There are only so many times I can hear that coming out will solve all my problems. Like saying the words “I’m gay” to the entire world will somehow give me unicorn powers and I’ll start farting rainbows and scoring on the ice.
I love my family, but for the love of Gretzky, they need to get over it. I have.
Okay, probably not.
My boyfriend left me because he hated being referred to as my roommate all the time, and somehow, that makes me the bad guy. I mean, I know I’m not the good guy, either, but Ash and I didn’t deliberately set out to hurt each other. We were just really good at it.
My family—especially my ma—thinks if I come out to the world there’ll be a domino effect, and I won’t be the only gay guy in hockey for long.
There’s more chance of me farting rainbows.
It didn’t happen when Matt Jackson came out in the NFL a few months ago, and I have no delusion it’ll happen for hockey when my time comes. I followed Matt’s story, and it wasn’t pretty.
The NHL was one of the first leagues to support LGBTQ players with their You Can Play project, and yet not a single player has creaked open the closet door, and my career doesn’t need the added pressure of being the first one.
I don’t want to be the NHL’s first pancake.
Last thing I want to do is yell out in the middle of the locker room, “Oh, by the way, I’m gayer than a leather daddy convention.”
No matter how many times I say I need to be in a good place before bringing shit on my career, it all falls on deaf ears when it comes to my family. And Ash.
I’m not out, so I shouldn’t get shiny things like happiness to play with. That’s what they seem to think.
And that’s why I’m hiding in the bathroom of this dingy bar-slash-restaurant before we’ve even been served dinner. We came to the Honey Bee so the whole family could be together. Ma already complains she doesn’t see us all enough, but in our defense, we’re five dudes with shit going on in our lives. I think she’s more upset she doesn’t get to dote on all of us now we’re grown-ups. And by dote on, I mean butt in.
She’s a meddler through and through, but I get the brunt of it. I’m her baby—the youngest—and also the gayest. My whole family has been overprotective of me ever since my mom outed me to myself when I was fifteen.
Yup. That happened. Because Ma knows everything. Apparently.
Tonight, all I’ve heard is how lost Ash is without me and how relationships need compromises to work.
“Be the person that you needed growing up, struggling to believe you could be anything you wanted to be,” she’d said not ten minutes ago.
Changing Gus Kenworthy quotes to suit my situation doesn’t help, Ma.
When I’d stared at my brothers to get any of them to back me up, they all sipped from their drinks and avoided eye contact. Dad grunted and nodded but didn’t take sides.
Okay, my dad’s not an asshole. I’m just frustrated.
The door to the bathroom opens, and I assume it’s one of my brothers come to check on me as per Ma’s orders.
“I’ve been waiting for you—” I turn and come face to face with someone who is definitely not one of my brothers.
This guy who is the spitting image of a blond Superman, even down to the wild curl across his forehead and an adorable chin dimple, stares at me with wide, pale blue eyes. He’s smaller than me but still probably six foot easy. My gaze travels down his slim build, and when I meet his eyes again, I replay my words and take in our location—a gay-friendly hangout in the South End—and I think I might’ve just come onto someone for the first time since Ash and I split. Unintentionally, but still.
“Not you. I thought you were my brother.”
The guy screws up his face. Oh, fuck, now it sounds like I’m waiting in the bathroom to hook up with my brother.
“No. I wasn’t waiting for … that.” My face burns, and I pray to God I’m not turning red. “I’m hiding.”
He cocks an eyebrow. “From your brother?”
“From my entire family.”
His warm gaze trails over me and lingers on my tattooed arms. His heated stare causes a stirring in my groin, reminding me that I haven’t had sex in six months.
“I’m guessing you belong to the giant Norse gods out by the bar?” he asks.
My brothers and I often turn heads, especially when we’re all together. I’m the runt, and I’m six four. My brothers always joke that I took up hockey so I could add height with my skates.
We’re seated in one of the restaurant’s private rooms, but I’d say my brothers are about due for another drink.
“Yeah, that’d be us.”
“You mind if I …” He points to the urinal behind me and adjusts the strap of his messenger bag on his shoulder.
“Oh, right. Sure.” I move toward the sinks so he doesn’t think I really am creeping in the bathroom for a hookup.
“So why are you hiding?” he asks, and I don’t know if he’s actually interested or just trying to break the awkwardness over the sound of him taking a leak with me lurking here.
“They’re on my case about my ex.”
