The sun’s dying light cast long shadows across the walls and floors, making the rest of the room unsettlingly dark in juxtaposition. Avi lay on his stomach and was completely still, his face buried in a small heap of pillows. Defeat radiated off of him in waves, and Mitch’s heart ached at the pitiful sight.
Scared of being any more intrusive than he already was, Mitch tiptoed across the floor and gingerly took a seat on the edge of the mattress. Something bolted from off of the bed, and Mitch felt awful when he realized that he disturbed Estrella. He placed the glasses on the nightstand -noting that a hinge was bent- then fumbled with the container’s lid. “Hey, roll over,” he gently demanded once it popped off.
Avi moved at a glacial pace, so slow that at first Mitch wasn’t sure if he heard the request. But after a short while they made eye contact, putting Mitch at some ease despite the crestfallen expression he was greeted with. His fingers traced the edge of a brownie, which he lifted from out of the container then held an inch or so away from Avi’s mouth. “Try this,” he urged, meaning to come across as comforting but felt the words strain when they dislodged from his throat; he’d be embarrassed if his ego wasn’t already in the gutter.
Something about Avi shifted, as if compassion overrode his gut wrenching misery upon exposure to Mitch’s own pitiful state. Not that Mitch would ever admit to as much, but in a way he banked on that. His gaze went from Mitch’s face to the brownie, and after a little contemplation, he leaned forward and bit into it.
“Did you make these?” Avi asked after he swallowed, and Mitch handed over the rest to him.
“Yeah,” Mitch answered, then stared at the wall above Avi’s desk while he ate. He settled on the photographs that were pinned to the corkboard, and wondered what the people in them were like, what they’d done to make Avi smile so brilliantly. A jealous twinge made him wish that he was worthy of being up there as well, but his own humility trampled out that sentiment. “After you passed out last night. I’m sorry that they’re super basic, I still need your help with vegan secrets.”
“They’re great,” Avi responded matter-of-factly. Mitch craned his neck to look back at him, if only to gauge the sincerity of the statement; the brownie was gone, so he must have been telling the truth. “I don’t think I deserve them after hurting your boyfriend, though.”
Mitch let out a single, incredulous huff. Apologizing for coming to his defense seemed absurd, but Mitch recognized placation when he saw it, he’d been in that position more than he could keep track of. So he passed on the opportunity to lecture -the whole ‘how could you think that you did anything wrong?’- sparing them both a vent session about Toby’s crimes or a philosophical dispute about when violence was appropriate. Or god forbid, both of these topics. They’d be there all night.
Instead, Mitch opted to meet Avi half way, because he too could play dumb when it mattered. “Oh, Toby’s not my…even if he was, he wouldn’t be anymore.”
“Still, I’m sorry.” Avi once again rolled onto his stomach and hid his face, this time in his forearms. “I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never been in a fight outside of a ring. Pulled guys apart before, and that’s about it. But I saw him…I followed him after he got up from the table, to try to clear the air because I’m pretty sure he hates me? And I don’t know why-“
As Avi began to ramble, Mitch interrupted him. “Don’t dwell on that too much. Toby’s…not right in the head.”
“Well, I watched you guys through the kitchen window for maybe a minute, and I saw what happened and I just. Iunno, I stopped thinking and started running. I think I blacked out from the adrenaline.”
“You’ve really never been in a fight before?” In part, Mitch was genuinely curious, but mostly he wanted to move on from any conversation that involved Toby. He’d put up with the man for 10 years, and he needed a break from him. Avi shook his head in response.
“Have you?” He looked up, all wide eyed and innocent as if he hadn’t just tackled someone a foot taller than him to the ground. Mitch lit up at the question.
“Oh my god, yeah. Before Liner Notes, I was in a punk band. And you gotta be willing to throw hands when skinheads and their ilk inevitably crash your shows. But I did track in high school, so I was great at evading cops when they busted shit up. An equally important skill, as it turns out.”
“What the fuck? Why are you like, the coolest guy alive?” Avi spoke with awe, and Mitch instinctively rubbed the back of his neck.
“I’m really not. I tried to pull off an early Danzig look. Y’know, the leather and fishnet shirts and gloves? Real gay, real dumb,” Mitch snorted. “Sometimes I wore skirts and shit, to be antagonistic. Don’t know how I avoided jail for so long or didn’t get lynched the whole time that I was in that scene.”
“Do you have pics?”
“No, but I’m sure that Jodie does. I’ll ask her to dig them up later.”
“I’d like to see them,” Avi smiled.
“Anyway, as I was saying, I’m not that cool and it’s insane that you insist that I am.” Lightly pushing at his arm, Mitch asserted himself and said, “move over”. Avi blinked a few times as though he wasn’t able to process what he’d been told, but finally scooched backwards until he was pressed up against the wall next to his bed. It seemed cruel to force such a wide man to compress himself like that, but Mitch’s leg started to cramp and he needed to stretch. Once more space opened up, Mitch pivoted so that his back rested on the headboard and he was able to sprawl out on top of the comforter. “You’ve been everywhere, Avi. You’re the most fascinating person in any room that you choose to be in. I moved to New England when I was either 11 or 12, and I never left. That’s the definition of being lame.”
“How do you not know the age?” Avi asked, and Mitch hummed. This was a safe space, he decided, and Avi earned a little honesty.
“Mild brain damage.” Mitch grimaced when Avi made an audible noise. “Oh my god, don’t gasp at that. I mostly recovered, I’m fine now.”
“Brain damage?” Avi’s tone made Mitch bristle.
“There’s gaps in my memory about my childhood and I had to relearn a bunch of fine motor skills, but so what? My uncle and aunt went into some tremendous debt to fix me so that I could fuck off and become a cocksucking drug addict. Feel bad for them, not for me.”
