On that threshold between winter and spring, it still seemed appropriate to sit before an outdoor fireplace, consuming libations and discussing their often-droll lives. The only thing that could crack the chill, cumbersome air of their own seemingly silly existence was the echo of their conjoined laughter. It was the catalyst to their effervescence, their willingness to go forward each and every daunting day.
The patio of the bar at which they relaxed upon was only two blocks from Sixth Street. In the distance, they could already hear the Friday night crowd rearing up to partake in debauchery. It bore no relevance to their lives, however. They were poor, and drank only in public as Brittany bartended at the hole-in-the-wall and managed to get them drunk as cheaply as possible.
“You have a crush on a girl you work with?” Spencer Bowman repeated after Aaron, peering up at his friend over his wine glass as he sipped. “I can’t believe that—in our mid-twenties, mind you—we’re still using the word ‘crush’ as a way to describe our feelings for other adult, human beings. I thought being a grown-up meant you didn’t have crushes, and that you didn’t have acne.” Spencer’s eyes rolled around the perimeter of their sockets. “Everything I know is a lie.”
Brittany, returning to her friends with fresh drinks she’d been smuggling in the back over the course of the last week, laughed as she took a seat across from Spencer. Even in moments where they laughed and gossiped together, it still struck Spencer as odd that he and Brittany were friends. Having known each other since high school, he never would have imagined that they’d take on a life as friends in a city so far from where they’d grown up. At times, Spencer didn’t quite believe it himself, often electing to keep a safe distance from Brittany without giving himself away.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to stop having crushes on people,” Brittany giggled out. She warbled a high-pitched, neurotic sort of laugh quite frequently, giving one the impression that she was nervous at all times. “Crushes are sort of the baby-steps we take to falling in love,” she preached. “Step one: develop a crush. Step two: go on a date. Step three—”
“Smush,” Aaron teased.
“No!” Brittany yelled back at him. “Step three: fall in love.”
“Oh, give me a break,” Spencer sighed, downing the remainder of his wine and snatching another tiny bottle of cabernet from next to Brittany in unison. “Not everything is about falling in love. Sometimes you can just like people. Sometimes you can just want to fuck people. Not everything is an epic upon which we’re just waiting to embark.”
Brittany and Aaron both drew back a bit, exchanging a glance between just the two of them that resulted in more of Brittany’s skittish laughter.
“I’m sorry. Did someone order a Spencer Sour?” Aaron scoffed as he reached for a beer from between Brittany and their silent friend, Kylie. Overly involved in whatever might have been happening within her iPhone, Kylie couldn’t be bothered to reach to her side and hand Aaron a drink.
“I didn’t,” Brittany replied, shaking her head at Kylie as she handed Aaron the bottle. “I heard it’s bitter.”
“Shut up,” Spencer groaned, pulling a pack of Marlboro’s out of his pocket and singing the tip of once against the flame of his little black lighter. “I’m not bitter,” he rebutted, though doing so with laughter, smiling as if there were something to prove. At times, Spencer found himself absolutely certain that his friends had manifested a mirage of who they believed him to be based solely upon memories they had of his past relationships and sexual encounters.
There was a part of him that wished they knew him better than that.
There was another part of him that was glad that they didn’t.
“He’s just never been in love,” Kylie finally spoke, tossing her long, red hair over her shoulder and sliding her phone back into her jean pocket.
Again, Brittany and Aaron exchanged a glance.
Much like Brittany, Aaron Knight had known Spencer for a very long time—longer, even. They’d met years before Spencer and Brittany. When he took the time to think about it, or maybe just when the nostalgia managed to penetrate his own cold, tightly-bricked wall of stupefaction, Spencer caught himself remembering just how long Aaron had been around. They were the only two consistent forces in one another’s lives. Neither needed to say it to the other. It was evident based on the way they were around one another. They weren’t quite like brothers, but their connections delved deeper than that of two close friends. They’d never been lovers, though their behaviors often suggested it to strangers who knew no better.
More or less, Spencer and Aaron were two halves of something that had never quite been put together in the first place. It was some corporeal entity no one would recognize, yet about which no one would find themselves particularly curious.
“He’s been in love,” Aaron muttered, smiling at his best friend. This was requited only by the dissatisfied gaze Spencer laid upon him.
