“I don’t know who you are, but I love you!”
The voice was deep, rough, and heavily in.ected with the accent of one of the outer boroughs, and it belonged to the guy sitting in back of me at Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers, my favorite professional hockey team. And the comment, which had been directed at me, was all the more interesting because I was sitting beside my best friend, Max, who had slipped her one- hundred- pound frame into a slinky size- two black cocktail dress, her cleavage prominently and proudly displayed for all to see. She’s tiny but she’s got a great rack. It’s a veritable “rack of ages.” Nobody, and I mean nobody, had ever noticed me when Max was around. And we had twenty years of friendship to draw on proving this point.
I was not in a cocktail dress, having opted instead to wear my new Mark Messier jersey (he was number eleven and the sole reason for the Rangers’ Stanley Cup win in 1994, thank you very much), a pair of jeans that I had purchased in the last millennium, and sneakers that had seen their fair share of painting projects. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail, I had a smear of ketchup on my cheek and now, after jumping up to take umbrage at a call, a glass of beer soaking my chest. I don’t even like beer, but when in Rome . . . you know the rest. But apparently, when I yelled, “Shit, ref, you’re killing us! That’s a bullshit call!” after a bogus hooking penalty, I had forever pledged my troth to Bruno Spaghetti, as Max had dubbed him when we arrived, seat 4, row D, section 402.
He ran his hands through his spiky black hair and grabbed me in an embrace, his silver hoop earring brushing my cheek. Max, who had been standing for the better part of the last period and who thus had incurred the wrath of everyone behind her— many of whom had missed said bogus penalty because their only view was the back of her well- coiffed head—fell back into her seat, her cocktail dress riding up on her yoga- toned thighs. But Bruno didn’t notice; he only had eyes for me. See, we were sitting way up high in Rangerland, a place that used to be called “the blue seats,” in which only the hardest- core hockey fans sat. Now they’re teal, which doesn’t lend them the same menacing air. A gorgeous woman in a slinky black dress with spectacular boobs had nothing on a .ve- foot- ten college professor with a pot belly and beer breath who loved hockey and who could curse with the best of them.
It was my birthday and my boyfriend had given me the jersey and the tickets. Crawford—Bobby to the rest of the world—is a detective in the New York City Police Department and was working overtime that night, hence my birthday date was Max. Crawford had stopped by school on his lunch break to wish me a happy birthday, appearing in my of.ce doorway at around one; I was preparing for my next class, a two o’clock literature seminar, and was delighted to be distracted from the critical essay on Finnegan’s Wake that was putting me to sleep. I’m a Joyce scholar, but even I recognize that obscure is not the same thing as exciting, and that makes my relationship with the subject of my doctoral dissertation tenuous at best. I love a challenge, though, and had spent the better part of my academic career trying to .gure out if Joyce was laughing with us or at us. I was slowly coming to the conclusion that it was the latter.
I could tell that Crawford was excited by the items in the gift bag he was holding behind his back. He leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek; although he is a seasoned detective and an all- around good guy, he gets really nervous around the nuns I work with at St. Thomas University, my employer. Whenever he visits me at school, he looks like he’s on his way to detention, even though I’m sure he never did anything more scandalous than pass a note in class. He took the bag from behind his back and set it on my desk, settling himself into one of the chairs across from me, a self- satis.ed smile on his handsome, Irish face.
I love the guy, but there’s one thing that bugs me: every time he gives me an item of clothing, it’s always extra- large. I’m extra- tall but not extra- fat, so this concerns me. Is this how he sees me? Or does he think women should wear tentlike clothing? I still haven’t .gured it out. I held his gift aloft and spread my arms wide to examine it, full width: a Messier jersey. Despite the size, I couldn’t have asked for a better present.
“Crawford, I love it!” I said and came from around the desk. I kicked my of.ce door closed so I could give him a proper thank- you, sitting on his lap and putting my arms around his neck. “Now the best present you could give me would be your undivided attention to night,” I said hopefully, although I guessed this wouldn’t be the case.
He shook his head sadly. “I can’t. I pulled an extra shift so I could go to Meaghan’s basketball playoff Monday night.” Meaghan is one of his twin daughters; she was banking on a basketball scholarship to get her through college. I had come to realize that basketball was like a religion in that family; what teenage girl would count former New York Knick Bill Bradley among her crushes if it wasn’t? He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Here. These are for you, too.”
The tickets were the icing on the cake, but I was extremely disappointed that another Friday night would go by and I wouldn’t see him. A little slap and tickle in my of.ce just wasn’t cutting it anymore. The relationship, and Crawford himself, were everything I wanted but not in the amount that I had hoped for. I tried to be the good and understanding girlfriend, but I felt like Crawford’s wife was the NYPD and I was the jealous mistress. And, in fact, for a very short while, I had been kind of a real mistress: unbeknownst to me, Crawford had been married when I .rst met him. But that’s all in the past; she’s almost married to husband number two and Crawford and I are still going strong, so things couldn’t have worked out better for all concerned.
