Tag Archives: friendship

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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Roll-Away

roll-away

 

Krista and I smoke cigarettes by the door to the employee garage. She’s just off work and I’ve just rolled in. It’s February and it’s freezing. The garage can park forty cars but there’s only five here now. It’s just her and me, smoking and complaining about work. Occasionally she curses our managers in bubbly Greek.

“Christ,” she says, rubbing at her eyes. “I gotta be up in five hours for my shift at Hilton.”

It’s a quarter past eleven now. “Shit,” I say. “And you live all the way in Clarksville. That’s two hours coming and going.”

“Yeah.” She takes another drag on her smoke. “Fuck it. I’ll just sleep here in my car. I’ve done it before.” She shrugs and says something in Greek that sounds dismissive.

It really is cold in here. “Oh, fuck that!” I say, digging my houseman keys out of my pocket. “Here. Stub your smoke and follow me.”

We take the service elevator to the housekeeping floor, and I grab a bundle of roll-away linen from the racks in back.

“Front desk to houseman,” my walkie squawks. I unclip it from my belt and answer. “Go ahead.”

“Guest in room 307 needs a roll-away.”

“10-4.”

Krista and I ride the lift to storage. Storage is a little warmer than the garage, just because heat rises. It’s just as much a concrete box as downstairs, but here every available space is filled with items guests may request during their stay. A single window looks out over the alley. Red neon spills in through the glass, and the occasional hoot from drunks outside works its way in like whinnies from a field.

I pull one roll-away to take with me to the guests, and make space to set another down. “Here ya go,” I tell her, dropping one bundle onto the bed. “This has gott abe better than sleeping in your car.”

“Oh, no!” she says, almost alarmed. “I can’t put you to this much trouble!”

In the neon light, with her brow creased, I’m reminded she’s 41. She looks younger than she is, but here I faintly notice indicators of her age. Small creases by her eye. The sheen of her skin. Not old. Not even weathered. Tempered.

Under fluorescent light her bouncing, kinky hair is light brown, but in the glow of neon it is a deep rose red.

I wave a hand. “It’s no trouble. You’ll be up and out before anyone else clocks in. No one’s gonna know. It’s just me on hall duty tonight.”

“But the extra laundry!” Her eyes bulge from worry or guilt or maybe just the general shame of the working poor. “I don’t wanna make extra work for anyone!” And she bites her nails and mutters something Greek.

“They’ll never notice. It’ll literally just be an extra armload. They’ll clock out the same time they always do.” I slap the thin mattress. “Sleep here. I’ll wake ya in five hours”

She hesitates, then gives a shy grin, hugs me, and kisses my cheek. She says something I don’t understand, then follows it with: “You’re sweet, little baby.”

I’m twenty-six, but in that moment I feel like an eight-year-old being reminded of my childishness by a pretty high schooler.

“I try.” I grab the other bundle and roll the other bed behind me. “G’night.”

Something in Greek, just as the door closes behind me.

***

“Krista’s sleeping in storage,” I tell Clint at the front desk. “Can you believe Dan scheduled her for dinner shift? Knowing her morning schedule?”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Assholes.” Then: “You sure she’s comfortable? I could look for a spare room.”

“Nah, she’s good. Just wanted ya to know in case it was too cold for you to take your smoke break downstairs.”

“Word.” He’s typing a mile a minute, closing guest accounts and settling invoices. In half an hour he’ll print three-hundred receipts, some stapled together for longer stays, and I’ll spend a busy hour sliding them under doors. It’s a little after one in the morning.

“You and Krista talk a lot.” He gives me a coy, stubbly smile. “Always smoking together when I come in.” He looks over and winks. “And then she’s always making you coffee before you clock out.”

“Oh, dude, Jesus Christ. She’s, like, my mom’s age.” Which is nearly true. My mother married very young. But Krista…Krista does not look like my mother. Not even a little bit.

