“JUST MY fucking luck,” Tom Lowe muttered as he stood in front of the screen door.
“What’s up, Dad?” Emory asked, taking his eyes off the TV for a second.
“A bunch of fucking communists are moving into the neighborhood.”
Unable to resist that intro, Emory threw off the afghan he’d been huddling under and went to stand beside his father, watching the commotion going on outside. A small group of men and women were clustered around an oversized U-Haul truck parked across the street. Tom was still an inch or so taller than his firstborn and at least sixty pounds heavier, but it was easy to see the similarities between the lanky teen and his father. The shock of dark hair and deep-set hazel eyes were exactly the same, as was the habit of biting their lower lip in concentration.
Emory quickly zeroed in on the platinum blond who could have easily passed for Thor’s twin. “Shit,” he whispered in awe, “I’d climb that comrade in a second.” The guy in question was carrying several large boxes, and his bulging muscles were easily visible under the tight T-shirt. “Look at those biceps.”
Tom gave him a sidelong look of disgust. “Emory….”
“Just saying, Dad.”
“Dealing with your orientation is one thing, but listening to you drooling over a guy is another matter entirely. And furthermore,” Tom added, turning back to watch the progress across the street, “don’t even think about hooking up with anyone who speaks with an accent. If ya gotta be gay, pick some white boy to do the nasty with.”
“I meant American!”
Emory shook his head before heading back to his cozy spot in front of the TV. “You’re too much,” he muttered, grabbing the remote. “A gay-friendly bigot. It doesn’t even compute.”
“Love is hard enough to manage without throwing culture and religion into the mix.”
“How do you know they’re not like us?”
“They’re not speaking English, or were you too caught up in that young man’s body to notice?”
Emory smirked. “I got brain freeze after seeing those arms.”
Tom shook his head. “You’re going to give me a goddamn heart attack one of these days.”
“Relax, Dad. I’ll keep my homo ass on our side of the fence.”
Tom spun around and walked toward Emory, who held his breath, waiting for another pearl of wisdom to drop out of his father’s mouth. “Leave your theatrics on the ice, do you understand? This isn’t the right neighborhood to be flouncing around like that Gaga person you idolize.”
“I’m not the only one who loves Lady Gaga,” Emory said defensively.
“Yeah? I didn’t notice anyone else skating to her stupid music.”
“Not true,” Emory countered. “And that stupid music helped me clinch Nationals.”
“Whatever,” Tom muttered.
“What are you two arguing about?” Darlene Lowe asked, wiping her hands on a blue terry cloth towel. She walked through the archway separating the living room from the kitchen, where she’d been putting the finishing touches to the pot roast.
“Dad’s pissed off that we’re being invaded by Putin’s minions.”
“How do you even know they’re Russian? Are they waving a flag or something?”
“Listen to them,” Tom bellowed.
“Tom, you only speak English. How can you tell what they’re speaking?”
“I can hear nyet and da. Isn’t that Ruskie for yes and no?”
“Yup,” Emory concurred, pointing at the coaches sitting beside the ice skaters in the kiss-and-cry area of the current European Ice Skating Championship he was watching. “Those people say it all the time.”
“See,” Tom said triumphantly. “I told you they were a bunch of pinko bastards.”
“What’s a pinko?” Emory asked, distracted again by the new word.
Darlene frowned at her husband, who didn’t seem in the least bit repentant. “It’s an old-fashioned term used to describe a socialist.”
“Socialists, my ass.” Tom plopped down beside Emory. “It’s what they used to call commies back in the day.”
“No, that’s not right,” Darlene clarified. “Commies were red, capitalists white, and socialists a combination of the two, thus the word ‘pinko.’ This really isn’t the kind of history lesson to be teaching your son when he’s just signed with a Russian coach.”
“What’s wrong with the local coach he’s had all these years? Em wouldn’t have come this far without her help.”
That particular question had been asked and answered several times since the subject had been broached, but Tom still clung to the misconception that anything American was always preferable. Taking a deep breath, Darlene tried to explain. Again. “Jane is the one who suggested he spend some time with a new coach if he goes to the Olympics. She’s taught Emory everything she knows. Now it’s time to bring in some fresh input if he hopes to medal in Sochi. Yuri Misalov is one of the best.”
“The ISU and anyone who knows skating.”
“Overpriced and arrogant is what he is.”
