The Jackson Lunta Snow Dance Song: Chapter 4
In the grand scheme of things, three days was not a long time. Three days had passed since they’d returned to Marquette a few places higher in the standings, less than a week since Sammy had broken the point record. Just a few days since he’d come out to Jackson, just a few short days since he’d kissed him and then learned a secret that he still didn’t quite understand. For Sammy, it was an eternity.
They both slept through the bus ride home–Sammy succumbing to sleep deprivation and the stress of the road trip–and there hadn’t been much chance to talk since then, let alone slip away to build upon that promising evening in the hotel room. Neither magic nor making out had been addressed; Jackson was elusive everywhere but the ice, and Sammy was a mess. He’d never felt like more of a teenager, hormones raging, his mind in a fog of confused want. They’d be in the middle of a drill, and Jackson would skate by, and suddenly all Sammy wanted was to crowd him up against the boards and tear his helmet off and…
“Move it, move it!” Coach shouted from the blue line. “Today, Nilsson!”
It was a long practice.
Sweaty and sore, the boys collapsed in their stalls and stripped out of their gear. Jackson was undoing his shoulder pads, and Sammy’s eyes–against all his instincts and his long-standing prohibition against looking in the locker room–caught on Jackson’s under layer riding up, flashing skin as bright as a trout’s belly.
Sammy would wait to shower.
He lingered over each piece of damp armor, sluggishly undoing each bout of Velcro and placing them in his bag with meticulous care. He was killing a minute fiddling with the laces of his skates, trying to think about something other than abdominal muscles, when someone blew in his ear. Sammy clapped a hand to the side of his face and glared.
“Nilly, Nilly,” Charlie cooed, employing Sammy’s most affectionate nickname. “Pay attention.”
“C’mon, don’t.” Sammy shoved Charlie’s face away, and Charlie rocked back in the stall, laughing.
“We still on for boys’ night tomorrow?” Charlie asked.
“Study for Trig night?”
“Gross, don’t call it that,” Charlie said, making a face. He began to fidget with a hanging strap on Sammy’s elbow pad. “Were you gonna shower, or…?”
Their newly clean teammates were drifting back in, ambling in towels around the locker room, and Sammy began to strip with sudden haste. If he’d reacted so strongly to a preview of torso, the full thing might be alarming. He told himself to get a grip. He’d showered next to Jackson before–no big deal. Of course, that was before he knew how Jackson’s mouth tasted, or what his face looked like when he was sleeping on Sammy’s shoulder on the bus, or that he was apparently a witch who…
His thoughts were mercifully interrupted when Racine let out a comical shriek and began to hop around on one foot, swearing.
“Who the fuck filled my shoes with snow?”
Charlie had always had one of the worst poker faces; the name Chuckles had never been more appropriate.
“Fucking Yoon!” Racine pulled a snowball’s worth out of the toe of his boot, sending the rest of the team into hysterics. “You bitch, I’m gonna fine you so hard!” He hurled the snowball toward Charlie. It missed by a generous distance and caught one of the rookies in the stomach.
“Racer’s glad he doesn’t play baseball,” someone wheezed, causing Racine to dig for another handful of boot snow.
“Seriously?” Sammy rolled his eyes at Charlie, who had suddenly gotten quiet. He was squinting over at Jackson, who was very nearly dressed in the raucous locker room, slipping one foot and then the other into his hefty rubber-toed boots. Charlie frowned.
“You didn’t,” Sammy scolded in a low voice.
“I did, but I guess he likes cold feet. Weird.” Charlie shrugged, obviously disappointed that half of his prank had been a bust. Sammy had his suspicions about how Jackson had dealt with a boot full of snow, but he kept them to himself.
“I’ve told you a million times–stop messing with him.”
“Oh, stop, it was gonna be hilarious. You gotta give it to the new guy at least a little–it’s tradition.” Charlie grinned. “And I figured that if I’m already doing it, may as well get Racer, too. He’s the best to mess with, because he’s cranky and I love him.”
The rowdy room seemed to agree. Charlie threaded his arm through Sammy’s, heedless of the sweat soaking into his hoodie.
