My bladder ached and my back groaned and my eyes burned with dryness. I was hungry and miserable and it was only the thought of the trip being near its end that kept me from nodding off at the wheel. And all this because of one text. A text and a phone call, to be completely accurate. The call in which I was asked to abandon everything I had planned for his weekend and come. My refusal came only after a lifetime’s worth of silence had passed between us and was cushioned with babeijustcant and imsosorry and had, to my mind, been accepted with surprising grace – until I received a text minutes after hanging up that made the refusal and its coupled apologies meaningless, a text that simply said “Please reconsider. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need you.”
I yawned as I guided the car off the highway and into the cool quiet of the sleepy suburb. I had made the trip enough times now that I no longer needed to rely on directions for the last few steps, and each memorized turn made my mind wander to those past visits and how they would contrast with what awaited me this time. The lights were on inside the house when I pulled up to the curb. I sat with the engine idling and my hands wrapped around the wheel. My foot was still on the brake. I hadn’t yet put the car into park. A flutter of movement jostled the drapes and it was only then that I cut the engine, grabbed my bag, and stepped out of the car. The door opened when I stepped onto the porch. I smiled.
The words were barely out of my mouth before I found myself wrapped up in the smell of cheap beer and dried sweat. I hugged him back.
I felt hot warmth soak into my shoulder.
“You came. You came. You came.”
I closed my eyes and stroked his hair.
“Shh. It’s okay, Joey. I’m here. I gotcha.”
My own eyes had begun to water. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of it was due to the smell. Joey wasn’t letting go. When he did let go it was to pull me inside and push me onto the couch, not even giving me enough time to be surprised before jumping on top of me and grabbing at my clothes.
Joey undid my belt and tossed it aside.
“…because you’re drunk.”
Joey flinched but didn’t stop. He undid the button on my jeans and pulled down the zipper.
“I’ve been drunk before.”
I didn’t know if what he meant was that he had been drunk while we were together. My pants were around my knees. I squirmed against the couch and covered myself.
“Joey. Your mom.”
That stopped him dead. He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the closed door at the end of the hall.
“Alright. Let’s go inside – I’ve already got the bed set up.”
I nodded and let Joey help me up, let me put my pants back on before he pulled me into the bedroom. When we were finished I lay with Joey’s face buried in his chest, arms wrapped around him and my nose in his hair. The smell seemed worse than ever. Idly I hoped that Joey had in fact been drunk during previous times. It’d be better if this wasn’t the first.
Joey raised his head. I could just barely make out his eyes in the dark.
“How much beer do you have left in the house?”
Joey burrowed his face back into my chest.
“Not much. A couple cans, I think. I was gonna finish it off tomorrow morning.”
“I wanna dump it out.”
I felt Joey’s lips move against my skin. I couldn’t tell if he had smiled or frowned.
“…that’s not really how it works, hon. I’ve gotta ease into it, you know what I mean? I could go into shock if the alcohol leaves my system all at once.”
“But if you really want to, we can. I’ll probably be okay if – ”
“No, that’s alright. I wanna do whatever’s gonna be safest for you.”
“Okay. Thanks hon.”
I dug my chin into Joey’s whorl and listened to him breathe.
“Think you’re about ready to call it a night?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
We looked at each other.
“I love you, Devin.”
“I love you too.”
I kissed Joey on the forehead, rolled over, and closed my eyes.
I was sitting at the computer desk with my legs folded up beneath me and my eyes scanning the well-worn Spanish reader. Joey was watching Dr. No and frankly had it on too loud for me to focus on my studies (was seguir to follow or to cut? And how did it work in the subjunctive imperfect again?), but any complaints I may have had vanished when I looked over and saw hishead poking out from under the covers, watery eyes blinking and shallow breaths passing through pale parted lips. I made the effort as long as he could (“That’s a Smith & Wesson…”…siguiera, siguieras, siguiera… “…and you’ve had your six.” …siguiéramos don’t forget the accent siguieran…) before giving up, setting the reader aside, and crawling back into bed. Joey murmured softly and sort of pushed up against me but did nothing else. He was shivering. I palmed his forehead – my throat knotting when I felt the heat that radiated from it – and ran a hand through his hair.
“How are you feeling, babe?”
Joey looked up and attempted a smile.
