Leah flexed her hand, stretching the stiff tendons. It had been a long time since she played the piano. Her keyboard was high-end a few years ago but hadn’t seen much use; now it played in perfect tune from the press of the first key. Leah had been at it for over an hour.
The song had come into her head sometime the day before, between seeing the photo of Sidney on a date and leaving school. By dinner it was embedded in her brain. Now, as she waited to head over to her sister’s for Sidney’s game, she was testing and scribbling it out in real measures.
Ba bum ba bum badummm…
Dumb: that’s how Leah felt. It could have been every note in the song. She had told Sidney not to wait for her, to find a girl and forget about them. Now it appeared he was following orders and Leah wished she could bite off her own traitorous tongue. Instead she just played the melody again, clearly a chorus, and waited for words to attach themselves to sound.
“LEAH!” Jack dive-bombed her in the entryway, wearing Sidney’s enormous sweatshirt and a Penguins cap. He led her to the place of honor on the couch and tucked himself in next to her, practically bouncing with excitement. It was almost infectious enough to cover up the image burned into Leah’s mind of Sid and that girl. The TV coverage cut to recorded shots of the pre-game skate and just like that, Leah’s stomach turned.
The camera loved Sid. Despite the harsh glare reflected by the ice, his skin was flawless; Leah remembered what it felt like against her face. Silky dark hair grown just a little long stuck out under the back of his helmet; she knew what it felt like between her fingers. He shouted something to a teammate and the movement of his mouth nearly sent Leah sliding to the floor. Even under all the bright lights, he was still the guy she knew so well.
She watched like she was on the wrong side of a telescope. Everything seemed extra far away instead of magnified: twenty two players on his team, twenty thousand people in the building, millions more watching on TV no closer than she was now. It was the furthest she’d ever felt from Sidney though the camera never seemed to leave him.
Just before the first period ended, Malkin scored. Sid leapt into a hug with a mile-wide smile on his face and Leah knew that was where Sidney Crosby really belonged.
Toronto notched two early in the second then Sidney swooped in like a superhero again. He got loose on a breakaway, skated down and put it behind the Leafs’ goalie. This time he wasn’t smiling when his teammates surrounded him, just that serious game face. There was work to be done.
That face didn’t change as Toronto scored again in the second, or twice in the third. Leah felt hollow and powerless as the Penguins lost 5-2. She roused a sleeping Jack, put him to bed and found her sister in the kitchen. From the look on Kate’s face, she knew some of what Leah was feeling. To her credit, Kate just hugged her goodbye.
Leah wondered if Sid might call and had no idea what she might say. Sorry you lost but your date looked fun? With a frustrated sigh she left her phone out just in case.
Sid’s fingers twitched. His phone was in the pocket of his suit pants, then on the console in his car before it was on the kitchen counter and bedside table. He touched it ten times, each one like holding a live wire.
He hated losing, especially big games like home openers in front of fans who’d paid a heavy price during the lockout. Knowing Leah was watching added another element of disappointment, one that could surely be soothed by talking to her now. He made a fist instead.
He would not use her like that. He wouldn’t call after losses seeking comfort though he knew Leah would gladly give it. It was too bratty and he hated admitting that hockey rattled him so badly. It was just one game, after they’d already won two. If Sid wanted to be normal he needed to compartmentalize these things and get over them quickly on his own.
But if she called…. He left his phone out just in case.
Ten minutes a text chimed as he was brushing his teeth. He sprinted from the ensuite bathroom and nearly vaulted the bed, feeling like a fool as he dropped toothpaste on the blanket from where the toothbrush was still in his mouth.
Brooke: You’ll get ‘em next time.
Sid sat down in a heap, suddenly to tired too hold himself up.
Leah was waving at him from behind the glass. Sidney was skating in full gear, a puck on his stick but the ice otherwise empty. There was no one else in the stands, no goals to shoot at. He and Leah had the entire arena to themselves. He stopped in front of her.
“Come play,” he called. She couldn’t hear him.
He moved closer. “I’ll teach you.”
Leah shook her head, still unable to make out the words. Sid went right up the the glass and yelled, “Come inside.” The words didn’t reach. Leah put her lips to the glass just opposite his with a quick, intangible kiss.
He woke up sweating. The angry red of the bedside clock said 4:32 AM. Sure that something had disturbed him, Sid reached for his phone.
Sid wasn’t at his locker two minutes before Matt showed up, nor did he see the perky defenseman in time to have a private conversation.
