Story:Same Old Lang Syne

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Same Old Lang Syne
Written by Mitch de la Guardia and Shataivian

December 23, 2019 Queens Pride: 127. Las Vegas Wildcards: 115.

The score remained etched upon the minds of the entire team as they endured a long, boring flight back home to Las Vegas. It was everyone’s fault, and it was no-ones. Losing their captain only minutes into the first quarter had been an unexpected shock, and despite the best efforts of the whole team, it hadn’t been enough, and they went home with a loss for Christmas.

Even Coach Soros knew the team had played their hearts out, so there was no hard talk, no ultimatums. Simple review of game footage, and then the screens were turned over to the players to watch what they wanted, resulting in a melancholy Christmas party in the sky. Sports drinks replaced champagne, and classic movies replaced a dance floor and DJ. It was strange, yet felt right on such an evening, with a quiet passing over the team by the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Some on the team had been quieter than others, however. It could be explained by the loss, or concern for Misha, but to one who had endured losing streaks, and team dysfunction before, Crosby eyed Lisa DuPont with care. Something was wrong. Something other than the game was bothering her, but the plane was not the place to discuss it. There could be no escape from their teammates, no privacy in which to draw out what was bothering her, if she was even willing to tell. Despite his short time with the team, Crosby liked to imagine he had struck a good rapport with his teammates, but sometimes he could never be sure.

The airport was dead slow as they landed shortly before midnight. After a loss, there was some comfort in that, as it meant no press to run through the same questions for the umpteenth time. No, there was just the walk through the concourse to the team bus, followed by a ride back to their practice facility, where everyone was parked.

Crosby lingered on the bus, staging his exit to be shortly after Lisa’s, near the end of the group.

“Hey, Lisa,” he spoke in a quiet, almost unsure voice, as he nodded to her after stepping onto the unloading platform. “I, um…” he stumbled for words, a trait not like him in typical conversation. “Could you come with me for a bit?”

The genet’s smile was nervous, tail ticking and lashing with what could be best described as social anxiety, if appearances could be believed.

“Look, I know it’s late, but there’s, um. There’s something I want to show you,” he added, biting his lower lip. “I can drive us. I’ve got the Rolls. Well, one of the Rollses, I mean.”

Lisa turned around when she heard Crosby’s voice and thought for a moment. After a loss, for her in more than one way, Lisa certainly had a ragged look on her face. “Actually, I’m gonna,” she started to say. She wanted desperately to go home and bury her face in a pillow. After having just come from a fight with her father, interacting with other people was the last thing on her mind. She still felt on guard, despite the long plane ride back to Las Vegas. But as she took the time to think she realized that letting that anger continue beyond New York would oppose the stand she had made against her father. She was going to start living for herself, no longer letting her father dictate her joy. This was a test. A hard one. But if she could do something for herself immediately after speaking with her father, she’d at least be on the right track to taking charge. She started again. “You know what, sure. Sorry. Where did you want to go?”

Visible relief washed over Crosby, and his smile lost some of its nervousness. “It’s, um, it’s a surprise. But I think you’ll like it. C’mon.” Ticking his head toward the team parking area.

A deep blue Wraith sat parked there, its lights slowly warming to life as Crosby drew close. Like a proper gentleman, the genet opened Lisa’s door for her, helping her in, before stowing her bag and his own in the trunk. If the car moved at all when he dropped his large frame into the driver’s seat, there was little way to tell.

Despite its turbocharged V16 engine, the Wraith was virtually silent as it drove out onto the quiet street, Crosby navigating by memory instead of any kind of GPS until they hit the strip. There, the lights of Las Vegas washed over them as if transporting the pair to some other world. A world of fantasy, a world of unbridled ambition, a world of hope and dreams. But inside the car, insulated from it all, the reality of the world remained.

“Tough game,” Crosby finally said, breaking the silence. “I’ve had worse, but… they’re never fun. It doesn’t get easier with experience.” He was stalling, yet at the same time there was an honesty to him which was revealed behind his typical mask of chipper optimism.

