Where do you want to be when the world ends?
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Excerpt from BACK EAST
“Are you ready to bash some queers?!”
The question was met with boisterous cheers, rebuttals and thumps of hockey sticks against the bus floorboard. “Give them a good puck!”
“Slam them from behind!”
“Show those queens your penalty box!”
“Queens? This ain’t Disney on Ice!”
More laughter exploded from the back of the chartered Greyhound bus carrying the Ice Giants, one of eight teams in the New York City Gay Hockey Association. Yes, gay hockey. It’s a thing. And yes, I did a double-take, too, when I was sent by Channel Seven News to cover the NYCGA’s invitational fall season opener tournament in western New York.
But, here I am, on a bus headed to Niagara, because all the commercial planes have been grounded for some solar weather event that our meteorologist, Craig, was going mental over. Whatever. I won’t complain. I’m on a bus with twenty rowdy, athletic, gorgeously rugged, gay hockey players.
And they are gorgeous. But, I have to remain professional. My job is on the line if I ever want to get out of my internship and be taken seriously as a journalist.
The team captain, Miles – who is miles and miles of handsome, blue-eyed, muscular New York prime, slaps a hand on my boney shoulder. “Whata’ya say, boys?! Should we get our paparazzi-man drunk tonight?”
Oy. I’m in so much trouble, and so is my career.
“Aw, c’mon, Miles,” the massive winger, David LaMonte, grins. He’s missing one tooth and has a roughed-in scruffy beard, but it doesn’t make his boyish, disarming grin any less cute. “Leave the poor guy alone.”
“What?” Miles dons an innocent expression. “I’m just having a good time. Besides, maybe, uh…”
“Eli,” I provide my name for the fifth time since meeting the team three hours ago. Wow. I must be memorable.
“Eli, right!” Miles smirks. “Maybe Eli here wants to have some drinks with the team. You know, get to know us for his big news article on gay men who play with sticks.”
David shakes his head with a swallowed laugh. “You really are a dick, Miles.”
“I totally am,” the man admits with a shrug then leans back in his seat. “Hey, Jason, pass me that tablet. I wanna check our fanpage.”
As they fall back into their own, hockey-filled world, I pull out my smartphone to check my work email. A hand on my arm stops me, and I’m suddenly looking at David’s friendly smile. And his grass-green eyes. Like, seriously, grass green. Central park in spring has nothing on this guy’s eyes.
“Hey, don’t mind Miles,” David says in a hushed voice. “He gets all ramped up before these tournaments. …Or games. …Or practice. Shit, the boy just loves hockey.”
“Well, I guess that’s a good attitude for the team captain to have, right?”
“Exactly.” The conversation pauses for a moment, and I think he’s going to go back to his buddies, but then he leans forward again across the aisle. “So, did you draw the short straw?”
“Nah, I-” My words are swallowed by more yelling from the back. Apparently, they’re posting a picture of the center’s abs on their fanpage.
“Scoot over one,” David says while not exactly giving me any choice in the matter. Thank goodness he doesn’t have his pads on under his jersey. This big man can certain fill a bus seat. “Sorry, you were saying?”
I was saying? Crap, what was I saying… Damn, his smile and those eyes have me struggling for a coherent thought.
“Short straw,” he hints as I obviously flounder.
Oy, I’m drooling like a shlemiel. “Straws, right. No. I’m an intern, so the crew thought it’d be a joke. You know, sending the new kid on a bus full of gay hockey players. Not that it is, but- …That came out wrong.”
“No, I get it. We’re a joke to a lot of people. The only thing we can do is play a damn good game of hockey. Though, positive publicity would help.”
“I’d honestly never heard of the association until the assignment landed on my desk, but, I’m not exactly what you call a sports fan.”
Great, Eli. Insult the guy’s team, then tell him they’re so obscure you’ve never heard of them. Oh, and while you’re at it, be sure to point out how you two have absolutely nothing in common.
This is why you’re single, ya nebbish.
“Most sports fanatics haven’t heard of us,” David admits. “Heck, we’re not even well known in the gay community.”
“True. None of my friends knew this was a thing, either, but-”
“Wait,” David stops me. “So you… you know, play for our team?”
Well, at least I’m not as flamboyantly obvious as I thought. “Yeah, which is what I was trying to say about the assignment. The crew thinks it’s a joke, but I’d rather be covering this than how the airports are all a madhouse right now.”
He laughs. “No shit. You couldn’t pay me to go near an airport right now, even in my full gear.”
“You think the tournament will have problems because of the delays?”
“Nah,” he shrugs. “Most are bussing in like us. Flights are too expensive for our shoestring budgets.”