“So?” Nisky asked, nice and loud for everyone to hear. Sid shrugged. “That’s it, dude? You’re killing me.”
Sid tried to shake him off, but Nisky was a bit of a puppy when it came to something he was sure he’d done right. Guys were busy getting into their gear, chriping each other and horsing around. One bad game couldn’t shake the confidence of this crew. Sid tried to keep his voice down.
“She was cool, but….”
Fucking James Neal had to have supersonic hearing. The lanky forward had clearly been eavesdropping and spun around at the first mention of a girl. Sid grimaced as the entire locker room looked his way.
“Fuck off, Nealer.”
James rolled his eyes. “Guess she wasn’t that cool, you obviously didn’t get laid.”
“Hey!” Matt to the supposed rescue. “She is cool. She’s a friend of Kelly’s.”
Sid knew the next question out of James’ mouth would be if it was a set up, and why, and how come he couldn’t get set up with Kelly’s friends. As if guys would give Neal something worth having. Sid felt the hot coil tighten in his stomach at the idea of James with Leah, or worse, his sister. At least Leah was an adult who could take care of herself. Sid still felt the need to defend Taylor at every turn.
“And she’s got a boyfriend,” Sid cut in. “Or a guy… something. Whatever. She’s not interested.”
That brought the room to a dead stop.
“Oh.” Matt’s face went white.
“Woah,” James said quietly. It wasn’t everyday the Penguins heard about their captain being turned down by a girl. Most days they couldn’t get him to even talk to a girl, forget go out with one. And those girls never, ever said no.
“Sorry man. Kelly saw your picture on Facebook and thought…,” Matt fumbled.
“It’s fine,” Sid snapped. He rolled his neck, trying to get his tone under control. “I mean, Brooke was great. I think we might even be friends – she was the only text I got last night after the loss.” The emphasis was directed at Matt, James and Pascal, the only teammates who knew Sid might have expected to hear from a certain other girl.
“Girl say no?” Geno asked, as if he might have mistranslated the English conversation in his head.
“It happens,” Sid said, a little edge creeping back into his voice.
“Not often enough!” Dupuis moved in and smacked Sid on the arm, effectively breaking up the audience. “You’re fucking ugly and you suck at hockey.”
With the topic dismissed, Sid dressed in a hurry and jogged toward the ice. A few solo laps on a fresh sheet usually did wonders to clear his head, but when he stepped out into Southpointe’s rink, it only brought back his dream from the night before.
It didn’t take a psychologist to figure out what it meant that Sid saw Leah on the other side of the glass. Or maybe that’s how she saw him. Either way, the divide between them was hard and impenetrable, even though they could see each other clear as day. The spot in his chest where Sid often felt his heart pounding after a big shift was aching now. He put his head down and sprinted the length of the ice, trying to replace this new pressure with the old, familiar one.
All the world’s a stage. He’d always remembered that from reading Shakespeare in high school and wondered if Shakespeare could possibly have imagined what that stage would look like four hundred years later.
Sid heard the shusshing of another pair of skates behind him and turned, displeased to see James headed his way. Neal would only want to give him shit about getting turned down and he really wasn’t in the mood. Sid crouched, ready to take off again.
“Did Matt say Facebook?” James stopped angrily, showering Sid with snow.
“Did Matt. Just say. That he saw a picture of your date on Facebook?” James enunciated like Sid might be slow.
Sid bristled. “He said Kelly saw it, actually.”
“Have you seen it?” Neal had his shoulders and arms puffed out, making himself larger. Sid wondered if James even knew he did that when he meant to be intimidating.
“Like I Facebook. But I saw it when she took it.”
“And now the whole world has probably seen it,” James prompted. “Including Leah.”
Sid closed his eyes; it did nothing to soften the blow of reality. Of course the photo would get cut and pasted and Twittered and Tumblered and molested by all sorts of other media Sid didn’t bother acknowledging. Every photo ever taken of him had been shared and shopped until it was barely recognizable. Anyone who cared would see.
He hadn’t considered that Leah would see.
Or that she would care.
“Fuck my life,” Sid muttered. Is that why she hadn’t called after the loss?
James pushed a hand through his thick thatch of spiky hair and relaxed. A part of Sid’s brain found that odd – Neal had been ready for a fight, only the stand down when he realized Sid hadn’t meant to hurt Leah.
I’m in bad shape if Neal is protecting her from me, he thought. But James’ eyes were darkening, as if overwhelmed by the sheer stupidity of his captain.