“Anyway, done with that,” he said, smiling. “Tomorrow. You and me, babe. Math time.”
Right, thought Sammy. Three days had never felt so long.
In the throes of boredom, turning upside down was somewhat passé, but that didn’t stop Charlie. He flopped on his bed with his head hanging over the side, scuffing his socks against the wall, his trig worksheet abandoned on the floor.
“You get question three?” asked Sammy, knowing that Charlie hadn’t touched his homework in the past hour.
“Ugh, this blows,” said Charlie, stretching his legs up the wall. “I can’t concentrate for shit today.”
Sammy could relate. He was still suffering. In the middle of solving for sine, he’d get a flash of Jackson: pale eyes and the shadow of his collarbone, the muscle where his neck met his shoulder, the cough drop on his lips. In quiet moments, he loved thinking of the way Jackson carried himself, unselfconscious, reveling in whatever he was doing at that moment. Playing. Dancing. Kissing…
“You’re going, right?” Charlie’s voice filtered into Sammy’s fantasy.
“Were you even listening?” Charlie threw up his arms in exasperation. “Party at the cottage Friday, after the game? Last time was a total gong show, but everybody’s gonna be there, so…”
Sammy made a mental note to invite Jackson. Linemates hanging out at a party together. Totally chill.
“Gonna go to that, then head back home to get some imaging done,” Charlie continued, tracing the patterns scrawled on his cast. “Doc says it’s healing really well, and they’re gonna get a specialist in Toronto to take a look at it, so I’m gone for most of the week.”
“Oh, no kidding. Looks good?” asked Sammy.
“Maybe playing by the end of the month.”
Charlie slid down off the bed and onto Sammy. As the weight and warmth of Charlie covered his back, Sammy made up his mind.
He needed to train Charlie out of this–to stop the mixed signals that had caused him so much heartache in the past. No more of this “pining for his straight buddy” idiocy when there was an enigmatic maybe-boyfriend he could pine over instead. This was a new era of Sammy Nilson, one where he was honest with everyone, including himself.
Sammy gently righted Charlie, pushing him away and scooting down the bed, resolution warring with a twinge of regret.
“Hey, rude!” Charlie tugged at his arm. “The doctor said my hug levels are too low.”
“That doesn’t sound very scientific…”
Charlie settled back down, and Sammy took the opportunity to check if Jackson had texted him back. He’d just seen him at practice, and it had been torturous, skating drills next to him while pretending nothing had changed. The Mystics had returned from the road with a couple W’s, and Sammy with five points to his name, but they still hadn’t had a chance to properly talk things over. True to form, Jackson was terrible at answering his phone.
[Sammy] Wanna go to a party next Friday?
[Sammy] It’s not a big thing, but most of the team’s going.
[Sammy] You should come.
“Who’re you texting?” Charlie asked, propping his chin on Sammy’s shoulder.
Charlie flopped away. A few minutes passed, and Sammy began to hope that Charlie had actually commenced his homework, when his phone lit up.
Text after text from Charlie appeared: little bubbles containing video game ice attacks, GIFs of snow princesses from animated movies, and a video titled “Heikki Lunta Go Away.” Curious, Sammy clicked on the last one; a corny track that sounded like someone was singing into a can. He heard Charlie laugh at the tinny music coming from his speakers, and muted the video.
“You know what? That’s it,” Sammy said, turning to glare at him. “He’s my friend. He’s fucking awesome. Chirp me all you want, but just…fucking stop.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “If you love him so much, why are you even hanging out with me?”
Sammy felt the blood in his face, his fingers tightening around the edge of his phone. He imagined his eyes flashing in anger, like in a cartoon, everything red, red, red.
Charlie was quiet, toeing at his comforter.
“See you at the party.” Sammy grabbed his coat off the hook by the door. On his way out, he said goodbye to Mrs. Nyqvist, but he kept burning until he was sitting in the car with the key in the ignition. He lay his head against the steering wheel, the plastic a cool arch against his temple.
He sent another text. No answer.
