2. PAUL—DON’T LET SOMEONE TELL YOU YOU’RE NO ONE
Fuck. Hearing Rhodes repeat his words back to him flat out like that brought rushing back all the shame Paul had thought he’d buried.
When he’d found out he would be playing on the same team as Rhodes, he’d felt a surge of hope that he could somehow rekindle the tentative friendship between them that he had killed.
He had hoped Robbie would have either forgotten all about that night or at the very least would pretend it had never happened, and they could start fresh.
No such luck. Rhodes had been giving him the stink-eye since minute one. He’d snubbed Paul in the locker room, and had been selfish with the puck during their scrimmage, not passing to Paul until the coach called him on it.
“You know, I wasn’t angry with you that day.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Robbie answered with an eye roll.
Paul’s jaw dropped. “You knew?”
“You think you’re the first closet-case I’ve ever met?” He put a hand to his chest and mocked Paul. “’Oh, I’m a closeted jock with internalized homophobia. If only some guy would fuck me and help me deal with these scary feelings.’ Real original. I could see it a mile away,” he said scornfully.
Paul took a step back. Hearing the issues that had been tearing him apart for years being dismissed so flippantly hurt worse than the punch. He covered his mouth with a hand and looked away.
When their eyes met again, Robbie looked remorseful. Sorry, he signed with a hand to his chest.
Seemed like they were destined to hurt each other. “If I was so pathetic,” Paul forced out, “why did you…?”
Robbie held his gaze. “Have sex with you?”
Paul flushed remembering all the things they had done and the feel of another man’s body under and on top of his. They hadn’t done everything, though. There were still boundaries left uncrossed. “It wasn’t really sex,” he insisted.
Robbie was unimpressed. “Whatever you have to tell yourself to get through the day. Are we done here now? I promise not to hit you any more or out you to the team. Your secret gay urges are safe with me.”
Suddenly Paul wanted to punch him again. Punch him or push him back against the door of his stupid ass yuppie mobile and grind against him until they both came in their pants.
In other words, exactly how he felt every time he saw Robbie.
Even angry, Robbie was gorgeous with his chocolate brown eyes and hair somewhere between red and brown. He’d grown in the last two years and broadened out across the shoulders.
“So, why did you fool around with me if I’m such a cliché?” Paul asked again. “Because, not to sound like a twelve-year old, but you started it.”
“Aside from the fact that you were smoking hot and gagging for it?” Robbie asked crudely. “What other reason would I need?”
Both of those things were true, but still, Paul didn’t buy the explanation. From the little he knew of the guy, Rhodes seemed like a pretty intense person. He doubted Robbie had ever done anything casually in his life. “Yeah, besides that.”
Robbie threw up his hands. “Don’t you think I’ve asked myself that? I don’t know. What was I supposed to do with you laughing and looking up at me like that with those stupid blue eyes and those kiss-me lips?”
Was that how Robbie saw him? Paul’s fingers drifted to his lips. Robbie’s eyes flicked down to his mouth, and Paul remembered how it had felt when Robbie kissed him — better than anyone else’s had before or since.
Kissing Robbie would never be something Paul regretted. “So, if I’m a self-hating closet case, what does that make you?”
“I’m nobody,” Robbie said, the answer too quick and too practiced for Paul’s liking.
Paul scoffed. “Right. You won the Hobey Award and Defensive Player of the Year last year because you’re nobody.”
Robbie grimaced. “Yeah, I’m real good at hitting things with a stick. I should be getting my Nobel Peace Prize any day now.”
Paul shook his head. He wasn’t letting Robbie get away with that. “The Hobey is also for demonstrating ‘strength of character on and off the ice’ remember?”
“Oh yay. So I didn’t smoke cigarettes or, I don’t know, curse around nuns.” Robbie waved away the suggestion that he’d done anything remarkable.
“Day-um,” Paul said, stretching the word out to two syllables. “Talk about self-hating. And I thought I had issues.”
“Oh, you do,” Robbie said quickly but with a small smile.
Paul crossed his arms over his chest and examined Robbie. “So why do you do it? Why play hockey if it’s just ‘hitting things with sticks’? What’s the point?”
Robbie looked down at the floor. A car slid quietly out of a spot from down the row. Another Prius, Paul noted. Damn things were too quiet; Paul didn’t trust them. The driver looked at them curiously as he drove slowly past.
The guy looked vaguely familiar. He’d been introduced to so many people that morning; it was going to take a while for him to remember who was who.
Paul thought it was one of the guys from the equipment rooms, probably wondering why he and Robbie were talking and not fighting.
Finally, Robbie looked up. “Hockey is the only thing I’m good at. And I love doing it. When I’m on the ice, when the crowd is cheering…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
“You feel like somebody,” Paul finished for him.
“Yeah,” Robbie said, “I feel like somebody. Pathetic, isn’t it?”
Jeez, between them they had enough baggage for a month-long holiday. Paul grabbed Robbie’s shoulders and shook him. “You are somebody,” he said forcefully. “‘You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.’”
Robbie looked at him wide-eyed. “What is that from?”
“It’s from my mom’s favorite poem-thing. She was always quoting it to me.” He let his hands fall from Robbie’s shoulders instead of pulling Robbie in for a hug the way he wanted to.
“Wow. Is there more?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of long. I’ll find it and email it you.”
The silence stretched awkwardly. Paul wasn’t sure where to go from here. They weren’t really exes, no matter how it almost felt like that. They weren’t college rivals anymore, but although they were teammates now, they weren’t quite friends.
