Monday, February 6, 2012


Viktor watched Nicole until she was up on the train platform.  He wanted to see her safely home but that was a bit unnecessary and forward.  Plus he had Maddy.  So he turned the pram back toward the Sharp residence.

“How’d I do?” he asked the baby.  She smiled enigmatically.

He’d been grateful the store was empty.  He wouldn’t have wanted people watching or interrupting.  Nicole concentrated pretty hard while she worked with the detailed craft and it had given him time to sneak glances at her.  She had the straightest hair he’d ever seen - it didn’t even curl at the ends.  Just a shiny wave of medium brown with long bangs that she tucked behind her ears.  In the back it was long enough to cover the name on her shirtzee.

Of course she was wearing 19.

She knew him though, which always made it easier.  So many awkward conversations avoided - road trips and superstitions and, if it got that far, money.  He didn’t make what Toews or Seabrook made, but his contract was a million dollars a year, and expiring at the end of the season.  If he kept playing well it could be a lot more soon.

It wasn’t that though.  Viktor could see himself explaining his job to Nicole, and see her understanding.  It was something else - in the way she’d rescued him, then left.  He could believe that if she didn’t know who he was.  Then her Hawks shirt - but she didn’t seem to want anything from him.

He couldn’t stop himself from going inside the store.  

And boy was he glad he did.  An hour alone with her, in the quiet and cozy place, doing something with their hands so he wouldn’t have to remind himself not to touch her.  The whole thing was so innocent, so... comfortable.  It wasn’t like him to feel that way with a new person, especially a beautiful girl.

“So?” Abby Sharp asked, opening the door wide so Viktor could push the stroller through.  

“It went okay, I think.”

“Yeah?” Patrick’s voice called from the kitchen.  Abby scooped the baby up and hugged her, then lead Viktor toward the living room.  Patrick followed with two fresh beers and handed one to Viktor as he sat down on the couch.  He and Abby leaned forward like expectant parents.  Viktor sank into a comfy armchair.

“I met a girl named Nicole, she was really... nice.  Normal.”

He told them the whole story.  They laughed about the cougar, since Sharp was always very popular with the older ladies and he’d used Viktor to fend them off before.  When he got to the part about seeing Nicole in the store window, he paused.

“Wait, do you think she thinks I followed her there?”  Hearing himself describe the coincidence out loud made it sound suspicious.

“No.  She wouldn’t have let you hang around if she thought you were stalking her,” Abby said.

“I mean it’s not like she was wearing a Hawks shirt and you followed her because you knew you could get some,” Patrick agreed.

“Actually... she had her coat on at the coffeehouse.  But she was wearing a Toews shirt underneath, at work.”

The Sharps looked at each other and burst out laughing.  They kept going until even Maddy was giggling and waving around the little stuffed duck Nicole had given her, like she knew exactly what was so funny.

“Hey kid,” Monica called from deep within the apartment when Nicole finally got home and opened the door.  Nicole followed the sound of the voice and found her roommate with a bowl of noodles and a book in her lap.

“Am I real?” Nicole asked.

Monica’s blond hair was piled atop her head like the green part of a pineapple.  “Uh, what?”

“You know the movie A Beautiful Mind?  Where the guy’s a genius and thinks his life is normal but he’s really seeing imaginary people and has a scary shed full of newspaper clippings?”  She dropped her bag on the floor at her feet.

“Are you telling me you’re taking up math?”

“I’m telling you that I met Viktor Stalberg today.  At the coffee shop.  At least I think I did.  But then he came to the store and we made paper airplanes.  So I’m pretty sure I had not just one mental break, but two.  And there was a baby.  And a cougar.”  Nicole placed a hand over her face.  “I don’t know.”

Monica put her dinner down and turned around on the couch, balancing her hands on the backrest.

“Wait, you what?”

“I was at the coffee shop near work and some Desperate Housewife was hitting on Viktor Stalberg.  So I pretended to be his wife or whatever so she’d leave.  Then he asked me to sit down, but I was so nervous I ran back to work.  Then he came to work!  Just popped up!  We made a paper airplane craft project.  I didn’t think it was that weird until I was on the way home and realized it probably didn’t happen at all.  I think I had a stroke.”

