"What did you think was going to happen?" I notice I'm smoking, and crush the cigarette out in the ashtray, a little disgusted with myself. Instead of answering, he rubs his eye with with the heel of his hand and sniffs. Does one of his patented cute moves, the shrug and the slight eye roll, like, "Hey what do I know, I'm just cute and confused and troubled."
His patented cute moves don't work with me. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't had my moments of weakness, though. We've been friends for the better part of two decades, and platonic or not, you can find yourself in some close situations when you deal with someone that long.
We're sitting at the little counter on the edge of my kitchen, the place we long ago dubbed "the little bar." It's what we do when we want to talk to each other without the distraction of the world. When we've had hard times, or when we're nervous about life, or when we just haven't seen each other in a while and want to catch up.
"I thought you quit smoking," he says. I see his eyes dart to my shoulder, just for a second. He probably doesn't even realize he did it.
I adjust my bra strap, tuck it back into my shirt. It's not a big deal, it's a stupid bra strap, right? But when he's like this, you don't want him to catch on to anything sexual, even something as dumb as a bra strap. He's not a womanizer, exactly, because that implies he uses only women, and that he only uses them for sex.
"Special occasion," I tell him. "Answer my question."
"If you're going to be like this, there's no point in even talking."
"What do you want me to say, Karen? I don't know! I don't know what I thought was gonna happen."
"You didn't think."
"I don't need a lecture right now."
"You always need a lecture."
He pours a shot, looks at my empty glass, raises his eyebrow in question. I used to think this way of asking questions counted as one of his patented cute moves, but I've come to realize that it's just easier for him to communicate non-verbally, at this point. He speaks--he can be an incredible sweet talker when he wants to be--but he learned long ago that people trust body language more than words, and when he did, he set about learning how to manipulate that trust.
He's not a bad guy, I don't think--if I really thought he was, I wouldn't be his best friend. But he can be a piece of shit sometimes. Just because it's usually on accident, that doesn't make it excusable.
I shake my head--safer if I keep my alcohol intake low, I think--and light up another cigarette.
"If you don't know shit else," I tell him, "And judging by the way you live most of your life, I think that's a pretty safe bet--you should at least know yourself by now."
"Do we ever truly know ourselves?"
"Cut the crap, A.J. You don't get to play the who-am-I card. You spend more time examining yourself honestly than anyone I know. Self-important prick."
"Six of one, half dozen of another. My point is, no matter how much you lie to everybody else, you're usually pretty honest with yourself. You had to know this was going to happen."
"You think I lie to everybody?" He looks slightly hurt, just enough so that you know he doesn't want you to know he's slightly hurt. Patented cute move #637. I don't keep track of all of them, but over the years, I've randomly assigned numbers to some of the best-ofs. It helps me remember that it's all an act. His practiced expressions are like stage makeup or costumes. They are illusions, meant to draw a response. Nothing more.
"I know you do, chief. Drop the hurt act, or I walk right now."
He smiles the corner of his mouth up, cuts his eyes just a bit, the look that says, "Okay, you got me this time, you know me too well." Patented cute look #342. Sometimes I like to pretend that I'm the only person who gets this one. I like to think that it's special to me, because maybe I'm the only one who does know him too well. I don't think about it too much, though, because if I did, I'd probably have to admit that it's bullshit.
He takes his shot, and I almost expect his little grimace that he does sometimes, "whoo, that stuff's pretty rough, but lucky I'm so tough that I can handle it." I've assigned numbers to that look, but I'm usually drinking along with him, so I never remember what numbers.
He doesn't grimace, though, just takes his drink and pours another one. He licks his lips, stares at the fresh drink for a moment, and sets the full shot glass on the counter. No grimace, that's a good thing. Not trying to put on an act, not at the moment, anyway. He stares down at the counter, then looks up at me.
"I didn't know I was gonna fall in love with her, you know? I mean, is that what you're talking about, I should've known I'd fall head over heels for her?"
I start to light a cigarette, realize I already have one, and take a drag. "Seriously? Is that really what you think is going on here?"
"I told you."
"You're not in love with her, A.J."
"Oh yeah? And you would know that how? You can read my mind?"
"What passes for it, yeah."
"I fuckin' knew I couldn't talk about this with you." He shakes his head, angry, hurt. Patented cute look #112. I've never been able to figure out if this is one he practices or if it's a real thing. I know he has emotions--real ones. I know he gets his feelings hurt, I know he gets angry, I know he can be happy. But it's so hard to tell with him.