Clint shrugs. “Hey man, I’m just sayin’. My man’s older than she is.” Clint’s my age. “Besides, after a certain point, do age differences even exist anymore? This ain’t fuckin’ high school.”

“Funny ya say that. She woulda been in high school when I was born.”

“It’s like that Wanda Sykes bit,” he says, typing through his duties. “If you can’t find a good man, raise one.”

***

Two guests come back from bar hopping around three. Two women, one blond and sort of heavyset, but no less pretty for it. The other, deep brunette, slim and having a little trouble balancing on her high heels. Halfway across the marble lobby she stops, leans on her friend for support, and slips them off. The two of them make for a side hallway, where the overnight coffee station is.

Ten minutes later, I’m bringing a fresh carafe out when I see them go into the room they share. I swap out a few condiments, and in my haste to get the chore done I stumble over something hidden by the table skirt. When I crouch down to see what it is, I find a pair of black heels. The same the guest kicked off in the lobby.

I grab them, feeling awkward as I carry them to the guests’ door, and knock rapidly. You’d be amazed how fast someone can pass out. I steel myself for an irritable string of swears when the guest, the slim one, opens the door. She’s still in her dress, her eyes a little red, her makeup wiped off of her cheeks.

“…yeah?” she asks. She seems nervous, and I guess if I was alone and pretty, I’d be uncomfortable if a strange guy knocked on my hotel door too. Actually I’d be nervous if that happened regardless of who I was, come to think of it.

“Uh…I think these are yours?” I motion to the table. “I found ’em near the coffee?”

Her eyes light up with understanding. “OH! Oh, thank you so much!” Her voice is quickly layered with emotion. “Aw! That was so sweet of you!”

I’m tempted to tell her I’m just paid to do this, but lately it’s been occuring to me how much of an asshole that makes me sound when I say that. “Well, they looked nice on ya. It’d be a shame for you to lose ’em.”

The night’s libations seem to make her melt when she hears that. “Aw! You’re so sweet!” And she leans into me then, steadying herself with one hand against my crossed arms. When she touches me I quickly wonder how she’s able to keep herself from blowing away in the wind. She pecks my cheek, and I pretend to run a hand over my beard to hide what I suspect is a blush.

“Thank you!” she says again, with more sincerity than I would’ve expected.

“Y-yeah,” I say, then smooth the stammer down. “Yeah, no problem.”

She smiles and holds eye contact as she closes the door, and fifteen minutes later my heart is still pounding in my ears. I take a quick smoke break with Clint in the garage.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shaking his head. “You gotta stop working so hard, man. You’re beet red.”

***

By three I’m hurriedly stuffing guest receipts under doors. On the seventh floor a middle aged man with expensive clothes but an alcoholic’s physique grins and holds out his hand before opening his door. I give him his receipt and ask him: “So how much ya owe us?”

He looks over the printout and says: “Probably not as much as y’all deserve.” Then he looks up at me: “How much they pay ya anyway, kid?”

“Ten and change an hour.”

“Yeah. Not nearly enough.”

“True,” I agree, since it seems safe to. “But better than a lot of others get.”

He holds eye contact for a second. “But you’re not looking to keep this job forever, are ya?”

I cross my fingers. “Well, ya know. God willing, an’ all.”

“You from around here?” Here being Louisville.

“Nah, nah. I grew up around Atlanta. A little to the south. Poor part, ya know,” and he laughs with me, and I wonder how much of being poor he can actually identify with.

He opens his door but he doesn’t go inside, just leans against the cheap aluminum frame. For as much as we charge you’d think we’d be built less like a Days Inn, but our location is primo so we get away with it. “Ya lived here long?” he asks, in a nasally accent I place somewhere in Ohio. He undoes a top button. His chest hair is as salt-and-pepper as the hair on his head.

“Couple years.” And I’m not stupid, I know what’s happening. I straighten the receipts in my hand, evidence I need to get back to work.

“Moved here for school?” he asks. In my head I translate: Could ya use some extra cash?