Monica stared at her for a long moment.  Nicole waited for her roommate to suggest calling the local psych ward.  But no.

“You spent the afternoon with Viktor Stalberg and you made a paper airplane?  What is wrong with you?! You should be pregnant right now!  Tell me you at least ran your hands through his hair.”

He did have great hair, a sexy little flop that begged to be messed up by a good roll in the hay.  Nicole had noted that, along with a lot of other surprisingly real details, during her psychotic episode.  She was standing there with her mouth open when her pocket vibrated.  She and Monica locked eyes.  

The screen showed digits - it wasn’t a number saved to her contacts.  Nicole’s heart flatlined and she hurried to open the text.

Maddy stole that little duck.  And chewed it.  She has no teeth, but I don’t think you can sell it.

“My delusion is texting me.”

“Ask him what kind of conditioner he uses.”

Viktor had kissed Maddy goodbye and caught a cab home, all the while thinking about texting Nicole.  He only waited because it seemed too soon, only an hour after they’d parted.   His apartment was clean and quiet and after ten minutes of pretending he had anything else to do, he gave up and sent her the message.  Then he left the phone on the coffee table and made himself go into the other room - only to hurry back when it beeped two minutes later.

Nicole: You got a plane, she got a duck. Seems fair.

Afraid he’d talk himself out of doing what he wanted, Viktor quickly replied.

Viktor: Seems like she and I owe you something, then.  Dinner tomorrow?

He checked his watch - he’d made it an hour and a half from leaving her side to asking her out.  Not very impressive.

Back in her apartment across town, Nicole stared at the screen.  Monica repeated herself, “What? What? What?” but no answer came.  After a very long moment, Nicole’s arm shot out and threw the phone into the couch.

“WHAT?” Monica shouted.  Nicole just pointed at the phone.  Monica fished it out from between the pillows and her face lit up.

“He wants to...,” but Nicole didn’t get to finish her sentence.  

Monica’s fingers flew over the screen - one short word, five total clicks.  Then she looked at her roomate.  “So do you.”

Nicole ran a hand through her hair for the ten thousandth time and looked at the clock again.  She had the urge to change her outfit, take off all her makeup and do it over.  But she’d already done that twice.  This combination of nice jeans, high-heeled slouchy brown boots and a drapey cream-colored silk top had been the winner in wardrobe roulette.  Her hair was down and simple and she wore dangly gold earrings that made a tinkling sound when she moved her head.

She hadn’t been so jittery the day before - everything had been a happy accident with no time to plan or panic.  But more than that, Nicole had felt a kind of calm in Viktor’s presence and had been proud of herself for it.  The minute he left that had gone out the window.

After Monica accepted his date on Nicole’s behalf, she’d returned the phone.  Nicole sent her address and agreed Viktor would pick her up at seven.  Now it was two minutes to seven and her heart was jumping around like popcorn.  A beep of her phone said it was showtime.

Viktor drummed his hands nervously on the steering wheel.  He’s chosen a cashmere navy blue sweater with a blue and white pinstriped dress shirt underneath.  He cuffed the shirt and rolled it up a few times, paired it with dark khaki chinos and brown shoes.  In the mirror he thought he looked like a schoolkid who carried his books in a strap, so Swedish.  So preppy.  It was make-a-good-impression clothing.  He felt antsy and a little too buttoned up, so distracted that he jumped when the passenger side door opened.

“Hi,” Nicole leaned down and flashed that smile at him.

It was like dropping into cool water on a blistering day.  Instantly Viktor felt better.  The tightness in his chest released, his brain stopped skipping.  Nicole swung into the low seat of his black Mercedes with a whiff of the same flowery scent he’d caught when kissing her goodbye.  Her dark hair was glossy in the dome light until she closed the door.

Nicole had expected her blood pressure to skyrocket, her hands to shake and voice to stutter.  He was so big and strapping, he looked like a million dollars.  But she felt surprisingly calm - like everything had just gone silent and she could hear only the strong, steady beat of her own heart.  So calm that she arched up and kissed his scruffy cheek.

“Hey.”  Even his voice was quiet.