I looked at the television – Sean Connery’s eyes were removing what little Ursula Andress was wearing – and then back at Joey .
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Joey blinked and stared past me.
“…do you think you could go online and see if there are any urgent care places nearby?”
I watched as a trickle of sweat caught itself in his sideburn.
“I think I oughta just take you to a hospital if it’s really bad.”
Joey scrunched up his face and shook his head.
“I can’t go to the hospital. Mom’s insurance doesn’t cover me anymore. But an urgent care place might be able to sell us the sort of drugs they usually give to people going through detox.”
“I wouldn’t even know what to ask for.”
“They’ll know. But if they play dumb, ask for benzodiazepine. And make sure not to demand it or sound desperate or anything like that or they won’t sell it to you.”
I thought of asking Joey how he knew all this. I had my suspicions but wondered what good would come of confirming them. Though Joey had, in the past, freely admitted to his prior struggles with addiction, he had at that time neglected or decided to not provide details of just what it was he had been addicted to during his time as a barback living out of a walk-up closet in South Philadelphia. He assured me that he’d be more than happy to answer any questions that I might have, but it seemed improper to probe Joey on just what it was he had been hooked on. Interrogative, somehow. As though in asking I would be interviewing Joey to see if he was worth sticking with. I’m sorry, but there other applicants to consider and we’re looking for someone with a more stable history. And if I couldn’t ask with four hundred miles separating us I certainly couldn’t with Joey’s shallow breath raising goosebumps on my arm – even if being proper meant acting as an oblivious supplier.
I kissed Joey’s hair, wiped the sweat from his brow, and returned to the computer. A quick search found four such facilities in the area, two of which were open on Saturdays, one of which hadn’t closed for the day.
“Valley Forge Urgent Care, how can I help you?”
“Hi. Um…a friend of mine is going through detox and he’s…kinda having a rough time of it. If we came down there, would you be able to give him anything to help him out?”
“You said that’s he’s going through detox, sir?”
“Okay sir, that’s definitely the sort of thing that should be done under a doctor’s supervision. I highly recommend you take him to the hospital, sir.”
“He…can’t do that.” I turned and saw Joey frowning at me from across the room. “Is there any way one of your doctors could prescribe him something?”
“I’m afraid we couldn’t do that without admitting him, sir.”
“I understand, but it’s not like he needs to be diagnosed or anything like that. He just needs enough benz…benzodiazepine to get him through the day – ”
I realized before I had even finished speaking that I had not worded that properly. The woman’s voice gained an edge.
“I’m sorry, sir. We won’t be able to help you.”
I felt Joey staring at me.
I ended the call and turned to Joey, who was shivering and looking at the ground.
“I’m so sorry, babe.”
Joey shook his head and gave me a weak little smile.
“It’s okay. I shouldn’t’ve asked you to do it in the first place.” His smile faltered and his eyes wandered. “What did they say?”
“Just that they couldn’t prescribe anything without admitting you.” I lifted up the covers and worked my way beneath them. “I don’t suppose benzo…ben – “
“I don’t suppose that’s the sort of thing we could get at a pharmacy.”
Joey breathed out a laugh.
“No, it isn’t.” He lay back and let me take him in his arms. I did just that and hoped Joey didn’t notice the flinch that came at the sudden brush of clammy skin. “I guess that’s it, then.”
“Are you going to be all right?”
The silence lasted for much longer than I was comfortable with, and when Joey broke it, it seemed as though he was doing so only because he was aware of how uneasy the pause had become.
“Probably. This is the worst of it. If I can just get through today the rest’ll be a piece of cake.”
I looked at the screen. Sean had undone the tow rope on his boat so he and Ursula could have a little privacy.
“Do you wanna move on to From Russia With Love?”
Joey exhaled and nodded.
“Could you hand me my phone?”
I found it on the night table and gave it to him.
“Who are you calling?”
“My mom,” Joey mumbled, staring at the device as though the numbers on its buttons had turned into Sanskrit. “I’m gonna see if she can grab some stuff on the way home from work that might help me sleep.”
“Won’t it be a couple hours before she gets home? I could just go out now and get you whatever you need.”
Joey shook his head.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
I watched his fumbling fingers for a moment before rolling out of bed to get the next DVD.
