In the end, Whiskey had Jack Zimmermann to thank for attending Samwell.
Not directly, of course - Whiskey had never met him - but it was his name that made Samwell suddenly seem an acceptable place for Whiskey’s mom to send him. She had taken him to Boston for a college tour that was more like a hockey tour that just happened to be at colleges. BU and BC were the twin lights in her eyes; one of the two would be the perfect proving ground for her talented son to make his way to the top ranks of the hockey prospect world. So she had Whiskey talking to coaches and managers as she took notes and asked the occasional probing question. She’d arranged the VIP tour; Whiskey was greeted as a top prospect and introduced around the locker rooms as though he had already applied and been accepted. There were a lot of mustached guys that Whiskey had to shake hands with. He didn’t remember any of their names after he left.
They had planned in an extra day in their whirlwind tour of the Boston area, just in case one of her connections came through at another school that was prestigious in another sense of the word. If a fantastic opportunity failed to come along in the hockey world, Andrea Whisk would grudgingly accept her son going to Harvard. When they woke that final day and no word had come from Cambridge, Whiskey took the opportunity.
“Why don’t we go look at Samwell?” he asked.
His mom cocked her head and pursed her lips. “What’s at Samwell?”
“It’s a good school,” he said. “They have a good hockey program.”
“Really? It seems so ... small.” Even though Boston College was about the same size.
Whiskey pulled out his trump card. “Jack Zimmermann goes there.”
This raised her eyebrows. “Jack Zimmermann?”
“Don’t you remember? A few years ago, the draft? We were fans of him.” He and his mother gathered to watch the draft every year, and they’d thought for sure Zimmermann would go first.
The lightbulb went on in her head. “Oh.” Then, wrinkling her nose, “Didn’t he get into drugs and get in trouble?”
Whiskey held back a sigh. “He’s a really good player, Mom. He wouldn’t go there if it weren’t a good program. And look, I think by the time I go there, he’ll have graduated, so he can’t get me in trouble too.” Because that was the sort of thing she’d worry about.
“I don’t know,” she said, but I don’t know was a good sight better than no.
And this was how, on a chilly spring day, 16-year-old Connor Whisk came to Samwell’s campus for the first time. Something about the air felt different there, even though the campus, all green squares of grass and ancient trees, was a lot like BC’s. Maybe it was the river that flowed through the west side of campus. Or maybe it was something about the students, who congregated here and there on the lawns with books and laptops out on the grass. But mostly, it was the fact that nobody greeted him.
There were no coaches to meet with at Samwell. Nobody came up and shook his hand, nobody insisted he and Mom take a seat in their office. He was free to just roam the campus and look around. Free. That was something of a revelation.
They did traipse up to the ice rink and look it over. The hockey team was mid-practice, and they sat in the bleachers. Yes, there was Jack Zimmermann, passing back and forth with a teammate. At one point he smiled, and Whiskey felt his heart flutter as though he was a schoolgirl with a crush. This was Jack Zimmermann, and he looked healthy and sorted-out and happy, and Whiskey wanted to be him. Here, free, in this comfortable school, playing hockey and going about his business with no interference from pushy parents or professional expectations. Could Zimmermann be in the NHL right now if he wanted? Probably. But he’d chosen to come here, to spend four years out of the limelight at school. It seemed to Whiskey to be a brilliant choice.
Beside him, his mom said “Hmm,” and then, as Jack sizzled a top-shelfer past the goalie, a warmer sort of “Hmm.” Whiskey inwardly gloated. The seed was planted. A year and change, and he could be here. He could play hockey. And he could be normal.
He’s still yearning for that normality a year later, when he graduates. Andrea has spent the past year looking to get local media coverage of her son, so Whiskey could submit the clippings along with his tape and application. Her tactic works: Whiskey is accepted to BU as well as Samwell, and after some shouting fights, she accepts his preference, and he takes Samwell up on its scholarship offer.
To Whiskey it’s a triumph. It’s a great escape, the most successful endeavor in his life. Right under the nose of his mother and everybody, he’s going somewhere totally normal, where he can just be one of a hundred nondescript guys. Nobody to expect anything of him, nobody to tell him what he should and shouldn’t do next. He packs his belongings in a kind of giddy haze.
The four-day road trip it takes to get across the country to Samwell is worth it for what’s sure to come next. When they get there, his mom unpacks him and sets up his room the way she thinks it ought to be done. Whiskey doesn’t mind. He’ll change it all around when she’s gone.
"Be good," she tells him. "Play hard."
"Yeah," Whiskey says. He's heard this spiel a thousand times.
"Don't forget to call Emily," she says, and okay, that's a new one. Emily is his girlfriend, more by default than by romance. She was class president their senior year, and she's appropriately enough on the field hockey team. They’ve known each other since middle school, and halfway through high school it just became absurd that they weren’t together. So Whiskey takes her out every week, and they talk a lot and kiss a little. She’s great -- any objective observer would agree that she’s great, and far out of Whiskey’s league. So of course Whiskey would never break up with her. It just wouldn’t make sense. But when she’s not there, Whiskey doesn’t think about her much.
"Yeah. Of course." Whiskey pulls out his phone and schedules a weekly reminder. That’s the only way he’s going to remember to give her a call.
His mother looks around the dorm room once more, probably confirming that it is designed to her specifications. “I love you, Connor.” She gives him a fierce hug.
Whiskey hugs back. “Love you too, Mama.” This is the truth. Despite everything, it’s the truth.
Then she is gone, and he’s free. He gives a cursory nod to his totally normal-looking roommate, heads downstairs in his just-like-any-other-place dorm, and heads to the team orientation for hockey.
At which point he meets Eric Bittle, and every hope of normality goes down the drain.
It’s not that Whiskey minds half the hockey team being bizarrely dramatic. Let the co-captains have their unique relationship, that’s fine. Let the top D-pair bicker like an old married couple. Even Bittle would be just fine if it were just about baking and interior decorating. Hell, Whiskey would be more than fine with it, if he could just fade into the background and exist quietly among the mess that is his teammates.
But he can’t. Because people keep trying to be friendly with him. And SMH’s way of being friendly is .... very high-stress.
A fellow freshman named Tony gloms on to him at their Haus tour. Tony (Tango, he’s been dubbed) is wide-eyed and naive and fully aware of his own ignorance. He asks a lot of questions. Whiskey figures that’s better than pretending you know everything, and he likes that about Tango. Plus, Tango’s unending stream of questions takes a lot of pressure off Whiskey. Hanging out with him, Whiskey doesn’t have to speak up himself. He can just play the silent man and let Tango do all the enthusing. But still ... the sheer volume of words that stream out of Tango’s mouth daily! Whiskey considers wearing earplugs to practice.
There’s a sophomore goalie who goes by the weirdest hockey name Whiskey’s ever heard, and he has his own opinions as to what Whiskey’s nickname should be. Whiskey does his best to deflect, but Chowder’s pretty enthusiastic with his opinions. At least his classmates, the D-pair, are mostly too obsessed with each other to give Whiskey much of their time.
But Bittle’s the worst by far. He looks at Whiskey with an almost predatory glint in his eye. “Well!” he says. “I’m delighted to meet you, Connor. You say they’re calling you Whiskey? That’s so cute! If you do like liquor, there will be plenty in this Haus, but try to keep your head on straight and you’ll be okay. Me, I end up twerking on a table at half the parties, but as long as it’s all in moderation, you know what I mean? Well! I’m just delighted to meet y’all. How do you feel about pie? Do you have a favorite flavor? Oh, by the way, I was impressed with your shot earlier, at practice? I know a good shot when I see one. Were you in juniors or did you just come from local hockey? Tell me everything.”
Whiskey’s jaw has turned to lead and his legs to rubber. He mumbles an excuse and gets out of that kitchen post-haste.
Between Tango and Chowder and Bittle, Whiskey’s beginning to doubt he’ll even get a taste of that understated, unremarkable college life he’s been seeking. He spends as much time away from the Haus as possible. But it takes him a month and a half before he finally finds a place where he feels he belongs.
It's a mild day in October, Whiskey's freshman year, when he meets them. He's wandering through the quad, quiet, when the gleam of a reflected sunbeam catches his eye. It's a Frisbee, mid-arc, soaring toward him. Without thinking about it, Whiskey lets his backpack fall, reaches up, and grabs it.
A guy comes up to him, thin drops of sweat dotting his brow. “Nice, bro,” he says. He’s lean, athletic, with a crop of yellow-blond hair and a wide smile.
“Sure,” Whiskey says, because what are you supposed to say to “Nice”? Thanks? He tosses the Frisbee the short distance between them.
To his surprise, he gets it right back. “Now you’re in the game,” says the stranger with a wink.
“Here,” shouts another guy from across the quad, waving his hands over his head. Whiskey blinks, processing the new situation, and fires it off. It sails, a little circular shadow moving on the grass beneath it, and the faraway guy catches it with ease.
“Nice, again.” The blond guy gives Whiskey some cursory applause.
And for several minutes, Whiskey is absorbed into the group of five guys, passing the Frisbee back and forth. They’re running and jumping like a pack of golden retrievers, all sweat and laughter, and Whiskey finds he’s relaxed and maybe even smiling a little himself. Two of the guys have lacrosse shirts on. A third has no shirt at all, his lax tee on the grass beside him. Nobody asks Whiskey’s name. Nobody recognizes him as part of the hockey team. It doesn’t seem to matter.
The noontime bell rings inside the classroom building, and the group collapses, coming together in the middle of the quad to exchange high-fives. “I’m starving,” complains one.
“Time for lunch anyway,” says another.
The blond cocks his head at Whiskey. “Come to lunch?”
“I’m Chad,” the blond says, and stretches out a hand for Whiskey to shake. “Chad Summers.”
“Connor,” Whiskey answers. He almost says “The boys call me Whiskey” -- but somehow it just doesn’t come out.
So Whiskey, who has been so reluctantly participating in hockey team breakfasts, heads off willingly to a lacrosse team lunch.
He learns there that the lacrosse team doesn’t hold the same disdain for SMH as the hockey team does for the lax team; that said, everyone kind of hates the hockey team just on general principle. He learns that the lacrosse team is home to three Chads, a fact that tickles them pink. Chad Summers, the guy he met first; Chad Robinson; and Chad LaGrange. Chad L. is the captain. Chad S. makes sure to sit next to Whiskey, to explain to him how Kyle is a freshman and Kurt a senior; that Tyler and Kevin are brothers; that the lax team holds the Samwell record for most consecutive party nights (8). Whiskey takes it all in. These guys are loud, but it's a normal level of loud. They’re a relief compared to the hockey team.
Which, Whiskey realizes, he hasn’t told them he’s part of.
Chad S. is telling him about the lacrosse calendar. The season starts in late February and runs through June, but they start practicing in fall and play a number of scrimmages, both within the team and with other schools’ teams. They don’t count, but they scratch the itch, as Chad says. “We got one on Tuesday,” he says. “You should come.”
