Tuesday, April 30, 2013


In breathless anticipation of the playoffs and Sid's impending return...

(January 10)

“What are you so happy about?”

Sid looked up from the counter in the lounge, where he was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for his first practice of the new season.  This was a careful ritual, not to be disturbed, and his teammates knew that.  Who would interrupt?

Pascal Dupuis was looking back at him.  “You’re humming, Creature.”

“I was?”

“Taylor Swift,” his older linemate said, eyebrow raised in suspicion.

“Sid’s dating Taylor Swift?”  James Neal rounded the corner.  Sid hadn’t seen him since Toronto but the look on the forward’s face said he remembered everything about their surprise meeting.  “That’s weird, since his sister’s name is Taylor.”

Sid set his jaw.  “I swear to God, Nealer, if you so much as….”

Neal barked a laugh, slapped Dupuis on the shoulder and ambled out of the room.  Pascal gave Sidney another questioning look.

“Don’t ask,” Sid said.

“But I must, mon ami.  Who is she?”

“My sister is not dating Neal and if he starts that fucking rumor I swear to God I’ll have him traded to the KHL.”

“Not his girl,” Duper chuckled in his fatherly way.  “That sack of shit couldn’t get a date with the guy who drives the Zamboni.  I’m talking about your girl.”

“Uh, no one,” Sid slammed the top slice of bread down a little too roughly, sending a glob of jelly flying.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Pascal shrugged.  “Alright, Kid.  Taylor Swift it is.”

“Fuck you.  I heard that on the radio before.  Can’t I just be happy to have hockey back?”

Duper picked up half Sid’s sandwich and shook it in his face.  “This is you happy.  This,” he took a bite, “is about hockey.  But if you’re blushing and Nealer knows about it, it’s gotta be a piece.”

Sid ripped the half sandwich from Duper’s hand, stuffed it into his mouth and walked away.
“Not blushing,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

Sid was so glad to be back.  Coming into the locker room was, for Sid, the equivalent of walking outside on a brilliantly sunny day.  It was the chance to start over, for this to be the day he did something great.  The blood, sweat and tears of it all had been the compass for his entire life – he knew where he fit here, and how to perform.

Outside the rink, it was still far too soon to tell how Sidney’s new outlook would fare in the free world.  He’d come back to his Pittsburgh house, so brand new it practically still had the price tag on and busied himself unpacking, then had dinner with the guys.  Then drinks.  Then he fell asleep, all without calling Leah.

First night accomplished.

But yesterday, his first full off-day in Pittsburgh, had seemed about 12 hours too long.  Sid went to the rink, sat in some meetings, worked out and was home before lunch.  Except that he had no food.  With a hat pulled down so low he could barely see, Sid ventured to the grocery store and carefully walked each aisle, loading a cart while keeping one eye over his shoulder.  In the middle of a weekday, the place was mostly empty.  He was feeling more confident by the time he reached the dairy aisle, letting his guard down a bit by the yogurt, and didn’t realize someone had come up beside him.

“Oh, hey.  You’re Sidney Crosby!”

She was just a shade over five feet tall, with a blond ponytail and side-swept bangs.  Her brown eyes dropped closed as she smiled, covering her pretty face in embarrassment.

“Sorry, that was awkward.”

She had a nice laugh.  No ring on her finger either.  In fact, from her jeans tucked into winter boots and the expensive North Face jacket she wore, Sid thought everything about her was nice enough – nice enough that he was staring.

“Hi,” he stuttered.  “Uh, I am.  Sid.  Hi.”

Loser, he cursed internally.

“Miranda,” she stuck out her hand.  Bangs slipped into her face and she brushed them back.

Her hand disappeared inside his, like he was shaking hands with a puppy showing off a trick.  Warm skin on warm skin and Sid felt… nothing.  No spark.  No zip.  No stab of desire through the parts of his body that still rang with the idea of Leah.  His heart dropped harder than he cared to admit.

