Plus-One With A Vengeance : 5 / 29

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Plus-One With A Vengeance : 5 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Without Valentine’s Day, February would be...well, January."
— Jim Gaffigan


 

My job — working as handyman for a property management company — made me quite conscious of the calendar. Not so much the individual days, but the months: people moved in and out of their apartments at the start and end of the month, which became the busy time for me. February first was a Tuesday, and happened to be a light day. All I had on my schedule was a quick inspection of a recently-vacated property and a little bit of clean-up — specifically, washing the windows. It's remarkable the boost an apartment gets when the windows are clean.

Of course, that didn't take all day. I was done by eleven, and whlle casting about for something to do, I decided I'd cook dinner. Max had just spent a couple of weeks eating nothing but sandwiches, and that can't be good for anybody. I asked what he (and Amber) did for dinner when they were together, and he replied, "We always either went out or or sent out."

That's not such a healthy choice, either.

Aside from his diet, Max seemed to have fully recovered from his January post-breakup depression. He was smiling again. The darkness that hung beneath his eyes was disappearing. He had a spring in his step. In fact, he was grinning pretty broadly when he arrived home and found me in the kitchen.

"Hey, Ma!" he joked. "Whatcha got cookin'?"

"I was going to boil some pasta and pour some sauce on it." I held up a jar of tomato sauce to show him. "You interested?"

He lifted the lid. "There's broccoli in here!"

"Yeah, um, once the water boils I'll throw the pasta in and they'll cook together."

He scratched his head.

"It's an easy way to get some vegetables in your diet."

"I'll give it a try," he said, voice full of doubt.

"It's good," I assured him. "Hey, you're home a little later than usual. Did you go for a drink with your office buddies?"

"Yeah, I did, and it was fun. They're nice people. I had one drink, then paid for a round of shots. After that, I took off. I'm trying to ease back into the social scene. Take it a little slow."

"Sounds wise."

He picked up a piece of raw spaghetti and gnawed on it. "You know, I never went out with my office mates when I was with Amber."

"Never?"

"Nope. Never."

"Why not?"

"Amber always made me feel guilty about it. Like I was choosing them over her."

"That's pretty heavy! Did she think you had something going with someone from work? You didn't, did you?"

"I didn't. No, I never cheated on her. And yes, she thought I did. If I went to a bar instead of coming straight home, she'd outright accuse me of having sex with another woman. In her mind, if I didn't come straight home, I was avoiding her. To her, it meant I was already balls-deep in a torrid affair."

"Whoa — talk about being jealous!"

Max shrugged and gave a rueful grin.

The lid of the pot began dancing as the water boiled. I lifted it off and dumped the spaghetti in, stirring to get it all submerged.

"It gets worse! You know how simple my life is. It's all work and home, home and work. Anyone could easily account for every second of my day: I was either at work, at home with Amber, or going from one place to the other. And yet, she once accused me of having a secret life!"

"A secret life!?" I laughed, but it wasn't really funny.

"So I said When? When would I ever have time for this secret life? I'm either at work or with you!"

"What did she say?"

"She didn't have an answer for that." He took another uncooked piece of spaghetti from the pack and crunched on it meditatively.

"Anyway, enough about Amber! I took another small step today back toward normalcy," he confided. "I asked someone out — this woman in my office, Daphne. She has this quiet cool... looks a little like Kitty, you know? I've always been attracted to her, and I thought she had a thing for me, too."

"What makes you think she doesn't?"

"I asked her out for a drink, and she said no."

"Maybe it's just 'no' for now." He shrugged. I continued, "Anyway, you can't expect EVERY woman in the world to go out with you."

"True." He looked doubtfully at the bottle of sauce. "Aren't you going to heat that up?"

"No, I figure it will heat up when I pour it over the pasta."

"Do you have any Parmesan cheese to grate over it?"

"Mmm, no. Tomorrow I can pick up one of those shakers, you know?"

"Grated fresh is better," he said. I didn't reply. I suddenly recalled what a great cook his mother is. Max was used to eating well.