“Do you ever get tired,” James asked in a measured voice, “of hockey being the only thing you know how to do?” He turned and started to skate away.
Sid wanted to die. He wanted the ice to swallow and drown him. He wanted to fly into the locker room, call Leah and apologize… for what? For doing exactly what she told him to do? For not being a completely shut-in loser with no prospects? Sure he’d gotten turned down but that happened to normal guys all the time – Sid had read about it. Sometimes it even happened to his teammates and he saw it. He wanted to be normal and surely there was nothing more normal on Earth than a guy striking out with a pretty girl.
Just maybe not on Facebook.
“I’M TRYING!” Sidney shouted at James’ back.
Leah was in her office, reading the same sheet of grades for the hundredth time. One of her jobs was tallying class rankings; they became like games of RISK for juniors and seniors. She should have calculated the first semester numbers over Christmas break as a dry run, but she’d been a little busy.
The idea of Sidney rolled over in her mind again. It was always there; she was the princess and it was the pea under her mattress. Before it had been comforting, triggering an image of his smiling face or his sweet kiss. Now it flashed the picture of him with that other girl.
I told him to, Leah reminded herself. It wasn’t her fault that Sid was better at moving on or that he had more options. What had she expected, getting involved with a superstar?
She hated that word: superstar. It defined everything about Sidney except what she knew, behind closed doors and away from the game. Maybe all superstars were secret dorks who couldn’t dance or identify kitchen appliances.
No, most of them can dance.
She told herself it only hurt because he’d made it public so quickly. Leah had been careful never to take advantage of his celebrity – not that she needed to, her entire world was in tiny Cole Harbour and the gossip train outpaced even Facebook. In Pittsburgh, there would be a lot more people to tell and what more effective way? Short of announcing his personal life to reporters after a big game, the internet was it.
But even if he met that girl on his flight from Halifax, fresh from kissing me on the curb, he’s only known her for two weeks! Leah wanted to scream. Instead she pinched to fingers to the bridge between her eyebrows as if she could hold back the truth by force.
Two weeks had been plenty for her and Sidney.
Sid checked his phone every ten minutes, waiting for the clock to say four. That’s when Leah was home from school, if she went home, assuming she had nowhere else to go. Or anyone else to go with. Sid hoped she didn’t.
He was also running out of time to figure out what to say.
“Yo,” James said before the call rang a second time.
Sid’s voice was a growl. “So what do I tell her?”
“Look,” James sat down noisily, wherever he was, “I know you think I’m an asshole when it comes to chicks so you must be pretty hard up if you’re asking me for advice.”
Duh, Sid thought but stayed silent.
“But I know what I’m talking about, Cap. I usually know what the right thing is even if I don’t do it.”
Okay, fucking full of yourself, Sid didn’t say.
“Call her and tell her your date didn’t work out,” James said simply.
Sid blinked. That sounded so… easy. “That’s it?”
“Yeah. Hell, tell her the girl didn’t want you. Then you tried and you’re sad. As Geno would say, ‘Girls love.’”
Sid thought James might ask what he wanted from Leah in return. Why bother explaining himself for nothing? Then Sid would have to say that he wanted what he couldn’t have – her - and that anything else was set up to fail. He would have to admit his whole quest for normalcy was based on an idea even he couldn’t support. Sid was no better than the mooney teen girls who daydreamed about him.
“But I don’t want her to think I’m pathetic,” he said, feeling exactly that way.
James made a noise between scoffing and barfing. “You’re a bag of milk is what you are.”
“Asshole, I knew I shouldn’t have called you.”
“Slow down, Sid. You’re over-thinking this, okay? Holding the stick too tight. You probably pissed Leah off by showing up all of a sudden in a photo with some stranger – I saw it, by the way. She was cute. Sure she’s got a boyfriend?”
“Neal, I almost always want to kill you.”
James laughed evilly. “I haven’t even begun to give you reasons, Kid.”
Sid disconnected from James and considered the phone in his hand. Now that he knew what to say, what did he want out of it? Leah to volunteer to move to Pittsburgh? His heart thrummed at the idea. If she just showed up on his doorstep….
Stop. Sid knew what he really wanted, and it wasn’t anything so heroic as that. It was simply to be sure Leah wasn’t mad at him and that when he finally made normal happen he didn’t lose her in the process.
Leah considered wishing for a lottery win. It certainly worked when she wished for Sid to call. “Hi,” she said. The smile slid into her voice on its own, she couldn’t stop it.