After he’s zipped, he turns around and eyes me from top to toe again, and I can’t say I hate it. If anything, my instinct is to puff out my chest and flex my biceps.
“They want you to take him back?” He moves beside me to wash his hands.
Interesting that he assumes I’m gay. Although, the whole accidentally hitting on him thing probably helped him come to that conclusion. This is where I should normally deny it—where, under any other circumstance, I would—but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to lie to this cute stranger. He just scrutinized me hard enough that if he was going to recognize me as a winger in the NHL, he would’ve already picked up on it.
“They want me to come out at work so he’ll want me back,” I say. That’s a vague explanation, because it’s not like I’d be coming out to an office of twelve people; it’d be coming out to the entire world. Tabloids would jump on it faster than a drug-addicted popstar.
The guy winces. “Tough situation. One that rarely works without resentment.”
“The thing is, I’m twenty-four. I have a long career ahead of me, and I don’t want anything to throw me off. I want to be established first.”
“What do you do? Let me guess …” He mockingly assesses me this time, his finger rubbing across the thin layer of blond scruff on his chin. I wonder if he’s using this as an excuse to rake his gaze over me again. His eyes seem to lock onto my arms a lot, which are covered in so many tattoos there’s no bare skin anymore. “I think, despite the tats, you’re gonna be a contradiction. You’re bulky and tatted up, but I bet you’re in something like corporate business.”
I know way better than to tell him the truth. “Something like that. Very much a man’s world, anyway.”
“Right. Real men don’t like dicks,” he says dryly.
“Real men don’t know what they’re missing.”
Our eyes lock, and he relaxes into an easy smile as he reaches for the paper towels. For the first time in a long time, I find myself appreciating a man who’s not Ash. Not just in a he’s hot kind of way, but in a way where I actually feel a flutter of something in my gut. A couple of months ago, I didn’t think that’d ever be a possibility.
I hold my hand out for him to shake. “I’m—”
The door opens again, and this time it is one of my brothers.
I drop my hand fast.
“What the fuck is taking so—” Vic spots the guy next to me. “Oh. Gotcha. Hurry up and do what you gotta do. I’ll stall.” After dropping that, Vic turns on his heel and walks out.
“So, that was one of your brothers,” the guy says, his tone amused.
“You see what I have to put up with?”
“He didn’t seem so bad.”
“You know why we’re here at all?”
“At the Honey Bee?”
“It’s because they want me to be comfortable in my surroundings, as if I can’t be okay at a restaurant that’s not a gay hangout.”
He tries to keep his face passive, but a hint of a smile comes through. “It’s great they love who you are.”
“You go have dinner with them then,” I grumble.
He stares at the door and then back at me. “All right.”
“Uh … what?” I can’t have heard that right.
He steps closer. “You need them off your back about your ex, and I’m utterly fascinated by this odd family dynamic you claim to have. Doesn’t hurt your brothers are hot. Any of the others gay too?”
I feign offense. “What am I, chopped liver?”
He blatantly checks me out again, and I’d totally call him out for having the subtlety of an enforcer pummeling another player, but I like him looking at me.
“Not a big fan of guys on the rebound. Sorry.” Yet, he’s still staring at me.
“Hey, I’m over Ash. It’s my family who has the issue with him.”
That might be a tiny lie. I’m still dealing with being single, but I’m not pining after the guy or anything. I made my choice, so now I have to learn how to be an adult. Ash and I got together when I was nineteen, so I went from living in my parents’ house to a billet family while I was with the AHL, and then into an apartment where Ash took care of everything. These past six months have been the first time in my life I’ve been truly alone.
A part of me will always love Ash, but childhood fantasies coming true don’t always end in happily ever afters. That should be in fairy tales. Prepare for reality, kids, because when all’s said and done, Prince Charming will throw you an ultimatum.
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t you introduce your family to a new boyfriend?” This guy gestures to himself. “I could totally be in love with you.” His mouth drops open. “I mean, I could totally pretend … if you needed me to. To, you know, get them off your back.”
I kinda love that he’s fumbling all over himself. “They won’t believe it. I woulda told them if I was bringing someone to meet them.”
He shrugs. “Make something up. Tell them you wanted to bring me, but I got stuck at work and didn’t think I’d make it. Being an awesome boyfriend, I decided to surprise you.”
“What do you do for work?”
“I can do anything you want your boyfriend to do … Uh, that sounded a hell of a lot less sexual in my head. I swear I’m usually good with words.”
“We could tell them I’m in business like you,” he suggests.
