I: The Locker Room in Avon
I cannot recall how old I was, but I do remember that there was body checking allowed, which, as a young hockey player, was all that mattered. You were either a squirt, an eight-to-ten year old that could not body check or take slap shots, or you were older than that, a nebulous age range of peewees to high school varsity, where concussions occurred, stakes seemed higher and puberty mattered.
It was an age where triple A teams existed for the best players, and summer training camps became custom for parents who wished for their children to remain competitive even if elite level play was not a possibility. I for one found myself skating in August in Simsbury, the next town over, for a two week camp whose cost I cannot recall but was likely absurd, being chased by a white haired man in a black and yellow track suit whose abilities even at that age far surpassed my own. My father would remark for the two or three summers that I attended that camp how wonderful the instructor was, how it was worth the money, and me agreeing, sipping on some sports drink I had bought from the vending machine with his money minutes earlier, wondering which route he would choose to drive us back to Avon.
I was always a middle ranked player; never the first string defenseman, but never the bench warmer. My skill set never developed to that of a top notch skater, but I was able to scrap enough to remain a viable player throughout my youth and into high school. I never knew what it was to play triple A hockey, but was able to make it onto the A team for my age bracket, usually in the second of two seasons.
It was, of course, easy to see who the natural skaters were, who could easily get a breakaway without trying and who would be playing first string on the A team in any given year. I generally satisfied myself with being liked by the coach and by my teammates, and gaining a reputation for being strong on penalty kill. That seemed enough to me; my father rarely pushed beyond that, and when he did, it was generally because I had chosen not to go to practice either because of schoolwork or bronchitis.
In the year in question, again, at an age I do not recall, a boy from our area, Garrett, showed up for tryouts to our amazement. As children do, we seemed to have knowledge that he had played for a triple A team in years prior, but was now for some reason joining the town league. Looking back, we could have speculated, we could have dreamt up rumors to chew on, but I think we shrugged our shoulders, knowing full well that he would make the A team.
Our predictions were correct, and we were glad for it, initially at least. He was a strong player, to be sure, and proved to be an asset as forward. I don’t recall if he was a top scorer or not, but he certainly was quite the skater.
Tensions did arise at some point in the season, however. I think it was probably because we suspected that his father was lobbying on his behalf for more ice time. That might not have been it, though. Either way, the locker room, where teams are made and broken, underwent a noticeable change.
The team parents also seemed capable of factionalizing. Or maybe their fissures occurred earlier on and we mimicked those fault lines thinking that they were our own. It was through one of those father-son conversations in the short drive back to my house in the family minivan that it was suggested by my father that a great treasonous phrase had been uttered by Garrett.
“He says he’s too good for this team,” my father said. It is possible that the initial ‘he’ was in fact Garrett’s father, looking back at this sentence. It stuck with me, a germinating seed that gradually pissed me off.
I don’t know, maybe I told Brandon, another teammate of ours. Maybe he heard it from his father, who during my time in the youth hockey program, had been an assistant coach on and off. Regardless, Brandon also had working knowledge of Garrett’s supposed sentiments (which, as fortune would have it, were never actually confirmed).
Brandon’s knowledge is of consequence; one evening, after practice, we were all undressing in one of the locker rooms at the rink (which belonged to the private school for boys in Avon, but which was rented out to the town league, too), and there was bickering between Garrett and someone else. It was likely something trivial, about who fucked up during practice or hadn’t been trying hard enough over the weekend (it might be of interest that we could swear in the locker room before our parents checked in on us, to our great delight; one of the greatest moments in the history of locker room conversation finding Ryan, a chubby skater with a lisp and phenomenal wrist shot saying to Dan, one of the goalie’s after a relatively good natured teasing fest, “How about I piss in your mouth?”).
Brandon had not been the one bickering with Garrett; as assistant captain, though, he felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of the other party. And he did so with, “Shut up, Mr. ‘I’m too good for this team.’”
I was stunned; I could not believe that he said it out loud. All eyes were now on Garrett, waiting for a comeback, which came in the form of him telling the locker room that my father was spreading rumors, fanning some fire of war against the kid who had played elite hockey and was now down amongst the dirty masses.
My teammates were divided between wanting to stay mad at Garrett and wanting me to confirm or deny this counter-accusation.
Instead of saying anything, I cried, right there in front of the entire team. Now no one knew what to do. I think I tried to say something between choking gasps and sobs, something to the effect of “Shut up,” or “What the hell,” but it isn’t coherent in my memory and probably came out as psycho babble anyway.
Garrett said he was sorry, not for saying that he was too good for the team, but rather for the commentary about my father. I had probably stopped crying but could still feel my swollen face. He said that I could punch him in the arm to make up for it. I did, twice, and we continued on with the rest of the season.