“Hey mom, it’s me…yeah, I’m okay. Devin being here is helping a lot.”
I smiled despite myself as I put the disc in the player.
“I know I’m gonna have a hard time getting to sleep, though, so I was hoping you could stop by the Genuardi’s on the way home and get me a couple things…I don’t know, maybe some of that Sleepytime Tea you like or some melatonin or a little thing of NyQuil…yes, it’s okay for me to have NyQuil…yes, I know that’s what you meant…”
I kept my eyes focused on the screen, pretending to be interested in the anti-piracy warning.
“Mom, I’m not gonna do anything with it, I just need some help getting to sleep. You can throw it out after today for all I care…okay…okay, fine, I promise…alright. Alright. Thanks mom. Bye.”
He ended the call and it was only then that I allowed myself to turn away from the TV and the gyrating women on whom the opening credits were being projected.
“Is she going to bring it?” I asked as I crawled back beneath the covers.
“Yeah. But she made me promise to take it in front of you so you make sure I only take one dose.”
He snuggled back up to me and in doing so ended the conversation and silenced the dozen different questions I could have asked. Neither of us said much of anything until a knock came on the door in the midst of Sean and Daniela cruising blithely through the canals of Venice.
“Come in,” Joey called, before I could decide whether or not I wanted his mother to see the two of us in bed together. The heavyset woman with tired eyes stepped into the room. She looked at us and smiled.
“Hi, boys. How’s it going?” She turned to me. Her smile widened. “Are you taking good care of my baby?”
I smiled and gave Joey a little squeeze.
“He’s a model patient.”
The woman chuckled as I saw Joey’s cheeks take on color for the first time that day. For a moment the only sound in the room was that of Matt Monro crooning the title track over the end credits. Joey cleared his throat and looked at his mother.
“Thanks for picking all that up for me. What do I owe you?”
She limped across the room and waved her hand.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to make some dinner – do you think you could stand to eat anything?”
“I’ll have some of whatever you make. Thanks.”
“It’s my pleasure. I’ll be in the kitchen if you boys need anything else.”
When she left the room Joey dug into the bag, pulled out the NyQuil, and set the rest aside.
“Should I put in another movie?” I asked as Joey struggled with the plastic seal.
“You can put on whatever you want,” Joey said as he got the bottle open. “I’m gonna try and get some sleep.”
I watched Joey pour himself a capful and down it. He poured another one.
“You were having a hard time sleeping too,” he said before throwing it back.
In the morning I woke to find that Joey was already up. He was pale and dreary-eyed but his skin was no longer peppered with goosebumps and the shivers had seemingly ceased. He smiled when he saw me. He gave me a kiss.
“Good morning. How’d you sleep?”
“Pretty badly. I hope I didn’t wake you up during the night.”
I had woken up a couple times. I had opened my eyes just long enough to see Joey shivering in the moonlight before closing them again.
“No, you didn’t. Do you feel any better, though?”
“Much. What did my mom make for dinner last night?”
“I think I could actually stand to eat some of that,” he chuckled. “I’m starving.”
I smiled and gave him as big a hug as the position would allow. When I tried to pull away I found that Joey was still holding me tight, fingers gripping at my shirt as his tears dabbed my neck.
“I couldn’t have done this without you.”
My chest tightened. I held still for a moment before rubbing my cheek against Joey’s.
“I didn’t do anything,” I murmured. “You did all the heavy lifting. I’m just glad I was able to be here for you.”
“That’s exactly why I couldn’t have done it otherwise.” Joey spoke like a child trying to keep himself from crying. “I would’ve given up if you hadn’t been here.”
He pulled away and met my eyes.
“You saved my life, Devin. I don’t want to drink anymore.”
Joey buried his face back in my shoulder and sobbed. I rubbed his back and murmured hushed little reassurances but all the time was thinking only of how dry my own eyes remained. I could’ve forced the tears but that seemed much worse than not crying. Maybe all Joey needed was someone to be strong, or at least someone that could pretend to be strong. Someone that didn’t mind playing along with the idea that I could defeat alcoholism with my mere presence.
“If this doesn’t pull us apart I don’t think anything will,” Joey said with a sniffling little chuckle. “This is it. This is really it. I’ve found the boy I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.”
