"Soon we will be strangers. No, we can never be that. Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy. We will be dangerous acquaintances with a history."
- Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy and Midnight All Day: A Novel and Stories
One of the therapists Jack had in rehab - a funny way to start a sentence, because it implies so much, that there was more than one, a string of them really, and that hefty last word of course carries so much with it but it is true and it happened which means that sometimes sentences are bound to start that way - had this way of saying things. It stuck with him. This kind of brutal cheerfulness that enthused everything she said and did, every gesture and word.
“I know it’s hard,” she’d say, crisp diction and sincere eyebrows. Do you? Jack had thought. Do you really? “But you have to keep pushing forward.” That’s the kinds of things she’d say. “Someday it will all be in the past and you can look back on it. Some day all this will make sense.”
The elusive some day. The carrot that keeps former addicts looking in the right direction, or something. He isn’t the kind of person who deserves narrative symmetry, something tidy and satisfying with neat corners that feels right when you read it. Life has given Jack a lot of things, some good and some bad, but it won’t give him that.
The best he can hope for is irony. Irony is, at least, funny - from the right point of view.
Because what do you do, Jack wants to ask, when it’s never going to make sense? When looking back on it - composed, like a historian gathering evidence - is never going to be an objective activity where you can say This was good for me and This was bad and This was a mistake and I did this right ? He remembers the tremors in his fingers as often as he feels them these days - around a hockey stick, the pill bottle, the ridge of a kneecap. And there’s nothing clear about any of that.
Jack doesn’t have that luxury.
They’re twenty four. In the hour after Jack signs a stack of very impressive paperwork, he does three things. He eats a peanut and butter jelly sandwich. He calls his parents. And he sends a text message.
He struggles over how to start it. “Dear--” but no. “Hello--” seems to jaunty, “Greetings--” too formal.
I signed with the Falconers, he types, and then pauses again. It feels like there’s something else he should say, to really be sure he’s getting the upper hand. I’m happy with it, or Go fuck yourself, or I want you to think it’s the right decision.
I thought you might want to hear it from me directly, he writes, and then he hits send.
Kent doesn’t respond. Jack didn’t really expect him to, but it still feels like somehow he’s lost a point.
They’re twenty. Kent is on one end of the phone line, and Jack is on the other. Polar opposites, different sides of the country.
“I read it,” Kent says. He’s angry. He’s drunk. He’s in Vegas and it’s close to two in the morning. His words tangle and trip over each other. “On fucking Yahoo Sports, Zimmermann.”
“Yeah,” Jack says. His words are the opposite - sticky and cold where Kent’s are hot and biting. He can picture his face, blotchy, disheveled hair. The turn of his mouth. “Well. We couldn’t keep it out of the media. Including Yahoo Sports.”
“It’s not about fucking Yahoo you -- fuck -- someone on the team pointed it out to me, you know. And then I read it. That’s where I found it out.”
Jack doesn’t say anything.
“You could have told me,” Kent snaps. “A text message even, an email. ‘Hey, by the way, I’m going to college now because that’s a thing I want to do since absolutely never -- thought maybe you might care to know just a little --’”
“To be honest,” Jack cuts him off, and his voice sounds hollow and strange. Two a.m. exhaustion and space down the phone line. Kent’s anger feels diluted, unreal. “To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about you at all.”
Kent hangs up the phone. It is, Jack thinks, exactly what he deserves.
They’re seventeen. Kent is laughing, and Jack is laughing because Kent’s laughing, and the table between them is littered with beer cans and one half-empty bottle of Scotch Jack hopes his father won’t miss later.
“You’re full of bullshit,” Kent says. “You’re lying.” His face is pink and his eyes are bright and his hair is pushed up and out of his face, curling over his ears.
“No,” Jack says. It’s winter, and his parents are out and the snow is falling February fast. It’s a white sheet on the windows, claustrophobic and close. They’d gone out earlier to shovel down the walk and it had clung and stuck to Jack’s jeans and made his socks soggy to the point where he’d had to take them off. “I’m not,” Jack says. “I promise. I didn’t put it together until it was way too late - my mother said it was a friend of hers and I guess I --”
“A friend like your dad’s old pal Wayne is a friend,” Kent snorts. “Sure. When we go over to my mom’s friends’ places it just means you’re gonna be eating tuna noodle casserole for dinner.”
“Did you ever puke it up on anyone’s rug?”
“Maybe, but I was, like, seven. And she was not a pop star that you’re reluctant to name.”
“Her PR team will find me,” Jack says, and Kent throws his head back to laugh, practically smacking it on the back of the couch he’s lounging on. Jack finds himself watching him even as he’s trying not to, his hands still and alcohol-heavy even though his cuticles sting from the cold, from his worrying teeth earlier in the day when the snow had started dumping for real. He has never felt anything like this before - the line of Kent’s throat as he laughs, unaware that Jack’s watching him. Jack’s face burns, but not unpleasantly. Warm despite the cold outside.
“You’re full of shit, Zimms,” Kent says, running a hand down his face.
“Whatever you say.”
“Fill up my drink, wouldja?” Jack does, unfolding himself from the chair he’s sitting in to pick up the bottle and slosh some of the Scotch into Kent’s glass. They’d both felt very grown up about it, drinking from the heavy-bottomed glasses that Jack’s dad drinks out of when he’s reading a book in the evenings. Jack imagines a vague kind of future with heavy-bottomed glasses and photographs of his own achievements on the walls of his house that feels distant and strange even as it gets closer all the time.
Rather than sitting back in his chair, Jack sits down on the edge of the couch. His knee bounces, a reflex, and Kent scoots over so Jack can slide down into the corner without being asked. He sips from the glass, pulls a face, then passes it over.
The scotch burns hot and bright in Jack’s throat, a contrast to the still-falling snow, the heavy winter silence. The chill of it. His face is warm and his fingers feel clumsy and he fumbles the glass a little passing it back.
“Watch out,” Kent says. “That’s, like, a month’s rent in a glass right there.” He swallows the rest of it with a self-satisfied look on his face, then coughs.
They have a long year ahead of them. A long summer. Jack’s aware of this because he’s never been good at letting himself forget anything, and he knows this isn’t going to last in the objective, cut-and-dry way that one digests facts that are inescapable.
But something about this moment feels encapsulated in time, disconnected from the rest of it. The burn of the liquor in his stomach and the snow, the silence around them and Kent’s face.
Jack moves forward and Kent meets him, leaning over their folded legs, and his mouth his hot and firm and tastes like expensive liquor, and outside the window the snow falls down.
They’re sixteen, barely, and Jack is exhausted. Practice comes early and he doesn’t seem to be able to get enough sleep these days, his body devouring it every spare moment. The start of a new season, always imbued with promise and expectation. Jack catches a yawn - he’s caught somewhere between jittery energy and the need for sleep, and his fingers drum on his knees.
First in the locker room, but that’s an old habit. This year won’t be any different. People will dislike him, and he’ll work hard, and he’ll sit at the kitchen table with his father and review plays, and he’ll feel like he’s doing something wrong.
There are new faces on the team, and their coach introduces them in English - a few Americans, one local kid, someone from Toronto. Jack rises to shake hands methodically, politely, and he knows they all know who he is.
Palms to palms, palms to palms. A set interaction, a pattern until it breaks. Thumbs over palm over wrist.
Jack looks up.
“Sorry,” the guy says. He’s short, and his eyes are an unreadable color, and his hair falls into them in a way that sits somewhere between cocky and self-assure. “Didn’t catch your name.”
“It’s Jack,” Jack says. Their wrists are still touching.
“Cool,” the new player says. “I’m Kent Parson.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Jack supposes that is what they say.
Rivals, the papers say. Rivals, rivals, rivals. It’s funny for a while because it isn’t accurate, and they laugh about it when Jack has one hand down Kent’s pants (“Some rivalry, eh?” “Sure. I’d like to see you one-up this --”). And it’s less funny later, when Jack’s still measuring the fit of his new Falconer’s jersey and thinking, in another life, that it would be a well-worn Vegas one.
They’d gotten along fine, until everyone had started saying that. Rivals. Opponents. One winner and one loser and no middle ground. It’s less predictive than it is inevitable. Jack wonders if it’s a case of belief - if you say something over and over and over again doesn’t it, eventually, start to come true?
Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an addict. Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m an addict. Hi, I’m --
When he thinks about the pills he gets an itch in between his shoulder blades. He’d carried an empty ibuprofen bottle around in his pocket for a while, something to do with his hands that didn’t involve twisting his arm around his back in a way that made everyone stare, and he’d pop the lid on and off and breathe until it went away. Sometimes it was just or twice, and sometimes it would be a whole class period
A reporter holding a recorder is asking him about playing the Aces and the sweats he’s wearing don’t have pockets in them. Jack takes a deep breath and adjusts his shoulders. His shirt’s sticking to his back, agonizing.
