League of Three
by Emily May
There’s a small town in southwest Michigan that boasts a University and a Wings Etc restaurant, and parents buy homes in subdivisions where their kids will shoot heroin as high schoolers. There is a megachurch off the freeway and the girls are all long-haired and well-mannered. Everyone dreams of leaving before they learn to drive—for what or where, they’re not really sure. Briefly, this town was my refuge, and I became an international roller hockey star in a league of three.
The other two thirds of the league were both back home from LA after being left by their girlfriends for other men. Jake was long and lean with precisely parted hair and the jaw of a runway model. Ben was smaller, with curly hair and bright blue eyes that could affect a deep soulfulness when he met girls. Jake was making salads at a restaurant downtown and Ben was collecting California unemployment checks. I was twenty-five and back at my parents’, too, from the west coast and Southeast Asia, my collegiate idealism having been the victim of a hit and run accident, now yelping and slowly bleeding out onto the pavement. A comfortable basement to collage in and a $5.15 per hour, plus tips, barista gig seemed more appealing than suffering the low-grade nervous breakdown that working to barely pay the rent ensures.
I first saw Jake from across the café where I was busy fulfilling my lifelong ambition of crafting soy mochas with extra whip. He cut a stately figure in his dark Levis and glasses that could’ve been found at Warhol’s Factory. I was still young enough to think such sartorial affectations revealed something about the very truth of one’s character. He spoke in a soft, lilting voice as he ordered his double espressos. A tall, sophisticated babe in a town where other people my age were wearing sweats in public over their spray tan? Maybe this place wasn’t so bad.
After lots of small talk and comped caffeine, we finally made plans to meet outside of my work. We met at a beer tasting event, and I learned he was a drummer who’d recently landed back home after finding himself single. He was living part time between his mom’s and a music studio on the coast, trying to cut an album while session drumming. Some creative math on my part clued me into the fact that despite his perfect skin, he was nine years older than me. We got very drunk and kissed. “I’m in love,” I texted my sister. “You always are,” she answered.
Jake had told me about playing roller hockey with Ben, that they made up national teams and characters for their players, and imagined that they alone were the two teams facing off against each other. I told him that I was the daughter of a hockey coach and had played in high school, and Jake asked if I wanted to join them. Our third date was to Hockey Services, right next to a gun shop off the highway. I laced up a pair of black Bauers and glided around the store. Ben was waiting for us at the rink; I put on my new blades and rolled around tentatively on the shiny red wheels. I immediately slipped on a sharp turn—the first and only spill of what would turn out to be a storied career. I stood up, wiped the blood from my knee, and started skating the perimeter of the cement oval. I was a professional.
I bought pink laces for my new blades, just as I’d done with my hockey skates ten years earlier as the captain of my high school team. Back then I told myself I wanted to play in college, before realizing that the male hockey players wouldn’t want to date their female counterparts. I wouldn’t have made the team anyway. I lacked the size and skill and, most crucially, the hunger and drive that the species of Great Athlete requires to survive in the wild. At sixteen I started tearing through music magazines and buying vinyl, and then lost all interest in hockey players anyway.
“So we dump the puck past the opposite net, then all skate behind the red line. We get back in the zone and have to complete three passes before taking a shot on. Everyone has to touch the puck, and we have five shots to score. After that the play’s over and the other team’s on offense. First team to get to five wins, but they have to win by two.” I tried to let this boy-brain logic seep into my frontal cortex. “Just show me,” I said.
The “other team” in question was still “us” of course; we’d just go from embodying our Russian counterparts to the Canadians. There were eight teams in the league, including standard hockey behemoths Russia, Canada, Finland and the US, along with the wild cards, Germany, Italy, France, and England. Ben, Jake, and I all had a player for each team; there were always only three bodies on the rink, but 24 possible personas. Jake’s Russian, Eegore Von, was the most feared player in the league: a hardened ex-con at 18 who the government had sprung from prison to do their nation proud. My Finn, Jiri, was a beloved veteran who, in a rather Oprah-like fashion, offered giveaways to the crowd by placing bottles of his signature cologne under their seats. Ben’s Italian, Ferrari, was a part-time model with a full-time ego. Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and Will Smith were in attendance every time we played the Staples Center in LA, and Gerry Rafferty would sing the national anthems of both teams. Along with our players, we also had announcer alter-egos: Jake’s Barry provided the majority of the chatter: “I don’t know, Jim,” he’d say ominously when the Russians struggled to keep up with the Finns late in a pivotal match. My Jerry was more of an affable color commentator: “The most beautiful sound in the league, folks,” when the rubber ball hit a Fiji water bottle tied to the cross bar with a solid thunk for a goal. Ben’s Jim was a drunk whose wife had left him and had subsequently sometimes went missing for games at a time, contacting his comrades from Southeast Asia. We forced our friends to come watch and had a website where we posted player profiles:
“Leading this season’s rookie crop is one Jean-Paul Olivier, the young Frenchman with a killer wrist shot and a big mouth. The son of an Olympic curler and mime, J.P. cut his teeth on the ice in in the foothills of the Alps. Earlier this season, J.P. established himself as a presence in the league by trash-talking [Finnish veteran] Jiri in the International Hockey Tribune. J.P. is currently vying for a spot on the All Star team, going up against solid contenders Jamie Murphy and Achek Jones. Should he be snubbed, he can fall back on his film and modeling career, as he’s kind of a babe. J.P. also enjoys water-skiing, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and club drugs.”