“I can’t,” Whiskey says. “I have practice.”
“Wait, what do you play?”
“Um.” Whiskey feels like sinking down under the table. “Hockey.”
The lax table falls silent.
“You’re a hockey player?” one says.
“Like, ice hockey?” says the guy in the brown T-shirt.
“Dude,” Chad S. gives him a look.
“I know, I know,” Whiskey admits.
“They’re so weird,” Chad R. says.
“I know.” There’s nothing left to do now but put his head in his hands.
A pat on his back. It’s Chad S., “Dude,” he repeats, but this time his voice is gentle. “You can’t help who else is on your team, I guess. I mean, you seem normal enough.”
“I am,” promises Whiskey. “I swear I am.”
He doesn’t make it to that scrimmage, but he’s there for the one after that. Bitty’s declared an all-team pancake lunch, but Whiskey ignores it and heads down to the field to watch the red team wipe the floor with the blue team. It’s an exciting match, and Whiskey finds himself cheering. It doesn’t feel like hockey does, but hockey itself can be overbearing in the intensity of emotions it brings. This is just a good old-fashioned sporting event, and Whiskey’s heart neither flies nor drops but simply flutters happily along as the score increases.
Afterward, the team’s drinking Gatorades and wiping off their faces with towels, as a number of fans press around them. Through the throng, Chad S. catches Whiskey’s gaze. He waves and gives a happy grin. Whiskey heads toward them.
“Nice game,” he says when he gets close enough.
“Thanks, man,” Chad says. “Thirsty?” He holds out a bottle of Gatorade that’s been manhandled by several sweaty lax boys. Whiskey demurs.
“So what do you think of lax?” Chad asks him. “Better than hockey, huh?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Whiskey says, offering a light smile. He feels like he hasn’t smiled in years, and it’s pretty nice. “But it was fun. You guys have energy.”
“Yeah, well, you know. We’re a bunch of horny alpha males. We gotta blow off that steam somewhere.” Chad’s laugh is bright.
“What the hell are you telling the newbie?” Chad L. comes up behind them.
Chad S. rolls his eyes. “Just about how you’re constantly horny.”
“Me?” Chad L. turns to Whiskey. “He’s projecting.”
“Don’t get all psychology major on me,” Chad S. complains.
“Oh, hey, you came!” One of the brothers - is it Kevin or Tyler? - pushes them apart and offers his fist for Whiskey to bump. “Pretty dope, huh?”
“Yeah,” Whiskey says, “you guys were awesome.”
“Wait till a real game,” Kevin (maybe?) says. “It’s fucking intense.”
“Yeah?” And maybe this is the only word Whiskey needs, a yeah every once in a while, because the conversation builds and ebbs around him, just accepting him as a part of the whole. These guys are glad to see him, but they don’t smother him with it. It’s hard to keep from comparing them to the hockey team. These guys act normal. What is so damn hard about being normal, that nobody on the hockey team can manage it?
“Hey, we’re heading to Jerry’s after we shower, if you wanna come.” The invite comes from Chad L.
“Yeah, come on out!” Chad S. echoes with a wide, toothy grin.
Whiskey wonders for a moment if they’ve forgotten he’s not on the team. He’d be okay with that. “Yeah, sure.”
He waits around, checking his phone while the team showers and changes, then joins the crowd as they head down the street to the bar. He feels like a bee in a swarm, just one small part of a bigger entity. It’s great.
Chad S. sidles next to him. “Hey Connor, what are you studying?” he asks.
“Econ,” says Whiskey.
“The only sane choice,” Chad says, grinning. “The way things are, it’s beat the market or starve.”
“Seriously.” Whiskey has to smile. “What about you?”
“Astrophysics,” Chad says casually.
He might as well have said he was double majoring in neurosurgery and underwater basket weaving. “Can you even do that as an undergrad?”
“Well.” Chad shifts, turns his body more toward Whiskey’s. Now it feels like they’re walking as a pair. “You can study astronomy and physics as an undergrad. The astrophysics degree is a master’s.”
“Jesus,” Whiskey blurts out. It comes out so much louder than his usual voice that he startles himself. He claps a hand over his mouth.
Chad laughs. His laugh is a honey-colored thing, rich and bright. It sends shockwaves down to the tips of Whiskey’s fingers. “That surprising?”
“Kind of?” Whiskey is careful to modulate his tone this time. “You did just say ‘beat the market or starve.’”
“Oh, I’m definitely gonna starve,” Chad says. The light from the laugh is still in his eyes. “But I’m gonna do it looking at the stars.”
This suddenly sounds like a brilliant life plan.
At the entrance to Jerry’s, the waitress takes one look and says, “You guys again. Party of 12?”
“13,” Chad L. corrects.
Chad S. nudges him. “That’s you.”
From that moment on, he’s one of them. He goes to lunches with them, goes to their matches when he can, heads over to the lax house whenever he can sneak away. It’s just easier with them. Easier to hang out with guys who do what Whiskey expects them to do at every turn. Easier when nothing’s being expected of him but to be there, be himself. Be normal.
Sometimes Whiskey feels smart, being around the lax bros. He’s starting to notice things. Like the way Chad’s hands are callused and strong-looking. Like the fact that Tyler talks more than Kevin, but Kevin thinks more than Tyler. Like the fact that this team, unlike the hockey team, has genuine team-wide good feeling and a sense of solidarity that stems from nobody having an outsized personality. Normal means fitting in. Fitting in means peace of mind.
But then sometimes what he notices is his own awkward inability to really make good conversation. He wishes he could ask better questions. He wants to know more, but he doesn’t have the words to ask. They just run out.
Not that that’s a problem. That’s one of the myriad reasons hanging out with these guys is such a relief. He doesn’t feel the need to be anyone or do anything in particular. He’s accepted, his quiet self, just as he is. If the conversation grinds to a halt, someone will chime in with a one-liner. Increasingly, that someone is Chad. He’s starting to be a sort of knight in shining armor for Whiskey, saving his conversation-ending grunts from stretching on to awkward silence.
Chad is probably the most hockey-like of the lacrosse players, if Whiskey were to compare them. He's friendly and outspoken, and his indefatigable good mood only ever cracks when the moment deserves it. But he's over the top in a good way, a way Whiskey can tolerate. Better than tolerate. It's a fucking relief, hanging out with him.
His gregariousness doesn't puncture Whiskey's silence. It accepts it, mirrors it like a shadow. Where Whiskey falls away, Chad fills in, a sort of yin and yang that keeps every conversation going. And when Whiskey finds he has something to say -- which now, on occasion, he does -- Chad listens, really listens. It’s maybe the first time Whiskey has felt someone was really listening to him, rather than just preparing what they were going to say next.
No wonder he keeps going to the lax scrimmages. No wonder he keeps being the thirteenth at Jerry’s. It feels like the only place he’s allowed to just be who he is.
After lax scrimmages, the next step is lax parties. Whiskey actually heads to the first one directly from the Haus, just after Bitty starts complaining that their music is too damn loud. Whiskey’s sitting in the den, but Bitty’s complaints can be heard from the kitchen, and Whiskey is just not in the mood to endure them for a moment longer. So he grabs his jacket, storms out the front door, and heads to the middle of the mess.
He’s greeted like he belongs. It’s Chad S. again who comes to his side, joking, “So they set you free from that prison across the street, huh?”
“I escaped,” Whiskey tells him.
Chad S. pats him on the back. “Course you did, my man. Come on inside.”
The interior of the lax house is just as questionable as the Haus, with creaking floorboards and a rickety staircase railing, and the decoration is the same. Fairy lights and a weird lava lamp on a coffee table. The crowd’s pretty thick, especially near the kitchen where people mill in and out with cups of something. Whiskey is delighted and relieved to see that they just have a few kegs of beer out on the counters. No tub juice in sight.
He drinks and talks with Chad S. and Tyler for most of the party. In the room just off the kitchen, there’s some dancing going on, which gets progressively weirder as the night rolls along. One guy, absolutely wasted out of his mind, tries sloppily to dance with every girl there, and then breaks into some solo moves reminiscent of Travolta. It’s the weirdest thing to happen in the lax team’s presence since Whiskey’s known them, and dread and secondhand embarrassment collide in his gut and make him groan.
“You okay?” Chad S. asks.
“Just.” Whiskey gestures vaguely. “That poor guy. He looks so stupid.”
“Well, duh, he’s drunk off his ass.” Chad laughs.
“You don’t get embarrassed, watching something like that?”
Chad shrugs. “Ya know, I could, but what’s the point?”
“There’s no point, it’s just embarrassing,” Whiskey tries to explain. “Like, why would you even get that drunk? You’d just end up making stupid mistakes that you’d regret later.”
Chad regards him for a minute. “How old are you, Connor?”
“19,” Whiskey answers, and then frowns. “Why, you gonna take my beer away?”
This brings a laugh to Chad’s lips. “Dude. 19 years old. This is the time of your life when you should be making stupid mistakes.”
Whiskey hadn’t quite thought of it like that before.
“Listen,” Chad says. “My big brother was a fucking Boy Scout, okay? Never partied, never did drugs, married his high school sweetheart. And she’s great, and they’re happy, but he says to me sometimes, I feel like I missed out on something. He says to me, Do shit you’ll regret. Or you’ll just regret not doing it when you could.”
Abruptly, Emily comes to Whiskey’s mind. Why is he thinking about her now?
He tells Chad S. about Emily on another afternoon, when they’re chilling on the quad. (Chad S. is quickly becoming just Chad to him; the others can be Chad R. or Chad L., but only Chad S. is just Chad.) “She’s great,” Whiskey is careful to say. “She’s like the perfect girl. She’s sweet, she’s funny, super smart. Everybody loves her. My high school class voted us most likely to get married.”
“Wow.” Chad raises an eyebrow. “But no pressure, right?”
Whiskey shrugs. “I mean, we probably will end up getting married,” he says. “When I’m done with school, I’ll move back and we’ll get married and have babies or some shit.”
“You listening to yourself?” Chad says. “You probably will end up getting married? Doesn’t sound like something you want to do, dude. Sounds like something people are telling you you’re supposed to do.”
With a jolt, Whiskey’s on the defensive. “Yeah, but who wouldn’t want to? She’s perfect. Who would give that up?”
Chad sighs. “I dunno, man. Seems to me you’re the only one who knows the answer to that.”
Meanwhile, the rest of college life is weird. Very specifically, hockey is weird. Whiskey has a hard time with most of the guys (though Nurse seems pretty cool), and Tango’s pretty much attached himself to Whiskey when they’re at practice or in the Haus. Like an octopus. Whiskey sometimes feels the urge to physically shake him off.
But really, the worst of it is Bitty. Bitty’s not even captain, for fuck’s sake. But he’s constantly hovering, trying to connect, trying to offer counsel. If Whiskey wanted to be doted on and hovered over all day long, he’d go back home to live with his parents.