And like always, when a man gets aggressively flirtatious, I feel guilty for every woman I’ve ever gotten handsy with. “Sure did. Wrapping the degree next semester.”

“You can’t possibly afford that with what they pay!” He scratches at his chest. His stare is like the scope of a sniper’s rifle.

“Well, if I can keep my poverty a secret long enough, it won’t matter.” I move away, long, strong strides. “You have a good night, sir!”

He stays in the door frame a moment, unsure of what to do, then quietly says, “Yeah, you too,” goes inside, and closes the door.

When I’m done, I head down to storage to wake Krista.

***

Krista’s already up when I get there, sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a morning ciggie and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is still relentlessly buoyant, but even it seems to be taking time to awaken. It seems to hang with less spring than it does when she’s fully loaded on caffeine and nicotine.

“You’re up a little early,” I tell her, stealing a smoke and lighting up. Outside the tinkling of empty bottles becomes an outraged ringing, as garbage trucks empty Dumpsters behind alleyway bars.

Krista shrugs. “Slept like the dead, though,” she tells me. Her blouse hangs loose on her, a few top buttons undone. I notice her server’s smock is bunched up beside her boots, resting on her folded slacks.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” I say then, stubbing out the smoke.

“Sorry for what, baby?” she asks, honestly confused.

“I…I didn’t know you still needed to get dressed. My bad.” And I’m backing away before she waves me back.

“No, no! I don’t care!” And she gives this bursting laugh that rings like hollow glass. “Ohhh,” she purrs, comforting but not condescending. “I embarrassed you! I’m sorry!”

“No! No!” I laugh then and relight my smoke. “You wouldn’t be the first naked woman I’ve seen, believe it or not.”

“Oh, really?” And she gives a tired grin. “And how many naked women have you seen?”

“Uhhh,” I take a deep drag. Can she see me go red in the wash of neon? “I don’t know. Never really counted.”

“Oh ho! So that many, huh?”

“You make it sound like I’m bragging.”

“Well,” she tosses her hair over her shoulder, “no harm in that. It’s something to brag about, after all.” She looks down, rubs at her eyes again, mutters something in Greek, then asks: “Anyone down in the staff showers right now?”

“Oh, hell no. No one from first shift is gonna roll in for another hour.”

“An hour.” She just says it, like a confirmation, staring at her burning smoke.

“I can get a kit ready,” I tell her, and start to turn again. She grabs my arm.

“Hey,” she says, and when I turn she pulls me a step closer. Another tug, and I’m nearly sitting on the cot with her.

“It’s chilly,” she tells me, and pulls me closer, throwing the blanket aside. I wasn’t aware of how cold it was until I feel the heat billowing from her bare legs.

“Damn, it’s chilly!” she giggles, throwing the blanket back over us. Soon her mouth is clamped against my ear. Her hands, strong from a lifetime of working to survive, anchor me to her like vices. Every few seconds she murmurs “Oh, my baby,” and then something, the same thing, over and over, in Greek. I never ask her what it means.

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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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Familiarity

familiarity

 

When Lori walks up Dex’s drive, she sees him kneeling by the steps to his porch, gouging an old basketball with a box cutter. The box cutter is dull and the hide of the ball is thick, so he isn’t cutting so much as he’s slashing. The ball is old, and the bright orange Lori remembers from high school games of Horse has dulled into a deep, graying brown. When Dex finally punctures it the ball spews dust in a wheeze that almost sounds asthmatic.

“The shit are you doing?” she sneers as she kicks her way up his walk, her heavy boots snapping against the concrete. Dex works his fingers inside the cut and holds the ball open as he flattens it.

“Time to retire the old fella,” he tells her, and when the ball is rendered a sad, flat carcass he lifts the lid of the city trash can and flings it inside like a Frisbee. Dex crosses himself facetiously and lowers his voice: “In nomine Patris, et Spiritus Sancti.”

“I think there’s more words to that,” Lori tells him.