I had two choices for alterna- dates: my best friend, Max, or my other best friend, Father Kevin McManus. I called Mc-Manus .rst, but he had a Lenten reconciliation service to perform and penance to dispense, so he was out. He reminded me that I had a couple of sins to confess myself—premarital sex being the worst and most oft- committed of the lot—but I hung up before he could recount all of them in detail. I went to Plan B and invited Max. She arrived at the Garden right before the puck dropped, breathless and a little tipsy from a cocktail party that she had attended for a new show that her cable network was launching. She tottered toward me in four- inch heels and the aforementioned cocktail dress and I immediately got a sinking feeling. Max is not what you would call a responsible drinker. She holds her liquor less effectively than a dinghy with a hole in its bottom, which has resulted in more than one late- night, four- hour phone call to discuss the merits of kitten heels versus stilettos. I thought we might be in trouble. Once I got a whiff of her champagne- tinged breath, I was fairly con.dent.
Bruno Spaghetti noticed me the minute we arrived and commented on my Messier jersey. He was wearing a Steve Larmer jersey, a testament to his hockey knowledge and devotion. No Johnny- come- lately Jaromír Jágr jersey for him; he was a Ranger a.cionado and wore a jersey that harkened back to the good old days when the Rangers actually made the playoffs and even won a few games. “Lady, you can curse with the best of them!” he yelled, grabbing me in another embrace.
He hadn’t heard anything yet. And I was fairly certain I wasn’t a lady. Dating a cop had increased my cursing lexicon tenfold. Although Crawford was a gentleman and didn’t curse at all in my presence, two trips to police precincts had expanded my horizons. I broke my embrace with Bruno Spaghetti and sat back down, signaling the beer vendor; he ignored me. I considered asking Max to .ash some leg so I could get some service.
The Garden erupted as the Rangers scored their .rst goal, despite the fact that one of their players was in the penalty box. I was excited but afraid of what kind of display of love this might elicit from Bruno, so I did the old excuse- me- pardon- me into the aisle.
“Bring me back a box of Sno- Caps,” Max called after me, taking her cell phone from her very expensive purse. Max is a newlywed and calls her husband every twenty minutes or so. Her husband is also Crawford’s partner, so I knew these periodic phone calls had become mildly annoying—at least to Crawford. Fred Wyatt, Max’s husband, still appeared to be completely smitten with her, even indulging in baby talk when she called. He’s about eight feet tall and a thousand pounds and looks like a serial killer, so the visual eluded me, but Crawford assured me that it was chilling.
“They don’t have Sno- Caps out there,” I said. I had been to the Garden enough times to know what resided in the candy displays. Row D turned its collective hostile gaze toward me.
Max considered this. “How about Jujubees?”
“I don’t think they even make Jujubees anymore.” I strained to get a look at what was happening on the ice.
Max stood, thinking on her feet. “OK, how about Milk Duds?” At that moment, the Rangers scored another goal.
“Lady, if you don’t sit down, I am gonna shove a pretzel up your ass!” Bruno Spaghetti had brought a pal—Max had named him Shamus McBeerbong—and he wasn’t quite as enamored with us as Bruno was.
“Max, sit down,” I cautioned her. “I’ll surprise you.”
She clapped her hands together. “I love surprises!”
Shamus McBeerbong sighed. “Bring her back something that keeps her in her seat,” he said to me, and then to her, “Sit down, you stupid broad!” The rest of row D nodded in agreement, despite seeming a little aghast at his choice of language.
Max turned to Shamus and gave him the hairy eyeball. “You sit down!” she said, at a loss for a truly snappy retort. For effect, she adjusted her breasts de.antly.
“Max, sit down,” I called again, waiting to see if the section would turn on her. She sat, just in time for everyone to see a melee erupt on the ice.
Once it was clear Max wouldn’t be eaten alive by rabid Ranger fans, I went out to search for her Milk Duds and to get myself another beer. I’m not the biggest beer drinker in the world, but they don’t serve chardonnay or vodka martinis at the Garden, and what’s a Ranger game without a little booze? The Garden is a giant labyrinth comprised of long, tiled hallways that wrap around the seating area. I wended my way down one hallway toward the snack bar and was deep into a decision regarding Gummi bears versus Gummi snakes for Max when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to .nd Jack McManus.
Jack McManus is the director of marketing for the Rangers and Kevin McManus’s brother. He is also a man with whom I had played tonsil hockey not too many months before. At the time, Crawford and I had been on a “break” and I had stuck my little toe brie.y into the dating pool. Don’t think I hadn’t been completely guilt- ridden about that ever since. But confessing about cheating on your then- married boyfriend with your priest’s brother to your priest, who is also one of your best friends, is complicated. Jack is gorgeous and single; inexplicably, he was interested in me for a time. My face immediately went red when I saw him and I smoothed my hair back, pulling my ponytail tighter to my head, a gesture that wasn’t going to improve my appearance any but it was worth a try.