He shows the world what he wants it to see. Since we were kids, that's how it's been. He got...I don't know. His home life was fucked up. They took him away from his old man for a while. Foster care, which was worse than whatever shit was going on at his real home. He learned to hide the bruises and the scars, both the ones on his skin and the ones in his head.
He doesn't talk about it. Never has. Not with me, and I'm pretty sure not with anyone else, either. He just puts on his costumes, his masks, his patented cute looks, and shows the world what he wants it to see.
He knocks back the shot, sloppy, spilling some down his chin. He wipes it away with the back of his hand, lips pursed. This is not a patented cute look, but I've seen it plenty before. This is him drunk. Shit.
"Don't leave," I say, as he stands up. The bar stool rocks a little, and he catches it to keep it from falling.
"I need a friend, Karen. Not a goddam judge."
I'm up and around the counter, our little bar. I put my hand on his shoulder, and I look into his eyes, serious, apologetic. Yeah, I'm not without my own patented cute looks. Sue me. This look is my "I know I made you mad, but I'm sorry. Relax." I don't have a number for it. I wonder if he does.
"I'm sorry," I say. Just words, placating. Not really any emotion behind them, because emotion makes him feel a little edgy.
"You think I can't fall in love, is that what you think?"
"I think you aren't in love with this one, that's all I'm saying."
"You don't know me as well as you think."
"Maybe not. Come on, sit down." He glances at the bar, and I take it as my cue to return to my seat. When I get to the other side of the counter, however, he still hasn't taken his seat.
"Nah, I don't think I'm in the mood for it. Thanks, though. For, you know, listening. Pretending to."
"A.J., come on! That's bullshit and you know it!"
"Maybe everything isn't how you assume, Karen. You ever think about that, about how maybe you don't have things nearly as figured out as you think?"
"Yeah, all the time."
He breathes out of his nose, it's not a laugh, exactly, but sort of. A frustrated, I-give-up noise as he shakes his head. He grabs his jacket from the back of the couch and makes his way to the door.
"You want to hear me out?" I ask him. To keep him from leaving, more than anything else.
"You don't love her, A.J."
He stops and looks at me, eyebrow raised. Another one of those questioning looks, impatient, though.
"You meet this girl, she's smart, she's gorgeous, she's funny, and she's married. She's great to spend time with, but she doesn't want to be a part of your life, not in any real way. You have a relationship that comes equipped with restricted perimeters. She can't get to know you, you can't get to know her. No matter how much time you spend together, you're still keeping it light, frivolous. There's no threat. No danger. You don't love her, you love the safety she represents. The distance. This isn't deep stuff, man. I'm not telling you anything you don't know."
"I don't tell you everything, Karen."
"I know that. I know."
"No you don't. You think you know. You convince yourself that you believe it. But deep down, you think I tell you everything that's going on with me. Sure, there's the deep, dark secret of my past, but aside from that, you think you know all the important shit. And you don't, okay? You're a big part of my life, but you aren't all of it. And when it comes to how I feel, you don't know shit."
I can't breathe for a second. It feels like he punched me in the stomach, forced all the air out of me. The brutal honesty. He's not supposed to be brutal, not to me. Not to anybody, really. He's cute, he's charming, he's sweet. He's not brutal. He's not honest.
"I've tried to tell you, that's the bitch of it. I've tried to tell you, but you always think you know me so fucking well. You don't listen, you blow it off, you make your assumptions. You have me made as a person. Maybe I've changed, you ever think of that? Maybe I've grown. Maybe not, fuck, I don't know."
He turns and opens the door. I want to say something, I want to tell him to stop, to come back in. I want to say I'm sorry, and I want to mean it. I still can't breathe, though, I can't put my words together.
Just before he steps out the door, he stops, but he doesn't turn around. "You know, maybe it's not love--I honestly don't know. Love has never been my thing. But when she looks at me, she looks at me like I'm real. Like she wants to know me, and she wants to believe me when I show her. She doesn't analyze me, she doesn't judge me. She just accepts me for who I am, and I think she likes that guy all right."
He stares forward, thinking. A quick nod, to himself. And then he's gone, the door closing quietly behind him.
When I can breathe again, I light a cigarette and wonder about who I am.