I eye his chinos, which have been rolled up to the ankle, and his shoes with no socks. He looks more nerdy than someone who’s in the corporate world, but that’s not really what I should be focused on.
“Why are you offering to do this? No, why do you want to do this?” I ask. “It’s … weird, and my family is nuts.”
“I’m not a serial killer if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Well, I wasn’t, but now I am. What kind of person introduces themselves as not a serial killer? Like, you’re not gonna meet one who goes around saying ‘Hi, I’d like to wear your skin as a suit.’”
“Good point. But let’s call my offer a morbid fascination with a family who doesn’t tell you to hide the gay so you’re not jumped. I want to know what that’s like.”
And there it is—the usual flare of shame that hits me when I complain about my family. They want to march in parades by my side and want me to be a good role model for gay kids growing up in this shitty world that still doesn’t always accept them.
“Way to make me feel wicked guilty for having it better than a lot of other people.”
His warm hand touches my upper arm through my short-sleeved T-shirt. He squeezes my biceps, and his eyes focus on my muscles and my tats again before he shakes his head and stares up at me. “I’m not diminishing your experiences. It can be hard for any of us for multiple different reasons, but hey, if you don’t want a get out of jail free card, I’ll be on my way.”
Before he gets two steps, I reach out to pull him back without giving it proper thought. His chest presses against mine, and it’s nice to be close to someone again.
It’s amazing what you can take for granted when you’re in a long-term relationship. Not coming home to affection has been a big adjustment for me. I never realized how much a simple touch could reassure me that everything was going to be okay until it wasn’t there anymore.
And it’s not like I can go to a bar or meet someone and say Mind if I press myself against you for a while?
What this stranger is offering … it’s a stupid idea—one that probably won’t work—but if I can deke my entire family into thinking I’m happy, it might be worth it if it makes Ma stop saying shit like I could never truly find someone while being closeted. If only for a dinner.
“Thank you. It, uh, would help me out a lot.”
A slow smile spreads across his face as he links his fingers through mine as we exit the bathroom.
I can’t stop staring at our joined hands. A thrill rushes through me. I should be concerned someone will see or recognize me, but the lighting is dim, and the novelty of holding a guy’s hand—in public or not—is too much for me to resist.
When we get into the busy part of the restaurant though, I drop his hand and lead him to where our private dining room is hiding in the back.
My family’s large table accommodates my brothers—minus Max—Nic’s wife, their two kids, and my parents. This guy doesn’t seem to care he’s walking into a lion’s den. Then again, he doesn’t know my family and probably thinks I’m overreacting.
When we get to the table, all eyes lock on us.
“Welcome to the jungle,” I mutter out the side of my mouth.
Before any of them can start tormenting this guy who’s doing me a favor, I cut them all off.
“Guys, this is …” Fuck, I didn’t even ask him his name, and all I can think about is how much he looks like a blond Superman. “Clark.”
I knew this was a bad idea for a reason. Pulling it off is going to take more than saying This is my boyfriend, so now you can stop acting like dicks.
He glances in my direction, and I want to apologize for panicking, but what kind of boyfriend doesn’t know his partner’s name?
“And who is … Clark?” Ma asks, giving him the same stare down she gave Amanda when Nic first brought her home.
“He’s, uh—” My voice cracks like it did when I was twelve years old, and I have to clear my throat. “This is my boyfriend.”
Everyone’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise, even Vic, who saw us in the bathroom together.
The guy now known as Clark lifts his hand and waves awkwardly, which makes me chuckle.
“Umm, I wasn’t going to tell you because it’s fairly new”—like, ten minutes new—“and he said he had to work—”
“But it turns out I didn’t,” Clark says with a warm smile. “Plus, this guy offered to take me to a football game if I could make it.”
Oh, shit. A voice in the back of my head screams Abort. Abort! But we’re too far gone now. Can’t exactly turn around and be all Ha-ha, gotcha.
How did I think I could get through this dinner without my profession coming out?
I’m never going to hear the end of this. Not that I sprung a boyfriend on them but that he’s a football fan.
“Football?” Vic teases. “Ollie, you have to end it now.”
Yup, right on cue.
“Why is that a big …” Clark’s words trail off as something akin to recognition crosses his face. He’s able to quickly cover his reaction, but everyone in my family is looking at us like they’re about to pounce. “What? Can’t a hockey player take his boyfriend to watch a football game every now and then?”
And that’s when it’s confirmed. He does know who I am.