I closed my eyes and kept rubbing his back. I murmured a little louder but Joey just kept speaking right over me.
“You saved my life. You saved my life. You saved my life.”
I left that afternoon as I had class the next day and wanted to make sure I got at least some studying in before turning in for what I suspected would be a deep and dreamless sleep. I got a hug and profuse thanks from Sherry before her son walked me out to my car. Joey was wobbly on his feet but seemed determined to see me off properly. When I was all packed up the two of us embraced on the sidewalk.
“I love you, Devin.”
“I love you, Joey.”
We separated. Joey’s eyes were red again.
“Send me a text or something when you get home, okay?”
“You got it, babe.”
I climbed into my car and pulled away, eyes in the rearview mirror as I watched Joey watch me leave. When he dropped out of sight there was nothing left but me and the drive and four hundred miles of dead Appalachia. Nothing left but six hours to think on forever.
Alex has never been on a blind date before, but he gets the sense that this is what it’s like. Everything he does to put himself at ease – whistling, tapping his feet, rocking his weight back and forth – serves only to heighten his self-consciousness, to make him feel as though the person he was waiting for had hidden himself in the dirty bustle of the street market so he could observe Alex from afar and decide whether he was actually worth meeting at all.
Whistles off-tune. No sense of balance at all. Chubbier than I expected – no wonder all his pictures are from the chest up. And why won’t he take his hands out of his pockets? Oh, God, what if he’s got little shriveled birth defect fingers? How am I supposed to shake a hand like that? Am I supposed to shake a hand like that?
The young man exhales and leans against the wall, cracking his fingers and folding his hands on his stomach as he scans the stream of passers-by. It becomes apparent to him that what he’s been looking for is not a person but a photograph, that he’s been peering into the crowds not for Paul but for one of the many pictures his friend has posted over the years. The one of him on his 22nd birthday, perhaps, fresh-faced and smiling in crisp clothes and hair that’d been gelled into swooping crusty submission. Or the one of him at the beach, casual grin perfectly matching his ironic plastic day-glo sunglasses. Like he’s going to come strolling down the street in his best outfit or with a towel draped over his shoulder. As he rifles through his mental rolodex Alex comes across pictures of Paul that are perfectly clear and informative but are not solely of him, that portray Paul beside his girlfriend or surrounded by his real-life buddies. The young man considers these briefly and then moves on.
Alex’s ears perk and his eyes squint when he catches something familiar bobbing through the crowd, the young man abandoning his unaffectedness as he stands on his tip-toes to try and see through and over the young migrant families, white field-trip tourists and produce-fondling grandmothers that crowd the streets and stalls of the Italian Market. A great hairy mamaluke with a garbage can full of bread ends approaches the intersection, and when he wheels it around the corner Paul is there, on the sidewalk, smiling at Alex and raising a hand in greeting as he approaches.
The young man raises his hand in return, of course, and smiles right back, but the gesture – though rooted in genuine happiness – almost immediately becomes strained and uncomfortable. They’ve seen each other too soon. The obligation to maintain eye contact and remain visibly happy until Paul closes the twenty or so feet between them almost makes Alex wish that it had been a tap on the shoulder or a clearing of the throat, that he could’ve turned around and seen his friend there and dealt with the surprise and joy in one moment of condensed awkwardness.
“Hey how’s it going – ”
“It’s so good to finally meet you – ”
The awkwardness comes together all at once anyway. Both of the young men speak at the same time once they’re within arm’s reach of each other, Alex attempting to stretch that gap by extending his hand at the exact same moment that Paul opens his arms. The two of them chuckle out apologies and fumble about with their arms until they fall into a clumsy handshake that becomes a quick, clumsier embrace. Alex hadn’t fallen prey to any romantic visions of this moment, hadn’t given any serious thought to the notion that he and Paul would hit it off right away, that it would be as though they’d known each other their whole lives. Still, he’d hoped that the first meeting between him and his best friend would’ve gone a little more smoothly than this.
“Have any trouble finding the place?”
“A little. Bus only goes as far as 12th street so I got turned around a bit trying to figure out which way to go.” Paul looks around and then smiles at Alex. “I shoulda known that you’d be having us meet at one of your out-of-the-way places. Cheesesteaks and Italian ice not good enough for you, huh?”
