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.