It’s not that Bitty’s not nice. He’s plenty nice. But it’s never just casual nice, relaxed nice. It’s “Hi, I’m going to be in your face until you like me” nice. And it’s always turned up to eleven. About a half a Bitty might be tolerable. But this is one hundred percent of Bitty, and is just too much for Whiskey’s nerves.
He craves normalcy. He craves just being one of the guys. Luckily enough, what he craves is right across the street.
The truth is, though, even the lacrosse team isn’t totally normal.
They’re hanging out in the den of the lax house, talking about a dramatic breakup that two dudes staged in the hall of Founders heedless of the presence of half the lax team within earshot. Kevin and Tyler do a dramatic re-interpretation of the scene for Whiskey’s benefit, and ... well, it’s weird. Like something the hockey captains would do.
Even the lacrosse captain’s a little confused. “That was dramatic,” he says flatly.
“You should have seen the real thing!” Kevin exclaims. “Dude, what do you expect? It’s Samwell. Like half the school’s a bunch of drama queens.”
Whiskey grumbles agreement to this, because sometimes he’s sure half the school is on the hockey team.
“You’re not saying what I think you’re saying?” Chad asks. “You guys know how I feel about that.”
“Dude, no, of course not. I’m just saying, there’s a lot of theatrics here,” Kevin protests.
“How you feel about what?” Whiskey has the boldness to ask.
“Well, considering I’m pan, I don’t put up with a lot of homophobic shit,” Chad says easily.
“You’re what?” Whiskey’s heard the term, but he’s not sure he knows exactly what it means.
Chad shifts in his seat, sighing. “It’s like this,” he says, locking eyes with Whiskey. “You have nice eyes.”
“Summers, you fucking flirt,” Tyler bursts out.
“I’m making a point,” Chad responds. He doesn’t break his gaze. “You have great eyes. It’s just a fact. I’d like those eyes if they were on a guy or a girl or neither, you know? Like, the bits that are attractive to me tend to be the bits that everybody has. So I don’t really care about all of this.” He gestures to his hips.
“So...” Whiskey isn’t sure which piece of information is more interesting: Chad’s sexuality or his opinion on Whiskey’s eyes. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Yeah,” Chad says. “It’s no big deal.”
Thinking back on the conversation, Whiskey has to admit it was a little weird, too. But it also wasn’t. Because like everything that goes on in the lax house, it’s casual, laid-back, spoken without any artifice. Chad just explained who he is. (And complimented Whiskey’s eyes. Whiskey keeps getting stuck on that.) He didn’t try to make a big moment out of it. Which is good, because Whiskey hates moments.
And heaven help him, Samwell Men’s Hockey is full of moments.
It’s about halfway through his freshman year when Whiskey gets the big news about Bitty and Jack Zimmermann. It’s all bedlam all the time in the Haus then, and Bitty blushes and giggles through it like a Southern belle. It’s annoying as hell. He has an appetite for attention and praise, and somehow he knows exactly how to get it. “Well, I’m not saying that me and Jack spent some quality time down in Madison,” Bitty says one night, “but I’m not not saying it.”
The group chat is all chirps, all the time. “That’s what Jack said” becomes a meme. Bitty chides them, but only half-heartedly; he’s also half-encouraging them, with his “Will y’all STOP” and blushing emojis. Whiskey eventually mutes notifications on his phone, just so he can sleep. His busy phone buzzes on the desk all night long.
It’s not long after the big announcement that Whiskey finally reaches his breaking point. He’s in Chowder’s room, and Chowder’s helping with a particularly tricky problem set from Whiskey’s compsci 101 class. They pause in their pursuit of a compilable program to grab fresh-baked brownies from a plate on the bed.
“Isn’t it cool?” Chowder says as he takes a first bite.
“Bitty and Jack!” Crumbs spill from Chowder’s mouth. “I’m so excited for them. I had no idea about Jack, you know? No idea. But they’re so cute together! It’s awesome.”
Whiskey’s only met Jack the one time. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d be on this team. Soft-spoken, with kind eyes and a warm smile, he shook Whiskey’s hand and greeted him. But he didn’t use too many words, didn’t show more enthusiasm than just the smile. “What’s a guy like Jack Zimmermann see in Bitty?” he wonders aloud.
Chowder reacts as if Whiskey had kicked a puppy. “What does that mean?”
“It’s just.” Whiskey waves a hand as though dispelling a bad smell. “Zimmermann is so cool. And Bittle is...” He searches for the right words. “He’s kind of weird.”
The hurt in Chowder’s eyes turns to indignation. “He’s not weird,” he insists. “He’s great! Come on, he makes pies for us. And like, my freshman year, he helped me so much with my problems.”
Whiskey tries to turn this over in his mind. Bitty enjoys playing mother to the second-years, Whiskey’s seen that plenty. He supposes that when they were freshmen, Chowder and the others probably needed someone to go to for advice. And Bitty would be eager to fill that position. But he has trouble believing that anything that Bitty said really helped. Maybe he’s misjudged him. It really would be nice to have someone in this Haus he could talk to. But Bitty’s just so … much. “You don’t think there’s anything weird about him?”
At that moment, a phone rings in Bitty’s room across the way. Bitty comes racing down the hall in a towel and a bathing cap, shouting “I GOT IT I GOT IT” to nobody in particular.
Lardo’s voice from down the hall. “Of course you’ve got it, it’s your phone, geez.”
Bitty turns. “Traitor!”
“Go talk to your boyfriend,” Lardo says. Whiskey hears her door close.
Bitty’s unaware of his audience, or if he is aware, he doesn’t care. “My boyfriend,” he repeats in a singsong tone that makes Whiskey’s skin crawl. Yeah. Not weird at all.
Bitty heads into his room. Whiskey tries to turn his attention back to his homework. But a moment later:
“Well hello there, Mister Zimmermann … why yes, everyone’s been amazing about it … no, no problem at all … I miss you already too … why yes, I miss that too … you’re awful, just awful!”
That’s it. Whiskey can’t stand another moment. “I’m going back to my dorm,” he tells Chowder, and packs up his backpack with haste.
A sigh that’s halfway a moan emanates from Bitty’s room. “Jack!”
“That’s why,” he says pointedly, and heads downstairs to grab his coat.
He’s out of the house in a blink, still shrugging his coat on. The bitter air hits him like a stinging slap, and he pulls in a cold breath, adjusting. Out here everything’s quiet and still. There’s no warmth, no life or action, and that’s just the way Whiskey wants it. Clean, silent. Peaceful. He wanders down the path to the street and stands looking at the lax house across the way.
Maybe he’ll just stop by for a minute. Just to breathe in some normality before he heads home.
He crosses the street. A gentle blanket of white snow from last night’s storm lies on either side of him, glittering with reflected light from the streetlamps. Whiskey takes in a long breath. Is it going to be like this for four years? he wonders. Is hockey all I’m gonna have to get myself through it?
A crunching sound by the side of the lax house. Whiskey glances over, and there’s Chad, bundled up in a winter parka and hat, boots ankle-deep in the snow.
“Dude,” he says. “Aren’t you freezing?”
Whiskey is all of a sudden very warm indeed. “I’m fine.”
“You look like someone just peed in your Wheaties,” Chad says. “Come out back with me.”
Whiskey follows him along the side of the house, his sneakers sinking into the snow. It’s cold, and his socks get wet, but there’s a kind of stillness to the night that makes that discomfort feel very small and far away. Chad, a few steps in front of him, seems like a dream apparition, an illusion. Why would the world deliver just what Whiskey wanted at just the moment he wanted it? He’s having trouble trusting his own eyes.
He comes to a pause just behind Chad in the lax house backyard. Chad gestures for him to step forward. Whiskey tentatively takes a place at Chad’s side.
“Look up,” says Chad.
Whiskey does. The night sky is clearer here than in front of the Haus, where the streetlamps blare a dim orange all night. In the yard, that light is blocked, and Whiskey’s struck by how cold the stars look. Like snowflakes stuck in midair, pinned to the sky.
“This is why I study astronomy,” Chad says softly. It’s as gentle a tone as Whiskey’s ever heard out of him. “Because of all this.”
“I don’t get it,” Whiskey says, even though he feels like he’s getting it just a little.
“Look at all that, man,” Chad says, gesturing upward to the wash of stars across the sky. “Those things are huge. Millions of times bigger than the sun. But they’re just that far away, that they only look like dots. Isn’t that wild?”
He’s grinning now, the boyish smile of a kid with his favorite toy, and Whiskey remains silent. He wants to see where this goes.
“It’s all just so big,” Chad goes on. “So big, and we are such a tiny part of the universe.” He grins. “It helps me remember how small I am.”
“And that makes you feel better?” Whiskey asks. His voice is hoarse, and it catches against the cold air. “Knowing you’re small?”
“Yeah,” Chad says. “It reminds me that all the dumb shit I pull doesn’t matter in the end.” His voice gets softer. “It helps me live with not being who I thought I’d be.”
He’s not looking at the sky anymore. He’s looking at Whiskey. Around them, the night seems very still. When the sound of a car passes on the road in front of the house, they both wait, almost reverently, for it to fade back to silence.
Whiskey searches for words. “Yeah, man. I get you.” Their shoulders are almost touching. “I mean, you’re the one who told me. Now’s the time to pull stupid shit that you’ll regret, right?”
Chad smiles. Something breaks inside Whiskey.
“You really do have great eyes,” Chad says.
And beneath the endless sea of stars in the very big universe, a very small thing called Whiskey kisses another small thing called Chad. It's just an infinitesimal movement in the vast universe. Nothing more.
So now, every so often between studying and games and hockey breakfasts and lacrosse lunches, Whiskey finds himself upstairs in the lax house, on Chad’s bed, kissing him. It never goes beyond kissing, and neither he nor Chad ever asks it to. The kissing’s enough. The feeling of Chad’s lips and the huff of his breath, the way the kisses taste a little different when Chad smiles, the tender way he tucks his hand behind Whiskey’s ear, fingertips teasing at his scalp.
They don’t really talk about it. It feels like it’s all been said already. Whiskey sees the understanding in Chad’s eyes. Here, especially, not having to make conversation is a blessing.
It becomes a pattern. Tuesdays are practice days, then team breakfast, then two classes before lunch, then kissing in Chad’s room until his two o’clock class. It’s just this isolated island of time, without words, without explanation, without anything but the feel of Chad under his lips and fingertips, the gentle, lazy heat that wafts between them.
It feels utterly unrelated to that girl in Arizona he’s supposed to love. It’s a different universe.
Whiskey’s starting to dread her phone calls.
For a short while, while all this is going on, Whiskey is scared the other shoe is going to drop. But it never does. The rest of the lax house doesn’t care; he never lets a word of his secret slip to the hockey team, and Emily ... well, they talk every week, then every other week. She’s sweet and giving. She always asks him how his studies are doing, she asks after the friends he’s made, and always tells him to kick ass on the ice. She ends every call with “I love you.” Whiskey says “You, too,” and it’s not a lie. Not quite a lie.