“Nice to meet you,” Sid said.  Miranda waited a moment before she let her hand fall from his grasp.  

“So, you’re back in town.  Must be exciting,” she prompted.

“Uh, yeah.  It is.  I’m relieved,” he knew that sounded right, added a little laugh for authenticity.  “Took long enough, you know?  Getting pretty bored sitting home.”

“Yeah,” Miranda laughed a little too loudly and shifted her weight.  Waiting.

She thinks I’m going to ask her out, Sid realized.  One fucking joke and she assumes I’m… wait.  Should I ask her out?

A quick review of Miranda told Sid there was no reason not to – she was pretty and friendly and she knew who he was, three big things in her favor.  She’d look good at a WAG bake sale, could probably stomach a children’s hospital visit.  That smile would go over big in photos online.

“Do you, uh….” he started to say.  Her whole face brightened another degree.  Her grin got a little wider.  Sid could have sworn she sucked in a breath, as if waiting for the big drop on a roller coaster ride or the finale in a fireworks show.  As if him asking her out were already the best thing that had ever happened to her – would ever happen to her - and it hadn’t even happened yet. 

“… watch a lot of hockey?” Sid asked.  He couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t be so much to someone already – even a nice person.  Miranda probably didn’t want to get knocked up and drain his bank account on designer bags but she definitely wanted to tell everyone she knew that she was going out with Sidney Crosby.  Even this encounter by the ricotta display would be on Twitter before she got out of the store.  Sid felt his shoulders drop at the same time he saw hers’ fall.

“Lots.  I love it.”  Now she was lying, pressing to hold his interest.  If he asked what number Malkin wore, she’d probably have no idea.  There were upsides to that in a girlfriend, but Sid had already let the ship sale.  Miranda however was still trying.  “I go all the time with my brother and….”

“Awesome,” Sid smiled to cover up the sound of asshole in his voice.  “Thanks.  We’ll, uh, try to start winning right away.  Sorry it took so long.”

He had to apologize for something – anything – since he couldn’t explain himself.  Sorry, I just got out of a relationship.  Sorry, I just had the night of my life.  Sorry, I’m fucking terrified.

A little cloud crossed Miranda’s sunny face.  It could have rained on his sneakers right there in the aisle nine.  She quickly tossed her blond hair, shaking it off.  Re-writing the Facebook post in her head.  “Nice to meet you, Sidney,” she said, and walked off swinging her hips like it was his last chance. 

He just watched her go.

That night, alone in his house, Sidney worked out a plan of attack.  Flying solo wasn’t the best way for him to get out there – too vulnerable.  So he resolved to go out with the guys more.  To get them to invite him at all, which they rarely did after so many years of him saying no.  Also their girlfriends might have friends who could be vetted beforehand, maybe they could set him up.  He made a list of teammates both nice enough and quiet enough to do something like that without broadcasting on Radio CONSOL that Sidney Crosby was trying to find himself a date.

The list was really short.

“Hey, Leah!”  Ricky Calvert waved from his usual spot in the bleachers, surrounded by the people she’d sat with the last time Jake had a game.  They were all looking at her even before Ricky called her name.  She’d just come up from singing the anthem, maybe that was it.

Leah shook her head, kidding herself.

It had been a weird day and a half.  School was as normal as school ever was – the students were so self-absorbed that her brush with celebrity made her cool for life.  They had no time to think about what Sid’s leaving meant, other than the hometown hero would be back on TV soon. 

In comparison, the rink could have been a different planet.  The whole place felt like Sid – from their first meeting to the moment he’d put his arm casually around her in the bleachers and said to let people see what they want – this was their place.  Only now she was very conspicuously alone.  It seemed like every person was watching her.  Maybe they hoped she’d give them some secret NHL news straight from Sidney or wanted to see her moping around like she’d been dumped by the brightest star in the sky.  A few looked genuinely surprised to see her at all, as if they’d expected her to ditch this place with Sid the first chance she got.