“They’re all stuck up,” Emory interjected. “You’d think the Russians invented ice skating or something.”
“You two need to be more tolerant, especially while you’re in Europe. You can’t go around offending foreigners without any thought of repercussions.”
“My country, my house, my way,” Tom reminded her.
“You’re being obstinate.”
“Is it wrong to want my son to be coached by someone who speaks our language and believes in American core values? Christ, everything is being jobbed out these days, and I refuse to support someone else’s economy.”
“It’s wonderful to be patriotic, Tom, but there are other countries that can teach us a thing or two, and when it comes to figure skating, Russia might be ahead of the pack. Why not give Emory every advantage?”
Tom looked over at Emory, who was listening to the discussion between his parents with amusement. His mother, the teacher, was being true to form. Following rules was part of her life. She was very familiar with immigrant parents who dropped the discrimination card at every turn, whereas his dad was an electrician, member of the largest union of electrical workers in the state, born and bred on Chicago’s tough South Side. He complained that he was tired of seeing primo jobs stolen from under their noses by illegals breaking through picket lines or workers out in bum-fuck China outbidding their materials because of cheap labor laws. He didn’t give a shit if he was PC or not. He spoke his mind regardless of the fallout.
“I’m going over to the neighbors to check them out,” Emory said. “I’ll let you know if I spot a hammer and sickle anywhere.”
“Don’t you dare say anything you’ll regret,” Darlene admonished. Emory’s verbal filters were almost as bad as Tom’s.
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be the perfect welcoming committee.”
Tom glowered at his son. “Let’s not get too friendly.”
Emory grinned, stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and pulled out the lining. “Look, Dad, no condoms.”
TOM GROWLED at this outrageous statement but cuffed his boy gently, instead of smacking him upside the head like he deserved. He adored Emory and had survived his coming out with surprising resignation, but knowing he was gay was a lot easier to handle from a distance. Watching him turn on the charm when someone sparked his interest was beyond embarrassing. It made Tom cringe and become aggressive, poised to protect his boy in case anyone decided to take out their irrational hate on the kid.
“Zip it, Emory Alan.”
Emory laughed and headed toward the front door.
Tom pulled him back sharply. “Kidding aside, buddy boy. I’d rather not pick up pieces of you all over the street. Save your performance for the judges.”
“I’ll be good; I swear it.”
“Watch yourself until you know what kind of people you’re dealing with,” Tom advised.
Emory rolled his eyes. “How boring.”
“Boring is better than broken.”
The screen door slammed on Emory’s way out, and Tom heaved a sigh and leaned back on the leather sofa. “What am I gonna do with that kid?”
“You’ve been doing a wonderful job so far,” Darlene said gently.
Tom ran his big hands through his thick hair and turned toward his wife. “I will die if anything happens to him.”
Darlene kissed him on the forehead. “Em isn’t Brad, and you aren’t your father.”
“That’s all well and good, but hate still exists.”
“This is another era, Tom, and most people know or have someone in their life who’s openly gay. Just yesterday there was an article in the paper about that football player who got into the NFL after announcing he was a homosexual. That was unheard of a few years ago.”
Tom snorted. “You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, Dar. Nobody’s going to tweet about the big lug if he gets ‘tripped’ by accident, or oops, somebody blindsided him and he fell and cracked a rib or two. You can say whatever you want, but I know better. People are still assholes when it comes to queers.”
“Em’s not a football player,” Darlene continued doggedly. “Ice skaters are performing artists, like dancers or rock stars; audiences love a show, and the more flamboyant he is on the ice, the louder they applaud.”
“Because there’s talent behind the feather boas,” Tom said realistically. “He didn’t win Nationals ’cause of his colorful outfits. It’s the quads and split jumps that had them sitting up and paying attention. He’s a damned good skater, and that makes the rest of it more palatable.”
“I know he’s a bit over the top,” Darlene admitted, “but we’ve always allowed Em to express himself, Tom. You’re not going to dictate his style at this late date. The public expects him to be outrageous and unpredictable. They’d boo him if he showed up in classic garb.”
“What if someone decides they’ve had enough of his bullshit?”
“You can’t control everything, Tom. After a certain point, you have to believe that most people are inherently good.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m too old and too jaded to see the world through rose-colored glasses.”
“You’re only forty-two. Don’t give me that ‘old’ shit.”
