Things with Kevin and Dave were different. Those were casual relationships with great guys, but they didn't last longer than a couple of weeks or months. I had liked them, but they were flings, and I knew better than to get attached to them. Kevin was a foreign exchange student only in the city for three months, and Dave was a summer romance that lasted as long as I was on vacation with Eva and her family.
As much as it shouldn't be the case, being with those two guys made me learn a lot about myself. I knew that I should never let a guy define me or influence me, but they did. Kevin was the first guy that wasn't intimidated by my crazy work and class schedules. Our dates would consist of studying in Hillman Library for hours, and then going back to his dorm to unwind. We only got to see each other once a week, or twice if we were lucky, but that was enough. At the end of April, he went back to Surrey, England, but he left me with the permanent feeling that there was a guy out there that would eventually love all the facets of me, my intelligence and my drive, and that he would facilitate and enable me to succeed.
Dave, on the other hand, was a beach bum at Ocean City, Maryland. Eva somehow managed to convince her parents that I needed the vacation, too. I was practically their adopted daughter, so it was second nature to accompany them to the beach house they had rented for the entire month of July. He wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, by any means, but he looked good in his board shorts, and he made me feel desirable. With Eva's help, I'd sneak out of the house and meet Dave on the beach. We'd sip wine he'd taken from his parents' liquor cabinet and mess around in the sand. I learned from Dave that the physical aspect of a relationship is just as important as the mental and emotional ones.
One day, I hoped to meet a man that would encompass all those wonderful parts of Kevin and Dave. Someone who could support my dreams and goals like an equal while also being romantic, sweet, and loving.
As love sick as I was feeling, I tried not to let myself fall into that trap of thinking that Sidney could be just that. I was giddy at the mere thought of him, my skin burned and tingled where he touched me, and I couldn't help but look forward to the next time I would see him. But that didn't mean that we'd be together six months from now, a year from now, or more. Love is a tricky business; even though we deliriously happy now, things change.
I told myself to live in the now: enjoy the good times while they lasted, and deal with the fights, problems, and hurdles when they arose. Don't think about what could happen, only think about what is happening.
That line of thinking wasn't easy for me, because everything I had done in my life, up until this point, was done with a purpose. Before I agreed to anything, I asked myself what benefits I would get from it and if it was worth my while. I always thought in the long term, and I couldn't do that with Sidney. It was too early to think about what the future would hold.
All I could do was enjoy the present, for now.
When I got to work, it hit me that I didn't mind being there today. The boss could ridicule me or even yell at me, and nothing would knock me down from this Cloud Nine. Lisa, who had taken over my secretary position, noticed my markedly good mood.
"Noelle, did you have a good weekend? You're particularly chipper this morning."
"Hey, Lis. Yeah, it was a great weekend. How was yours?"
"Apparently, nothing along the lines of yours." Then she whispered, "Did you get laid?"
I laughed. "No, actually I didn't. I was pretty busy. Went to a couple hockey games, saw a movie, and I went to this great pan-Asian restaurant that I haven't been to since I graduated."
"Wow, that's pretty busy. How do you get to see all these games? Aren't the tickets really expensive since they're champions now?" She wrinkled her nose. "I know you can't be making that much money here."
"I know a guy," I shrugged. "Are you into hockey?"
"My ex-boyfriend was. He was a Flyers fan, though, because he was from Philly."
"Fraternizing with enemy?" I laughed, leaving and walking to my desk.
Steve noticed in the change in me, too, and teased me for it. "Woah, Noelle, look at you. You look presentable today. What's the occasion?"
"Gee, thanks, Steve. You're so kind. No occasion. I just felt like it."
My work calendar looked pretty empty, with no hard deadlines this week and just a few small, internal projects to be completed. That meant I would be able to go see Max's first game this season on Wednesday. I was really very excited to see him play, but I knew I would be exhausted on Thursday. It would be worth it, though.
After lunch, my cell rang. My man gives real loving that's why I call him Killer. He's not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, he's a thriller. At the sound of Salt-N-Pepa, my heart raced and I fumbled to pick up my phone. I knew Steve was looking over at me, but I tried to ignore that factoid. "Hey babe," I whispered.
"Nelly, how are ya?"
"Good. So I was thinking about Halloween. Since this is my first year on my own, I don't have any decorations."
