Tag Archives: friends

Repeat

repeat

 

Something’s bothering Greg but he won’t tell me what it is. I keep asking but all he does is mumble “Nothing.” I’m still in bed when he steps out of the shower, and I watch him shave through the open bathroom door. A towel hangs loose around his waist.

I’m getting a crick in my back but I can’t bring myself to change position. I breathe deeply to keep myself calm. If I turn over the usual gauntlet will run through my mind. I bite the inside of my lip to keep from examining the headboard ten times, once for each fingertip. I need to bring this up when I see the doc tomorrow.

I reach out to touch his arm when he walks by but he moves it out of reach. It’s subtle but deliberate. He’s pouting, which seems to contrast sharply with the gray at his temples.

The hold on me snaps and I’m able to sit up. “Oh, come on. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

He grabs a set of clothes with a huffy sigh. “I really shouldn’t have to.”

He heads back into the bathroom to get dressed. This is a pretty new thing he’s done the past couple weeks. He bitches that I don’t touch him, but goes out of his way to keep me from seeing him. I get out of bed, tighten the drawstring of my pants, and go to follow. He shuts the door and I knock.

“Christ, babe, how is this supposed to work? Is it supposed to go away if we don’t talk about it? You know, whatever it is?”

I knocked three times, and I’ve noticed. I tap the door with my fingertips, too lightly to make any sound, and that’s barely enough to keep myself under control. I don’t know that the Anafranil is working anymore.

“Just don’t worry about it,” I hear him snap.

“Jesus, something’s been bugging you for weeks now. We’re practically just pissy roommates at this point.”

“Yeah, we are.”

I have to swallow, and my eyes get that heavy feeling like I’m about to cry. I don’t usually cry, actually, but I almost always feel like I’m about to. Maybe I should bring that up tomorrow.

“Honey…”

“Jesus Christ!” He whips open the door and nearly shoves me as he moves past. “Do you really have to fucking whine about it so much?”

I shower a little longer than usual, because the need for a systemic pattern rears its head. Goddammit. Is this because I’m upset?

I decide to skip shaving, and when I’m dressed he’s having coffee by the carport door. He doesn’t look at me.

“I’m probably going to be working late,” he tells me.

“That’s fine.” Now he looks at me, like he’s ready for a fight. “I’m going to be out late with Chanda anyway.”

“Of course you are.”

“Wait. Does Chanda have something to do with why you’re such an asshole lately?”

“What do you mean ‘lately?'”

“You fuckin’ well know what I mean.”

He sighs but doesn’t answer.

“What the fuck’s your deal? Do you have some beef with her?”

“Well, I don’t know, Nate. Should I? Is there anything I should be worried about?”

I catch what he means. “Oh, Jesus Christ. You can’t be serious.”

“You’re always around her!”

“She’s been my best friend for fifteen years. What the hell? You’ve been a huffy little princess for weeks because you’re, what…jealous of my beard?”

“I’m sure Chanda would love to hear you call her that.”

Now you’re worried about insulting her.”

“Nate.” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “It’s not like, you know…it’s not like you’re not attracted to women.”

“Are you seriously playing that card now? Are you telling me I’m inherently unsatisfied if I’m not cheating?”

He puts his mug down and grabs his keys. “Forget it.”

“How can I?” He shuts the door when I catch up to him, but I open it again and call out: “You’ve been making such a fucking point of reminding me!

He ignores me and gets into his car.

***

The bookstore kills me today. It’s buyback time, and when I’m not helping with the register I help lug the massive volume of textbooks into the back for inventory. We’re going to be working all weekend just to get everything cataloged. More fuel for Greg’s fire.

I prefer it busy. When I’m busy, scrambling to meet the demands of others, I don’t have time to slow down and wait for the same thoughts to force my attention inward. They’re still there, mind you. They don’t call it obsessive for no reason. But they’re in the back of my mind, not the forefront, and there is no time to act on the compulsions they inspire.

I stay until six, when Chanda calls me. “Look up,” she says, and when I do she’s waving at me from the window by the doors. Her bracelets glitter in the yellow light of the student union.

“Heyo! I’ll be out in a second. Coffee upstairs?”

“Sounds good. I’ll head up! See ya in a bit!”

Ten minutes later I’m sitting by the Starbucks kiosk, sipping lemonade while Chanda blows on her tea. She reads me like a billboard and immediately asks what’s wrong.

“Greg. He’s…still Greg, I guess.”

“And that’s a bad thing now?”

“Lately?”

“You think New Greg is Permanent Greg?”

“I think it’s safe to say he’s shades of permanent.”

“So what’s his deal?”

I sidestep the direct issue. “He thinks I’m stepping out, I guess. He gets in these moods if he sees me talking to women. The bisexual thing doesn’t sit well with him.”

“Well you are kinda flirty.”

“Wait, what?”

“Not…not like, consciously. Okay, I mean,” she straightens up, concentrating. Her words here need to be precise. “Okay, so, you come off as flirty, is what I mean, even if you’re not actually flirting. And…and you act differently around women than you do around men.”

The faint Indian accent she got from her parents makes her sound almost English.

“Like…” She pauses, looking up and to the right. She sets her tea down, and raises both hands, palms up. She sits cross-legged in her chair. For some reason the pose makes me think of the Bharatanatyam she danced when we went to her cousin’s wedding. Even now she slides her neck while she considers what she wants to say. The image of her writhing jade choli starts playing in my head. It’s preferable to the day-long replay of Greg shutting the bathroom door in my face.

“Like, when you talk with women, you’re very masculine, but then you practically bat your eyes around men.” She leans her head to the side. “You’re all ‘come hither.’ And with chicks you’re like…”

She lurches forward, creep-staring me, and cocks an eyebrow. She drops her voice an octave or two and grunts “DTF?”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?”

She shrugs. “S’what I’ve noticed, anyway.”