Blinker set, he turned off the strip, and started away from the city center, out into older Vegas, where there were even fewer cars on the road. “Team took it hard, that was easy enough to see, but you took it harder. Maybe the others didn’t notice, but I know the brave face. I know it… I know it well.”

A few turns, and lights of some old establishment appeared on a corner. “Here we are,” Crosby announced. It was an all-night diner. Old, simple, anything but fancy. A remnant from Vegas’s past which had somehow clung to life, with its tarnished chrome, plate glass windows, and flickering neon. Pulling into a parking spot, he got out and opened Lisa’s door. “Trust me,” he said. That smile was back, but there, bathed in the cheap fluorescent light streaming through the diner’s window, was illuminated pain behind it, and an understanding. “You looked like you could use some pie.”

Lisa stepped out of the car and took in the site of the diner. She’s been in Vegas for over a year but she didn’t know about this place. It seemed like a place her boyfriend, Damario, would know about, though. She’d have to remember this the next time the two went out together. She gave a soft chuckle. “Pie?”

“Yeah, pie,” the genet smiled a bit wider. “Sometimes it’s what you need. C’mon, they know me, here. We’ll get the good table.”

The “good table” was simply a regular booth meant for four, identical to most of the rest. The standard sort, formica tabletop trimmed in chrome, low-back seats made of that special super-squeaky vinyl, with one end of each bench seat butting up against the wall, with a window to look out at the lights from.

“Thanks, Flo,” Crosby said to their waitress as she set down a cup of coffee for him right away.

“And you, dear?” Flo asked. Her voice spoke to a life as a former chainsmoker, and she might have been the waitress there for decades. “Coffee? Tea? Somethin’ else? I already know what this one’s orderin’.” She pointed at Crosby with the butt of her pencil.

“Coffee’s fine, thank you,” Lisa said in a polite yet hushed voice.

“Cuppa joe, comin’ up,” Flo nodded, ticking a box on her order pad. Looking back at Crosby, she asked, “One piece? Two?”

“Two,” Crosby nodded. “The usual.”

“You got it, boss. Pity about that game, tonight. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all,” Flo gave the pair a conciliatory smile, then headed back to fetch Lisa’s coffee.

Crosby blushed lightly, smiling. “So, yeah, I might come here… every time we lose,” he admitted.

“Actually,” Lisa said nodding with approval. “That’s not a bad idea. Would certainly make the sting of losing feel way better.” Lisa, too, was doing her best to keep up a joyful appearance, but it was a pitiful attempt.

Flo returned with Lisa’s coffee, then vanished back into the kitchen again. Crosby took a sip from his mug, having added no cream nor sugar, then sighed as he set it back down.

“A long time ago, someone took me to a place like this after a bad game,” he began to explain. “I didn’t understand it at the time. You might not either, but that’s okay, I’m not expecting you to. But it’s more than just the loss, Lisa. Something’s wrong.”

He immediately held up a paw, defensively, and continued before he could be interrupted. “Not everyone can see it,” he assured her. “Most can’t. The fans? None of them. But I can. I’ve been there. I’ve been on that side of the table before, with a veteran teammate talking to me about things I didn’t want to have to explain. I’m not asking you to explain, Lisa, trust me I’m not. I just want to let you know that I see it. I get it. And I’m here for you because I care about you. You’re more than a teammate, you’re a friend. Friends are things we have precious few of in this kind of life.”

Flo had been hanging back, a plate held in each paw, and only approached once Crosby had finished speaking. “Two usuals,” she said, nodding. Before each player was placed a generous slice of homemade peach pie, on a clean, simple white plate. “Enjoy.” With that, she was gone.

Lisa picked at the pie with her fork, not really taking any amount of it to eat. Not that it didn’t look delicious. She kept her gaze low. “I appreciate this, really. It’s nice, you know, to have something feel stress-free for once.”

Crosby took the tip off of his slice of pie with the edge of his fork, then speared it to pop it into his mouth. A very satisfied rumble followed a bit of chewing, and he reached for his coffee to wash it down.