His freshman year rolls by. They don’t make the NCAA playoffs that year, but that hardly matters when Jack Zimmermann’s sending you tickets to the PVD-WSH conference final. Whiskey’s never been to a game that deep in an NHL playoff run. The energy of the crowd is contagious, and Whiskey can feel himself being carried away in it. Even sitting with a bunch of guys who cause him unending secondhand embarrassment, he cheers and boos along with the rest of the crowd, and basks in the electric atmosphere. Moments like this, he almost wishes he were aiming for the NHL. He can’t begin to imagine how thrilling it must be to be on the ice with a crowd like this surrounding you.
He has to go home before the finals, which sucks, but at least he knows as he sits in front of the TV in Arizona that the guy hefting the Conn Smythe has signed an autograph for him. Whiskey plays it up to his mom as though he and Jack are best friends. It’s the kind of story she wants to hear, and Whiskey’s getting really good at fudging the details of his relationships. If you ask his mom, he’s best friends with Jack Zimmermann, his hockey teammates are great, he loves his girlfriend very much, and there’s no such thing as a lacrosse team.
Emily does know about the lacrosse team, but she doesn’t suspect a thing. Whiskey’s never given her reason. Over the summer they go to the Fourth of July fireworks together, catch a couple of movies, hang out with their highschool friends. When he kisses her, he isn’t thinking about Chad. Chad’s in a different universe, and right now he’s in the world of home, where his dance card is already full.
But sometimes, in the dark at night, lying in a room barely adequately cooled even by central air and a fan, he does think of Chad. And his heart sinks a little, and he feels as though he’s stuck in mud. Sooner or later he’s going to make a tangle of his two worlds. He knows it’s coming, and he dreads it. Still, the morning the sun comes up, he’s Connor Whisk in Maricopa and his life is mapped out. He just has to follow the road laid out for him.
His mom has phone numbers of agents she’s mined from the internet, and she’d like him to give them a call at some point. She’d like to know if scouts have been to the games he’s played. Whiskey placates her with short answers, a call or two to a know-it-all in New York to ask them to come watch him play next season.
“I just don’t want your career opportunities to go by before you’ve had a fair chance,” Mom says one morning. “This is the time when they should be coming to you, and I’m worried that you say they haven’t.”
“I’m not,” says Whiskey over cereal.
Mama doesn’t really hear him, or if she does, she pretends she doesn’t. “It should be happening by now. Your numbers this year were good enough.”
“Maybe I’m not old enough,” Whiskey says helpfully. “Maybe they won’t start calling until I’m a senior.”
“No, no.” Mama paces the kitchen floor. “When you’re good enough, they’ll try to get you out of college. Remember Davy Hicks? He started school and then they signed him out of training camp one year. You should be getting development camp offers at least.”
Whiskey has. He’s ignored them. He likes hockey well enough, but he likes summer vacation, too. “Maybe I’m not good enough,” he says dryly.
Mama grabs a chair from under the table, scoots it out, and sits down as close to Whiskey as she can. “You are good enough,” she says, taking his hands. “My baby. Don’t ever think you’re not good enough. You can do this.” She raises his hands to her face, gives them a smacking kiss. “You’re a talented player and if the world can’t see that yet, well, you just go ahead and keep showing them what you’ve got. It’ll happen for you, mijo. It will happen.”
Her eyes are shining with such love and devotion. Whiskey could never rob her of that. “Yes, Mama,” he says. “I know.”
Between Mom and those late-night wonderings, Whiskey’s more than ready to head back to Samwell for preseason. August can’t come soon enough, and when it does and he’s back on a plane, his heart is almost giddily light. Sure, it’s back to his weird teammates, but it’s also back to a sense of freedom and normality and his real friends on the lacrosse team. And maybe there’s something else that’s driving his excitement. Just maybe.
But the lax team plays in the spring, which means they’re not even on campus until general move-in day in late August. So Whiskey’s alone with the hockey team for a good three weeks. And this year Bitty’s been elected captain, so his omnipresence is that much more pronounced (Whiskey did vote for him, but “good captain” and “fun to be around” are often two different things). So there’s a lot of team meetings in the Haus with copious baked goods, and that’s very close quarters, considering the Haus is small and there’s about 25 guys on the team.
That being said, Ransom and Holster’s absence has a ton more impact than Whiskey expected. Bitty doesn’t seem as loud without those two there to amplify him, and being captain means he’s spread more thin. He’s got a whole team to pay attention to now, not just a few players who interest him especially, so he’s a lot less in Whiskey’s face and a lot more manageable. Absent Bitty’s constant hovering presence, Whiskey can finally sit back and enjoy the pie.
They work hard that preseason. Nobody was satisfied with how last season ended, and everyone’s made the commitment to push it up a notch. When Bitty mentions during one of his speeches that Whiskey’s shot is one of the assets they have going into the new season, Whiskey even has a moment of pride. And on the ice there’s the delicious air of anticipation that precedes any season. It’s hard not to be optimistic.
Finally, finally, the lax guys start coming back to campus. Chad L. is there first, having been elected captain for a second year. He greets Whiskey warmly, and Whiskey helps him move in. Then the brothers, Kevin and Tyler, who share a room in the lax house. A few more the day after that, and then one day he strolls up to the Haus and sees Chad Summers across the street hauling storage containers out of an ancient-looking Volkswagen. Whiskey doesn’t know if he’d call it his heart skipping a beat, but something stops in his body when he catches sight of Chad.
He wheels and heads right for him, like he’s being drawn by a magnet. When Chad sees him, his eyes light up and he gives that big, careless grin. “Yo, Connor!” he calls. “Nice to see you!”
Whiskey trips over his tongue. “Yeah, yeah, man, yeah. Um. Welcome back.”
That said, they’re right on the lax house lawn, and there are people going in and out constantly, so that’s about as heated as their reunion gets. Whiskey meets Chad’s parents and helps with the clean-out of the back of the VW and carting cardboard boxes up to Chad’s second-floor room. There’s a lot of squeezing up the narrow stairway and calling “’Scuse me” as he feels his way down the hall, boxes stacked too high in his arms for him to see straight ahead. Chad’s parents ask him some questions about hockey, including worrying about it being too violent. Whiskey somehow keeps from asking them if they’ve actually ever seen a lacrosse game. Way more injuries on that field than on his ice, if you ask him.
Then, at last, Chad’s parents have said goodbye and driven that old car away, and he’s in Chad’s room, watching Chad take an armful of T-shirts off the bed and over to the dresser. It’s abruptly silent aside from Chad’s footsteps and the wooden slide of the dresser drawer. Whiskey doesn’t mind silence, but this one feels fraught. He scrambles for words. “So. Good summer?”
“Oh yeah, man,” Chad says breezily. “Time on the lake with the guys from high school, ya know? Best place to be in the summer. We waterski and whatever.” He turns, facing Whiskey, and runs a hand through his hair. He looks like a goddamn toothpaste commercial, his smile is so wide and bright. A flame runs through Whiskey, and a rush of uncertainty follows. Are they going to pick up where they left off? Or was Whiskey just a moment’s fancy for Chad, one he doesn’t mind letting go of? Whiskey has no idea what’s going to happen, and the indecision freezes him. His fingers itch to touch Chad’s jaw, but his heart won’t allow him to move.
“You?” Chad says. He boots up his computer and sits on the chair at the desk, waiting for the little beach ball to stop spinning. “What’d you get up to this summer?”
Is this how it’s going to go? Just small talk? Whiskey’s tongue feels like lead. “Um. Yeah. You know, the usual. Mom was driving me crazy, Arizona’s too hot in the summer.”
“Your mom sounds like a lot to deal with.” It’s not the first time Chad’s mentioned this. “How’s your girlfriend?”
The question lands like a ton of concrete on Whiskey’s shoulders. “She’s fine,” he manages.
“Cool, cool. You came up early, right? In practices already?”
And that’s how the conversation goes -- easy, normal, simple, and with the weight of the unspoken question hanging on him like a lead weight, normal is suddenly the last thing Whiskey wants. He didn’t expect this. He never thought that he’d start to feel something beyond the casual enjoyment they had for each other last year. But something’s escalated in him over the summer, and the relief and joy of seeing Chad again after so long has made him want something he never wanted before.
“Well. I better go back,” Whiskey says after a while.
“Already?” Chad gets up from the chair and crosses the room. All at once he’s in Whiskey’s space. “Okay, dude. Hey, it’s great to see you.”
“You too,” Whiskey says. He knows he should bolt, but he’s rooted in place.
Chad regards him for a moment. Then he smiles - not his usual ear-to-ear grin but something softer - and he leans in and touches Whiskey’s face with two fingertips. “I mean it,” he says. “Great to see you.”
Whiskey couldn’t not kiss him now if he tried.
Chad’s arms slide around him, and they kiss like it’s the last night of the world, Chad’s mouth insistent and tongue sliding between Whiskey’s lips. Whiskey holds onto Chad’s shoulders for dear life. When they break apart, Whiskey’s breath is coming ragged, his chest rising and falling like he’s been skating for an hour.
“Still okay with this?” Chad asks.
Whiskey nods. He hopes his face doesn’t reveal just how okay it is.
Emily comes to visit two weeks before Parents’ Weekend. They’ve been planning this for a while, especially since she didn’t visit at all during freshman year. (They’d tried to schedule it. It just never worked out.) He picks her up at the airport; when she sees him, she runs to meet him with a kiss.
It feels weird, kissing her here, where his other life lives. A betrayal of some kind. But of her? He doesn’t know. In his head, he’s aware that she’s blameless in this, that he’s the one who’s complicated his own life. But Whiskey’s angry with her nonetheless, for coming into this world, for daring to still exist during the school year. It’s not fair, and he’d never say anything, but the resentment sits like a constant buzzing in his chest as he takes her down to Samwell and shows her around.
He takes her to his dorm, to some of the spots on campus he enjoys. They take advantage of a free skate period at Faber and skate around leisurely, talking about gossip from their high school class. He deliberately avoids taking her to the Haus or the lax house. If she comes into contact with someone like Bitty, it will turn into a nightmare, every day Bitty just around the corner, with his saccharine smile and the casual words, “How’s your girlfriend?” And if she were to meet Chad ... that thought is just impossible to fathom.
On Saturday they go up to Boston to sightsee. They wander around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, drinking smoothies from the Monkey Bar and window-shopping at the endless kiosks and small shops that dot the area. Emily wants to try a certain restaurant in the North End, and Whiskey obliges, his wallet hurting but his taste buds happy by the end.
“How come you didn’t introduce me to any of your friends?” she asks as they walk back toward her hotel, the cool night air swirling around them alive and ever-moving. “I wanted to meet your friends.”
Whiskey chews on the inside of his lip. “They’re not so special. I’m not really good friends with anybody.”