“They were going to fly me into Buffalo, so, thanks for letting me ride with you.”
He shrugs his broad shoulders. “Like I said, we need the publicity. We want to get more people involved, you know? Especially kids. Mainstream sports for gay kids just… Well, it fucking sucks. Er… Is that on the record?”
Now I’m laughing, but of course that also means I snort. Adjusting my thinly-rimmed glasses, I swallow the second snort before it can break free. “I can edit. But, I agree. I went to high school, too.”
He chuckles at that. “I nearly stopped playing, because it got so bad in the locker room, you know? I wasn’t out, but hearing the gay-bashing… It hurt.”
“Try going to an ultra-orthodox school,” I grimace, old wounds surfacing without warning. Great. I barely know the man, and here I am, dumping my childhood onto his shoulders – his really strong-looking shoulders.
“Ouch,” he matches my grimace. “I take it the parents didn’t exactly find your homosexuality kosher?”
“Ha, no. After I refused counseling from the Rabbi, I was declared herem.”
“Haram?” He struggles with the word a bit, making it sound more like a room full of scantily clad women.
“No, herem. It means censured; excommunicated.”
“Wow. That’s harsh. So, you don’t see your folks anymore?”
“No.” Bitterness fills my mouth, followed by the usual but. “But, I have to respect my parents, and their beliefs, even if I don’t agree with them. In their hearts, they’re good people. My mother, she still sends me letters, but being seen with her in public would cause trouble for them.”
“My mom,” he spreads his fingers like an explosion, “absolutely lost it when I came out to my family. She’s super religious, too. Catholic. But, we never really got along, anyway.”
“Oh.” I nod a bit, unsure what else to say. “What about your dad?”
Yes, Eli, because that’s any of your business.
“Oh, he’s great!” David’s exuberant grin blinds me. “My brothers, too. They wanted to come to this tournament, but they all have to work. Cops, all of them.”
“Yeah. I was the oddball who became a fireman instead.”
Oh, my. My eyes give him another look-over before I can stop them. It’s entirely too easy to visualize David as one of those beefy calendar models – you know, the kind where the fireman seems to have lost half his uniform but found the water hose just fine? When my eyes land back on his face, he’s got one bushy, reddish-brown eyebrow raised at me, and a lopsided smirk.
With a snap, my face is turned towards the window as a sweaty hand adjusts my glasses. “Wonder where we are…”
He leans in closer to me and peers out the window. “Dunno. We’ve been on the 81-North for a while. Hey, Kev,” he calls over the back of our seat. “Have we passed Binghamton yet?”
“Yeah, uh… I dunno, fifteen minutes ago? Why? You need to take a piss?”
“We could have a pit-stop in Cortland,” the female bus driver says with a glance in the huge mirror over her head. If hauling around a bunch of queers bugs her, she doesn’t show it. “Should be there in about half an hour, if you can hold it.”
“I don’t gotta piss,” David rolls his eyes. “I was just askin’ where we are.”
“Well, then why not just ask where we are instead of where we’ve been,” Kevin fires back.
“Because, you don’t know your way outta your mother’s kitchen,” David retorts, getting a few ‘Oooo’s’ from the others.
“Hey, now,” Jason intervenes. “We all know Kevin can find his way down to Second Avenue after dark just fine.” More ‘Oooing’ and a high-five follows.
“Only ‘cause your white ass shines like a beacon in the East Village!” Kevin hollers and receives a clacking of hockey sticks against the floor board.
“Aw, c’mon, Tetkowski” Jason wiggles suggestively, which is beyond comical with his helmet on and hockey stick in hand. “You know you want a piece.”
“Guys,” Miles raises his hands, trying to appear like a stern leader but failing miserably to hide his laughter. “I don’t think the reporter wants to hear about Jason’s peach-bottom ass and Kevin’s adventures at The Cock.”
“I do,” the bus driver says.
“Why, Mrs. King,” Jason bats his eyelashes at her. “I do believe you’re trying to corrupt our good, innocent team members.”
“Innocent? I don’t-” the bus driver’s words cut off as the running lights in the Greyhound flicker twice then die. “What the- Hold on!”
“What-” Miles barely gets out before the bus swerves hard to the left, sending him into the back of my seat.
“Everyone duck!” Mrs. King yells. “I’ve got no power. No steering. No brakes!”
“Merciful Adonai,” I pray, despite not having spoken a word to God for a very long time, as David covers my body with his. The bus bounces hard, jerks right to the sound of grinding metal against the guardrail. Masculine voices scream. A lift up. Glass breaks. A loss of gravity, then a heartbeat of deafening silence before everything in my world goes black.