Zack merely nods at me, his eyes now muddied with consternation. I shrug—mentally this time—and head around the SUV to get in. Not sure what’s so confusing about my story. It’s not that unusual…poor kid from a poor family. People like me are a dime a dozen, but I suppose Zack travels in circles that may not deal much with my kind.
Zack is sliding into the driver’s seat as I’m hauling myself in. The differences between us are obviously glaring. He’s a professional athlete who can afford this expensive SUV, designer clothes, and a haircut that probably costs more than my food budget for a month. I’m wearing Mark’s hand-me-down sweatshirt because I don’t own a winter coat, and jeans that I’m sure came from either my sister, Kelly, or a thrift store, I can’t remember which, but are certainly at least five years old themselves. I guess it might be hard for him to understand me and my background.
I understand him well, though. He’s a man grieving, I can see that. I expect I’m intruding on his life, which has already been fractured and turned upside down. I’m also being brought in to provide a critical role for his son, and that has to provide him angst as well. Add to that I’m kind of dorky and I speak my mind, which I know is an odd combination. I definitely get why Zack probably isn’t very keen on me coming into his life right now.
“And how does that make you feel, Zack?”
Motherfucking clichéd motherfucker.
I wish I didn’t have to use my inside voice for that sentiment, but I expect voicing it out loud would not be conducive to me getting back out on the ice.
I sit in Dr. Armand Pannaker’s cozy office in downtown Raleigh. The walls are painted in light blue and decorated with framed degrees and awards. I’m not here by choice but rather at the insistence of the Cold Fury’s management, who wants to make sure my mind has healed as well as my wrist. One visit with a psychologist, they said, so we can make sure you’re ready.
I don’t need a fucking shrink for me to know that I’m more than ready to move past the wallowing pit of sadness I’ve been immersed in, and I’m more than ready to get back into the game. In fact, I’m thinking getting back into the lineup is going to help save my sanity by giving me something more positive to focus on. I guarantee playing hockey again will alleviate the pervasive numbness that has swallowed me whole.
“Zack,” Dr. Pannaker says again, “how does that make you feel?”
I slouch down in my chair and raise one leg to rest an ankle on my opposite knee. Putting my chin in my palm, I answer him with candor. “How does it make me feel to have to sit here and talk to you before management deems me sound enough to play again? Pisses me off, that’s how it makes me feel.”
The man doesn’t react and I expect I’m not the only unwilling patient he’s ever seen. He merely nods at me in affirmation and says, “I understand. Am I the first professional psychologist you’ve seen since the accident?”
“Yup,” I answer, point-blank, and hope he gets the message that I don’t want to delve into the reasons why I didn’t feel the need to talk to someone professionally. Actually, I didn’t feel the need to talk to anyone about it.
He doesn’t cut me any slack, though. “Why is that?”
“Because I’m working through everything on my own,” I tell him simply.
“What exactly are you working through?”
Taking a deep breath, I sit up straight in the chair and place both my feet on the ground. Leaning forward, I look him directly in the eye. “I’m working through the guilt. Guilt that Gina died and I didn’t. Guilt she didn’t have her seat belt on and I did. Guilt I didn’t take a different route home. Guilt I didn’t get a chance to tell her one more time that I loved her before she died…”
My words trail off, hover in the air, and then dissipate before I get to what’s really bothering me. Something I haven’t quite started to work through yet.
“There’s something else,” Dr. Pannaker observes. “What is it?”
I shrug, not quite ready to admit out loud that one thing I’m still having a hard time even thinking about. Dr. Pannaker waits for me patiently, but when I don’t say anything more, he takes a different route. “You and Gina weren’t married, were you?”
I tense up, the muscles in my jaw locking tight. “No.”
“Why is that?”
My eyes involuntarily drop away from his gaze. “Just never seemed to be the right time. I was always so busy with hockey, and she was so busy with Ben and our home.”