Chap 1: Play On
Hey guys, I'm back! I know it's been ages since I've written, but I thought I'd get back into it. I'm doing part of my thesis research in the US at the moment so I may not have time to upload chapters if I have a lot of work to do, but I'll try to keep it regular.
September 2018: Brookline High School
The heat was shotgun subtle.
It was the first month back at school – a whole year since they had played street hockey in this kind of weather – and Etta could feel her sweaty palms, slimy against the insides of her gloves. Breathing hard, she prayed she wouldn't lose control of her stick and let the ball slide away as she carried it up towards the goal, dodging players as she went.
Glancing up quickly, Etta continued to stickhandle, manoeuvring around each oncoming player with agility and grace, and passed it across to Ezra as he called for it. Etta ran ahead towards the net, trying to anticipate the play he was trying to set up. Mapping the other players around her, she found that Joel and Ethan were setting themselves up too, trying to outrun the defenders at their sides. Connor checked her from the side, knocking her a few steps over into the fence of the basketball court they were playing on, but she was sure to check him back just as hard. Ezra passed to Joel, who passed back again. Etta saw an opening and ran for it.
"Ez!" she called out, tapping her stick on the ground. She saw him look up and flick the ball into the air, sailing it over the defenders between them. She sprinted ahead and raised her hand to let the ball hit her glove, dropping it to her feet. Without hesitation, she stickhandled the ball around two or three oncoming players, using the best of her dekes and agile footwork. She heard a shout from one of her teammates but couldn't place the voice for the pass. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears, her breathing louder than just about anything else in that moment.
Registering the call, she quickly made eye contact with Joel, taking in his good positioning and making the final judgement to pass to him. Before the defencemen could even react, he'd delivered his best slapshot in a beautiful one-timer, shooting the ball past the doomed goalie into the top right corner of the net.
The team cheered in triumph, with Joel running to Etta and playfully wrapping his arms around her waist, scooping her up. Being the only girl on the school ice hockey team, the guys could all lift her pretty easily. "Joel, put me down!" she laughed, and he set her back down on the ground.
"You're so tiny, I can't help myself," he joked. "I want to carry you around in my pocket."
She shoved him in response as the other players came up to high-five them and Ezra jogged over to her. "Nice deke back there, kid," he told her, grinning ear to ear as he hung an arm around her shoulder, ruffling her hair with his other hand to tease her.
"Ez, stop!" she laughed, shoving his hand away, but leaving his arm where it was. She could feel his bare chest heaving beside her as he they caught their breaths and sat down for a break while the others played on.
Any other girl at her school would swoon at the thought of a bare-chested Ezra Cohen with an arm around their shoulders. He was a swimmer as well as an ice hockey player, and girls often drooled over the sight of his broad chest with just the right amount of muscle. But to Etta, it wasn't anything unusual – she'd been friends with Ezra and the other guys on her school hockey team since they all joined in the 7thgrade. They were practically brothers to her, and her their little sister. Most of them didn't treat her any differently just because she was a girl. While she was usually treated as one of the guys, they were still sometimes protective of her, but at the same time they knew she could hold her own. Anyone could tell that, since she played on a boys' team against guys twice her size.
But when other girls came to watch their boyfriends play street hockey on the basketball courts after school like this, they spent most of their time staring at Etta, her long blond hair making her an immediate standout, gossiping every time one of the guys hugged her after a good play. She'd been threatened by such girls before, having them come up to her after a game absolutely livid, yelling that she had her hands all over their boyfriend and that she'd be sorry if she touched him like that again. Other girls would just glare at her, wondering how guys as like them could ever want to hang out with someone like her. Etta wasn't a loser on the school's social scale, but she certainly wasn't one of those popular girls sauntering through the halls in mini-skirts either. They watched her play in her tank top and shorts, whispering about what a slut she was, letting the guys pick her up and hug her and playfully tackle her, their hands all over her body.
Today was no exception.
"Hey, Rink Rat!"
Etta sighed and closed her eyes, ignoring the girls behind her. Next to her on the bench, Marcus nudged her. "Don't answer to that," he muttered, casting them a disapproving look.
She smiled at him. "I won't."