“Yeah,” he says, neutral. Flat. “But it’s all in the past.”
The Aces win. But Jack has Kent on the ropes, at least for a second. This is a new set of rules, a new string of moments to score points that never end up on a scoreboard.
Kent’s eyes are steel and ice, and watching him move on the ice has always been something else, even when he’s throwing himself straight at the goalie and the net. Jack keeps his eyes on the puck. It feels like a test.
Afterwards, Jack methodically answers questions, methodically scrolls through the group text messages on his phone - condolences, good-natured and slightly intoxicated. Shitty has left him what sounds like a great deal of shouting in a voice message, and three texts that conclude with “i L OVE Y U.”
Thanks, all of you Jack texts back. Rough game.
Are you at the Haus? He texts to Shitty. He wants to talk to him suddenly, badly, but he doesn’t want to do it with the backdrop of screaming excited co-eds and he’s not entirely sure what he wants to say. His heart hammers.
ya, Shitty responds. fr the weekend!!!!!!! im takin lards out for brunch tomoz our hangovers r gonna have a good time. whyyyyy
No reason, Jack says. We can talk about it later.
And then he’s run out of excuses and the locker room is nearly empty, so he picks up his bag and leaves the building and drives home. Nobody stops him, and he doesn’t know if he’s relieved or angry about that.
He lays in bed for an hour, then an hour and a half, and finally picks up his phone. Shitty’s responded a couple more times, and the group chat is recounting the high points of the game, and Lardo’s texted him a bunch of pictures of little birds or something. One message from his dad - Good goal, call tomorrow.
He asked for this.
That was a dirty goal, he says. He waits an entire minute before he hits send.
But, comes the reply, only a few seconds later, it worked. Didn’t it?
I’m not going to invite you over, Jack texts.
Didn’t expect you to.
Jack puts his phone down. He waits a while minute and a half before sending Kent his address.
“Nice place,” Kent says. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a hoodie, dressed anonymously except for the big watch on his wrist. When he pulls the hood down his hair stays sticking upright. He needs a shave. Jack stands out of the way of the door to let him in, and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. “That’s cool. Who did that?”
“My friend Lardo,” Jack says. Kent’s looking at the painting Lardo had given him for a graduation present, which is hanging over his kitchen table. “Do you want -- uh -- well, there’s some beer or --”
“I’ve already done, like, so many shots,” Kent says. “Don’t make that face, I took a cab. It’s still running outside actually, so if you’re gonna say something or chew me out for playing like a dumbass or if you’re hiding your friend Mashkov in a closet somewhere waiting to jump me, well, make it quick.”
“He’s not,” Jack says. “And I wasn’t -- I mean, I’m sure you’re celebrating so you can -- it was a dirty move. They should’ve called it.”
“Should’ve,” Kent says. “I thought he was going to hoist me into the air and snap me in half. My ribs are all busted up and shit.”
“Hurts like a motherfucker,” Kent says, and he winces dramatically, putting a hand on his middle.
“But it worked,” Jack says.
“Get paid to win, man.” They haven’t moved out of the hallway, Jack in his sweatpants and his Samwell t-shirt and Kent with his hoodie still zipped up.
“And you wanted to beat me.”
“I’m not gonna lie to you about that,” Kent says. There’s a twist to his mouth that Jack knows, an expression that indicates he’s trying to find humor in this, or at least fabricating it. “Look, man, is there something you want? Decorating advice? A fight? Because I was, frankly, pretty surprised to see your message after -- well. Was wondering if I needed to get my eyes checked, or stop drinking, or something.”
Jack doesn’t say anything. There’s an edge to this -- short, combative. He didn’t expect anything else. He’s not sure what he thought was going to happen, exactly. In an abstract sense he knows he’s exhausted to his bones, that what he needs to do is down more Gatorade and sleep, that he should say “Sure, I invited you over to say that you played like a dick and I don’t want to see you again.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I wanted to see what you’d do, I guess.”
“Great,” Kent says. “Super. Cause this is a game to you. Of course.”
“That’s not what I said,” Jack says. His heart hammers in his chest and it hurts.
“Then I think you’d better say it,” Kent says. “Cause frankly there are a lot of other things I could be doing right now that are a lot better than -- whatever this is.” He squares his shoulders, takes a half a step forward, and it feels like a face-off. It always does. Maybe, Jack thinks, they wouldn’t be here if they’d been able to really go head to head on the ice but the game had left something missing, something unbalanced and uneven. It will sit there like a splinter in his finger until he digs it out. Until next time.
There wasn’t supposed to be a next time. That was what he’d thought, in December.
Jack clears the space between them in two strides and Kent doesn’t back down -- shoulders square, jaw tight. Rivals, Jack things. Wind them up and point them at each other and there’s bound to be a collision.
He doesn’t stop until Kent’s back is flat against the wall, sending the little end table where he drops his wallet and keys in the same spot every day sideways with one knee. Kent’s fist catches the front of Jack’s t-shirt, white knuckles, and his mouth is hot and hard. He shoves with his hips so Jack grabs at his ribs and Kent’s words “ -- fuck --” get swallowed by the space between their mouths and the weight of Kent’s teeth under his bottom lip.
Kent’s fingers in Jack’s hair. His knee flush with Jack’s knee as Jack pushes them both sideways and through a doorway, knocking against the kitchen table and then a door frame. Two sets of hands and ragged breathing. They were always good at this part, anyway.
Kent curses when Jack slides his hands over his ribcage - there’s darkness there that will probably be a bruise tomorrow, from being buried underneath the scrum, right along his left side. Jack moves one hand, the one not holding Kent’s hipbone, to the back of his neck. His fingers catch at the fine hairs there, shaved tidy and close. He doesn’t know what to do when Kent seizes his fingers to drag them back, right over the spot where the bruise will be. He doesn’t know what to do, so he presses his fingers there, hard, until Kent moves his hand away.
When he moves his hand to the dip between Kent’s shoulderblades, both straining from the way his hands are braced on the headboard, Kent’s breathing catches. Jack digs his nails in just a little, like he’s scratching an itch, and Kent swears.
“Well,” Kent says. He’s moving through the hallway tracking down his discarded clothing - his hoodie had ended up flung over the pool table Jack’s dad had thought would be a great idea. “I really hope Mully’s still up because I’ve got no fucking clue where our hotel is exactly.”
Jack sits on the edge of his bed and watches him move through the hallway, pausing to wiggle his jeans up over his hips and zip up the fly. This feels familiar in a way that it shouldn’t - the unquestioned silence of not talking about it, the motion in the hallway as Jack watches from the bed and the knowledge that there is probably something he should say but the certainty that he isn’t going to.
Kent zips his hoodie back up, taps on his phone as Jack gets a clean pair of sweatpants out of his bottom dresser drawer and tugs them on. He moves from his bedroom into the kitchen, leans against the doorframe as Kent checks his pocket for his wallet and flips the hood up again over his disheveled hair. He looks anonymous and absent again, a late-night partygoer heading home and nothing else.
“Parse,” he says, and his stomach drops and jumps.
Kent turns. “What?” he says, and Jack can’t read his voice at all.
They stare at each other for a long moment.
“Well,” Kent says finally. “I hope you got what you wanted out of -- whatever this is.”
“Congrats on the game,” Jack says. Flat. Neutral.
“Fuck you,” Kent says, and he leaves. The front door bangs up and then closed behind him and Jack stands by himself in his sweatpants in his half dark kitchen.
He falls asleep right away, somehow, and he doesn’t dream about anything at all.
It would be too simple to say that they were bad for each other. Kent’s bad, sure, when he’s angry, and Jack’s bad the rest of the time and they had been, at paces, reckless and wanting and tender and mean. They’d also been seventeen, Jack barely treading water, Jack in it up to his eyes.
He remembers being happy. That’s the thing. Otherwise he could just chuck the whole thing out with the wash, with the rest of his bad habits he’s trying to scrub right out of his body. He’s told himself, silent and stern on nights when he didn’t answer the phone because he’d been afraid of what he’d hear or what he’d say, that that’s all it was - you only ever wanted his hands all over you because you spent half the time being stoned out of your mind. The raw physical nature of it, two bodies and two kids who were too close in proximity. Imprints on the body, permanent.
But Jack’s been trying not to lie, even to himself.