“Your teammates, at least?” she prods. “I know you get close to the guys you play with.”
“Not this time.” This, at least, he can answer truthfully.
Emily’s staying at a fairly nice hotel in Copley Square, and she invites him back there to end the night. As the elevator speeds upward toward her floor, Whiskey feels as though he’s stuck in a soda bottle, movement all around him, pressure everywhere, and himself small and solid and unmoving within all of it. He’s holding her hand, but it’s just a touch, not a connection. From her slight smile, he guesses it’s not the same with her. He feels not a little bit broken. Why can’t he feel anything but sweat and skin? Where was the warmth he remembers from when they started dating?
She guides him into her room and sits on the bed, taking her hair down with practiced fingers. She lays her hair pins on the nightstand near the bed and turns to him. “Come sit down with me,” she says.
Whiskey obeys, expecting what he always expects from her: a long conversation followed by a few kisses. But when he sets himself down next to her on the bed, Emily immediately traps him in a kiss. She leans back, pulling him over her, until she’s flat on the bed and Whiskey is leaning over her. He shifts his position, putting himself half on top of her, just to relieve the tension in his spine. It still doesn’t occur to him that she wants anything but kisses.
Then she slides her hands along the hem of his T-shirt and rakes it up. Whiskey breaks away with a gasp. “What are you doing?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” she says, smiling. Her cheeks are red, and there’s heat radiating off her body. Whiskey hadn’t imagined she would have such warmth within her. “We’re adults now, Connor.”
His body reacts to hers -- it can’t not -- and Whiskey leans in to kiss her again, letting her run her hands along his chest and stomach. Of course. She’s completely right, this is what happens now that they’re out of the quaint days of high school dating. This is the natural next step. He touches her waist, not sure where else to touch or what’s expected of him next.
“Take off my shirt,” she breathes between kisses. Whiskey obeys, fingers suddenly clumsy and far too big. She’s beautiful naked, but of course she is. Her breasts sit nestled behind a white lacy bra. Whiskey isn’t sure what to do with them, but he goes ahead, cupping them in his hands, telling himself this is exciting, this is okay, he’ll be fine ...
... why hasn’t he ever thought to take off his shirt with Chad, that’s something they should try and do, because the thought of Chad and him with their shirts off makes something in his chest flutter with excitement ...
... Emily, think of Emily, who is pulling one of his hands between her legs, onto her inner thigh. He kisses her again, because when they kiss his cock responds, and if he just can make his cock do what it’s supposed to he can get through this, and then it’ll be over, and he’ll send her away happy, and life can get back to normal again.
But something will have changed. Once she wants this once, she’ll want it again, and she’ll come up to visit him more often, and he’ll be expected to, and then there’s Chad, there’s always Chad like a pattern burned into the back of his brain ...
He sits up abruptly, panting, raising a hand to his forehead. “I can’t.”
“Connor?” she says from her prone position on the bed. “Baby, what’s wrong?” She reaches out and slides her hand around his wrist, fingers like warm bracelets at his pulse point. She tugs at him gently, a wordless plea to lie back down. He resists.
He’s gone crazy. She’s beautiful and warm and inviting, and what guy doesn’t want to have sex all the damn time. All he wants is to be normal, and this is the normal thing to do. But he can’t.
She sits up, drapes herself around him, arms circling his waist. “Baby,” she says again.
He doesn’t respond. She kisses his bare shoulder, lays her head down so her hair tickles at his neck. “You’re really upset? I’m sorry, Connor. I didn’t want to shock you.”
Whiskey has to respond. He owes her something. If not an explanation, an excuse. But none is coming. “I just can’t right now,” he says, feeling broken and helpless.
“Okay,” Emily says. “Okay, Connor. I understand.” She pulls herself to the edge of the bed. “We’ll wait until you’re ready.” She lays a hand on his jaw, tilts his head to face her. “We’ll wait,” she says again. Her lips are turned up, but the smile has disappeared from her eyes.
The rest of the night, and the rest of her visit, right up until the goodbye kiss at Logan Airport, has Whiskey feeling like he’s been buttoned into a shirt that’s too small, with a collar that’s constricting his throat. When she disappears behind the TSA checkpoint, he claws at his neck, as though loosening it.
The tightness in his chest eases little by little as he sits on the bus back to Samwell, and he starts to feel a pulsation in his veins, like the blood is finally flowing and it can’t be held back. It’s heady. He’s free again, for now, for some definition of “free,” and he wants to do something about it. Something crazy. Something to cement the fact that at least between now and Parents’ Weekend, he can do whatever the hell he wants.
His first thought is to go right over to Chad’s. But he can’t do that, he can’t kiss two people in a single day. He needs a night to reset, to complete the transition back to the life he prefers leading. So he goes to the gym instead. Even a half-hour on the treadmill doesn’t dissipate the restless feeling. He heads for the punching bags and lets loose.
He spots Tango across the gym floor -- or, rather, Tango spots him, comes over, and positions himself behind the bag to spot him in another way. Whiskey nods at him, some part of him relaxing at the presence. For whatever else Tango is, he’s a good friend, and tonight even he knows not to say anything. He just lets Whiskey whale on the bag, watches his face carefully, meets his eyes once in a while. It’s comforting, to meet his gaze and know he’s there. Whiskey exhausts himself, claps Tango on the shoulder in thanks, and heads for the showers.
By morning, Whiskey is feeling more like himself. That latent extra energy is still there, but it’s less of a drumbeat in his ears and more of a comfortable buzzing. He feels alert, ready to pounce on any opportunities that present themselves. Like Chad has told him, he’s ready to do the stupid stuff now, while he still can.
He’s lucky that a remarkably stupid idea presents himself almost immediately.
One pleasant surprise of Whiskey’s sophomore year has been how much he likes the new freshmen. Bully, Louis, and Hops are all extremely cool guys. (Hops has a bit of a high-anxiety vibe, but nobody’s perfect.) Whiskey ends up hanging out with them more than he’s done with any of the other hockey players except for Tango. Like most college freshmen, they’re full of unearned swagger and terrible ideas.
So when Bitty gathers them together in the Haus and lets them know that they can feel free to attend any parties they like on campus, except Sigma Phi, Whiskey isn’t the slightest bit surprised to find them afterward, whispering to each other in the den. There’s no doubt they’re going.
Sigma Phi parties have a terrible reputation for over-the-top drinking games and cheap liquor. It sounds perfect.
“Thinking of going to this party,” he mentions to Chad as they’re hanging out in his bedroom one day. Always Chad’s bedroom -- not just because he has a single and Whiskey’s got a roommate, but also because for some reason the lax house feels freer than Whiskey’s dorm. People would notice if a lax bro started going into Whiskey’s dorm room. But at this point nobody’s surprised to see Whiskey enter the lax house, and nobody inside the lax house cares.
“The Sigma Phi one?” Chad whistles and elbows him. “Dude, do you even know what you’re getting into?”
Whiskey faces him and grins as wide as he knows how. “Not a clue.”
“Well, there’s no way I’m letting you go alone,” Chad says. “I gotta chaperone you.”
“Bullshit,” says Whiskey. “You want to go too.”
Chad laughs. “Yeah, I kind of do.”
Whiskey thrills to this a bit. Hanging out with Chad here and there is one thing, but going somewhere with him feels different. It’s not like a date, he tells himself, and buds go to parties together all the time. But given what he’s heard about this infamous party, this is more like jumping into a volcano together. Not something you do with just anyone.
The humming in his veins has a purpose now. He’s going to go to the forbidden party with Chad.
It’ll cement his status in this life, banish the spirit of Emily’s visit for good. He’s here now, at Samwell. Here in the life he wants to live.
On the appointed night, Chad and Whiskey arrive an hour late. They have a drink or two, grab two more for the road, then sneak through the crowd and to the back stairs. The basement is even more crowded than the main floor, and it seems to Whiskey this is where people go when they’re too drunk or too horny to socialize. There’s people dancing (some shirtless) to the thumping of the stereo upstairs. Three guys on a ratty couch are either stoned to hell or getting there. And around the fringes of the room are couples -- talking, flirting, doing more than flirting. Whiskey and Chad find an empty spot in the back corner, under a rickety-looking wooden shelf, and settle in.
“So,” says Whiskey.
“So,” says Chad, and slips his hand into Whiskey’s.
Well, nobody’s watching. Nobody seems to be watching, anyway.
Chad’s kiss is gentle at first, almost too much so. He’s got one hand curled around Whiskey’s neck, and the touch is making Whiskey tingle. This is the first time they’ve done this anywhere but the bedroom or the backyard. That realization wriggles under Whiskey’s skin, and he grabs Chad’s arm and pulls him in closer, kissing him with more fervor now. They part, grinning at each other.
“This is stupid,” Whiskey points out. “We’ll get caught.”
“You wanna stop?”
“No way in hell.”
“One sec, then.” Chad lifts his cup to his lips, downs the booze in one go. He crushes the cup and tosses it aside. Whiskey takes a sip of his, then kneels to put it down where it’ll undoubtedly get knocked over. He doesn’t care. Nothing matters but this.
This time it’s like flame, when their lips touch, blooming and spreading through Whiskey’s body. Oh, this is better than any booze could ever hope to be, and he never wants it to end. Yes, this is what he’s wanted, what he’s craved for days, just Chad’s lips hot on his. The feel of his T-shirt under Whiskey’s fingers, the heat his body exudes seeping into Whiskey’s. They’re chest to chest, and Whiskey’s filled with images -- Chad naked with him, the two of them exploring and touching places they haven’t dared to touch before. Whiskey’s not even sure what exactly he wants, but he knows that he wants it. It occurs to him -- vaguely, like a whisper -- that if Emily hadn’t come, his imagination might never have gone there. In a way, he wishes he could thank her.
Every so often they break apart, say some dumb shit that Whiskey doesn’t even remember two seconds later. Chad’s thumb rests on his chin, hand cradling his jaw. Then, inevitably, they’re drawn back together. Kisses like fire, and if Whiskey has the chance, he’s gonna hike up Chad’s shirt and splay a hand over his back. He burns with the need for it, and any minute now he’s gonna get up the courage to do it.
Yeah. Pretty soon he’s gonna do it. Just as soon as they go back to kissing, as Chad has broken off again and is telling him “We should have done this ten parties ago.” Whiskey’s smiling, and he’s going to lean back in, but a familiar movement catches his attention in his peripheral vision, so he looks up -- just for an instant --
-- and everything shudders to a halt.
Bitty looks shell-shocked, but not as shocked as Whiskey feels. For a moment he’s frozen, grabbing Chad by the arm, eyes wide. There’s a booming noise from the speakers upstairs, and it sounds like worlds colliding.
Then his fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and he leaves Chad and muscles his way upstairs and out of the house. Bitty’s close behind him, and Whiskey can hear him calling out. He ignores, keeps moving, ignores again. The freshness of the night air fills his lungs, cold and sharp. Bitty grabs him by the arm. Whiskey jerks away and takes off, full speed, into the night.