Robbie jangled his keys, the electronic beep of the unlocking doors echoed sharply in the underground garage. “I guess I’d better get going,” he said.
Paul grabbed his arm. “Wait. I really am sorry about what I did.”
“All of it?”
“Really?” Robbie raised one eyebrow. “You regret all of it?”
Paul shook his head quickly. “No. Never. Not that night. But the next day.” He sighed remembering. His fear always had come out as anger. It was something he was working on. “I shouldn’t have hit you, and I shouldn’t have called you that.”
“Faggot,” Robbie said with no inflection.
“Say it. Say the word.” Robbie stepped closer, almost chest to chest with Paul.
“I don’t want to.” He glanced down at the dirty parking lot floor, suddenly fascinated with the rainbow sheen of an oily puddle. “I really am sorry. I was,” he shook his head, and kicked the puddle, disrupting the colors. “It was a really, really bad day.” He looked right into Robbie’s eyes. “Right after the best night of my life.”
Robbie sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What do you want from me?”
Absolution. Reassurance. Things he couldn’t have, that was for sure. God, if they couldn’t work this out, it was going to be a crappy three years. “I thought that maybe…I don’t know. Maybe we could be friends?”
“Sure. Because what we have is a solid foundation for friendship.” Robbie ran his hands through his thick auburn hair, pulling it back from his face then letting it drop again. “Don’t worry, Paulie, I’m sure the other kids will like you. Just share your candy with them. You don’t need me.”
“I do need you. You’re the only one.” Paul blushed scarlet. “You’re the only one who knows about me.”
“Knows what, Dyson? Just spit it out.” Robbie pressed the car key fob again. The locks thudded into place, the car beeped, and the lights flashed. Robbie cursed under his breath and unlocked the car.
Paul had to say something quick or Robbie was going to leave. “Knows that I’m gay.” He whispered it, then looked over his shoulder to make sure they were still alone. A few cars were pulling in. They were full of parents with kids.
“Are you?” There was a challenge in the look he gave Paul.
“You know I am,” Paul whispered. “You of all people.”
Robbie shook his head. “I don’t, actually. All I know is that we fooled around two years ago, you seemed like you enjoyed it a lot, and then the next day you turned on me. That doesn’t scream out and proud.”
“Yeah, well, just because I don’t, can’t, do anything about it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
Robbie scoffed at him. “You mean won’t do anything about it.”
“I mean I can’t. Not everyone is like you, Rhodes. Not everyone believes the same things.” Robbie just didn’t get it. Everything came so easily for him. His parents loved him just as he was. As a non-believer, he didn’t have the threat of eternal damnation hanging over his head. “My father saw you dropping me off that morning.”
“So, your dad saw you? So what?” Robbie shrugged. “Did he say something to you?”
“Oh, he said a lot of things.”
All these years later, and Paul still felt trapped between the carrot of paternal love, conditional though it might be, and the stick of excommunication. Thanks to his new hockey contract, his father couldn’t use withholding financial support as a threat anymore.
“He said a lot of things,” Paul repeated. “All variations on the same theme. If I keep choosing to be a deviant, then I’m out.”
“Out of what?”
“Everything. The family, the Church, the whole circle of our friends.”
Robbie scowled. “If the people who are supposed to love you kick you out because you’re gay, how can they pretend to love you? What kind of religion does that? Tell them to shove it.”
“They do love me. They’re trying to save me.” Paul knew that was true for his father, at least. However, he was starting to have some doubts about the motives of some of the other members of the congregation. More often than not he’d felt disgust and smug superiority more than love coming from some of the more vocal opponents of gay rights.
Robbie’s face went through several expressions as he obviously stopped himself from saying a few different things. “I want to understand,” he finally said. “I do. But I just don’t.”
Paul rolled his eyes. He was seriously tired of having to justify the way he lived his life to everyone. As if he needed their seal of approval on his choices. “Really? You don’t understand why someone might not be ready to walk around waving a rainbow flag? That’s why I saw pictures of you and your boyfriend on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Because you’re so out and proud?”
“You sound like Drew,” Robbie frowned. “Just because I don’t want my relationships dissected by the fans and the media, doesn’t mean I’m in the closet. If I were dating a woman, I’d feel the same way. Probably. Besides, everyone who needs to know knows,” he said defensively.
Paul shoved him back with a finger to the chest. “That’s bullshit. You don’t know who needs to know. Some kid down in the bible belt might need to know he’s not the only one, so he doesn’t go trying anything stupid.”
Robbie pushed Paul’s finger away. “Like what?”
“Like trying to freeze himself to death in the middle of fucking nowhere Minnesota,” Paul spit out. “You’re a fucking condescending ass, but you saved my life that night.”
Robbie’s jaw dropped. “You were trying to kill yourself?”
Paul crossed his arms and looked away. “No. Not directly. Kind of. I don’t know. Suicide is a sin, too.” Paul’s laugh held no humor. “A literal ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation.”
Robbie grabbed Paul by the arm. “What? But you were so – ”
“So what?” Paul asked.
Robbie frowned. He signed words and phrases with his arms too quickly for Paul to follow.
“Too fast,” Paul said and signed simultaneously.
Robbie signed, hand hovering near his chest, palm down, fingers wiggling. “So present. So there, I guess.”
Paul wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m good at faking things.”
“I guess you’d have to be.”
“I remember the first second I saw you, you know,” Robbie said. “I didn’t recognize you right away. I just thought you were a random idiot.”