“We’ve got enough stress in our lives as it is,” he chuckled. “The game, trainers, Coach, the media, the fans, FMZ, family stuff, agents, you name it. Finding a way to keep yourself is vital, I’ve found.”

Another section of pie was eased off with the side of his fork, and he chuckled, “Though, I do admire how you’ve kept yourself, Lisa. I saw your press conference, I saw the change in your attitude once you got the tattoo. You’re strong. Stronger than you know, stronger than anyone will ever understand. Except those of us who have been there.”

The genet looked into her eyes as he said those last words, forcing a swallow afterward. It took her a moment, but Lisa looked back into his eyes. When it finally registered what he had said, her own face went serious. She didn’t know whether she should ask about it or not, but she gave him a nod of acknowledgement before looking away again.

Though her eyes were averted, she was now fully present. “People keep calling me that: strong. I wish I didn’t have to be. Sometimes I wish I were boring.” She chuckled a little saying that and finally began to eat her slice.

“It would be nice, sometimes, wouldn’t it?” Crosby chuckled. “But it wouldn’t be us. Besides, we like to imagine our boring lives as an extension of those we know, and what we’ve done. I could dream all day long about just being in Luukas’s arms in bed or going on drives with him. But I’d never have met him if it wasn’t for the game. If it wasn’t for having to push myself every day, and push my team, while they push me in return. I miss him, Lisa. I miss him so much that it hurts. But I lost him because I wasn’t strong. I blamed myself for my hearing loss, I let it get between us. Self-pity turned to self-loathing, and I ran. I left him.”

The genet’s voice began to quiver a bit, and he stared down at his pie. “I left a good, wonderful man. A man I loved, and who loved me, because I wasn’t strong enough to know when I needed to ask for help. I blamed myself for things which were out of my control, and I ran away.”

A sigh, another poke at his pie, followed by carving off his next bite. “You can’t do that, Lisa. You can’t blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault. It can cost you everything, if you let it. I don’t know what it is that’s haunting you, but it’s outside the game, and I can’t let it destroy you as it nearly destroyed me.” Crosby looked back up, his eyes wet. “This game saved my life, and it saved it for a reason. I don’t know if that reason is you, but damn it, I have to try and help when I can see someone hurting like I did. Especially when it’s someone I know has been as close as I was to the edge.”

“I know! I,” Lisa started saying. Her voice was slightly elevated. Was she defending, was she angry? Neither, really. The slew of emotions she saw in him, how she related to every word he said, all of it was overwhelming at first. She was reminded of her talk with Emina back just before she held her press conference. She remembered how she felt when she thought no one understood what she was going through. She thought about how she felt when Emina told her that she had love and support after her attempt. She thought about how when Emina noticed that Lisa had never had that support, she hugged her. She thought about how that hug felt and what it meant to her. Was this what Crosby needed? Should she do the same? How would she know if it was the right thing to do? Was she overthinking it?

Lisa brushed her fingers through her hair and held her head. “I know,” She began again in a calmer tone. “Logically, I know. You’re right. It’s when you feel like you’re alone that all of that logic seems to disappear. But I’m not alone.” She sat straight in her seat and took a slow, calming breath. “I’m not alone,” she repeated, this time listening to what she was saying. “And neither are you.” She wanted to say more, but she couldn’t think of much more to say. Maybe that was all she needed to say. Either way, she sat with her head slightly tilted back, not touching her pie.

Crosby gave Lisa all the time she needed, not pushing, not demanding. Just being there. What he didn’t expect was for her to be there for him in return. It caught him off guard, managing to bring an honest smile to his face.

“Thanks,” he nodded, then chuckled. “You’re the… fourth person I’ve ever told, by the way. About, y’know… that.”

Busying himself with cutting away another piece from his pie, Crosby decided to simply say it. “It was draft night. 2010. My family wanted to watch some movie on HBO, so I had to go down to the basement and watch the draft on our old TV. I waited all night, crossing my fingers that with each pick, my name would be called. And each time I told myself, ‘there’s more picks coming, you’ll still get selected!’