Whiskey doesn’t remember the walk back to his dorm, he doesn’t remember climbing the three flights of stairs, but he knows he didn’t take the elevator because he’s panting like he’s just been doing suicides. He’s still shivering from the coldness of the night. At least, that must be why he’s shaking. Right?
God. Oh, God, what is he going to do now?
These two universes were never supposed to meet. He’d compartmentalized them for a whole year, with no problem. And now, one party and one kiss and the curtain between them splitting apart. Bitty knows about Emily. He’s part of that universe - the one where Whiskey’s a committed boyfriend and talented hockey player, where he’s soft-spoken and doesn’t make waves, where he lets everyone around him carry the conversation.
The universe where Chad lives is a different beast entirely. There, Whiskey’s comfortable and laid-back and even happy. There, he can embrace the person he wants to be, the person he would be if there weren’t so much pressure on him in real life. There, he feels normal. There, he feels free.
And now Bitty’s seen both worlds, and that means Whiskey can’t hold them apart anymore.
And suddenly both universes come down to land on his shoulders. He doubles over with the weight of them.
Bitty is Bitty, which means Bitty wants to talk about it. He makes that clear from the moment Whiskey sees him again. Whiskey had expected to dread coming into contact with Bitty again, but he’s surprised at how much he doesn’t feel. Something’s frozen inside him, its cold touch just on the inside of his skin, and he doesn’t feel the need to explain or make excuses or tell Bitty anything. Who cares what he thinks. Who cares what he wants to say. Whiskey doesn’t give him the chance. It’s as if, as long as he can keep Bitty from broaching the subject, it maybe didn’t actually happen.
Tango is harder to shut up. Tango doesn’t know what’s happened, but he knows something is eating Whiskey alive. For a kid who’s always asking questions, he’s pretty observant. And Whiskey knows he’s acting differently. He’s lost speed on the ice. He’s distracted, doesn’t hear the coach’s instructions, skates the wrong way on a rush. And he curses - just barely, under his breath, but it’s more emotion than he usually shows. He figures everybody has probably noticed, but Tango’s the only one who calls him on it. “Whiskey,” he says. “Whiskey, man, come on. What’s going on? You can tell me! I promise I won’t tell.” Whiskey ignores him.
A few days later, Tango changes his tactic. “You ought to talk to someone,” he says. “Can’t you, like, call your mom and talk to her?”
Whiskey turns to him. “My mom?” As though Tango had just suggested that he dial up a space alien.
“Yeah! You said she’s really committed to helping you do well, right?” (Tango’s got that one somewhat muddled - Whiskey had once admitted, blase, that his mom pushes a little too hard sometimes.)
He says it with enough innocence that Whiskey has to hold back a derisive laugh. “My mom can’t help,” he informs Tango pointedly.
“OK.” Tango brainstorms. Whiskey can practically see the gears turning in his head. “Someone on the team, then. What about Bitty? Why don’t you talk to Bitty? He’s really good about helping people.”
The thought of Bitty as an available resource is absurd. Bitty talks a lot. Whiskey has trouble believing he’d keep a secret. Or react in any way that could be considered mature or comforting. And that’s what Whiskey needs right now. Comfort. For someone to tell him this too shall pass, that he’ll get through it somehow.
“It’s okay,” he tells Tango. He even tries to smile. “Really. I’m fine.” If he can get Tango to believe it, maybe he can start to believe it himself.
He’s fine. He tells himself that as he gets through each hour, each day. Besides, he’s got a bigger problem. Parents’ Weekend is coming up, and he’s got to put on his game face for dealing with his mother. He really doesn’t have time to worry about what’s going on with Chad. As long as Bitty stays quiet (well, relatively quiet), he can push those problems aside and concentrate on the higher-priority problems.
Never mind the fact that he still hasn’t seen Chad, hasn’t answered his texts. Never mind the fact that he’s starting to miss Chad like he’d miss a part of himself -- just not complete. Their relationship isn’t like that, and he has no right to feel that way. And even if he did, he wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. A normal guy doesn’t talk about his problems. A normal guy deals with them by himself, doesn’t get anyone else involved.
Which just goes to show how weird the hockey team is, because pretty much everybody on the hockey team goes to Bitty with their problems. Schoolwork, love life, that kind of thing, Whiskey assumes. Whiskey can’t help but notice, though, that he’s forced to assume, because Bitty never talks about it. Maybe he can keep a secret after all.
And all of this is starting to feel a little too heavy to bear alone.
Still, he can’t go to Bitty. He just can’t.
He racks his brain for who else he could confide in. Not Tango, and definitely not his mother. He tries to drum up other possibilities. A school counselor, maybe? God, no, that would be beyond embarrassing. Someone else on the lax team? His clueless roommate?
But the truth is, he knows exactly who he wants to talk to. The one person he’s always been able to confide in is the very person he’s hurt: Emily.
For whatever else Whiskey and Emily are, they’re friends. He’s been telling her everything that happens in his life for years now. Their relationship has never been about physical affection so much as the way they connect, the way Emily used to come to him with student council problems, the way he used to let himself cry a little after a bad loss only when she was around. And now, the muddle he’s got himself caught in? Only Emily knows him well enough to untangle that.
It’s Thursday night before Parents’ Weekend. His parents fly up tomorrow. He can’t sleep. He feels brittle, like his bones will snap with the lightest pressure. He pulls up Emily’s number in his phone.
This will hurt her so deeply. Can he even go through with it?
He has to. She deserves to know.
The minute he says hello, she knows something’s wrong. “What’s going on? You sound awful.”
“You got that from ‘Hi, it’s me’?” It doesn’t feel funny. It feels painful, trying to inject a smile into his words.
“I know you, Connor,” she says. A moment of silence on the line, then she sighs. “And I have a pretty bad feeling about what you’re going to tell me.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I know you are,” says Emily. “But you’re going to have to tell me what you’re sorry for.”
“Say it, Connor.”
Whiskey doubles over, his free hand pressed to his forehead. His voice is barely a scratch. “I met somebody.”
Silence on the line.
He waits. He doesn’t want to have to say it again. “Em?”
“Yeah,” she finally says. “Yeah, I’m here. I ... heard you.”
“Okay,” he says. What else is he supposed to say?
“I guess that explains why you haven’t called me since I visited,” she says. Every word feels like pinpricks in his gut.
“I didn’t know how to tell you,” he starts.
“It’s all right. I knew.”
He sucks in a mouthful of air. “You knew?”
“Connor,” she says, “we’ve known each other a long time. You don’t think I could tell, when I visited? You think I didn’t know why you pulled away?”
He thinks about that night again, thinks about the guilty feeling in his stomach every time she gave him a kiss. “I’m sorry,” is all he can say.
She’s silent. The quiet lingers. Light and shadow slide like ghosts along the walls as a car passes.
He finds the words. “What do we do now?”
She heaves a long sigh, breath like a rush of static from the phone. “What else can we do? I’m not willing to share you. I wish I was that type, but I’m not.”
Whiskey never expected her to be. “I guess I have to make a decision.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, you do.”
He expects Parents’ Weekend to be a nightmare. With the conversation with Emily still weighing on his mind, and his secret so close to being exposed, he’s a bundle of nerves coming into the weekend. It doesn’t help that Bitty tries once again to talk to him -- God, won’t he just leave him alone -- and that just brings everything bubbling to the surface anew. No. He has to tamp all that down, pretend all of it doesn’t exist for a whole weekend.
He Ubers up to the airport to meet his parents when they come in - Mom, short and plump with her short-cropped red hair, and Dad, tall and silent, gray whiskers blending into his beard a lot more these days.
It’s not unpleasant, seeing them. Mom is still the same Mom who wrote little notes on his paper napkins in each brown-bag lunch for years. Dad is still the guy who grinned ear-to-ear and applauded whenever he scored a goal. He loves them. And so he tries to keep it light as he chats with them, accompanies them to the rental car counter and then to their hotel. When Mom asks him about hockey, he’s evasive. “I’m not sure,” he answers a question about scouts at their games. “I’m just concentrating on my game.”
They take him to dinner in the city on Friday, then drive up early Saturday to survey the campus before their matinee game. Making sure they’re entertained and distracted from dicey topics is a full-time job, so he doesn’t even think that much about the Chad and Emily situation. Not that much, but not not at all, either. He considers showing them the Haus, but his heart thuds and he can’t help but think it’s too dangerous. Too close to lax people. Too close to Chad.
Just before he heads down to the locker room to get ready for the game, his mom asks, “And how’s Emily?”
He answers her with a sunny smile. “Good. She had a nice visit up here a few weekends ago.” It doesn’t even stress him out -- he’s just relieved that they still don’t know.
The game is fun. Bitty sets him up with a sick wing-to-wing pass that Whiskey buries. It’s pretty good, being on Bitty’s line. He sees the ice well and plays the team game. Whiskey remembers being surprised by that, the first time he got put on that line. Given how he is in real life, Whiskey thought he’d be a selfish player, but not really. And it’s pretty fun to watch him put on the jets on a breakaway.
They win, 4-1, and Faber is deafening with the shouts of happy parents. Whiskey gets some congratulatory pats on the ass in the locker room, and when he comes out to meet his folks,
Mom has her arms wide open a good six feet before she reaches Whiskey. “That goal!” She folds her arms around him and plants a kiss on his cheek. Whiskey pulls back and rubs his cheek reflexively with the heel of his hand.
“Nice game,” says his dad, but that’s all. It’s all Whiskey expected him to say anyway.
“Your play has really improved since last year,” Mom says as she takes his arm. They walk side-by-side, Dad following just a little behind, down the stairs into the catacombs beneath the rink. A few guys pass them, but it’s mostly silent in this white-bricked hallway, except for a couple of raucous laughs from behind the locker room door. Whiskey ducks into the room for a second to grab his things, then continues with his parents toward the player entrance. “I think I’ll never be tired of watching you shoot,” Mom continues, her voice resonant and rosy. “Every time my heart stops!”
Whiskey nods. “It’s fun,” he says.
“I still don’t understand why you haven’t had scouts come to see you play yet,” Mom purses her lips. “It’s disappointing, really. I thought they had better taste than that.”
“I’m sure there have been scouts,” Whiskey says, the words dragging down at the end like a sigh. “They probably don’t tell anyone they’re there.”
“They should be making offers by now!” Her hands curl into fists, as though she’s ready to shadowbox a scout into submission. “Aren’t you disappointed?” She turns to Whiskey, eyebrows drawn into a dangerous V.
If there weren’t such intense emotion behind it, her expression would be almost comical, Whiskey realizes. The absurdity of the whole thing sweeps over him. With everything he’s got going on, everything he’s dealing with and the things that really matter to him in such turmoil, he should be thinking about making it into the NHL?
