“I’m worried about you,” Mia said to me. I set my hockey stick down on the bleachers. I brushed my bubblegum pink hair away from where it was glued to my face with sweat. I sat next to her quietly and tried putting my arms around her. The equipment sticking to my body made it uncomfortable, but I managed. I said nothing.
On the ice, my teammates tried to hide their quick glances in our direction. I have learned to let them stare. Growing up, all I knew was the hidden judgment, trying to be discreet but lacking. They never really bothered me. Even though I grew up in a progressive area in New York, there were always those who didn’t understand.
My coach barked orders at them, and the attention shifts to the puck. I’ve always admired this game. There is strategy loaded in every move; nothing is done without being carefully dissected first. I used to be overwhelmed by the amount of brute strength necessary to play. Now, I love the adrenaline rush that comes with every illegal checking move. Being tackled and feeling the cold sift in through my jersey only makes me stronger each time. That’s why I know this is not what my girlfriend is referring to when she says this.
“What do you mean?” I asked, removing my gloves so I’d be able to rub circles into the skin on Mia’s arm. She seemed to hesitate before speaking, so I held her a little tighter, as if to encourage the words to come out of her.
“Cris, I’m so scared about tomorrow.” I felt her shift her body away from me, maybe trying to hide the tears welling in her eyes. She did not do a good job.
“You have nothing to worry about. I’m going to be fine. We’re going to be fine.” I whispered these words reassuringly in her ear, even though I had no idea what would happen.
“Cristina! Get back on the ice!” My coach yelled, so I kissed Mia on the cheek before grabbing my stick and going back out to continue practice. We were skating around cones, and this exercise had almost become second nature. I could probably do this with my eyes closed. As I fell into the pattern of zigzagging between obstacles, I let my mind wander. I thought about how much I still had to practice for tomorrow’s game, I thought about putting my jersey in the laundry--anything not to think about how Mia’s voice would always waver when she spoke to me lately.
The Olympics had us in a panic. Russia, specifically, had us in a panic. In June 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a law “protecting” children from “gay propaganda.” Homophobic violence had risen to an all-time high, and I never feared for my well being more. Despite my hesitance, there was never any question of whether or not I was going to the Olympics. This is something I have wanted for as long as I can remember. What these games symbolize--it goes beyond sports. So I was going. And so was Mia, to cheer me on as my girlfriend from the audience. And we will be so unapologetically happy.
I went back to my hotel that day sweaty and exhausted, the way I feel after every session. My agenda was very busy, filled to the brim with preparations for tomorrow. Mia walked in with me and threw the keys on the countertop and fell face-first onto the hotel bed. I laughed; before going into the kitchen to get a glass of water. As soon as I walked into the other room, I heard her yell something into the pillow.
“What? I can’t hear you, love,” I called back, grabbing a cup and getting water from the fridge. I heard her sigh and I made my way back to the bedroom to sit next to her. She sat up then, almost pouting at me. I took a sip from my water and tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. She smiled at me softly before grabbing her braids and putting them up in a bun. Half of her hair was spilling out of it, but she didn’t seem to care. I set my cup down and waited for her to repeat herself.
“I don’t want you to compete,” she said, her shoulders dropping and smile faltering.
“Mia, I have to. You know that. Besides, you’ll be right there, you’ll protect me, won’t you?” I said, trying to lighten the mood before it sunk past my grasp.
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, though,” she said, sitting up. “Look at me, I’m like 5’2”, I can’t take on a whole country for you!” She laughed a little, and then grabbed my hand. “But I will if I have to.”
The next morning, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I always got pre-game jitters, but this was something different, this was much more intense than that. This had me running towards the bathroom every half-hour because I thought I was going to throw up. It didn’t help that every time someone turned on a TV, we heard the chants of the people standing outside. They were holding up signs saying, “The pidors aren’t welcome here!” I wondered how they knew. I guess it’s because I don’t exactly hide my relationship with Mia; we kiss after every victory. It’s become almost tradition. After being clapped up by my team and told not to worry about it a few times, my head was back in the zone.