"Forget about them," he continued, smiling back. "They're just jealous because you're a pretty girl and they're not the ones who get to hang around brutally sexy, sweaty men like myself all day."
She responded with a laugh and a shove. "You're so full of it."
"Hey, Rink Rat! I'm talking to you!"
Etta refused to respond. She turned her attention back to the game, clapping her hands. "One minute left, guys! Pick it up!"
The sound of her name came out in a mocking tone, exaggerating the old-fashioned sound of it. As much as she loved "Etta", she despised her full name. God only knows why her parents would call her something like that.
"Jesus, what do you want?" she snapped back at the girls watching the game. The three of them looked completely identical, wearing miniskirts and clinging to the fence of the basketball court, giggling. They'd been in her grade for years but still only called her by her name when pressed.
"Come here for a sec."
Rolling her eyes, Etta set her hockey stick down and jogged over. "Make it quick."
"Ezra, Joel and Ethan – are they single?"
"Ask them yourselves."
"Come on, Etta, help a girl out."
Etta sighed, just wanting to get them off her back. "Ethan's seeing someone. I think Joel is in this weird long-distance thing, but he still fools around. Ez is single."
"What about the black guy?" one asked, gesturing towards the goalie.
Etta crossed her arms. "He has a name."
"Well, I don't know it."
"His name is Jamal. And he's single."
"He's cute," one of them remarked, in a tone that made it seem like she thought she was being daring in saying so, and the other's giggled their approvals.
"Anything else?" Etta sighed.
"No, that's it."
"Brilliant." She jogged back to the game, deliberately not waiting around long enough to hear them whisper their theories about which one of the players she was apparently fucking this week. Then there would be the inevitable follow-up theory of "Maybe she's not with any of them. Maybe she's a dyke." In all actuality, neither theory was true. She wasn't a lesbian, and she definitely wasn't fucking the whole team. At age 15, Etta hadn't even kissed anyone yet.
She shook her head to clear it, picking up her stick to ready herself for the second half. Her side was down 4-2. For now, that was all she would allow to be on her mind.
When Etta first started playing hockey, she was four, waddling along the ice of a frozen Reiden Lake. A month earlier, she'd managed for the first time to skate without holding her Daddy's hand. She'd spent all day out here, skating laps around the little rink Peter had cleared for her, mesmerised by the way her father could skate so comfortably, handling a puck without even thinking.
As it got darker, he skated backwards around her, pivoting and switching to forward crossovers, spinning a couple of times and playing with the puck, passing it between his feet before shooting easily at the net at the end of the rink. From the lakeshore, Olivia called him a show-off on her way into the house to get warm. Etta clapped her hands, and her father bowed as he skated over to her. "How's your helmet, kiddo?" he asked her, kneeling to check that it was alright.
"You warm enough?"
"Yes." She tilted her chin up to let him check her helmet strap, noticing the line of frost forming along the edge of his beanie. "Why don't you wear a helmet, Daddy?"
"Because I'm silly," he admitted, looking annoyed with himself for not setting a better example. "You should always wear your helmet. Make sure those clever little brains of yours stay in your head."
He patted her helmet and stood tall, brushing the frost off his beanie and looking out over the rink, his breath coming out in tunnels of smoke. Etta remembered thinking he looked like a dragon, mighty and strong, with a body that would always be strong enough to carry her and protect her.
He seemed so enormous to her back then.
She tapped his leg to get his attention.
"Why can't girls play hockey?"
He turned to her immediately. "What?"
"Why is hockey only for boys?"
"It's not. Whoever told you that is an idiot."
"Eddie told me."
Her father smiled a little, bending down to her again and holding her in his hands. "OK, I shouldn't have called your cousin an idiot – that wasn't nice. But he is wrong. Girls can play anything boys can play. If anybody tries to tell you differently, you train harder, skate faster, play better than anyone else. You prove them all wrong. OK?"
"OK," she replied, not really understanding his meaning.
"Do you still want to learn to play hockey?"
"Yeah – I want to play like you, Daddy. But Mommy says I'm not allowed. It's too dangerous."
"Well, your Mommy and I had another talk about that," he said, skating to the edge of the ice to get something from his bag, "and we decided to get you an early Christmas present."
He presented her with the tiny, wooden hockey stick as if it were made of gold. Her eyes went wide. "Really, Daddy? I can play?"