“Well.” I lean back in my chair. “Son of a bitch.”

***

Greg’s asleep when I get home. I decide to crash on the couch after my shower, and in the spring heat my mind goes back to Chanda dancing at her cousin’s wedding. Her date…I can’t remember his name now…he’d been affectionate all night, and I remember being a bit surprised at the naked desire in his eyes. When he looked at her, they almost seemed to sparkle in the light of the silver jari in her skirt. He didn’t seem to mind that she danced so much with me. I was already with Greg by then. She and I could’ve fucked in front of her date and the guy probably still would’ve assumed I was just “the gay friend.”

I remember wondering what it was that he wanted so badly from her, from this woman I’d known since I was ten. When I thought of Chanda it was with memories of middle school acne and baby weight that hung on through high school. But when she danced then I saw the fine-tuning ballet had finally worked on her body. She coiled her arms above her head and slid her neck from side to side. Her curling lips were dark like plums, and her stomach twisted like a python.

When I finally go to sleep, my mind is stuck on the image of her lehenga. I see its delicate hem billowing against her ankles, like a sail caught on a river wind.

***

Dr. Hale is a very fatherly guy. Soft voice, direct speech, always encouraging. Ideally fatherly, I guess I should say.

“So how are ya, Nathan?”

“Ahhhh.” I twist my hand from side to side.

“What’s up?”

“My thoughts are turning more obsessive lately. Repeated imagery, mostly. Some anxiety.”

“Any compulsive behavior?”

“Not that I can’t control.”

“Is it getting harder to control?”

“A…a little, yeah.”

“How’s the Anafranil working?”

I shrug. “I mean, I’ve been pretty stressed lately, and you know how bad it used to be if I was stressed.”

He knits his brows together. “What’s been bothering you?”

“I think Greg and I are gonna break up.”

“Why do you think that?”

“He’s mad all the time. He won’t talk about it. He’s been getting real jealous of Chanda lately.”

“Of you spending time with her?”

“Of just being around her at all, really.”

“Now, Greg knew you weren’t exclusively attracted to men when you two got together, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I made a big point of making sure he knew that.”

“Okay. Now, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but have you given him any reason to think you haven’t been faithful?”

“Not that I can think of.”

Dr. Hale is quiet for a minute. “Is there any possibility you’re attracted to Chanda?”

“Hold on. Why are we getting into this?”

“Trust me, there’s a point to it.”

I’m quiet for a long while. The silver jari in Chanda’s skirt sparkles behind my eyes, over and over. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

He nods. “Yeah, I think you are too. And I think this is a recent thing. Dollars to doughnuts, Greg is picking up on that.”

“Well, fuck.”

“Now remember how obsessive thought patterns can artificially inflate feelings of attachment and attraction? Now, that inflation can become compounded when you take into account existing feelings of platonic affection. You with me so far?”

“Yeah. Her being my friend complicates things. Makes ’em…like, bigger than they are.”

“Substantially. Now, I think you’re surprisingly adept at appraising your own perception. So, bearing all that in mind, would you describe yourself as possibly being in love with Chanda?”

I honestly consider it. Jangling bracelets. The Bharatanatyam.

“I think…I think I might be on the edge of that, yeah. Not yet, but…close.”

He gives me a comforting smile. “Well, there you go, kid. Your symptoms are flaring up because you’re stressed. Love, breakups…that stuff hits all of us pretty hard. And you work in a college bookstore. April is a shit storm for you guys.”

“So what do I do?”

“I couldn’t say, professionally or personally. Those are things you just have to manage on your own. Your boyfriend…I think you already have a course of action in mind in that regard, so I won’t add any input.”

“What about Chanda?”

“What about her?”

“What do I do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”

“Should I tell her?”

“I’m a clinician, Nate, not a life coach. That’s a question you gotta figure out by yourself. I…”

He pauses, then puts his pen and pad down and leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped.

“My wife and I were close friends for a decade before we began dating, and there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she’s the love of my life. But…I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, loving friendships fall apart because of the presumption that attraction has to be consummated. Some friends can date, fall in love, fall out of love, and be friends again. Some can’t.”

“I would suggest…” and he points right at me, “…that you consider exactly what Chanda means to you. Not how much. That’s a meaningless measurement. Consider what she means to you. The what is important. What space is her best fit, and yours?”

He looks at the clock. “Alright, kid. I wanna see you in a month. I’ll forward my notes, but I still want you to tell your psychiatrist everything you told me. Off the record, I don’t think there’s anything clinically significant to the increase in your symptoms, but see her anyway, alright? From what I understand, side-effects from Anafranil can be sneaky bastards. They like to play the long game. She might wanna do some blood work.”

I have a weird urge to hug him when I leave, but of course I don’t. Still, though, the image of us hugging replays over and over in my head until I get a text from Chanda, asking if I wanna meet up when she gets off work. After that, the only thing I can picture are the white jeans she wore when we met last night for tea.

***

Greg stays out all weekend, fuming. While he’s gone I ask Chanda if she knows anyone who can help me move. She comes over in mom jeans and a baggy tee shirt, her friend Rebekah in tow. Rebekah has a sharp, curving nose that almost seems to pin down her extra-wide grin. She has frizzy blond hair that she keeps tied back.

Abhay swings by once everything’s boxed up, and he packs the U-Haul trailer like he does it for a living. He’s tall and athletic and I try not to feel too competitive. He’s a nice guy, eager to heft the heaviest items and joking around while he works. He never seems to sweat or lose his breath. I can see why Chanda likes him so much.

They’re clearly in love. They’re not engaged but obviously they will be one day. Their families would love it if they wound up together. She pretends otherwise, but tradition is important to Chanda. Both are first-generation kids, both have family hailing from the same province. He gets her in a way I couldn’t.