No chance, she thought.

It had been that way at the store too, where she’d stopped on the way home from dropping Sidney at the airport.  She knew everyone in town, so they all felt free to ask about the lockout ending and him leaving.  Leah just said, “Go Penguins” and bought three bottles of wine. 

Just as she waved back to Ricky and started in that direction, her sister materialized at her elbow.  “Sit with us,” Kate said.  “See them later.”

Kate steered into a row and plopped Leah down between herself and her husband.  Tommy’s arm went around Leah’s shoulders.

“How you holding up, bean?”

“Fine, I’m fine.”

“See?  I told you.  She’s fine,” Tommy said over her head.

Kate squeezed Leah’s leg.  “Okay, I believe you.”

They didn’t bring it up again during the game.  Kids skated and shot and fell down just like always.   Jake had an assist.  As the kids bunched around the puck and followed across the ice like a single living organism, Leah’s mind wandered.  She was going to have to take up knitting or scorekeeping or something during these games.  The looks tapered off by the second period, but when she went to the bathroom she swore it sparked a conversation in everyone she passed.  When the game was over, Jake’s team had won by two.

“Let’s go eat,” Kate said, still with the tone like she was taking care of someone.  Leah knew it wasn’t Jake.  Dodging Ricky on the concourse, Leah got in her car and followed but Kate passed the usual Chinese food place.  She passed a second one before finally pulling in at the third.  Jake was off like a shot, Tommy jogging behind him.

“What’s up?” Leah asked, getting out of the car. 

Kate rubbed her hands together against the January chill.  “Maybe you’re used to everyone looking at you now, but I’m not.  Not while we eat.”

Leah groaned.  “Ugh.  They think I’m going to burst into tears like I didn’t get a rose on The Bachelor.”

“Are you okay, though?” Kate asked, putting her hand on Leah’s arm.  “Really okay?”

Leah smiled sadly, not quite able to get the corners of her mouth raised all the way.  The more she asked herself the same, the more unconvincing the answer became.  “I’m fine, Kate.  I miss him, of course.  I’d miss you if you left.”

“Yeah, but I don’t look like that in jeans,” Kate snickered.

“Stop it!” Leah smacked her sister’s puffy jacket.  “I’m telling Tommy you said that!”

Kate twisted away.  “I told him myself!  I’m married, Leah, not dead!”

Leah rolled her eyes and hugged herself against the cold.  It felt good to admit even a little bit about the effect Sidney had on her.  Kate came back to her side, her face a little more serious. 

“Did you sleep with him?”

“Kate,” Leah said flatly.

“Leah,” she returned the tone, “don’t tell me you let that boy follow you around for two weeks like a puppy and you didn’t once pet him!”

Leah felt her cheeks turn hot pink despite the indignant look she was trying to maintain.  All those people staring at the game, all those gossiping tongues thought they were seeing a little girl with an impossible crush.  If they knew what had really happened….

Kate knew.  “Oh thank God,” she moaned.  “If you’d missed out on that I’d have to disown you.  No offense but holy fuck.  Good for you.” 

The serious expression slid right off Leah’s face.  “Kate, you have no idea.”

Leah drove home from dinner feeling full and a little more settled.  Kate made some insinuating comments that their discussion of Sidney was not over, but Leah didn’t mind.  She needed to talk to someone, even if she only said half the things she was thinking. 

I should talk to Sid, she told herself.  A day and a half was longer than they’d gone since meeting.  She was dying to know how things were in Pittsburgh and, if she was honest, find out if he missed her at all, now that he was almost back to his superstar life.  Once games and road trips started, Leah thought he might disappear completely.

As if on cue, her phone rang. 

“Hey superstar,” she said, hearing the smile in her own voice.

On the other end, leaning against his kitchen counter in a big empty Pittsburgh house, Sid almost choked at the sound of her voice.  “Hey there… sunshine,” he said awkwardly.

