Mitch stood in the center of Jodie’s room and took a few seconds to decompress. Staring at Velvet Jesus, he counted down from ten to keep himself from taking his frustration out on either an undeserving pillow or a lamp. The best bet was to pull Jodie aside at some point and have her check in with Basil, since she had a knack for persuasion. In the meanwhile, he swallowed his pride and sent his own uncle a message to say that he missed him and hoped to visit soon; he meant it, though he didn’t know when. “Baby steps,” he muttered.
He didn’t wait for a response, and instead returned downstairs to the kitchen, where Avi stood firm by his post and shared a beer with Victor. Passing Arin on their way to the bathroom, Mitch exchanged pleasantries with them and answered a few questions about his shoulder and the recovery process. Enough time passed for Victor to crack himself up and fill the room with his laughter, then move on to the next person. It allowed Mitch the opportunity to sneak back in and relieve Avi from his duties.
“I’ll take it from here,” Mitch tapped Avi’s back. His finger made brief contact with the hood of what used to be his hoodie, and he pulled away before making a fuss over it.
Turning to face him, Avi shrugged and said, “Oh, I don’t mind.”
“No, I gotta do it. This was part of the bargain, so.” Using slight force, Mitch crowded into Avi’s space and was grateful that he yielded instead of playing the role of the immovable object. He held his hand out and Avi returned the spatula, but not without some hesitation. “Now go away, please. Can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen.”
“What bargain?” Avi tilted his head to the side, but Mitch continued to stare at the burners and pretended that he didn’t hear him; there wasn’t any dignified way to address that situation, Jodie’s rightful contempt and Mitch’s pathetic attempts to reconcile to the past. Instead of repeating the question, Avi changed the subject. “C’mon, I’m an unexpected addition to the guest list. Let me be helpful.”
“Yeah, but none of this is for you. I’m sorry man,” Mitch lamented. “Go hang out with everyone. Enjoy yourself. I’ll be alright. Promise.”
“I can fend for myself, it’s fine,” Avi waved him off.
“OK, I just-” Mitch frowned as he looked over all of the ingredients that Avi couldn’t eat, with the exception of the vegetable platter that Desiree and her son brought with them; even then, it came packaged with ranch dip, which wasn’t useful, either. Then, as if he’d been struck by lightning, Mitch remembered spotting a can of chickpeas in the cabinet during ingredient inventory. He burst across the room to grab it, nearly wiping out while sliding across the linoleum floor.
“Are you possessed?” Avi cracked up.
“Hummus!” Mitch blurted as he gathered up the remaining ingredients.
“You don’t have to do that,” Avi attempted to stop him, but Mitch was relentless. After spending the last 24 hours assisting Jodie with every American and Caribbean based side dish imaginable, making hummus for this well-meaning vegan himbo was nothing. He had everything that he needed for the recipe, although he’d be scraping the nearly empty jar of tahini butter to make it happen.
The food processor whirred to life, and Avi watched on in disbelief. “You really shouldn’t have,” he commented softly after the noise died down. Ignoring him, Mitch dipped in a stolen celery stick, then held it in front of Avi’s face.
“Tell me if this needs anything,” Mitch said, fully anticipating that Avi would take it into his possession, his attention already elsewhere as he prepared to sprint towards the next fire that needed putting out. What he wasn’t prepared for was Avi biting it straight from his fingers like a petting zoo animal.
Mitch’s head swiveled slowly and deliberately, and he tried to get a reading on Avi. Because in his throat was the world’s loudest “Hey what the fuck?”, and that needed that to stay put. No way in hell was he gonna be responsible for making a scene at a holiday dinner. The only thing he got was a clueless expression and several blinks. Of course Avi didn’t know what he was doing. He never did. He would have stopped by now if he was aware of the effect that he had, Mitch assumed.
It also wasn’t unusual. Didn’t mean anything. He fed Louis french fries by hand plenty of times in exchange for sips of his drinks, and not a day went by that Jodie didn’t try to take a bite of whatever he was eating, like the fucking seagull that she was. Did she typically supply the fancy bagels for him? Yes, which to her meant that she was entitled to be an absolute menace. He’d retaliate by drinking from her coffee mug before making his own cup, and annoying her was a boisterous declaration of Ew, gross!, knowing full well that she put too much cream and sugar into it and that he’d hate it.
“Perfect as is,” Avi announced with a thumbs up, then grasped the celery stick and popped it into his mouth once the damage was done.
Several calculations raced through Mitch’s mind as he considered their level of comfort and familiarity with one another. He reckoned that he could probably get away with a little flirting, and not cross any hard lines. At the very least, he should be able to playfully call Avi out without it turning into anything embarrassing.
As he willed his wobbly limbs to empty the rest of the hummus into a small serving bowl, Mitch swallowed. His mouth opened, the corners lifted into a small smile, and he almost spoke aloud the sentence “Don’t be a tease, Avi”.
But then fingers trailed up his spine, cutting off from any coherent words as he shivered and gasped.
“Wow, you’re tense,” came Toby’s voice from behind him. Mitch’s entire body went clammy, and suddenly the room was much too hot, the conversations much too loud, the house much too small.
He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to be back in the safety of Jodie’s room, under the comforter and hugging Cendre. Selfishly, he wondered if he could use himself as a reason for Basil to escape his situation, and the two could lean on one another to get through this godforsaken holiday.