Not the Only One
DISCLAIMER: Yada yada yada. This story is pure fiction, all names and characters are made up and any similarity to real persons is not only a coincidence, it's damn eerie! Of course, I make no claims about the sexuality or opinions of the real athletes who are mentioned in this story. You'd have to ask them yourself.
Cincinnati, Ohio - September 19th, 2000
I quietly put the phone back into the cradle. I sat back into my couch and closed my eyes. I couldn't believe what my mother had just told me. Now I knew why Ron hadn't returned my phone calls earlier and it terrified me. I covered my face with my hands and almost cried. But I had to be strong. With hesitation I picked the phone back up and started to dial Ron's number. I paused halfway and put it back down. I took a deep breath. I knew I needed to talk to him.
Again I picked the phone up and this time completely dialed his number. His wife answered.
"Mrs. Haver? It's Nick."
"Hey Nick," she said in a troubled, quiet voice. "Ron's been wanting to talk to you. Hold on a minute, I'll see if he can talk."
While I waited for her to connect me with Ron I wrapped the cord nervously around my fingers. At last I heard a shuffling and Ron's tired voice. "Nick?"
"Hey Ron," I sobbed, as the tears started to flow down my cheeks.
"Nick, its so good to hear your voice. I'm glad you called." His voice sounded tired, but seemed to have a hidden strength to it. I opened my mouth to say something else but my words failed me and I sobbed loudly instead. "Nick, Nick. Be strong. I need you to be strong for me."
"I'm sorry," I finally said. "I just don't know... I don't... I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything. Just keep doing what you're doing. Making us proud."
"I want to come see you and I'm sure if I tell..."
"Nick," Ron cut me off. "You don't need to come see me. You can't come see me. You've got to start training camp in a couple of days and you're going to need to be working your tail off."
"Besides," he continued. "I don't want you to come see me. I'm weak, I've lost weight. All my hair has fallen out... I'm balder than Mark Messier!" he joked.
"But I want to see you, before..." I cut myself short. I couldn't say it.
"You'll see me before I'm gone," Ron finished for me. Nick, you can't feel bad for me. I'm an old man. I've lived a good life. This cancer just means I get to go to hockey heaven a little earlier than I had planned. I want one more thing to happen in my lifetime before I go, Nick. I want to watch you skate in an NHL game. And for that to happen you're going to have to put me out of your mind and work your tail off in Cincinnati. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," I softly said through a mouthful of sobs. Ron had a malignant tumor on his brain. Doctors gave him four more months to live. That gave me four months to make it to the big leagues for Ron. That would be near impossible.
Cincinnati, Ohio - October 27th, 2001
We had just skated to a 4-4 tie with the Orlando Solar Bears. It was a tough game and I was looking forward to not having a few days to recvoer. I was on my way home to my apartment. It was an located in a posh neighborhood of Cincinnati. It cost a lot but I could afford it with the salary I was making now. I was also driving a brand new Saab which I had bought with my signing bonus. Financially, things were going great for me. But my social life had not improved at all and Ron's health always loomed over my head.
It was a Friday night and as I left the Firstar Arena's player's entrance the normal crowd of fans had gathered to grab autographs. Being one of the only two NHL affiliates on the team, I was a pretty popular target. Plus the fans loved my rough style of play. During the first month of play I had recorded 3 goals and 7 assists in just 7 games. I was enjoying the season but the pressures and worries of my life off of the ice were never far away.
After signing several autographs I was able to escape to the parking garage several blocks away. I drove home in silence thinking about home and my friends and Ron. I entered my apartment and hung up my coat. If I wanted to I could join my teammates at the bars where they would no doubt be celebrating the hard-earned tie. But these guys were like my teammates in Mississippi and I found I had little in common with them. The only guy I had gotten to know was Byron Ritchie. He was the other affiliate of the Hurricanes. He had played in twenty or so NHL games and I looked up to him. He was able to answer a lot of my questions but we hadn't truly connected. I was, after all, more competition to him. If the 'Canes needed an offenseman in a pinch, they now had two players to choose from.
