Game Misconduct — Take Two

This is part one of a series of stories I don’t think quite work. To see the context for this story, bounce over to When A Story Doesn’t Quite Work.

You can see heartbreak on a face, even from yards away. Recognition, excitement, surprise, and then the soul crushing realization that the object of affection is no longer yours. I watched my daughter’s face play those emotions, from the bleachers at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. I saw her heart break as Chara Bear flew at her from the crowd, a great stuffed parabola of sorrow as her special guy plunked onto the ice.

I should back up.

“No, I understand. Be safe,” I said to my wife the day before the Chara Bear debacle. Stranded in Denver, in a snowstorm, she called from the airport Marriott.

“I’m sorry,” her voice crackled at me from across the line. “Is Aunt Helen still coming for dinner?”

“Yeah, nothing’s changed.” I know she heard the strain in my voice. I didn’t get along with Aunt Helen.

“Be nice,” Wendy admonished, “She’s lost so much this year.”

“I know,” and I did. Helen lost her husband, moved to Iowa City; a new job, left friends behind in Louisville, left a life there. We were all the family that was close. She was coming to Thanksgiving dinner, our first away from family since before our marriage, before the kids.

“Is Audrey nervous?” Wendy asked. I heard the concern in her voice for our oldest daughter.

“Yeah, she doesn’t want to admit it, but yes.” It was Audrey’s first Thanksgiving game, an important game in Cedar Rapids. All of the hockey families from Waterloo and Cedar Rapids crowded into the arena after Thanksgiving dinner and watched their kids play hockey. The first goal of the game everyone threw teddy bears onto the ice, Toys-For-Tots.

This was the first year the girls teams got their own game. The boys have been playing the Thanksgiving game for years, alternating between arenas. This year the girls would play too. Audrey was a wreck. It was a lot to live up to, even when we tried to temper expectations. She’d grown up going to the teddy bear toss, it was in her blood, and she held herself to impossible standards.

“Well, try to get her to eat something,” Wendy pleaded. She always tried to get Audrey to eat more. She’s grown like a weed this year, grown taller than me. Between her sudden growth spurt and playing so much hockey she was willow thin. Her growth spurt came early. That’s what the doctor said. I know the truth, my daughter willed herself tall.

“I ordered that avocado pizza she likes,” I said.

“That could work,” Wendy said, winding down the conversation. “I love you, be nice to Aunt Helen.”

“I know, and I will.” Yes, after fifteen years of marriage I still clung to Star Wars jokes. “I love you too,” I said after the requisite half-beat where we used to laugh.

My daughter has a life size cutout of Zdeno Chara in her bedroom. She’s obsessed with the six-foot-nine Bruins defenseman, tallest to play the game. Chara may not have been her first word, but it was certainly in the top ten. I blame Jack Edwards, the Bruins announcer, or maybe myself for watching all the games. No, it was Jack. Big Z’s smiling face gives me a heart attack at last twice a week as I let the dog out in the middle of the night. He’s a hulking shadow in Audrey’s room, waiting to body check me into the boards as I pad past in my pajamas and slippers.

It’s no surprise she wanted to play hockey. It’s no surprise she wanted to play defense. It’s no surprise she picked number thirty three for her jersey number — Chara’s number — and it’s no surprise she willed herself tall.

I don’t mind cooking. I do most of it, even when Wendy is home; she’s usually home. She travels for work, jetting to Denver, to Austin, to Salt Lake City. I don’t mind, mostly. I’m glad she’s successful and important. I’m happy to keep the home fires burning. This was our first Thanksgiving at home though. Every year before had been at her parents in Boston, or mine in Madison. This was our year. We got to make the rules this time. We were partners in crime, devising what to keep from our families traditions, what to make for our own.

It wasn’t fair that Wendy was stuck in a hotel in Denver while her idea of pepto-bismo colored cranberry relish was left to me to make. She was the one that could do justice to her Mom’s dressing. Mine would turn out with the flavor of Stove-Top. I thought about Face-timing her, so she could see the bustle in the kitchen. That would probably backfire, make her feel lonelier. I did my best. The turkey went in early that morning. By the time I was pealing sweet potatoes and watching pre-game football on the kitchen iPad the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” Jason yelled from upstairs. I heard his big feet clomp down the stairs, eager to answer the door.

“We did Snoopy this fall,” He said as they came into the kitchen. “I was Schroder!”

Helen was a good listener, at least as my son regaled her with stories of his theater escapades. She was cooler on my daughter’s hockey Tourettes.

“Did you now? Did you have to play piano?”

“Yeah! I learned the Peanuts song,” Jason gushed.

“You’ll have to play it for me later,” Helen said.

“Hello,” I said, appropriately enthusiastic. As much as we grated on each other I was glad Helen was here, if only to dote on my son. Today was Audrey’s day, but it’d be easier for Jason with Helen here.

“Max,” Helen said in greeting. Thanksgiving was a period of detente, when we pretended to be civil and get along. No, we were civil, and mostly got along. Thanksgiving was just a time tin indulge our better angels.