"What do you mean you don't have any decorations? How are you supposed to throw a kick-ass Halloween party with no Halloween decorations?"
"Um, that's what I was thinking about. Do you want to go shopping with me?"
"If you can come out here. There's a great store behind Westmoreland Mall, that has decorations, costumes, and everything. I don't know what they'd still have, since you waited 'til the last minute, but we can at least look."
"Sure. What time?"
"Uh, after five. That's perfect, because I need to think of a costume, too. I could use some ideas."
"Great, I'll see you then. I love you, Nelly."
"I love you, too." When I hung up the phone, I realized what I said and blushed a little. I felt Steve looking at me. "You really shouldn't eavesdrop, you know."
"So that's what this is all about then? Dressing up for your boyfriend?"
My cheeks burned. "I didn't know I was going to see him today. What's the big deal?"
"Nothing," he said. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks. I'm happy, too."
When I met him at the store, he was dressed in a Northface sweater with a black Reebok cap pulled down on his face, looking at some costumes. I decided to tease him. The store was relatively empty, and I put on my best Valley Girl voice and snuck up behind him. "Oh my God. Is that, like, Sidney Crosby?"
Sid grimaced but quickly covered it up with a smile. To the untrained eye, they would never have noticed the unpleasant expression. He turned, ready to face the fan politely and diplomatically, when he saw me instead. "Not funny."
"I thought it was hilarious," I joked. "What are you looking at?"
"Costume ideas for you," he said, holding up a devil costume that was more nonexistent than anything else.
"In your dreams, Crosby!" I muttered, grabbing the costume and hanging it back up on the shelf.
"Because Halloween is not an excuse to dress as a slut and pretend it's a costume. It's a chance to be something else for a night." I put my hands on my hips. "Besides, would you want me to parade around in front of your teammates dressed in practically nothing?" He thought about that. After a few moments, he was still thinking. I pushed his shoulder. "You're a pig!" I laughed.
"What? I mean, I don't want any of the guys ogling you, but I'd like to see you in it."
I rolled my eyes. "You're still a pig. If I don't get a say in your costume, you don't get to pick out out mine. How about we look at decorations?"
He followed me as I moved to the back of the store, and I was so excited to help him shop. I loved Halloween. It was up there with my favorites, Thanksgiving and my birthday. Nothing beat playing dress up as an adult and forgetting about real life for a few hours.
Sid saw the sparkle in my eyes as I looked at the yellow caution tape, the warning signs, bubbling black cauldrons, and lacy cobwebs. "If you help me, I'll give you full creative control," he tempted.
"Really?" I know I had to have sounded like a giddy ten-year-old princess, whose father just offered to buy her a pony.
"Yeah. I want to throw a great party that the guys won't forget. You seem to be pretty big into this."
"You have no idea," I laughed, relishing in the prospect of throwing this party. In college, I helped decorate the library as part of my workstudy, but I had limited resources at my disposal. I had been stuck with whatever materials they had, plus an extra twenty dollars each year to update their stock. By the end of my years as a workstudy student, we had a few great things, but the library was still lame. Now, I could go all out. And I did.
After an hour, we left the store with our arms full of bags. "I don't know when I'm going to have time to put all this stuff up," he said as we loaded his trunk with our decorations and props.
"You have until Saturday."
"Yeah, but there's practice tomorrow, then the game on Wednesday, we leave for Columbus on Thursday, and I won't be back until really early on Saturday, and then we play again that night."
"That's a mouthful," I teased. "Well, I can help before the party on Saturday. Don't worry, we'll get it done."
"Did you get any ideas about a costume?"
"No," I pouted. "I just like to go all out, you know? Really commit to it, and I need a good idea."
"It'll come to you. Are you going to come to the game on Wednesday?"
"Yeah, my schedule's pretty clear. Oh! Speaking of schedules, I was thinking that maybe we could get together with my friends on Sunday? Since you have a couple days off...." I batted my eyelashes and smiled at him.
"How can I say no to that?" he laughed.
"Great! I'll call them and set something up."
"Do you want to grab something to eat?" he asked, looking at his watch. "It's six thirty."
We went back to the Brick Oven, the same restaurant we ate at weeks ago, and we got the same booth we had sat in before. We relaxed and held hands on the table as we waited for our food. A ten-year-old interrupted us.