When we take a lunch break Abhay rides with Chanda to pick up food. Rebekah and I sit on the porch, drinking light beer and arm wrestling. She beats me every time. I want to keep going, long after the break is over and we’ve all eaten. I’d like to focus on anything other than the private jokes Abhay and Chanda share.

***

The apartment looks a lot more spacious now that everything’s arranged. Chanda had to do most of it. Greg was always the housekeeper when we were together.

I get an excited text from her before I head out: “TELL. ME. EVERYTHING.”

Rebekah’s already ordered a round when I find her at a back table. Her hair’s down. It’s less frizzy than I remember it. She has glasses on, thick black-framed jobs. Her huge grin gets wider as we drink. Hours later, while we’re playing darts, I think over and over about us drinking light beer, and her beating me at arm wrestling. I’m still thinking about it that night, when I go to sleep.

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Seal

lips

 

Tori looked so picturesque that Zach cursed himself for not bringing his camera. She’d called at two in the morning, needing a ride, and then begging off and telling him he could go back to sleep. But she was downtown, and it was a two mile hike uphill to her dorm at Vandy. He was pulling up beside her three minutes after leaving his trashy-chic studio loft near Five Points.

Her black skirt swished a half-beat before the rest of her body followed. Her red hair seemed to absorb the glow of the bar front neon. He would have honked, but the familiar rattle of his old Wagoneer gave him away, and she waved to make sure he could see her. Of course he could see her.

“Tell me again why we’re not dating?” she sighed, climbing in and leaning back in her seat.

“Your giant, giant boyfriend, mainly,” he told her. He pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dash. He didn’t smoke, it was just something he did. Some folks touched their nose. Others tugged their collars. He played with the cigarette lighter in his truck. “Also,” he added, curling his fist and lowering his voice, “my art is my true love.”

“Oh, Jesus. What do you call it when someone cliches a cliche? Hypercliche? Megacliche?”

“I’m a barista and a photographer, living in a studio apartment above a pizza joint. I am the Voltron of cliches.”

“You’re not too cliched! Didn’t you sell something recently?”

“Sure did. From that gallery there.” They passed by a tiny storefront, the picture window covered in white blinds. In huge Veranda font the numbers “465” were stenciled in black. “Dude bought a picture of mine for a grand.”

What? Hell yeah!” She punched him on the arm, and he added to his cliche gestalt by pretending the punch hadn’t hurt. “How are you not more excited about that?”

“Well, it might not happen again.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She shook her head. “If you’re gonna be broody I think I’d rather walk.”

“I’m not broody. I just don’t wanna get too comfortable with the idea I can live off my photos.” He’s in a good space now, but when he worked two grueling jobs just to survive, he’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. But things evened out for him. He starves now, making coffee and hustling photos, but at the price of finally living.

Ben Folds was playing in his stereo.

And all this wanderin’…

Got you nothin’…

“So I guess I’d be the chipper one.”

“What?”

“When we’re together. I’ll clearly have to be the optimistic one.”

“Yeah.” The lighter popped back out, and after a beat he pushed it back in. “But we won’t be together.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.

You were ready to…

But never could…

“So was it a bad fight?”

“Not really. Just…” she sighed, “a stupid one.”

“So you’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Guess I gotta.”

“Yep,” and in the flash of a street light he could see her smile at him, “now that I’m gonna hold ya accountable and all.”

He pulled up to her building. The campus police call box by the door flashed blue and red in the still night. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a lifesaver, man.”

“Cherry flavored and everything.” And he smiled after her as she climbed out. He caught himself a little too late watching the swish of her skirt against her thighs as she went in.

“Come on. Get your head on straight.”

At a light, he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror, saw the faint pink imprint on his cheek where she’d kissed him. He snapped a quick pic with his phone, and back at home he toyed with filters and exposure until her lipstick was a steel-gray print, framed by flecks of stubble along the slate white board of his cheek. He printed a copy, then scribbled along the gloss with a permanent marker. Once the words had soaked in he made two more prints, one to hang, one to hustle. He could easily get thirty bucks a copy for this print. He was gonna try for three hundred.

Are…

You…

Happy…

Wanderin’?

He texted a woman he knew, but she never responded before he fell asleep. Beside his whirring laptop, the corner of the print hung over the edge of his desk. It wafted in the eddy of his ceiling fan. Across the gloss, beneath Tori’s steel kiss, was the title, scrawled in black ink.

“Seal.”

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Abort

abort

 

Karen and I are drinking dirt-cheap beer and laughing through a season of “It’s Always Sunny” when the connection in my TV goes out.

“No worries,” I say, standing and facetiously beating my chest. “I shall fix this! Come citizens! Follow me!”

We’ve pounded our way through a twelve pack, so we both kinda stumble down the hall to my room, where my laptop sits charging on my desk. I open it and bring up Netflix, and soon the Paddy’s Gang start their antics right where they left off. She and I drop down on my mattress and watch through a beery haze.

I’m drunk enough I actually don’t notice her hand start to move between the snaps on my shirt. Honest to God, I don’t actually catch on to what’s happening until one snap pops, and when I look down her cool palm is running its way across my ribs.

“Whoa,” I say, sitting up and moving back a bit. Karen’s fine and all but, uh, this isn’t us. We aren’t…

“Oh, what?” she says. She’s smiling, her lips a darker red than I can remember ever seeing them before. She scoots closer as I scoot farther.

“I..we aren’t…”

“Oh, fuckin’ come on,” she says, rolling her eyes, and now she’s working down the strap of her purple tank top. “It ain’t like it was never leading to this.”

She’s pressed against me now and in the warmth I become so much more aware of her than I ever have been before. The crotch of her jeans scrape against my fly, and my heart rockets when I realize that soon, very freakishly soon, my skin will be pressed against the skin wrapped so tightly in those jeans.

She looms over me, wolfish grin and locks of distressed brown hair. The curl of her right eyebrow mimes the curl in her sneer. Porcelain white teeth threaten to eat me alive in the most comforting way imaginable. She pulses then, in a deep red light.