From a distance, it looks like their stories are heading off on oppositional arcs connected by a solitary point, the draft, and then diverging. From there, Jack gets worse before he gets better. From there, Kent just goes up and up.
But that would be too simple, too.
“Hypothetically-- “ Jack says, and Shitty snorts so hard he inhales beer, then spends a few minutes coughing to clear his throat. They’re in Shitty’s apartment and Shitty’s two new very harried, handsome, productive roommates who know nothing about hockey but seem to enjoy kayaking, of all things, are out. It’s a Thursday night, and Jack had felt weird being alone so he’d done the drive to Harvard in rush hour traffic and apologized a lot for putting Shits off of his studying. Now they’re sitting in Shitty’s bedroom with the window open and Shitty is cross-legged on his desk in shorts with the enormous bong Lardo bought him as a graduation present sitting in his lap.
“Brah,” Shitty says. “Y’know that when people start a sentence with the word ‘hypothetical’ they never actually mean it hypothetically.”
“Hypothetically, this is hypothetical,” Jack says, and Shitty laughs and pokes Jack’s knee with his foot.
“What is it?”
Jack catches his ankle before Shitty can kick him again, and holds onto it. “What would you do if you reconnected with someone, recently, and things weren’t great before and you did something that probably made them a lot worse?”
“Yeesh,” Shitty says.
“I thought adulthood was supposed to mean we stop making mistakes like that,” Jack says. He wouldn’t say anything like this to anybody else. “How do you live with them? Apologize? Don’t? Hypothetically.”
“Well,” Shitty scratches his chin. He looks bizarre and sagelike, in his superhero boxers with his tidy haircut and his bong. “Okay. Uh. Do you want some actual and probably morally justifiable life advice, or do you want to know what I, internally, would do in this hypothetical situation that I’m doing some vague extrapolation about.”
“Um,” Jack says. “The second one.”
“Recently,” Shitty says, “I’ve been trying to wear my mistakes on my face. Like, in the sense of owning up to the ones I feel bad about, sure. Not great at that part but we’re all fallible here. But also just straight up owning the ones I don’t, y’know? I guess maybe categorically that means they’re no longer mistakes and are more like questionable decisions, but that’s semantics.” He stops and takes a massive hit from the bong in his lap. “You know what I mean?” he asks, coughing.
“Yeah,” Jack says. “I think so.”
He doesn’t, not literally anyway. Shitty’s advice is like that sometimes. Either way too honest or way off the wall , referencing something he’s read or that he’s thinking through that he hasn’t bothered to share. Shitty makes Jack think about things, and nobody had ever asked Jack to think about anything beyond hockey before they met.
He guesses this is truthfulness. But it’s a bit hard to say. It doesn’t make him feel better, exactly, but that’s not really what he asked for.
They win in Vegas. It’s funny because it’s uneven, and there’s this big black chalkboard inside Jack’s head that checks off ‘one for you, one for me’ when the game wraps up.
“I don’t think so,” he tells Tater in their hotel room. Tater’s changing his shirt, peering at himself in the mirror. He’s grudge against the Aces seems to be sticking around but he’s got some friend who he knew growing up who plays for them who’s invited them all to a party. Really bad idea.
“You,” Tater gestures at Jack in the mirror with his chin. “No fun.”
“You haven’t figured that out by now?” Jack’s sitting cross-legged on his bed, drinking water.
Tater just laughs. “Come get me when I call, huh? Will not be fined for puking in cab again.”
“Babysit you,” Jack says.
“Yes!” Tater turns to clap him on the shoulder. “College, etcetera!”
“Fine,” Jack says. “See you later.” When Tater leaves he flips open his laptop and resumes the documentary he’d started on the plane, and the room feels very quiet.
Tater texts him a few hours later and Jack calls a cab, which takes him to someone’s very nice townhouse filled with light and noise. Tater isn’t outside, and the cab driver doesn’t want to wait, so Jack pays him and stands awkwardly on the sidewalk for a few minutes listening to Tater’s phone ring. Eventually, he sighs and goes to knock on the door.
There are Haus parties, which Jack can handle sometimes, and then there’s this, which is like all the parties they attended when they were young except thrown by people much older and with a lot more money. He winds his way through a few hallways crammed with people in Aces black until he sees the crown of Tater’s head through the crowd, distinctive because of its height and the fact that he’s waving his arms around. Jack pushes his way towards him, hoping not to get recognized, wishing he’d brought a ball cap or something to cover up his face. Tater’s carrying on a loud conversation and causing a bottle neck in front of a hallway that leads to an open bathroom door and the garage, and Jack tries to stand out of the way as much as he can and tries to get Tater’s attention as inconspicuously as possible.
“Zimmermann!” Tater bellows, and Jack sighs. He shakes Tater’s friend’s hand, an equally tall Russian with a scar on his face, and he pulls at Tater’s elbow, feeling stupid and nervous, waiting for the inevitable.
“You,” Tater says loudly, pointing, “I still have not forgiven. One clean game! My eye’s on you.”
“That’s fine,” Kent looks a little out of breath from wading through the crowd and he readjusts his hat and smiles, all teeth and can-do attitude. “I like a challenge.”
“Tater,” Jack says under his breath. He’s not sure Tater even hears him. “Let’s go, come on.”
“Huh,” Kent smiles in a way that Jack knows is fake, in one corner of his mouth. Practiced. “You babysitting? Didn’t think this was your scene anymore.”
“It’s not,” Jack says. “Tater--” Tater has moved on, shouting something in Russian to someone on the other side of the room. “Fuck--”
“Go on, then,” Kent says brightly through his teeth. He leans against the wall and the bathroom doorframe and crosses his arms. “I won’t, uh, spoil your evening. But it does seem like he coulda gotten his own ride home. Just saying.”
Jack doesn’t say anything. He can’t see where Tater’s gone.
“Congrats on the game,” Kent says, mocking, knowing they both remember when Jack had said it last. He wants a reaction. He wants Jack to throw a punch. It would be really satisfying too, knuckles to jawbone. Bruises to remember him by.
“Thanks,” he says instead. “You were a little off, weren’t you? Never seen you miss the net like that.”
He wants Kent’s smile to drop, but it doesn’t. “So,” he says. “You’ve been watching?”
“Not my fault you’re all over Yahoo sports,” Jack snaps. He motions to go, to move out of the way and break eye contact and the thread of this. Cut it off before it’s too strong to tear. Kent squares up, jaw hard, and Jack brushes right past him like it’s easy and it doesn’t mean anything.
“Jesus Christ,” Kent says, and the crack in his voice is enough to slow Jack’s steps. “I fucking hate you.”
Jack should just leave.
“Well,” he says, and he layers every ounce of condescension into his voice as he’s got, which is a lot. “That doesn’t seem to matter much to you, does it? You keep coming back anyway.”
Kent laughs, which makes Jack turn around. He hates that he does. Kent’s face is flushed and nasty. “Congrats,” he says, spreading his hands. “You’re good at one thing in your life! Too bad it’s not anything that counts for shit.”
Jack shoves him, hard. Kent’s shoulder hits the edge of the doorframe and he stumbles awkwardly, grabs at Jack’s sweatshirt as he does so Jack loses his footing and has to step forward to steady himself. Kent hauls himself upright and Jack’s blocking the doorway so he shoves back, both hands on Jack’s chest. If Jack hadn’t been a bit off balance it probably wouldn’t have done anything, but because he is he catches himself on the edge of the door. It swings shut behind him and they both stare at it, suddenly trapped in the tiny space with someone’s sink between them.
When Kent takes a step forward Jack knocks into him again, one shoulder and a hand caught in his shirt, and they wind up face to face with Kent’s back flush to the bathroom wall. There’s an unfortunate painting of some wildflowers hanging above Kent’s head and it swings a little on its hook. Kent’s fingers twist around Jack’s wrist, trying to break his grip and he jerks with his hips and one leg but Jack’s got him pinned.
“That’s it,” Kent pants, grinning. Sarcastic. “Harder.”
“Are you just begging for me to punch you in the face?” All the blood in Jack’s body is red-hot.
“Do it,” Kent spits. His breath is hot on Jack’s face. “Come on.” His fingers are tight around Jack’s wrist. He imagines the bruise there tomorrow. He images the mark he’d make on Kent’s face, red and swollen in the morning and purple by nightfall.
“Coward,” Kent snarls. Jack likes him best when he’s honest, even when it hurts. When something hurts it means you’re alive to feel it. Kent’s pulse jumps in his throat and in his fingers - Jack can feel it there. Anger pushes the body to the limit.
