“Where’s she sitting?” Mike asked.
All Nicky said was, “No.”
“Oh, come on! Did you put a note in with the tickets?”
“Uh...” It honestly had not occurred to Nicky to do that.
Mike scoffed. “Seriously? Have you never brought a girl to a game before?”
From across the room, John Carlson nodded wisely like he’d seen the way of the world in his single season. “You gotta have a note.”
The guys debated what it should say. At least ninety percent of it made Nicky growl, another eight percent made him blush.
“Hope you’re as hot in real life,” someone suggested.
“I’ve been jerking off to your Facebook photos.”
Nicky did his best to ignore them. He was already nervous enough about letting them meet Devin, but to have it be the same time he would meet her was insufferable. If they acted like this they’d chase her off before he had a chance to be super awkward and do it himself. Brooks took a seat next to him.
“How about just, Can’t wait to meet you?”
The locker room chorused back that it was boring, but they knew it was right. Nicky thought about it then just to be sure he got it right, asked, “How do I write it?”
Devin handed the ticket envelope right from the will call agent to Mel. She would never get it open with shaking hands.
“Oh boy,” Mel said. “Do you want to seats or the note?”
Mel wave d a piece of paper in one hand. Devin snatched at it. It looked like the tiny sample she’d seen of his handwriting and even better, it was real. It was something he’d actually held than now she held too. Almost like a real-life connection. Mel stood back smirking while a permanent, idiotic grin came to Devin’s face.
We meet you at District Chop House at 6:15PM. Right down the street. We have back room.
Can’t wait to meet you.
“Awwww,” they both said.
The Verizon Center was packed early; the atmosphere decidedly different from a regular season game. Mel and Devin stood a few rows back from the ice watching warm-ups. They hadn’t even thought about staying farther away, but Devin should have been looking out for it. But by the time she realized, it was the sound on a camera shutter that caught her attention. All along the glass people were shooting photos. A few had serious looking equipment and probably came to a lot of games. Some were younger girls likely here on their dads’ season tickets, and one of the girls in a Carlson t-shirt had her SLR lens pointed right at Devin.
“Don’t,” Mel said, catching it at the same time.
Devin kept her eyes riveted on the ice, though she could see the girl and her friends whispering in peripheral vision. The girl raised her camera again, facing away from the ice. She could have been more than seventeen.
“The minute you do something, there’s something to photograph,” Mel warned. She was well versed in the way of Twitter and they’d even laughed while browsing one of those sites where everyone pretends to know players and their girlfriends and rip everyone to shreds.
She was right. So a few people had seen a few profile photos; no big deal. There was nothing going on between her and Nicky, at least not yet, and Devin reminded herself that Nicky was not Justin Timberlake. He might be a really big deal to her – and a few other people, like the younger girls who’d gone back to shooting close-ups of Ovi stretching – but was of no importance to most people.
Mel finally turned, once the girls had switched targets. “So, what do you think?”
Nicky skated by, looping from blue line to goal line in a shooting drill. His hair was either damp or slicked back, looking darker than normal on top. Devin knew from all the games she’d been to that he never wore a helmet during the warm-up skate. Lots of the guys didn’t: Green, Ovi, Semin.
“I have seen him before,” Devin pointed out. But inside her stomach was performing an Olympic floor routine.
“You’ve seen him half-naked in bed now too, gonna be bored when that happens in real life?" Then she went back to more pressing matters. “Why does Brooks wear a helmet? Is it in his contract not to be hotter than the rest of the team combined?” Mel scoffed.
“He’s keeping it secret for you.”
“Your Swede better deliver,” she said.
Nicky did his best not to look at the faces behind the glass. The crowd was twice its normal size for warm-ups and he’d probably never see her anyway. All he’d succeed in doing was crashing into the boards or falling down. And she was definitely here, watching.
“Computer girlfriend is here, yes?” Ovi asked. Nicky nodded, leaning down onto his stick in face-off position to test the tape on his skates. Ovi pushed him over and he landed in a heap on his ass, then skated off laughing.
“Ooooh,” Devin laughed. Everyone laughed. Nicky got up smiling, clearly embarrassed and Ovi just went back to work.
They didn’t have to go far for their seats. Nicky had put them about ten rows up alongside the penalty boxes on the side where Washington would shoot twice. The ordered beers and watched the arena fill in around them. By game time, it was a sea of red. The lights went out to start the show and the sound nearly took of the roof off the building.
Six minutes into the game, Mike scored on a pass from Ovi and Brooks. The impossibly high noise level rose ten percent and Devin exhaled for the first time in an hour.
On the bench, Nicky said, “Thanks Mike!”
The game had a ferocious pace, but the Capitals never wavered. It felt like they were dominating but it wasn’t till partway through the second that Ovi put another goal in the net. An insurance goal, though they were still shutting New York out. Brooks had his second assist of the night and gave Nicky a facepalm as he skated past.