I look up and see the big red button, flashing bright. It reads: ABORT For some reason, I slap it.

And I wake up.

It’s Thursday morning. Practically the start of the weekend for me. Landscaping work is tight this time of year, so I wake without the usual strained aches of hard labor. Four crushed cans of Old Milwaukee litter my nightstand, and my laptop hums by my feet. Netflix tells me it has timed out due to inactivity.

I sit, still in the jeans and white tee shirt I fell asleep in. I rub my eyes and mutter “Aw, shit” over and over to myself.

***

Karen and I are drinking cheap drafts at a little hot dog place we tend to favor. Shamefully, I’m in the same wrinkled clothes I woke up in, because when you landscape for a living your perception of clean and dirty is fundamentally altered. She’s got on a brown sweater and tight jeans, the tightness of which I don’t think I would’ve noticed before last night’s dream. I drink a little faster when the memory comes to me.

“Ugh,” she groans, nudging a loose plastic stool on the eating station beside us. “Fucking seventy degrees in the middle of goddamn January. Someone needs to tell fall it’s time to give it a rest.”

She pulls off her sweater then, and underneath she’s wearing a deep purple tank. I almost spit my beer back into my plastic cup.

“You okay?” she asks me, loose hair cascading over her brown eyes as she looks at me.

Oh, goddamn it. God. Damn it.

***

Later we make our way back to my house, and Karen helps me swap out my engine mounts, which means that we actually have to lift the motor up and out. Before heading over we’d loaded her engine net into the bed of her pickup, and now with it set up in my driveway she and I curse and hiss and finally have the block loose enough to haul into the air. While she locks it in place I slide an engine stand underneath, then grab the mounts from the trunk.

When we get everything swapped out, we lower the engine and hook it back up, Karen complaining the whole time. “Goddamn motherfuck,” she groans, “why’d you ever buy this fuckin’ bitch, anyway?”

“Bitchiness is an appealing quality to me,” I answer back, pretending not to notice her shaking cleavage as she wrestles hoses into place.

When we’re done it’s dark. We’re sweaty and scratched up, and our skin and our clothes are smeared in grease. “I need a fuckin’ shower,” she says, grabbing a beer from my cooler and wiping grease from her wrist on the ass of her jeans.

“Go for it,” I tell her, lugging the cooler inside behind her. “Least I owe ya is some hot water.”

“Yer goddamn right you do.” She shotguns her beer and tosses it in the cardboard box I use for recycling. “Won’t take me fifteen.” And she disappears down the hall.

I sit in my threadbare recliner and keep drinking, and I guess I fall asleep ’cause I feel someone running their hand against my face. I have to blink for almost a minute because I can’t make out who’s standing in front of me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I finally see it’s Karen, ’cause really who the fuck else would it be?

What does surprise me, though, is how comfortable she is standing around naked.

Her hair is dripping wet, and without thinking I reach out and put my hand to her hip. Her skin is soft from scrubbing and cool from drying, and she sets her hand against my wrist and moves it lower. Her leg is so smooth I have the weird impression she’s melting from the heat of my hand, like cream. Her skin is deep brown and sun-kissed.

She leans down, her mouth open, and her lips are so close to mine I honestly don’t know if they’re touching or not. My mouth is open too, more out of shock than anything, and I can feel her breath coming and going across my tongue.

There’s a shimmer of light from behind her, and I look over her shoulder and see a massive insect’s wing wafting behind her. There are two of them, one on either side, and I look to her side to see a second, smaller pair below them. They shimmer with pulses of what seems like sunlight, and as they flutter the sunlight drips through the air like rain against a window. The liquid light spatters across my carpet, soaking deep into the fibers, and after a moment little hands reach into the air. Smaller Karens stand, emerging from where the light splashes. These Karens also have wings, pulsing, dripping, sunlit wings. It occurs to me that, if I keep watching, even smaller Karens than the ones I see will begin to appear. She is flooding my home, soaking it in shimmers.

There’s a different light now, a flashing red standing out against the pulsing white and yellow rays of sunlight. Across the front, the red glowing button reads ABORT. Without wanting to, moving mechanically, I move my foot to it and press it with the toe of my boot.

Fairy Karen’s fingers disappear from my cheek. I’m alone in my dark living room. When I check the time I see a text on my phone. “Didn’t wanna wake ya. I’ll be back tomorrow to grab my motor caddie. Sleep easy. Thanks for the beer. You need more conditioner. – Karen”

***

When Karen comes to get her motor caddie, she’s in canvas cargo pants and a thick flannel shirt that almost makes me think she knows what I was dreaming about. We laugh and drink beer at her place, slugging each other’s arms when we need to shut up or we’ll miss a good part of whatever show we marathon on Netflix. This morning, I dreamed we were lying on our sides in my bed, just looking at each other. The warmth under the sheets told me neither of us were wearing anything. We didn’t touch, didn’t kiss, just lied there with it feeling like we should. Her brown eyes held mine. The side of her mouth curled in a smile. Her right eyebrow was cocked, mimicking the curl of her lip. If I’d moved my head an inch, our noses would’ve touched.

But for the flashing button between us, I could’ve.

It’s Sunday, and we drink a lot. It starts to get dark, and it dawns on me I’ll have to head back soon.

“I need to cool it,” I tell her, waving away the offer of another beer. “Gotta drive back eventually.”

“Oh, fuck that.” She waves her hand. “Just sleep in back. Bobby ain’t due back in town for another couple days.”

Bobby. The boyfriend. I know him. He’s a good dude. A good dude who never makes an appearance in my dreams. In my dreams it’s just me and her.

But I persist, and when my buzz wears off we hug and I make my way back home. When I go to bed the space across my bedspread where I dreamed her is cool and smooth. Eventually, some undetermined time after I finally fall asleep, she’s there again, smiling, eyebrow cocked.