He grinned, handing it to her. "Yes. But you have to be careful."
"It's pink!" she giggled, swinging it as if she were taking a slapshot. There were glittery shapes on the side too. She couldn't read much yet, but she knew they spelled her name.
"We thought you might like that," Olivia added, smiling as she came back out from the house carrying coffee, gingerly stepping onto the ice to meet them. "It even matches your skates," she laughed, hinting at Etta's pink laces.
"Thank you, thank you!" she exclaimed, wrapping her arms around both of their legs and quickly skating off to play. She was so excited that she tripped a couple of times, scrambling up to keep on skating.
"Be careful!" her mother called after her.
"She's fine," Peter replied.
They watched their daughter play until it got dark, hearing her delighted squeals every time she managed to clumsily push the puck into the net. Olivia leaned her head against his shoulder affectionately, taking his hand. "You better not make me regret letting her do this."
Peter couldn't help but laugh at that. He kissed the top of his wife's head and pulled her close. "Of course you won't. Look how happy she is."
It amazed Etta how much hockey had changed since she started. Her first Mites team had five girls in it. By Pee-Wees, they were down to two. Since then, it had just been Etta and the boys. When she was 13, the school tried to cut her out of the team, switching it from a mixed division to a male one as the players got older. There was no girls' team. She would be able to play on a regional girls' team outside of school, but it wouldn't be the same – she wouldn't be able to play with her best friends anymore. As soon as she came home in tears to tell her parents, they were on the phone to the Head of Sports yelling something along the lines of "Excuse me - our daughter can't do what?"
Etta raised hell on her own too. She started a petition that gathered almost 400 signatures from students at the school. She wrote to newspapers, even to the Bruins. Her coaches vouched for her, and her teammates shockingly agreed to forfeit every game until she was allowed back on the team. She was one of them – part of the family. It certainly didn't hurt that she was one of their top goal-scorers, either.
Needless to say, she'd been allowed to play on the boys' team ever since. This year, they even allowed her to be an extra sub for the varsity team as well. What she lacked in size and brute strength, she made up for in speed, skill and discipline. Players underestimated her and she knew that. Occasionally a burly opponent would use his size to try and bodycheck her into intimidation, but she didn't take that shit from anybody – she delivered as many checks as she got, even if they were less effectual. The defencemen on her team were very protective of her and often started fights with anyone who was deliberately being too aggressive, but they knew she could handle herself. She trained harder than anyone else. She was early to every practice, and was the last to leave. If a coach asked for 10 push-ups, she'd give them 15. Her small size and exceptional skill allowed her to weave through players more easily, at higher speeds. Her teammates always said, "If in doubt, pass to Etta". Once she had the puck, she could dance around anybody.
The game was the same as ever – fun, intense, rough. It had gotten more competitive in recent years, but she loved it with the same awe she'd possessed when she was four. The game hadn't changed. The locker room, however, certainly had.
"Good work today, guys. If we keep up practicing off-ice like this, we'll kill at regionals this year," Mike, their captain, panted, and the others muttered in agreement. He set an ice box full of oranges down in middle of the floor and everyone lunged for them. "Feast, my loyal minions, feast! And a 'Thank you, Captain' is always appreciated."
"Thanks, Captain Mike."
"Yeah, thanks man."
Etta sat on the bench, happily eating her orange and letting the sugar be a sweet relief after a hard game. She could overhear the guys talking about some girls in her class – "She has great tits. I'd fuck her", "I swear she had no gag reflex, it was unbelievable", "Dude, you're lying, you could never get with her" – but she wasn't listening. The locker room had become more and more of an alienating place for her in the last year or so as her teammates started dating. It had started with them asking for advice on how to ask girls out, but now it was all about competing sexual experiences and she had nothing to contribute to that. Not that they ever asked her to, anyway.