When Kent kisses him, Jack pulls at his bottom lip with his teeth and he knows Kent feels his own pulse jump because his fingers rest at the side of Jack’s throat. There are some things the body remembers, some shapes that are left behind even with time. The line of Kent’s hips under his fingers. Jack’s own handprints left there. He can almost feel them when he undoes the fly on Kent’s jeans and slides them past his hips. Kent’s breath in his ear, his fingers digging into Jack’s shoulder and then into his hair, are desperate and raw, pulling and not holding back. Jack doesn’t either, teeth along the edge of Kent’s hipbone so he swears.
When Kent knocks his head against the bedroom wall the ugly wildflower print finally dislodges and falls, landing right on top of Jack’s head before bouncing to the bathroom tile. They both stare at it, upside down and possibly broken. And then Kent starts laughing.
“I hope you know whose house this is,” Jack says slowly. Kent wheezes, his fingers still in Jack’s hair. “Kent. Tell me you didn’t just break someone’s grandmother’s watercolors or something.” Kent shakes his head, still laughing. After a second he slides down the wall, his hands over his face. “I hate you,” Jack stares at the back of the painting.
“Holy shit,” Kent says into his hands, his shoulders shaking. “Should’ve seen your face, holy shit--”
“Your fault,” Jack feels the beginnings of laughter in his own throat and he stamps on it. “If anybody asks--”
“Yeah, because you’re definitely gonna tell them,” Kent’s wiping his eyes and he takes a deep breath. “Shit.”
“What I’m gonna do is flee the scene of the crime,” Jack feels like there’s a bubble in his throat, about to burst. The upside-down painting glares accusingly at them.
“With your pants down?” Kent asks. “If it’s broken it’s broken. That’s not gonna change in the next ten minutes.”
“Okay,” Jack says. “But I’m leaving behind a note that says ‘Kent Parson was here.’” And he leans forward to close the space between them, pulling Kent forward so their legs are tangled up together, knees all in a row and Kent’s face tilted down to meet his own. Desperation of a different kind, and how easy that can shift.
"This is why you're alone, you know," Kent says, as they leave the party.
Jack's not sure who he's talking to, exactly. It seems to go both ways.
i dont actually hate u
It's a text and it comes, unannounced and random, at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, two weeks later.
I know, Jack texts back.
There isn't anything else to say to that. And anyway, he likes Kent best when he's honest.
The Aces play Chicago the same weekend Jack and Shitty come down to watch the Samwell team play Yale. Samwell wins that afternoon and, when they get home and Ransom turns on the television, the Aces aren't.
"Oh," Bitty says, and he motions to flip the TV back off again. Jack knows they both think about it - overheard voices from one side of a bedroom door. How straightforward it must seem, Jack thinks, peeking into one corner of all of this and seeing the worst possible thing.
"It's fine," he says, and Bitty makes a face and mutes the game.
Thinking in what-ifs will consume you, but it's an easy road to wander down. There's a version of Jack that had run after Bitty on graduation, just as there's a version of him wearing the C in Vegas and a version of him who didn't make it up off that bathroom floor at all. In some fractured universe there's a Jack Zimmermann whose father is nothing more than a wind-swept sports fisherman.
On the television, the Aces lose. Kent answers post-game interviews in a mechanical voice, mouth tight.
Jack crashes on an air mattress on the floor of Lardo's bedroom, and he stays awake long after Shitty and Lardo have shut up and fallen asleep. It's midnight by the time he decides sleep isn't coming anytime soon, and he gets up and walks down the hallway last his old closed bedroom door, and he slides the window open to climb out into the roof. The street is mostly quiet, as quiet as it gets anyway, though it looks like someone is throwing a party down at the end of the block.
He sits there until his hands get chilly, and then he punches some buttons on his phone because it seems like the right thing to do.
"Jesus," Kent picks up on the second ring. "What's wrong?"
"Um," Jack hadn't expected him to answer, really. "I'm fine. You? I mean -- sorry about the game."
Kent makes a derisive sound. "Low blow, man. God. Super not in the mood, alright?"
"Wait," Jack says quickly. "Don't hang up. I mean it. You played well. Should've had it."
There's a silence. Kent sounds like he's walking, maybe. Jack can hear his breathing. Across the street, someone opens the front door of the lax house and then shuts it again. "Yeah," Kent says finally. "Well. Shit happens." He pauses. "You watched it?"
"Caught the end," Jack says. "You looked like you wanted to snap that reporter's mic in half."
"Bullshit questions," Kent says. "'What did you learn from this?' C'mon. What was I supposed to say?"
"Yeah," Jack says. "Pretty bad."
He can feel, in the space and the silence, loose ends and the things they imply.
"You just calling to, uh--"
"Yeah," Jack says. "I guess so."
"Okay," Kent says. "Well, look. I'm at my hotel. So. I feel like if I say 'talk to you later' I'm gonna jinx it."
"Then don't," Jack says, and he hangs up the phone.
That fall, Jack and his dad attend some kind of charity golf tournament - Bob buys them matching polo shirts and has a good laugh about it and Jack doesn’t mind that, side by side in the mirror, they look similar. Jack is a passable golfer - Ransom was always better - and Bob gets by and they don’t come in first but they don’t come in last, either. They pose for a lot of photos and shake a lot of hands and Bob gets a sunburn and they have, all in all, a pretty good time.
It’s too early for snow but the fall weather carries an evening bite, and they switch into long pants and stand around in a well-decorated ballroom and get poured a lot of expensive drinks. Bob knows everybody, or at least that’s always how it feels, but Jack’s used to that, coasting through it all on autopilot and nursing his scotch and soda until he hears a familiar voice.
“How you doing, old man? Play a good game?”
“How you doing, kiddo?” Bob says. He’s always been in the habit of referring to anyone under the age of about thirty-five with the kind of names he practices on Jack’s friends at the dinner table at thirteen. “Could have been better, but no complaints. Getting a bit rusty but Jack kept us afloat.” He pats Jack on the back. “Were you playing? I missed you.”
“God no,” Kent says. He’s wearing an unfortunately bright suit jacket and his hair is combed neatly out of his face and he’s holding a beer in one hand, the other shoved in his pocket. “I just donated a bunch of money so they invited me for the canapes. I’d take somebody’s eye out, probably. Hey, Jack.”
“Parse,” Jack nods.
“Oh,” Bob, oblivious, is waving at someone across the room. “Will boys excuse me? Take off whenever you want, Jacky. You don’t have to stick around on my account. Just wake me up for breakfast, eh?”
“Sure,” Jack says. Bob squeezes his arm and heads off.
“Kinda comforting,” Kent says as he goes. “His consistency. No matter how whack the rest of the world is Bad Bob keeps doing his thing.”
“Ceaselessly against the current,” Jack says.
“In a polo shirt.” Kent shakes his head. “Nice of him to stay and chat.”
“He’s got to make the rounds,” Jack says. “Speaking of, what the hell are you wearing?”
“I’m kinda a fundraiser virgin,” Kent plucks at the sleeves of the jacket he has on. It’s bright. Much brighter than anything else in the room, and the room is full of people who recently finished playing golf. “Mom picked it out. You don’t like it?”
“Well, if your mother picked it out,” Jack says, and Kent rolls his eyes and swigs from his beer bottle. “How is she?”
“Uh,” Kent looks up at him. They’re standing shoulder to shoulder, more or less, facing the crowd of people in the room who are talking and drinking and schmoozing. They aren’t looking at each other. “Good. She has this boyfriend, I kinda like him. New job. She’s happy with it.”
“Good,” Jack says. He always liked Kent’s mom. “And your sister?”
“She’s good too,” Kent says. “And I’m not gonna elaborate because I know you talk to her.”
“Well,” Jack counters, “you talk to my parents.”
“It’s not my fault they send me Christmas cards.”
“What do you want, Kent?” Jack asks. It comes out stiff and awkward.
“Who says I want anything?” Kent sets his empty bottle down on a nearby cabaret table and it wobbles a little before steadying. “I’m conversing. Like grown-up, civilized people do when they run into each other in public. Is that okay? The three whole minute we went without arguing were positively boringly awkward. I thought that’s what you were aiming for. I can shove you into a wall, if you want?”
“I didn’t know you were coming,” Jack says. “I would’ve--”
“Called me and warned me off? I doubt that very much. No offense.”
“I would’ve thought about it.”
They stand there and watch the room, understated music and a man with an expensive watch holding a microphone trying to get everyone’s attention. Kent nudges Jack’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he says. “You wanna get outta here? I’m kind of pomp and circumstanced out.”