Leah laughed.  “I see you’ve gotten all smooth with girls since returning to America.”

Sid was so glad she couldn’t see his beet red face.  “There’s a test at customs.”

“Do they let you take it again if you fail?  Like driving?”
“I just smile at the lady and she gives me a pass,” he tried.

“Should show her your jeans.  A-plus, baby.”  Leah took a deep breath, surprised to feel nervous.  “Really though, how is it?”

“It’s good.  The same, you know?  Time kind of stops here, we just come back and start again.”  He picked up some unused kitchen appliance and turned it over in his hand.  “How are you?”

“The same, you know,” she teased.  “Jake’s team won their game tonight.  He wanted you to know.”

“Did you sing?”


“Remember all the words?”

“Yup,” she giggled.

Sid leaned his head back against a cabinet.  “That’s my girl.”

I wish, he thought.

Almost was, Leah said to herself.

She asked about the team, practice and if they’d be ready for the season opener.  He told her about all the work they still had to do.  A lot of his teammates had not played overseas during the lockout which could give opposing teams a leg up.  It was his job to make sure their conditioning kicked up before the grind began.

“This is boring, sorry,” Sid pushed a hand through his hair.  He was brain-dumping forty eight hours worth of hockey over the phone.

Leah drove right past her house and kept going down the block.  “It’s not.  I’m going to sound so smart watching on TV.  Guess I’d better find someone to watch with, so I can amaze them with my knowledge.”

“Maybe Travis?” Sid suggested.  He didn’t want to hear she had plans for watching his game with Ricky Calvert or any of those cut rate guys.

“Probably just Jake,” Leah lied.  She would watch the game at home, alone, glued to the TV in a mix of awe and terror.  She suspected hockey was going to be very different for her now.  Along with everything else.  Finally she pulled into her driveway, while Sid was telling her about the multiple things in his kitchen he didn’t know how to use.  The decorator had gone all out, even putting a Kitchen Aid mixer on the granite countertop. 

“What do I do with it?” he asked skeptically.

“Make cookies.”

Sid’s silence answered for him.  He didn’t eat cookies.

“Birthday cake?” Leah tried.  Nothing.  “Muffins, then.  Wheat germ muffins with bran and soy and sprouts or whatever you are allowed to have.”

He peered inside the shiny silver bowl set beneath the mixing wands, as if it were posing for a photo shoot in someone else’s kitchen.  “It looks like it’s going to come alive and attack me.”

“Not if you feed it cookies!”

Sid laughed though the pang in his heart that told him he wouldn’t find this, the casual safety of Leah.  It was purse ease talking with her.  He thought of Miranda from the grocery store, his stuttering and struggling over nothing at all.

“I miss you,” he said honestly.

Leah bit her lip, tears suddenly burning behind her eyes.  Now she really was a girl from The Bachelor, crying over someone she never really had.  With a deep slow breath, she managed to say, “I miss you too, Sid.”

A long quiet moment passed in which they were both convinced the other didn’t want to hear anything closer to the truth.

“Practice tomorrow?” Leah finally asked.

“Yeah.  Ten o’clock sharp.”

“Tell Neal I said hi, eh?”

Sid threw his arm in the air.  “Not you too!  Taylor is winding me up about him.  Hey, nothing happened in Toronto right?  With them?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” she joked.

“I would punch him first.”

“You could give me his number and I’ll ask….”

Sid growled.  Leah felt it right down her spine, prickling every inch of her skin.  She could picture his eyes narrowing, that piercing glare. If he’d done that within arm’s reach – she shook her whole body, still belted into her driver’s seat, to get rid of the feeling. 

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll just get his number from Taylor.”

“Leah, don’t.”  His voice was a real warning.

Leah smiled at herself in the rear view mirror.  If she couldn’t have Sid, she could still be the only one who gave him a hard time.

“I won’t,” she teased.  “I promise.”