“Once,” Spencer said as he turned back to Kylie. “And it was a shit show,” he told her as she he took a drag off of his cigarette. Her expression, however, was neither that of surprise nor that of having been enlightened. In fact, the way her lips curled just slightly down, the way that her eyes fleeted from Spencer to the door, then back to Spencer, suggested that she was blasé. Chances were that she had only spoken to seem involved, to seem less aloof to her friends.
Kylie and Spencer had not known each other a very long time. She was native to Austin, growing up in the middle-class suburbs just outside the city. Her father, an accountant, and her mother, a former college professor, had relinquished her to the slums of San Marcos for college, where she had found residence and refuge with Brittany in an off-campus apartment thanks to the wonders of the world wide web. Through Brittany, Spencer had met Kylie, though he wasn’t entirely sure yet just what he thought of her. Remaining indifferent until she left some kind of lasting impression on him, Spencer tolerated her with a level of forbearance only before seen in those standing in line waiting the use a public toilet.
“Well . . .” Kylie replied, slapping her hands against her thighs like two drums, eventually rising to her feet. “I’m going to go home,” she proclaimed as she reached for her purse resting in the chair below her.
“Already?” Brittany asked, astonishment taking over the muscles in her face. “It’s only nine o’clock.”
“I’m tired,” Kylie responded just a bit too quick. From her pocket, her cell phone chirped, and all three of her cohorts could see the screen illuminate through the denim of her jeans. “I should get to bed.”
Spencer, uncaring and dismissive, simply gave her a wave while the others muttered goodbye to her as she darted back through the bar. In fact, in his mind, that was one down. He chuckled once he knew that she was gone, sipping more wine Brittany had stolen for them.
“What?” Brittany asked, naïve the way she had been since Spencer had met her.
“She left for a booty call,” he explained, laughing more so as he did.
“What? How do you know?” she shouted, her anxious chuckling coming back in a more involuntary sort of fashion.
That was the one thing that Spencer would always associate with Brittany—that high-strung cackle she erupted with as though it were a tic. Brittany Fitzgerald had all of the social skills of a biblical leper, meaning that the only people she had any personable interactions with were others who had no standing in the social status quo. Most of this was because she typically perceived herself to be ostracized from any person she encountered due to her own feelings of in adequacy. The fact that she giggled nervously whenever a stranger did talk to her rather than, say, respond with words did nothing to make her seem any more gregarious. She was smart and she was beautiful, but Brittany was also jaded.
“I know what a booty call-exit looks like,” Spencer replied, pouring another glass of wine for himself.
“How can you know that?”
“Pssht,” Aaron interjected, playing with the cross that dangled from a chain around his neck. “You don’t share an apartment with him.”
“Oh, my,” Brittany whispered, smiling and laughing some more. “Does that mean there’s someone special in your life? Someone you’re not telling us about?”
Spencer wanted nothing more than to wretch when the topic of his love life came up—as if there was anything to discuss at all. Neither beaming-with-God’s-holy-light Aaron nor socially-inept-and-ungainly Brittany ever wanted to discuss their personal lives. Why should Spencer discuss his?
“Nothing to report. I have had sex recently, if that interests you. A girl I met at the Craft Pride.”
“I thought only lesbians and hipsters went to Craft Pride,” Aaron mumbled almost incoherently.
“I thought you were sleeping with boys now,” Brittany added.
“I sleep with no gender exclusively. I have sex with women; I have sex with men; Gender is irrelevant. All the parts fit if you just know how to put them together.” Spencer downed the remainder of his wine, unsure of when he’d become so cynical, but silently praying to any and all higher powers that neither of his friends would want to discuss it.
Before they could be given the chance, he turned the tables. “And what about you? Any farmers or frat boys in San Marcos tickling your bean?” Spencer asked Brittany with just the most slight of smiles ever seen by any seated person in their circle.
More nervous laughter came from Brittany. It was the most nervous laughter he’d ever heard from her, and that was enough to answer his question. She didn’t have to use her words, which she did not. Spencer knew that just by asking her the question that blanched her cheeks and sent her body into spasm, Spencer could find out just about everything he needed to know.
Well, not everything.
“I should go,” she told them, tossing her drinks into a nearby trash bin and grabbing her keys off the ottoman on which she sat. “It’s getting late.”
Spencer shook his head and looked up at the clock on the wall of the bar.
“Why, it’s only nine o’clock,” he said to her with a bedeviling grin.