As the teams lined up for the face-off to start the third period, Devin bear hugged Mel and squealed. No one even noticed, but Mel hugged back and joined in.
The Rangers were everywhere, like a caged animal making a desperate, ill-advised bid for freedom. It didn’t matter how they scored so they took every opportunity and the game became frantic. Then just past the twelve minute mark, Semin put it out of reach with the Caps’ third goal of the night.
Everyone lost it. Literally lost it. Half the guys wanted to jump onto the ice and celebrate now. Mel and Devin leaped onto each other, bouncing up and down. The whole place stayed on its feet till the goal was announced. When the combined sound of twenty thousand people shouting finally abated, the girls dropped into their seats.
“Shit, I’m going to have a heart attack,” Devin said.
Nicky didn’t look at the clock. He sensed New York’s desperation but didn’t want to know how close it was to being over. He was +1 and had two shots on the night – it had been a decent game, but not great. Still if they won, no one cared.
The announcer said one minute left to play and Nicky finally put his head down onto his stick, took a deep breath and smiled. The Verizon crowd was on its feet. New York finally got a goal at 19:28 but you couldn’t even hear the whistle blow.
That buzzer. Nicky thought he might faint with relief. Then he flew over the boards and piled onto his teammates like a huge puppy, taking guys down with him and feeling more land on top. They had won. They had gotten through the first round. They were still in the playoffs. And baby, it was date night in DC.
“What do we do?” Mel asked. The ice was finally clear, the absence of noise almost unbalancing. They were climbing up the steps with half an hour to kill. “Go there and wait? Arrive fashionably late? How long will they even take, after winning? Won’t there be like hours of interviews? I don’t want to be sitting there like I’m getting stood up or….”
“Jeez! You’re worse than I am!” Devin said. She really did feel better – for now. Twenty minutes on it could be a different story. Mel grabbed her arm, stopping.
“Devin, you already know how this is going to go. Tomorrow you’ll buy Rosetta Stone and start wearing blue and yellow. I, on the other hand,” she made a dramatic gesture as if to incorporate thousands of possibilities, “am living the dream of every girl smart enough to like hockey. I’m going to a buffet where I know I’ll eat too much and still try three deserts.”
“We don’t even know who’s coming!”
Mel smiled. “Does it really matter?”
Nicky adjusted his collar in the mirror. He absolutely hated ties and but it was part of the pre- and post-game requirement. At least he wore his favorite suit: plain black, sharp and sophisticated. Since he felt anything but. His pattered tie lay neatly over a bright blue shirt that he mom said made him look handsome. “Too blond for so much black,” she always said. He hooked his hair behind both ears. It was a little too long, but sufficed in place of the playoff beard he had no chance of growing.
“As good as it gets,” he mumbled to himself in Swedish. Sure Devin had seen him many times, including tonight. What he looked like would not surprise her. But everything was different in a game – put on that jersey and you’re sort of a super hero. Plenty of times, the real life version failed to live up to the image in someone’s head. Like Nicky’s version of himself, which sometimes fell short.
“Looking good, bro,” Mike said. His hair was a jagged landscape of perfectly styled peaks – he could put someone’s eye out if they got too close. Girls loved it though… so Nicky ran a hand through his shaggy locks again and messed them up a little. Mike clapped him on the shoulder.
“And stop blushing! She already likes you. That’s the hard part. She’s going to see you in this pimp suit and probably pass out, okay? Just don’t spill anything and you’ll be fine. Oh, and remember to speak English.” Mike gave him a serious look, which broke into a smile. “You might actually get laid tonight, Nicky. Go make me proud.”
Nicky swung a punch that hit only air as Mike dodged away.
“Let’s go!” Green shouted to the locker room. “Nicky’s internet girlfriend waits for no one.”
“I feel like I’m going to my arranged marriage.”
They were across the street from the Chop House, having killed time with a beer in another bar. Devin could have had five but they were only making her more giddy. She’d been tapping her foot so hard someone asked her to stop. Mel pulled her in between two parking meters on the sidewalk, out of the flow of people walking. The Saturday evening Chinatown streets were filling up.
“This is supposed to be fun, remember?” Mel asked. “And he already likes you.”
Devin said, “I don’t want to be disappointing in real life.”
Mel looked her up and down. They’d changed in the bathroom – Devin swapping out her #19 t-shirt for a dressy silk tank top pattered like a peacock feather in rich jewel tones. Her dark hair was long over her shoulders and her earring tinkled when she moved. Mel wore a black v-neck sweater that sent every gaze in the room down her cleavage and stood tall in Devin’s borrowed boots.
“Honey, you look great. If I didn’t plan on taking every other man in that room, you’d never make it out alive.” That made Devin laugh. Mel took her hand, wove between cars and waited for a break in traffic. “You’re lucky I’m such a good friend.”