And it’s that absurdity, coupled with the weight of everything else, that tumbles the truth right out of his lips. “Honestly?” he says to her. “Not really.”
Her frown vanishes. She stares at him blankly for a second, then lifts a hand to his face. “Is something wrong, mijo? You haven’t been yourself lately. Ever since last summer.”
The contact feels like poison. He jerks away. “I’m fine, Mom.” Mom instead of Mama, only ever used in anger.
“Clearly you’re not,” she says. “Suddenly you don’t care about the scouts?”
Ice floods his veins. He doesn’t care anymore -- he has too much else he cares about to keep this mask on. “Not suddenly,” he says. “I never cared about the scouts.”
“I beg your pardon.” Each word trailing downward at the end. “You never cared about hockey? The sport you’ve been playing all your life? The one that your father and I spent good money to help you develop, to buy you equipment and make sure you were able to play?”
“Of course I love hockey!” Whiskey bursts out. The way his voice sounds - the way his arms fly free and wide apart - they’re scary, but not as scary as keeping it all in a moment longer. “That doesn’t mean I want to go to the NHL!”
“What are you talking about? You’ve always talked about playing in the NHL!”
“As a kid, Mom! I was a kid! Every kid thinks about that.” Whiskey takes a moment, trying to compose himself. “But that’s not what I want right now. I’m happy here. Playing in college. This is enough.”
“You could have told me that before I worked my ass off trying to get you noticed!” It’s a personal insult to her, Whiskey can see it on her face. Now, winning this argument has become the only way she can hold herself together.
But Whiskey’s got himself to hold together first. “I tried,” he says. “Mama, I tried. But once you want to do something -- and you wanted to do it for me. What was I supposed to say but thank you?”
“How about the truth?”
“You were already running with it,” Whiskey says. “When I said maybe it’s not for me, you always said yes, it was, I should believe in myself more.”
“You should!” Her voice is getting hoarse. “You should believe in yourself. You have the talent to make it. Why on earth would you not want to be a professional athlete? You’d make millions of dollars.”
This is a punch to the gut. “So you wanted me to make money for you?”
“No!” The tears welling up in her eyes finally spill over, mascara-stained trails leaking down her cheeks. “I wanted you to be happy!”
“Mama.” Whiskey slumps against the wall, “It made you happy. Doing all of that. Was I supposed to take that away from you?”
For the first time, Andrea is silent. She stares at Whiskey, her eyes huge and shimmering, her teeth biting into her trembling lower lip. “Connor,” she manages, and stops again.
Seeing her wounded like this crushes Whiskey’s heart. The urge to apologize rises in his chest. That’s what he’s always done before. Apologize. Make her feel better. Is that what he should do now? Say he was wrong, she was right the whole time, he’s so sorry, he’ll try to be better for her?
But then what? Does he have to go to the NHL then? Can’t he find some way to make her feel better and be normal?
Meanwhile, Whiskey’s father has been standing back, watching all of this. Andrea turns to him now. “Garrett,” she says. “Say something.”
He shakes his head. “Nothing to say.”
For not the first time, fury builds up in Whiskey at his father’s passiveness. Can’t he take a stand? Can’t he help her understand what he’s trying to say? But no, Papa is always like this. To look to him now for rescue would be meaningless. He’s got to get his mother to understand. That’s the only way he’ll ever get to stand on his own two feet.
“It’s not like there was a day I decided I didn’t want it,” he says. He’s staring at the floor, the only place he doesn’t see betrayal and hurt. “I realized it little by little. It wasn’t realistic. I probably wasn’t going to be the person you wanted me to be. But I tried. I still tried. Because you believed in me so much, and I couldn’t let you down.”
He hears her take a breath. Maybe she’ll shout at him again. But she only sighs.
“But, Mama--” he needs more breath for this, but his lungs feel so empty-- “little by little, Mama, I’m figuring out what I do want. And honestly, I just want to be a normal guy. I want to play hockey for fun and study and enjoy college. And wherever my life takes me, I want to let it. But I can’t. I can’t keep pretending that I’m dying to be a professional when I’m just not.” Tears are coming to his eyes, too. He sniffles them back. “I’m sorry.” The apology at last. “But I just can’t be who you want me to be. And I can’t handle hiding it anymore.”
It’s everything he’s got left inside him, heart and mind exhausted and empty. He slumps down the wall, falling into a crouch, and tries to keep breathing through the silence that ensues.
It’s a long, long time until anybody speaks. But it’s Andrea who finally breaks the silence. “Connor,” she says. “My boy.”
She steps forward, sinks down so she’s crouching next to him. His hands are lying uselessly by his sides. She picks up one, strokes his hand. “You misunderstand me, mijo,” she says. “I’m sad. I thought I knew you so well. I had no idea you were so unhappy.”
“I wasn’t unhappy,” Whiskey says.
“But you were trying to be something you weren’t,” she says. “I made you do that. I’m so sorry, Connor. I thought I was doing what was best for you.”
“Don’t be angry.” A plea that falls far too late.
“I’m only angry at myself,” she says. “I tried to be good to you. I really tried.”
She’s still making it about herself, but Whiskey is too empty of anger to care. “I know, Mama,” he says. “I don’t blame you. I should have talked to you sooner.”
“Listen to me,” she says, squeezing his hand. “I want you to be happy, no matter what you want to do. I will always be there to support you. One hundred percent.”
It’s the closest thing he’s going to get to an apology, and given everything, it’s pretty good. He lifts his head and manages a smile for her. “Thanks.”
There’s so much still to resolve. Old habits die hard, and even this argument died the way it usually does -- Whiskey gave her an apology of sorts, which allows her to retain some self-respect. It’s a far cry from her accepting any responsibility for pushing him along this road, but he doubts that will ever happen. Mama is still Mama. But even with all that outstanding baggage, this is progress. And the shadow of her professional expectations has finally lifted. Whiskey can breathe easy again.
He helps her get to her feet, and they walk, half-hugging, out to the street.
It really does feel like a weight was lifted. The rest of Parents’ Weekend goes without major incident, and Mama even tells him “Be happy” as they say their goodbyes at the airport. Whiskey feels free. That is such a novel experience. The clear air of Samwell is buoyant in his lungs, the chilly weather more invigorating than biting as winter touches the edges of the lake with frosty fingers.
It reminds him of the thrill he got, making out with Chad in the basement of that house, the way his heart pounded in his chest and his hands trembled from excitement. He could touch Chad, in front of people, like they were a couple, and nobody cared. He wants to do it again.
He finds himself at Chad’s bedroom door. Part of him just wants to sink down onto the bed with him, lose himself in warm kisses and the excitement of Chad’s body next to his. But that’s not what he really wants, not now. He’s here for something different. Something out of the ordinary.
“Date. We should go on a date.” Whiskey can’t believe the words are successfully coming out of his mouth. “Like we’re a couple.”
Chad frowns. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”
That brings up all the unpleasant feelings. But still. “Yes, I do.”
Chad pauses to look Whiskey over. He gives a soft sigh. “Something happened, didn’t it?”
Whiskey can’t keep his defenses up. “Yeah,” he admits, and he goes into the whole story. Emily’s visit and Bitty seeing them and his parents. “And I just, I’m tired of it,” he says. “I’m sick of being who I’ve been. I want to try something else. I thought ... maybe we could try that.”
He’s sunk down onto the bed while telling the story, and Chad, beside him, puts a hand on his back. When Whiskey looks at him, he sees Chad’s brows furrowed and his eyes reflecting a concern Whiskey wasn’t expecting. “You want to do something else?” Chad echoes. “I thought you were so comfortable with just this.”
“I know.” Whiskey puts his head in his hands. “I’m losing it.”
Chad pats his back a few times without saying anything. Whiskey contemplates apologizing, then getting the hell out of there. It’d probably be the easiest thing to do.
“Or,” Chad says, “maybe you’re figuring it out.”
They meet outside Annie’s at ten in the morning. Chad’s wearing his lax sweatshirt, hands in his jeans pockets, looking, if anything, a little shy. “Should I have brought you a corsage or some shit?” he says, half-laughing, and then falls quiet. They head inside wordlessly and order, then find a table in the back corner to sit and enjoy their drinks.
A few sips of coffee and Chad loses the hesitation. “Ya know, when you said date I was thinking of something like dinner and a movie,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” Whiskey says. “But I got a game tomorrow, so…”
“No, no, I get it.” Chad grins. “Gotta get up early to keep up with the hockey kids.”
“And gotta stay up late to keep up with the lax team,” Whiskey rejoins flatly, and Chad laughs as though it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
So coffee at Annie’s is chill. Chad’s picked out a little Italian restaurant on the northwest corner of campus for lunch, and they walk slowly along the river in that direction. Chad’s telling Whiskey a hilarious story about Chad L.’s latest girlfriend, and between laughing and the crispness of the air, Whiskey has trouble breathing,
“So, you know, if we ever have a second date, I’m gonna have to ask you not to bring any stuffed animals with you,” Chad ends with a laugh of his own. Whiskey’s skin prickles a little at second date. He wonders, briefly, what would happen if he reached out and took Chad’s hand in his. The idea of their fingers entangling, the breeze wafting around them, is enough to bring a flush to his cheeks. He hopes Chad doesn’t notice.
But then, abruptly, Chad thumps him on the back, near his shoulder. “Or,” he says, “you know, whatever we end up doing.”
That stings, and Whiskey’s not sure why. He doesn’t reach for Chad’s hand, and Chad certainly never reaches for his.
They sit on the banks of the river after lunch, sated from calzones and pizza, Spring’s just arriving at Samwell, a rush of birdsong and flower buds and young leaves, but the air’s still crisp enough that they’re wearing sweatshirts. Chad has been going overboard to make Whiskey laugh all through lunch, and his cheeks hurt from it, corners of his mouth stretched from all the smiling. Even as they sit down, Chad makes a display of checking for worms in the grass that has Whiskey stifling giggles.
“So,” Chad says when he settles. “How’d we do?”
“How’d we do?” Whiskey isn’t quite sure what’s being asked.
“Going on a date. Did it work out the way you wanted?”
“Oh. Um … pretty much.” Something’s funny about the question, and Whiskey wrinkles his nose and frowns, trying to figure it out. “What about you? Did you have a good time?”
“Sure,” Chad says. “We always have a good time.”
Whiskey’s heart, which had been so light, suddenly tightens. “This was supposed to be a little different from always.”
“Oh.” Chad pauses. “Oh, yeah, right. It was. It was good, man. Don’t stress.”
All of this sounds perfectly normal, just like their usual conversation. Casual and worry-free, but for the first time, Whiskey’s starting to feel like that freedom means something’s missing. “I’m not stressing,” he says defiantly.
“You are. A little.” Chad gives him a soft smile. “What’s wrong, Connor?”
“It’s just …” Whiskey wants to wring his hands, the way Mama does when she’s upset. “This is all so normal.”
“I thought you liked normal.”