“But I wasn’t. It was well after midnight, kind of like now, and there I sat, on our old couch, watching our old TV, and I realized I didn’t have a new life, and I couldn’t stay in my old one. Basketball was supposed to be it. I was captain of my team, and we went to the finals! I didn’t understand it. And my family? They didn’t understand me at all. Never did, and I knew that once they found out I was gay, I was going to be out on my tail. It felt like my world had ended. That everything I’d ever done wasn’t good enough.

“I should have just gone to bed. But I didn’t. If I went to bed, I’d just wake up in the same misery I felt. Confusion led to anger, and that to despair. Before I knew it, I’d driven my car out to the riverside, and I had my dad’s .38 in my paw. They sound just like they do in the movies when you cock the hammer back. That was a bit of a surprise, honestly. The barrel was in my mouth when my cell phone rang. I had already started to pull the trigger; I don’t know how the surprise didn’t finish the job.

“I set the gun down and answered the phone. It was Jackson Price, new GM of the Santa Ana Spectrums. He wanted me. He personally called me. It should have been some assistant, or some secretary or admin to do it, and probably in the morning, but Jackson Price called me at that very moment and said he was interested in me as a walk-on.”

Running a paw through his own always-messy headfur, the genet found himself able to smile. “Since then, I knew I couldn’t back down. I always had to keep pushing, keep trying, and keep pushing others who didn’t fully understand the opportunity they had been given. I can still taste the steel from time to time, and I fight depression every day. Every day, Lisa. On the night Omar Pink found me crying in my car after a game, he took me to a diner a lot like this one. Ordered us some peach pie, and we just talked. Talked about the hard stuff, about life, and he told me he wasn’t going to give up on me.

“And I’m not going to give up on you. Whatever it is you’re dealing with, you’re not alone. I know I have no right to pry into your personal life, so I won’t. But I will say that if you ever want to talk, I’m here. And I know a place with great peach pie.” He winked.

Lisa smirked back at him. “Yeah.” She took another breath. She was there in the car with him the whole time he spoke. She could taste the steel, she could feel what he was feeling, or, rather, the lack of feeling that might have overwhelmed him at the time. It was the same as when she tied the rope around her neck. At that time, she was, indeed, alone. She’s been so used to taking care of things by herself out of necessity. But like she said, she wasn’t alone anymore. Maybe this was a good opportunity to open up if only a little.

“Tonight’s been rough,” she sighed. “I think, I think I lost my father tonight. He’s kept some serious secrets from me my whole life and now that I’ve learned some of those secrets, he’s completely transformed. He threatened me, hit me.” Something she knew would cause her anger when she said it instead caused her eyes to start flowing. “I found out that my mom isn’t really my mom, that I’m not an only child but instead have THREE older brothers.” She stopped to wipe her eyes. “But the funny thing is, that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s that in these last few months I’ve really reconnected with my father but now, he’s not just a stranger, I’m afraid of him.”

“He hit you?” Crosby blurted. His face was surprised at first, but that quickly warped into anger, the muscles in his forearms standing out as he balled his paws into fists. Those fists flexed as he fought back the urge to focus on that, but with some rational thinking, he slowly relaxed. “If he’s hid all that from you, do you really think he was trying to reconnect?” he then asked.

“I mean, I know I don’t know all the facts, but from just this I’m reminded of what happened to Scott Paulichek. His dad got close with him after he became a player but turned out it was just to steal all of Scott’s money. Money does stupid things to people, even family. If you don’t know your dad’s true intentions, I’d say you’re better off keeping away from him for now. But you can’t shut the door entirely, as maybe there’s a reason for - No.

“No, not if he hit you, too. I mean, my dad is a total jerk, yeah, but he never crossed that line with me. I’d say you’re right to shut your dad out for the time being. But… three older brothers? Heh, and here I thought two older brothers was bad! You, um, gonna get to know them?”