Her expression seems to say the same thing it seemed to say this morning. What happens now?  And this morning, what happened was a slow, regretful push of a button.

Now again we lie and look at one another, the ABORT button flashing between us. Now I drag a pillow across it, and lay my head closer to hers. Now, here in my dream, our noses touch.

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Links

links

 

Ben and Heath are sitting so close together their elbows are almost touching. On TV Alan Rickman quietly breaks Emma Thompson’s heart, and sad music by Joni Mitchell makes Heath think of Ben.

“So you talk to Gene any?” he says, and Ben shifts in place at the question.

“Not…not since Saturday,” Ben says, because not since the breakup scratches too deep inside.

“So it’s final ya think?”

“I kinda don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Fair enough.” Heath’s phone buzzes in his pocket but he ignores it. Texting Ari in front of Ben might be a little too hurtful. If his best friend was suffering, he’d suffer with him. All gays together, as he liked to say. Ben always fucking hated it when he said that, but that didn’t deter him.

Then Ben’s face breaks a little. He doesn’t cry, but with the pout comes a whimper, and he leans against Heath. Heath puts an arm around him and squeezes his hand.

“Hey, man, don’t hold back on my account,” Heath tells him. “You let it out if ya wanna. I know it hurts.”

The phone buzzes again. It could be Ari, and if that’s the case Heath doesn’t have to text him back. Ari’s The One; he never gets jealous or suspicious, and when he and Heath are together Heath forgets that there used to be a time that existed before they met. When they’re alone the image of leaves gently billowing in the wind frequently comes to mind.

His phone buzzes again. Ari isn’t the type to machine gun texts to people, so Heath thinks it might be Harrison, looking to go out and wanting a wing man. Heath isn’t good at the wing man thing because he has no idea what cues to look for to see if a woman is into Harrison, but Harry is convinced Heath ups his success rate. Possible delusions aside, a night out with Harrison is usually an entertaining one.

Heath feels a little guilty for letting his mind wander, but there isn’t much else to do besides sit and be here for Ben. Ben doesn’t usually talk his feelings out. Rather, he tends to opt for the approach of quietly letting himself stew until the boiling hurt cools to a simmer. But in these quiet hurting moments he does like company, and so Heath is here, for as long as his best friend needs him.

“I was hoping it was just a patch,” Ben says then. Mumbles, really. Half his mouth is pressed against the shoulder of Heath’s sweater.

Things had been rough between Ben and Gene for a while, a long while, actually, but Heath keeps this to himself. Ben just needs to feel as sad as he feels. No more, no less. It wouldn’t help anyone for Heath to pile on. Ben’s the kind of guy who needs to believe that even bad relationships are worth fighting for. He hasn’t yet figured out that couples are usually still in love when they call it quits. Love is vital, but it isn’t everything.

Heath scratches at his beard, which he hates but Ari loves. The whiskers get in Heath’s nose when he turns over in his sleep. “I know you were, man,” he tells Ben, squeezing his shoulder. Ben’s bigger than Heath and outweighs him by about forty pounds of packed muscle. For such a brawny guy Ben’s always been a bit emotional. Heath has soft feathery hair and a higher voice, but he’s so stoic and even-tempered that sometimes his calm unnerves people. When Heath broke up with Richard, Ben had asked why they’d been together as long as they had, since Heath didn’t seem broken up about it. Heath couldn’t make Ben understand that he was just able to tell that things had run their course between them. When endings that should come finally do, it’s best to let them pass without incident. Heath compares it to trying to waft away a storm wind with a hand fan.

They’re both good-looking men. They lean against each other and hold hands, Heath hugging Ben tight, Ben pressing his face against Heath’s shoulder as his eyes water. Heath’s sweater smells of burning leaves and Ari’s dog. Ben is warm, and Heath can feel it even through his layers. Heath squeezes Ben’s shoulder and murmurs: “I’m here for you. You’ll be okay.”

And Ben looks up then, and their noses are almost touching. Heath wipes at the wetness under one eye. The moment is still.

“I mean it,” he tells him. “I really do get how much it hurts.”

And Ben puts his wet face back against Heath’s shoulder, and soon Emma Thompson is crying again. The two men who probably should be in love but aren’t sit against one another, because the love that is there is not just good enough, it is in fact more than they need. It’s the kind of perfect love we often overlook, because it is not perfect along the lines we would like it to be. But it is no less perfect for it’s alternative definition.

When the movie ends they smoke cigarettes in the backyard. Ben drinks beer and Heath drinks from an old flask his father used before he died. Heath subtly brings up that their friend Rob is single again, and they smoke more cigarettes, and it is in hours such as these, on frosty winter nights filled with cigarette smoke, that bonds such as theirs are tempered. When their smoke intermingles Heath sometimes imagines chain links.

And when Heath goes home, he and Ari eat and watch a movie. Love Actually, again, because Heath could watch this movie on loop forever. Ari asks about Ben, and feels sorry for him, because Ben matters to Heath, and thus he matters to Ari.

And the night gets late, and becomes early morning, and because getting up for work is already going to suck for both of them, they go to bed before they make tomorrow worse. The two of them fall asleep, back to back, piled deep under comforters and pajamas. Almost friends, always lovers.

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Tupperware Lids

container

 

He was arranging the fish on the cutting board when his phone rang. He washed his hands as fast as he could, but his thumb was too wet to slide the answer button. He whipped it across with the tip of his nose just as it was about to go to voicemail.

“Hello?”

“Hola!”

“Hey, Ashe! What’s up?”

“Alright, so: if I make you swear not to breathe a word of what I’m about to tell you, can I trust you to keep your word?”

“My word is my bond. Or, I think that’s how that goes, anyway.”

“Like, for real. You swear this stays just between us?”

“Cross my heart, an’ all that. What’s up?”