He chose a bottle of red wine. As he uncorked it, he asked, "Have you thought about learning to cook? I mean, real food, not shortcuts like this?"

I shot him a dirty look. "I'm not the girl in this situation, you know."

"Hey! Don't look at me like that! Don't get all sensitive! I'm not trying to offend you. It's just that, you know, it might be interesting for you to explore... while you're trying to sort your life out. It's a chance to learn something new and creative."

"Hmm," I replied. "Couldn't it be something interesting for you to explore, and be new and creative and all?"

He took two glasses and poured some wine into each. He grinned as he handed one to me. "It's my house," he said. "and I've got a full-time job. I don't ask you to pay rent, or to clean, or..." he laughed "or to sew, or wash windows. It would be nice for both of us if we had real, healthy meals. I'll spring for the groceries." Then he stepped closer and gave me a hip bump. "Don't be mad, man. It's just division of labor. If you really don't want to do it, we can send out for food." When I didn't answer, he gave me a gentle elbow nudge and said, "By the way, cooking is not a gender-specific activity."

I gazed into the pot. The spaghetti was still stiff and stick-like. I glanced at him a couple of times, not saying anything, and sipped the wine. It was pretty nice.

"Like the wine? Tasty, huh?" he grinned, seeing my reaction. "I'll provide the wine, too."

I sighed, resigned. "Okay, I'll do it."

"Great!" he said. "I'll ask my mother to get you a good cookbook."

I twisted my mouth to the side. He grinned and chuckled, and gave me a playful push. I sipped some more wine and looked at the pot. The spaghetti were beginning to stick together. "Why do they do that?" I murmured, a little frustrated.

"Don't worry — patience and practice are the keys."

"Okay," I told him. "I said I'd do it. Don't push it."

 


 

Two days later, Max's mother was waiting for me when I got home. She got out of her car, and gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek. "It's been so long since we've seen you, Elliot! You're looking well."

"Thanks, Mrs Errison, so are you. You always look great."

In spite of my compliment, she winced at my greeting. "Elliot, I feel so old when you call me Mrs Errison — can you call me Melissa?"

"Um, I'll try," I promised. "Melissa." It sounded weird when I said it, but she smiled when I did.

Melissa opened the rear door of her car and pointed to a shopping bag. I picked it up. "I hope you don't feel that I'm ambushing you. I wanted to call, but I don't have your number."

"It's fine," I told her. "I'm happy to see you."

"Good! Max told me that you want to learn to cook. You'll be happy you did. Cooking is very rewarding, and it's lots of fun. It's a great way to express yourself and make other people happy."

"Um, yes," I replied.

"Do you want to know something? The best way to be happy is to make other people happy."

"I guess," I replied.

"I got you this great beginner's cookbook," she said, full of enthusiasm, "and I brought the makings of a nice risotto — that's my go-to dish."

"Oh, yeah, I've had your risotto — it's fantastic."

"Good! I'm glad you like it!" She took my arm, and leaning close, confided, "Soon it will be your risotto, too!"

I set the bag down on a chair in the kitchen. Mrs Errison — I mean, Melissa — moved to the far side of the island, away from me, the stove, and the food. Hmm. I was kind of hoping that she would be cooking, and I'd learn by watching. Guess not!

She didn't say anything, she just smiled at me. I poured two glasses of wine. She took the tiniest sip.

"Okay," I said. Obviously, she was waiting for me to unpack the bag. There was the book: How to Cook Everything. "Looks promising," I said, and pushed it to the side, so it could stay clean. "Tonight you can pick out a recipe for tomorrow," she suggested. I nodded. "You can always call me if you get stuck or have questions."

Melissa directed me step by step through the recipe. It wasn't hard if I just did what she said. A couple of times she stopped me from rubbing my eyes after I'd cut the onions.

"Have you ever used a pressure cooker?" she asked. I shook my head. She rooted around in the cabinets until she found it. "Aha! I knew it!"

"Knew what?"

