While crammed into a worn vinyl booth and sharing burnt coffee under fluorescent lighting, the conversation from the car replayed over and over in Mitch’s head. He alternated between picking at the ripped vinyl fabric, and sneaking glances at Avi; try as he might, he couldn’t unravel what happened, and Avi was mum on the topic. If Mitch wanted an opening, he needed to make it himself.
They climbed back into the car to make the final stretch back home, Mitch found the courage to speak up before Avi backed out of the parking spot. “Hey,” he cleared his throat and ran his palms on the thighs of his jeans. “For whatever it’s worth, but I don’t think that you’re a disappointment. Don’t know how you got that idea, but you’re the antithesis of that.”
Avi looked over at him and mouthed ‘what’ before his face lit up in recognition. His shoulders hunched, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh, I- thanks. I mean, you’re not dating me or anything,” he huffed. “So without that perspective-“
“OK, but even if I was dating you!” Mitch blurted without any forethought, and his face burned when his brain caught up with his mouth. Terrified that he just outed himself, he almost hit the backpedal, but that’d only make it worse. Best to feign ignorance and continue the train of thought, he decided. “I couldn’t imagine you ever being a disappointment. You lift up every single person that’s around you. You brought this energy to the school that wasn’t there before, and it makes everyone try harder.” Mitch paused, then lowered his voice as it creaked, “You make me want to be a better friend, Avi. I never really thought about that, until you showed up.”
Avi stared at him all wide eyed in bewilderment, then bit his lip once Mitch stopped talking. “I…I don’t even know what to say,” his voice tremored. “Thank you, though. I don’t know if I actually deserve any of that-“
“You do.” Mitch couldn’t even feel guilty for cutting him off that time, because hearing Avi being so hard on himself was unbearable. “You went and picked me up without hesitation, even though you knew that I was being the worst. And then you hugged me when I didn’t deserve a hug.”
“After I made you cry,” countered Avi.
“I cry all the time,” Mitch brushed him off, then grasped at the air in desperation to convey his sincerity. “Avi, you’re great. You are, I mean that from the bottom of my very shitty heart.”
The only sound in the car was Avi’s heavy breathing. Since the only light source was the flood lamp they were parked under, Mitch couldn’t say for sure, but the rims of Avi’s eyes appeared damp and red.
With hesitancy, Avi at last spoke up. “Um. So, I know that we hugged earlier, but, uh. I really needed to hear that today. All of that. And…”
“Do you need another one?” Mitch tried to eradicate all traces of hope in his tone, but something in his chest fluttered when Avi sharply nodded. He stretched his arms out and Avi leaned forward, embracing him tightly, strong fingers desperately clutching onto the back of his shirt. Avi’s face tucked into the crook of his neck, a small sniffle muffled by the fabric.
Mitch pretended not to notice. Curiosity continued to nag at him, insisting that he ask about what happened earlier to cause Avi to need reassurance about his character, but he said nothing.
Instead, he held Avi closer.