“Alright, so.” There was a long dramatic pause. Jason put the phone on speaker and started chopping mushrooms. “You swear this stays between us?”

“I swear! Now spill!”

“Okay…seriously, you can’t tell anyone I told you this.”

“Woman…”

“Alright, alright! So: what’re your feelings for Jenn?”

The rhythm in Jason’s chopping hand slowed a bit before he answered. “Well, I mean, I got…you know, I have a crush on her, but you know that. But she’s my friend and I don’t want her to feel self-conscious because of it.”

“Ha! I knew it! Weeeeell Jenn’s got a crush on you too.”

“Aw, fuck!”

“What?”

“I’m making dinner and I just knocked over my mushrooms. She’s got a crush on me?”

“That’s what she just said.”

“And did she, by any chance, swear you to the level of secrecy you just swore me to?”

“You’re diverting, and I’m not gonna fall for it. Duuuuude, you need to make some kinda move!”

“Well, I mean, we tried to go out before…”

“Oh, Jesus, that was two years ago. Try again!”

“I dunno. It seems like it’d be awkward.”

“That’s just cuz you’re so spazzy! Look, y’all get on great! Just do something you both like. Like, something y’all already do when you hang. Then just, you know…get romantic about it! It’s literally that easy.”

“Ugh. That could make things really awkward between us.”

“Oh, put on your big boy pants and get over it. You’re both grownups. If it doesn’t work out, just don’t go for the smoochies anymore whenever y’all get coffee. You move on. It’s what we do now that we’re all adult-y.”

“Whoever entrusted us with adulthood has made a terrible, terrible error in judgment.”

“Dude, I just got off the phone with her! She’s home right now. All she’s doing is reading. Ask her if she wants to hang and then bring whatever you’re making for dinner with you! Why am I having to talk you through this?”

Jason stirred the mint sauce. Ugh, talk about date-y cuisine. If he went over now he might as well buy flowers. “Look, I’ll…I’ll call her this weekend or something.”

“Call her now! Forget it, I’ll call her. I’m putting you on three-way.”

“Ashe, no.”

“I’m dialing.”

“Woman, I will take this boning knife and I will hunt you down.”

“Haha! Boning’s the whole point, Jason!”

“Ashe…”

“Oooh, it’s ringing. Hold on, Imma put you on hold.”

“Ashe!”

She put him on hold, alright.

The bass sizzled with the mushrooms in the sauce. He heard a woman’s voice: “Hello?”

“Ashe?”

“It’s Jenn. I think Ashe hung up.”

“Because she’s awesome like that, of course.”

“Ha! So what’s up? Ashe said you wanted to talk?”

“She called you to say I wanted to talk?”

“I…guess. So what’s up?”

Jason made a mental note to, if not go through with his threat involving the boning knife, then to at least make Ashe think he would.

“Well, nothing. Cooking dinner. What’re you up to?”

“Like, the same. Doing nothing, I mean. Reading.”

“Cool.” The sizzling fish popped in the sauce. “Uh, hey, you maybe wanna hang out tonight?”

“Sure. I’m not exactly dressed for going out though. Like, I think I just barely meet the dress code for my own house.”

He had an image of her then, sitting on the couch in stained pajamas, her bare feet tucked under her. Dark blond hair tied back, but still messy. Her face greasy and shining. Sitting there, looking perfect.

“Well, I could come over there.”

“Cool! You on your way now?”

“Uhhh…” The timer went off for the fish. “In a couple minutes.”

“Sweet! See ya in a bit!”

“See ya!”

Ashe texted him about a dozen times that night. “Try to kiss her!” “Try to kiss her!” Hold her hand or something!” “Grab her ass! (Actually no, don’t do that. RESIST, JASON, RESIST.)”

He didn’t see any of them till near morning. The fish that had been still sizzling when he got there grew cold in its Tupperware, the steam wafting from where the lid had never quite sealed. Jenn marked her place in her book, but the marker was knocked loose when the paperback fell to the floor. There were awkward pauses, and hesitant kisses, then held hands and hooked arms. The nerve wasn’t in him to go far, so she pulled him close until courage was a moot point. They would wait until sunrise to see if anything had been accidentally shoved away.

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Between Lines

pen

 

Hannah had read bits and pieces of Bryan’s book when he’d been writing it, but it wasn’t until the book had been revised, agented, revised again, and published that she’d been able to sit down and read it cover to cover. The story was good, competent but not too impressive. Not to diminish what he’d done. He’d sold work. But still, it was only good. Not great, not amazing. Decent.

What stuck with Hannah, aside from her best friend having written it, was the woman in it, Leila. The love interest to the protagonist, who Bryan admitted in his first outlines was essentially him. In the novel, Nick, the hero, is in love with Leila. The romance is played up in the typical fashion for popular fiction. They once dated. It didn’t work out. They both developed feelings later, deep into their friendship. Both waited for the other to say or do something. Neither was willing to make that first trespass. Then the plot occurs, and lessons are learned, and held hands indicate a consummation will occur after the book is closed.

The romance wasn’t particularly moving. It was sweet, cutesy, but mainstream and generic. But it hit Hannah like a gust of wind. She got goosebumps that stayed even after she was done. Because Leila was clearly her.

***

“You wanna meet up at Wendy’s?” Bryan asked her on the phone. He worked half days at the bank on Saturday, and the Wendy’s was right next door. Tellers had to stand through their shifts. He needed to sit and eat before they did anything else that afternoon.

“Yeah man. I may be a little late. Dr. Tanner had an emergency this morning he needed help on.” Hannah was Tanner’s most reliable assistant. He chalked it up to work ethic, but Hannah simply couldn’t stand the idea of letting the animals down. A crying teenage girl had brought her screaming dog in after calling Tanner’s emergency line. The dog had swallowed a jagged piece of bark, and by the time the vet had gotten it out, it had nearly worked its way into the hound’s lungs. Hannah wouldn’t tell Bryan this, but after the girl and her dog had left, and Dr. Tanner and locked the office, Hannah had chain smoked in her car and cried for half an hour.

