Russ took a hit and landed flat on his back on the ice, staring up through his mask at the high ceiling of the Aurora Ice Arena. A moment later his teammate Greg appeared through his gridded vision, reaching down a gloved hand to help him up.
"You've got to keep your head up, Russ," Greg said as Russ regained his feet. They skated over to the box together and climbed over the wall, switching out with fresh players. "You know that; you've got the best vision of anyone on the ice. What's going on? You've been playing like a 'pod all night."
" 'Pod" was short for tripod, a novice player who used his hockey stick like a third leg. "My head's not in the game," Russ admitted.
Greg thumped Russ's helmet with his stick. "Get it in the game or you're going to get hurt."
He was right; injuries happened when you weren't paying full attention. In their thirty-five-and-over amateur hockey league, injuries were scrupulously avoided. One bad knee blowout could end your days on the ice forever.
It was Emma Mayson who was screwing up his game. Since yesterday's wild conversation, he hadn't been able to concentrate on anything except the accidental agreement they'd made.
Today at work Kevin had glumly announced that Emma had canceled their date, since she was moving to a new apartment. She'd refused his offers of help, and refused to set up another date. Kevin had vowed to keep trying, anyway.
Russ had given a one-shoulder shrug. It wasn't as if he could tell his friend, "Don't feel bad. The real reason she canceled is so that I can pay her for sex three times a week."
With great effort he kept his focus for the remaining ten minutes of the game, but as soon as it was over and he was heading to the locker room, his thoughts went back to Emma. The other guys were laughing and bantering about the game, giving each other a hard time and reliving the highs and lows as they showered and dressed, cans of La-batt's beer appearing out of gear bags and getting tossed to eager hands. It was all white noise.
Why the hell hadn't he cleared things up the moment he realized she thought he wanted her to be his mistress? The words had been halfway out his mouth before a voice inside had stopped him. She's already agreed to it, the voice said. She'd be humiliated if he told her he'd only meant to have dinner three times a week, not sex.
He'd thought that the best way to save her from embarrassment was to wait a few days and then tell her that he'd changed his mind and only wanted her to cook for him. He'd say that his conscience had bothered him, and that he could tell that she didn't truly want to do it.
All of which sounded well and good, but why, then, had he made an appointment to see his doctor and get a physical?
She's already agreed to it, the wicked voice said again. It hadn't been clear that she didn't want to do it either; in fact, there were moments during their "cooking" negotiations when he'd thought she was coming on to him. That made perfect sense, now that he knew her mind hadn't been on pot roasts.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up.
"Are you going to put that sock on or just fondle it?" Greg said.
Russ looked down at the sock in his hand. He was fully dressed except for one foot, and a quick look around the locker room showed that most of the other guys had already left, headed over to Harold's Tavern for a more in-depth rehash of the game and colder beer.
"I fondle it, but it just lies there," Russ said.
Greg laughed. "You've got to spend more time with women. Are you coming to Harold's?"
"Yeah." Dwelling on the Emma situation wasn't making it any better, so maybe avoiding it would help.
The Harold of Harold's Tavern was eighty-five and possessed an even dozen Lincoln Continentals, all of which took up the front lot of the tavern, forcing patrons to park around the side. Harold himself was a thin man with fluffy white hair and pink skin that shone with cleanliness. The bar's half-block proximity to the ice arena made it the favorite hangout of the hockey players despite its being an utter dive.
A faded life-size cardboard cutout of Kathy Ireland in a bikini shared space with a 1970s big-screen TV, its blue projection light the only one still working. One corner of the bar was inexplicably filled with junk for sale, everything from a hot dog vending cart to a bright green lamp in the shape of a palm tree, a brown plastic monkey clinging to its side. Two pool tables got infrequent use, and most patrons eschewed seats at the U-shaped bar for the faux-wood grain Formica topped tables and brown vinyl-padded conference room chairs that took up what space remained. Several of the tables had been haphazardly pushed together for the use of the players.
For Russ, hockey and Harold's were like family and home, albeit in a peculiarly male fashion. You knew your teammates were there for you on the ice, watching your back, and here at Harold's they valued your company without wanting to know too much about you. It was an unwritten code among men that the less you knew about the guys you liked to do things with, the better. If you got to know them too well you might discover they were assholes, and then there went your fun.
When James had died, sympathy from the guys had been of the slap-on-the-back-"Hey man, I'm really sorry" and "I've been there"-variety, jaws set against remembered pain of their own. And then they talked about hockey, giving Russ the distraction that he needed and allowing him to keep his grief behind the facade of "dealing with it."
