Up until Avi and Charlie returned, Mitch and Jodie mostly kept to themselves. Charlie gushed about how perfect everything was, from the scenery to the weather and temperature, then handed Mitch a totebag filled with bottles of wine from a local vineyard. “For tonight,” she said. “There’s also cider in the fridge, as promised.”
Mitch refrained from mentioning that he wouldn’t partake, and thanked her for her generosity. Jodie, however, wasted no time in popping open a bottle early and coaxed Charlie into having a glass as well. “Oh, I…” Mitch’s mouth formed a line.
“What?” Jodie raised an eyebrow as she tipped the bottle back up.
“It’s nothing. I wanted to see if you’d like to go paddling in the canoe. But-” he gestured towards the half-filled wine glass.
“I’ll drink this later, if you want? Canoeing’s fun.”
“No no, it’s cool,” Mitch insisted. “I saw, iunno, a hawk or an eagle earlier. I wanted to get some pictures, but that was also hours ago, I think.”
“I could go with you. I haven’t been paddling in a while,” Avi spoke up.
“Oh no, I- I couldn’t put you out like that,” Mitch tried to be dismissive and drop the conversation.
“No, I mean it,” Avi put a hand to his chest and earnestly declared, “I’d actually like to go.”
Mitch was about to protest, already stammering and ready to push back, but agreed when Charlie encouraged it as well. After grabbing the paddles and life vests, Mitch led Avi outside and down the stone stairs. They worked together to hoist the canoe from off of the saw horses and placed it down at the water’s edge. Mitch mentioned the strong gusts of wind from earlier, but Avi didn’t seem too concerned. “We’ll be vigilant,” he assured. While that didn’t sound like the wisest course of action, they came this far already, and Mitch wasn’t in any mood to put up an argument.
“Could this count as physical therapy?” asked Mitch after they launched from land. They were past the dock, and the long grass below the water made an unsuccessful effort to tangle the oars.
“Absolutely. Just don’t push it too hard,” Avi nodded from his position in the front as he dipped the paddle into the water and broke the surface tension. While actively working to get to the lake’s center, there wasn’t too much conversation, and that suited Mitch fine. He scanned the skies, seeking out the bird that he saw earlier. Each passing minute that he didn’t spot it made him feel more ridiculous over this endeavor. He dipped his paddle to create resistance and slow Avi down, now fully resigned to writing this off and ready to declare that they should head back. Avi turned his head, his eyebrows knit in confusion.
At the crest of self doubt came a high pitched whistle, and the familiar silhouette of a large bird in flight circled above. Mitch picked up his camera and pointed it towards the sky, eye on the viewfinder while he rapidly clicked the shutter button. Laughing heartily, Avi said that he was confused as to why Mitch slowed them down, and then he saw the bird; Mitch played it off as though that was the real reason.
They pondered what it was, until Mitch recalled that ospreys used to nest around the area. Most of them left when their habitats were disturbed due to development, but a long time passed since any new houses were built, and there were ongoing efforts to reintroduce them to the area. His theory was proven to be correct when the bird dive bombed the lake several hundred yards away and emerged with a fish between its talons. As it took off to the sky, Avi exclaimed that this was the coolest thing he’d seen in a while. Mitch tapped him on the back to show him the pictures he captured, and Avi spun in place until they were facing one another, taking the camera into his possession and scrolling through the images.
“C’mon, you recently did a tour of the Caribbean and Central America, how can this be the coolest thing you’ve seen?” Mitch wondered out loud.
“I did, but I was working most of the time. I didn’t get to go out much, and when I did, it was in places that were crawling with tourists.” Avi handed camera the back. “By the way, you’re really talented, man.”
“I took a class or two,” Mitch admitted, reattaching the lenscap. “Hey, can I ask something?”
“How do you manage doing tours and being away for long stretches at a time when you’re in a relationship?” Avi’s expression dropped ever so slightly; when it’d recovered, it wasn’t quite the same as before. “Like my ex hated wrestling so much,” Mitch hurried to clarify. “So trying to get booked somewhere outside of New England ended up always turning into a logistics nightmare, and then a fight.”
“Oh, Charlie isn’t much of a fan herself,” chuckled Avi.
“Aw fuck. We don’t have to talk about this, sorry.” Mitch rubbed the back of his neck.