(January 11)

Sleep had not come easily for Sid and he was pissed about it.  The sound of Leah’s laugh had stayed with him all night, even more than the revolting idea of her calling James.  Sid knew she wouldn’t do that.  Still Sid hated that he didn’t want her too, as if he had some right to keep her from a guy.  As if he were going to do something about it besides go to bed alone and think of her in the darkness, a ghost in the empty space next to him.  Now he sat in front of his locker, elbows on his knees, staring at the stop between his skates.

“So, how is she?”

He knew it was Neal, and looked up to find the shit-eating grin he expected.  Sid sneered back.  “Fuck you.”

“Oh come on, Sid.  Don’t be such a grouch. I’m only kidding about your sister.”

“You’d better be.”

“And it wasn’t her I was asking about,” Neal sat down in front of his own stall.  “I meant how is Leah?”

“Fine,” Sid snapped. 

James lifted his eyebrows sarcastically.  “Dude, relax.  I’m not trying to steal your girl, okay?  I mean, I would but she made it pretty clear in Toronto that she’s all yours.”

“She’s not mine,” Sid ripped a piece of tape off hard.  “We are not together.”

“And you’re not in love with her, right?”

Sid’s head snapped up, ready to fly into a rage at the sight of James’ grin.  His own teeth were bared as a declaration of war.  Instead the lanky forward was sitting back, hands resting in his lap.  He wasn’t smiling.

James just nodded.  “Thought so.” 

Leah yanked the last top in her closet off the hanger and shoved it down over her head.  At this point she didn’t care what it looked like, it couldn’t be worse than any of the thirty she’d already thrown on the floor.  It was blousy silk in a bright orange color with tropical looking flowers running up one side.  With jeans and a pair of brown boots, it looked the way it always had.

Tonight that wasn’t good enough.  Leah dropped back onto her bed.  Not even ten o’clock and not even out of her house – she was already exhausted. 

“Can I wear sweatpants?” she asked by way of greeting when the phone rang.

“Don’t make me come up there and dress you.  You won’t like it,” Gina said.  That was true.  Leah knew any wardrobe foray with Gina meant tight, short and see-through in as many places as possible.  The exact opposite of what Leah was going for tonight.

Still she hauled herself to standing, checked the mirror and saw an impersonation of herself that would pass muster at Madigan’s.  By the time she’d have to sing everyone would be too drunk to care what she looked like.

“Remember: it’s not for you, it’s for them,” Gina said.

Leah grabbed her purse.

The bar was filling in, same was always, with the same people who always filled it on a Friday night.  A few ambitious souls were already kicking up their heels to the band’s first set.  Travis handed Leah a beer almost as soon as she was in the door and guided them to a table he’d commandeered.  Leah noticed it was toward the back, as opposed to the front where they usually sat.  Walking through the room still drew enough looks for Leah to toss her head back and smile in defiance.

They think I’m gutted.  Well she wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of seeing the former not-Mrs. Sidney Crosby looking all sad that her boyfriend’s real life had resumed, even if it did sting more than she cared to admit.  Leah took a long sip from the bottle of beer.  She had known Sid leaving would hurt - regardless of how far they let things go, it was the letting go itself that would sting.  So far, so right.

What she hadn’t really counted on was sharing every single place with the memory of him.  Sidney Crosby owned Cole Harbour, while at the same time he’d been so anonymous.  Leah had become immune to his name, number and picture from ten years of seeing it waved around town like a flag.  Now that flagpole was planted firmly in her way and she kept walking right into it. 

This is where she and Sidney had first been in public together – he came through the door, stopped the world and walked right toward her.  Leah wondered if it had been scarier for him than for her, and decided she took that one.  But the last time… a shudder ran through her body, Leah fought to keep it down.  Just a week ago they’d been drunk and daring, recklessly pushing the boundary they’re built between themselves.  No wonder it had come crashing down.  The way he’d touched her that night, using his whole body, was barely a hint of what he could do yet even that glimmer left her heart pounding.