She fixed her eyeliner and said: “Say…half an hour?”

Her eyes wouldn’t be so puffy and red then.

“Sure. See ya see ya.”

By the time she got there, fresh faced and feeling both relieved and silly, and annoyed at feeling silly, Bryan had already eaten. He was on his laptop, exploiting the franchise’s wifi. He looked studious and he was typing quickly. Too anyone other than Hannah he looked like a dedicated young professional. To her, he looked like a man busily organizing his iTunes playlist.

“Mr.Bestseller,” she lied as she dropped in beside him, cramming chicken nuggets whole into her mouth. His book had sold but it was of the kind that seemed to be mostly background decoration for the bookshelves.

“She teases me,” he said, looking up to God. “Her best friend accomplishes his dream, and here she is to cut it down.”

“Someone’s gotta keep ya grounded,” she shrugged. She stretched her legs out and draped them across his lap. She’d tossed her scrubs into her back seat, and without her professional attire she seemed ten years younger, all skinny jeans and facial piercings. Studs in her nose and lip and ears, glinting in the fluorescent light and noonday sun. Hair so short and so dark and so smooth it almost seemed painted on. She still scribbled the names of bands she liked on the toes of her Converses when she got bored. They were both twenty-five.

He’d loosened his tie and ruffed his hair, so he looked a little like his usual, non-bank self. “The insane amount of money Nicolas Sparks makes does that effectively enough. Still,” he rapped her shins with his fingers, “that advance was pretty sweet.”

“I liked it.”

“Well of course you did. You’re obligated to.”

“Noooo, you asshole! I mean I actually liked it. It was sweet.” Through the last of her chicken nuggets she mumbled: “You know, despite it being indulgent wish-fulfillment.”

“Oh, please. If it’d been that I would’ve had the guy fistfight terrorists on a roof somewhere.”

“Funny you had the girl like the same bands I like.”

“All of which I exposed you to.”

“Fair point. Hey!” She drew a leg back and shoved his knees with her shoe. “What are we doing tonight?”

Bryan closed his computer, leaned back, and rubbed his eyes. “Well I’m gonna crash for a couple hours. Then…I dunno. You wanna get drunk and listen to music?”

“We do that almost every night.”

“You wanna do something else?”

“No. It just occurred to me that that’s our ritual.”

“Well, rituals are important.” He stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder. He used to be so much slimmer. Used to be he’d waver from the weight of the bag. Now he was so…solid. Or was she just imagining that?

He shoved her feet with his knee. “See ya…six-ish?”

“Okey dokey, artichokey.”

***

When she swung by his place he answered the door with puffy eyes and the pout of someone who slept too long. He told her to grab a beer while he showered, then shuffled back down the hall. He was barefoot and tie-less but otherwise still in his work clothes.

While the shower ran Hannah plopped down at his desk and opened his laptop. She did that all the time. Bryan knew about it. He didn’t care if she found his porn and he didn’t keep any personal info on his machine. She opened the folder he kept his writing in and scrolled through thumbnails until she found a title that interested her.

“Transcription.”

The file was a series of single sentences, followed by small paragraphs of transliterate rephrasing.

If I’m asleep just come on in. I trust you not to murder me.

Then the following: She could come and go without him knowing, and despite his ignorance he’d be in bliss. Because around her there was comfort, and in that comfort he found also safety. Her friendship and his trust were fair substitutes for arms locked around one another.

The next line: If you think you can stand my company. It’s PMS ahoy time.

Followed with: There came between them moments when warning was needed. Don’t do this; keep away when I need you to. The ignorant say that love is in knowing everything about the other, but the truly in love know better. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to accept it. There are moments when love means putting up a fence, or at the very least, caution tape.

She recognized the line that had come before. She’d texted it to Bryan once.

Sister’s wedding wasn’t too bad. Only the super fucking old relatives asked me when I was growing my hair out again.

Her hair had spilled to the middle of her back, and once he’d put his hand on the oaken curls and the glossy smoothness had caught his breath. And he winced inside when she’d cut it off, but it was not for him to mourn or complain. She attended to her temple, as he attended to his. She was not here for his acceptance. That was his to choose to give. The attraction was to her being, all of it, and after a moment he found his breath catching again, because the new hair was still, of course, her.

“You feel like Chinese?” Bryan asked from behind her, and she screamed and spun in his chair.

“Jesus fucking Christ! How do you fucking move so fucking quietly?”

His wet blond hair ringed his forehead in little curling spikes. Small wet drops sprinkled the shoulders of his blue tee shirt. He’d pulled on a pair of jeans that weren’t so much slashed as they were worn. He shrugged. “My house, woman.” He grinned and tapped his fingertips together. “Your life is in my hands!”

She leaned back and swigged her beer. “Where ya thinking of ordering from?”

“I dunno. I like Stir King but they take forever to get here.” He looked up from his handful of takeout menus and noticed the screen. A small but clear look of alarm crossed his face, but to his credit it passed like a flash of heat lightning. “If I put in a carryout order would you be down to ride with?”

“Sure, so long as you’re cool with me smoking in your car.”

“I’m not, but you’re gonna do it anyway, so it’s moot.” He stepped into a pair of loafers, grabbed his keys and wallet, and pocketed his phone. Before they left he closed the word file and shut the laptop’s lid.

***

They gorged on sweet and sour pork and cinder block sized boxes of fried rice, then passed a bottle of Canadian Club between them and listened to scratchy GG Allin tracks.

It was winter but it was a muggy southern winter, and when the music ended they just migrated to the back deck to polish off the bottle. They collapsed into a cushioned swing and dragged an afghan across themselves.

“Man, fuck,” Bryan yawned. “Fuckin’ late twenties gotta remind me I can’t stay up this late when I hit thirty.”