During our pre-game huddle, the team captain, Naira, simply looked at me and firmly nodded, her lips pursed. She placed her hand in the middle of the circle and we all did the same. We did our team’s chant, fiercer than ever before. I felt powerful; those signs outside had nothing on me. Once we broke, Olympic staff came to usher us onto the ice and we followed obediently, like little ducklings. As I was walking out onto the ice, a small group of women roared in the crowd, drawing my attention. They were holding a rainbow flag above their heads. I waved towards them, and the cameras panned over to them. Immediately, a man from the row of seats right above them snatched the flag out of their hands and ripped it in half. He was laughing and people clapped. And all I could do was watch. I stood there, stopping the flow of girls walking onto the ice, and stared. Naira came up to me and wrapped her arm around me, squeezing me towards her body and comforting me. I suddenly remembered Mia, and my eyes darted quickly to where I knew she was going to be. She was looking at me, a hand held over her heart in earnest, and mouthed “I love you.”
Once all the pre-game rituals were taken care of, the referee blew his whistle and all of us assumed our positions. He held the puck in his hand, and we all watched as he dropped it. Both girls at the front skated towards the puck, Russia and America adorning their t-shirts, and as soon as one of their sticks touched it, we all began moving; like a wind-up toy springing to life.
Within the first three minutes, I’d already been bodychecked. The referee blew his whistle, and while most of my teammates were screaming for penalties, I shrugged my shoulders and told him it was fine. I just wanted to play. I just wanted to win. The Russian woman stuck her hand out at me to help me up, and when I tried to take it she moved her hand away, laughing. I try my best to think nothing of it; she’s probably just competitive. I got up on my own, and we all got ready again.
The referee blew his whistle and my team lunged for the puck, taking the lead. It’s passed to me, and before I could even make a single movement, I was tackled again. She threw me onto the ice, the puck flying in the opposite direction, and spat, “Dirty pidor,” before skating away. I haven’t been bullied for being gay since high school, and now it’s just been one after the other. I don’t know what to do. I’d tried moving past it, focusing my energy elsewhere, but that was the breaking point.
As the referee was discussing the two-minute penalty she would have to spend off the ice and how it’ll work, I skated over to my team captain. She looked confused, and I looked at her, swallowed, and told her about what just happened. As the Russian stared at me, I felt like a child, being called a tattletale for telling the teacher. But I knew I was right, I wasn’t sad. I felt so incredibly angry, and I was shaking with the effort of staying away. Instead, I settled for keeping my eyes trained on her. Before the referee’s whistle blew, Naira said, “whatever you decide, I’ll support.” That was all it took.
We all went back to our designated spots and I clenched my jaw. I hardly even waited until the whistle was blown, I was already moving when the puck was on ice. I had a single target and a one-track mind to match. I charged the Russian team member who insulted me and drove her into the ground. My fist was at her face before she had time to put her hands up to shield herself. No one stopped me, so we kept going, forgetting about the game, toppling over each other. A brief glance to my left told me we weren’t the only ones wrestling with one another. Naira had another girl by the hair and was encouraging everyone else to do the same. The referee looked like he didn’t know whether to be amused or scared out of his mind. They already had security lined up, but he was holding a hand out to them, as if willing the YouTube views to rise with every second.
The next hit I landed was greeted with a satisfying crunch, and blood was pouring out of the bridge in her nose. I was almost certain it was broken. At that, the security came out onto the ice and pulled us all away from each other. I didn’t resist, because I got what I wanted. I let my eyes dart over to Mia but I couldn’t see her. I scanned the crowd, heart pounding, but I only saw her when she was flying across the ice towards me. She was slipping, trying to make her way across it in her sneakers. The officers tried to stop her, but I know just how convincing she can be, so when she ended up right in front of me, I had no questions.
She was breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling nearly as fast as my own, and first, she looked like she was going to give me a black eye while the man was holding me back. But instead, she half-pushed one of my shoulders and shook her head. “Let’s go home, Cris.”
And as she’s gripping my arm and trying to lead me towards the exit, I noticed the cameras were still trained on me. “Mia, hold on,” I paused right in front of the doorway. She stopped; looking impatient, and I grabbed her hip and pulled her towards me. She laughed a little, and even though I was bleeding from a cut right above my eyebrow, and my lip was split down the middle, I think this is the best victory kiss we’ve ever had.