A few minutes later, Avi returned with his luggage and a new burgundy scarf around his neck, knit in a pattern identical to Mitch’s. “Oh, you’re leaving now? I thought you had a late flight.” Thought there’d be more time, he didn’t say, as if it even mattered.
“Jodie sent me a text. Traffic’s already bad, so I’m gonna go now and wait around the airport for a few hours. Fun times.”
“OK,” Mitch nodded.
While Avi pulled his jacket on and slipped into his shoes, Mitch rolled off of the couch and wandered towards the foyer. He stood at the door with a hand near the knob and rocked on the balls of his feet, uncertain why he’d gotten up at all other than restlessness. Avi turned to him with a mischievous glint and cheeks lifted, causing Mitch’s pulse to rise.
He thought he’d be over this by now. He wasn’t.
“Seeing me off?” Avi teased, standing close, the tips of their toes inches away.
“That’s my role today, yes,” Mitch attempted to joke, but his voice choked and his head was too light to land any sort of punchline.
There was a long pause while Avi juggled his luggage, and he presented something wrapped in brown kraft paper to Mitch, thin and rectangular and solid.
“Here, for you. Since I can’t give it to you the day of.”
“Oh!” Mitch stared down at what he assumed used to be a grocery bag, judging from Avi’s tendency to recycle as often as possible. “I like the ribbon,” he said in reference to the poorly drawn bow that was scrawled in permanent marker.
“Hey, I worked really hard on that. But also don’t look at it.” Avi’s nose wrinkled.
“Fine, fine.” Running fingers along the seam, Mitch undid the tape strips that held the paper together and opened it up. He didn’t recognize the colorful psychedelic art or the kanji on the hardcover book’s cover, but it piqued his interest.
“So-” Avi cleared his throat. “This is by an artist named Tadanori Yokoo. When I lived in Japan, I visited one of his art exhibits and was blown away. He does fine art now, but back in the 60s and 70s he did a ton of pop art for really famous musicians, like album covers and concert posters.” While Avi explained, Mitch flipped through the pages and landed on surreal collages of the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Cat Stevens and The Beatles. “It seems like the kind of thing you’d be into?”
Mitch’s head shot up. “This is…shit, Avi, this is really cool.”
“Yeah, oh my god. Dude, my gift’s so lame,” huffed Mitch. How could he have known that he’d be the recipient of such a thoughtful present?
“I didn’t expect anything, though,” Avi tried to assure, but his modesty only caused the shame to further deepen. Reluctantly, Mitch went to the kitchen and retrieved a small satin box from the fridge. The container itself was by far fancier than its contents, not for a lack of trying.
For the last week or so, Mitch invested more effort than he cared to admit at learning how to make vegan candy. The resulting messes that he made in the process often left him discouraged, but he was determined to get it right after he invested in an assortment of Pokemon molds and various other supplies for what may be a one-time attempt. But what mostly tripped him up wasn’t the process itself, it was he became blinded by ambition and attempted to use edible paints. That was when they went from acceptable to looking as though a child took a stab at it, but he’d run out of funds and time by then.
“Um.” Holding the box between his hands, he brought it back to Avi and refused to make eye contact. His grip tightened, fingers threatening to crush the cardboard. “It’s not much. It’s not even really a gift? You mentioned the red eye, and I…” As Mitch stammered, Avi reached out and coaxed the box from out of his grasp. Were these even characters that he liked, Mitch wondered. Did people have preferences? He didn’t know much about the game or the cartoon or the little critters, but he supposed that some of them were sort of cute. According to the internet, there was a wrestling cat, which seemed neat. Should he have gotten something with that for Avi?
As panic manifested, Avi slid the lid off and gasped. “Did you get me Pokemon chocolates? Where did you even get-”
“I made them,” Mitch blurted, then winced. “They’re coffee flavored, because. Well.”
“Because of the flight?”
“Because of your deal with coffee. And because of the flight, yes. But it’s not an amazing artbook. It’s not much at all.”
But before Mitch could spiral any further, Avi pulled him into a fierce hug. His arms fixed tightly around Mitch’s midsection, warmth bleeding through all of the layers of clothing.
“Merry Christmas, Mitch,” Avi whispered, his broad hand running up and down Mitch’s spine, nails occasionally snagging the threads of his ragged knit sweater. He wondered if Avi could feel the way that his heart hammered against his ribcage, how it always did when they hugged. As if it begged to be inside of Avi instead, to belong to him.
“Merry Christmas, Avi,” Mitch whispered back, swallowing the urge to convince him to actually stay and hating himself for still being so soft and so weak for this one particular person. When he couldn’t have him, when he -when they both- had someone else.
Not that Mitch had Nate, they still weren’t official. Hopefully that would change in the near future. He tried not to consider that maybe he was the problem, that it wasn’t his lousy reputation, but rather Nate needed more time. When he brought it up to Ann, she reminded him that it’d only been a few weeks.
But the sooner he had confirmation, something affirmative where he could cling to and focus his attention elsewhere, the sooner he could finally move on and stop being an awful, selfish friend. He needed to be good to Avi, and he couldn’t fully do that with ulterior motives forever lingering in the background.
At last, Avi released him. Mitch quickly patched up his crumbling resolve by smearing it with a heaping portion of manners as a form of emotional spackling paste. Swallowing hard, he said, “Give Charlie my best.”
Avi blinked a few times, then responded with a casual, “Sure thing”. Seconds later, he was out of the house and long gone. Mitch watched him leave from the doorway, rubbing his temples for yet again making things so awkward.