"This pressure cooker — I gave it to Amber. That girl... Of course she didn't take it when she left!" With a angry clatter she set the pot on the stove. "It still looks brand new. I'll bet she never used it!" Her jaw was clenched, her knuckles white. I watched her in silence, not sure what to say. It seemed a bit of an over-reaction. She caught my look, and stopped what she was doing.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but that damn girl makes me so angry."

"She wasn't a nice person."

"No, she wasn't. Isn't. She's not dead yet — is she." I smiled, then the two of us burst out laughing.

"Do you know what she did? She isolated my b— my boy, my Max. She did her best to separate him from us, from his own parents! She wanted Max all to herself, as if there wasn't enough of him to go around. She had to have him all. Body and soul."

"Yeah. She was pretty weird that way."

Melissa looked me in the eyes and smiled. She ran her hand through my hair. She was always an affectionate parent. As a kid, I often wished she was my mother, especially after my own Mom died.

"You've always been such a good friend to Max."

I shrugged. "It isn't hard. He's a great guy. And a good person... a good friend."

Her eyes watered. She sniffled and grabbed a tissue. "It's the onions," she joked.

"Yeah."

She pulled me into a motherly hug. It was so nice. I caught the scent of the floral perfume that she wore so lightly. She came out of the hug, but held me by my shoulders, looking me straight in the face.

"You know, there's something that I often thought... I've thought so often, that I want to tell you even though it's silly... but I don't want to offend you or hurt your feelings."

"What?" I felt a little alarmed. Was there something I'd done or said?

"It's nothing bad!" she assured me. "It's just that..." she sighed. "Oh! I often wished you were born a girl, because you would have been so perfect for Max."

"Oh," I said, feeling a light red coloring spread across my cheeks. What she said startled me so much that I had a brief fit of coughing.

She patted me on the back, then put her arm around me. "What I really mean is, why did my boy end up with someone as awful as Amber? Why?"

"I don't know."

"Why couldn't he have found a girl — you know — a girl like you. I mean, you know, your personality and kindness and all..." She fumbled, her cheeks reddened. "Do you know what I'm trying to say?"

"Yes, I think so. I never understood what he saw in her."

"Mmm. Me neither." She smiled ruefully. "But you— you're not offended are you? By what I said. I just mean that — you know, there are nice people in the world. People like you. Why couldn't he find—"

"I know. Someone like me. I get it."

"Okay!" she said. "Back to our recipe! If you don't have a pressure cooker, this takes about 40 minutes. In a pressure cooker, ten."

"Wow."

"Yes, it's very wow."

Among the grocery items were salad greens. She showed me how to mix a vinaigrette, "You prepare the dressing in the empty bowl, see? but don't toss it with the salad until you're ready to eat it."

She gave some final instructions about the pressure cooker, and put on her coat. "Are you leaving!?" I cried.

"Yes, you've done everything," she replied. "You don't need me. Once the pressure cooker starts hissing, set your timer. When the timer goes off, turn off the flame, let out the steam, let it sit for a minute, and open it. That's all. Add the grated cheese, stir, serve. You don't need my help to do all that — you've done the hard part already!" She gave me a hug. "I'm glad your cooking for my baby boy!"

"Yeah," I said. She held me and looked me in the face, her eyes twinkling. "He's lucky to have a friend like you."

"I'm lucky too," I told her.

"Oh, hey!" she called, stopping in the doorway. "Does Max — do you boys have dates for Valentines Day?"

"Um, when is it?" I asked.

She grinned, "February 14, just like every year. It's a week from Monday. Eleven days away."

"Oh. Well, I don't. Max probably does. Or he will. I mean, how could he not?"

She nodded and left, crossing paths with Max on his way in.

 


 

I had trouble convincing Max that I had done the cooking, so at last I told him, "Wait until you see what I make tomorrow!"

"Oh, what?" he asked.

"You have to wait and see!" I repeated. I'd have to find something in that "Cook Everything" book tonight.