II: A Bus in Russia
In another episode of boys being boys, I consider my second voyage to Russia. Both times it was for hockey; through some sort of miraculous, still ill-understood-by-me connection, our youth hockey program knew of an organization a few towns over that sent sports teams to other countries to act as ‘youth ambassadors,’ and would in turn invite foreign teams over to the US. I think the head of the organization was some man of the cloth, but I never met him; come to think of it, I only ever met one person affiliated with the organization, a man named Dave who had great skin and short black hair, who spoke pretty solid Russian, who was always smiling and who loved to drink.
The first trip had been organized largely by Dave and another parent. The second trip to Russia was spearheaded by Dave and my father; the other parent and his son were no longer in the youth hockey program in Avon.
My father, as far as I could tell, did a fine job organizing with Dave, as assessed by the fact that we made it to Russia, played hockey, and did not get murdered, contract an STD, buy military equipment on the black market, or any number of unseemly things that we thought possible.
I was a freshman in high school, but not yet playing for the varsity team, opting instead to remain in the town program (longer season, more ice time, and a lack of upperclassmen rumored to be quite mean to the younger members of the team).
It was on a layover in Finland that it became apparent that all of the parents were drunk, and that we, the children, had to make sure that we made our connecting flight to Moscow. One of the mother’s particularly raucous laughing cued us in on the fact that something was amiss. A group of us scurried over to the restaurant where we last saw our parents and saw them giggling, smiling and shiny-faced, buzzed at what was probably a relatively early morning hour.
They then took turns pushing one another around on the baggage carts, which were novel in that all four wheels could swivel instead of just the two front wheels to which we were accustomed in the US. My father, who is not a terribly tall or wide man, did manage to fit in one of the carts and was being pushed around by the mother with the distinctive laugh.
A bit later, a few of us had to nudge our parents awake, or at least into awareness, to board our flight. There is a picture of my father taken that morning by another team mother, lying on his back on a row of airport chairs, smiling and somewhat giddy, one hand behind his head. Somehow, all of us made to Moscow, as did our hockey equipment. We went straight from the airport to our first game, where we were summarily beaten by a group of Russian children who were embarrassingly young relative to us.
My father either took it upon himself or was elected by the other parents to be somewhat of a disciplinarian. Perhaps it was because he was in charge of emergency management and disaster recovery for the bank for which he worked, but he seemed to carry with him a fear that at any point, our tour bus, with hyper-active adolescents and their weary parents, would devolve into an anarchic state; that there was a mutiny just waiting to happen, the children cannibalizing their parents after bludgeoning them with their hockey equipment. An urban, post-Soviet version of Lord of the Flies was his nightmare.
And so it was that he would often be the one to tell one of my teammates to be quiet on the bus, or would be the one in the hotel doing headcounts or telling us with a raised voice to stop playing hallway hockey.
I did find it slightly embarrassing and a little unnerving to see him like this. Above all, I hoped that it would not affect my own standing amongst my teammates, that they would be able to separate my own value as a player from my father’s seeming need to enforce and clamp down on any unwelcome shenanigans. And, to be fair, there were several times where I did struggle to see what the problem was, why he felt the need to walk to the back of the bus to single out a kid who was making too much noise.
It did make things somewhat uncomfortable, as I now felt some sort of pressure to preempt my father’s interventions by serving as a cooler, more compassionate intermediary. It proved too tiresome, so instead I would just get nervous when things began to get somewhat out of hand, fearing what might happen.
Once the planned portions of our days were over and we were back at the hotel, he and the other parents unwound at the bar, drinking liberally, taking advantage of the exchange rate to imbibe great amounts of vodka. We, the players, were generally left to do whatever we wanted so long as it did not involve getting us kicked out of the hotel.
I generally spent time with some of the teammates with whom I was close, either in their hotel room or mine, or tried (and failed) to do the homework that I had brought with me (since I was missing a week of school and was struggling through geometry that year), or helped others with their homework.
It turned out that other teammates had found another diversion. With a camcorder that one of their families had brought along, they were reenacting my father’s antics. I never saw the videos, but one of the teammates involved in the recording reproduced the scene in which he played my father for a group of us towards the back of the bus as we drove around St. Petersburg.
He depicted him as an angry alcoholic, and when someone playfully asked him a question as to whether or not we were allowed to do something or another, he replied, slurring his words, “Shut the fuck up!” This merited cheers and laughter amongst those who saw it.
I smiled, not able to make myself laugh, because I could feel myself wanting to cry. The teammate doing the impression repeated the phrase and waved his arms around, and the team laughed again while I pushed back the tears, felt my face getting warm, feared that I was blushing in shame, and probably bit my lip.