“Jack!” I gave him a quick, loose embrace, memories of going to second base with him .ooding my mind. “How are you?”
“I’m great,” he said, .ashing me a winning smile. “Kevin told me that you were here to night and that you didn’t have great seats, so I wanted to .nd you so that I could move you down.”
Move me down. Three little words that, at the Garden, held so much import. Three little words that meant the difference between high- .ving Bruno Spaghetti and going out for an after-game cocktail with Ryan O’Stockbroker. I would have to tell Max, Bruno, and Shamus that we were leaving the upper tier. I had sat in Jack’s seats before and they were practically on the ice. They were so close to the Rangers that once I had almost become part of a line change. I stammered a thank- you and told him to stay put while I gathered Max and the rest of our belongings. As I turned to go back to our seats, I spied Max walking gingerly toward me, trying desperately not to slip on the polished hallway .oors.
“There she is now!” I said.
Jack took one look at Max and burst out laughing. “I thought Max would be a middle- aged bald guy.”
“That happens a lot,” I said. Max arrived at my side. “Jack, Max Ray.eld. Max, meet Jack.”
“You weren’t kidding,” Max said under her breath. “But he’s way better than a poor man’s George Clooney,” my words coming back to haunt me. “He’s the real deal. Real Clooney. Ocean’s 11 Clooney. Nephew of Rosemary Clooney. Clooney to the white courtesy phone....”
Fortunately, the roar of the crowd and the acoustics of the hallway masked her commentary; Jack was none the wiser.
Max shook Jack’s hand. I noticed my coat hanging over her arm. “We’re leaving,” she said. “Shamus wants to make me Mrs. McBeerbong.”
I explained to her that we weren’t leaving and that Jack wanted to move us to .fth row, center ice.
“Can you get a decent martini down there?” Max asked, her maiden voyage to the Garden not ful.lling her original expectations. Maybe I had lied a bit and said that you could get a good martini, and maybe I had told her our seats were better than they were. And maybe I had fudged the truth a bit by telling her that more than one woman would be in a cocktail dress. Now that we were moving down to the expensive seats, that part might actually be true, since most of the people who sat there were either corporate types or models trying to marry Rangers.
Jack assured her that he would get her a martini as soon as we were seated. He can do things like that. He took the coats from her arm and led us to the escalators, where we made the journey to the hundred- dollar seats and the land of chilled vodka, never-ending vendor service, and hockey players so close you could touch them. Which I made a mental note not to do.
We settled into our seats just as the .rst period ended. Jack took our drink and food orders but stayed rooted in the aisle next to our seats, watching the Rangers skate off the ice. I noticed him give a little wave to someone and the lights went down in the rink.
The Rangers’ announcer came on the public address system just as a giant spotlight found me in my .fth- row seat. “Ladies and gentlemen! Please join the New York Rangers orga ni za tion in wishing our number-one fan, Alison Bergeron, a happy birthday!”
Max turned to me, her eyes wide. The fans let out a giant roar, followed by thunderous applause.
I shielded my eyes, a motion I could see depicted on the Jumbo tron that hung over center ice. I looked like a deer caught in the headlights—one with dried ketchup on her right cheek. I looked at Jack, stricken. He had a huge smile on his poorman’s-Clooney face as he leaned over to give me a hug.
The announcer continued over the deafening din. “And now, welcome our own John Amarante!”
John Amarante was the Rangers’ longtime anthem singer. He appeared on the ice, as he usually does before games, but instead of singing the anthem, he broke out into a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Here’s the thing: if the entire fan base at Madison Square Garden began singing to Max, she would have been thrilled. Not only that, she would have almost expected it, given her fabulousness. Me? I wanted to melt into the sticky, beer- stained .oor. I had been in those seats once before, been viewed by every Ranger fan in the tristate area on my .rst date with Jack, and had borne the brunt of Crawford’s ire for longer than I cared to recall. I prayed that the .rst period’s highlights were being discussed and that my giant, petri.ed face wasn’t being broadcast for all of New York to see. And that Crawford was out on the hunt for some kind of homicidal maniac whose antics would keep him busy for the next de cade.
Max read my mind. “You better hope this isn’t on TV,” she said, .uf.ng her hair and, at the same time, exposing just enough of her spectacular breasts in case it was.
Jack bent down and pulled a bag out from under my chair. A microphone appeared in his hand and when Amarante stopped singing and the fans quieted down, he prepared to make some kind of pre sen ta tion. He put the mic in front of his mouth. His lips were moving, but I had con ve niently gone deaf, just hearing the voice inside my head telling me, “You are so screwed.” When he saw that I had gone into some kind of fugue state, he opened the package and unfurled its contents.
It was a Mark Messier jersey, identical to the one I was wearing.
Except it was autographed by Mark Messier. To me. With love.
Max looked at me disdainfully. “You are so screwed.”
Excerpted from Quick Study by Maggie Barbieri.
Copyright © 2008 by Maggie Barbieri.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.