Halfway through dinner, Max took a breath and told me, "It happened again today: I asked somebody else out. Tina, who coincidentally broke up with her boyfriend on Christmas Eve. I figured, wow, what are the chances? It could be a nice, discrete rebound thing for both of us."

"But she said no?"

"She said no. That's not the weird part. What was weird was that she seemed surprised that I asked her."

"Why is that weird? Did you think she was just standing around, waiting for you to ask her out? Who knows what was on her mind in that moment? Maybe she had a toothache or a migraine, and you say, Hey, wanna go for coffee? and her first reaction is What does that have to do with my tooth?"

Max stared at me, wordless, for a few long seconds. He opened and closed his mouth as if he wasn't sure what to say.

"Are you serious?" he asked. "That sounds absolutely crazy!"

"Oh come on! Why not? There's nothing weird about someone saying no to a date, or being surprised at being asked."

"I guess you're right," he said. "It's just that I feel so... out of the game, you know? After three years with Amber, and... you know, we were actually considering marriage there at the end."

"Marriage?"

"Yeah, is that so weird?"

"Yes, that is weird. I thought you said it was strictly *her* idea."

"That's—" he stopped, considering. "Well, honestly, it was hers. She was always hammering on that that one note, and after a while it started feeling like my idea as well. It did make some kind of sense, though."

"I seem to remember you saying you didn't want to get married."

"Right, yeah, I did say that."

"Did she ask you to marry her?"

"No. She just dropped hints, day after day. Suggestions."

My eyebrows went up.

"Yeah, she was a piece of work," he agreed.

"You're lucky to be well out of it," I told him. "But hey, do you think maybe she left because she realized you wouldn't marry her?"

He thought about it for a while, and said, "No." He didn't elaborate. "At least I don't think so." After a short pause, he admitted, "Maybe."

While we chomped on our salads I told him that his mother wanted to know whether he had a date for Valentines Day.

He groaned and covered his face with his hands. "I think I'm going to have to give it a miss this year."

I didn't believe him. His current frustration clouded his expectations. I was sure he'd have a date for Valentines Day. It was impossible to picture Max without a girlfriend, or at least without a date. He wasn't that kind of guy.

 


 

By the time we got to Friday morning of the next week, three days before Valentines, a few things had happened. I'd cooked seven different dinners for me and Max. One failed terribly, filling the house with smoke and a lingering smell of burnt fish. We resorted to pizza that night. Max asked out three other women in his office; all three said no. The second one giggled when Max asked her. The third looked angry and told him, "I heard that you're asking every single woman here and now you've asked me? I'm last? I'm at the bottom of your list? Even if I ever wanted to go out with you, I'd have to say no. N-fucking-no."

Max looked baffled. "What does that mean, even if ever *wanted* to go out with you?" he asked me.

"I think it means she did want to go out with you," I offered.

"She could!" he spouted. "If she wanted to, she could! I asked her! If she said yes, she would!"

"Okay, she was pissed off at being asked last."

Max shook his head. "She wasn't last. There are other women in the office I haven't asked." He scratched his head.

"Is there a yet on the end of that sentence?"

"Huh?"

"There are women in the office you haven't asked yet?"

"Naw, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I've fished that pond dry."

It turned out, though, that there was more to the story of today's dating mishaps: Max had forgotten, or skipped over somehow, one particularly cute, amazingly feminine woman: Kass. I didn't know her; I knew who she was. I knew what she looked like and what she moved like.

Kass is a dancer. The moment you see her, you know it. She has a dancer's body: lithe, long, lean. Strong, without being overtly muscular. Her posture: perfect. Her movements: graceful. Everything about her is precise, controlled, beautiful.

Max didn't run into her much because she worked in what he called "the back office."

On Friday morning, Max looked up, and there she was, standing in front of his desk.

"Do you know what Sunday is?" she asked, in a low, throaty voice.

"The thirteenth?" he ventured. She bobbled her head, meaning yes-and-no.

"It's Desperation Day," she informed him. "It's when every single person of dating age tries desperately to line up a date for Valentines Day. It's the last chance."