"Sidney Crosby? Can I have your autograph?"
"Sure, little guy," he said, "Do you have something for me to sign?"
The boy looked upset, like he hadn't thought about that. Sid grabbed a clean napkin and I pulled a felt-tip pen out of my purse. He scrawled his name on the napkin and handed it to the boy.
"I'm so sorry," his mother said, rushing to his side. "I told him not to bother you two."
"It's okay," Sid offered, trying to be nice.
"Then is it okay if we take a picture? With you, Sid?" she asked. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. I bet she sent that kid over on purpose to break the ice.
She handed me the camera as Sidney stood up and posed with the woman and her son. I noticed there was no ring on her left hand. What kind of mother uses her son to hit on a man? I had to give her credit, though: she was the one standing next to Sid as I was standing at distance, taking a picture of her with my boyfriend.
"I'm sorry," he apologized as they left.
I shrugged. "If this is the worst of what I have to put up with, I'll find a way to deal with it. I mean, she's leaving with a picture and a memory. I get to leave with you."
He squeezed my hand. "You're amazing. I was dating this one girl, and she wasn't happy about the constant intrusions."
"Hey, I don't want to hear about your girlfriends past."
Sid fidgeted. "You do realize we're going to have to have this conversation eventually?"
I winced. "Yeah. But not now, please."
Our food was brought out to us, and I was glad to stuff my mouth so I wouldn't have to talk. I was dreading this upcoming discussion.
At the end of the night, Sid told me he'd leave a ticket for me for Wednesday's game. "It'll be nice to see you again before the weekend."
"I won't get to see you, though," I told him, and he looked confused. "I can't wait for you after the game. I mean, I need to get home and get to bed because I work on Thursday. I won't be able to hang around until after your interviews and media stuff."
Sidney frowned. "Can't you just spend the night and leave extra early in the morning? I'd hate to know you're there at the game, that you came all that way, and then I don't get to see you. It doesn't seem fair."
I told him I'd think about it, but really that was a lie. I already had made up my mind that I wouldn't be spending the night with him in Pittsburgh when I had to work in the morning. Too much could go wrong that I wouldn't make it on time for work for me to risk it.
Before Wednesday's game while I was still at work, my phone blared Salt-N-Pepa, and I shivered knowing Sidney was calling. "Hey babe, I was just thinking about you."
"What were you thinking about? Are you naked?" The tone on the other end of the line was light and playful, with a slight but unmistakable French accent.
"Max! What the hell!" I laughed.
I could hear a commotion on the other side. Sid said something to Max, "I'll kick your ass the next time you even think about my girlfriend naked."
"It's not my fault," Max explained, "I didn't even get to say a word before she told me that she was thinking about me. And she sounded so sexy."
I laughed as I heard a scuffle, Sid trying to get his phone back. These guys were a riot. When it quieted down, I said, "What do you want, Max?"
He turned serious. "The Kid said you were coming to the game tonight."
"Yeah. Couldn't you have called me from your own phone?"
"I didn't have your number. This was so much easier." I laughed. It wasn't easier; it was just funnier this way. "Listen, I kind of have a favor to ask of you. I figure you owe me."
"Anything?" he asked, that teasing lilt back in his voice. "Hey Sid, your girl is saying she's willing to do anything for me!"
I heard another tussle and laughed. If only I could be there to see it. "Come on, Max, I've got to get back to work. What do you need?"
"I'm, um, kind of bringing someone to the game tonight. She doesn't know anyone, and I was hoping that you and Véro could—"
"A girl, Maxime? When were you planning on telling me?" I teased.
He paused, and I knew he was blushing. "Listen, I'm just asking that you and V take her under your wings tonight so she doesn't feel alone. And, if you could do that girl thing that girls do, and see if she's all right? I mean, that's she's not psycho or anything?"
I laughed. "I will try this 'girl thing' you speak of. I will definitely have to check her out and see if she deserves you."
"She's really great, she's just shy," he warned. "V's my best friend's girl, and I consider you a great friend, Noelle. I really appreciate this. I'll see you later."
Before I could get in another word, Max passed along the phone to Sid. "So what was this about you thinking about me?"
* * * * *
At the game, I was reveling in the Lynne-less atmosphere, enjoying the night without worrying about what I said or to whom I said it. I was in my lucky number 25, in honor of Max's triumphant return to the rink.