“I met one back in Albany. He’s a dentist. He actually already knew about me. But the other two? I don’t even know that side of the family. I just found out I was related to these people today. Like, I just learned the name of my real mother and everything. I have no idea what they’re like. And her husband was apparently trying to kill me.” Lisa started to trail off. “I don’t even know. This whole thing just sounds crazy to me.” She finally took a sip of her coffee. Normally she’d add a bunch of cream and sugar, but like Crosby she drank it black without giving it a second thought. “I told my dad I was gonna go looking for that side of the family, but I don’t know if I will. Maybe. I don’t know. I did say I wish I were boring sometimes. Maybe I should stop seeking out trouble?”

It was more complex than Crosby had been expecting, with as many twists and turns as some of his favorite crime novels. The sort of thing which would almost be funny, if it weren’t real. But it was real, and he could see how it was affecting his teammate, his friend.

“Well, first off, I’d say don’t go seeking out your mom’s husband, if he’s been trying to kill you. Second, I’d tell the police about that one, get a restraining order or something. And third… look at it this way: You’ve gone from having a dad you’re clearly not on good terms with, to now having siblings that you might find are good family. I mean, maybe, I hope. It’s worth a try, I think, but after you’ve had some time to step back and process it all.”

He started into the crust end of his pie slice, his coffee nearly empty. “My parents basically disowned me when I got outed. My brothers closed the door, too, though one of them has sort of started to come around lately. Sometimes the best thing you can do for family issues is to just not talk to them. It sucks. I miss having a family, but I have to be who I am; I can’t change that for them. And you shouldn’t have to change you for your family.”

Spearing that next bit on the tines of his fork, he chuckled, “Besides, you’re a starting player on a pro basketball team, what kind of brother wouldn’t want to get to know you? There are definite perks to fame, you’ll find. Getting to meet people is one of the best ones, heh.”

“Heh, true. I just don’t know what to believe anymore. That whole crazy husband story might just be another way to keep me from seeking them out. My dad always knew how to play with my doubt,” Lisa scoffed. “And as far as giving him another chance, I don’t think I will. I mean, these last few months were his second chance. I’m not doing this again.” She took what seemed to be a more “confident” bite of her pie. “What’s in this pie,” she laughed when she took notice of her new demeanor.

“Peaches, sugar…and, uh,” Crosby answered, poking at his last remaining bite with his fork. “You know, I really don’t know how pie is made, I’m just content to eat it. Especially when I can share.” With that, he popped the last bite into his mouth, grinning as he chewed. He was back. The happy, cheerful Crosby that the Wildcards had known all season had returned, and this time it wasn’t a mask or affectation, it was the true Crosby coming through.

“Don’t ask me,” Lisa laughed. “I sure as hell have no idea.” She carved into her slice and stared down at it as she thought to herself. “You know what? Fuck it!” She raised her fork as though she were going to make a toast. “Fuck all the things that want to bring us down. Fuck shitty fathers. Fuck depression. I’m not gonna let these things take me down. I fought too hard just to be here. You, too. All of us.” The more she spoke the more impassioned she sounded though she felt like her words were starting to go all over the place. Maybe it was all the stress of the day, or the fact that it was late, or the sugar crash she would certainly feel at some point. She was full of a determination that at least stemmed from a place of wanting to be happy.

“Frick all the things,” Crosby laughed, raising his coffee mug in a toast, then tipped back the last of its contents. “And let’s start winning some freaking games, while we’re at it. We deserve it. Besides, Christmas is coming, maybe Santa will bring us some W’s.”

The time for serious talk had run its course, with the next half hour consumed by funny stories about seasons past, be they pro or college ball, or pranks they’d pulled on friends or teammates. The coffee flowed freely from Flo’s thermal carafe into their mugs, and by the time Crosby dropped Lisa back off at the team parking area, both exchanged exhausted smiles.

“Drive safe, okay?” Crosby called out, watching Lisa get into her Porsche. “Enjoy Christmas break! G’night! Merry Christmas!”

And with that, the two headed off their separate ways, having grown closer as friends.

Featured Characters

Crosby Sutters Lisa Belle DuPont

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