Girls often asked her how she could possibly change with the guys. Wasn't she ever scared they would perv on her? Did she ever get a good look at them? And if so…how big? What most people didn't understand was that the "changing" that took place was mostly just taking off hockey pads. If they were playing street hockey in the summer, like today, they would maybe change shirts and that was it. The locker rooms didn't have showers, and the guys weren't pervy – if anything, they avoided looking at her as much as possible. It would be like looking at their sister. At the very most, a guy might see her bra for a split second while she put on a clean shirt, if he even dared to look, but Etta didn't consider that any different to being in a bikini at the beach. Besides, she would happily put up with a little awkwardness rather than miss out on all the good things that happened in the locker room – all the joking, all the food, all the celebration after a win and the encouraging comfort after a loss. She wouldn't give up those experiences with her friends for anything.
Someone nudged her shoulder, sitting beside her. "Hey."
It was Jamal. She smiled. "Hey. You must be sweaty."
"Oh, I am. It's disgusting," he laughed. Being a goalie, he was the only one who had worn near-full gear during the game, in 90 degree heat that was totally out of character for a Boston September. "Why, you want some?" he asked cheekily, reaching out to rub his sweaty hands all over her face and arms.
"Eugh! Stop!" she laughed shoving her away from him.
Settling down, he let her go and stripped his chest pad off. He'd worn nothing underneath, revealing his taut torso; the rich, brown expanse of his skin. He groaned and leaned back against the cool surface of the wall. "God, that's perfect…"
Etta had to fight not to blush.
"Nice work today," he complimented, starting to peel his orange.
"You too. The glove save you made on that rebound shot in the 2nd half – incredible."
"Thanks for saying. Coach has me working on my rebounds lately, but I still have a lot to improve on."
Of all the players on their team, Jamal was the only one who was humble. Even when they played against each other in training, he'd always acknowledge the good shots she made when he failed to save them. He was also one of her only teammates who, to some degree, also knew what it was like to be an outsider. He was the only black kid she knew who played or even liked hockey – it was still very much a "white" sport. He was proud of it, though. His all-time favourite NHL goalie was Malcolm Subban from the Bruins, and he wore that jersey to every pick-up game. The team never made a big deal of it, though opposing players sometimes did. Most of these players weren't actually racist – it was just to rile him up and distract him from making his saves. Weaker guys would be constantly getting into fights over this, but he always showed remarkable restraint and channelled 100% of his focus into his goaltending.
The only exception was in a game last season against Allston High. After a game full of jeers, their centreman had scored against Jamal, then skated past and said, "You should have stuck to basketball, nigger." It was the only time in her life Etta had ever seen Jamal hit someone. The rest of the team quickly turned it into an all-out brawl in his defence, leading to their disqualification. Afterwards, in the locker room, Etta had waited with him until the others went home, then held him as he cried.
"You coming over to Mike's house for pizza later?" he asked her.
"I can't. I have to finish that essay for American History."
"Who's your teacher?"
"I feel bad for you. People that sinfully boring shouldn't have teaching licenses."
"I know, right?" she laughed.
"It's a shame you can't come tonight. It'd be more fun with you there."
They shared a shy smile. In conversations like this, Etta wondered if Jamal liked her as more than a friend. For a while, she had liked him – they had even come close to kissing that night he was crying in the locker room – but they were both too embarrassed to speak of it again after that, and they had fallen back into the rhythm of being nothing more than teammates.
Also, she had started liking someone else lately…
"Hey Etta," Colin called from across the room as he pulled a new shirt on. "You two want the room to yourselves? I think Jamal wants some help taking off his jock strap."
She rolled her eyes, not wanting to give him a reaction – that was all he wanted and she wasn't about to oblige. Jamal glared at Colin, throwing his orange peel at him. "Asshole."
"Just forget it," she told him.
Colin just laughed. "And Etta, since you're so good at stickhandling, while you're down there -"
"Colin, what the fuck?" Mike cut him off. "You don't speak to your teammate that way. Jesus."
"Yeah, that's not cool, man," the others agreed.
"Whatever," Colin scoffed. "Learn to take a fucking joke."
Jamal exhaled and nudged her again as he started to take off the rest of his goalie pads. "You alright?"
"Yeah. I've heard worse than that, don't worry," she chuckled, finishing the last of her orange. "Anyway, I'm sorry I can't make it tonight, but I'll try to be there next time."
Etta wiped her hands of any orange juice and stood up, turning away from him to peel off her shirt. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jamal go quiet and bashfully avert his gaze. It was these little things that made it obvious to everyone – she wasn't just a kid playing hockey with the boys anymore.