I flipped on the TV and sat down on the couch. I tuned into Sportscenter to see how the Hurricanes were doing. The score scrolled across the bottom of the screen. They had lost in Chicago tonight. They were having a rough beginning of a year. So were we. I thought about calling my parents, or one of my friends. But I was depressed and didn't want them to catch on to it. I looked at the time. My parents were probably getting ready for bed and my friends would no doubt be out for the night already. I have no complaints about being a professional athlete, but sometimes I think about what I've missed and will miss. Sometimes during early morning practices as I'm getting knocked around by 250 pound goons, I think to myself that I could be in geometry class right now. Or skipping class to go to Denny's. I missed my junior prom. I'll miss my senior prom. Study halls. Dances. School sports. Summer vacation. Class trips. Hell, I'll never even graduate because I officially dropped out of school at the end of last year. And I also hear such good things about college. I often wonder if it would have been better to stay in school, go to a good hockey university, and then enter the NHL.
I looked at the time. It was 10:30. On a Friday night. The city would be full of old and young people alike going out to bars, restaurants, and clubs. I had planned on hitting the sack early to get a good night's rest before our morning practice. But now I thought I should go out after all. Maybe head out to a bar to grab a night cap or meet up with my teammates at one of their watering holes. I went into my bedroom and put on a pair of khakis and a nice blue dress shirt. Then I went into the bathroom and ran some gel through my hair. I had showered at the arena so I was already freshened up. I left my apartment and decided to walk around a bit to clear my head. I could catch a cab if I got lost.
Without thinking I headed down the street with my mind wandering. I became lost in my thoughts and when I next looked up to get my bearings I realized I was in a part of the city I'd never been before. I became nervous, hoping I hadn't wondered into a bad part of town, but the neighborhood looked nice and upkept. I wandered through a few more streets and finally found a busy avenue. I looked up and down the streets and the first thing I noticed were the many rainbow flags flying.
As I walked up the street I noticed a group of young and good-looking men go into a bar called, "Chumley's." It was obvious it was a gay bar because there was a large rainbow flag hung in the window. I looked around me. Plenty of people were milling about and going about their business. But they seemed to be oblivious to me and the surroundings. I had never really thought about going to a gay bar but now I was curious as to how it would be. I was terrified that someone would recognize me and leak a story to the press. But then I thought to myself what are the odds of me running into a Cyclones fan in a gay bar? And most Cincinnatians didn't even recognize me on the street, even if they were hockey fans.
Without giving it a second thought I pushed open the door to reveal a dark but cheery place. A long bar reached from near the entrance all the way to the back of the bar. Several tables and booths were spread about the place and most were full. The one thing that caught my attention was the humongous replica of Michelangelo's David in the middle of the bar. He had a rainbow lai around his neck and was wearing a yellow "Chumley's" tee-shirt. This can't be that bad of a place I thought to myself. Nervously I walked over to the bar. I had never been in a gay bar before. I had never really been around other gays before. My only experience had been long ago with Matt. The place was pretty packed and it was loud, but after a few minutes a middle-aged woman behind the bar sidled over to me.
"Could I see some ID?" she asked. I froze. I didn't have ID. When I did go to bars, I went with my teammates. Usually they knew the management and it wasn't a problem to get served if you were underage.
"Umm, I just want a coke."
She shook her head, "Sorry, no ID, no service."
Some guy sitting near us then piped up. "Hey, come on Cheryl, he looks 21," he said. I looked over at him and he winked at me. He was a good-looking guy. Actually, he was hot! He was hispanic and had a smooth and tan complexion and spoke with a slight accent. He was about 5'10, maybe 5'11' and had really cool green eyes. He had a real nice body and was lean, but still looked like he could take care of himself.
"Andy! Could you come here for a sec?" Cheryl called out down the bar. A middle-aged man who was slightly balding came over to us.
"What's up?" he asked.
"This handsome fellow here doesn't have ID," she said nodding at me.
"You don't have, ID?" he asked me.
"Uh, no, not with me." He sized me up. "All I want is a coke," I said.
He thought a moment before finally replying, "All right, you can stay. But don't try to order anything with alcohol and don't come back here again unless you got ID, understood?"
"Sure, great, thanks," I replied. Cheryl placed a coke on the bar and I threw down five bucks for the drink and a tip. I looked over at the guy and nodded. "Thanks," I said.