Jack can see his dad, halfway across the room. He waves at them before turning to look at the speaker. There isn’t any reason to stick around, and he’s hot and uncomfortable in his polo shirt.
“Sure,” he says, and he follows Kent towards the exit.
The night air is chilly but not too cold, and Jack takes a couple of deep breaths to clear his lungs. Kent shrugs off his suit jacket. He’s got a white t-shirt on underneath and with the jacket slung over his shoulder and his hair a little untidy from the process of pulling it off he looks much more like himself.
“I was gonna call a cab,” Jack says. “To get back to the hotel.” He stops. That’s the next logical thing to do here, but the thought of sitting by himself in his hotel room is close to maddening. “But we could take a walk. Out on the green, maybe. If you wanna.”
“Are we gonna get busted?” Kent peers around them like someone might be watching. There’s a valet standing bored near the front door but everybody else is inside the club.
“If we do I’ll just donate another thousand dollars,” Jack says dryly, and he strides off around the side of the building before Kent can stop laughing.
The gate to the green is pushed partially closed by not locked, and there’s enough light flooding in from the parking lot and the buildings that Jack doesn’t think he’ll put his foot in a hole and break his ankle. The grass is a little wet under his nice shoes and he can hear Kent’s footsteps behind him, the water flicking off the back of his heels as he walks.
“I hope you know,” Kent says from behind him, “that I’m not gonna fool around with you in the middle of some field. I have a little self respect.”
“Right,” Jack says over his shoulder.
“A little,” Kent says. “And these pants are expensive.”
Sometimes he thinks about his misfiring neural synapses, all the wires crossed and flickering up there. A cross-section of his anatomy, with all the lines laid out and obvious. Overworking, shouting at things that aren’t there. The air has cleared his head out, a chilly kind of clarity. Autumn air does that.
“Hey,” Jack says it as it occurs to him, which surprises him. A whim is a whim. “You ever gone joyriding in a golf cart?” He stops and turns to look backwards. The light from the parking lot picks out the gold in Kent’s hair.
“Zimmermann,” Kent snorts. “When the fuck would I have gone joyriding in a golf cart? Not all of us spend our money on memberships to country clubs, man.”
“Well,” Jack says. “Do you wanna?”
The smile that spreads across Kent’s face is backlit and wide, mischievous. Worth it.
They don’t get very far in the cart, but they do get it started which counts for something. Jack pilots it down a neatly trimmed pathway with relative ease until he bumps up onto a patch of uneven sidewalk, making the whole thing wobble. Kent squawks and grabs at his knee, then claps a hand over his mouth.
"If you scream, someone is gonna come scold us," Jack laughs, and Kent punches his knee, and then they bump awkwardly over another tree root or something and Jack decides it's time to evacuate. He stops the cart and they spill awkwardly out of it onto the grass, the edge of a hill. Jack lets himself land on his back but before he can get up Kent is sliding his fingers underneath Jack's shoulder.
"Don't," Jack tries to protest, but Kent pushes, and Jack finds himself rolling headlong down the incline, Kent running to keep up with him.
The night sky spins a little when he comes to a stop and he doesn't get up as Kent catches him. Instead, he just grabs at Kent's knees to bring him down too.
"Oh, my pants," Kent kicks at him feebly. "Ruined, thanks a lot. Feels like I'm laying right in a puddle."
"You'll be fine," Jack says. It's very dark out away from the overhead lights.
"God you suck," Kent says, but he doesn't get up even when Jack lets his knees go. He scoots around so they're lying side by side. "So next time I decide to attend something that I don't usually show up at," Kent says, "I'll have my secretary send you a schedule. Cool?"
"You don't have a secretary."
"I could. I could hire one. Tomorrow. Just seems more than inevitable we'll run into each other in public --"
"You want to draft a contingency plan?" There's water soaking through the seat of Jack's pants but he ignores it. "Seems complicated."
"Or we just divide it geographically. You let me know when you cross the Rocky Mountains."
"To be fair," Jack says. "You are on my side of the country right now."
"Your side?" Kent props himself up on his elbow. "Don't forget that I was born on this side. You have a whole other country to occupy."
"Technically I was born in Pennsylvania," Jack says.
"Your greatest shame." Kent pulls himself the rest of the way over so his left hand's resting in the grass on the other side of Jack's shoulders. Jack shrugs, looks up at him. On a whim, he reaches up and pushes Kent's hair back out of his face. He needs a trim and it's long around his ears. "Hey," Kent says, and his face is remarkably transparent in its confusion. "Told you I wasn't gonna fool around out here."
"Not fooling," Jack says. "You can have Florida."
"Fuck you, I hate Florida," Kent says. "I hate it. I don't want Florida, you take Florida."
"I'd rather be dead in Vegas than alive in Florida." Kent rolls back over, yanks up a handful of grass and stuffs it, methodically, into Jack's pants pocket. When Jack pulls it up it's wet and smells like earth. He sprinkles it into Kent's hair and Kent shakes his head, sending stalks flying.
"Nice night," Jack says.
"Yeah," Kent says. "This was, like. Fun."
"How long are you here for? Dad and I are gonna go out for breakfast."
"I fly out in the morning," Kent says. "Pretty early. Sorry."
"We can go back? If you have to get up early."
"Nah," Kent says, and he pulls up another handful of grass. "Not yet."
Winter drops - bad roads and Jack wrestling with chains on the wheels of his truck and weekends where Lardo crashes in his guest bedroom because the Haus is freezing and loud and she’s neck-deep in her final exhibition. Jack leaves her alone and lets her work, mostly, reads books on the couch while she spreads her stuff out on his dining room table. The rhythm of Jack’s seasons, adjusted for college timetable marathons, feels off, but it is relaxing to watch Lardo paint. They copy-edit a ridiculously dense law paper Shitty sends them, Lardo’s toes tucked underneath Jack’s leg on the couch as he reads through twenty pages on Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and student journalism free speech regulations (working title: “FUCK BLUEBOOK CITATION FORMAT WITH SOMETHING SANDPAPERY AND ALSO MISSOURI SCHOOL DISTRICTS.”)
“What are you doing for New Years?” Jack asks.
“This sentence has, like, forty-five adjectives in it,” Lardo says. “Do all lawyers write like this?”
“I think that’s just him.”
“Going to my grandmother’s,” Lardo answers his previous question. “Gonna eat my weight in home cooking and catch up on my mom’s Viet dramas for a week.”
“Which grandmother?” Jack asks.
“My bà ngoại. Mom’s mom.”
“What about Shitty?”
“Oh, he’s coming with,” Lardo says, scribbling out yet another adjective.
“Oh?” Jack says, and flicks her kneecap. She flushes and shakes her head.
“Shut it,” she says. “It’s not -- I mean. It is, I guess. But also his family sucks. Why? What are you doing? I’d invite you along but my aunts are gonna ask questions if I bring too many white dudes over.”
“I’ve got just enough time to go home for a few days,” Jack says. “And my parents will be there the day before New Years - usually they’re out of the country. They will be the day of. But they keep saying I should bring someone along and spend the time there anyway without them.” Jack’s mother’s exact words had been something more along the lines of still having a little fun without them, or maybe more, which had made Jack crack up so much he’d spit his smoothie out because of its inaccuracy.
“Is it a giant mansion?” Lardo asks. “Covered in giant photos of your mom from the eighties? That one photoshoot where she’s in the silver spandex?”
“Shitty’s dad’s house is more tasteless,” Jack says. “But that picture’s in the bathroom.”
“Damn,” Lardo grins over the stack of papers that constitute Shitty’s essay. “Too bad."
“You know,” Kent says when he picks up the phone, “whenever you call for no reason I keep expecting your grandmother to be dead or something.”
“Well,” Jack says, as deadpan as he can sound - which is very.
“What?” Kent squawks. “Really? Jesus, I-- “
“No, jackass,” Jack says. “She’s fine. As far as I know.”
“You’re such a tool,” Kent says, and Jack can picture him shaking his head, rolling his eyes. He leans his own back against his bedroom door. “It’s, like, midnight. On a Friday. What do you want?”
“Uh, right - do you - “ It is midnight in Providence and it is a Friday night and he hadn’t considered that Kent might be busy with something beyond not having a game scheduled. “I can call back later.” Or never, maybe, as this is beginning to feel like a bad idea already.
“Yes,” Kent says. “You’re interrupting my very important plans of drinking Moscato with my cat. Seriously, what’s up?”
Jack’s not sure if he’s serious, and doesn’t really want to be.
“What are you doing for New Years?” Jack asks.