Collectively, everyone suddenly realized that I might not find this funny and stopped laughing. The impersonator looked over at me, and said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry, we still think you’re cool, it’s just your dad.”
Since I did not end up crying, there was no apology, no punch in the arm. I didn’t open my mouth; I kept half-smiling, nodding slightly at his comment. I wanted nothing more than to tell him and all who laughed, “You fuckers wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
III: The Rooftop in Hartford
College began, and I turned eighteen on the last day of fall semester finals in December, a day which found me struggling through a calculus exam and driving to Connecticut from Vermont in a snowstorm with a friend. It was a year of mixed successes, the reinvention of the self, and involuntary celibacy. I returned after the spring semester to Connecticut to work.
Since I was now eighteen, I was able to apply for a job as a floating teller for the bank for which my father worked. It was essentially a guarantee that I would get a position, which made me feel a twinge of guilt that I quickly overcame. Even if my getting a position was not really in doubt, I still had to go through the formality of interviewing in Hartford, the branch from which such things originated.
I think I had already been through a phone interview, or had somehow learned the interviewer’s name and also the fact that her husband was a plumber. I put on my suit which smacked of late 1990s fashion (that is to say a squared-off look and the slightest hint of shoulder pads), and my father drove me to the interview, since driving into the city seemed to make my parents uncomfortable. He knew how to get there; he had worked at that branch, a building known in the county as the Stilts Building, before he transferred to an office in New Britain, which boasted a more forgiving commute from Avon.
It must have been a cooler day for late May / early June; my father had on a light jacket. He navigated the minivan onto and off of I-84 East without incident, parking on the rooftop of the parking garage adjacent to the Stilts Building.
We closed the doors to the van and began walking towards the staircase. His hands were in his pockets. We weren’t more than five strides from the van when upon removing his hands from said pockets something in a foil wrapper fell onto the ground.
I did not know what I was looking at when it first fell out. I initially thought it was a piece of candy, such as a Gummi Savers or something like that, so I went down to pick it up for him. When I was staring right at it, I realized that it was a condom.
Having already committed to picking it up, I continued to do so; my father was behind me. I do not know what he was thinking as he saw his son reaching for what represented evidence of infidelity. He did not motion to stop me; thinking back to it, he was probably in shock or in a state of panic. It would be somewhat upsetting if he just didn’t give a shit.
As it came into focus, I thought to myself, That is definitely a condom with more of a sense of fascination than revulsion. It had been a while since one of those had been necessary in my life, and the one time that it had been necessary in the preceding year, none had been available at the moment of need.
After the fascination vanished and I was back on the rooftop stooped over that well known symbol for safe sex with its owner directly behind me, it occurred to me first that my father and I had never had the sex talk, and secondly that it was a statistical impossibility that this condom meant that he was having sex with my mother.
They had been married since 1974 and unhappy since 1994 or 1995 (at least that was the earliest point in my childhood that I was able to notice it). They had only fought physically once when I was in sixth grade, both attempting unsuccessfully to strangle one another. Both emerged uninjured, but my sister and I did notice that the morning after marked a new chapter in our lives: one in which our mother and father did not kiss one another before he left for work.
After that incident, their fights remained verbal, never boiling over, but occurring with increasing frequency. My mother reverted to her maiden name at some point when I was in high school. My friends, upon hearing both last names on the answering machine when they called, assumed that my parents were either separated or were planning on divorcing.
They never did divorce, but their constant arguments continued and by the time I left for College in 2001, she was sleeping in the guest bedroom, reading or watching television while my father snored loudly across the hall. He was always asleep before her. Even if she went to bed before he did.
When I returned home from my first year at college, the fighting had not abated. In fact, in later years, before his retirement from the bank, as he grew unhappier at work after the merger between Fleet Bank and Bank of America, their exchanges were enough to cause me to break down on the staircase of the house whenever I was home visiting; I didn’t even have the time to make it to the bedroom before my breathing eschewed normalcy.
What’s more, their differing work schedules provided further evidence that they had not suddenly repaired their crumbling coexistence in the months since I had left for college, and that they were not enjoying healthy marital sex, as though their behavior had not been enough to convince me.
He was still snoring in the master bedroom while she leafed through a magazine. And I still flinched every time they raised their voices at each other.
So staring at the condom on the rooftop of the parking garage in Hartford jolted me and sent certain words streaming across my field of vision in a rather harrowed superscript: affair, cheating, fuck, who the hell, holy shit.
Later on, I would think to myself, I’m not telling Mom; he’ll get fucked so hard in the divorce if I do and he’d know it was me who told her.
I did the only thing there was to do: I handed it back to him.
He said, “Thanks,” and put it in his pocket.
I walked ahead of him, down the stairs, and told him I’d meet him right outside the building after my interview.
I got the job. He bought me an iced coffee and drove us home.