Authors: Kyell Gold
“Think of it,” she says, teeth showing in a dazzling smile as she lets me get to the locker room, “as an arranged marriage.”
“I’ve seen her tits,” is the first thing Charm says when I tell him why I can’t go to the strip club with him.
“At this point,” I say, “I’d be surprised if you hadn’t.”
“Oh-Four,” he says. “Can’t remember which month. It was, um, one of those cats-only magazines.”
“Are they still perky?”
“Shut up,” I say, “and tell me if my tie is straight.”
He straightens the tie for me. “Where you goin’? I’m gonna take out that cheerleader, maybe we could double.”
“Xeric Lounge,” I say. “Which cheerleader?”
Charm cups his hands about a foot in front of his chest. “You know,
one.” He shakes his head. “But I ain’t takin’ her to the Xeric. She ain’t that good-looking.”
I smirk. “How good-looking would she have to be?”
“For the Xeric?” He reaches into the open drawer beside his bed and pulls out a magazine, flipping it open to a centerfold of a naked female cheetah lifting her huge breasts with her paws.
“Thanks,” I say. “Got it.”
“You can keep this one if you want,” he says, offering the magazine to me. “Case she don’t put out.”
“That’s okay.” I hold up a paw. “I’m good.”
I haven’t been to many places that are the “place to be.” They always make me wonder who decided to be there first. Maybe the Xeric Lounge paid them so other people would follow. It’s pretty, sure, modeled after a desert oasis, all brown sandstone with a fake palm on each table and a “lake” in the middle of the dining area. On an island in the middle of the lake, a band of kangaroo rats is playing some kind of soft melody. The waiters are all dressed in starched taupe shirts with shimmering copper ties, and they’re all fennec foxes, oryxes, or desert hares, as far as I can see.
Caroll’s changed into a silky kind of dress that only covers one shoulder and has folds draped around it. It looks like it should fall off her at a moment’s notice, and maybe that’s what it’s designed to look like. She looks great in it.
“Don’t worry about dinner,” she says. “My flea’s paying for it.”
“Where do you keep a credit card in that thing?” I ask. She winks. “Let’s just say that if the waiter is a guy, sometimes he forgets to run it.”
I blink. “Wow.”
She stares at me. “I’m kidding. Purse.” She holds up a little matching thing with mother-of-pearl clasps, about as large as her paw.
I chuckle at myself. “I’m not sure what I was imagining.”
“I’m pretty sure,” she says. “Guys aren’t hard to figure out.”
“You’d think so.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Of this.” She waves at the lounge.
I look at the kangaroo rat band, the waiters, the sandstone. “To attract guys?”
“No, no. I mean you and me. It’s supposed to make you more interesting to guys, because you can attract a beautiful lady panther, right?” We’ve gotten our drinks. She has some tropical fruit concoction that she swirls and takes a sip from. “How’s your cactus martini?”
I try it. “It’s about what I imagine a cactus would taste like. What about your fans?”
“Oh, for me it’s just supposed to make me more famous so I get more fans. That way the studios will be more likely to cast me, and so on. You know how it is.”
I nod, and then realize that I don’t. So I ask her about it, and she tells me about the sleazy but pretty fascinating world of the lower echelons (her word) of Hollywood. Then she asks me about football, so I give her as much detail as I can about the life of a lower echelon of football player. We snack on something fried with coconut and something else with pineapple, which turns out to be the whole of her meal. She’s patient while I chow down a salmon steak, refuses my offer to share ice cream, and still we manage to leave the lounge on time for the mob of paparazzi (her word) that have been alerted to our dinner together.
The mob is one guy with a camera, a foul-smelling pronghorn who takes a couple pictures and then asks us to spell our names for him. Caroll watches him leave, and then says, “Oh, well. Next time there’ll be more. You’re okay with there being a next time, right?”
“Sure. I had a great time.” I do a clumsy little bow. “So you’re going to be my date for the dinner on Sunday?”
She laughs. “Are you asking? Yes, I’ll be your date. I had a good time.”
We arrange to meet and drive to the dinner together. I notice her giving me a strange look as we part, but I’ve no idea what I might have done wrong, I can’t figure it out. Women, I think. It’s been too long since I was on a date. It’s shocking when I actually think about it, because I went on so many dates up until I met Lee. After that, none. Well, a couple kind of pointless ones where I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t gay. I don’t remember my stomach being in knots like this after any of them.