“This looks like the place, eh?” Ahlberg said, peering out the passenger seat window.
At the end of the drive was a sizable lakefront cottage, spilling light, noise, and people out into the snow. Sammy vaguely recalled that the house belonged to someone’s aunt, who had temporarily fled the peninsula for the milder climate of Florida, and was probably unaware of the mayhem she’d unleashed by lending out her keys. Figures danced inside the huge picture window, a raucous shadow play, and Sammy experienced an urge to pull the car out of the driveway and head home. He wasn’t in the mood.
“Like, don’t go all out, you guys,” Sammy said. “If I bring you back completely trashed, your billets are gonna be pissed.”
“Good Boy Killjoy!” Ahlberg cooed, and pinched Sammy’s cheek, to the delight of the D-pair occupying the back seat.
“Stop!” Sammy batted him away. His passengers continued to laugh and jab at each other as he parked, leaving him dreading the return journey. They were already wound up; drunk, they would graduate to a whole new level of nonsense.
They walked up on the porch, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, and went inside into the press of revelers, only half of whom Sammy knew. Racine was holding court in the midst of a bevy of blonde girls in faded denim–vaguely familiar faces that Sammy had seen giggling in the stands at practice. Ahlberg caught sight of his basketball player and clung to her immediately. Teammates appeared randomly, grabbing Sammy in greeting and then vanishing again, beads in a kaleidoscope.
“Sammy! How’s it goin’, bro?” A shout at his side.
“Hey, Cap. ’Sup!” A soft punch to his back.
One of them pressed a cold beer into Sammy’s hand, and he nursed it slowly, drifting through the crowded rooms. Parties always felt lonely–another performance in a long string of performances. If he wandered around smiling and holding a drink, maybe they would fail to notice how awkward he was.
He needed someone to talk to, an anchor in this sea. He’d texted Jackson an invitation to the party, but hadn’t gotten a definite answer; it didn’t really seem like the right kind of scene for a mystical snow wizard, even one who played sick hockey. Besides, even if Jackson came, it wasn’t like they could be Ahlberg and his girlfriend, currently folded around each other on the couch.
Charlie, for his part, had been maintaining a policy of radio silence since their fight, but Sammy began to look for him anyway. In the kitchen, Sammy picked his way around a puddle of Coke on the floor, and a girl wobbled into him, tripping on her heels and spilling something sour from her red cup onto his sleeve–and at that moment he decided that maybe he did want to be alone, after all.
Sammy wandered into the family room and settled into a quieter corner, perching on the arm of the sofa. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, the frozen shoreline stretched off into the night. Sammy slumped with his forehead against the glass, looking for lights on the horizon and finding none.
If Sammy achieved the dream and made it to the show, he wondered if the act would get easier or harder. At least then there would be people to manage his image–to craft a social media persona fit for public consumption, all the rough edges filed away. He’d been getting really good at giving interviews, speaking without really saying anything. Would that end up being the sum total of who he was: Samuel Nilson, a good player, a face for a hockey card? Sammy sighed and slid down onto the floor, wedging himself into the narrow space between the back of the sofa and the window.
He wished he were more like Jackson, free of everything, thinking only of the ice directly in front of him. He didn’t know how long this thing of theirs was going to last; it was a not-quite relationship with an ill-defined expiration date, and the lack of clarity made him itch. How could he enjoy himself in the face of so much uncertainty?
As he was mulling this over, tracing patterns in the condensation on the window, a shadow fell over him. He looked up.
“Hello!” Charlie’s face dangled upside down in front on his own. “I found you!”
“What’re you doing back there?”
“Nice.” Charlie nodded appreciatively. “Can I hide, too?”
Sammy gestured his assent and Charlie rolled himself over the back of the couch. Despite the languid flow of his movement, Sammy knew it was unlikely that he was drunk. Their first season together, Sammy had watched Charlie down a wine cooler, turn bright red, and spend the remainder of his evening vomiting in the shrubbery by the Nyqvist’s back deck. That sensitivity kept him from enjoying some traditional pastimes of junior hockey, but based on the pungent aroma that still clung to his hair, he’d still been enjoying himself. Charlie was handsy at the best of times, doubly so when he was stoned, but he sat apart from Sammy, hunched with his arms around his knees, as though conscious of the distance between them.