"You and Sid need to find an easier way to work through your problems," Véro said. "Honestly, I can't take it anymore."
I laughed. "Geez, V, if you thought it was hard on you, imagine how I felt. Anyway, what's the deal with Max's girl? Why isn't she here yet?"
"I think that's her." She pointed to a girl who was being escorted by an usher. She was a pretty girl, with long mousy brown hair and dancing green eyes, and she was dressed in a baggy old Lemieux jersey with a hoodie on underneath. The usher pointed to us and we waved, and she made her way to us.
"Hi. You must be—"
"I'm Noelle," I introduced ourselves. "And that's Véro."
"I'm Charlotte," she said, taking her seat. "It's nice to meet you."
"Likewise," said V.
"So, I have to ask the question: are you a Pens fan? I'd say so from your jersey," I said, trying to make conversation.
Charlotte scrunched up her face. "No, actually. This is my grandfather's. I'm a big Blackhawks fan, though."
"Yeah," she continued. "My family's originally from Pittsburgh, but they moved out to Chicago before I was born. I only moved back to the area recently."
As the game progressed, Véro and I were amused by Charlotte. She was quick to jump out of her seat and yell at the bad calls by the refs and linesmen. She was fiery, and she wasn't like the other girlfriends. I liked her.
Malkin easily fell into his playmaker role, and soon Talbot had his first goal of the season. We hollered, and I felt especially proud, like a mother would be of her son. Charlotte saw the number on my jersey and asked if Max was my boyfriend.
"No," I laughed, and then I blushed. I couldn't believe the words that were going to come from my mouth, that I was going to say this to a complete stranger. "I'm Sidney Crosby's girlfriend." She nodded and looked away, but not before I saw a look in her eyes. Was it relief? Terror?
The game ended in overtime, and I looked at my cell phone for the time: 10:44. It was going to be close to midnight, if not after, by the time I got home. I forgot I'd have to fight the traffic. Damn, it sucks living so far away. That's when I caved. I'd spend the night at Sid's, but only because traffic would be lighter in the morning than it would be tonight. At least, that's how I rationalized it to myself.
I said goodnight to The Girlfriends, told Charlotte that it was nice to meet her, and headed to bed. I vaguely remember Sid coming home, feeling the bed dip and him pulling me against him. He buried his face in my hair, and I was asleep again before I could say a word to him.
When I woke up in the morning, the room was bright. I groaned, and Sid squirmed. "What time is it?" I asked him, not wanting to reopen my eyes.
"Uh, after eight."
I sat straight up in bed. "After eight?" The clock read 8:27. "Shit, Sid, I have to be at work in three minutes! Why didn't my alarm go off?" I looked at my phone. Damn, I set the alarm for the quarter to seven at night, instead of the morning. I haven't done that since college. I speed-dialed my work number. "Hey, Lisa, it's Noelle. There must have been an accident or something out my way, because I lost power," I lied. "I'll be at work in an hour to two hours, tops.... Only tell him if he asks.... I'll be there as soon as possible.... No, I didn't forget.... Listen, Lis, I gotta go."
I jumped into the shower and heard as Sid yelled from bed, "Is there anything you need me to do to help you get ready?"
"No," I called back. I knew something like this would happen if I spend the night in Pittsburgh. Well, really I thought we would exhaust ourselves after the game, and I would be too tired to roll out of bed in the morning. Either way, though, I knew I'd be late to work today.
I toweled off, dressed, then bounded down the stairs. Sidney was in the kitchen, poised to hand me a bagel with cream cheese and a travel mug full of coffee, made just the way I liked it. I made a mental note to ask him, when I had more time, how he knew I took it with milk and sugar. He kissed me on the cheek and told me to have a good day at work, and to call him later in the day.
"By the way," I called over my shoulder as I walked out the door, "text me with Max's number, will ya? I need to tell him that I approve of his friend. And thanks for breakfast. Oh, and good game last night," I added, trying to say everything I had wanted to tell him before I left. I looked back and saw as he leaned in the doorway, watching me leave.
"Oh, what the hell," I mumbled, placing my coffee and bagel on the roof of the car, dropping my purse to the ground, and running back to give him a proper goodbye. Work could wait a few more minutes.