“Uh,” Kent is obviously thrown by this. “Don’t know, really. I’m going to Mom’s for Christmas but she’s got that boyfriend - “ he snorts, “ - and I think they have plans, if you know what I mean. So I’m not invited home for longer than a few days.”
“Thanks for that image.”
“No problem. One of the guys will throw a party probably, or I’ll bug Sam to get her shit together and come out here. She’d drowning in med school shit though so who knows. Why? Are we conversing? Kind of an odd place to jump in but alright. What are you doing for New Years, Jack? Do you have big plans for Chanukah?”
“Do you wanna come to Montreal?” Jack says as fast as he can. “Not for Chanukah.”
“Um,” Kent says.
“With my parents. For a day or two, anyway, and then they’re leaving. You don’t have to, at all, they just invited me up and I thought -- “
“What the fuck,” Kent says, which is ambiguous, then, “Whatever. Sure. Because I like your mom so much, okay?”
“Right,” Jack says. “Of course.”
“Though, hold on,” Kent says. “Is your dad cooking?”
“Yes,” Jack says. “But we’ll try to curtail that as much as possible. He’s gotten better. Kind of.”
“One casserole and I’m out,” Kent says. “This is my first warning.”
“Noted,” Jack says. His hairline is itchy and he scratches at it with one hand. There’s silence on the phone line for a minute, but it’s not uncomfortable. Jack lets it sit there. He pictures Kent sitting in his apartment in Vegas holding a wine glass, wearing boxers and the ugly tube socks he still buys in bulk. He doesn't actually know what Kent's apartment looks like.
“Sounds chill,” Kent says, finally. “I really haven’t been back there except to play since -- well.”
“Right,” Jack says. The big thing that sits between them, the heavy formless weight they both haul around. He imagines, someday, that they might find a way to fill it up with something else. Words or sex or silence or Stanley Cups. For now, it sits there and it tugs them both down, ankles caught.
That’s probably all this is. They’ve always been good at hurting each other. Maybe as they age they’re just getting more creative at it.
"Yeah," Kent says finally, like he's made up his mind. "Okay. What else is up?"
"Nothing," Jack says. "I'm just at home. Was just thinking about it." Something about the inevitable prospect of spending New Years alone.
"Well," Kent says, and Jack can hear a shift in his tone of voice even in that one word. "Whatcha wearing?"
“Can I ask you something?” Kent is turning his coffee mug around and around in his hands, steam rising. He puts a splash of milk in it when he drinks it and he pours it without thinking. Jack’s always drunk his black. His mom does it the same way.
“I’m obligated to say something about the Spanish Inquisition,” Jack says. A tired line and a tired joke between them, well-worn from the summer they’d watched episode after episode of sketch comedy. Kent doesn’t even crack a smile at that. He just watches the rotation of the coffee mug in his hands, steam rising in cyclical spirals.
Jack had woken up first that morning and had lain on his side in the king-sized guest bed on the third floor where Kent had dumped his things. Jack usually sleeps up here when he comes to visit these days - it’s preferable to sleeping in his own childhood bedroom, down on the very bottom floor. That’s where his suitcase is sitting, resting next to the newly purchased queen bed and his old bookcases stuffed with his mom’s mystery novels. Not even the same bed, the same furniture. But still, it had felt weird last night when Bob and Alicia had pulled out of the driveway leaving them alone in the house, to even try to mention it. He’d followed Kent up the stairs without a word.
The first night they'd gotten in, Alicia had pulled Jack into the kitchen while Bob detailed the contents of whatever adventure he'd assembled for dinner to Kent in the other room, and she'd raised her eyebrows.
"What?" Jack had asked, and she'd smiled.
"It's not-- Mom. Don't make that face at me," Jack had said, and she'd laughed.
"You surprise us sometimes, honey, that's all," she'd said.
"Sometimes in a good way," Jack had countered. "I hope."
"Sometimes. Speaking of surprises --"
"I hope you bought dessert from somewhere."
"I did. Put on a brave front, please. It's got kale in it."
In his sleep, Kent’s mouth had been turned down and his brow all creased, his hair falling into his face. The expression had made Jack feel guilty for some reason, like he was the cause of it even in Kent’s sleep. How self-centered, he thinks, to consider he could have been.
And now they’re in the kitchen and Kent had made fried eggs and toast and poured coffee and not met Jack’s eyes and Jack had thought, Of course, of course, this was going too well.
“I’ve been thinking about, um,” Kent says, and stops in the middle of his words. Rotates his coffee mug and the ceramic clinks against the quartz countertops. “You never talk about it.”
It. That weight right in the pit of Jack’s stomach.
“You want to start now?” He asks, sharply. He sets his own mug down hard, and coffee sloshes onto his fingers and it’s hot. He sighs and turns towards the sink to run his hand under the cold water. The sun glares off of the snow on the porch and it hurts his eyes.
“I guess,” Kent says, surly. “If you’d deign to stoop so low.”
“I talk about it,” Jack says. “Just not to you.” His parents shuffle delicately around it unless they have to face it head-on, and then they brace themselves. His teammates ricochet off of its surface, sometimes hinting at it but never addressing it directly. He’d told the whole story to Shitty once, a hot jumbled rush, and Shitty had put his hand on Jack’s knee and not said anything which had been the right thing to do.
“Well,” Kent says. “That much I’m used to, anyway. All these people who didn’t even know you then. What do you tell them? Or do you just stick with the media story and run out of the room?”
Jack turns off the water and presses the heel of his hand against his eyes. The morning sunlight leaves bright spots underneath his closed lids. “Do you really want to do this?” He asks. “Right now?”
“You invited me up here,” Kent snaps. “‘Hey, let’s take a weekend trip to a city neither of us have lived in at the same time since you almost fucking OD’ed! It’ll be fun!’ What the fuck did you think was gonna happen?”
“You didn’t have to come,” Jack says. Thinking about everything like that makes you crazy. This is the city you almost OD’ed in. This is the time of the year. This shirt is similar to the shirt you had on. They haven’t replaced the floor in the bathroom on the second floor that you’re intimately familiar with, and nobody comments on the fact that you’ll climb down two flights of stairs in the middle of the night to take a shit because they’re all suddenly thinking about it too.
This was a bad idea. Like most of Jack’s ideas it had been one right from the start, and he’d realized it too late.
“I just want you to tell me,” Kent says, determined in this, clinging on. Maybe it won’t be so bad, Jack thinks. Maybe it’ll be something he can answer. “If it was my fault.”
It feels like someone has put their fingers into the space behind Jack’s eyes and dug in. Hard. Dizzying and black-and-grey, upending everything. He wants to get his hands under his parents’ expensive dining room table and flip it.
"Kent,” he says, and he exhales very slowly through his nose and he turns around. Kent looks miserable, blotchy and unsure, and Jack hates him for that, hates him because he can sit there and say that and have no fucking clue what he’s talking about. Like it doesn’t mean anything. Like it’s something to be won, yours or mine.
“Fuck you,” he says, because there isn’t really anything else to say.
“I just want --”
“You want to know if the worst day of my entire life revolved around you?” Jack spits. The black and grey in his head is going black and red. “So you can feel sorry for yourself? You do, don’t you? Feel real bad about it, right?”
Jack knows that he does. Always has. It’s part of the reason why he could never answer the phone, knowing Kent was on the other line blaming himself for something that would have happened if Jack had never met him at all.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Kent braces both his hands on the counter.
“My life,” Jack snarls, “does not revolve around you.”
“Yeah,” Kent snaps back. “You’ve made that abundantly clear.” There’s a red line across his face and Jack wants to flip the table. “But I think you owe me, just a little bit.”
“I don’t owe you enough to sit here and listen to you ask about that like - like it’s yours. Like you just get to be selfish.”
“Don’t I? After all this, about this one thing--”
Jack seizes the coffee cup that’s sitting on the counter between Kent’s hands and he throws it, hard, into the kitchen door. It shatters and the dregs of Kent’s coffee splashes up the wall. “No,” Jack can’t seem to get his breath but he speaks anyway. “Not about this.”
Kent stares at him and the silence is worse, somehow.
“Go to hell, Kent,” Jack says, and he turns and steps over the broken cup, opens the door out onto the porch and slams it so hard behind him that the frame rattles.
Nobody plowed the driveway that morning and the snow glitters on it, bright and blinding. Jack lays down on the porch, slick with frost. The cold bites into his ankles, his bare arms, his ears. His eyelids. He feels it down inside his lungs when he breathes in and out, slowly. He imagines the cold sinking into his veins, lining his chest. Bright burning, a deep ache way down in there, deeper than he can reach. It would suit him. Kind of funny, honestly. A crystalline structure creeping up through the rest of his body til there isn’t anything left that’s not frostbitten and bitter.