“Gotta wake up, old man,” Hannah told him, swigging the whiskey. “I ain’t dragging your ass into bed.”

“Oh, but for the grace of God,” he said, taking the bottle back.

“Hey Bryan?”

“Hey Hannah.”

“You keep all our texts?”

He seemed confused at first, then his eyes widened and he bobbed his head as he remembered. “Yeah, yeah I do. I keep a lot of stuff people tell me. Use it in a lot of stuff I write. Old fuckin’ habit.” He took another drink.

“Gotcha.” She grinned, obnoxious and twisted drunk. “You fuckin’ creeper.”

“Well, stop textin’ and I’ll stop creepin’.” He was slurring, and blinking a lot to keep awake.

“So how much of me did you use, then?”

“Huh?”

“In…in your book.” And now she was slurring too. “You said you use people’s texts in your stuff. How much of me is in there?”

“Uh…” He tilted his head back and thought about. “Well, book’s about 240 pages long. Leila’s in about 120 of those pages. So…yeah, 120 pages.”

It was quiet for a beat, and then Hannah slurred. “Wait, did you just say I’m Leila?”

“Huh?” He squinted as he thought, then it dawned on him what he’d said. “Oh, well, you know what I mean. Maybe, like, 80 pages of her is you. Different…you know, different hair.”

He yawned.

“And how much of you is in it?”

“Oh, well…all of it.” He grinned, then stretched. “Heart and soul. I gotta crash.”

He leaned forward, hanging his head in drunken exhaustion, then looked over at her. They held eye contact until she smiled, and then until he also smiled.

It’d be a trespass to cross that line. Regardless of how it’d be done, it’d always be a trespass. The trick would be in figuring out when that boundary could be broken. And neither could figure out that puzzle, even when they were sober.

So he stood up, wavering but remaining upright, and squeezed her shoulder. “Lock the doors when ya come in,” he told her, and shuffled inside.

Hannah capped the bottle and leaned back in the swing. Where Bryan had sat, the polyester cushion was warm. Tree frogs, emboldened by the mild winter, croaked all around her. After an hour, she made her way in, latching the deck doors behind herself. While they slept, beneath the same ceiling, inside different rooms, the whiskey bottle sat on its side in the swing. It stretched across the cool gap between where they’d sat.

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Company

watching tv

 

Walter’s drinking tonight. He’s drinking this whiskey because it makes him think of his dad, and he misses his dad. He’s drinking so much of it because Lin’s here, and through no fault of her own she makes him nervous.

They’re watching a scary movie, both of them sunk deep into the overstuffed leather couch Walter’s mom left behind when she moved away with her new husband. Walter pays utilities and a small sum that can only charitably be called rent. His brother works in New Hampshire and his sister is studying in Toronto. He likes being by himself. He likes Lin’s company more.

They have their feet propped up on the coffee table. Walter wears jeans and heavy boots, even though winter is barely more than an early spring in Jacksonville. Lin’s bare ankles are draped over his. She’s dressed more for the region than he is, in a belt-like pair of shorts and a soft pink tank. She’s kicked off the blue All-Stars she favors, and the glow of the TV illuminates her feet through the mesh running socks she has on. The image makes Walter think of an x-ray.

It’s getting late and they can both feel it, Lin because she gets up early to go running every day, and Walter because he’s drinking too much. The movie comes to an end, the heroine dragged screaming into some creature’s lair, and credits begin their slow crawl to eerie, somber music. Walter barely notices. He’s a little hypnotized by the smooth glow of Lin’s legs in the light of the white lettering. Because he’s her friend and she cares about him, she pretends not to notice.

The menu screen pops up, and Walter reaches overhead and flips the light on. Lin takes a final swig of her beer.

“You good to drive?” he asks, but of course she is. The entire night she’s only made it about halfway down the bottle.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She stands and stretches, yawning as she bends down to pull on her shoes. Walter’s dog, alerted by the light, wanders into the living room and watches her. Walter does his best to be less conspicuous than his dog, but the sight of her shimmering black hair slipping from her shoulders makes him feel like he has to swallow.

He gets up, slowly, to make sure he isn’t too drunk to stand, but he’s able to keep himself steady and he walks with her to the door. His cat patters between them, looking from one to the other. The animal either wants attention or treats, or both.

Like we all do.

The porch light is a soft amber color, and Lin’s own amber skin glows beneath it. It doesn’t shine; it glows.

Walter runs a self-conscious hand across his unshaven face, makes a casual motion to smooth down his chronic bedhead. He leans against the door frame as they chat. He listens to her but he also thinks about how her eyeliner makes her brown eyes look smoky, how she hates the light acne scarring at her temples, the scarring he suspects people only notice after she’s pointed it out. He thinks these things but he also listens.

He worries he has pickle breath. Lin hates pickles, and earlier he warned her not to get too close after he’d eaten one.

She’d elbowed him. “How close we talkin’ about here? Cuz at a certain point I’m not gonna care that you had pickles.”

Not a signal. He knows that. He wants it to be, but he knows better than to assume.

They talk a little longer, and then they say goodnight, and he catches himself almost leaning in to kiss her. Almost. His neck loosens and he feels himself reflexively about to lean in. But there is no movement, and Lin remains unaware of the trespass he almost went for.

He drinks too much, he realizes.

And then she’s walking to her car, and backing out, and when he closes the door he leans against the frame and watches the headlights trace across the wall. He groans and thumps his head a little against the molding.

He looks down. His cat and his dog sit beside each other, both looking up at him. They always look mildly surprised. Like we all do.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He grins and pets them with both hands, rubbing behind their ears. “I know, ya judgmental bastards.”

He walks to the kitchen, and they both get up to follow. Because he’s moving for the food bowls. Because he might not be feeding them after all. Because he’s just there, and because they want to be around those they love. Without condition. Without expectation.

Like we all do.

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