“You still mad at me?” Charlie asked.
Sammy shook his head. His anger had burnt out somewhere along the trail in the woods, and now he just wanted his friend back.
With a sigh of relief, Charlie snuggled against Sammy, fitting himself like a puzzle piece into the contours of his rib cage. “Sorry I’ve been kinda the worst.”
Sammy gave in and wrapped his arm around him. It was unexpectedly comforting to feel Charlie relax into him, muscles releasing their tension. “No big.”
“It was uncool.”
“Why…?” Charlie blinked slowly, his bloodshot eyes half closed.
“Why are you so weird about Jackson?” Sammy clarified.
Charlie looked like he was going to speak, but then he seemed to lose his train of thought, opening his mouth and then shutting it a few times before he managed a reply.
“I was jealous, okay?” Charlie’s voice was nearly inaudible against Sammy’s collar. “You’re always together, tearing it up, and you were acting all distant and stuff, and I was, like…you know. It’s dumb.”
“He’s not gonna replace you, bro. You’re still my best–” Sammy was silenced before the word “friend” by the wet warmth of Charlie’s mouth on his neck.
The shock of it froze him for a moment; he felt Charlie’s lips part, the caress of tongue against his jaw, and here was another seismic shift, the world as he knew it remade.
“…Charlie?” Sammy felt his voice tremble.
“Don’t freak out, just…” Charlie’s whisper blew cool against the wet skin. “It’s not just friends for me.”
“What?” Sammy had always hoped his own coming out would be met with empathetic calm, but he could hear the jitters in his own voice, the way it went high and squeaky as he reeled. “No. How long?”
“But you’re into girls! You were hooking up with Maddy Wakonabo for like a month last season…”
“I mean, yeah?” Charlie said, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “You can like both? I like both.”
“Like…bi?” Twice in as many weeks, Sammy had been made to reevaluate his perception of people close to him–his friends baring their secrets, learning his own. It was diving into the lake, his body adjusting to the change in temperature: a sudden jolt, and then a new normal.
“I mean, I just… I really like you, okay?” Charlie leaned his head into Sammy’s shoulder again, muffling his voice in his shirt. “Ugh, why is this so hard?”
“Hey!” Racine popped up over the back of the couch like a jack-in-the-box, laughing, causing Sammy to nearly choke on his own spit. “I’ve been looking for you!”
Sammy forced himself not to move, his arms still wrapped around Charlie, hoping he could sell this as a normal bro-approved position in which to be discovered. He was suddenly aware of the sounds of the party intruding around them; they weren’t even close to alone. “What’s up?”
“So, uh, you should know that Comps is really fucking plastered and he’s trying to get Deker to do handstands in the kitchen, and I need help making sure they don’t break anything, including themselves…”
“Oh, for… Yeah, I’ll handle it, gimme a sec.” Sammy rose and squeezed around the couch, looking back at Charlie. “Talk later, okay?”
“Yeah.” Charlie blinked blearily up at him, and gave a little wave. “Yeah, cool.”
By the time Sammy had dealt with the crisis and returned to their hiding spot, Charlie was nowhere to be found. Sammy remembered him saying he was catching an early-morning bus to Toronto, and wondered if he had already made his exit, having exhausted his reserves of courage. Sammy wasn’t sure he was ready to face it head-on, either. In any case, it would be good to wait until no one was high, and they could talk without a crowd on the other side of a piece of furniture.
Sammy went out to the deck and leaned against the railing, the cold air a sharp pinch on his flushed face. He wondered if this was what Jackson felt like all the time. He wished he could dance–let his feelings loose, summon a storm.
Jackson. Charlie. Who would have thought?
Sammy stayed outside among the smokers, staring at the lake with his legs going numb in his jeans until it was time to leave. On the drive home, he nodded along to the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of his passengers without absorbing a word.
Proceed to Chapter 4, page 3–>