“I’m not gonna-” Mitch raised his voice in reaction to a comment from Toby, but he stopped himself when Avi turned towards them. His face burned in embarrassment over being so easily wound up by this guy, even all these years later. After a light elbow to Toby’s ribs, Mitch extended the napkins to Avi, saying, “Here. I know you said you were good, but it was all over your shirt. And I thought, iunno, just in case?”
“Yeah, Gianna said my ‘tits were on full display,” Avi laughed as he accepted the napkins, then dragged one down his shirt. “So thank you, I appreciate this.”
“Of course,” Mitch nodded, then flashed a grin at Toby before stealing his seat.
“Excuse you,” Toby scoffed.
“You didn’t call it,” Mitch dismissed him. “And there’s a free chair opened up at that other table, just ask if you can take it.”
Toby took the suggestion -not without a little grumbling- then set up shop between Mitch and Avi. While he settled into this new spot, Mitch rested his head on Louis’ bicep; Lou said nothing as he was in deep conversation with Rod and Desiree, but he shifted enough so that he could tuck Mitch under his arm for a short while until they both respectively cramped up. Before Mitch broke away, Louis asked under his breath if he needed to talk, and Mitch shook his head.
As the night rolled on, fatigue settled into Mitch’s bones. He mostly stayed quiet as he fought to stay awake, which allowed for Toby to steamroll the conversation with minimal checks and balances. Stories from the past were dug up, things that Avi couldn’t possibly contribute to and was forced to politely listen as Toby yapped on and on.
But this is what Mitch wanted, right? To start incorporating Toby into the fold, because after all of these years they were still tethered to one another, which meant all of this was inevitable. It would be much simpler if Toby wasn’t clamoring so loudly for them to be more than what they were, which was a wrench that Mitch hadn’t anticipated on dealing with. Years ago, the only thing that he wanted was some level of certainty between them, and Toby refused to provide it; now the tables were turned, and Mitch wasn’t prepared to commit.
He never thought he would have preferred the version of Toby when he didn’t try at all. Although the “one day at a time” mantra literally originated from Toby’s lips, guilt nagged at Mitch every time that he threw the line out there. He couldn’t tell if he was genuinely engaging in healthy boundaries, or resisting for the sake of being contrarian.
But every time Toby approached and challenged these walls, he ultimately respected them and backed off. For the time being, it was enough. However, if Mitch couldn’t get over his own shit, he’d need to reconsider this entire situation. Sometimes the signs were hopeful, and sometimes he reminded himself that the only difference between the venomous snakes at a zoo and the ones in the wild was the thick plexiglass that separated them from the observer.
Then there was a hand on his thigh, and Mitch jerked to full attention. He looked around, saw that Avi’s seat was empty, and asked, “Where’d Avi go?”
Toby shrugged. “I think he went to close up his tab? Did you have a good nap?”
“Never felt more rested,” Mitch deadpanned. “I need a cigarette, then I’m gonna go. You want a smoke?”
“Nah, but I’ll keep you company.”
“Alright,” Mitch allowed, then went about gathering his stuff and exchanging goodbyes with people from the school. He continued to scan the crowd for Avi, but didn’t see him. There was a chance that he was in the bathroom, but Mitch was already carrying his guitar case and he didn’t want to lug it in there to check. Instead, he sought out Jodie to let her know that he was taking off. She beamed while giving him a thumbs up and told him that he did a great job, then she turned to Toby. Her expression turned neutral, but she gave him a slow nod. Toby exchanged it in kind.
“Civil,” Mitch noted out loud when they got outside, grateful that the rain finally died down. He put the cigarette to his lips and Toby held out a lighter for him. After taking a drag, he eyed his tall not-boyfriend, who appeared humble for the first time in all the years they’d known each other. “Such a gentleman,” he teased after exhaling, then made the slow trek to his car with Toby in tow.
“Am I passing the test?” Toby inquired while Mitch loaded up the trunk.
“There’s no test,” Mitch half-lied. “I’m dealing with shit. You have to keep respecting that, that’s the test.” Toby deflated a little, so Mitch crowded into his bubble and lightly tapped his chest. He hadn’t exactly gone easy on him, he knew this. “But if you need a letter grade, yes, you passed tonight.”
“What was the grade?” Toby crowded back, pressing Mitch’s back against the car.
“Well you know the saying ‘Cs get degrees’?”
“Oh c’mon, I’m better than a C. I know that I was.”
“You got a B.” Holding the cigarette between his fingers, Mitch went up onto his tiptoes and kissed the side of Toby’s face.
“Give me a study guide next time and I’ll get an A,” Toby grinned.
“I did. You were too busy thinking with your dick.” Putting the cigarette back into his mouth, Mitch opened the driver’s side door. “I’m leaving now.”