He started to say, "I'm not des—" but she cut him off.

"I need a favor," she told him, and in a voice so low that only he could hear, she added, "I'm gay."

Max's eyes sparked in surprise. "You are? I had no idea."

"I'm not out. Hopefully nobody has any idea." She smiled. "Apart from my girlfriend."

"Okay." Max shrugged.

"So...," Kass continued, "Months ago, a small group of my oldest friends reserved a table at the Celestial Lamb for Valentines Day."

"Wow. I'm impressed."

"I need a date for that dinner. I can't bring my girlfriend. Even if I was out — which I'm not — she can't come. For complicated reasons. Basically, her mother is pretending to be ill and is demanding attention."

"Sorry to hear," Max told her, not unsympathetically. "But I'm not your guy."

"Look, you don't have to pretend anything. You don't have say you're my boyfriend, or be affectionate, or pretend that you know me well. You're just a guy from work who's my date for the evening. It's simple. And you get a free dinner at Celestial Lamb."

Max drew a long breath and looked at Kass. She was obviously nervous. There was a look on her face that was nearly pleading.

"Look," she said. "Think about it. You would be helping me out in a big way."

"Why don't you just tell your friends who you are?" Max asked.

"I don't... I don't know if they'll accept me that way," Kass responded hesitantly. "I don't feel... in a safe enough place in myself. I don't feel brave enough."

Max didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. Kass looked around, a little impatiently, and said, "Look, you think about it. I don't know what I could ever do to pay you back, but if there's something, anything reasonable, I'll do it. I'm just asking you to come sit at a table and make conversation with a few nice people. Nothing more." She handed him a card with her name and number on it.

"What happens if I don't go with you?" Max asked. "Do you have a plan B?"

Kass laughed. "I'm so far down the alphabet, I'm somewhere past L-M-N-O-P. If you don't come with me, I do have a date of last resort, but I really don't want to call him. I'd rather go alone, but that won't fly with my friends." She tapped on her card. "Think about it. Please."

 


 

"Why didn't you say yes?" I asked him.

"I don't know," Max said. "I guess it bugged me to know that she knew I didn't have a date."

I almost pointed out that every woman in the place probably knew he didn't have a date, but I knew it wouldn't help.

"Am I being an ass?" he asked me. "I don't know why I want to say no."

Again, I almost ventured homophobia? but again, it wouldn't help.

Max looked at me, perplexed. "If you were me, would you do it? Would you go with her?"

"In a heartbeat!" I said. "Help somebody out of a jam? Sounds good. Rescue a damsel in distress? Sign me up. Free dinner at a high-end restaurant? Check. Go on a date with a beautiful, ultra-feminine dancer? Yes, please!"

"Okay," Max said. "You've convinced me. I better call her before I change my mind."

Max drew her card from his pocket, dialed the number, and said he'd be happy to be her date for Valentines Day.

Kass, as you can imagine, was grateful and relieved. I could hear her giving him her address (which he wrote on the card) and the time to pick her up.

Then she said something I couldn't hear, to which Max replied, "Oh, really? How do you know my cousin?" And he stood up and walked into another room to continue the conversation. I couldn't hear him very well and couldn't hear her at all.

When he came back in, he was smiling and radiating positive energy.

"I'm glad you talked me into that," Max told me. "You're a genuinely good person."

"So are you," I rejoined. "You know what shows that? Kass hardly knows you, right? And yet she trusted you. She confided in you."

"Yeah," Max acknowledged. "How about that? I guess I'm not a total asshole."

"So what was the rest of the conversation? Why did she bring up your cousin?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's funny... She happens to be good friends with my cousin Nessa. Do you know Nessa?" I shook my head. "Well... she's my cousin. She's alright. A little spoiled. A Keeping Up With the Kardashians type of girl. Well, anyway, Nessa's getting married in May, and Kass will be at the wedding. I'm kind of relieved. My family can be a bit much sometimes, so it'll be nice to have someone to hang out with — if I can."