Alex’s cheeks burn as he forces out a laugh.
“Hey, if you’re only going to be in Philadelphia for one day, I’ve gotta see to it that you get the best of what the city has to offer.” He gestures at the shop at which he’s had them meet. “And Paesano’s makes the best subs in town, hands down. But there’s a place down the street that does a pretty good cheesesteak, if that’s really what you want…”
“No, no, let’s eat here.” Paul looks the storefront up and down. Another smile. “This looks good.”
“Alright then. After you.”
The line takes up the nearly the entire interior of the store, the shopping bags and purses of those on their feet brushing up against the backs and bottoms of those perched on the row of stools that represent the shop’s only seating. The people that already have their food sit hunched over the counter with piles of crumpled napkins at their sides, each bite dripping more rich, viscous fluid into the oily pools that had gathered in the aluminum in which their sandwiches had been wrapped a moment ago. The laughter and conversation that occurs between greedy bites and haphazard hand-wiping mixes with that of those in line, a steady self-contained roar punctuated only by the attempts made by the people working the counter to shout over it. Paul looks the scene over and whistles.
“It’s worth it,” Alex half-shouts. “I promise.”
Paul chuckles. “I believe you.”
Alex frowns and pretends to study the menu as he considers how much easier this is online. No having to worry about whether his hair is washed or his clothes are clean, about the stretches of silence between the messages they pass back and forth over the Internet. When talking online you don’t expect an instantaneous response. It’s a given that the person with whom you’re chatting is probably doing something else at the same time, that they couldn’t be expected to drop everything to immediately respond to every “lol” and emoticon. Alex was more than happy to let Paul think that that was the case with him, too. The truth was that Alex rarely multitasked when he and Paul caught up. The exchanges that had occurred between them on a near-nightly basis over the last six years commanded his full attention, the young man using the expected pauses in conversation to think about what he would say next, to measure every word, to thoroughly vet every statement he made in order to ensure that it was as charming and funny and insightful and inoffensive as possible.
It didn’t make Alex happy to have to sabotage the earlier instances in which they could’ve gotten together, like the time when Paul drove up to D.C. for that music festival, or the time he and his then-girlfriend spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square. There had been several cases where he was but a couple hours’ drive from his best friend, but none of them seemed like the right time for them to meet just yet. Alex would express his remorse at having to work or being sick or having to visit his family – he made careful note of which excuses he was using when – and then would be right there to listen to the details of Paul’s excursions as soon as he returned home, to share his joy at hearing that his friend got to see his favorite band in concert or his remorse at learning that his once-girlfriend was in another man’s arms when the ball dropped.
Though Alex can hardly hear himself think, the silence between himself and Paul seems deeper, fuller, more powerful than the surrounding noise and a hell of a lot more important. He can’t just keep blathering on to fill the gulf, though, can’t just say whatever comes to his mind merely because the lack of conversation makes his palms itch and his underarms prickle with sweat.
Wait until the moment seems right – until we hit the beat that says “let’s talk because it would be enjoyable to do so and not because I don’t feel our friendship is strong enough to withstand a prolonged silence.”
“How’s the convention going?” Alex asks, looking only briefly away from the menu.
“It’s okay,” Paul shrugs. “I’m basically just there to make a good impression for the company – gather information, talk to clients, smooth things over with the distributors that hate my boss’ guts. There was one guy who threatened to sock me on the spot when he saw my nametag and realized who I worked for. According to him we’ve been undercutting him so badly that it’s driving him out of business. Called me six or seven different names before his buddies finally swooped in and hauled him out of there. So that was fun.”
Alex chuckles. “Well, I’m glad you came, even if you’re risking life and limb by doing so.”
Paul grins. “So am I.”
Alex turns away to hide the irrepressible smile that creeps across his lips. Okay, good start. It doesn’t seem like he wants to talk about work anymore, so what should I ask him about next? If I shift to movies I run the risk of him not being familiar with the most recent ones I’ve seen…but if I pick something popular he might think that I actually enjoy that crap and then I’ll have to –
“How’s your job hunt going?”
Alex is startled out of his train of thought, his brain all fizzpops for what seems like the eternity it takes for him to get out a response.