His anger had felt like that. Brutal and bracing and sharp. It suits him in the way Kent’s anger suits Kent - hot and spiteful and mean, getting everywhere and hurting everyone.
He imagines them being diametrically opposed, caught on either end of a wheel that spins and spins and carries them with it, always face to face but never getting any closer or farther away. Opposites attract and repel like magnets. They circle each other on the ice, cold air in his lungs and black-and-white jerseys. But that’s making it all too simple, caught up in symbols, and that would have to mean one of them is in the right here when they’re really wading through dangerous shades of grey.
They grind down rough edges that catch until that creates new ones, ones they’ve never seen before, and the shapes that are left behind reflect each other.
It might be easier to just walk away from this. Smarter, maybe or better, objectively. Preserve the way he’s shaped, icy and towering.
The front door opens and Jack sees Kent’s feet approach across the porch, wearing snowboots. He shifts just enough to look up at him. He’s wearing his jacket and gloves and a black beanie, his skates slung over his shoulder.
“Put your coat on,” he says. “Let’s go play some one-on-one.”
He steps over Jack’s legs and descends the porch steps and stands there in the snow. He doesn’t turn around. Jack looks at his back for a moment, then he sits up and goes inside and gets his jacket.
There’s a rink, Olympic size and everything, that’s a few minute’s drive from the house and they could go in if they wanted to practice there. But Jack doesn’t even suggest it, and he follows the line of Kent’s footsteps in the snow out to the lake. Sometimes in the winter it freezes over solidly enough to be skated on, and sometimes Bob, who is attached to skating outside in the way that someone who spent their childhood doing so is, pays a ton to have it frozen. Jack’s not sure about this year but he does know that the ice is solid under the layer of snow from the night before. Snow hangs in the trees and clings to his gloves as he sits to slide off his boots and lace up his skates.
Kent’s already on the ice, skating in wide loops. He’d grabbed a puck and some sticks from the jumble of athletic equipment that lives in the Zimmermann’s garage and there’s a second stick stuck in the snow at the edge of the lake that Jack picks up. As soon as he steps onto the ice Kent sends the puck in his direction and he almost misses it, sends it careening off into the middle of the lake in no particular direction. Kent’s after it like a shot and Jack pushes himself, muscles chilly, to beat him.
They don’t keep score or do anything more than send the puck back and forth between each other, sometimes passing it and sometimes keeping it away, battling for it and shooting it to one corner or the other. The cold air burns inside Jack’s throat and the ice is uneven but solid and he falls once. Kent doesn’t help him back up again but he waits until Jack’s on his feet before he’s skating away again. There’s an edge to the uselessness of it, a game with no rules except their own, and they push each other. That’s what they’ve always done.
Their knees knock and Kent almost slips, and Jack takes the opportunity to box him in. Their foreheads almost touch, sweat sliding through Jack’s hair. Kent’s hat is askew and his eyes are bright, grey-green, scanning Jack’s face.
Jack fakes him out, moving forward just enough to get him moving before slapping the puck away. He pulls the stick out of Kent’s hand for good measure. It skitters off across the ice and he tosses his own after it. He doubles over, breathing hard, hands on his knees. In his periphery, Kent skates away, pulling his beanie off to card his fingers through his hair so it’s standing on end.
Jack’s breath billows up in white clouds and he stares down at the ice between his feet, frozen swirls of water covered in fine fingers of frost. The motion of Kent’s skates doesn’t stop. The sound of blades on ice is hypnotizing, the oldest sound in the world.
When Jack straightens, Kent is halfway across the pond and he doesn’t look back and doesn’t stop moving.
“I shouldn’t have said it like that,” Kent says. He’s skating idly in circles, the edges of his skates tracing shapes in the ice. White and defined. Jack is surprised that he says it at all. “I didn’t mean to, you know. Things just -- “
“Yeah,” Jack says. He doesn’t want to say It’s okay, because it isn’t, but that would end the conversation and he feels a sudden surge of nerves in the pit of his stomach because he has no idea what Kent is going to say.
“You never talk about it,” Kent says it again. He’s looking at his feet as he skates. “I’ve been -- I’ve been all braced for you to talk about and you never do. No fucking clue why I even expected you to.” He laughs even though nothing is funny.
“Shouldn’t have,” Jack says.
“Yeah, well,” Kent says. “Should learn my lesson at some point, right. But I won’t. Not gonna apologize either.”
“Good,” Jack says. “Didn’t expect you to.”
Kent looks up at him, his breath a frozen cloud around his face. His ears are bright red from the cold.
“I wanna be better at being selfish,” he says. “But I only ever seem to pull it off when it fucks me over. I didn’t mean to say that I -- that I even get it.”
“And you don’t get what it was like for me, either.”
“No.” Jack takes a deep breath. “Maybe you do,” he says, slowly, “deserve to be selfish. About some things. But that -- that’s mine. My fault. My problem. There’s a lot of shit you can throw at me, Kenny-- “ Kent shakes his head. “But not that.”
“The problem with that,” Kent says sharply, “is that the rest of us had to live through it too.”
“Well,” Jack says. “Congrats. You’re as fucked up as I am.” Somehow, Kent grins. It’s a little vicious but it’s also sincere, and there’s credit in that, in the honesty.
“Yeah,” he says. “You wanna head back in? Or play another round?”
“Let’s play another round,” Jack says, and they do.
The snow starts again before they're ready to go inside, soft flurries that stick to the wool of Kent's knitted hat and stay, frozen and symmetrical, on Jack's jacket sleeves. They skate until it starts to really stick to the ice, obscuring the edge of the lake from the snow around it, and Jack's face feels numb with cold. When Kent starts to head towards their snowboots, stacked side by side and probably filling with snow, Jack follows him.
They walk back to the house and the snow falls harder, the sky above slate grey and quiet. Jack tilts his head back to look up at it and the flakes cling to his eyelashes and melt on his cheeks when he closes his eyes. There's a smell to it, cold and clean.
"You're gonna freeze there," Kent says behind him, "and get stuck."
"Have it your way," Kent says, and his footsteps crunch forward quickly and then something cold slides down into Jack's jacket collar.
"Dick!" He yelps, but it's too late because the snow is sliding down his back and towards his waistband, melting as it goes. Kent laughs, boot laces flailing as he dashes towards the house and Jack chucks his skates aside and then lunges towards him, catches him by the waist. They both fall head over heels into the snow. Kent rolls onto his back, trying to wriggle out from under Jack, and Jack grabs his wrists and plants a knee on either side of his hips, straddling him. The snow billows and shifts around them.
"Gotcha," Jack says, grinning. Their breath, between them, is an incandescent cloud of white.
"It's going down my back--" Kent groans.
"Serves you right."
"Always gotta escalate things," Kent says. "So much snow just went down my pants."
"I'm freezing," Jack says, but he doesn't move right away because it's making Kent mad.
"So get up!"
"Gonna go take a bath." Jack stands, brushing snow off his knees.
"What, are you ninety?" Kent stretches all his limbs out and moves them, leaving a sweeping imprint in the snow before he stands too.
"Guess so," Jack says. "Jacuzzi tub. Coming?"
"Shut up," Kent says, and he beats Jack inside the front door.
For years, Jack's paid attention to the steps his mother takes to get a fire started in the large stone fireplace in the living room of the house, and whenever he tries to replicate the process he inevitably runs into trouble.
"I could get some gasoline?" Kent asks. He's sitting, legs outstretched, on the floor next to the empty pizza box they'd eaten their way through earlier because it's New Years and cold outside.
"Shut up," Jack grunts, flicking yet another match at the fire starter inside the grate. It's supposed to catch, just like that. It hasn't. "It should just -- you don't have a lighter, do you?"
"No." Kent sounds like he's enjoying this. "Do you want a hand?"
"No," Jack snaps. The match snaps against the box and he throws it into the grate and then swipes another, which catches. Unexpectedly, so does the fire starter. Jack falls over backwards in his surprise, and Kent laughs, pats him on the arm as he struggles to sit back up again.
"Smooth," he says.
The temperature had dropped through the afternoon, snow increasing. The sky outside, well into evening, is black and grey and white in turns. They hadn't moved much, anger dissolving into lethargy, but it's starting to get cold even inside and the heat only works so well. The logs in the grate start to catch, and Jack stands, picking up the pizza box and admiring his handiwork.
He tosses the trash in the kitchen and the tiles are cold under his feet.