“Hello gentlemen. Congratulations on tonight. Right this way, please.” The maitre’d lead the three tall, strapping and suited men through the restaurant. Everyone else would follow. The Capitals were favorite customers at the Chop House and it had been no problem to reserve the room with the understanding it would only be used if they won.
Nicky had given then Devin’s name in case she arrived first, but the room was set for twelve and all the seats were empty. His heart sank, partially in relief. Deep in his pockets his hands nervously clenched and released. Brooks slapped him on the back without a word. Before they were even seated they were ordering drinks.
“Six twenty, perfect,” Mel said, opening the door.
“Hello ladies, may I help you?”
Devin realized she didn’t know exactly what to say. “We’re uh… with the Backstrom party?”
He extended an arm for them to follow him. “Excellent. One of you must be Devin. A pleasure to have you with us this evening.”
There was a door marked “Private Dining” at the back. It was large and made of knotted wood, painted dark. Not just some boring old door that could be a closet, Devin thought this entrance looked fitting for something stately. Of course, it was DC. The maitre’d reached out to turn the knob.
“Oh God,” Devin whispered one last time. Mel gripped her hand and squeezed.
“Gentlemen, your guests,” the maitre’d said, stepping aside. The room was paneled like the door, but a chandelier poured smooth crystal light over a long table set for twelve. Only three chairs were occupied, halfway down. Without even trying, Devin’s brain identified two brunettes and blond. She instantly locked eyes with Nicky.
He stood, never looking away. His mouth formed a tiny little O of surprise and instantly Devin was relieved – he was at least as nervous as she was. If that were possible.
Mike Green stood, blocking the sight line between her and Nicky and breaking the little spell. He moved toward her, arms out and she thought, Thank God someone knows what to do.
And apparently they were all going to hug. She filed that away with the goal he’d scored today as things to thank Mike for someday, after she’d gotten him back for the photo. He threw himself around her and lifted her right off the floor. She kicked her feet for good measure.
Mike put her down and moved aside like a chess piece, revealing her true aim. Nicky had come around behind him. Nicky was bigger than Devin imagined – taller, thicker, broader. A little boy’s face on a man’s body. The perfectly tailored suit he wore leaned toward the grown up side.
“Hi,” she said quietly, struck more by his presence the closer he got. Devin was no waif but she felt if Nicky wrapped her in his arms she could disappear happily forever. Since Mike had made it clear they were hugging, that’s right where she was headed.
Nicky had to command his body to stand, his feet to move. He was sure the stupid look on his face gave everything away. Devin was half-smiling, looking way les nervous about meeting him. Maybe he was the only one in this fragile little boat. Mike, ever confident, hugged her hugely to break the tension and give Nicky a moment’s reprieve. Wiping damp palms flat down his jacket, Nick moved around the table and stopped behind his friend.
She told Mike, “Congratulations!” It was the first time Nicky ever heard her voice.
Then Mike figured his work was done and freed Devin, letting Nicky look at her up close. She was far more beautiful than in her photos. Russet highlights in her hair caught the light where they touched the shoulders of her soft-looking shirt. Her eyes were dark but not brown; green or hazel, he couldn’t tell. She was taller than he expected, and if he let his gaze travel down her body he knew he would have lost it. Instead he gulped loudly, adams’ apple bobbing, and made sure his tongue still worked in his mouth.
“Hi,” he replied. His elbows wouldn’t bend, his shoulders wouldn’t respond. But he opened his arms to her anyway, stiff with nerves and somewhat like a seal ready to clap. All at once she flashed that big, genuine smile and Nicky felt his knees buckle. Just before he might have fainted, she stepped in and slowly reached around his neck. He tentatively closed his arms around her back. It was like filling a tire – a tiny, continuous increase in pressure until it’s all the way there. A few seconds later, no space was left between them.
Nicky closed his eyes. It was all he could do not to bury his face in her hair and breathe deeply from her scent. Devin folded into his chest like a pillow he could lean on for sleep and count on for good dreams.
Devin sighed. After so much build up, here he was and better than advertised. His broad shoulders rounded as they closed her in. If there was a safer place on Earth she’d yet to find it. He smelled like soap and boy’s deodorant, like someone who cleaned up nicely. His hands rested gently on the small of her back and she felt the tension in his body – he was more nervous than she was.
Thank God, she thought. Just another second of this before I…
“Bored now!” Mike finally said.
They each pulled back a little but didn’t let go. Instead Devin put her forehead against Nicky’s chest and laughed, shaking gently in his arms. It made Nicky laugh too. The moment of tension was broken yet again, courtesy of Mike, who came up and thumped them each on the back. Devin turned her head, still in Nicky’s embrace.
“Sorry,” Mike smiled, “was that awkward?”