“It’s, uh, it’s going okay. A couple of places wanted me to sell insurance for them and I might’ve taken them up on it if I could’ve afforded to do so. I’d have to buy a suit and a briefcase and get a license before I can even start looking for contacts and I just don’t have the money for all of that. Plus it’s not a sure thing, you know what I mean? One week with no sales and I don’t make rent.”
Okay. That’s good. That’s enough.
“So I’m just gonna hold out for a sure thing. There’s a couple places that I’m waiting to hear back from, so it’s not like I’m completely lacking for options. Working at IKEA isn’t the worst thing in the world – I probably wouldn’t even be looking for a new job if I could just get enough hours, though my supervisor said that he might be able to get me a couple of shifts in receiving since he heard that they need more people down there.”
You’re rambling. Stop it. Just because he’s nodding doesn’t mean he cares.
“Did I tell you about what happened the other day? This girl Julie – you know Julie? She comes in an hour late and immediately goes on break, which wouldn’t be a problem except that she does it just about when I’m about to go on break. So I have to wait for her to come back before I can go get lunch, which was a whole ‘nother hassle entirely because – ”
“Next in line, please!”
Oh thank God. Alex gives Paul a smile – partly out of relief and partly because he wants to let his friend know that it doesn’t at all bother him that his story was interrupted – as they step up to the counter.
“I’ll tell you the rest later. Do you know what you want?”
“I think I’ll just get a Classic Italian.”
“Are you sure?” Alex frowns. “You can get that anywhere.”
“I’m not really feeling the rest of the menu. I mean, just look at some of this stuff.” Paul squints at the signboard. “‘The Liverrace - crispy chicken livers with salami, sautéed onions, sweet orange marmalade…’ Blech. Who would order that?”
Alex’s face tightens as he turns to a counterperson who has abandoned all pretense of patience.
“Classic Italian for the gentleman and a…” He gives the menu a hasty scan in search of a Plan B. “…meatloaf parmesan for me. And two drinks.”
“That’ll be $19.24.”
Alex manages through a knotted throat to shoo away Paul’s money, to insist on paying even as he does a quick mental check to make sure that there is in fact enough left in his account to cover the expenditure. They’re asked to wait for a few minutes and so the two of them grab the pair of stools that just opened up at the end of the counter, brushing away the lingering trash with the cautious disgust with which one handles the remnants of a stranger’s meal.
“So what happened when you went to go get lunch?”
“The story you were telling me. Something about a hassle you had to deal with when you went to go get lunch?”
Alex fights back a grimace.
“It’s not that interesting.” He forces a laugh, which he uses to hold off the smothering silence for as long as he can. You can’t abandon a topic without having another one to switch to – that makes it seem like you just don’t want to talk. C’mon now, think. He rifles through ideas but each one he considers seems more trite than the last, and it isn’t long at all before the pressure of the quiet pushes him to his safety valve.
“So, where do you think the Braves are going to end up this year? Third place or fourth place?” Alex grins like an idiot when Paul laughs. Baseball was always the one thing he could fall back on, the theme of the little corner of the Internet at which they had met in the first place and a topic Paul never seemed to tire of. Alex had been a casual fan but as the relationship between him and his friend grew he devoted himself to study of the sport, his knowledge of the game – if not his admiration of it – increasing in step with the depth of their connection. He knows without a doubt that going out of his way to immerse himself in the sport was what separated him from the pack, was what set him apart from the rest of the chatroom horde and made Paul take notice of him. He earned his friend.
“I think they can hit third if everything breaks just right. If nothing else, I can take some pride in knowing that they’re a much, much better team than the Phillies.”
“Much better might be pushing it. I mean, sure, you signed those new guys to play shortstop and left field, but neither of them project to be that much better than the guys they’re replacing. They might give you another two or three wins at the most. And the stats suggest that your pitchers got really lucky last year. There’s bound to be some regression to the mean there.”
“What do you mean by lucky?”
“I’ve told you about BABIP before, right? I’m sure I have. Batting average on balls in play. The league average was .295 last year, but the BABIP on balls thrown by Atlanta pitchers was only .274. So that means, on average, that less of the balls put in play by opposing hitters ended up being hits. Now, you can look at that and say that, well, maybe they’re just good at forcing weak contact, y’know?”
Paul glances out the window. You’re losing him. Stop. Stop right now.