"It's so quiet up here," Kent says, when Jack comes back into the living room. He sits on the couch and Kent's still sprawled on the floor. He's looking towards the collection of framed photographs that Bob and Alicia have put along one wall. Their wedding photo, a picture of them holding Jack in his grandparents' backyard, Jack and Shitty smiling in graduation black. Kent's face is up there somewhere, one kid in a team roster with a grin, proud to be photographed at that place and in that moment. "I forget, living in the city."
"It felt good to leave," Jack says slowly. "I thought I wouldn't ever wanna come back, but--"
"I've grown up, I guess." He finds he wants to say this, the sick and sinking feeling and the innocuous patterned tile bathroom floor and how much weight he'd lost after rehab. He hadn't looked in mirrors much. If Kent had seen him he'd have looked like a completely different person.
"Can't help that," Kent's voice is dark, all of a sudden, and Jack watches as his hands close into fists and rest, neatly, on his knees. Maybe they're not meant to exist in peace.
"What now?" He asks, and he doesn't disguise the fact that his voice is tired.
"Why now?" Kent asks.
Jack wonders when Kent started asking so many questions that he doesn't have the answers to. It felt so much easier when neither of them asked any at all.
"I don't--" he starts, and Kent cuts him off.
"Damn it, Jack," he says, and he shuts his eyes and the firelight draws out the shadows under them. He looks older, worn out.
"I don't know," Jack says.
"That's not good enough."
"Nothing I say is going to be." They both know that.
"It's been a long time, yeah? You could've -- any other time you could have. And I wouldn't have asked. Wouldn't have questioned it. I missed you so bad and --"
"I couldn't have," Jack says. It's not something that he can articulate in a way that he thinks Kent will understand.
"If this isn't gonna stick," Kent gestures to his own chest, then towards Jack, then back, "then tell me now. Okay? If this is funny for you, or you're bored, or you're waiting for something better to come along -- if you're stringing me on or if it's a -- a -- revenge thing, just say it. Just say it."
He doesn't finish the thought and Jack doesn't need him to. Jack knows that when Kent looks at him Kent also sees him walking away, and that there isn't anything Jack can do to fix that. Maybe that was what he wanted, once. He knows that if he answers this question wrong then Kent will be the one to cut his losses and run, take the chance to walk away first and leave instead of being left.
Turn the tables, act out your fear. How else do you ever learn your lesson? The space between Jack's shoulder blades itches.
It would be an out. A wall. A reason to fight. Bruises on knuckles, bruises on jawbone, bruises through and through. One of them bleeds and the other one shatters and that's just how it goes, on and on forever.
"Why'd you come when I sent you my address?" Jack asks, and Kent's eyebrow raises.
"Why the fuck do you think?" He asks, and the tone in his voice indicates that Jack really has no idea. "Because," Kent doesn't wait for Jack to offer a guess, "in the grand cosmic weigh-off, I hate myself more than you could ever hate me."
Jack likes him best when he's honest. Abrasive and copper-bright, like blood against the teeth.
"Is that what you wanted to hear?" Kent asks, sarcastic.
"Not really," Jack says.
Kent snorts, stares towards the fire with his fists balled on his knees. Jack stands up and he joins him, cross-legged, on the floor.
"I couldn't have," he says again. "Before now." Kent's eyes are dark. "I know that's not fair to you," Jack continues. "But it's how it is. But," and Kent looks over at him. "It isn't any of the things you said."
"And you mean it," Kent says. A statement, but also a question. A demand.
Jack squares his jaw. "Lying," he says, "is not a habit I kept up."
"Okay," Kent says.
"A revenge thing?" Jack asks, and the line of tension, ramrod-straight and harsh, melts out of Kent's spine.
"Listen," he says. "You can be a pretty vindictive bastard." The set of his eyes is lighter, somehow, half a smile caught in them. An acceptance in this.
"I'm just wondering," Jack says, "when we started thinking the worst of each other."
"Pretty sure you started it," Kent says, and for some reason that's funny. Jack snorts, tries to cover it up with his elbow but fails, and Kent lets out a bark of laughter too, leaning his head back against the seat cushions. Jack catches his chin before the smile fades, and follows the line of it, the bow of Kent's mouth, with the edge of his thumb. He feels, rather than sees, Kent's breath catch.
Maybe Jack had started it. He doesn't remember. One of them pushed, or the other one jumped. At this point, it's almost just the same thing.
There is something messy and victorious in knowing exactly who you are, Jack thinks. After all this, there is something victorious in that.
“Do you remember that weekend,” Jack says, “where we went up to the lake house?”
Kent had been shifting restlessly on the bed next to him but he stops and out of the corner of his eye Jack sees him look over. Something between them is still unresolved and jagged, or maybe Jack just expects things to feel like that and doesn't know what to do with them when they don't. What if they could find a way to fit together? No one scores any more points.
“Yeah, sure,” he says. “Right after the Cup.”
The guest bedroom ceiling is a neat, unbroken wash of white paint. So is the ceiling in Jack’s new apartment. In the Haus, the view from his pillow had been marred by stains and discoloration shaped a little bit like the Florida coast, or the border between Greece and Albania.
“We went out in the boats for hours,” Jack says. Thinking about it, he can almost smell it - lake water and sunblock and summer air in the late afternoon. Something quite opposite from this. The snow is dumping now. He can see it piling up on the window ledge. “Dad flipped the canoe so many times I thought he was doing it on purpose to throw me in. And you got so sunburned --”
Kent laughs. “I got so sunburned that it hurt to lie down, or wear a shirt, or scratch my back,” he says. Then he sits up suddenly and lands one arm on the other side of Jack’s shoulder, so he’s looking down at him. “But we couldn’t not take advantage of the fact that your parents had some fancy dinner invite and left us alone so I rode you and told you to keep your hands to yourself.”
“Yeah,” Jack says, because he remembers that too.
“They still own it?” Kent asks, moving out of Jack’s line of sight again. He doesn’t get up though, just drops his head onto the corner of Jack’s pillow.
“Yeah,” Jack says. “They use it pretty often. I haven’t been since -- a few years, Shits and I went one summer for a week. Mom and I went together after, uh. After the draft.”
“So you wouldn’t wanna go back?” Kent asks. His voice sounds distant but he moves his hand, almost tentatively, across Jack’s ribs to his sternum. Jack can fill the calluses on the edges of his palms.
“No,” Jack says. “It would be fun to. I could. We could. Sometime.” At the moment, that particular visit feels like it was a long time ago. Other times, it feels like it happened yesterday.
“Wanna know something?” Kent says, after a minute of silence.
“Yeah,” Jack turns his head on the pillow, and Kent’s face is facing him but his eyes are far away. His freckles are winter-faded, but not gone. Desert sunshine.
“I was gonna get over you,” Kent says, and Jack can see a knot in his throat jump as he speaks. His lips are white and tight. “After last winter. That was the plan, anyway. That’s what I told myself. I thought I couldn’t let it go without trying, and I never really thought that you’d -- well, it was kind of an ultimatum. A rigged one. I was so pissed at you and I thought, you know, if I could say something horrible enough --”
“I know,” Jack says, because he seen that very clearly after the sting had faded some.
“I’m sure you saw right through that,” Kent says. “And I failed to consider the fact that you’re a masochist. My mistake, really.”
“Well,” Jack says. He shifts his shoulder a little so it bumps into Kent’s and Kent lets his head drop onto it. “There’s always next time.”
“I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” Kent says. He yawns against Jack’s shoulder. “Just give it time.”
“Let me know when you do, eh?” Jack says
The only clarity in this is the knowledge that there is no clarity in anything. Everything looks different from different sides and angles, and the story's only as real as the one you tell yourself. Jack studied history. He understands how it never really goes anywhere. It curves back in and on itself, an ouroboros, a hand around an elbow, the lock of hair tumbling across Kent's forehead. The arc of the watch hand as it moves, signaling overtime rather than the end. Some things stay buried, like the lake under the ice and snow outside. Maybe you think they've drowned. Maybe you think you're lost. Maybe you forget about them until they melt and you go to look for them again.
"Hey," Jack says. "Kenny. It's the new year."
Kent doesn't move. He's asleep, his mouth partially open on Jack's shoulder and his free hand tucked into his side.
Jack disentangles himself as gently as he can and stands up, pulling his sweatshirt out from the pile of clothes he'd brought along and pulling it on. He crosses to the bedroom window and looks out. The night is dense and cold and long and he watches the snow drop with his elbows resting on the windowsill until he hears Kent shift on the bed behind him.
"Where you going?" he asks, voice soft with sleep.
Jack takes a deep breath.
"Nowhere," he says, and he goes back to bed.