He felt a pulse - the urge to wrap her up in his arms made all the muscles clench involuntarily.  He wanted to bury his face in her hair and hold her tight. This girl he didn’t even know.  His fingers flexed greedily and the desire scared him.

I’m such a creep, he thought, slipping the car into gear and pulling away from the curb.

City lights passed outside while they talked about nothing.  Nicole asked about Maddy, Viktor wondered if anyone had bought the book with the airplane instructions.  It was just a few minutes before she realized they were heading in a direction she knew.

“Where are we going?”

“Nowhere.” He turned a corner and the answer was right there: the United Center, half-lit for an off-night.  They skirted the front of the huge building and Viktor turned into a parking entrance Nicole had never noticed before.  She bit her lip to stay calm but the butterflies were loose in her stomach.  

“You’re kidding.”

He took a spot right near double-glass doors that had the United Center logo on them, with smaller Bulls and Blackhawks logos underneath.


I can’t even, she thought.  Viktor was already at the trunk and had a black backpack over one shoulder when she finally managed to get to her feet.  He smiled down at her but didn’t say a word.  

The bright light of the entrance way dimmed the deeper they went into the building, passing darkened offices or closed doors.  Viktor shortened his steps and walked by Nicole’s side, feeling even bigger than his 6’3” compared to her smaller frame.  The only noise was their echoing footsteps in the the maze.  

They turned a corner and Nicole stopped in her tracks.  The Blackhawks locker room door looked, appropriately,  like the entrance to a first class airline lounge.  Gleaming silver door set in polished wood, next to a rounded silver column and flanked by a Blackhawks logo on the wall.  Viktor went right for the handle, then leaned around the door like he was checking to see if it was empty.

If it’s not empty, I’ll die, she thought, imagining a game day when this place was full of sweaty, half-dressed... Hell, I’m probably going to die anyway.

Viktor sniffed once, then looked back at her.  “Yeah, it smells.  Sorry.  But come on in.”

It was a square room with a low wooden bench and a head-high shelf running around the edges like a rail.  There were no dividing walls but each section was marked with a red and white nameplate.  In the center of the gray carpet was a huge Indian head logo.

“Don’t step on the...,” he stopped when he saw Nicole had one eyebrow raised.

“I would never,” she said.

But she did stand just shy of the logo and turn around the room in a complete circle.  Whiteboards along one side, a hallway she presumed led to trainers rooms and showers.  It was a beautiful but purely functional working space.  The smell was not enough to take away from the feeling of importance.

“Wow,” she whispered, skirting the logo and following the bench, looking at all the players names.  Viktor stood in front of his stall, casually blocking the way.  Nicole didn’t stop till she was just shy of touching him.

Without looking at his nameplate, she said, “Hmm, Stalberg.  Never heard of him.”

She was really close.  It was almost unnervingly quiet in a place usually filled with shouting and banging.  That’s why he’d chosen this place - not just to impress Nicole, which he knew it would.  It was the only place he could guarantee any kind of peace beside his apartment, which didn’t seem appropriate for a first date.   He wanted to be alone to know if it would feel the same as the day before: the same calm and comfort in her presence.  Once in the coffee shop was accidental, twice in the store might be coincidence.  Call it a date and that could change everything.

Now that they were here, alone with the hint of a challenge in her dark eyes, he wasn’t sure it would matter where they went.

“Too bad, he’s pretty cool.”

She tilted her head.  “Is he cute?”

“Eh.  He’s alright.”

Nicole should have been trembling.  At least that’s what she’d expected: knees wobbling, stomach riding a tire swing.  She wondered if maybe a part of her brain were shielding itself from the full impact.

Viktor Stalberg! I should be...

She should have been freaking out.  Instead she was admiring the impossibly perfect Cupid’s Bow curve of his lips.  Instead she was playing games.

“I don’t know, he sounds Swedish.   They’re awfully handsome.”

That did it.  A quick smile broke across his face and he looked aside, laughing.  Nicole might not have been nervous but she could have fainted from the cuteness.  She ducked around him and saw the next locker belonged to Jonathan Toews. 

Of course it does, she thought.

“Toes,” she deliberately mispronounced.  “Sounds overrated.”

Viktor wanted to grab her around the waist and swing her like a kid.  Instead he scooped up the backpack and reached for her hand.