"Maybe she'll be your date!" I suggested with a laugh. "Your plus-one!"

He scoffed. "It's three months off! I'm sure I'll have someone by then!"

"It's not that far away, though," I pointed out.

"Don't wish me bad luck!"

"I'm not! But won't *she* need a fake date for the wedding?"

"Maybe she will, but I sure as well won't! I asked her to save a dance for me, but that's all."

"That's nice of you."

"My mother says being nice does't cost anything. Anyway, I do have to branch out, widen my net, though — I think I've gotten a no from every woman in the office."

"Except Kass."

"Who doesn't count."

"Is Nessa an Errison?"

"No, she's on my mother's side — she's a McLanahan. Nessa McLanahan."

"Banana-fanna-fo-fan," I offered.

"Okay," Max said. "Be careful with the name jokes, especially when my Mom's around. Remember: my Mom is a McLanahan. Or was."

"Okay," I agreed, giggling as I wiped my tears.

 


 

It didn't occur to me that *I* could have been Kass' beard until I was lying in bed that night. Of course, she didn't know me from Adam, so there was that.

It didn't occur to Max until he was about to walk out the door on Monday night, going to pick her up.

"Oh, God!" he exclaimed. "You're going to be alone on Valentines! You could have been Kass' date!"

"Naw, I couldn't," I protested. "We're complete strangers, and it would show."

"I don't really know her either," he confessed.

"But you have things in common: you can talk about the office, you can talk about the wedding, and the Name Game and all that."

"Yeah," he grudgingly admitted. "I think I'll have mercy on Kass and her friends and not try to get them laughing at my mother's maiden name."

"Probably a good idea."

 


 

What did I do alone on Valentines Day? I made a lovely pile of stir-fried rice with some leftover beef and pork and some Indonesian shrimp paste. I made it pretty spicy, and garnished it with a fried egg, sunny-side up, sitting on top. It was great. Then I watched Love Hard which is a rom-com (don't tell Max!). It's really a Christmas movie, but it works on Valentines Day as well.

I was cleaning up the kitchen when Max got home. He was SO HAPPY it amazed me. His smile was so broad he practically had to bend backwards under its weight.

"You look like you had a good time," I observed.

"Oh hell yes did I!" he shouted in response. "I had the BEST time!"

"Are you drunk?"

"No, actually, no I'm not, mother dear."

"Hey, I'm just asking. No judgment here."

"I had two drinks, hours ago. Well, yeah, and then two drinks or so after that. The food was excellent." He kept letting out gusts of laughter.

"So what happened?"

"Well, for one thing, let me tell you that Kass will NOT need a fake date for the wedding."

"What happened!?"

"Guess who was at the Celestial Lamb?"

I shrugged. "Who?"

"Guess!" He grinned wickedly and burst out laughing.

I hardly dared say the name but... "Amber?"

"BINGO!" he shouted, laughing and jumping and pointing at me. "You got it in one!"

"So why is that a good thing?"

"Well, because she spotted us. I didn't see her until she came up, right behind Kass, so she could look me in the face." Max began imitating her movements and speech, moving his arms, holding his head, chin high, the way she does.

"So she comes over, all fire in her eyes, spitting venom and spite, full of black hate..."

"And?"

"She says to me Look at you. Do you think you're fooling anyone? And she goes on and on about how I'm a liar and a phony and a fake, and then she says, "And here you are on a fake date, as if nobody knows. Let me tell you: everybody knows!" I didn't realize it at the time, but Kass thought Amber was talking to her the whole time. And THEN, Kass looks up at Amber — she turns her face up to look, like this, and Amber looks down at Kass and right in her face she says fucking dyke."

"Holy shit!"

"Holy shit, indeed! I was just about to get up to deal with her, when Kass takes her drink, almost a full glass, and tosses it over her shoulder, so it goes all over Amber's dress."

My mouth fell open.

"And THEN Kass stands up to face her, and she says in that low voice of hers, Look what you did to yourself, you clumsy cow."