Going out with Caroll felt like reliving the best parts of those times, the enjoyment of meeting someone new without the pressure of wondering if we’d end up in bed, or wondering how good she’d be if we did. And even if there weren’t this artificiality, she’s more mature than any girl I dated in college. I could hold hands with her in public, kiss her in the locker room, talk to the guys about her. I could take her back to my place and tell my friends I’m doing it. It’d be so much… less hard.
Shit, I can’t think like this. I pound my fist against the wall, not caring if I leave a mark or not. My heart clenches and I flip over, lying face down on the bed, tail thrashing. I try to get to sleep without thinking of either Caroll or Lee.
The next day is the first one I can move into my loft. It’s in a brand-new development in Chevali, part of a converted warehouse district. It’s great because I can walk to the downtown area, it’s a short drive to the stadium, and nobody else on the team lives nearby. Charm has a ten-bedroom mansion somewhere that he’s only seen a tenth of. The loft is just big enough to be roomy for me, with high ceilings and tall windows, a spectacular view of the downtown from one side, the suburbs and distant mountains on the other. Real jagged desert mountains, not the green rolling hills of Hilltown.
Ogleby took care of moving everything from my Hilltown place. It feels weird to walk in with the two suitcases I had at training camp and see all my stuff in there, set up as if I’d lived there forever. I actually get nostalgic for that apartment as I unpack, remembering the good times I had there, mostly with Lee.
I hope he’ll like the new place. The bedroom still has that college dorm look to it: posters of music stars and old football players all over the walls, stereo on my old dresser, everything but the cinder-block bookshelf. It would feel completely mine if it weren’t for the bars on the ceiling, the remnants of a previous tenant who was probably a bat or a possum or some other species that hangs to sleep. I asked Ogleby to get some new furniture for the living room and dining room, and magically, it’s happened. The only thing I picked out in the living room is the TV. The dining room is completely foreign. They look a lot more tasteful than I feel I could possibly have managed. Lee will appreciate them.
I lay on my college bed, which still feels like mine, from the texture of the sheets to the scents worked into it from five years, and I think about Lee, as I often do, because his scent is nearly as strong as mine on the bed. He’s fifteen hundred miles away, and I’m moved into my new place here in the southwest. I know it isn’t permanent — nothing is, in this league — but it feels a hell of a lot more permanent than living out of two suitcases at a college dorm. I shove that aside and focus on coming up with good ways to tell him that I’m taking Caroll to the dinner. As I fall asleep, the best I’ve come up with is not to do it at all.
For a week I put off any questions about the dinner. I don’t even want to talk about Caroll, because as smart as Lee is, he’ll figure out I’m taking her. I don’t get much chance to talk to him anyway; we’re practicing only once a day now, but we’ve got study sessions that take just as long, not to mention the extra sessions with Gerrard and Carson. He’s busy too, with the college season in full swing. The Dragons have him flying off to one coast to watch a Saturday afternoon game, then a flight to catch a Saturday night game an hour south. He calls me at the end of that last game to talk and to unwind from his day, at the end of which we’re both panting, mostly naked, sticky, and sad that we’re three time zones apart.
Mercifully, he doesn’t mention the dinner. We talk about what we’ll do on Monday, about my new place and the restaurants downtown we want to try. He’ll be sleeping in and then traveling all day Sunday, so I sign off by telling him I’ll see him at the airport on Monday. It’s one of the rare times I can pick him up, since we have the whole day off.
So Sunday, I’m in a pretty good mood all through practice, which ends early so we can get ready for the dinner. I have exactly one formal outfit, a grey business suit that I wore to the draft, and I think that’ll do for the dinner until Caroll shows up downstairs in a peacock-blue dress that shimmers in the light, with matching bangles around her neck and dangling from either ear. She’s even shaded her fur with blue highlights, I see when the light catches it just right. And let me tell you, I can remember when my heart would’ve just about stopped to have a panther that gorgeous paying attention to me — not to mention what effect it would’ve had on other parts.
She looks at my suit. She doesn’t say anything. I brush some of the fur off it, pick off a speck of lint, and then clear my throat. “Um, ready?”