“Wait, where’s Joey the Junior Reporter’s locker?!” she said as he pulled her out of the room.  

Thirty seconds later Nicole was standing on the Hawks bench, mouth wide open and staring at the empty stands inside the United Center.  

The scale and scope of the arena never failed to awe him.  Especially empty, it looked like a terrifying number of seats to fill.  Yet his team did it, every night.  Viktor waved to a maintenance worker who just nodded and went the other way around.

“This. Is. Terrifying!” she said softly.

Nicole had never been on the bench.  She’d certainly never been in a building meant for twenty thousand bodies when there were only two.  The ice seemed a mile wide, the glass towering over and every chair angled to look right down at her like an ant under a magnifying glass.

“Weird, huh?  

“Intimidating,” she said.

He tugged her coat till she was seated next to him.  “It helps when they’re cheering.”

Nicole just shook her head.  “I had no idea.”

She couldn’t look at him.  Half the house lights were on but it felt like twilight.  Usually the place was operating-room bright, the puck visible from hundreds of feet up in the nosebleed seats.  Now all that empty space only served to make Viktor seem ever closer at her side.  He put the backpack in her lap.  

Nicole unzipped - two deli sandwiches wrapped in white paper, two small bags of chips and a half-bottle of wine with the base stuck into two plastic cups.  

“Turkey or veggie?”

Viktor slid away reluctantly.  He opened the wine while Nicole divided the sandwiches between them and spread the paper on the bench like a picnic blanket.  Her eyes kept drifting back to the incredible sight around them.

“I thought you’d like this place.”  He tapped the edge of his plastic cup against hers.

“Amazing,” she was shaking her head even as the smile came.  “You may have been right about this Stalberg guy.”

While they ate, Viktor told her about his first home game as a Blackhawk.  

“I never played here with the Leafs.  My first game was when they raised the Cup banner, standing right here at this bench thinking ‘That’s not mine.’”  He paused for a second.  “I bet you loved Versteeg.”

Nicole smiled, finished her bite.  The summer after Chicago won the Cup, they’d traded away a lot of their talent because of salary cap issues, including crowd-pleasing pseudo-rapper Kris Versteeg to the Maple Leafs, for Viktor another two other players.

“Everyone loved Versteeg,” she admitted.

Viktor swallowed a gulp of wine.  “I’ve never been so nervous in my life.  And we lost that game.”

“I remember.”

“Were you here?”  It was silly, but he hoped she had been in the building that night.  It had been a rough one for him -  a type of pressure he’d never felt before.  The expectations were so high.  He felt relief even now, talking about it with someone who seemed to understand.

“I wish!  Tickets were like five hundred bucks.  I cried though, when they raised the banner.  Cried like a baby in front of the TV.”  

Last season had been hard on everyone - new players criticized for under-performing, superstars trying to do it all on their own and a city drunk on winning looking for another sip.   Nicole changed the subject to her first memory of the United Center, a game with her dad when she was about twelve.  

“Dean McAmmond tossed me a puck during warm-up.  I about died,” she laughed at the memory, blushing all over again.  “He wore number nineteen.  Now no one else will ever wear that number here.”

Viktor put his chips down and held out his hand.  “Come on.”

He twined their fingers together, opening the gate with his other hand and led Nicole in slow, sliding steps until they were standing at center ice.  The world definitely looked different from down here.  

The half-smile on her face was so genuine.  With the light catching her hair, she looked like someone who’d just won the prize of a lifetime on TV.  But it was just them.  She did the slow turn again, eyes wide and gripping his hand until she’d seen the 360-degree view.  

“I can’t belie....”

Viktor kissed her.  He touched his lips to hers in mid-sentence, agreeing that he couldn’t believe it either.  Couldn’t believe what he was doing, or where, or how quickly.  And he couldn’t believe he’d waited so long.

Nicole forgot what she was saying.  She just held still and kept squeezing his hand.


  1. Perfect first date! I'm loving this!!!

  2. This story is just reaffirming my belief that Stalberg is actually the perfect human. I love the way they are interact, that they seem to absorb what should be nervous energy.

  3. off to google/youtube Stalberg. What have you done Juliet?