“But that’s not usually the case.” Alex waves his hands as his voice rises. “Usually it’s just a matter of pure luck. That’s all it is! All the training and talent these guys have and still so much of it comes down to dumb luck. You remember – you’ve seen Bull Durham, right?”
“You haven’t? You’ve gotta – well, anyway, Kevin Costner plays this minor league baseball player, right? And he’s talking to Tim Robbins – Tim Robbins is, like, this dumb up-and-coming rookie pitcher – about how fickle batting average is. ‘Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is?’ This is what he’s asking Tim Robbins. ‘It’s 25 hits. There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks. You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week – and you’re in Yankee Stadium.’”
“Mm. That’s a good line.”
“It’s a great line. It’s a great movie. You should watch it. You’d really like it.”
Alex grabs his soda and takes a long drink from it, waiting for Paul to glance away again before wiping the sweat away from brow.
“Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t get your hopes up. And at least the team not being very good means that there won’t be any bandwagon fans to deal with.”
“Silver linings and all that.” Paul shrugs. “It’s just as well, though – I’m probably not going to be following things too closely this year.”
Alex prays that his expression doesn’t betray the stab of panic.
“Nah. I still love the game and all that but it just gets to be more trouble than it’s worth to follow a lousy team. Plus I’m getting all sorts of new responsibilities at work in preparation for that promotion I’ve got my eye on, so it’s not like I’d have time to watch anyway. Which reminds me – I’m probably only going to be able to make it online a few times a week from now on. I’ve just got way too much on my plate to come by every night. Sorry, bud.”
Alex knows that his eyes are widened and that his mouth is hanging open but he’s too busy trying to force the words out of his throat to pay any of that any mind.
“Isn’t…isn’t there something you can do about that? I mean, like, ask them to take it easy on you or do your work while we talk or something?”
Paul raises an eyebrow. Alex squirms in his seat.
“I could…try, I guess, but I can’t make any promises. I’m gonna have to work harder than everybody else gunning for that promotion if I’m gonna have any shot at getting it. It’s not like we won’t ever talk to each other ever again. And it’s not like we really need to meet up every night, right?”
No. No, that’s not right. I don’t know how you can even say that. I don’t know how –
“Classic Italian and a meatloaf parmesan!”
“I got it.” Paul rises from his chair without even looking at Alex and strides over to the counter. The young man racks his brain for something he can say before his friend comes back that would be apologetic and encouraging and understanding and perfect but the words just won’t come. And when Paul returns – not sitting down, merely cradling his sandwich in his arm while offering Alex the other – the young man just stares at his friend.
“What are you doing?”
“I gotta get going. I wish I had time to sit and eat with you but I’ve gotta be back at the conference by two if I’m gonna make my meeting.”
“What do you mean, get going?” The corners of Alex’s eyes burn. “I thought…weren’t we going to hang out?”
“Didn’t you get my e-mail? I only had time for lunch today. If something else opens up over the weekend, I’ll let you know – but for now, I really gotta get going.”
Paul puts Alex’s sandwich on the counter and leans down to give the young man a quick embrace. Alex doesn’t move. He feels his friend’s sandwich mash slightly against his left shoulder.
“It was great to finally meet you. See you online.”
And then he leaves. Alex watches him go but loses track of his friend the second he’s out the door, instantly lost in the crowd. He stands from his seat and, for a moment, considers running out after his friend. But when he looks out the window and sees the crowds that have swallowed Paul up – sees the hustle and the grime and the hundred different directions he could’ve gone – his nerve fails him. He sits back down. After a moment he turns and looks at his sandwich.
I can get the Liverrace. I don’t have to eat this. I can get what I want.
Alex’s face goes red but stays blank as he brings a fist down and pounds it into his meatloaf parmesan. It gives a little but not much – and so he strikes with increasing intensity, the sandwich flattening further and further with each blow, sauce oozing out of the sub’s foil confines and dribbling onto the shuddering linoleum. He picks it up with the intent of smashing it against the store’s window but stops when he realizes that half of the restaurant is watching him assault his sandwich. He shrinks beneath their stares. He makes a point of carefully setting it back on the counter, of pulling back the foil to salvage what’s left of his lunch. He makes a point of eating what he’s got.