“Well fuck it. I ain’t even Catholic.” Dex rubs his arms. He’s wearing a thin long sleeve tee, one he always wears. The seams at the shoulders are wearing out and each threadbare elbow has a thin, short rip at its apex. “Damn. It’s colder out here than I thought it’d be.”

“Yeah, I know, right?” Lori says, making her way up the steps. “Some dumbass might even try to tell you it’s January.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get yer ass inside.” Dex opens the door and lets her in before following.

Inside it’s substantially warmer, though not as warm as it might be in other people’s houses. Dex’s parents own the place but he lives here alone now, paying utilities and generally bumming off his folks while he builds his own funds. When his mother still lived here she kept it warm enough to bake bread, but Dex starts to sweat at 70 degrees. Luckily Lori’s always wearing her ugly gray and brown sweater, so it’s never an issue for her.

“I’m hungry,” Lori tells him.

“Well then go eat,” Dex says. They’ve already made plans to head out to The Nacho Shack, however, and Dex pulls on a sweater for the walk.

Lori snuffles her chilly nose and watches him while he’s turned away and she has the chance. With his black curly hair and his rounded face he’s pretty average looking, but there are moments or angles or something that Lori doesn’t have the words for where he’s so goddamn handsome that a warm trickle drips from her chest to her gut. She can only take these moments in quick bursts before her mind goes to her greasy hair and her horse teeth and the stomach that seems flat enough so long as she wears the ratty gray and brown sweater she always wears. When she thinks of those things she feels like she’s stolen something, and she has to stop before the embarrassment can make her face red.

Dex ruffles his hair and grabs his phone and wallet. He scratches at his shoulder, at a scar he got in high school. He’s so milquetoast that he mostly keeps the scar’s origin to himself. The few people he’s told who didn’t see him get it assumed he wass just making it up, trying to make himself seem less bland than he was.

A kid who grew up two doors down from Lori had taken to harassing her every chance he got. He’d follow her before, during, and after school, calling her a dyke and telling her he planned to kill her or rape her or both. Then one day Dex told him to back off. Dex had never met Lori but didn’t like how ugly things were getting between these two kids he passed in the hall. The guy had a box cutter and jammed it in Dex’s shoulder, then got shipped off to juvie. Lori heard from someone that he was dead now, beaten up in some prison upstate. Lori felt a little guilty over how relieved that news made her feel when she heard it.

Dex ruffs his hair again and checks himself in the mirror. “Will you hurry up, you pussy?” Lori groans. She really is hungry and this honestly is getting on her nerves a bit.

“Alright, alright,” and he grabs his keys and goes up to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and shaking her playfully. Then he looks down and pinches her nose. “You’re so cuuuuute!” he teases, a head taller than her, and she shoves him and punches him in the scarred shoulder.

“Oh, fuck you!” she snaps, and makes her way outside, smiling while also scowling. Dex follows her and locks the door. When he was pinching her nose there was a fleeting urge to kiss her forehead, because she’s almost like a little sister to him. Sometimes there are moments when the words are capitalized – KISS HER – and when those words grow in his mind, he sees her both again and for the first time. He sees her huge toothy smile, and the wide scattering of dark freckles on her dimpled cheeks, and the gray-blue eyes almost hidden behind messy bangs that aren’t quite brown and aren’t quite red. And in those times, with those words so huge in his head, she isn’t like a sister to him at all.

Friendship is a bond, but also, sometimes, a chain.

The Nacho Shack is down and around the block, so they walk, Lori’s baggy jeans scraping against themselves, Dex occasionally running his fingers through his hair in the cold wind. They’ll probably eat outside, warmed by fresh tacos and fueled by too much Cuban coffee. They’ll tease and kick each other, like they’ve done for nearly a decade, and they’ll ignore fleeting wishes that will pass between their ears. They walk, neither arm-in-arm nor with outstretched hands. They are bound both together and apart by placid, steadfast familiarity.

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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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