similar to Mario's encouragement that Sid is briefly suspicious, but shrugs it off.  Instead he stupidly asks "How can you say that?  You're not free.  You're stuck in a body that doesn't work entirely right, and your head is fucked up."

 

Zhenya pulls backwards, face like an offended cat.  "Oh, thanks Sid.  Is very kind, fuck you too."

 

"Yeah sorry, that came out kind of wrong, but you know what I mean."

 

Zhenya is feeling contrary.  He scowls.  "I am free.  I am alive. My family is rich.  Maybe it was best thing that happen, eh?  Body good enough, brain good enough.  Maybe this is price I pay for my family, I am alone here but they are safe.  Maybe it was worth it.  Maybe I deserved it, maybe this is what happens to pedik."

 

Sid is abruptly enraged.  He wants to hurl himself between Zhenya and his attackers.  He wants to shake Zhenya until he can see how wrong it was that anyone should lay a hand on Zhenya, how wrong it is that Zhenya should think he deserved it.  He draws breath to make Zhenya listen to him, but slows when he sees a glint in his eye.  "You're shitting me, aren't you?  You're talking about me, aren't you?"

 

"Ha, yes, I am." Zhenya says, pleased with himself.  "I am here, can exercise, chew what I like, love who I want, not rot jaw worrying about Canada calling me fag.  Who has body and brain that is fucked up?  Not me, is you."  He smirks and waits for Sid's rejoinder, but Sid is hung up on the 'love' part.  Where a few days ago Mario's use of the word seemed shockingly early, now it feels a lot more comfortable.  They aren't there yet, but they're getting there.  

 

Sid pauses briefly, considers Evgeni, and how being with him is like hearing a bell ring faintly, the note perfect and true.  The stuff Evgeni is made of is clean and pure to the core, and Sid would like to be as close to that in his actions as possible.  He's not going to lie, and he's not going to taint what lies between them.  People are going to judge them, but Sid wants to come to that judgement with clean hands.



"Yeah, OK." Sid sighs.  "Let's stop talking about this."

_____

 

Sid gets up in the morning and he knows what he needs to do.