“No, it’s fine. You’re fine.” Avi paused, staring off to the side for several seconds before he looked back over at Mitch. “Yeah, so. Things were a bit different when we first met, which was right before I wrote off school. For years, neither of us stayed in one place for too long, so it worked out really well. She did all of this crazy international stuff, like Doctors Without Borders, just super cool work for the greater good in these war-torn areas. Meanwhile, I’d be in, iunno, Berlin? All greased up, mostly naked and fighting other dudes.” He laughed, and Mitch joined him. “But yeah, our lifestyles were compatible in the sense that neither of us were ever really ‘home’, so we could love one another while being free from most constraints that society places on couples.”
“I get why you’d try to be so invested in trying to have her move out here,” Mitch responded sympathetically. “Like if you’re staying in the country for the foreseeable future.”
Avi’s eyes widened, and he ran his hand from his mouth to the tip of his beard. Mitch couldn’t shake the feeling that he was still trespassing. “I mean,” Avi started slowly. “It’s that, or quit wrestling.”
Mitch blinked a few times. “Come again?”
“Well, um.” Avi continued to act calmly, but the air around him was all wrong. It was heavy. “I don’t have too many viable options as far as the big promotions go. Not that I’d want to sign with The Fed.” He made a face. “My career is wholly dependent on traveling all over the place. And a while back, Charlie and I were doing a sort of State of the Union address, where we hashed a few things out.” Swallowing thickly, he continued. “Long story short, if it doesn’t work out at Monument, I’m gonna move to Tacoma and probably get a real person job because there’s no wrestling out there. And I could open my own school or run a promotion, but I don’t want to manage a business and still take bookings. I don’t want to be tangent to wrestling and also not be able to take part in it, that’d kill me. I still have years left in me, I think. But also Davey Richards retired last year. Shelley just retired a few months back. It happens.”
Mitch’s jaw was slack as the confession tumbled out. “Well that fucking sucks,” he blurted when he remembered how to speak again, and Avi burst out laughing.
“This is the first time that I’m telling anyone,” Avi spoke softly, wrenching his hands.
“I wish I knew what to say,” Mitch sighed. “I’m sorry, man.”
“That’s relationships, right? Compromise?” When Avi said that, Mitch recalled saying something identical to his therapist a few days ago in regards to an anecdote about Calvin kicking him out over…he couldn’t remember, probably band practice? Ann set aside the legal pad and responded that compromise was about deciding what to cook for dinner or selecting a movie to go out and watch, not violating fundamental boundaries.
And he looked at Avi, a person that committed innumerable acts of kindness on a daily basis, sitting across from him all timid and vulnerable. Avi, who was welcoming and worked diligently to secure their friendship, like someone that feeds and gains the trust of a feral cat. Avi, who drove 6 hours when he barely knew Mitch to help him gather up the last bits of scraps of life that he had left.
Who said the nicest things that Mitch ever heard from another human being. Who was attentive, remembering the smallest, offhanded details.
Who was so, so beautiful, that it drove Mitch to the precipice of insanity on a daily basis; but whose friendship had become invaluable within a short stretch of time that he’d gladly risk the loss of those mental facilities for it.
All Mitch wanted to do was repeat what his therapist had told him, and yet, he lacked the courage to do so. It wasn’t his place to determine how a relationship should or shouldn’t function, especially one with the lengthy history that Avi and Charlie shared. Instead, he only managed to be brave enough to lean forward and pat Avi’s forearm, offering an, “I’m sure it’ll work out.”
“Thanks, Mitch,” Avi exhaled. “I really hope so.”
Since the osprey did not appear to be coming back, Avi turned back around and dipped the paddles back into the water again. They went around the lake’s perimeter in silence while Avi’s confession still hung heavy, seeming to even weigh the canoe down. Part of this was deeply personal for Mitch, since he was still sore over everything he’d sacrificed to placate former partners.
He still didn’t know shit about navigating relationships, but the idea of whittling oneself down to the marrow to feed another person was, in retrospect, downright horrifying. But this wasn’t his battle to fight, and he thought far too deeply about what wasn’t his territory to defend.
For all he knew, there was more to the conversation -a conversation that he was never a part of- that transpired before he befriended Avi, let alone met him. There was no stake for him here to claim. Having a crush didn’t entitle Mitch to anything at all. The only thing that he knew for certain was that he ought to be grateful for being entrusted with something so delicate and so important.