"No problem," he winked. He turned around in his stool to face me. He didn't seem to be there with anyone else.
"Thanks," I said.
"No problem," he answered. He leaned in closer to me and said quietly, "So what are you? 19? 20?" He had a really nice smile and his accent really turned me on. I had never really talked to a hispanic guy before. But I was definitely digging this guy.
I laughed. "Nope. 17. I turn 18 next week."
"Holy shit you're young!" he exclaimed. My face turned red and I nodded at him.
"What about you?" I asked. "How old are you?"
He laughed before saying, "Probably too old for you." He flashed a brilliant white smile.
"No really, how old are you?"
"26," he said. Truthfully, he didn't look a day over 21.
"No way! Really?"
"Yup. 27 next month."
"Well, I guess its not too old for me," I joked with him. "I don't think I have an age limit."
"You're not from around here, are you?" he asked.
"No, why?" I asked.
"I could tell from your accent. Where are you from?"
"Raised in Connecticut," I replied.
He nodded. "I thought a heard a little bit of a New York accent. I used to live there." I nodded, and then stared at him trying to think of something else to say. He was searching for something else to say as well. Finally he offered his hand to me and said, "My name is Julio. But most people call me Verde."
"I'm Nick," I said, shaking his hand. "Why Verde?"
"It's Spanish... for green. I guess they like my eyes."
I nodded again, then added, "They're not too bad."
Verde winked at me and took a long sip from his beer, draining it. "Hey Cheryl, how about another?" he called out to the bartender. Then he turned to me and said, "Andy and Cheryl are good people. The only married couple I know who own and run a gay bar."
"Well they let me stay, so I guess they're all right in my book."
He leaned over towards my ear and whispered, "You should get some ID. It would be a shame if you weren't allowed to come back." Then he winked at me again.
"I'll look into it," I said. I felt pretty good. I had already forgotten all of my off-ice troubles and was enjoying some good company. Verde proved to be very interesting and we soon were chatting like old friends. It felt good to talk to someone just like me. We talked about everything like where we were from, what we did, and so on. I lied and told him that I lived outside the city with my parents. I didn't want it to get out in the bar that I played for the Cyclones.
As we got to know each other better I found we were leaning in closer. Verde had his hand on my leg and was rubbing my leg as we talked. We were talking about my inexperience with the whole gay thing and how this was my first time really out of the closet in a gay setting. I was so engrossed that I didn't notice a man who had approached us and stood looking at me intently. We were in the middle of our conversation when he called out to us both, "Hey guys!"
We both looked over at once and the flash from the camera blinded us both. I couldn't see a thing and rubbed my eyes trying to restore my vision. "Thanks, Nick!" I heard the man say as he ran for the exit. My heart started to race and I leapt up out of my stool.
"Fuck!" I yelled out loudly, still rubbing my eyes. The sudden flash in the dark room had caught everyone's attention; plus they had heard me swear and saw the man bolting from the door.
"What was that about?" Verde asked me, dazed as well.
"Shit," I yelled again. The bar was completely silent and all eyes were on me as I stumbled towards the door and groped for the handle. On the way out, I bumped into a table and barked my shin hard. Still half blind and limping I finally found the door. I limped out onto the street and looked around. I finally saw the guy up about a half a block away trying to a hail a taxi. I tore off after him as Verde came stumbling out the door after him. The guy had his back to me and had no idea I had spotted him already. He was probably hoping the flash had blinded and confused me.
"Nick, what's going on?" I heard Verde yell from up the street. The other guy heard this and wheeled around towards me. He spotted me and started to take off running in the other direction. But I was too fast for him and caught up to him after a couple of blocks. I caught his jacket and ripped the camera from his hands.
I opened it up ripping the film out and destroying the exposures. He was a small and frail man and whined as I destroyed his exposures. "Oh come on buddy! That's a promotion right there!" he said as I threw the ruined film down a sewer drain.
"Screw you, asshole!" I said to him. Verde then arrived on the scene, panting from the run to catch up to me.
"Are you all right? What's going on?" he asked. He turned to the photographer. And stared at him menacingly. "What the hell are you taking his picture for? You a perv or something?"