In response, she smiles. “Do we have half an hour to spare?”
I glance back at the door of my apartment. “Um, I don’t know…”
“I’m not asking to be invited upstairs,” she says, but her eyes flick to the door as well. “No, there’s a place I know about a couple blocks from here. We could get you fitted for a nice tux in about half an hour. That okay?”
“Oh.” I check my watch. “Yeah, sure.”
Twenty-nine minutes later, decked out in the most comfortable tux I’ve ever worn and the first I’ve ever owned, we’re back in my car and on our way to the Tivoli, the four-star hotel next to the stadium. “Not there,” she says when I head for the parking garage. “Use the valet parking.”
I don’t really understand why, but I follow her instructions, including the whispered “slip him a five” when I hand my key over to the grey fox in the red uniform. There’s a small knot of reporters hanging out around the entrance, including our friend the desultory (her word) pronghorn. Flashes go off, but nobody pays much attention to us or asks us any specific questions, and the thunderstorm of flashes that goes off behind us when another car pulls up tells me just how much we matter.
“It’s Aston,” I tell her. “Come on, let’s get to our table.”
“Who?” she asks as we follow the signs with the Firebird logo on them.
“Aston’s the quarterback. He’s pretty good for a glamour boy. You’ll have seen pictures of him: the wolf with the white blaze down his forehead.”
“Oh!” She cranes her neck back. “Is he dating Cheri Ringtail?”
“Maybe.” I maneuver through the crowded lobby. None of the fans holding out autograph books recognize me. “Hey, Charm.”
The stallion waves from the center of a cooing crowd of mixed-species females. His eyes stop when he spots Caroll. A moment later, he pulls his jaw shut and gives me a broad smile and a hearty thumbs-up. Some of the women around him turn and stare too, considerably less pleasantly. Then he makes a circle with his other hand and sticks the thumb through it. I steer Caroll away from him.
“You don’t know Cheri Ringtail?” she says as we enter the ballroom. She rattles off some movies that Cheri Ringtail starred in; the rides ring a bell, though I haven’t seen any of them. I only half-hear them anyway, because I’m scanning the room for a table with someone I know. Many of the tables are already full: Gerrard and Carson are together with some of the other linebackers, and the rest of the linebacking crew is at a table with some open spaces, but Killer’s there, so I pass over it. Other players are wandering in and sitting down, so I finally pick a mostly-empty table in the hope that Charm will find his way over to it when he’s done with his gaggle of fans.
The only other couple at the table are Colin Smith and a shy vixen in a light pink silk dress that almost wilts when Caroll sits down. “Gramps, isn’t it?” Colin says with a grin. “And I remember the lady, of course.” I take the seat next to him and try not to think of how he reminds me of Lee. Too late, I remember that Colin was one of the rookies harassing Lee in drag, one of the ones who survived the cut. I don’t know what he did or who the ringleader was, though. Maybe he was just watching. I don’t feel too kindly disposed toward him, but I can’t change tables now.
“You wanna get me some wine, rook?” I grin toothily back at him.
He looks across me to Caroll as he gets up. “Anything for you, ma’am?”
“Same,” she says. When he’s gone, she shakes her head. “You can just order him around like that?”
“He’s a rookie,” I say. “First year in the league. I got the same thing when I came in last year. Believe me, getting drinks is far from the worst thing he’ll have to do.”
“Tonight.” I grin.
Caroll looks across the table to the vixen and rolls her eyes. “Boys, eh? No matter how you dress them up, they’re still on the playground at recess. Hi, I’m Caroll.”
“Oh, I know,” the vixen says in a soft voice. “I read ‘People.’”
Caroll sits up a little straighter. “And you are?”
“Penelope. Just Penelope.” She looks around the room and then down at her place setting again.
“How long have you known Colin?”
“We were high school sweethearts.” I can barely hear her across the table.
Caroll beams. “That’s adorable,” she says. “He’s a lucky fox.”
Penelope shakes her head. “I’m the lucky one.”
“Nonsense,” Colin says, returning with a wine glass each for me and Caroll. He sits, and nuzzles Penelope’s ear affectionately. “She’s the one keeps me grounded. So easy to get lost and ridden off track by agents and people who just want to take advantage of you. Right, hon? She doesn’t let me lose sight of any of that.”