Brittany knew that he wasn’t being shitty. Still, in an effort to save herself from any further inquisition, she elected to leave the bar and head home to San Marcos.
Two, Spencer told himself.
“I’m going to go get a real drink,” Spencer told Aaron after he hugged Brittany goodbye and stood to his feet. “Do you want anything?” he asked Aaron.
“I’m actually thinking about heading back to the apartment,” he told his friend with a smile.
“Okay,” Spencer smiled, taking Aaron by the hand and pulling him out of his chair. “I’ll meet you there,” Spencer told him, kissing his best friend on the cheek and squeezing his hand.
Three . . .
The intense, pulsating heat Aaron experienced in his chest when Spencer touched him could never be vocalized. Not to Spencer. Not to his other friends. Not to anyone. Aaron was a Christian. Although he may emanate a certain intensity and affection for Spencer that tap danced directly over the boundary of being friends, Aaron could not let himself get caught up in these feelings. Spencer could partake in all the hedonism he wished. That was his prerogative. Aaron—the opposite side of the same coin—couldn’t be a hedonist. He couldn’t be gay, or bisexual, or whatever.
It didn’t matter just how in love with Spencer he found himself to be. He and Spencer may very well have been two halves of something that had never been put together, but that was the way that it was meant to be, as far as Aaron could see. They could never converge, never intertwine.
Spencer perused the bar for a moment after Aaron’s departure, not so much looking for a person, but rather a place to stand. The bar was already growing dense, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that the best option would just be to go home and lay his head to rest.
One drink won’t hurt, he told himself.
Then, just as Spencer found a spot at the bar at which to stand, a clumsy, graceless bungler rammed right into Spencer, the stranger’s beer spilling all over his lower abdomen.
“Jesus!” Spencer snapped, immediately lying his cell phone on the bar and reaching for the napkins adjacent to him.
“I’m sorry,” the klutz nearly shouted in retort. “I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s fine,” Spencer muttered, wiping his shirt free of beer.
“Can I buy you a drink to make it up to you?”
Like a reflex, Spencer’s eyes immediately shot up to the person offering him a drink.
The man he stared at stood at just about Spencer’s height. His face was stubbly and his eyes were nothing short of lackluster. Still, Spencer’s attention was clenched. Somehow he recognized the man that stood before him. He wasn’t entirely sure where from, but in spite of its dense population, Austin wasn’t a terribly large city. He could have run into the man anywhere.
Still, as attracted to the offer as Spencer was, he shook his head and pointed a finger at his shirt.
“Maybe another time,” he stammered. “I . . . um . . . I should go home and get cleaned up.”
Spencer didn’t wait to see the man’s response. He didn’t even stick around to order a drink. Without doing or saying anything else, Spencer marched out the front door of the bar, running down the street toward his apartment, hoping he might be able to catch Aaron along the way.
The man at the bar, however, couldn’t help but wonder if “another time” would ever come. It wasn’t until the bartender came to offer him another drink, wiping the granite bar top with a white cloth, that the answer to his question was delivered.
“Is that your phone?” the bartender asked, nodding toward the iPhone that lie on the counter.
“No, it’s . . .” the man looked back toward the door, then back at the bartender. “Yes, it is. I’m sorry. I’m a little drunk.” He immediately swiped up the phone that did not belong to him and exited the bar, trailing off into the darkness of the street.
The exit to San Marcos was only a mile ahead, though as she drew nearer to it, Kylie did not maneuver her car into the right-hand lane. In fact, she didn’t take her eyes off of the road in front of her at all as she traveled south down Interstate 35. Miles later, she would look up nervously, unsure as to where exactly she was. Her mind, however, would be set to ease as she passed a resplendent green sign that read, “San Antonio 40 Miles.”
Careful to not make too much noise as she entered her own home, Brittany did not even breathe until she reached her bedroom. Once inside, she closed the door quietly, stripped from her street clothes and into a much more comfortable t-shirt and pair of shorts, before sliding into bed.
The warmth of the body next to her felt nice, as the temperature outside still drew out the most trace amount of winter chill.
“When did you get home?” a man’s voice whispered into her ear.
“Just now,” she muttered, leaning into him. The heat of his breath felt nice against her neck, though his actual presence didn’t imprint upon her quite the same way. “Goodnight,” Brittany muttered.
“Goodnight,” he replied sleepily.
“Goodnight,” a third voice, just a little bit further down the mattress mumbled dreamily to them both.