Greg was the only one he'd talked to about it in any depth. Their friendship went beyond the hours at the rink and Harold's: Russ had been best man at Greg's wedding eight years earlier and was godparent to one of his two kids. So as the evening wore down, it was to Greg that Russ finally said, "I have a date next Friday."
Greg put his beer down. "No fucking way!"
"It's a mistake."
Russ could never reveal to anyone the exact nature of his relationship with Emma, but even without the mistress factor there were plenty of issues. "She's ten years younger than me."
"Have you ever dated anyone that much younger?"
"Once. She made me feel like an old man. She listened to music I'd never heard of."
"So you see my problem."
Greg waved away his words. "Who needs music? Is she hot?"
"Then go for it! I'm married now. I have to get my thrills vicariously."
"Oh, shut up," Russ said. "Your wife is beautiful and about the sweetest woman I've ever met. It's a miracle she has the patience to put up with you." Greg's talk was all for show; Russ had never met a man who loved his wife as much as Greg loved his.
"It's obvious why she likes you. You take her side." Greg took a sip of beer. "So how'd you meet the hottie?"
"My sister hired her to clean my house," Russ said.
Greg laughed. "You've got to be kidding me. Fishing off your own dock, huh?"
"She's not going to clean my house anymore. But, er."
Greg raised his brows, waiting.
Russ sighed. "I rented my old apartment to her."
Greg's mouth dropped open. Several speechless moments went by, and then, "She must be fucking gorgeous."
"I thought I was helping out. Then suddenly we had a date planned, which I didn't want, and now I have to find a way to get out of it without hurting her feelings."
"Why do you want to get out of it?"
"She's ten years younger! She lives in a completely different world. She's immature. She's trying to find her place in the world."
"And she's hot. Let's not forget that she's hot."
Russ rolled his eyes.
"That's why you're talking to me," Greg said. "You know it's hopeless, but she's hot and you want her."
"If that thought doesn't make me want to break it off with her, nothing will. I don't want to be a creepy old fart."
"Stop being so hard on yourself. Frankly, I'm proud of you."
Greg sat back, crossed one ankle over his knee, and said in an expansive, professorial tone, "It means you're getting on with life. And what a way to get on with it!"
"You're not much help."
"You don't want help. You want someone to validate your choice to jump her. You want to be absolved of guilt for being a lech."
Russ scowled. "I have to cancel this date."
Greg put his foot back on the floor, leaning forward and slapping both palms onto the table. "Don't do that, Russ," he pleaded. "You're living the dream, man! You're single, you're rich, and now you've got a hot young thing eager to jump your bones. You have to let her. Keep living the dream! For me. For your teammates. For every man who wishes he still had all his hair, a thirty-inch waist, and sex without begging."
Greg turned toward their teammate Tom, a forty-six-year-old accountant sitting at the other end of the row of tables. "Tom! Tell Russ what your wife did last week!"
"She went down on me," Tom said, a note of awe in his voice. His eyes gleamed as if recounting a visit by a saint. "For the first time in three years. And I didn't even ask. It was a beautiful thing." He touched the corner of one eye and made a noise suspiciously like a tear being sniffed back. "Beautiful."
Greg nodded at Russ. "You see? Three years without a blow job. That's what the future holds."
"You're depressing me," Russ said. "This is what life holds?"
"You're the last of the wild cowboys. We look at you as our symbol of freedom. That's why everyone's wife tries to set you up, marry you off. They want to take away our hope. They want us to forget that we, too, once ran free."
"Then why do we all end up married in the end? Why aren't the lot of you out roaming the range?"
"Gotta have someone to take care of me when I'm old," Tom said from down the table. "I already got arthritis in one foot. High cholesterol, bowel troubles-bad bowel troubles. Who's going to take care of me but my wife?"
Russ dropped his face into his hands, shaking his head. "More than I wanted to know, Tom. More than I wanted to know."
"Of course, the wife's the one who's making me go in for that colonoscopy." Tom scowled into his beer. "I'm not sure a blow job makes up for a camera up my ass."
"You see?" Greg said, his face a mask of pathos. "You gotta run free. For all of us. Seize the hottie, I say! Seize the hottie!"
"I'm too young for a midlife crisis. I'm breaking the date."
Russ shook his head and promised himself he'd call Emma first thing in the morning and cancel their arrangement.