"God!"

"And THEN Kass, fast as lightning, gives Amber a punch to the gut! Amber bends over, and Kass puts her hand on Amber's neck to keep her from standing back up. She bends down and says something in Amber's ear.

"At that point, everybody was looking, and Kass says in a voice of fake concern, Oh, my God, I think she's going to throw up! and she says Can you stand up, honey? and she — she doesn't exactly push her, but she maneuvers Amber so she falls on her butt. Then Kass sits down like she wasn't involved. Somebody from the restaurant hurried over and escorted Amber out."

"Wow."

"Yeah, and you know what was really impressive? Kass was only like a foot away from Amber when she punched her — maybe less, probably like eight inches. It's hard to get that kind of power in that short a distance; that short a punch."

My eyebrows danced in astonishment. "And nobody saw?"

"Nobody saw Kass throw the drink and nobody saw the punch except our table, and THEN after they tossed Amber out, the manager came over and apologized for the disturbance! Can you believe it? He comped us a round of drinks and told us that our dinner was on the house!"

He burst into laughter, and laughed for a good while. I was mute with astonishment.

"What about Kass' friends, though?" I asked. "Amber outed her, didn't she."

"Yeah, she did. Not as much as Kass thought, though. See, she thought all the stuff that Amber was spewing at me was directed at her. So when the commotion died down. Kass was blushing like fire, and figured she had to do some serious damage control. She said, I guess I have something I need to tell you... but her friends already knew." Here Max's emotions took an unexpected turn, and he started sniffing. The more he sniffed, the more he needed to sniff, and soon his eyes were full of tears. "Kass looks around at them, with this little frightened face and she says I'm gay. And she starts to cry. And her friends, they reach out and put their hands on hers, and the closest friend hugs her. And they all said, Oh, Kass..." (here Max let out a sob) "They said Oh, Kass, we know. We've known forever. What did you think? and she starts to cry harder and she says, I didn't know — I didn't know if you'd still love me!"

Max bellowed out the last two words, and then he broke down crying. He cried with everything in him. He shook, he gasped, he used tissue after tissue. Somehow I understood that he cried not just for Kass and for the tenderness of her friends, but also for his own isolation, for his frustration, rejection, incomprehension, and pain.

He cried hard. His sobs were deep. His tears were copious and drenching. But he didn't cry for long.

Soon he calmed himself, and after a few good breaths, he continued. "They said, Of course we love you! What did you think!"

I held the box of tissues, offering, but he said, "No, it's fine. I'm done. I don't know why, but it really got to me. Totally unexpected."

 


 

Later, after Max drank some water and took off his coat and shoes, he told me, "Oh — there's more."

"MORE?" I asked, stunned.

"Yeah." He took a good breath, straightened up, and said, "Yeah, so one of Kass's friends is ALSO coming to Nessa'a wedding. Actually, the wedding, the topic of Nessa's wedding came up before all that. Because I'm going, Kass is going, and this friend of Kass, she says, I'm going too! So, you know — wow, funny, how about that." He paused a moment and dabbed his eyes. "Anyway, so, after we left the restaurant, we're standing out there in the parking lot, saying goodbyes, and hugs and all, and Kass's friend says, Oh, by the way, the wedding? That bitch Amanda's coming too — at least, she's invited. I can't see her NOT coming."

"Who's Amanda?" I asked, confused.

"Oh, oh! No, no, not Amanda — she said Amanda. She meant Amber."

I was about to swear, but instead I burst out laughing. Max looked at me for a while with a bemused grin, and then he said, "Yeah, it's a laugh riot," he said drily. "Anyway, I'm off to bed. I have to go to work tomorrow."

"Oh, wait—" I stopped him at the door. "Who was Amber with?"

"With?"

"At the restaurant. She couldn't have been there by herself, right?"

Max shook his head. "I guess." He shrugged. "Who knows? Who cares? Whoever he is, God bless him. I'm glad it's not me."

With that, he turned and his footsteps thudded up the stairs.



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