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Still, I don’t push it, because the bonds we’ve reestablished are tentative and neither one of us wants to go charging into what could still be turbulent waters between us.

A lot of the single guys went out after the game, and I was on my way out too for some celebratory beers, but Vale didn’t want to go. As she had told me before, it just wasn’t her scene anymore, and more than that, she was exhausted. She’s still valiantly working two jobs and wanted to get to sleep early. She encouraged me to go out with the guys, assuring me she didn’t mind.

And she didn’t. I could tell.

But when I weighed the joy of partying with my teammates over a win, and spending some quiet time with Vale, the choice was sort of easy for me. I told my mates to have a great time and that was that.

Except Garrett and Max didn’t feel like going out, and Max suggested playing some poker and ordering in pizza and beer. And thus here we sit in Max’s hotel room. The round table that normally seats two is pulled up to the end of the king-size bed. Garrett and Max have the two chairs opposite of where Vale and I sit beside each other, our knees barely touching.

“All right,” Vale says after considering her cards and raising those sparkling eyes to me. She throws a quarter into the pile and says, “Call.”

Garrett and Max had already folded during the last round of betting, having realized what a deceptively good player Vale is. Dave is a good poker player and he taught his daughter when she was very young. They used to play for Monopoly money, but she’s since graduated to the real stuff. Although with her poor bank account these days, we put a quarter cap on the betting.

Max leans to the left and takes a peek at Vale’s cards in her hand. His eyebrows shoot high, and that leads me to believe she’s got something really good.

Or Max could be playing on Team Vale and trying to bluff me as well.

“You might as well fold,” Max says with a devious grin as he settles back in his chair and picks up his beer. Garrett shakes his head and chuckles.

Max and Garrett know about me and Vale. Hell, the whole team knows now.

Not that I got up and made an announcement or anything, but I had told Max pretty much our entire history over beers that day we went out. I didn’t spill my guts right away, and I half expected he had a crush on her, but by the end of the first beer, I realized we had a lot of stuff in common with each other, one of which wasn’t an attraction to the new athletic trainer.

Both of us are the oldest siblings in our families and thus know the burden of the toughest kind of love. We’re both extremely close to our parents and siblings, and Max is Canadian as well, although he’s from Quebec. He’s bilingual but has only a faint trace of the French-Canadian accent that denotes his heritage. After talking about family and hockey for a while, he mentioned Vale, and next thing I knew, I was spilling the gist of the story to him. I didn’t paint details of the breakup nor what it did to me, but it was enough to know we had a history that had ended on the ugly side of things.

By the time Max and I had finished three beers, I came away with some new clarity to things.

First, I needed the truth from Vale as to what happened that night. Max pointed out that we’d never move forward or have a peaceful friendship without me knowing. That’s what prompted me to go to her apartment a week ago and pull her out with the guise of taking her to a movie.

Thanks, Max.

The second thing I learned from Max was that my struggle to balance career and relationships is not atypical. Max had a high school sweetheart he lost to the distance and rigors of becoming a professional athlete. He as much as admitted that he didn’t put her first, and didn’t really even realize her feelings for him had died because of it. It made me feel slightly better about losing touch with Oliver and gave me the final push I needed to reach out to him.

While the call was awkward for all of about thirty seconds, it was clear that Oliver couldn’t have been happier for me and my accomplishments, or any more understanding about losing touch. I apologized. He accepted. Since then we’ve talked one more time and have made “loose” plans to get together.

So with my life seemingly back on track, and old relationships reopened and currently being explored, as well as a mutual decision by Vale and myself to move forward—whatever that means—there was no sense in hiding any of this from the team. Besides, the first time I walked naked through the locker room with Vale’s name on my hip sort of told the story. I admitted to one of my teammates it was indeed Vale the AT who had residence on my pelvis, and by day’s end, the story had spread like wildfire. I even got an email from Gray telling me she was glad I had reconnected with her.

Something I’d like to do again, very literally, very soon.

“How about an additional bet?” I ask Vale, waggling my eyebrows at her.

“Oh, yeah?” she asks impishly as she turns her cards facedown on the table. “Like what?”

“If I win, we say good night to these two boneheads, you come back to my room with me, and I get to tie you up.” I say all of this in a low voice with a direct stare of challenge to Vale. Max and Garrett are all but forgotten, until I hear Garrett cough and mutter, “Awkward.”

Vale neither blushes nor looks offended by my suggestion. While she may not be a party girl like the old days, she isn’t afraid of her sexuality either. In fact, her eyebrows raise in interest as she stares back at me.

I can tell Max and Garrett are forgotten to her as well.

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