“I do,” Whiskey is quick to reply. “I like normal. But it feels like … normal isn’t normal for right now. There should be something else happening.”
“Maybe you just don’t want to be dating me,” Chad says, so quickly and so casually that Whiskey’s caught slack-jawed, “Don’t look like that. It’s an idea. Maybe the dating thing doesn’t work for us.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? If it’s true.” Chad shrugs. “Maybe you and me are just meant to make out once in a while and be friends otherwise.”
And the sick, wrong thing that’s thudding in Whiskey’s chest suddenly has a name. “Is that how you feel?”
Chad looks at him. And keeps looking at him, and doesn’t say a thing.
“Chad,” Whiskey says. It feels weird. As much as Chad calls him Connor, Whiskey almost never says Chad’s name.
When Chad does speak, it’s quiet and more than a little strained. “You still have a girlfriend,” he says. “I’m trying to remember that, dude. It’s not easy.”
“We’re--” Whiskey wants to burst out with we’re on a break, but it’s not quite true.
“I’m trying,” Chad says. “I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to keep things casual. I’m trying to give you what you want. But at some point, dude … you gotta figure out what that is. Cause I still don’t know.”
Whiskey sighs. “I guess you’re right.”
Maybe that’s why this date doesn’t quite feel like it’s supposed to. Chad’s holding back with him, and he’s probably holding back, too. And Chad’s right to hold back, because Whiskey is still hopelessly mired in confusion, even after what happened with Emily, after what happened with his parents. He’s still living two lives. They may now know of each other, but he still hasn’t chosen one.
He needs someone to talk to.
And he knows who it needs to be this time. There’s only one person who’s truly removed from the situation, who maybe knows a little how it feels, and who has, through his silence so far, proven that he can keep things discreet. It’s embarrassing, and it stings his pride a little. But he’s got to talk to Bitty.
He enlists Tango to pull the rest of the Haus’s denizens out of the building, because there is no way Whiskey’s going to let anyone else know he’s talking to Bitty. He locks the Haus from the inside, looks around, and sighs. How did it come to this point? Where the person he needs most is the one person he’s been avoiding all this time? Even with no one else aware, it’s still humiliating.
Bitty is, as usual, baking in the kitchen. When Whiskey comes in, he greets him cheerily, apparently not thinking much of his presence. It takes Whiskey sitting down at the kitchen table and mumbling, “Gotta talk to you about something” for Bitty to pause, put down his rolling pin, and walk over to the table, expression at once a mask of worry and curiosity.
After everything, it’s remarkably simple. Whiskey lays out the situation, and Bitty listens, nodding occasionally. The curiosity on his face eases as Whiskey talks, and there’s something like caring in his eyes instead, as the story goes on. He never interjects more than an “Mm-hm,” which surprises Whiskey; he had been imagining a hundred interruptions, Bitty demanding more detail on this or that. But Bitty’s not talking. He’s listening, really listening, and now Whiskey knows why all the boys come to Bitty with the issues in their lives. He wonders if anyone has taken the time to thank him.
“I don’t want to hurt her,” he says at last, “and I don’t know if I really want to date him. I just want everything to be how it was last year. Before everything.”
Bitty pauses, making sure Whiskey’s done. Then, he removes his apron and sits down at the table. “I’m sorry, Whiskey,” he says, first off. “That’s a lot to go through.”
“...yeah.” Whiskey doesn’t think he’s had someone just tell him that, that he has been through a lot, that it’s reasonable to be feeling this way. It helps, more than he would have expected it to.
“So you’ve got a big decision to make,” Bitty says, as though mulling the whole story over in his own head. “Honestly, Whiskey, it sounds to me like you probably know which way you want to go. But something’s stopping you.”
“Like I said,” Whiskey said, “I don’t want to hurt her. Emily’s … well, she’s like family now. If I just … break up with her” -- and those words sound so final, so devastating, like shattered glass in his ears-- “what will my friends at home think, what will Mom and Dad think--”
Bitty pauses, waits to make sure he’s done. “You said your mom was getting better at listening to what you want. Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“And I’m gonna miss her, too.” Whiskey interjects. “I always talked to her, about everything. Well.” He sighs. “Not everything.”
“And you think Chad wants to date you?” Bitty asks, patiently. “Sounded like y’all had a good date.”
“It was weird.” Whiskey frowns at the table. “It’s just so -- maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m thinking this is more than it really is, you know?”
“Maybe,” Bitty agrees. “But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s gonna be something great, right?”
“Yeah, but I’m--” and Whiskey bites down the words. I’m scared. He just now thought those words for the first time, but it’s been true for a while. Right now, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen in his life, and that scares the shit out of him.
“Maybe,” Bitty says after a measured pause, “and I’m just saying maybe … maybe you need to let go of the both of them for a while. Just concentrate on you.”
“On me?” The thought is absurd. Whiskey’s been worried about other people his whole life. How is he supposed to cut everyone out of the fabric of his existence? Just find a way to be alone in the universe?
“Maybe that’s the only way to figure out what you really want.” Bitty winks. “I can make you skate extra laps every practice if it’ll help.”
Whiskey takes the extra laps. After sweating through an hourlong on-ice practice, he lingers behind as the rest of the team hits the showers. Here in an empty rink, with no noise except for the sound of his blades on the ice, he goes around and around, tries to find that place where there’s no one in the world but him.
He keeps skating, day after day, never quite able to quiet the voices within him, never quite finding that silence, that separation from the rest of the world that he’s looking for.
How can he? His mind’s on Chad, or Emily, or Tango, or Mom and Dad. What are they doing, what are they feeling. How should he answer Chad’s texts, wondering day after day if he’s okay? How should he deal with Emily’s voicemail, which he hasn’t had the guts to listen to yet? For a while, he resents them all for intruding into the silence he’s trying to create for himself. How is he supposed to concentrate on himself when they’re always interrupting him, looking for attention?
It’s a Sunday, an optional skate day, when he finally finds it. Not many guys on the ice to begin with, and nobody there as he takes his extra laps afterward. By now everybody knows that Whiskey takes extra laps after practice. There are rumors that he really pissed Bitty off somehow and is working off his punishment; they’re laughable. He’s able to ignore those, shut them out. He isn’t talking to anyone on the team these days, not even Tango, outside of practice.
That afternoon, a kind of inspiration hits, and abruptly he thinks to imagine himself seen from above, just a streak of red and white going in circles and more circles, in orbit around an imaginary star. His vision zooms out. And there’s his silence, at long last. He’s all alone now, just one speck in a universe that’s bigger and more complex than he wants to imagine.
He breathes in and out, comes to a stop by the benches, and tries to imagine it anyway.
The last time he looked at stars, he felt so connected to it all. A living, breathing part of a majestic universe. Now, it makes him lonely. What was the difference?
He doesn’t need two seconds to think about it. Chad. Chad was the difference.
In the snow, looking up at the night sky, he had been connected to Chad, had felt the gravity drawing them together. He closes his eyes and remembers the feeling of that first kiss, the softness, warm breath in the cold air. He remembers thinking that the universe was a beautiful thing.
He aches for that connection now. Why is he denying himself that? What does it prove, to continue to be unhappy and alone? Is it because he feels that’s the only way people around him can be happy?
Well, why not think about how he can be happy? All things being equal, what life would he choose for himself?
Maybe, he thinks, the point of concentrating on himself isn’t to push everyone else away. Maybe it’s to come to this place, to realize that he can have some happiness too. That he doesn’t have to hurt to avoid hurting other people. He told his mom the truth, and it hurt her, but that was a growing pain. An excruciating but necessary step toward the two of them knowing each other better.
The question is, does he have the strength to hurt someone else, someone who’s given him everything? Does he have the strength to walk completely away from the life that was decided for him, into an unfamiliar future where nothing is guaranteed?
He pushes himself into motion again, but this time he doesn’t power skate as fast as he can go. He glides, feels the cold against his cheeks, and tries to figure out how to be brave.
Emily’s voicemail was brief. No pressure, she says, I just wanted to see how you’re doing. I’m… thinking about you, Connor.
Chad’s texts are a little less calm. Dunno what’s keepin you away, he says at first, but i’m here if you want to talk.
Then, I’m worried about you. Come by anytime, dude.
Then, Can you just check in and let me know you’re ok?
Then, Just gonna admit it. I miss you.
He calls her early in the afternoon on a weekday, still morning in Arizona time, praying she doesn’t have class. When she answers, he considers for a heart-thudding moment just hanging up, putting it off another couple of days. Living a little longer in limbo where he doesn’t have to make any choices.
“Is now a good time to talk?” he asks, half-praying she says no.
But yes, now is fine, and he can hear the steel in her voice as she says it. She knows what’s coming. That helps. As much as anything can help right now.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he tells her.
She’s silent on the line.
“I really,” and he fumbles for the words, thinks about the stars, thinks about his choices, tries to find a reason to run back to everything that’s familiar and static. He could just choose her now. He could just go back to the world where nothing’s strange or scary or risky. Where everything’s decided for him.
He could. He has that choice.
“I really don’t want to lose you,” he says again. “But.”
She takes in a small breath. “But..?”
Whiskey closes his free hand into a fist. Saying it feels like taking a flying leap off a cliff.
“There’s something here-- that feels like it’s just starting. I want to see where it goes.”
Emily heaves a sigh, and for a moment Whiskey thinks she’s going to cry.
“I had a feeling you’d say that,” she says. “Good luck with it, Connor. I hope it’s everything you’re looking for.”
“I really didn’t mean to hurt you,” he says.
“I know you didn’t,” Emily says. “And look, Connor, for what it’s worth -- if you just give me a little space for a while -- I think we can still be friends.”
He hadn’t bothered to hope for that. “Really?”
“Just--” She swallows. “Just go be happy.”
“I’m sorry,” he says reflexively.
“I know,” she answers. “I’m sorry, too.”
He can hear the unshed tears in her voice, can hear her start to sniffle. He caused those tears. But for once -- for once in his life -- they don’t feel like a weight on his shoulders. It’s not up to him to end them. She’ll cry, and she’ll get through it.
He wipes a few tears from his eyes, too, and breathes in a new reality.
One thing left to do.
It’s twilight when he heads over to the lax house. It’s a longish walk from his dorm, and it’s never seemed longer than it does now. One of his professors stops to say hi to him on the way, and Whiskey has never wanted a conversation to be over faster.
The feel of the door handle under his hand is strangely welcome.
“Connor, what’s up?” says Chad R. with a wave. Kevin and Tyler pause their Mario Kart to say hi. Whiskey greets them all. It’s good to be back here. The light in the living room is just the right color. He feels warm.
“‘Scuse me for a bit,” he says after a few seconds of conversation. He rounds the corner toward the stairs and heads up toward the bedrooms.
He pauses at Chad’s door. A lonely star, looking for its mate in the vastness of the universe. He honestly doesn’t know what will happen after this moment.
Whiskey knocks, then pushes the door open.
“Hey,” he says.