“Jesus,” Avi sputtered.
“Enough. Tell me about the flags,” Mitch changed the subject yet again and pointed up to the garland of prayer flags strung up above their heads. “I know plenty of woo woo folks, and you’re not one of them. This room is barren and you’re not a superfluous guy. And those don’t look like something you ordered off of the internet. What’s the story?”
“Um,” Avi cleared his throat as if he’d been caught off guard. “Some years ago, I met my dad’s side of the family in Mumbai for the first time. And to make an extremely long story short, I ended up getting contracted to help start a wrestling school in Kathmandu. So I lived there for a short while. I didn’t really teach that much, I was more of a consultant? And they used my name and face for marketing. Had no idea that I’d be a draw half way across the world.” He chuckled and his eyes cast upwards, then he looked back over at Mitch. “A few of the friends that I made there took me on a backpacking trip through the Himalayas, and we stayed at this ancient Buddhist monastery along the way. The flags were a parting gift, which they got from that temple.” The way that Avi’s tone held reverence and wonder had set off butterflies in Mitch’s belly. If he had it his way, Avi would never stop sharing stories about himself. “I should actually hang them above the doorway, but I can’t reach that high.”
“Oh yeah, no, my shit’s way cooler,” scoffed Mitch, then he playfully pushed Avi yet again. “Are you fucking kidding me, Avi?” You want to see pictures of me being a punk queer? No. Show me those mountains. I know you took pictures, I’ve seen your Instagram. You’re a goddamn globetrotting wine mom. Do you have a secret compass rose tattoo? Maybe an infinity symbol or a flock of birds? Let me see your ankles right now.”
“Alright, alright!” Avi laughed, but it quickly died off. “Later, though. I think my phone’s still downstairs and I just…” He went quiet, then slightly curled in on himself. “I don’t wanna see anyone right now.”
“No one’s mad at you,” Mitch assured. “Especially not me. But. I get it, I’m kind of in the same boat.”
“Wanna get high instead?”
“God yes.” Mitch had barely gotten his mouth open before Avi reached over him and opened his nightstand drawer, producing a joint and a lighter.
“Do you think Jodie will care about the smell?” He asked as he handed both to Mitch, who shrugged.
“I sure as shit don’t.” While Mitch lit up, Avi resettled into his spot and waited expectantly for his turn. This was the kind of thing that teenagers did, holing up in a bedroom to get away from the adults and smoke pot. It made him want to find a toilet paper roll and a dryer sheet to assemble a deodorizer for old time’s sake.
After Mitch took his hit and passed over the paraphernalia, he considered the situation and what was or wasn’t appropriate etiquette in these uncharted waters. So far, Avi hadn’t told him off or exhibited any discomfort by his presence, but Mitch was wary nevertheless. He’d learned to reign in affection or never overstay his welcome when it came to most straight guys, forever vigilant because survival demanded that he stay sharp. But maybe this was OK. Maybe they were OK. He mulled it over, filled to the brim with hesitation and doubt, then at last he slid down until his back was against the mattress and he’d gone fully horizontal. Blame the weed, if Avi said anything about it. In a distant voice, Mitch gave a serious answer to Avi’s inquiry. “It’s too cold to crack open the window, y’know. This is fine.”
The response seemed to be good enough for Avi, who said nothing more on the subject. They passed back and forth in ritualistic fashion, the occasional giggles the only thing outside of the crackle of burning paper and plume smoke that permeated the air while the room turned pitch black. Sometimes Avi requested another brownie, which Mitch happily delivered to him. And while he assumed that being within such proximity to Avi -in Avi’s bed, no less, arms and legs grazing against one another- would have driven him to either derangement or despair, he found himself more relaxed and weightless than he’d been in months. In a haze, he spoke without any forethought. “What’re you doing tomorrow?” he slurred. “Nothing, right? ‘Cause you’re here instead of over in Washington?”
“Yeah man,” Avi confirmed after a delay. His voice was light, as if he was barely present.
“Cool. You uh-” Mitch licked his lips, and propped himself up on his elbow. “I’m gonna go to the Cape to visit the ocean. You wanna come with?”
Avi shuffled around in the dark for a few seconds. “I’d really like that, actually. Could we get there in time to see the sunrise? That’d be rad.”
“It’s an hour and a half…two hours away,” Mitch explained. “We’d have to get up super early.”
Avi yawned. “I’m usually up early, anyway. You know that. I’ll drive if you want to sleep on the way, it’s fine.” Mitch lay there helpless, unable to deny him anything that he wanted.
“OK. I’ll take care of coffee,” Mitch conceded, earning a content hum. A dense silence followed, and minutes later Avi’s gentle snores filled that space. Too exhausted and much too content to move, Mitch set an alarm on his phone and placed it on the nightstand. He knew that he should relocate to Jodie’s room, but the very idea of moving transmuted his bones into lead and…
And he didn’t want to.
Avi saved his skin earlier. For a rare instance, Mitch wasn’t hounded by stress and inner turmoil of his own design. He wasn’t on a cliff’s edge, waiting to get thrown off and skewered by the jagged rocks below. As far as he was concerned, Avi’s tiny room was the safest place on Earth, and no one else existed other than the two of them (and the cat hidden under the bed).
It wasn’t as though he was being kicked out, either. This didn’t have to mean anything, he decided, becoming more and more comfortable with the attempts to make peace with this notion.
“Goodnight, Avi,” he whispered in the dark, a test to see if he’d be evicted at last. But there came no response, so Mitch rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. He wasn’t coherent enough to be certain, but before he faded into unconsciousness, he could have sworn that he heard a mumbled, “Night, Mitch.”