Fuck, she thought as she set the now-empty beer down.  Her eyes drifted up and to the left, where Canada and Pittsburgh jerseys were displayed above the stage.  Even at a party, Sidney was literally hanging over her head.

A hand on her shoulder broke up Leah’s pity party.  Gina slipped a hand under each arm and all but lifted Leah out of her seat.  Half the guys in the place groaned – they’d been hoping since high school for Gina to grope them like that.  She turned Leah to face her, looking very serious in perfect makeup and a scoop neck full of cleavage.

“Up,” she said.  “And dance.  You can miss him later.”

Sid tumbled into bed, exhausted.  He’d spent every ounce of physical energy at practice then every ounce of mental energy thinking about hockey for the rest of the day.  Tomorrow he would get up and do it all again.  The grind had begun.  It was all he could do to pick up his phone and hit send.

It rang and rang, then voicemail.  At the sound of the tone, Sidney realized it was Friday night and Leah had Friday night plans.  Every Friday night, with or without him.  He wondered if right now she was dancing with someone else.  Sid wondered if, in just twelve days, he’d even left a dent in Leah’s life.

“Hey, it’s Leah.  Leave a message.”  Beeeeep.

Sid closed his eyes.  He was so tired.  “Night, Leah.”

(very early, January 12)

The lead singer laughed when Leah leaned in to shout her song choice over the music.  It was new, but the meaning was clear.  Everyone seemed to be expecting something special out of her anyway.

“You would,” Ben, the band leader, said.

“Might as well give ‘em something,” Leah agreed.

People hadn’t stopped looking at her all night.  She’d walked into the bathroom and dead-stopped every chattering mouth at the mirror.  Something between jealous and pity was in a lot of their eyes – all guesses, of course.  Every woman in the place figured Leah had gotten Sidney, which they wanted, and lost him, which they wouldn’t.  They had no idea that she’d been in on the whole thing from the beginning.  There was a little power in that knowledge, a little self-determination.  Now Leah was about to make some more.

The song had been out about a week.  Leah was a little surprised the band knew it, simple as it was.  Half the people hearing would probably think she wrote it herself, about Sidney.  Leah stepped up to the microphone.

I cut my bangs with some rusty kitchen scissors
I screamed his name ‘til the neighbors called the cops
I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver
Don’t know what I did next all I know, I couldn’t stop.

A few people looked at each other, mostly girls Leah’s age, recognizing the song and its significance.  They weren’t sure she was kidding and she kept singing.

Word got around to the barflies and the Baptists
My mama’s phone started ringin’ off the hook
I can hear her now sayin’ she ain’t gonna have it
Don’t matter how you feel, it only matters how you look.

From the back of the room, Gina whistled so loudly that a cab stopped in New York.  That’s how Leah knew she looked okay, even if she didn’t feel that way.  If spending time with Sidney had taught her anything, it was that people believed what they saw. 

Go and fix your make up, girl, it’s just a break up
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady
'Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together
Even when you fall apart
But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart.

There were laughs and scattered hollers.  Leah belted out of the rest of Miranda Lambert’s song so even those who missed the joke were cheering by the end. 

It was half past too late when she got home, peeled off the outfit she’d hated all night and slid between her sheets.  Plugging in her mostly dead phone was an afterthought.  It beeped as the power supply registered, then quickly beeped again to remind her of a voicemail.  She snatched the phone from the nightstand.  The missed call notification said: Sidney.  Leah let her head fall back and sighed.  A second later his voice was in her ear.

“Night, Leah,” he said.

She flopped back against her pillow in the dark.  “Night, Sid.”

1 comment:

  1. Ok, so you were already my favorite, but now you busted out some Miranda Lambert too? I bow down to you. She is my absolute FAVORITE. Just saw her in concert again and she absolutely killed it. More soon, please!