Naturally, Jodie warranted two celebrations for her birthday.
The first was held at her new brewery, Fighting Spirit, which was treated as a soft launch. All of the Monster Mash family was in attendance for a night of sampling beer (in the case of anyone under 21 years of age -or Mitch- a selection of mocktails), games, and other festivities. Liner Notes performed, and Mitch carefully curated a playlist that lived up to Jodie’s tastes, focusing specifically on 80s goth and new wave. Band practice had been a great way to get out of the house, which he was in desperate need of an excuse for, and preparation for this gig kept him especially busy.
Most importantly, it kept him away from Avi.
Not that he wanted to be away, but he knew better. If their friendship was going to survive, Mitch needed to temporarily disengage from it. He couldn’t wait until Charlie uprooted her life and Avi moved out. And with rental prices continuing to rise and his freelance offers dwindling (his editor claimed that it wasn’t due to his work from home negotiation, but Mitch wasn’t entirely stupid), he needed to tough it out at Jodie’s for the time being.
This meant doing his stretches on his own, which he set several alarms during the day to remind himself, and declining Avi’s offers of help. It meant turning down Avi when he wanted to go get a coffee, not riding with him to the school, and not getting up at 5am for a run (Mitch had only done that twice, but was prepared to commit to the habit despite loathing it with his entire being). It meant not cooking together anymore, despite how invaluable Avi’s knowledge was in regards to everything from vegetable preparation to optimizing nutrition. Because of Avi, Mitch actually put on mass for the first time in his life; not much, but noticeable enough that his ribcage and spine were no longer protruding (and for Jodie to excitedly point out his “tiny titties!” now, before she’d slap one of his pecs).
He hated it. The last few weeks were shitty and lonely, but the stakes were too high. By now, the disappointed reaction he received after rebuffing every offer to hangout was imprinted behind his eyelids. The only time that he didn’t deny a request for his presence was when Avi needed help with the guitar, because it was the only thing that Mitch was any good for other than sucking a dick.
But he couldn’t avoid Avi at Jodie’s birthday dinner. Victor arranged it on her actual birthday at her favorite restaurant in the area, an intimate gathering that consisted of himself, Jodie, Nora, Mia, Avi, and Mitch. At Jodie’s insistence, Mitch took the seat next to her, and Avi proceeded to take the seat next to him.
In the middle of the meal, as Victor loudly recounted some tale from his childhood in Santo Domingo, Avi tugged on Mitch’s flannel and whispered into his ear, “Hey, are you alright?”
“Huh? Yeah,” Mitch offered a small smile, but faltered when Avi didn’t appear convinced. “I mean…y’know, just going through some stuff. It’s fine.”
“Do you wanna talk about it? I’m here.” Avi’s hand was still on Mitch’s sleeve, grasping as though he sought affirmation. Mitch couldn’t tell if it was an offer or a request or a demand, but he averted his gaze from Avi, instead opting to stare down at his plate. He didn’t want to read into something that wasn’t there. More importantly, he didn’t want to burden his friend with something that wasn’t his fault.
“Thanks,” was all that Mitch responded with, hoping it was enough to dissuade Avi from pushing it any further. The hand slowly retracted, transitioning to a gentle pat on the bicep and then it was gone. Mitch shriveled up inside. He didn’t know how to pull this off without fucking it all up, but he had to try.
Later that night, when he and Jodie were in bed and doing their respective phone scrolling, Jodie broke the silence by telling Mitch that she loved and appreciated him, and was glad that he was now here instead of Connecticut.
“Thanks?” Mitch’s nose scrunched. “Love you, too. Happy birthday.” However, the tension didn’t dissipate like he anticipated that it would. “OK, what?”
“Avi told me that he’s worried about you.”
“I’m mentally ill. It’s the same old shit.” Mitch shook his head. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“You sure?” She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Do I seem any worse than usual?” He bluffed, and she stared at him.
“Honestly? Not really,” she answered after intense scrutiny, but still sounded wary.
“He’s new around here. Probably not used to my subdued depression.” That hurt to say. It hurt to discount Avi like that, because Avi had been there for him, proven himself over and over. They shared long car rides and late night conversations. Avi really listened, and always had something genuine and insightful to say after Mitch rambled and went on 10 different side tangents.
He was in the room right next door as they spoke, and Mitch had the audacity to play down his character when he was maybe 15’ away at most.
Avi was a great friend, the best that anyone could ask for, and Mitch was the very antithesis of that.
“OK, but you’ll tell me if shit goes south, right?” For a rare moment, Jodie allowed vulnerability to shine through. On her birthday, no less.
“Of course,” Mitch reached over and tousled her hair. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t a lie. What would transpire the following night was an act of self-care, he told himself. There was something dangerous in his system that needed to be flushed out, and no one understood that other than Mitch, Toby, and God.