“Hey.” Sidney heard the corners of her mouth turn up, his stomach took to the high wire.
“Sorry about last night’s game.”
“Ugh, you watched.”
“You knew I was. Jack too. You guys put him right to sleep.”
Did I put you to sleep? Sid wondered. While Brooke was texting me, were you already dreaming about something else? He couldn’t give in to that line of thought, so he bit the bullet.
“I, uh, went on a date the other night,” he said tentatively.
Leah felt the appropriate kick to the heart. “I, uh, saw the picture,” she replied in the same cadence, just a little more tart.
“She didn’t like me.”
Leah dropped her phone. It hit the coffee table with a crack and clattered to the floor. If phones still had buttons it would have been beeping like an ambulance; instead it sounded like a hundred baseball bats hitting homeruns in quick succession.
“Sorry!” she scooped it up, checking for damage. “I thought you said she didn’t like you.”
“I did,” Sid laughed. The binding that had bound around his chest had snapped, letting in expand and restoring his breathing. “She said I was nice but she into someone else.”
I told her I know the feeling, he wished he could claim.
THAT GIRL’S AN IDOIT!, Leah thought, followed quickly by YOU LIKED HER, YOU ASSHOLE. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LIKE ME. Her mind was a riot: stunned, eleated and demolished all at the same time. The opposite forces made her dizzy.
Leah wanted to cry. She wanted Sidney to like her even though she couldn’t have him; it was greedy and selfish. She hated wanting him to fail with other girls because that’s what it would take for him to be happy – someone to march into his life and make it so. Someone like her. Only not her.
“Oh. I’m sorry, Sid,” she managed.
“It’s okay. I went, didn’t I? I even let her take that picture which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t such a good idea but I was still there. On a date.” He sounded pretty proud of himself.
“Good for you.”
Sid took careful aim. “It wasn’t as fun as hanging out with you, though.”
The arrow went right through Leah’s heart. “But you asked her out again anyway.”
“Hey, it’s your fault,” Sid said. “Looks like I’m going to have to lower my standards.”
Leah laughed. “You and me both.”
With the ice broken between them, Sid and Leah talked for a while. He told her about returning to play, the team, what he loved and what was tough. Sid often felt there were things he couldn’t share, even with teammates because of his role as captain. He didn’t want to be negative or angry to them and he certainly couldn’t act that way in public. Now it wasn’t anger he shared with Leah, but honesty.
“It’s slow going. Some of the guys… I don’t know what they were doing for six months but it wasn’t working out. Getting down on them doesn’t help – it’s not my job anyway. Coaches do that. Then I feel like I need to stick up for them even if I agree.”
Leah imagined he was talking about James. Neal had probably had more fun than exercise during the break, but some exercise could be fun. And some fun could be really great exercise.
“It’ll come, just cut them a little slack. At least until week two. Not everyone is you, Sid,”
Sid sighed, thinking: And no one is you, Leah.
Another Friday night, another night at Madigan’s. Leah had her phone on her again, and when midnight came and went without a call she knew the Penguins had lost their game against the Jets. She stepped aside and checked the score: 4 – 2. It wasn’t until she clicked the box score tab that she sighed heavily.
Sidney had scored both goals.
All at once she knew he’d gone to sleep frustrated and feeling like 100% of the scoring was somehow not enough. He was alone in a big bed in an empty house with nothing to remind him there was more to life than a single hockey game.
A joking comment came to her mind; one she knew would make him feel better. There was no danger of waking him so Leah thumbed the touchscreen. Maybe her role in his life would be the narrator, omniscient and calm, always coming in with a word when the story got a little stuck.
Leah: Slacker. I know from experience you can score more than twice in one night.
Sid lay in bed for a while, half-awake in the morning light and refusing to look at the clock. If it was early, he’d feel compelled to go to practice early. If it was late… it wasn’t late. He was never late.
Last night had been Friday. A night like that normal people were out with their friends, having fun and shaking off the week. His teammates did the same after wins. Sidney wondered if he might have joined them last night, if they’d won. He probably would have. There would have been laughing, a few beers, maybe even talking to a girl if he could manage it without the entire team watching him like tourists watching a mime struggle to get out of an invisible box. The thought made him smile, and the smile made him laugh.
I’m now the kind of person who smiles after a loss.
The beside clock said 8 AM.
And stays in bed.
Sidney resisted the urge to check his phone. Nothing could be that important before breakfast. He rolled over and went back to sleep.