“Audrey!” I yelled up the stairs. “Come say hello to Aunt Helen!”

“I’m in the middle of a game!” Audrey yelled back from her room. Of course she was. There are few things in life more illustrative of our own failings than a child who shares them with you.

“Audrey!” I yelled. Helen gave me that look, that withering disapproving matriarch look that rolled her eyes without actually rolling them.

“I was in the middle of a fight!” Audrey announced. She hugged Helen perfunctorily.

“A fight?” Helen asked.

“Thornton versus Galchenyuk. I had him too!”

“Of course you did,” I said. “That’s hardly a fair match.” Should I have explained Shawn Thronton’s fighting prowess? Would Helen have cared?

“There isn’t going to be any fighting at this game we’re going to tonight is there?” Helen asked.

“No,” Audrey said, disappointed. “They don’t let us.”

“I’d hope not,” Helen said. “Why any girl would want to play hockey anyway…” She started. We’d been down this path before, usually Wendy was here to misdirect her Aunt. “You could be a figure skater.”

“But then I don’t get to check people into the boards,” Audrey protested.

The figure skater thing always comes up. Wendy even made it, half heartedly when Audrey was old enough to graduate from pee wee league to something more like real hockey. For myself, there were few things I saw on the ice more beautiful than the synchronized back-skating a pair of really connected defensemen, women, persons did when the play turned around. Figure skaters twirled and jumped, and did ballet on ice. My Audrey did all that, and caved in forwards in her corner.

The oven beeped at us, saving us from the confrontation I wasn’t sure how to defuse.

“Time for potatoes,” I said, and put Audrey to work mashing them.

“You’re all packed up?” I asked Audrey as we cleared plates away. She’d eaten. Not enough, but she was nervous. Jason clinked away in the sink. Aunt Helen retreated to the living room to ‘rest her eyes.’

“Yeah,” she said. Then, “Wait, no, my underarmor is in the dryer.”

“I’ll get that, you get your gear bag,” I said. I didn’t think I could lug her gearbag any more. It was almost as big as she was, bigger than me. As I fetched her shirt from the dryer it started to sink in. My daughter was playing in a teddy-bear-toss. My smile was a mile wide, my eyes misted up.

“Dad! Phone!” Jason screamed from the kitchen. We all carry computers in our pockets that can communicate across the world. We scream at each other across rooms.

It’s a blur from there. Underarmor. Gear bag. Call from Wendy. Good luck wishes. Hello Aunt Helen. Yes it’s terrible to be stranded. Load the car. Forget the teddy bears. Helen will get them. They’re in my room. Drop off Audrey. Find a space. We have our tickets? Find our seats. Get a beer. And a wine. And a coke. “Heeeere are your Lady Rough Riders!”

Audrey towered over the other girls. She was a head taller than some. The arena crew gave the girls the star treatment, usually reserved for the semi-pro boys. There weren’t as many fans in the audience as for a ‘real’ Rough Rider’s game, but there were enough. The Rough Riders had advertised the girls games this month, it was a big feather in their cap to show they supported the girls enough to do this. There was my girl, number thirty-three, Zbornik skating across into the spotlight.

The game was slow. I expected this. Even the Rough Riders seem slow when you’re used to watching NHL. Still, the excitement of seeing my daughter skating for a crowd, it seemed faster. She swept her stick, blocking passes, shoved skaters off the puck, and sent break-out passes up the ice for her forwards. Her partner buried a shot off a face off and the arena erupted. Everyone stood. Everyone cheered. Teddy bears flew. That’s when I saw it. That’s when her heart broke. I followed Chara Bear with my eyes, recognizing his black and gold ‘33’ sailing through the air. I looked over to Helen, the launch point of Chara Bear. “They’re in my room,” Audrey had screamed.

Audrey skated up to Chara Bear, where he landed, upright on the ice, plunked on his butt as he had been on her dresser for years. She picked him up, considered him, looked up into the crowd. I could see it all on her face, the confusion, the loss, the pieces click into place as to what had happened. My heart broke. She hugged him once, then skated to the bin and dropped him in.

After the game (the Lady Riders lost, three to two) Jason and I laced up our skates and slid out on the ice for the family skate. Helen stayed in the stands, she was too dignified to skate. We made a few circuits before Audrey came out in her jersey, sans pads. I hugged her, hard.

“Good game, you almost had ’em.” I said. She was plus one for the night, and had an assist; pretty good.

“Yeah,” she said.

“So… Aunt Helen was confused.”

“I know,” Audrey said as we skated. “It’s okay. He’s going to someone who needs him more than me.” My heart broke again. How was this girl becoming a woman in front of me?

“Good grinding in the corners, good checks,” I said, encouraging.

“Thanks Dad.”

“I just call ’em like I see ’em.”

“Uh huh,” she said with a little laugh in her voice.

“Just look around,” I said, opening my arms, spinning around. “You’re the Big Z now dog!”

She pushed me, more gently than she had in the game, towards the boards.

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