“Figure skating is a sport and the competition is fierce. All it takes is one bad fall to knock you out of the game. Look what happened to Nancy Kerrigan. That was a deliberate act that came out of nowhere. It would be easy to mess with Em because he’s so damned trusting. He’s never had to endure the hatred Brad lived with all his life.”
“Thanks to you,” Darlene said. “You’re the most evolved man I know when it comes to gay rights.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Your brother had to have known how much you supported him.”
“I didn’t do enough.”
“Let’s not fall into that black hole, Tom. Our son just won Nationals and made the Olympic team. How about focusing on the positive for now?”
“I’ll try. Where’s the rest of the gang?”
“Upstairs playing video games.”
“Gather the troops, baby. I’m starving.”
Just then, the screen door creaked open, slammed shut, and Emory walked in with his new friend. “Mom, Dad, this is Kolya Vetrov from across the street.”
A clatter of footsteps sounded from the stairs, and four boys ranging in age from six to fourteen walked in and clustered around their parents. “Who’s that?” the smallest asked, pointing at the stranger beside his brother.
The blond got down on his haunches and smiled. “Call me Nik.”
“So which is it?” Tom asked, perplexed. “Kolya or Nik?”
Nikolai looked up at his audience and clarified. “Kolya’s a shortened version of Nikolai, but I prefer to be called Nik.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Darlene said, reaching out to take his hand. He stood and, in an old-fashioned gesture that shocked everyone, brushed the back of her hand with a light kiss. “Oh my,” Darlene breathed. “Aren’t you charming?”
He smiled. “Sorry, I forget where I am sometimes. In my country, it’s more common.”
“You’re in Chicago now,” Tom said gruffly, “and don’t you forget it. You can get in trouble going around kissing other people’s wives.”
“Yes, sir,” Nik said. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”
“No worries,” Emory interjected, glaring at Tom. “My dad’s a bit territorial.”
“Hey, I’m teaching him the ropes,” Tom said. “You’re obviously new to the area.”
“We’ve just moved from Toronto.”
“So your family is Canadian?”
“Five-year immigrants from Ukraine.”
Tom looked at Darlene triumphantly. “Why’d you move?”
“Better opportunities for hockey players.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Tom said. “You play?”
“He’s just signed on with the Chicago Wolves,” Emory said.
Tom whistled. “Sort of young to turn pro, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been playing since I was a kid.”
“Like me,” Emory said. “I think I was born with ice skates on my feet.”
Nikolai gave Emory a withering look. “Figure skaters aren’t in the same league as us.”
“No, we’re better,” Emory challenged.
He laughed. “I wouldn’t say that in front of my family.”
Tom didn’t like that answer one bit. “Do your people have something against figure skaters?”
“No, they’re just not hockey players,” Nikolai said.
Tom stepped forward. “Emory can run rings around you on the ice.”
Nikolai shrugged. “You can’t compare the two sports just because they involve ice.”
“I agree,” Emory said. “Figure skating is much more challenging.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Nikolai retorted. “Hockey players aren’t afraid of a little blood, whereas you guys start crying the minute bad scores are posted.”
“I think you’d better go,” Tom said.
“I’m sure Nikolai was kidding,” Emory said.
“No, I wasn’t,” Nikolai said, turning cool eyes on Emory and looking him up and down. “You’d last thirty minutes on my team.”
Tom put his hands on Nikolai’s shoulder and gently guided him to the front door. “It was nice to meet you, kid. Welcome to Chicago, and I hope you have a long and healthy career with the Wolves. Meanwhile, stay the fuck away from my family.”
“Tom,” Darlene warned.
“Dad,” Emory protested.
Nikolai started to leave, then paused. “There’s no need to get hostile over the truth. Ice hockey is to figure skating what Le Mans is to NASCAR. They both involve cars, but they’re worlds apart.”
“I’ve never heard that before,” Emory said.
“Perhaps you should be more open-minded the next time you challenge anyone to an ice duel,” Nik suggested.
Tom stepped forward, and Nikolai raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m going.”
“Don’t let the door slam you in the ass,” Tom said with more heat than he’d intended.
As soon as Nikolai walked out, Emory whirled on Tom. “You didn’t need to be so damned rude.”
“Stop thinking with your little head, Em. He’s a typical narrow-minded jock.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“I’m done being neighborly,” Tom said flatly. “Let’s have some dinner.”