Whom we play tonight hardly matters. I pretend it is a game before my youth, or after my death. Our opponents are penguins or sharks, or nature incarnate (leaves, lightning).
The thock of the dropped puck, the scramble that follows, are all predictable enough. After more shutouts to my credit than birthdays—and I am not a young man—I can hardly be bothered to attend to the prescribed rituals. My joy comes from observing the boil on the neck of the squat referee, the downy fur on the upper lip of the coach’s wide-eyed daughter, the jewel-hued Gatorade bottles lining the locker room during intermission.
The rink splays beneath flat lights that turn the spectators to ghosts. I look out on them and see my own dead assembled in the crowd. Near the penalty box sits my fat, speckled governess, her bosom trembling in a tangerine and cobalt jersey. As she turns to launch a cup at someone behind her, I realize she is wearing my number.
I catch a glimpse of my childhood love three rows back; she seems to float, diaphanous. Though it is only May, she glows as if scalded by some bleak, indoor sun. Her jet hair has streaks the color of a new penny, streaks she did not have in life. She perches next to my mother’s dachshund—the one descended from Chekhov’s dogs. His snout is ringed with orange cheese purloined from a tray on her lap. She does not notice but brandishes a doll with a shuddering head, a grotesque approximation of me.
Before the dawn of delicate feelings for goalkeepers, it was possible to caress the divine cruelties of my opponents, returning a knee to the kidney with an elbow that released a stream of coruscating crimson. Now, the only paltry magic to hope for is a hat trick from my teammates, or sadder, a vanished puck, the dull seconds dragging by as I or another mummified toreador gropes the blunt crevices of pads and plastic in search of the fat disc. I barely dare to imagine a high stick that might empty the bench, blue and orange sails billowing on a sea of white, players lunging to cross and recross the scarred ice.
One opalescent night in childhood we played on our silver-frozen lake. A filthy boy in ragged skates swung his stick as I dove. Catching soft pink tissue inside my mouth, he tore a lone bicuspid free and shot it into the moonlit sky, enamel flashing overhead as I lay supine before the goal.
Such reveries have ended postseason play before. I am called back briefly by the horn when the clock has run its course. The crowd falls silent then heaves into chaos. Overtime? It is far too predictable an end for even the most obvious story.
I think of the gap left by my missing tooth at the tender age of twelve, the pleasure of pressing my tongue along that hard wall, only to feel it slip into negative space. A beetle-browed player spirals out to take a shot on the breakaway; he hurtles toward me, gaining speed as he approaches. My ghost valet rises amid the rafters and lifts his hands in supplication. Rinkside, a man in jet-dark gabardine clutches an enormous foam finger and stares at me, one eye weeping.
Andrea Pitzer is the author of the new book
The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.