Our regular season would be a total of 28 games. For an added element of fantasy, the year would be 1984, which Jake had figured had the same exact calendar as the year we actually existed in, 2012. “This year has a magic energy,” he would say. (We did neglect to account for the chronologically inaccurate USSR and East and West Germany.)
“Emily’s experiencing her second childhood,” my mom would tell people. I personally didn’t think my first one had ever ended. Physically, I inhabited an unlikely state between being consistently buzzed and in the best shape of my adult life. Jake and I would go out to the rink early, break for lunch and lace up again until dark. We named the rink “The Oasis” because it sat, mirage like, in the middle of a field, surrounded by forest. The sun would set and the sky would turn pink and for a moment; while all my friends were living in the Brooklyn-Portland-Austin matrix, it felt like I was doing something real, too. Between games and Miller Lites, we’d lazily skate around and ruminate on our plans for our actual lives. Ben was moving to New York. Jake would finally get his big break: tour with a national band, sell a song for an ad campaign.
Some days we’d roll up to the rink and there would be… other cars. The Doughboys: puffy, pale townies missing wheels in their blades who took slap shots while their girlfriends waited in the Tercel with some Jimmy Johns. The Doughboy of the day would take a glance at our trio and pose the dreaded: “Wanna play a little two on two?” Gone was the subtle beauty of our contest, of completed passes and setting up one’s teammate for the perfect slapshot. In two-on-two, I was just a girl again, perpetually sub-par, with no speed, shot or defensive instinct. But against the Doughboys, Jake was magic. He could out-skate and out-shoot everyone on the rink while dancing around them as gracefully as a ballerina. Here in The Oasis he wasn’t a prep cook, or thirty-five, and living at his mom’s while clinging to what remained of a youthful rock star fantasy. In this game, he would win every time.
After a day on the rink, we’d hit dirty dive bars on the far reaches of town and feed the jukebox quarters for some Genesis deep cuts. The phrase “the other side of the tracks” was surely inspired by this specific locale. Jake’s blue-collar father had inured him to the world of the local roughnecks, white guys in their fifties and sixties with prison tattoos and a gruffness to match, a fresh beer and Keno card perpetually within reach. Jake seemed to revel in that world and his proximity to it, but gazed at it from a comfortable distance through his vintage frames.
Occasionally we’d run into his friends from high school. They were balding, bloated dads in their mid-thirties. Next to them, Jake appeared as though he’d sold his soul to Ponce de Leon for a map to the fountain of youth. Sometimes Jake would “go dark” as he called it, or get so drunk that he’d start fantasizing aloud about his own death. He’d want to throw a chair through a store window on the way out of the bar, just to see the glass break. I failed to let it bother me too much, because I was wide-eyed and twenty-five, with long eyelashes and enough hope and ambition for the both of us. Once he realized that, all of his preoccupations with his own self-loathing and what was surely a very real drinking problem would be over.
One night in July, when his mom was out of town, he dropped me off at my house instead of taking me back to his place, and I knew it was over. At some point, I had already admitted to myself that he didn’t have the energy to take over the world with me. Despite those perfectly tailored jeans and rock star dreams, he was just a simple man who wanted to drink beer with his friends and hit a Fiji bottle with an orange ball. At the end of the day, I was just one of the guys. He avoided my coffee shop for the next eight months.
By the following summer, I’d moved a thousand miles away. I returned to town for a weekend and we set the date for a game. As I stepped into Ben’s Jetta for a ride to The Oasis, the distinct scent of his car transported me back to the summer before. It was the smell of decay: sweat seeping into the bones of the car itself in the August heat perhaps. I was overcome with the memory of a heaving and unquelled desire that had defined the summer before; a deep and heavy longing for my life to begin, and a simple longing to be adored.
Since I left town, Ben had gotten a place with his girlfriend. They’d planted a garden and weren’t going anywhere. Jake told me he’d gotten blackout drunk the night before, and was playing some local shows. He was just pretending. We’d all just been pretending the whole time.
The sun slowly dropped behind The Oasis, and we began to warm-up.◥
Emily May was born in the backseat of a greyhound bus when Ronald Reagan was president and has since lived in more places than she can count/bore you with. She is currently considering improving her credit score and Quaaludes. She lives with her Steely Dan records in Boston, Massachusetts.