The reporter laughed. "I'm not a perv, you jerk. Most people wouldn't recognize him but I guess I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," he said. "I work for a small magazine called 'The Cincinnati Beat.' I've been hanging out in gay bars for months hoping to run into an athlete or a celebrity from around here."
Verde was confused. "You play for the Reds? Or the Bengals?" he asked.
"Nope, the Cyclones," the reporter continued. "A minor league hockey team. Not a big deal except this guy just signed a contract with the Hurricanes." He looked at me. "And they would drop you in a second if word leaked out about this."
"Yeah, well looks like you don't have any evidence, now," I taunted.
"True, Nick. But I've got a gut feeling this is going to run in tomorrow's paper anyway. The spoken word is a powerful thing these days."
"Fuck you," I snarled. I clenched my hand into a fist. The reporter jumped back fearing I would swing at him.
"Whoa, there Mr. Brewer," the reporter said. "You don't want to be punching a journalist. Remember that whole Dominic Hasek fiasco? That would cost you dearly. And the way I see it, " he smiled smugly, "You're going to have be ponying up some of that fat paycheck to keep this little secret bottled up."
"What do you want?" I asked him.
"A $100 a week. And you'll never hear from me again."
"You wish." I opened up my wallet and pulled out all I had. It was around 400 bucks. "This is all you'll get... ever. And if you leak any word of this I'll hunt you down and beat the snot out of you. Understand?"
The reporter grabbed the money and flipped through it. "Hmm, not much. I got a family to feed you know..."
I pushed him hard into a building. "That's all your getting. You've got no evidence and nothing to back your story up." I turned and started to walk away.
"I've got all those witnesses in that fruity little bar you were in!" he yelled after me. "And I'm sure your little spic friend here could talk for the right amount of money!"
I wheeled around furiously and grabbed the guy by his collar. "What did you call him?" I growled.
Verde pulled me off the guy saying, "Come on, Nick. He's not worth it." He pulled me away from the guy and started to pull me up the street. "He's not going to say anything. You're right, he's got no proof." I let myself be led away from the miserable reporter and could only hope that it was true. If word about this ever got back to the 'Canes organization it could definitely spell trouble.
I was fuming over what had just taken place. My worst fear had indeed come true. Verde patted me on the back trying to calm me down. I was shaking with rage.
Finally he asked me, "You're a hockey player?"
"You play in the NHL?"
"No. I'm in the minors. I play for the Cyclones."
"I've never heard of them. But, I don't really know much about hockey, either."
Verde put his arm around me trying to comfort me. I quickly brushed him off. "Listen, I can't be seen like this."
"Oh, right," he replied. "Sorry." I stood there with my hands in my pockets trying to think of what to do. "Do you want to get a cup of coffee?" Verde asked indicating a Starbucks across the street. I looked over and thought about how nice it would be to share a cup of coffee with someone I could relate to. But I was still freaked out from the reporter.
"Listen, Verde, you're a great guy, but I can't take any more chances. I think I just oughta head home."
Verde nodded, "I understand. Can I at least give you my number?"
I shook my head. "No, look I gotta go. I've got practice early tomorrow morning." It broke my heart to leave him standing there but I needed to get away from him and this part of town quickly.
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a pen and paper. "Just take my number," he insisted, scrawling it down on a sheet of paper. He handed to me. I hesitated before taking it and shoving it into my jacket pocket.
"Look, Verde, I'd love to see you again, but... its just not wise under the circumstances. I don't think I can call you. I'm sorry."
"Keep the number, Nick. You don't have to call me, but you know you can if you ever want to talk."
"OK. Good bye," I said, offering my hand.
"Bye. It was really nice to meet you," he replied. I quickly turned from him and briskly walked up the street not looking back. I didn't want to look back. I walked a couple blocks and then took out his number. I stared at intently for a minute. Then I crumpled it up and threw it in a nearby wastebasket. My career was too important to me to risk I had to be more careful.
Comments are always welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, is there anything you would like to read about more in this story? Less in this story? Tell me what you'd like to see and I'll see what I can do. I'm not talking about plot suggestions, just stuff in general like more love, more hockey, less hockey, more social life, etc.